Tag Archive for writing

Kensington Day of the Book Fest Coming 4/26

Save 4/26 for Day of the Book

Save 4/26 for Day of the Book!

Ten years ago a simple sidewalk literary event debuted in Kensington, MD, with a handful of authors and barely enough visitors to fill a subway car.

On April 26, more than 80 authors and a record crowd of 5,000 will be on hand to celebrate the International Day of the Book Festival’s 10th anniversary.

I look forward as this year’s emcee to honoring the talent and tenacity of our authors and performers, and to rejoicing with all who still cherish the profound pleasure of reading.

The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. along Howard Avenue in Historic Kensington and will feature appearances by:

– Tim Tobin, author of, Your Leadership Story. Tobin explains how, by thinking of your career as a narrative – with a plot, characters, and an arc – you can become a more effective, insightful, and inspiring leader.

– Martin Goldsmith, author of Alex’s Wake: The Tragic Story of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany and a Grandson’s Journey of Love and Remembrance.

– Chef Jonathan Bardzik, a Washington, D.C. cook and author whose culinary passion is exploring ingredients, techniques and flavors and sharing those adventures to help others find joy in their own kitchens.

– Major General Oleg Danilovich Kalugin, KGB (ret.), who will discuss his book: Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West.

Live music will fill the air courtesy of: The Nighthawks (root rock and blues); the Rock-A-Sonics (rockabilly, classic country, vintage rock ’n roll); and by Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings (chamber folk).

Festival founder Elisenda Sola-Sole says the celebration will include author readings, an open mic, activities for kids and adults, and “books, books books!”

All activities are free and will take place rivotril 2mg rain or shine along Howard Avenue in historic Old Town Kensington.

Come join us, and stay up to speed on the latest announcements here. 


10 Steps to a Perfect Pitch: Free Webinar

Join me Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Join me Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Know one paying attention? Maybe it’s not your book; maybe it’s your pitch. Join me Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. EST for a free webinar on how to move toward the perfect pitch. You’ll leave with actionable steps you can put to immediate use, plus a few things to think about before you create – or recreate – your pitch. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your questions.

The webinar is free. Sign up here.

See you online Tuesday.



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Outgoing Writing Students Share Tips for Success

One of the challenges of teaching writing classes to college kids is that they all come in with different levels of interest and experience.

Here are three things I do at American University to help smooth the way.AU outside

1 – Before the semester begins, I send out a short survey. I ask my incoming students how much they’ve written outside the classroom, why they’re taking the class (no penalty if it’s simply to fulfill a requirement), and their toughest writing challenges. I find the kids appreciate being asked and are happy to respond.

2 – On opening night, I pitch like a used car salesman. I know most will not go on to writing or communications careers. I tell them to think of their time with me as cross training for whatever field they eventually choose. I point to studies that show employers place high value in employees who are clear and concise. I warn they will hear a lot from me about precision and clarity.

3 – On finals night, I offer a bonus. Sharing a tip for success with my next students earns two free points. Most remember they were afforded this opportunity thanks to the previous class, and include some lesson learned. I’m always surprised by one or two comments on the tip sheet, which you can find (unedited) here on the class blog.

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Dial Up Sex Scenes Webinar 3/11

Tune in 3/11 & 3/28

Tune in 3/11 & 3/28

Which sells, sex or sexy? As we know, the answer is, both sell. Some audiences are impatient, others prefer drawing a little tension-building romance and seduction. The act – and the writing of the act – are intensely personal. As with any form of writing, the more you practice, the better you get. But practice what, and how?

Attraction, they say, begins with the eyes. Male or female, we see something we like and quickly – almost primitively – begin plotting to get it. Sometimes the plotting is deliberate and obvious; sometimes it’s sweet and subtle.

Where does it happen? Why does it happen? What do our eyes take in? What smells are in the air? Where does attraction strike and how long does it take to go from mutual appreciation to a shared laugh … to hands touching … to a private setting and then to a first kiss? Or does it all happen in plain view – say on the beach at sunset – or at 2 a.m. in a club with music blaring and the bass cranked up so high, it feels like your own heartbeat?

Most relevant from the writer’s perspective, how do we capture the sexual tension as well as the act – for the two are not the same – in a way that is arousing, revealing – in terms of character development – and which successfully moves the story forward?

I hope you’ll join me for a webinar that will explore these questions and many more next Tuesday (3/11) at 7:30 p.m. and/or on March 28 at 1:30 p.m. EST. Mark your calendars and sign up here.

Follow this link to subscribe to Steve’s Back Story blog.


Free Webinar: Take 2 on the Secrets Your Characters are Hiding

Your characters have secrets to tell

Your characters have secrets to tell …

Please join me Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for the repeat of a free webinar on how to discover the secrets your characters are hiding. Click here to sign up and participate in an interesting and practical session with actionable tips you’ll be able to put to immediate use. What will we cover? Novelists know that our characters begin much like the little wooden boy began. They sit one-dimensional, quiet and unmoving unless – or until – we pull the strings. Only then do they start to move, talk, lie and grow big noses. But a funny thing happens the deeper you get into your story. Call it growth. As your characters develop and mature, they come alive. Your work at the keyboard is like the blue dust that turned the wooden boy into Pinocchio. Once this transformation takes place, your characters become more like sentient beings, full of the same needs and emotions that drive the rest of us.

Those of you with children will recognize this as a significant moment – the day when the kids begin expressing their own point of view, and when your words are no longer accepted as gospel simply because you are the parent. Yes, you can subdue or quiet your characters in a way that will not work with your children, but that is the wrong strategy, in my view. For if you look at the writing of a novel as a journey through uncharted territory – and with you as the leader – your characters, if you let them, if you talk to them, ask questions and listen to what they have to say … will steer you to fascinating and secret places that do not exist on any map. And that is where your stories will take off.

I hope you’ll sign up and join me this Thursday.

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NBC4’s Goff Says Engage Your Audience, Own Your Brand

“Be the CEO of your own career,” Goff told students.

Engaging content, the strategic use of social media, and constant vigilance aimed at building a unique brand are the recipe for success for communicators in today’s on-demand digital society, Washington broadcast journalist Angie Goff told students Thursday at American University.

“Own your brand,” Goff said. “Be the CEO of your own career.”

Goff has branded herself as a “multi-media journalist” for NBC4 Washington, where she anchors on the weekend and reports during the week. She is known for using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to enhance her stories, and is now working more with Pinterest and Google+.

Technology has changed expectations, she said, meaning that consumers are always “looking for an excuse to change the channel.” Moving ahead – for everyone from authors to engineers – requires sound knowledge of communications basics, a working knowledge of the latest tools, and the determination to turn a job into a career.

Thanks to NBC4’s Angie Goff for AU visit.

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Meet Ike Washington: Guilty with an Explanation

Very first draft

Bootlicker began more than a decade ago with a question.

What would anyone do if faced with the choice that confronted young Ike Washington?

There is no perfect answer, and there is no correct answer. There is, however, a novel I’ve launched today that is built on the question and the conversation I hope it will provoke.

The novel began as a short story called “Twisted Pinky.” Classmates in my graduate workshops at Johns Hopkins University encouraged me to expand the piece, one kindly offering that I was “on to something.”

“Twisted Pinky” grew into a novel built on a pivotal event that occurs in 1959. The working title was, “Hard Way Out.”

Ike is a black teenager living in a small town in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement is in full, wild bloom. Racial violence is rampant. One day Ike and a friend sneak off for a beer in the woods.

In the forest, they approach a clearing and hear a man pleading for mercy. Ike freezes at the sight of a Klan lynching led by the local judge. The other teen bolts.

The Klansmen catch Ike and present a startling choice: join the dead man or help the judge win black support so he can advance in state politics. The logic is beyond Ike’s grasp. The man who lynched one black man wants his help appealing to blacks statewide?

But Judge Lander McCauley knows the old ways are coming to an end. Perhaps the lynching was his exclamation point. To maintain his political ascent, he must have black support. And for that, he must have a secret liaison in the black community, someone he can personally train and control. Fate delivered the perfect young man.

Terrified, Ike agrees. An act of brutality ensures there will always be, as the judge puts it, “order in the court.”

One year turns into five, five turn into 10, 10 turn into 20. Ike becomes a power in his own right, U.S. Senator Lander McCauley’s man behind the scenes in every black enclave throughout the state.

Ike’s family has money and respect. The days of forcing him to cooperate are long gone. He and McCauley are the unlikeliest of political allies. By 1992, Ike stands poised to become the first black congressman elected in South Carolina since the Civil War.

But there is the guilt, the ever-present, all consuming guilt, and Ike’s knowledge that he rose to power on the judge’s bloody coattails, and helped the white-robed murderer rise from judge to congressman, and then to United States senator.

The saga of Ike Washington and Lander McCauley is less about race than about choices and character. The book is about guilt and the tricky path to redemption. It will take readers where TV cameras are never invited, to back rooms where decisions are made, futures are decided, and the line between right and wrong is not so easily defined. 

Now that you know the story, how do you judge Ike Washington?

How will the voters judge him when a young reporter reveals his secret just before Election Day?

Most of all, how will Ike judge himself after everyone else has spoken? Can he win the historic election and assume the role of congressman, or will he forever wear the label whispered by his critics? It was this label that became the title:



For more:

The trailer.

An early review.

The Amazon page.








400 Pages in 2 Minutes: The Trailer is Live!

Conservatively speaking, hundreds of decisions go into the creation, filming and production of a good, two-minute book trailer.

I did not know that going in. I knew we’d have to decide how much story to tell, what would create suspense, and which characters to feature. I knew we’d need a concept, actors, a location, music, still photos from the Civil Rights era, and meetings – lots of meetings. At each baby step, there would be another decision to make.

The conversation began months ago when I reached out to a very talented Washington director named Jeffrey Madison. He read Bootlicker and understood what needed to be done.

Jeff Blount, Jeffrey Madison, Steve Piacente, Alli March, & Meghan Sweeney

We went back and forth before deciding to portray Ike and his campaign chief, Ruthie, just before an important debate. Ike would be struggling to get through lines he’d already delivered hundreds of times. Viewers would catch on because we would show the hateful images careening through Ike’s mind.

Bootlicker is very much about this troubled man, who in 1992 is poised to become South Carolina’s first black congressman since the Civil War. Ike’s biggest obstacle is not his political opponent, but the guilt he feels over a horrific incident that links him to the state’s racist U.S. senator.

Hopefully you’ll agree the end product was worth the time spent and dollars invested. My sincere thanks to Jeffrey Madison, Jeff Blount, Alli March, and the trailer team: Meghan Sweeney, Jhaan Elker, Emily Randolph, Amanda Yerby, James Jackson, Brett Clancy.

Photos from the shoot are here on Pinterest.

The big question is whether we’ll recoup the two grand it cost for the trailer in eventual book sales. What do you think: does a compelling trailer help sales? Why, or why not?


First Love? How ’bout the First Job?

Biggest story as rookie sports reporter: local star wins Wimbledon doubles in 1977

Roughly three months before I walked into my first class at American University in 1972, five men were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel. Two years later, Richard Nixon would become the first U.S. president to resign.

How could you be a communications major in Washington during Watergate and not wind up a journalist? By junior year, I was features editor of the college paper. As a senior, I interned with The Baltimore Sun’s Washington Bureau. Two weeks after graduation, I landed my first job: high school sports reporter with the Naples (FL) Daily News.

It is to Naples that I will be returning on Sept. 6 to promote my new novel, Bootlicker, at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) trade conference.

A lot has happened in the 34 years since I left my first job.

After Naples, I began covering news at the Lakeland Ledger, eventually catching the attention of The Tampa Tribune. In 1985, my work earned me the paper’s coveted Washington bureau, where I stayed until switching to the same job for the Charleston (SC) Post-Courier. All told, I worked more than 25 years for Southern newspapers, bringing a New York perspective to stories about everything from Strom Thurmond to the Confederate flag.

The economic troubles that plague newspapers today grabbed hold of Charleston about 10 years ago, and the execs decided they didn’t need a Washington reporter. I wound up a speechwriter at a federal agency, and later moved on to manage the agency’s web and social media teams. Somewhere in there I also returned to the classroom for a Masters in fiction from Johns Hopkins University.

But I’ve never forgotten that first job or my first boss, Tom Rife. We were a two-man sports staff, which meant doing everything from covering pro football to local tennis, from taking photos (with film cameras) to writing headlines, and from laying out pages to cultivating sources. My biggest story was local star JoAnne Russell’s doubles championship at Wimbledon. She and Helen Gourlay Cawley beat the renowned Chris Evert and Rosie Casals in the first round, and top-ranked Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove in the finals. Wow!

I also remember a fierce argument with the Naples High football coach, who felt the local paper should be more cheerleader, less critic. Later, when I was reporting from Washington, the local congressmen I covered would make the same argument.

More significant was that over the years I became frustrated with writing stories to fit the ever dwindling daily news hole. I wanted more space, and to try building anticipation and developing characters instead of flooding the first two paragraphs with all the news. Why became more important to me than the other 5 Ws.

That’s why I joined the Hopkins program and started writing fiction. Bootlicker is a prequel to my first novel, Bella. Today I also blog regularly about my adventures in self-publishing, and am busy on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.

I can’t imagine how many words I’ve written over the years, but the first were at a small paper in Naples, where I knew no one and no one knew me. I’m grateful they gave me a chance, and hopeful that the few who are still around from those days will have time to visit. I’d like to thank them for setting the foundation that has allowed me to make a living all these years doing what I love most.

What lessons have you carried forward from your first job?

Listen and Learn from Your Characters

Ezra drops in on Ike at unexpected moments

We writers like to play director, or perhaps a higher deity, moving our characters about, feeding them lines, determining import and outcome before any action even occurs.

This one kisses that one. That one turns out to be married. This one didn’t know and drives his car off a bridge.

But how often do we stop to ask our characters what they think?

Give this a try. Wherever you are in your story, stop cold. Dream up a handful of questions for each main character. Actually type out the questions.

Then pretend you’re sitting with each character, one by one, and ask your questions.

Try to answer in their voices. Not how you think they would answer, but how they would answer. I used this technique when I wrote Bootlicker, which launches Sept. 1.

It’s 1959; we’re in rural South Carolina. Poor, black teenager Ike Washington stumbles on a Klan lynching led by a white judge. Caught, he must choose: join the dead man or begin hustling black support the ambitious judge needs to advance.

In trade, Ike “earns” a life of comfort and power. By 1992, he is poised to become the first black S.C. congressman since the Civil War. But Ike is haunted by his path to power, and wakes at night to find the dead man, Ezra James, beside his bed.

I had a chat with Ezra that went like this:

SP – What happened in the woods that day?

Ezra – Things were different in ’59 down South. Black folks were starting to vote. Made whites nervous. Klan decided to make an example.

SP – Were you involved in registering voters?

Ezra – No, sir. I told them they had the wrong man. I worked at Old Man McCauley’s drugstore. I minded my business, kept that store spotless.

SP – And?

Ezra – They didn’t care. More I talked ’bout being innocent, more they beat me. I tried to stay sitting up but my arms were tied. Then we all heard a noise off in the trees.

SP – A noise?

Ezra – Two kids looking for a place to drink their beer. One of ’em ran off right away. The other froze. That was Ike. Ike Washington. He and the Judge locked eyes.

SP – The Judge?

Ezra – Judge Lander McCauley, son of Old Man McCauley, my boss at the drugstore. The men asked the Judge what to do ’bout Ike. He said let him go, we’ll get him later.

SP – And then they turned back to you.

Ezra – I know you been looking at the scars ’round my neck.

SP – I’m sorry.

Ezra – No ’pologies needed. They went back and grabbed Ike that night, brought him over to the Judge’s house. They said he could join up with them or join up with me.

SP – Meaning he would have been …

Ezra – … Hung. Lynched.

SP – What work did they want him to do?

Ezra – Bein’ a judge wasn’t enough. McCauley wanted more. To get it, he needed black votes. Ike’s job was to get black votes.

SP – But he was a kid.

Ezra – They taught him.

SP – And he went along.

Ezra – It didn’t take much convincing.

SP – Forgive me, but you were gone by this point. How do you know …

Ezra – … Maybe being gone don’t mean what you think. Maybe that’s how you and I can be having this little talk right now.

SP – Ok, well, how did you feel about Ike going to work for McCauley?

Ezra – How’d you like it? Truth gets buried with me and no one’s any wiser. That Ike, he’s smart, catches on fast. Next thing you know the Judge becomes the Congressman. Ike’s on his way, too. Fancy clothes, ’spensive doctors. Today, everyone knows Big Ike. Everyone wants his ear.

SP – Including you?

Ezra – Oh, we have our visits. I drop by late at night. I don’t need no appointment.

SP – You haunt him?

Ezra – Your word.

SP – What’s yours?

Ezra- We visit.

SP – What do you talk about?

Ezra – That’s private.

SP – Do you blame Ike for what happened?

Ezra – He didn’t do nothing to stop it. You bet I blame him.

SP – Should he have told the truth later instead of going with McCauley?

Ezra – He shoulda’ thought about it more than he did.

SP – So now Ike is running to become the Congressman. He would be the first black congressman in South Carolina since the Civil War.

Ezra – What’s the question?

SP – Do you want him to win?

Ezra – I don’t care nothing about if he’s the Congressman.

SP – Ezra, can you ever forgive Ike?

Ezra – No offense, you’re asking the wrong question.

SP – Then what’s the right question?

Ezra –Look at the man. Can’t sleep. Finger always twitchin’ for no reason. Soon he’ll be heading back to that forest, a long rope in his fist. The right question is: Can Ike ever forgive Ike?

Do you speak to your characters? How have they surprised you?