Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas to All...

December 23. According to my children, Christmas can’t come fast enough; however, I have mixed feelings right now. On one hand, being the Ebenezer Accountant that I am, the growing list of receipts makes me agree with my children, though for entirely different reasons. In fact it’s a time like this when I can relate to John Grisham’s character, Luther Krank (an accountant, BTW), in Skipping Christmas:

He unfolded the spreadsheet, and began pointing. “Here, my dear, is what we did last Christmas. Six thousand, one hundred dollars we spent on Christmas. Six thousand, one hundred dollars.”

“I heard you the first time.”

“And precious little to show for it. The vast majority of it down the drain. Wasted. And that, of course, does not include my time, your time, the traffic, stress, worry, bickering, ill-will, sleep loss—all the wonderful things that we pour into the holiday season.”

On the other hand, I enjoy the giving. I also love seeing a smile from my wife and hearing the giddy sound of laughter from my children. I cherish the hugs and the family time as we watch a warm Christmas movie on the television (my wife already has three lined up for this year). Those are the things make me say, "Christmas can’t get here soon enough."

For me, Christmas is not about getting gifts anymore. Growing up and the cost of being Santa to everyone, including all the charities that crawl out of the ant hill this time of year, can certainly take the joy out of that part. However, like Luther Krank finally realizes, Christmas is about so much more. It’s about being together as a family. Both sets of parents (my parents and my in-laws) live in town now, and I am thankful that we can all share the season with each other. I am thankful that we can go see A Christmas Carol with my parents. I am thankful that we’ll get to spend Christmas day with everyone. These are the memories that I want for my children—memories that will last far longer than the gifts we give this year.

For all my friends and family out there, I wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope that you have a warm celebration with loved ones. Build those memories.

On the writing:

Lost Hearts is still a work in progress—up to 77K words now. Even though the pace has slowed, I find myself still enjoying the process. I love the character discoveries along the way.

Last week, I received notice that one of my short stories “Don’t Mess With The Moon Goddess” has been accepted by Long Story Short. It is scheduled to be published in March, 2010, and it’s a reminder that some stories take a year or more before they are actually published. I’ll be sure to post a link here once it’s released.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Unusual Weather Indeed

You may be wondering why I have a shot of the Cowardly Lion on my blog. After recent events, I felt it was appropriate since the Cowardly Lion is also famous for the line: "Unusual weather we're having, isn't it?"

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday morning, the phone rang somewhere around six o'clock. Being the only one up in the house, I raced to grab it, but only found the darn thing after the third ring. It’s at a moment like this when I wish we still had the old-fashioned, wall mounted model. Sure, it had a long cord that coiled up tighter than a diamond back about to strike, but at least you knew where to find it. Such is the age we live in though.

As it turned out, the call came from the school district—a recorded message that classes were delayed two hours. The reason? Icy road conditions made for unsafe travel. However, as the day progressed, the sun broke through, the temperatures climbed, and the ice melted. But then, an afternoon shower came into the area. And if that wasn’t enough, high winds swirled up a cloud of dust throughout the South Plains as well. By the end of the day, we found the highs somewhere in the low 50s and wide range of weather to go with it.

Waking up this morning, I looked at the outside temperate gauge and…

Sixteen degrees!? Tap-tap-tap. Hello? Is this thing working? As I stepped out to crank over the truck’s engine, though, a few seconds without out a coat told me everything I needed to know.

I shared it all with my wife, who shook her head and then went around the house making sure the kids were bundled up.

Thinking back, growing up in the Great Lake area, I don’t remembered days like this. When it turned cold, it usually stayed cold. And when it warmed up, you could usually count on it staying that way too. I don’t remember occasions when it would freeze, then rain, and then sand blast your home, only to freeze again the next day. Out here in west Texas, though, during the winter season it seems to be a way of life. Hot and cold. Ice and rain. Dust clouds and blue skies. As the saying goes: You don’t like the weather? Just wait a little while.

No serious complaints though. I still love west Texas, even with its unusual weather shifts.

Here is the latest on other fronts:

My novel is still in progress, with almost 70K words and thirty chapters written. The pace of writing has slowed down some since NaNoWriMo, but I’m okay with that. Along the way, I’m also doing a little research to add more realism to my scenes.

I received a rejection on one of my short stories last week. The editors didn’t give me any feedback this time—just a note that they wouldn’t be using it, and I was free to send it back out. How nice of them to let me know I was “free to send it back out.” As if the rejection wasn’t a big clue. Anyway, following the advice of Heather Sellers, I did send it out. “If a piece is rejected ten times,” she wrote, “I consider revising.” (from Page after Page, chapter 26). Now I don’t know if I’ll let a story get rejected ten times before I consider revising it, but the principal is the same. With so many editors out there, each with their own separate taste, why should I consider revising until I’ve heard the same criticism from more than one editor? So, out my darling went, off to face another panel of editors. Fingers crossed.

I hope all is going well with you my friends. Enjoy the holidays. Enjoy your families. Take a moment to count the blessings you have.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Progress Report #2 - NaNoWriMo 2009

Well, it’s over. NaNoWriMo, that is. The novel I started at the first of the month is still a work in progress—as of today, I have written at least sixty thousand words and can see the project possibly reaching seventy thousand before I put down the final period. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things.

First, I learned to personalize what each of us has heard before. With work, family and other responsibilities, I worried that I wouldn’t keep up with the necessary pace in order to become a “winner”. However, as John Dufresne so eloquently writes it:

"The First Commandment of writing fiction is, Sit Your Ass in the Chair."

- from The Lie That Tells A Truth

Each day, my goal was to write the minimum. A couple of days I failed to meet the goal; however, most days I did. Either way, I hit the 50K mark prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday by sitting down at the computer each day. To that, I owe my gratitude and appreciation to my wife, Karen, who understood and gave me the support I needed to get the job done. I also give my thanks to WBs Greta, Jane and Michael who encouraged me along the way.

The second thing I learned is that for me preparation has been the key. While I met one author (during a NaNo Write-in) who came with only an idea, I knew from past failures I couldn’t operate that way. As I’ve already posted, I spent weeks in advance thinking about this novel before the first word was written. Everything since can be traced back to those early morning walks.

I also learned to be flexible. Along the way, I’ve discovered one character I thought would make it through to the end apparently won’t. I’ve also discovered that some characters took on a greater role within the story only when they finally had the chance to speak. Starting out, I didn’t think they would utter one word. By the end, I think the story will generally finish the same as I envisioned it; however, I know now that I, and my characters, have no guarantees. One thing is for sure though: the path taken is not the one I originally thought I would take.

On the technical side, I learned that taking notes doesn’t stop when the first word is written. Along the way, I have continued to write things down—who’s who and what was said. This saves plenty of time when seeds previously planted suddenly take root.

Finally, and only to keep this posting short, I’ve learned that writing a novel worth reading takes years. Personally I’ve spent six years just to get to this point. Reading. Studying. Writing short stories to get my feet wet. Can I say that I’ve actually written something worth reading though? Only time will tell. However, if it takes a few more years, with the completion of NaNoWriMo I now know that I am, at the very least, on the right track.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How sweet it is!

The old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words? This one is worth fifty thousand! OH YEAH!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Progress Report #1 - NaNoWriMo 2009

NaNoWriMo has begun, and I’ve got more than a little buzz going on. With so many other projects that were left in smoldering piles of trashcan waste, I worried that I might not make it when I started gearing up over a month ago. As it turned out, though, my worry hasn’t been fully realized. Gearing up for this run is exactly what I needed. While some can start with a premise, taking nothing more than a situation and churning out page after page, I found that I needed some sort of structure, even if it’s a legal pad with thoughts and quotes jotted down.

For this project, I first spent time in early morning walks, doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, taking one thought at a time. The more I thought, the more questions I asked, and the more those questions led to purchased books and preliminary research. Then, taking a cue from WB Greta Igl, I started mapping out a summary, my version taking it one chapter at a time. Thank goodness for word processors, because after mapping out one chapter I discovered that I needed two more somewhere earlier in the timeline. The summary isn’t complete yet, but I know the general direction I’m headed, and the summary will act like a guideline to keep me on the right track.

Finally, with some preparation completed—admittedly, I wish I had done more—I launched into this year’s NaNoWriMo with a better game plan. Thanks to my loving wife for being so understanding, I took a week’s worth of annual leave so that I could get jump start, turning my job day into a different kind of work day. And it has paid off. After five days now, I have already written over ten thousand words, putting one-fifth of my goal behind me.

Along the way, I have made some nice discoveries. First, I started capturing the rhythm and flow of the narrative voice. It’s similar to my short story voice, only more colorful and, at times, poetic. Also, while writing a few scenes I came to understand characters on a deeper level. One of those revelations came tonight while working on Chapter 5, which I decided to open up from the point of view of Maggie, my protagonist’s daughter. Taking a cue from Michael J. Vaughn, who posted an interesting entry to his blog, Writerville, I grabbed a dictionary and jotted down ten random words (Michael only suggests five). Looking at those words, an image crystallized, and I searched out an old Peter Gabriel song which led me to think more about Maggie. What I knew going into the novel was that she was angry. What I had previously thought about her anger, though, barely touched the real issues. Now, taking all of it together—the word game, the song, the new thoughts—my mind went back to a comment Maggie made in Chapter 2. “So, that’s what she meant,” I said; and capitalizing on that revelation, I quickly penned down the first sentence of the chapter. From there, the rest has flowed, and now I know where I need to go with this character, the relationship with her father, and the related character arcs.

So with one-fifth of my goal behind me, with the deeper revelations of character I’ve found, and with the renewed hope that I can actually do this, I am stoked. The embers are blistering hot, and I am ready to push ahead.

Stay tuned…

Thursday, October 29, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Missing"

By this time, It's already Friday somewhere in the world...

Carter looked up from his discovery, the result of a broken-down tractor and a long walk through the forest as the shortest distance between today’s work and the farm house. He glanced around, thinking: Here’s a nest full of unusual critters, but no mother or father. And they were unusual, their shape and color unlike anything he’d ever seen in National Geographic or on the PBS shows he occasionally watched.

Slowly, one of the babies lifted its head and blinked at him, so Carter kneeled down and reached out a friendly hand, saying, “Hey there, little fella.”

The young creature sniffed at first, and then it snapped, shearing off his right pinkie at the second knuckle.

A cracking twig cut off Carter’s wailings, and he whirled around to the form of a giant, lizard-like animal crouched, ready to strike, its long tongue licking at more teeth than he’d ever seen in his life.

(Image courtesy of

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story appears in the 30 Days, 30 Writes 2009 chapbook, released on October 30, 2009. The chapbook features more stories by Stephen Book, as well as stories by Jane Banning, Greta Igl and JC Towler. Please visit the 30 Days, 30 Writes blog for more details.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the Horizon

This last week has been filled with ups and downs. On the up side, 30 Days, 30 Writes is coming soon. What is 30 Days, 30 Writes? Earlier in the year, Greta Igl challenged her writing buddies to a little adventure: based upon prompts, write a six-sentence story every day for thirty days. Including Greta, four of us took up that challenge; and in the process, we accomplished some amazing stories. I eventually fleshed out one of mine into a longer piece, “Pure White”, which found its way into the Flash Fiction 40 Anthology, promoted by Editor Unleashed and published by Smashwords Press. After our adventure came to a close, Greta suggested that we compile a collection of those stories into a Chapbook. This week has brought about the finishing round of edits and formatting. Within the next couple of weeks, we should have that collection available to anyone who wants it. Stay tuned for the details.

This week also saw the completion, and first submission, of a short story, and my fingers are now crossed as I wait for a response. Another short story almost made it the gate; however, like usual I'm still tinkering with the details, trying to make sure it's just right. My friends say I'm a perfectionist, and that pretty well sizes things up. Hopefully, though, I'll have that second story ready for submission this next week. My goal is to have at least two more stories submitted prior to November, and I'm on target to get that done.

On another good note, I finished reading one of the books I purchased in preparation for NaNoWriMo: Contrabando by Don Henry Ford, Jr. As the book opens, Ford takes you on a trip to Del Rio, where he learned his first hard lesson about the drug-smuggling business. Then, he takes you further back to his childhood to reveal a grandfather who shaped his love for the land—for farming and riding horses and the rodeo. He writes about his days in college, how he met his wife, as well as his attempts to farm cotton in the Pecos Valley, which ultimately left him bankrupt. As the saying goes, desperate times can lead to desperate measures, and Ford left Texas for a while, where he ran into his first acquaintances in the drug smuggling world, thus gaining a taste for the business and the lure of easy money.

Contrabando is an autobiography, though Ford admits to receiving some help from Charles Bowden in order to piece it all together; and by the end of it, you’ll be left with the feeling that Ford was lucky enough to write it. On more than one occasion, he could have lost his life. I read the hardback version, which was published by Cincos Puntos Press. Unfortunately there were occasional incidents of editing errors—sentences that were obviously re-written and then spliced together with the original text—however, considering Ford's background, as a reader you have to accept those errors as minor and keep reading to catch the story. I don’t know that Cincos Puntos Press has the editing budget of other, larger publishing houses, but the paperback version was picked up by Harper Paperbacks, and hopefully they had a chance to correct some of the errors.

On the down side for the week, I eagerly awaited the arrival of two more books, ordered in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and both of which I need to understand certain types of characters. Each day, the mail brought disappointment as the books never arrived. But there are still two weeks before November, which gives me plenty of time to think about my plot, my protagonist, and some of the people surrounding him.

Which brings me to the NaNoWriMo project and a progress report. Over the last few weeks, I’ve done a lot of thinking and road mapping for this story. I’ve ordered books and scratched out notes, and this week I also started a summary for the novel, a way of organizing my thoughts and channeling my efforts. Finally, based on a suggestion by writing buddy Linda Wastila, I have set aside the first week of November, taking annual leave, so I will have seven full days of writing time, which will hopefully give me a good jump start on the project.

Until next time…

Friday, October 2, 2009

Using Epiphanies to Develop Characters

An epiphany is a moment when awareness or a sharp insight dawns suddenly on your protagonist as a result of events and interactions that have driven him to this moment. Epiphany is synonymous with change when it comes to character development. Very often epiphanies come with a cost—characters can be very attached to their perceptions of things and people, and it often hurts when they finally gain awareness.

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene.

Walking this last week has fed some good food to my brain. After reading the excerpt above, I remembered an answer Michael Connelly gave during his interview with The Writer.

Q. Which comes first, the character’s story or the idea for the novel?

A. That changes from book to book. With Harry Bosch, it is usually a character dimension I want to explore, and then I fit that into a cop story I’ve heard…

Jeff Ayers, “In the ‘lab’ with Michael Connelly” (from the October 2009 issue of The Writer)

As I walked, I mentally questioned how authors turn one novel into a series. How do they keep it going? What’s more, why would readers care enough to follow page after page, book after book? For an author like Janet Evanovich, the answer is easy. Struck by the outlandish character of Stephanie Plum, including the additional crazy people in her life, readers continue to turn the pages not only to watch Stephanie solve the crime, but to see how wild things will get. What trouble will she trip into this time?

Even with a character like Stephanie Plum, though, a crime series is more than just pushing your main character through the next case. It is also about exploring issues in their world, opening their eyes. It may also be an opportunity to address one or more character flaws.

Flawed (but likeable!) characters are the ones readers root for, because a character without flaws or fears is a character without conflicts.

Karen S. Wiesner, “Your Novel Blueprint” (from the February 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest)

Whether those flaws are fixed by the end of the book is not the issue. It’s all about the journey. In fact, it is more “human” to have a character try to fix their flaws, yet fail to do so. Take Robert B. Parker’s character Jesse Stone, for an example. In each book, he continues to deal with drinking too much booze and the strained relationship with his ex-wife. What keeps readers going, I think, is not just the hook of each case. It’s the pull of Stone’s flaws, and the lingering question about whether he’ll find some peace.

As the quote from Jordan Rosenfeld implies (above), this act of realizing an issue and making some decision to change, even if you fail at it, is called an epiphany. While the main plot line in any crime story will have its own epiphany—Who did it? Will he/she go to jail?—epiphanies can also be found within the subplots. Will Jesse Stone reconcile with his wife? Will Stephanie Plum finally realize how deeply she loves Joe Morelli? It is these issues that flesh out the character, enrich the total story, and keep the reader begging for more.

With these things in mind, then, I have spent a few days exploring issues for my own protagonist. The last time I posted an entry, I mentioned how I tried to see my character through those around him. Now, I’m trying to see my character through the issues inside of him because those are the intimate areas my character will have to face in the story (or another story hopefully) and by facing them come to conclusions about himself or life in general.

You might ask: Why are you doing that now? Shouldn’t the process of writing bring its own discovery? True. It can. And for some writers it does. But then there’s the answer from Michael Connelly which suggests that some stories are designed around the internal issues (i.e., character dimensions) he wants to explore. Personally, I think it’s a process of both. There are character issues a writer wants to address before the novel begins, and then there are other issues which writers discover along the way.

How about you? Do you spend time thinking about your protagonist before placing your pen to the paper? Or are you totally about a plot device, or a scenario, and letting it all come out during the process?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Morning Interludes

Letting the dog out this morning, I glanced at the back patio. The puddles on the concrete told me it wouldn’t be a good morning for walking. Suffice it to say, my dog decided it wasn’t a good morning to smell the roses either. Get out, take care of business, and Bark! Let me back in, Boss.

This morning, then, I decided to allow a quick moment for a detour. A concept, actually. It came to me while reading an interview of Michael Connelly in the October issue of The Writer.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?

A: Keep your head down and write. Write at least 15 minutes every day, because even if you only get 15 minutes, your mind has to churn the story… Write a story that you would want to read. Just you. It starts with writing for yourself.

Write every day. Nothing new there. We’ve all read, and heard, that same mantra before. But two other things struck me, the first of which was the “at least 15-minute” rule. Since I’ve been thinking hard about NaNoWriMo, I haven’t allowed my mind to drift off toward other projects. But, what if I could allow at least fifteen minutes (but not more than thirty) a day for writing something? What stories, or possible stories, could I come up with?

The second thing was to write a story that I would want to read. All too often, I’ve fallen into a trap of trying to write for others. Will this hook a reader? Will a reader believe this? Whether it’s a glitch in the logic, or some deep psychological issue for which I need counseling, I don’t know. Either way, it was refreshing to see another writer’s advice to simply write something I would want to read. Does this hook me? Do I believe this? Would I buy this if I happened to pick it up and read only a couple of pages?

So, today I made a cup of coffee and took a little time for a concept that I have called Morning Interludes. I have even started a file on my hard drive. They’re not much. They may not even be complete stories, yet. But at least the juices are flowing and I’m accomplishing some form of writing every day.

What follows next is today’s Morning Interlude, inspired by a photo I found in the same issue of The Writer. You’ll notice that it’s nothing more than a potential hook. But it’s not much, you might say. In fifteen minutes, is that all I could write? I know. It could use more descriptions—sounds, smells, touch. It could also use more exposition, like why this character decided to kayak in the mornings. However, with the extra hour I took to write and format this post, I didn't have time to write as much as I wanted. Plus, I am sorry to report that some of the sentences I wrote wandered too far from the main story and ventured into dangerous territory, i.e. a dark area of something I wouldn’t want to read. For their transgressions, those sentences paid a dear price. They were quickly bagged and tagged. I have a DELETE key, and I know how to use it. I am a merciless killer of words. Mwahahaha...

“Death Along The Niagra”

Finding the occasional dead fish, belly up, while kayaking was normal. In fact, it was expected. But nothing prepared Brooke for this.

She stopped paddling and coasted down the Niagra. Considering the thunderstorms that rolled through Tonawanda last night, the water was especially calm this morning, which allowed her eyes more time to wander instead of watching the cuts and pulls of the current against the hull of her craft. As such, it was easy to spot the kayaks, and not fish, floating belly up along the river's edge. And yes it was kayaks. Two of them, to be exact. One had been fully capsized while the other lulled on its side.

Brooke dipped the right tip of her paddle into the water, turned toward the shore, and pulled up.

This time, it was the floating hair, and not the kayaks, near the riverbank that caught her attention. Long and blonde. And the hair was still attached to its owner.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Take A Walk With Me

“An important way you keep your protagonist from wandering aimlessly about your narrative is to give him an intention in every scene—a job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene.”

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene

Character is key. How many times have you read or heard that? As I start to think about the prospect of NaNoWriMo, and the potential of writing a novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of Character, and how Jordan’s commentary reaches to the heart of an issue. To put my own spin on Jordan’s advice, to keep your scene from falling flat, you need to focus on the five W’s of writing: Who? What? Where? When? And especially, Why?

“The intention doesn’t come from nowhere—it stems directly from the significant situation of your plot and from your protagonist’s personal history.”

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene

This morning, I started my day around a quarter to five this morning. It’s not hard to do when a five-year-old climbs into bed with you and your spouse and then starts wiggling around. I'm not complaining, though. I needed to wake up eventually. Why not do it earlier, right?

After letting the dog out and starting a pot of coffee, I slipped into a sweat suit, tied on a pair of sneakers (some old-fashioned words should never die), and then stepped out through the garage. Like other writers, I have decided to give “walking” a try. So with nothing in the sky but the crickets and the constellation of Orion to keep me company, I set out with only one goal in mind: to listen to my characters.

On a note pad, I’ve already jotted down some notes about plot devices and potential conflicts—the “significant situation” as Jordan describes it—so now I need to work on my characters. Who are they? What do they want? How will they get it, whatever “it” may be? With one foot in front of the other, the cool air brushing against my face, it has been my hope that I might find the answers to these questions as I trek the morning route. I shouldn’t really call it a route, though. I’ve only been doing this for two days now, and both times I walked a different way.

Here’s what I’ve discovered. A funny thing happens while you’re walking along with an open mind. I could actually hear the characters talking. While I had some names, I didn’t have them all. Now I have a new name to add to my cast of characters. And here’s something else. While I didn’t know at first exactly why one of them was angry, I now have a page of explanatory notes, including snippets of the conversations I heard. I’m starting to know more about my MC. Where he came from. How he came to live where he now lives.

After two days of walking, I have gained a greater understanding of my characters and the story. There are more connections to discover—obviously there will be if I want to have three-dimensional characters and a believable plot—but I now feel more confident that I can actually plug the colored wires into the right slots. I’m learning the personal histories, which will lead to motivations, which will lead to additional intentions for each scene.

Of course, it doesn’t have to happen exactly this way. You can do it during the afternoon or the evening. It can happen while you’re driving your car or riding the transit. For all I know, you can even listen to your characters while sitting out on the back porch, coffee cup in hand, listening to the birds chirping merrily as the sun sneaks over the horizon. However, you do it though, there is one constant. You must have an open mind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NaNoWriMo... Can I do it?

Almost a month ago now, a friend asked me if I was going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. My response:

"Honestly, I don't know. Every time I think about NaNoWriMo, I always ask the same question: Where in my day will I find the time? In order for me to do it, something will have to give."

My writing comes in spurts. There are times when the heart races and the muse flows like a raging river. Then there are days when I have to touch a finger to the neck to see it’s time to offer up a eulogy and throw on the dirt. There are moments when the stories (usually micro fiction) are ready after only a day. As the saying goes, those are few and far between. Mostly, my stories are like children. They take months building muscles in order to stand on their own.

Suffice it to say, the thought of committing to an average of fifty thousand words in thirty days (or an average of 1,666.7 words, which equals approximately 6-1/2 pages per day) not only scares me, it freaks me out—especially when I consider that I have a job to do, a family to spend time with, household chores to maintain, as well as other obligations that take up more time in my week. Not only that, but whoever put this whole NaNoWriMo thing together could have picked a better month. Hello? Did someone forget that minor holiday called Thanksgiving? If you carve out a couple more days from the program, then the Per Diem quota increases. For an accountant like me, that's not hard to figure.

Again: In order for me to do this, something else will have to give.

But what if I make the sacrifice and pour on the water and the fire never comes? The way the muse has treated me lately—like I were some third-rate lover, who’s only value is to pacify the lonely hours during the week when all the other lovers can’t be reached—I worry that I’ll get a week into this, and then realize I have been abandoned with nothing else to guide me. No divining rod telling me where to dig. No compass pointing me in the right direction. Nothing. Zip. Nada.

So, for me it’s more than just a sacrifice during NaNoWriMo. It’s also a current sacrifice. I have to spend time now, thinking and planning and making notes. I can't leave it to fate, waking up each morning during November, trusting that I'll sit at the computer and the words will magically flow. That means there is less time right now for reading. It's also time to fold up my short-story polishing rag and tuck it away in drawer somewhere. It means going to bed earlier and waking up when the stars are still shining bright in the sky. And on and on…


The only reason I’m still considering NaNoWriMo is that I’m tired of feeling like the black-sheep, drop-out kid whose only accomplishment in life amounts to asking: “Paper or plastic?” Over the last couple of years, I have made a few attempts at a novel, only to see them flop in the dirt like a dying fish. And that makes me angry. I should be able to finish a novel. I have to finish a novel. There has to be more.

Will I be able to write the novel in thirty days? That is a big question, for which I don’t yet have an answer. I know I want to. I know I’m starting to make the sacrifices right now in order to see if I can. Only time, planning, and effort will determine the outcome. If I don't, or if for time and family I can't, at least I’ll have a nice framework to build my novel upon. That may be just a consolation prize, but it will certainly be more than the unfulfilled dream I currently hold in my hand.

Friday, September 11, 2009

#FridayFlash - "The Only Thing Left"

Lola said, “Where do you think you’ll go?” Her tone actually sounded irritated.

She sat at the kitchen table and blew into a cup of coffee, apparently waiting for his response. As if she deserved one. Looking at her—the familiar pink bathrobe hanging open to showcase the curve of her breasts and a pair of frayed panties—Clint finally understood why some men could walk away. Like the love for the desert or the mountains or the woods, it wasn't just the view that anchored them down.

“Where I go doesn’t concern you,” he said.

She took a sip of the coffee and then laid the cup down. “Fine then. Be that way.” She pulled the robe together. “But let me tell you something. This isn’t all my fault. I mean, after twenty years of working at the same place, what’ve you got to show for it? A dumpy truck and a house that’s in total disrepair. We can’t even afford to buy some nice things once in a while.”

Shaking her head, Lola continued. “Maybe one of these days, you’ll take a look in a mirror somewhere, see the ratty jeans and oil-stained shirt, and finally understand where I’m coming from. You’ve got nothing, Clint. No passion. No pride.”

He reached for the door, thinking: Blame sure gets spread pretty thin around here. Even last night, his old friend Ricky couldn’t man up. It must have been one too many beers, he said. That and the slow music on the stereo. He was sorry, though. Friends shouldn’t do that to one another. Clint agreed, and then ended their friendship with one fist to the face and another to the gut.

As he opened the door, he turned to looked Lola straight in the eyes.

“You’re wrong about that,” he said. Seeing the contempt on her face, he wondered how in God’s name he could have forgiven her before. Not just once, but twice. “The only thing I’ve got left, it seems, is my pride.”

Friday, September 4, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Out of the Closet"

She didn’t even walk the same way.

Lane watched his wife cross the living room floor. Over the last week, her natural walk had changed. Not that it had to be über cute. God knows how much he hated the Legally Blonde look, all uptight and ditsy at the same time. Those kind of women deserved to be laughed at. Margie’s walk wasn’t masculine, either. Like the strut of a woman who had spent half of her life in the saddle. No, it was different from anything he’d seen out of her before. Feral. More feline, maybe? Like the way a hidden tiger crawls through tall grass, its sinewy legs constantly flexed and tense, ready to strike. Then again… maybe it wasn’t like a cat at all.

Lane shook away the thought as Margie dropped her keys, her purse, on the bar. She snatched up a rock glass and grabbed a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. She then poured at least two fingers of the Scotch, gulped it down like it was only water, and proceeded to fill the glass again.

“My God!” The sound of his voice startled him. Until he heard the words, he believed he had only thought them, for that had been the way of things lately—her changing, him remaining quiet about it. Well, not totally. He told his counselor, but even that had turned out to be like pissing into the wind. When Lane mentioned what she did, the counselor looked at him for a moment and then smiled as he scribbled more notes on a pad.

“Ah, a metaphor,” the counselor said. “That’s good. You’ve found a creative way to express your anger.”

Lane remembered how shocked he had been. “What do you mean, doc? I’m telling you the honest-to-God truth.”

The counselor shook his head. “Mr. Monroe, you don’t expect me to believe that story, do you? Did you actually witness it?”

The sad truth was he hadn’t. But he remembered the sound, like the crunching of a wafer, and the sickening image on Margie’s face afterwards. It was the look of pleasure. And joy.

The second glass of Scotch went as quickly as the first. Margie slapped the glass on the bar with a heavy thunk! and then wiped her mouth with the back of a hand. Lane narrowed his eyes. She never drank like that before, either.

He swallowed hard and touched the rolled-up bundle next to his leg. It was time to finally say something. Quit acting like a frightened mouse, for God’s sake.

He took a breath. He said, “Y-y-you might want to go easy on that s-s-stuff,” and then quickly regretted how weak it sounded.

Margie walked over and slumped into the couch across from him. “What? Are you my mother now?”

Lane shifted in the chair. He felt the rag and its contents against the side of his leg. He wondered how he would get around to it. Say, honey, I was cleaning the closet, and you’ll never guess what I found.

That wasn’t right. It was too… playful. She’d see right through it. Her eyes would narrow. Her mouth would form that same thin line he’d seen every time he tried to talk with her. No, he needed to show her some attitude. Otherwise, she’d pounce on him. What business do you have looking through my stuff?

He told himself to be strong. Just come out and—

“So…” Margie picked a fluff of lint from her skirt and flicked it away. “How was your meeting?”

He blinked. “What?”

“The meeting with your counselor today.” When he didn’t say anything, Margie craned her head to the side and looked down. “And when are you going to tell me what you found in the closet?”

Lane couldn’t breathe. He’d never mentioned the counselor. In the last few months, outside of a watch she’d given him as a birthday present, Margie acted as if she didn’t care whether he lived or died, so he didn’t see the point in bringing it up. At today’s meeting, the counselor suggested that Margie might be frustrated. Had he shown her any love? When was the last time he actually did something to please her without wanting something else in return? Maybe if he took the first step, she would reciprocate. Acting upon that advice, Lane decided to clean the house. It wasn’t a hard choice. After all, Margie constantly complained about how messy he was. If she’d wanted to marry a slob, she would have walked the aisle with a pig.

He found it when he started in on the closet. Pulled out her shoes to sort them by style and there it was—a hand-held device, almost like a radio, only this had a two darkened screens and buttons with characters he’d never seen before. The plan was to confront her, only it appeared she already knew. About the counselor. The closet. And the device.

He narrowed his eyes. But how?

As if she could read his thoughts, she said, “I have eyes and ears everywhere.” She croaked out a few unintelligible sounds. Two squares illuminated through the cloth as the device buzzed and whirred. Around the room, power buttons that once showed green now burned an angry red—the television, the video player, the computer. Looking down, he noticed the dial on his watch had turned the same color.

When he looked up, Lane almost wet his pants. Her eyes glowed yellow. Spikes punched through the flesh along her jaw. And in that moment, it all made sense. Her cold attitude. The way she walked. The cockroach that was there, and then it wasn’t. This was not the woman he’d married.

“W-w-where’s my wife?”

Slick limbs, three on each side, like the legs of a Black Widow, shot out of her body. They pierced Lane’s arms, his chest, and lifted him up. His feet hung in the air like lifeless fish.

The creature’s mouth curved into a crescent moon of razor-sharp teeth. “Let me show you.”

By my count, I went slightly over the 1K limit this time (about 1,010). I hope the short piece last week will compensate for the long one today. This one came from a prompt out of
The Writer's Book of Matches: "While his wife is away at a company function, a man decides to suprise her by cleaning the house. In the process, he finds a passport hidden in the closet. The face on it is hers. The name is not." Clearly, I didn't follow everything from the prompt. However, as Cap'n Barbosa might say: "They're more like guidelines." ;)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Gone"

At first Brandon thought it was a joke. He opened the box of cereal expecting to find another typical gag, like the slimy crawler you could fling on the wall and watch it flip-flop all the way down. Or maybe the miniature comic book with the same pictures of the red-headed kid getting sand kicked in his face. Today was different. The scrap of paper identified it as a Magic Transporter Ring. The instructions read: “Just point it at an object and think Gone.”

He slid it on and made a fist, thinking he was sure glad his sister Danielle wasn’t around to see this. First, she would howl. Then she would tell her friends, and it would be all over the school.

What happened next, though, left Brandon holding his breath. He saw a flash of light, followed by a loud, sucking Schoop!

Brandon didn’t know where he sent Mr. Tibbs, the family mutt, and come to think about it he didn’t care. As long as that stupid dog was gone, never again to hike its leg on the corner of his bed, well that would be all right. In fact it would be down-right coolio. Of course, he needed to think up a good explanation to give his mother.

Just as he working out a story, Danielle came into the kitchen. She crossed her arms and gave him the familiar pissed-at-you scowl.

“I’ve had it with you always taking a whiz with the toilet seat down,” she yelled. “How would you like it if you had to sit on that stuff? As soon as I find mom I’m going to tell her ev—”


This one is a little different from my usual stuff. I hope you like it, though.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Saying So Long to the Summer of 2009

I know. Looking at the calendar, the "Summer" season doesn't technically end for another month. However, next week my kiddos start school, and that basically spells an end to my summer break. I call it my summer break because during these months I enjoy climbing out of bed and driving into the office to snatch some time alone to read and write. In a few more days, however, all of that will change, and I'll have to reset my schedule to writing in the evenings once the children are put in bed.

Looking back over my postings this summer, I recall that I mentioned my short reading list. Today, I turned the last page to Stephen King's The Stand, which I estimated would take me the summer to finish. Replacing the dust cover (which I usually remove while reading so it doesn't get torn) the completed book is just another event signifying an end to my summer.

Oh well, that's that. For me, it has been a good summer. I have completed a momentous novel. I have written several short stories. A few have been posted here; others have been submitted. I took a week in the mountains. And I have enjoyed it all. How about you?

Regarding The Stand, while the long stretch in Book II (the novel is divided into three books) held moments of mental fatigue, Book III made the journey worth it. In all of Stephen King's novels, I believe this one to be the most thoughtful about humanity, religion, love and self-sacrifice. There was a poignant moment where I actually felt sadness welling up inside of me. If you don't want to read the uncut version, which clocks in at 1,153 pages, then at least find the originally published version and give it a go. I believe you will find the completed package well worth your time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rest and Relaxation

Today’s posting is long overdue. With a week of vacation in the mountains of Colorado, and no secure internet connection, the only accomplishments lately were a few story revisions to a Chapbook, which will be co-authored by writing buddies Greta Igl, John Towler and Jane Banning. The Chapbook is a result of a friendly challenge (“MySixWriMo”) to write six-sentence stories based from daily writing prompts. It was a fun experiment that produced some nice results. From one of those prompts, I wrote a small piece entitled “White”, which I later expanded into the flash fiction story “Pure White” for the Flash 40 Competition. Once the Chapbook is finished and available, I’ll be sure to post an update; so, stay tuned.

But I digress.

The vacation was wonderful. No alarm clock. No television. No preset agendas. The family had fun being… well, a family. The vistas were incredible. The nights were chilly. A week away from everything can bring peace to all the right places—mind, body and soul. On many mornings, I didn’t climb out of bed until my co-workers back home had already been in the office for at least an hour. Then, it was time to fill the camper with the fresh aromas of coffee, bacon and eggs. Or sausage gravy and biscuits. Or breakfast burritos.

I usually find shopping a chore. Hitting the stores this time, though, didn’t bother me. Here’s a note to all my writing friends out there: you can find some great deals on books while shopping antique stores. Last week, I picked up Burnt Sienna by David Morrell. I also found an autograph copy of Michael McGarrity’s The Judas Judge in almost-new condition for only eight dollars. And the autograph wasn’t one of those printed in publication autographs, either; it was signed with a fine-point pen, and the impression can be seen on the next page. I quickly paid the money and left the store.

As always, the trip wasn’t a total escape from the writing mind. While playing a game of “Stick ‘em up” with my daughter, my mind snapped into gear and the beginnings of a story started to play out. While taking photos of Pagosa Springs, I couldn’t help but take some shots with more stories rising out of the viewfinder. After a day of soaking at the Springs Hotel, I also found a gem of a story in a conversation. It seems that, while it can take the budding writer away from home and city and the office, a vacation can never take you away from prospecting for a new story.

On a final note, if you ever go to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, here are a few places to visit:

  • The Springs Resort Hotel offers several hot water pools, each with their own temperature, starting around 91° and climbing from there. The hottest I could stand was the “Columbine” pool, which maintained its water around 109°. The “Lobster Pot” held water that ranged around 113°. Unthinkable!

  • The Boss Hogg Restaurant. If you go, their Prime Rib is good, and their au jus is incredibly delicious.

  • For the ladies: take time to have lunch at Victoria’s Parlor, a little luncheon place with umbrella tables out on the front lawn.

  • Take the drive over to Durango, and then on up to Silverton. The vistas are awesome. Here are just a few photos:

Until next time…

Friday, July 31, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Till Death Do Us Part"

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Amy thought about her honeymoon, the dreams spoke of quiet evenings by a fire, a bottle of wine, maybe a little Celine on the stereo. A bowl filled with grapes and strawberries and kiwi slices sat on the coffee table. Flames danced on candle tips. Curtains swelled with the salty sea air as an evening breeze rolled off the ocean. Never did she envision sitting on the couch with her new husband, the two of them staring at the black, menacing eye of a gun.

Across the room, sitting on the edge of a chaise longue, the gunman tilted his head to the side. His eyes were slits, his mouth a hard line. Through the open window, Amy heard the gentle hush of waves breaking across the beach.

“Imagine my surprise,” the man finally said, “when I heard that Stuart McClain went off the wire. No warning, no explanation, and certainly no authorization. And now the company he once swore allegiance to wants the situation resolved. Or neutralized.”

Amy looked at her husband. “Stu?”

Stuart said nothing. Instead, he raised a finger, a sign that she needed to be quiet. His brown eyes stared ahead, his brow pinched.

The hard lines across Stuart’s forehead surprised Amy. Until now, she’d never seen him so… angry. When they first met, his eyes had swept her away—so gentle, so full of compassion. They spent the evening talking, and in the morning he gazed at her with amazement. She asked why he was looking at her that way, and he smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve met anyone that I could honestly trust.”

Four months after that night, he proposed.

The gunman looked toward Amy and then back to Stuart. His lips curled into a half-smile. “She doesn’t know.” After a moment, he added, “Man, when you decide to check out, you really check out. Leave it all behind, act as if none of it ever happened, was that the plan? If so, I have to say how disappointed I am. Nobody leaves the reservation on their own free will. You know that.”

Stuart said, “How’d you find me?”

The man scoffed. “You’re joking, right?”

Stuart grabbed Amy’s hand. She felt a light squeeze.

“She doesn’t have to see this,” Stuart said. “We can leave her out it.”

The man shook his head. “You should have thought about that.” His eyebrows lifted. “Before.”

Stuart took a long breath, and Amy stared at him, confused. Her heart raced, her mind grasping at what she was hearing. Who was this man? Even more, why was Stuart now talking to this man like they knew each other from some other life? In the almost nine months that they’d been together, Stuart never mentioned nor met with anyone like this. Definitely no one carrying a gun with a fat cylinder attached its barrel. And what of the other things, the stuff about the company and how nobody leaves the reservation? Those words hung in the air like some Germanic language, hard and incomprehensible.

Stuart leaned back against the sofa. His arm reached behind Amy. “I don’t see why we can’t strike some—”

The stranger’s gun coughed. Stuart’s body jumped. He leaned into Amy. Those brown eyes now registered pain. And fear. He pulled away, his arm coming up. The man’s gun coughed again and Stuart’s body jerked a second time. Warm blood splattered Amy’s arm. Behind her, something scraped the wall. It thunked against the floor. Stuart’s mouth opened to say something. Nothing came out.

Amy reached for his face. The words choked out of her. “Stu? Stu, baby, stay with me. Stu?” His eyes fluttered and then closed. His body collapsed against hers. “Oh God, no…”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she turned to face the gunman.

“He must have loved you.” The man shook his head, eyes cast down. “What a shame.”

After a moment, he glanced up and shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I do feel for you.” He turned the gun toward her. “Some marriages just aren’t meant to last.”

Today's story was the result of a prompt in The Writer's Book of Matches: "A woman on her honeymoon is shocked to hear a secret from her husband's past."

Friday, July 24, 2009

It Can Feel Lonely At Times

I watched an episode of the Glenn Beck show this last week. On this particular day, Beck interviewed author Daniel Silva. Professionally dressed, with well-groomed hair and a clean face, Silva looked like a one of those quiet neighbors from next door. And yet, he writes suspense stories that involve violence. “Where does this come from?” Beck asked him. Silva’s response: Writers have vivid imaginations (paraphrase).

Thinking about that exchange, and Glenn Beck’s reaction to Silva, I couldn’t help but remember a quote from Ed McBain regarding one of his short stories:

Although [“Chalk”] was finally published in 1953 (under the title “I Killed Jeannie,” can you believe it!), I wrote this story in 1945, aboard a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When it circulated among my shipmates, it caused no small degree of apprehension.

- From the collection of short stories, Learning to Kill (2006)

Reading McBain’s comments, it’s clear (at least to me) that his shipmates wondered about him, if only just a little. It’s also clear that the reaction he received stuck with him for over sixty years.

It’s interesting how writers can impact their readers, isn’t it? I can’t pass by a large gas tank along the freeway without thinking of the Trashcan Man in Stephen King’s The Stand. When I hear the ticking of my dog’s toenails on our kitchen floor, I often remember the evil creature in Dean Koontz’s Watchers. Likewise, in my recent stories I have tried to grab just one image that I hope will stick with my readers forever. When they see a can of paint, or watch a Glidden commercial on TV, I want them to remember what they read about in “Pure White”. When they look at a newspaper and see photos of people randomly captured off the street, I want my readers to remember the psycho they read about in "Picture Perfect". The first of my own examples shouldn’t create any consternation. Grief can be expressed in many ways. The second example, however, might raise more than just an eyebrow.

There are times when a story comes together and a villain so cold and unpredictable pours out of me, like it did in “Picture Perfect,” that it literally scares me. Afterwards—often after it’s been released for everyone to see—I start to wonder: Will people look at me differently because of this? If they see me in public, will they grab their children and pass by on the other side of the street?

Writing is a lonely place at times. Loosing friends because I’ve revealed the darker side of my imaginative mind is something altogether different. Truth be told, there are some stories that I’ve never penned just because of that reason alone. Thankfully, nobody’s closed me off yet.

How about you? Do you worry about stuff like this? Does it matter what your spouse thinks of your writing? Your parents? If you have one, your priest?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It Happens Along The Way...

I'm trying to be respectful. There are times when I read published authors and ask: How did he/she get away with that? Yet, they have published novels, and I do not. So, tread lightly, I say to that hyper-critical reader within me.

Here's a case in point: Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading The Stand by Stephen King. Right from the jump, I noticed something peculiar.

“Why are you shouting?” she asked softly.

“Because you seem determined to aggravate me as much as you can,” Jess said hotly.

“I guess not,” he said gloomily…

“You don’t love me,” he said sulkily

“Accepted,” she said colorlessly.

As I read those lines, I couldn't help but remember King’s fist-pounding statement found in his book On Writing:

I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. – From the “Toolbox” section, Chapter 3

The dialogue attribution examples above all happened within two pages. What is more, they are not isolated events. I am now four hundred pages into this book, and I have discovered that King didn’t wake up that morning with a bad headache or a touch of the flu. (Pun intended) His use of adverbs in dialogue attribution has been a reoccurring issue throughout the book so far. As a writer, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if these two pages were submitted to a writing forum today, and if his name were not Stephen King. My guess is that today’s forumites would crucify it and then build a fire around it, send it up to the writing gods in a swirling cloud of ashes.

To be fair to Stephen King, I will include the following passage from On Writing:

Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense, but I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. (I have never fallen so low as “he grated” or “Bill jerked out,” though.) When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.

At least he was honest about the past. Thinking back to recent readings of Lisey’s Story and The Dark Half (my favorite Stephen King book), I don’t remember him using adverbs in dialogue attribution. If he did, they weren’t to the degree I have seen in The Stand. And as far as not trusting the reader, I personally think the second example above didn't need the adverb when you consider that the two characters were involved in a spat. Furthermore, in the example I gave two postings ago (click here), it was clear that Frannie's words "I'm pregnant" were straightforward. Adding the dialogue attribution of "she said simply" was unnecessary, in my opinion.

The only way I can personally reconcile King’s two positions, then, is this: evolution. Good writers are constantly adapting. Early on, they moved about in their single-celled existence, penning such earth-shattering prose like: “I lov Moma.” And while that was an instant classic with at least one member of the family, the young writer was not satisfied with success. In truth, he never is. He moves on. He grows up. Each day, the world takes on new meaning, and slowly this child—now a man—builds his writing career brick-by-painstaking-brick like it were a house for the world to gaze upon with wonder. Only this is a house that will never be finished. The old door, once contemplated with a sense of warmth and admiration, now shows cracks. The paint is chipped. And where the sparkling brass knocker once hung, a dark shadow stains the wood like liver spots on an old man’s skin. The writer frowns. What did he ever see in that withered slab anyway? The moment passes, and then a new door swings on the hinges.

The Stand was published back in 1978, On Writing in 2000—a difference of twenty-two years. In that time, I believe King looked at the old door, grimaced, and then replaced it with something better.

So, what can we learn? The first is that we should avoid adverbs.

But it’s not enough to simply say don’t, is it? If I tell my son not to stick his hand in a bucket of fluid, he’s apt to do it—just because. However, if I tell my son that he'll be plunging his hand into a bucket of acid, which will burn his fingers off, he’ll look down, wiggle his fingers, and then quickly hide both hands behind her back.

So, why shouldn’t we use adverbs? Here is what two writers have to say:

Adverbs tempt the reader to think more about the way something is said than about what is actually said. – Tom Chiarella, Writing Dialogue

If you have to tell us how the words were spoken, then you haven’t done your job with the words. – John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells A Truth

The moment I read Dufresne’s words, they stuck. Even today, when I am writing dialogue, I ask the same questions: Can the reader see how the words are spoken by the words I have selected? Have I done my job as a writer? They are questions that plague me… in a good way.

The second thing we can learn is to review our work, even published work, with a critical eye. I recently went back to the published version of "The Hit." Now that a few months have passed, I can look at it and say: How did I ever get away with that? As writers, we need to constantly grow. Look at the old door, see if it needs to be replaced. Maybe it's time to repaint the soffits. Whatever the case may be, we should never be satisfied with success.

Finally, in response to King’s last sentence above, my advice is to stare fear in the face. And then kick it in the groin. If we’re afraid the readers won’t understand, then we should find other ways to write what we mean. And once we’ve found that better door, it’s time to pull the hands away and let it stand on its own. The world will only look upon our constructed house with awe and wonder when we, as writers, have done our jobs.

Friday, July 17, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Picture Perfect"

Trevor jacked the camera’s USB cable into his office computer. Two fingers did a light tap dance on the mouse while he waited. Man, he loved this new job. It was better than pizza deliveries, far better than door-to-door sales, trying to convince every Dick and Jane about the benefits of water purification. And, thank God, the new job wasn’t anything close to herding cattle for his father. Thinking about the farm, how the old man used to whip him like a beaten down mule, a burning wave of resentment flowed through Trevor’s face, his neck.

A window popped up on the monitor. Trevor clicked to view all the files.

To be honest, though, working on the farm had its moments. Like the time he got Cindy Louder to take a walk with him out to the barn. Let’s take a ride on the tractor, he said. Cindy gave him a dubious look, told him to jerk off. Other girls might fall for that one. She wouldn’t. He smiled, put on his best aw-shucks tone, and said that wasn’t his intent. His father had purchased a brand new combine, equipped with satellite navigation and a ton of other cool things. He thought she might like to see it. She looked at her watch and said fine, but only for a few minutes. They were in the barn a little longer than that.

Trevor frowned as the first image popped up on the monitor. A middle-aged woman, wearing a peach halter top with a spaghetti strap around her neck—a perfect little get-up to show off her tanning salon skin. Streaks of blond ran through darker brown hair, all of it pulled back and pinned up with a butterfly clip. He had liked how she looked in the camera’s viewfinder, eyes dark and defiant looking off somewhere, a smile like he’d never seen before. He took the shot.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She realized he was talking to her, and the perfect smile disappeared. “Piss off, okay? I’m with someone else.”

As if on cue, a man carrying two beers walked over and sat down.

Trevor pasted on a smile, pointed at the camera. “I just wanted it for the paper.”

She shook her head. “No name and no photo.”

He nodded, said that’s cool, and moved on.

The job was simple: drive to a social event like a concert in the park, snap off fifty or sixty shots, and then on to another gig. Clicking for the next file, Trevor remembered his job interview. The Human Resources Director, a heavy woman in her early forties with a glaze of perspiration around her neck, glanced at his application and then looked across the desk. Could he handle a camera? He smiled, told he had worked as part of the yearbook committee back in his high school days. He even produced a yearbook. “You see this one? Well, I took that shot while standing up on a ladder. Trying to get the bird’s eye on the players huddled up with the coach, you know? I almost fell off the ladder. Man, wouldn’t that have been embarrassing? Oh, and look at this one. Prom night. I caught this girl exiting the men’s locker room. You see, nobody was supposed to be back there, but then here came Charlie Guy and… Well, that’s another story for another time maybe.”

None of it was true, but that didn’t matter. Right from the jump, he could tell the Director was an idiot. Dumber than a box of rocks trying to float across the pond, his daddy would have said; but then, the old man didn’t burn the brightest flame either. He only knew how to cuss you out when he got mad. And to hit.

The next picture appeared on the monitor. Another cute girl, this one in a yellow and orange summer dress.

“You mind if I take your photo?” He held up his journalism card. “It’s for the paper. The You’ve Been Spotted section.”

She smiled. “You bet.”

He clicked off the shot.

“Thanks.” He jerked a thumb toward little Miss Piss-Off. “The last one wasn’t as nice about it.”

She looked over his shoulder. “You mean Beth?”

That got his attention. “You know her?”

“Sure. Beth Pritchard. Don’t let it get to you. She treats everyone that way.”

Trevor minimized the window and clicked on his internet browser. She may treat everyone that way, he thought, but it doesn’t mean she gets by with it. He had already taken too much from the old man. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance he would take it off some broad with a fake tan and made-up hair. After a quick search, he had the woman’s address and phone number; he even found her MySpace page. He grabbed a small notebook from his pocket and wrote down the information. It wouldn’t be tonight, probably not even in the next month, but soon enough he’d get back to her.

A warm smile spread through his lips as Trevor thought about what he would do to Beth Pritchard. The possibilities rolled around in his mind and turned him on. After a while, the feeling grew so strong that it would not go unsatisfied—not tonight anyway. He flipped back through the notebook and found the name of Shyree Johnson, a pretty little thing who gave him a big attitude one day while trying to sell her a water filter. Like Cindy Louder, whom the world never saw again after that night in the barn, he’d give Miss Cop-A-Tude the ride of her life.

Trevor wondered briefly what he would do once the camera job ran its course. And it would. They always did. He put the notebook away. Maybe he’d take up a job at the library.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Say What?

This last week, I submitted a piece of flash fiction to the Reading Writers' Dynamic Dialogue Contest. The challenge was to write a complete story, using only dialogue. Taglines were not allowed. Since I’m the type of writer who uses a ton of back story in order to provide the reader with subtext, whether through flashbacks or simple narrative, the contest posed an interesting question: How do you accomplish giving the back story without it sounding like a dialogue information dump. And then there was the issue of writing action without using narrative or action tags? Suffice it to say, trying to accomplish the same tasks while using only dialogue presented a unique challenge.

One of the reasons why I like to read Stephen King while crafting a story is because I find in his writing the inspiration to stretch my own. Reading The Stand has been no exception. Let me give you a small excerpt. Here’s the set-up. Frannie Goldsmith finds out she’s “preggers” and makes the decision to have the baby and dump the boyfriend. Later, she’s standing before her father, choosing to tell him first.

She looked at him dumbly for a moment, not sure how she should proceed. She had come out here to tell him, and now she wasn’t sure if she could. The silence hung between them, growing larger, and at last it was a gulf she couldn’t stand. She jumped.

“I’m pregnant,” she said simply.

He stopped filling his pipe and just looked at her. “Pregnant,” he said, as if he had never heard the word before. Then he said: “Oh, Frannie… is it a joke? Or a game?”

Putting the glaring adverb aside for the moment (until my next posting), I want to focus on King’s use of the ellipsis. So, how do you create action without using narrative or action tags? Throw in a pause and let the readers piece it together. Maybe it’s just me, but with that simple use of punctuation, I can see Frannie’s father looking at her, his eyes trying to read the lines on her face. With that pause, and the two questions that follow, I can also see Peter Goldsmith looking at his daughter with just a hint of a smile. Was it all a joke?

While overusing an ellipsis can draw too much attention away from the story, I believe that the right placement can offer the reader volumes of information.

Regarding subtext, allow me to provide an authoritative voice. This comes from The Lie That Tells A Truth, a wonderful book on writing by John Dufresne.

…we might add that dialogue is useful for getting across what is not said as well as what is said. (Like a plot, what is on the surface of dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Seven-eighths of dialogue, to continue the iceberg analogy, is subtext, is below the surface.) Fictional conversation is not about information. It is often an attempt at deliberate evasion, at confusion, rather than communication. Often the purpose of an exchange is to conceal as well as reveal, to impress, to seduce, to harm, to protect or to reject. Every person in a conversation has an agenda, and you need to know what each agenda is.

As an example, let me use an excerpt from the story I presented to the competition. I would like you to imagine a conversation between two women. One is beating around the bush, while the other is more direct and extremely sarcastic with her comments. Then, the first one says something like this:

“But that’s why I called. I wanted to say… I want to say how sorry I am. About me and Tom.”

That one line (I hope) provides the reader with some interesting insight. Again we find the ellipsis, only in the context of what is said the readers see an angst-riddled face instead of Peter Goldsmith’s quizzical one. Furthermore, the last part of that line provides subtext for the current situation. There was an affair. The first woman is trying to make restitution. And now the reader understands why the second woman has been so snarky. She’s still hurting. And as Dufresne pointed out, she has her own agenda: to hurt back.

For me, trying to figure out each character’s agenda, is one of the more enjoyable aspect of reading. That’s why I like reading fiction where the author doesn’t spell everything out; instead, he leaves it up to the reader to calculate the sum. Dialogue is just one way where the author lets the reader do just that.

As an exercise, if you haven’t already done so for the Dynamic Dialogue Contest, try writing a piece of flash fiction using only dialogue. John Dufresne admits that he often starts out with only dialogue, after which he goes back and fills in the other details. See if you can use techniques like ellipses, dashes and language to project more information than what is spoken in the written words. In the process, I trust that you’ll find, just like I have, that dialogue can open up more in a story than you ever dreamed possible.

For good reading, you might also pick up your own copy of The Lie That Tells A Truth. It is a worthy addition to your library.

Friday, July 3, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Life Happens"

This is my first attempt at Friday Flash. I hope you enjoy it.

Jonas sat down at the office desk and hovered his fingers over the keyboard. His gut clenched. His chest tightened. On the screen, the cursor blinked in anticipation, eagerly waiting for the first line. He glanced at the syringe and gun on his desk. Could he actually go through with it? He had purchased the drug through a chat room on the internet. Demerol. The dosage wasn’t enough to kill, but it would certainly make things easier.

Finally, deciding he could go through with it, Jonas forced a breath and let his fingers race across the keys.

I, Jonas Billings, leave this as my final message. I want people to know why I took my life...

As he wrote, Jonas thought about his wife Sharon. How was she going to react? Somehow, after everything else that had happened between them, he knew she wouldn’t be surprised. To her, he was nothing but a loser. She’d already said as much, though not in those words. Instead, she’d couched it in questions like “Don’t embarrass me tonight, okay?” or in statements like “Sometimes, I just don’t get you.” No, in the end, Jonas knew she would say something about him being a cheap, dumb bastard and this only proved it.

Outside, a semi ran through its gears, powering up the street.

Over the last year, Sharon and I have struggled with our marriage...

That was putting it lightly. In truth, he could have spelled it out in more concise details—how she constantly belittled him in front of her friends and how they didn’t make love anymore—but really, what was the point? Jonas shook his head as continued typing. The point was there was no point anymore. There no reason to keep going as they had, snapping at each other like a couple of Chihuahuas. No, he had turned that screw too many times, and now its head had finally twisted off, leaving nothing but a shard of metal that cut him every time he touched it.

Jonas let his fingers stop for a moment. He closed his eyes and thought about what John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making plans.” Boy wasn’t that the truth? When he got right down to it, everything in life could have been tossed into a distiller and boiled down, and he still wouldn’t have been able to refine it into such a concise statement about living, breathing and dying. He wanted a nice house out in the Woodlands; however, with several bounced checks and missed payments, thanks to Sharon’s wonderful management skills, they were lucky enough just to get into the rat shack they had. He also wanted a Corvette, even saved for a couple of years just so he could get the financing down to an affordable level; but then Sharon wanted a new bedroom, and new furniture, and the Corvette money vanished faster than a Twinkie in front of Fat Albert’s face. In fact, no matter what he wanted or how he’d planned, it always came down to Lennon’s simple statement. Life happens.

He sighed once and resumed typing.

I also want my parents to know that, no matter what anyone says, even now I love them more than anything...

That might have been stretching it a bit, but there was no point in allowing them to take a dive into despair, constantly asking what they did wrong and what they could have done better. He was a man now and, for better or worse, he made his own decisions.

Jonas finished the letter and printed it out. It wasn’t much of a suicide note. However, he’d never written one before and, quite honestly, didn’t care. He signed it, wondering at first if he should and finally decided it was the right thing to do, and then place it on top of his desk. In the morning, the staff would wander in, see the note, and by noon the whole place would be talking about nothing else. Hey, did you hear about Jonas? Man, I never would have guessed he’d go off like that?

He pocketed the syringe and gun, turned off the lights, and then stepped out into the sweltering night air.

The drive home took him through downtown. At the corner of First and Elm, he stopped, stepped out and walked under the overpass bridge. There in the shadows, Jonas found the man he was looking for, the man all curled up like a hibernating bear, the same man he’d already scoped out for the last two months. Just another example that proved how right Lennon had been.

“Hey, man, how’s it going?”

The homeless man glanced over his shoulder. “Who is that? Toby, is that you?”

Jonas smiled. “Yeah, buddy, it’s me.”

“What you doing down here, man? Don’t you know the V.C. got this whole place—”

And before the man could say anything else, Jonas bent down, stabbed the syringe into his hip, and quickly pressed the plunger.

“Yeeeooow! Hey, man, what’d you poke me with? You want me to call… thaa… caawps… ohhhmaaan…”

Jonas tossed the needle aside. He reached an arm behind the homeless man’s back—the guy reeked of cigarettes, piss and beer—and guided him toward the car. The man wasn’t nearly as tall, but he was close enough. Once home, Jonas would use the gun on Sharon, give her a couple taps to the head, and then give the bum one under the chin. Finally, the whole place would go up in flames.

If it all went as planned, the cops would write it off as another case of domestic violence gone bad, just a freaked-out husband who shot his wife, set the house on fire, and then turned the gun on himself. But what if the cops figured it out? Well, that was the beautiful thing about this old world, wasn’t it? There were plenty of places to get lost.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tweet! Tweet!

A few weeks ago, WB Jon Strother posted an entry to his blog regarding the use of Twitter to promote his short story concept, Flash Friday.

“The idea is for writers to post a polished piece of flash fiction on their blogs and then tweet the links to them on Fridays via Twitter, using a common hashtag. Readers on Twitter will become accustomed over time to look for that hashtag and go read the posts, thus building a following. I think it's a solid concept (my blog hits went up significantly the past two Fridays) and will work well given time.”

Until then, I had serious reservations about Twitter (as well as Facebook and My Space). For one thing, the IS department in the company I work for has blocked their access, stating that connections through these sites pose a security risk. Adding to the IS warnings, a series of news reports regarding how pedophiles have used places like this to find their victims raised even more concerns. The last thing I need is for some wacko to put the crosshairs on me. However, Jon’s post gave me something else to think about: Twitter as a marketing tool, rather than a place to ramble on about the texture of your oatmeal. After thinking it through, I joined. A link to my Twitter site has been posted in the sidebar.

Since I’ve never used Twitter before, the first thing I noticed was the learning curve ahead. Twitter uses a different set of codes and protocol than anything I’ve used before. And after two weeks, plugging in only at night, I’m still learning. For those of you who are considering Twitter, I recommend stopping first at Shelley Lieber’s website, The Wordy Woman. Shelley is the author of 4Ps to Publishing Success, and on her website you will find a link to an audio file where she talks about Twitter and how to use it.

The next thing you need to be prepared for is the sudden rush of people you don’t know wanting to follow your updates (or “tweets”). This is how I learned about Shelley Lieber. There is a caveat, though. Because these people have shown an interest in you, there may be a feeling that you need to reciprocate. My advice, however, is to be selective about who you choose to follow. Take the time to check them out. What’s their focus? What’s the content of their updates? While it may be nice to have Mark from Minneapolis following you, it probably doesn’t fit in with your strategy to have his updates about the benefits of Ginko Biloba showing up on your Twitter page. After all, this is a marketing tool to provide other writers with information about the craft and information about your writing career. To be honest, I have posted a few updates about personal items, like what book I'm reading. In the future, though, I plan to keep this more focused upon writing.

As writers, we’ve read countless times that we need to build our platform. Creating exposure and building a group of readers is part of your platform, and I submit that Twitter is only one more tool to accomplish that goal. Whether or not you join Twitter (or some other networking site) is a matter of personal comfort. At the very least, you might want to consider it and keep your options open.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Summer Reading 2009

I don't know about you, but I've never really thought about summer reading lists. I usually take novels one book at a time, never planning when or what I'll read next. In fact, I've lost track of the number of times I thought I would read one book, only to shove it back in the pile for something else. And as you can see from my "Currently Reading" section, I even have a small grouping of collected short stories that I occasionally pull off the shelf, either in between books or when I'm looking for something different at the moment.

My thoughts about reading lists will change for this summer, though, And that only because my list is short.

For the Summer of 2009, I've selected just one book, and because of work, family, and writing, I imagine it will take me the rest of the summer to read it. Starting today, I will crack open Stephen King's The Stand for the second time in my life.

My first attempt ended in failure. Looking back on it, I fault my youth. I was a junior in high school, and didn't have the temperament to focus my way through such a daunting novel. However, over twenty years have passed since then, and I believe I am now ready to try again. The path is no less intimidating, though. Since my first attempt, Stephen King has also released the complete and uncut edition, adding over four hundred pages of manuscript to the story. To be sure, this is not a new book, with any new characters. Rather, this is The Stand as it was originally written, prior to publishers telling Stephen King that he needed to trim it down. And clocking in at well over eleven hundred pages, the complete version promises to take me at least a couple of months to read.

On one hand, I am excited about the journey. On the other, I wonder if trying to tackle something so big at this point in my life will jeopardize my chances of finishing this time as well. As many of you probably will agree, when it comes between reading and writing, the writing must always take first priority. Still, I'll give it my best shot.

What about you? Do you believe in summer reading lists? If so, then what are your selections for 2009? If not, what are you reading right now? If you're reading nothing, then considering joining me on the journey through The Stand. WB Greta has already expressed interest. Maybe we can compare notes and learn together about various issues of writing from a Master Storyteller. For my part, I think reading a large novel like this will provide some good topics to discuss out here on Powder Burns and Bullets.

See you somewhere between the pages.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have asked myself why I gravitate toward writers like Elmore Leonard, Dean Koontz and Laura Lippman, when other readers would rather lose themselves in a story by Susan Isaacs? The answer to this question, I believe, is found in the relationship that exists between writer and reader. That relationship, I also believe, is driven mainly by two things.

First, the relationship grows from a common bond in the selection of words and expressions. How often do you find yourself talking to someone with a certain flavor for describing things that puts you at ease? And certainly there are others who prickle the hairs along the back of your neck. Consider this: two guys describing the same set of events. The first one says, “I took a drive down to the corner convenience store and talked with a girl who works there and is not afraid to show everyone her cleavage. After that, I purchased a pack of cigarettes.” The second guy says, “I went down to the corner gas-n-go. You know, the place where that hot looking chick works, the one almost shows you her tetas? Anyways, I talked at her for a time, and then threw down some money and said to her, ‘Hey baby, give me a pack of smokes, will ya?'” True, it’s the same story, but each man has their own way of telling it. And I have no doubt that you would feel more comfortable talking with one, while after five minutes the other man would force you to think up an exit strategy.

On another level, this relationship is joined by a mutual perception of reality. The writer’s comes out in his tone, subject matter and characters. As an example, I once submitted an excerpt of a story to a writer’s group. Some liked it, others didn’t. One particular comment stuck with me. The reader didn’t like the woman in the story. To her, the woman represented something sleazy and cheap. Months later, a different person read the same piece and said it was exactly how some people are. In fact, he could name them. Clearly, my perception of reality—that men and women alike can be extremely sleazy in mind, body and soul—works for some, not so much for others.

Together, these two ideas are just scratching the surface of what is considered a writer’s voice. This is the heart of today’s posting.

Two weeks ago, I encountered an old voice that became new to me. Based on a friend’s recommendation, I decided to read a novel by John D. MacDonald. The book I selected, The Deep Blue Good-by, was the first Travis McGee novel, and it took me only a chapter to sit down in an easy chair with my feet propped up, ready to relax and go the distance. Here was a writer who knew how to describe things on my level. Between the front and back covers, he showed me a slice of reality that, while not getting my personal endorsement, fell within the scope of what I’ve come to accept about humanity.

I sent my friend an e-mail. Just getting into the first chapter now, I wrote, and really digging the voice of MacDonald’s writing. Let me give you a quick example, this from the second chapter. Travis McGee, the lead character, just walked a friend to her car. Previously, this friend made a blatant pass at him, and Travis declined, saying that was not the direction he wanted their friendship to go. Afterward, he paused to reflect:

I kicked the concrete pier and hurt my toes. These are the playmate years, and they are demonstrably fraudulent. The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhausting quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel. And the cute things they say, and their dainty little squeals of pleasure and release are as contrived as the embroidered initials on the guest towels. Only a woman of pride, complexity and emotional tension is genuinely worth the act of love, and there only two ways to get yourself one of them. Either you lie, and stain the relationship with your own sense of guile, or you accept the involvement, the emotional responsibility, the permanence she must by nature crave. I love you can only be said two ways.

To those who might decry Travis McGee—and by proxy, John D. MacDonald—as a chauvinist, you need only flip a few pages more to find this gem of a revelation. Later that evening, after Travis ventured out and found a one-night fling with a woman he didn’t even know, he noted the following:

When I was alone in darkness in my bed, I felt sad, ancient, listless and cheated. Molly Bea had been as personally involved as one of those rubber dollies sailors buy in Japanese ports.

Apparently, the door swings both ways. Even the men who fail to guard and treasure themselves aren’t worth very much to anyone else.

Personally, the question of whether a novel connects with me comes down to this: When I read, do I feel like I am in good hands with someone who knows how to tell me a story? It sounds selfish to write it that way, doesn’t it? However, if the personal side of it wasn’t true, then why do we have so many readers saying So-And-So author has good stuff while others say the writing wasn’t that great? In the case above, MacDonald’s voice came through for me. He used words to say things I would say. He painted a character portrait which I found believable and refreshing. Would he resonate with you? I don’t know. It’s worth it for you to find out, though.

So, why the focus on voice? you ask.

For various reasons, I’ve come to question my own voice and whether it resonates with readers. What do readers see when they find one of my stories? Is my language, tone and world view something that engages them or turns them off, and are readers willing to go on a long journey with me? As many of you know, reading a piece of flash fiction doesn’t require much energy when compared to a novel. And because of that, I ask whether or not my voice is something that will put readers at ease, like a friend they could sit with for hours? Will they stay with me or quickly think about exit strategies?

As I keep working toward writing and actually completing a novel, the connection to my reader is becoming more and more critical. Often, I wonder if I have the right stuff. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Good Marketing Idea

Some of you may have wondered why I had a widget in my sidebar for the new release of Afraid by Jack Kilborn. This was done in response to the author’s solicitation to try a concept: a free book for thirty days of advertising. If I was willing to post the Afraid link on my blog, then the author would send me a free “signed” book.

As many who follow him already know, Joe Konrath is one of the better marketers for his business. He has written six Jack Daniels mysteries, along with a handful of other free novels, which he currently markets on his own. While the Jack Daniels mystery series has placed him in the spotlight, I suspect that horror has always been one of his great passions. While he has written other horror novels and technothrillers, Afraid is his first horror novel published under the pen name of Jack Kilborn.

Gearing up to the release of Afraid, Joe launched a massive campaign to get the word out. During the month of April, he posted several interviews on his blog, and during the month of May, he hit the road on a book tour across several states. He also asked for any willing participants to post the Afraid link on their website or blog for thirty days. As consideration, he agreed to send the participant a free signed copy of his second Jack Daniels mystery, Bloody Mary.

I jumped at the opportunity, and not because I wanted a free book (a hardback by the way). I also wanted to be a part of something unique.

At the completion of thirty days, I sent Joe an e-mail to check on the progress, telling him that I wanted to share something about the experiment with those who read Powder Burns & Bullets. I wanted to know how many books he actually sent out and whether or not they were able to track the sales. If I could get that information, and knowing the Kindle e-book version of Afraid was selling on Amazon for $5.59 a copy, I had hoped to see how well his experiment paid off.

I really couldn't track any results of this, Joe wrote. My Amazon sales of Afraid have been steady so far, but there are so many people reviewing the book I don't know where exactly the traffic is coming from.

Being the accountant that I am, often focused on the bottom line, Konrath’s response was a little disappointing. I had hoped to share some hard numbers with you.

That said, Joe continued, I had about 30 people post ad widgets for Afraid, and it certainly was worth my time and money to send these folks free books, not only because it most assuredly helped with Afraid sales, but because it's smart to reward your supporters with free stuff. I would do it again, for sure.

Joe Konrath is right. In spite of my desire to find the bottom line, the success of some experiments cannot be measured by dollars and cents. While some ventures may cost you more money than you directly made, the loyalty and relationships that develop will certainly reap much larger dividends over time. Jack Kilborn certainly will.

And while we’re on the subject of Jack Kilborn, if you haven’t already read Serial, a short novella co-written with Blake Crouch, I strongly recommend it. It follows a classic suspense/horror technique: show the reader the potential for mayhem and then let him squirm while the horror finally plays out. You can get your free copy of Serial here. Good Stuff.

One more thing. About that free copy of Bloody Mary, once it came in the mail, I opened it up and read the prologue. It was killer. When I finally get around to reading the entire book, after all of the other books in my To Read pile, I'll be sure to give you the juicy write-up.