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Both Sides of the Table (Reader/Writer Courtesy)

November 3rd, 2008 2 comments

If you’re a big fan of books, there’s a good chance you’ve attended an author event at some point. You got off work early, skipped dinner, rushed through traffic and pocketed a speeding ticket, all for the chance to see your favorite author at the local bookstore.

If you’re a writer, you’ve surely been on the other end. You coordinated schedules, took time off from your day job, sent out emails and facebook invitations, drove halfway across the state with no reimbursement from your publisher, and showed up in an unfamiliar city to promote your newest title.

You’d think this would be an exhilarating experience for both reader and writer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

As an author and an avid reader, I’ve had some bad moments on both sides of the signing table. Two of my favorite authors have been cold as frozen turkeys after I made great efforts to go see them. One of them didn’t even look me in the eye as he signed the book and shoved it across the table. I’ve also showed up to a signing at which no one else appeared–save the disgruntled browsers in the cafe area, who stared at me as I took the small stage as though I’d announced I would be doing the polka in the buff.

In my day, I’m sure I’ve offended more than a few people inadvertently too, but here are a few thoughts about courtesy in the book business. Nothing to write Emily Post about. Just comments from my own observations.

Authors:

Do look your fans in the eye and greet them individually (they aren’t just sales figures).

Do take a moment to ask what they liked about the book, or some other question to create brief dialogue.

Do thank them for coming and acknowledge their support of your work (without them, you’re sunk).

Don’t rattle on without any interaction from the audience.

Don’t forget to thank the store staff for their help (they are priceless).

Don’t expect each person to buy a book (sometimes my biggest fans have been the poorest, and the fact they drove to see me was a major sacrifice).

**A side note to authors about online interaction: It’s very easy to comment or at least give a helpful vote to those who take the time to review your books online. It shows you appreciate their investment in your work.

Readers:

Do take a moment to meet the author (they’re just as shy about it all as you are).

Do take a moment to tell the author one thing you like about their books.

Do write reviews and tell friends (without you, the word won’t get out).

Don’t tell the author about the idea you have that they need to do for their next book (they have ideas of their own).

Don’t hog the author’s time if there are others around (look back over your shoulder, if necessary).

Don’t offer the author advice about getting on Oprah (they’ve heard it a thousand times already, and it only shows your ignorance of the industry).

**A side note to readers about online interaction: Most authors get relatively little feedback from fans. Take a few minutes to send a thankful email or to write an online review. It can change an author’s entire week.

I’m sure there are numerous additions to these lists, based on your own experiences as a reader and/or writer. This is such a great industry, in general, with lots of die-hard fans and hardworking authors. Let’s keep the oil of courtesy flowing so that the machinery will run smoothly.

What to Expect if You’re Expecting

October 2nd, 2008 5 comments

So here’s the deal. I’m a man, and I’m giving birth in the next day or two.

For months this thing has grown inside of me, and for months I’ve massaged it with my fingertips and cooed softly to it when no one else was listening. I’ve been kept up late many nights. I’ve tried to maintain my energy, get good sleep, and do lots of stretches. At last, by this weekend, the new baby will be born, the next child in my line of the Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy. I’ll call this child “Haunt of Jackals,” and I’ll hope and pray it survives long enough to lead a life of its own.

Without attempting in any way to diminish childbirth and the nine-month struggle involved in producing a life, I have to compare the process to writing a book. (I’d rather write the book than go through what a woman goes through, but maybe some of our female authors could give their own perspective.) The life of a novel starts with some creative spark. All odds are against its survival; yet there it is, waiting for the concept to be cultivated into something breathing and alive.

This is where things get interesting. Everyone’s got an idea; that’s the easy part–in the same way men get the easy part of conception. The idea’s the fun part, the pleasurable part. But it’s the next ninth months that involve sickness, exhaustion, a stretching beyond what seems natural, the false starts and annoying hiccups, and the final gush when you know this thing’s coming and there’s no way to hold it in.

Well, I’m at that point. It’s time to push this thing through and see it take its first gasp. I might cry with relief or excitement. My heart will surely swell with pride.

Most would-be-authors, those who email and ask me how to write a book, or tell me they have an idea that they’ll sell me–they’re often the ones caught up in the fantasy of conception. They’ve felt the pleasure of an idea and think everyone else should know. Writing a novel goes beyond the spark and the pleasure, though; it digs down deep into your gut, wraps tentacles around your spine, and demands devotion and discipline in equal measure. A book doesn’t happen by itself.

The birthing process is vital. As is the parenting process afterward. I’ll hand over my baby to my editor, and she’ll start cleaning up its dirty diapers. She’ll feed it some formula to get it strong and healthy. I’ll join in that process, and start imagining the day my child will walk out into the real world, facing critics and circumstances beyond its control. I’ll stand beside it and fight. I’ll wash behind its ears and comb its hair. I will have done everything within my limited powers to watch a healthy, mature, intelligent child take its stand in the world at large.

And then, I’ll let go.

Oh, I’ll be there to comfort and listen–don’t get me wrong. Already, though, I can feel that creative spark igniting again. In the joy of new life, I’m duped into believing I want to do this all over again. When it comes to knowing what to expect as an author, as a conceiver and parent of novels, I’m still learning more each day. I do know this, though: there will be tears and laughter, joy and pain, and every minute of it will be worth it when I watch my baby take its first steps.

I’m expecting miracles. What else?

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Beating Hearts and Electric Bills

September 3rd, 2008 4 comments

My wife won’t mind. I’m sure she’ll let me tell you . . .

A few minutes ago, I was sitting at the keyboard mulling my next blog on this site. With a pressing deadline for my ninth novel, my mind is a blur, but I was committed to coming up with something. In walks my wife. She’s truly one of the sweetest people I know. Oh, she can be a scrapper–don’t get me wrong. But she has a heart of gold and a short memory. (A handy add-on for someone married to a writer . . . or to another human, for that matter.)

“How’d it go?” I ask.

“It was . . . awesome,” she says. Then breaks down into tears.

After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that this is a good time to turn away from the keyboard. I pulled her into my arms and waited for her to share the results of her volunteer work at a nearby hospice for the dying. She goes there to sing, to bring some temporary comfort to ones who are often forgotten. She’s much better at this sort of thing than I. Heart of gold, remember?

What really choked her up was the chance to touch others with her gift. She’s written songs and performed around town in meager hopes of being noticed, but her real drive is to connect and comfort. She refuses to bury her talent, and keeps finding ways to use it that will last much longer than if she signed a record deal.

Yes, this has to do with writing. The majority of writers will never be published, and that raises the question: What should they do with their skill and/or desire?

As a novelist, I’m often asked how to go about getting published. Everyone wants a shortcut. A secret password. A magic formula. I’m sure there’s one out there, but Indiana Jones is still looking for it and at his age it may never be found. What I see in my fellow writers is passion. Drive. Desire. It can’t be just about making money (though it sure helps when it comes to that ninth deadline . . . bills to pay, bills to pay).

My wife’s recent tears highlighted for me again the beating heart behind our talents. Should every ounce of creative energy be centered on ourselves? Or is it possible to direct that energy toward others, to pass it on, to challenge and encourage? Sure, the Pulitzer or Bram Stoker might etch my name in the annals of literary history. Who wouldn’t want that? But my wife has reminded me that it’s possible to etch our names in the memory of a detached teen who feels like no one else understands. Or a shut-in who needs a few good stories to make it through the drudgery of another rainy day.

Doesn’t the greatest reward come from that connection with others? This isn’t just about a paycheck. (How long do those last?!) It’s about something more permanent.

And maybe, one day, I’ll even turn out as kindhearted as my wife. Until then, it’s back to stories of the undead and mysteries buried in Jerusalem and Romania.

Hey, don’t look at me like that . . . Somebody’s gotta cover the next electric bill.

God and the Art of Skull-Skipping

August 2nd, 2008 4 comments

We’ve all done it. We’ve all been there. You’re reading along–or writing–and discover you’ve moved from one character’s head to another. You were chummy and warm in the thoughts of Mr. X, but now you’re thrown into the unknown environs of Mrs. X’s cranium. How’d you end up there? Why?

This is a symptom of point-of-view discrepancy. Editors whip out their red pencils–not that they really use those anymore–and start scratching away. The promising concept and proposal turns to slush right there in the first few lines of chapter one, as POV rears its problematic head. What was once commonplace in the writing world is now looked upon with disdain.

Why, though?

The other day, I picked up a Helen MacInnes novel. It was rife with POV breaks. I was surprised, because in her day she was a hugely popular writer (The Salzburg Connection was a NY Times best seller for ten months!), and she garnered all sorts of praise that bordered on hyperbole. Compared to today’s thriller writers, her stories moved along at pedestrian speed. Nevertheless, I was a big fan of her textured settings and characters. I thought she was topnotch in her genre. And yet, here she was . . . a POV violator; a head-jumper; a skull-skipper. Didn’t she know better?

This got me to wondering again why we’re so fixated on the POV issue in our modern era of literature. Such notables as Stephen King and John Grisham have thumbed their noses at the idea. Did something change in the last fifty years? Did writing get better? Or did reading expectations simply change?

In honor of full disclosure, I must tell you I’m about to dive into murky spiritual waters. I’m just splashing around here, thinking through my fingertips.

But . . . Is there any chance, that cultural views of God have played a part in the POV shift? We still use the term omniscient point of view. Fifty years ago, it was common for writers to employ this POV. Now, limited POV is preferred. I prefer the limited route, too–as a reader and a writer. The differences are acute, yet sometimes subtle. They both reflect strong and weak traits in human nature.

Could it be that omniscience reflected a time in which readers were more willing to be used, manipulated, and/or deceived? Nowadays, I read with the expectation that all the facts will be given to me, and anything held back will be held back fairly. None of that Agatha Christie stuff, where a peripheral character sees the vital clue through a mirror, without letting the reader know. Could it also be that the omniscient POV kept readers from connecting or sharing empathy with the characters? Today’s readers hope for that strong link with their protagonist–or antagonist, as may sometimes be the case–and for honest disclosure regarding the characters’ flaws. None of that Leave it to Beaver gloss.

On the other hand, did the omniscient preference of yesteryear also reflect some traits we now find in short supply? Did readers once have more willingness to put themselves in others’ shoes? Did they possess an inherent trust in the relationship between author and reader, between creator and consumer, that allowed them to enjoy stories with less cynicism?

Yes, I’m one of those strange artistic types who dwells on such nebulous matters. I don’t really have any answers on this subject. Just thinking. Rambling. I do suspect, though, that there’s a connection between these changing styles and world views–some negative, most positive. I still believe in a personal God, and I also believe that it’s better to be real, even messy, than to gloss things over. I believe some cynicism is healthy. I think critical thinking is a must. Staid religion may argue against such things, but the Bible actually brims with gritty characters and a call to “test everything and hold onto that which is good.”

For now, I’ll leave weightier musings to greater mortals. I have a deadline to meet, a story to tell. And, in the style I prefer, I’ll tell it one character at a time. If I do happen to skip skulls, I promise to add a scene break.

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Writing as a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

July 3rd, 2008 7 comments

That’s right. You, too, can make your first million writing novels. It’s easy. It’s not even really work. I mean, all you do is sit around and make things up and write them down. How hard can that be?

And the royalties, oh, the royalties. The fat advance checks, the NY Times bestseller list and the fame.

You might have to wear disguises just to get a moment’s peace at your favorite restaurant.

Well, let me tell you how it’s worked for me . . . I started writing around age 10. I completed my first novel in tenth grade. I got my first article published at 21 (for which I was paid $50, plus another $25 for two photos). Then, I got married. I finished college. I had kids, and worked all sorts of jobs while trying to make ends meet.

It wasn’t until age 33, when publishing a novel seemed like the one mountain I’d never actually climb, that I got a hard, gonad-busting kick from Sharyn McCrumb. She wrote a steel-toed-boot of an article in Writers Digest, in which she demanded that all would-be writers actually “write or shut up.”

I wrote. I wrote some more. I quit a good paying job, and on Cinco de Mayo 1997 opened an espresso business with my wife–in the wayward belief that it would give me more free time to complete my first bestseller. My kids did start school, though, and that allowed me some quiet space in the home, while my wife held down Tuesdays and Thursdays at the shop. I closed the shades, ignored the phone, and wrote a whole lot more until I had a 120,000 word novel completed (published by a division of Random House four years later, under the title Dark to Mortal Eyes).

This year, on Cinco de Mayo, eleven years later to the day, I officially quit my day job. I have eight novels completed, with number nine now under construction. I collected my first royalty check ever only three months ago. I hit a small-time bestseller list around the same time. I have no guarantees after summer of next year, once my tenth novel is turned in, but I’m doing it. I’m making a living as a novelist.

Ah, yes–the road to fame and riches!

I won’t lie. I love this job. It’s the greatest privilege–and a truly humbling thing–to have others pay you for silly little thoughts that begin to germinate in your imagination. Sometimes I’m surprised anyone really cares. Sometimes I can’t believe I have enough courage to chase these thoughts down and drag them to the ground; but then again, it’s my way of hunting for my dinner.

So the next time you come to one of my book-signings, don’t look for the fancy car coming down the lane. No, I’m in the ’87 Toyota without A/C. Don’t look for the dapper fellow with the pipe, and the turtleneck beneath his tweed jacket. No, I’m like most of you–in jeans, a T-shirt, and wondering if the grays at my temples are beginning to make me look distinguished.

One day, I hope to upgrade the wheels and splurge for a decent jacket, but until then I’ll be typing at my desk, journeying through new adventures, meeting new characters and brushing shoulders with familiar ones, and thanking God for the chance to do something I’ve loved since I was old enough to ride the bus alone to the public library.

Yeah, I’m living the rich life–and if you think otherwise, you’re just counting wrong.

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Unlikely Enemies

June 2nd, 2008 8 comments

Robin Hood needed the Sheriff of Nottingham. Batman needed the Joker. Yin needs Yang, and shadows fall because there is light.

When it comes to writing fiction, we all know conflict is crucial. As John Le Carre so succinctly captured it: “‘The dog sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The dog sat on the cat’s mat’ . . . ah, now there’s a story!” This battle between man and nature, man and himself, man and others, is evident in all storytelling–and, in fact, it’s a reflection of that which we all experience day to day.

But there’s another tension that percolates beneath the surface of all great novels. Some point to it as the difference between plot-driven stories and character-driven. Can a book be propelled solely by plot? (Think The DaVinci Code.) Or can a character hold up a story all by his or her lonesome? (Insert your own example.) Do we need both, or can they be mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to genre fiction such as horror?

It’s a tension I find myself struggling with when I write, but I’ve never identified it as pointedly as does Michael Chabon in his new nonfiction work, Maps and Legends: “That’s the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemies of Character . . . Plot is fate, and fate is always, by definition, inhuman.” The moment I read those words, I felt like Chabon had captured something I’ve known intuitively, but questioned because I did not know how to verbalize it.

When I sit at my laptop, I am in constant need of connecting with my characters. If I don’t care, why should the reader? And if the reader doesn’t care, then the plot is a ticking timebomb that threatens nothing of consequence. Sure, there are some books that appeal for other reasons (The DaVinci Code again being a good example), but ultimately they are popcorn thrills that go not much further than the turning of the last page.

As I sit down this week to start the second in my Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy, I am faced again with this tension between unlikely enemies: Plot and Character. They must work hand in hand, and yet one can seem forced or manipulated, while the other can seem too wishy-washy to be worth anyone’s time. The tension is there. I feel it as I write. And I believe that I need to feel it. Just as Skywalker needed Vader, every story needs conflict. And the best stories, I think, grow out of that root conflict between Plot and Character. When balanced correctly in the story, we keep turning the pages to see what happens precisely because we care.

The best horror grows from the same conflict. Many critics fail to understand this very thing. Horror is only scary because it deals with people, with human nature, and that’s what makes it a viable genre–if we must resort to such labels. In the struggle of mankind between darkness and light, horror stories boldly march into the middle of the fray and tell it just like it is.

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I Got Me an Award!

May 3rd, 2008 6 comments

The Great Blow-Off-Your-Deadline Award

**awarded with bitter grimaces and squeezed buttocks to those writers who fail to read the fine print and fulfill their commitments**

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working toward a May 30 deadline in an attempt to finish a 70,000 word novelization. My publishers are trying to coordinate the on-shelf date with the film’s in-theaters date. With four weeks left to go and 26K words under my belt, I thought I was doing swimmingly–which, I guess, means I was keeping my head above water.

Then, this morning, I received an e-mail from my editor. Let me first say that my editor has been fantastic. She’s professional when necessary, encouraging at all times, and someone I consider a friend. In her usual gracious manner, she asked how my manuscript was coming along since she hadn’t heard from me yet.

Yet?

It was due yesterday, the first of May, she informed me.

What!

In my 41 years, I’ve enjoyed great health, but I thought I was going to have a heart attack. And if that didn’t do me in, I’d put an end to things myself. How could I have been so stupid? I checked my calendars, my web site, my day planner…In all of them, I’d put May 30 as the deadline. I went through my old e-mails with my editor, pulled out my contract from the heavy box on the top shelf in my closet…They all showed May 1.

I guess it’s part of life. We all make mistakes. We get wrong ideas stuck in our heads that we can’t shake. The consequences of such things can vary from minor to drastic.

After a few panicky e-mails to my editor, involving self-loathing and bent-knee apologies, I worked out a compromise with her that should keep us close to our intended release date. Will I sleep much? Probably not. Will the quality of the story suffer? I can’t help but think it will, though I’m hoping for the best. Will I show a little more grace the next time my daughters tell me they thought their homework was due next week not tomorrow? I will certainly try.

And now, in the spirit of the moment, I’d like to give my award acceptance speech:

I hate to brag, I really do

Since the award I’ve been given

Is nothing new

I’ve received it before

Without even trying

Deadlines are due

And I’m the one dying.

Eat Your Heart Out

April 3rd, 2008 14 comments

Put yourself in their shoes. Would you have survived? Could you hack it under such conditions?

Oh, don’t pretend you’ve never thought about it. I mean, how did Dickens pull it off? What about Austen or Bronte? They didn’t have laptops for mobility, or word processing for easy editing, or iPods for drowning out the screaming babies and clattering horseshoes, or…Well, for that matter, they didn’t have thermostat-controlled work environments or soft reliable lighting.

I write at a desk upstairs, separated from my bed by a bookshelf. I write, preferably, by daylight, but the overhead light and fan do their job when necessary. I have slippers for winter time, but my toes still get cold despite the nearby heater vent.

Would I have survived? Would I be doing this for a living if I’d been born back then?

All modern comforts aside (give me a moment to turn off the cell phone ringer and put my computer on standby), I see a general lack of creative discipline all around, and I worry that it might rub off on me. Each time I prepare to cuddle with my muse and conceive another novel to push through my artistic womb–there’s some gender-bending for all who’ve followed recent blogs–I wonder if I’ve lost whatever it is that keeps me going, that keeps me coming up with new turns of a phrase or nuances on deep-seated fears. Will I fail to come through again? Will I answer the critics from the last go-around? Will I please the fans of my last literary effort?

In the midst of such pressure, I make myself a fresh cup of Sumatran (no wood-stoking or hand-grinding necessary), and wiggle the mouse till the computer comes back to life. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a new email or review to brighten my mood and send me skipping back to the upstairs work desk.

And then it happens. I spot two messages on myspace. Three more on facebook. Friend requests and comments. I realize there’s a misspelling on that silly new website I’ve been building for the past week, all in the name of saving myself a heap of cash. Will fans like it? Have they noticed my faux pas? (Hey, when you’re done reading this, feel free to visit the site and see if you can spot it.) As I mull such things, I go to one of my email accounts and see a fan letter, a request to speak at a local writers conference, an enquiry about discussion questions for my latest title–as if I’m trying to write literary masterpieces here…c’mon!–and a slew of other correspondence.

I question how I get anything done. Really. I feel pressured to keep up with the cyber-savvy Jones, especially all those writers whose web-presences loom larger than Hemingway. I’ve gotta stay on top of this. Gotta stay sharp. Stay hungry. Stay aw a kk kke e eeee.

Boy, I wish I lived back in the days of Oliver Twist, when there was at least a smidgen of Sense and Sensibility. It was easier then; I see that now. Fewer distractions. The simple life. I bet none of those hacks could’ve made it in today’s world. Those literary wannabes would’ve been locked away, disconnected from cyberspace, out of touch, and irrelevant. They would’ve gotten nowhere. Nowhere! I tell you.

Smug in this realization, I peek at my bookshelf. I spot Bram Stoker’s name, Dickens’, Hawthorne’s, Poe’s, and Verne’s. I wonder why it is they have new editions around when my first two novels are already out of print.

A new email pops up on my screen, erasing my questions with its synthetic appeal. I’ll work on my latest manuscript after lunch. After I tend to my Internet concerns. I’ve got a slew of things to keep up with.

Eat your heart out, Stoker–you would’ve never made it in these days of endless distraction.

The Lonely Web We Weave

March 3rd, 2008 10 comments

It’s late at night. I have a manuscript to work on, an endorsement to finish, a blog to write, an editor to contact, my agent to hassle, a new proposal to tighten, and cover art to respond to. Oh, but I need a few minutes of diversion. Or, even better, a tidbit of artistic validation. With the tap of a key, I’m online.

Caught in the web of online services, we writers face new conveniences and never-before-dreamed-of distractions. It’s a wonderful world out there, but I wonder sometimes whether this thing serves us or whether we are, in fact, serving it.

When I speak of the Web, I think of spiders. I love ‘em. Or maybe it’s the tingle of fear they produce, particularly when discovered, oh, say, in the shower after I’ve already stepped in with nothing on. You’d think I hated the little suckers, judging by my foot-hopping and shampoo-bottle bludgeoning, but the truth is I’ve always found them fascinating–their range of sizes, shapes, colors, and poisons.

In the world of the Internet, we writers–if you’ll pardon the metaphor–find ourselves in the middle of a vast web. We have our little spidey-feet touched lightly to the strands, hoping, praying, for any slight tremble that indicates sustenance. We are lonely creatures. We wait. We have no ill-intentions, and we may be misunderstood, but all we’re after is something to keep us going for another day.

The easiest place to find this: social networking. From Facebook and MySpace, to chat rooms and blogs, we have multiple strands spun through the cyber air, stretched from homes and laptops to readers and late-night surfers. Along these strands, we can pick up all sorts of vibrations that indicate we have sustenance coming our way. Sometimes those vibes are the real deal–a word of encouragement, or a pat on the back. Other times we are teased or even tortured by the lack thereof.

I have a friend, a fellow author, whose latest title was slated for release on Halloween of last year. This friend has given me a number of reasons for the tardy manuscript. Meanwhile, Amazon has removed the title from its “preorder” status. My friend bemoans that fact, and yet every time I get online I see that my friend is logged on to a social networking site–all day, every day, commenting, posting, commenting, posting. Oh, yes, writing is being done. But not on the manuscript.

I’m trying to learn from this. I remember the days when my world as a writer was much lonelier, when I did not have the only-an-arm’s-length-away temptation of the internet. Now, I catch myself going online when I want some validation. A morsel. A scrap. Anything. One of my books mentioned in a review, or by a blogger. A write up on Amazon. An email. A “friend” on MySpace. Something to convince me it’s worth all the hard work.

Or, and here’s the most painful truth, something to keep me from doing all that hard work.

I can’t be the only lonely spider…uh, writer. I’m watching fellow artists and dreamers get caught up in the web while abandoning their discipline. I’m trying to find that balance, that precarious tightrope walk along these strands of solitude and hunger for expression. Online, there are phantom vibrations and cyber winds that tell me immediate gratification is on its way, but I’m having to train myself all over again to be still, to let patience and solitude work in me the kind of art and stories that can come no other way. I’m learning that I need to…that I…

That I gotta go. Sorry. Hate to run, but I see another “friend” just logged on.

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