Friday, April 30, 2010

At least it wasn't a form rejection

You may recall that I sent out three queries yesterday (that's six total; I know, I'm going slowly) and I received my first response a few minutes ago.

It was a personal note from the agent's assistant, which kind of sucks, although it's better than my three previous impersonal "form" rejections. He said the agent had evaluated my project and determined it didn't fit into their "current list," whatever in the hell that means.

But he was nice about it. And I got the impression that someone had actually read the query and the submitted pages.

Sigh. I know there are many very good published authors out there who were rejected dozens of times before they hit paydirt. And I'm certainly nowhere near giving up. But damn. What does a writer have to do to get an agent's attention? Stand on his head? Sheesh.

Oh well. It's Friday and the Cubs won. So life goes on.

One bummer, though. My lovely wife left this morning for a weekend Newspaper Guild conference in Cleveland. (I've been to a few Guild conferences in Cleveland and I am not envious of her. Trust me.) But I do miss her when she leaves, even for the weekend. Her flight is due in about 5:30 Sunday evening and the 12-year-old and I will be eagerly waiting with dinner fixed and on the table.

I think we're going to skip the family movie tonight, and opt instead for baseball on television and/or video games. Boys will be boys.

Have a great weekend. We'll talk again on Sunday.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shine on, you crazy diamonds

I've had a couple of regular blog readers email me lately and sort of casually ask me if I'm OK. As in: Are you losing your freaking mind?

I'd like to think they're just concerned about me, and not making a specific diagnosis about my mental state. But one never knows, does one?

No. I'm not losing my mind. At least, no more than usual. See, I like to write the truth. The unvarnished truth -- warts, wood ticks and all. I tend to be a loaded gun with a hair trigger. Just ask any of my old newspaper editors. I like to stir things up. Free will run riot, that's me.

I figure if I'm going to go through the trouble of blogging, then why avoid the truth? We all know writer/bloggers out there in Internet-land who like to pretend they are fit as fiddles, that there's absolutely nothing out of whack in their lives or their minds. Their lives, if you believe their shiny little blogs, are going just swimmingly, thank you very much. Wife (or hubby) and kids are perfect. The car is a BMW. They aren't in the least bit quirky, but instead are very staid and normal and, well, kind of like those plastic women in The Stepford Wives. They chat about recipes and their kids and the PTO and sometimes, rarely, they mention their writing. They seem perfect.

They lie. Trust me. They do.

I mean, come on. They're writers for Christ's sake! It's been my experience that all writers are just a bit off, if you know what I mean.

Unless they're faking it. Unless they really are normal people who are just pretending to be writers. Then I suppose they really don't fall victim -- sometimes on a daily basis -- to the full-on, bat shit crazies. It's possible.

I write this blog to capture the journey. Someday, when I'm rich and famous, some interviewer will ask me if it was difficult to become a published author. And I will have the notes handy (this blog) to show him or her that no, it's not easy.

It was damned hard. And there were times when I thought I was going to quit, or go crazy. Or kick the damned cat or something. There were (are) times when I just want to chuck it all and become a Wal-mart greeter or a fry cook or a grease monkey.

But I don't. I keep on keeping on. Like we all do. The great Pink Floyd once sang: Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

I'm shining, brothers and sisters. I'm shining. Are you?

WRITING UPDATE: I spent the day polishing my query for the one-thousandth time and, once I got so sick of it I thought I was going to throw up, I sent it out to three more agents. I also pasted the first 10 pages of my manuscript onto the email. For those who are counting, that makes six agents queried. The first three were form rejections. Cross your fingers. I know I am.

Also, for those who asked about my eyelid after the vicious wood tick attack -- it's fine, albeit a little red and swollen. Since it was much larger than a deer tick, I'm not going to worry about lyme disease. Not yet, anyway. Of course, the last time I had a fever blister, I was deathly afraid I had come down with lip cancer. So I suppose it's only a matter of time before I start exhibiting symptoms. But for now, it's all good.

See you all tomorrow. Happy writing (for all you real writers out there).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On (quitting) writing

This being an author thing is harder than I thought it would be. Let me explain. See, for years I could barely function in society -- with one rather big exception:

I was always a good writer. Always.

Even as a young cub newspaper reporter (and in the grip of drug and alcohol addiction), I could write one kick-ass story. I know, because even the editors who hated me always told me I was a good writer. They'd say it through clenched teeth, but they said it.

Consequently, I started to believe my own press clippings, so to speak. I made plans early on to become a published fiction writer whenever journalism's magic wore off.

In 2007, the magic wore off. So I put on my comfy pajamas and fired up the computer and ... started to write. A book. A big, complex book.

And I learned fairly soon (about two hours into it, as I recall) that I had no freaking clue what I was doing. None. This was not journalism. I mean, where the hell were my notes?

So I started scouring the Internet and began stumbling across blogs and websites by other writers and agents and publishers. I bought books on fiction writing. I started learning the craft of fiction writing. Of novel writing. It's not easy.

Of course, by then, I was already halfway through my big, complex book. But hey, better late than never, right? Right.

Once I figured out what the hell a story arc was, I went back and tried to put one into my book. And when I learned how crucial the first few pages were, I went back and re-did them. Over and over and over again. Each time I learned something new about the craft, I went back and tried to incorporate it into my work.

The damned thing started to look like a patchwork quilt. And not in a good way, I'm afraid.

But I finished it. And had a book editor go through it and made the changes she suggested and sent it out to beta readers.

And waited. And waited. A couple checked in and said they were liking it. And then one finished. And he said he liked it. Then two more finished it and they liked it, with a couple of minor suggestions.

It was all good. I was pumped.

And then one more weighed in. And he hated it. Just didn't like it. At all.

And I was crushed. No one had ever told me they hated something I had written. Let me repeat that: No one had ever told me they hated something I had written. Never. I know that sounds arrogant and egotistical, but it's true.

I. Was. Crushed.

And so I decided to hang it up. Get a real job. Screw this writing crap. Clearly, I am not a fiction writer and will never be a fiction writer. I mean, my first attempt at writing a novel and here was someone not liking it!

Now I realize this sounds ludicrous, but I really did decide yesterday to give it up. I told the wife I would shop this one because, well, because I've wasted three years of my life on it, so I might as well try to get it published. Right?

My lovely wife rolled her eyes and told me to shut up and go to sleep. (She knows me pretty well.) So I did. Finally. And tossed and turned all night. At 1 this morning, I awoke in the second-most horrible way imaginable. I suffered a severe case of acid reflux, something I hadn't had happen to me in a decade or so. There's not much worse than jerking awake with a mouthful of bile.

Except there is one thing worse, as I was to learn a few hours later. I woke up at 5 a.m. and my left eyelid felt as though it was crusted shut. What the hell? I wondered. I figured I must have pink eye or something. But I couldn't get the crusty little knot off my eyelid. So I got up and went into the bathroom and turned the light on.

And there was a huge wood tick stuck on my left eyelid! OMG! I looked at it, reached into the drawer, pulled out the tweezers and plucked the little bastard off. And it was on there TIGHT.

Oh Christ, was that nasty. It actually made a little POP sound when it finally gave up the ghost. I flushed that sucker and went back to bed. But there was to be no more sleep for me.

Later, I went for my run through the countryside. It was a beautiful day and I put on the iPod and cranked it up. I planned to brainstorm ideas for a job. You know, something easy that pays a ton. No big deal.

But a funny thing happened instead. The entire plot for the political novel I started a few months ago fell into place with an audible THUD. And then the ending came to me so perfectly finished that I turned around, ran home and typed it out.

I can't wait to get back to it. I guess a real job is just going to have to wait a while.

Apparently, I'm a writer. Whether I like it or not. I mean, there's no way in hell I'm messing with the writing gods again. ;)

Monday, April 26, 2010

One day at a time

As some of you may have noticed, I've been fully embracing my inner lunatic of late. Today was no exception.

I finally heard from one of those elusive betas -- and it wasn't good. He didn't much care for the book. And since he's an honest guy who shoots straight (one of the reasons I selected him), he didn't sugarcoat things. Mainly, he couldn't get past the fact that three of the main characters are loosely (ahem) based on people he knows well. He said he had a hard time seeing them as fictional characters, and instead spent much of his time saying things like "so-and-so would never do anything like that!"

He did say the story was "okay" and the writing was "pretty good," so I didn't actually jump off the Illinois River bridge, although to be honest it was touch and go there for a while.

Look, I'm a realist at heart. I know I cannot write a book that everyone likes. If I did that, I would be the first novelist ever to pull it off. It just ain't gonna happen. I know that.

But that doesn't stop me from wanting to write a novel that everyone loves.

So after punching my cell phone "off," I did what I normally do when my dreams die a horrific death -- I uttered a string of curse words that would shame a Marine and lit another cigar.

But then I did something else. I called a friend of mine, a guy who is actually modeled in my book. He's someone I talk to when things go bad, someone who can help talk me down from the ledge. Some of you reading this post may know someone like him.

So I called him. And he didn't answer. So I waited ten seconds and called him again. And he didn't answer. By now, I was convinced that my life was over, that I suck not only as a writer but as a human being. That I could screw up a wet dream. Trust me, I can get pretty rough on myself sometimes.

Finally, when I was about to do something really weird, like pray or something, he called me back. Now he was also a beta reader and he liked the book; he had only a couple of minor issues.

"So should I just bag the whole goddamned writing thing and find a job at Radio Shack?" I asked, only half joking.

"Well, you could," he said in his southern drawl. "But in the end, I think it would kill you. Maybe not physically, you know, but in other ways. Worse ways."

After he told me that part I stole as my own above (about being the only novelist who writes a book everyone likes), I asked him -- in this whiny little voice, What I should do now?

"Well," he said, pausing. (He always pauses like that; it kills me sometimes, just waiting for him.) "I think you should get off your ass and try to get the fucking book published. And quit looking for a way to fail."

After he finished reading me the riot act, he spent several minutes telling me how to write my query. And remember, he's a damned engineer, not a writer. I couldn't believe the chutzpah!

Of course, he was dead-on right. I came away from the call with a whole new hook for my dead-in-the-water query.

I love my friend Greg. He always says the right thing, even though I sometimes want to kill him for it.

Onward, fellow travelers. We shall get through this, one day at a time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I love me some italics!

My lovely wife, who is also reading The Devil You Don't Know, looked up at me sweetly the other night while we were lying in bed (she was reading the manuscript; I was watching baseball) and said: You really like italics, don't you?

I said: Who? Me? No way!

So, she showed me the page. And seemingly every other word was italicized. Whoah. I hadn't realized that.

I do like to use italics to emphasize certain words because I strive to make my dialogue as realistic as possible. But after she pointed it out, it became clear that I ... overdo it.

It's apparently a tic, like a written whole-word stutter or a lisp. I can't help it, but I can go in and change most of them. So that's my next step in the never-ending saga of trying to get TDYDK ready. I'm going in and changing three-quarters of the italicized words back to normal.


I'm also waiting to hear from three beta readers who haven't checked in at all in the three weeks that they've had the manuscript. Since I've never done this before, I don't know whether I should be worried, pissed or not concerned. So I'm going for hopeful. As in, I'm hopeful that they are taking their time because they want to do a good job since the book is so good.

Yeah. That sounds good.

Sorry for the limited posts over the weekend. It was school play weekend for the 12-year-old, which proved quite stressful and hectic. And I'm still not feeling good yet. I'm not sure what's ailing me, but I'm starting to wonder if it's allergies. I have been exhausted, had a headache, sore throat and a cough for two weeks now. Blech.

Have a wonderful Sunday night and we'll talk again tomorrow.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do I smell flowers?

I'm sitting on the deck writing this on the laptop. The day is warm, the air is still, the flowers are in riotious bloom and clouds are gathering on the western horizon. Birds sing, a squirrel runs up the knobby old pine tree to my left while another skips through the highest branches on my right.

There's a 5,000-acre forest preserve that borders my wooded backyard and the trees and underbrush are a lush green. If I walked several dozen yards straight ahead, I would come to my back fence, beyond which lies a much-used deer trail. An eagle sanctuary is located within the forest preserve and I can often sit here and watch, in awe, as bald eagles soar majestically overhead.

Life is good. Very good.

And what am I thinking? Well, I'm expecting it to rain any second now and destroy my new Dell laptop with the cool, opaque blue cover. Because those gathering clouds over there to the west look rather ominous. Not really severe storm ominous. Just it's going to rain ominous.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm a cynic. I know. Shocking, isn't it?

Now this cynical nature of mine could be a sign of some serious mental illness. Or, and listen carefully to me here, it could be justified. People who have known me for a long time will tell you that I am the world's luckiest person. And, the world's unluckiest.

I could totally see myself winning the lottery today, and then losing the winning ticket tomorrow. For reals.

I used think all those years in journalism made me the cynic I am today. But today, I honestly believe that cynical people are drawn to journalism much like tornadoes are drawn to mobile home parks. It's a chicken and egg thing, and I now believe the egg came first.

Many years ago, I stumbled across a quote that has long been a favorite of mine. It's by the celebrated journalist (go figure) H.L. Mencken and it goes like this: A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

So, I'm a cynic. Or not. Either way ... shit. I gotta go. It's starting to rain.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Four graves and a funeral

I don't have much to say tonight (unbelievable, I know), but I wanted to write something because it's one of the things I try to do each day (except Saturday) as a way to discipline myself.

I spent the day today in my boyhood hometown, attending the funeral of my 91-year-old aunt, who passed away on Sunday. While I hadn't seen her in many, many years, I do have very fond memories of her from when I was a boy. And her husband, my Uncle Ed, is still going strong at 90. Uncle Ed, my late father's oldest brother, is still incredibly handsome and still drives! I could be so lucky when I'm 90.

Whenever I go back there and see family members I haven't seen in years, I'm overcome with memories and feelings and, as usual, they're complicated and deep. It generally takes me a day or two to process them, so I'm not ready to even go there yet. But I can say that today, despite the solemn occasion, was a good day. I even forced myself to visit the graves of some loved ones that I purposefully avoid because the grief that inevitably arises can be shockingly painful.

But I'm back home, and the Cubs are winning (so far), so everything is good. I do need to get back into a better work schedule, and my eating habits of late have been atrocious. But I'm alive and above ground, and sometimes that's good enough.

See you all tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Defining the dream

The sub-title of this blog is Chasing the Dream. All of you writers out there know what I'm talking about. The golden chalice. The 76 Virgins. The Holy Grail.

That's right. To get published. To get that initial phone call from my dream agent, to hear her tell me at some point later on that she's sold the book to Random House for a cool million and, oh, by the way, would $500,000 be cool for an advance?

OMG. I get all shivery just thinking about it. Don't you? (C'mon. Be honest. You know you do.)

But sometimes, when I get really honest with myself (and I just hate when I do that), I know deep down that getting published won't solve a damn thing. It won't make me younger, or better looking, or give me a shiny, happy personality. It won't take the dusting of silver out of my hair. It won't make my cat stop nipping me every time I try to pet the little bitch.

In short, it will do nothing but magnify the problems I already have. I know. I know. If we get published, we'll likely get rich and then, boy, won't that be grand?

Probably for a while, yes. But you know what? I've never wanted to be really wealthy, because I have an addictive personality and, man, with that kind of money who the hell knows what I would do? I can't think of one person with my kind of personality who's benefited from coming into a shitload of cash. Can you?

But fame, that has to be pretty cool, right?

Not really. Look, I was once a medium-sized fish in a small pond -- meaning I wrote a column for the city newspaper here for many years and most people knew my name and recognized me from the (very) flattering photo that ran with the column. I remember once when I was picking up some dry cleaning, a young girl working behind the counter asked me for my autograph. My girlfriend (now wife) was more amused than proud.

But I never forgot how I felt that sunny Saturday morning.

I was both ashamed and horrified. Ashamed because, come on, I was a freaking newspaper columnist! I mean, really. And horrified because, well, I know the real me, you know? While I had been sober for a few years by then, I certainly didn't consider myself any kind of a role model -- for anyone. And especially some cute teenaged girl working at a laundry shop.

What did I do? I politely assured her I was flattered, but that she didn't really want my autograph. (Okay, because I strive to be completely honest here, she insisted so I gave it to her. You happy now?)

But I came away with a feeling that I don't deserve to be famous. For anything. Ever. It felt downright creepy, to be honest.

So if I don't do it for money, and I don't do it for fame (and I don't, trust me), then why do I do it? Why is my dream to become a published author?

I'm still grappling with that one. But I finished Anne Lamott's deeply moving and wonderful Bird by Bird today and she touched on some answers that resonated with me. She wrote that many writers write out of sense of wanting to communicate some deeper truth. Oh, and for vengeance.

It was that latter reason that resonated most with me. I suspect that my childhood issues, including being rejected by my father and mother and half of my siblings, has something to do with it. I suspect I'm trying to show them that I matter, you know? That I am somehow significant, no matter what they say or do. That I count.

But mainly, because it would feel so damned good to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. It would be better than pissing in their oatmeal, if you know what I mean. Vengeance, baby, vengeance. Anne got that part right.

Of course, I could be way off base here. Who knows? But for anyone out there, writer or non-writer, who hasn't read Lamott's book, I have one piece of advice (are you listening, Gina?):

Run, don't walk, to the local bookstore and buy it. And then read it. Twice.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A lazy Monday

I didn't do much today, although I did get some actual work done.

First, I played some video baseball. And won! Then I read some of Bird by Bird, my newest book on writing and fell in love with it. Then I read some from Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel.

Then I felt a bit guilty and actually went to work. First, I did some minor polishing on The Devil You Don't Know, based on some early feedback from betas. Then I spent about an hour online researching New Hampshire, specifically the small town of Exeter, where my next novel is partially set. There's no community college in Exeter, so I created one. I even found a bare, wooded spot just off the freeway in which to locate it. My apologies to whomever actually owns that land. But hey, that's the magic of fiction, right?

Then I started working on the new novel and managed to knock off a decent start to Chapter 2. It's not great, but it's something to work with tomorrow.

Oh, and I spent a great deal of time on my cell phone, talking to my 19-year-old son Zach, who decided to drive to Chicago this morning with two girls to "hang out" for a couple of days at a friend's place. While I hemmed and hawed and acted all fatherly, I was secretly envious of him. Oh, to be nineteen again and just head off on a adventure. I remember it well. Sort of. My memory of anything that happened to me between the ages of about 14 and 27 is hazy to say the least.

Oh, and he got lost. Big-time lost. Somewhere near Bolingbrook, as best he could tell. When I talked to him a couple of minutes ago, they were lost in McCook. Which is, if I'm not mistaken, somewhere near Bolingbrook.

So they haven't gotten very far. Oh well. They'll find it. Or not. As long as he doesn't find himself in the Cook County Jail, he ought to be fine.

And the wife is a bit miffed with her search for a roller derby nickname. It turns out there is a huge national database of registered nicknames (who knew?) and most of hers are already taken -- including the wonderful Punky Bruiser.

Damn it. Oh well, we might go with Gina's idea -- Ghengis Mom. It's not taken. But now that she can't have Punky Bruiser, it sounds like the coolest derby nickname ever.

Well, I'm out of here to make dinner. Sorry for the slight, rather rambling post. Just not much going on in my life today. And that, my friends, isn't always a bad thing.

Until tomorrow.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When crazy attacks

Earlier today, I melted down like a tired two-year-old.

I've poured so much of myself into my writing -- into my novel -- over the past three years that I think I've somehow managed to jiggle something loose upstairs, if you know what I mean.

What I'm trying to say is: I think I'm losing my mind.

Bear with me here.

Most of you who follow this little blog know I can get all poor me at times, that I suffer from an extreme case of insecurity. That I occasionally become utterly overcome with the fear that I won't get published, that I quit my job -- my career -- for nothing. I worry that my family will starve, that some guy with a crew cut wearing an ugly tie and a short-sleeved dress shirt (God, I hate short-sleeved dress shirts!) will knock on the door holding some kind of official-looking document and take everything away from us.

No. I'm serious here. Quit laughing.

See, I sent out all these copies of the book to beta readers and as of this morning, I'd only heard from three. One finished it and loved it (my dear father in law, who would probably tell me if he hated it) while the other two are online writer buddies who are slogging through it and seem to like it so far (Shout out to Gina and Kristy; you guys rock!).

But the others? Zip. Nada. Nothing. My God. It's. Been. Two. Freaking. Weeks.

By early this afternoon, I was convinced that I suck more than a hungry anteater. My poor wife, who is the busiest person in the world and who is chasing her own dreams, hasn't had time to read it. Again. For the umpteenth time. The poor woman has already been through the manuscript almost as many times as I have.

But I didn't think about that then. No, I simply freaked out. OK, maybe not completely. Well, now that I think about it, yes, I did. I freaked out. I wasn't angry at her or the beta readers.

No. I was angry at myself. How could I be so stupid as to think I could quit my job, write a book -- a damned novel of all things -- and then just sit back and rake in the big bucks. What an idiot I am. See, I don't think like normal people. I'm not content to just get published.

I want a fucking best-seller. Half measures don't interest me. I want it all, baby. Or I want nothing. See? Told you I was crazy.

Meanwhile, the bastards I worked with and for at the newspaper for many more years than I care to remember have been sitting around having a good laugh at my expense. And what was I doing? Why, I was sitting here at this computer -- pissing my life away.

God, I hate it when people like that are right, you know?

So after my wife (who thank God loves me even though I sometimes act like a madman) went to work, I sat on the deck and sulked. Poor little me.

And then my father in law called. He'd finished the manuscript a week ago and we had already discussed it. But he called today just to tell me again how much he loved it. To tell me how proud he is of me, how glad he is that I married his daughter. We talked for several minutes about the characters in the book, about the possibility of a sequel. When I hung up, my heart was singing.

It was a gift from God, that call was.

And then I heard from another beta, who told me he's reading it and for me not to worry.

And then I heard from yet another, who stayed up last night to finish it. She absolutely loved it and she talked excitedly for a long time about the characters and the book and how proud she is to know me, etc. Her husband is reading it now and she wanted to know if it was okay with me if her mother and a friend read it next. She thinks they will love it.

So I called my wife and apologized for being a jerk. And then I went back outside on the deck and smoked a cigar. And I damn near cried like a baby.

See? I'm losing my mind. And I blame all this writing stuff. Either that, or all the drugs I did back in the day. But that's a whole other story.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Family movie night returns!

Things are finally getting back to normal in the Towery household. The youngster is un-grounded (has it been a month already?) and most of our crazy everyone-is-doing-something-different-tonight crap is done for a while.

At least until Little League starts in a few weeks and even then, I don't think there are many games other than tournaments on Friday nights. And the wife, who is still struggling with her roller derby nickname, doesn't have practice on Fridays.

And me? Dude, I'm a writer. I'm always free. 'Nuff said.

So that means Family Movie Night is back, starting tonight. Hurrah!

Since we've already watched every movie from the 1980s that doesn't send me screaming for a gun or a baseball bat (many of them do, trust me), we've decided to just pick a decent movie each week (read: me pick it), fire up the popcorn and settle in for the night.

For this evening's viewing pleasure, I rented 2012 in Blu-Ray. Yes, we saw it at the theater and no, it's not that great. But you know, it wasn't that bad either. Good rental material, in other words.

I hope everyone has a lovely weekend. What do you say we meet back here Sunday evening?

Coolio. It's a deal. :)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The opening scene of my second book

Since this is, first and foremost, a blog by a writer about writing, I would like to blog tonight about writing. Specifically, my writing.

I humbly offer up the very first scene of my second novel -- the sequel to The Devil You Don't Know. This is a rough draft written a few months ago, after I stopped writing the political novel. It's only a partial of the opening scene and it goes on for about another 1,000 words or so.

I apologize for the length of the scene. It's actually longer, but I chose to cut it at an appropriate place. It's not my intention to bore you, nor is it to brag or show off. Instead, I would like you to read this as the opener of a book about evil, about a dark force that exists just under the surface of the world you and I know. Ultimately, the book will follow several characters, of which Grant is but one (although he is the MC), as they face evil and struggle with the scars it leaves behind -- scars that are not only physical and emotional, but spiritual.

This is not a novel about a school shooting. It just opens with one. Warning: The following is rated a hard R for violence and language.

Please let me know your thoughts and observations. Enjoy.


The boy plopped his backpack onto the floor just outside the stall closest to the window and deftly slipped the Heckler-Koch G36 mini assault rifle from its hiding place between his American History book and a pair of balled-up sweatpants. The gun was wrapped in a pair of socks—the good black ones his mother had bought him last Christmas.

Now. Right now.

He’d done his homework. The weapon was assembled in less than ten seconds, since the G36 simply snaps together using its handy little cross-pins—typically effective German engineering, his father would’ve said. The boy had bought it three days earlier from some jive-talking dope dealer whose hands shook so fucking much he could barely pocket the cash. It had been no problem coming up with the money. He’d withdrawn it from his savings account at the First Bank of Exeter—money he’d earned over the summer working in his father’s law office. Actually, he’d been little more than a glorified delivery boy, but it had made the Old Man happy to have his kid hanging around. And he paid well.

Fuck them.

Once the weapon was whole, he rummaged in the backpack until he found the three ammo clips, pulled them out with a sigh of relief and slammed one home. He no longer felt the need to hurry. If someone came in now, he’d just start here. He stood, shouldered the backpack, tucked the remaining clips into the waistband of his jeans and wiped his sweaty hair from his eyes. He could feel his heart pounding in his temples.

Kill them.

He looked at himself briefly in the big mirror. A wild-eyed stranger stared back at him. Averting his eyes, he walked out of the bathroom and into the crowded, noisy hallway.

* * * *

“Grant Bachman?” the girl asked, sticking her head in the door of Lou’s cramped office.

“Yes,” Grant said, standing up and nearly knocking over a pile of papers and books perched precariously on a table next to Lou’s big stuffed chair. Dr. Louis Beam was a good man, his fascination with the Yankees aside, and a damned fine History Department chairman. Neatness, however, was not his strong suit.

“Phone call in the office,” the girl said, smiling and closing the door.

“Shit,” Grant said, looking at Lou and shrugging. He glanced at his wristwatch. “Damn. I have class in two minutes. Sorry.”

“Go ahead. Just don’t forget what I said about that Boston seminar,” Lou said, getting up and grimacing at the pain in his arthritic knees. “A go-getter like you won’t be able to save the world if you don’t keep up in your own field of endeavor, Grant.”

Grant grinned. “There are far too many people trying to save the world as it is. It doesn’t need me. And besides, I teach. I don’t actually do anything.”

“We shall see,” Lou said, patting the young history professor on the back.

Grant opened the door and turned to say something wickedly funny about the previous night’s Red Sox-Yankees game when he heard the firecrackers. An entire roll of them, from the sound of it.

Pop! Pop pop pop pop pop pop!

“Huh?” Grant said, looking both ways down the long hallway. Exeter Community College was the largest two-year college in New Hampshire—a boast that never failed to elicit giggles from Lindsay, who likened it to being the biggest pissant on the ant hill.

The shorthairs on the back of Grant’s neck stood up as a collective scream arose from down the hall to his left—a sound not unlike house cats being slaughtered. Students were running toward Grant and Lou, backpacks and books flying. Some darted into side doors, others fell and cowered on the ground.

“Get down!” Lou shouted, grabbing Grant and pulling him down and back into the office. The old man reached up and slammed the door shut.

“What the hell?” But even as he spoke, Grant’s mind was making the connection.

A shooter. A fucking school shooter.

A few seconds passed and the shooting stopped. Grant and Lou lay on the floor just inside the office, panting but silent. Grant felt Lou move and looked up. The older man tip-toed to his desk, where he bent over a file cabinet and began rummaging in the bottom drawer.

“Lou,” Grant whispered. “Get back here, for Christ’s sake.”

Lou ignored him and kept feeling his way around the drawer, his silver hair hanging in his eyes. The shooting resumed, this time much closer.

Pop pop pop pop pop.

A fresh round of screams arose and Grant felt goose bumps break out on his forearms.

I’m going to die. I’ll never see Lindsay and the kids again.

“There you are,” Lou whispered to himself, standing up. He was holding a small black revolver in his right hand.

“A gun, Lou? A fucking gun?”

“One can never be too prepared,” the old man said, crouching down next to Grant.

The shooter was so close now they could smell cordite seeping in under the closed office door. Lou reached out and put a hand firmly on Grant’s shoulder and nodded at the door. He was pointing the gun at the door, his hand shaking. Without a sound, he thumbed back the hammer. Grant wildly shook his head no, but the old department chair paid him no mind. For one surreal moment, Grant smelled peanut butter on Lou’s breath and wondered whether he had eaten it on toast or a muffin that morning.

Oh, God. We’re going to die.

Grant heard footsteps just outside the door and cringed, a whimper of terror caught in his throat. His eyes watered. The footsteps stopped.

Right outside the door.

“Fuck you,” a male voice shouted. There was a crash as he kicked in the door of the office directly across the hall from where the two teachers were cowering. Grant heard a scream—definitely female—and the gunman opened fire. Windows were blown out and personal items, mementos, awards, pictures of loved ones, were blasted to bits as the shooter sprayed the tiny office.


“Full auto,” Lou whispered. “He means business.”

Silence again. As Grant turned to whisper something to his friend, Lou reached back and savagely knocked him backward onto the floor. “Stay here,” he snarled.

“Lou,” Grant pleaded. “Don’t.”

Without so much as a glance at Grant, the old man stood up, holding the gun out in front of him, and reached for the doorknob.

“Forgive my sins, God,” Lou said, flinging the door open and stepping out into the hallway.

The shooter was standing eight feet away, holding the assault rifle low on his right hip. It was pointed directly at Dr. Louis Beam.

“You’re finished,” Lou croaked, firing his revolver. He missed by a foot and the shooter—Lou saw he was nothing but a kid in jeans and a black tee-shirt—raised his weapon.

“Fuck you, gramps,” the kid said, and fired one round. The bullet tore into Lou Beam’s skinny chest, splattering heart blood on Grant, who was now standing directly behind him. Lou went down as though pole-axed. Grant stood facing the shooter.

“Justin?” Grant whispered, stunned. Justin King was in his ten o’clock American History class, the one he was now late to. Justin was a good kid. A favorite.

Justin raised the weapon. Grant looked directly into his eyes and saw pure, unadulterated terror. The boy’s eyes bulged with horror.

“I’m so sorry,” Justin King whispered. He pulled the trigger.

Click. The clip was empty.

Grant screamed like a banshee and reached for Lou’s gun just as the kid pulled the remaining clip from his waistband. Grant had to pry the little revolver from his friend’s dead hand, a memory that would come back to haunt him throughout the coming nightmare. Finally, he wrestled the gun free and raised it.

Without hesitation, Grant Bachman fired.

Three times he fired, and three times he hit his target. Two shots were to the body and the final one struck the boy in the mouth, whipping his head backward in a bloody haze of bone and brain.

Sobbing, Grant sank to his knees and dropped the revolver. His mentor lay next to him in a widening pool of blood. All around him, the smoky hallway was filled with groans, whimpers and the sound of footfalls as those still alive ran for their lives.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rediscovering an old friend

I don't do this enough. Curl up with a good book, I mean. Although in reality, I was out on the patio all day with coffee, a couple of nice cigars and a good book.

Some backstory: I've always been a Stephen King fan, but sometime a few years after Reagan was elected to his second term, he lost me. I mean, I struggled through Tommyknockers, but to this day, I couldn't tell you what the damned thing was about. And don't even get me started on Insomnia or Rose Madder.

I mean, was this really the man who wrote Salem's Lot? The Stand? The Dead Zone? Pet Semetary? What the hell had happened to him? Well, I found out soon enough. I remember watching MTV news sometime back in the day and they reported that King had entered rehab for an addiction to booze and drugs. Well. I could relate, having done the exact same thing a few years earlier.

Hell, no wonder Tommyknockers made no sense. I read later that he couldn't even remember writing Cujo. How the hell anyone can write an entire novel (and not a bad one, really) and not remember it is beyond me.

Although now that I think about it, I guess I can relate. I mean, I remember about ten minutes of my first marriage -- and the damned thing lasted almost four years!

But I digress. I remember thinking I was glad he was cleaning up. I hoped he'd get back to writing those big, nasty horror novels that I so loved in my younger years.

But I lost track of him. I quit buying his books. I did the same thing with Elvis Costello. I was a huge fan in the late 70s and early 80s, then he just sort of drifted off my radar screen. Life happened and it blotted out a lot of my earlier loves. In more ways than one, sadly.

But I rediscovered Elvis Costello in the mid-90s and got to savor the stuff he had done throughout the years as though they were new. Because they were new to me. Blood and Chocolate. King of America. Elvis had never stopped making great music; I had just stopped listening.

But still King was left behind while I read John Updike and Anne Tyler and discovered new faves like Neil Gaiman and Cormac McCarthy.

And then one day a few years ago, I saw a new King book at Border's called Cell. On a lark, I bought it in hardcover and, although it wasn't as good as his earlier stuff, I really enjoyed it. It was like sitting down to coffee with an old college chum. Nice and familiar, you know?

I purchased Under the Dome a few months ago and LOVED IT! This is old King, back when he was, um, king. It was right up there with The Stand, Salem's Lot and The Shining. I had also purchased On Writing, and loved it. In it, he often referenced a book of his that I was not familiar with: Bag of Bones.

Then I read a blog post recently and the person (I don't remember who it was) was listing his or her favorite Stephen King novels. And Bag of Bones was listed second, behind The Stand.


So I went online and read some reviews and it sounded like a book I would enjoy. So I went out a few days ago and bought it in paperback, along with Donald Maass' wonderful Writing the Breakout Novel (if only).

I started BOB yesterday when I was feeling crappy and read it all day today. It's wonderful. I'm not yet done, but should finish it tomorrow. And the best part of all? It's getting me really, really excited about diving back into my second novel, which is eerily King-like.

I wonder what else I missed over the past 20 years or so?

UPDATE: My first beta reader checked in today -- and he loved The Devil You Don't Know! Yay. Only six more to sweat out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sorry for the short post

I've been a little under the weather the last 24 hours or so. Nothing serious, just a headache and a rather blah feeling.

Thanks to everyone for your comments on my Now what? post. While your opinions were varied, you all made some salient points and I do appreciate them.

I think I'm going to go back to writing the bigger, darker novel. For now. It just feels right, as Gina said.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind. And probably I will, at some point. But for now, I'm plowing ahead.

It beats sitting here sweating out the beta readers.

More tomorrow, provided I'm still upright.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Now what?

I'm standing at a career crossroads. And I don't know which way to go.

Beta readers have my manuscript, I've decided I cannot write a query letter if my life depended on it (and it kind of does, doesn't it?) and I have two WIPs sitting on my computer desktop. Unfinished and beckoning me.

What to do? I could bear down and rewrite my query for the umpteenth time. Or I could fire up one of those WIPs and get back to writing. Or I could do what I did today -- spend the morning reading and the afternoon watching baseball on television.

Here's some background:

One unfinished novel is the political one I started when I finished the first draft of The Devil You Don't Know. I was exhausted and purposefully began writing a completely different kind of novel, one with a more dispassionate -- almost remote -- voice. It's more plot-driven with less darkness (although it has some) and features a Main Character I would actually like to continue to explore. I envision it as the first in a series of political novels featuring Ian Cooper, the protag in this one.

The main reason I started it last fall was that I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew with DEVIL, which is big, complex, dark and features multiple points of view. I wrote DEVIL from the heart, exploring and plumbing the very depths of my life, my experiences and my fears. It was hard to write and yet cathartic in an odd kind of way.

The last thing I wanted to do was turn around and dive back into a similar book. The very thought of it sent shivers down my spine. So I invented Ian Cooper, sketched out a story one morning in a notebook, spent the next week doing bio sketches of all the characters, and started writing.

It was great fun. I was writing in a style very different from the one I used to write DEVIL. It's not exactly light-hearted, but it's certainly more lively, less deadly serious.

But at some point, about 14,000 words into it, I got some feedback on DEVIL from a couple of early alpha readers. They loved it and wanted more of the same. Then the book editor who went through DEVIL also liked the story, its depth and its complexity. She also mentioned some kind of a continuation.

I balked. I did not want to write another book like DEVIL. And I certainly didn't want to write a damned sequel, since sequels usually suck and anyway, why start a sequel to a book that might not ever get published?

But I started to wonder if perhaps I am meant to write the kind of books that wear me out, that exhaust me in every way possible. Maybe I'm not meant to write light-hearted, plot-driven series books.

So I ditched the political novel back in January. I spent several days working up a story, sketching out characters, etc. And then it occurred to me what I was doing.

I was writing the sequel to The Devil You Don't Know!

Sure, I think I've found an original way to write a sequel, in case the first book never sells. See, the new one starts several months earlier than its prequel, and eventually dovetails with that plot about midway through the novel. It has a whole new cast of characters, although the old characters appear at the midpoint. It's even set in a different place -- Exeter, N.H.

Of course, it ends up in the same place as DEVIL. And it's designed to wrap up the story completely. And if I craft it right, it could stand on its own.

But now that I'm waiting for beta reports to come in -- and dealing with a big-time case of the nervous crazies in the process -- I'm wondering what to do. Should I go with my first instinct and finish the politcal novel? Or dive into the bigger sequel and hope for the best?

What would you do?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nice guys really do finish last

First off, let me say this: I'm not a golf fan. I don't play the game anymore, not since one memorable Saturday afternoon when I sheathed my clubs, told my best friend I was never playing again and came home.

Let's just say I had a bad day on the links and we'll leave it at that.

Eight years later, the clubs are still out in the garage. The only time I've even touched them was to clean the garage, and trust me, that doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.

I did not watch the Masters. Not during baseball season. Not when I can watch my Cubs once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. All day today, I was wondering what I could blog about, since I'm not about to whine again about how nervous I am that eight people out there are reading my manuscript -- and the silence is deafening.

Aaaarrgggghhhhh. I suuuuucccccckkkkkkk!!!!!!

There. I feel better. Now, what was I saying? Oh yeah, golf, the Masters. Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson.

See, everyone thought Tiger Woods was a nice guy. He sure seemed like he was a nice guy, with that boyish grin of his and all. But no, it turns out he's nothing but a lying, sneaking weasel of a guy who treated his wife and kids much like I treated my golf clubs (although I'm pretty sure Tiger didn't heave one of his children into a duck pond like I did my putter. But that's another story).

Tiger came back this weekend and played the Masters. And he was doing pretty well, considering all the time he's spent in rehab lately. I mean, when did the guy actually find time to play golf? Sheesh.

But today, Tiger choked. And Phil Mickelson won. And, by all accounts, Phil Mickelson is a nice guy. Doesn't cheat on his wife (who has cancer), is a great dad, a good guy, smiles at fans, etc. You know, a regular guy.

So a good guy finally won.

Of course, the last time I checked, Phil Mickelson didn't have multi-million dollar endorsement deals. And then I saw this headline on Twitter tonight:

Tiger Woods finishes fourth; Mickelson wins Masters.

So poor Phil Mickelson, the nice guy, the damned winner, plays second fiddle in a headline to a cheating bastard who finishes fourth? Really? And to add insult to injury, he doesn't even get his first name mentioned in the headline?

So I did some checking and guess what? Tiger gets top billing pretty much everywhere. Now I'm hearing rumors that Tiger Woods is thinking about writing a book. How do you think that's going to go? Think he'll sell a few million copies?

It'll probably be right there on the shelf at Borders next to books by that weird couple that crashed the state dinner at the White House and that damned Kate Gosselin.

Oh, and that bizarre unmarried woman who had a gazillion kids and just signed up for a reality show, as did the weird dinner-crashing couple.

What a world.

NOTE: I'm a little crabby today. Sorry for the rant. :)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Roller derby nicknames and waiting ...

As I wait for feedback from the beta readers who already have my manuscript, I thought I'd update you on the search for my wife's roller derby nickname.

(For the record, one beta has sent a couple of early comments; thanks Kristy!)

As you may recall, my lovely wife tried out for -- and made -- a local roller derby team that's being formed here. She's a superb skater but, well, not as big or as mean as I tend to envision roller derby women. In other words, I fear for her life. But I digress.

Provided she gets through the summer's practice sessions, her team begins playing games or matches or whatever the hell they call them in the fall. Roller derby babes (it's what they call themselves; don't blame me) are allowed to pick their nickname once they make the team for real.

For those of you who have seen the film Whip It, you may recall that tiny Ellen Page (she's about my wife's size) went by the name Babe Ruthless. Great name, huh?

Anyway, a few days ago, I asked for some ideas on nicknames and got some really, really good ones. Please keep them coming, as we haven't settled on one yet.

So far, and in no particular order, our favorites are:

Junkyard Puppy (me);

Jenny Rotten (Gina);

Ghengis Mom (Gina);

Punky Bruiser (my wife).

The wife loves them all, but she's leaning toward Punky Bruiser because a.) she thought of it and b.) she was a huge Punky Brewster fan back in the day. While I like the name, I fear it's too 1980s and might be lost on anyone under, say, 35 years old.

What do you think? Which is your favorite? Better yet, got one yourself? If so, send it along and you might actually get to name a roller derby babe!

How awesome is that?

WORK UPDATE: I completely reworked my query letter today and posted it on Nathan Bransford's forums (where it's currently being savaged. God I suck at query letters!). But mostly I've been on vacation all week. The 12-year-old is on Spring break and we've been hanging out, hitting the gym, reading and doing fun guy stuff. It's been a relaxing week. And he's pretty much all of the way out of the dog house!

(So, can you tell by the rather chatty post that I'm a nervous wreck about those beta readers?

Because I am.

But I've decided to hike up my Big Boy Pants and wait it out.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On being vulnerable

When I was a young newspaper reporter, I used to have weird nightmares about covering something (sometimes a murder, or a basketball game or something late at night on deadline) and I would find myself running frantically, trying to find a phone.

Of course, this was before cell phones. I could never find a damned phone in the dream. Ever. And I just knew that I was going to die. Not be fired. Die. Oh, and sometimes I was naked.


I would wake up from those dreams in a cold sweat, my heart pounding.

Stress can do that to a person sometimes. And being a young, inexperienced reporter at a big-city daily newspaper is stressful. Deadlines were always looming, and editors would scream and yell and call me names, none of them beginning with Terry or ending with Towery.

And then it would pass. And we'd all go out for a beer. Or ten. And then we'd do it all over again the next day.

The word that comes to mind when I think back on those heady early days of my career is vulnerable. That's how I felt. Vulnerable. It didn't matter how good of a writer I was, or how talented I was, or how clever or cute, etc. If I missed the damn deadline, I was -- as my old city editor used to say -- "f---king dead!" God rest his soul, I really do miss that guy. He was blunt, and scary as hell, but he made me a much better reporter than I could have ever been on my own.

Ah, the good old days.

Yes, there's a relevant point to all this. I think. Anyway, in the past twenty-four hours, I have sent out three electronic versions of my manuscript. I just pressed the send button and voila, they were gone.

This afternoon, I spent thirty minutes on the phone with a helpful but not-too-smart young person from the local Kinko's, setting up a massive printing project tomorrow -- 1,670 pages. Four complete manuscripts, printed to my demanding specifications.

Those go to four more beta readers this week. That, my friends, is seven versions of The Devil You Don't Know, sent out all by itself into the big, bad world.

To live or die on its merits.

Last night, I had that dream again -- for the first time in more than twenty years.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Oh, Lord!

Well, my excitement over baseball season lasted a whole 19 hours. Is it football season yet?

As some of you might know, the Atlanta Braves crushed my hapless Cubbies 16-5. And really, it wasn't even that close. Ace (ahem) Carlos Zambrano looked good for exactly two hitters before the Evil Carlos took over. From there, things went downhill quicker than I did that time I accidentally went down the black-diamond ski slope at Chestnut Mountain (that didn't turn out too well, either).

Anyway, enough of all this depressing baseball stuff. Let's talk about writing.

Erm. Uh. Well.

Okay, not much going on there, either. I've sent off three electronic versions of the mss and will be printing four paper copies in the next couple of days. And then?

Well, then I wait. Because maybe seven revisions aren't enough. Maybe, just maybe, I'll need to dive back into the thing and spend the next fifty-six years reworking my novel.

Or not. Who knows?

Despite my obvious post-Cubs debacle depression, I don't really feel that bad tonight. I have a finished manuscript, two more started and a wife who's gonna be a roller derby babe. I mean, really, how much more can a person ask for in life?

Except a freaking Cubs victory on Wednesday!


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Opening Night!

The convergence of Easter and April 4 makes tonight the Holiest Night of the Year, hands down.

Yes, it's Easter Sunday. Happy Easter to everyone who celebrates it.
It's also Major League Baseball's Opening Night (first pitch is seven minutes away, so this will be a very brief post) and no one could be happier than me. I actually busted my butt to get the revision done by Friday at the latest, so it wouldn't run into baseball's opening week.
Happy Opening Night to everyone who celebrates it.

Baseball means Spring to me. Hot dogs. Renewal and redemption. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. The warm sun and a triple play.

Dayum, I'm excited.

I posted this picture because I am a Cubs fan and anything that disparages the hated Deadbirds makes me happy. So, sue me. Of course, it's a friendly rivalry. Some of my best friends are Cardinals fans. The schmucks.

So, I'm off to watch tonight's Red Sox-Yankees opener. Rooting for whoever plays the Yankees is almost as much fun as rooting for my lovable losers.

Later. It's time.


Friday, April 2, 2010

The Devil You Don't Know is finished!

The massive re-write of The Devil You Don't Know is finished and I'm wiped out.

I worked more than nine hours today without a break and finished a few minutes ago (shortly after 8 p.m.).

I don't know if it's publishable, but I do know it's as good as I can possibly make it. I left it all on the page -- every damned ounce of talent I have. Whether it's good enough remains to be seen, but I can honestly say I worked harder on this than on anything in my entire life.

It took more than two years to write (with an eight-month break for the Congressional campaign during which I wrote nothing) and three months to completely rewrite and revise it. I've been through the manuscript so many times I literally know every word by heart.

I never want to read it again. But I sure hope others do.

Early next week, I'm going to have four copies printed for me at Kinko's. And those will be going to the beta readers I've chosen. Two more electronic versions are going to my alpha readers -- my wife and my father-in-law, both of whom read it and critiqued it before the revisions.

If anyone really wants to read an electronic version, and is willing to give me honest feedback, let me know. I'm not sure how smart that is, and I don't want to send it to just anyone, but ask and I'll certainly consider it. I think I've covered myself enough on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet that it won't be difficult to prove it's mine.

Provided, of course, that it's worth stealing! :)

Sorry to be rambling, but I'm really tired and, oddly enough, a little emotional. I cannot believe I did this. I wrote a fucking novel! Wow.

If I can do it, anyone can do it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Almost there

I have a chapter-and-a-half left and my massive manuscript revision is done. While I need to balance a couple of personal things tomorrow, it's entirely possible I will be done by this time tomorrow night.

This is the seventh complete rewrite, and by far the most comprehensive. This one, you might recall, comes after book editor Staley spent weeks going through the manuscript and made copious notes and suggestions. Her work was excellent and her suggestions spot on. I am very, very happy with where the book is, although I'm a bit nervous about tackling the ending.

I'm most happy that, after all of this editing and rewriting and revising, the book is still my book. It's still the story I envisioned when I sat down at the computer (not even this one, but a previous one) and began banging out a crude first draft. It's still my idea, my plot, my characters. I was terrified that someone would take me aside and tell me: Dude, this sucks. You need to completely rethink this.

But they didn't. And I'm happy. And relieved. I swear I'm not going to work for a week or so once it's done and off to the final beta readers. Okay, I guess I need to spend some time polishing the query letter. Again. But mainly, next week is reserved for baseball. It is opening week, you know.

So that's where I am tonight. Tired but happy that The Devil You Don't Know is almost ready to start shopping around.

Oh, and keep the roller derby nicknames coming. We are loving them! Gina, yours were particularly well received.

Oh, my newest nickname idea? Lois Pain. Get it? She's a reporter. Lois Lane?