Friday, October 23, 2015

How to stay busy during a mental break

I know the value of AIC (ass in chair) as an author, but I know the value of taking a mental break and getting my literary world in order. But that raises a question: What did I do during that time?

My days were filled with various tasks, but three stand out. First, I worked on revisions on my baseball novel. Second, I sent a single query letter on another novel out to a single literary agent. I guess I could label that as an exclusive submission, although that would be fudging the truth. Third, I brushed up on my German, which I did next to nothing with since high school.

I like learning languages, but like many other of my preferences I left this one on the back burner. Being involved in a career does that. I have more free time now, so I turn my attention back to one of my neglected loves. I figured German would be a good starting point because I had a one-year course when I was in high school. (I also took one year of Latin, but that is a dead language that should be studied only if you want to learn foundations of certain languages or enter the priesthood.) I am indebted to the hard work of Herr Norman Tonn during those German classes.

My first problem was finding something I could afford. Rosetta Stone lessons aren't cheap. Another source, Babbel, is much less expensive, but I favor free things. I did a Google search and got a list of websites that don't cost a penny. I started on one, but it had software issues that caused breaks in the teaching program. I looked for another source, and I struck paydirt.

I am learning on Memrise, which is based on London. It has a good method because it breaks down sentences into small bits, and by learning small bits I can learn longer sentences. I completed the basic course, and surged into Intermediate German. I am about a third of the way through this course, and I am hitting some complex new issues. I am doing well, at least by my standards. I couldn't walk into Berlin and strike up a conversation, but I could order at a restaurant and make small talk at times. To be honest, I might not advance past the "ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch" stage. (That sentence means "I speak a little German.") I am not looking for a job as an interpreter at the U.N. after all.

A small side note: German lessons helped some while watching Bridge of Spies, which is set in large part in West and East Berlin. Okay, there's one point in my favor.

I continue my lessons, both in German and literary things. I don't like to stand still. It keeps life interesting, and I need to build on my interests. That is my simple solution to a complex life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Write what you love to write

My time of reflection over the past few weeks has been very advantageous. I had been writing on projects for so long that I forgot why I was writing in the first place. That reason has become increasingly clear over the past few days.

The object of being an author is to write what you love to write.

Don't get me wrong. I love all three of my main characters who are the center of my novels. My time away to assess has directed me toward working diligently to finalize one novel. (Veteran authors say there really is no novel that is finalized, just one on which the work stopped for publication. That's very true.) This novel is closest to my heart. It is from a world I know best.

My favorite is my baseball novel. It is good for me because I am writing what I love to write. I don't believe it is good from a financial standpoint. Sports fiction is not a big seller these days. Most literary agents who list sports as a category they represent add that they represent nonfiction sports. It's easy to understand why. Nonfiction relates to a particular event or person, and that increases the potential profitability of that novel. Which is a sports fan most likely to buy, a book about Aaron Rodgers or one about a fictional character? Aaron is going to win that battle every time.

So why am I focused on a nonfiction sports novel? I know this world so well. To my followers from my old hometown of The Dalles, Oregon, here's the basic makeup of my protagonist: He is part Doug Sawyer, part Jim Willis, but the biggest part is just the creation of this fiction writer. There is no player I know of from The Dalles or anywhere else who is an exact copy of this protagonist. If I can't sell this project to an agent and publishing house, I will self-publish in time for next baseball season. That is set in stone.

I don't want to discount my interest in another novel I am working on. The baseball novel is so close to me that it has a special place in my hierarchy. The other novel I have in the finished (for now) stage is vastly different, and so is the subject matter. It touches on things that are relevant today, like job loss, broken relationships, broken dreams and chances to revive treasured hopes. I hear all this junk about how strong our economy is these days, but the anecdotal evidence says otherwise. Many careers, and not just those in journalism, are being wounded by job cuts. I hear friends who work in many different industries say that. The other thing I love about this novel is that my main character can be a jerk. It is that way in the first paragraph. I probably don't help myself by writing in a way that might put some people off. (My first paragraph is rather prickly, and intentionally so. I want a main character with flaws, someone who is real and not a caricature of what a protagonist should be. I am willing to take that chance because it begins a beautiful character arc.)

Again, creating a character with rough edges is what I like. It's like real life, and I try to make my novels mirror real life.

I will go about the business of writing while embracing the love of the game. I move forward with that as my foundation.

Monday, September 14, 2015

I needed a break

I read so much advice from published authors on the best things to do in certain circumstances. Most of them give adequate information. There is one I took to heart about a month ago. One author said that sometimes it's good to put a project away for a while and concentrate on other things if the creative process isn't quite right. I did that. I put my second novel in one series far on the back burner, and I concentrated on a few short stories.

I had to do it. I will try to explain.

I take time during my writing to go over my work at certain intervals. There is no set timetable, like stopping when I get approximately 30 percent of the way through my planned manuscript. I did such a revision with this latest novel, and I didn't like the results. There was the standard "lack of punch" that many writers have in a first draft, but there were other problems. I had a section in which I analyzed the impact of a series of events in my story line. I put it into the middle of one chapter. That was okay. The problem was that I also put it in at the start of another chapter about five chapters later, and I didn't realize that until my revision session. That means I am not concentrating well enough. How could I be so unaware? I need to get back the enthusiasm for my subject matter, which is lacking when judged by my results.

When I analyzed everything in the intervening time, I decided to keep that novel on the back burner and turn my attention to another novel. This one is more from my heart, and I have a desire to make that novel shine. I am starting to work on it as soon as I finish this blog.

Sometimes we need to step back and analyze where we are and what we are doing. Make changes if required, then put my head down and get the job done.

End of analysis.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The joy of the short story

I discovered a wonderful vacation destination. It's called the world of the short story. Of course, novels are the foundation of my literary efforts, but my journeys into short stories provide nice stopping places. They are filled with different characters and situations, all varied and clearly defined in their own little spaces.

I enjoy the definition of the short story by author Joe Lansdale, a prolific writer in many areas who describes the short story as a novel with all the unnecessary parts taken out. I never fully understood his point until I started writing my own short stories. Each story has its own life, but with fewer complications. I lead protagonists and antagonists in novels through raging rivers and deep canyons of life, and I detail each point of their story. The short story still allows for those raging rivers and deep canyons, but I present problems in a more concise manner. That satisfies the journalist in me.

One part of short story writing I love is being able to detail many protagonists in a number of settings. I have written about a middle-aged woman whose past suddenly reappears; a young man with a series of tough times but with resilient dreams; a young woman doing what seems to be a meaningless routine that is neither meaningless nor routine; and an old man who injects himself into a troubled conversation of two younger people, and they all learn lessons.have other stories running around inside my brain, and I wait for the right moment to bring them to life.

I still have writing sessions each day on my novels, but I take these enriching visits to this other land. I have found that both sides feed the other. That is the kind of win-win situation I love to encounter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Waking up with an impulse to write

I got up at 5:20 a.m. yesterday, and I had to do it. I had an idea for a short story rattling around my creative center. It had been there for a few days, going from the germ of a story line to a full-blown tangle of problems. I spent the next three to four hours putting everything on paper. I will spend time today making little changes to strengthen wording and flow.

This isn't anything surprising to anyone who works to be an author. This time my format was the short story. I often wake up in the middle of the night and have wording flowing through my mind. It could be a new section of a novel I am working on, or a revision of a section I worked on recently. It's part of an author's life. We live on our creativity after all. That creativity doesn't stop because the clock says it's time for sleep.

Yesterday my focus was on a middle-aged woman in a small Colorado town. Later today I will go back to the sequel of the novel I am pitching to agents these days, and Sean McNabb and his weird world will take over. And, yes, I wake up a few nights and try to figure out just how to create his newest problem, and the details of the world that tortures him.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The art of the tactful rejection letter

I met author John Hart at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a question I had to ask: What is the first thing an author needs to learn? His reply: "Have a thick skin." Hart knows how difficult it can be to get that first offer of representation from a literary agent. His first novel, King of Lies, was rejected numerous times, and this book ended up on the NY Times best sellers list once an agent and publishing house took him under their wings.

I have a thick skin from my journalism days. A reporter or editor is harangued at times by readers or story subjects for certain things that are disagreeable to them. Well, readers are much more prone to being stinging with their criticism than story subjects, and journalists learn to live with that fact. I also have learned to have that thick skin in trying to sell my literary efforts. I have known rejection on numerous occasions. For every book you see on the shelves or an online list, there are tens of thousands of rejected works by authors with high hopes.

Here is the basic rejection letter or email: "Thank you for considering me to represent your novel, but I do not believe it is a good fit for me at this time. Other agents have other needs, so I wish you good luck as you continue to seek representation."

Some letters or emails are better than others. One agent said she strongly considered my latest work, but she keeps a modest number of clients and isn't looking to add to it at this time. Another credited me for researching my subject matter well. The best rejection letter I received was for one of my Daniel Pace novels, and it was written by agent Pamela Ahearn of New Orleans. I pitched the book as a thriller. Ms. Ahearn said if that was the genre I intended to use, then I needed to learn to write thrillers. I used much more depth of character development than allowed in the standard thriller. Thank you, Ms. Ahearn. I now list my novels as commercial fiction or mainstream fiction simply because that is what they are.

I keep two things among my computer bookmarks. One is a listing of literary agents and the genres they represent. The other is a listing of great novels that were rejected for various reasons. I have written about Kathryn Stockett's three-year efforts to sell her novel The Help. The great C.S. Lewis spent years trying to sell the first of his Narnia stories. J.K. Rowling got nowhere in the publishing world until an agent brought a manuscript home and a young relative starting reading it, and the young man asked if there were other novels by this author. The Harry Potter series has had money cascading in to Rowling, her publishing house and her agent since that little boy's request.

I wait for one of those moments, and I keep my thick skin intact in the meantime.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Time travel? Every good author does it

H.G. Wells captivated our minds with the story of The Time Machine, a device that allowed people to be transported into the future. It is a wonderful story, but authors don't need a tangible device. They already have one. It's called the creative mind. Even writers who concentrate on modern times take readers to other places and events, thanks to story line creation.

I wondered where I would put myself in history if I had the choice. I found the answer while watching a PBS documentary on train travel in northern Italy, especially the arrival in Venice. The show's host used a old travel guide from the early 1900s to illustrate his points. That guide book told of the introduction travelers received in Venice. The most prominent visitors flocked to the city because it was a haven for the rich and entitled. It was a place of great villas and venues where the rich could enjoy the benefits of their status. British upper class loved to come here.

The guide book welcomed visitors to Venice by pulling into the Santa Lucia train station. Visitors then walked down the steps to a line of gondolas that were ready to whisk them to their temporary quarters in the city. I have pulled into the Santa Lucia station, and I know the view from the steps of the station. The line of gondolas has thinned out because the main transportation source now is the water taxi, or vaporetto. My wife and I chose to walk to our hotel in the Santa Croce section, and we entered the main part of Venice by walking over the Scalzi Bridge.

What if I was back in the early 1900s when I visited? That is the time I would prefer. It was the time of bowler hats and suits for men, and women in their finery. It is far from the casual slacks and T-shirts of today's travelers. I would have loved to walk down the steps of the station and head to a gondola, and be taken to my destination. I would have loved to be in a suit and a bowler, and my wife Deb (or more properly Lady Deborah) in a white gown, and she would shade herself with a parasol.

There is one caveat to this wish. I would want to have the mind I have now, which knows of the tumult that was awaiting those early travelers. I would want to know about an archduke being assassinated in Sarajevo, and the tangle of alliances that led to the "war to end all wars." I would have that knowledge and watch those of privilege as they went about their lives. Venice was their adult playground, and the specter of approaching war had no impact on them. They would carry on with their parties, and wear masks like the entitled used to do in Venice. They would think their lives were safe and secure, and they would laugh and sip champagne.

And I would know better.

That's my type of time travel. Care to join me?