Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019

Thursday is Thanksgiving. The day means different things to different people. To some people, it means turkey, dressing, and Mom's sweet potato casserole. For others it's a day spent in front of the TV set watching football. To many, it's a day to be with family.

Unfortunately, for some it's another day of wondering where they'll sleep, what they'll eat, how they'll stay warm and dry. We are blessed people. Give thanks, but also plan to do something for someone less fortunate. Pay it forward. You'll be glad you did.

May I wish you and yours a wonderful and meaningful Thanksgiving. I'll be back next Tuesday.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Writing: It's A Team Game

We've all heard the saying,  "It takes a village." This is--rightly--applied to writing a book. But until recently, I never thought about this sports analogy. It fits, and perhaps it will be meaningful to some of you.

If you watch football, how many times have you seen the place kicker receive congratulations when kicking a particularly difficult field goal? Sure, he swung his leg--got the ball over the outstretched hands of the defensive line, kicked it far enough and true enough to reach the goal posts and go through. But did you ever think of the other members of the team?

Who was the long-snapper for your team? How important was his contribution? How about the holder? Sometimes that snap isn't exactly where it should be, and it's up to the holder to grab it and get it down (while turning the laces toward the goal--I still marvel at that). And I'll bet you don't know who the people are who face the onslaught of the defense. It might surprise you that many of your favorite players--good people in their own right--are on that field goal team, often at their own request.

So, just as it takes a village to raise a child, just as it takes a whole team to account for that important field goal or extra point, it takes a number of people, working together, to publish that book that sits on your beside table. Think of that the next time you pick it up.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Early Christmas Gift

We're coming up on the holidays, and I want to give you an early gift. Here's a short story I wrote some time ago. I hope you enjoy it. (If you prefer another format, try this link).

                      “JUST LOOKING FOR A DRINK…”
            “Easy does it.”
            “One day at a time.”
            “I’ve got a hundred days now.”
            Those folks don’t make sense. I’m not sure I want what they’re servin’ in there. The man hesitated for a moment more, but thirst and need proved too strong. Walking like a sailor on a rolling deck, he crossed the sidewalk and descended the cement steps, holding tight with both hands to the rusty iron rail, setting an unsteady course for the door that stood half ajar at the bottom of the stairway.  From the street above him, he could still hear snatches of banter from the group that had just left the bar, or club, or whatever it was.  Just as long as I can get a drink, I’m not particular where I get it.  And this is the only place on the block that looks like it's open.
            At the bottom of the stairway, he grasped the vertical bar that served as a door handle, steadied himself, and surveyed his surroundings.  Glass in the window, covered on the inside by a cloth shade.  There was no neon sign, no sign of any kind, nothing to indicate what lay behind the door.  But in the past year or two, he’d learned to recognize two things: people who drink and places that serve them.  The group that had streamed out of this door had the happy, “nothin’s gonna bother me” attitude seen in many of the former group, and the dirty stairwell where he now stood certainly reminded him of some of the lower-class dives where he’d sometimes tried to slake his thirst.
            He pulled back the shabby cuff of his once-white shirt, only to remember that his watch now lay in the window of a nearby pawnshop.  Dredging up remnants of a dignity he’d thought long forgotten, he rubbed his scuffed shoes on the back of his pants, straightened the mismatched suit coat he wore, and swung open the door, prepared to try to con the bartender or whomever he could find out of a drink.  Just one to keep me going.  I’m gonna have some money in a day or so, and I can pay for it then.
            “Help you?”  The speaker was an older white man, clad in tan chinos and a black tee shirt.  Maybe he was a janitor, since he was holding a broom in one hand.  He stood in the far corner of the room, where a coffee urn sat on a workstation next to a once-white sink with a rust-colored stain running from the base of the single faucet into the strainerless drain.
            Where’s the bartender?  Matter of fact, where’s the bar?  
            “Can I help you?” the man at the urn asked again.  The blank look he received in return apparently caused him concern, because he leaned the broom against a wall before striding across the room, the vigor of his movements a sign that he was perhaps younger than his physical appearance indicated.  He placed his hands on the shoulder of the stranger and said gently, “Are you all right?  Here.” He pulled out a chair from the stack behind him, and pushed it forward.  “Sit down.  Let me get you some coffee.”
            The offer of coffee stirred the man to action.  “No, no coffee.  Whiskey.  I need a drink.  Can’t pay you until tomorrow, maybe the next day, but I need a drink now.”
            “Sit down,” said his host, and gently pushed him until he settled in the chair. “I think you’re a little drunk, and more whiskey’s certainly not what you need.”  He chuckled, adding, “Besides that, I’d think an AA meeting’s the last place in the world anyone would come expecting to find a drink.”
            “Isn’t this a bar?  Or a club? Or a speakeasy?  I’ve walked for six blocks, and this is the only place that looks open.  I’ve gotta have a drink.”
            “Easy, now.  Let me get you some coffee, and we can talk about it.”  He put out his hand, and said, “I’m Ron.”
            Social niceties learned at an early age rose to the surface through some atavistic instinct, and the stranger took the outstretched hand, rose unsteadily, and said, “Mike.”  Then he settled slowly back into the chair like a parade balloon leaking helium. 
            Ron nodded as though he’d just learned something of deepest import.  He moved to the coffee urn and filled two Styrofoam cups.  He paused as though considering what he might have forgotten, then nodded in silent affirmation of his decision.  He set the cups back down and scooped up a handful of sugar cookies from the mound that spilled through the split sides of a package on the sidebar.  He placed the cookies carefully on a napkin, then turned and called to Mike, “Cream and sugar?”
Mike continued to sit silently with his head in his hands. Ron shrugged and added two spoonsful of sugar and a dollop of milk to one of the cups.  The cookies in one hand, the two Styrofoam cups balanced tenuously in the other, he returned to Mike’s side.
            “Feeling a little rocky?”  There was genuine concern in Ron’s voice.  As Mike looked up, Ron held out one of the cups.  Mike took it, grasping it in both hands, hands that shook enough to spill a bit of the hot coffee onto them.
            “Ow,” he said.  But he continued to hold onto the cup and took a tentative sip.
            Ron handed him a napkin and offered the sugar cookies.  “You’ll find that a little sugar helps with that craving you’re feeling now,” he said.  “They’re stale, but if you dunk them in the coffee they’re not bad.”
            Mike accepted the proffered cookies and chewed tentatively on one, quickly washing it down with a sip of coffee, followed by another exclamation. “That’s hot.”
            “Blow on it for a minute,” said Ron.  “And dunk this next cookie to soften it.”
            Mike complied, and managed to get the cookie down.  He took a tiny sip of coffee, and when he didn’t end up with further burns in his mouth, he drank more.  “That coffee’s not half bad.”
            “AA meetings run on strong coffee, stale cookies, and cigarettes,” Ron observed. “I suppose that if AA stopped having these gatherings, Phillip Morris would go into bankruptcy, the Keebler elves would be looking for a new line of work, and Juan Valdez would be standing on a street corner somewhere begging for handouts in order to feed his donkey.”  He laughed at his joke, but stopped when he saw that Mike wasn’t paying attention. 
            “Mike, what can I do to help you?”
            Mike roused himself and took another long sip of coffee.  He was beginning to lose the buzz he’d worked so hard to maintain. Coffee wasn’t what he needed. “You wouldn’t have just a bit of whiskey to put in this?  Maybe some brandy? Some schnapps?”  
            Ron shook his head.  “Mike, why is liquor so important to you that it drove you out after midnight looking for a drink?”  He took another chair from the stack, set it down, and straddled it backwards so he was facing Mike.  He leaned forward with his arms on the back of the chair, and said earnestly, “How about telling me?  I’m a good listener.”
            “Not much to tell.”  Mike’s words were less slurred, and seemed to come more easily to him now.  “You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I used to be somebody.”  He nodded toward the outside door.  “Out there, lots of folks knew me. Big man in investment banking, taking care of the high rollers’ accounts.  Then....” His voice trailed off, and he sat mute, apparently lost in memories.
            “But…” Ron prompted.  “That’s the way testimonies at AA meetings generally go.  It’s always, ‘I had a life, but…’ There’s always a ‘but.’”
            “Hey, I didn’t come here for a meeting.  I just wanted a drink.”
            Ron raised his hands defensively.  “Sorry.  No, this isn’t a meeting—just two guys talking.  Go on.”
            Mike was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and continued. “Yeah, you’re right.  My particular ‘but…’ was when I got a stock tip that couldn’t miss.  It was close to being insider trading, but nobody could ever prove it, so I took the risk. And here’s the ‘but.’ I was short on cash, so I dipped into some of the trust accounts I managed.  You can guess what happened.”
            Ron nodded.  “Yeah, I can guess.  The ‘can’t miss’ tip missed, and you couldn’t cover the shortage in the accounts.”
            Mike nodded, then shook his head as though to cast out the memories there.  
            “So, you had to ‘borrow’ from some other accounts to make up for what you’d done,” Ron said.  “And you were caught.  Is that it?”
            “No.”  Mike’s reply was delivered in a soft voice, totally devoid of emotion.  “No,” he repeated.  “I wish it were that simple.  Then I’d be just another white-collar criminal.”
            Neither man moved or spoke, the silence hanging like a veil between them.  Finally, Mike went on.  “My wife’s parents were killed in a boating accident.  He was a lawyer, very successful west coast practice, very wealthy. All their money came to my wife. She never touched it, called it our 'nest egg.'”  Mike stifled a sob.  “I forged her name, almost cleaned out her accounts to replace the money I’d…the money I’d stolen.”
            The rest of the story poured out then.  His theft was discovered, his wife refused to press charges.  Instead, she divorced him, moving halfway across the country with their two-year-old son.  “Nobody at work ever knew about what I did.  But my life fell apart anyway.”
            The story he related was a familiar one, simple but heartbreaking. He sold their house and sent the money to his wife.  Coming home to an empty apartment every night was too much for him. He turned to alcohol, mainly at night initially, drinking himself into oblivion, with a nip during the day, just to get through. 
            “You can guess the rest,” Mike concluded.  “I lost my job.  I managed to get by, at first by borrowing from friends.  They gave me money because they knew I couldn’t pay them back, so I’d avoid them.  That was just their way of getting rid of me.”
            Ron looked carefully at the man who sat beside him.  “And you’ve pawned some things, I’d imagine.”
            “I’ve scrabbled to get by.  Yeah, at first I pawned some things. That wasn’t enough, so I did some shoplifting and sold the stuff.  Now I even sell my blood.”  Mike brightened.  “It’s been long enough that I should be able to sell another pint tomorrow. Then I’ll have a little money.  Is there someplace I can get a drink, just to help me get through the night?”  He lowered his head, and said softly, “I rolled a wino a couple of blocks up the street and stole his bottle of Thunderbird, but it’s starting to wear off.  I need something to block it all out.  Just for a few hours.  Just for one more night.”
            “Mike, you think something’s missing from your life, and it is.  But it’s more than your family, more than your job.  Lots of folks face those losses, and are able to move on.  You need something more.  You need--“
            “Pastor, I’m finished setting up for tomorrow morning’s service.” Mike hadn’t noticed the open doorway on the far wall. Beyond the doorless aperture was a stairway, shrouded in shadow.  An elderly black man emerged from the darkness and addressed Ron. “I’m leaving now.”  
            “Thanks, John.  I’ll see you in the morning.”
            Mike pulled back as though he'd touched a live wire.  "You're not an alcoholic.  This is a church, and you're the preacher."  Mike pushed back his chair, knocking it to the floor and spilling his coffee.  "I'm out of here."
            Ron shook his head.  "No, Mike.  You're only partly right.  This is a church, and I'm the pastor, but that's not why I was down here tonight."  In a voice that was hardly audible, he continued, "I'm an alcoholic. Even though I haven't had a drink for five years, I'm still an alcoholic.  I'll be one until I die, but I hope to die sober."
            Ron remained sitting, with his head bowed. Mike stood over him like a priest about to absolve a penitent. Somehow, in that instant, their roles seemed to have been reversed.
            "If you're an alcoholic, why are you still a pastor?" Mike finally asked.
            Ron looked up with sadness in his eyes.  "You may have noticed that this church isn't exactly in the richest part of the city.  There are plenty of people in the congregation with problems like mine.  Some are alcoholics, some have been in jail, a lot of them have broken marriages.  Almost everyone has problems if you look deep enough. These people feel like everybody deserves a second chance, and that's what they gave me." He unfolded his lanky frame from the chair and stood looking into Mike's eyes.  "Let me help you.  You deserve a second chance, too.  God can forgive you for what you’ve become, what you’ve done. You can start over with a clean slate.  How about it?"
Mike didn’t answer.
Ron motioned to him. "Let's go upstairs to my office. We can talk about this some more."
            Mike's mind raced, or at least churned as fast as his rapidly diminishing blood alcohol level would allow. He glanced at the door leading to the street.  I was just looking for a drink. I can go back out that door, and I'll bet I can find a bar still open. That's what I need, just one more drink.
            Then he turned to look at Ron, who was now standing beside the open doorway leading upward, beckoning to him. "You can have a new life, starting now.  Just follow me."
            Mike hesitated for a moment more before making his choice. He set his cup on the floor, squared his shoulders, and moved toward the door he'd chosen.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Two stories appeared in the inside pages of the local newspaper the next day.
            BAR ROBBERY FOILED, ONE DEAD. An attempted robbery at the Idle Hour Bar, located at the corner of Twelfth and Center, ended in gunfire that left one man dead. According to witnesses...

            ROBBERY AT CHURCH, ONE KILLED. A thief entered the Metropolitan Congregational Church at 1205 Center around midnight last night. Authorities say he fled with money from the church office, but not before he shot the two men who were sitting in the pastor's study, killing one. The survivor, whose wounds were serious but not life-threatening, was identified as…

Friday, November 15, 2019

Writing: Audio Books

I'm happy to announce that an audio version of my novella, Bitter Pill, is available. Just in time for Christmas gift-giving--isn't that a coincidence? Actually, it isn't, of course.

Audio books are really taking off, and I figured I might as well join the fun. I discovered that many of my earlier novels are available as audio books, and I've tried to make sure that  all of my novellas (for which I hold the rights) are likewise offered in this mode (as well as print and e-book formats).

For authors out there who have not investigated this, let me say that the first thing to do is consider whether your work was offered under contract with a publisher. If that is the case, your agent can speak with your editor about their hiring a narrator/producer to do your book, but you won't have any say-so (except maybe some input when it comes to choosing a narrator). If your book was self-published (ie, "indie" published) then it's up to you to make it available in audio format.

How do I do it. And is this expensive? Go to this link to find out. If you don't mind making the initial outlay (and producer/narrators vary in what they charge), the rest is easily done. It's still up to you to make certain the finished product is acceptable, but you get the royalties.

If you don't mind sharing royalties, and can find someone to do your book (and be certain you're happy with them, of course) using a royalty-sharing set-up, they'll get half the royalties. There's no initial outlay using this method. Of course, you're still out the cost of a cover, but this can be made from the original book cover with very little trouble.

Anyway, I'd recommend that authors look into making their book available in all formats--and this includes audio. I think you'll be glad you did.

Do you like audio books? Are your friends/family into them? Or are they just a passing fad?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interesting Rule

In our day to day lives, we all observe rules--sometimes we call them laws, sometimes suggestions, but whatever we call them, they're there to keep our lives orderly. Many of these "rules" we learn in early life as we learn to speak the language, so they are so ingrained that we don't even this about them. Recently I heard about a rule which I've been observing most of my life without realizing it. And I'll bet that you have incorporated it into your speech as well.

I'm told that this rule used to be taught in school, although I don't recall Ms. Billie Casey doing so, and I consider my education to be pretty complete. When describing something in detail, we often observe an order (although we may not realize it). That order is usually opinion, size, shape, color, origin, purpose. So if I ask if you've seen the ugly, oversized, rectangular, dark brown purse it sounds better than pointing out the dark brown, overly-large, rectangular ugly purse. We don't think of the rule. It just sounds right the first way.

Do you agree with this rule? Why, or why not? What other "rules" can you think of that we observe without thinking of them? I'd like to know.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans' Day, 2019

Today is Veterans' Day. It had its beginning as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, commemorating the armistice that was signed to end the first world war--at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year.

Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, and should not be confused with Memorial Day, which honors those who died while in military service. I'm proud to have served, and always feel a special thrill when someone recognizes that I'm a veteran and thanks me for my service--even though it was quite a while ago.

We'll fly our flag today, as we do every day. Because brave men and women fought for our right to do so. When you see a veteran today, thank him or her for their service. It will bring a smile to your face and theirs.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Writing: The Ear Knows

Ever see a word or phrase written and immediately think, "That doesn't seem right?" Then, when you say it out loud, you find you're correct. We learn a language by seeing it, by hearing it, and by repeating it. And our ears gradually learn what is correct--and incorrect--grammar. For this, as well as other reasons, the ultimate test of what we've written is, "How does it sound?"

This was brought home to me by listening to a book I have written, as preparation for putting out an audio version. I have to confess that I often write what sounds right in my head, but then when I hear the narrator say it, I think, "You know, I could have expressed that better."

There are many ways to self-edit your book, but the one that most of us skip is probably the most effective one--reading the book aloud. It will often pick up errors in writing that we tend to skim right over when simply looking at the written words.

Authors, have you found reading your manuscript aloud to be helpful? Or, as is the case with some of us, was it too much trouble? Let me know what you think about this technique.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Christmas is A-Comin' (Already?)

Wow, here it is November already--and (no surprise), I haven't done my Christmas shopping. My wife has started, and I'll probably depend on her to guide me through the maze.

Since we have family in Texas (near and not-quite so), Virginia, and Nevada, we'll probably expect them to visit us sometime between Thanksgiving and sometime in 2020, but the days of having everyone together for Christmas are probably gone. But we'll be glad to see them, whenever they come.

How about you? Are you looking forward to shopping? Do you still send Christmas cards? Will you celebrate on one day or a bunch of them? Let me know.

PS (commercial announcement): for those of you who like to give (or receive) books for Christmas, you might want to consult this catalog for ideas. (Hint: Bitter Pill is on p. 23, and the catalog URL is  https://joom.ag/M3Se). If you or a friend are into audio books, there'll soon be an audio version of Bitter Pill.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Writing: Questions For An Author

I thought that perhaps it was time to give you some of the questions and answers that go with the writing business.

How to you get your ideas?

I used to say from “ideas.com” until I found there really is such a site. The truth, as is true for most writers, is that I take the things going on around me and then wonder what happens next. Alternatively, I ask the question Al Gansky taught me: “What if…?” Then I take it from there.

Do you need an agent? How do you find one?

If you want the editor of a publishing house to offer a contract, you'll need a literary agent representing you. Often, we find someone who would be just right as our representative, usually when we meet at a writing conference. If we’re fortunate, we ask them, and they accept. In rare instances, the agent will ask us. All this has been made somewhat moot as more and more writers see the handwriting on the wall about the publishing world and decide to self-publish their work. Do you need an agent then? If you’re not established, yes. An agent will give you advice...and if you're just starting out, you'll need it.

How do you go about getting published?

If they’re offered a contract, I think a writer should carefully consider signing with a publisher. Later they might decide to branch out and become a hybrid author (one who’s work is put out both by a traditional publisher and independently) but having that publisher behind you for the first several books—especially the marketing expertise and “muscle”—is quite helpful. Of course, some people start out "indie-publishing," but that's tough, because much of the time we don't know what we don't know. Confusing? Yep.

Once you “go indie,” do you no longer have to worry about editing the manuscript?

No! No! No! One advantage of self-publication (which no longer carries the stigma it once did) may be that you don’t have to write a synopsis or please an editorial board, but it does not free you from multiple revisions, including hiring an outside editor. This may be for a macro (“big picture”) edit, line editing, and/or proof-reading. It’s important for the indie author to put forth the best possible book. And this means using a professional for editing, as well as cover design and execution.

Aren’t all authors rich?

I suppose if your name is Clancy, or Child, or Rowling, you’re probably able to put food on the table by your writing. For most of us, our royalties are welcome surprises that we receive every three to six months but aren’t nearly enough to support our families or allow us to quit our day jobs. Authors get an advance against royalties, and this has to be earned out before we get a penny of additional royalty money. Some small presses don’t even give advances, so the royalties are bigger—but not huge.  

Other questions? Let me know.