Writing advice

Idea Farming

I recently stumbled upon an article on www.writing.com that introduced me to the concept of “idea farming.” (What a cool concept!) It is the idea that we writers can collect and nurture new ideas just like a farmer does her crops.

Probably the most common question published writers have to answer is where do you get your ideas? Many authors (including myself) don’t really know. Or don’t remember. The last novel I published, Deception Island, had been a project I worked on for three years before I considered it finished. I know the idea came from somewhere, I just can’t remember.

The problem is that ideas are everywhere. In a sense, the universe is made of ideas. A good writer can find the germ of a novel or short story in an overheard conversation at the grocer’s, in a television show, the news, or something she saw as she walked the dog around the neighborhood. Most of the writers I’m familiar with don’t really lack ideas (they might disagree with this); they lack good ideas; or they lack the next idea.

For instance, I am currently working on a novel-length project and am approximately halfway through a first draft. Most of my energy is concentrated now on ideas that revolve around the problems and situations in that narrative. I’m not really actively looking for short story and poetry ideas. I’m not even really looking for ideas for the next novel.

Which, of course, sets me up for the creative hangover that follows the completion of a major project like a novel. The period I wander around wondering what to do until I find something new to work on.

The solution, is idea farming: to be constantly gathering and nurturing new ideas as a force of habit, so we don’t have to face a hangover following the completion of a work. So that at any given time, we will have a resource of ideas ready to go.

Keep an Idea Journal

This is an easily accessible list or database of all the ideas you have come up with. You can organize them by types, if you’re really organized (story concepts, plot twists, character revelations, etc.) Or you can simply make a list. The important thing is to create a single place to keep all your ideas.

And no, you cannot keep them all in your head with any level of security. How many ideas have we forgotten over the years?

Come up with 3-5 new ideas every day.

They do not have to be earth-shattering fantastic ideas. They just have to be ideas. It does not matter whether they are good, bad, or mediocre. The object here is to simply think of and write down three to five ideas every day and by doing so, get your mind into the habit of noticing them. They could even be silly. For instance, today I thought of the name of a female comic book villain: Anna Fillaxis. It’s silly, but it’s an idea. And nobody has to see your idea journal but you. So be silly. Who cares?

Unfortunately, no matter how successful or famous you are, every idea a writer comes up with is not going to be a good one. Some are good, some mediocre, and some will be downright horrible. Where idea farming comes in is the writer doesn’t avoid, or discard bad ideas out-of-hand, but like a farmers allows everything to grow as it will, then, at harvest, separates out the best.

The idea farmer says that the key to coming up with good ideas is to come up with a lot of ideas.

To do that, we need to train our minds to notice them, even when we’re consciously busy with other things. Write them down. Memorize them, then transfer them into your idea journal. If you can consistently do this, in a month, you will have a list of thirty to fifty ideas. Surely, one or two of them will be pretty good.

And you’ll never have that “what do I do now?” feeling.


Holiday Season and Goals For Next Year

As the year winds down, it is traditional to reflect back on our accomplishments of the previous year and begin setting goals for the next. Like most people, I have many accomplishments of which I am proud: I published Deception Island, which has generated exceptional reviews (though sales are mediocre); I have also published a handful of flash fiction in various magazines; I have made significant progress in a new novel, a sequel to Deception Island. Most important, my efforts have earned a measure of respect from my fellow writers and literati.

That is invaluable. (There is nothing quite like having someone you admire say they admire you.)

As a tangent to my writing, I have read fifty-two books this calendar year, most of them fiction, most of the fiction in the mystery/thriller drama. Some have been exceptional, some mediocre, but I have learned from each and every one of them.

Now it is time to turn my attention to the coming year and the goals I would like to accomplish. (I dislike the term “New Year’s resolution” because I believe they are designed to set ourselves up for failure. I prefer to set goals). They are targets only, not promises. Not reaching my goals will in no way mean I have failed; it will just mean the goal was set too high, too optimistic. For instance, becoming a #1 New York Times bestselling author. While it is certainly possible (and I sure wouldn’t turn it down) there are just too many factors involved that I have no control over. Instead, I will set my goal at finishing the project I am working on now and making it better than anything else I have ever written. That is something I have control over.

I would also like to create more short works—poetry, fiction, and essay—while I am working on the longer, more complex novel. I just haven’t settle on a realistic number yet.

My reading goals are a bit more complex. The numbers are not that important. I proved to myself this year that I can read an average of a book a week without any strain to the rest of my life. The question I am struggling with is what, exactly, should I be reading?

In a previous post, I mentioned how much I liked the idea of reading more classic literature. If we truly wish to improve our writing we should be learning from the best, right? Virtually all the books I read over the last year were modern, so I need to add some classic lit. But how much? Every other book? Every third? One a month? I haven’t decided.

Another trend I noticed looking back over this year’s reading material is that about ninety percent of the authors were white American men (the rest were either English or women). So I would like to read from a better variety this coming year. There are very good authors, who happened to be born in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and elsewhere who write in the English language. There are also African-American authors, Hispanic-American authors, Asian-American and Native American author, all talented, all with stories worth reading.

And that isn’t counting translations.

I want—I need—to include some of these authors into my reading next year. I just haven’t yet figured how many and who.

That’s where I am right now, trying to figure out what I will be doing this coming year. Once I do, I will let you know.

Until the New Year, have a safe, peaceful, and happy holiday week. Merry Christmas and wishes of Peace on Earth.

Marketing, Writing advice

The Attention Deficit, Part Three (Fixing it)

Okay, we have decided that we really want to receive more attention for the work we have created. It is what we want and we want it badly enough to do the work necessary. Good. That is the first (and perhaps hardest) part of solving the problem, acknowledging there is one and that it’s important enough to make the effort to correct it.

The next question is how, exactly, do we earn this attention? As distasteful as many may find it, the answer is marketing. (Remember last week when I asked whether we were willing to do whatever it took—distasteful or not—to gain attention for our work? Now it comes home to roost.) The only way to get anyone who doesn’t know you to pay attention to your work is to efficiently and effectively market it to them.

Yes, this means advertising. This means putting you and your work in front of as many potential customers as you possibly can. It means advertising and posting images to social media and signing up to appear at book fairs and signings. In order to gain the public’s attention we have to place our work where they can find it. Right?

But we can do all that and still not gain significant attention. Many of us do. We place memes in social media forums; we buy advertisement in various publications; we do readings and signings and spend hours sitting at book fairs, trying to convince someone to take a chance on our new book and nothing really seems to work. Oh, we sell a few here and there, but in the great scheme of things, no one really notices our work.

Because, at the most basic level, we’re doing it wrong. We’re trying to gain the world’s attention by using an invalid argument.

Think of your favorite car sales person (your favorite successful one anyway). How does she close all those sales? How does she move all those cars?

She probably doesn’t sell many cars by telling the customer who designed it. Nor will she go on about where the car was built, or where the designer went to school. Someone looking to purchase a car honestly doesn’t care about any of that. What they want is safe, dependable transportation that’s pleasing to the eye and practical for their lifestyle. The good salesperson will not waste time trying to sell an Italian sports car to a Wyoming cattle rancher, or a four-wheel-drive one ton pickup to a suburban soccer mom. The sports car is undoubtedly a fine product. So is the pickup truck. They just don’t meet the particular customer’s needs.

The successful sales person matches the customer with the product that best meets their needs. They don’t waste their time trying to sell anything—no matter how good they think it is—to someone who won’t want it.

Why would marketing our books (or paintings, or films, etc.) be any different?

Too much of the time, we (and this includes myself) spend years refining our work, then send it out into the world, expecting people to notice it simply because we did it. That thinking doesn’t work for cars. It won’t work for books.

As authors, we need to identify ways our work may satisfy a need out there in the world and sell that aspect of it. John Smith in Omaha, will have no idea who James Boyle is and really doesn’t care that I wrote a novel. However, John Smith in Omaha is a devout fan of mystery fiction. The fact that James Boyle wrote a mystery novel might just pique his interest.

How do we do this? I would suggest you examine your work and make a list of every aspect and feature you think might be of interest to someone out there. Start out with the big, obvious features like the genre and work your way down to the smallest. The object is not to make a list of everything you will use. It’s to make a list of everything you might possible be able to use.

I made one for my novel Deception Island as an example.



With some elements of an espionage thriller

Author tie-ins

Gold Beach/coastal Oregon/Oregon/Pacific northwest/United States


San Juan Islands/Puget Sound Area/Western Washington/Pacific Northwest/United States

Seattle/Western Washington/Pacific Northwest/United States


Male/Investigative Reporter/Print Journalist/U of Washington alum


Greedy Corporation/Security Department/Private Police

Themes and background

Corporate ethics/Unregulated Capitalism/Greed

Secret crimes/historical cover-ups

The internment of Japanese during WWII

The salmon fishing/canning industry in Puget Sound, WA

Life in a small town/life on an island in Puget Sound/maritime life

Returning to your hometown

Police/legal investigation versus journalistic/private investigation

Having to choose between your career and relationship

Good versus evil

Wealth and power versus justice

I was able to compile this list in about a half an hour. Now let’s see how we can boil these down into something we can use to get people to notice Deception Island.

First, of course, is the genre. Most people tend to have their favorite genre and read more of those than anything else. So Deception Island is a detective novel, featuring an investigative journalist against a wealthy and unethical corporation. At its heart, it’s a sometimes violent battle between truth and power.

The second thing that leaps to my eye is Puget Sound in Washington. The story takes place there and therefore much of the story background has to do with the location, culture, and history of the area. So the novel could be of interest to anyone who lives in the area, has visited the area, or is just interested in the area. That includes the history of the salmon fishing industry, the ecology, and what life is like in a small town in the area.

Third, a major feature of the novel has to do with the Japanese interment and how a crime committed during an episode much of the country would like to forget can return to affect lives two generations later. Though all of the novel takes place in modern times, the ties to history are strong and may be of interest to someone fascinated by U.S. history, Pacific Northwest history, World War II, or the history of civil rights.

Probably the weakest feature is the author. There will be a few who would be interested because they know me. There will be a few more who might be interested because of the “local boy makes good” aspect, but I wouldn’t count on such tribalism for much. In the long run, it will drum up more moral support than actual sales.

So now we’ve done our homework. How do we translate that into attention for our work? We use the promotional tools we already have to target those people most likely to find that our work will satisfy their needs.

For instance, were I to have a budget dedicated to buying print advertising in newspapers, I would ignore the larger markets back east, despite their massive readership, and spend most of my money on advertising in the communities around Puget Sound. Say from Vancouver, B.C. in the north, to the Cascades in the east, south to Portland, Oregon, west to the Pacific, and north to Victoria, B.C. This should encompass most of the people with an interest in the area.

I’m not going to try and convince a farmer in Nebraska that he should be reading this novel largely set in and involving issues about Puget Sound. I’m going to try and get people already interested in the Puget Sound area to see my novel as a work that will satisfy that interest.

As authors, as artists, this is what we need to be doing: finding people whose interests may be met by our work and introducing the two. If we are right, and the work does meet the buyer’s needs, they will be pleased. Not only will they recommend the work to others who share their interests, but they will (we hope) be more willing to take a chance on your next work.

And that’s how we start getting the world to pay attention to our work.

Writing advice

Decisions, Decisions

After the recent publication of Deception Island, I, of course, began working on a new project. (One can never stop working, not if you want to get anywhere). The project—currently untitled—stands at about 10,000 words. Until recently, it has been successfully mocking me.

This is not terribly uncommon for me. I start writing something and cruise for a while (like 10,000 words) and then the ideas dry up and what I do produce begins to feel superficial and forced. For a while, I will literarily flail around. I try forcing the issue (thus the forced feeling). It doesn’t work. I try walking away, taking a break. It doesn’t work. I seek inspiration by reading something similar to what I’m doing. It doesn’t work. Nothing works. I’m stuck.

I’m blocked.

I’ve been writing for a while now. Longer than I like to think about. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon and I have learned the most common causes. Generally speaking, if you know the cause of a problem, you can figure out the solution.

But it isn’t always a quick process. It can involve a bit of trial and error. Or a lot of trial and error.

There are usually one of three reasons why this blockage occurs.

  1. I can’t do the story justice the way it stands.

This usually breaks down into two reasons: I either need to do more research, or the story is too ambitious for my writing skills. Earlier this year, I was sketching out a historical tale set during the Indian wars in Wyoming/Montana. But it quickly grew apparent as I worked on it that I wouldn’t be able to write it until I actually spent some time in the area. Now that I realized that, I could put the story aside and move on to something else.

  1. Somewhere along the way, the plot has taken a wrong turn.

I, generally speaking, am an organic writer. That means I don’t carefully outline or plot out an entire novel before I sit down to write. I know where it starts and an idea of where it will end up, but I literally make up the journey as I go. This makes for some interesting twists and turns (because often I didn’t see that coming any more than the reader did) but it also leads to the occasional dead end trail. Often, when the ideas dry out, it’s because I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where that happened.

  1. Some kind of decision or commitment needs to be made.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need to make a decision about our project. It can be hard. Decisions imply commitment and that can be frightening. What if we make the wrong decision? (See #2 above). However, the longer we postpone these decisions, the better the chance the story will force it upon us. It does that by keeping us from doing anything else.

In my particular instance, the problem I was facing fell into category 3. I needed to make a decision.

I had determined the situation/problem that begins the novel. I had also continued the main characters from Deception Island, because series characters are popular right now (look on Amazon or Goodreads. Nearly every title has a # attached) and it is much easier to continue characters than create entirely new ones from scratch. I had the general location and an idea of the plot.

But I was stuck, blocked.

So what was the problem?

I had to decide whether the project was going to take place before or after the action in Deception Island. Was it going to be a prequel or a sequel? Thing is, I’d been putting off that decision, even as I wrote two chapters and well into the third.

Then the story stopped me. I went into block and stayed there for a couple of weeks. I stayed there until I realized I needed to make this decision. Was it going to be a prequel to Deception Island, or a sequel? It was time to make a decision.

I decided it needed to be a sequel. I decided.

Almost at once, the backstory fell into place. The relationships between the characters grew deeper, more nuanced, as did the plot. Suddenly ideas were popping up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. I’m not stuck anymore. I’m not blocked.

And all I had to do was make a decision.

Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: Beta Readers

If you listen to writers talk, or read the acknowledgments pages of their books, you have probably come across the term “beta readers.” I have mentioned them (my own) a time or two on this blog. So, like any use of jargon, some of you inevitably will find yourself wondering just what is a “beta reader” and how does one get one?

First though, a definition. A beta reader is the writer’s test audience. The name is borrowed from the software and game development industry, where beta testers have long been used to try out developing software and games before they are released to the public. Their job is to find overlooked flaws and judge intangibles such as playability and ease-of-use, things the original designers might have missed. Though the designers test and re-test their programs, experience has taught them that sometimes they are too close to a project to judge it impartially. Thus the beta testers. They have objective eyes.

Beta readers perform much the same function in the writing world. We, the authors, write and revise our work until we’ve refined it about as much as we can on our own.

The key phrase here is on our own.

Beyond a certain point (and that point is as impossible to pin down as the definition of art) it is impossible for an author to perfect her own work. We all need an objective set of eyes to see the project’s flaws and point them out (gently) for us.

But, I hear some of you protesting that you already have an editor. That’s her job.

To which I say true, but…the problem is that editors—the good ones anyway and why would we hire bad editors?—are expensive. Most of them charge by the hour and their time is valuable. My goal through four novels has always been to submit a manuscript to my editor with nothing there for her to do. It’s a point of professional pride and it’s way cheaper.

That’s where the efforts of a beta reader are valuable. They work basically for free (though it’s good form to thank them on the acknowledgements page and give them a free, autographed copy of the published work). With some good beta readers, you can eliminate many of the mistakes that make an editor earn his money.

A good set of beta readers also provides you with second (and third, fourth, etc.) opinions on virtually every aspect of the manuscript. In my most recent novel, Deception Island, (shameless self-promotion) I had one beta reader who really did not like the protagonist’s girlfriend and his reactions to her. However, no other reader mentioned a thing about her, so I decided it was just a personality conflict and left it in.

On the other hand, every single reader did not like the way I originally opened the story. I took that as a sign and completely re-worked the first two chapters.

Beta readers give you a chance to see how the audience reacts to what you’re trying to do. For that reason, it’s best to have readers with varying tastes and interests. As much as possible, you’d like your beta readers to be as diverse as your readership will be.

It’s also greatly to your advantage if your beta readers have varying skill sets. One might be a fan of the genre you write in so they’re familiar with the genre’s conventions (and they all have conventions). Another could be familiar with the story’s location. A third, a grammar and usage expert. A fourth, a poet. Each will evaluate your work as a whole, but their particular skills will naturally focus on a different aspect.

So, now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons for using beta readers the question naturally rises: how does one find beta readers? The simple answer is that you ask them to do it. They can be friends, or family, colleagues at work, or members of your critique group (those are the best). There are only two real requirements I look for: they need to be almost as voracious a reader as I am. Someone who does not read fiction, or does not read at all is not qualified to make any judgments about my story. Sorry, but they don’t have the experience. Second, they will have to be confident and secure enough to be completely honest about the work.

If a scene in my new novel sucks, I want someone to tell me. Don’t be afraid of hurting my feelings. Sure, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get over it. If something doesn’t work, I want to know about it so I can fix the problem. My feelings will be hurt much more if a scene that doesn’t work ends up in the published work because no one was willing to tell me it was bad.

Beta readers are as important a tool as any a writer can have. We all know what they can do for us now and how to try and recruit them. All you have to do now is go out and get them.

One other thing to remember though is the benefits of being a beta reader yourself. We can learn just as much by critiquing the work of others as we can by having others critique our work. Besides, it is good to help someone else, even as others help us.

It’s good karma.


The “Deception Island” Tour (So Far)

May 20 Gold Beach, Oregon

Book Launch 10:00 to 11:00am

Gold Beach Books, Inc.

29707 Ellensburg Avenue

Gold Beach Or 97444


June 27 Healdsburg, California

An Evening With James Boyle 6:00 to 8:00pm

Healdsburg Center for the Arts

130 Plaza Street

Healdsburg, CA


July 25 Portland, Oregon

7th Annual NW Book Festival 11:00am to 5:00pm

Pioneer Square

Portland OR


August 15 Lincoln City, Oregon

Northwest Author Fair 11:00am to 3:00pm

Bob’s Beach Books

1747 NW Hwy 101

Lincoln City, OR


August 22 Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Art Fair and Farmer’s Market 9:00am to 1:00pm

The Ocean’s Edge

South 1st Street

Rockaway Beach, OR


September 26 Florence, OR

Florence Festival of Books 10:00am to 4:00pm

Florence Event Center

715 Quince Street

Florence, OR 97439


Deception Island released on kindle

41jeDmIOnrL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors, James Boyle’s new novel Deception Island is now live and available as a Kindle download. The print version will be available June 1.

The authorities say Jason Reynolds’ father drowned in a boating accident on Puget Sound, but Jason doesn’t believe it. His father was a fishing guide. An accident wasn’t likely. Once in town, Jason quickly finds evidence that supports his suspicions: files missing from his dad’s office; a mysterious photo of an Asian man; and a letter threatening to evict his father unless he stops “acting against the interests of Lundgren Corporation.”

Lundgren Corporation. The company behind the company town.

And now they turn their attention to Jason.