Thursday, November 7, 2013

Advice and Laughs from Slushpile Hell

I love the Slushpile Hell website.

Once a week, the anonymous book agent who's site it is posts part of an epically awful query he has received, along with the snarky comment he'd like to have sent back. There are plenty of sites that tell you how to write a query. (I recommend Query Shark, knowledgeable, sharp and funny.) Slushpile Hell is a weekly laugh and an example of what not to do. Ever.

It's amazing – just amazing – how clueless some would-be authors can be, overvaluing their ability or having such a tenuous grasp on reality. It's also surprising how many hopeful writers out there have been told to write their book by God or gods or other divine messengers. Others who seem to think it's the agent's job to give them assignments to write, which will then be sold for millions. ANd it's hard to read without thinking back about your own query and thinking, "I'm not like that, am I?" It can actually be reassuring. "Well, I may not have a publisher yet, but at least I'm not like thatguy!"

Here's a couple of examples from Slushpile Hell over the years.

Please. Please turn my novels into money. I possess a supreme talent. And I am no fool; I see how this has to be. With the right team behind me I could revolutionize literature and show consumers how there is still such a thing as soul in this soulless nation.
I, too, possess a supreme talent. I am able to read dozens of ill-conceived query letters each week without my head bursting into flames.

The significance of this book is that Angels dictated it to me. I am able to “hear” and write the words that are relayed to me by listening internally. This book is based on channeled Angelic insight and has significant relevance to the people of the world.

Please read my work. It will be the next great explosion.
I’ve read it. Explosion is precisely the word that comes to mind.

Every agent I’ve encountered thus far has been a complete idiot. Let’s see if you can prove you’re different by representing me and my book.
Stop. Your seductive charm is making me feel woozy.

And he occasionally has contests that are fun, and sometimes posts short lists of "advice." And anyone who actually needs the advice he offers needs a lot more than that. I'm thinking heavy medication is in order.

Publishing Tip of the Day!

5 things you may not want to say to an agent at a writers’ conference:
  1. "You look a lot thinner on your web site."
  2. "How are your kids doing? It was so cute how they surprised you with waffles for breakfast last Saturday. At least I think it was waffles, it was hard to tell from outside your window." 
  3. "Is it true that agents are just frustrated writers?" 
  4. "You know, you and I are the same blood type." 
  5. "I’d like to share an important message with you from the Book of Mormon."

Publishing Tip of the Day!
3 things to leave out of your query package:
  1. A picture of you on a Harley, shirtless (you know who you are)
  2. A broken-heart necklace, with your name engraved on one half and a photo of yourself wearing the other half (engraved, of course, with the agent’s name)
  3. One of these toad-skinned purses:

WIP UPDATE: 961 words on Wednesday, just missed my quota. But it's going in a good place. I was happy with the day's work. I was even happier with the idea that hit me last night during dinner that I think resolves a potential problem I saw coming down the line and makes the whole thing a lot more interesting. In a way, Tori pointed out, this almost makes Brainiac Kapow a superhero. I definitely thinks it makes him more interesting.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writing Advice for the Kids

Buy lotto tickets. If you don't win, you still have a little piece of paper. You can use that little slip of paper as a bookmark, and/or to take notes on. Reading and writing is always good advice for any fledgling author.
        Pseudonymous Bosch

Pseudonymous Bosch is the pen name of the author of The Secret Series, a five-book young adult series that breaks most of the rules but succeeds wildly because it knows and understands the one secret (a key word in the series) of novel writing – know your audience and entertain them.

The title of the first book in the series is The Name of This Book is Secret. The author spends the first 15 to 20 pages telling the readers NOT to read the book. It's too dangerous. He's not going to tell reveal the name of the city the story happens in, or the name of the school, or even the name of the characters, because the readers might figure out where it happened and that information could prove fatal.

They're five amazing mystery adventures in which three middle school kids do battle with a worldwide conspiracy that will stop at nothing – Nothing! – in their quest for the secret to everlasting life. The stories are wild, completely implausible, unpredictable. Kids love them.

He interrupts the stories repeatedly with asides, footnotes, digressions and, at one point a five-page comic book showing him writing the novels by dictating them to a pet rabbit while his cat offers sarcastic commentary. He also has suggestions for how to disguise your copies of the book so people won't know you're reading them.

The author also has a website, which is not surprising, called The Name of This Website Is Secret, in which he maintains that he is not the person who has been identified as the author, that the real Pseudonymous Bosch is in hiding in a cave or the rain forest, he won't say which, and that the person going around doing book signings, appearing at middle schools and at writing conferences and workshops claiming to be Pseudonymous Bosch is actually an impostor.

He warns his fans in the UK that bookstores there are about to do a special promotion, selling the five volumes of the series at an amazing discount, which could be disastrous because more people would have them, and urges his readers to rush to their bookstores and buy up all the copies before they get into wider distribution.

The bit of advice to young writers at the top of this post came from the site, part of a longer discussion in which he advises readers that the three rules of fiction writing are "Lie, Cheat and Steal." And makes the case.

Pseudonymous Bosch knows kids. Knows the kind of story they like, knows what makes them laugh, what catches their attention, what keeps them turning pages. The whole thing is a joke – and he and his young readers are both in on it, them against the world.

It works.

WIP UPDATE – Tuesday's total, 1,037 words. Total to date, 12,778 words. I just keep following the story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Productive Procrastination

It was an interesting couple of days on Brainiac Kapow, even though I didn't get much actual work done. Sometimes just thinking can be productive.

After a couple of days of knocking out at least a thousand words a day, I got sidetracked, but I think it was useful sidetrackery. I wrote precisely 74 words Sunday, then had work to do for the Source. We also went to the library, where I ended up checking out four middle grade and YA titles. Different styles, different voices, different ways of telling a story. A library card is a vital tool for someone trying to learn the craft of writing.

Monday I took a day off both from the Source and my WIP. I tried to, anyway. Tori and I saw a movie ("Ender's Game," it was OK, but in telescoping the story down, they left out an awful lot of what made the book so good. If you hadn't read it, you'd wonder what all the fuss was about.) I ended up writing one story for the Source late Monday, because somebody had to do it. But mostly it was a relaxing day. I kind of needed that.

But even though I wasn't pounding away on the keyboard, I spent a lot of timing thinking about Who Is Brainiac Kapow? I suspect there's nothing unusual about that. All authors obsess, don't they? (Please sayt yes, that's normal.) I was worried about the tone of the book, is it too serious? Am I telling the story I planned to tell?

This morning when I woke up, all the doubts were gone. Or, may be that's not the right way to put it. I still have questions, but I won't know the answers until I finish the draft. And that's a good feeling. The answer's there, I just have to find it. And there's only one way to do that – straight ahead, keep writing.

WIP UPDATE – 11,750 words after writing the 74 words Sunday. They weren't great words, but they were needed, they added something to the chapter I thought I'd finished. I realized it was the only place for the character Jett to explain how she feels about her real name. They work.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Keeping Things in Perspective

Some great advice this morning at The Kill Zone. A discussion of how to face the harsh realities of the author game without becoming despondent or cynical or throwing your pen across the room and giving up.

It comes down to remembering why you write – because you love it, because you wouldn't do anything else. Because you get caught up in the thrill of discovering a story and exploring the worlds you invent with the characters you create. Not because you're looking for an easy way to get rich. We all hope we will, or at least we hope it'll help us pay the bills. But remember, it ain't easy, and the odds are stacked against us. We all hope we'll be the one. Just don't borrow money from the mob based on your estimate of future writing wealth.

Dream big, but do the math.

He also talks about the luck factor. You can't control luck, but you can tilt those odds in your favor by working hard, learning your craft, being productive, being brutally honest with yourself. Then, when luck saunters by, minding it's own business, you'll be positioned to mug it and rifle its pockets for opportunities.

WIP UPDATE – Saturday was terrific. Wrote 2,551 words, boosting the total of the first draft to 11,667. It was material that I really like, although I have no idea if it will remain in the book. I think it was stuff I needed to know as the author. I'm not sure yet whether the readers will need to know it. But either way, I had fun writing it, so even if in a few months I end up cutting it, it won't have been a waste of time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

No, We're Not There Yet

It's a cliche, but it's true. Put your kids in the car, hit the highway and sometime during the course of the trip, usually within the first 10 minutes if they're my kids – smart alecks all – they'll start chanting, "Are we there yet?"

(Tori and I adopted a defensive measure. Whenever they asked "Are we there yet," no matter where we were on the journey, we'd reply, "About half an hour." It even worked for a while. But that's not the point.)

I am not at the "Are we there yet?" stage in Brainiac Kapow. I'm guessing at close to 10,000 words along that I'm roughly 15 percent, lot of miles to go. I'm still at the "Where are we going?" stage. Kids never ask that in the car, because presumably you told them before you set out.

But right now I'm really surprised by where I am. I thought I knew exactly where the story was going when we got in the car. But that's not where we're headed, as near as I can tell.

Don't get me wrong. I'm liking what I've got. I've got some good characters, I'm handling the POV shifts well (I think I am, anyway.) It's an interesting story. But it's subtly different than what I thought I had when I started, and I suspect the difference will grow as we move farther along the road. I also suspect some of this is the kind of background that I need to know to write the story, but I'm not sure yet if the reader needs to know.

It's interesting, that's for sure. I'm really eager to find out where we're headed. And maybe that's the point. It's the first draft. If I don't like it, there's always the second draft. It's a capital mistake to stop and go back and try to change it now. Keep fiddling-tweaking-second guessing and you'll never do anything else, just keep polishing those first few chapters. You'll never finish that first draft. You'll never get anywhere.

Maybe it's going in the wrong direction, or maybe this is turning out to be a deeper, better story than I could have imagined. I have no idea yet, and that's the exciting part. I'm not going where I thought I was, but I'm going somewhere.

But I can't say I'm there yet, or even "about half an hour" away. Here's where I am.

WIP UPDATE – Really liked Friday's work, more interesting chapter than I'd thought I was writing. And it was productive: 2,336 words, bringing the total to 9,116.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

It's That Time of Year Again

I'm not talking about the holidays – Halloween through New Year, much as I enjoy them. Friday is the start of NaNoWriMo –National Novel Writing Month.

Once again I'm not taking part, but I'm certainly encouraging anyone so inclined to do so.

My daughter Kate, who has successfully done it two years in a row, is ready to go again. She's been thinking about it for more than a month, mulling over the story she wants to tell, the characters, the plot. Tomorrow she'll dive in.

That's what's fun about the idea. Diving in fearlessly.

In a nutshell, you try to complete a 50,000 word story in one month – from Nov. 1 through 30. Personally I'd have picked a 31-day month, but that's me. That means 1,666 words a day, every day, Sunday through Saturday, including Thanksgiving.

Go to their website, there's plenty of tools and groups and advice.

I'm not taking part not because I think the idea is silly. On the contrary. Anything that gets people interested in novels and writing and story telling is good, right? But I've got a work in progress (Who Is Brainiac Kapow?) and I'm already more than 6,000 words into it, so that's hardly fair. And with my work schedule, I can't commit myself to crank out a certain number of words every day. Sometimes I get more than 2,000 down in a day. Then I go a couple of days when I can't block out any time because of reporting or editing for the Source.

I think I'll be finished with the first draft right around the end of November, but I could be off by several months, and why would I want to set myself up to feel failure? I'll finish when I finish, and I'll enjoy the ride without the need for the artificial construct of a month.

Which brings me to:

WIP UPDATE - Wednesday I wrote 1,222 words, a chapter in which I get some of Brainiac's background, and introduce M.O.M. Got some laughs from Tori when she read them. Total is now 6,782.

Doesn't look like I'll be getting much done today, too much running around. But Friday school is out, so I won't have kids to pick up, lunch to make, any of those things. I expect it'll be a good writing day, but I also know that sometimes you just don't know what's coming. It's a little thing called life.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Advice from Papa Hemingway

Saw a good movie recently. No, not the latest mega-hit. We don't get out that often. But I have a library card, and we recently brought home Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

Owen Wilson (actually acting instead of mugging for the camera) is a writer visiting Paris with his bitch of a fiancee in 2010. He ends up going back in time – don't worry about how – to Paris of the 1920s where he meets all kinds of famous literary figures, especially Hemingway who is portrayed brilliantly by an actor I've never heard of – Corey Stoll.

Hemingway in this movie is self-centered and obsessed, but it masks an inner insecurity. He pontificates, almost as if afraid that if he doesn't command attention, he won't exist. His lines are delivered in wonderful, staccato bursts of macho grandiloquence.

Wilson's character tells Hemingway how much he loved his book and Hemingway replies:

"You like my book. It was a good book because it was an honest book. War does that to a man. There's nothing fine or noble about dying in the mud, unless you do it gracefully and then it's not only noble but brave."

Hemingway demands to know what the book Wilson's writing is about and he stammers. Hemingway fires back, "You're too self-effacing. It's not manly! (Slams his fist on the table.) If you're a writer declare yourself the best writer! But you're not as long as I'm around, unless you want to put on the gloves and settle it."

That reads as arrogant, but in delivery it's not. Hemingway just accepts his brilliance as a matter of course and insists everyone else do likewise.

Wilson starts to explain his novel, but becomes self-conscious and says he guesses that sounds terrible. Hemingway fires back, "No subject is terrible if the story is true and the prose is clean and honest and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure." When Wilson asks if he'll read the manuscript, Hemingway says no.

"My opinion is I hate it ... If it's bad I'll hate, and if it's good I'll be envious and hate it all the more."

Hemingway is the only 1920s character who shows up repeatedly, and he's terrific and bombastic every time. Adrien Brody has a great scene as Dali – absolutely hilarious. Kathy Bates is surprisingly unmemorable as Gertrude Stein. Picasso doesn't say anything in English, but his reactions are great. Zelda is a far more interesting character than Scott Fitzgerald, but I suspect that was true in real life. And about halfway through you realize Owen Wilson is doing a spot-on Woody Allen.
In the midst of all the comedy and romance and satire, Hemingway actually says a couple of things that are good advice to writers. The biggest one is when he chides Fitzgerald for squandering his talent, partying and chasing after Zelda when he should be working.

"You're a writer. You need time to write. Not all this fooling around."

Okay, okay, I hear you, Papa. I'll get back to work.

WIP UPDATE – Monday was great, got 2,167 words down that introduced a key character and a little more mystery. Tuesday was slower, only 481 words (I had to work, ended up writing ficve short news items for the Source) but what I got done is good exposition. It's time to take all the threads I've been laying out and start pulling them together, or at least begin to show that at some point they will come together. I also realized last night that a couple of characters and a bit I put in to illustrate something about another character actually have a place later in the novel. Characters will do that. elbow their way in and demand more story time. The two young hoods I assumed I was done with just insisted they become more than background. They're now about to become integral parts of the plot. ALWAYS listen to your characters.

Total word count is now 6,127, not bad considering I'm still pretty early in the going.

Monday, October 28, 2013

That's More Like It

Well, that's more like it.

After Friday's flailing around trying to get a handle on the story, followed by Saturday's break for yard work (and I'm still a little sore, but at my age that's pretty much standard) I had a good session working in the WIP Sunday. It was fun, and by the time I was ready to make dinner, I had enough to show Tori. She was enthusiastic, laughed a few times, said she had no suggestions, and asked the only real question a writer wants to here: "And then what happens?"

Fortunately, I have a pretty clear idea of what comes next. Having three chapte4rs of setup, with mystery, danger, some villains and an ass-kicking, it's time for a little exposition and filling in the intentional blanks. And I know exactly how I want to do that. It's time for the brothers to have a discussion, followed by mother's announcement. That'll establish their relationship, suggest the older brother's problem, and set up the next problem for them to deal with.

I've also got these, for want of a better word, interludes. Something I'm trying to give the story a little more scope. Haven't tried them since the recurring dreams in Chance, and I'm still not sure how well they worked there. It's all part of learning the craft.

So I'm going to have another cup of coffee (or six) and get to work. Have to finish before Monday night football. The Seahawks are playing.

For the record: Sunday I ended up with a healthy 2,130 word count, bringing the total to 3,449. But it's not the number of words, really, that are important. This time I think they're the right ones. And it was fun. Really like the characters.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

WIP Takes Back Seat to Back Yard for a Day

Nothing to report. Saturday was yardwork day, and by the time we were finished, there wasn't much energy left. I had to husband what I had left for working an unusually busy copy editing shot for work.

So I wrote not a syllable on the WIP. Thought about it while pushing the lawn mower through the ankle-breaker of a back yard. Decided the path chosen for the story will work, got a feel for where I go next. But by the time I got back inside, I was done. There would be no writing Saturday.

Hope to have some time this afternoon to push a little farther. But there's nothing new to report, unless thinking counts.

Instead I'll mention that a blogger I follow is releasing a book Monday on how to how to write a novel. I'm not sure the world needs another one of those, but based on his blog, especially what he wrote about the book last week, this may be a good one.

Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent and now author of the "Jacob Wonderbar" series of kids books.

In his post about the upcoming release, he gave a glimpse of the first chapter, and I like what I read. It's a great starting point. I am taking the liberty of quoting him here.

"The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is this: you can do it.

"No, really. You can. Lesser people than you have written a novel. I’m not saying they were all good, but they did it. You can, too! And if you read this book, and apply the rules and advice herein, it will probably be pretty good!

"I spent eight years reading slush as a literary agent at a century-old agency, so I can say this with authority: you can’t possibly go and write the worst novel ever written. It’s already been done. Don’t even try."

That's the kind of encouragement everyone needs, whether they've been at it for years, or are nervously considering their first attempt. So much so that, I m going to stop this, and get to work in the backyard so I can get back to work on "Brainiac Kapow."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Some Days the Bear Gets You

Well that was humbling.

After a great first day, I found myself on day two stumbling and bumbling. Wrote about 600 words, deleted most, tried again. Couldn't come up with anything that worked to get me into the story. Clever? Maybe. But useful? Not at all. So I backed up and tried again. And again.

The problem, I suspected, was that my opening was kind of flashy but didn't get me into the story. Had trouble transitioning. So I started the story in a slightly different place, just a little farther along.

It worked, but I'm not there yet. Took several false starts before I finally got right into the action, in a place that works. By then, the afternoon was over and I had to run around picking people up, dropping them off, the usual.

So my word count isn't impressive. Oh, if you count all the false starts, it's probably good – probably more than 1,000 words. But what I have left after all teh deletions and fiddling, is: 54 words. So what with all the backing up and adjusting and fiddling, the grand (?) total is now slightly LESS than it was the day before: 1,270 words.

But that's better than no words. I'm not happy about it, but at least I kept pushing until I found soemthing that works. And it does work.

Some days you get the bear. Some days the bear gets you. But I'm back at it, a little mauled but pushing on.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Off and Running: A Good First Day

Yesterday's word count – 1,321. So that was a good start, a good first day.

Plus about a thousand words for the Source, and that included having to transcribe six minutes of audio from the governor's office to write a story. So my finger tips were pretty warm by the time I got to bed last night.

Now have to keep up the progress, get a flow going. It's always easier, better, when I get a head of steam up. Then the story just sort of flies out of my head (or whaerever it comes from) and into the computer without my having to think too much about it or belabor things. Those times are the best, when the story is telling itself and all I have to do is write it down, the words piling up.

I can't make it happen, but I can help create the situation by applying my butt to the chair and keep going. Like Ray Bradbury said, eventually quantity turns into quality. So enough of this. Gotta get to work.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Once More into the Breach, Dear Friends!

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

Stephen King, On Writing

And here we go. I'm at the scary moment. I'm going to post this, then I'm going to start writing Who Is Brainiac Kapow? – an adventure for readers roughly middle school age.

I know how the story begins, I know the characters, I kinda know what's going to happen. But of course, they'll surprise me and change my plans, so I can't let myself get married to the plot I think I'm going to be following. At least I sure hope they surprise me. Because if they don't surprise me, they probably won't surprise the readers either, and then what do you have?

So here we go. Same rules as always. Shoot for 1,000 words a day. Don't judge it until I finish the first draft, because it's going to suck. First drafts always suck, everyone's, and that's a gift. Just get it written down, and fix it later. But you can't fix it if you don't write it first.

If it sounds like I'm trying to boost my ego a bit, give myself a "St. Crispin's Day" speech, that's because I am. The question, as I set out, is, can I do it? I mean, sure, I've written three other novels I think are quite good. But can I do it again? When you start the next one, the fact that you've done it before only gets you so far. It is, as Stephen King said, the scariest moment. But as he also said:

"You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Staging a Mystery to Avoid Expectations

I've been thinking about reactions, and first instincts, since I wrote that post Saturday. And about acting. And of course, writing.

I have done a fair amount of amateur acting. If I was any good, I think it was because I learned to ignore my first instinct and look deeper.

There's an adage in acting that applies equally well to writing. "If you're asked to play the devil, find the angel in him. If you're asked to play an angel, find the devil in him." In other words, one-dimensional characters are boring, boring, boring.

In the play Gaslight, the main character is a woman afraid she might be losing her mind. Her husband is solicitous, but seems impatient with her. Then when he goes out, the mysterious stranger comes to visit. He tells her the husband is not who he seems to be, that he may have killed someone in these very rooms, and her worry and possible madness are part of the husband's plot. If the wife – I think her name is Bella. I dare say I could look it up, but that's not the point. Let's just call her Bella – will trust him, the mysterious stranger, do what he says, they'll catch him and solve her trouble.

The tension, the dramatic energy that propels the story, comes from Bella having to decide whether to trust her husband or the mysterious stranger.

Gaslight was a decent old movie with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten. It works mostly because who could possibly believe ill of Joseph Cotten?

But when our theater did the play, with a cast including a couple of really close friends and a guy I hated – but that's a different story – the director (another good friend) went with first instincts. (Spoiler alert!) The husband is the bad guy, so he had the actor lay on the menace and evil. From opening curtain the actor scowled, he threatened, he did all but twirl his mustache. And the mysterious stranger is the good guy, so hey, play him as kind and as trustworthy as Santa Claus, all twinkly. He wasn't so much mysterious as he was cuddly.

And with those two decisions, all the suspense and tension got sucked right out of the play. It wasn't a drama, it was a melodrama. The only worry I had as the play drew to its close was, "What am I going to tell them afterwards?" Because you don't want to walk up to your friends after the performance and say, "Wow. That really sucked. You guys don't get it at all."

I had a similar reaction when I was stage manager of the theater's production of Harvey. The director wanted doors to open by themselves, things to move. It took a lot of effort to convince him that Harvey is not a play about a guy who's best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. It's about a guy who SAYS his friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. That makes all the difference. Before the audience knows for sure, they no longer care. They like Elwood, they want him to be right before they know whether he is or not. In fact, a later production I saw convinced me that it's not even about Elwood. The play is really about his sister, it's the story of a woman with society ambitions whose brother says his best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Excellent question. I guess I'm just warning myself to avoid being obvious. Ambiguity can be a writer's friend, under the right circumstances. As my reader digs into the book, do I want him/her to know everything right away? Of course not!

Give the readers enough information to be able to follow the story and characters they want to follow. Then trust them to figure it out. That Aha! moment is much more exciting and enjoyable than a guided tour where everything is pointed out an explained right from the start.

WIP Update – Had another middle of the night, bolt-from-the-blue idea. This one came a little after 1 a.m. Unfortunately I had left my notebook on the kitchen table, so I had to run out to jot the thought down. Just as well, I wouldn't have wanted to turn on the light and wake up Tori. It was a decent idea, two lines of dialogue that might or might not have a place in the story. But even if they don't fit, they led me this morning to another idea that I really like. It kind of changes the flavor of the story, but it's not bad.

I think I'm ready to start writing it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It Ain't Easy, Even When it Is

Shepherding a novel to publication is like threading a needle. Blind. On a moving train. While you’re being attacked by monkeys with sticks. Good times.

A sobering view from someone who doesn't sound like he's that sober. In a good way.

So – what? – you wanted sugar coating? All he's suggesting is you should be realistic, reminding us that writing is a serious business. People who say, "Oh, if this doesn't work out, I'll write novels," make me crazy. (And I know people who say exactly that.) Some people, for some reason, think it's easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And god knows an awful lot of people try, only to discover to their dismay that the work of writing a book is just that – work.

Does that mean we're all crazy to even harbor the notion? Maybe, but what's wrong with crazy? Writing a novel requires a set of skills that can be learned, but you can't learn anything if you already think you know it all. Just be honest with yourself, understand and accept the odds, keep learning, and do your best. Because that's really all I can do, right? I can't do better than my best.

But if I work at it, my best can become better.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The FIrst Reaction

As a reporter, I have read more than a fair number of police reports, the daily drama of man at his lowest level. And there's one thing I see over and over that always surprises me.

In describing a shooting, the officer will note that the victim heard shots and started running, then realized he had been shot.

He realized he'd been shot? After running? This often is mentioned, even after the victim was shot in the legs. Sitting here safe at my computer, I always think that would be one of the first things you'd notice. "Hey! I've been shot!"

But no. Apparently not. There's fear, the surge of adrenaline, the fight or flight reflex, and your body takes over to get you out of danger. Only at some later point, maybe seconds, maybe minutes, do you stop and realize. "That really hurts. Well look, I seem to be bleeding from a bullet hole! Son of a gun! I've been shot!"

Although those probably aren't the exact words you'd use.

Just something to keep in mind when writing a scene in which a shooting takes place. The first reaction isn't always "Ouch!"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Detour Takes Me Closer to the Starting Point

Digging through the bowels of my hard drive, I came across the first chapter of the book I haven't quite started.

Let me explain.

This WIP (work in progress) has its roots in something that came to me about a year and a half ago. And at the time, I didn't just file the idea away. I actually started it, then got sidetracked because of our move from the island back to the mainland.

I didn't remember what I had written, and when I found it this week I was pleasantly surprised. There is some really good stuff in those two chapters. And I remember where I was going. But I'm not going there anymore. The story is so different now, what I'm envisioning now, than I'm not sure much of it is even usable. The original story doesn't bear much resemblance to to what I'm now planning. A couple of little things, a sassy computer but not much else.

Once I post this I'll begin plotting the book. Obviously, then, I belong to that group of writers who believe in having a plot in hand when I start the actual writing, as opposed to those who create characters, then plunge them into a situation and watch as they thrash around, writing down what they see. That may seems haphazard to me, but it works for successful writers like Stephen King and Anne Lamott.

I don't have the confidence to just jump in that way. If I'm planning a road trip from, say, from my home here in Louisiana to Seattle, I want to make sure I know where Seattle is, and something about the country between here and there. That doesn't mean I'm a slave to the road map any more than I am to the plot. Because the character-driven writers are correct – if you've created characters who are true to themselves, then they'll jump out and surprise you, they'll resist doing things just because the author wants them to. You either listen or you write a crappy book.

I usually end up revising the plot often, as the story progresses. It takes turns I didn't expect, characters do things I hadn't planned, sometimes characters reveal themselves to be very different people than I'd imagined. When I started Scurvy Dogs! I thought one character was a sort of comical background figure. Two thirds of the way through he shouldered me out of the way and revealed himself to be one of the main villains. And a good thing he did, because it makes the story way more interesting than I had planned.

Just because you're planning to drive from Louisiana to Seattle doesn't mean you're going to take the straightest path. You might end up zig zagging across the map to various scenic detours. You might decide Seattle is completely off the itinerary and end up in Los Angeles or even Fort Lauderdale.

And then, of course, you'll change everything again in the later drafts.

So the plot is a framework to make me feel safe setting out, I guess. But by the time the trip is over, that map will be covered with erasures and ink blots and coffee stains. Because no matter where you think you're going, you really don't know until you get there.

What a ride!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scribbling Continues as Story Grows

As I scribble ideas in the notebook (and when I say scribbling, I mean scribbling. See photo of my notebook pages.) the story is turning and changing in my hands, becoming more – more layered, more complex, more detailed. Better. Bigger. Stronger. And, I hope, more interesting and entertaining.

It's exciting, no doubt about that. I have had the thrill – a cliched thrill, true, but still a thrill – of sitting straight up in bed, and grabbing my notebook. Sometimes it's just a word or two, but I know what it means when I look back and see "Fern," or "the janitor." Sometimes it's a sentence or two, even a couple of lines of dialogue. And often an admonition – "Be Funny!"

I don't want it to lose the tone and feel that I originally came up with. I want it to be fun, quick, light. I've got a ton of good background material from my research, and now I have to guard against burying the story under too much details, or too many layers, and lose the carefree spirit that I think will drive the book – and then drive the reader through the book.

That's one of things I have to watch for. I don't want to write "too smart." That sounds horribly egotistical, doesn't it? But it's something I've been warned about more than once and by more than one reader.

Serve the story. That's always the number one maxim, isn't it? Whatever you do, whatever you write, whatever choices you make in the story, always be sure that doing it serves the story.

Almost ready to start writing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Two Important Words – and Four More

Today I live in the heart of Paris. I write full time. Every day I sit at a table and ask myself, what if?
        Daniel Tammet, in the preface to Thinking in Numbers

Those are two great words. Really, they're the writer's stock in trade. Everything we do as writers starts with those two words. What if? And once we get the what if, the next four words are equally important – And then what happens? The rest of it is just so much detail, right?

Tammet is an interesting guy. In his youth he suffered seizures, and was variously described as high-functioning autistic or a person with Asperger's. He is considered one of fewer than a hundred "prodigious savants." He has an extraordinary memory, I think he was the guy who set a record for reciting the digits of pi to more than 29.000 places. He "sees" numbers (each integer between 1 and 10,000 has its own unique color and shape to him.) And unlike most savants, he can describe what he sees, what's going on in his mind, which makes him something like the Rosetta Stone of neurology.

I happen to be reading his collection of essays, Thinking in Numbers, because the character of my new work in progress is such a savant – an 11-year-old who sees math.

I think we've all had the experience once in a great while (too infrequently for me) of mulling over a math problem and suddenly literally seeing the digits of the answer swing into position, like great wheels that fall into place, like your car's odometer when you hit 100,000 miles. For Trammet and for my character, that's how everything is. To them, life IS math. Or not even math, necessarily, as that implies rules and formulas and process. To these guys, numbers are what make up the universe.

So I'm doing research, and that's how I got Trammet's fascinating book. He points out that in some languages, there are different words for numbers depending on what's being counted. He relates asking an Icelander what the word for four was, and the guy rightly replied, "Four what?" Chinese is even worse. Cut a piece of fabric in half and you'd describe it with the word for two flat things like paper. Roll it up and you need the word for two long, snaky cylindrical things. But wrap it up into a ball and you need the work for two round things.

And then there are the Amazon rain forest tribes that lack any word for numbers, or any idea of numbers or counting. Stuff just is.

It's a funny world, but it's the only one we've got.

I'm also rereading Oliver Sacks' fascinating, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Great book. Also a little scary. Sacks is a neurologist who studies cases where things have gone haywire with people's brains, so they suddenly lose the sense of "left," things on the left simply do not exist for them, or aphasia, or develop sudden gaping memory deficits. He's not studying what' the brain is capable of, it's amazing complexity. He's called in when something goes wrong. There's his story of a guy who has no long-term memory, he can only hold a memory for a matter of seconds, so he is constantly, desperately reinventing the world around him to explain to himself where he is,, who he is. 

More often than not, Sacks is able to say what seems to have happened in the patient's brain, but not why, and has to admit there's usually nothing that can be done to correct it. Great book, but frightening.

I've already decided my character is a savant, with a great gift, but also with counterbalancing challenges. Not autistic or even full-blown Asperger's, but he's not good with people, and he'll probably be too literal. This kind of research helps me understand that, a little, and also understand how the world reacts to that.

So as I start pulling the pieces of the story together, I begin creating this character and then I ask, What if ... ?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's Starting to Bubble Again

It's been a month since I finished Scurvy Dogs! and I've been at loose ends, not sure where I'm going next. Done a lot of reading, done a lot of work for the Source, toyed with some ideas. But I didn't do much that was really concrete. It was almost as if I was charging the batteries or something.

But I could feel it growing the last couple of days, and yesterday I pulled out my notebook and started jotting things down. And I'm getting excited. This is going to be a good one.

It's not a pirate story. It's actually a story about a character who jumped into my head, almost full blown, more than a year and a half ago. I wrote about it at the time, and thought then I'd be getting to work on it very soon.

"Ha!" said life. Wrote Scurvy Dogs! instead, and I'm glad I did because it's a damn good book and I learned a lot in the process.

I thought I was going in a different direction, but the more I mulled the last few weeks, the more I realized this is the story I want to tell next. It'll present some new challenges, but I think it'll be fun.

For one thing, it'll be for a slightly younger audience than I've been writing for. I think it'll appeal to the kids who loved the Captain Underpants books and have grown a little, are ready for something a bit more. They're not quite old enough for the Alex Rider books. It's roughly the same audience the fans of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kids books, although my story is nothing like those. Nothing.

The title character for this – and yes, I can definitely see this as a series – is an 11-year-old boy, small for his age, with curly blonde hair, glasses, and a cocky grin that's almost a permanent fixture on his face. He's beyond smart, he's a genius with an intuitive sense of math, but no people skills at all. The fact that he's been promoted into high school, where he's smarter than any of the teachers, doesn't help. He's got two friends, a high school girl who has her own personality issues, and a boy who's been his friend since kindergarten. The friend doesn't have much in common, but he's fiercely loyal, and takes pride in the fact that he's the main character's touchstone with "normal."

Also, it'll be a story with LOT'S of room for killing a dragon in every chapter. And it has some elements I've never tried to work with before, so that's cool.

I know the main character's name – it's the title of the book. Don't know the two friends' names yet. I imagine they'll tell me soon and then I can get to work.

And the story, the adventure is ... Well, I have only a general idea. I've got two or three more days of jotting notes and ideas in the notebook. By the end of the week I will take the notes and start typing them in and organizing them, and will probably begin writing a week or so after that, after I have a general, preliminary idea of the plot.

It's starting to bubble and I'm getting excited about it.

In the meantime – As I mentioned, it's been a month since I finished Scurvy Dogs! Haven't heard from Eddie the Agent yet, other than to acknowledge he's got it. It's nervous time on that front. I know I'm not his only client. I know I'm far – far – from his most important client. Without dropping names, this agency represents some very successful authors, names you know, authors of books you've probably read. So until I can prove I'm one of those guys, I have to take the time he's got left. Because so far I haven't earned a dime for him.

But still, you have these dreams. The one where you send it off by email, the agent gets it and happens to be between meetings or something, with nothing better to do, so he reads the first page or two of your book. He's hooked. He reads more. He cancels his afternoon meeting. He calls you raving, says he knows just who to send this to, with no changes. He calls the next day to tell you that between the book, the sequels and the movie rights, you're rich.

Nice dream. The thing about dreams is, they're great, a lot of fun, and they could come true. But don't waste a lot of time counting on them. Get back to work. That's something concrete.

You either trust your agent or you don't. I do. He's taking care of business, and when it's my turn, I'll be ready. And I'll having something exciting to add to his list.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Three Writers with Four Thoughts on Reading

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
      – Stephen King

(This next one may be my favorite quotation on the subject.)

A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.
      – Mark Twain 

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”       – Stephen King

There are worse crimes than burning books. One is not reading them.
      – Ray Bradbury

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Rude Awakening in the Library Sci-Fi Section

At the library this weekend, I found myself gravitating toward the science fiction section. I have read a lot of sci-fi, but none at all recently. Back in my teens, 20s and 30s I read quite a lot, Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke, A.E. van Vogt and Phillip K. Dick and more. And then – don't ask me why because I don't know – I just sort of stopped.

But I'd been thinking about sci-fi the last couple of weeks. One of the members of the library writers group had submitted a couple of chapters of a piece. It wasn't good for a lot of reasons, and it had me thinking about writers who had handled a similar theme really well, notably Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, which over the years I've read five or six times at least.

There was a particular passage in her piece, a conversation between the disguised alien secretly on earth to observe humans and a woman he meets. The dialogue is just terrible, they talk exactly the same. In any story you ought to be able to tell who is talking by how they talk, and certainly in one where one is a human and the other an extraterrestrial pretending to be human.

"That doesn't make any sense," I thought. "That would only make sense if ..." And it hit me. An idea for a story, a new take on an old theme. At least I think it's new, it's new to me, anyway. So I've been tossing it over in my mind, and that's undoubtedly what led me Sunday to the sci-fi section.

I came home with Stranger in a Strange Land, plus a collection of Dick's stories (Tori and I had recently stayed up late watching Total Recall, and I thought it might be time to read the story it was based on,) and a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl.

First I read the Heinlein, and I was surprised. The things that are good about it are still good – it's a delightfully jaundiced, cynical look at humanity as seen by a complete outsider. Morals, ethics, religion, politics, all are skewered.

But I was surprised by quite a few things. First, the edition I was reading, an Ace paperback printed in 2003, was really badly produced. Lots of missing words and wrong words and typos I'm sure weren't there in the earlier volumes I read. There was a stretch in the middle where there were one or two mistakes on every page. That sort of thing is distracting to the reader

Even more surprising, considering how many times I've read it, was how dated it was. It was published in 1961, so Heinlein write it in the late 1950s, no later than about 1960. And his idea of the near future was to have flying taxis, a colony on Mars and some different names for things that are obviously unchanged – stereovision instead of television, for instance. Other than that, it's still firmly stuck in the 1950s, with telephones still wired to the wall, newspapers, mail only delivered by the Post Office. In this future computers exist but only as giant mainframe number crunchers. Heinlein didn't – couldn't? – foresee the changes in communication that have shaped the world. And just writing that, I get it. He wrote in a time when the ability to move people and things quicker and more efficiently still defined modern. Our devices have changed that formula. Today we carry telephones in our pockets, many of which are more powerful than any computer that existed in 1961. They brought us together without physically moving us, and now the world is very different than that in which Heinlein lived, or that he could imagine.

Even worse was Heinlein's casual acceptance of sexual morality, even as he thought he was satirizing it. The second major character in the book is crotchety old Jubal Harshaw, whose dyspeptic tirades on art, religion, education and pretty much everything else make up the satirical heart of the book. (And don't get me wrong, I still love the character and will continue quoting him.) It's clearly Heinlein himself, thinly disguised, ranting about things that have been bugging him, and feeling all smugly superior for having such avant garde ideas. But he's still stuck in a mid-20th century mindset that has no room for women in anything like a position of authority, even disdain for women who "don't know their place." And though it celebrates the idea of free love and sexual freedom, it's clearly for heterosexuals only. Gay men dismissed several times as pansies, and one character saying she's glad she's not a lesbian, as if she was afraid she might have caught a disease.

But there was something worse, much worse, tossed off so casually I almost missed it, and so shocking it literally made me a little sick. It occurs when Jill is discussing her own sexual awakening and her surprise that that includes a bit of exhibitionism. And she tells Michael that that's not really that abnormal, "In nine out of ten rapes, the woman is at least partially at fault."

I almost threw the book across the room. My stomach did flip flops. I was so disappointed to read that I almost couldn't finish the book. And I still worry about why I hadn't ever noticed that passage before. Did I at one time believe such nonsense? I don't think so. (As a brother with seven sisters, then the father of three girls, I wouldn't have been allowed to believe that even if I was so inclined.) But it was a mindset so pervasive that I might simply have not noticed it in Heinlein's book, because until very recently a lot of people thought that same exact stupid thing.

Let's just remember, for the record, that a) Rape is not about sex. It's about power. b) No means no. c) As we've taught our kids, "maybe" also means no. d) Women have the right to dress however they want without it being construed as an invitation or a come on. Because e) Again, no means no.

Stranger in a Strange Land is still milestone book and worth a read. But I never noticed before how ridiculously dated it was, even when it came out. This is one case where maybe I should have let my memory of the book stand instead of reading it again. My recollection is that Asimov handled the idea of future worlds much better, especially in the Foundation series, which I loved. But do I dare put that to the test, after my disappointment with what I wrongly remembered as a masterpiece? 

I'm hoping for something better from the Clarke/Pohl book, which I just started.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The AP Stylebook – No, the Other One

I've been in journalism, first as a student, then a professional, for more than 40 years now (Ouch! I'm old!) and in that time, the Associated Press Stylebook has become my Bible. Perhaps some day I'll write something about it.

But this time of year, I'm talking about the other AP Stylebook – The Associated Pirates Stylebook.

It's a wee bit shorter than its better known namesake, but on International Talk Like a Pirate Day – every September 19 – it's invaluable.

For instance, the AP Stylebook is adamant on the subject of "Aarrr!" Aarrr is the indispensable pirate growl that has as many meanings as there are ways to say it, with different inflections for piratey delight, anger, disappointment etc. And it is NOT, NOT NOT pronounced or spelled Aarrgh. Aarrr is a pirate affirmation – "I'm here and alive!" Aarrgh is a sound of frustration, pain or disappointment. Aarrgh is the sound you make when you accidentally sit on a belaying pin.

Now, some people, especially Brits and folks on Canada's eastern coast, say "Yarr!" and that's fine. But Aarrgh is definitely NOT alright with pirates.

Aarrr is also a pirate's way of stalling for time, something to say while you're thinking of the correct pirate phrase for something else.Pirates can use "Aarrr" the way a politician used "My fellow Americans."

Cap'n Slappy and I have a video that gives the Five As, the five piratey words that form 
the basic starter kit for talking like a pirate. Ahoy, Avast, Aye, Aye aye and Aarrr. Actually, there's more than two dozen of our pirate videos there. Check 'em out.

You can see what amounts to the AP Stylebook online at our Talk Like a Pirate Day website.

There's a long (alright, too long) history of the holiday, a treasure map ofTalk Like a Pirate Day events going on all over the world, and one of the most complete link pages you'll find in the pirate enthusiast community.

So Thursday make sure to swagger and swashbuckle. It's one day a year to exercise your pirattitude (the attitude of a pirate) and let your inner buccaneer out to play.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I'm Not Worthy

I'm 15 pages into Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan and all I can think is, "What made me think I can write?"

David Green I know. I've read a couple of his books and boy, he knows how to write today's kids. Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are both great YA novels, the kind of book where you feel like you know these kids. If you are that age you want to be those kids, or hang out with them. I'm not familiar with Levithan, but I intend to remedy that in the coming weeks.

My son Max loves Green's work, has read everything by him in the library.

And now, 15 pages into Will Grayson Will Grayson, I suddenly see in a painful flash exactly why I was never able to make headway with my book, The Bones in the Closet. I have a great premise and some really good characters, but that's what they are, characters. The people in Green's books (and probably Levithan's although I don't know yet) are real people. And they write with an abandon I haven't mastered yet, a freedom I frankly am a little intimidated by.

I tell myself, "Well, yeah, but can they write pirate stories?" Because I'm still convinced Scurvy Dogs! is a good book, the one that's going to kick down the door of the publishing world. So I have that over them.

But if I'm going to make a story out of the really good premise for Bones, I've got a lot of work to do.

I've got to raise my game. Because I can write, but I'll have to write better.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Savagely Funny Advice

I've mentioned Chuck Wendig's blog A Terrible Mind before.

He may or may not have good advice when he churns out his weekly "25 Ways To ..." posts. Everyone's process is different, and what works for him might not work for anyone else. But he's always funny. Very, very funny in a savage way.

Savagely funny is good.

This week his column is 25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story. See? Just the title tells you everything you need to know about him.

I wish I'd read this a year ago when I started the final revision of Scurvy Dogs! a task I thought would take a couple of months and which took almost exactly a year (although it is a much, much better book for having done it. Man, I wonder what I was thinking when I wrote half the original story. What crap.)

To give a taste of his style (and it might be the most important thing he says, about being merciless) here's his step no. 5, "Take Notes Like a Terminator."

"Your own notes should be cold. Merciless. Equal parts Follow me if you want to live and Your clothes: give them to me now. No emotion. Just the icy crimson stare of a sociopathic robot hellbent on fixing grievous errors (by driving a car through the front of a police station, if need be). Don’t only use the time to highlight stuff that doesn’t work. Highlight the things that do work, as well — stuff that, to you, counts as components of the story that do what they were designed to do. And okay, fine, if you want to drop the emotionless edit-bot motif for a second, feel free to doodle little happy faces or gold stars or tentacled elder gods giving you a thumbs-up (er, tentacles-up) in the margins to indicate: I’m making a note here — 'HUGE SUCCESS.'"

It goes back to what Arthur Quiller-Couch said – Murder your darlings. Don't fall so in love with your prose that you can't see whether it's doing its job, advancing the story. Anything, no matter how clever, no matter how amusing or beautiful to you, only belongs in the book if it advances the story.

Or, as Sean Connery's character says in Finding Forrester (my favorite movie about writing,) "You write the first draft with your heart. You write the second draft with your head." And what he doesn't add, but maybe should have, is your head has to be clear and cold. The only thing that matters in that revision is what works and what doesn't, and there are no free rides. If it doesn't work, it has to go.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ennui or Irony?

We were at Max's high school last night for open house. It was all fine. It's one of those things I've been doing so long I can't imagine a September without it. Trudging the halls looking for classrooms, meeting teachers, etc.

What made this one special was the banner.

In the gym, there were the usual hand-painted banners on the walls urging the team on. But the one that stood out was the most lackluster exhortation I've ever seen. It's hard to tell whether the cheerleader who came up with it was being ironic, or was just tired.

"Make Them Feel Some Kind of Thing."

Really? Make them feel some kind of thing? Any particular kind of thing, or just some kind of thing? Would jubilation do just as well as anguish? Both are "some kind of thing."

It's a long, long way from "Conan the Barbarian," where Arnold as Conan says that one of the great goods is, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

On the other hand, with the schools reacting and overreacting to the threat of violence, maybe a lot of the old favorites have been ruled inappropriate. What would be the reaction to the crowd at a high school basketball game filling the gym with the chant, "Give 'em the ax the ax the ax!"

Kids today. Grownups today. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

She Did It Again and I'm Done

She did it again.

I wrote a week or so ago about getting the details right. The right details, the little things, bring the reader into your make-believe world, help it feel like a real place. And by the same token, getting them wrong can be jarring, and getting them really wrong can make it almost impossible to enjoy the book, or even finish it.

Well, I'm done with Susan Elia MacNeal and her World War II era mysteries. I love the era, and as I said, the first one wasn't bad, though somewhat predictable. But it contained a howling error towards the end that really shook my appreciation for the story. As a reader, I put her on a short leash, so to speak.

So in her second book in the series, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, she made another huge error, the kind that makes you question everything. And this time, she did it right up front, where it colored my perception of the whole book.

She had a character shot down near Berlin in 1940, after the Battle of Britain. That wasn't a problem. England did launch a few bombing raids on Germany, as if to say, "See? We can do it too."

The problem was that she had the character flying his Spitfire over Germany. Really? How did he pull that off? The Spitfire was obviously the most famous plane in the RAF during the war, arguably among the ten best planes ever built. But it was a short-range fighter, and with the English kicked off the continent after Dunkirk, there were no bases to stage a fighter sortie over Berlin, or any reason to, either.

That's why the bombing raids were so dangerous. They had to fly clear across France and into Germany with no fighter coverage.

If she had written that his Lancaster bomber had been shot down, I'd have believed her instantly. But her insistence on making it a Spitfire, doubtless because it's the most well-remembered plane in the RAF, makes it clear that she just doesn't care about the details. Yes, the Spitfire was an RAF plane. Maybe she thought it was more important that it sound right than that it actually be right. But if she thought that, she was wrong.

And for the record, while the Spitfire was the best plane the British produced, it wasn't flying in great numbers during the Battle of Britain. Historians (who MacNeal would have been wise to consult) credit the pilots in the less advanced but more numerous Hawker Hurricane with turning the tide of the war.

She then compounds the error by repeating it several times during the course of the increasingly improbable story. Then the narrator (omniscient third person) compares the relationship between MI-5 and MI-6 to that between the FBI and CIA, the latter of which didn't exist until 1947. This you could almost forgive, since the narrator isn't part of the story. But throwing in another anachronism just makes it that much harder to buy the story.

And then they get to the submarine. Maggie, her friend David and 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth are kidnapped and taken aboard a U-Boat bound for France. Every detail feels contrived, made up. The author seems to be using a picture in her head of a sub from a Tom Clancy novel, with long passages and a brig and fluorescent lights and a curious lack of crewmen crowded in. They escape by setting a fire in their cell which sets off an automatic sprinkler which forces the sub to surface. They then manage to avoid every member of the crew to get out of the sub, and they're rescued by the Royal Navy.

Good heavens! Didn't the author ever watch Das Boot? I don't know, because I haven't looked it up, but I'd be willing to bet the German U-Boats did not have rooms set aside as brigs, fluorescent lights or automatic sprinklers as described. I don't believe you could walk ten feet through a U-Boat without meeting a lot of sailors.

I don't believe the story, at all.

The climax violates a rule I just read in The Kill Zone mystery writers' blog. "The overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense."

Princess Elizabeth's Spy fails that test completely.

And it's not as if she didn't do any research. I now know more about Windsor Castle and the village of Windsor than I ever wanted or needed to know, and that was before I stopped reading and started skimming. It feels like every single bit of information she picked up from the brochures and web sites ended up in the book. I'll repeat what I've said before. You don't need a mass of details. You need the right details.

Anyway, enough kvetching. If I don't like MacNeal's books, there's a really simple solution – Stop reading them.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

You've Gotta Love Dorothy

I have a new second favorite poem. I am not a fan of poetry, especially most modern poetry which I find to be – let me be blunt – crap.

My all-time favorite poem is Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." It's a family tradition. I can recite the whole thing, so can all seven of my sisters, at the drop of a hat.

But on our wedding anniversary each year, Tori and I go sit under a tree, drink wine, eat bread and I read her romantic poetry. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment," "She walks in beauty like the night ...," "How do I love thee, let me count the ways ..."

The book I used to use is still in storage, so I went to the library last week and got a collection of classic poems. And I found a lot of the good ones. I also found this, by Dorothy Parker, and it immediately jumped to No. 2 on my list.

Indian Summer

In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do.
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.

You've just gotta love it.