Monday, January 30, 2012

"Mom's Letter" featured in Short Story Symposium

Take a look:

This short short story actually has two covers. Here's the one on the Smashwords version thumbnail.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Too Old To Play

Just a quick announcement that my new short story, "Too Old To Play", went live at the Amazon Kindle store today. It's about 2,300 words, and tells another part of Danny Tompkins dealing with his mother's death, both as a teenager and then years later as an adult.

I hope to have it available soon at Smashwords, and thus for other e-reader formats.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing Dreams

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted today on her blog a question from reader about writing dreams. Here's the thread. I made posted a comment, which I think will make for a good blog post here. The question Rachelle asked was: Have you had to adjust your dream (i.e. dream of being a writer) along the way?

Yes, I have constantly adjusted my dreams for writing. I think they have followed a bell curve. At first I simply wanted to get the story that was in me into print. That required that I finish the novel, which I did in early 2003. I then began to study the publishing industry and learned my novel broke a number of rules for what they would publish. Rather than diminish my dream, after a bit of sulking it seemed to expand it. They followed the bell curve upward as I expanded my writing to try to keep up with my dreams. I wrote more things, in more genres, in more types of writing, than I ever had in mind at first, all following the dream. The dream fed itself. It seemed that the upward leg of the bell curve was very steep.

Those dreams to be published peaked, I think, around the end of 2010, when I rounded a bend on the publishing track and found more hurdles; hurdles which I didn’t see myself as having the energy to cross. The downward leg of the bell curve was very steep at that time.

But rather than end at the X axis, which would have been giving up, the curve stopped at an intermediary place: e-self-publishing. From there I find my dreams on an upward leg of a new bell curve, beginning from that higher plateau rather than from zero. The upward leg of the dream curve is not as steep as last time, and the vertical rise is happening more slowly.

Once dreams are broken, it’s hard to dream as big again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Can't Judge a Book: Thinking about Book Covers

I have two works ready to publish as electronic books, all but the covers. One is a short story, “Too Old To Play”. The other is my New Testament-era novel, Doctor Luke’s Assistant. The covers for each are commissioned. I received drafts for DLA last night via e-mail. Actually, I don’t think you could call them drafts, as they are earlier than that. I think we are at the concept stage.
That has me thinking about covers today. The old adage is “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet the conventional wisdom is that the quality of a cover can make or break book sales. So while you can’t judge a book by its cover, that’s exactly what the American book buying public does.

But, electronic books aren’t print books and thus don’t have covers, you say. Oh yes they do, and publishing pundits say the cover of an electronic book is just as important to sales as with a print book. So even with e-books we find the cover is a driving force with sales.

Why is this? Why can’t I just put a generic cover on my books? Something like the one here for “Too Old To Play”? Put some typical back cover copy under the title and author name, and let the buyers come. Seems that would be a much better thing for authors. And it would make the old adage true.

So I’m currently in a cover research mode. I’m finding no end of easily accessible advice and examples. The Passive Guy blog has posts on covers. That led me to The Book Designer, and this post on cover design.

After the two covers mentioned above, I’ll be needing one for In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People (unless it gets picked up by the agent I recently submitted it to). I’m planning on going to a couple of book stores tomorrow night to look at covers in the genres and get some ideas. At noon today I think I’ll go to the nearby thrift store with a large book department and see what’s there. Those will be older, and likely won’t reflect current practice.

This morning, before work hours, I browsed through covers on Amazon. I noticed a lot of sameness in what are called genre books. The quality of the covers is good, but they lack originality. Look at the covers of successive books of “bonnet fiction”. They all look the same. In that case, that’s probably a good thing, as a buyer knows what to expect in the book based on the cover.

I believe I have some decent ideas for covers, such as what my son finally produced for Documenting America, which came from my suggestions. But my mind can’t make my hands produce what my mind conceives. Now it’s all based on software. Does that make it easier or harder? In some cases easier, as described in this blog post. I like the way the text superimposed on the photo. I like the way you can play with font sizes, styles, and colors. This is all done with software, and I should be able to learn software.

Well, I have no real conclusion from all of this. Generic covers don’t work; designed covers cost, either time or money, and require both artistic abilities and skills. Research is required. Development of skills is required. And again, the whole weight of what is needed to succeed in this extra career I’ve chosen is becoming overwhelming.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Blustery Day, A Quiet Meeting

Yesterday I left the office about 5:25 PM to attend the first meeting of the year of BNC Writers, planning to stop at the public library along the way. The reason for the library stop was only to see if my book Documenting America, which I donated to the library, had made it to the shelves and into the electronic card catalogue.
On the short walk from building to pick-up truck I fought the wind, now coming out of the east across the front of the building. It was from the south earlier in the day. A sailor would probably describe the wind as “fresh”, though this land-lubber doesn’t really know what that means. It seemed like more of a gale. Certainly as blustery as A.A. Milne’s blustery day. The shift to the east means the center of the storm is south of us, and moving past. Although, radar doesn’t show an actual storm. But a shift in the wind means change, and change is good, right?

Three miles later I was at the library, and it was closed. I forgot that the City and most governmental offices had the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday off. Most businesses in this part of the world don’t, so I lost track of the status of the library. Checking on my book being impossible, I drove the half mile on to church, arriving 45 minutes before our writers meeting should start. I unlocked the upstairs, outside door, posted the sign, went to the room and made a minor re-arrangement, and waited. This was to be our first meeting after the holiday break. Two of our regulars had e-mailed me to say they wouldn’t make it. We have fifteen on our mailing list, so that left twelve other possible attendees other than me. Of those twelve, only four had ever attended any meeting.

But I refused to be pessimistic, as difficult as that is for me. I pulled out scrap paper and wrote my next column for It’s not due until Friday, so I’m way ahead of schedule on it. Then I made up a to-do list for at home after the meeting. Then I began writing this blog post on paper. 6:30 PM came around, with no one else there but me. It promised to be a quiet meeting. I decided to give it till 7:00 PM before leaving.

Five minutes later Linda walked in, afraid she would interrupt a meeting already begun. She often has work or family conflicts, and hadn’t been at a meeting in over two months. She brought nothing for the group to critique. Ten minutes later and no one else having showed up, I read my short story, “Too Old To Play”. As I read it I saw a number of typos, and one or two places where the words could be better. Linda found a couple of redundancies. Ten or so minutes and we were done.

We talked on for another half hour: about childhood experience with death (the subject of my short story), about writing in general, about our writers group and how we could help our fellow writers. We had a productive meeting, the two of us, if kind of quiet. I could hear lots of background noises. The sounds of a major basketball practice in the gym were evident, as was a vacuum running somewhere. The wind blew against the building side, and I recognized uplift noise of the roof.

So we parted. The next meeting is not until February 6, unless I can convince anyone to come on the fifth Monday for an extra meeting. And we retreat into our quiet little writer worlds, interrupted by day jobs and family responsibilities and church activities and…a thousand other things. The writing dream seems as strong and as elusive as the winds, buffeting all around yet impossible to catch. Constantly shifting. Some days blowing a gale, other days as still as the inhabitants of a cemetery.

I will continue to chase that wind, obeying God, and doing what I can to see the dream come true.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Blog in Search of a Theme

I didn’t mean to go a week without writing to this blog, but life got in the way. Work, health, and other writing endeavors pulled me away, and I neglected here.

One of the problems is I’m still searching a little for a revised theme for An Arrow Through the Air. My other blog, at the website, is for documenting my writing life and promoting my writing. I figure that, if I ever have hoards of fans, that other blog is where they will go to keep track of my writing news. This blog I hope to make something different. I thought of building on Wesley’s “arrow through the air” metaphor and making this blog about metaphors of life. That still seems like a good idea, but I haven’t been able to bring it off yet.

So I continue to flail about here, posting about writing, about life, about health, about death—about anything that happens to be in my mind at the moment. In my mind right now is accomplishment. Yesterday I completed a number of small tasks at work, as well as taught a brown bag class on the noon hour. At home in the evening I proofread my second short story, typed the edits, formatted it for Kindle, uploaded it, created a dummy cover, and saved it as a draft. I’m not going to upload it until I receive the final cover. Although, if it takes too long, I may use the dummy and activate the e-book. Or, possibly I’ll learn graphic software and start doing simple covers myself.

 Also last night I came very close to inputting all checkbook entries for 2011 into my budgeting spreadsheet. That included finding and correcting a nagging error in the spreadsheet. I still need to find out why I have a discrepancy in some of the categories (too much in housing, not enough in medical), where apparently I made an error in allocation early in the year. But I think I’ll wait until I have all the year entries made, and see what needs to be done about reallocation.

 Today, I have had similar accomplishments even to this time of day (12:36 PM CDT). I have completed many tasks for my day job, including finding and processing a nagging invoice for $300 to a contractor. My time sheet is up to date, with annotations. My December billings are out the door. A major clean-up of my office has begun, as I transition out of project work and into full time training. And I made progress with my co-presenter on the full day class we’ll be teaching at the erosion control conference on February 26th.

 For personal stuff so far today, I called a credit card company and took care of one problem. I went on-line to check for debits not recorded in the checkbook and have those up to date. I went through three months of expense reimbursements so that tonight I can record them in the right categories on my budgeting spreadsheet. And the noon hour isn’t over and I have time to work on this.

 Tonight, Lynda and I will most likely watch a couple of episodes of The West Wing, season three. I’ll try to finish my budgeting spreadsheet for the year, including allocating those expenses. And I hope to work on one remaining medical reimbursement claim for 2011, maybe even complete it for mailing tomorrow. Writing tonight? Probably not, but that’s okay. Perhaps with these many tasks completed, I’ll have a productive writing weekend.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Heinlein's Rules

At some point in the past I alluded to Heinlein’s rules for writing. I said I would come back and discuss them, but never got to it. Now I have.

These came from Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), in an essay titled, “On Writing Speculative Fiction” published in 1947. I have never read anything by Heinlein. A little research reveals he wrote science fiction, both short stories and book length. He, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, were considered the top three science fiction writers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

In the referenced article, Heinlein gave his rules for writing. They are:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

This is usually interpreted as: Don’t self-edit; don’t rewrite; trust the instincts that are in force when you are writing your first draft, which comes from the creative side of your brain. Self-editing comes from the critical side of the brain, and will not produce a better result than the first draft. This flies in the face of what is reported to be Hemmingway’s comments, “The first draft of anything is [crap].” (sanitized for a PG website). It flies in the face of the current conventional wisdom, which is write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, etc.

Dean Wesley Smith, on his blog, has made frequent mention of Heinlein’s rules. Smith says he does three drafts of any short story or novel. The first draft comes first (duh), as quickly as the creative processes of the brain can be put on reproducible medium. He then does a typos and grammar edit. At this point it is given to a trusted first reader. When that reader gives comments, Smith has two ways to go. If the comments are minimal, which he says is most of the time), he makes those few changes and submits or publishes the work. If the comments are more substantial, he abandons the story, in the belief it is fatally flawed and no amount of non-creative brain work can fix it.

This may be a bit of oversimplification, both by Smith as he describes his process and me as I’m summarizing it for this blog, but I think I’m pretty close to what Smith writers. He encourages writers to not rewrite. Create the story/book fast, trust your creative instincts, and run with it. At the same time, he acknowledges that not all writers are the same. This might work for some, he says, but not for others. That acknowledgement, however, doesn’t change his recommendation. And he is very critical of any workshop/MFA environment that encourages extensive edits.

For me, I just don’t see how Heinlein’s rules could work. I do tend to write fast, using maximum creative powers without a lot of critical thought or self-editing. But for book-length stuff, the plots are so complex that I don’t see how I could possibly not edit. As an example, in In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People, by the time I came to the final scene I decided to use the point of view of the protagonist’s mother. The protag was not in a position to observe everything going on, nor was his girlfriend, but his mother was. I think the last scene worked well, but that left me with a character making critical observations when she really had a bit role before that. So I really need to go back and review all the scenes she’s in, and see that they are consistent with how she acts toward the end of the book; or, if not consistent, at least produce a reasonable character arc.

No, I don’t see how Heinlein’s rules work for me. An unstated part of Heinlein’s rules is that you have to keep writing. Write creatively and fast, complete it, submit of publish it, and move on immediately to the writing the next piece. In the time you would extensively edit a completed piece you could write one or two more new pieces. You will learn and improve more, Smith et al say, writing more pieces than “improving” completed pieces. Plus, they say, the completed piece is already at its best before the critical brain destroys what the creative brain has done.

Do I agree with Heinlein or with Hemmingway? I have no answer for this. I just throw it out to see if it generates any comments.