Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The beauty of beta readers

I am in one of those necessary lulls in the development of a novel, that time when I give copies of my precious work to beta readers and wait for responses. My current major project is called The Old Man From Denmark, and I have eight friends reading the first draft. It is hard for those who have never ventured into preparing a work of literature to comprehend the value of these readers. I will try to put it into perspective.

I chose these readers for their various strengths. One is an editor of extreme skill who can catch minuscule mistakes that most people would overlook. One is a younger person with a strong interest in literature, and his interests run toward works that are off the beaten path and are more popular for younger readers. Another has a great skill of seeing the larger picture of what I am trying to achieve, but has a good eye for details that don't quite fit or need refinement. Four of them are women with varying interests and levels of expertise. One is a member of the clergy. Another is a member of a small all-women book club. One is my wife. The fourth woman is a great lover of good literature, and she knows the requirements and quality needed for a good final version. The final member of my team is an expert on German history, which is necessary for this work.

I sent out my work via Dropbox about six weeks ago. Three have finished, and another reports that she is nearing the end of the book. I need to check with the others to see where they are along the continuum. I would not be surprised if one or two readers are unable to complete the work within my desired time frame, which explains the need for as many readers as I have.

Here's why these people are so valuable. They catch my mistakes. They see my novel through eyes other than mine. It can be easy for an author to picture things in his or her mind and feel comfortable with that vision in the written words. Those beta readers can see the novel in a much different way. They report those different perspectives to me, and I use that input to shape my revisions. My expert on German history caught several small errors. I caught an inconsistency in the early life of my main character. Several caught a reaction to certain events that didn't make sense, and they made me aware of that. That reaction will be changed, and I know the novel will be stronger.

Beta readers are the refiners of a novel. They keep me on track, and begin the molding process. I tip my hat to them. I am eager to receive the input from my other readers, and The Old Man From Denmark will take the necessary steps forward.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Great stories about a great father

I don't like to be a public speaker, but my job this week was easy. I got to tell people who knew my father as a great guy stories about how great he was. I decided to tell about character traits that were obvious in Eldon Metteer's life, and where I believe he gained those attributes.

I started in his birthplace, Antelope, Oregon. Yes, Antelope is as small as it sounds. Let your mind work as you hear these facts. Antelope is on the dry side of Oregon, but there is adequate grass for a few cattle ranches and many more sheep ranches. It is about ten miles from a wide spot in the road called Bakeoven, but you have to travel a long way to find another town of even moderate size. The town has dirt streets that become mud streets when it rains. There are only a few hundred people who live there. The commerce is done mainly by people who cater to the ranchers, or provide goods for those heading east to Oregon's gold country. It is the kind of place that has a kid named Cabbage Murphy. My dad told me many stories about Cabbage Murphy, and how you could identify him because he was smoking a cigar, and he smoked stogies since he was five years old.

But I concentrate on another colorful character from Antelope, an older gentleman named Farquhar McRae. He was known for three things: He was a big drinker, he swore often (although he never did either of those around children because they needed good examples), and he had a heart of gold. If someone needed help repairing a barn, Farquhar was there early in the morning. Need help loading up a wagon? Farquhar was there. Pictures of him show Farquhar in a battered hat, dusty shirt, dusty pants, dusty boots. Farquhar was a common visitor to the Metteer homestead. My grandfather, Elmer, worked at a big cattle ranch, and my grandmother, Olive, had to take care of the house and her family. Farquhar was familiar with sheep ranching, and he served as foreman of some of those ranches. The story my dad told me centered on Farquhar showing up one day and asking my grandma what she needed. She said they were getting low on meat, and some mutton would be nice.

My dad was about five or six years old when this happened, and he tagged along with Farquhar as he did the task. Farquhar then had a large amount of fresh meat for the Metteers, and he brought it into the kitchen. My grandma asked him what she owed. My dad remembers Farquhar's reply like this: "M'am, if you happen to make a mutton stew, one bowl would be a right fine payment." That was the kind of statement you expected in Antelope. People didn't expect much because they didn't have much, but you took care of others and followed Farquhar's lead and went the extra mile.

What did Dad owe Antelope? Be tough-minded because this is a tough land, and care for others. Those lessons were part of Dad's way of doing things throughout his life.

The Metteers pulled up stakes and moved to The Dalles, a town about 80 miles northwest of Antelope on the banks of the Columbia River. They lived on a homestead outside of town for several years. Eldon was educated at St.Mary's Academy, The Dalles High School, and headed off to the University of Portland. He returned to The Dalles after his college years. Now, think of this next story as something out of the movie It's A Wonderful Life. Dad is walking down the street and a car pulls up beside him, and the driver bangs on the side of the door and says, "Hey, Dach, I have someone I want you to meet." (They called Eldon Dach, which is short for dachshund, because he was tall and slender.) The speaker was good friend Ernie Fagan, and he wanted Dach to meet his niece, Virginia, who was in town from Los Angeles. Well, Virginia saw Dach and thought he was a handsome dude, and Dach thought Virginia was a cute young woman. They dated, and they fell in love, and they were married on August 22, 1941. That meeting on the street started a 73-year relationship between Eldon and Virginia, and that's another attribute of my dad: intense loyalty and love. One picture on his memorial page shows Eldon tending to Virginia during the final few days of her life. There's Eldon loving on his girl, and taking care of her to the very end.

My dad also had a work life, and he took those earlier characteristics into his work. He heard the Union Pacific Railroad was hiring, so he headed 80 miles west and went to the railroad's Oregon headquarters in Portland. He was told there were no jobs available. What did the tough-minded kid from Antelope do? He waited in the office through the rest of the morning, lunch hour, and the entire afternoon. The district manager came out of his office to head home, and the secretary pointed out this young man who waited all day. The manager told Dad there were no jobs. Dad told him he was getting married soon, and he had to have a job so he could take care of his wife and any children they might have. The manager called Dad into his office, probably heard stories about growing up in Antelope and The Dalles, and he hired Dad on the spot.

Dad worked for the Union Pacific for nearly four decades, but that was only part of his responsibilities. He also was a union representative, and he often defended employees the company wanted to penalize. I remember many times when Dad would come home from a road run into far Eastern Oregon, and he would be dead-tired. He might nap for an hour or two, but I would see him carrying a big stack of papers down the hall. He spread those papers out over our dining room table, and Dad would spend hours going over railroad handbooks, union guides, and papers he prepared for other cases. He would jot down his thoughts on a legal pad, and he was more than ready by the time he showed up to take on company officials in what were termed "investigations". My dad had a lawyer's mind, and he carved up the company's arguments in the vast majority of the investigations he handled. Can you see those life attributes at work in that union job: tough-mindedness, caring for others, intense loyalty?

Dad also was true to his faith. He not only gave a mental approval to Christianity, but he put those foundations into action. He was active in church food programs, visitations to the elderly, and healing ministries. He was the kind of guy who would go the extra mile to take care of others at the prodding of this revolutionary from Nazareth.

I am a journalist, and I could go on and on with things to say about my dad, but I leave the final words to someone else. That man is Ace Brown. Ace was one of those Union Pacific officials Dad locked horns with during investigations. I ask forgiveness from the pastor doing Dad's service for my next statement, but I said Ace got his ass kicked by Dad on more than a few occasions. Well, I worked on the railroad during three summers in my college days. One year I headed to Spokane, Washington, and who is the district manager there? Ace Brown. I passed an oral exam before Ace that was required even if I had previous experience on the railroad, and Ace had me sit down after the exam. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told him I was attending the University of Oregon and studying journalism because I wanted to be a newspaperman. He said the railroad was looking for good young people, and I told him I didn't want a railroad job. Ace then leaned forward and looked at me. "No matter what you do, if you get later in life and are as good a man as your dad, then you are a complete success." Those words were from a guy who often was Dad's adversary, but Dad earned Ace's great respect.

I will say this in response to Ace: If I am half a good a man as my dad, then I am a complete success. I thank God for the 99-plus years He kept Dad with us. We were blessed beyond measure.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Yes, you can come home again

I caught my first glimpse of my old hometown of The Dalles, Oregon, while part of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was on the radio. I just crested the hill on the road from Dufur, and there like a jumbled collection of building blocks was the town. That might seem to be an incongruous combination to some, but it makes sense to me. The Dalles and its environs, complete with combines going through wheat fields as I drove by, deserves a classical introduction. I believe Ludwig would understand.

This was more than a visit for old times' sake. I was staying with old friend Steve Garrett and his wife. Steve and I go back to our youth baseball days. Steve was a pitcher and I was the catcher on the Commercial Babe Ruth team. Yes, a few years have gone by, but a friendship endures. It helps that both of us have literary aspirations.

But my big hopes for the visit centered on my experiences at a local pizza parlor. I had a reading in a back room at Spooky's. It was lined up by a part of the family, Anita (Anthony) Ordway, who thought it was pretty cool that a published author was coming back to his town. I was greeted by old classmates and friends, and other family members. I had two longtime friends, Bob and Darla McConnell, drive up from Madras. I half-expected them to be at one of my Central Oregon readings, but they chose to be here. As soon as I entered the door, I heard a raucous greeting and saw their smiling faces. Good Lord, I thought, I'm home.

I am not going to mention anyone else who attended for fear I forget a name. I read two chapters and took questions from the audience. My old friends asked some great questions, and I enjoyed the give-and-take. Those sessions allow me and the reading audience to expand on topics, and I can at least partly explain the what and why of what I write.

The session stretched for quite awhile, and then I dined with Anita and other relatives. Oh, only The Dalles people will understand this, but I had a Hefty Henry for dinner. This was my favorite sandwich while growing up, and it was available only at a drive-in restaurant. That spot is now a coffee place, but the Hefty Henry has a home at Spooky's. The quality hasn't decreased a bit. It is a warm French roll with loads of ham and a special sauce. Again, I felt like I was home.

I am out of The Dalles in just a couple of hours, but I will treasure this small slice of time together. Those at the reading were linked to me by threads of experiences that spanned the years, and I was linked to them. Hey, we are the kids of The Dalles, and we are proud of our roots. I believe Ludwig would understand that, too.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bye bye Eugene, hello Central Oregon

Hey, it was tough for me to leave Eugene. It has been my hometown for more years than any other place I've lived. There are great memories, both pleasant and bitter, from my time there. I was a college student there, living a student's life. I was a journalist for 16 years at the Register-Guard, and I worked my butt off to give readers a well-edited, timely edition when they picked up their newspapers in the morning. The digital push was just beginning, so my experience with that was zero.

There were things that softened the blow. I made the drive up the McKenzie River, which is one of the gorgeous trips in America. I went over the pass by Hoodoo and dropped down into Sisters, which is a lovely Western-themed town. Well, it's lovely when the tourists aren't clogging the streets, which was the case as I passed through. I then showed up in Bend, which was my family's hometown from 1981-85. It was a jewel back then, and it has grown and become even more alluring. The Welcome to Bend sign says there are nearly 81,000 residents, and I believe that figure is a tad low.

Bend is a city now. Driving downtown means navigating through slow-moving traffic. I mean lots of stop-and-go traffic. That beautiful little drive by Drake Park moves at a pace a snail could beat. Oh, did I tell you about the roundabouts? Bend has adopted those European traffic devices with a vengeance. Every major street I've driven on features a few of those.

The literary side of my trip gets a couple of nice bumps today and tomorrow. I drive to Prineville today for a 2 p.m. reading and Q-and-A session at The Hub, a nice little bookstore and cafe. I have cousins in the area, and they have been "working the field" and inviting friends and others to my session. Tomorrow (Sunday) I have a 2 p.m. reading at Dudley's Bookshop and Cafe, which is in downtown Bend. I look forward to the ambience at both places. The Hub is a quiet little store, and they have an outdoor area for speakers. I chose that, and I hope that provides shade and comfy places to sit. Dudley's in Bend has an upstairs room with a big couch and lots of chairs someone can sink into. Now that's my type of literary environment.

I am having a blast. More later.