Apr 102013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Okay, picture this:

There's this great dinner club.  It's run and attended by some of the smartest (and of course, most beautiful) people you know.  Successful, funny, generous people.  For years, you've hung around outside the club, just outside the red velvet rope, sharing a word or two with the men and women entering and exiting just to get a sense of how cool it would be to be one of them.  And then, one day . . .

They invite you inside.  Offer you membership.  Give you a key to the front door.

Now you're at the club every other week, meeting new people, making new friends.  Telling stories your audience finds fascinating, cracking jokes everyone laughs at (well, almost everyone).  Slowly but surely, you're finding your place in this rarified crowd, developing a sense of actually belonging here.  Life is good.

Now picture the club owner choosing this exact moment to shut the joint down.

Say what?!

Welcome to my Murderati experience.  Just when I was starting to really have fun, the lights go out --- for good.

Was it something I said?

This has been a fantastic writers' blog, and it was one long before I ever came onboard.  One thing I think has always set it apart is its almost total lack of a promotional focus.  For all the writers, big and small, who have held a place on the Murderati roster over the years, few have shown more than a passing interest in salesmanship.  The emphasis here has always seemed to be on telling great stories about the writing life, rather than hawking literary merchandise.

I'd be lying if I said holding up my end of the Murderati bargain every two weeks (plus again every eight weeks for Wildcard Tuesdays) has always been easy.  It hasn't.  I spent more than a few nervous Tuesday and Monday nights banging my head against the wall seeking to shake a post topic that didn't suck loose for the next morning.  But overall, I had a blast, and I think I wrote a post or two I can be proud of.

In fact, I think that's how I'll leave you all: With a brief list of my favorite Murderati posts:

LIES MY FATHER TOLD ME (THAT TURNED OUT TO BE TRUE)

THAT'S INCREDIBLE! (AND THAT'S THE PROBLEM)

NO PAIN, NO GAIN

THIS I DO BELIEVE

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

DECEMBER 14, 2012

SORRY, OUR MISTAKE, WON'T EVER HAPPEN AGAIN

Thanks for the memories, people.  And a special shout-out to Pari and J.T., who threw this party in the first place.  You guys are the best.

Take it away, Dandy Don.

Mar 272013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

"I can't believe I did that!" Harry shrieked horrifically.

"I can't believe it either!" Jane emphatically agreed.

"It was so stupid.  What was I thinking!"

"I don't know.  Two thousand exclamation points, and seven hundred adverbs!" Jane cried.  "What are we supposed to do with two thousand exclamation points and seven hundred adverbs!"

"Don't forget the twelve hundred replacements for 'said' and 'asked' the guy threw in for free.  I'm telling you, this was the telemarketer from hell!"

"I know what to do!" Jane exclaimed after a moment of thought.  "We could write a mystery, and use exclamation points in place of periods wherever the slightest bit of excitement needs to be conveyed!  Sometimes, we could even use them in place of question marks!"

"What!"

"You heard me.  And instead of all those boring 'saids' when people speak---"

"We could use the replacements and adverbs I bought instead!" Harry chuckled gleefully.  "And what a great read our mystery will be.  All that emotion and drama!"

"Which we couldn't possibly convey any other way..."

Okay, had enough?  I have.  In case you haven't already guessed, the subject of my post this week is dialogue, and I've led off with an example of the worst kind imaginable.

In this author's opinion, great dialogue, which both sings and moves your story forward simultaneously, has the following characteristics:

  • It sounds like real people talking.  Over-stylized dialogue may win Tony awards on Broadway, but all it does in fiction is take the reader out of your story.  Go easy on the clever repartee and only use as much ethnic or professional jargon as realism demands.  Otherwise, every time a character opens his or her mouth, your novel will read like a playwriting exercise in Theater 101.
  • It flows like fine wine.  Great dialogue hums with a natural rhythm, similar to a perfectly tuned car engine at idle.  To achieve this effect, it's often necessary to rewrite an exchange of dialogue over and over again, until every note sounds just right.
  • It suits the situation.  I just read a thriller that was humming along just fine until a firefight broke out.  The two characters ducking for cover were facing almost certain death --- and one was talking nonsense while the other was cracking wise.  Neither was saying anything befitting someone afraid for his life.  Clearly, the author failed to ask (and adequately answer) a critical question before he opened his characters' mouths: "What would real people say to each other under these circumstances?"

  • It's light on attribution and adverbs.  A simple "said" is fine here and there, if only to keep the reader straight on who's speaking, but that's it.  Anything else draws attention to yourself and what you're attempting to accomplish.
  • It's consistent with the people involved.  A character who drops her Gs and says "ain't" instead of "isn't" on page eleven shouldn't abruptly start speaking like a Rhodes scholar on page 44.  Keep track of the speech patterns you assign every character and make sure they maintain them throughout your novel.
  • It's lean and fast.  A long paragraph of unbroken speech coming from a single character isn't dialogue---it's a monologue.  And just as interminable, droning speeches cause your attention to wander in real life, so do they have the same deadly effect on someone reading a novel.  Ever hear of the KISS rule?  That's "Keep It Simple, Stupid."  Well, here's a new rule for you, strictly pertaining to dialogue: KISSS (Keep It Short and Sweet, Stupid.)
  • It's almost totally devoid of expository information.  Believe me, I know how hard it can be to deliver 10,000 words of crucial data in only 400 pages so that your plot will make perfect sense to the reader in the end---but that's not your characters' problem, it's yours.  Charge the men and women in your book with the task of conveying the hows and whys of it through verbal exchanges and a reader will suddenly see them for exactly what they are: Not real people, but imaginary conduits for a writer struggling to lay the groundwork of his story.
  • Not everybody sounds alike.  Patterns of speech are one of the most powerful devices with which to differentiate the people in your novel.  If you've given them adequate color in this area, you should be able to eliminate all attribution in a stretch of dialogue and still know who is saying what to whom.
  • Not everybody sounds like you.  This is similar to the problem above, except that it's worse.  Don't ever kid yourself or anyone else who might ask: At least one character in every book you'll ever write is going to be you, in one thinly veiled disguise or another.  I mean, we don't invent the worlds we write about just so other people can walk around in them, do we?  So naturally, a character here or there is going to sound a lot like you when he speaks, and that's okay.  What's not okay is affixing this particular trait to your entire cast, especially if your pattern of speech happens to be jarringly distinctive.

  • Not everybody is a comedian.  There's room for at least one smart-aleck in every story, especially if he or she is funny.  But invite more than one clown to a party and watch your guests start hitting the exits.  As noted in the previous two bullet-points, each of your characters should have their own set of personality traits, and among those traits should be a unique sense of humor (or total lack thereof).  Two people constantly trading wisecracks is a bore, but two people trading the same kind of wisecrack is both a bore and a crock.  Be careful here.
  • Exclamations are practically non-existent.  Anything less than total outrage or sheer terror is insufficient grounds for an exclamation point.  Try to use them only when your character is responding to something along the lines of having just accidentally sliced his thumb off with a steak knife.

Question for the Class: What authors do you most admire for their dialogue, in particular?

Mar 232013
 

MONDAY - SOMETIMES . . .

by Pari

Too much to do
Too much going on
Too much to manage
Too much to feel

Each day a chasm of shoulds and oughts
Each day a trial born of sorrows and nots
My heart a platter of food run cold
My body sensing each cell grown old

And yet, in a moment, of unforeseen clarity
A thought, still nascent, nurtures a true soul charity
Could it be?
Will it I rue?

Pari, do it now. Go to the zoo!  (MORE)

TUESDAY - TO CON OR NOT TO CON

by Alexandra Sokoloff

There’s nothing like packing for Denver in March to make you realize you have no clothes suited to temperatures under seventy degrees.

Nevertheless, conference season is kicking in and I’m off to Left Coast Crime this week (with a suitcase full of clothes much more appropriate to cruising the Caribbean.) Setting aside that I’m jonesing for some author company and for some serious dancing, which actually is on the menu this year, I have been wondering why exactly I decided to go again so soon. And then I remember that there’s a special occasion simultaneous to the conference which makes the whole thing make sense.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Left Coast Crime - it's a big conference for a small conference and one of the absolute friendliest out there. But the business has changed so much, I have to wonder if conferences as we know them are on their way out.  When you can reach tens of thousands of readers and sell thousands to tens of thousands of books with one free Amazon Kindle promotion, and when you can reach thousands to tens of thousands of readers with some concentrated Facebook posting, all pretty much for free, then how much sense does it really make to take five days to a week (what with packing and all the attendant readying, pedicures, pet sitting and all) away from time that you could be writing or promoting on line? Even the upcoming LA Times Festival of Books – I’m thinking that that day would be better spent just working it on Facebook – I’d sell more books and make more money from the books I sold.  Without having to fight traffic, either.

Now, I know, online connections will never be as meaningful as the personal contact you can make with a reader in person. But do I really mean that?  Really?   (MORE)

WEDNESDAY - LEFT COAST CRIME 2013

by David Corbett

For much of today, I’ll be en route to Colorado Springs for this year’s Left Coast Crime (where eventually I’ll be joined by fellow current or past Murderatis JT Ellison, Simon Wood, and Alexandra Sokoloff, who posted here about the conference yesterday).

I’ve made myself scarce the last few years on the conference circuit, being preoccupied with other, well, preoccupations, but co-chairs Christine Goff and Suzanne Proulx very graciously (if unwisely) asked if I’d serve as toastmaster, and how could I refuse?

Just one question, I said timidly. What exactly does a toastmaster do?

The answer: Nobody knows

I even asked last year’s toastmaster, Harley Jane Kozak, and she replied: “You just get up and make people happy to be alive, restore sight to the blind and the will to live in those who are depressed. It helps if everyone's drunk to begin with.”

Oh. That.

Piece of cake.  (MORE)

THURSDAY - IMPERSONAL SERVICE

by Zoë Sharp

They say the best recommendation is word of mouth—a personal tip from someone you know and whose judgement you trust. But increasingly these days we find ourselves connecting with people in a less personal way as more and more of us take to shopping online.

Global economies are tanking as the rich get richer and the rest of us have to cope as best we can. It all boils down to the price of everything without taking the cost into account. We buy online because they don’t have high street overheads and it’s invariably cheaper, and because the high street is losing out on sales it becomes a sad collection of boarded-up windows, charity shops and bargain basements. Personal service seems to be a thing of the past. Soon we won’t have to speak to another real human being during our daily lives at all.

After all, we can order just about anything including our groceries over the internet. Our books, our music, buy insurance, search for a house. And if we do choose to go out we withdraw money from the cashpoint machine without going into a bank. If we do venture inside we’re being encouraged to use the automated deposit slots instead of waiting for a cashier window to become free.  (MORE)

FRIDAY - HERMOSA

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

There are parrots in Hermosa Beach and they live in the leaves of the giant palm trees on Pier Avenue. Nothing here is indigenous but the sand and sea. I've been here a long time, not as long as some, but longer than others.

I remember when this stretch of street was a street with cars and rugged, sailor bars and angry teenagers smoking dope. I was here for the gentrification, when the street was paved and became a pedestrian-only walkway, when the giant palm trees were brought in and planted by giant cranes, when the high price of rent pushed out the local pubs and the high-end restaurants and nightclubs moved in.

And the Either/Or Bookstore closed down. My favorite bookstore in the city. After 30 years in business. It was where I went after graduating college, to spend the $116 I had in my pocket. I bought as many paper book classics as I could.

And the Bijou theater closed down. (MORE)

Mar 162013
 

MONDAY - MY ORIGIN STORY

by Tania Carver (Martyn Waites)

It seems that, recently, the internet – or the little corner I inhabit of it – has been full of writers either telling their stories of how they got published, or what happened after they got published or even, in the case of Chuck Wendig asking other writers to contribute their stories of how they got published to act as a corrective against bad advice being given out to aspiring writers about the publishing industry.  Have a look at it. It’s well worth it.

Matt Haig, the excellent British author, has contributed several excellent pieces on the subject.  They're excellent. Better than anyhting I can say.

So with that in mind, and in response to Chuck’s piece, I decided to write my own. It’s not particularly brilliant or original, but it is, as they say in the best comic books, my origin story.

So here you go. Here it is.   (MORE)

TUESDAY - THE SEGUE

by P.D. Martin

Today I'd like to welcome fellow Aussie author Lindy Cameron to Murderati. I met Lindy through the fantastic Victorian chapter of Sisters in Crime. A great woman who's moved from author to author/publisher I thought it would be interesting to hear her story. Why did she start her own publishing company?  Over to Lindy...

There are many things in the life of this author that try my patience. And the fact that I can actually do that, to myself, is somewhat ridiculous.

I am the Queen of Procrastination. And I say that like I am the only author who can say that, which is also ridiculous, because all writers mainline Avoidance like it’s a drug.

In fact, if you don’t find everything else to do but write, then you’re not really a writer.   (MORE)

WEDNESDAY - NOBODY WRITES FOR FREE *

* EXCEPT WHEN MAYBE THEY SHOULD

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Trolling about on Facebook yesterday, I stumbled upon a terrific Gawker article by Cord Jefferson on writers who write for free and the far-reaching, unintended consequences of this ever-growing practice.  The emphasis of Cord's piece is on journalists who work gratis for online publications, as opposed to authors of fiction, but many of the questions he raises are universal in scope as they relate to anyone trying to live on what he writes these days.  Boiled down to its bare essence, I think Cord's main point could be stated thusly: If you don't have a monied benefactor of some kind (mother, father, uncle, sibling, etc.) out there somewhere both willing and able to throw you a few dollars as the demands of mere survival arise, good luck kicking off that writing career by giving your stuff away for free.

In those ancient times before the Internet came along, when the market for fiction and non-fiction was dominated by publications you could actually hold in your hands, the editor who asked, let alone demanded, that a writer write something for free was the exception, not the rule.  This was because a writer offended by such a request could just take his piece elsewhere and get paid.  He had options.

This isn't the case anymore.   (MORE)

THURSDAY - TRICKY RESEARCH - THE 'NEAR' FUTURE

by P.D. Martin

I’ve always loved the research that goes along with being an author, particularly a crime fiction author. I’ve posted here on some of my different research subjects, such as cults, handwriting, Kung Fu and Dim-Mak, real-life vampires and being a hitman (or woman).

I’ve also mentioned that I’m currently working in another new genre, writing a young adult (YA) novel. But this little YA novel has been giving me grief. Like, quite a lot of grief. But it’s not the writing process (which has actually been pretty easy), it’s the research. And what makes it hard, is that the book is a pre-apocalyptic novel set in the year 2030. So, it’s the near future. And I guess I’m pretty hopeless at speculating what the world will be like in 17 years’ time.

A little background…the book is set in the US and much of the action takes place in the environment of the Secret Service. In some ways, I figure the near future setting means perhaps I’ve got a bit of leeway. If I don’t get a specific Secret Service procedure right, maybe it’s just that things changed from how it’s done now to how it would be done in 17 years in the future. Right?  

But there are so many little facts and questions that are bugging me. Here are just a few . . .  (MORE)

FRIDAY - THE KEEPERS L.A. - NEW PARANORMAL SERIES

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Most of you regular readers know that I have a genre identiy problem. My first novel, The Harrowing, is a supernatural thriller (because in 2006, no one in publishing would use the word "horror"). These days I'm writing a crime thriller series that's only a little supernatural around the edges - if at all.  

But then there's that whole paranormal thing.

Okay, yes, I enjoy writing sex. And let's face it - the romance community not only BUYS books in delirious quantities - they also throw the best parties in publishing.  What can I say?  I was seduced.

And in 2011 I was thrilled to be asked by the mega-talented and generally amazing Heather Graham to join forces with her and sister thriller writer Deborah LeBlanc to write a paranormal suspense trilogy for Harlequin Nocturne. The Keepers series follows a special set of humans with heightened powers who are charged with the ancestral duty of keeping the peace between mortals and the subcultures of paranormal beings who hide in plain sight among humans in cosmopolitan cities all over the world.

The first Keepers trilogy is set in my favorite American city, New Orleans, and chronicles the individual stories of the MacDonald sisters: vampire, shapeshifter and werewolf Keepers, who fight supernatural crime while trying not to become romantically entangled with the beings they are sworn to protect.

Now the series is back, with a new set of Keepers working to keep the peace between the supernatural Others and those crazy humans in Los Angeles.  (MORE)

Mar 132013
 

* EXCEPT WHEN MAYBE THEY SHOULD

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Trolling about on Facebook yesterday, I stumbled upon this terrific Gawker article by Cord Jefferson on writers who write for free and the far-reaching, unintended consequences of this ever-growing practice.  The emphasis of Cord's piece is on journalists who work gratis for online publications, as opposed to authors of fiction, but many of the questions he raises are universal in scope as they relate to anyone trying to live on what he writes these days.  Boiled down to its bare essence, I think Cord's main point could be stated thusly: If you don't have a moneyed benefactor of some kind (mother, father, uncle, sibling, etc.) out there somewhere both willing and able to throw you a few dollars as the demands of mere survival arise, good luck kicking off that writing career by giving your stuff away for free.

In those ancient times before the Internet came along, when the market for fiction and non-fiction was dominated by publications you could actually hold in your hands, the editor who asked, let alone demanded, that a writer write something for free was the exception, not the rule.  This was because a writer offended by such a request could just take his piece elsewhere and get paid.  He had options.

This isn't the case anymore.  The vast majority of non-fiction work now resides with online publications, where money is generally --- if not always --- scarce, and editors in the online world have become perfectly comfortable using the start-up's classic refrain of "we can't pay you now, but later on down the road . . ." to offer writers nothing but exposure and a byline for their work.  And who can eat on that?

As new as this cruel form of indentured servitude is to journalism, however, it's been a staple of doing business in Hollywood for ages.

Much to the chagrin of the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriter who's never written a word for free is either a film school grad fresh off the bus from Cleveland or a raging narcissist without a single credit to his name.  Writing on spec (that is, "speculation") is what a screenwriter does to prove his mettle; it keeps his skills sharp and fills out his portfolio.  But it's also the entry fee many producers expect a screenwriter to pay for the "privilege" of landing a real, honest-to-God writing assignment.  Even producers with deep pockets ask for a free draft before offering a fee, reduced or otherwise.

If you've got a writing credit or two in your pocket, you can afford to be principled and pass.  Maybe another, paying screenwriting opportunity will soon come along.  But when you're just starting out, wondering if the dream is ever going to happen for you --- how do you say no?

The truth is, you shouldn't.  In some cases, anyway.

The key to knowing when you should or should not write a script for free is making an accurate assessment of who's doing the asking.  Is this "producer" a real pro or a poseur?  Will he keep his word to adequately reward you for all your hard work at the back end or are all his promises likely to be a lie?  Can he get a deal for his project made so that everyone involved gets paid, or is he just as likely to go nowhere with it as you would be on your own?

These are tough calls to make, and it's all too easy to screw them up.  I know, because I've done it.  And oddly enough, it's not the times I agreed to work for free that I regret most, but the times I didn't.  I have a considerable ego, in case you hadn't noticed, so being asked to do something for free that others get paid to do has never sat well with me.  Looking back at some of the chances I had to write on assignment sans fee, I can count one or two that, in retrospect, were probably golden.  But I turned them down.

Moi, write for free?  You must be joking.

The lesson I think I've learned --- as late as I am in getting around to it --- is that not every person (editor, producer, agent, etc.) asking you to write something for little or no compensation is a crook looking to exploit you.  Sometimes, the risk of writing for free is one well worth taking.

When faced with the choice of writing on spec or not, let your head decide the matter for you, not your pride.

Mar 052013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

We writers are such kidders.  We spend hours and hours online every day, and devote much lip service to justifying it.  We're doing research, building our fan base, learning new promotional techniques, keeping abreast of the latest developments in publishing, blah-blah-blah.  And sure, some of that is true --- but only about sixty percent of the time.  The other forty?

We're goofing off!

Case in point: I blow forty minutes every morning reading The Huffington Post, and while I do it in part to catch up on the news, I'm only religious about it because I get such a kick out of some of the site's headlines.  They practically beg for a punchline, which I'm only too happy to supply.

Let me show you what I mean:

 

But says she has no intention of returning the Royal Lampshade.


(If the guy who wrote this story thinks this is news, he must have a major drug problem.)


She wants to receive an obscene phone call before every performance --- on her hat.

 

Because 174,261 times in 59 years is hardly enough for any man.

 

Because if they made it available in any other part of the world, they'd be laughed out of existence.

 

Number 1: "Was that as pathetic for you as it was for me?"

 

I can't give you 43 million reasons why, but the guy in the picture could.

 

Okay, maybe it's just me, but if I'd gone to see a doctor named "Nikita Levy" for the first time and found this guy waiting in his office, I would have smelled a rat right there.

 

Perhaps.  But what do you say we drive a stake through his heart and chop off his head, just to be on the safe side?

 

. . . made E.L. Grey cry.  But only for 50 seconds.

 

Proving that when you say, "Nyet new taxes," in Russia, you had better mean it.

 

And then she'll go into rehab with Steven Tyler.

 

Man, I knew my new desk lamp smelled funky!

 

"Of course I'd like to go home with you tonight.  But would you mind autographing this bar napkin first?"

 

I don't know, Mr. Gere, and I don't care.

 

No, but let's hope a group of neo-Nazis pay $212,000 for it on eBay, anyway.

 

. . . and 1 thing I simply don't understand: Why in the hell does somebody with his money find it necessary to paint hair on his head every morning?

 

And here I always thought it was the other "Joe Walsh" who wrote "Walk Away."

 

Shouldn't this headline read "MUST-SEE YAHOOS ON VIDEO!"?

 

Help me out with this one: If she's maximum-frowning in the "Before" photo . . .

Feb 272013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

One of the things I have struggled with throughout my writing career is the nagging fear that I may not be working hard enough.  People who realize great success in this world tend to fight their way to the top, they don't simply ascend to it, so working extremely hard to get what I want has always been part of my great Master Plan.

For the most part, I think I have worked hard: I've put in long hours, rewritten my work endlessly, and cultivated relationships with dozens of people capable of moving my career forward.  I've done things to promote my writing that have forced me completely out of my comfort zone, and I've done scores of readings and signings for no other reason than to avoid the bad karma of declining.

But I don't work sixteen-hour days.

I don't Tweet.

I don't push myself to write X number of books in Y number of months.

I don't do cold calls seeking reviews or reads or meetings.

I don't blog on multiple websites.

I don't follow book-industry news on a daily basis just to keep up with the latest developments in e-publishing.

I don't attempt to sell myself to anyone I don't have reason to believe will be at least vaguely interested in buying.

I have my reasons for all these "don'ts," of course:

I'm a married father of two pre-teen children who needs his sleep.

I'm on a very limited budget.

Self-promotion makes me feel like an ass.

I have a low tolerance for rejection.

All of the above would be fine if I were selling my work in decent numbers regardless, but I'm not.  As I've alluded to here on occasion, I've been writing from the depths of a career downtrend for a while now, so if ever there was a time to pull out all the stops to get ahead, this would be it.  The trouble is, I feel like I am pulling out all the stops.  The effort I'm making now to grow my career feels like everything I've got to give, despite all the things I'm not doing that so many writers today are.

But maybe I'm just kidding myself.  Maybe I'm in denial.  Lazy slackers are always the last to realize they are lazy slackers, so maybe I have a lot more to give in terms of elbow grease than I've simply been willing to admit.

Maybe what feels like 110% effort to me is in fact only about 85 percent, relative to the real ass-kickers in our business.

If so, I've got to find that extra 25% somewhere, and fast.  Because my desire to succeed as an author is as strong today as it's ever been.  Despite all the seeming evidence of sloth and indifference to the contrary.

Feb 132013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As I've mentioned several times recently, the family and I are the proud owners of a new home.  We moved into a classic "fixer-upper" in the Glassell Park area of Los Angeles last October, and I've been plenty busy ever since putting the Humpty-Dumpty its previous owners had reduced the place to back together again (with the help of a few fine contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc., of course).

Not long after we moved in, in keeping with a promise the wife and I made our two kids, we bought a family dog.   Our first family dog.  His name is Bruno, and he was just a twelve-week-old boxer-slash-fill-in-the-blank (Mastiff?  Pit bull?) puppy when we first got him --- but look at him now:

As the dog owners among you well know, owning a dog is a lot of work, and much of that work involves walking.  Lots and lots of walking.  I personally take Bruno out walking at least two times a day.  As Glassell Park is almost all hills, depending on the distance I choose to cover, these walks can be a real workout.  But I love them.  One, because I need the exercise, and two, because telling an author to go out walking his dog is essentially giving him a license to plot.  I solve more writing problems in Bruno's company than I do sitting at my computer desk.

But there's one other reason I enjoy walking the dog: Discovering my new neighborhood.  Exploring all its twists and turns, the "not-a-through-streets" and "no-outlets."  Seeing and meeting the community's diverse mix of people and marveling at its wild array of architectural styles.  In doing all this exploring two, sometimes three times a day, a curious thought has occurred to me: A house is a lot like a writing career.

Every author starts out here: On a vacant plot of land, peering into a future that seems vast and full of endless possibilities.

You sell a book, maybe two.  A foundation is built.  From that foundation, some authors --- good, lucky, or a combination of the two --- will go on to construct a veritable mansion . . .

 

. . . while others will build the foundation of a career and nothing more.

Some writing careers grow slow and steady, one floor at a time . . .

. . . and some either come to a screeching halt somewhere in the construction process, or simply peter out, like an old alarm clock winding gradually, inexorably down.

All too often, when a writing career falters before it can be made whole, it fades away to nothing, leaving little in the way of a mark behind to indicate it ever existed at all.

And then there are writing careers that wane but refuse to die.  Work picks up again, the once-dormant build site starts to hum with new life . . .

 

. . . and another mansion --- or comfy cottage --- eventually rises toward the heavens.

 

Or a new plot of ground is staked out upon which to start the construction process all over again.

Funny, the things a writer thinks about while walking his dog, isn't it?

Jan 302013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

The book I'm writing at present is not the one I should be writing.  The book I should be writing is one far more likely to sell.  A book with a high concept, or one featuring a new character around whom I could build a "franchise."  Instead, I'm writing the seventh book in my Aaron Gunner private eye series, a novel that fits the description of a can't-miss bestseller about as well I fit that of an Osmond brother.

Why?  Because I want to.

Sorry, but that's the only real reason I've got.  I haven't written a book about Gunner in ages and I miss the man.  I had a great idea for an opening that turned into a great idea for a Gunner novel and I simply couldn't find the will to put off writing it.  I've been far more calculating about my book projects than this in the past, on a number of occasions, but for the most part, this is how I've always operated: chasing the joy, not the dime.

I know I'm not alone in taking this ass-backwards route to success, but I wonder just how many bestselling authors have had it pay off?  Is anybody making real money and having fun writing at the same time?  Doing only what they want to do, without exception?

God, I hope so.

Because I can't write worth a damn if I'm not having fun.  I've tried writing like an adult, with the detached efficiency of a plumber running pipe or an insurance salesman hawking life-term policies, and I hate it.  Writing for me is a slog under the best circumstances, and having fun --- yes, fun --- is the only way I get through it.  My need to write is all about the stories I feel compelled to tell, not the bills I'm obligated to pay.  The long-term dream for me has never been as simple as to make a living writing; the dream has always been to someday have it both ways: to write exactly what I want to write, each and every time out of the box, and make a damn good living doing it.

Evidence to date would suggest I'm just kidding myself, but that's okay.   Hope springs eternal.

So I'm writing Gunner Number 7 and loving it.  It's hard work, and some days it feels like I'm trying to pull a cow on a leash through a field of quicksand --- but I don't mind.

It's my cow, and it makes me feel good.

Jan 162013
 

by Gar Anthony Haywood

My middle daughter Erin is going through a bit of a rough time right now.  Nothing earth-shattering or health-related, thank God, just the usual fallout from a young adult making a few poor decisions regarding --- what else? --- money.  We've talked about her situation together and we both agree that the best way out of the mess she's in is the one that is often the most difficult path of all to take: retreat.  Facing up to the fact that pushing forward, rather than falling back post-haste, would only make her problems worse, and acting accordingly.

Taking this tack will be embarassing for her, and will impact others.  It will involve admitting her mistake to friends and family, exposing herself as someone who isn't quite as mature and put together as appearances might otherwise indicate.  In other words, it's going to be painful as hell.  But it has to be done.

In the process of offering her my fatherly advice that she cut her losses now while she still can, before the brown stuff really hits the fan, I told her about a story I'd just recently heard on This American Life, the NPR radio program.  The story was titled "Self-Improvement Kick," and it dealt with a young guy named Daryl Watson who, lost in life and looking for purpose, was inspired in 2009 to become the new Peace Pilgrim.

Who the hell was the first "Peace Pilgrim" you ask?  Well, it was a woman named Mildred Norman, who in 1953, at the age of 44, took it upon herself to walk across the length of America to promote the cause of peace.  From the start of her pilgrimage in Pasadena, California, to her death in Knox, Indiana, 28 years later, Norman logged over 40,000 miles on foot, carrying as her only possessions a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map.  She was entirely dependent on the kindness of others to keep going; everything she received in the way of food, drink and shelter was freely given.  She never asked for anything.

Wow, right?

Anyway, 28 years after her death, young Daryl Watson heard Norman's story and decided he'd just found his purpose in life.  He was going to become the world's new Peace Pilgrim.  He chucked his career in children's television, sold off all his belongings and cashed out his savings account.  Every bridge connecting him to the life he knew was dismantled; Watson not only tore up his driver's license, the aspiring playwright erased every play he had written in the last eight years.

Before he set off from Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware for San Francisco, California --- a trip he estimated would take him around six months to complete --- he created a blog site dedicated to his journey and emailed a very public goodbye to all his friends and loved ones, explaining as best he could what he was about to do and why.  He then started walking . . .

. . . and gave the whole thing up three days later.

Here's how Watson describes what happened just after he'd crossed into the state of Maryland, a mere 40 miles into his trip:

". . . I'm tired, I'm hungry, my feet are killing me, I'm really thirsty, I'm freezing. And I saw this billboard. And it said, 'It's OK to make mistakes --- as long as they're new ones.'  And I was like, hmm, I wonder if I made a mistake."

Watson soon decided he had indeed made a mistake and pulled the plug on his grand experiment.  Which meant he had to go back home and start his life all over again, but only after telling all those people to whom he'd bid farewell that the Peace Pilgrim, circa 2009, had fallen just 23 1/2 weeks and 2,880 miles short of duplicating the amazing perambulatory feat of the original.

Talk about humiliation.

The impulse to soldier on, even at the risk of ruining his health or, worse, losing his life, must have been incredible.  How to admit to all those people that you've failed so miserably, so completely?  Wouldn't perishing in the cold almost seem preferable to enduring such mortification?  And consider that what Watson was returning to was nothing less (greater?) than Square One, the giant crater of nothingness --- no job, no home, no earthly possessions --- he'd deliberately made of his existence.

Yet he did what had to be done.  He admitted defeat and reversed his field, saving himself, and all the good works he may very well do in the future, in the process.

I related this story to Erin because I think it beautifully illustrates the lesson I wanted to impart to her, which is that sometimes, the only way to go forward is to stand on the brakes and go back to where you started, no matter the cost to your ego.

I've been working on a short story over the last several weeks that I'm overdue turning in to my editor.  The reason the story's late is that I stopped midway through to rewrite much of what I'd already written, having realized --- or, more to the point, having lost the will to deny --- that the story just flat out wasn't working as it was.  I hated to do it.  I wanted the damn story over with.  But just as Daryl Watson was cosmically advised by a billboard to rethink what he was doing and turn back, I am occasionally the recipient of similar warning messages, and this one told me to bite the bullet, double-back, and fix what was broken in my short story.

It was the right thing to do.  The story works flawlessly now.

When deadlines loom, anything short of forward momentum feels like failure.  But there are times that moving forward, intead of backward, is precisely the wrong approach to take.

I think Erin understands this now, and I suspect the man who once sought to become Peace Pilgrim, ver. 2.0, does as well.

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