Friday, September 30, 2011

hard boiled

I recently got an e-mail from my editor-manager-wife. In it was a link to a blog site which offered a 250 word writing exercise based on one sentence. In case you are interested in giving it a try, look here oasis for YA

Most of what I put on this blog has to do with me and my struggles as a father, writer, whatever. Yesterday I blogged about trying to find the courage to put my writing stuff out there for critique and criticism. This particular exercise was perfect for that, plus it came with an additional challenge, to write outside of your comfort zone. My zone of comfort is dialogue. I love to have my characters talk and love reading good dialogue. For me it is like overhearing a juicy conversation on the bus that makes you miss your stop. Accordingly, my writing style I chose this time, included no dialogue.

Here now, for your reading pleasure, is the 250 words I came up with for the exercise noted above, based on the sentence, "The stranger peered over his shoulder, before quickly stepping into the building."


Carson stepped into his manager’s office and fell into the chair next to the window. He closed his eyes and exhaled a deep breath through his dry lips. Fumbling in his jacket pocket with his right hand, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and shook them gently until one filter was exposed. He gripped the lone cigarette with his lips and pulled the package away from his face. He shoved the package back into his pocket and fumbled again, this time removing a disposable lighter.

The stranger peered over his shoulder, before quickly stepping into the building. Behind him the woman followed. Inside, she shook out her hair and pursed her lips against each other. She kissed the stranger goodbye, leaving lipstick on his cheek. Looking up at the ceiling, she untied the belt of her overcoat and parted the lapels, exposing her bare hips. Gracefully she stepped down the hallway, stopping in the manager’s office doorway.

Carson drew in deeply on the cigarette, his fingers crossed around it while covering his mouth. He exhaled smoke. Then he heard a sound by the door. Assuming it was his manager, he looked over. He stared at the half naked red-head with her left hand on her hip holding her coat open. In her right hand he noticed a revolver. His last thought was, ain't marriage grand.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

what price cuteness

What does a writer do differently from everyone else that defines who they are?

Here is my situation. I am a civil engineer who in his middle ages has decided to turn back the clock and pretend it is 20 years ago and time to decide on a career. It is not so much pretending, I suppose, as it is simply karmic realignment of my stars. And in this realignment I hope to find that part of me I left behind when the weight of the world compelled me to give up on my dreams of making a living in the creative arts and instead put my nose to the grindstone. I remember being in my car and making the call that shut it down.

It was a call to Nick Farella, general manager at WXLC-FM in Waukegan, Illinois (the birthplace of Jack Benny, no less). I had missed two of my part time shifts and decided I was not getting the enjoyment out of radio broadcasting that I once did. The truth be told, I had been passed up for a full time spot recommendation at another radio station in Norfolk, in the same ownership as WXLC. They needed me here because I could fill any time slot at short notice. I was too valuable to pass upward but was making $5.00 an hour. I told Nick I decided to hang 'em up (referring to my headphones) and I would drop my front door key off in the morning. That was it. My dream smoldered like tossing a wet blanket on a campfire. I sank into a marriage where I wasn't happy, a job that paid the bills, and a life less fulfilling

In retrospect that was the best thing I ever did and I am pretty sure it was divinely inspired. Thank you Holy Spirit for putting me into a depression that stepped me off of the path leading me to a life in Norfolk, or Albuquerque, or Laramie, where if they still have live radio air personalities any more. they only make $50k a year. I regretted it for a while but honestly it was probably the other choices in my life that I regretted more, like my first marriage. Oh well, that, as they say, is that.  

My life needed a little break so I could learn, so I could become. 1994 was a long time ago. Today presents far more opportunities for me. For three years I have been writing again, as I did in college. And with the more I write, the more I feel it becoming a part of me, and with each passing day, I feel the title of author coming my way. And as an aouthor I envision myself as an artist who paints with words.What is it that artists do anyway?

As Jimmy Johnson, former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, might say, if you are going to talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. To figure out how authors act, I needed to find a place where I could observe them and perhaps adopt some of their behaviors in an effort to walk the walk. As opposed to the bohemian communities filled with aspiring artists familiar to a time long ago, today I have found the artists congregate in the virtual world. Although I would someday like to find one of these places where authors hang out and collaborate and tell loud stories and smoke opium and paint images of legless prostitutes while drinking glass after glass of absinthe...maybe that last part was more Moulin Rouge than reality but still, you get the point.

Today I follow over one hundred authors, agents, and editors on Twitter (I also follow the Hot For Words feeds and I would like to assure my wife it is just for the education one receives about the english language). I also follow several blogs and often find myself looking busy at work by writing flash fiction pieces for contests featured on those blogs. And even though I am out there in the electronic ether, following and being followed, still I am having a hard time standing up and saying with confidence that I am a writer. I talk the talk but I am having a hard time walking the walk. Time for some reflections on lessons learned in life.

Before meeting my dear wife three years ago, I played the role of single dad on the prowl. Although I was doing alright in the sins of the flesh department, there was one woman who vexed me so that I sought counsel from my therapist. She was a barista at Borders (of all places) and she was quirky and fun to talk to and edgy; totally my type. The problem that kept me from talking to her was my realization that she was younger than I was. When I talked to my therapist he gave me a great piece of advice, which was, there are no what ifs. Therefore, I could not say to myself, what if she laughs at me and says I am old enough to be her father. Who cares? There are no what ifs.

I did talk to her and we did express this idea that we might date, until she found out I was 40 with a kid and I found out she was 18. We did laugh about it and as relationships go, that one was pretty good. No one got hurt and we only remembered the good times. And best of all, I lived in the moment, failing to find the what if.

This past weekend I had my hands full. My wife was getting her hair cut so I had the boys and errands to run. Eyeglasses needed fixing, a trip to the butcher was in order, and we needed to get to the post office to apply for a passport. Our youngest, Peter, was giving me the lesson on the non-existence of the what if.

At the eyeglass place he played loudly with the toys not caring who he disturbed. At the butcher he caused such a fuss that the owner's wife kept giving him candy for hugs. And at the post office he ran around in circles laughing, which caused the clerk to give him the end-roll of some express mail stickers. That kid cleaned up with swag and didn't care what anyone thought.

Maybe that is what I need to do. Maybe I need to stop worrying how other authors act, and just be myself. We will see, because being myself usually involves sitting in my PJ's in front of the computer, laughing at what I have just written. Now I just need to find a legless prostitute. I'll ask my wife. She's good at finding stuff.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

what the world is coming to

The ability to creatively express one's self is apparently genetic, at least I hope it is for the sake of my writing career. This is all about my son and how gifted he is in expressing himself artistically. I am pretty sure this creative dynamic he possesses came from my chromosomes and not his mother's. Trust me, when she and I were married I never spent a night where I wasn't covered by some gaudy floral print bedspread or comforter. An eye for color and design she did not have.

Besides being a creative fiction writer of children's picture books and half of a YA novel, I am also a photographer, and I play guitar. My son, on the other hand, is a drawing kind of guy. And all of this came out because he was diagnosed with ADD when he was in second grade.

Being the conscientious single dad I was at the time (I am still pretty conscientious) we embarked upon non-pharmacological therapy with Dr. Brian, a wonderful psychotherapist. After 15 weeks we saw tremendous progress and by the time we completed 50 weeks, an IQ test revealed my son had a genius verbal score.

All that was good and fine as he could concentrate better in school and was less forgetful, but what I saw was so much more. He took on an interest in drawing, not just drawing but creating. He became a much happier child when there was blank paper in front of him and a pencil in his hand. It was amazing to see the things he would use to express himself.

When he was eight years old we attended a local art event sponsored by a hospital. It was called Art in the Barn (called such because the hospital was built on property that contained a working farm and the administration kept the old farm buildings for use by their physical plant staff). He loved looking through all of the artwork on display. He especially loved the kids tent which was filled with easels, paper, and paint, where kids were allowed to paint whatever they wanted.

My son was ecstatic and couldn't wait to create. I watched over his shoulder as he painted a still life landscape. That's right, he set out to create not a stick figure like those around him, instead he made a painting. As his painting developed, he drew a little attention from some parents around us who instructed their children to do what my little boy was doing.

Most of the others lost interest in imitating him or in sitting in the smelly tent and walked away proclaiming they were done, bored, and wanted to go home. My son, on the other hand, was too focused to be uncomfortable, and didn't stop until he covered every square inch of the paper with color.

In the end there was a blue sky with a cloud whose underside was reflecting a pink hued sunset and a large tree with mature deer standing underneath, and a meadow as the backdrop. He had set out not to paint something, but to create a painting and he did great. In fact the painting still hangs over our fireplace.

Now that he is thirteen, I have run out of boxes in which to keep all of his art. I have decided it is time to leave the amateur behind and enroll him in formal painting lessons. Of course, being a teenager, he is refusing. Now I am the first to admit as a parent you need to pick your fights and I think this is one I have to pick, especially after seeing his assignment book today. Here is a picture of a portion of it:

 You may notice writing in purple on the right side of the page. That is from me in response to what I saw drawn on the paper. Here is a closeup.

Plain to see, if not a little small, he dropped an "F" bomb in his assignment book. How incredible to me that he figured out a way to swear that actually engaged me as a viewer. He drew a swear word. Guess what son, you just earned yourself painting classes. I love my boy and that brain of his.

So, back to the genetic thing.... I am pretty sure I have my son's genes as I am never more at peace as when I am writing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

in the moment

Fate smiled on my wife the day she met me. I am not at all shy about saying how much I have improved her life and I am more than willing to accept the credit. This morning is a prime example of why she is so lucky to have me around.

The day started with our youngest and a wet bed. My wife needs to be out the door by a specific time to beat the traffic so I am in charge of getting our two sons dressed and out the door for school. If there is bed wetness, I am the Brawny man pro-tem.

Shortly after her discovery, my lovely wife (and I do mean lovely, she is the most special woman in the world and has helped me so much as a writer) tried to get out the door with her laptop, a cup of coffee, her purse, a lunch box, and two books, all in her hands. At least one of them was going to fall. Turns out it was the coffee, closely followed by a book, both of which fell onto the kitchen floor (just inches from the door too).

I felt so bad for her. She knew she didn't have time to stop and clean it up. She could not even afford to pull the paper towels. Cleaning up that mess was all about me being there for her and honestly, that is when I feel the most like a husband. I told her to go and I would get it. The quicker I got her to stop looking at the coffee seeping under the freezer and into the area rug, the less guilt she would feel and the lesss counselling I would have to do later.

Plus, it really isn't that hard to clean that little stuff up. I was a single dad for 10 years before meeting my current wife. Once you get a cleaning rhythm down, it all comes so easy. Paper towels to arrest the seeping, then dry mop then wet mop, roll the carpet back to dry and done. Easy peasie coffee squeezie.

I got the linens in the wash early enough so I could say goodbye to my 13yo before he headed for the bus, then made my coffee and breakfast while waiting for the cycle to complete. Got little guy out of bed and brushing teeth while the wet stuff went in the dryer. Bada bing!

And just to make it look easy, before I took the little guy to school, we even managed to pick some grapes from our vines in the back yard. Can fathering be hard work? Yes, only if you are doing it right. Love is really love when it hurts. And today I felt the pain.

I have a therapist friend who says the best thing to remember about pain is that you have to be alive to feel pain. Julianna Hatfield sings a heart that hurts is a heart that works. They both may be right, yet they both fail to capture the essence of love as an expression through service. It is the very best way to say you love someone.

So here is to you dear, my lovely wife, who through your humanity gave me a way to say I love you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

celebrate autumn like chris rock

My wife and I spent this past Saturday busy as all get out. My 13yo son was with his mother for the weekend. I was consumed with mowing the lawn (3 acres of it - this country living ain't all its cracked up to be) while my lovely bride worked in the house, played with our 4yo (who happens to be of Haitian origin), and caught up on her blog. By the time the afternoon rolled around, I was ready for a break and they wanted to get out of the house.

A quick shower later and we were supping at our local Dog and Suds drive in (yea country living!). Then we decided to do what all of the Chicago suburbanites do, head to the nearest corn maze and participate in agri-tourism at its finest. Since we both used to live in Chicago, we can mingle with the 'burbanites' who drove an hour to get here, even though we drove five minutes. What fun! And to boot, it was an antique tractor show weekend where admission was free with requests for donations going to our local food pantry.

And what an experience it was. Kids are running, screaming, jumping, and sliding all over the place. Even though the entry fee was waived,  the attractions do cost money to ride. The bouncy thing, the pedal cars, the rope climb, etc., basically parents are paying to have their kids exercise in a non-electrified Amish amusement park. Whatever the cost was for us, seeing these strange kids with their pudgy red faces huffing and puffing was worth the trip outside.

Our little guy on the other hand didn't even break a sweat. Maybe it is his Haitian heritage that makes him so athletic. Or it could be the fact he spent the first two years of his life in an orphanage in Haiti eating rice and drinking water instead of woofing down happy meals and arsenic laced apple juice like all of these other kids. This may be fatherly pride talking, but our little guy is solid and runs like a wide receiver.

So there we stand, proud parents of the lone bastion of racial diversity in the crowd watching our little man climb to the top of the big slide hill. I would like to note at this time that big slide hill is really a man-made earth mound with a 40 foot long, 36 inch diameter, PVC culvert section embedded in the soil. Children climb to the top, hand over their ticket, and jump into the pipe. Besides aspiring to a writing career, I am a civil engineer and I can say with authority that pipe was never intended for children to slide through it. Rather by the smooth interior surface I would say that was a pipe meant to carry sewage.

So our little man is climbing to the top of the hill and we are waiting at the bottom. This is the time my wife decides to discuss a YA novel I am working on. In it there is a black character who as a child receives a note in which a classmate uses a derogatory term which starts with the letter "N". If you do not know what word I am talking about, stop reading this and go get your GED already. Instead of using that "N" word here as I write, I will instead use the word 'peppermint.'  Got it? N-word = peppermint.

Our little guy is almost at the top when my wife says in a way too loud voice, "Hey, in your story, do you think you should really have him called a peppermint?" (I know, either my wife has no filter or she was too focused on my book). Well if I had dropped my pants and started singing show tunes there would not have been a more instant reaction from those around us. Yet no one said anything because no one had the street creds needed to say anything. We had all the cards in this game. And through it my wife never stopped looking at the top of the hill and when our guy slid down the sewer pipe, she squealed with delight at her brave little man.

So, next time you are at a harvest-fest type operation and you have your adopted Haitian son with you, why not pull out some Chris Rock material and see what happens. It might be magical.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

what price fame?

My manager hipped me to a writing contest today and encouraged me to enter one of my picture book stories. A win would not only net me a $1,500 prize but also electronic publishing of my story, fully illustrated and animated for the array of formats out there. The promise is royalties for each book sold as well. Great, right? I get to publish finally, presuming I win, and I make money off of it, send the kids to college, drive a big car while smoking a cigar, the whole works. Then I thought, wait a second; is this a Charles Foster Kane deal?

Anyone who ever took a film class in college had to sit back and watch Citizen Kane at least once. This is how I became familiar with Orson Welles's tome about greed and influence in American culture and admittedly I like it a lot. I re-watch it at least once a year. (For those who have seen it, you will understand what I am about to say. If you have not yet seen it, what's wrong with you? Get off your backside and go watch it already.)

Think about the first flashback where we see a young Charles in essence being sold by his mother to a wealthy, New York banker. She thinks this is the best thing for him and that it will enhance his life, getting him away from his humble roots and providing him exposure to the world. The banker is rather smarmy and throws promise after promise at Charles about how great his life will be if he says goodbye to his mom and family. In the end, of course, we know that all Charles longed for in his last moments on earth was a return to the life he was led away from and the simple home and pleasures of his childhood.

I am beginning to look at my stories as though they are a young Charles Foster Kane. I want what's best for them so they grow up and make a difference. I would love to send them on their way and tell them there is a big world waiting for them, but I want to share in that experience too! I do not want a smarmy banker grabbing them away and steering them in the wrong direction.

My manager is my wife, which is cool because I get to sleep with my manager and my wife encourages it (awesome sexy, right?). That inappropriate exchange aside, I recall the day she told me about an experience she had at a literary conference where she heard about the novel "I Am Number 4." The way she related it, James Frey, that ass-and-a-half who conned us into believing "A Million Little Pieces" was real, was speaking at a university and offered students the chance to pitch their ideas afterward. He liked one of them and purchased it from the student for $500.00. The idea was the basis for "I Am Number 4." Great, right? Struggling college student knocks one out of the park and becomes famous with royalty checks piling up around his ankles. Wrong. He got screwed because he sold the exclusive rights to the idea. After he wasted the $500 on one hell of a kegger that was it. No fame, fortune, or future for his story idea (In all honesty I do not know about the kegger part). And hence my worry.

I am not an attorney but after reading the agreement, it looks like if my story wins, it gets published, and I get royalties for that. However it also looks like I don't get to use my characters any more and on top of it the new publisher can do whatever they want with them. The words "in perpetuity" are used a lot in the agreement. That's almost forever that I would have to be apart from them.

Maybe I should write another story to submit with the main character named Rosebud. Then after I win and get robbed every day for the rest of perpetuity, everyone would know the name was me sticking it to the  man metaphorically.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

money, money, money,!

Much to the chagrin of my manager wife, I do not read that much fiction. Were it not for Carl Hiaasen, all I would read would be news related. I am working on that reading fiction thing but lets face it, most fiction novels out there try to pull a "Law and Order" tv show approach, screaming ripped from today's headlines.
So, as a writer who reads the news, I think I have been studying quite nicely, thank you. After all, Carl Hiaasen refers to growing up in Florida and reading the National Enquirer as having a big impact on his novels. Did I mention, he started his career as a newspaper reporter?

So what of reading more fiction. Is it to better my writing, my creativity, or is it to make my work sound more like other works already out there as a means to make it more sell-able? As an author embarking on my writing career, I am going through a learning curve. I am learning to see the creative process of writing turned into the comercial process of selling. Watch out, here comes the synergy in this blog as I put my news reading together with creative writing.

In the September 12, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal, on the front of the Marketplace section, was an article about e-book sales propping up losses in print sales for publishers, and how retailers have adopted a business model where they act as an agent for each individual sale, keeping 30% of the sale revenue and returning the remaining 70% to the publisher. This allows virtual stores like Amazon to undercut other sellers, virtual and real, and still make money on each sale. Fascinating, right? Honestly it took a few read-throughs for me to get it too. Luckily there is a simple breakdown in chart form with the article. I did not reproduce it here as I did not want to get in Dutch with the WSJ but here is a breakdown.

When you pay $12.99 for the e-book. $3.90 goes to the retailer, $2.27 is the royalty to the author, $0.90 is the digital rights management fee, leaving $5.92 for the publisher.

When you pay $26.00 for the print version, $13.00 goes to the retailer, $3.90 is the royalty to the author, $3.25 is the production/storage/shipping fee, leaving $5.85 for the publisher. Keep in mind, this $5.85 publisher profit may be less if the book doesn't sell well and needs to be returned and re-inventoried.

With an e-book sale, the author and the retailer make less money and the publisher gets more money, than with the print version. (Borders, I'm looking at you!) It is this stoic business mumbo jumbo that deflates the creative art aspect of writing for me. Depression is too strong a word, but the unwanted competition of fretting over finding an agent and fine tuning the query letter so it is a guaranteed sell reminds me too much of my time in radio, sending audition tapes out all over the country just to be crestfallen when job offers didn't come.

Being a print book fan, I am pleased to say that 2010 net sales revenue for e-books was $878 million and print books $27.9 billion. Yea Paper! You win! Yea old technology! Of course I am old enough to remember going to the record store, buying an album, and sitting in bed listening to it, admiring the cover art, and reading the liner notes on the back. That was really hard to do with CD's, even when they made removable liner notes. Now I don't even care about the cover art when I download a song from a website in Russia that probably pirated the song anyway.

Thank you God, for sending me a manager wife who will look after the business aspect of my writing career. In return I will make dinner most every night and even rub her feet at least once a week, more if I am trying to get lucky.

Monday, September 12, 2011

in the beginning...

Yesterday my 13yo son asked me, "So Dad, what's with this writing thing?" He is referring to my new second job, that of an author.

Indeed, Jim, I second your question. Why would a nearly 45 year old licensed professional engineer suddenly decide to reconsider his profession? Back in college was I supposed to get in the writer line? Is it too late for me? Maybe not. Consider the story of young Jacob Cohen.

A talented young son of vaudeville performers, he started writing at age 15 with dreams of becoming a performer. With little success and a family to provide for, he worked as an aluminum siding salesman but retained his dream of performing. He would find success after two quintessential clicks of the cosmic tumblers. First, he needed a better name. Second, he needed a break.

The latter came when Ed Sullivan needed a very last minute replacement in his TV show lineup in 1967. The former was his choice to rename himself after a Jack Benny radio show cowboy, Rodney Dangerfield.

And so it went. His creative persona was the same before he found fame as after.Why did his success not come sooner? The difference was, well, hard to pinpoint, aside from his ability to just keep trying.

So to answer my son's question, Jim, I just decided to keep trying. And in the light of the lesson learned, this blog has a name. Ed's Pen Is Stuck. Why this name?

I get a lot of e-mails with what people think are, oh so funny, just have to share it, photos. One of them gathered enough popularity it got copied and counterfeited in hundreds of follow-up email messages. The message usually contains an image of an office printer with a handwritten note taped to the case. The note intends to warn users the printer is not working because a pen is stuck inside of it. Get ready to laugh, because the note's writer has unfortunately written sloppily causing it to read, "printer not working, penis stuck."

Very popular, no? So I have decided to kick start my popularity as a writer by also announcing that my pen is stuck as well. What is it stuck in? Who knows? Who cares? As long as it is stuck in something that can be washed off, touches people's lives, and makes a couple of dollars. At the very least I hope it gets stuck inside something that will get me published.