Tuesday, December 30, 2008

12/30/2008

Forty. I woke up this morning, greeted by the reminder of what today is. While I know its significance--my 40th birthday--I don't feel that it should be different from any other day. On a day like today, however, one can 't help but to consider the number 40; and for me, I could not help but to look at it in terms of literature. One thought was that Ali Baba had forty thieves. As amazing as that sounds, always looking over your shoulders because you have forty dirty-rotten scoundrels hanging around, any one of which could slit your throat as easily as he could pat you on the back, is probably not a good thing. Just going out on a limb there.

My thoughts turned to the Bible, where I know of several examples. Consider this:

  1. It rained for forty days and forty nights in the great flood.
  2. Moses was on the mountain for forty days to receive the law.
  3. The spies were in Canaan for forty days prior to the Hebrews rejecting the Promised Land, which lead to...
  4. A forty year sentence of wandering in the desert because they rejected God's promise.
  5. Through Jonah, God gave Nineveh forty days to repent before He would destroy them.
  6. By the Spirit of God, Jesus was lead into the desert for a forty-day fast, after which he was tempted.

When you look at the number 40 in that light, most occurrences were not positive. However, in further researching the significance of "40" in the Bible, I also found this little nugget on Wiki:

"A 40-something time period, whether days, months, or years is ALWAYS a period of testing, trial, probation, or chastisement (but not judgment) and ends with a period of restoration, revival, or renewal."

Restoration, revival or renewal. I like that.

As for me, I'm not walking around, acting morose. Maybe it's because I still have goals to accomplish. I felt this way about my 30th birthday, too. At that time, I had just passed the CPA exam and was on course to earning my license. So turning thirty didn't bother me. This year, I have already been published, with more stories sent for submission, and I feel the road ahead is brighter than ever. So why be glib about something like a 40th birthday?

Besides, forty sounds a whole lot better than fifty.

Monday, December 22, 2008

12/22/2008

Christmas is just a few days away now, and I'm only a present or two short of completing my list. And no, I am not talking about Alvin-ing the gift giving ("A present from me to me..."). One thing about this holiday, with all of the hustle, gift buying and gift wrapping, the cards, the touring of lights, the parties, the cooking, it can take the life out of you. And to top things off, another snow-less cold front blasted across the South Plains this weekend--just in time for the the fat man in the red suit to pay his visits. I've said this before, and I'll post it here: there should be a law that requires at least a foot of snow when it gets this cold. In Lubbock, though, all we seem to get is a blistering wind to chap our lips and cheeks.

But I digress...

As part of my contribution to the season, I am planning to mix things up a little in my reading list. Instead of reading Lisey's Story by Stephen King, I'm going to first read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. After all, 'tis the season to be jolly, right?

Saturday brought an interesting piece of mail to my house. I have posted a picture of it here for your appreciation. During 2008 I signed up on Joseph Finder's website to receive regular bulletins. This last weekend I received a nice card, signed by Mr. Finder himself. While the scanner turned everything to black-and-white, the card was crafted with a glossy finish and his signature was penned in a nice shade of Sharpie Green. My first thought was, "I can't believe he actually took the time to sign a card and have it sent to me." My second thought was, "That's a great idea." In a day when writers are struggling to build their readership, as well as a platform, this is an excellent way to keep the troops connected. I don't know how much it cost Finder to have this done, but I believe it was worth every penny. After all, I've posted it here for you, thus contributing to his advertising campaign.

I also found it interesting that Finder used the book cover from Paranoia to set up his Christmas card. It was a simple way to remind some readers where they've been. It also entices other readers to pick up Paranoia if they haven't already. I have read Paranoia, and I recommend it to anyone who likes good thrillers. There are issues in that book that still scare me a little. I also have a signed copy of Finder's Killer Instinct in my reading stack, and I am eager to crack upon the pages, smell that new-book aroma. I suspect that I'll get to it after the first of the year.

On the writing front, I've decided to start over on Arturo. I've thought more and more about him lately. I've also taken J.M.'s advice (see my last posting) to consider how I can create more conflict. Hopefully, the additional twist and conflict will help keep things moving through the Middles and keep me on course toward the conclusion.

Merry Christmas to all of you. I hope you have a blessed holiday. Spend it with the people you love, and drink up every moment like it was your last drop.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

12/16/2008

Life has been dry out here on the South Plains. Lately, my days have been filled with the constant snapping and popping of static electricity. In fact, some of the jolts have packed enough punch to curl the peach fuzz on the top of my head. Life has also been cold. A Northerner blew through here over the last couple of days, dropping the temperature so low that the remains of yesterday's coffee, left in the cab of my truck, turned into slush. I've said this before, and I'll write down now: there should be some natural law that mandates at least a foot of snow on the ground when it gets this cold!!!

Life has been dry in the writing front lately as well. At least, it feels that way right now. Beyond this posting, I haven't penned one sentence related to my writing life in the last week. Prior to that, I did finish my work for the Holiday Story Exchange, involving a few members of the Writer's Digest Forum; however, the small success there seems trivial compared to the long desert road ahead for Arturo and my novel, The Wind Blows Hard. I can see some images clearly for my novel, but they are still far off in the distance and getting there feels like trying to swim through scorching hot sand in a Speedo. And it's days like this--moments like this, actually--when I wonder just what the heck I was thinking when I launched into this novel. Poor Arturo is kicking dirt in my face and saying, "I don't need no stinking writer telling my story. Not like you anyway!"

Oh well... For his sake, and mine, I'm going to force myself to sit down, stick one word after the other and see where it all goes. Hopefully, I'll stay out of the bar ditch. And hopefully it won't be as painful as some of the Snaps! I've taken lately--all thanks to the dry, winter air which makes my skin itch and my hair (what I have anyway) stand on end.

Monday, November 24, 2008

11/24/2008

Thanksgiving. Every year, Americans sit down with friends and family and, as a friend of mine recently said, stuff their turkeys. Always the dutiful daughter-in-law and son, my wife and I make an annual trip to see my family during one of the fall holidays, and this year we’ll spend our Thanksgiving weekend in Oklahoma. My parents will give me hugs. My children will run around, squeal and probably break something, for which I’ll have to apologize and my dad will say, “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad somebody finally broke that stupid thing.” My brother will give me grief over the beating the Texas Tech Red Raiders took from Oklahoma this last weekend. And I, of course, will point out that the University of Texas still outranks OU in the BCS, and most likely the Long Horns will go to the Conference instead of the Sooners (cheesy, I know, but you get your digs where you can).

So, the holiday season is now upon us, and this morning I wonder how many people actually stop to think about being thankful. For my part, before moving on to all things writing, I want to take a few lines and express my thankfulness. Today, I am thankful for:

1. My God and my Savior, who looked beyond my faults and saw my needs.
2. My wife, who loves me in spite of the idiot I can be at times.
3. My children, who bring me great joy
4. My parents and in-laws, who have given more to me than I could possibly return.
5. The rest of my family and friends, including my writing and singing buddies, who have laughed, rejoiced and cried with me.
6. America. I live in the greatest nation in the world.
7. The United States Military. Without our courageous men and women, America wouldn’t be what it is today.
8. Work. In this economy, I’m lucky to still have a job.
9. My reasonably good health. As I stand on the threshold of forty, my health can’t be overestimated.
10. Finding a true passion, though late in life. A life without passion/purpose is not a life worth living.

Now on to all things writing. Every once in a while, I grow a wild hair. This happened when I decided to pick up an Evanovich romance novel (written before she became a literary rock star with the Stephanie Plum series). I read the romance novel because I wanted some rounding to my knowledge and experience. To build upon Evanovich, then, I also read Nicholas Sparks and Susan Isaacs.

About a month ago, while visiting Austin on business, I walked into a Barnes and Noble bookstore and ventured over to the books for children. I had recently went to a Scholastic book fair at my son’s school, and I wanted to see who and what made the shelves of commercial retail. In the process, I discovered something interesting. Contrary to a preconceived notion, one based upon books my son brought home from school, I saw that writers used fairly sophisticated language considering their readership. I picked up Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and found the use of French: "Mon Dieu!" I thumbed through other books and found engaging plots. Suffice it to say, I was pleasantly surprised.



So, in an effort to broaden my scope some more, I have picked up The Tale of Despereaux from the public library. While in Austin, I also purchased Holes by Louis Sachar. Now that I have finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I plan to read these two Newbery Award winning authors and see what I can learn from them.

Finally, this last weekend was a good weekend. I finished a piece of flash fiction (about 850 words), which I will let sit for a few days and then go back and polish it up. I also pushed further into a second story for my commitment to the Holiday Story Exchange, an annual event now on the WD Forum, and I am on target for meeting the December 12th deadline. Even with everything else—the holidays and the commitments to family, work and church—I feel good that my writing life hasn’t languished. Sure, it could be better. It could be a whole lot worse, too.


I hope all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 14, 2008

11/14/2008


We all live by rules. Granted, we don’t like all of them. Some we curse. Some we defy. For my sake, I certainly hope there is no holy counter at the Pearly Gates that will point out how many times my speedometer exceeded the posted speed limit. Whatever the case, whether we like them or love them, rules are a part of life. For the purpose of this post, I submit to you the following Ten Commandments on writing from John Dufresne (from The Lie That Tells A Truth):

1. Sit Your [Butt] in the Chair
2. Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader
3. Remember to Keep Holy Your Writing Time
4. Honor the Lives of Your Characters
5. Thou Shalt Not Be Obscure
6. Thou Shalt Show and Not Tell
7. Thou Shalt Steal
8. Thou Shalt Rewrite and Rewrite Again. And Again.
9. Thou Shalt Confront the Human Condition
10. Be Sure That Every Death in a Story Means Something

It is Commandment No. 9 that I want to focus on today.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, there is a philosophical discussion regarding the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. It is during this discussion that Lee, a Chinese servant with keen insight into the human condition, makes the following statement:

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

There are times while reading a book when I wonder if the author is revealing more of himself than his character. Years ago, I remember this feeling distinctly while reading Tommyknockers by Stephen King. In that book, there was a brief history of one of the characters who went to college and was involved in writing. The character was put off by all of the debates raging through academia about what an author meant by such and such. It was at that point in the novel, where the character reveals his take on it: Can’t a story be just a story? I remember wondering if that was King’s position. He just wanted to tell a story without people trying to interpret too much out of it.

When I read the above quote from East of Eden, I felt that same sense the author was sharing more of himself to the reader. It was like Steinbeck reached up from the page and said, “Listen to this. It's what I believe. It’s important.”

Many of my stories are written for the sake of entertainment. And yet, my readers always demand the same thing: they want to understand the characters. It’s not enough to put a bad guy into the scene. The reader wants to know why he’s bad. And why? Because no story has power unless we see the truth in it. No character has substance unless the reader can believe in him.

And this thought—this challenge to paint true life—is something I find hard to deal with. There are certain stories in my head that I shy away from simply because the subject matter seems too dark. While I want to be a writer who can touch the truth, I am still a husband, a father, a friend, a member of a church body. And those parts of my life can not be separated from the writer. I still have to answer the questioning eyes, and the questions, of those around me who may not approve of the stories I write.

So, how do I give my stories the power they crave and still maintain my relationships? That is the question that troubles me today. One which I do not have a solid answer for. Maybe one which I will never have an answer for. While there are rules for writing, there are still Commandments to live by, and the two sets do not always live at peace with each other.

How about you? Are there issues you have refused to touch? Have you been forced to account to your relationships for the things you write? How did you handle it?

Friday, October 31, 2008

10/31/2008

Trick or Meme...

It appears that I've been tagged. My thanks to Linda for pulling me into the game. Seven answers to seven questions. Here they are:

1. It is your lucky day what are you going to do? Play the Power Ball, and then retire to the mountains, where I can live with the deer.
2. What was the game you played as a child that you almost always or always did win? Kickball.
3. You get to meet anyone from the past or present who will it be? Jesus, the Christ. Just to ask about the things he taught—what was said, how he said it, and what he meant. The translated versions allow for too many interpretations and opinions.
4. When you relax what is it that you do? Write, read or watch movies. For me, it’s all about the stories.
5. What is your favorite number? The one that wins the money (see #1 above).
6. What was the name of your favorite childhood toy? My collection of stuffed animals. I still have them in a box, waiting to give them to my children.
7. If you could name the next fashion fad/craze what would it be? I would call it Simplicity. Blue jeans, plain tee shirts and shoes of your choice. We spend too much energy trying to be somebody rather than who we are.

I guess I will tag Jim, Greta, and Cousin Ed. You know who you are.

Friday, October 24, 2008

10/24/2008

I know some of you are probably saying right now, "Gee, why don't you wait two more days, make it a whole month since you've posted anything?" I know. I have no excuse but my own laziness. Funny thing is, though, I went to a choir retreat just last weekend, where I found an applicable gem regarding my problem of late. The guest speaker for this retreat was Mark Condon, a recorded praise and worship artist out of Columbus, Ohio. He was specifically talking to members of our choir; but, of course, like most things I'm applying it in my own world of writing. Here is what he said:

"Routine places perfection within the grasp of mediocrity."

The other night I told my wife I needed to get back to a better routine. "I haven't written anything for the last several days," I said. So, this morning I set the alarm clock to pop off a little earlier, took a shower, put on some coffee, and sat down at the computer. We all know (and this is something I have failed to do lately) the business of writing begins first and foremost with sitting your butt in the chair. Clearly, I need to get back to the basics.

Oh, and speaking of butts, my daughter came home from the pumpkin patch the other day. Suffice it to say, my wife and I had a little fun with the selection. Here's a photo:


Meet Jane the Plumber-Pumpkin. I actually suggested to wrap a bra around the pumpkin instead of a pair of panties. My wife told me to shut up. Ah, such is the life of warped minds. We can take any innocent thing and distort it for our own amusement.

But I digress.

All hasn't been lost the last few weeks. In my absence, I've finished reading two books and started a third. One of the finished books was Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille; the other was No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. One of the criticisms I've heard about McCarthy's book, and the movie, was that the title didn't seem to fit. I can't disagree more. The title completes the story. In fact, without the title a reader, or viewer, can easily lose what the story is about. We've all heard or read that when it comes to writing, you are supposed to show and not tell. This book is a perfect example of that principle. Through the story arc of Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss, the author shows us why Sherriff Bell makes his choice by the end of the book. For those who have seen the movie and were left confused, I suggest you read the book. For those who have never seen the movie or read the book, I strongly recommend you add this one to your reading pile.

After completing McCarthy's book, I picked up Steinbeck's East of Eden, which is what I'm currently reading. By the end of the first chapter, I was skeptical. I've got to read six hundred pages of this? By the third chapter, however, I was hooked. Two hundred pages later, I'm still hooked.

I remember reading somewhere that a reader will forgive a lot if the story is good. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I picked that up, and who wrote it; so, I won't dishonor anyone by stating where I think it came from. Whatever the case, the point is an absolute truism. Take McCarthy, for example. The first time I read one of his novels, All The Pretty Horses, I almost through the book down and screamed, "How can a publishing house market a book by someone who won't even use proper punctuation?" By the end of the book, however, I was spellbound. What an incredible piece of fiction! The same can be said of No Country For Old Men. McCarthy can be difficult to read at times. The lack of punctuation forces a reader to work a little more, and without all the quotation marks it is easy to lose track of who is saying what. But his stories are well done and worth anyone's time.

Steinbeck, for me, falls into this same category. There's a lot of telling in East of Eden, and some of the narrative seems unimportant--like Steinbeck wanted to impress his readers about his knowledge of the area--but I have overlooked all of that. The shadows of criticism scamper away in the light of the powerful story Steinbeck offers.

This is not to imply that a writer can shrug off the rules of protocol--grammar and punctuation--and act as if a publisher or an editor worth anything should be able to see the artist underneath all the faults. Writers like McCarthy are rare. The point, however, is that readers will show you a ton of grace if your story hooks them in and captures their hearts. This, I believe, is the target of every writer. We can talk grammar and punctuation and rules until the day we die. If a storyline runs into the ditch, it will not matter how diligently you kept to the straight and narrow of grammar and punctuation. There are plenty of books I have put down because the story hobbled around like an old dog. Unlike that old dog, however, I have little compassion for a book that already has one foot in the grave within the first fifty pages.

Just some food for thought, I guess.

Friday, September 26, 2008

9/26/2008

“We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves … We as writers would do well to absorb this lesson: Violence, like sex, is strongest when it’s implied, not shown.” William Kowalski (The Writer, August 2008)

As a connoisseur of movies, I admit that when it comes to a choice between watching a Dirty Harry flick and watching Beaches, I usually pick one that promises to make my day. After all, a man has got to know his limitations, and I feel lucky watching a story that will have me clutching the armrest with white knuckles. This is not to say that I avoid Kleenex movies. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorites. But when I want to escape, I tend to do so with a bag of popcorn, an extra-large Dr. Pepper and plenty of gunfire on the screen.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that I paused when I found the quote above while playing catch-up with my magazine reading. What's the point of subscribing if you're not going to read? The context of the comment above is about violence as part of the background, setting the mood and tension for the entire story. The author uses The Great Gatsby as an example. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is still on my Books-To-Read list, I think I understand Kowalski’s point. Violence in the form of war, and the physical problems it left on the character of Jake Barnes, definitely shaped the background of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It helped the reader to understand Jake’s frustration, and what drove him to drink so much. Yet, when I look at book sales, and who is on top of the markets, I still ask the question: is violence stronger when it’s implied?

I think the answer depends on the audience. If the author's target is the literary market, maybe violence can be avoided. If the market is horror, he may not get a large audience without it. As an avid reader of Dean Koontz and Elmore Leonard, I have come to expect violence and would be disappointed if either one left out the key ingredient.

Granted, just like sex scenes, an author can take things too far. Some time back, my brother and I were talking about movies. I still remember the words when he described a movie I had not seen. “It had a lot of yeah-right moments.” Enough said. I scratched it off my list. The same experience can happen when reading, or even listening, as was the case just last week. On a whim, I decided to listen to a free audio book available through the internet. The first chapter started out well. The author had my attention. Even though the violence was graphic, I still kept listening. By the second chapter, however, all hope diminished. The deal breaker came when the author crossed the boundaries with one of those yeah-right moments. Using an ax, the character severed both of his legs below the knee … using only one swipe for each leg. Now, I’m not a doctor. I have never been to medical school. But common sense tells me it just might take more than one whack to severe your own leg, especially when the probabilities are high that you will hit either the femur or the tibia in the process. To paraphrase Senator Clinton, I knew it would take a willful suspension of disbelief to continue. I didn't.

Just like sex scenes, violence is one of those areas that should be avoided if you don’t know how. I like Tess Gerritsen's approach (The Writer, September 2008). “I’m not so good at depicting violence,” she said. The gruesomeness in my books is always after the fact. I have investigators walk into the scene, see what’s left behind, and try to imagine the crime.” As one of her readers, I did not have to experience the violence in real time. My stomach churned just as much after-the-fact.

To be fair, the reason I included the first part of Kowalski’s point above (We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves) is to agree with him on one level, and then make a point of my own. A crime or horror writer doesn’t have to risk a yeah-right moment when all the reader sees is the aftermath. The reader can visualize for herself what happened, and the violence will be just as powerful. Stephen King did this extremely well during a scene in The Dark Half, where an unsuspecting landlord pays a visit to a tenant who has just been murdered. The scene actually made me hold my breath for a moment.

Is violence necessary? Not if it doesn’t fit your market. If it does, which is often the case in my writing, an author who doesn’t know how to depict violence can create just as much of an impact by showing the results. It would be better to write around the violent act than to lose a reader through a yeah-right moment.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

9/4/2008

Tuesday afternoon, while sitting in the cab of my supervisor's truck somewhere in the middle of Dalhart, Texas, my BlackBerry buzzed my hip. Looking down, I saw that I just received the e-mail notice I had been waiting for, and my world turned lighter as I read the words, We're Live! My flash fiction "Beyond The Pale" is now officially published, and you can find a link for it over on the sidebar of my blog.

This now gives me the opportunity to write about a couple of issues.

Back in the summer of 2000, due to symptoms of pregnancy induced hypertension, a condition that can lead to serious consequences for both a mother and her baby, the doctors admitted my wife to the hospital and delivered our first born. At only thirty-three weeks in the womb, and weighing three pounds eight ounces at birth, our son spent the first two weeks of his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). One day, my wife and I visited our son during feeding time and struggled with getting him to burp. Naturally, since it was our first, and a premature baby at that, we became alarmed at the slightest little thing. When we asked for a suggestion, however, one of the nurses simply replied, "Persevere."

More than eight years have passed since then, and that one line still resonates with me. As with most new things in life, the principle is the same for writing. When you're stuck in the middle of that story, trying to find your way to the end, persevere. When you're looking for the right lines in the dialogue, persevere. When you're trying to get published...

I took that principle to heart with this latest piece, "Beyond The Pale." I originally submitted it as a short story to a writing contest. It didn't make the cut. I then submitted it for publication to an e-zine. They turned it down. Then, I took a lesson I learned from Heather Sellers, author of Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter. She believes that rejections are opportunities to see your story in a new way. So, I sat down, tweaked my flash fiction a little more and sent it out again. I don't know about three times being the charm, but in this case I didn't give up on the story, and the third try found the right fit between the editor, the story and me.

And what a right fit it has been between the editor and me. In my experience with editors, I can say, with an eye of objectivity I believe, that Jake Freivald is the best editors I have worked with, and not because he chose to publish my piece. When it came time to work on some edits, he presented his position, laying out the reasons why something needed to be changed. In each case, his objective was not to make the story different, but to improve it while holding on to its spirit.

This brings me to another issue: editing. I remember working with some people on the Writer's Digest Forum, who appeared to have a wall up to anything. No matter how persuasive a person's comment had been, the author continually argued against any change. I can understand an author knowing his/her story, and holding fast on a certain issue, but I failed to see the merit in arguing every case. The attitude led me to ask why the story had been submitted in the first place. Was it only to receive pats on the back? To say, look at this, see how great I am, come learn from me? One of the lessons I took away from the WD Forum was to always be open to suggestions. Nobody has it right all the time. Another lesson I learned is that this business of writing is...well, to use a cliché, when it comes to writing and editing: it's nothing personal, it's just business. In my case, I saw Jake Freivald's points as an opportunity to learn something new--about the craft of writing and the business of publication.

To Jake Freivald, I hold up my glass. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for seeing my story for what it was.

And now that the disco ball has stopped spinning, and the last bottle of champagne has been uncorked, it's time to get back to another story that continues to whine at me like a spoiled child. Sometimes, stories are just like that. They beg, they plead, the whimper and moan, as if they're entitled to my time, to getting their way. Often, they are right.

Friday, August 15, 2008

8/20/2008

The last week has included extensive road miles. Last Monday, August 12, I launched out from Lubbock and headed toward Austin, a good six hours away, so that I could attend a three-day, business-related seminar. You might ask why I didn't fly. After all, the company is paying for it, right? By the time I added up the alternative travel costs--the flight, renting a car (if I'm staying three days, I am not riding around in a taxi), and gas for said rental car--I would have spent well over twice as much, even considering the extra cost for my time. Besides, I like driving and six hours wasn't too bad.

Before I left town, I stopped by the library to pick up a couple audio books, which is interesting for someone like me. If any of you were with me during my days on the Writer's Digest Forum, you may remember my little rant about people who listen to an audio book and then say they "read" so-and-so's novel. I didn't come by this attitude all on my own. It is something I picked up after reading Stephen King's On Writing. So, to be consistent with Mr. King, I only selected unabridged audio books, and I have not included those books on my blog.

In the process, I noted an interesting observation about listening to unabridged audio books: taglines, while usually overlooked in a reading session, become annoying during an audio experience when overused. Here's my example. One of the books I selected was High Profile by Robert B. Parker. One of the things I like about Parker's writing is that he keeps it simple. The sentences are short and laser sharp. In his dialogue, he leaves little room for confusion on the part of his reader by supplying an abundance of taglines. While reading his books in the past, the taglines whizzed by like the yellow lines on a highway--there but blended in with the rest of the landscape. Listening to this novel through the stereo speakers, the liberal application of taglines hit my ears like a barrage of military fire. By the time I finished, I was practically shell-shocked. I'm not dogging Mr. Parker's writing. His Jesse Stone novels are pure enjoyment. The character of Jesse Stone is well done--hard, smart and realistically flawed. Based on my experience, though, I recommend reading them instead of listening to them.

So then, the main thing I took away from that experience was to be aware of my own personal use of taglines. Should I ever get published, and subsequently have the novel recorded into an audio book, I don't want listeners to go through the same experience.

While I was in Austin, I received good news. The editor of Flash Fiction Online, after reviewing my story "Beyond The Pale", extended an offer for publication. Once the story is published, and I have more information, I will post a link so that you can see it. So keep your eyes glued to the sidebar of my blog.

Today, I'm back up in Hereford, which means more road miles away from home and more time to listen. For this trip, however, I enjoyed listening to the latest from Third Day, one of my favorite CCM rock bands. Somehow, listening to the distortion of guitars, the thump and bang of drums, and the raspy vocals of Mac Powell, all bring a sweet comfort to my weary soul.

Monday, August 11, 2008

8/11/2008

The trees must be frustrated these days. They're trying to talk, but I've been too busy to listen. With a new position (resulting from a pending merger), which promises busier weekdays (thank God), and the weekly drives back and forth between Lubbock and Hereford, which means my weekends are totally tied-up to with time sliced out for family, my writing life has suffered over the last three weeks. Though I have still found time to submit one story to Crimespree Magazine, re-submit another story that was previously rejected, and start a third story, my writing productivity has been reduced to a dribble from the spigot.

My reading life has slowed down as well. What would normally take one to two weeks, now takes three to four. My current reading--Pride and Prejudice--is going on week three, and I'm only two-thirds of the way through.

Oh well, perseverance is a word most writers are intimate with, and I will do as much as I can. Maybe, I'll even finish that third story this week.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

7/8/2008

It only took three days. Somewhere between Friday, when the rest of the family turned sick, and one o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, when I finally exhibited the same symptoms, my family had succeeded in giving me the dreaded stomach bug. This proves two things. First, the family that shares together, stays together. This is because nobody else wants to be around them. Secondly, no matter how much you wash your hands, bleach the towels and sanitize the entire house, you are not totally germ-proof. It’s sort of like the health nut who eats well and exercises daily, only to be run over by the drunk driver they can’t control.

As I sat there in the bathroom waiting for the inevitable—hoping and praying that it wouldn’t happen, but knowing it would—I considered something else about myself: as a writer, there are times when I think I’m a little strange.

Here is a hint. Whenever I turn on the news and watch coverage of some devastating event, there is always one reporter who has to ask the victim how they feel. I admit, almost every time I want to throw something at the television and scream, “How do you think they feel?” Another question that galls me is: “What are you thinking right now?” I mean, there in front of the cameras stands a human being, writhing in agony to the point where it takes every ounce of energy to breathe in and out, their mind teetering on the edge of locking all the doors and taking a permanent vacation from reality, and some loser has to ask about how they feel, what they’re thinking. Can’t the reporter look into those lost, desperate eyes and see the pain? Do the questions really need to be asked?

I don’t know what it is about reporters, why they need to be so cruel at such critical moments in life. Maybe that’s just part of the job, part of answering the who-what-where-when-and-why questions that revolve around reporting an event. Maybe it’s their way of trying to Tom Wolfe the story, to put a human touch on the facts. Or maybe they’re trying to write their first novel and seek the words to describe the emotion for their character. Whatever it is, there are times when I think reporters are just insensitive schmucks.

I realize now that I am no better. There I was, cold chills breaking out across my flesh, my joints aching so much that it hurt to move them, and I was trying to take mental notes about what it felt like before everything came out. And as I thought about it, how I could write something like that into a scene, the questions came. Why is someone puking? Are they sick from a virus like they were in Stephen King’s The Stand? Or have they overdosed? Sitting there on a step-stool, my bare feet pressed against the cool linoleum floor, the ventilation fan buzzing above me, I then wondered about famous rock stars who died from asphyxiation: John Bonham and Jimmy Hendrix. Did they know what was happening to them, or did they just ride out on a wave of euphoria?

After it was all over, I also took note of what "empty" feels like as my stomach knotted up, collapsed in on itself, and found nothing left to give.

Truth be told, being sick is not the only time I do something like this. In my world, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t take note of something. Listening is one my favorite tools. People having conversations around me are fair game, as far as I’m concerned. Something said, even the most innocuous comment, can be the fiber for my mental loom. I just take their stuff, infuse my own ideas, and then weave together something different. Watching is another tool. Those poor souls who camped next to my family on Memorial Day weekend had no idea that they were victims to my wandering eye and imagination. Why was that girl going into the trashed-out camper with those two thugs? What was she thinking? How was she feeling?

I know. I’m one pull-tab shy of a six pack. I am not alone, though. There are several writers who throw events into their mental mixers and then whirl it all around until something concrete comes out. It doesn’t matter who the inspiration is, whether it be a mom, a dad, a brother or sister, an aunt, an uncle, the priest, the doctor or the family dog. Sooner or later, people we know (and especially those we don’t) make it into our stories. Though we may not base a character wholly on one individual, we do take a piece of this one, and a snippet of that one, and throw it all into our witch's brew to boil up something more delicious. What is amazing is that people we love still love us. They don't try to hunt us down as freaks and then chase us into the far reaches of the Arctic Circle, trying to kill us along the way.

That writers take note of the world around them is no mystery. Maybe that’s why some of us lead very lonely lives. No one wants to talk to us anymore. I wonder, though, how many writers actually stop to consider just how they feel when they’re driving the porcelain bus. Maybe I’m the only one.

Monday, June 30, 2008

6/30/2008

This last weekend was interesting, which to one part is the best I can write. On Friday, my son celebrated his eighth birthday, and we had this nice little party lined up. Invitations were sent, food was prepared, party favors purchased. Then, about an hour before the party, my son tossed his cookies. After receiving a call from my wife, I left work and ventured home to see what I could do to help out. Upon arriving, my daughter then spewed her lunch all over the kitchen floor. To cap it off, after bleaching the floor and then scrambling to make phone calls to cancel the party, my wife turned sick. Suffice it to say, Friday’s party went down in flames like a crazed kamikaze. At least my son's spirit perked up when his mother and I gave him the telescope he wanted.

By Saturday, everyone was on the mend and wondering what to do with all hot dogs and cake. I guess I'll get creative. Let's see... there's hot dogs with macaroni and cheese. There are hot dog omelets. There's pizza with sliced hot dogs instead of pepperoni. Feel free to give me some great recipes, assuming you have any.

Things turned real interesting yesterday, though, as my dad and I drove to Wal-Mart (yes, I’m a cheapskate at heart) to have some photos developed for my mom. While we were waiting, my dad and I had one of those great discussions where he became almost god-like in my eyes. Even now, I feel like erecting a memorial in his honor. There was a certain level of transparency to the discussion that I have only seen a few times. It was a moment where I captured a glimpse of the real man inside, not just this hard-shell that I call my father. In fact, the conversation was so real and deep that I asked myself why my father and I didn’t have these moments back when I was a kid. Surely, I would have been better prepared for the real world had he been able to sit me down like that before I left home. But he was a busy man, working a ton of hours, and that was just the way it was. At least now, I have these moments to cherish.

Transparency. Thinking about it, I believe there is a certain level of transparency we all need from our parents; and I’m not talking about the birds and bees discussion, though by today’s standards, with the current level of teenage pregnancy our world sees, it would seem like a nice place to start. Nor am I talking about a dad showing his son how to catch a fly ball or swing a bat. While entertaining, baseball doesn’t pay the bills or teach a person what it takes to operate in the real world. What I’m talking about are those conversations where mom and dad let you peek behind the curtain, see who they are and what they’re dealing with. How did they go about making that hard decision? What did they fear? What brought them joy? What are the things that make them so mad they just wanted to beat a person’s brains out and then piss on his grave? I’m talking about the business of L-I-F-E, and how to live it.

And now I’m sitting here, typing out this post, and thinking about how transparency is one of the greatest elements to a story. What makes a reader connect to the story? Isn’t it transparency? I believe so. It’s that intimacy of life that lays everything bare for the world to see and, hopefully, to learn from.

I lost sight of that transparency with a recent story I dusted off. Last week, I received a nice rejection letter from Every Day Fiction, which asked if I had anything else to submit. I quickly thought of an old piece and set about to revise it. My revised product, however, was no better than the original. My problem? The character wasn’t transparent enough. Thankfully, my good friend, Greta, pointed out the error: she didn’t get a sense of who the lead character was. As readers, we want to see the characters, to understand them, to love them (or hate them), and to learn from their conflict. If I had sent the story to EDF, it would have found its way to File 13, and this time with no more of a request than to find some other home for my stories.

Okay… Now I can go back to the computer. It’s time to re-write that story into something better.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

6/24/2008

“… Messrs. Blathers and Duff came back again, as wise as they went.” From Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
____________________________________________

It has been almost a month since I added something fresh to my blog. For me, the long pause has been justified. I don't want to post unless I've got something good enough to write about. Why waste your time and mine?

During this hiatus, I finally finished a novel by Charles Dickens. True, A Tale of Two Cities was required reading in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t read the whole thing, so it doesn’t really count. (As a footnote, my senior class celebrated their twenty-year reunion last summer, which I didn’t attend. I have never been emotionally attached to my alma mater) Since then, I have felt a pull to read Charles Dickens; however, I always went to some other writer as the size of a Dickens novel scared the … well, scared the Dickens out of me.

When I read, it is my goal to take away something of value. The thing I noticed early on about Charles Dickens was his clever use of sarcasm. The quote above comes from a chapter about halfway through the novel, where two bungling detectives investigate the attempted robery of a house. At first, Mr. Dickens played around with the dialogue between the detectives and the people in the house, a scene which reminded me of Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. After that dialogue, then, Dickens followed the two detectives around before he closed off the scene with the indictment above. I only hope I can achieve his dry sense of sarcasm in my own writing.

Other gems I learned from Dickens came toward the end of the novel. As a story teller, he gripped me with violence that I had never expected from a literary classic. With his strong use of language, Dickens ripped my heart out as the evil Sikes slipped from a rooftop. The image of Sikes, the rope and the chimney have been burned in my imagination. Then, he took my breath away as Mr. Brownlow coldly dealt with Mr. Monks. While reading, I thought about my own stories, trying to capture such a hardness in my own characters. Finally, as I watched Fagin (what a name, by the way) writhe in his cell, going crazy, I was amazed by the effect that Dickens’s writing had on me. It reminded me of some advice I found in one of the Write Great Fiction series: if you want to milk the tension, slow the scene down. That chapter in Oliver Twist felt like it went on forever, and it made me squirm, agonizing just as much as the wretched old Fagin.

Yes, I know I’ve made an assumption that you have read Oliver Twist. If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend you add this book to your reading pile. As a writer, pay attention to how Dickens handled his scenes, how he used images--natural and otherwise--to set the tone, and how he worked his magic to have a lasting impact on his readers. There is certainly a lot to learn from someone as masterful as Dickens.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

5/22/2008

For those who have continued to read my blog, you have come to expect my personal insights to the writing craft, mostly things I learn from reading. Today’s posting is just some personal mumbo-jumbo.

Every couple of months, Writer’s Digest Magazine invites writers to submit stories based upon the same prompt. Upon receiving all the submissions, the WD Staff sifts through the pile, selects five and then asks its Forum Members to cast votes. It had been a while since I submitted a story, and this time I was hopefully optimistic. The results were released this morning and…

Five other writers made the cut.

Oh well, that’s the way it goes. When the WD Staff has to sort through at least five hundred submissions, I only had a one percent chance of success. It would have been nice, but now I have the opportunity to submit the story elsewhere. So, submit I did, first thing after finding my name wasn’t included as a finalist in the WD Your Story competition. My fingers are crossed, and I am once again hopefully optimistic.

In the meantime, I will continue to write more short fiction, edit the ones I already have, and slowly grind out my novel. Yes, Greta, you and I both know that the polar ice caps will probably melt, and the world will flood, before I finish that novel. I will also take this holiday weekend to enjoy camping with the family, maybe take in an hour or two to go fishing, and probably take some time to read my latest collection from Elmore Leonard (so far, La Brava has proven to be funny and entertaining). What more can a red-blooded American boy want?

For all of you out there, I hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

5/1/2008

“Let’s get two bottles,” I said. The bottle came. I poured a little in my glass, then a glass for Brett, then filled my glass. We touched glasses.

“Bung-o!” Brett said. I drank my glass and poured out another. Brett put her hand on my arm.

“Don’t get drunk, Jake,” she said. “You don’t have to.”

“How do you know?”

“Don’t” she said. “You’ll be all right.”

____________________________________________

The literary scholar will recognize the snippet above as part of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. One of my commitments for 2008 has been to submerge myself into some of the classics which I have never read before. So far this year, I have tackled Madame Bovary, Tom Sawyer and now The Sun Also Rises. On the shelf, I have other classics waiting for me, books by Jane Austen, Jack London and Charles Dickens.

Though I have read other Hemingway novels—The Old Man And The Sea and To Have And Have Not—this was the first time to read this classic story. Since it is widely considered his best, I chose it ahead of For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farwell To Arms, both of which are also on my shelf. For me, Hemingway’s style is too choppy. I personally like sentences that flow like a smooth river, gentle to the mind, relaxing to the soul. Laura Lippman’s prose comes to mind. Jonathan King and James Lee Burke are other writers whose style agrees with my eyes. But this is not to trash Hemingway. In his book, I found characters so deep and rich the author never had to specifically tell the reader what the problems were. He let the characters live them out. Furthermore, there was not a single halo in the bunch. Not one. Every character had their flaws. The bankrupt cheapskate, who sponges off of everyone. The love struck man with a false impression of the world and a fiery temper. A woman so hungry for love that she sleeps with just about anyone. And then there is Jake, a man with so much pain that he tries to drink it away.

As writers, we love flawed characters. We don’t want harps and wings or horns and pitchforks. We want characters that have both redemptive and destructive traits. In short we want people who are so brutally written, so honest and pure, that our readers can relate to them. Hemingway gave his readers just that.

The problem though, as one friend put it lately, is how to present a character that is not too flawed, reckless or destructive that people don’t have compassion for them. Honestly, I first thought Hemingway had gone too far with the debauchery. Scene after scene, there was so much wine and booze I was left wondering: Can people really drink like this? And why all the drinking, anyway? By the end of the novel, though, I got it. And in that revelation, I gained the pity and compassion that my friend wants to achieve with her characters.

Looking back on it, I think the answer to the problem—flawed, but not too flawed—lies within the background. The only way for a reader to connect, to understand why, is to show the reader what has happened previously that drives a character to such destructive behavior. In Jake’s case, there’s the war, the inability to love like he wants, the countless imaginings of his friends and their sex lives. All of it works together, and it helped me to understand who Jake is at a deeper level. The other part of the answer lies in the character's redemptive qualities. At the end of the story, Hemingway blew me away with Brett’s comments. She is the one who is closest to Jake. She knows why he drinks so much. And this time, she doesn't want him to be drunk. Even though I think Brett is a slut, she is such a compassionate slut in this last scene that I have pity for her, too.

Monday, April 21, 2008

4/21/2008

According to the Official Thomas Edison website, the inventor tested over 3,000 filaments before he found the right combination. That’s at least 3,000 failures, and yet he continued to press on. What a testament to the sheer determination and passion toward one goal.

Over the last few weeks, the gremlin of disbelief decided to pitch a tent in my writing backyard. The cause? I shared a short story with a writing friend, who gave it a thorough review and … ripped it apart. There was nothing wrong with his edits; they were spot-on and direct. And that’s what I wanted. If the intent is to submit a piece for publication, it is usually advantageous to make sure the writing doesn’t suck. “That was painful,” I wrote back. “But it was worth it.”

Shortly thereafter, the gremlin drove down his stakes, set up a fire and proceeded to brew a pot of bitter coffee. “You can’t do this,” he said. “You’re too old. You’re too far behind. You’ve got too many other responsibilities to devote the time needed to develop a writing career.” On and on, that little voice haunted my psyche, tormenting me.

But I refused to listen.

My writing has taken a long journey. I’ve read a lot, written much, and learned a ton by working with others. During this whole process, I’ve held fast—at times with white knuckles—to the belief that writing is my dream. Every day is consumed with it. I can’t even watch a movie without trying to envision how a certain scene would have been written on paper, or how the plot would have looked in between a pair of coverboards.

To combat the gremlin, I reminded myself about other writers. John Grisham reportedly spent hours before each day, before hanging the OPEN sign outside of his law office, grinding away on his first book. Stephen King actually threw away his initial work on Carrie, and it took his wife to resurrect it from the trash can. J.A. Konrath wrote nine novels (Nine!) before Whiskey Sour was picked up by Hyperion. There are countless writers, current and deceased, who slogged through some rough years, probably fighting some of the same gremlins. Why should I be any different?

So, what did I do after the review? I accepted it, told myself that it was a fair edit, and I went back to the desk. Since then, I’ve cranked out two short stories, and I’m working on a third (thanks to a challenge from my good friend, Greta). I’ve also continued to work away at the book, though the smaller pieces have admittedly taken some time away from the larger pursuit.

The passion to succeed is too strong to just give up. If Mr. Edison can find success after all of his failures, then so can I.

Friday, April 4, 2008

4/4/2008

“Don’t name the emotion. Feel it.” -- Barbara Krasner (from her article, “Sketch your way to CHARACTER EMOTION”, in the March 2008 edition of The Writer)

* * *

Mitchell put the weight of himself behind the sand wedge. The graphite shaft cut through the air with an eerie whiiiip before the carbon steel head found its target with a satisfying thwack. The subtle vibration energized his arms, and he jerked the club loose, drew it back over his head for another blow. He felt a drop of splatter run down his cheek. Chips of bone peppered his shirt and neck, adhered with globs of gray matter.

Again and again, he swung the Callaway X-Tour. The practice sessions in the back yard now over, this time it was for real. Each stroke captured and symbolized every single infraction upon Mitchell and the family. This one is for cheating on mom. Remember the time you beat me until I was left hobbling from my room? The time you cursed me in public after I struck out at the bottom of the ninth. On and on. When he added them all together, the sum of Mitchell’s grievances against his father totaled up to one big DIS- in their dysfunctional family.

His strength spent, his arms feeling like rotted-out tree stumps, Mitchell staggered back, slumped against his parent’s dresser, and took in the full view. Blood splatter arced across the ceiling, sprayed out against the headboard. His dad’s face, once chiseled with sharp lines, now looked like a melon after it had been dropped from a two-story window.

He snickered, his shoulders convulsing up and down. His heart jumped inside his chest, its pulse pounding the inside of his ears.

Mitchell raised his right arm, wiped his forhead. His shirtsleave came away smeared with sweat and the aftermath of his brutality.

So, tell me something, dad, he thought. How about them Yankees?

* * *

Note for my readers: I don’t know where this one came from. It probably surfaced from that dark place in the back of my mind, where the door is fastened shut with a rusted-out padlock.

The point is, as Barbara Krasner explored in her article, writers are wasting their time (and their reader’s) by simplifying emotions into trite little phrases like, "He was angry." That doesn’t cut it. As a writer you need to put the who, what, where, when and why into the emotions for your readers to connect. I hope I did that with the little piece above. Even if it did gross any of you out.

Have a great weekend. :-)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

03/28/2008

As cliché as this sounds, my last week held within its grasp both good news and bad news.

Being a part of a church body has its privileges. It helps to build a circle of friends with like spiritual interests and, for the most part, similar lifestyles. It’s a great place for kids to mingle with each other. It is also a place where everyone will ask you to be a part of this, that, or the other. My contribution involves participation in the choir, which includes extra time on Wednesday and Sunday in preparation for upcoming services.

Two months ago, the choir members were asked to audition so the Choir director would know where to place people. Being the dutiful member that I am, I signed up and gave an audition, singing a song and reading an excerpt from the script. At the time I specifically said I didn’t want anything big. I was rewarded with one of the four leading roles. I remember thinking: Oh Lord, what have I done? I can’t possibly do this. I’ve got a novel I want to start. I’ve got work. I’ve got, I’ve got, I’ve got… I could have bowed out, made some lame excuse, and lived with the guilt. However, I sucked it up, told myself that I could handle it, and then proceeded to fulfill my obligation. After all, I did sign up.

After two months of preparation, which consumed precious hours of my time, the Easter weekend came. The choir put on three presentations—Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As a result of all the work, over fifty people made new, or fresh, commitments in their lives. One lady even wanted the autographs of all the leading characters (which made me feel a little strange, by the way).

So, the good news was that I finished a commitment I made over two months ago. I considered attaching a photo of me, but the head wrap made my ears stick out like Elliot Spitzer.

The bad news: I didn’t do any writing last week. With all of the final dress rehearsals, and the time spent at work or with family, there was nothing left to give.

As I thought about this posting, then, I wondered how I should feel about my involvement in the production. At first, I believed I would write about keeping priorities, and that writing should come first. But then, in light of the fifty-plus people with changed lives, wasn’t the sacrifice worth it? Why am I beating myself up for failing to write when I accomplished something good in the process?

Thinking about it now, I will still write about priorities. We all need to hold ourselves to the business of writing—working when we can, pushing ourselves more and more. Writing, however, shouldn’t become the end-all of end-alls. There has to be room for other things. Even the Marines have a set of core values: always faithful to God, Country, Family and the Corps. In this hierarchy, the Corps is fourth in line. As writers, we should do no less. While the business of writing is important, it can’t supersede our obligations to God or family. There should be times when it's okay not to write.

So, I've come to terms with no writing accomplishment last week. To get things cranked back up this week, though, I sat down to revise a short story, which I am sending out to Crimespree Magazine. We’ll see how that goes. I am also resuming my work on the novel. I had started chapter 6 two weeks ago. Hopefully, the time off won't delay getting back in the saddle (so to speak).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

03/11/2008

Since my last posting, I’ve been wondering about what I would write next. While my novel is still progressing—Chapter 5 is now complete—there isn’t much to report. So, I won’t bore you with the trivial and banal, except to note that an inverse relationship appears to exist between the quantity of reading time and writing time. Normally, I can read a book in a week. With an increased emphasis on writing a novel, however, that pace has slowed to a crawl: three weeks. This last weekend, I finally finished Showdown by Ted Dekker. In the process, I came to a fresh discovery about writing, which I will share with you now.

Without being a spoiler, the one thing I will note is that Showdown is a 350-page symbolic story—one based upon certain events in the Bible. While the beginning of the book held my interest, the last half languished at best. The problem? Mr. Dekker's main audience consists of Christians, many of whom have sat in on more than one Sunday School discussion. While reading his book, I didn't have to wait until the end for the cliffhanger. Likewise, I knew the surprise before he finally revealed it. Here, then, is the lesson I learned: a book that starts out with a bang can quickly lose its power when readers know the story behind the story.

To be fair, I have often thought of writing a symbolic story based on an event in the Bible. Contrary to what theologians may say, some of the old stories need to be dusted off and carefully told in a new ways that do not detract from the original spirit, but at the same time connects to readers of our day. After reading Dekker's attempt, however, I am less convinced that some stories can be retold. There’s no surprise at the end, no “Ah-ha” moment that leaves the reader breathless. On the contrary (as I experienced), a reader may encounter a touch of disappointment. The book will either be placed on the shelf, never to read again, or possibly donated to the church’s library. Whatever the case, word-of-mouth marketing will never happen.

This is not to imply that retelling a Christian story should never be done. C.S. Lewis defies such shallow thinking. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is probably one of the best pieces written to date. The challenge is finding a way to do it without the reader knowing what you are up to. If a writer can’t pull that off, maybe he shouldn’t try; or, at the very least, maybe he should fictionalize the story based on the actual events, using actual names, dates, etc.

As a final note, I do not want readers to infer that I have formed a negative opinion about Ted Dekker. As a matter of fact, I have another of his books, Skin, in my "To Read" pile. As an author, he is truly gifted. While he may shudder at my suggestion, I liken his style to that of Stephen King. There is a certain flair and rawness to his characters that assures they won’t blend in with the wallpaper, and his skill at writing dialogue is well worth any writer’s time to read. In comparison to other Christian authors, he is certainly more edgy—something I think helps to spice up the genre. Thr3e, one of his earlier books, is a great read, combining several elements of suspense, character and surprise. However, for the reason mentioned above, Showdown just failed to measure up for me as a reader.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

02/26/2008

In a narrative about the title story in the collection of short stories, Everything's Eventual, 14 Dark Tales, Stephen King states his belief that stories are artifacts. They aren't made up things which writers create; rather, they are like relics in the dirt that writers dig up.

Like a studious little pupil, I used to spout off the same stuff. After all, it came from the Master Storyteller himself. It has to be true, right? Upon reflection, I wonder whether or not Mr. King literally believes the idea he espoused in his book. I no longer do. Stories are not artifacts we carefully exhume from the ground like bones from a grave. They are creations—events that start out as single-cell organisms and, over time, evolve into living, breathing, walking, talking and rationalizing beings. And I, for one, take full credit for everything I spawn into existence. Just like Dr. Frankenstein, though, I also acknowledge my responsibility for everything I create.

When it comes to writing stories, I am a creator (with a little “c”) who holds the lives of characters in the balance I choose. As I continue to shape and mold a story, the final product I eventually write may not be the exact story I started out with, but it is still my story.

Wait a minue, some may say. Isn't it the character's story? Aren't we just recording what happens to them? Only to a point. Fiction is not reality, and I am not a reporter. The characters started with me. The circumstances started with me. Ultimately, anything I write is a part of my imagination, and by extension part of me.

Here’s an example. Working on my novel (somewhere in the middle of Chapter 4 as I submit this posting), I came to a point where I decided to fill in some background. After launching into the chapter, my mind came up with more about my protagonist as I continued to poke and prod the storyline along. As a consequence, I found myself continually jumping back into previous chapters to plant the necessary seeds to produce fruit for my readers down the road.

There are plenty of tools available to convey a character’s background, I suppose: dialogue, narrative, maybe the discovery of someone’s entry in a diary. I chose in this case to use a flashback. Working with a flashback brings its own set of quirks. Since it’s written in the past tense, only the first sentence should invoke the past-perfect tense (i.e., “The day had begun as usual”); the rest should use the past tense. Also, the transitions into and out of the flashback must be smooth. A writer doesn’t want to jerk his reader around, confusing them about what is going on and when. But I digress. Working on Flashbacks might be the topic for another posting, but for now the issue is a writer developing more of the story as he works with it.

As I transitioned out of another flashback, I placed my character at the edge of a river. I thought I was going to move on; however, my mind, always leaping two and three steps ahead of me, screamed at me to stop. Take a breather and look around! The new scene generated ideas too good to casually brush aside like bread crumbs from the counter. As a result, I turned back to an earlier section of the story to set up some of the necessary details before I moved on with the plot.

And that, my friends, is the art of creating a story—shaping and molding it, evolving it into something more as each word, comma, and period is placed. The scene wasn’t there previously, waiting patiently to be discovered and carved out of the ground. I created it only because my mind wanted to pull back and churn out a little something else.

I am not an archeologist.

I am a writer (of fiction).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

02/19/2008

“So every day that I work, I begin with probably an hour of going over the material from the day before or maybe even going back two or three days.” (Ann Packer, in an interview with The Writer magazine, February 2008 issue)

At the risk of being presumptuous, I will guess that every writer has their own version of the electric starter—that certain something they use to get the creative juices flowing before they sit down and write.

I’ve read where some go for a morning jog. It helps them to think, they say. There’s no blank page staring them in the face, no blinking cursor impatiently tapping the monitor. It is just them, the fresh air, the sound of birds waking up, and anything else God’s creation has to offer. If I was stupid enough to try this, however, I know there would be a long pause after the first hundred yards, assuming I can make it that far. Both hands will lock onto my knees. I will find myself bent over, gasping and wheezing, certain that harp music (hopefully) should hit my ears in the next moment. You see, I’m more of a put-the-key-in-the-ignition type of guy, and my physique is the visible representation of my faith and allegiance to gas-guzzling automobiles.

Other authors have reported how they read lines of verse every morning. It is in the way that poets see the world around them—the fresh ways they can explain their human condition. Writers look to poetry to unlock their muse and free up their own expressions. They use verse as a springboard to launch some of their own original ideas. While I don’t do this often enough, I can honestly say that I like some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Admittedly, though, I struggle at times with understanding what he wrote. And reading some of his plays? My experience is that a Shakespearean play is like reading a four-hundred-page novel. With all the time spent looking at the footnotes, and pulling out dictionaries to discover the definitions behind all the uncommon words, it takes just about as long.

And then there is music. I’ve delayed this posting because I know somewhere—either in an interview or in his book, On Writing—Stephen King has said that he likes to listen to music. And though I spent a week trying to remember where I read it, I couldn’t find it. This week, then, has been like looking for that all-obscure passage in the Bible. You know it is there; you just can’t remember where. So, dear reader, you’ll have to take this at face value for what it is: my memory, as solid as melted butter at times. What is Mr. King’s taste? Heavy Metal. Somewhere, I recall him saying that he likes to listen to AC/DC, which isn’t a bad choice for someone who writes the kind of graphic fiction that he has penned.

And now we get to the whole inspiration for this posting. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Christopher Moore was asked whether his novel, Demonkeeping, was the first book he wrote, or just the first he sold (June 2007 issue). “The first I finished,” he responded.

As I look forward into 2008, this is the year that I want to write my novel. I have started at least a half-dozen works; and, like the Christopher Moore’s experience, all have petered-out within the first few chapters. My problem? That nasty, but extremely long, middle. I know where my characters start. I know where I think they will finish. It is connecting the beginning and the end that always trips me up.

Last month, while helping out with some of the household chores, I plugged in my I-Pod earphones and started listening to Pink Floyd’s classic recording (and in my humble opinion their best), Wish You Were Here. It was in the way the first track started—the soft, melodic and yet mysterious tones. Suddenly, one of my short stories came to mind. It was a piece that I had never finished, one that was another potential victim of my inability to get through the middle. But there, in the midst of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part 1),” I found my lead struggling through the desert, his body racked with pain, his mind almost gone, and his passion for revenge, not to mention his quest for redemption, unsatisfied. As I listened, I watched as events quickly played out. I knew what he was after, and I could see how he might go about resolving his issues. I guess you could say I saw the beginning, the middle, and the end. By listening to one album (yes, I am old enough that I still call them albums), my mind shifted its focus. I started out thinking I would write one man’s story, and have come to find another’s story more inspiring.

So now what do I do? Every morning, after I have forced myself out of bed—after I have opened the back door to let the dog out, and then put on a pot of coffee—I sit down, plug the earphones in, and key up Pink Floyd on the menu. I listen to the music once again to remember all the scenes that played out in my mind that first time. Then, I turn to the computer, read over the previous day’s work, and click away at my next scene. As the Doobie Brothers once put it: "Listen To The Music."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

02/06/2008

Crafting a scene has always challenged me as a writer. Just how much detail is needed to set the scene? How much do you interrupt the flow of dialogue to keep the reader grounded in the story without the whole thing coming off as a talking heads show? On the flip-side, how much is too much before you loose your reader’s attention? Even with the praise I offered regarding Flaubert’s achievement with Madame Bovary, there were times when my eyes glazed over. While I can appreciate all the work that went into setting up a scene, I personally don’t care about all the unnecessary details of who is wearing what and how a cathedral was constructed. If it moves the story forward, I have some grace; if it only draws attention to the writer, though, I can’t stand it. After all, it was Hitchcock who said that drama is “… life with all the boring parts left out.”

Part of what drives the answer for me is whether or not I become bored as a reader while reviewing my own story. Also, if I feel like there’s not enough, that the scene feels empty, then I go back and try asking more questions. What’s the character feeling? What physical reactions flow naturally from that feeling? What ambient sounds would be part of this scene that might distract the character’s focus or cause a memory flash? What about smells? In the occasions, then, when I feel I haven’t done enough, I try to go back and improve the story; however, I admit that writers are not always the best gauges of their own work--they are too close--and sometimes create more problems than they fix through their revisions.

Writing is an intellectually exhausting, and sometimes a painstaking, process that is intentional in its design--from which word is chosen down to even the placement of a punctuation mark. As they craft their stories, writers are constantly asking themselves a myriad of questions, all of which serve the story. What's the tone? Is there enough tension? Does that comma serve the flow of the sentence? In the process, though, like a self-employed salesman the writer can’t ignore the reader. A writer can't write this lofty piece if it comes off like a reading of a House Bill. It is the reader, after all, who has spent money and time, engaged in a mutual contract with the writer, to be entertained, enlightened, shocked or comforted. To lose one reader is to lose several. Readers talk.

So why am I writing today about crafting a scene? Because I’m currently struggling with one I’ve spent the last two days working over, and I am beginning to doubt what I’ve accomplished--if anything at all. So, here is an excerpt of the scene, for whatever it’s worth. To set the stage, though, let me add that this is a Western, and my lead (Arturo) has just returned home to find four horses tied to the hitching post outside. In this scene, Iverson is a man who had approached Arturo at a cantina the previous day, asking questions about another man.

Let me know what you think regarding the issue at hand. Too much? Not enough?

_____________________________________________


The man in the flat-brimmed hat, the one who called himself Iverson, sat at the kitchen table, his legs crossed and boots propped up on another chair. A bottle of mescal and a glass kept him company.

“Ah, señor, you’re finally home.” A cunning smile with straight white teeth greeted Arturo as he stepped through the door. “We have been waiting a long time for your return.”

Arturo looked around. Another man with a grizzled beard stood by the bedroom doorway, a Henry rifle cradled in the bend of his left arm. Dirt and grime painted the crow’s feet of his bloodshot eyes. A black, dusty hat sat low on his head. A solitary bandolier crossed over his chest, and a belt with two pistols--Colts by the looks of them--hung to one side on his hips.

Arturo looked the second man over and received a cold, hard stare in response. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Iverson.

“Where’s my wife?”

“We have not harmed her,” Iverson said. “Yet.”

“What do you want?”

Iverson poured some mescal into the glass. “It seems that we have had a slight misunderstanding.”

“There was no misunderstanding. You are looking for a man, and I cannot help you.”

Iverson shook his head. “Oh, but you can. You see if there is one thing I have, it is an acute sense of when I’ve been lied to. And you, señor, have not been telling me the whole truth.”

“You asked if I know where to find Ruben Leon. I do not. I haven’t seen him in years.”

“But, you know how to find him.”

Arturo narrowed his eyes. “And what makes you think that I can do that?”

A slow smile. “Because you are the notorious Isacony.” When Arturo didn’t say anything, Iverson added, “I am right about that, am I not?”

A gust of wind blew through the window as Arturo fought to suppress the amazement of a total stranger using a name he’d tried hard to bury under a mountain of time. Finally, thinking of something to say, he offered, “That is a name I do not recognize.”

Another chuckle. Then, talking over his shoulder to the man by the bedroom door, Iverson said, “Jimmy, do you believe this? The man actually stands here and claims he doesn’t know himself.”

“Isacony,” the second man repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s Comanche for Returning Wolf,” Iverson said.

“Comanche, huh?” Jimmy looked Arturo over. “So, you’re a half-breed.”

Arturo felt the burn of bitterness flash across his face, but remained silent.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

01/31/2008

As writers, we are completely aware of foreshadowing. The rule of thumb, especially in crime stories: if you put a gun on the table, be prepared to use it; and if you make more than one reference to something, you better explain its importance. I made this mistake one time in writing a short story about a young woman who returned home to visit a younger sister on her thirteenth birthday. Set in the 1800s, I introduced my character in the early morning hours before sunrise, as she rode through the valley in a horse-drawn cart, a common travel bag at her side. My error came when I mentioned the bag again, and then again, but never mentioned its contents. One of my readers was annoyed that I never revealed what she took with her. At the time, I thought it was a petty comment, given that the story was about so much more. Now, I realize that I could have saved my reader all the questions had I mentioned the bag only once and then left it alone. As a result of my inept skill, she anticipated some sort of foreshadowing, or at least some importance assigned to the bag, and then found disappointment when I didn’t produce.

The same holds true for me. While reading Madame Bovary, one scene struck me immediately. It involved a chemist, who scolded his son for the negligent oversight regarding the presence of arsenic. Once I came across that detail, I waited patiently for the poison to reappear. Thankfully, Flaubert didn’t disappoint me as the story drew closer to the end.

I must say that Madame Bovary has been one of the best, if not the best, of the Classics that I have ever read. The story, while tragic, touches on so many things that I feel are still important today. People tend to loose themselves these days in so much fantasy that they can’t see the real world in front of them. Sadly, they make unwise choices in their pursuits of Wanderlust. There are probably countless novels with the same theme, but Flaubert raised the issue beautifully with the person of Emma. Personally, I think this book should be a must-read for all young kids in their senior year of high school--or college, at the very least.

The book also reminds me of one of the Ten Commandments laid down by John Dufresne in his great book on writing, The Lie That Tells A Truth: Thou Shalt Confront The Human Condition (Commandment #9). In his novel, Flaubert confronts Emma's condition with care and precision. The reader is left with no doubt as to why she behaves so badly, why she so quickly falls into her affairs, and how she learns what everyone else should learn through her example--mainly that happiness doesn’t come with a pair of glass slippers. You can’t buy it, and you can’t find it through spending beyond your means. In tackling the issues, though, Flaubert doesn’t lay judgment down on Emma, or on her lovers; instead, he presents their cases, without any unnecessary Shakespearian justice applied against all, and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. As writers, it's not our job to hold court. It's only our job to write the story and let it go where it will (if that's what it wants).

Before I close this entry, I’ll include one more thing on the subject of foreshadowing. One week ago, I went to bed feeling fatigued with aches in my joints and lower back. I should have seen then what was coming, but I didn’t. A night’s rest brought no reprieve and Friday morning found me calling into the office sick. By Saturday, I was bedridden, and I didn’t get out of bed until Monday morning when I finally dragged myself off to the doctor’s office. As it turned out, I had a classic case of the Flu, which hit me harder than anything I have had in recent memory and left me totally incapacitated. You know you’re sick when you don’t even want to do the things that you love--like reading and writing. There was even this point where I wondered if this was how Mozart died: coughing and wheezing, moaning and groaning, all while waiting for the Angel of Death to take his hand. Strange, I know. But that’s what happened. Oh well. As they say in gay ol’ Paris: C’est la vie! I’m just glad to still be among the living.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

01/17/2008

Truthfully, it is a little unnerving to finally step out and let the world see what I really look like. Since I started blogging (even before that, actually), I've included a portrait of a brooding gorilla as my avatar, letting the picture become my surrogate personality. Doing so provided an element of security: it's not me they are rejecting, I told myself; it's the ape.

I remember the first time I purchased a Douglas Adams book: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. On the back cover (if memory serves me correctly), there was this photo of a man whose face had been melted and smeared like some freak show in a house of wax. Like his rather strange stories, the photo only deepened the sense of some mystery to the man behind the words. At the time, I thought it was rather cool. Mayber there was something of that for me, too, in using the avatar. As immature as it sounds, I liked the idea of cloaking myself in a shroud of mystery.

Sooner or later, though, most writers choose to face the public eye, open up and let the readers see the man behind the curtain. For me, that time has come. Gone is the angry gorilla; gone is the strange moniker of "Dostxbook", which I created some time back and has no real significance to anyone but me. I will continue to use it, though, for all my friends on the WD Forums.

Included with the idea of anonymity, using a psuedonym for my writing once held a pretty strong possibility. There are some, like Samuel Clemens, who keep their psuedonyms through the remainder of their writing lives. And while I currently choose to try publishing under my own name, I acknowledge there are good reasons for having a psuedonym. One reason is that some writers work in separate markets (e.g. in both romance and crime) and don't want to confuse their readership. One example is that of Nora Roberts, who is also J.D. Robb. Looking back through the publishing credits of Dean Koontz novels, I found that he wrote under several names before re-publishing all of his works under his birth name. For me, part of the reason behind using a psuedonym was to avoid any disappointment from family. What will they think when they read what I write? Over the last year, however, I think I have shucked off that shirt, and decided to write what I write best. Let my family think what they may.

So, here I am--for good or bad. And below is a picture of me at the office. This is the boring, accountant I refer to in my profile. Obviously, someone needs to powder the top of my head.

Monday, January 14, 2008

01/14/2008

Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words, felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Right now, I am sixty pages into this classic literary novel. Personally, I am not fond of Flaubert’s writing style, which, using countless words and paragraphs in the process, relies more on telling than showing during the course of the story. However, I am impressed by his achievement in setting up and dealing with a very interesting issue when it comes to love and marriage: unsatisfied expectations.

In a previous posting, I addressed the issue of motivation. In that posting, I inserted the following passage by Lois J. Peterson: “If [the character] is pursuing something as specific as a new watch, a job or a trophy, identify the bigger need it represents.”

In the case of Madame Bovary, Flaubert efficiently identifies Emma’s bigger need of romance in the excerpt above; the next chapter, which immediately follows this sentence, then explores in great detail all the reasons behind her need. Growing up, she spent some time in a convent, under the tutorship of nuns. It was during this time that Emma discovered books, where she then learned of different landscapes, animals and social classes. In her readings, she developed a Cinderella ideal regarding love and marriage, believing more in the written page than in the real events of life itself. She suffers from the same malady expressed by Neal Simon in Biloxi Blues: people tend to believe what they read. If someone went to so much trouble to write it, then it must be true. With writing, then, comes responsibility. The same can be said regarding the act of reading.

Unfortunately for Emma, Charles Bovary is on the opposite end of her ideal spectrum. In time, dissatisfaction draws her eyes to the world around her. As a result, comparison sets up court and opens an intellectual dialogue in her heart, which is evidenced by the following passage:

She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one.

While I have much more to read, I can’t help but anticipate that Emma’s unrealized expectations will motivate her future actions in the story. And while her unrealized expectations concern love and romance, as a motivator the same issue can affect people in other aspects of their lives.

During an interview, the new employee, an aging single mother of three, sees the bright and cheery side of her prospective boss. However, it only takes a few months--after the employment honeymoon is over--for her to see the evil Mr. Hyde behind the mask of the good Dr. Jekyll. Every day brings a new assault on her intelligence and her values. What once seemed like the answer to her prayers has now taken a turn for the worse, and she desperately begins looking for a way out. But it’s a new job. Looking for something else so soon will only look bad for her. As a result, she considers an opportunity to have a new boss, but keep the same job. Maybe she sabotages him by revealing that he’s having an affair with the department head of human resources, a single woman with platinum blonde hair and a cute little figure. It isn’t true, of course, but haven’t they shared one too many lunch hours together? She decides it is just plausible enough to serve her purpose. And while the HR department head will be collateral damage, she’s young and can more easily find another job.

A happy couple buy into their first house, and then the unspeakable happens. A convicted sex offender buys the house next door. This isn’t supposed to happen, is it? Whatever happened to living happily ever after? And how can they have children when a monster lives just over the fence? They can’t sell. Who wants to buy a house next to a sex offender? They can’t rent for the same reasons. But what if something were to happen--something like an auto accident? The fool does ride a motorcycle, after all. And aren’t motorcycles dangerous? Sooner or later, everyone has to lay it down. Why not make it sooner?

Setting up the unrealized expectation should be easy. Reading the local newspaper--a daily blotter of disappointment, these days--will give an author plenty of ideas. How the character responds to the unrealized expectation, how he struggles to achieve Nirvana, and at what cost, can make up the heart of a good literary story.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

01/10/2008

While reading Paranoia, an intriguing novel by Joseph Finder, I came to an alarming scene where Adam Cassidy, the protagonist, attaches a piece of hardware called a KeyGhost to the back of his supervisor’s computer in order to track her keystrokes, thus gaining access to her security codes so he could hack into her sensitive files. In the book, Adam is engaged in corporate espionage, working in one company as a spy for another company, trying to gain intelligence into a purported “skunkworks” program. However, as a reader I soon started asking the question: Is this real technology? It better be, or Joseph Finder has just lost credibility because his novel is not a futuristic tale.

Doing a quick fact-check on the internet, as well as asking questions of some techno-gurus, I found that not only is the technology very real, it is also easily obtainable. Attaching something like this to a laptop might be more noticeable, but what about a desktop where the box is located under someone's desk and the device wouldn't run as high a risk of discovery? I couldn’t help but go into the office and check my own computer. Whew! Nothing there. Not that I have anything to hide, mind you, but I want to know if someone is trying to spook on me. That way I can give them their money’s worth, give them some really juicy keystrokes.

So another question comes to mind: What are other reasons to attach such a device to someone’s computer?

For the paranoid, delusional boss, he may want to verify whether an employee is devoted to him or is involved in subversive activities. For the leader of Team A, she may want to uncover what Team B is working on so she can either present the idea first or sabotage it. For the IT department, they may be tracking keystrokes to an employee’s “chat room” discussions, building a case to discreetly dismiss the employee--no muss, no fuss. The list goes on, with as many reasons, I suppose, as the world has people.

Reading a lot has its benefits. First off, it helps to develop the mind and improve the focus--especially when you are trying to connect the dots and discover the truth before the author reveals it. Secondly, it educates the reader on what is happening out there in the world. Without reading a book like Paranoia, it might have been years before I would have known about this technology. Also, it helps to gain an understanding of people. I’m not naïve enough to say, “That doesn’t happen in the real world.” Just by the existence of a KeyGhost device, it tells me that what the author reveals in the book is a very real aspect in espionage--corporate or otherwise. Why a person would use the device, though, is worth the exploration … which leads character, which leads to a plot, which leads to a novel.

So, how many of you will be checking the back of your computer now?

Be warned: Companies don’t have to use hardware to track their employees; they can use software, too!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

01/03/2008

The master, Mr. Dobbins, had reached middle age with an unsatisfied ambition. The darling of his desires was to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

I remember a comment my pastor made while sitting in a men’s group. If he was to write a book about men, he would write about the quiet anger of frustrated hearts. At the time, I had only a small notion of what he meant; years later, I understand.

It is a fact of life that every child will encounter the same age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? There is no getting around it, as they say. While sitting in church years ago, I listened as the pastor’s wife asked a group of children about their plans. Aside from those who had no higher ambition than to be a Power Ranger, you could tell by the answers the jobs their parents held--airplane pilot, lawyer, doctor. Just this last year, my seven-year-old, looking for admiration, said that he wants to be both a nurse and a CPA. Those are noble professions, I told him, though wishing to share that accounting is not an altogether glamorous calling.

As children, we tend to want recognition, to be the hero. We want to be the Sheriff while playing Cowboys and Indians; we want to be Robin Hood; we want to be Babe Ruth, pointing to the bleachers with a determined finger. These days, I’m sure that some boys want to be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But what happens when, as poor Mr. Dobbins found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, our social class or environment pigeonholes us into something less than our goals. Not in America, you say? Not in a country where the sky is the limit and anything is possible? Au contraire, mon frère. Take a walk through the poverty stricken neighborhoods, see the generations of people who have been sucked into a vortex of malaise, where parents are so depressed that they can see nothing better for their children. Venture into the middle class, and take a look at capable men and women who, for lack of political skills, have already petered-out, passed over for the darlings who can drink beer and talk a good game. The truth is, it happens all the time.

So, the question for writers is: how does a person respond to quashed desires? Frustration and resentment are two such possibilities. A lineman at a General Motors plant may spend his day planning for ways to foul up the system--just one more way of sticking it to the man, as the commercial says. Another lonely soul may turn to violence, an act of justification and retribution. Or a bottle of whiskey may be the answer for a man who wants to feel better and seeks Jack Daniel’s version of anesthetic to numb the pain in his soul.

Whatever the reaction, the motive behind the action (as mentioned in my last post) is the target that writers need to focus upon. Understanding even the smallest detail of an “unsatisfied ambition” can make for a deeper, well-rounded character.