Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Like monks on a roller coaster

I've done a lot of things in my life, most of which I won't go into here. But this writing career thing I've embarked on has to be the wildest emotional ride I've ever been on in my life.

My confidence level can go from zero to sixty in about three minutes. And then back again. And then back yet again. And so on.

Take this past weekend, for instance. A follower of this blog offered to read the first fifty pages of The Devil You Don't Know to, you know, get me to quit whining. She liked it, but had some very solid advice on how to make it better. I worked diligently on it for a couple of days, rewriting the entire beginning of the manuscript. I tossed out entire chapters and then went completely nuts and reworked the entire book.

I managed to cut more than 10,000 words from it -- a good thing, since it was too long. I sent it back to her.

And she LOVED it. Raved about it. She wanted to read the whole book. So I sent it to her and she read it in a day and a half. And LOVED it. I was thrilled and, quite honestly, got to feeling pretty cocky. She helped me with the query letter (which I posted earlier this week on this blog) and I immediately sent it out to a handful to agents.

A handful of really good agents. Like Janet Reid. And Nathan Bransford.

I mean, I was feeling good. You know?

And they rejected me. In record time. Poof.


So then I sank into a massive depression. I suck. My book sucks. Everything about me and my life sucks. I don't deserve to live, etc. You know the drill.

By yesterday, I had decided to give up writing for good and get a real job. Again.

Now at this point, you're probably thinking: Well, something good must have happened today. Right?

Uh. No.

The only thing good so far is that I haven't received any more rejections. But it's only 4 p.m. here in Illinois, so I suppose that could change.


But here I am, still plugging away. I might lack the talent to become a published author, but I'm starting to believe that I don't lack the tenacity. And I keep hearing that tenacity is one of the key ingredients to making it in this business.

In the meantime, I've switched gears again. I have put the political novel on hold (temporarily) and I'm researching an idea I had over the weekend for a big kick-ass adventure thriller with a solid, original plot. I spent an hour at my son's Little League game last night sketching out the plot. I love it.

So I'm going to write it. First. Before I finish the political one, because this one feels right. I can't really explain what I mean, it just does.

So how about you guys? Are you up one minute, and down the next? How do you deal with the emotional roller coaster that comes with writing a novel?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's time to relax

Over the past three days, I have completely re-worked my manuscript. I have a new query letter that I really like. And I'm now at a point where I honestly feel like I've done everything I can do to get The Devil You Don't Know published.

(Thanks, Anne!)

Oh, there's one more thing, I guess. I have to write a synopsis. Damn it. I have a secret that I'm going to share here for the first time: I have been purposely avoiding agents who require a synopsis in the hope that I could just, you know, skate around it.

Yeah. Right. Not going to happen. So tomorrow, after I mow the entire yard and before I make dinner and then take the kid to his first Little League game of the season, I am going to try to kind of start writing a synopsis.

Damn it.

I sent three more queries tonight with the new query letter and shiny new manuscript just ready to pounce on the world. Ahem. Anyway, I really got my courage up and queried .... wait for it .....

Nathan Bransford!

I know. It'll never happen for several reasons (not his cup of tea, not his kind of writing, too adult, etc.), but what the hell. Since I figure he'll reject me like he does 99.99999999 percent of writers who query him, I figured I might as well get it out of the way.

I sort of expected the rejection fairly soon, since he's like super-human when it comes to the speed in which he rejects people (although he does it nicely, I'm told; I'll let you know). But then I remembered that the series finale of Lost is tonight, so I figure that'll keep him occupied for the entire evening.

So I should hear from him in the morning. (Yay, he says weakly.)

I've decided to post the latest incarnation of my query tonight for you guys to sniff around and rip to shreds should the desire strike you. Seriously, if you guys see anything that needs work, please tell me. I still have lots of prospective agents left -- including all of my A list with the exception of Nathan. So I can still tweak this baby.

Thanks in advance. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Bransford,

Newspaper editor Michael Reed takes a frantic call from a former nun, begging him to meet her son, the resurrected Jesus Christ in the form of fifteen year old Jordan Crane. Michael blows her off as just another crackpot.

When Michael's son is hit by a car, his fragile faith is tested in ways he could not have imagined when Jordan Crane places his hands on his son's dead body—and brings him back to life. A skeptic by nature, Michael questions his own sanity.

Michael soon learns Jordan needs him to lead a small group of average people into the greatest spiritual battle of all time—the last fight between God and Satan. Can they save the world? Is this kid really the Son of God? Or has Michael truly lost his mind?

As he suspends his disbelief and rationalizes the miracles Jordan Crane keeps delivering, Michael's newspaper instincts take over and he knows he must tell the world this story. It's not an assignment he relishes.

THE DEVIL YOU DON'T KNOW is a thriller complete at 114,000 words.

As a career journalist, I've received a dozen national, regional, and state awards from the Associated Press and the Illinois Press Association for writing and reporting.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I would be delighted to send you the first three chapters.

Very truly yours,

Terry L. Towery
[contact info redacted]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

If I don't write YA, am I doomed?

I don't read Young Adult fiction. I haven't even read the Harry Potter series, although I did see the movies.

I don't like vampire novels unless the names Stephen King or Bram Stoker are attached to them.

I wouldn't know Twilight from Lightning Thief. And when I think of Team Edward or Team Jacob -- well, I don't think of them. Ever.

I prefer adult fiction. Nothing against YA, of course. I'm thrilled that young people are reading and that there are tons of talented authors out there providing wonderful books for them to read. I have a preteen who loves YA and reads several novels a week. My wife has even been known to read it occasionally.

But not me. It just isn't my cup of tea. And I write what I like. Period.

But I've been getting some scary vibes on the Internet recently. Basically, conventional wisdom says that unless you write YA, you can pretty much forget about getting published these days.

Say what?

Now, I'm sure I'm oversimplifying the situation. Or worse. I once had a boss who told me I was an awfulizer. Of course, he was a complete moron, but that's beside the point. He was right that one time.

But the fear arose within me again recently when a friend commented (partially in jest, I'm sure) on one of my blog posts that maybe if I made my main character a teen instead of an adult, then perhaps an agent would be interested in my book.

Uh, no.

All joking aside, I do think it's much harder for those of us who don't write YA or even romance novels to get published these days. Maybe everyone has quit reading books except kids, young adults and romance lovers. I don't know. But it's enough to worry me, a writer of adult fiction.

So I'd like to know: How many of you reading this blog write Young Adult fiction? How many write romance? And finally, how many write plain old commercial or literary fiction?

I'll bet the vast majority of you write the first two. And that means my fears might be rooted in some truths.

Great. That's all I need. Yet another hurdle to publication. But then again, I might just be awfulizing. It's happened before.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I've killed my darlings

I just spent the day completely revising the first 195 pages of The Devil You Don't Know.

I know. I'm exhausted. Fried.

As most of you know, I finally broke down and asked for help the other day. Guess what? I got it! Yay.

The lovely and very talented Anne Gallagher, Piedmont Writer to those of you here on the Internets, emailed me and offered to read my first 50 pages and tell me if they worked for her. I sent it off last night without a moment's hesitation because, really, what do I have to lose?

Thirteen hours later, she emailed me back an amazing critique of the pages, telling me things that I had long known in my own heart. The book starts with too much back story; the plot needs to be moved up. Keep in only those parts that move the plot forward and take the rest out. Do it, she said, and let me know if you think it works better.

It does. It really does.

As many of you know, the book is also too damned long -- clocking in at 123k. Yikes. So that had to be fixed, too.

So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work this morning, cutting and pasting and hacking it like I'm that serial killer in the film Seven. I pulled out chapters two through three and pasted them into a separate file. Then I moved Chapter four up to become Chapter two and rewrote accordingly. Then I slowly added in only those things that move the plot forward. Nothing else.

Sadly, I lost much of Gary K., the biker AA sponsor (although he shows up later, just without much of his previous flair). But by mid-afternoon, I knew I was onto something good. Really good.

The story started to flow like the new manuscript has been flowing. I hewed close to the plot's bones and killed all those darlings that stood in the way. I've heard it mentioned that many first-time novelists commit writer masturbation while writing their rookie novel. In other words, they write to please themselves, not the reader.

Anne pointed out (not in so many words) that I need to make love to the novel, instead -- I need to do it for others and not for my own selfish pleasure.

Whew. I'm blushing here. Sorry for the saucy talk! Let me go take a cold shower and .... Okay. I'm back.

Anyhoo ... Anne was right. Stunningly right. Nine hours after starting, I had revised up to page 194. I stopped because, well, because I'm worn out. I just sent her the new beginning. I can't wait to see what she has to say. And if it still doesn't work, I'll go back at it in the morning. I've decided the goddamned thing has taken up way too much of my life not to give it every chance to be published.

Oh, and the length? Well, now it's down to 114k and counting. Yay! That means that in one day, I not only made the book better, but I made it shorter by almost 10,000 words. Not bad for a day's work, I'd say.

I'll let you know how things turn out. But I am committed to getting TDYDK published.

Thanks Anne. And thanks to everyone who has lent a hand over the past few weeks. I will never be afraid to ask for help again.

You guys are the best. :)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When (and how) to ask for help.

As most of you know, I'm in the midst of querying for my completed novel, The Devil You Don't Know.

It's not pretty.

In fact, querying reminds me a little of gym class back I was a freshman in high school. I dreaded going to my 3rd hour class that year, because I knew what was going to happen before I ever got there. My stepfather was a police officer, so I had a target on my back. I remember thinking that I might as well just shove my own head into the locker room garbage can and save the seniors the trouble.

In other words, it seemed pointless and fruitless -- and I knew how it was going to go before I even got there -- but I kept going because, well, because I had to. Querying is like that for me. I'll bet it is for most of you, too.

I sent one query Thursday to an agent who reps my genre and whose web site said is actively looking for new writers. Swell, I thought, and sent that baby off. She also requested the first 50 pages of the manuscript along with the query, which thrilled me to no end. So I copied and pasted and sent it off.

Four minutes later, I received a form rejection. Four freaking minutes! Either my query flat out sucks, or that woman is the world's fastest reader.


Like many of us, I suffer from crippling self-doubt. Big-time, serious self-doubt. Tell me my novel is really good and I guarantee you I will think you are lying to me. I don't know why I'm this way, I just am. And I deal with it. But it makes it hard to work in a business like publishing in the year 2010, when rejection isn't just a possibility but a fricking lifestyle.

I talked to one of the final three beta readers who are going through TDYDK today and he seems to genuinely like it. That should make me feel better. But I got my seventh form rejection from a prospective agent at 6:30 this morning. Do these people not sleep? Do agents really get up that early, just to ruin my day? Good Lord. (Okay, I'm kind of kidding here. It didn't ruin my day. I mean, come on. The Cubs finally won. Nothing could ruin my day).

Asking for help from anyone is very, very difficult for me. In fact, it's damned near impossible. See, I'm the one who is always helping other people. I was a professional journalist for a long, long time. An editor. A mentor to dozens of journalism interns and young reporters. I shouldn't need help. See?

Bullshit. I need help. I need help on this query letter, because I don't think it's getting the job done. I also need help on the first 50 pages of my manuscript. Oh, and the ending. It sucks too.

I need help.

There, I said it. Now, of course, I have no idea how to actually get some help. I've put the query up on numerous online sites and have paid very close attention to the valid criticisms. I've made changes accordingly. But the fact is, agents are reading my query and rejecting me -- sometimes in record time. Something needs to be done before I run out of agents to query.

So I'm asking you, dear readers: How do I get help with this? Shall I post the query again and see if we can somehow figure out what its problem is? Whatever it takes, I'll do it. I'm that desperate. Seriously.

And while I'm not ready to dump TDYDK yet, I am beginning to suspect that it may end up being a fairly decent first attempt. The latest beta did say he felt my writing becomes more sophisticated as the book moves along. I suspect that's due to the fact that I honestly didn't know what I was doing when I started it back in February 2007.

In fact, I suspect I love the new WIP so much because I know what I'm doing now. I think it flows better, is more professional. Is more publishable.

But see, I have this huge MS just sitting here, finished, so I will try to keep selling it. I will continue to query and will make whatever adjustments I can until I am convinced that it's a non-starter. Then, I will park it on the hard drive and sell it once I become a famous best-selling author. (Heh heh.)

I've also signed up for an Editors Intensive workshop by Writer's Digest at their Cincinnati headquarters in September. The workshop's purpose is to get the first 50 pages of your MS in shape. Also, I get a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with a professional editor who is supposed to work with me on those crucial first 50 pages. God knows, I need it.

Problem is, I don't know which book to bring. The completed one that might not ever sell? Or the new one that represents my best efforts so far? I hope I'll have a better read on that come September.

I'm also interested in some kind of online writing crit group. I read about people being in crit groups all the time, either online or in real life. Since I live in Peoria, Illinois, and I don't know one other fiction writer in the area, doing it in real life is a problem. So does anyone know how to get into an online critique group?

I'm listening. I love writing, and want to continue doing it as long as I can. So I'm all ears.

UPDATES: I have reached 20,000 words on the new political thriller (I really need to come up with a name for the damned thing). It's coming along very nicely so far. In fact, it's such fun to write I almost feel like I'm doing something wrong. Surely it can't be this enjoyable, can it?

Also, a reader asked me how the situation with the grouchy old lady at the gym turned out. Well. Ahem. I, uh, changed my schedule. So the situation is now, um, resolved.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Feeling overwhelmed? I am

Perhaps you've noticed that I've been blogging less lately. It's nothing personal, and I am still finding time to read my fave blogs out there and comment when possible, since I know how important it is to me when someone comments on one of my posts.

When I started this blog back around Thanksgiving, I had already finished writing The Devil You Don't Know and was essentially waiting around for the book editor to read the manuscript and get it back to me for a massive round of revisions. I got it back in January and started revising and editing immediately.

But I still found time to blog six days a week. In fact, I enjoyed it. I especially liked the give-and-take with other writers out there, both published and unpublished. It was nice to know I wasn't alone in my frustrations.

But as I continue to query (I've sent out 12 so far and have received 6 rejections), I've started back writing my political thriller. And it's been consuming my days (and sometimes nights). In fact, it's been leaving me pretty much exhausted by early evening. Throw in dinner, Little League and family time, and my blogging time has suddenly evaporated. I need to cut back, folks.

I intend to keep blogging -- as often as I possibly can. I enjoy it far too much to quit now. It is my sincere hope that my faithful readers will continue to drop by and read and comment as they see fit. I would certainly appreciate it.

And knowing me, I'll probably still blog three or four times a week. I just don't want to have to feel guilty if I don't write a post each day. I hope you understand and hang with me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why do you write?

I'm not the kind of guy who pulls up a chair and tells a story.

Seriously. That's so not me.

No, I'm the kind of guy who sits quietly off to the side, watching and listening, until I'm certain that I have something witty, something intelligent to say. Then I step up and say it. And then, I'll do my damnedest to become the center of attention. Ahem. Because I'm sort of like that.

But I've never considered myself a storyteller, not in the classic sense. And I find that rather odd, since I've ended up as a (so far unpublished) writer of fiction. A storyteller, so to speak.

Don't get me wrong. I have a million stories jostling around inside of me, just dying to get out. Some are pretty good, some are pretty wild and some are, well, some are probably best left where they are, if you catch my drift.

So, I am a storyteller. But I'm an enigma -- a storyteller who doesn't really like to tell stories, because that involves personal interaction. And that, as we all know, kinda sucks. I mean, sometimes. You know?

So do I write because I'm a creative person? Hmmm. Maybe. Although I'm not artistic in the sense that I would need to paint or sculpt or anything if I couldn't write. I'm not the sensitive, frustrated artiste. That's just not me.

But for some reason, something inside of me burns with a desire to write my stories and have people read them. And enjoy them. And get them. I can't think of anything more satisfying than having someone love something I've written. I don't know why, but that's been true in my life since I became a newspaper writer at the tender age of 22.

Writing is such a personal thing for me. When I put my writing out there for the world to see, I feel as though I'm strolling naked through the mall. I mean, I'm totally cool unless someone laughs, you know? Then I want to crawl away somewhere and just die.

So why do you write? Are you a natural born storyteller? An artist who needs to unload your vision, or die? Or is it something deeper, something more primal?

I suspect my reason is closer to the latter. I would wager that my burning desire to foist my words, my very own version of a story, on the world is a way to demand respect. To demand that I be taken seriously. To know that I count, that my thoughts have meaning.

Or not. Who knows? All I know is, I have to write. Period. I seem to have no choice in the matter. I could no more not write than I could not breathe.

So I'm interested in hearing how you came to be a writer. And more importantly, why do you write?

AND SPEAKING OF WRITING: I knocked off slightly more than a thousand words today. The new political novel is still gushing from my brain, not unlike that unfortunate oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This baby is very intricately plotted, so much so that I worry about it becoming a formulaic plot-driven potboiler. Consequently, I've worked very hard to get the characters to simply pop from the page. In fact, I've already filled two legal pads with notes and charts and graphs and doodles -- all kinds of weird things. I think I'm becoming totally obsessed with this book.

And I don't even have a title for it yet.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I'm crushing on my new WIP! Is that so wrong?

Before I get into any writing related stuff on this Sunday evening, I want to wish a heartfelt Happy Mother's Day to ALL of the Moms out there reading this blog (and even those who aren't).

To my lovely wife Jennifer, I say this (again): You are the best mother in the world! And you're welcome for the rocking black mini skirts and lacy black tights the 12-year-old and I got for you! (It's for roller derby; get your minds out of the gutter!) You're gonna knock 'em dead, babe!

And now, I want to talk about my new book. I spent two-and-a-half years working on The Devil You Don't Know, and while I'm fairly proud of how it turned out, there was not one moment during the actual writing period that I considered fun. Not one. For some reason, the book depressed and exhausted me, and I seriously worried that I wouldn't have the fortitude to write another one. It was that hard on me.

Fast-forward a few months to now, and WOW. What a difference! I am totally in love with this book, the story and the characters. Totally in love. Especially the characters.

Wanna hear something weird? I spent all day Friday writing an entire chapter that essentially was about my main character, Ian Cooper, falling in love with mysterious young Stephanie. It included some pretty steamy stuff, although nothing X-rated -- and after I finished it, I couldn't get it out of my mind! I was actually jealous of the guy, since the young woman I created is so, well, hot and smart and sexy and classy! Of course, she just might be a spy. But hey, you can't have everything. Right?

Here's a portion of the scene I'm talking about. Stephanie has followed Ian to Chicago, against his wishes. They barely know each other, although they have this easy, witty bantering relationship. Ian is 11 years older than Stephanie, who is 22. She talks him into having dinner together in downtown Chicago before heading back to the hotel where they are staying -- in separate rooms. Ian has a lot on his mind, including the fact that he's still in love with his ex-wife. But as the evening progresses, he finds himself totally enthralled by this beautiful young woman.

The scene here picks up right after they leave the restaurant after a lovely dinner. Enjoy!

“You’re a nice guy, Ian,” she said. “I haven’t met many nice guys my age.”

“I’ll bet,” he said, laughing. “Nothing like drunken frat boys to give all males a bad name.”

“So,” she said, looking around. “Now what?”

He looked at his wristwatch. It was nine-thirty. “I feel like dancing.” He looked at her. “How about you?”

“God, I thought you’d never ask,” she said, taking his arm as they set off down the sidewalk. It was a warm spring night and the inky sky was filled with a dazzling array of stars—barely visible through the concrete skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop. They walked arm-in-arm, like high school prom royalty. Every few seconds, the sidewalk vibrated from a passing elevated train. A couple of blocks from the steakhouse, they found a nice club and danced to electronica, disco and rock and roll for more than two hours. Ian hadn’t had so much fun since he’d quit drinking.

He ordered a diet Coke and sipped it all evening. Stephanie had two glasses of white wine, and was a little tipsy by the time they decided to call it quits at midnight and hail a cab.

“I’m such a lightweight,” she sighed, sitting too close to him in the back of the cab. Every time the speeding taxi hit a bump, her bare leg pressed harder against Ian’s thigh. She smelled of perfume, wine and just the faintest hint of fresh, honest sweat. It was an intoxicating aroma, in Ian’s estimation.

“You only had two glasses of wine,” he said, smiling. “It’s not as though I need to carry you to your room or anything.”

She looked at him, deadly serious. “Would you, though?” she asked. Her green eyes sparkled in the dim cab light. “Would you carry me to my room if you had to?”

“Sure. If I had to.”

“My hero,” she said, looking out the window. She didn’t speak for the remainder of the ride, and Ian worried that he had somehow offended her.

“Hey,” he finally said as the cab neared the hotel. “Did I say something wrong?”

She looked at him and smiled. “No. I was just deep in thought. Sorry.”

He couldn’t resist. “What were you thinking about?”

She closed her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder. His heart skipped a beat and his breathing quickened alarmingly.

“About us. About you.” She looked up at him, her eyes half closed. “About how confused I am right now that I could have such strong feelings for someone I just met.”

“Oh,” he said, swallowing hard. “And what did you decide?”

“I decided I need to go to sleep,” she said, looking deep into his eyes. “But I also decided I want to do it in your room, next to you, with your arms around me.” She snuggled deeper into his shoulder and her smell was so incredibly sweet, so sexy, that Ian nearly passed out. “Would that be OK? Would you think less of me if we did that?”

“No,” he said, his voice husky. “I couldn’t think less of you if I tried.”

Twenty minutes later, Ian was stretched out on his bed, fully dressed, watching CNN on the little flat-screen television set. Stephanie lay curled up next to him, also fully dressed, although she had taken off her heels and tossed them onto the floor with a giggle. She was already asleep in the crook of his arm, her head on his chest. He could smell her shampoo, could feel her body heat. Her bare feet were so sexy he thought he might die. Sighing, he grabbed the remote, flipped off the set and leaned over, careful not to disturb the little sleeping beauty next to him, to turn off the lamp.

He leaned down and gently kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and snuggled closer. Outside the hotel room, a police siren warbled in the distance.

As he drifted off to sleep with Stephanie Schertz in his arms, it occurred to him that he had never been happier in his entire life.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Evocative writing

Before I get into descriptive writing, I feel compelled (don't ask me why) to tell you about something that's driving me nuts. See, I've recently changed my daily routine. I now go to the gym much earlier than I used to. I get there a bit past 7 a.m., which puts me home and writing by 9:15.

I like it. It works for me. In fact, I've been averaging more than 2,000 words a day this week on the new novel. For me, that's an astounding amount of work to get done each day, since I tend to write very precise first drafts. Mainly because I hate rewriting.

But every day this week when I arrived at the gym, there was this older woman leaving at the exact same time. I passed her every day, right at the front door to the health club. And like I do to everyone, I smile and say hi. And each time, she glares at me, rolls her eyes and makes that certain sheesh sound that people make when something or someone repels them. As though I'm some kind of child molester or circus freak or something.


Now I have no idea why a 65-year-old woman sheeshing me and rolling her eyes is making me so goddamned crazy, but it is. So today, I decided I would glare at her first, roll my eyes and sheesh her. So I did. And what did she do? She sheeshed me back even louder. I mean, it was more a hiss than a sheesh. In fact, it was almost a frickin' growl!

I think I'm going to stay in my car until I see her waddle out. I'm not saying she frightens me or anything, but damn. That's one scary old lady.


What I really wanted to talk about today is descriptive writing, the kind of evocative prose that stays with you forever.

I was thinking about this while in the steam room this morning at the gym (well, sure, I was also thinking about the crazy lady). I was thinking of certain passages, in both books and songs, that I still remember, that still stay with me, years later.

For example: Back in the 1980s, an English writer named John Gardner was commissioned to write several James Bond novels by the estate of the original author, Ian Fleming. (Interesting fun fact: the MC in my new novel is named Ian as my way of honoring Sir Ian Fleming). Now Gardner was no Ian Fleming, of course, but he did have a certain lyrical, descriptive way of writing that has always stuck with me.

I distinctly remember one passage, although I can't remember which book it's from, in which Gardner described Bond as such (I'm forced to paraphrase here):

Tall and elegant with a shock of black hair and piercing blue eyes, Bond slipped into a pair of comfortably worn leather moccasins, no socks, pulled on some soft pressed blue jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He rolled his sleeves tightly, precisely to his elbows. He strapped on a black-leather Rolex with a gleaming, beveled glass face. Gardner then goes from this rather elegant physical description to that of Bond, now fully formed in my mind, reaching into a dresser drawer and pulling out a sleek black Walther PPK handgun. He tells us how heavy it is, how it feels cold and oily in his hands, and how he slowly and carefully screws the silencer on it before heading off to a breakfast of kippers, freshly squeezed orange juice and Earl Grey tea.

Bravo. I never, ever forgot that couple of paragraphs of character description. I can't even tell you exactly why, just that it has is stayed with me for 25 years. To this day, when I drink Earl Grey tea (and I do, often), I think of James Bond. If only I knew what a kipper was ...

Well-written phrases in rock songs have also struck a chord with me over the years. I love a clever, well-turned lyric.

Some examples:

Elton John in Saturday Night is Alright for Fighting (written by Bernie Taupin):

My sister looks cute in her braces and boots
A handful of grease in her hair

To me, that never fails to conjure a cute punk-rock girl from the 1970s. Always.

How about Bruce Springsteen in Thunder Road?:

You can hide 'neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets

Oh baby, that's some writing there. I could pick a thousand samples from Springsteen that never fail to trip my trigger.

Want to make Terry cry? Play Desperado by the Eagles:

Now it seems to me, some fine things
Have been laid upon your table.
But you only want the ones
That you can't get.

Amen brother. Amen.

Or Elvis Costello (I don't recall the song, just the lyric):

I wish you luck
with a capital F

Don't you wish you had written that? I know I do.

Back to literature (and I used that term loosely; you'll see why). Here's me, trying to use descriptive language to describe my beloved Wrigley Field in my new novel. Beware, this is a rough first draft that I wrote just this afternoon:

Wrigley Field stood empty, since the Cubs were in St. Louis for a three-game series. But the team’s absence didn’t prevent a gaggle of tourists from milling about outside the venerable old stadium, mugging for cell phone pictures and peering in through the many peepholes in the crumbling outfield walls. Wrigley had always reminded Ian of an elegant old whore—way past her prime, but with just enough class left to seal the deal.

Now my writing skills are certainly not on par with those I cited above, but I am proud to point out the scarcity of adverbs in the above paragraph. Hey, I'm working at it. So how about you? Are there any passages in books or song lyrics that you've never forgotten, no matter how much times passes? I know I'll think of thousand more the second I hit the publish button. Have a great weekend. We'll meet right here on Sunday night.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When is being alone unhealthy?

It's been eye-opening these past few months, getting to know a variety of writers online. Writers who are just beginning their journey and those who have already been published. And all the rest of us in between.

It didn't take long for me to discover that we writers seem to have much in common. Well, not all of us. But many of us.

We don't seem to have a lot of confidence in our abilities and talents. We can be very sensitive to criticism, even when it's constructive and delivered oh-so gently. We're not very good judges of our own work and talent. And we're all about 15 degrees off center, as my friend Josin says. (I'd say closer to 25 degrees off, but what do I know?)

But the one trait I've noticed over and over among us writer-types is this: We all seem to relish being alone. I know I do. Most of the time, anyway.

But it can be a bit of a conundrum. For me, anyway. In order for me to properly conjure the real world, I need to actually get out and experience it. I mean, Google is great and all, but it's a poor substitute for getting out and watching and observing real people. It's amazing how many ideas I get, how many characters my mind creates, all while sitting having a latte at Starbucks. Or shopping at Kroger. Or eating lunch with a buddy in the city.

But if I get out too much, I'm not sitting here, butt in seat, writing. And that seems to take up an awful lot of my time these days. My wife jokingly (I think) refers to me as a hermit. And she's not far from the truth, to be honest with you. If I didn't force myself to go to the gym and take my son to Little League, I'm not sure when I would get out.

This is a big change for me. I spent many years as a working journalist, which is as much about socializing and schmoozing as it is about writing and reporting. I spent years cultivating sources, working them on the phone and over lunches and coffee (and early on in my career, over drinks). The newsroom I worked in was always full; loud and chaotic. Our desks sat next to one another, no cubicles for us. It was people, people, people.

It drove me nuts.

I mean, I like people. I do. I really do. But man, do I relish my solitude. And now that I am a "writer," I have a built-in excuse to be a full-time recluse. I spend my days alone, writing and researching and editing. When my phone rings, I grumble. I hate to be interrupted when I'm working, even if it's my lovely wife calling just to chat.

I suspect this isn't healthy.

So my questions to you, dear blog buddies, are these: When is alone too alone? Are you a hermit? By design or by necessity? Do you consider yourself a loner? Antisocial? Is it healthy?

Let me know. Have a great Wednesday night. I know I will, if these damned Cubs can come back and beat the Pirates! :)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tag, I'm it

The wonderful Tracy at Forever Endeavor tagged me a couple of days ago and I promised her I would come back and answer these five questions five times.

Here we go:

Question 1 - Where were you five years ago?

1. Sitting right here, although at a different computer.

2. Working as the assignment editor of the local newspaper.

3. Just learning the joys of cigar smoking.

4. Getting ready to go to South America in August on the greatest adventure of my life.

5. Dreaming of someday being a published author.

Question 2 - Where would you like to be in five years?

1. A published author. Duh.

2. More financially secure.

3. More together than I am today.

4. Still happily married to my best friend.

5. Traveling the world.

Question 3 - What is on your to-do list today?

1. Write this blog and respond to Tracy's poll.

2. Send out two more queries (although I might wait a day).

3. Hit the gym (done).

4. Fix dinner (strip steaks).

5. Watch the Cubs game (I'm so lame).

Question 4 - What snacks do you enjoy?

1. Popcorn with lots of butter.

2. Snickers bar.

3. Pizza (is that a snack?)

4. Smoked almonds.

5. Kitchen Cooked potato chips (a local delicacy).

Question 5 - What five things would you do if you were a billionaire?

1. Give away half of it to charity.

2. Buy a nicer home and cars.

3. Travel, travel, travel.

4. Invest it wisely.

5. Continue to do pretty much the same thing I am now, i.e., write books.

So there you have it. Probably not nearly as exciting and eye-opening as some thought, given my propensity for far too much personal sharing. But the answers are honest.

I hereby tag:





Anne (Piedmont Writer)

Monday, May 3, 2010

The joy of writing

I rolled up my sleeves and got back to work today. As some of you know, I've put the theological book on hold and have gone back to the political novel. It just feels right, especially since book one, The Devil You Don't Know, is kind of languishing in query land right now.

I've made a deal with myself. I'm going to finish this current book by the end of the year -- a timetable I find very reachable considering how well it's going. I already have 15k done and blasted out about a thousand more today.

Meanwhile, I'm going to continue to fine tune TDYDK based on any feedback I get from betas. I also plan on sending out a handful of queries each week and retooling the query itself based on the types of rejections I'm getting. Who knows? Maybe lightning will strike and an agent will be interested. If so, great. If not, well then, I'll consider the book my learner's book and move on. I suspect very few writers actually get the first manuscript they write published. And while the money grows tighter each day, I've decided to press on.

I really like this new book. It's a completely different direction from the previous one and I actually enjoy writing it. I know this sounds weird, but when I think of the first book, I see the colors black and blue in my mind's eye. When I think of this one, I see orange and yellow. It's just not as depressing a book, despite some nasty violence and some big-time suspense.

I'm also curious about your writing schedules (for you writers out there). I decided to get up much earlier, hitting the gym by 6 or so and getting home by 8 to begin writing. I'm not sure why, but it just sounded like a good thing to do. But I'm so frigging exhausted right now that I'm having second thoughts.

For many years, while I was working at the newspaper, I had to be at work before 8 a.m. I got up every morning at 4:30 (yes, you read that correctly!) and headed for the gym, which opens at 5 on weekdays. I'd get home by 7 and be out the door a few minutes later. I lived this way for many years.

But when I left the paper, I discovered the joys of late-night television. From Scrubs to Letterman to Craig Ferguson, I'm usually not asleep until 12:30 or 1 a.m. I get up a little before 7, have a couple cups of coffee, watch Morning Joe on MSNBC and spend some time with the wife and kids before we all leave the house about 8:15. This gets me home about 10:30. I cook and eat brunch, read for an hour or so and write in the afternoons.

I usually only write during the week, although I've been known to work on Sunday evenings. I know there are writers out there who swear you have to write every day if you're going to be a real writer. But I really like to keep weekends for myself and my family.

Now this has served me well, but I can't shake the feeling that I might be more efficient if I wrote in the mornings and goofed off in the afternoons (you know, when the Cubs are usually on television).

So tell me, what's your writing routine? When do you write and for how long each day? Do you write on weekends, or just on weekdays?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I want change

I'm sitting here missing my wife, who is currently stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport while American Airlines is scrambling to find a regional jet that actually works.

I kind of hope they do, you know?

Anyway, it's been a dreary, stormy weekend and her absence has made a particularly tough week even worse. It's nothing serious, mind you, just my usual fits and starts when it comes to my confidence. And my work.

But since I can't do anything about my manuscript (well, I could. But I'm done with it), I decided to come up a list of things I'd like to change about myself in the coming weeks. Oh, I'm also considering attending my first writers' conference this fall in Cincinnati. We'll see.

So here's nine things I'd like to change about myself:

1. I would like to be more confident, about my work and myself. I really am my own worst enemy. If someone tells me they like my novel, I immediately suspect they're lying. If they say it sucks, I take it as gospel. I really would like to reach a point in my life where I no longer give a crap what others think of me. I mean really, it's not junior high anymore, you know?

2. I'd like to be a better husband to my wife. I'm not a bad one, mind you. I don't drink or screw around or mistreat her. I don't lie to her and I tell her I love her several times a day. We've barely argued in the 17 years we've known each other and we remain each other's best friend. But I know I could do better. God knows, she deserves it.

3. I'd like to be a better father. Again, I'm not a bad one. I love my kids more than I love myself and I would walk across broken glass for any of them. I would. But sometimes, I yell at them -- especially the two older ones. Sometimes, I wish I could just be their friend, but I'm convinced that doesn't work. So I am the disciplinarian, whether I like it or not. But I really didn't have much of a father, so I really pretty much started from scratch. But I will say I'm a far better father than I ever thought I'd be. Sometimes, that's enough.

4. I'd like to be a better listener. I don't have a ton of close friends (by choice, unfortunately; I'm borderline antisocial. It's true), but those I have like to talk to me. About their lives. Their loves. Their pain. Their innermost secrets. I don't know why this is, but it's true. So why do I want to be a better listener? Because sometimes they bore the living shit out of me. God, I can't believe I just wrote that. But it's true. I nod sympathetically and say all the right things, but sometimes I wish I could really be there for them rather than just nodding and saying all the right things. Oh well, fake it 'till you make it, I always say.

5. I'd like to be a better Christian. Whoa. That'll cost me some followers. But yes, I am a Christian. A really, really bad one. I go to church (but not always), and sometimes I pray. But I cuss like a sailor and sometimes I lust for women in my heart and all that other stuff. Ahem. But I try. I really do. I became a Christian slowly over the years, after becoming deeply spiritual in the 12-step program that saved my ass more than twenty years ago. I still find that particular brand of spirituality superior. Well, most of the time. For me, Christianity comes alive when working with poor people in places like Tres Reyes, Mexico. To me, that's what the Bible means. Doing for others. Unselfishness. But I am a very liberal Christian and the Religious Right often rubs me the wrong way. But I'm trying. Anyone who has ever read Anne Lamott's wonderful books on spirituality will know what I'm talking about.

6. I'd like to be a better writer. Not that I think I'm a bad writer. No. But sometimes I think my reach exceeds my grasp. And that really pisses me off. I wish I had the talent to get down on paper all of the wonderfully complex thoughts and images that fill my head every second of the day. But I can't. I try, though. And I intend to keep on honing my skills so that someday, I might get there. Slowly. Slowly. (Ack. Adverbs!)

7. I'd like to be a better son. This one is tough for me. My father is dead, killed in a horrific car-train accident in 1996. My mother and I have not spoken in years. The last time we spoke on the phone -- the night before I left to spend two months in the dangerous jungles of South America in August of 2005 -- I told her I love her. And she hung up on me. Still, I wish I could be a better man about it. I wish I could forgive her. I really do. But I cannot. Not yet. Maybe never. So I live with the regret and resentments. Life ain't fair and people don't act right. And that's the end of that tune.

8. I'd like to have better personal boundaries. Because if I did, I wouldn't keep writing this intensely personal shit on my blog. And then people in my life would stop getting pissed at me. But what can I say? It's who I am.

9. I wish I was less vain. This kind of goes along with the confidence one above, although it's slightly different. I really am vain, although I go to great lengths to give the impression that I'm not. But I hit the gym five days a week and am always watching my weight. Why? Who the hell knows. I just know that I always think that if I just looked better, I'd be better. But that's never been the case, and I know it. I used to dye my hair because it started going silver at a fairly young age. About three years ago, I just stopped. It was really hard, because I was afraid someone would think I was my youngest son's grandfather. But it turns out my hair looks really cool and silvery on the sides, so now it just feeds my vanity. Sigh.

I don't have anything left, although I really wanted to get to ten. Do you have anything about yourself that you wish you could change? Want to get honest about it? If you do, hit the comment button and fire away. I won't judge you. I promise. And I promise here to work on all nine of those above. Scout's honor.

Have a wonderful Sunday night.