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?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The invaluable help of Kevin Vaughan at Denver Post

I can't finish any commentary on my time as the editor of YourHub at The Denver Post without mentioning Kevin Vaughan. Those who watch Fox Sports these days see Kevin as a reporter who covers the big stories, most notably the Aaron Hernandez murder trial. But I knew him as the trusted supervisor who took YourHub under his wing.

Kevin was my go-to guy when I needed to discuss ideas and problems. He had the managerial experience to know the tricky parts of leading people, everything from story creation and execution to personnel matters. I made sure to include Vaughan on any email I sent that involved my plans for the future of YourHub.

Vaughan's involvement with YourHub began when he was still at the Rocky Mountain News, which was where YourHub got its start. He was very interested in the concept of hyperlocal news, and he played a part in making that idea work from the earliest days of YourHub. Vaughan and YourHub were brought on board by The Post after the Rocky ceased operations, and I ended up being a lucky manager because of that. Vaughan always had an open door when I needed to talk things over, and he even sat in on a meeting to work on a personnel matter with one of my reporters.

But Vaughan left for other responsibilities, and a lot walked out the door when he did. One of those things was someone I could go to and discuss YourHub matters. I thought the job of being the YourHub adviser fell to the person who replaced Vaughan in his managerial position. That wasn't the case. In fact, no one stepped in to be the person I could turn to when I had questions and concerns, at least not to the level that Vaughan had.

No manager can say he or she guides without having others they can fall back on. You treasure the people who step up and become helpers. The Post lost a lot when Vaughan walked out the door, and one area of considerable loss was YourHub. I owe Vaughan a lot, and I am glad to talk about his dedication to the job. He's one of the very good ones in journalism.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Journalism rules that help in writing novels

I was delusional when I started writing novels. I figured that because I could write good stories for journalism that I could take those lessons and make an easy transition to being a novelist who specializes in fiction. That didn't work. I knew how to write plot, but I suffered when it came to building character. I am refining that part of my abilities.

Still, there are lessons from journalism that translate well to writing novels. Here are a few:

1. Be concise. A journalist takes a large volume of information and puts it into a compact package. Newspaper articles are 10 inches long, and a feature story can be 25 inches. Anything longer than that is rare. But that training in writing tight works well in crafting novels.

2. Edit tight. This is rule 1A in being concise. Even my journalism training didn't limit me to using just the words I needed to build a scene. I trimmed words and sentences that were extraneous on my first reading of my completed first draft, and I trimmed more in my reading of my revised manuscript. Be your own toughest critic.

3. Listen to good advice. I loved working for good supervisors who helped me write or edit better. Yes, I might rebel a bit at being told that I was doing it wrong, but I learned that good advice helped me improve. In the world of the novelist, the beta reader serves as that good supervisor. A good beta reader will tell you things you don't want to hear, but use that advice to your advantage. Also, I violate a "rule" of writing novels and have two family members among my beta readers. Both are very open in their criticism, and they don't hold back to "make me feel better." That's a good thing.

4. Make your subject accessible to readers. A good journalist can take a difficult subject and give it to a reader in an easily understandable package. The journalist avoids jargon and overly technical language. If that technical language is necessary to understand the subject matter, the journalist will explain it simply. Also, accessibility means making a tough or unique subject somehow touch a reader's sensitivities. I do that in my novels by centering on times and subjects that affect real people. I write about current times, or those in the near future. I also touch on subjects that the usual reader can relate to, things like depression, job loss, family tragedies, the pressures of growing into adulthood, etc. In a manner, I make real life the main antagonist. People can relate to that.

5. Be real. Journalism is the ability to tell real stories by using the facts. Sure, fiction is all made up, and it is more fun to write when I can control the world I am building. I also have learned to write honestly even in fiction. My protagonists have weaknesses, and I relate those in real situations. I won't publish what I have written, but one of my protagonists, Sean McNabb, is a bit of a jerk. No, make it that he is a considerable jerk. I make that plain in the first paragraph of the first chapter. I learned to craft a character that way from reading Stephen King's advice on what a novelist should do. Write what YOU want to write, not what you think the marketplace wants, or what won't jar people you know. I don't want to cheat my readers even in relating difficult subjects. That includes scenes involving violence or sex.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

On being out of journalism for one year

April 24 marked the one-year anniversary of Kevin Dale calling me into his office and notifying me that my job at The Denver Post was being eliminated in a reduction of workforce. I won't write about that decision today. That is so last year. But I learned a lot in those intervening months, so it's time for an update.

It is a situation in which there is good news and there's bad news. People given the option of what to hear always take the good news first. I will reverse that order. Those bad things sit deeper in my soul, as they should for anyone who put decades of effort into his or her craft or profession. So here are the three worst parts of leaving journalism.

1. I have so much to offer and no opportunity. I am a skilled journalist. I have numerous writing awards. I was a good copy editor who worked on some of the best newspapers not only in the West but in the world. What was that worth in the job market? Not a darned thing. I applied for any job that had the word "communications" in it. I applied with good businesses, various governmental entities, and with educational institutions. The result? One job interview and two great letters or phone calls from organizations that praised me for the strength of my resume but said I didn't make the cut for the finalists. Why? Read Point No. 2.

2. Age discrimination is alive and well. Every human resources department includes a section on a job posting that says that it doesn't discriminate in several areas, including gender, sexual orientation, religion and age. Do they live up to that? No. Any hiring source will say that discrimination is a key factor in making hiring decisions, if they are being honest. I sat in on a job search session in which the facilitator told us that her husband, who worked in a human resources department, takes the applications of anyone older than 50 and sets them aside. I have talked to enough people to know that the emphasis in hiring is to accent younger workers. I talked to two men recently who are on the older end of the job spectrum. One expected to lose his job because he just turned 64. The other, also 64, sent in nearly 100 applications and received zero responses. Both had a wealth of skill and experience that would fit with any good organization. That skill and experience is worth nothing to those who hire. I saw a T-shirt recently that says it concisely: Old Is The New Black.

3. I miss the daily interaction with fellow workers. It wasn't just talking to co-workers in the sports or YourHub sections of The Denver Post, although there were several people there that I still share ideas with regularly. It was the quick conversation with someone who works in the business department. It's the few minutes in the break room talking to the head of the features department about good restaurants in town. It's also the friendly talk exchanged with the head of Viva Colorado, the Spanish language department under The Post's guidance. Working at home leaves me with chances to talk to Jack, my dog, until my wife comes home from work. Those little workplace interchanges are lost.

But I can't say everything is negative. Here are the three best things about my year away from journalism.

1. Every day works under the schedule I establish. Workers would love to have a situation in which they determine what they do and when they do it.  Not having a job gives me that freedom. Do I have to jump into the shower and get ready to drive to work? No. Do I have to eat a quick breakfast and hit the road? No. My schedule starts with a couple of cups of coffee, a chance to watch a good morning show (CBS This Morning is my entertainment of choice), and then a writing session on my novel. That takes up my mornings and part of my afternoons, and I get to call the shots throughout the day.

2. No commute. My days in the sports department meant I rarely had to face a tough commute. Traffic in the middle of the afternoon when I went to work was tame, and my late-night drive home was shared only with other swing-shift workers and drunks. But my commute got tougher when I got into the YourHub job. I was in that early-morning and late-afternoon crush every damn day. I learned that certain lanes of traffic moved faster than others. Today I don't have to worry about any drive. I have been in downtown Denver three times since I was dismissed at The Post, and two of those times were to attend Rockies games.

3. No supervisors I don't respect. The number of supervisors I didn't trust at The Post were few and far between. Kevin Dale was the best thing in my experience there. Yes, he had to notify me that I lost my job once. He also hired me twice. But not every supervisor at The Post has Kevin's qualities. Nothing bothered me more than one supervisor. I told that supervisor that I was 100 percent behind their efforts to lead me and the department in which I was placed. I followed up on that 100 percent commitment. The problem was that the supervisor didn't. That was highlighted on one particular day. That supervisor talked to me early in the morning about an issue, and we left that session by trading smiles and handshakes. A few hours later, that supervisor turned 180 degrees in demeanor and had me in for a small "come to Jesus" meeting. How can one person be a smiling "friend" one moment and an accuser a short time later? This supervisor was able to do that. I was told by someone else who had worked for this supervisor that "(Name) will scare the hell out of you." Well, that supervisor didn't scare me, but disappointed me. I worked like a professional for that person, and I got no reciprocal treatment. I am very happy to see that person in my rear-view mirror. That person has no business leading others, in my humble opinion.

That's it. Thanks for letting me sift through good memories and vent about irritating problems. I feel better now.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Daniel Pace makes own success and fears

You have to tip your cap to Daniel Pace. He was like so many veterans who came home from Iraq with nothing but hope and a stash of combat pay. He started a small company in the Seattle area, and success built on success. Now he lives in a million-dollar home with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. He looks like a winner on every count.

But there are signs that not everything is as it seems. He lives alone, and his social contact is limited once he lives his office. That beautiful home is surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, and no one gets in without knowing the proper access code. Is the fence there to keep threats out or secrets in?

I have one Pace first draft done, but I need to revise that considerably. I am about a third of the way through a second Pace novel, but I won't forge ahead without getting the first novel completed to my satisfaction. There is a lot of good stuff in that first novel, in my humble opinion, but it's just not there yet as a bright and tight finished product.

Here's my current author's scoreboard: One R.W. Clay novel finished and out to selected agents (although I ran into an unexpected roadblock that I will write about soon); a Sean McNabb novel that is out for reviews by my readers; a second McNabb novel in process; the two Daniel Pace projects; and some preliminary research starting soon for a second R.W. Clay novel. And I have preliminary plans for a single novel that will spin off a McNabb story, but that character hasn't even been written yet (although I know most of the details about his life).

So, I'm not exactly sitting here idle. I'm loving every minute of it.