Monday, November 28, 2011

Reading and Writing

I devoted a lot of time over the Thanksgiving weekend to reading and writing. I was coming down with a cold, so I got really sluggish at times. So what did I read and what did I write?

I read Charles Shields's bio of Kurt Vonnegut. It's terrific, the kind of bio that keeps you turning pages because it's so damned well written. And Kurt Vonnegut was a strange bird. Shields doesn't pull any punches about what a screw-up Vonnegut was at times. Well worth the time to learn about a great writer who wasn't afraid to break new ground.

What else did I read? This answer is all about me. I blew cyberdust of a manuscript I wrote several years ago. It's a coming-of-age trilogy about a circle of women. The first book is about growing up in a Leave It To Beaver town in Northern California as the fifties transitioned into the sixties. The second is about getting out of that town, college at Berkeley during the turbulent sixties. And the final book follows the women into marriage, motherhood and careers. All fraught with personal conflict set against a time of major transition in our country's history.

I got through the first 200,200 words, or about the first two books. After several years of not looking at the manuscript, I was surprised at how well I told the story.

And therein lies the problem. The story is told. I now have to redo it completely and let the characters and action show the story. Writers will understand what I mean. A monumental task, but there is no deadline on it. Yet.

And yes, I did write as well. I began a first-person thriller about a serial killer. Lots of them on the market, but this will have a different presentation and therefore a different twist. I've invited about a dozen people to join a closed Facebook group to help shape the novel. Now, that should be an experience.

I'll keep you posted on progress on both stories.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Writing Inspiration

People ask me all the time where I find my inspiration, the ideas for my stories. Sometimes it's from my memories. Sometimes it's what my friends have done. Sometimes it's from the newspapers.

I've been following a local story for many months. A teenage boy shot and killed his best friend. Shot him in the back and twice in the back of the head. Tried to lie to the cops about not seeing his best friend the day he went missing. Long and short of the story, the police arrested the boy and charged him with capital murder. In Virginia, that's the death penalty.

This week, the case was resolved in court. The shooter pleaded guilty to murder and several other felonies. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 53 years.

Why did this particular story touch me? Maybe it was because I've worked with the father of the victim and understand his pain. Maybe it's because one act of violence ruined two families. The family of the victim can recover and heal. The family of the murderer can't. Both have lost a son forever.

This happens too often. We teach our children right from wrong, but still some get it wrong. They don't think. It ruins families, divides communities and leaves a child dead.

No, this is material I can't use. It's too close to my community. My heart goes out to both families. They've lost so much.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blog Inerview with Jeremy Wagner, The Armeggedon Chord

I'm really pleased to post a blog interview with new writer and friend, Jeremy Wagner. I've reviewed his debut novel, The Armeggedon Chord, before. Now, it's time to hear from the author.

1. Some of the readers of this blog may not know your works. Would you like to introduce yourself?
Sure. I'm Jeremy Wagner, and I'm known worldwide in the death metal genre as the founding member/guitarist & lyricist for both the bands Broken Hope and the band, Lupara. In recent years, I've gained more of a following for my fiction. I'm a horror writer and novelist. My shorter works have appeared in magazines and anthologies, but I'm best known for my new novel: THE ARMAGEDDON CHORD.

2. Before we learn about your book, can you tell us the last two exciting places you visited? Why did you pick these destinations?
Easy! Australia and Ireland. I got married in Australia this past year (literally 11 months ago) and toured part of the country--it was a most amazing experience. This past summer we also toured Ireland and it was most memorable and beautiful.

3. Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer?
I started writing fiction in grade school--I estimate I started at 6 years old. I got into books very young and my interest in the macabre started at the same time. I was always drawn to monsters and scary things, so I read about these types of subjects and then I began writing my own scary stories. I grew as a reader and writer and just kept doing it throughout my life. I love being a novelist...I feel it's in my DNA to write.

4. Is The Armageddon Chord your first published book? Why did you select the theme?
It's my first published novel, but not my first published story. THE ARMAGEDDON CHORD just came to me--like an idea I get--out of the blue. It started as an idea and grew up into an entity that I had to write about and get out of my system. I didn't select the theme or have a preconceived story. The story, CHOSE ME. Haha. I love when that happens. *smiles*

5. Your characters are interesting, particularly the villains. Did you model them on anyone in real life? Or did you imagine them?
I'm really glad you dug the villians. I love my villians! I didn't model too many characters from real people other than Kirk Vaisto being infused with some similiar rock star traits and Festus Baustone III being built from tidbits taken from the many Rupert Murdoch's and Bill Gates of the world--and then given a dash of evil.

6. I remember reading that you are a heavy metal musician. Would parts of you be in the protagonist?
My experience as a recording and touring guitarist certainly aided me in keeping the protagonist's facts believable. More than that, my extreme love and passion for the guitar gave a bit more love to the protagonist's POV.

7. I see the book is available through Amazon in print and paper. Are you satisfied with mix of sales you are getting from the two formats?
The print sales have been amazing so far. I hit the TOP 10 paperback bestseller list on Barnes & Noble the first week it came out. Amazon has done great. Between print AND eBook format sales, I continue to be in the TOP 100 in Horror in the US, Canada, Germany, and the UK. I'm really happy with all that.

8. You can help your fellow writers with this question. What are you doing yourself to promote The Armageddon Chord?
Aside from the amazing promo/marketing. ads my publisher has done, I've been appearing at writer's conferences and book events any chance I can get. Blog tours, social media posts, and online exposure has helped. I also have publicists who really have given me amazing opportunities with magazine interviews, radio, TV and more. My advice to any writer looking to promote is to really make an effort to get out matter what your budget is, there's always ways to achieve exposure and tell the world about your book...get creative! That's how I started, grass-roots first and built on that.

9. Do you have another book in the works?
I have 2 new novels completed and if all goes well, they should be out in 2012! They're horror and have nothing to do with a musician...LOL.

10. Are they under contract with a publisher?
THE ARMAGEDDON CHORD was just a one-book deal, so my new books are "free agents" if you will.

11. What are the last three books you read and why did you choose them?
Flashback by Dan Simmons (because I love Dan Simmons and he always blows me away).
The Best American Noir of the Century (I loved this book so to horror, I really love the noir genre and this book of noir short-stories was just incredible).
Bad Men by John Connolly (I picked this up because the synopsis was really intriguing. I wasn't was really good).

12. What haven’t I covered that you’d like to add?
I just want to thank you for the interview and ask your readers to check out the website for THE ARMAGEDDON CHORD at:

Thank you, Jeremy. I'm sure all of us who loved the first novel will be first in line for the second one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

FBI from Two Different Perspectives

Back in April I reviewed Gary Noesner's Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. I talked to my son-in-law about how much I liked the way Noesner wrote about being a negotiator. He ran downstairs and came up with two novels: Black and White.

Chris Whitcomb wrote the novels from the perspective of an FBI sniper, the opposite role Noesner played. Both novels were well written and told solid tales filled with blood and guts, suspense, and a thriller pace. I noticed he had also written a memoir, Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.

The two memoirs couldn't be more different, yet both talk about the high-profile FBI hostage situations toward the end of the last century, Ruby Ridge and Waco. Noesner's account is about patience with both; Whitcomb's is much more the cowboy with a highh-powered rifle. Both situations came under intense criticism and scrutiny from Congress. Heads rolled.

If, however, you want to get a pretty good idea of what it was like at either sieges, read both books.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: The Armageddon Chord by Jeremy Wagner

The Armageddon Chord by debut novelist Jeremy Walker is a dark work with a fresh twist on the battle of good vs. evil.

A heavy metal musician himself, it doesn't seem much of a stretch for Wagner to cast the world's best guitarist as his protagonist, Kirk Vaisto. After Egyptologist Helmut Hartkopff discovers an unplayed piece of music that is over 3,000 years old, his benefactor Festus Baustone III hires Vaisto to play it. The catch: this music is supposed to have been written by the devil and will call forth his minions when played.

Vaisto plays the music after it has been transcribed by Hartkopff. The music fills his mind with such evil images that the "God of Guitar" doesn't want to perform it live. Human evil pressures Vaisto to play the work. The performance is the dream and nightmare of any heavy metal fan or musician. The final battle pitching the legions of the devil against the armies of Heaven is expected but rendered with new imagery and a pulse-pounding pace representative of a rock concert.

I encourage fans of heavy metal and dark fiction to check out this new writer. He has an interesting future.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Small Presses

I read a lot of books this summer that were released by small presses. I'm not quite sure how I landed on this path. Some of the books were really good. Some were less good. A couple, published only as e-books, were so badly written I couldn't finish them.

I learned a lot by this venture into small press publishing. One of the things most of these books had in common was a desperate need for solid editing. I don't mean "cut out the fat" or "kill your babies" editing. I mean basic line editing, checking for grammar and punctuation, etc.

I know for a fact that authors of three books I read paid a professional to edit the manuscript. Three authors, three different professionals. The authors got rooked. Two of these books were so badly edited that I was embarrassed for the authors.

On top of not having proper punctuation, spelling and grammar, two books, both written by so-called experts, had such glaring errors in the text that I almost set them aside.

We'll take one example. One writer professed to be very knowledgeable about dog breeds, yet she didn't know the difference between a sight hound and a scent hound. A central plot twist required an Afghan to sniff out a suspect hiding behind a pile of garbage. Afghans are sight hounds. She needed a blood hound or some scent other hound that uses its nose rather than its eyes to find prey. That fact alone soured the book for me.

If I have any requests for authors, it is this. Check your facts. If you are an expert on something, don't make boneheaded mistakes. If you are not good at grammar, have at least two different grammarians go through your manuscript. True, it's possible that the manuscript left the author's computer in perfect shape, only to be "fouled" by an editor at a publisher who messed it up.

Oh, one more thing. Seems like e-books are full of formatting gremlins. I've seen sections in a chapter suddenly have multiple lines centered, when all the rest is flush left. Or, I've seen changes in font. And I've seen sloppy mistakes in indentation, pagination, etc.

For me, as a reader that likes debut authors, lack of critical reading and editing turns me off. I probably won't buy another book from these authors. Sad but true. Their first impressions weren't all that good. IMHO.

Monday, October 3, 2011

An Egotistical Memoir

I actually bought In My Time by Dick Cheney. Not as a royalty-based book, but on the secondary market. Yes, I bought it used. And I'm glad I did. I wouldn't want my sale to add to his royalties or to his status on the New York Times bestseller list.

Cheney and his daughter Liz, his co-author, open the book on 9/11, when President Bush was reading to school children in Florida and Cheney was in the White House bunker. His memory is that he was virtually in control while Bush was in the air trying to get back to Washington. Cheney held the government and the American people together by the sheer force of his decisions and his will. He issued orders to shoot down airliners that didn't immediately land. Fortunately, his orders went to NORAD and were not passed along to the entire Air Force. We should be grateful that Cheney was on guard, a veritable Atlas with the world on his shoulders.

The memoir is more political than personal, no matter what the subtitle says. Cheney has no problem spinning his every action into one of personal success. Yes, he was the youngest White House Chief of Staff for Ford. Yes, he mentored under Rumsfeld. Yes, he was Secretary of Defense. Yes, he was an eight-year Vice President under Bush 2. And throughout his forty-year career, he only made one mistake. He shot his best friend with bird shot.

Cheney sets up scenarios. In many of the meetings, he sits silently, then would go to the President to get his message across. When the US was ramping up for Gulf 1, Colin Powell was to brief the Saudis on what was going to happen. Cheney replaces Powell with himself, because he writes he couldn't trust Powell to deliver a strong message. He trashes Condi Rice for not carrying out Bush 2's policy on North Korea. His position was right; hers was wrong.

Memoirs represent the memory of the author. In this one, the author is egotistical, self-centered and always right. Except he wasn't always right. He was often wrong, as other viewers of recent history have already pointed out. But Cheney's memory shows what a legend he was in his own mind.

It was a fascinating portrait of a flawed human being, who is incapable of knowing when he was wrong and when to shut up.

Time for me to shut up. Read the book. Form your own opinion. This one belongs to me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bullying Is Never Acceptable Behavior

Bullying is never acceptable behavior. Not in grade school. Not in secondary school. Not in high school. Not in life.

We all hear disturbing tales about students who are bullied by their peers. They are not part of the "in" crowd. They may be geeks. They may be homely. They may be overweight. Bullies find the weak spot and go for it. And it causes pain, sometimes lasting all the victim's life.

Let's not forget that bullies need victims. It's not enough to "turn the other cheek," as my grandmother taught me. Once such a turning earned me a smack on the back of my head by a girl I thought was my friend. She wasn't. (Odd, she reached out a couple of years ago and asked to "friend" me on Facebook. I love the Ignore button.)

Student victims don't want to talk about what's happening to them. Sometimes, they are ashamed of the treatment. Sometimes, they don't recognize what's happening to them is bullying. Sometimes, they lack the words themselves.

And sometimes, an adult comes along and provides a vehicle to start the conversation. The latest is a book originially published in 1989. Eaglebait by Susan Coryell was reprinted and released this year. The novel tells the story of Wardy Sparks, a 14-year-old high school geek who falls prey to the popular kids. As kids did in 1989 and do today, he struggled with whom to tell, how to explain what was happening. He finds a mentor who helps him cope and develop self-esteem.

"Being bullied doesn't build character," says author Coryell. "Years and years later they still remember the details." Coryell speaks on panels with educators (she's a retired school teacher), counselors and psychology professors as an expert on bullying.

I was bullied. I can relate to Wardy. I moved to a new school in tenth grade. I didn't know the rules. I didn't know I couldn't talk with some of the minorities in my classes. (I moved from Southern California to Colorado. The Rainbow Coalition was in every class in California. If I didn't hang with minorities, I didn't hang with anyone.) My counselor, who was supposed to help me, told me I was stupid and might get into the local junior college. She even refused to sign my application forms for college. Thank you, Mr. P, our principal, who was my "pal." He signed everything in time for me to be accepted into UCLA as an out-of-state student. And thank you, Mr. P, for the nice letter you sent when I graduated (again) from USC with my doctorate.

But this post isn't about me. It's about giving students a voice. Try Eaglebait if you think a student is reluctant to talk about bad behavior. Help a child.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb

I read this new contribution from Sharyn McCrumb about six weeks ago. I wrote a review for VB Front magazine, which was published in the August edition. I offered a slightly different review to Roanoke Times, only to be told that it would not accept my review. Fine, had the Times not told another source that it had no room to run any review of the book. Well, I have room to run the review. Here it is.

Appalachian writer Sharyn McCrumb returns to her ballad series of historical novels with The Ballad of Tom Dooley. Set in 1866 with flashbacks to episodes during the War, McCrumb gives the reader a look at the hardscrabble life of mountain folk in North Carolina.

Using two narrators, one an illiterate mountain woman with a streak of vengefulness and the other an educated former governor and attorney who represents Tom Dooley in his murder trial, McCrumb opens the door to the difficulty of survival in the post-war North Carolina. The cadence of each narrator captures the rhythm of the mountains.

In Pauline Foster, McCrumb has crafted an amoral character, manipulative, self-serving, willing to lie to stay alive. There is little to like in Pauline, yet she is one of the more compelling characters to come from McCrumb's prolific mind. The other central women, all in their early twenties, are either weak or vain. Ann Melton, Pauline's cousin and Tom Dooley's lover, is the vain one. Another self-centered woman, she cares for nothing but her love for Tom. Forget the fact that she is a wife and mother. She defines herself as Tom's lover. The last central woman, Laura Foster, another cousin, is plain, unmarried and takes care of her siblings. Ann Melton believes she has become Tom's lover.

The men are an interesting mix of sophisticated and simple. Tom Dooley (his historical name is Tom Dula, and yes, if you know where to look, you can find his grave) is a happy-go-lucky young man who loves another man's wife, doesn't care who else he sleeps with, and is generally what we would call a handsome wastrel. James Melton, unlucky enough to have married Ann, is the strong, silent type, working his way through life on a hardscrabble farm. And Zebulon Vance, former governor, war hero, lawyer, works pro bono to save Tom Dooley's life. His is the literate voice, and the one that registers remorse at the outcome of the tale.

Well researched, the book pokes holes in the common acceptance of what led Tom Dooley to murder his lover. No, he wasn't hung on a white oak tree. He died on a town gallows after being found guilty of murdering Laura Foster.

If you think you know the story of Tom Dooley from the Kingston Trio song, you don’t. If you want to know what the real story was, read this book. Available online and soon in major bookstores everywhere.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New blog on writing

Welcome to my new-old blog on writing. I decided that MadMaxisms was schizophrenic. More than half of it was related to writing. The rest was about politics, thoughts about life and cats.

I moved my historical writing blog archive into this new location. Going forward, Write Now, Right Now will focus on writing, tips on writing, where I am in my yet-to-be published life, books I've read and books I reviewed. I will also invite writers to talk about their books as guest bloggers. And I will link all posts to Facebook to reach a wider audience.

For now, welcome. If you followed me on Mad Maxisms and want to follow me here, please do so. If you want to follow Mad Maxisms, you are welcome there. And if you want to follow through Facebook, I'm pleased. I hope my thoughts provide some new ideas and pleasure for all my readers.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Golden Nib Winners

Last night Valley Writers, a chapter of the Virginia Writers club, handed out its chapter-level Golden Nib awards.

What's the Golden Nib? It's a writing award from the Virginia Writers Club. Three categories are poetry, non-fiction and fiction. First place winners go to the state contest and compete against winners from other chapters. The winning titles have been left out on purpose. This is a blind-entry contest, so only the winner's name can be posted.

And the winners are:

First Place: Esther Johnson
Second Place: Betsy Ashton for "Friend Surfin'"
Third Place: Wayne White for "Appalachian Senses"

First Place: Wayne White
Second Place: Esther Johnson for "Midge Rides the Green Tortise"
Third Place: Charmaine Davis for "Dance with Dandelions"

First Place: Donna Knox
Second Place: Wayne White for "Where Have All the Commas Gone?"
Third Place: Esther Johnson for "Letting Go of Mom in Thailand"

Congratulations to all the winners, especially to our multiple winners. A huge round of applause to Barbara Stout who volunteered to be the coordinator before she knew what a huge task it was.

On to State.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Armageddon Chord

I want to give a shout out to a writer in my agent's stable. Jeremy Wagner is the first of Dawn Dowdle's clients to receive a review in Publishers Weekly. In the July 25, 2011 issue, The Armageddon Chord received the following review:

Death metal guitarist Wagner (of bands Broken Hope and Lupara) debuts with a highly entertaining, albeit predictable, blend of heavy metal and hardcore horror. Festus Baustone III, a morally bankrupt billionaire secretly suffering from terminal cancer, hires archeologists to uncover musical hieroglyphs that,if correctly translated, could ignite apocalypse.The dying tycoon then sets out to find a guitarist who can literally "raise Hell on Earth and wipe the world clean." Kirk Vaisto is just finishing up his latest solo album when his agent manipulates him into taking Baustone's offer, and soon the virtuoso rock guitarist finds himself at the center of a conspiracy with the spiritual future of humankind at stake. Electrified by breakneck pacing, a cast of over-the-top characters (a deformed Nazi Egypologist, a self-obsessed frontman, a stigmatic priest, etc.) and memorable lines like "The power of the riff compels you," this triller neatly exploits the considerable shared fanbase of apocalyptic fiction and Apocalyptica.

The book comes out in late August. Hint. Hint.

Way to go, Jeremy. Way to go, Dawn.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tinker Mountain -- Day Last

Tinker Mt. Writers Workshop is over for 2011. It ended on Friday with the last critiques, a group discussion on publishing, hugs and promises to stay in touch.

I forced a group shot for the old blog and to send to the rest of the group. I can hear everyone now: I look awful, I'm not looking at the camera, I didn't want to be in the shot. And where am I? Behind the camera. My camera, my rules.

What started as a group of strangers ended as a group of friends who all wished each other success and improvement in writing.

I left with pages of notes and suggestions for improving Max 1. I also took away a couple of tips to share:

  • Hire a line editor before you send your manuscript out. I cannot edit for typos and catch them all. You probably can't either.
  • When getting ready to edit or rewrite, expand the side margins. Set them at 2" to give you more space to scribble changes.
  • Never throw away anything you cut from your manuscript. Open a file and paste the deletions in it. You might want them at a later date.
  • Don't give you deletions file a negative name, like "Rejects," "Bad Stuff, or "Crap," etc. It's only a reject for the present work. My deletions file is called "Parking Lot."
  • When you are really, really serious about submitting a long manuscript to an agent, and when you are really, really ready, format your manuscript and send it to a company like Lulu. Pay to get one copy of your book bound. If you can afford it, you will never regret the money you spend. You can't imagine how different your book reads when it is a book and not a manuscript.

    And now, I have to do justice to my teacher and thank Fred Leebron for his guidance and inspiration for the past week. I went into the workshop hoping to learn a few things. Instead, I learned where and how to "fix" Max 1. Now, I have to execute what he taught me.

    Write now, right now.
  • Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Tinker Mountain -- Day Four

    Day four ended on a high note. We had three excellent critiques of vastly different novels in the afternoon. Our Cuban, writing in a second language, offered a story about Cuba in the 1930s based on his father's life. Wonderful language, excellent characters, great dream sequences, lousy grammar. Our advice was keep writing and hire a copy editor when you get closer to submission.

    We had a Southern Gothic novel, where one of the chapters was complete enough to stand alone as a short story. We encouraged her to submit to various magazines for publication.

    The last work was a fantasy that doesn't work as well as the writer thinks it does. We liked parts of it, disliked other parts, and thought it should be cut back by about half. This writer is in an MFA program and thought she would teach us everything she's learned. Turns out it's not as much as she thinks it is. She didn't like our critiques because we were too stupid to get her work. Besides, we weren't her audience. As she matures, perhaps her ability to interact with grown ups will mature as well.

    We ended with a bar-b-que and an open mic night. Our shiest member got up and read the first poem she's read in public. She was terrified, but she did it. The poetry teacher challenged each of us to write a poem without a title. I recited mine:

    A haiku undeserving of a title

    Ice-shrouded world,
    One slippery step,
    Technicolor moon.

    And on that note, I must go and read the last materials for tomorrow.

    What a great experience. I want to come back next year and take the writing about trauma workshop.

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Tinker Mountain - Day Three

    Okay, so today was my critique. I submitted the requisite 20 pages, properly formatted with the right type size. Once the group got started, it was all I could do to keep from giggling.

    Some didn't like Max's snarkiness. Others thought she killed her husband. Some thought Merry was murdered. All thought Max was too flippant when her daughter was dying.

    Then came the comments about the paragraph length. Too short. And the chapter length. Too short. I took tons of notes, hiding my smile behind my hand.

    Finally, Fred Leebron, the teacher, asked if the group's opinion would change it they read the exerpt as commercial fiction, not literary fiction. Silence. More silence. Then one voice said, "never mind."

    And that's when I started to laugh.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Tinker Mountain -- Day Two

    Day two dawned crisp and cool, the dreadful heat of the previous week having given up its grasp. The coolness invited many of us to sit on the porch of the main building in old fashioned rocking chairs, early in the morning, before coffee, reading the materials for the afternoon critique sessions.

    We had reading time in the morning, followed by a session on selecting only those details that matter to the piece you are writing. Easier said than done, for it is so much fun to pile on details, lists of nouns, strings of adjectives, adverb upon adverb. We learned to cut out everything that doesn't have a purpose, including most of our beloved darlings. Yup, time to slaughter darling phrases once again.

    Tomorrow, I'm on the hot seat. I submitted the first 20 pages of my rewrite of Mad Max 1, based on the criticism I received from three New York editors and one agent. I'm curious to see how it survives the critiques of twelve no-longer-strangers. Should be interesting. Either I will emerge with even more suggestions for improvement, or I'll emerge whimpering and bloodied. Or a combination thereof.

    I'll let you know tomorrow.

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    Writers Workshop -- Day One

    Day one of Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Actually, we met last night and picked up reading assignments. I moved into my first dorm since I was an undergrad. In the Bay Area. In 1967. The only thing that has changed in dorms is this one is air conditioned. My last one at Stanford was the freshmen boy's dorm, complete with urinals and no air conditioning. Still need flip flops for the shower. Still need to carry all my personal potions to the bath morning and night. Still have walls much too thin, but hey, it's only for a week.

    We had a full afternoon in which we were supposed to critique two submissions. We got through one in two hours. With eleven writers and about twelve hours for critiquing -- you do the math. I learn from listening to others speak and picked up a couple of new techniques for looking at my novel. I'll try them when I get home.

    We have student readings tomorrow night. I'm thinking about signing up to read my poem Three Weeks. Don't know yet if I'll read or not. I'll sign up and decide tomorrow morning.

    I'm off to read two submissions for tomorrow's session. Each submission can be up to 20 pages, so we have a lot of paper to cover. More tomorrow.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Cutting Back

    Not everyone will be happy with me, but the first thing that has to go in my new sabbatical, or "it's only about me," is the Naked Writers critique group. I just don't have 30 hours a month to put in on it until I finish rewriting Max 1.

    Four of us have been meeting every two weeks to critique long-form works. One is writing a memoir, the other three are working on novels. I've been getting help on Max 2, but that has to go on hold.

    I have to get Max 1 right. And I don't really have any time to think about other things I want to work on. I hate to let my group down, so I hope they understand. After meeting for nearly six months, I've probably offered enough suggestions for the individual writers to fly without me.

    I already miss the critiques. I'll be taking the first 20 new pages to the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in ten days. I'll see if I'm on the right track then.

    Phooey. Too much to do, too little of me to go around.

    Monday, May 30, 2011

    Favorite Words

    Life has a way of identifying favorite words. They may be favorites for a short period of time, or they may be permanent favorites. A feeling of piling on led to this round of favorite words.

    I generally don't read the sappy, inspirational forwards that flood our email inboxes. One came last week that struck a chord. Why? Because I was in the midst of a similar thought pattern. The message was about separating the important things from the chaff in your life. I realized a few weeks back I mislaid my Zen calmness. I missed it. I've let too much small stuff get in the way of the truly important things. Clutter in parts of my house represented clutter in my brain. I decided it was time to declutter and focus on the big stuff, stuff important to me and my family. Blow away, rest of the chaff, thank you very much.

    So, my first favorite word right now is an old favorite: sabbatical. For me, a sabbatical is part of the decluttering of my life. I decided which important things I will focus on for the next period of time: my husband, my children, my adorable new grandson (all grandchildren are adorable in the eyes of the grandparents), making my home a place of peace and harmony, and rewriting my first Mad Max manuscript.

    You wouldn't think that rewriting a manuscript would be part of the important stuff. I've worked on Mad Max 1 for a long time. My agent has been shopping it about for several months. Last week, three editors from top six publishers pointed out the same flaw in the novel. After a long conversation with my agent, we plotted how I can fix it. Two editors left the door open for a requery; one didn't. That one didn't like the murderer; thought the novel was too dark. We won't query that editor again.

    To achieve the sabbatical, my second favorite word comes into play. I often have this word as a favorite. Just as often, I forget why it helps simplify my life. That word is "no." Powerful. Might mean, No, never. Might mean, No, not right now. Might mean, No, I have to take a break from this activity until the rewrite is back in my agent's hands.

    Expect me to say No a lot in the next few weeks. Expect that you are not alone when I say No. Expect that I will qualify that No with not now/not never/maybe in the future.

    I'm not sorry, because the important stuff has to come first. That's the only way I'll regain my Zen balance and stop the piling on of the small stuff. And that's just the way it has to be for a while.

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    Author Interview: Austin Camacho, Russian Roulette

    I have the pleasure of serving with Austin on the board of the Virginia Writers Club. I picked up one of his novels at the November meeting. The result is an interview with him about Russian Roulette.

    1. I picked up Russian Roulette at a Virginia Writers Club meeting late last year. When I turned the book over, I saw "Hannibal's Back!" How many other Hannibal Jones books are there?
    First, thank you for offering me this chance to talk about my work. There are five novels in the Hannibal Jones series. In the order I wrote the stories: The Troubleshooter, Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, Damaged Goods and Russian Roulette.

    2. How did you come up with his character? I know you live near the District, so the location makes sense. But Hannibal is rather unique. Is he part you? Part Alex Cross? All imagination?
    Hannibal Jones started as an effort to grab the moralistic hard boiled detective of the 1940s and drag that character into the 21st century. I like a character with his own moral code and the character to stick to it. There’s no Alex Cross in Hannibal, but if you look close you’ll see echoes of Simon Templar, Sam Spade, Travis McGee and maybe John Shaft. People often tell me that they see me in the character, but I only see my son Adam who, like Hannibal, is mixed race.

    3. Your story is timely, what with the mystery around the Algerian. What made you decide to use this type of character?
    Have you read The Maltese Falcon? Mysterious foreigners are such fun characters to play with. And since Hannibal Jones is such an outsider himself - straddling that line between White and African American cultures – he is uniquely suited to deal with other outsiders.

    4. I particularly liked your use of Roosevelt Island for the climactic scene. Why did you choose that place?
    That’s an interesting observation, and thank you for asking. In this novel I tried to evoke the fatalistic feel of the classic Russian novels. I looked around the DC area for a location that was remote, bleak, emotionally cold and yet had a personality of its own. A place where you could feel lost just 20 yards from the marked trail. Roosevelt Island just had the right feel. Then when I did the research and found the Russian historical connection, it just had to be the site of the final showdown.

    5. I had never heard of Intrigue Publishing. When I visited the web site, it appears to be a self-publishing company. Have you published other books through Intrigue?
    Yes, Intrigue Publishing is my lovely wife Denise’s company and she has published only one other author.

    6. Why did you choose to use a self-publishing company rather than a tradition publisher?
    Originally I published through a Print On Demand company, because I lacked the patience to wait for a traditional publisher to realize I had a marketable product. I soon learned that I could do everything they did for me as well or better than they did, without handing someone else a pile of money. Subsequently I did place one of my novels with a small press but again, it turns out that I can do what needs to be done better and the finances work out a lot more in my favor.

    7. I see Russian Roulette is available on Kindle. Are you satisfied with your sales through Kindle? Are you available for the Nook, too?
    All of my books are available for all the popular ereaders. I know several writers who are doing much better than I in Kindle sales, but on the other hand I move a lot more books thru the Kindle than I ever thought I would so I guess I’m satisfied… for now.

    8. Do you have any other Hannibal Jones books in the works? I'm interested in what happens to the romance with Cindy.
    The next Hannibal Jones mystery is about half written, and the personal storyline comes to the foreground in that story. Cindy got little screen time in Russian Roulette but she will featured prominently in the next novel. However you’ll have to wait until next week to see that one, because first I’m pushing the next book in my adventure thriller series starring Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien.

    9. What were the last three books you read? And why?
    I’ve been fortunate to work myself into the position of writing book reviews for the American Independent Writers and the International Thriller Writers’ newsletter, The Big Thrill. So now people send me new mysteries and thrillers! Most recently I’ve had the opportunity to read Anna DeStefano’s psychic thriller Secret Legacy, a cool murder mystery called Killer Routine by my pal Alan Orloff, and Neil S. Plakcy’s latest Hawaiian police procedural, Mahu Blood. Great reads all!

    10. Please feel free to add anything I might not have covered.
    Is it too early for people to start looking for my next international thriller, The Piranha Assignment? Maybe they should read the first two books in the series, The Payback Assignment and The Orion Assignment first…

    Thanks to Austin for his answers to my inteview questions. I know I'm going to look for more Hannibal Jones books. And the international thriller series sounds like a good set of reads, too.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Russian Roulette by Austin Camacho

    I have been very careful about reviewing self-published works. For a long time, I believed self-publishing was one step above vanity publishing. I now know better.

    Why? Because I've been making an effort to read more self-published books and have found many to be as good as debut novels published by traditional publishers.

    Recently, I read Russian Roulette by Austin Camacho. I picked up the book at a writers conference, flipped over to read the back blurbs and saw"Hannibal's Back." Back? I didn't know there was a Hannibal Jones, a private investigator in the D.C. area who gets involved in crimes. What else? This is billed as a thriller.

    Camacho weaves a good tale, well written, with solid characters and a killer that, while not impossible to identify early, has enough duplicity to trick the casual reader.

    The plot is straightforward. Hannibal Jones is "hired" by a Russian thug to help him get the woman he loves back. The thug threatens Hannibal's own girlfriend to put leverage on the investigator. Russian mobsters, multiple identities, changing loyalties, male dupes, strong female characters and building tension lead to a confrontation on Roosevelt Island. I'll leave most of the plot for the next reader to enjoy, so don't expect me to tell you how the book ends. It ends with a bang. Enough said.

    Camacho turns many of his phrases in such a way that you want to stop and enjoy the images. "Hannibal wondered what the job description looked like for the position of thug. Did they have a union, have to update their resumes, hassle about their benefits?" Interesting thought, a thug union.

    Like many self-published works, Russian Roulette could have benefited from tighter writing, but not by much. A strong editor would have removed extraneous words and made the story flow even faster.

    Regardless of how this was published, it's a damned good read.

    Friday, April 29, 2011

    A Night of Storytelling and Poetry

    Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to distinguished professor of English and poetry, Nikki Giovanni, talk about her life, her family, Virginia Tech, the importance of the arts in young peoples' lives and what it means to be a citizen.

    Giovanni talked about loss as only a daughter who has lost a mother can. She told a moving story about losing her mother, her older sister and a beloved aunt in six months. When her sister was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, her mother fell. Giovanni told of getting a call when she was in Arizona asking her to return to Roanoke immediately, because her mother "was dying." She spoke with her sister and a doctor, both who told her the same thing: Her mother was dying. Giovanni fired the doctor, called another one she trusted, and flew all night to get home. The new doctor greeted her, gave her an update on her mother's condition and said her mother "was dying."

    Giovanni realized her mother couldn't bear the thought of burying her daughter and decided to die. And she did. Giovanni talked about wanting to take some time off to recover, but wondered how and when she would take time on. She didn't stop writing or teaching. Her emotion over her mother's passing in 2005 felt as fresh as if it happened yesterday. She reminded us through her tears that a woman rarely if ever gets over the loss of a mother.

    On the lighter side, Giovanni talked about getting her way at Virginia Tech when she wanted to take 56 students to a poetry reading. She convinced the president to give her a bus. She still has use of the bus and takes her students to other poetry readings to emphasize that they should never be far from art in their lives.

    On a note that didn't go over well with the conservative crowd, Giovanni said we Americans don't pay enough taxes. Her activist message was we are all members of a community and should be taking care of each other. The way to do that is to pay more in taxes. Most of the rich cats in the audience didn't agree. This not-rich cat did.

    What did I learn from last night's readings? Let your emotions show. Don't be afraid to be happy or sad. Grieve and move on, but don't forget. Look around us. Others need our help. Pay your share and help. You can get your way if you make your case well. It helps to be an alpha female, which Giovanni is.

    She left everyone in the audience with plenty to think about.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Author Interview: Dutch Henry, We'll Have The Summer

    Once again, two disclaimers. I met Dutch two years ago, lost track of him, and then discovered we have the same agent. Oh happy days. I asked Dutch if he'd be willing to answer some questions about his debut novel, We'll Have the Summer. He was gracious and provided insight into his background which informed many of his characters. I assume his background, like all of ours, also formed his worldview.

    I know you've worked with horses and horse rescue for many years. Can you tell your readers how you got started? I’m an orphan and when I was 8, I was “Farmed out”. That is, placed on a dairy farm to work for my keep. They were nice folks, but there was no love there. My first friends I remember in life were the work horses. I knew they loved me. I felt their spirit. As an adult I met Diane Sept, a wonderful woman who taught me so much about helping horses. It was while under her tutelage that I worked to rehabilitate Tennessee Walking Horses from show ring to trail. The things some of these poor horses are forced to endure is unspeakable. I worked with several who were driven completely out of their minds. (I am talking here of one particular form of showing. Most horse shows are wonderful and fun for both human and horse.) One horse, Zack, took six months to realize I would not hurt him and allow me to lay a saddle blanket on him. In two years time he became a fabulous lesson horse.

    Is there any one horse you owned that was memorable? Did that horse become the model for Comanche or Chester? I had a horse, Diablo, a striking black and white Tenn Walker, Diane and I had rehabilitated. As in my novel we had begun to learn musical freestyle performing together. He was one of the most magnificent horses I’ve ever known. Unfortunately the damage done to his feet in the show ring caused him to develop such severe arthritis that at the young age of 10, he had to be euthanized. He was unable to even stand. Still in the three short years I knew him, he taught me much … He is missed.

    Chester is my salute to all the remarkable horses out there who teach so many folks the joys of being with and riding horses. It was Winston Churchill who said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

    You mentioned in a recent talk that you've rehabilitated many horses, yet other than providing plenty of food for Comanche, I don't see much in the way of rehabilitation with him. Was that in the back of your mind when you wrote about the paint? I worried about weighing the reader down with too many details. I wanted the story to interest non-horse folks, too, and most rescues suffer mostly from malnutrition and neglect so I focused on his rehab along those lines. I tried to imply though that Mary was careful not to overwork Comanche as she rehabbed him, but of course she had a time constraint to deal with.

    This is a love story on so many different planes. Did you have real-life inspirations for the story between Mary and Sam, between Mary and Barbara, and between Mary and Comanche? I know the biggest inspiration for the story between Mary and Sam was my own sweet wife, Robin. We are married 35 years, too. I wanted to write a story about an uncommon and enduring love. It seems so many stories today are about quick love affairs and chance meetings. I wanted to share a lifetime.

    Mary and Barbara. I had volunteered as a ‘Big Brother’ about 15 years ago. And of course my own childhood had given me sense for a youngster who wished for a tangible connection they could lean on, depend on.

    Mary and Comanche’s relationship was a compilation of horses I’ve had the honor of knowing and I had wonderful examples to draw on over the years from friends and their horses.

    What, if any, kind of research did you do prior to sitting down to write? I started to write first but when dealing with Mary’s health I spoke to friends, doctors and nurses. Her Reiki experiences, though, are based on my own. With Reiki I am off pain meds for four years now (Is that a plug?). For Comanche, it was from my own experiences. I called the Arizona office of the Bureau of Land Management, and the Mustang Federation. For the fireworks I called a real-life fireworks guy. And yes, they can do daytime shows! And don’t forget I’ve had a lifetime of learning about love with the Ravishin’ Robbie.

    I belong to a writers group that you visited a couple of years ago where you read the first chapter of We'll Have The Summer. How long did it take to write the book from first page until your editor said you were "done?" First draft, 90 days. One of the things I enjoyed reading this week as a published book was recognizing the scenes, sentences or paragraphs that survived “in tact” from that first draft. The gestation was pretty long. I started writing that first draft in July of ’09, and here we are in March 2011. I have a friend who helped me tweek that first draft soon after I wrote it. That took about three months. Then it sat for about six or eight months. I was very busy with writing for the American Competitive Trail Horse Association and my novel patiently waited. Then I found Dawn’s card and she edited it. That took a few months. When Camel Press took it on, the edits were light, and it went fast, about a month. I’ve heard writers say they grew tired of their novel by the time it got published, but I must say, I love it as much now as the day I completed the first draft.

    I'm probably a 20-draft writer. Some of my friends are up to 30-draft writers. How many drafts did you do before you submitted it to your agent? And how many drafts after your agent and editor read the manuscript and provided feedback? After my first draft, which I do without outlines, I just write, there were edits as I said, but never new drafts. With the help of two friends, I went over it three times before handing it to Dawn Dowdle. Throughout the entire editing process there were only a very few scenes I re-wrote. The edits were really spellings, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. I had to take out a few overused words like “that.”

    Dawn and I went back and forth three times. Camel really only once, then another time for the final proof. The hardest re-write was the first page, that took me a while, but even the middle of that remains original.

    Barbara is a troubled teen when she arrives at Sam and Mary's ranch. Her portrait rings true. Have you worked with troubled teens? Only for a brief period with Big Brothers, less than 2 years.

    You must have another book in the works. Will it be a sequel or a stand-alone? I have had requests from friends who’ve read it for both a prequel and a sequel. I actually have two stand-alones started, but I don’t have the same feeling for either of them I had for, We’ll Have The Summer.

    What are the last three books you read not related to your manuscript? And why did you read them? I read a lot of Tony Hillerman’s books and Wendell Berry and surprise … a few Nora Roberts. I read them to sharpen my writing skills and for fun.

    Please feel free to add anything you want here. This is a free-form area and if I've missed any question you want to ask, now's the time. I wanted to write a story of an uncommon love so enduring it could overcome insurmountable obstacles. My passion for horses and the way they can enrich a person's life needed to be part of the story. I believe in the power of love and the spirit of the horse and these two forces came together to tell this story. My only job was to fill in the details.

    Join me in enjoying reading Dutch's book, We'll Have The Summer.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Book Review: We'll Have The Summer by Dutch Henry

    This review starts with yet another disclaimer. I first met Dutch Henry about two years ago when he visited Lake Writers at Smith Mountain Lake a couple of times. Dutch read the opening chapter of a novel he was working on. I clearly remember mopping mascara and tears from my face because the prose was beautiful and the romance foretold sadness to come. He didn't return because he lives on the far side of Appomattox from the lake and it was too long a drive.

    Second disclaimer: It is happenstance that Dutch and I have the same agent, Dawn Dowdle. When I signed with Dawn, I had no idea he had joined her writing group or that she was his agent. Happy Snoopy dance followed with that information. And so Dutch's book is available.

    We'll Have The Summer is a multi-faceted love story. Part romance, part not. One story arc is the 35-year romance and marriage of Sam and Mary, owners of a dude ranch. We learn early on that Mary is a cancer survivor with a cloud hanging over her health. When Sam brings home a scrawny horse, Mary recognizes her favorite show horse, one her late daughter rode. The horse's neglect is enough to perk Mary up and give her something to do every day.

    Add a group of guests who've come to spend the summer at the dude ranch, learning how to ride, care for horses, and relax. One family, Phillip, Linda and Barbara bring their troubles with them. Phillip is an abusive husband and Dutch hints that he may have abused his step-daughter Barbara too. The troubled teen, Barbara, brings enough attitude with her to ring true. She'd rather be at the mall than on dirty ranch. She's like totally cut off. No cell service.

    Dutch writes with a clarity that enables a reader to see and feel what is going on. Words leap off the page and the action sucks the reader into the scene. When Barbara turns out to be a natural horsewoman, Mary sees a chance to return to the state fair for one last competition. She'll ride her daughter's rescued horse.

    Dutch is an accomplished writer. Though this is his debut novel, readers can hope it is not his last. It's perfect for book clubs, for a weepy beach read, or for anyone who has loved a horse or been in a long-term loving relationship with a spouse.

    The biggest beef I have with this book is that it isn't being sold with a box of tissues. For me, it was a six-tissue read.

    Check out Dutch's web site for more about his writing life.

    We'll Have The Summer is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Author Interview: Gary Noesner on Stalling for Time

    From time to time I present blog interviews with authors of books I liked. Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, was kind enough to answer my questions. In hopes of introducing you to an articulate writer and in generating interest in his memoir, here are Gary's answers to my questions.

    1. Let's begin with why you wanted to be an FBI agent. You write in the book that your interest started when you were a kid. Can you give people who have not yet read your book what triggered your interest? I wanted to become an FBI agent from watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. Yep - the one and only. I was about 12 and while watching the daily show after school one day they did an espisode on the FBI. They visited FBI Headquarters, interviewed Hoover, and shot machine guns on the firing range. I was sold by the tales of chasing spies, bank robbers, and kidnappers. After that, it's all I ever wanted to do.

    2. One thing I've heard is that the FBI does everything by the book. I was interested in your episodes of writing a "new book" for negotiation rather than the use of force. Can you talk a little about how you went about this? Was it frustrating to run up against the J. Edgar Hoover approach to ending a standoff? The FBI may not always do things by the book to the extent that you might believe. It's true that the FBI is a bureacracy and as such is generally resistent to change and innovation. The same holds for most law enforcement and the military in my view. Still, the FBI has historically been in the lead in a number of law enforcement innovations and negotiations was certainly one of them. We didn't event the approach, but we perfected and marketed it worldwide. When moving the FBI's negotiation program away from the limitations of a pure bargaining approach to a more crisis intervention model, there was much support adminstratively. The resistence more likely came from field commanders who held onto some of the traditional beliefs about the projection of power. This was the core problem issue at Waco.

    3. I particularly liked some of the less well-known events in the book. Can you tell your readers why you picked the Cubans seizing the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution? Is there a particular message you had in mind in this negotiation? I thought the Talladega Prison incident would be instructive to the reader by showing a very dangerous situation in which the prisoners had been dealt with in the past, but had not had their grievances adequately addressed by the government. With that as a backdrop, they began the siege very resistant to any negotiation efforts. This made our job at obtaining a peaceful resolution extremely difficult. They simply didn't believe us and felt we were only trying to trick them into submission. Despite these challenges, the negotiation effort yielded significant results. I felt this would show the reader that even in desperate circumstances the negotiation process can do much to achieve a positive outcome.

    4. Once you decided to write this book, how much of it did the FBI have to vet? ('m assuming you hold a security clearance and have to secure permission to write anything about the FBI. Right?) My security clearances, which were quite high, basically ended with my government service. However, like all FBI employees, I was required to submit my full manuscript to FBIHQ for final approval. That approval process does not concern itself with content. The FBI is only able to block information which is classified in nature or discloses sensitive investigative techniques, which does not encompass hostage negotiations. While writing the book I avoided including any classified information knowing that doing so would create a problem.

    5. Many people want to know the process you went through to find an agent. Did you send in a query letter and book proposal? Or did you have a personal connection with your agent before you decided to write the book? When I decided that I wanted to write a book, I went to lunch with my friend Peter Bergen. Peter is a CNN analyst and has written two books on Osama Bin Laden. Peter kindly put me in contact with his literary agent and she was absolutely wonderful. Her support and guidance made all the difference in my securing a contract with Random House.

    6. From beginning to publication, how long did the writing, editing and publication process take? I wrote the book in about one year. I delivered twice the length of material than contracted for, knowing it would be cut back considerably. The editing process took over a year. This process was very time consuming and was also sporadic in that often weeks or longer would go by before I would receive additional feedback from my editor regarding the suggested changes I had made. My editor was extremely helpful and provided much sound advice, but due to other manuscripts he was working on, I often had to wait before we could proceed to the next phase of our work.

    7. Many of us who write are multi-draft writers. I probably rewrite chapters over ten times until I get them "right." How many drafts did you go through? I don't know that I can count the number of drafts per se, but each individual chapter was worked on extensively. I did not encounter a situation where I had to significantly change an individual chapter, but my editor would often ask for more of one thing and perhaps less of another. Each time I touched the manuscript for a particular chapter I would tweek it to slowly get it to where I felt it was just the way I wanted it. One of my daughters, an English teacher, also read each chapter and provided critical feedback on both content and style.

    8. How much interaction did you have with your editor at Random House? Was s/he instrumental in shaping the final book? Or did you come to the editor with a firm concept in mind of how you wanted to book to turn out? I had a good idea of what stories I wanted to include in my book, but I was a bit conflicted over story telling versus teaching lessons. In the end, with my editor's support, we decided to tell good stories within which key negotiation teaching points were embedded. In addition to the book being a personal story about my life, I wanted it to bring credit to the law enforcement negotiatino profession, and also serve as a learning tool for current and future law enforcement leaders who must command these incidents. It was my goal to influence the business while also entertain the reader. I hope I accomplished this. As the book got into its final draft, my editor spent a significant amount of time with me on the phone going over almost the entire book. I did all the writing, but he helped me stay on point, add in information that added value, and drop information which wasn't necessary to the story.

    9. What are you writing now? You must have another book in you. Will it be non-fiction again or will you try fiction? I'm not currently writing, however, I have two clear ideas for my next project, which I probaby won't undertake until the Fall. One is another non-fiction work along similar lines and the other is a fictional work inspired by the true life events in which I was involved. Right now if I started that effort I would be in hot water with my wife, so it will have to wait for the quieter Fall and Winter months.

    10. What are the last three books you read for pleasure and why? The book I just finished was Modoc about the circus elephant. It's such a wonderful and well written story. I could hardly put it down. My wife strongly recommended it to me. I was in Africa some years ago with my son and a herd of about 60 elephants crossed the road a short distance in front of our car. Watching the matriarch supervise her large flock and mothers protect their babies was so moving and wonderful to see. I'll always treasure that moment, so I guess the book had a special appeal to me. I try to intersperse fiction with non-fiction. But for entertainment, I've recently been reading books by Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist. I just read the three books in the Arthur tales and before that the five books in the Saxon tales. I also read a book not long ago called "The Religion." I cannot recall the author's name right now, but it's another historical novel set in Malta that I enjoyed very much.

    I find that I like a good yarn that also teaches me something about the past. A few months ago I read the "World's Wettist County" about the Franklin County moonshine trade around the depression. Since I live in the county I found it historically interesting.

    11. I'm sure there are questions I haven't asked. Please feel free to add anything else that you feel important. An additional goal in writing my book was to share with readers the essential interpersonal communication skills that I believe help people be successful in life. By that I mean successful in relationships with spouses, children, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and almost anyone that you might interact with. If the skills I learned and share in the book work in high stress dangerous situations, than certainly they can benefit us all in less critical interactions we have with others.

    If you think Gary's book is interesting and something you'd like to read, click on the link in the opening paragraph to go out to Amazon. Yes, the book is for sale there. Yes, this is a blatant sales pitch. But, hey, I can make it. I didn't write the book.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    Stalling for Time by Gary Noesner

    On Thursday, April 7, Gary Noesner will speak about his new book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. The event is sponsored by Valley Writers, a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Noesner is a writer living just across Smith Mountain Lake from my house. He's a hell of a story teller.

    Stalling for Time takes us through several high-profile and no-profile FBI hostage crises. From cases that made local, but not national news, to those that kept us glued to our television screens for weeks, Noesner shows us which tactics work and which don't, who makes the best negotiators, how and why things can go dreadfully wrong. Since he was involved in developing the current hostage negotiation techniques, he knows what he's talking about.

    Small cases like the distraught man who takes his two children and wife hostage in a hot railroad car. Noesner helped various law-enforcement groups on the same tactical page of trying to talk the man out with limited or no loss of life. Unfortunately, the baby and wife died, but the man emerged with his daughter. Both are safe but forever changed by what happened.

    High-profile cases like the Branch Davidian stand-off outside Waco, TX, filled the headlines and television nationwide for weeks. Even though the negotiators were making progress, some in charge were unwilling to wait. We remember what happened: the FBI abandoned negotiations, attacked the compound and too many people died in a conflagration.

    Noesner talks candidly about his clashes with colleagures and superiors. Some times he wins the power play; some times he loses. He never stops trying, however, to move the non-violent negotiation through to a peaceful resolution.

    A good story very well told. If you want a glimpse into what it's like in an FBI hostage negotiation, read this book. You'll find the stress and boredom collide to produce intense fatigue and happiness when everything goes according to the script.

    I wonder what he'll write next.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    Book Review: Stuck by Becky Mushko

    Local Penhook author Becky Mushko has published her first middle grade novel, Stuck, a paranormal tale about a sixth-grade girl, Jacie Addison, whose world turns upside down when her mother dies. Jacie's father are sends her to summer horse camp to help her get over her grief, but to Jacie's dismay, her least-favorite school mate, Nichole, turns out to be in her cabin. Still she is excited about learning to ride, even if stuck-up Nicole tries to do everything possible to ruin her summer.

    After she returns from camp, Jacie's father springs more unwelcome news: he is going to marry an old sweetheart, Liz, from high school. He has been downsized and will be starting a new job near Liz's old farm house in the country. Jacie feels trapped. She's stuck in grief, stuck with her soon-to-be stepmother, stuck out in the country with no friends, stuck helping plan a wedding she doesn't want to happen, stuck taking care of bratty seven-year-old twins, and stuck with no Internet access.

    Liz gives Jacie art supplies and Jacie escapes into the woods to be alone and draw every chance she gets. She meets Callie, a ghost who is stuck on earth. When Callie asks Jacie to help her find her daughter, the young girl finds a purpose in life. She researches local history and tells the ghost what happened the night she died. The knowledge frees the ghost.

    As with all good middle grade novels, the ending has Jacie happily caring for her camp horse, her father remarried, and the "evil" stepmother not evil at all.

    I am so happy to post this review of my friend's book on the day it officially is launched at the Franklin County Library in Rocky Mount. Here's the disclosure. Becky's my friend and colleague in two writers groups and one writers club.

    Friday, March 25, 2011

    Interview with Cole Alpaugh

    First, two disclaimers. First, Cole and I share an agent who alerts her writers when a new book comes out. Second, I loved the The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, but it's really not for everyone. If you peek into Cole's web site, you'll see what I mean. It's captioned "stories from the other side of normal."

    I reached out to Cole and asked if I could interview him. He was gracious and answered the following set of questions.

    I saw some similarities with the classic Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Both Billy Wayne and J. Pierrepont Finch are both opportunistic hustlers. Did you have that musical in mind when you had Billy Wayne find How to Become a Cult Leader in 50 Easy Steps?
    Wait, am I giving off a Broadway musical fan vibe again? Jeez, wear your wife's clothes to Pizza Hut once and look what happens? Actually, I've photographed that play a few times at high schools, but never paid attention to the story. I suppose the idea behind Billy Wayne's inspirational book comes from late night television infomercials. Wouldn't it be an awesome world if even a tenth of those advertisements were true? You'd have the laziest men on earth zooming around in Ferrari 250 GTO's, with thick braids of newly grown hair trailing behind...and I'd be one of them.

    I like the way you break narrative rules and show us the story from the point of view of different characters. What gave you the idea to have an old, toothless dancing bear tell her story herself?
    Thanks, but I think it's pretty easy to slip into the brain of an old dancing bear if you take some things for granted, such as emotions being fleeting things. She might be jealous or angry, but only briefly. Gracie is child-like and innocent, despite the years of beatings. And like a child, she lives in the moment. If she's getting her good spots scratched, the world is wonderful. If she sees seagulls fighting over some stinking carcass, it's even better.

    Some of your characters, Flat Man and Lightning Man, seem to have no peers in fiction. How did you come up with their characters?
    I spent a lot of time working in Third World countries looking for newspaper and magazine feature stories. You don't need to be terribly creative, only observant and not too squeamish. Ever see what people are willing to pierce then hang things from?

    How long did it take from novel concept to finished product?
    The first draft took three months, then another six of polish and re-polishing. It was sandwiched between two other manuscripts.

    Some of us are 10-draft writers, others 20-draft writers. How many drafts did you write?
    I suppose you'd consider it five drafts. I queried after a third draft, then track changes from my agent and editor essentially accounted for two more drafts. I have a writing partner, the lovely and talented Regan Leigh, but we only do limited beta reading for one another. In other words, this MS kind of just fell out of me without a lot of struggle.

    Did you have to do much research to enter the magical world of the story?
    Ha, yes, by raising two girls who demanded to be told original stories. Creating a world of talking birds was very satisfying with the kind of feedback they gave. But my appreciation of animals began on a much different track. My father was a prolific big game hunter, who tried his best to encourage me to take up arms against anything wild and potentially edible. It seems a little crazy now, but I grew up with a gun rack over my bed, a nightstand drawer filled with Buck knives. Not finding joy in killing things, I was an utter disappointment to my father during the various hunting seasons. Luckily, we had baseball season together. That was a time of truce that I'm grateful for because he's a really good guy and a helluva shot.

    I particularly liked Lennon Bagg. Did the confusion in his name (supposed to be Lenin; came out Lennon) help you shape the behavioral traits of this character?
    Yes, Lennon Bagg was to be named for the Russian Marxist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, by his father. Lennon Bagg grew up in a commune, which shaped his very empathetic view on the world. While Bagg is a passive, non-revolutionary man, his upbringing instilled a somewhat unique view of the human condition. There is a great deal of self-sufficiency for people in traveling circuses and the communes of the 1960s and 70s, although both ways of life were very difficult. Lennon Bagg looked beyond the dirt and smells, the ragged clothing and bad teeth. There's a very dancing bear-like innocence to Lennon Bagg. Instead of a good spot to be scratched, he just needs to hold his daughter to be happy.

    Did you ever want seriously to run away and join a circus?
    Not the circus specifically, but going to work for photo agencies was similar in many ways. Lousy pay, always traveling, and trying to perform an art. I love the circus, though. Especially the small troupes that travel across Southeast Asia. Talk about magical, they are like mini versions of Cirque du Soleil who perform for pennies or food. Actually, they perform because it's what their families have been doing for six and seven generations. It's who they are.

    What are you writing now?
    It's a story about a gifted program teacher at a rural high school. It begins on the first day of school, when one of his students has been chased up the wrestling team's climbing rope and falls to his death...a comedy, but not exactly lighthearted.

    Last question: What are the last three books you read that you didn't write? And why did you read them?
    I recently finished Tim Dorsey's Hurricane Punch, a comic novel about a serial killer caught up in hurricane season. I really liked the energy and frantic pace of the story. Another was Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones, because I'm attracted to novels set on Pacific islands. I'm not a fan of the last forty pages, but it's a beautiful story and the violence is raw and perfect. And I just reread John Irving's The Water-Method Man, something I do about every two years. Irving has a way of developing characters that's unequaled.

    If I haven't asked a question you want answered, please add whatever you would like here.
    I was just kidding about wearing a dress to Pizza Hut. Not that there'd be anything wrong with it...

    The Bear in a Muddy Tutu is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

    If you read my blog post reviewing Cole's book and liked it, please "Share" it on Facebook. Ditto this interview. All writers have to support each other.

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    The Bear in a Muddy Tutu by Cole Alpaugh

    Quirky. That's the first word that comes to mind when you pick up The Bear in a Muddy Tutu. I would have picked this up based on the title alone. (Disclosure: Both Cole Alpaugh and I are represented by the same literary agent, Dawn Dowdle. That does not mean I like every book she represents.)

    I was hooked by the first chapter. I couldn't believe any writer could create a character like Billy Wayne Hooduk, a fat loser of a man who was bullied throughout school and who had to take care of his even fatter mother. He's a loser until he finds a book in the library that he uses to map out his life: How to Become a Cult Leader in 50 Easy Steps. With no training, Billy Wayne sets out to change his life by becoming said cult leader.

    Through a quirk of fate, one of many, Billy Wayne stops to see a traveling circus in Atlantic City. When the human cannonball falls short of his landing net, and when the circus owners are mauled by a tiger, Billy Wayne shoots the tiger. The circus is run out of town, Billy Wayne leading the trucks to a muddy bit of tidal land he'd discovered the day before. He believes he's found his "flock."

    Add to the cult leader a wanna-be bear trainer named Slim Weatherwax (am I the only one who found the similarity between Lassie's trainer Rudd Weatherwax more than a coincidence?) and the title character, a toothless bear named Graceful Gracie. Add to this a misnamed laid-off reporter, Lennon Bagg. Misnamed? Yes, his hippie, commune-living father thought he was naming his son after Vladimir Lenin, but was too stoned to spell Lenin correctly. So Lennon Bagg goes through life named after a Beatle, not a Marxist revolutionary.

    The quirks continue, with the reader becoming privy to Graceful Gracie's thoughts. We get inside the head of the bear, who turns out to be a softy and who loves her pink tutu. And yes, she dances.

    The cast of characters also includes a man who is terrified of gravity, a man who's been struck by lightning a dozen times, an asthmatic lion, a drunk warden who once had an affair with Billy Wayne's mother. Quirky.

    The plot is straight-forward. Billy Wayne searches for a home and thinks he's found it with the circus. Lennon searches for his daughter, snatched after a bitter divorce by an equally bitter ex-wife. Gracie searches for anything good to eat. And Lennon's daughter, who thinks her father is dead, talks to birds in an effort to find him.

    I have no idea how to classify this book. It's fiction, unless the writer actually ran away to join the circus. Which I doubt.

    I won't give away the ending. It's too quirky not to unfold for every reader. I'll leave the review with this: if you like something offbeat, impossible to classify, filled with characters unlike any you've ever met, and a quirky plot, you'll like The Bear in a Muddy Tutu. If not, skip this book. It's not for you.

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Ferrum College Women's Leadership Conference

    I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the 14th Annual Ferrum College Women's Leadership Conference on Saint Patrick's Day. This year's theme was Empowering Self and Others: Building Social Networks.

    On first blush, you might think this was all about FAcebook and Twitter. It wasn't, although both tools played into the discussions.

    Beth Macy, feature writer for Roanoke Times, addressed the value of face-to-face human contact. As a feature writer, she knows she gets her best material sitting in someone's kitchen, asking questions, listening and taking notes. Her social networks are up front and in person.

    Carrie Smith Schmidt also addressed the human connection in social networking. Her remarks reiterated the importance of personal networks and mentors. Without people who helped her career through the US Department of Agriculture, she might not have been able to use her degrees in animal science and agriculture. A woman studying science at a time when that "just wasn't done," Schmidt carved a career path that now has her working with farmers for the USDA Rural Development program in Virginia.

    Two different looks at social networking were featured in panel discussions in the afternoon. "Intergenerational Impacts of Social Networks" featured a panel of students, a young business woman and two grandparents. All used the standard networking tools, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all for different reasons, although a couple panelists were still befuddled by the necessity to "tweet."

    The last panel on "Art, Literature and Music: Creative Networks in SW Virginia" brought together representatives of the Crooked Trail, the Blue Ridge Institute, the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge, and the Valley Writers chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. The latter would be moi. I emphasized that as a writer your blog, your Facebook entries and your tweets all form part of your resume.

    And that brought me to an interesting question: how will today's text-addicted youth interview for a job? Will they be able to make eye contact, shake a hand, ignore the smart phone buzzing in a pocket? Or with they be so numbed by lives of multi-tasking distraction they won't be able to respond to questions that will open or close doors to their future? Sounds like a good essay to me.

    Hats off to Nell Frederickson and all of the rest of the staff at Ferrum College for putting on a terrific program. I think faculty, students and the public heard a consistent theme: networking, no matter what the medium, is essential in career and life. Don't blow it.

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    Writing About Handling Grief

    I find it hard to know how far to go in writing about grief in fiction. Too little, and the rendition is shallow. Too much, and it's maudlin. I struggle with finding the balance, as I think many writers do. I began reading more books, mostly memoirs, by people who have struggled with grieving and moving on. Two I have returned to many times.

    Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt is his touching, funny and sad story of losing his daughter when she suddenly drops dead on the treadmill of an asymptomatic heart condition. She leaves three young children and a bewildered husband, who finds his life to be impossible. Rosenblatt and his wife move into the in-law apartment in their son-in-law's house to help raise three children. Rosenblatt himself had travelled as a journalist and, as a result, had been away too much to help with the day-to-day rearing of his own children. He masters one task in his new life: making toast every morning to meet the different and exacting demands of the children.

    His story provides a guide to managing a new life against the darkness of loss. It is filled with vignettes of how he learns as much about himself as he does about his grandchildren.

    Joan Didion was eating dinner one evening when her husband died at the table of a stroke. In The Year of Magical Thinking she discusses her denial of what happened with living a life without her husband. Again Didion's writing honestly of her pain and grief is offset by snippets of humor.

    Not to make light of real grief and loss, I too struggled with how much to show when Mad Max loses her daughter in Book 1 of the Mad Max Mystery series. How do I convey the depth of her denial and pain? How do I lighten the mood for the children? I didn't want the book to descend into darkness and stay there, but I wanted the darkness to be just under the surface, ready to re-emerge when needed.

    Now as I edit Book 2, the darkness is still there, sometimes discussed, never forgotten. A different kind of darkness enters Book 2. In one episode, Max confronts a memory from her childhood she would rather forget. It forms how she reacts when one of her grandchildren is put in jeopardy.

    Last year, one member of my writing group gave me great advice. He told me I had to go to the "dark places within" and return to use the emotions to show what my main character was enduring. I'd rather not do that; however, he is right. I can take inspiration from others who have published guideposts on managing grief, but I can never make it feel real to my readers without returning from my own dark places.

    Why didn't I decide to be a humor writer?

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    Incredible! In-freakin'-credible! Rebecca Skloot's tale of Henrietta Lacks reads like a mystery, a thriller, and in a way a love story.

    The mystery: how could a woman's cancerous cells be harvested and used for medical research without her knowledge? Skloot shows us how the law changed since the early 1950s when the white medical community experimented on black and Hispanic patients without telling them what was happening. Take an undereducated populace without the rights the majority enjoyed, and the possibility of an Island of Dr. Moreau rises. Skloot rightly points out that laws now protect patients' rights, but we still don't "own" any medical tissues removed from our bodies.

    The thriller: how can one woman's harvested cells help develop treatments from such things as AIDS? A doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested cells, sent them to another doctor who cultured them in a lab and named them HeLa. The family had no idea about the initial cell removal, the cells' use in medical research, who profited, who didn't. All the family knew was that they didn't profit. No evil spies ran around trying to steal the cells. Anyone can order them through the Internet for very little money. The family thought they had been wronged but didn't have the means to prove it. One thing they wanted was acknowledgment of their mother's and grandmother's real name. Misidentified for decades, the woman from whom the HeLa cells were cultured is Henrietta Lacks. No other name is right.

    The love story: when Skloot set out to right the wrong, she eventually joined forces with Henrietta's daughter Dorothy to uncover the whole story. This is a love-hate relationship. Dorothy doesn't fully trust this young white woman who's poking around in her family's past. Skloot wins her over, but the relationship is never without tension. Will Dorothy drop Skloot? And why? Like many of our friendships, we don't always trust completely, but we can relate with respect and friendship. At times, Dorothy trusts Skloot; at times she doesn't. But Skloot never stops trying to tell the story.

    This is a book you can't put down. Well written, fast paced, it reads more like a novel than a scientific biography. Skloot put her money where her mouth is: she established a scholarship fund for the offspring of Henrietta Lacks. The rest of us benefit from the medical research done using her immortal cells.