In case you miss summer . . .

I tripped over a word usage error while reading a thriller that I’ll call Evil Conspiracy. I sighed and put my Kindle aside. Once I get over my annoyance, I might give the novel another try. Or I might not. Here’s the odd thing, though. Not long ago I encountered the same error in another thriller—call this one Hitman in Love—and winced but kept reading. Why did I abandon one thriller and not the other? The question started me thinking about why readers give up on books. In my experience, it usually comes down to one or more of these reasons.

The writing is incompetent

The author of Evil Conspiracy derailed my reading by using the word discrete where he should have used discreet. Other common usage errors are to confuse phase with faze and to use less rather than fewer to describe discrete (not discreet!) things. Punctuation errors and typos can be just as distracting. Judging from book reviews, some readers will overlook mistakes until they become a constant irritant while others abandon a book after one or two typos. I fall into the first category—as long as the writer is doing other things right.

. . . here’s a little reminder.

The error in Hitman in Love appeared later in the story when I felt involved with the characters and wanted to know what would happen. Up to that point, the prose had been clean, and the writing had style. Clunky prose bothers me intensely. No matter how good the story, I reach the point where I cannot face another clumsy sentence.

Readers are less likely to tolerate an incoherent narrative, poor pacing, stilted dialogue, or unbelievable characters because these weaknesses prevent them from getting into the story in the first place.

Several months ago I committed to reading a political thriller. Let’s call this one Thugs in High Office. It ran over 700 pages, but the opening scene was so compelling I figured the length would be no problem. Unfortunately, the pace slowed and then dragged, weighed down by flashbacks that went on too long and had a tenuous connection to the plot. Most were devoted to a character whose colorful past interested the author more than it interested me. I plowed on past page 400, figuring the backstory would end as the plot moved toward the climax. But no. When the story sank into yet another flashback I stopped reading.

The writing is too complex or unconventional

Books can be difficult not because of incompetent writing but because of a complex prose style or complex narrative techniques. These qualities put off readers who don’t understand them or who would rather be entertained than challenged.

Readers are kind of like hummingbirds . . .

Unsophisticated readers confuse complexity with incompetence. I once came across a reader review complaining about run-on sentences in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin. Tolkien was a superb linguist, the inventor of languages with highly complex grammar. He knew how to write a sentence. This reviewer had no idea what she was talking about. A run-on is a grammatical construction in which two independent clauses are joined without a conjunction or proper punctuation. It’s not any sentence that “runs on” longer than the reader thinks it should.

Frequent shifts in point of view and convoluted narratives can also discourage readers. I like telling a story from the perspectives of multiple characters—not head-hopping but changing point of view from one section to another—and enjoy the work of writers who take chances with point of view. But I can understand why some readers would rather settle upon one character and stay with that character throughout the story. These readers will never be fans of my books.

. . . flitting from blossom to blossom.

Once upon a time I had an agent. He took me to meet an editor who said my novel was half literary and half commercial. She suggested making it more commercial if I wanted to interest a major publisher like the one she worked for. I tried to change my writing and found I couldn’t. In the end, I published the novel myself. I suspect the editor was right. With a more commercial style it would find a wider readership.

I’m not suggesting writers should ‘dumb down’ their writing, just pointing out that complexity turns some readers off. And I’m not implying those readers are stupid. Maybe they just want to relax with a novel, not recall their college days of writing essays in Introduction to Literature.

I hope the little guy made it to his winter home.

The same goes for experimental writing. Formal innovation, meta fiction, stream of consciousness—inventions that define modern fiction—require more attention than many readers care to give. My writing is conventional, but I owe a great debt to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and others. If I hadn’t read their work I would have sadly limited idea of what a story is.

The material is offensive

Considering how many readers loathe profanity, I wish my characters would quit using the F word. Why can’t they be satisfied with “phooey” or “drat”? It’s my fault. I create them from my experience, and I’ve known too many people with potty mouths. I do wonder about readers who choose stories about cops and hardened criminals and expect them to say “Go jump in a lake” instead of “Go fuck yourself.”

But profanity gives minor offense compared to graphic scenes of sex or violence, or depictions of racial hatred and other ugly aspects of human nature. As long as darkness exists in the world it will find a home in the imaginations of some writers. I’m one of them. Still, I understand when readers choose not to subject themselves to stories that are ugly or depressing. I threw up in the middle of Naked Lunch and finished it anyway, but others might sanely choose to spare their stomachs further distress.

The book’s worldview is incompatible with the reader’s

Everyone understands the world according to his or her own beliefs and experience. When they encounter a book that contradicts their worldview, readers can be angry or baffled. The fiction of Ayn Rand is an obvious example. It inspires some people and infuriates others. Usually the discordance is subtler, but it can still cause readers to abandon a book.

I know many readers love Gone with the Wind, but I couldn’t get past the idea, conveyed without irony, that loss of the genteel Southern way of life was a terrible thing.

A while ago I read a Christian suspense novel that could have been titled Convict Finds God. (Actually, it had a much catchier title.) The story was told well and held my interest for two-thirds of the book, at which point the suspenseful plot was resolved. The rest was devoted to the protagonist’s new life in Christ. I guess this last part would have emotional resonance for religious readers that it didn’t have for me. Oh, I finished the book, but I was bored by the time I turned the last page.

Photos by Joe Heumann

Yet I love The Lord of the Rings, a novel steeped in Tolkien’s Catholicism despite being set in “a world into which Christ has not yet come.” (I’m pretty sure that phrase is Tolkien’s, but I can’t remember where I read it. If you can help me out here, I would appreciate it.) Great novels create a reality so complete that readers abandon their own and—at least while the story lasts—live in the one the writer has made. This transcendence is what I love most about reading fiction.

Every time a reader picks up a work of fiction, the magic either happens or not. And the reasons are as individual as the person holding the book. Or e-reader.

I love novels in a series. With each book you get to know the characters and their world a little better until they become like friends and you can hardly wait until your next visit. With the debut of Jim Giammatteo’s A Bullet for Carlos, I’ve discovered a new friend in Brooklyn cop Connie Gianelli.

Connie has a starkly divided life. A single woman with a job that leaves her no time for a social life, she lives alone with her cat Hotshot, rescued from a crack house. She frets over her loneliness and yearns to marry and raise children. The trouble is, she’s committed to being a cop, a career she chose because of her uncle, mobster Dominic Mangini. She loves him but detests what he does. Both her parents are dead; Dominic is like her father. He has impressed on her the importance of family. “La famiglia é tutto,” he tells her. Family is everything.

Her job places them both in a difficult position. Connie’s fellow cops assume she’s dirty because of her family associations. She isn’t, but her integrity is always in question. She understands that as a cop there is a line she cannot cross. But what happens if she comes up against that line? Will she do her job or remain loyal to her family? For obvious reasons, Dominic wishes she would leave the police. Since she refuses, he does what it takes to protect her.

As the story begins, Connie and two other cops are ambushed during a drug buy. They have no backup. Previous buys have been sabotaged by leaks from the department, so plans for this one are closely guarded. But the dealers know about it anyway. Connie finds herself trapped in an alley, outgunned, with two dead partners. She can either call for help or die. She knows the police won’t arrive in time, so she calls Dominic. He sends a lieutenant with men who kill the dealers and recover the cash the cops have brought to the buy. But no drugs are found. Maybe the mobsters took them—although Dominic forbade it—or maybe the dealers never brought any drugs since they planned an ambush. Anyway, suspicion falls on Connie. Questions arise about how she survived the ambush. To clear her name, she must uncover the real leak. That means investigating the Mexican cartel running the drugs. Both her superiors and Dominic order her to leave the cartel to them, but under the pretense of investigating a cold murder case, she travels to Texas, where she tracks a sadistic serial killer and faces the ruthless cartel leader who wants her dead.

The intricate plot converges neatly without feeling contrived. Giammatteo moves skillfully between Connie’s first-person account and omniscient third-person narration. Connie’s compelling voice centers the story on her. She’s a wonderful character—sensitive, tough, and honest with herself. When she begins working with flamboyant Texas cop Tip Denton, readers might expect the conventional romance to blossom, but Giammatteo gives them something truer. A friendship based on affection and respect.

The story contains some profanity and violence. It would hardly be realistic otherwise. If you enjoy hard-edged crime fiction, A Bullet for Carlos will keep you riveted. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be looking forward to the next Connie Gianelli novel.

For a limited time, A Bullet for Carlos is available as an ebook for only $2.99.

 

Giacomo and Slick

About the author:

Giacomo grew up in a large Italian family in the Northeast. No one had money, so for entertainment he and his family played board games and told stories. He loved the city—the noise, the people—but it was the storytelling most of all that stuck with him.

Now Giacomo and his wife live in Texas, where they run an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.” Sometimes he misses the early days, but not much. Now he enjoys the solitude and the noise of the animals.

Connect with Giacomo on his Web site.

A month ago I posted an essay on second-person point of view and its ambiguity and rarity in fiction—especially genre fiction. Thanks to that post, I learned about a crime thriller, Bigger Than Jesus by Robert Chazz Chute, in which the protagonist, a hitman, narrates the story entirely in second person. The concept interested me. I wondered if the author could sustain the narration for two hundred or more pages. He does. Bigger Than Jesus is a stylish thriller with a likable antihero and an engrossing story.

Jesus Salvador Umberto Luis Diaz works as a hitman for the mob, but he’s not a sociopath. Just a former soldier without job training for anything else. He performs his duties because he has no choice. His goal is to acquire the money his latest victim stole from the mob so he can escape to Florida with his girlfriend. The trouble is, he finds himself embroiled in an internal struggle for power—a Machiavellian game in which he is merely a pawn. Jesus’ greatest talent is the ability to talk his way out of dangerous situations. He faces quite a few of them. The more he’s forced to lie, the more urgent it becomes for him to find the money before the lies catch up with him.

A Cuban émigré who came to the United States illegally, Jesus relates his horrific childhood experiences in flashbacks that might have slowed the story if they were less adroitly done. Instead they give a deeper understanding of Jesus and his motives while telling a gripping story of their own. As with the main story line, Chute’s pacing is perfect.

The second person narration feels natural from the first page. After a while I stopped noticing. The second person is essential to Jesus’ character and the way he relates to himself. Jesus aspires to be a ninja, quicker and craftier than the other players. After setting up an elaborate ambush, only to get bushwhacked, he comments, “You aren’t a smart ninja.” In first person, the remark would be an admission of incompetence. Spoken to himself, it becomes the humorous jeer of a spectator.

Near the end, the author presents the reason why Jesus thinks in second person. It ought to be unnecessary. The reason occurred to me earlier in the story, and anyway the narrative voice works beautifully and needs no justification. But I can guess why Chute does it. Some readers might be annoyed or unsettled by the strangeness of second person, so he explains. If these readers hang in there long enough to reach the explanation, it ought to satisfy them.

With Bigger Than Jesus, Robert Chazz Chute proves that genre fiction can be inventive and unconventional in its use of language while delivering a suspenseful story. I look forward to the sequel and the further adventures of Jesus.

Today it’s my pleasure to interview Ricki Wilson, an independent author and professional educator from Oklahoma. Growing up among genuine cowboys, Ricki learned at an early age to appreciate the true value of a good horse and a faithful dog. Maggie’s Fall, Wilson’s first novel, is a tribute to both. The Kindle Book Review describes Maggie’s Fall as “A true-to-life family saga set in the contemporary west that is both endearing and well written.”

Hi Ricki. Thank you for being here today.

Thank you for inviting me. I’m honored.

It’s rare today to find an author who does nothing but write for a living. Do you have a day job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life? Have they influenced/inspired your writing?

I am a professional educator. I teach English in a public high school by day, and I teach Composition and American Literature in a local junior college in the evenings. I am currently teaching 5 days and 4 nights a week and spending my weekends grading and planning. This schedule is leaving me no time for writing, a situation I intend to rectify at the first opportunity. I love teaching, and I don’t want to give it up, but in my dream world, I would write full-time and teach part-time.

 What compelled you to write your first book?

Some people paint, some crochet, or bake, or play golf; I write—often for the same reasons that I read, to escape, to discover something beyond my physical world. Writing Maggie’s Fall began as an experiment to see if I could create the reading experience from the other side, to see if I could record a story as I was imagining it. The process was arduous and exhilarating in equal measure. Following the age-old adage to “write what you know,” I chose familiar subjects (stray dogs, horses, and cowboys) and wove them into a story.

I loved Maggie’s Fall. The characters are so sympathetic and true to life, and life on a horse ranch is shown so memorably. Tell us briefly about your book.

Maggie’s Fall is about Maggie McClellan, a single and single-minded woman whose sole purpose in life is to protect the M-Bar Ranch and the M-Bar Ranch family: her son, T.J., Martha and Jonah (who have lived on the ranch as long as Maggie), the M-Bar horses, and one stray dog who knows all Maggie’s sorrows.

Maggie is smart. She knows how to run a ranch and how to keep her guests happy; she knows when to stay out of Martha’s kitchen and not to leave Jonah’s tools lying around; she knows how to soothe a frightened colt, and that T.J. worries too much for a little boy, but she doesn’t know how to stop an anonymous investor from buying out her leases. Maggie will not lose everything her parents built. Saving the M-Bar is the only way to keep her parents’ memory alive. When the pressure of holding everything together weighs too heavily, Maggie breaks a long-standing rule: she rides off alone across the M-Bar pastures without telling anyone where she’s going.

Witt McCreigh has been Maggie’s best friend her whole life. When Maggie never returns to the ranch, Witt saddles Maggie’s best mare, abandons the formal search party, and follows his heart. Witt rides with one hope—to find Maggie alive, and one regret—that he has never told her how much he loves her.

What are you working on at the moment?

 I am working on the sequel to Maggie’s Fall when I can make the time to write. Around mid-summer, I thought I was close to being finished, but when I stopped to re-read, I realized that I had not put my best voice on paper. I trashed 201 pages and started over. I would rather delay publication of the sequel than insult readers with a mediocre effort.

Do you have a favorite character? Why is s/he your favorite?

I do not have a favorite character from Maggie’s Fall; I love them all. However, I do have a least favorite character, Bronc Weller. It’s a very odd feeling to create a despicable character, but I had fun doing so.

If you could live in one of your books, which one would you live in?

There are elements of Maggie’s Fall that I would like to experience, such as the warmer winters of West Texas, or having the opportunity to be around my horses all the time. I guess I do create settings that hold appeal for me. I have two novels in their infancy. Once centers around the drag racing scene and the other is set in a farming community. I have a weakness for old hot rods, so that would be fun, and I already live in a small farming community, so I know the joys of small-town life firsthand.

The main characters of your stories—do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?

 I’m sure this will seem like an odd answer, but I don’t feel as if there is any part of me in my writing. Other than being the writer, I simply don’t factor in. I am an omniscient writer, in that I watch the story play out and I record what I imagine, but I do not play a part in the story. I’m always hopeful that I’ll find a way to better explain this.

When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?

 The first “big book” that I remember reading was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. If memory serves, I was in the second grade. I still have the book. I have always been an avid reader. In elementary school I read Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, The Black Stallion series—one of my favorites was Cinchfoot (another horse story). I read Gone with the Wind in the sixth grade. I’m sure I didn’t grasp it, but I remember the feeling of being swept away in the saga. I discovered Vonnegut in high school, and I was blown away.

What about now: who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?

 Discovering the literary canon fueled my addiction for words. I can now barely read anything without a pen in my hand for recording quick annotations (I love the “notes” feature on e-readers.), and, for me, The Great Gatsby is the finest novel in existence.

My reading tastes have become far more eclectic in recent years, and I try to divide my reading time between pleasure reading and literary fiction. Because I began Maggie’s Fall as a pleasure writing experience, I wrote it to be in the pleasure reading category; however, I would love to attempt a work of literary fiction one day.

It’s always difficult for me to choose one favorite (with the exception of Gatsby), but literary works I treasure include Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Martel’s Life of Pi, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and, more recently, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

On the other side of the fiction coin, I’ll read just about anything (except blatant erotica). I often read a book at a student’s request (The Book Thief, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) or a friend’s recommendation (Stephanie Plum), but lately I’ve been finding some great reads through my Indie Author connections. Your work, Talion, is at the top of my list, along with the John Reeves novels by Kirkus MacGowan, the Olivia Hart series by Alana Siegel, LiaFairchild’s In Search of Lucy, and one book I really liked that’s not getting much notice is Stephen Shea’s The Not So Simple Life. I have no shame in admitting that I practically inhaled the Twilight series, and while I’m neither Team Jacob nor Team Edward, I am most definitely Team Stephenie. I had students in my classroom who had previously read nothing longer than a Facebook status and they were devouring the series. For that, I say “Thank you, Ms. Meyer!” In writing these lists, I fear that I’ve been disloyal in my forgetfulness. I have a list of books on Goodreads .

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

 I would advise those who aspire to publish to be avid readers, to educate themselves about the current and ever-changing trends in the publishing field, and to prepare themselves for the reality that the writing is the easiest part. A year ago I never would have dreamed that I would have to build a dedicated Facebook page, that I would need to be on Twitter, that I would need to develop a website — all for the purposes of promoting Maggie’s Fall and making contacts. I am no good at self-promotion, and I don’t enjoy it, but it hasn’t been all bad. Indie authors are extremely generous in helping one another, and, thanks to social networking, I’ve been helped along my way by those more experienced. Because I abhor promoting myself, I choose to promote my fellow Indie authors through my blog, Indie Spotlight.

Where can readers buy Maggie’s Fall and connect with you online?

Maggie’s Fall is available for Kindle, Kindle apps, and in paperback from Amazon and Amazon UK.

Maggie’s Fall is also available from: Barnes and Noble,  Smashwords, and iTunes.

I welcome readers and fellow authors to join me on Facebook and Twitter.

My website celebrates Maggie’s Fall, and my blog, Indie Spotlight features Indie Authors. Any author who would like to be showcased can find the details on my website.

 

Recently I happened on an article in the online edition of Forbes magazine: “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books – And That’s a Good Thing.” The author, David Vinjamuri, assesses the conflict between traditional and Indie publishing and predicts both will survive, even thrive. Vinjamuri begins by quoting two well-known authors who speak of Indies with smugness and disdain.

Brad Thor, a writer of techno-thrillers, declares that publishers “separate the wheat from the chaff” and that any “good writer with a great book . . . should be able to get a publishing contract.” I’ve never read this guy’s novels. Maybe he’s good. But I disagree that landing a contract with a big publishing house proves his or any writer’s excellence. I’ve encountered plenty of bad writing in novels issued by major presses.

Reading Tami Hoag’s Ashes to Ashes, I came upon an expository passage crudely borrowed from sources I recognized from my research into serial killers. It’s not plagiarized. Just partly digested and vomited onto the page. Okay, so Hoag was concentrating on plot and character development and left some crappy writing in the manuscript she sent off to her publisher. Where was her editor? Indie authors are exhorted to hire a professional editor lest their books seem amateurish. Let’s hope they find someone better than whoever applied the final coat of polish to Ashes to Ashes.

Maybe the editing was rushed to meet a publication schedule.

Bestselling authors are expected to write a book every year or so. Otherwise readers might abandon the brand and start reading some other author. Charlaine Harris, an author whose writing has given me delight, has been producing a Sookie Stackhouse book about every year. I’ve read all of them through Dead in the Family. Another has been published since then. Or maybe two. I’ve stopped caring. So have many fans, who find the plots lackluster and become frustrated by the lack of coherence in the story from one book to the next.

Harris’s publisher makes a lot of money from her novels. Maybe the people in charge figure her fans will buy them anyway, so there’s no longer any need for quality.

Commercial publishers are in business to make money. Nothing wrong with that. But the profit motive doesn’t necessarily foster literary excellence. Vinjamuri brings up the famous example of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel rejected because Toole refused to make changes that an editor thought would render the novel more commercial. Later, Walker Percy championed the novel. It was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. Having the right connections helps. There are elements of luck and timing in literary success.

You wouldn’t know it, though, reading Sue Grafton’s sneers about Indie authors:

“I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”

Grafton pisses me off for a couple of reasons. First, she makes the broad generalization that every Indie author rushes to publish without mastering the craft of writing. Granted, much Indie writing is awful. But what is true of many (or even most) doesn’t hold for all. As in the process of commercial publication, cream rises. (So does shit, but that’s another story.)

Second, Grafton’s mystery novels aren’t “Carnegie Hall” material either. They’re the well-crafted products of a pedestrian imagination. I don’t want to offend Grafton’s many fans, but her work isn’t as wonderful as she seems to think. Sure, her books deserve to be published. They entertain many, many readers. But so do the novels of Indie authors like Morgan Hannah McDonald and Melissa Foster.

Read Vinjamuri’s article if you want evenhanded analysis of why Indie authors get dismissed while Indie filmmakers and musicians get respect, why the pricing practices of commercial publishers have created problems for them, and the ways publishing could change. As his title suggests, Vinjamuri finds reasons for optimism. It’s heartening to think there might be room for everyone.

 

Last month, I was immersed in the first draft of the sequel to Talion. The story flowed straight from my head onto the page. Sometimes I had no idea what would come next. It just came. Writers understand what I’m talking about, what a blessed state it is. The last thing I wanted was to stop. But a vacation was coming. A vacation I was looking forward to.

I handled the dilemma in the usual way – with self delusion. I resolved to keep writing during the trip. Nothing big, I told myself. An hour or two on the days I wasn’t travelling. Just to keep the novel alive in my head. I packed my iPad and bluetooth keyboard, a notebook and plenty of pens. I lugged this equipment from place to place for eleven days, but – surprise! – I got nothing written. Oh, I jotted down a few impressions, descriptions of place and the like.

But sustained sessions of writing? No way.

I’ve been fooling myself like this for years, forgetting how impractical it is to wedge an hour of writing into days crammed with activity. But more to the point, I forget that on my last dozen vacations I felt no urge whatsoever to write. Vacations are just too much fun – visiting family and friends, exploring places, and indulging in hedonistic pleasures like eating and shopping. Only when the trip ends and I come home do I feel disappointed in myself.

This time, unpacking my keyboard, I felt the usual guilt and dutifully beat myself up. I wasn’t a serious writer, not really dedicated to my craft, and if I never succeeded it was my own fault for not trying harder. Then I stopped. Why was I doing this? I had a great time. I stayed with my nephew and his family in Salt Lake. We celebrated Frontier Days in Cheyenne, went shopping in Denver, and hiked down a mountain in Deer Valley. I took dozens of photos. I went to the places that are the setting of my sequel. That’s research, right?

Maybe a journey demands commitment. Maybe it’s not something I can undertake while part of me stays home, settled into a writing routine. Or maybe I’m fishing for excuses. Anyway, the neglected first draft hasn’t expired during my absence. I touch the keyboard and it awakens like a lover, sleepy and expectant.

 

When I was four, my family lived in Soldier Summit, Utah, a forlorn place high in the Wasatch Mountains. Population two or three dozen people, tops. Our house was heated with a coal stove. It had running water but no indoor toilet. My father had been working as a dispatcher at the railroad station there, but now he’d gone into business in Heber, a small town by most standards but a metropolis compared to Soldier Summit. Heber had an actual grade school where I would begin kindergarten that summer.

In the spring, shortly before we moved, I went outside to play after a rain. Like many storms in the mountains, it came up suddenly, exploded in a downpour, and then dissolved into blue sky. The world looked clean and new. The sage brush on the slope above our house lost its dustiness. Dandelions the size of silver dollars grew in our muddy yard, the fiercest yellow I’d ever seen. Even today I have trouble thinking of dandelions as weeds. They’re cousins to the fabulous blossoms that surrounded me that day.

Rivulets flowed in the rutted path downhill, so full of sunshine it hurt my eyes. But I looked anyway. I couldn’t stop looking. A feeling welled inside me — deeper than happiness, sharper than excitement. The sunshine was inside me, flowing through me like the bright water, and I was larger than my body. I grew as large as the sky. I thought, I am — something beyond naming that flew away like a bird as I reached for it.

Though I could hardly read yet, I think the writer in me was born then. I’m still reaching with word after word for things unnamed.

 

 

One of my friends received a proposal recently. Not a marriage proposal, more like a plea for help thinly disguised as a business deal.

Fame Awaits

She’s an accomplished writer whose memoir was published by a prestigious academic press. She teaches writing at the university level. A stranger called and asked her to write his memoir. Someone had given him her name. An elderly fellow without much money, he couldn’t afford to pay her, but he knew Hollywood would be interested in his story. She would share the payoff when it was optioned.

I happened to be with my friend when she got the phone call. I listened to her explain that she had too much work to take on his project. She added gently that ghost writers are paid thousands of dollars to do what he was asking. The possibility of a Hollywood payoff wasn’t enough.

Why not write the story himself, she suggested. There were local writing groups that cost nothing to join. He swept the idea aside. Transportation was a problem for him, and anyway he just wanted to someone to put his story on paper. It was a tremendous story. Hollywood would snap it up.

The man kept ignoring her tactful refusals, so it took her awhile to get off the phone.

My first reaction is disdainful amusement. How could anyone be that naive? And nervy—to think an accomplished writer would spend hours and hours of hard work for the chance to share his pipe dream.

Some people.

Then empathy kicks in. Here’s a person whose story will never be told because he lacks energy and resources. I imagine him living in some ramshackle house in the country, dreaming of Hollywood. Poor and elderly and maybe sick, he has asked for help. I feel sorry for him, but not sorry enough to offer myself as his ghost writer. Time and energy are too precious. None of us knows for certain how much we have left. The older I get, the more I treasure mine.

Writers face frustration and failure all the time. They work day jobs and forgo a social life to write in the evening. They solicit agents and get perfunctory rejections or no answer at all. Once they find representation, the agent might not put much effort into placing the manuscript, especially if the first few editors show no interest. If the manuscript is accepted, the writer waits a long time for publication and receives little promotional help from the publisher. This process—from querying agents to seeing one’s book in print—takes years.

And seldom does Hollywood notice the book’s existence.

Another Forlorn Place

Writers who decide to go indie have their own set of problems. They become responsible for every aspect of publication—editing, proofreading, layout, cover design and creation, promotion and marking. Only a few writers master all of these tasks well enough to meet professional standards and only a few have the money to pay professionals to do everything. So they produce the sloppy books that give indie authors a bad reputation.

As an indie author, I’ve cheaped out and overestimated what I could do. In some ways I’m ashamed of the first edition of Talion and wish I could make every copy disappear. Instead, they remain out in the world, hard evidence of my ignorance and overconfidence. Like everyone else, I learn from my mistakes and move on.

Seeing the guy with Hollywood dreams from this angle, I’m not so sympathetic. He doesn’t want to create anything. He wants the fame and money that occasionally come from creative work. And he expects someone else to do the work, to spend time and energy on a project likely to fail.

And when it does, he has lost nothing.

On a rainy afternoon Joe and I took a road trip to check out the Walldog event in the nearby town of Arcola. The Walldogs are a group of sign artists who have painted murals on the sides of buildings in towns and cities  all across America. The murals are designed to chronicle people and places of significance to the particular town, so they enhance the town’s character as well as adding artistic beauty.

Arcola Seed Corn Company

The painting was underway during our visit although the artists retreated indoors or under tents when the summer shower became a downpour. We braved the rain to take photos of the works in progress. (So okay, I snapped most of them from inside the car, but we did get wet. Well, damp anyway.) We plan to return once the murals are complete and photograph the completed murals. Meanwhile, here are some of the shots we got.

Every Town Needs at Least One Candy Kitchen

Some murals commemorated historical businesses like the two dedicated to Pfeifer Seed and Arcola Candy Kitchen. One honored Arcola native “Average Joe” Ernst. According to an article from WAND-TV news,

A decorated veteran, Joe is now 88 and watched work on a mural honoring his life.  In 1941, Joe was working in a local restaurant when a group of African Americans came in seeking service.  “Man’s hungry,  I don’t care what color he is, he’s hungry.”  It was in the days of segregation and black Americans could not be served in most eateries.  Joe served those customers and the next day he was fired.  “Oh yeah.  Next morning I came to work and the key wouldn’t fit the doors” Joe told WAND News.

"Average Joe" Ernst, WWII Hero

The African American customers?  It turns out it was the “Queen of Jazz,” singer Ella Fitzgerald and her band.  Joe had no idea who his famous customer was.

The average Joe is a decent guy. So much for my dark and cynical view of the world.

Here are some other Walldog murals in various stages of completion.

Hard at Work

Brightening a Parking Lot

Tribute to the Railroad?

The final mural celebrates Arcola Lawn Rangers, the world-famous lawnmower precision drill team. These guys have marched in hundreds of parades all over the country, including President Obama’s inaugural parade. If you want to know more about this quintessentially American group, check out this video.

But really, their motto says it all.

Motto of the Arcola Lawn Rangers

That's me on the upper left.

On May 31 I retired from the teaching position I held for more than three decades. Last month the English department at Eastern Illinois University had a party for the three of us who were retiring. Actually, the department has two parties every year – at the end of fall and spring semesters – whether anyone retires or not. They’re pot luck affairs, and since many of my colleagues are excellent cooks, I look forward to the food. (And yes, I plan to keep showing up.) The department chairman and his wife host the May party. They have a beautiful house with a large backyard, a lush spread of grass where children can run and play. Because people bring their children, it feels like a family event.

In many ways I yearned for retirement. It meant more time to write and publish books — both my own and those of other authors— through Cantraip Press. More time to blog. More time to play Scrabble and ride my horse. But as the days counted down to the semester’s end, I felt anxiety and sorrow and couldn’t understand why. I wanted to retire! At the party the answer came to me.

I loved teaching in the English department at EIU. Most of the students are a delight, and the world stays fresh when you work with nineteen-year-olds. My colleagues are also friends, better friends than I expected to find in life. I had a schedule that fit my work rhythms and the freedom to design a syllabus that fit my style of teaching. And thanks to our union, a decent salary.

So many people work year after year at jobs they detest, and many others would be grateful for any job at all. I’ve been lucky.

There were generous and thoughtful gifts for us retirees. My colleagues gave me the iPad on which I’m writing this blog and two silver charms that symbolized my two loves, teaching and writing.

Retirement has been good so far, but it’s not without pitfalls. For an introvert and computer junkie like me, social isolation might become a problem. Connecting on Facebook and Twitter is fun, but not the same as interacting with people face to face. And sitting at the computer all day doesn’t make for a full and satisfying life. I’m grateful for my husband, my writing group, and my other good friends. Grateful enough, hopefully, to lift my butt out of the desk chair and spend time with them now and then.

Connected to my penchant for glomming onto the computer is my reluctance to change out of pajamas. Why get dressed, I reason, when nobody sees me except the computer? Oh, and of course my husband, Joe. This habit of mine drives him nuts. He was brought up to believe that naught but worthless slugs lounge through the day in PJs. It’s no use bringing up Proust. Joe will only point out that he’s not married to Proust, he’s married to me, and I should get dressed. NOW! So I put some thought into collecting an at-home wardrobe of pajama-like attire: yoga pants and sweatpants and baggy shorts, oversize T-shirts, and caftans. I even found that mythical garment, the comfortable bra.

But I have no intention of lounging through the day. I have novels to write.

Photo by Casey Sutherland

My thanks to author Cherie Reich for hosting her 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. The contest rules required a story of 300 words or less beginning with the words “lightning flashed.” If you haven’t already read the six finalists and voted for your favorite, please click HERE and then come back!

I signed up for the event in a burst of enthusiasm and immediately had misgivings. Flash fiction isn’t one of my strengths. Long ago I wrote a three-page story that a snarky colleague described as “a tour de force without the force.” The guy was an asshole, and not only because of his snipe at my story, but it still hurt.

As May 21 neared, I considered not posting any story. With so many other entries, who would miss mine?

But entering an event and then blowing it off would make me a flake. A flake is worse than any kind of loser. So I wrote a story about a woman who kills her lover and spent quite a while trimming it to 300 words. The result was “Lorelei.” After posting it, I began hopping from blog to blog and quickly realized “Lorelei” wasn’t going to win the contest or even make the finals. My competitors were good writers, and most of them understood better than me what flash fiction is.

Participating has taught me something about the form.

First of all, a flash fiction piece should tell a story with some kind of conflict and resolution. “Lorelei” does that. But the conflict is presented indirectly through the dreams of a mentally disturbed narrator, which makes it less immediate and dramatic. Second — and here’s the hard part — the story should fit the form. In other words, it’s a story that can be told completely in 300 words or less. The six finalists chosen by Reich meet this requirement. “Lorelei” doesn’t. It really needs to be longer.

©juanrvelasco

Along with teaching me more about my craft, the contest has brought readers to my site. More people dropped by to read and comment on “Lorelei” than on any other post. And everyone had kind things to say. Not one snarky comment. Best of all, though, the blogfest has led me to quite a few interesting blogs and talented writers.

My story lost, but I came out a winner.

 

Lightning flashes in the hospital window. The sign it will happen tonight.

They bring a capsule that you tongue against your gums to keep it dry as you suck water through a straw. Alone in the dark, you hide it with the others. Without the capsule you can dream.

His shoulder brushes yours in the motel lounge. The swimming pool sparkles without end. He climbs on the bar and executes an elegant dive. You follow, butterflying in the blue water. As you reach for him, he turns on you with a demon grin. You spin away from him, cocooned in water, unable to call his name.

You perch on a rock overlooking the sea, emblematic, like a woman on a vodka label, smearing your breasts with lipstick. And shriek with joy, knowing he will come.

You drink with him in smiling communion. The goblets, the table, everything is made of glass. Shattered by his laughter, it cuts you to pieces. You kneel on the hotel bed. The mattress is a shallow bowl brimming with lotions and cosmetics mixed in a lurid soup. You plunge in the bowl and begin to swim and then realize you’re covered in blood. Even in sleep you feel it, sticky on your skin.

You crushed his skull with a lamp, they say. In your rage you smashed his face to pulp. They say you had a motive, as if you understood what that is. But you’re not guilty, only broken.

You tremble between sheets that nothing can soil or soften, that contain all kinds of suffering and death. The time has come. No more dreams, no more storms, no more addictions or pride. While the nurse works her Sudoku and the stomach pump stands helpless, you’ll swallow the capsules and set yourself free.

 

“Lorelei” is my entry in Cherie Reich’s 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. To read the other entries, please click here.