Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Neighbors

I was thinking a few days ago about neighbors. I grew up in a smaller town in North Texas. I can picture our street, and still recall the names (and, in most cases, the faces) of everyone who lived for about a half-mile or more in every direction from our house. Although pick-up trucks weren't as common then as they are now (at least in Texas), it seemed that everyone who drove any kind of a vehicle carried both a tow rope or chain and a set of jumper cables. And, not only did they know how to use them, they were willing to unlimber them to help out neighbors.

I tried to put names to our neighbors here, but beyond those who are immediately on either side of our house or across the street, I couldn't do it. Oh, I know the faces of almost everyone on our block--I see them when I walk or go to the mailbox--but I don't know the names. Some have moved to be replaced by others whose names I don't know. Some keep to themselves. It's a different society now.

People are not "neighborly" like folks used to be. We don't have a tow rope or chain in our cars. We could put our hands on some jumper cables if necessary, but it would take a bit of time before we recalled exactly how to use them. We'd rather call AAA.

I don't know if it's a function of living in a larger city or the evolution of our society, but things have changed. I sort of miss those earlier days. How about you?

Friday, January 18, 2019

Writing: More Things An Author Needs To Know

Here are a few more of the things an author needs to avoid--call them rules, call them suggestions, but they're important if you want to be successful in writing.

1. Using passive words and construction: Active verbs tend to involve the reader. Writing in the passive voice is generally to be avoided.

2. Generalization: Avoid "things" and similar words. Be specific and concrete. If you can't think of a word, use a thesaurus or dictionary. Don't make your reader guess.

3. Telling instead of showing: The classic example is Chekhov, who said not to tell him the moon was shining, but to show the glitter on the water. (He also said that if a gun is mentioned early on, it later should be fired).

4. Neglecting transitions: Avoid jerkiness. One paragraph should flow seamlessly into the next.

5. Not reading your work aloud: This not only helps see whether the work needs further editing, but is especially helpful in determining whether what you're writing would do well in an audio version.

6. Overuse of dialogue tags: "Said" is a perfectly good word. The use of "...interjected" or "...exclaimed" or "...whispered" calls to mind rule #3. Let your words show emotion, rather than describing them.

7. Not inviting or accepting criticism: Some authors don't let anyone read their work until it's finished. Others use beta-readers or critique groups. But, even though writing is a lonely business, get another set of eyes (maybe several) on your work...and then listen to it. This varies with the expertise of the person giving the critique, but if two or three experienced readers say it should be changed, then change it.

What do you think? Have you seen writers flaunt these suggestions? Did they get away with it?

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Being A Hero

I'm not a hero, and by no means am I a superhero.  I don't drive a Batmobile or search the night sky for the Bat-Signal indicating that I'm needed. I don't wear a big red "S" on my chest, nor fear Kryptonite. I'm simply a guy who tries his best (often failing at it along the way).

You may have heard the saying: "No man is a hero to his valet." There is a difference of opinion as to the original author of this, but the meaning is pretty clear. Some of us see only the public personna, the person who sees us most of the time, often at our most vulnerable, gets the best view of the real "us." And it sometimes scares us that, wish as we might, we're not a hero.

One reason I don't always like social media was probably best-voiced by Pastor Steven Furtick. "The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." Some people look at our public image and think we're doing well, that everything is going smoothly. But to our husband or wife, our family, our close friends, we're just a person, one with faults. Sure, we try to correct them, but we know more are coming.

It's not that we're a hero. It's that we keep trying. And those closest to us love us...warts and all.

NOTE: Have one ARC (advanced reading copy) of my latest novella, Emergency Case. I'll give it, signed, to a randomly chosen commenter (must leave an email address for me to contact them). Contest ends Jan 20th.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Writing: Things An Author Needs To Know

One of the debates among neophyte writers is whether or not there are "rules." I think they're suggestions, and following them won't get you published. But you need to know them and keep them in mind as you write. I've said that Picasso can put lips and ears wherever he wants to, although I'll bet he knows where they should be and why he goes against convention.

I don't know the source of these (sorry), but they've been hanging above my computer since early on. There are 15, and I read them frequently. Here are some things to avoid, with my comments.

1. Overwriting: Mark Twain said, "Never use a dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do." My first reader always cautions me to omit things that slow the reader down. One of those is having to look up the meaning of a word. Don't use fancy or long words to show how smart you are.

2. Using unnecessary words: Write long, and then take out the unnecessary words...or even scenes. If it doesn't move the action forward or convey emotion, why include it? As has been said, fiction is everyday stuff with the hum-drum removed. Elmore Leonard indicated he tried to take out what most people skip. My question--why put it in?

3. Using cliches, platitudes, qualifiers, jargon and overdone words: One of the first things my agent called to my attention was the use of cliches. This led me to remove them and substitute better words--which, I suppose, might someday become cliches, but they'd be mine. Seriously, keep your reader on their feet, don't put them to sleep.

4. Using long, run-on sentences: I'll admit that I'm fond of compound sentences--two parts, joined by "and" or "but," but I try not to make them too long. (See what I did there?) If your paragraph is really just a long sentence, break it up.

5. Using too many adjectives and adverbs: Go to Elements of Style and you'll read that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. Keep the use of their assistants down in order to give punchy sentences that carry your thoughts. Don't say he ran swiftly. Say that he sprinted. And indicate that he was breathless with the effort.

6. Not varying sentence length: If sentences are all the same length, they eventually put the reader to sleep. (That's my justification for throwing in a compound sentences every once in a while). This is a great reason to read your work aloud. Vary the rhythm.

7. Not explaining your terms: Since I write medical fiction, I have to explain many of the terms I use. However, you get tired of reading (and writing), "By this, he meant..." The author has to be creative, but the end result will be better. Readers aren't stupid...but they hate to read with a dictionary or thesaurus by their side.

That's about half of these "rules" or "suggestions." Do you think they're self-evident? Or have you encountered instances where the author should have followed them more?

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Posting Elsewhere Today

It almost sneaked up on us. I was going to do a guest post on Seekerville, but the hostess and I decided that "after the holidays" was the best time. Then she sent me a message toward the end of last week, reminding me that it was now "after the holidays." So I did a post, which you should be able to read (sometime today) here. It has to do with new year's resolutions. If you leave a comment there (not here--sorry, those don't count), you'll be in the running for a print or Kindle version of my latest novella, Emergency Case.

Hope you'll come back on Friday, when I'll talk about all the things a writer (either traditionally or indie published) needs to learn.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Writing: Changing Genres

Most folks feel, I guess, that once a writer is picked up by a publishing house, they have it made. A look at my own publishing history shows that this doesn't always work out. As in sports, the business world, and just about anything else, the key phrase is, "What have you done for me lately?"

Even if a writer has a certain amount of success (I have twelve novels and five novellas to my credit), there's always the trepidation that comes by changing genres. An author has built up a following by writing the same type of novels over the years, but there's that itch every once in a while to do something a bit different. If you do it, will your fans stick with you, or will this turn them off? Even if you--as I have--decide to break away from traditional publishing houses and publish independently, you worry about this phenomenon.

Some of you may recall the story of how I was signed by my agent, Rachelle Gardner. That first line with which I won her contest has lived on my computer for many years now. I've developed a story around it, and the more I refined it, the better I liked it. But I kept hearing the caution, "This doesn't read like a Richard Mabry story." I've rejected publishing it under a pseudonym--if I'm going to fail, let me fail under my own name. It's still medical, there's still an element of mystery, but there's no romance. Instead, it deals with three people (a female physician, a doctor who's entered the pastorate, and a man who heals people at his services) and how their lives change and become intertwined.

So what's your opinion? Which is more important--the author or the genre? Is an author taking too big a chance when he/she goes a bit outside the genre they're identified with? I'd truly like to know.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2019

A New Year

We've made it through the holidays, and now it's time to look ahead to 2019. (It's hard to get used to that number). This is the time of year when everyone looks at the extra few pounds they've put on and decides to do something about it--join a health club, start walking regularly, avoid the scales. Whatever.

One thing I am considering doing was brought home to me by the myriad of people who sent me (and probably everyone else on their FB friends list) a message, especially those with attached images. I don't open those (I've been told they sometimes contain viruses) but it's made me look carefully at my "friends" list. Unfortunately, when I click those names, I often end up wondering, "Who are these folks?"

Yes, authors are encouraged to maintain a social media presence, but sometimes I wonder why. So I'm looking more carefully at the requests I get. This is a nice chance to connect with some people that I've let slip by me, but it's hard to accept the friendship of someone whose major connection is  two mutual friends with me, neither of whom I know.

What about you? Are you going to clean up your FB friends list as we start this year? Why or why not? Let me know.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year

As has been our custom for quite some time, we will probably usher in the New Year at about 10:30 Central time from our living room (or, more likely, our bed).  We've often said that New Year's Eve is amateur night, and we don't care to participate. Whatever time zone you're in and however you plan to mark the exit of the old year and entrance of the new--happy new year. 

Thanks to each of you who've made this "second profession" of writing an interesting and (mostly) pleasant experience for me. After leaving medicine after so many decades, I probably would have been bored with inactivity.

I'll be back on Friday. Meanwhile, however you celebrate it, here's hoping 2019 is great for you.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas, 2018

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned... For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."


May you have God's peace in your heart, not just as you celebrate Christ's birthday, but every day in the year to come. Merry Christmas.

My blog will resume after the first of the year. Enjoy the holiday break.

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Texas Christmas

Note that my post on writing will be up sometime today on the Southern Writers Magazine blog. I hope you'll read it.

Meanwhile, I've had several requests to republish this. Hope it makes the Christmas season more real for you.  It did for me while I was writing it. 

The young couple knew the long trip would be difficult, but it was the Depression, and although there was no work in the small Texas town where they had started their married life, the husband had heard of work in California. So they packed up their car, praying that it would hold up for the trip. The wife’s father slipped a couple of crumpled bills into her hand and said, “In case of emergency, Honey.” Her mother stood nearby, twisting her apron, obviously worrying about her daughter but just as obviously trying not to show it.

The couple used up the last of the daylight driving. They had reached deep West Texas when they realized it was time to stop for the night. “We can’t spare the money for a hotel,” the husband said. “I’m going to see if the folks at one of these farms will put us up for the night.”

They pushed on between pastures marked by sagging barbed wire, the road a winding black ribbon in the flickering yellow headlights. At last the driver spied a cluster of lights in the distance. “I’ll try there.”

The man who came to the door wore overalls and a gray, long-sleeved undershirt. He didn’t seem to take to the idea of this couple spending the night, but his wife came up behind him and said, “Oh, can’t you see she’s pregnant. The hands are out in the north pasture with the herd, and the bunkhouse is empty. Let them stay there.”

In the middle of the night, the young husband was awakened by his wife’s cries. “I’m in labor.”

“But, you’re not due until—“

“Just get help. Please.”

He did. In a few minutes, the rancher’s wife bustled in, laden with towels and blankets. “Just put that down,” she said to her husband, who trailed her carrying a bucket of hot water in one hand. “Then you two men get out.”

Soon, the men tired of waiting outside and the rancher grudgingly invited the stranger into the kitchen. They’d almost exhausted a pot of extra strong coffee when they heard a faint cry. Then, “You men can come back now.”

The two men were halfway to the bunkhouse, following the faint light of a kerosene lantern, when three weary cowboys rode up and climbed off their mounts. “We saw lights on here. What’s going on?”
            
“Come and see,” the young husband said. And they did. 

When he saw the mother holding a wrinkled, fussing newborn close to her, the gruff old rancher turned to his wife and said, “Well, Mother, I’m glad you talked me into letting these folks stay.”

“We had to,” she said. “It was a wonderful gift for me, seeing that little baby born. Who knows? Maybe he’ll grow up to be someone special.”

Now imagine that the scene wasn’t West Texas, it was Bethlehem. It didn’t take place in a bunkhouse, it occurred in a stable. And it wasn’t just a baby—this was God’s own Son--the Christ child was God in blue jeans, as one of my friends puts it. Does that make it more real to you? I hope so.

During this season, as you think about Jesus’ birth, don’t put him in spotless white swaddling clothes in the middle of a Christmas card. Picture him in the most humble surroundings your imagination can conjure up, the Son of God Himself in a diaper, born to give each of us the best gift we could ever imagine. 

Merry Christmas. 

See you next year.