I read Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter while doing research for my novel TALION. I’d never seen anyone die—not yet, anyway—and I needed a clinical account of the process. Nuland explains what happens in the body as life ends. In each chapter he covers a different manner of death: heart attack, old age, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, cancer, and so on. He also addresses some of the philosophical issues connected to death and dying.

The book delivered what I needed in the chapter “Murder and Serenity.” When someone is bleeding to death, he goes into shock, his heartbeat ceases, and his muscles spasm in what are known as death agonies. For a few minutes he is “clinically dead,” which means his brain is receiving no oxygen, but with medical intervention he might be revived. Doctors can tell by examining the person whether the effort is likely to succeed. One important clue is the eyes.

If open, [the eyes] are at first glassy and unseeing, but if resuscitation does not commence they will in four or five minutes yield up their sheen and become dulled, as the pupils dilate and forever lose their watchful light. It is as though a thin cloud-gray film has been laid down over each eye . . . . [T]he eyeball soon flattens out, just enough to be noticeable. It is a flatness from which there is no rising. (122-123)

Nuland goes on to discuss the serenity and freedom from pain observed in victims of trauma. When the body is damaged, it produces endorphins, pain-killing chemicals like those in narcotics. He provides several examples of when and how this happens, including soldiers wounded during battle and a child who is murdered.

Though I didn’t use any of Nuland’s material directly, it underlay my accounts of what Rad’s victims endure as he tortures and kills them, forming a base on which my imagination could build.

I didn’t need the other chapters for my research but read them anyway, fascinated by the complexity of the dying process. I learned why my father died of kidney failure even though it was heart failure that put him in the hospital the final time. I learned enough about cancer to suspect my mother had it when fluid accumulated around her lung. The doctor’s diagnosis confirmed my fear.

My mother as a young woman

I noticed a copy of How We Die on the bookshelf in the office of my mother’s oncologist. I doubt it was there because the oncologist needed its medical information; he would have learned all that stuff in school. But the book has more to offer doctors. A physician himself, Nuland questions the wisdom of continuing to treat patients whose illnesses are terminal. In such cases, he argues, treatment often purchases a few extra weeks or months of life at the price of additional suffering.

My mother was such a patient. Chemotherapy would slow the process of her lung cancer but could not cure it. She underwent a few treatments and then decided the trade-off wasn’t worth it. For almost a year afterward she continued to live normally. She and I went to Utah where she visited her sisters a final time. Nuland observes that death seldom comes peacefully, that most of us can expect to suffer in the process. Mom did. Learning how we die has made me less happy, but the knowledge I’ve gained is a trade-off I can accept.

I’ve been tagged by Lania Knight for The Next Big Thing blog hop. Jump over to Lania’s blog and read about her coming-of-age novella, Three Cubic Feet. Then come on back to read about my work in progress.

What is the working title of your book?

Right now it’s Daemon Seer.

It’s the sequel to my paranormal thriller Talion. Lu Jakes, the protagonist, sees spirits invisible to most other people. The most powerful one calls himself Talion. In the first novel the spirits are sometimes helpful and other times sinister. In the sequel their nature becomes clearer.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I wanted  to pick up on the lives of Lu and her friend Lisa ten years after their abduction by serial killer Rad Sanders. Both continue to suffer the aftereffects of that traumatic event.

What genre does the book fall under?

It’s another paranormal thriller. It might be categorized as urban fantasy since the supernatural is more prominent and the story has an urban setting and romantic elements missing from TALION.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version of your book?

Lu: Ellen Page

Lisa: Lindsay Lohan (although she would have to be uglified since Rad destroyed Lisa’s face and plastic surgery failed to restore its beauty).

Ron: Jesse Eisenburg

Galen: Christopher Egan

Grifford Riley a.k.a. Psycho Cop: Ben Foster or Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It has to be somebody scary.

Talion: Orlando Bloom, maybe (transformed by CGI).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Two friends find love and help each other survive.

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agent?

I don’t know yet since I’m still writing, but I published Talion myself.

How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t finished the first draft yet. At the rate I’m going, it should take a few more months. I’m writing much faster now that I have no teaching job.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know. Reviewers have compared Talion to the works of Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and even Henry James. Although I’ve read and enjoyed books by all of those authors, I didn’t set out to imitate any of them. So I’ll let readers decide about Daemon Seer.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was encouraged by readers who wanted a sequel to Talion. And after I finished writing that novel, I continued to think about the characters and imagine what turns their lives might take.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

Like Talion, Daemon Seer takes place mostly in Utah—Salt Lake City, Park City, and the surrounding mountains. The setting and landscape are integral to the story.

I’m supposed to end by posting links to bloggers who will present their Next Best Thing a week from today. Although I know quite a few bloggers and made requests, everyone had either participated already or had no interest. What can I say? No branch keeps growing forever. It seems this particular twig has produced its final leaf.

Still, if you have a blog and you’re working on a book or have recently published one , I would be glad to tag you belatedly. Anyone?

Photos of Page and Egan from Fan Pop. Salt Lake at night from Fotolia.

I’m thrilled and proud to announce that Talion has been listed on  Awesome Indies. Established and administered by Australian author Tahlia Newland, the site accepts only independently published books vetted by a reliable reviewer or industry professional. Newland began Awesome Indies out of frustration with the wildly uneven quality of Indie books. As she frankly puts it, “Some are fantastic, and some are crap.” She notes that reviewers on sites like Amazon often cannot recognize good writing and so their opinions cannot be trusted. She lays out in detail the criteria for inclusion on the site. Her standards are high but not unreasonable: she expects competence and looks for excellence.

I love the democracy of Indie publishing. Anyone with a computer and a few bucks can bring his or her book to market. The downside is that quite a few people publish awful books and critics of self-publishing point to them as examples of the shoddiness of  Indie books in general.

Whatever the faults of traditional publishers, they act as gatekeepers. They publish plenty of mediocre books, but even the worst are edited.  You can count on traditionally published books to be at least coherent (well, most of the time). You might encounter a few typos—but not dozens. You won’t see the frequent clumsy sentences, misspelled and misused words, and grammatical errors too often found in Indie books.  Sites like Awesome Indies give readers a way to discover worthy books that might otherwise be lost in the ocean of dreck.

Please check out the great reads at Awesome Indies and take a moment to click the Like button on their Facebook page.

More news

Talion gets a great review from writer Letitia Moffitt at Paper Darts. Two other noteworthy novels, Lania Knight’s Three Cubic Feet and Jeff Kohmstedt’s The Fifth Kraut are also featured.

 

Many writers, when asked why they write, answer that they must. They feel compelled by some inner need. I am one of these writers, yet I wonder if compulsion is a good enough reason. It explains all kinds of behaviors, some of them unsavory. After all, addicts take drugs because they must. Obsessions are irrational and inconvenient. If writers feel compelled to write, okay, but when they seek publication, they’re implicating readers in their obsession. Why? If they write to satisfy some inner need, why should they look for an audience?

The Czech writer Milan Kundera has an unflattering name for compulsive writers: graphomaniacs. Kundera defines graphomania as “the mania not to create a form but to impose one’s self upon others” (The Art of the Novel). He implies that such writers have nothing of value to offer, and within the context of his argument, maybe they don’t. Very few novels contribute anything new to the art of the novel, and his pessimistic observations about literature and mass culture seem scarily accurate:

The spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow.

Kundera made this observation in the 1980’s, but if anything the Internet has made our present more “expansive and profuse” than ever, and it does seem as though books are published today and gone next month. If writers want fame and a mass readership, it has to be now. But I’m not convinced those are the goals of most writers. Nor can I accept the motive he attributes to those of us who are storytellers rather than ambitious formalists.

It’s not some “grotesque . . . will to power” that motivates me. I practice my art—and yes, create a form, even though it’s not innovative—so I can touch and entertain and connect with readers. Not dominate them. The need for connection is just as strong in human beings as the need for domination. I haven’t got any new stories to tell—there are none—only my individual voice, imagination, and way of seeing the world, whatever they’re worth. And I do want to share them, with one reader or a thousand.

My writing might be “a gesture with no tomorrow,” but it’s here today, for anyone who wants to read.

Note: I wrote this brief essay a few years ago as a guest post for Thoughts in Progress. Since the topic is still relevant, I’m giving it an encore here.

 

I was half asleep when my husband put on one of my favorite CDs, Nude and Rude: The Best of Iggy Pop. You might figure the aural assault of “Search and Destroy” or the pounding beat of “Lust for Life” would wake me up, but I drowsed through both songs. It was Iggy’s haunting and poetic “The Passenger” that brought me to life.

Here let me explain that I’m one of those annoying people who play the same song over and over and over until you want to grab a baseball bat and pound their music-playing equipment into rubble. (Anyone who roomed near me in college, please accept my belated apology.) This mental disorder has somewhat abated now that I’m old, but “The Passenger” is a song I used to play 28 times in a row. I feel a deep psychic connection to this dark song about riding without end through the city at night.

The first stanza goes:

I am the passenger

And I ride and I ride

I ride through the city’s backside

I see the stars come out of the sky

Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky

You know it looks so good tonight

I am the passenger

I stay under glass

I look through my window so bright

I see the stars come out tonight

I see the bright and hollow sky

Over the city’s a rip in the sky

And everything looks good tonight

You don’t know who’s driving the passenger’s car.” A chauffeur? Anyway, the passenger seems unworried about being taken where he doesn’t want to go. Nor is he concerned about danger. “The city’s ripped backside” suggests the bad side of town—vacant buildings, broken windows, vacant and broken people. But he isn’t brushing against any of this damage. He remains “under glass” like something rare and protected, safe behind his window.

“The Passenger” has three stanzas. In the first one the singer is the passenger, but in the second he invites listeners to come along for the ride. “Get in the car,” he says. “We’ll be the passenger.” And in the third stanza the passenger becomes a third-person entity. He has morphed from a person to a way of being in the world.

Under glass, looking through his “window’s eye,” the passenger is the center of the universe. Nothing touches him, and everything he looks upon is his. He says, “All of it was made for you and me. / Come take a ride and see what’s mine.” The purpose of the ride is to see, and in the act of seeing, to possess—not just the city but “the bright and hollow sky” and all the stars in it.

The world belongs to him entirely.

But his ownership comes with a curse. He can see but not touch. If he leaves the car and steps out in the world, it no longer belongs to him. Whatever he touches will touch him right back. No control. No protection from pain or damage. The passenger has to keep moving and stay encapsulated. The song is haunting because nothing belongs to him really. Everything happens in his head, and that’s enough. The music will carry him anywhere he wants to go. He moves through the world like a ghost.

The endlessness of his ride is expressed in the obsessive rhythm of the music and the repetition of the same imagery with slight permutations from stanza to stanza. The passenger “rides and rides and rides” and goes nowhere. These qualities make the song a perfect choice for playing over and over. And my emotional response is simple: Take me for that ride.

It’s easy to look at Iggy Pop’s career and stage persona and conclude “The Passenger” is about heroin, which is both obvious and beside the point. I listen to the song and feel the perilous allure of disengaging from the world. And I don’t have to shoot smack to disengage. I can go crazy or join a bizarre cult or spend every waking hour surfing the Web — or just refuse to wake up in the morning.

When “The Passenger” played, I rolled out of bed and danced until the music ended. Then I sat down to write.

Photo from fanpop.com

Lu Jakes, the protagonist of my thriller TALION, is being interviewed today at World Literary Café. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to drop by and meet this extraordinary fifteen-year-old girl who must fight to save herself and her friend from a serial killer.

World Literary Café is a wonderful site for authors and readers to connect with each other. I appreciate their hosting Lu. Special thanks to Stacy Eaton for organizing the interview program, writing such terrific interview questions, and putting together the posts.

The first time a blogger requested a character interview to promote my novel I felt a mixture of annoyance and dread. The concept seemed bogus. I thought turning my villain, Rad Sanders, into a pitchman would make him less menacing. But I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After some false starts, I figured out a couple of ways to make the interview interesting to readers and valuable to me.

Of course  the character has to speak in his or her voice. With a first-person narrator, the voice is already fully developed and ready to go.  But even in third-person narrative, the character’s voice exists in dialogue and thoughts.  I built on those. I found that once I had Rad’s voice, everything else followed. He couldn’t deliver a canned synopsis; he could only tell the story from his perspective.

Then I threw in some conflict. Just as it does in the novel, conflict drives the action and keeps readers interested. Since I could write my own questions, I invented a scenario in which Rad highjacks the interview. He berates me for cutting one of his scenes from the novel and refuses to hear my explanation. He becomes sarcastic and aggressive. It turned out to be a lot of  fun, and I actually got to know my character better.

Lu is far more decent, so she tries her best to explain her world to readers who have never visited such dark places. And Stacy’s questions sound like an adult gently coaxing a shy teenager out of her shell, offering her the acceptance she needs so much. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. You’ll find it here.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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