Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My very own Roller Derby Queen!


Well, it's official. My wife is a member of the newly created roller derby team here in Peoria.

She had been a bit concerned that her tryouts hadn't gone as well as she had hoped, but in the end, her quickness and cuteness won her a spot on the team, The Peoria Push.

Okay, maybe I'm a bit biased on that cute thing, but trust me -- she looked cute in her shorts and leotards and brand-new white and pink skates. Of course, the 12-year-old isn't quite sure what to make of this, and frankly I'm a little dazed, too. But hey, it's what she wants.

I only hope she doesn't get hurt. Some of the other women are rather, um, ferocious-looking. I mean, I work out and I wouldn't want to mess with some of them. And my wife has such straight, pretty teeth ...

So in honor of her selection -- and only a very few were chosen -- I have decided to hold a little contest here on A Writer of Wrongs. As some of you know, and as Josin pointed out in the comment section of yesterday's blog, roller derby girls get to pick their own nickname. And it needs to be something edgy and cool, with just the right mix of cute and mean.

Now I know very few of you actually know my wife, so you're going to have to trust me when I say she is quite cute, very vivacious and smart as a whip. A bookworm, actually.

So when we were lying in bed last night watching Scrubs on WGN as usual, I thought of a great one for her.

The Junkyard Puppy.

See, she's as mean as a junkyard dog, but slightly smaller and cuter. Ahem. The wife, of course, laughed and rather liked it.

But we're not sure.

So what do you guys think? What's a good nickname for a fledgling roller derby queen? Cast your vote in the comment section and we'll choose sometime in the next week or so.

I'm also trying to talk her into starting a blog to chronicle her adventures, so any help you might have in persuading her, feel free.

WORK UPDATE: I'm rolling (forgive the roller derby metaphor) and finished two chapters yesterday and two more today! Four more and I'm done (gulp). Then, I suppose it's time to get it to the beta readers so I can start querying in earnest in the next three weeks or so. How many families can boast a published author and a roller derby girl?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Whip it. Whip it good.


Sorry for the late post tonight. It was a hectic evening, one of those nights when every family member had something going on -- all in different parts of the city.

I attended a Mexico mission team meeting tonight. We're getting ready for our annual recruiting lunch a week from this Sunday. The team members each give a little talk about what the trip meant to us, then we show a 20-minute DVD of the trip. And then we eat Mexican food. A lot of Mexican food. Yum.

The 12-year-old had play practice at his school (about the only thing he's allowed to do these days), so I had to take him there after we all met at a restaurant for dinner earlier, then rush to my meeting on the other side of the city, then leave early and go get him, etc.

And where was the lovely wife all this time, you ask? Well ........

She was at tryouts for, get this, a new women's roller derby team that's forming here! That's right. My wife, a thoughtful and educated journalist, wants to be a roller derby babe. All 5-feet-1-inches, 110 pounds of her. Personally, I think she's nuts, but hey, who am I to judge? We both seem to have this bizarre death wish that leads us to all kinds of crazy things. We've both jumped out of airplanes, for instance. And of course, there's my treasure hunting trip to South America. And the mission trips. And she does some pretty crazy things, too.

Go figure. We read about the roller derby team in the Sunday paper and, boom, she was there!

Anyway, she won't find out if she made the team for a couple of days. Part of me doesn't want her to get hurt, but part of me kind of hopes she makes it. How cool would that be?

So. Have a great night and we'll connect tomorrow.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Writing what I know


A couple of years ago, when I first discovered that there was this whole vibrant, thriving community of writers online, I found a blog through a link from a famous agent's blog.

I started reading this guy's blog, knowing nothing about him and knowing very little about the career I had chosen for myself a year earlier. I was thrilled to have found someone out there who sits at his computer every day, agonizing over every word, every phrase. Trying to get it just right. Just like I was.

This guy spent much of his blog time dispensing advice on everything from how to write a good query to the proper font to use, to how many words certain genre manuscripts ought to be. I was thrilled. This was more information than I had uncovered in months of reading out-dated books on writing.

About a week after becoming this guy's biggest fan, I went to his blog and he had posted about a certain grammatical rule that I won't go into here, lest he accidentally stumble into my blog and read this and see himself in what I am about to write.

Anyway, he was lecturing his 200-plus followers on this and I thought: Wait a minute. He's dead wrong. What the hell is he talking about?

I say this not because I am an expert on fiction writing -- not by a long shot am I that. No, but I was a journalist for 25 years. A pretty good one, in fact. I won lots of awards. I was a reporter, a regular columnist and was an editor for the last 15 years of my career. I taught journalism and news writing at the college level. I know a little about writing. Trust me.

So, like a good journalist (ahem), I started poking around on this guy's blog. And I learned something shocking. This dude, who spends all of his blog time arrogantly lecturing people on how to be a good writer, how to get an agent, how to write a query, how to format a manuscript, etc. HAD NEVER BEEN PUBLISHED. In fact, even though he had been querying for two years, he hadn't gotten a request for a partial, let alone actually found an agent.

And I thought: Why in the hell am I listening to this guy? Shouldn't I be listening to someone who, I don't know, actually knows what he's talking about?

Now fast-forward to this past Thanksgiving. I started this blog and I decided I wanted it to accurately reflect my quest from newbie to published author (from my lips to God's ear!). But I also made a decision that I wasn't going to lecture people on things I, personally, haven't pulled off yet. So I don't harp on queries, for instance, other than to throw mine out there and whine about how it sucks. Who am I to tell you how to write a query, when mine still sits here fermenting itself on my desktop?

I can tell you that your participle is dangling (how dare you!), but I can't tell you how to find an agent. Why not? Because I haven't figured that out myself yet. I can tell you how to write a good news lede in 25 words or less. But I can't really explain how to write an opening to a novel that grabs a reader by the throat and doesn't let go. Why not? Because that hasn't happened to me yet.

Instead of dispensing advice like Pez pellets, I instead write about my feelings, my fears, my insecurities. I can't write about my success as a fiction writer because it hasn't happened yet.

When I started this blog, I made a promise to myself that I would always tell the truth. I really want this to chart my journey, warts and all. So that when I make it, I can go back and remember how things were on the way up. (I can only hope.)

This is why I no longer follow that guy's blog. The blog friends I have now are very much like me, in that they understand that they are where they are. No more, no less. I like that about each and every blogger I follow. Some are published, some are about to be and others are much closer than I am. I listen and pay attention to what they write, since they are further along on their journey than I am. And those who are where I am, I can read their stuff and chuckle. Because I know exactly how they feel.

I figure if I get an agent, I'll blog about how I did it. If the agent gets me a book deal, I'll blog about that, too. And so on.

But until then, I'm going to stick to what I know best -- my own feelings. It's the most honest thing I know to do.

WORK UPDATE: I revised a chapter and a half today! Whoo hooo. My goal (unrealistic as it is) is to get it all done by a week from today. We shall see.


Have a great night.



Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the road to somewhere


Perhaps I'm feeling philosophical and somewhat bleak because I'm in the middle of reading Cormac McCarthy's brutally brilliant novel, The Road. Its searing, post-apocalyptic images of a world not just dead but hellish isn't exactly something that stirs up good humor on a gray Sunday evening.

And no, this isn't yet another woe is me post about how I can't seem to find the motivation to finish revising my novel. No. It's not. It's deeper than that. Really.

And yet ...

And yet, it starts there, doesn't it? I can't seem to find the motivation to finish.

And I don't know why. I've spent more than three years of my life working on The Devil You Don't Know. Years that could have been spent building a second career, a career based on something more solid, more substantial, than just a dream and the seemingly baseless hope of success in a highly competitive field where far more fall behind and die than reach the publishing promised land.

And so, each day I fire up the computer and piss around reading blogs and Facebook and Twitter. I love to read about how others are writing and working hard to reach their dream. And yet mine languishes on my hard drive.

Since the day I walked out of the newsroom -- Jan. 16, 2007 -- I've been on a journey unlike any I've been on before. My future is solely in my hands. That, I can handle. But the futures of my wife and young child are also in my hands, to a certain degree. And that's where I freeze.

No matter the successes I've enjoyed in life -- and there have been a few -- I somehow feel as though I am programmed to ultimately fail. And I don't know why.

I want to finish this book. I want to see it published. I want to become rich and famous. I do. Honestly. And yet, I seem to be rooted to this spot of uncertainty, where I am neither there nor not there.

It is, I've decided, a crippling case of being more afraid of succeeding than of failing. And I don't know why. I'm no stranger to counseling and therapy, and I know enough about my past, my childhood, to see how it affects everything I do. And there's something there, some dark malignancy, that will not allow me to move forward.

And here's the real kicker: I know, deep in my heart, that the book is pretty good. And with the major revisions I'm doing, it may even be better than pretty good. It might be damned good.

I know that. And still I feel like I'm fooling everyone, including myself, by thinking, by acting, as though I can actually get it published. I feel like a fucking fraud. The literary equivalent of Bernie Madoff.

Why?

I know this: If I don't get off the dime and do my very best -- my absolute best -- to get this novel done and out the door, the journey will come to an end. Soon. The money isn't endless, and I've run through a good portion of it living this fantasy, this dream of becoming a published author.

And then what? What of my family? My home? My bills? My future? What of me?

These are the things that keep me up at night, tossing and turning and occasionally lapsing into a nightmare that's so transparently metaphorical that it even makes me laugh upon waking.

I daydream of succeeding beyond my wildest dreams, of sitting down on Oprah or The Tonight Show or someplace like that and talking about how frightening it was, laying it all on the line like this. It sounds so romantic when it's in the past tense.

But what of now?

Now, it just seems terrifying.


I pray I have the strength to see this through. I have always believed I am destined for something more in life. I can't really put it in words, but there it is. That's what keeps me going.

What keeps you going, in the face of insurmountable odds? What keeps you awake at night, when the world sleeps? I'd like to know I'm not alone in this.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Focusing on what's important


I'm not ignoring you guys. Honestly, I'm not. I've just been really busy in real life and, well, it's cut into my online life.

I know. I hate when that happens. But the past two days, I've been able to squeeze in some revising, but not much else. I spent today with my oldest son, Blaine. We had a good lunch together, a nice visit and did some hanging out. You know. Guy stuff.

Also, we received some fairly ominous news about an older family member's health yesterday and we're just sort of hoping and praying for the best, you know? Should something happen, or should his condition worsen in the next few days, it will likely require an out-of-state trip. So that's kind of hanging out there on the horizon.

I hope to work on the manuscript over the weekend. In fact, I'm not taking any days off (unless something happens. You know.) until it's done. I am trying to FOCUS on getting the revisions done. I have four beta readers waiting patiently for me to knock off the remaining eight chapters.

No family movie night tonight, since the kid is grounded for life (or least a few more days). Maybe next week, we can back to our usual Friday movie. I'm still not sure if we're staying with the '80s theme, or if I'm ready to move on to other stuff.

Stay tuned. Have a great weekend and I'll see you back here on Sunday evening.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Awards and a tough chapter done



First, some housekeeping. Of the pleasant variety, thank goodness.

My blog received two more awards over the past couple of days, despite the spate of character sketches I foisted upon you all.

Anyway, the lovely Christi Goddard at http://christigoddard.blogspot.com/ gave me the Sunshine Award, ostensibly awarded to someone who makes us laugh. Why she gave it to me is anyone's guess. I only hope I make her laugh because of my wicked sense of humor, and not because of my ineptness. Of course, either way, dude I'll take it.

I am officially an award whore. Really.

So I am supposed to pass this on to any bloggers who make me laugh on a regular basis. This one is too easy.

Kristy Hutchison, this baby is all yours. If you don't believe me when I say this woman is truly hilarious, bop on over to her blog at http://kristy-hutchison.blogspot.com/ and read about how she was damn near killed by an innocent vial of Visine.

I also received the Soulmate Award from Justine Dell at http://justine-dell.blogspot.com/, who is not only an excellent writer, but someone whose book is destined to beat mine to the bookstore (provided mine ever gets there.).

Now this award requires me to pick five followers and make up outrageous lies about them. Look, I was a journalist for years. And you want me to go against the very grain of my character and write lies?

(Sorry. I had to stop typing to wipe the bottled water off my screen. God, I love that joke.)

Anyhow, the lying part is easy. But picking five followers is hard. Let's see. I'll just close my eyes and point at that little list of followers/bloggers on the left of my screen and .... ah, here we go.

First up is my dear friend and soulmate Gina at http://amuseinmypocket.blogspot.com/.

Gina is a former police officer who was run out of Cleveland because of some nasty scandal involving a one-armed judge, an automatic drip coffee maker and a pair of pliers. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but hot damn, it must have been good!

Next is Josin McQuein at http://josinlmcquein.blogspot.com/.

Josin's claim to fame is that she was fifth runner-up in the 2004 American Idol competition, which was all well and fine until those photos ended up the Internet. After that, um, unfortunate incident, Josin moved to Alaska, where she spends most of her time hanging out with Eskimos and writing best-selling romance novels. Under a different name, of course.

Then there's Marty Wombacher at http://www.aguywalksinto365bars.com/.

Marty is originally from San Diego, where he was once an up-and-coming starting pitcher for the Padres until he blew his arm out hoisting one too many brewskis while sitting in a hot tub with six nubile Playboy Bunnies. Now, he is forced to write books for a living. The poor guy can barely look at a hot tub these days, let alone a Bunny.

And of course, there's Christi Goddard (Satan's Daughter, as I like to call her) at http://christigoddard.blogspot.com/.

Christi was a young and innocent librarian in a small Iowa town until a tall, dark stranger arrived one hot summer day. With his rugged good looks and chiseled chin, he looked at her with those crinkly, smoky eyes and she literally swooned. Ah, but one day, during a mid-afternoon dalliance in the Young Adult section, Christi looked up to see a group of Cub Scouts staring at her and her rugged stranger, their little jaws hanging open in shock and horror. She is now a literary agent in New York City, where she represents only torrid romantic thrillers.

And last but not least, there's Wendy at http://quillfeather-blog.blogspot.com/.

Wendy is originally from England, but was forced to move to New Zealand following an unfortunate incident involving a certain handsome soccer player whose wife is a famous-but-washed-up-singer. She spends her time these days leading tours of bat-infested caves and watching Bend It Like Beckham over and over again.


Ok. These were all lies, except the one about Wombacher. No! I'm just kidding. That one was a lie, too, no matter how badly he wants it to have been true. :)

On a more honest note, I knocked off an entire chapter of revisions today. And it was a tough one, too. It's a part of the book where the action picks up and parts of it were very choppy, in the opinion of wonderful book editor Staley. Of course, she was right. So I spent many hours today smoothing it out while ramping up the suspense. I think it works nicely.

Until tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Politics and writing don't mix


I got absolutely nothing done on my manuscript revisions because I met the new campaign manager for a local U.S. Congressional candidate for lunch today and it turned into a lengthy strategy talk.

Don't get me wrong: I love politics. And there's nothing better than sitting in a swank little coffee shop talking political maneuvering. I managed a Congressional campaign in '08, which is why the guy called me. His candidate is running against the same young Congressman who defeated my candidate.

So, for some reason, he called me for advice. I didn't have the heart to tell the kid that calling the losing campaign manager is probably not the best of ideas.

Anyway, I got caught up in the subject, which never fails to make my heart beat a little faster, and the day just slipped away. So, no work today. But lots of political fun.

Nonetheless, I can see the light at the end of the revision tunnel. And no, I'm pretty sure it's not an oncoming freight train. I hope.

You know, after having spent three years writing, editing and revising this novel, I hope I have the courage to finally get it out there and shop it around. I have two, count 'em two, new novels started and, frankly, I'm dying to get to them. But I really want this one ready. I know it needs to be perfect to sell in the market's current state of uncertainty and disarray. And I need to polish up that damn query letter again.

So let's hope I can get back to it again, and don't end up working for a campaign again. While fun, it's the kind of work that literally takes all of one's time. And as much as I would like it, I know I need to get this novel done and out there.

Until tomorrow.



Monday, March 22, 2010

Thank God I think I suck!


It appears that those of who really, truly, honestly-to-Godly think our writing sucks, might actually be .... not so sucky!

At least, that's what uber-agent Nathan Bransford says here http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ I know! How cool is that? He also postulates (based on some article I couldn't really understand) that writers who think they are God's gift to the literary world might actually ... suck!

This is good news for me, since I look myself in the mirror on a daily basis and hiss something nasty, something like Dude, You suck or You ought to be ashamed of yourself or ... well, you get the idea.

However, it might be bad news for best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks, who said in a recent interview that he's as good as Hemingway, or something like that. If you say so, dude. (I would have linked to the interview, but perhaps you can tell from the God-awful long link above, I suck at doing links, which I suppose could mean I'm actually good at it. Or not. My head hurts.)

Also, is anyone out there a juvenile official? Social worker? Lawyer? Police officer?

I'm only asking since I need to know if actually grounding a 12-year-old for LIFE is illegal. I mean, it would be easy to enforce for a while, but then I suppose we'd have to bring his future wife in on it, so that she could call and notify of us if he ever, I dunno, watches television or plays a video game or EVER DOES ANYTHING FUN AGAIN. That way, we could come over in our wheelchairs or walkers or whatever and whack him upside the head!

Ahem. Sorry.

I got an entire chapter revised today. It felt really, really good to get back to the novel. If I can stay at that level of work, I ought to have the entire novel revised in about two weeks. Once again, any other volunteers to do some quick beta reading? I would, of course, return the favor should you ever need one.

Until tomorrow.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Parenthood sucks sometimes


Sometimes, I wish I'd been sterilized at birth. Seriously.

Unfortunately, now is one of those times.

I'd planned to return to my usual blogging tonight with some deep, insightful post about, well, something. I didn't really have any idea what I was going to write about, but that's never stopped me before. I'm sure I would have pulled something out of my, um, you know what.

But now? Now, I'm angry. And sad. And frustrated with this thing called parenthood. With kids. I'm not going to go into what the issue is, other than to say it's serious. And it pisses me off. Big-time.

I'm a fairly strict father, but not overly so. Okay. That's not entirely true. Sometimes, I can spoil my sons and most of the time, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Okay. Fine. I'm a big softie. I'm lucky, because in spite of some rough patches (like tonight, for instance), I know in my heart that they are good kids.

But sometimes, I just want to smack them upside the head. Like tonight, for instance. At least, one in particular (and you know who you are!).

And so I sit here, listening to grown men and women argue on the floor of the House of Representatives over a health-care bill that ought to be a no-brainer (and since I don't blog about my political views, I'll let you wonder about that one), and I feel like a complete failure as a parent. As a father.

I know in my heart that I'm a good Dad, and my wife is a wonderful Mom. And I know a little about crappy parents, trust me. But sometimes, I have to wonder just what makes kids tick and why they do the the things they do.

(As an aside, my son Zach just came home and proudly showed me his new hair color! Dark brown instead of his usual blond. Some girl who's "sorta" going to beauty school did it for him. Why me, Lord?)

Soooooo. Anyway. I have nothing more insightful to post, other than I'm back and will post regularly about, well, stuff like this. I want to thank everyone for their patience while I indulged myself with the character sketches. I hope my blogger friends come back and comment once in a while. I miss you guys!

Until tomorrow...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Character sketch: Michael Reed


Michael Reed is the hero of The Devil You Don't Know. It's not that he wants to be a hero, it's just that he was chosen, somehow, for the job.

Or, at least that's how it seems each time he finds himself doing something that runs counter to his beliefs and his past actions. He is a man possessed. And he has no idea why.

Michael is a complex character. He's very much me -- and yet he's not. If you get what I mean. I took my personality and gave it to Michael, but I left out some of the good parts. At least, I hope I did. He's caustic, sarcastic, funny, witty and altogether angry at the world.

So am I. Most of the time, anyway.

I like Michael and had fun writing him. My wife, while admitting there's a lot of me in him, didn't always like him. And that's fine with me. He's supposed to be a burned-out journalist with a horrific past that haunts him day and night. He's a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself. He defies the odds on a regular basis, in other words.

He's also a good husband, a great father and loyal to a fault.

Of course, he also has a tendency to sabotage himself on a fairly regular basis (guilty as charged, your honor!).

Michael Reed is the kind of guy I would want on my side in a crisis. And boy, does he find himself in a crisis. He spends the entire novel pushing hard for the truth, at a terrific cost to himself, his career and his family. Often, he finds himself doing things in the book and he has no idea why he's doing them.

I realize as I write this that I am not doing his character justice. He's deep and nuanced and, ultimately, he's a good man. The fact that he feels he doesn't deserve anything good in life, in my mind, makes him all the more sympathetic. I can relate, in other words.

The guy also gets most of the good lines in the book.

There are so many scenes featuring Michael to choose from that I really agonized over which one to use. Should I show how good a husband and father he is? Should I show how he relapses and nearly destroys himself in the process? How about when he quits his job in a fit of anger and shame? Or when he finally steps up and becomes the hero he always was, even if he didn't know it?

In the end, I chose the scene where he wakes up after his relapse in a strange house -- having no idea how he got there. It's the scene where he finally meets Miriam Crane, the crazy woman who had called him in the newsroom some weeks earlier, begging him to meet her son.

Enjoy.


ON THE PAGE:

The world swam into focus. Pale light streamed through a curtained window and Michael’s first thought was that he was back in college. God knows he’d awakened in many a strange place back in the day. His head throbbed and his swollen tongue felt parched. He could have guzzled a gallon of water and still been thirsty.

Saliva pooled in his mouth; he had to throw up. Now. He leaned over and vomited loudly onto a black-and-white throw rug. It looked homemade, he thought idly as he retched.

“Honey?” he croaked when he finished, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and rolling back onto the bed. A carved crucifix hung on the blue wall above his head, a little wooden Jesus staked to its appendages.

Where in the hell am I?

The pounding in his head intensified. He swallowed and tasted vomit, cigarettes and booze, and he retched again although, mercifully, nothing came up.

Slowly it dawned on him. He'd gotten drunk. Black guilt swept over him. Frantically, he took stock of his situation. It wasn't good, he realized. He needed to call his wife pronto, try to explain things. And then (God, he hoped) he could go home, where he would hug his precious kids and then crawl—on his knees if he had to—back to that motherfucker Blake and his newspaper. Hell, he'd even write his novel, call his AA sponsor, catch some meetings.

He’d get his life back; his blessedly boring, abstemious life.

Please God, make it so.

He glanced at his wristwatch. It was nearly noon. Shit. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Carefully. He was dressed, right down to his ancient Doc Marten boots. The foot of the little twin bed was smeared with mud and water. Vomit was pooled on the nice homemade rug. The room itself, however, smelled clean, soapy, and well maintained.

Oh God, where am I?

He heard footsteps hurrying down a hallway outside the bedroom, coming closer. The door opened and the most beautiful face he’d ever seen looked in on him. It was a woman, perhaps his age, maybe younger. She looked concerned, although her nose wrinkled in disgust at the odor of vomit. Michael silently wished he could disappear.

“Mr. Reed? How are you feeling?” she asked. When she entered the room, Michael saw she was wearing a gray sweater and a charcoal skirt that reached primly to her knees. She reminded him of a teacher he’d had in fourth grade. His first crush, as he recalled.

“A little groggy.” He was ashamed of himself, more ashamed than he had ever felt in his life. “God, I'm so sorry about the mess. I got sick to my stomach.”

She smiled. “It’s no wonder, with all that alcohol you consumed. I didn’t know you were a drinker, Mr. Reed.”

“I’m not,” he said. “I mean, I guess I am, but not really. I shouldn’t, you know? I’m a recovering alcoholic. Or, at least I was …” He fell silent. What more was there to say?

She looked at him, hands on her hips.

“Well, our Lord works in mysterious ways,” she said, still smiling. She had beautiful almond-shaped blue-gray eyes. She also seemed content to let him sit on the edge of the bed for as long as he needed.

Although his brain was still fogged up, Michael was sure he knew this woman. Perhaps from Alcoholics Anonymous? An old lover from his long ago past? He’d awakened in strange houses before, with strange women. But never quite like this.

Did I sleep with her?

“Did I …” He stopped himself. “How did I get here? I don't remember much about last night.”

She smiled and nodded, gathering up the vomit-covered rug. “You called me, Mr. Reed. Remember? You begged me to come save you, just like you were supposed to.” She smiled again and he thought she looked like an angel.

Am I dead?

“Do I know you, ma’am?” he asked. She looked at him closely, that strange comforting smile still on her sweet face.

“We've talked before, Mr. Reed.”

It came to him. He recognized her voice from the phone call he took in the newsroom that Saturday. The day his life started going to hell.

Miriam Crane!

“Look, I really need to get home.” He stood up, groaned and sat back down.

“Not yet, apparently,” she said. “You are certainly free to go, Mr. Reed. I ask only that you listen to my story first.”

IN REAL LIFE: I entertained the idea of doing a chacter sketch on the novel's villian (he's a dandy, trust me), but ultimately opted out because I think this has played itself out. I've noticed my comments and page visits have taken a tremendous hit since I started these character sketches, so I figure I ought to get back to blogging about me, my life and my writing and leave the characters on the page. But they have helped me out tremendously. Believe it or not, I've learned a lot just by writing these character sketches. And I've been able to add some of what I've learned into the revisions. So all in all, it hasn't been a complete waste of time.

I got very little done today, revision-wise, although I did have a nice long lunch with the real-life model for Jeff Greenberg, so that was interesting! I won't be blogging again until Sunday, since I'm going back to play reporter for a few days. After that, I promise things will get back to normal around here again.

Have a great weekend.



Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Character sketches: Miriam and Jordan Crane


Miriam Crane was an innocent and attractive young nun, who taught at the little Catholic grade school she had attended as a child. She was successful and well liked by all. That is, until she came to the Monsignor early one morning with some rather disturbing news.

She was pregnant.

Despite her insistence that she was a virgin and that she had somehow been impregnated by God himself, she was banished from the Sisterhood. Determined, unashamed and alone, she raised her young son, Jordan, by herself in a tiny apartment. Shunned by her church, her friends and her parents, she raised young Jordan "the right way, knowing the word of his Father."

Sixteen years later, she claimed she was again visited by an angel from God, who instructed her to contact Michael Reed at the local newspaper. It was, she was told, Jordan's time.

Reed was understandably reluctant, figuring her for a nut. But a series of situations, maybe coincidence and maybe not, brought Michael Reed to her small bungalow one drunken night. He not only got to meet Jordan, but he would forge what would become the most bizarre relationships of his life.

After Jordan Crane performed what seemed to be a miracle, Michael and Reverend Dave decided to pay a call on Miriam and Jordan in an effort to figure out just what was going on. Dave wasn't convinced of anything at that point, and Michael was convinced it was all a hoax. I never once write from Jordan's point of view in the novel. The crux of the book is trying to figure out who or what Jordan Crane really is. To that end, I allow him to remain an enigma throughout The Devil You Don't Know.
The following is a segment of that meeting described above, which occurs in the opening quarter of the novel.

Enjoy.


ON THE PAGE:

“I’ve always known I was different. Even as a little kid, I didn’t feel like I belonged with the other kids,” Jordan said, munching on a cookie and looking down at his feet. “Mom told me about how I was conceived just this year, after I turned fifteen. I guess she felt it was time that I knew the truth.”

“My angel had come to me and told me his time had come,” Miriam explained. “That was before he told me to call you, Mr. Reed.”

Michael ignored her and looked at Jordan. “What do you mean when you say you feel different?”

“It’s really hard to describe. I wanted to fit in, honestly I did. I wanted to play sports and goof around and stuff like that. But it was always hard for me.”

Michael had the distinct impression this was a well-orchestrated act, as though Miriam Crane was showing off her prized talking parrot or blue-ribbon calf. Something just didn’t seem right.

Dave cleared his throat and spoke up quickly.

“I think what Mr. Reed is trying to say is, your claim is quite extraordinary. Surely you must realize that?”

“Look, I’ve never claimed to be anyone other than Jordan Crane, Reverend. You guys are the ones throwing all the titles around.”

Michael thought he detected anger in the kid’s voice and felt a little thrill of victory.

Messiah my ass.

“In the third grade, his teacher called me and told me she thought he was autistic,” Miriam said to Dave. “He was always exceedingly bright, just different. I was appalled, frankly.”

She explained how her son had always gotten good grades, but never seemed to fit in with his classmates. Several times she was called in for parent-teacher conferences, and had endured several amateur diagnoses over the years—autism, attention deficit disorder, even mild retardation.

“I felt much like I had felt when I became pregnant with him. That no one could possibly understand the truth,” she said.

“Did you ever tell school officials what had happened to you?” Dave asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “That was never an option. I was afraid they would think I was crazy and take him away from me, that they would look at me like Mr. Reed is looking at me right now.”

Michael blushed and looked away. “I’m not sure crazy is the right word for it, Mrs. Crane.”

“Oh please, Mr. Reed. I could tell exactly what you thought when I first called you. I would have been shocked had you reacted any other way. But you must understand, this is not my doing. I am doing the Lord’s work, and I must endure whatever I must endure to get the job done.”

Miriam helped herself to another cookie and looked at Dave.

“As soon as Jordan began to sense his powers, things got bad at school,” she said. “He would get involved in disputes, in an attempt to help. That culminated in my getting a call from the principal one day in late October. They brought in the Department of Children and Family Services and this silly caseworker started talking about institutionalizing Jordan. Can you believe that?”

She stopped and looked away, tears filling her eyes. Dave got up and went to sit next to her, placing an arm around her shoulder.

“There, there. I understand,” he said. “It must have been extremely difficult for you both.”

Michael reached out and grabbed a cookie from the tray—chocolate with white frosting, in the shape of an angel. “Why me, Mrs. Crane? Why did your angel want you to call me?”

Miriam stopped sniffling and looked at him.

“Well, I’m not really sure, Mr. Reed. It does seem like you are ill suited for this line of work. No offense.”

Michael laughed. “None taken, believe me. And I have to agree with you. I don’t seem to have a lot going for me these days.”

“You have more going for you than you know, Michael,” Jordan said. “God can see into your heart. He must like what he sees.”

Despite the absurdity of the situation, Michael was touched. Somehow, the idea that he could be thought of as good after all he had done was comforting.

“Jordan, how did you know about my parents? I haven’t told anyone about that in more than thirty years.”

“I just knew,” Jordan said. “I have that ability sometimes. Believe me, it’s not always such a great gift.”

Michael looked at Jordan for several seconds, fingering the button in his pocket. Finally, he leaned forward and smiled. “Okay. If you have these powers, do something for me. Right now. Do something really special, kid. Anything.”

Michael waited. Jordan squirmed uncomfortably and looked at his mother.

“Michael, please,” Dave said, tightening his grip on Miriam’s shoulder. “Perhaps we should just be going now. These good folks are clearly exhausted. We can talk about this some other time. Thank you so much for your hospitality, Miriam.”

Dave stood up and motioned for Michael to do likewise.

“I thought so,” Michael said as he stood. “Something just doesn’t feel right here.”

He turned to leave when Jordan cleared his throat.

“Michael, I am not a prized talking parrot, nor am I a blue-ribbon calf.”

Michael froze, his eyes wide. He glanced at Dave, but the doughy minister only looked confused.

No way. This is not possible.

“I’ll be goddamned,” Michael said, stunned. “That was exactly what I had thought.” He turned to Jordan, who was munching on a cookie. “How did you do that?”

“Sorry,” Jordan said, shrugging. “You asked.”

IN REAL LIFE: I did very little revising today, since I'm down sick again. I haven't felt good since returning from Mexico. I'm hoping it's just a touch of the flu and not some jungle bug. Ick. Anyhow, I plan to get some work done tomorrow before going back to work for the Associated Press over the weekend covering March Madness. Next week, following my usual Sunday Musings post, I plan to get back to revising and hope to get this thing done in two weeks. I have three beta readers lined up so far, although I'm still entertaining offers. (hint, hint.)

COMING TOMORROW: Finally, we get to Main Character Michael Reed. Love him or hate him, Michael is an old-fashioned anti-hero who, rather reluctantly, finds himself scrambling to find the truth before it's too late -- for him, his family, his friends and, perhaps, the whole world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Character sketch: Zachary Fine


Before we get started on Jewish attorney Zachary Fine, please note that I wrote two character sketches today -- this one and the one for Gary K. that appears directly beneath it. Please read Gary first.

Back? Okay.

Writing Zachary Fine's character was, for me, the hardest part of the entire project. Nothing else was even close, even though I gave Michael Reed quite a bit of my own personality and some of my childhood history.

Ah, but Zachary Fine is me. No doubt about it. No, I look nothing like him (he's short, balding and has a close-cropped beard). He's also older than I am. But I somehow managed, quite by accident I think, to give him my innermost feelings, fears and insecurities. Zachary spends much of the novel trying to kill himself, accidentally and on purpose. Mostly with booze and drugs. While I've never tried to kill myself on purpose, let's just say I have some personal knowledge of that kind of a mindset and we'll leave it at that. Okay?

I'll be honest here. I cried like a fucking baby when I wrote many of Zachary's scenes. They actually hurt me to write. No, I've never lost a spouse. And no, I've never purposefully swallowed a whole bottle of painkillers. But the feelings he feels, the depression he lives with daily, hit home with me. Painfully so, at times.

On those days when I wrote Zachary, my wife would find me depressed and exhausted for the entire evening. My family knew to avoid me. This is a deep novel, and writing it wore me out, but his scenes were the hardest. See, I gave Zachary much of my childhood (Michael got the rest. Lucky him). Zachary was bullied. Picked on. Hated, even. And he never really understood why. He wet the bed as a child, as I did. When I wrote a scene where Zachary, as a middle school student, was treated cruelly by a school librarian because he reeked of urine, know that I was feeling that scene the entire time I was writing it. Feeling it and crying. Why? Because it happened to me.

Zachary Fine's character was my Job. I punished him repeatedly and cruelly throughout the novel. And I'll be honest with you -- I meant to kill him off. I guess it was my way of finally killing off my own miserable childhood, of putting it behind me once and for all.

But in the end, he wouldn't cooperate. I'm loathe to reveal too much of the book, but I will tell you that Zachary literally refused to die. He came damned close. Several times, in fact. But the guy just wouldn't give up.

Like me, it turns out.

And so I rewarded him. With the greatest gift I could think of.

Redemption.

I really had a hard time picking a scene for Zachary's character sketch. Believe it or not, this one hurts me the least, since it's pure fiction. But it's a moment early in the novel, where we learn that wise-cracking, uber-intelligent Zachary Fine is a man who hurts. And for the first time, the reader learns why. It's a scene of looking back, at the defining moments of his adult life, a life spent in the company of a beautiful and kind wife whom he never felt worthy of having. It's a moment of loss.

I'd tell you to enjoy it, but it wouldn't be appropriate.


ON THE PAGE:

Attorney Zachary Fine kicked off his tasseled loafers and sank into his sofa, exhausted. It was Saturday and he’d missed temple again. A stack of folders and three yellow legal pads were strewn about the coffee table, homework for his latest case.

He ran his hands through his dyed black hair and sighed. He was fifty-four years old and lonelier than he’d ever been. And that was saying something. He longed for company, female company if given a choice. But he’d settle for anyone right now.

He glanced down at the coffee table, where a vial of painkillers sat next to his coffee mug. He sighed again and reached for them, washing down five with a gulp of cold coffee.

If he had any balls, he’d swallow the whole fucking vial and end it. Finally.

Unfortunately, he’d been blessed with brains, not balls.

He got up and shuffled to his desk. He slid open the lower right drawer and reached for a big brown photo album. Carrying it back to the sofa, he gently opened it and started from the first page, like he always did when he wanted to torture himself.

There was Sarah in her high school senior picture, tiny and dark haired. So beautiful and full of life.

There was Sarah as a college girl, already dating Zachary and smiling into the camera like the Mona Lisa, a beret cocked jauntily on her head. That had been in St. Martin on vacation, and she was tanned and vibrant.

There was Zachary and Sarah at his graduation from law school, dressed to the nines and ready for life. A life together.

There was Sarah in his favorite photo, on their wedding day. She was a gorgeous bride, looking like a princess standing next to her poor little frog, who beamed as though he couldn’t believe his luck.

There was Sarah on their twentieth wedding anniversary, grinning as she opened the present Zachary had given her that morning—a large diamond ring with smaller stones set around its face. She had loved that ring and steadfastly refused to take it off.

There was Sarah’s baby blue BMW, its windshield starred where her face, her beautiful well-loved face, had slammed into it when the drunk swerved and hit her head-on as she returned from the Kroger store with milk and doughnuts that rainy Sunday morning.

And there was Sarah’s gravestone: Sarah Michelle Fine. 1956-2002. Loved beyond belief.

After that, the photo album is empty.

Just like his life.

IN REAL LIFE: Please don't forget to read the character sketch of Gary K. directly below this one. It's new today, too. And it will likely cheer you up after reading about poor Zachary. You'll also notice that I actually got some revision work done today.

COMING TOMORROW: Miriam and Jordan Crane. Miriam, as you might've already deduced, is a fallen Catholic nun who had a child out of wedlock sixteen years ago and is convinced the boy is the Messiah, sent by God to save the world. She claims, of course, to have been a virgin when she was impregnated. Sound familiar? Jordan Crane is the 16-year-old son, an enigma whose point of view is never shared in the book. By design, I might add. I think you'll understand why tomorrow.

Character sketch: Gary K.


Gary K. thinks he's a pirate. Well, maybe not really, although no one is absolutely certain. Least of all Michael Reed, who chose Gary as his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor eighteen years earlier.

Gary is a successful engineering professor at Bradley University, the same school where Matt Folds teaches religion and theology. In keeping with AA's longstanding tradition of using only last initials to help preserve the anonymity of its members, Gary's last name is never mentioned in The Devil You Don't Know. I'm not exactly sure why I chose to do that, other than it rang true to me.

Gary is one hell of a smart man. He'd have to be, I presume, in order to be a college-level professor of engineering. He's also quirky. Really quirky. He's so odd that book editor Staley initially had reservations about him. She felt that no one could be that damned weird in real life.

I didn't have the heart to tell her he's modeled -- quite faithfully, I might add -- on someone I know very well in real life. He's not only real in my mind, but he's damned important to me, to Michael Reed and to the plot itself.

He's my wife's second favorite character, after Kris Reed. (And that's no surprise, since Kris is modeled quite faithfully on my wife.) Of course, my wife also likes the real life "Gary," too.

In the evenings, Gary likes to dress in black leather, don a bandanna and a paisley eye patch and cruise around on his purple Harley, which he lovingly calls Barney. After the cartoon dinosaur, you see. Ahem. He also likes to talk like a pirate and pretty much calls everyone Matey.

Now keep in mind that Gary is based on a real person. I happened to be at that person's home last night for our weekly Monday man date (saw The Hangover. Loved it!) and the real Gary (no, that's not his name) took us out into his garage to show us his new Nazi helmet with the deer antlers attached and a pair of black leather shoulder pads that he proudly stated makes him look just like Mel Gibson's character in Mad Max. He actually wears this stuff when he rides his Harley.

The guy is totally hilarious and worthy of inclusion in any novel. Trust me on this. He's also intelligent and has a heart of gold. He would do anything for anyone. He's that kind of guy -- in real life and in the book.

And he likes cigars! And he's a real engineer.

There's so many great scenes featuring Gary that I had a hard time picking one for this sketch. I chose the following (which occurs about a third of the way into the book) because I think it shows both his quirky personality and his good heart.

Enjoy.

ON THE PAGE:

“So you’re coming back to AA meetings, huh?” Gary K. asked, forking a mass of runny eggs into his mouth and chasing it with a soggy piece of toast. A gelatinous glob of yolk had dribbled down onto his graying goatee.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Michael said, debating whether he should tell Gary about the yolk glob, which hung ensnared in his beard like a bug in a spider’s web. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it.

“No,” Gary agreed. “It sure couldn’t. So what’s up with you?”

“Where do I start? Not that you’d believe a word I’d say.”

Gary sat his fork down and looked at his sponsee with his uncovered eye. “Try me, Matey.”

They were having a late breakfast at Denny’s the morning after the local news fiasco. He’d called his sponsor the night before, and suggested they get together for the first time in more than two months. Gary had agreed instantly, but had so far said nothing about the hottest story to hit Peoria in some time.

“You don’t watch the news?” Michael asked. “Or read the newspaper?”

“You mean this rag?” Gary asked casually, pulling a folded copy of the Times-Standard from his leather jacket pocket and tossing it onto the cluttered table. Michael could just make out the phrase Peoria’s young Messiah? in the front-page headline. “That’s a very flattering picture of you, Michael. Your hair’s a little grayer these days.”

Goddamn it, Gary,” Michael said, slamming his coffee cup down. “Is everything a big joke to you?”

“Not everything,” Gary said evenly. “For instance, getting drunk isn’t very funny, is it, Matey?”

“So you know about that,” Michael whispered.

“I didn’t until just now,” Gary said. “I’m sorry, Michael.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Michael said, staring glumly into his coffee mug. He could feel tears brimming in his eyes.

Why did I wait so long to call him?

“Well, it’s water under the bridge now, Matey,” Gary said, digging back into his breakfast. On the floor directly behind their booth sat a green plastic Christmas tree, its tiny white lights blinking mechanically. “The important thing is, you made it through alive and you called me. Now you’ll need to decide if you want your sobriety more than you want your next drink.”

“But what about all of this shit?” Michael asked, waving a hand at the newspaper.

“Yeah, that’s a bit of a mess,” Gary said. “You want to tell me how you got involved in it?”

He told his sponsor the whole story and when finished he looked up, half expecting Gary to laugh in his face.

He didn’t.

“So what do you think this kid wants with you?” Gary asked, finally dabbing at his goatee with a napkin.

“I wish I knew,” Michael said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. And if it is true, why in the hell would God want me for anything?”

“Why not you?” Gary asked, sitting back and folding his hands in front of him. “I mean, he chose you to find sobriety all those years ago. And that, my man, is a gift. And you know it.”

Michael was stunned. “You mean you actually believe all this?”

“Of course I believe it,” Gary said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because it sounds ludicrous? Because I sound like I’ve completely lost my fucking mind?”

Gary laughed and lit a cigarette, squinting with his one visible eye as the smoke curled upward.

“Look Matey, it’s like this. Me and God, we’ve been buddies for a long time,” Gary said, leaning forward on his elbows. “I’ve learned over the years that He can and will do any damned thing He wants. To anyone He chooses.”

“Even my minister is a bit skittish about all this,” Michael said. “It’s as though he’s as afraid to believe it as he is not to believe it.”

“There’s a big difference between me and your minister,” Gary said. “I don’t let religion fuck me all up. I’m a spiritual guy and I believe in God for one simple reason: He saved my life. So when you tell me He’s sent his kid here again to save the world, or whatever it is he’s doing, I don’t ask how that’s possible. I ask what I can do to help.”

IN REAL LIFE: I managed to slog through twelve pages of revisions today, including a couple of scenes that required some major surgery. For those of you keeping count, that's seventeen chapters down and ten to go! I'm also going to do something a bit different today. I'm going to write two character sketches, this one and one for Zachary Fine. That means I'll be down to three after that -- Michael Reed, Miriam Crane and Jordan Crane. I'll likely do Miriam and Jordan as one sketch, for reasons that I hope will become clear as we go along. That way, I can finish these up this week and get back to whining about my personal and writing lives.

COMING TOMORROW: See the post directly above this one. :)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Character sketch: Matt Folds


Professor Matthew Folds grew up a good Catholic boy with a loving mother and a demanding father. He was being steered toward the priesthood from an early age and didn't change his mind until he met Derrick Brown.

Derrick was an openly gay man working at an off-campus coffee house and Matt was interested. Very interested.

Once they drifted together, quite by accident, Matt decided against the priesthood and instead went on to teach religion at a private university. He continued to wear his faith on his sleeve, but kept his sexual identity hidden from the world. It wasn't an easy life for poor Matt.

His knowledge of the Bible and the theology of the End of Times would come in handy in my little theological horror story. It was also helpful that, in the end, Matt would give everything for his God and his friends. His role in The Devil You Don't Know is not only pivotal, but heart-wrenching as well.

The following passage occurs in the first third of the novel and takes a look back at how Matt and Derrick came to become a couple.


ON THE PAGE:

Christmas in Door County, Wisconsin, is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives, Matt Folds thought as he and Derrick strolled hand-in-hand down Main Street as a light snow fell. It was dusk and the old-fashioned gaslights had begun to glow, brushing the swirling flakes with copper.

“Shall we get something to eat? Or do you still feel the urge to shop until I drop?” Matt asked, leaning close to his partner since the wool stocking cap Derrick wore was pulled down over his ears, rendering him virtually deaf.

“I’m starving, now that you mention it,” Derrick said, his handsome face lighting up like a child’s. “Let’s go someplace fancy and eat until we pop.”

Matt laughed. It felt good to see Derrick so happy. It had been a while.

They had met in the summer of 1967 while Matt was still in seminary. Derrick Brown had worked as a waiter in the off-campus coffee shop Matt haunted on a regular basis and they had become casual friends whose conversations rarely ran deeper than the weather or folk music. They were both huge Bob Dylan fans and Matt had been impressed to learn that Derrick knew every lyric to every Dylan song by heart.

Derrick had been handsome in a fashionable counterculture sort of way—tight faded blue jeans, zippered boots, gray wool turtleneck sweaters. His brown hair had been a mass of curls and he wore it long like Jim Morrison. His smile was wide and honest, his eyes an intelligent shade of brown and his teeth were whiter than any Matt had ever seen.

Matt, with his crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses, was smitten almost immediately, although he couldn’t admit it since he hadn’t fully accepted the troublesome fact that he was gay. Derrick, on the other hand, was entirely open about his homosexuality. Coming out was easy, Matt figured, when you poured gourmet coffee for a living; not so easy when you were trying to become a priest to satisfy not only your own deeply held religious beliefs but also your construction worker father, who never missed an opportunity to be disappointed in Matt.

But Derrick was so easy to talk to, so easy to like, that Matt soon found himself seated next to the young waiter at a local folk music festival on a beautiful autumn evening, their hands somehow entwined and Derrick leaning so close that Matt could smell the shampoo in his hair.

When they first kissed, later that evening, Matt finally gave up all pretense of being straight. It was more liberating than anything he’d ever done, and he felt as though he were floating—and not just because of the good Jamaican weed they’d been smoking all evening. Within a week, Derrick had moved into Matt’s tiny campus apartment and within two weeks, Matt had dropped out of seminary to pursue a teaching degree in theology.

Matt eventually got an assistant professorship at Bradley, but he remained at war not only with his father, who died a bitter and unhappy man in 1985, but with himself. How could he justify his lifestyle and still remain convicted to his Christian faith? He’d always believed that Christ was a forgiving savior. After all, the Bible was full of passages about women being second-class citizens, children being no more important than cattle and stoning as punishment for such things as petty theft and adultery. If modern society could overcome such archaic beliefs, Matt thought, surely it could come to grips with homosexuality in much the same way. It was the bigotry of people, not the fear of God, which kept Matt in the closet.

So he maintained both his lifestyle and his faith, although he wore one on his sleeve and kept the other hidden from the world. Perhaps it was no accident that Matt had aged beyond his years during the intervening forty years, while Derrick, with the exception of his beautiful silver hair, looked virtually the same as he did when they met.

“Listen,” Derrick said now as they were seated in the restaurant. In the background was a muted instrumental version—what Matt thought of as elevator music—of Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

“It just doesn’t sound the same, does it?” Matt said, opening his menu. “It’s as though the modern world has stripped it of its meaning.”

“I was going to say that I think it’s wonderful,” Derrick said, his eyes sparkling. “It was our song. Don’t you remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” Matt sighed, suddenly feeling very old and very tired. “How could I ever forget?”

IN REAL LIFE: I spent the day running in molasses, so to speak. I'm revising, but it's coming very slowly. The first thing I think I need to do is get some sleep; this fatigue is killing me. It's hard for me to combine my writing and my journalism careers. Something always seems to suffer and this week, it's been the writing. Unfortunately. But I'm optimistic that I will feel better tomorrow and can get the old nose back to the grindstone. It's going to be another short week for me, writing-wise, since I again have to cover the bigger school tournament this weekend. After that, it's smooth sailing until I can get the revisions done.

COMING TOMORROW: Gary K., my favorite character. He's Michael's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and he's a real character. I think you'll like him, too. After that, we're down to the four main characters in the book.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Unflinching honesty


Why am I still screwing around with this novel after three years? I'm about halfway through my umpteenth round of revisions on this thing and still, I'm not even sure if it's any damn good.

Look, I know I'm a decent writer. I was a professional writer/columnist/editor for 25 years. One doesn't pull that off without a modicum of talent. But fiction writing? Ah, that's a cat of a different color, now isn't it?

Yes. It is.

And those of us who write fiction -- hell, those of us who read fiction -- know there's far more to a good novel than just decent writing. There has to be a story, and a pretty good story. It has to more or less follow a standard formula and it must contain things like pacing, good dialogue, suspension of belief, drama. Stuff like that.

Because if it has none of those things, it's just a collection of words. Decent words, sure. But words nonetheless. Not a novel.

Where am I going with this? I don't know. I know I'm exhausted from working 15-hour days on Friday and Saturday and getting very little sleep in between. And I know when I'm exhausted, I get cranky and when I get cranky, I shouldn't be allowed within twenty feet of a computer. Especially one containing a blog I happen to write. Because I tend to rant and rave and ramble on like a crazy person.

But I digress.

Or do I? It's possible I think the novel is crap because I'm cranky and in a bad mood. Right? Possible. Maybe I freaked out a bit over the edits that kindly book editor Staley wants me to do and chose instead to believe she hated the book and is just too nice of a person to actually tell me that.

Maybe. I hope so.

I can be a bit paranoid when it comes to my writing because, damn it, I have no way of knowing if it's any good! I am not a good judge of my own work.

Man, that is so frustrating. I mean, I can read someone else's work and know immediately if it's a piece of shit or if it has possibilities. But when I read mine, I want to puke. Seriously.

What I need is a couple of really good, really honest beta readers who will go through the entire manuscript and then tell me, straight up, if it's any good. Who will give me constructive feedback when needed. I don't want someone telling me how great it is, I want someone to tell me how I can make it better.

I want -- I need -- unflinching honesty.

Any volunteers?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Character sketch: Jeff Greenberg


Jeff Greenberg serves as comic relief in The Devil You Don't Know. He rarely takes anything seriously, except when he absolutely has to.

So when he turns to Michael Reed during a key scene in the book and say something deadly serious, it's that much more effective. Theoretically, of course.

Jeff is the courts reporter for the fictional Peoria Times-Standard, where both Michael and Kris Reed work. Michael is Jeff's boss as well as friend.

Jeff is Jewish. And never lets anyone forget it. He's not the only Jew in the novel, but he's the only one to whom it truly matters. His religion was useful to me, as the author, in making several theological points. He also makes a good foil for Michael's rather dour and cynical personality. Whenever I wrote a scene featuring the two of them, I could see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in my mind's eye. (For all you kids out there scratching your heads right now, Google them.)

Plus, I really really like Jeff's character. Staley the book editor loved Jeff's character. He's got a heart as big as his sense of humor and he's there when Michael needs him. Mostly, anyway.

The scene below is set on Christmas morning. Michael and his family are getting ready to eat dinner, but Michael is terrified that young Jordan Crane is going to show up and ruin what he hopes will be a quiet and uneventful holiday. But instead of Jordan, it's Jeff looking to vultch Christmas dinner. As usual.

Enjoy.


ON THE PAGE:

When the doorbell rang shortly after noon, Michael started so violently he knocked his half-full coffee mug over and scattered parts of the robot he was assembling for Connor all over the kitchen floor.

It’s him. It’s Jordan.

“I’ll get it,” Kris called from the living room. Michael stood barefoot amid the toy parts as he waited for his wife to let in the Son of God.

Dear God, I’m losing my frigging mind.

“Well hello there,” he heard Kris say warily. Michael felt on his bare feet a blast of snowy air swirl into the kitchen from the open door. He held his breath.

But instead of the Messiah at the door it was Jeff Greenberg, the only Jew in the world who makes annual Christmas visits. Apparently, he’d finally forgiven his old boss for walking out on him.

Each Christmas, Jeff purchased the most ridiculously dangerous or annoying toys he could find and brought them for the Reed children. He never wrapped them, and instead would just toss each child a Wal-Mart bag. It was his idea of a religious joke, Michael figured, although Kris failed to see the humor in it.

“Jeff! What a pleasant surprise,” Michael said from the kitchen as he wiped up spilled coffee with a paper towel. He’d always appreciated it when Kris bought the expensive two-ply ones and not those cheapies that felt more like rest-area toilet tissue. “And look, presents for the kids! How thoughtful of you.”

“No problem boss,” Jeff said, plopping down on the sofa and putting his wet shoes up on the polished oak coffee table. Kris hurriedly grabbed the morning paper and stuck it under his feet.

“You know Jeff, we’re saving all of your gifts so that if you ever actually procreate, we can re-gift them,” Michael said. “For Hanukkah, or whatever.”

“Awesome,” Jeff said. “So what’s for dinner?”

Jeff always managed to invite himself to all holiday meals. And to be truthful, Michael and Kris enjoyed having him. Despite his offbeat sense of humor, Jeff Greenberg was a good guy and a loyal friend. And Kris had said he was having a tough time at work these days, with no one around to protect his lazy ass.

And so he stayed and ate roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole and cherry pie with whipped cream. It was a toss-up as to who ate more, Jeff or Tyler. Either way, there was little left as Jeff burped contentedly, pushed back from the table and unsnapped his jeans. Kris looked alarmed but said nothing.

Ahhhh,” he said, winking at Connor. “You Christians sure know how to celebrate.”

“You really don’t believe in Christmas, Uncle Jeff?” Connor asked, wide-eyed. “That must have been terrible when you were a kid.”

“Awful,” Jeff agreed. “But it’s our punishment for killing Jesus.”

“That’s enough,” Michael said. “No killing Jesus jokes this year. It scares the children. And frankly, it’s in bad taste.”

“What’s gotten into you, boss?” Jeff asked.

“I’m getting cranky in my old age,” Michael said, looking away. “Let’s drop the Jesus humor. It’s not funny.”

“Go ahead and tell him, Dad,” Tyler said, grinning. Kris looked up from her dessert.

“Tell me what?” Jeff asked.

“Don’t,” Michael said menacingly to his eldest son. “I mean it.”

“Dad thinks this goofy kid in town might be the Messiah or whatever it’s called,” Tyler said, ignoring his father. “He thinks he performed some kind of miracle.”

Michael glanced at Connor, who still didn’t know he’d been killed by a car. Luckily, the kid was shoveling pie into his mouth and didn’t notice.

“That’s enough, Tyler,” Michael warned.

“What kind of a miracle?” Jeff asked, grinning. “Did he walk across the Illinois River? Feed the masses with catfish and Wonder Bread?”

“Dad doesn’t like Wonder Bread,” Connor said, cherry pie all over his face. “He makes us eat that yucky whole grain stuff.”

“It’s healthier,” Michael said. “And if you must know, Jeff, the goofy kid is insane. And so is his mother. End of story.”

“Sounds interesting to me,” Jeff said.

“It’s not,” Kris said, and something in her voice quieted both Jeff and Tyler. “Let’s go into the living room and have our coffee.”

COMING TOMORROW: Nothing. I'm working long days and evenings on Friday and Saturday. I'll be back Sunday night with a personal post and will resume the character sketches on Monday. Please let me know if you are enjoying them. I only have a few left. I think I'll introduce you to Matt Folds on Monday. He's a prim and proper elderly theology professor at a fictional private university who struggles mightly with his faith. Maybe the fact that he's a closeted gay man has something to do with that? Stay tuned. :)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Character sketch: Kris Reed


I'm often asked if I model my fictional characters on people I know in real life and my answer is always the same: Sometimes.

Truthfully, most of my characters are amalgamations of people I know. I usually have the physical description of one person in mind for a character, but then I turn around and give him/her the personality of someone else. I suspect it will be easier that way when the lawyers start calling me.

Ahem.

In The Devil You Don't Know, two of the main characters are drawn from my own life and experiences. One looks nothing like me, but has my background and inner fears. The other looks more like me physically and has my smart-assed cynicism, but is also very different in other ways. The same could be said of all of the other characters in the book, that they share traits with people I know but are not really based on anyone specifically.

Except one. (Well, maybe two. We'll get into that later in this series.)

My wife is beautiful, smart and sexy. She's also tiny -- five-foot-one and 105 pounds soaking wet. She has shoulder-length brown hair and the most gorgeous pair of chocolate brown eyes you've ever seen.

And so does Kris Reed, oddly enough.

Kris is in her late-thirties and is a features editor at the fictional Peoria Times-Standard newspaper. She's also the long-suffering wife and best friend of Main Character Michael Reed, who I'll sketch later in the series.

While Kris isn't exactly a main character, all of her scenes are pivotal to the novel's plot. She's strong and loves her husband very much, but she eventually loses patience with Michael's, um, bizarre fascination with Miriam Crane and her son, Jordan.

Michael and Kris have one child together, 8-year-old Connor. Michael has two older sons from a previous marriage (a situation not unlike my own, oddly enough). Connor has a HUGE role in the plot of the book, although he is a fairly minor character himself. More on him later, too.

Kris was the hardest character for me to write for a couple of reasons. One, my wife is my alpha reader and she knew I had based the character on her. Naturally, I was careful to write her close to her real-life role model -- and that sometimes constricted me. Also, my book editor, the wonderful Staley, had some problems with Kris' character because she felt I was holding back too much in describing her both physically and emotionally. She suspected (and I concurred) that I was seeing my wife in my mind's eye and allowed that to fill in the blanks. That left the character fully developed in my mind, but not on the page.

A large amount of my current revisions is geared toward fleshing Kris out more on the page. I think it's coming along nicely.

It was hard for me to find a passage on Kris to pull for this character sketch, since most of them are important scenes that I don't want to make public just yet. But I found one with her and young Connor that I think illustrates Kris nicely. It's from the middle of the novel.

I hope you like it.

ON THE PAGE:

Kris awakened before dawn the next morning, a Sunday, and sensed rather than heard a presence in the house. Sure enough she could just make out a dim glow down the hall. The light was on in the kitchen. She quietly slipped out of bed so as to not awaken Michael, who’d been having his own problems sleeping lately, and padded down the hall to the kitchen.

Connor sat at the bay window table, staring off into the darkness outside. He turned when he heard her and nodded but didn’t speak.

“Hey sweetheart. What are you doing up so early?” Kris asked, putting her arms around him and marveling once again at how much he’d grown lately. She tousled Connor’s hair, yawned and shuffled over to the granite-topped counter to start coffee, the pebbled bottoms of her fluffy slippers clicking softly on the hardwood floor.

“I couldn’t sleep,” the child said, frowning.

Kris turned and looked at him, but he continued staring off into the woods out back. Clearly something was bothering him, she thought. Gee, no kidding? It’s not like things have been exactly normal around here lately.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“How about I pour us a big bowl of Lucky Charms and we can have breakfast together before everyone else wakes up?” Kris said, fetching two bowls from the cabinet and setting them on the little pine table with a flourish. Connor grinned and got up to get a couple of spoons and glasses for their orange juice.

“This time we’re doing yellow moons,” he said, sitting down as Kris splashed milk on their cereal. “Whoever eats all the yellow moons first wins.”

“Hey, no fair,” Kris said as the child dug into his cereal with gusto, slopping milk onto the table as he swished his spoon around in search of the winning pieces. She hurriedly sat down and began fishing in her own bowl, plucking each yellow moon out with a victorious cry and gulping it down before continuing the search. It was a game they had played together since Connor was little.

“I win!” Kris cried, giggling.

“No way,” Connor said, jumping up and coming around to inspect her bowl.

“Yuck!” Kris said in mock horror as he began fishing around in her bowl with his spoon. “If I wanted your germs, mister, I’d just lick your face like a cat.” She stuck her tongue out at him and he laughed for the first time that morning.

“Cheater!” Connor crowed as he flipped over a pink heart and a yellow moon floated to the surface. “I win!”

“How do you figure that, mister?” Kris demanded.

“Don’t you remember the rules, Mom?” Connor said, his voice thick with the newly acquired sarcasm Kris had noticed lately. “If you call it too soon, you automatically lose. That means I automatically win.”

“Pardon me for not knowing the rules, since you seem to make them up as we go along,” Kris said, feigning anger. “Now that you’ve kicked my butt at Lucky Charms, do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?”

“Well,” Connor began, setting his spoon down and looking at her. “I’ve been having these funny dreams about when that car … almost hit me.”

Kris felt the small hairs on her neck stand up. She’d always hoped they could either avoid this talk, or that Connor would bring it up with his father instead.

“What kind of dreams, sweetie?”

“Well, I feel myself falling in the road and then I lift my head up to see this car coming right at me. It’s coming really fast and I know it’s going to hit me,” he said and Kris felt herself shiver. “Then I feel some kind of con ... concursive ... I can’t think of the word.”

“Concussion?” his mom offered.

“Yeah. Concussion. It’s like a giant hand reached out and hit me as hard as it could. Then I sit up and I see Granddad Pete smiling and waving for me to get up and come to him.”

Granddad Pete was Kris’ grandfather, who had died the previous year at ninety two. Connor had taken it particularly hard.

“But I know that can’t be real, because Granddad Pete is in Heaven,” he said, fidgeting with his spoon and looking out the window.

“Then what happens, baby?” Kris asked.

“I remember Jordan touching my cheek and telling me it’s not my time yet and that I needed to come back,” Connor said. “So I did. And that’s when I saw Daddy looking down at me.”

Kris sat still for several seconds, trying to think of something to say. Anything.

“So does that mean that Jordan is God?” Connor asked.

“No,” a pajama-clad Michael said firmly from the doorway.

Connor jumped up and ran over to give his Dad a hug. Kris looked at Michael quizzically.

“Don’t you think we should just be honest with him at this point?” she asked.

“I am being honest,” Michael said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “See buddy, we thought maybe Jordan was something special. But it turns out he’s just a kid like you are. And that means that your dream is nothing more than that. A dream. So finish up in here and jump in the shower. We need to get ready for church.”

Connor nodded and put his dirty dishes in the sink before dutifully heading toward the bathroom.

“I’m confused,” Kris said after Connor had gone. “You’ve spent days trying to convince me that Jordan is some kind of messiah. And now you’re saying he’s not?”

“Turns out I was the one who was confused.”

“I still don’t understand, Michael.”

“I had a little chat with Miriam’s parents yesterday. Turns out our little virgin had a boyfriend back in the day. In fact, her daddy caught them in the act.”

“Seriously?” she asked, surprised. “Because I spent some time with Jordan and he … well, I guess I was starting to believe what you’ve been saying about him.”

“I’m tired of talking about it,” Michael said, shaking his head. “Once Miriam gets out of the hospital, I’m going to have that weasel she calls a lawyer petition the courts to get the kid back home. And then we can finally start getting back to normal around here.”

“But Michael ...” Kris began.

“No. I mean it, honey,” he said, sipping his coffee. “No more bullshit from Miriam and Jordan Crane. We’re done.”

IN REAL LIFE: Not a great day revising, although I did manage to get through half a chapter. My goal is a chapter a day, and I'm slipping a bit. Also, I won't be working on the manuscript Friday or Saturday (nor will I be blogging) since I'm covering the first weekend of the state high school basketball tournament here in Illinois. So, provided you guys are enjoying this little literary diversion, I will likely get back to the character sketches on Monday following my usual Sunday night personal post.

COMING TOMORROW: Jeff Greenberg, reporter and best friend to Michael Reed. Jeff was book editor Staley's favorite. He's quite the comic and I think you'll like him, too.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Character sketch: Reverend Dave


The Rev. David Douglas, or Reverend Dave as he's known to his friends, is the 44-year-old minister of the fictional Northmoor United Methodist Church in Peoria, Ill.

He's friendly, engaged and always happy. Except when he's not. Reverend Dave is a doughy man with dirty-blond hair and somewhat stooped shoulders, as though he's carrying the weight of the world on them. And sometimes, he is.

Reverend Dave counsels men at his church on the evils of Internet porn and elicit sex, all the while ignoring his own long-suffering wife's needs. He loves God and golf, and not always in that order. He's prone to spells of egotism and aloofness and cares very deeply what his flock thinks of him.

But through all of his faults, Reverend Dave is a good guy. Like most of the characters in The Devil You Don't Know, he's fighting his own personal demons. Not unlike all of us. And instead of making him unlikeable, I like to think his personal battles eventually make him more likable, more like we are.

The thing I like most about Reverend Dave is that no matter how much he wants to run and hide from life, when someone needs him, he's there for them. No questions asked. He's trustworthy. I like that in a person. And since I liked Reverend Dave's character, I gave him the gift of trustworthiness.

So when Dave's God calls for his service -- and quite possibly his life -- Dave answers the call. And boy, does he find himself in a terrible predicament. Poor guy. I really put him through his paces in the novel.

Will he survive? Will his faith, fragile as it sometimes is, prevail in the end? Ahem. You'll have to read the book, of course. Provided it's ever published.

Here's Dave's first vignette within the body of the manuscript (he also appears in the short prologue, along with the other main characters). It immediately lays out his personality, his, um, problems, and his hypocrisy. Be warned. There's some adult words and situations in the section below.

Enjoy.

ON THE PAGE:

Saturdays were Reverend Dave’s one day off, which he earned by busting his hump on Fridays to finish his weekly sermon. He would deliver his message, timed precisely to twenty-one minutes, to the Northmoor United Methodist Church congregation on Sunday morning.


Dave liked to add a dash of topical humor to his sermons and spent a great deal of time scouring the Internet for obscure facts, which he sprinkled throughout his folksy message. The flock loved it, except for the occasional complaint from some of the older women who liked their religion straight up.

The forty-four-year-old minister—happily married and the father of two little ones, Devlin and Dottie—had long ago learned the Internet was a gift from God when it came to theological research.

It was also a tool of the Devil. He’d learned that just recently.

“We’re off,” Pam said, leaning down and kissing his cheek. She was taking the kids to the mall for some shopping before catching the latest Harry Potter film at the Mega-Plex.

“Bye, babe,” Dave said. “Don’t spend too much.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” She fished around in her purse for a wet-nap and wiped the macaroni and cheese from a squirming Dottie’s face. “I just need a couple of outfits and the kids need new shoes for the holidays. If you get hungry, there’s lunch meat in the fridge.”

“I’ll make a sandwich later,” he said, sitting back and firing up his computer. Buddy hustled to his spot under the desk and promptly fell asleep. “I figured I’d do some research first.”

The doughy little minister had already forgotten the weird explosion from last night, chalking it up to exhaustion. He really needed to get to bed earlier.

“Have a good day, Daddy,” Devlin called as they trooped out the door and into the attached garage.

As Pam’s car pulled out, Dave visited the church web page, where he would post tomorrow’s sermon once second service ended. After spending a couple of minutes there, he clicked on the United Methodist Church’s worldwide site for any updated news. He then spent some time reading about his other passion, golf.

But after about five minutes, he felt the familiar tug of a darker passion. Heart pounding, he held it off for nearly two minutes before giving in. That was about a minute longer than he usually did.

Hot amateur webcam babes! the website announced. Teens spread for you! and Fuck me, Daddy! were his next Internet destinations.

Red-faced and breathing heavily, he grimly reached his right hand into his pajama pants and silently asked God to forgive him.

Again.

IN REAL LIFE: I had a great day revising today! I knocked off a chapter and a half and completely reworked one key scene near the middle of the manuscript. All in all, a very good day.

COMING TOMORROW: Kris Reed, wife of main character Michael Reed. While not a primary character, Kris ends up playing a key part in the overall plot. Oh, and she's smart and sexy and I have a huge crush on her. I think you will, too.