Thursday, December 13, 2012

writing right

My wife can really be a dose of whatever.

In case you haven't heard, I've given up writing. I wasn't successful. No book deal after two years. I'm done. Outta here.

And why give up? Simple. I've been to enough writing seminars with tips from industry professionals and received a million emails advertizing the secrets to getting published. From them I've learned that's the goal. That's the benchmark. A writer is a writer if someone invests money in their writing and publishes their book.

I gave the publishing industry a chance. No one's invested in my work so obviously I am not a writer. The publishing world is a corrupt and indefensible place and I can't take it any more. Just like in Meet John Doe,  I'm prepared to throw myself off of a massive pile of my query letters on Christmas Eve and kill the writer within me.

I was comfortable with my decision until my wife came along with her high-handed morals and pragmatic vision and from atop her Ivory Tower tells me, "Writing isn't about getting published." She probably added a 'dear' or 'honey' after that to soften her concrete-hard words. Still, that's what she said. What nerve!

How dare she fly in the face of the established contrivance that a good writer sells books. Everyone else is crap. We've all heard about 50 Shades of Gray. It sold so well that Random House is handing out $5,000 bonuses to every employee! Honestly, the trilogy is a hot mess of poor writing that caters to the housewife hoping to be asphyxiated during sex. I'm guessing there are quite a few of them out there as sales were brisk.

If that doesn't prove my point, nothing does. Then again, at this point I am not sure I have a point. What if my wife is right? Wait, that's a point! There it is.

What if a writer simply writes and doesn't focus on getting published? That means there is a nobility in the written word. It is it's own destiny! It is worthwhile to do, much like flossing. We know its important but very few people do it well, or often for that matter.

Those of you reading this who love to argue are now saying in an asthmatically nasal voice, "But Ed, why not quit whining and just self publish?" I'll tell you why not. In my eyes, self publishing is the gold prospecting of the 21st century.Ever been on one of those gold mine tours where at the end they tell you all the prospector received for 50 years of work was $30 and syphilis of the eye socket? I have.

And after the tour they tell you how old Weeping-eye Joe the prospector spent his life penniless while he made the mercantile shop owner rich, buying picks, shovels, and whatever else a prospector needs to pursue his dream. There's self publishing. Sure, one or two self published authors are worth their weight in gold. The others are simply stuffing the pockets of the artificial reviewers who guarantee fantastic e-book reviews for a fee.

Christmas is upon us. It is a time of miracles. I will make God a deal. I won't give up on my writing. It is one of the gifts he gave me and I will use it. Moreover I will try desperately to simply craft the best story I can and not worry about the editors, agents, and publishers.

They will just have to wait for me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

SCBWI Code of Silence

This past Saturday (while most of you were on-line trying to find out about WalMart's plan to phase in their black Friday deals on Thanksgiving starting at 8pm, which gives you an excuse to clear out of the family celebration before Dad falls asleep in front of the TV and starts 'breaking wind,' and you were likewise trying to find out about the intriguing part of WalMart's plan, which is to add more sales at 10pm which they hope will keep customers milling about the store and not stabbing and trampling each other as a way of celebrating Christmas like they do every year, even though just being in a WalMart for an hour makes me want to stab the customer nearest me in the neck) I was attending the SCBWI-ILLINOIS Prairie Writers Day conference at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois.

For those of you not hip to the lingo, SCBWI stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and it is an organization dedicated to authors and illustrators of children's, middle grade, and young adult books. I joined SCBWI in the hopes of learning the secret hand shakes in the publishing industry and quickly advancing my writing career with the book contract that was sure to come in the mail with my membership card. Still waiting on the contract but in the mean time the conferences share a great deal of information for not only the pre-published authors but also those looking to rekindle their careers.

SCBWI-ILLINOIS did a wonderful job pulling together editors, agents, publishers, and authors to reinforce or introduce key aspects of the business of commercial writing. Indeed anyone can write but to satisfy your ego with popularity or to make money at it you have to invest time in realizing how the business of writing works. The guest speakers at the conference did not disappoint and provided a great deal of useful information for all in attendance.

Unfortunately for me, all was not great. About halfway through the day as I was looking at all of the aspiring authors and illustrators in the conference, it struck me. I was hearing from industry professionals about how and why book publishing works being described as a process that can be repeated with similar results each time. This was the scientific method applied to the creative arts and I became depressed. If creating a successful book was as simple as filling the variables in the equations being presented, certainly one of these other people around me was going to do it first.

I was sure the entire room full of attendees would at the end of the day scramble madly outside, like reporters in a 30's gangster film running for the pay phones, grab their laptops, make three or four corrections to their manuscripts, email them off, and capture all of the book deals for the next umpteen years before I would have a chance to put my coat on. It is hard to pay attention to the debate about the disappearance of traditional publishing in favor of electronic publishing when you feel like creativity and ideas have nothing to do with you reaching out to the reader to share your story. Was this the looking glass I was afraid of falling through, where I see clearly that book sales are manipulated by the parties in charge and not by the wonderful written words of brilliant writers aching to share their vision?

And then it hit me. Creativity, vision, imagination, clarity, emotion, are all things that cannot be taught and that is why they were not a part of the presentation. Instead the seminar dealt with the best ways to present, package, and market those elements. Without the essentials of what an author bleeds for, a book is nothing more than 50 Shades Of Gray by a different name (seriously, it is just a book about submissive sex and everyone agrees it is a very poorly written book).

So what specifically did I learn at the conference that I didn't already know? What has re-inspired me to not take my passion for granted? Well, I would like to tell you but I cannot. Confidentiality is a part of attendance. The speakers who shared their time and information deserve discretion since what they know and shared is invaluable to someone like me just starting out as a writer. Like old Oppenheimer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory pictured above, what I learned stays where I learned it. Hopefully like the men and women of the Manhattan Project, the results of my involvement will also be explosive.

What an odd coincidence that many agents and publishers are located in Manhattan.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Founding Fathers and the Loss of Civility

With the presidential election over, I can breath again and focus on my personal passion of writing.

But first, I had to pop the pestilent pimple of these modern times, social media. With the election returns last night my Facebook wall had become rather infected and by morning an abscess had to be drained. Simply put, a mass of gloats had squatted on my laptop and things were starting to smell. 

Let me be clear, I do not mind honest expression of political interest. That is the cornerstone of democracy and I encourage it. But seriously, if your favorite team wins the Super Bowl, did you really have anything to do with it? Of course not, so sit down and stop screaming 'we're number one' in my face. The same goes with your presidential candidate. You cast your vote, hopefully, and you chose the winner. That is all you did. You chose the band wagon that had the most riders on it. Lets examine the deeper meaning of your actions.

It is possible you chose a candidate who will assure prosperity into the future, or you may have simply seen a line and stood in it so come wednesday morning you could jump and down in front of me telling me what a bafoon I was for choosing the other guy. Something tells me that isn't the American way, or maybe these days it is. Kim Kardashian is famous and rich for some reason which I haven't figured out, and a lot of Americans are interested in her, so maybe she would make a good president too, huh?

One facebook friend posted how his 7 year old daughter was glad Barack Obama won and wants Mitt Romney to go to Alabama and be their president. What in the hell are you telling your daughter about Mitt Romney and Alabama? I'm pretty sure this now hidden Facebook friend of mine has never been to Alabama but apparently he taught his child to think it's the Isle of Elba we send our disgraced politicians to because they are poopy heads.

Another former facebook friend took the broadest of brushes when she painted her comment that the president's re-election was proof that God exists. Sure, why not? The man who set one of his presidential goals as killing an enemy is close to God. The one who supports abortion (face it, it's killing a baby) is here to solidify our belief in a higher power. The one who through quantitative easing is printing money like manna from heaven is here to lead us into the promised land. Puleeeaaassse!

This acrimony does nothing for the democratic process and is offensive. Free will, a gift from God who I know exists because of St. Thomas Aquinas's writings, allows us to vote for whom we choose, unless we are to presume roughly half of us who voted didn't listen to God in the first place and the other half-plus-2% were the unwilling pawns of the creator and only voted the way they did because God said, "Hey, I got an idea, let's divide my people."

A candidate lost and a candidate won. I congratulate you for choosing the guy who played the game better than mine, but that in no way diminishes the importance of my ideals and my dedication to our country. Thanks for trying to make me feel that way though.

It is November and that means NaNoWriMo. I am at almost 20,000 works and I must keep at it. Now shoo.

Friday, September 21, 2012

before self publishing

I have a secret.

I claim to be a struggling writer, trying to get my big break, but that is not exactly true.As it turns out, someone recently uncovered a children's book I wrote years ago. At the time I portrayed myself as an Author/Illustrator and even with the low word count, the book was well reviewed. Self publishing was in its infancy so the quality isn't up to today's standards but I think you will agree, the story still holds its own. So presented here, for the first time in a long time, The Haunted Lake, by Edward Varga.

I still get chills when I read that plot twist at the end.

In all seriousness, this was a book I wrote in 1975 when I was eight years old. The "Good" review was from Sister Elaine, my teacher back at St. Vincent Ferrer School in River Forest, Illinois. Many thanks to my father Ernest Varga who saved practically every piece of paper from my school days.

For those of you counting, I have now been writing books for 37 years and hopefully I will be able to do it for many years to come. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

the other side of the page

When does it happen?

When in the life of a writer does the story stop being a story?

When does the story start to lack the emotional attachment between the reader and the written word, surendering that romantic involvement for the combination of recognizable techniques and structure conventions established by the cadre of writers who came before us?

When do we realize the pages of a book are the true Matrix?

Although I have embodied the love of writing since I first penned a humorous one page story in third grade, I have never taken my writing as seriously as I do today. Let's face it, when I first saw age 45 coming up in my windshield, I started to experience what the Germans call Türschließpanik. Literally translated it means door closing panic. If I am truly to make something of this one chance God has given me, I had to stick it in high gear writing-wise.So I wrote. 

I had several goals in mind, not the least was the desire so many have, to see their book on the shelves of their local Borders book store. Then Borders went belly up and my goal shifted to Barnes and Noble. Incidentally, after visiting an B&N over the weekend, I get the feeling I may have to substitute Amazon when I retell this story in a year.

I also want to write and get published to help complete my identity within my family. I am the youngest of three children who were spaced apart by about 4.5 years each. This means I will always be the 9 year younger brother to my older sister, who at age 54 likely still thinks I am in grade school as I was when she went to college. As my older siblings went to college and started their lives I felt less significant within the family. Mom and dad got older and lets face it, the family vacation over the summer isn't as much fun with only the last kid. In fact, those vacations stopped happening all together. The last vacation I took with my folks was in 1993. I was 26 and we drove to Virginia to visit my Aunt and her family (my brother and sister backed out at the last minute). On the way home dad left his wallet in a men's room stall at a Denny's restaurant in Pennsylvania and didn't realize it was missing until we were in Indiana. At first he thought I took it and was hiding it from him. I remember him staring at me with a mean look before asking about it. I was 26 but felt like I was five.

This may also be a chance to make a big impact on my son's lives. By setting my sights on getting published in the traditional way, I can be the example of hard work and perseverance our youth are lacking today. I doubt my lesson will overtake the "let's make a sex tape and surreptitiously leak it to the press" way of getting famous these days but at least I won't have to take a high-hard-one from Ray J that ends up on TMZ's website.

Much as Bruce Wayne needed to climb a mountain so he could study under a bunch of Ninja Monks before whipping Ra's al Ghul's ass, so must every writer immerse themselves in the training of kicking their story's ass. Our mountains are a little different. They exist for a great part inside of our own minds and to a lesser part in the form rejections encountered on the way from the evil, clad in black from head to toe, literary agents (if any agents are reading this right now I want them to keep in mind their portrayal as evil and clad in black is necessary for my visualization in this blog, and let's face it, they've been called a lot worse).

My journey was hard fought and continues to this day. With many days under my belt learning, researching, listening, and pounding away at the keyboard, I am tired but not ready to give up. Sure my index fingers are shorter than when I started (I still hunt and peck) and I am yet to get an agent to take a risk on me, but the goal remains the same. It just looks different from when I first set eyes on it. I am starting to see it as Neo saw the Matrix at the end of the only one of those films worth seeing again. I see structure, convention, application, and cohesion. I can now see the story for what it is, what it needs to be to reach a connection with the reader. The big change in perspective comes when the writer realizes the words are never in the right order the first time around. Every writer whose advice on writing I have come across stresses this point. Writing is rewriting. 

What about Dr. Seuss? When at B&N this weekend I picked up some of his books and looked them over, trying to imaging how his re-writes must have gone and what in the world the original text must have been. Text from Fox in Socks especially stands out in my memory. Here is a sample:
We'll find something new to do now.
Here is lots of new blue goo now.
New goo.  Blue goo.
Gooey.  Gooey.
Blue goo.  New goo.
Gluey. Gluey.

Well, if writing is rewriting, someone tell me what this was originally? Was "Gooey. Gooey." originally just "Gooey." and his editor circled it and wrote something like, "'Gooey.' doesn't have enough impact; try 'Gooey. Gooey.' instead." in the margins of his manuscript? Who knows and who cares? It works for me as a child who was captivated by the melodic writing and as an adult who realizes the word use and placement was carefully crafted not in a moment but over hours and days. 

Back in college I would read books and my thought was it became a book because the writer in one fell swoop threw each word down as if they were stitched together in his head by unseen angels. Now I know it is different than I thought then.

Then thoughts.
When thoughts. 
Chased by a hen thoughts.
Circle it with a pen thoughts.
Thoughts about writing.
Writing thoughts.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Four Years Ago

With this being 2012, an election year, we American's find a Democrat clinging to Presidential incumbency, and the Republicans churning up the familiar campaign rallying cry of, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The best answer I can give to that question is, "It depends." states the December 2008 average price for regular gasoline was $1.57 per gallon in the Midwest, which is where I live. I filled up two days ago and paid $3.99 per gallon.

The chart below depicts the value of my house over the last five years, graphed against average home values of the two closest communities provided by As you can see, I have definitely lost equity over the last 4 years, as have my friends and neighbors.

The average price for milk in September of 2008 listed by was $2.31 per gallon and today is $3.59 per gallon.

Unemployment, global warming, the Euro crisis, cell phone plans; on and on we can go with statistics ad-nauseum regarding the tried and true fact that a dollar ain't worth what it used to be and no matter what anyone says, the crystal balls are all broken and I'm not even sure the fortune cookies are really teaching me how to speak Chinese. Seriously, the back of the little piece of paper cuddled inside of that rock hard cookie might be telling me how to say "fuck-off" to a visitor from China instead of "cute puppy" like the translation says.

So what is the point of what I am saying? Am I trying to influence you to vote for the challenger because times are bad? Am I suggesting you stick with the incumbent because it can't get much worse? Actually, neither is correct.

Today is a special day for me, the anniversary of the day that my wife and I decided to go steady. We had dated since July of 2008 and being the cautious, divorced, singe father, guy who had his heart and finances ripped out by his previous wife, I was, for lack of a better word, cautious. On the other hand my bride to be was absolutely sure I was the one and kept wondering why I was asking if she was still seeing other guys. "Going steady" we became on September 7, 2012. A little over a year later, we were engaged in a beautiful proposal delivered by me at Chicago's Art Institute where everyone applauded when I got down on one knee and she said yes. And we wed seven months after that.

Four years can make a big difference. Four years ago I was not as happy as I am now, nor as fulfilled, challenged, or blessed. With confidence I can say I am better off now than I was four years ago but it was not because I placed my trust in any particular party or politician. It was not observance of what I now pay for toilet paper (32% increase in four years) or whose stimulus robbed value from my home. I am better off today because I let go of the reins, followed God's plan for me, opened myself to being vulnerable, and allowed myself to fall in love.

So when you head to the polls in November, choose wisely, then get the hell out of there and spend some time with the people you love. Trust me, you will be better off.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Vernon Hardapple

Back when my wife and I were first dating, she introduced me to the film, Wonder Boys. At the time we were still quite amorous and our physical urges kept us from finishing the film . It actually took us three sittings to watch the entire thing. The patience was worth it. Not only is it a compelling dark comedy with the professional writing world as a back drop, it also introduced me to Vernon Hardapple.

For those who have not seen the film, I will toss you a spoiler. Vernon is not Vernon. Rather he is a patron in a neighborhood tavern who, while sitting in a booth minding his own business, becomes a blank canvas in a game of verbal pin the tail on the donkey.

Michael Douglas plays writer Grady Tripp, a university professor who relies on his notoriety as the author of a popular novel published years earlier to keep him relevant to his students. His latest work in progress is at 2,000-plus pages and climbing with no end in sight and his drug use problem leads him to frequent spells of unconsciousness.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tripp's editor Terry Crabtree who is escaping his own lost glory as he is scorned by younger and more successful editors. Self consumed and desperate, he hopes his visit to Tripp's university during it's 'Wordfest' will turn his fortune around, possibly with Tripp's new novel under his arm.

Toby Maguire plays one of Tripp's students, James Leer, who is, well... he just isn't right. He is part literary genius with a gift for writing and part John Hinkley, appearing at the University Chancellor's home packing a pistol which he uses to shoot the Chancellor's dog as it is attacking Tripp. Every question asked of Leer is answered with unique complex narratives, each fit to be the introduction of their own novels.

In a particular scene, Tripp and Crabtree sit in a crowded booth in a neighborhood tavern. Beside them is  an unconscious Leer. Crabtree suggests that he and Tripp play the game, and stare at the unique looking man in the booth across from them. The game involves creating a character background for the unwitting suspect. The first move in the game is to name the character. In this case, the name chosen is Vernon Hardapple (pictured above).

The writing of this scene is brilliant and reveals more about the characters speaking than it does of Vernon. Especially interesting is that Leer, who still has his eyes closed and appears to remain unconscious, adds the most interesting palate of color to the character picture.

As a writer I would love to have this opportunity on a daily basis, to find such a distinct victim for my imagination, but seldom does this type of physical manifestation exist in my world. When it does however, I take notice. My Vernon Hardapple is Vincent Ambrose, and I saw him at McDonalds as I ate a snack with my sons at ten o'clock in the morning after we were done with meet the teacher day.

Vincent sat alone at the end of a long counter shaped table with his back to us. In front of him was a neatly folded newspaper which laid flat on the counter, it's edges aligned to be parallel to the table's edges. A coffee cup rested upright on one corner of the newspaper with the cup's lid placed upside down next to the cup. Vincent wore a clean, pink, short sleeve, button down shirt and khaki pants. The cuff of the pant legs seemed to ride higher than normal on his legs, revealing green socks with grey stripes leading to inexpensive looking black athletic shoes with a white bent line on the side, appearing to mimic the Nike swoosh.

Vincent's legs were spread apart and his knees bounced up and down in rhythm with the Bonnie Raitt song playing on speakers in the ceiling. His greying hair was cut short along the sides with the top cut longer. Where the different lengths met there was a distinct ledge formed around the perimeter of his skull. Vincent's left hand rested on the counter and his head bobbed periodically, a motion needed as he licked the ice cream cone he held in his right hand.

Vincent's look of loneliness belied the abundance of people in his life, most of whom he encountered at the nearby laundromat where he used to work. His father Tony purchased the laundromat thirty-two years ago when he was no longer able to work as a fireman. A drunk driver had run Tony down while he was connecting a hose to a street-side hydrant causing damage to his pelvic bone that prevented him from readily climbing a ladder. After less than eleven years of service in the fire department he was discharged with meager compensation which, along with the profits from the sale of their house, would become the down payment on the laundry building which would become the home for Vincent and his parents.

The thirteen year old Vincent did not like living in the apartment over his father's laundromat. The heat from the dryers in the summer beat back any breeze that might have found its way to his room that overlooked the alley next to the bakery below. The customers were often rude, a situation made worse by his father's diminished self esteem. With the change in domestic environment, Vincent watched as his mother Esther became less affectionate, trading her gentle caring disposition for the greed and desperation of a business owner. Nightly he would help Esther collect the coins from the machines, sorting the nickles, dimes, and quarters into canvas bags. Gone were the simple days of childhood. He still attended school and did homework but playing in the park was replaced with managing a coin laundry along side his parents.

Tony died five years after purchasing the laundromat. At age 18 Vincent found himself taking over for his father, following instructions from his mother, and operating a coin laundry. His entire world centered around the narrow stairway leading from the first floor to the second floor, from his bed to the small counter where he and his mother took in the drop-off laundry customers clothes. He envied the people whose lives were so busy they needed someone else to do their laundry. In Vincent's life, the only thing he had time for was doing laundry. If there was anything he needed help with from someone else it was actually living his life. Vincent never went to College. His mother did not attend his High School graduation. When it was over he laundered his gown and returned it to the school. On the way home he picked up more canvas bags from the bank.

For thirty years Vincent and Esther cleaned lint traps, pressed suits, collected coins, and inhaled detergent dust, all to pay off a mortgage with nickels, dimes, and quarters. Two days after the mortgage was paid off,  so was Esther. She died in her sleep. Vincent had gone down to open the laundromat in the morning and didn't notice until lunchtime that his mother hadn't joined him. Although he suspected she was gone, he didn't close the laundromat to check on her for fear she would be angry they were missing customers. At seven in the evening, after collecting the coins, Vincent climbed the narrow stairs to see his mother. He placed the coin bags at the foot of the bed and sat next to Esther's body. He took her cold hand in his and tried to offer a loving son's touch. He looked at her eye lids which drooped open slightly at the ends, revealing a matte reflection, and he smiled. "You're free, Mamma," Vincent said as he rubbed his hands across his head, feeling the uneven haircut his mother had given him the week previous.

Vincent arranged to have the visitation for Esther in the laundromat. Her coffin was laid out on the counter where she and Vincent had often sat together taking in other people's clothes for cleaning. As the scant number of mourners passed by Esther, they often had to stop to make room for a customer unloading wet clothes from one of the high-capacity washing machines. Vincent knew his mother would have wanted it this way, Thursdays were always very busy and closing the laundromat would have made her upset. At seven o'clock, the undertaker wheeled the coffin out the front door. Vincent remained behind at the counter folding a rush order.

As he delicately creased the shirts and pants he considered his parents' lives and how now at 42 years old, he could finally do whatever he wanted. After pausing a moment, Vincent decided what he wanted to do was fold the clothes. Not long after he was done, there was a tapping at the front door glass. Vincent picked up the two bundles of laundry he just finished ans walked them toward the dark figure on the other side of the door. Placing them in a rolling cart, Vincent unlocked the door and greeted the familiar face. "Sorry I'm late Vincent, is that my order?" the man asked, pointing at the cart. "Yes, I just got them done," Vincent answered without a hint of sadness or mourning in his voice. Picking up the bundles, the man attempted small talk as a way of further apologizing for being late saying, "Anything big happen today?" Vincent stared blankly back at the man and answered, "No... nothing big..." Vincent paused to consider an idea that came to him in the moment and continued, "not yet, anyway."

Vincent locked the front door to the laundromat and retrieved a can of tetrachloroethylene dry cleaning fluid from the back room. He opened it and placed it on the floor, near one of the gas fired dryers by the door that lead to the up stairs apartment. "Give me a hand with this one, Dad," Vincent said as he kicked over the can and entered the stairway. With each step Vincent took up the stairs, more fluid belched out of the can. The vapor was heavy in the air as Vincent went to his room. He looked at the decorations on the walls, old baseball pennants and drawings transplanted from his previous house when he was thirteen. He picked up a picture of him and his parents by his father's old fire engine and clutched it to his chest. "Time to go," Vincent said as the pilot light of the dryer ignited the dense, volatile air of the laundromat. The hungry fire burned the air rapidly and sucked all it could from the apartment above, pulling the curtains of Vincent's room open as if being held aside by two unseen angels.

On the alley pavement below landed Vincent's picture and several articles of clothing. Then Vincent landed alongside. As he stood up he saw his shadow highlighted by a brilliant orange light from behind him. The laundromat was burning. Fire fighters spent the night containing the blaze to protect the adjacent buildings. Vincent watched from the safety of a chair by the back door of the bakery, thinking of his father and mother. By dawn, the fire was reduced to smoke and steam. The apartment floor had collapsed onto the laundry machines below and the bare, scorched brick walls rose up like canyon walls either side. A firefighter approached Vincent carrying two blackened canvas bags. He cleared his throat of inhaled smoke and said, "We found these sir... thought you might need them." Vincent muttered "Thanks." By the shape of the bags he could tell they both contained quarters and the approximate amount was $250.00.

Using a garbage bag borrowed from the bakery staff who had arrived before dawn, Vincent collected his clothes and the picture. Hoisting it over his shoulder, he stood up. He picked up the coin bags and walked down the alley. Twenty minutes later he arrived at the only other laundromat in town with drop-off service where he deposited his bag of clothes to be cleaned. He sat on a bench outside the laundromat with the coin bags next to him, looking at the photograph. He studied the faces of his parents and was warmed by their smiles. He looked at his face, at the happy, thirty two year younger version of himself, at the boy whose adolescence was stolen. A sudden noise broke his concentration. It was the owner of the candy store on the corner opening his shop for the day. The brass bell attached to the coiled spring on the door rang and the door closed. Vincent looked at himself in the picture and longed to have that smile again.

The bell on the door rang again as Vincent walked into the candy shop. He was carrying the two coin bags and the picture. Timidly he said to the aproned man who stood smiling behind the glass lined cooler,  "I think I would... yes, I would like an ice cream please. In fact, I would like two."



Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hello, Darlene

Until the day comes when I am professionally subsidized by my career as a writer of children's picture books and middle grade novels, I will more than likely continue working with my father as a civil engineer.

It is a job I feel like I have had for ever. When I was 14 I got a work permit so I could actually get paid by my father for drafting and surveying. Now at 45 I am a licensed professional engineer and sit at a desk about 30 feet from my father's. He is 84 now, and still going strong. I like working with him, even though every day usually ends like family thanksgiving with one of us yelling at the other. Still, we are close in a strange father son way. I was never in little league with dad. He never took me to cub scouts. We just didn't do those things. My childhood is as my adulthood, learning from my father about what engineers do.

My relationship with my mother is also not typical. She is, for lack of several better words, obsessive. It is probably why I grew up with a weight problem. Mom cares and caring to her means being able to show the world how much she gives to her kids. Weekly she still comes to my desk and slips me a few dollars. She is always asking me if I am hungry and if she can buy me lunch. At 79, she is showing no signs of stopping. I resist, sometimes loudly, and she pushes back. That is how it works.

Since becoming connected via cellular phone, her obsessions cast a wider shadow. Mom never used to call me on my cell phone. She always presumed I would be driving and that her call would cause me to be involved in a fatal accident. Since I explained the workings of voice mail, that is no longer a problem. Now she calls whenever she wants and sometimes it is actually for a reason besides the offering of food. Today mom called with a starkly cold message. "I need you to come up, someone was trying to get into the house." That was what she said when I answered the phone.

"Who's trying to get in the house?" I asked. It seemed the most appropriate question. "There's a woman who says she lives here," mom answers. That was all she needed to say for me to understand what I needed to do. I have known this woman for 45 years and the tone in her voice coupled with the hardness of her native Austrian accent meant she needed my assistance but everything was under control. I presumed someone was seriously lost and replied, "Mom, I'm gonna call the sheriff. Is this woman older than you?" "Yes," she answered, sounding like she didn't want the woman to know who she was talking to or what I was planning to do. "Is she confused mom?" I asked. "I think so... Would you please come?" she said sounding like she was forcing a smile and nodding toward the woman.

I got off the phone with mom and called 911. I told the dispatcher what I had going on. I gave her my cell number and headed up to mom and dad's house to see what I could do to help. Dad stayed at the office, glad that I was going so he could stay at his desk. After all, he is happier there. 

It is a short drive to my parent's house and while behind the wheel, I said a little prayer for guidance and the ability to say the right things to the confused woman who tried breaking into my parent's house. Hoping this was not a crack addict I was going to meet, I wished the ride, and the prayer, had been longer. I felt ill prepared for the task at hand, and yet the writer within was already taking notes. Mom needed me so it was time to man up, social worker style.

When I arrived, I found my mother was still in her car. My sister who had just returned from taking my nephew to soccer practice happened to be driving by and stopped briefly to see what was up. When she saw me she decided to bail and get my nephew home. I parked my car. Eyes were on me, as if I had all the answers. Man were they wrong. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over to the strange woman standing by my mother's car and with an open hand and said, "Hi, my name is Ed... and you are?"

 The gaunt, tall woman had an expressionless face and with a hint of embarrassment she answered, "Darlene." Based on her reaction I decided to keep it light and friendly, probably more to calm down my mother than anything else, I motioned toward mom and dad's patio furniture and said, "Darlene, why don't we sit down in the shade while we figure out how to get you home."

Last week I had an upsetting situation take place in my car. On the way home from the county fair, our 5 year old was asleep, that is until he threw up. "Guys, while I was asleep, I threw up," he said. Then he threw up again. This is my wife's first child but I have a 14 year old from a previous marriage so I am no stranger to the slow motion, sepia tone vision of paying attention to the road while assessing the crisis in the back seat. I am always amazed at the calmness that over comes me when I need, really need, to be the best parent in the moment. Knowing there was nothing I could do and that vomit filled with corn dogs and soda was already pooling on the backseat floor, I offered a sympathetic and encouraging, "That's okay buddy, let it out, you'll feel better." He threw up again. My wife, on the other hand, rolled down the window to avoid getting a whiff of the unpleasantness. I did not know it at the time but this was a dry run for my first meeting with someone suffering from dementia. The key I found as with any crisis, from your wife announcing she was leaving to crapping your pants, was to just stay calm.

"So Darlene, can I get you some water?" I asked to break the ice. She was sitting in the shade now and I asked about the water because I had no idea if she might be dehydrated or not. My parents live about a mile from the nearest town and their hill is surrounded mostly by farm fields. Perhaps she had walked through the countryside, maybe from one of the older farmhouses in the area to get here. Dehydration was a real possibility. "No, I am fine," Darlene said pleasantly. Her mind seemed stuck in, 'wait a minute, something doesn't seem right,' mode. "Okay Darlene, but if you get thirsty, you let me know. Now Darlene, I called someone who is going to help you get home. He should be here soon." It's all I could think to say, as a way to prepare her for the eventual arrival of a sheriff's deputy. Not being familiar with how her mind worked, I presumed surprises would not bring happy results.

I continued, "So are you from around here Darlene?" "Oh yes," she said rolling her shoulders to the side and patting her lap with her right hand. "I was born right here in town." When she said, right here, she pointed at my mom and dad's house, which sits about 200 feet off of the highway, on a simple gravel driveway, by no means any part of the nearby town. "Do you live alone?" I asked Darlene. "No, I live here with my son David. Do you know David?" Darlene asked. "The name sounds familiar," I said, rather I lied, to Darlene. "So where is your house located?" I asked. "Right here on South Street," Darlene said, again motioning to my mom and dad's house.

I thought quickly about South Street and remembered there was a South Street in the nearby town, about a mile and a half away. It wouldn't take long to drive that far, but Darlene had no car. She also had no purse, no identification, no keys, and no phone. Considering the walk, the heat, and Darlene's age, getting her to drink some water became a high priority to me. Luckily my sister had returned and joined me, my mother, and Darlene on the patio. She placed a bottle of water in front of Darlene. She drank almost the entire bottle with her first sip.

It seemed like the sheriff was never going to arrive so to pass the time I started talking about things familiar to me in the hope it would put Darlene at ease. I talked about things I remembered from years ago, about prominent local figures, the barber who used to be in town, how the old high school was now the middle school, and such. She smiled in agreement but wasn't able to really add any information. She did explain that she grew up on a farm which is where she learned to be a hard worker. Then she asked me if I knew her son David, again. "I don't think I do Darlene, but how is David?" Darlene told me David was out of work and that she didn't like the way he made coffee in the morning.

I am not sure Darlene understood most of what I was saying. When I would tell a story, she tended to smile when I smiled and often looked to my mother to figure out what she should do to not look out of place. Darlene was a receptive audience of one and she seemed to appreciate my writer's gift of being able to tell a story. Soon it wasn't at all like she was a confused stranger who tried to break into my mom and dad's house. Instead she was a friend who stopped by unexpectedly and was surprised over and over that I didn't know her son David.

The sheriff's deputy finally arrived. I got up to meet him in the driveway and asked his name so I would be able to introduce him to Darlene as if we were friends. After all, she seemed to be enjoying herself and the last thing I wanted was to startle her. He came over and I introduced him to Darlene. Instantly the mood changed. We were no longer the circle of four reminiscing. Now we sat and watched the deputy ask Darlene questions, secretly wishing that Darlene would get the answers right, that she wasn't as disoriented as she really was, that she would just get up and say, I feel better now, sorry for the confusion, please take me home. That was not the case. She could not remember her age, did not know her middle initial, and could not venture a guess as to what day was her birthday.

The deputy returned to his car to contact the police department in the nearby town. I tried to get the conversation back to the cheerfulness it had before but it was no use. We knew Darlene needed more help than a minor cheering up. We feared for her situation domestically and hoped she was not a victim of abuse. We looked at each other and waited for Darlene to be collected. Finally the deputy returned. This time he had information for Darlene that included her middle initial, her birth date, her age, and a confirmation of her address on South Street.

As it turned out, she was one year older than my mother. I could see in mom's eyes that we would be dealing with her worry about aging and experiencing a similar fate soon enough. The deputy announced he was going to take Darlene back to her house where he would meet with the local police. Together they would asses the domestic situation and determine if a trip to the hospital would be in order.

For the first time Darlene took charge of the conversation. She extended a hand and said, "I've had a wonderful time and we need to get together again very soon." It was her relying on the kindness of strangers moment. She smiled as I took her hand and wished her well. Then in turn she bid farewell to my mother and sister.

No longer did Darlene think this was where she belonged, that mom and dad's house was her house. The deputy led her away to his patrol car. I followed to make sure she got in safely. When he closed the door, she stopped smiling. I suppose she no longer had anyone else to mimic and the need to appear that she was fitting in had dissolved.

After about an hour the deputy called me to let me know how it went. He related this was not the first time Darlene wandered away from home and that by the time he got to Darlene's house, acquaintances had already begun to look for her on foot, never once considering calling the police for assistance. David was indeed her son and did live with Darlene. However, his well being was diminished by several past strokes and his ability to keep track of his mother was not keen. The deputy thanked me and hung up the phone.

I still have little or no understanding of the workings of patients with dementia. My belief in the power of prayer is firm as without some exterior guidance I don't think I would have been able to do anything but stare at the stranger named Darlene. Later that night as I told my family about my adventure, I considered how precious the gift of life and its experiences really is. I will remember a woman named Darlene, although I doubt she will remember me.    


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'till sydicated rerun do us part

Perhaps the most widely accepted and retold segment of American Urban Legend comes from the game show, "The Newlywed Game," hosted by Bob Eubanks. In the game show, Bob asked newlywed couples questions separately then asked the same questions to the spouses to see if the answers matched. Inevitably sexual innuendo or a mild argument would occur, to the delight of the studio audience. The particular bit of Urban Legend I am referring to comes from the pantheon of retro TV and tells of a question asked of a woman on the show by Eubanks, in which he inquires as to the strangest place she and her husband have ever made whoopie, to which she responds, "In the butt."

I heard a comedian once explain what makes something funny. He described a joke as a story you tell where the listener thinks you're going in one direction, then at the last second, you make a left. Indeed, the question's answer was a left turn towards the poop-chute, and an interesting one at that, but did it really happen? Reading the Snopes article on this matter, I found out that in a 1997 Entertainment Weekly interview, Bob Eubanks denied that question and answer ever took place on the show. As devastating as the Black Sox scandal, I didn't want to believe it (say it ain't so, Bob). After all, this simple question and answer points out the true kryptionic aspect of being an American, namely, we say strange stuff when we think we are going to be on TV!

As disappointing as Bob's declaration may have been, I have good news. There is hope in our dopey American TV crazed, Jersey Shore, America's Funniest Video, Candid Camera, identity, and that comes from the golden archive of video tape.

Snopes found a transcript of a Newlywed Game episode from 1977 in which Bob asked a husband, Hank, where he thought the weirdest place his wife ever had the urge to make whoopie was. Olga, Hank's wife, stammered while the audience laughed, until she gave the answer, "Is it in the ass?"

Laughter followed as the audience reacted to the left turn that would end up as bleeped out words for the viewing public. Bob was quick to step in and let her know they were looking for a place more geographic than physiologic, but alas, it was too late. The audience, her husband, even Bob laughed as the show made a gigantic left turn and history was made. Care to see it? Here is the clip. For the impatient reader/viewer, the answer comes just after the 2 minute mark.

Hank and Olga must be in their 70's by now. I hope they are still married and if they are, I bet they still laugh about that one with the kids and grand-kids at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And speaking of laughing, I hope everyone has a great sense of humor, because I am going to let you in on a couple of secrets. First, the Newlywed Game is still being produced with host, Sheri Shepard. Second, my wife and I just spent the weekend in NYC and appeared as contestants on the show. And, third, what we ended up saying may not be as funny as what Hank and Olga had going on, but I assure you, we did our duty as Americans and embarrassed ourselves appropriately for the show with a series of left turns. I would like to say more, but we signed several documents where we agreed that if we say anything about the outcome or the production methods before the show airs, we'll end up so poor my kids won't be going to college.

I am not sure what effect the sordid details about my rather active sex life with my wife will do for my picture book manuscripts finding a publisher, but at this point, it couldn't hurt.

Friday, June 29, 2012

In Praise of Independent Book Sellers

As many of my blog readers may recall, I am married to an extraordinary woman who just happens to be a school librarian. I say extraordinary because her life is dedicated to passing the love of reading onto children, and if there is a hope for the future, it will be found in a book.

Recently she invited me to an event held at the Lake Forest Book Store, in Lake Forest, Illinois, where she would be speaking on the subject of the importance of Author visits to schools. In the audience were several school librarians from the greater Chicago area as well as representatives from Scholastic and Harper Collins. The greater purpose of the event was to foster a partnership between the book store and the librarians, much like my adorable wife has participated in since 2003. Here are my reflections on the evening and the topics presented.

First things first, an interesting factoid. The Lake Forest Bookstore is the last independent seller of new books in Lake County, Illinois. I grew up in near Chicago in the suburb of Elmwood Park and I remember as a small boy taking trips to the Lake Street Mall in Oak Park with my sister to visit the Krock's and Brentano's bookstore. It was a narrow storefront just east of the Marshal Field's and the experience was incredible. Unlike the now-late Border's and Barnes & Noble stores, this was a single level storefront with narrow aisles and books crammed onto every available shelf. All around was the fragrance of the printed page and the patrons were truly interested in looking through the books to find a treasure to take home with them. Sadly, the K & B is no longer there. However, the closest experience I have ever had to that magical feeling is in the Lake Forest Book Store. For the curious, here is their facebook page. I am sad that more stores like this do not exist, so sad in fact that I am telling everyone I can to stop by and visit.

Now, back to my beautiful wife who loves to teach children about reading. As she explained, it was in 2003 when she was first contacted by the Lake Forest Book Store asking if she would be interested in an Author visit at her school. Seeing the learning potential an actual Author at her school speaking to the students, she agreed, starting a teaching experience for her students that continues to this day. Certainly Authors are not always easy to deal with, but the children are usually awestruck and the Lake Forest Book Store profits from book sales tied to the arrangement. As her husband I am privy to the details of the Author's needs and how they drive her crazy. Certainly they are not rock-star crazy needs, but some are very particular. In the end, the students are enriched, the local economy is bolstered, and the art of telling the story goes on.

After my wife was done speaking, I retreated to a corner of the store while the sales reps pradled on and on, as sales reps of any industry are known to do. I found a comfy chair and started reading the first book my hand fell across, Fahrenheit 451. I started reading and got about half way through by the time the reps were done (by the way, Scholastic has a book coming out that seems to be a rip-off of the TV show Quantum Leap). My wife came over to me with a stack of swag (free books) for me to carry. As I took them to the car my mind kept drawing a comparison between the crushing depression of a world without books envisioned by Ray Bradbury, and a world where books are only electronic and not available in stores.

By the way, there is no WI-FI internet access at the Lake Forest Book store.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The prolific Chuck Wendig is hosting a flash fiction contest at his website

Recently I've steered away from writing flash fiction as I am consumed with a MG novel I am working on and as I see it, if I have time for 1,000 words a day, I would rather dedicate it to the novel. 

As usual, however, Chuck's topic caught my eye and set the keys to clicking. In this particular challenge he presented options of setting to writers. In my judgement writing solely about the setting was too easy and if real writing is to be done, the setting must be the most minor of set dressing. 

Thanks for the challenge CW. Here is my entry.

Margaret bit down on her lower lip, trying not to think about the feeling of despair that overcame her in the grocery store. Her life had always been cataloged and defined by a mildly delusional feeling that she was being judged by every one. Places where strangers shared aisles with her and hid around corners pretending not to see her opened up dark places in her mind. She knew they were focused on her as they pretended to have gentle conversations with each other or spoke softly into their cell phones. What they were actually saying was that her pants made her look fat, and the pimple just above her hairline was looking infected. She wished Steve hadn't gone.

When she was with Steve, it all felt better, more natural for her. As he walked by her side, those who would mock and jeer turned and scattered. Steve was in her life for a very short period of time. When he left, her feelings of paranoid self criticism returned. Alone now, Margaret struggled to deal with her 48 years of age, bags under her eyes, poorly fitting bra, and mismatched purse. Margaret felt terrible.

Pecan Sandy, sometimes called Peekaboo or Peeks, was Margaret's cat. Like her, Peekaboo was middle aged and without a like-species companion. Although not particularly modest, if he cared about what other cats thought of him, his looks, and his personal hygiene, he didn't show it. Peekaboo was happy laying on the carpet and getting waited on by Margaret. Like most cats, Peekaboo was a demanding master. If the water in his bowl was more than 12 hours old he would vomit on the floor. If the litter box was excessively pungent, he wet the laundry basket. And when there was no moist canned food in his bowl, he howled as if passing a moon-sized kidney stone until there was.

Steve hated Pecan Sandy and Pecan Sandy hated Steve right back. Their acrimony hit its peak just as Steve and Margaret's physical involvement was climaxing. The long anticipated consummation happened in her apartment, in full view of Peekaboo. Like a trench coat concealed pervert at a twenty-five cent peep show, Peeks stared at them during their lovemaking. Sitting on the covers at the foot of the bed, he watched as each participant took turns climbing on top of the other. The grunts and groans of luke-warm passion did little to alter his expression of ambivalence. The rhythmic back and forth rocking of the bed brought to Peekaboo the motion of a shaking bowl of gelatin, but it did not unseat him from his spot.

Peeks watched the thrusting, grabbing, and sweating, all the while tolerating the nauseating coital dialog of 'oh, yea' and 'God, you're the best'. Peeks knew he was the best and that everyone else was a distant second. The termination of the sex act was followed by a prolonged period of panting for recovery, during which time Peeks walked delicately up the covers between the couple and sprawled out around Margaret's head. Once situated, Peeks beat his tail across Steve's face until he dislodged a clump of litter concealed in the fur, sending it into Steve's left nostril.

Margaret thought Steve over reacted when he scurried out of her bed and tried blowing the foreign object from his sinuses using the closest small article of clothing he could find, her panties. No pleading in the world could get him to stay. The feline feces and aggregate ball was the wedge that would drive them apart. Margaret spent the rest of the night weeping on the couch with Peekaboo sitting next to her, exhibiting the outward appearance of a man who won.

Margaret pulled back with her left hand and swung the shopping cart into aisle 9. The cat food was on the far end. She pushed the empty cart, straining as if it was filled with bricks. Each step she took became shorter and more labored. She thought of Peekaboo in her apartment, staring at a clock, wondering what was taking her so long. Margaret became weak, her legs barely moving now. Her back grew stiff and a tightness seized her chest. She gasped for air but none would come. She fell on the floor, the force of her body's decent sending the cart careening into a display filled with cat food cans. Margaret lay sprawled out in aisle 9. A can, dislodged from the cat food display by her runaway cart, teetered and rolled into her outstretched hand. As her vision faded, she fumbled with her fingers across the tiny cylinder. Aisle 9 is where Margaret's heart beat its last.

One week later, Pecan Sandy, starved and neglected, still in Margaret's apartment staring at the clock, joined her on the other side.

Monday, June 4, 2012

one thousand words...

I am an internet news addict. I love obscure stories and life's observations from a thousand different viewpoints all at the same time. The flood of information feeds the deep down ADD 12 year old that I really am and my ability to recall obscure facts and anecdotes faster than the state capitols is self-validation of my desire to be a writer.

Recently I saw a story about a seventy-year-old Scottish railway experiment. The inventor's attempt was to double the use of existing railroad right-of-ways by constructing an elevated track over the pathway of the existing rails. Brilliant! The added transport system consisted of an aerodynamically shaped passenger car supported on over-and-under monorails. Brilliantly Brilliant! To top it off, the car is transported by air pressure developed by twin propellers mounted  both fore and aft of the passenger car. Holy Shit, that's infinite number of angels on the head of a pin Brilliant!

The original photos from the 30's are nostalgic yet uninspiring, depicting the test of the train system on the incredibly short portion of track. Even with the hazardous position of a large diameter propeller blade in close proximity of passengers on the platform, the photos depict a world in control and without options.

On the other hand, photos taken 20 years later, just prior to its dismantling for scrap, show the rusted prototype towers and the deceased transport system dangling listlessly by an elevated passenger platform.

It was this image that resonated with me like the dickens and sent my mind supersonic in the direction of a world that never existed except between my ears.I imagined a time and a world where the unconventional was inspiring and worthy of at the least giving it a try even if the evidence of failure hung literally right over the heads of the inventors. For me this is gold. Instantly the abandoned train car inspired a vision for the world I am currently writing about and kept my subconscious transfixed until I could start describing it in words.

I am becoming more familiar with this metamorphic writing process even though its sentient nature still scares the crap out of me. With my ABNA finalist novel out of the running, I was planning a different story and really starting to get into it. Then a new idea popped into my head and I wrote a couple of pages swearing I was going to get back to the other story as soon as I had the notes done. My new WIP now consumes me. I have five chapters written so far and unlike my previous novels, this time I am abandoning the seven point plot outline and going with the three act scene outline method. Wish me luck, I have to get back to writing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

That wasn't at all what I expected.

On Saturday, May 12, 2012, I attended the SCBWI Illinois Spring Thaw Event. This was my first writer's conference and I did so only because I was encouraged by my editor. Let's face it, she demanded I go. 
I did not want to go. In fact as soon as I arrived I texted her saying that I may hate her for insisting I go. She politely responded that I should grow a pair, grab a muffin, and find a seat. She knew it would be a good experience for me and would help with my current situation of writers-block mixed with writers-discouragement. I am told that every writer spends time with these two personalities and if given their own due, they become cliche seventies bar scene characters and they hook up, producing a love child that ends up poisoning creativity. 

I decided to stay. I know I can write but let's face it, there are trained chimps that can write and they are getting better press than I am. As a writer I have searched, I suppose as all writers do, for validation that my work is worthwhile. Since I am not published nor represented by an agent, I do not feel validated. And yet, writing is the one thing I do that I throw my entire self into and leave feeling purely sublime. It is caffeine and heroin and a mother's hug and a full body massage rolled into one. Odd how I feel like I need validation after that description.

Still, with external validation nowhere to be found and the goal of being a published author remaining just out of reach, I am flirting with massive discouragement. If I can't be published, well then for God's sake, someone tell me that already so I can move on!

Inside the beautiful Thornhill Education Center at the Morton Arboretum, throngs of writer types mingled as I moved slowly through the crowd to the registration table, all the while waiting for someone to extend a finger in my direction while screaming, "FRAUD!"  That never happened. In fact, everyone was really nice to me.

Registration done, I made my way to a side table, determined not to cause a commotion or distraction for the other 'good' writers. As it turns out I ended up sitting directly adjacent to Esther Hershenhorn, a famous writer. I seriously began to wonder if there was any security in this place at all as they were allowing a no talent schmuck like me to have such unfettered access to Ms. Hershenhorn. She was within arms reach!  What was wrong with these people? Didn't they know I have only 350 followers on Twitter? How was I going to dismiss my want to be a writer when people were being nice to me and I was getting first class access to those recognized for their writing?

The opening exercise was touching, to say the least. In the middle of our tables were branches with seed paper book silhouettes hanging on them. Each of us were instructed to take one and write the name of our current work in progress on it as a way to make it something real.

The keynote speakers were Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver who back in 1971 founded SCBWI. Literally hundreds of children's book titles were created by them. If anyone could tell me I didn't deserve to be a writer, these two should be able to do it with one arm out the window. I waited but never did I hear anything close to that. Instead I heard great encouragement and enthusiasm. They shared stories of their journey and provided wonderful advice and instruction for seasoned and novice writers alike, especially those who were felling down on themselves.

When the day was done, I felt like a portion of me would never be the same again. I came there hoping to be turned away with the rabble and by the end I felt like there was no way I could ever leave. Steve, Lin, thank you both so much for founding SCBWI and causing to bring about a wonderful community of supportive creative people. I am glad to be a member and promise I will not forget all of the lessons learned, especially the one about treating myself like a professional.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Somebody call a cop because I got robbed!

Well, not really, but sometimes it is easier to blame others for your misfortune and relive the less pleasurable aspects of life rather than take what you can and move on. Lets examine a particular flaw in human nature and how it smacks us like a ball peen hammer to the forehead, polluting our lives like lead in the bloodstream. The particular flaw I am referring to is not being able to just move the freak on already and live a better life using the lesson learned.

Pretend you are a zebra in the wild. As you and your striped buddies stand around the watering hole taking your morning sips, you happen to see a lion lurking in the bushes a few yards away. Since you are an animal in the wild, your tendency is to only care about number one, so you keep this sighting to yourself. Besides, to your left between you and the big cat is Gerald, the zebra who is a little higher on the lady zebra pecking order than you. Hoping this will work in your favor, you do everything you can to drink your fill of water, not alert Gerald to the impending danger, and plan your exit from the lion once he attacks. So you stand and drink, trying not to laugh as you picture the eviscerated Gerald featured on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, when the unthinkable happens and the lion charges at you. Zebra senses kick in, you turn and run while pooping just a little, and beat feet to safety. Sure you wonder why Gerald didn't get taken down, but in the end you are glad to have your life and will be a little more careful next time you take a sip.

Pretend now you are a passenger on a commercial jet that has just departed. As your tons of aluminum, fuel, and human souls travel upward at 150 miles an hour into the sky, your pilot manages to steer the aircraft directly into a flock of geese, sucking several into the plane's engines, severely damaging thousands of precision moving parts. Thinking more of when you will be able to turn your laptop on rather than what that loud series of thuds were, you pay little attention to the sudden change in the pitch of the aircraft and the way the buildings seem to be getting bigger. Then on to your ears fall the terse words, "prepare for water landing," but you ignore them as a mistake since everyone knows airplanes do this thing called 'landing' since it happens on land not water. Just then you hear someone who was paying attention start to scream and you notice other passengers in the so called 'crash position' which usually means a crash is about to follow. Then you feel a distinct change in the smoothness of the flight and your laptop goes skidding off of your lap as more people begin screaming. Eventually the pandemonium of takeoff becomes bobbing and everyone is yelling to 'go here' and do that.' Some people listen to the 'here-that' instruction but not you. You are that person I read about who is holding up the plane's emergency evacuation because you are trying to get your carry on luggage out of the overhead bins so you can take it out to the wing to wait for the rescue boats to arrive. You have not learned the zebra lesson of moving past crisis, figuring out what is important, and moving the freak on already.

This is our human nature, to dwell too much in the recently departed moment, trying to somehow fix it in the past while ignoring the present that leads to our future. And for many this is the greatest threat to writing.

For the past three years I have become serious about my writing with extra effort expended in the last year. I am feeling confident about my work and know that with every word on paper I am honing my craft and yet still, I feel a lack of accomplishment which causes me to stare over my shoulder instead of looking straight ahead. About a month ago I was cut from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. After making it through the first pitch cut, I thought I would be cut at the excerpt review. Then I made it into the excerpt round and confidence got the best of me. When I got cut at the semi finals I was devastated. I spent about a week with my head up my ass, swearing I was going to give up writing forever. I chose the inconsiderate airline passenger route and paid for it dearly. I ignored how lucky I was to make it from 5,000 entrants to a pool of 250 quarter finalists. Instead I decided to ignore this validation of my sparking talent and declare it a death sentence. What I realize now, only as the constipation subsides from inserting my head into my ass, is that now is the time for me to think more like a zebra.

And now that I have, I am feeling better for it. Zebra thinking is the way to go. I have started a hand-edit of my novel and now have a greater appreciation for what I created. I know it is a worthwhile manuscript and deserves as many revisions as are required to bring it to the bookstore, and when it does hit the shelves, do not be surprised to see a dedication to a zebra inside the front cover.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Here beta, beta, beta...

Average Blog Reader
One of the biggest challenges with creating my blog entries is writing to my entire audience. I have friends from grade school, high school, and college who visit here. I also have acquaintances from my days in radio who stop by from time to time as do friends I used to reenact the civil war with. Recently added to the mix are persons in the field of writing and publishing. And on top of that strange venn diagram scenario, my family swings by as well. It should be noted this is not the limit of my visitors.

According to Blogger, the majority of my blog viewers, 90% in fact, are in the United States, while in second place is Russia with 8%. This is odd to me since Canada, a country where the majority of residents speak english, is in third place and the United Kingdom, again english speaking folks, comes in below Germany. And since we are talking blog stats, I want to offer a shout out to all of the PC users out there since 78% of my views are not from a Mac.

Also, to the 3 people who have viewed my blog using the Netscape browser, it's time to put on the big boy pants and stop using that computer you found at the bus terminal.

So as I write my thoughts for all my circles to share, in the back of my mind I am always thinking, "Do I need to explain what I mean?" This is likely one of these times. Oh, do you smell that? It's a brief description I just baked and am serving up to those not in the fields of writing and publishing. Today I would like to explain what a Beta Reader is, rather, today I would like to let Wikipedia explain what a Beta Reader is.

International Symbol for a Beta Reader I Just Drew
"A beta reader (also spelled betareader, or shortened to beta) is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described[1] as "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."

the Beta Band featured in the film High Fidelity
Since I started writing again three years ago, my Beta Reader is my lovely and talented wife Paige. She has a thorough knowledge of literature, speaks fluent french, and is a librarian. She also has experience editing having worked on movie pilot scripts in the past. She downplays this experience as it was for an old flame but I do not make that distinction. When Paige says she likes something I wrote, I know I can trust it and when she says she doesn't like it, I get sad which is odd validation for her statement.

Case in point, I completed a children's book manuscript recently and after she read it she said to me, "You forgot to include a story." Sadness led to me realizing Piage was right. The characters were there in great detail but I failed to place them on a path.

The 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest is ongoing as I write these words. My Novel which I started writing last September made it into the quarter finals, being chosen as one of the top 5% of 5,000 entries. Unfortunately, it will go no further as it was just eliminated. After the 5 stages of grief completed pissing on my wheaties, I am ready to start editing and carry on.

I had a Beta fish when I was in grade school
First I need to pump up my ego a little and recognize that in the relatively short time I have been back at writing, having a novel make it that far the first time out is pretty impressive and an accomplishment I could not have made without my Beta Reader Paige. Even with this level of first time success, Paige still reminds me I need to find another Beta Reader to help put a finer point on my pencil, especially for the children's book manuscripts I have.

So how does one go about finding a Beta? I would love to hear back from some writers out there with their stories and advice of how they found the right critique partner. Then again, maybe I would learn more from the stories of the wrong connections. Feel free to place a comment below or drop me a line directly. This new writer would sincerely appreciate it.    

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

(don't) Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler
"To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him."

My sister-in-law, a soon to be published author by the way, once described me as being Lloyd Dobler.

Because of her I sat through Say Anything, a movie which some had raved about being a great film. I didn't think that much of it but maybe that was because I was being characterized as teenaged John Cusak (aack!). To know me is to know I am much more the tormented newly grown up High Fidelity John Cusak type.

What left me really scratching my head was why the movie was called "Say Anything?" I first confused it with a Kirk Cameron movie about a debate club. My wife, who is one of those people who thinks Say Anything is a great movie, quickly corrected me. By the way, the title of the Kirk Cameron movie is Listen To Me. Clearly you can see why I got confused.

Believe it or not, the subject of why Say Anything is called what it is was already answered on Yahoo and as it turns out has nothing to do with Lloyd's character, rather the annoying father-daughter bond he needs to work inside of and eventually destroy (Yahoo Answer). So am I Lloyd Dobler, the deceiver who steals daughter's hearts from their fathers? I say no, but I really can't back that up with more than a desire to not be that guy.

Perhaps we should mentally place the ambiguous movie title aside and look more at Lloyd's character. Thanks to the internet I met Kate White, a writer for the Pittsburgh Examiner. She wrote a wonderful column on why every woman wants to meet and be with Lloyd Dobler (Kate White, Pittsburgh Examiner). As she wrote, "He is the urban legend of dates and the Holy Grail of boyfriends. He is the weirdo underdog, the rogue charmer, and the sensitive loyalist. He won our charred, dead hearts one romantic, offbeat line at a time." Well alright, now, sugar! This works for me and personally I think it describes me rather accurately. However it does nothing to get me my 100 minutes back that I spent watching that movie.

Humbly I admit I am a rogue charmer, offbeat, and definitely the underdog, especially when it comes to my writing style. Soon I hope to be able to show my work to the world in a more professional manner. For now I play the aspiring author paying his dues by sending out queries every week and languishing in my own hemlock society of gathered rejection letters.

The vast majority of the general public has no clue how a form rejection letter from a complete stranger can damage one's underdog qualities. Sometimes it takes days to get up and dust yourself off. Occasionally a bit of providence steps in and lifts you up quicker.

Normal Maclean
This week I came across such a bit of providence in the form of a letter at the Letters of Note website that would prove to be very uplifting and make me more aware of an author by the name of Norman Maclean.

He wrote A River Runs Through It and in 1975 he thought things were going well as the Alfred A Knopf agency was ready to publish it. Then they backed out. I know exactly how he felt at that moment as earlier this year I was in talks with a publisher in the UK who wanted to publish two of my children's book manuscripts. They kept me on the line for three months, then the publisher's executive director resigned leaving the agency in damage control mode and my manuscripts in the dustbin. I still feel a lump in my throat when I recall that event.

As luck would have it for Mr. Maclean, the University of Chicago Press picked up his work after Knopf dumped it and it became the celebrated novel it deserved to be. Wait, it gets better. In 1981 he was contacted by an agent at Alfred A. Knopf who was interested in finding out if they could get a shot at Maclean's latest work. The best presumption is the agent had no idea that Knopf had previously toyed with Maclean and the offer would likely upset him.Well, old Norman let him have it in a response letter that makes for great reading, especially for frustrated writers. The entire text of the letter can be found here (letter) and it is a must read for the writer having no luck at being accepted.

Here is my favorite part of his letter to the publisher who left him at the altar six years previous. "The dream of every rejected author must be to see, like sugar plums dancing in his head, please-can't-we-see-your-next-manuscript letters standing in piles on his desk, all coming from publishing companies that rejected his previous manuscript, especially from the more pompous of the fatted cows grazing contentedly in the publishing field. I am sure that, under the influence of those dreams, some of the finest fuck-you prose in the English language has been composed but, alas, never published. And to think that the rare moment in history came to me when I could in actuality have written the prose masterpiece for all rejected authors – and I didn't even see that history had swung wide its doors to me."

Let me make it clear, these are not my words, at least not at the moment. I am still in the ass-kissing and asking for seconds part of my writing career which means I can not afford to burn any bridges yet as I can not afford the big boat to cross the water on my own.

Someday, maybe I can be as honest and glib as Maclean was, but right now I want to assure agents and publishers that I want to be their very own Lloyd Dobler.