Monday, July 31, 2006

McManus on Mystery

For those of you who grew up with such fine literary publications as Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, you are no doubt familiar with that master of mirth, Pat McManus. I may be his number one fay-un (Stephen King reference--Misery--try to keep up here). I've spent many an afternoon during the loneliness of my adolescence with such colorful characters as Retch Sweeney, Rancid Crabtree, Crazy Eddie Muldoon, Pat's sister The Troll, and his dog Strange. In a thousand words or less, Pat had me on the floor, panting for relief, Strange licking my face with the world’s most foul breath, trying to recoup me.

So when I saw a bright red book jacket with Pat McManus across the top and the word "mystery" popping out somewhere at the bottom, I was floating on air. My wife,, Kelly, pulled me down and told me to wait until it came to the library. We have a very strict one hardback per year rule, and I'd already bought seventeen by that chilly day in January, so I had nowhere to turn. I would have to wait to read The Blight Way.

Finally, my mother-in-law, bless her heart, bought the book and passed it on to me. I was curious to see how Pat would maintain such wildly whacky characters for 270 pages. Well, he didn't. He's the best of the best, but not superhuman. He toned down the characters to make room for an actual plot, a good one I might add, and kept the characters just eccentric enough to crack a smile on my face from time to time.

Now, I must be a bit hard on my hero. While the plot was well thought out and the clues carefully placed, his prose lacked that of a skilled novelist. I know Mr. McManus will never read this, but if you do, sir, Exalted One, please forgive me. But in one paragraph he started five sentences with "He." I'm normally loose on these guidelines, as my crit partners will tell you, but I've gotta draw the line at three "He's" per paragraph.

The other problem I had is the main character, Sheriff Bo Tulley. Somehow all his character traits don't quite mesh. He sorely missed his dead wife but saw himself as irresistible to women, somewhat egotistical (hell I don't even know what that means). The ego made him less likeable. The gig with the Hobo spider living in his office, which Tulley fed flies to, seemed a bit over the top as well. It's as if Pat wanted to keep a piece of his normal comedy, not fully giving his talent to the novel. The two just don't work together.

Like I said, though, the plot was well done and I think he's got great characters who just need a little polishing. I assume he's got another coming in this series. Hopefully, his editor pointed out some of these flaws, not relying completely on Pat's name to carry sales.

I admit it's nice to see shortcomings in someone I look up to. It just goes to show that, no matter the success of a writer, he or she will suffer through the same problems as the rest of us when switching to an entirely different format. By the way, Pat has a book on humor writing as well. It's very good, as are all of his short story collections.

Gotta go, my sister The Troll is on the other line.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday Top 10

Top 10 things I wish I knew when I was 20

10. Beer is not an essential food group.
9. People in their thirties are not “living out their final years.”
8. Cops don’t appreciate idle chit-chat
7. I look silly in a Stetson.
6. A Corvette is just a car.
5. Women really do like a man with a brain.
4. I could spend my spare 8 hours each day writing.
3. Tom Cruise is not living the ultimate life.
2. Maybe those religious fanatics are on to something.

And the number one thing I wish I knew when I was 20…

1. A bar is not a “target rich environment.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

That Marketing Thing

This has been a hot topic among fellow writers for a long time now. No wonder. I researched the publishing industry recently for an MBA paper I wrote. Nice how I killed two birds with one paper, eh? The numbers were staggering. I can't remember the specifics, but something like 120,000 new titles hit the shelves each year. I'm sure that's way off, but anything that involves six figures is pretty mind-boggling.

So what's a writer to do to get noticed? Some of my peers have gotten quite creative. Check out Brandilyn's Tanner Lake blog. It's written by her characters in her most recent suspense. T.L. Hines has a great website with contests and all kinds of neat marketing tools. The point is: we've got to go above and beyond book signings and maybe a radio spot on our local Christian station.

I do marketing in my current job, and my church is looking into marketing as well. There's all kinds of help out there. Did you know you can mail out 5,000 postcards for the cost of a small advance? Yes, that's what I said. Your advance. Don't run out and buy a new laptop as soon as that check hits your hot little hands. Use it. That's your marketing fund. You have to invest in yourself. And, if you do that, it will get an editor's attention. They want you to be serious about your career. It's just like any other form of self-employment--only you can build up your business. Publishers don't hire writers, they contract them. It's a harsh reality, but it's our reality. Wanna chase this dream? We gotta know every aspect, put on our business caps, and think (forgive me) outside the box.

Maybe all writers should pursue a marketing degree. Now there's an idea for some smart individual out there. "A writer's course in marketing" coming soon to a college campus near you! Go for it, my little key-tappers.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Getting Acquainted

Critter Robin reported to me this weekend that my chapter 4 really flowed. I reported back that it takes me four chapters to get into my character's heads. Now, if I did all the "correct" stuff and fully outlined my characters beforehand, I might get off the starting block a little quicker. I do outlines, but they seem more like rap sheets. Even when I do the character "interview," it seems forced. I don't really get to know them until I've put them on stage and watched for a while. The good news is I find myself truly loving these characters of Trout, Michigan, home of the River Bend Diner. I'm discovering details of their backgrounds as I go, and they are fascinating! I'd love to sit down at the River Bend's lunch counter, cup of Green Mountain coffee in hand, and have long conversations with Fred, Jerry, or Claudia.

This is off the cuff, but I think being a late-blooming Christian helps. People who knew me twenty years ago wouldn't regognize me now. I'm a "new man" as the apostle Paul says it. We're also supposed to see others the same way--as works in progress. I see my characters that way. My readers get a quick snapshop at the first introduction, then are slowly fed more information as they go. They'll find that the pleasant ones have rather frightening pasts and the bad ones didn't come into the world with murder on their minds.

I'm told if I enjoy my characters and my writing, my readers will as well. We'll see.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Among the Dead

In the book I just read, "Seven Truths You Won't Hear in Church," the author talks about the spiritually dead. We were all in that state at one time until the Lord called us out, just like Lazerus. We who shadow the halls of a church every Sunday are probably fairly familiar with this analogy.

But it's more than a nice way to visualize our spirtual deadness. If you think about it (and I have), you probably know many people who are spiritually dead before you've had a single conversation with them. Only spritual deadness can explain those among us who spend their entire lives in pursuit of money, sex, and anything else that makes them feel good for the moment. Think about it. How many people do you know, probably in your own family, who can only talk about the most shallow of topics? After ten minutes at a family reunion listening to them talk about their suntan or new car, you're ready to vomit. It's hard not to vomit when speaking to the dead.

I can go on and on about this. It's sad and it's frustrating. When you try to tell these people about Jesus you get a blank stare. What we need to understand (what I need to understand) is that I can't save anyone. Only Jesus can raise the dead. When He calls, maybe I'll be there to urge that person to respond, maybe not. I know this gets into pre-destination and all that fun stuff, but I don't think I'll get many arguments when I say that a vast majority of our witnessing falls on deaf (or should I say dead) ears.

That must be why Paul wanted us to meet on a regular basis. After a week of hanging out with the dead, we need to be among the living for a few hours.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

In the Groove

I've had it happen before, where I'm in the middle of a novel and things just start flowin with relative ease--all two novels I've written. This one's different, though. I'm a bit more realistic in my expectations now. My prose is improving, but not up to Hemingway standards, certainly. My plot is more thought out, even outlined, though it doesn't contain the twists and turns of a Brandilyn Collins suspense. But I'm getting there.

Writing is patience. You start out with that initial euphoria of "finally going after the dream." After a few rejections, you go into a slump. But, finally, you get to the point where you realize this may actually be a real job (the 2nd job for most of us). You've got two options at that point:

1. Quit
2. Stop whining and write.

Well, I'm here today, so I must have chosen option 2. My current WIP, Murder on the Side, is going well. I'm enjoying my characters, which improves the odds that my readers will, too. I like the plot, the setting. Even the prose doesn't suck too bad.

I don't have one of those little progress meters like my crit partners do on their blogs. I've spent most of my career reporting my progress to somebody. I'd rather ignore how far I have to go and just enjoy the ride. (I suspect my crit partners lie about their actual progress, anyway. Don't tell 'em I said that).

So, I won't tell you how far I have to go or how many chapters I've written. You'll have to wait for the final product. Coming soon to bookshelves everywhere.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Days of Lore

That was the title of a Peggy Noonan column a few years back. She was talking about world events and how, from our viewpoint, it's all just a jumbled series of wars, terrorism, and financial woes. From the long range viewoint, though, what we see are the landmarks for a huge turning point in world history. I wonder, at what point, did everyone realize we were in what would become known as World War II? The starting and ending dates appear in every elementary history book, but we all know (hopefully) that history is just never really that clean. Alot happened before December 7th, 1941 to lead up to the war. The dominoes started to fall ten or twenty years previously. From God's point of view, they started to fall thousands of years previously.

But lets stick with our short-ranged, human focus. I want everyone to take note of the conversations in the workplace or in restaraunts. Everyone's talking about the Israeli crisis and the Russian involvment with Iran, right? Wrong.

Americans are talking about who will get booted off American Idol or complain about high gas prices. I laugh about that last one. The whole Middle East is on the verge of WWIII and we're complaining about $3 a gallon? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

If I weren't a Christian, I'd be scared out of my wits right now. The world as we know it may very well go up in smoke within the next ten years. My 401k could be meaningless, my job gone with no prospects at all, our country at war all over the globe.

But I am a Christian, and I know this world will pass. We can't claim ignorance. Jesus and many of the prophets told us these days would happen. I'm not saying that I buy into every end times theory that comes along. I'm also not saying that these theories are all incorrect. It helps to know it's all in the Master Plan, but we must remain focused on what's eternal, even if the world is self-destructing around us.

So I'll sit here in my air-conditioned home and continue to watch what's going on "over there." I know it could be just another Middle East flair up, of which we've had plenty during the last fifty years, or it could be the final days leading up to WWIII, maybe even the Last Days. There's nothing I can do to affect the outcome. I'm to be at peace because I know who my Savior is. When Jesus returns, He won't find me worrying about high gas prices.

Be still, people! And know that He is God.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A New Direction

Dont' worry, I'm not going over to Romance writing or anything that bizarre. But, as I think I mentioned previoiusly, I've changed day jobs. I'm one of those adventerous types who left the supposedly safe walls of a huge corporation (Ford) and jumped into the world of small business. I've been with Hensley Mfg. for a week now. The thing about a new job, it's like selling off everything you own and starting over. Things as simple as sending a fax have to be re-learned. Where are the paperclips? How many scoops of coffee. And, with a small company, there's no one to take care a lot of those details for you.

But I love it.

It's not writing novels for a living, but it gives me a little professional freedom. What I do really matters, that's something that I could never say in the big company. And, now that I have a later start, I can write in the morning undisturbed before coming in. I'm on chapter 4 of "Murder on the Side," the first in my River Bend Mysteries Series. Good buddy Robin asked if it was ABA or CBA. I hate that question. It means I have to make crucial dicisions. Not that I'd fill it vulgarity either way, but CBA looks for certain things that ABA doesn't care about. I like the thought of ABA because I picture myself as a Jan Karon sort, who could reach millions of people who'd never step foot into a Christian bookstore. On the other hand, do non-Christians really read her books, either? I'll have to ask Jan when we do lunch.

Anyway, I was told by many smart people--just write. So I'm just writing.

By the way, I have been reading alot lately as well. I stopped my little reviews unless something really stands out. I've even been reading a little non-fiction as well. More on that later.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Camy's Christmas in July Sale

Okay, it's really called The Story Sensei Summer Sale - A writers' summer event! Go to Camy Tang's blog and check it out. How anyone with a fresh 3 book contract has time for this, I don't know. Maybe she has a staff now. Maybe she's hiring. I'll check it out.

The link is to your right. Or to your left if your facing away from your screen.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Summer of '63

I'm a lover of history, though not a history buff. There's a difference. I can appreciate and respect the events of the past and love learning about them, but I can't remember the names and dates and who shined Washington's shoes just before the battle of Yorktown.

I've been to a lot of places that have made me think--the USS Arizona Memorial, Yorktown, Jamestown, among others, but few have moved me the way the silent fields of Gettysburg did this last week. You see, there's something special about the Civil War. If I went to Normandy, I might feel a loss over the American lives lost there, and I'd try to feel regret for the German lives lost as well, but it would be hollow. Right or wrong, that's the way I'd feel.

Gettysburg, along with that entire war, is different. It doesn't matter that the southern states no longer considered themselves "Americans." When I sat on the hallowed ground that is shown on the map as "The Wheatfield" or "Little Round Top," I only see the ghosts of Americans, thousands upon thousands of dead men and boys who gave all for something they believed in mightily. At the battle's end, which essentially ended any hopes for a southern victory in the war, there really were no winners. The United States kept what it already had, less some 23,000 men, and Lee hadn't achieved his goal of a stunning victory for the Confederacy, yet had still lost 28,000 men.

General Lee, I've also found during what little research I've done, is a man to be respected by any American. Funny thing for a man stripped of his citizenship and his land (where Arlington National Cemetary now sits). There were other personalities in that battle who will never be common names in a history textbook, but they were all Americans, no matter which side, and many of them died for their cause.

As we drove around the battlefield I studied as many monuments as I could. There are over 1400, but I wanted to take in all of it. Of course, I found the 16th Michigan on Little Round Top, who were almost overrun by a few Texas brigades before a New York regiment came to their rescue. The 20th Maine was a special monument to me and anyone else who'd read "The Killer Angels." Others I'd never read anywhere all meant something. I thought of Robin as I read the inscription on the Arkansas and Louisiana monuments, Ronie as I stood on the ground where thousands of Texans died trying in vain to capture Little Round Top. Their monuments sprout like wildflowers at that end of the battlefield. I smiled at the lanky soldier atop the 1st Minnesota monument, then discovered that over 80% of that regiment was lost in a suicide charge just to gain a few minutes while reinforcements were called up.

I walked out from the Virginia monument, the first southern monument on the battlefield, to the point where Lee rode out to meet his retreating troops and muttering, "It's all my fault." I felt his loss, our loss. Not the loss of the Confederacy, but the loss of a nation's innocence. We'd fought one another in a bloody conflict the likes of which must never, ever be repeated. It is truly the one place in this country where all of us has a connection to a horrible tragedy. I wish all could visit it. If you do, take a moment, close the tour book, turn off the audio tour CD, close out the world, and remember. Shed the tears if they'll come. Pray for our nation. The cost of our liberty has been far too high to take it for granted.