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Sept 13, 2016 – My Fair Horsey
We’re sitting and chatting at my writers meeting, waiting for Satchel to arrive. Ken finishes a story about his literary prowess, and I use the lull to ask the group for ideas on a scene I’ve been working on.
“So,” I explain, “Skeeter, our cowboy hero, has this beautiful bridle that he wants to give to his girl, Bonnie, for her beloved horse, Bella. I’m thinking Skeeter should give her a card with the gift but I can’t decide what the note should say.”
“Skeeter should sneak the bridle onto her horse,” says Claire, sitting to my left. “Then have him tie a huge red ribbon around them both. I think Bonnie would like a big gesture like that.”
“Actually,” I explain, “Bonnie likes plain things for Bella. The horse has this uniform beige color with a darker mane. Earlier in the story, Bonnie states that simple designs look better on her horse, given its coloring and all.”
“So, for the card,” says Glenda in her thick Boston accent, “How about, ‘A bridle for my future bride?’”
“Oh,” says Claire. “That’s good.”
“Not bad,” I agree. “The point of the card, though, is so Skeeter can let her know that he took her preferences into account when he got her the gift. He hopes she’ll appreciate the simple beauty of the piece against Bella’s coloring.”
“Where did the bridle come from?” asks Ken.
“In the story, a Spaniard is passing through town and has it in his rucksack. Skeeter trades some rifle ammo for it.”
Ken scoots forward in his chair and assumes his oneupmanship pose. “Well then, have him write, “The reins from Spain fall plainly on the mane.”
Claire slumps back in her chair, her brow furrowing as she shakes her head. “Was all this for that?”
Glenda pulls her tortoiseshell glasses to the end of her nose and looks over the top of them at me. “You should apologize to your readers.”
Sept 1, 2016 – Reversal Of Fortunes
With coffee cup in hand, I snag a table near the window at Tremors Café and open my laptop, ready for a productive session of writing.
While checking my email—a treasured part of my procrastination ritual—a chat window pops up on my screen. My darling wife has sent me a link to a blog article with the note, “Can your book stand the test?”
I skim the article. In it, the author claims that if you’re truly an enlightened writer, you should be able to switch the gender of a character in any scene and have it still read true.
“No problem,” I write to her, “I’m enlightened.”
She answers immediately. “Care to prove it?”
“Sure,” I type back. I haven’t a clue where this is headed, but that’s never stopped me from wading into the deep end before.
“Here are a few lines,” she writes. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Skimming the text, I recognize it as a passage from my first book, Wrestling Cattle and Rustling Grub. In this scene, Skeeter Stephenson, our cowboy hero, is enjoying a picnic lunch with his love interest, Bonnie Breathless. They’re sitting on a blanket in the shade of a huge oak.
As I understand this challenge, I should be able to switch roles for Skeeter and Bonnie and still have the scene work. So I make the edits and read the result.
“I brought your favorite,” said Skeeter as he pulled items from the basket and arranged them on the blanket. Lining them in a row for her enjoyment, he set out roasted chicken, then a loaf of crusty bread, and finally, a generous chunk of aged cheese. He kept dessert in the basket for now. he’d brought early-season strawberries—tart but delicious—that he’d picked himself.
“Let me cut that for you,” said Bonnie, pulling her knife from a sheath on her hip and leaning toward the chicken.
“I’d call that a home run,” I type and send my edited passage back to my wife.
“Not bad,” she types back. “How about these?”
This time she sends two scenes, one each for Skeeter and Bonnie. I swap Skeeter for Bonnie in the first scene and feel great about the result.
Sitting on Cevalo, her treasured Appaloosa, Bonnie watched the mustangs graze. To her alarm, a mountain lion broke from the forest and started to stalk a young colt who’d separated from the others. Too far for a clean shot, she kicked Cevalo with her heels, sending him into a headlong gallop toward the big cat.
The mountain lion closed on its prey, leaving Bonnie no choice. Pulling her Winchester rifle from a sheath behind the saddle, she rose up on the stirrups so her body hovered above the horse. Timing the movement just right, she took the shot, dropping the mountain lion and saving the colt.
“That’s good,” I say aloud as I sip my coffee. Proud of myself, I tackle Bonnie’s scene, shifting it to Skeeter.
Skeeter dismounted and, holding the reins in one hand, patted Bella with the other. “Good girl,” he said, scratching the horse in a favorite spot under her chin. Drawing his hand down Bella’s neck, he felt a bump on her skin. Moving aside the horse’s mane, he saw a small swollen bump. “Looks like a bug got you,” he said. “Let’s get you some water and I’ll have a look.”
“This is so easy,” I type when I send back these edited passages.
“You are good,” she types back. “Let’s make this next one interesting. If it works, you control the TV remote for a month. If it doesn’t, though, I control the remote.
“A month of public television doesn’t scare me,” I reply without thinking it through. “You’re on!” I actually include the exclamation point.
She sends me the scene and its apparent she’s been baiting me. Then my stomach roils. Not only does she watch horrible shows like Masterpiece Theatre, she doesn’t watch any sports. Ever.
My only hope is to bluff like never before. I make the edits and send it back to her with a note that says, “I win again.” But bravado aside, I know she bested me. And for the next month, I’ll be in TV hell.
Skeeter stood at the kitchen table, humming while he kneaded the bread dough. With no warning, the door to his cabin swung inward, causing him to shriek in alarm. But when he saw it was Bonnie returning from three weeks out on the trail, he faced her and smiled. “Hey, stranger,” he said. Arms out, she strode to him, wrapped him in her arms, and leaned in to kiss him.
Her heavy beard scratched his delicate face and he pulled back for a moment and studied her. He liked the way she looked, especially with her thick, dark moustache, but unfortunately, it chafed and scratched his tender skin when they smooched. He didn’t get a chance to dwell on it, though, because she reached behind him, cupped his butt in her hands, and lifted him up. Giggling, he wrapped his legs around her waist, held on tight, and kissed her back.
August 20, 2016 – Sketchy Business
I step inside the trendy coffee shop on Main Street to meet Stephanie, a local artist I’ve hired to sketch a cover for my next novel. I join the line of caffeine zombies and look around, but don’t see anyone who looks like the picture she has on her website. The line moves quickly, and after listening to the insiders’ code used by the people ahead of me, I realize I don’t know how to order a beverage at this place.
“Medium coffee?” My inflection makes it sound like I’m asking permission. The barista is kind and doesn’t correct me. With brew in hand, I sit at a table and take a sip.
“Hi, I’m Steph,” says a full-figured brunette who looks like she could be a senior in high school. She’s hugging a silver laptop to her chest with one hand and holding a monster-sized coffee in the other.
She sits and, after a few sips and some small talk, gets down to business. “Tell me about your book.” She opens her laptop and starts typing before I even speak.
“It’s a cowboy western called Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45. A pivotal character is Bonnie Breathless.” I start sketching in the air with my hands. “I picture a cover where Bonnie is wearing a full white dress and is sitting side-saddle on this handsome horse.”
The click-clack of Steph’s keyboard vibrates the table.
“Underneath the dress,” I say, “I envision a lace petticoat with matching bloomers.”
The typing stops and she lifts her eyes without moving her head. “It’s a drawing. Undergarments really don’t come into play.”
I feel anxiety welling inside me. My darling wife warned me that hiring an artist would cost my entire budget. If Steph can’t deliver on my vision. . .well, I haven’t thought that far but I can tell you it won’t be pretty.
As our meeting ends, she closes her laptop and I have an inspiration. “How about if I send you some pictures that might help you see my vision?”
Back home, I scour the internet for images that reflect Bonnie’s complexities. I’m ecstatic when I find a photo from a parade last year in Dallas, Texas. It shows a cheerleader in an evening gown riding a magnificent horse. She looks so beautiful, smiling and waving, just as I envision Bonnie, only of course Bonnie would be shown in an old-timey setting.
I type, “This would make a great cover,” across the bottom of the picture and send it to Steph.
Two weeks later, I’m sitting in the living room when I get an email with a large attachment. “I just got a proof of the cover art,” I say to my wife, who puts down her crossword puzzle and comes over to look.
Opening the picture to full screen, I digest the scene. Disappointment washes through me as I take in the artwork. In my sadness, a soft moan escapes my lips.
The picture features a woman out on the western plains, with a scatter of cactus and scrub brush in the scene. Wearing denim pants, chaps, and a canvas blouse, Bonnie is on her knees in the dirt, working to help a small calf free itself from the tangle of a bramble bush. Mama cow is standing by, watching Bonnie save her baby.
“I love it!” my wife proclaims. “This shows Bonnie working the land. She’s getting her hands dirty. It gives off this vibe of toughness and strength, yet you have this whole woman and motherhood thing going on with the cows.”
“But what about her dress?” I whisper to myself, too sad to say more.
That evening, I take the matter to my writers group meeting, hoping for some sympathy. I tape the picture of Bonnie with the cows onto my first book to give Steph’s work a fair presentation. And I print off the picture of that Dallas beauty parading on her horse and slip it inside the book so I can show them what I really have in mind, kind of like a “before and after” reveal.
But I never get to present the photo, because, like my wife, they all love Steph’s cowboy scene.
“I must say,” says Ken, holding up the book so everyone can see the cover. “We thought you would have Bonnie dressed as a cheerleader in a prom dress. Ho ho!”
“Who, me?” I look at the book and notice the edge of the cheerleader picture, the one that says, “This would make a great cover,” is poking out from between the pages. I reach for the book, but Claire takes it from Ken and holds it up.
“You show her as an independent person,” she says, tapping the cover with her finger. “This will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Nicely done.”
I nod with a, “Do you think I would do otherwise?” expression. At the same time, I realize how awkward it would be for them to see the cheerleader photo, the one that’s now jutting from the book by a good quarter inch.
And so to prevent my predilections from being exposed, I do what anyone would do in this situation. I stand up, pull my phone from my pocket, and pretend I’m receiving a phone call. “Yes?” I say, turning away so they can’t see that the phone isn’t active. “Oh, my! I’ll be home right away.”
I turn back to the group. “Hoover has his head stuck in the toilet and I need to go help unstick him.” It turns out this is only a partial fib because, during the game last Sunday, the darned dog had somehow managed to hook his collar on the toilet seat in a way that required tools to free him.
Anyway, I snag the book from Claire, say a quick goodbye, and hustle out to my car. The drive home is short, and I spend most of it thankful I escaped embarrassment. I pull into my driveway, grab the book from the seat, and flip through it looking for the picture so I can destroy the evidence.
But the picture isn’t in the book. And it’s not on the car seat or on the floor. I get out of the car and perform a methodical search. When I confirm I don’t have it, I realize this means my friends in the writers group probably do.
I contemplate the humiliation I’ll face from that crowd and decide to accept my lumps quietly. As long as my wife never finds out that I’m still pushing the cheerleader—a notion that suddenly seems mortifying—I can weather the storm.
I enter the house and greet my wife in the kitchen.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she says. “We have visitors coming.”
“What’s going on?”
“Ken called. He and Claire are on their way over for what he called a Prom Queen Intervention.” She presses a button on the coffeemaker and it starts to hiss. “I asked what that was and he made it sound like a creative improvisation exercise.”
She starts arranging cookies on a tray, “I didn’t know you did these sorts of things at your meetings. It’s so exciting. It’s all right if I watch, isn’t it?”
August 2, 2016 – Radio Silence
“What do you think?” I ask my darling wife when she looks up from reading the page.
She’s helping me prepare for an interview with Skip Westerly, host of the popular Artists and Authors show on our local public-access radio station. Skip had asked for a writing sample from my upcoming cowboy western that we could discuss on the air. I’d sent ahead this excerpt from my book, Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45, and now seek input on the decision.
“So,” says my wife, “Bonnie Breathless is arguing with Skeeter Stephenson in a frontier town somewhere in the old wild west. He criticizes her cooking, and her response is to put her hands on her hips, stomp her foot, and then break a dish?” My wife shakes her head. “I think her behavior sounds like a stereotype.”
“She’s a girl,” I explain. “You know how they are.”
She hands me back the page without a word and returns to her crossword puzzle. I think she’s trying to tell me something, so I imagine the scene where Bonnie goes silent. I decide it would make the scene short and boring, so I thank her for the suggestion but leave the story as it is.
The next day, as I am about to leave for the radio station, she cautions, “Skip asks his listeners to call with questions but no one ever does. Do you want me to phone in to get things rolling?”
I find her concern adorable. “You saw the picture from my book-signing event with that big crowd and all. My fans love me!” She still doesn’t know those were bookstore employees posing as the audience. I’m hoping lightning strikes again this afternoon so she can be proud of me for a second time.
The radio station is located in a mostly-vacant strip mall where Thumper’s Tattoos and Tanning used to be. Skip welcomes me at the door and escorts me inside to the station booth. He puts on his headset as he sits and motions for me to do the same.
“Testing 1…2…3,” I say into my mic. Skip winces and pops upright in his chair, then twists a knob to adjust the volume in his earphones.
“This is the phone panel,” he says, swirling his hand over an impressive spread of electronic hardware. There are perhaps fifty tiny glass lights arranged in a grid, and all are dark. “One of these lights up for every caller we have waiting on the phone to talk.” He adopts a wistful look. “We once had four callers waiting.”
With the wall clock counting toward the hour, he catches my eye. “Ready?”
The show starts with a fanfare of music, after which Skip reads a string of announcements. Then he introduces me. “Tell us about yourself.” He works through a standard list of questions: where I’m from, what books I’ve written, what hobbies I enjoy.
When things are rolling, he reads aloud the passage I’d sent ahead, the one where Bonnie and Skeeter argue over her cooking.
“It sounds like a stereotype,” he says when he’s done.
I can’t believe my luck! I have a practiced response to this comment and I deliver it with confidence. “She’s a girl, Skip. You know how they are!”
My rapier-like wit had silenced my wife, and for a moment I thought I’d done the same to the radio listeners. But providence indeed blesses me a second time when rings and beeps fill the air. Soon the whole board—all fifty lights—flash alive like glowing red cherries.
Things get a bit harrowing for Skip after that. He’s never used the curse word bleeper button before, and has to bleep more than forty swear words from different callers during the hour-long show.
When I get home afterward, I share my excitement with my wife. “From the questions, though, some callers seem to think I’m a comedy writer.”
She flashes a quizzical expression, then the phone rings and she answers. “Yes, he’s here.” She nods her head and adopts a knowing look. “No, he’s not some kind of clown.” She hands me the phone. “It’s for you.”
July 27, 2016 – Tilting At Spaceships
“Whatcha reading?” I ask my darling wife as I dress for my writers meeting.
“Alien Caress,” she replies, turning the book to show me a bright red cover with a yellow spaceship in the middle. “It’s science fiction. I never thought I liked sci-fi but this is terrific!”
“It’s nice to see you broadening your horizons beyond your sexy romances.” I love teasing her about her reading preferences because I always get a reaction.
Waving the cover back and forth, she creates a red blur. “Look and remember, buddy. This is proof I have depth.”
Soon after, I’m sitting with my writers group when Ken starts the meeting. “Engage!” he calls from his captain’s chair. “Today we talk about architects and gardeners.”
“I call them plotters and pantsers,” says Claire.
“What about pants?” asks Glenda.
For the first time since I started attending these meetings, I know the answer to something and I speak up to get it on record. “Some authors plan their stories in detail before they start writing. These are the architects, also called plotters.”
“Or like me,” says Claire. “I develop my story by the seat of my pants, so I’m a pantser.”
Glenda pulls her tortoiseshell glasses to the end of her nose and looks over them at Claire. “Uh huh.” Claire writes the kind of sensual stories my wife likes and that Glenda proclaims is just glorified porn.
Ken taps his computer tablet and his ceiling projector casts an image on the wall screen. It shows a complex spreadsheet that he starts to explain.
“A good mystery writer.” He pauses to look at us one-by-one. “Any good writer, knows everything about their story before they draft their first words.”
He’s caressing a gorgeous, silver sheathed laser pointer and uses it to send a red dot to the screen. “This column lists every character in my next book.” He wiggles the red dot up and down on a new area of his spreadsheet. “And in this column, I give each character a different possible motive for murder.”
My eyes glaze over but Ken is just warming up. “Here I give them different opportunities, and here are the means to commit the murder.”
Even his mesmerizing laser can no longer keep my attention, so I move to the food table and replenish, taking my time until I hear Ken wind down. When I return, Claire says, “I admit that romantic adventure stories aren’t nearly so complex.”
“Sure,” says Glenda. “What’s there to it but, let’s get amorous in the kitchen, then in the car, then in cereal aisle at the supermarket.”
“Excuse me.” Claire leans forward, jaw firm. “I think you misunderstand my books.”
Glenda stops and sits up, incredulous. “I’m just teasing. You never looked at what I write?”
“You said science fiction.”
“Pshaw.” Glenda waves a hand at Claire in a “go on” motion. “Sure, the action takes place on a spaceship, but other than that, it’s just erotic scene after erotic scene.”
“You write naughty?” Claire asks in wonder.
“Guilty as charged. And not apologetic in the least. You know who reads science fiction? Nerds. And as it turns out, nerds can’t get enough of the spicy stuff if there’s an alien or a robot somewhere in the mix.”
Reaching into her bag, she pulls out her latest book and shows us its bright red cover with a yellow spaceship in the middle. I recognize it as the book my wife is reading.
“Alien Caress is so naughty,” says Glenda. “I still blush when I read it.”
She hands me the book and as I skim the opening scene, I feel the temperature rising. “Can I buy a copy?”
“Take it,” she says. “It’s yours.”
I have a wonderful marriage. When everything is in balance, it’s the best. And as it turns out, a minute ago it was balanced in a way where the idea of me buying a case of Ken’s expensive craft brewed beer wasn’t even a consideration.
“Hey, Ken. I’ll take a case of your delicious German-style seven-grain double-bock barrel-darkened lager.”
I think of it like a shim under the leg of life, where the book tilts everything one way, and a case of the good stuff makes it all even again.
“On second thought,” I tell Ken as I flip deeper into the book. “Let’s make that two cases.”
My wife is asleep when I get home. To make sure she knows I know, I stick the beer receipt inside the book where Glenda has earmarked an especially juicy scene. After placing them both on her dresser, I crawl into bed, give her a kiss, and snuggle up next to her.
The book and receipt will be gone when I wake up. We will never speak of either.
And with two cases of Ken’s special brew sitting in the basement, I drift to sleep knowing my world is again in happy balance.
July 22, 2016 – Horse Whimperer
“Happy birthday, love,” says my darling wife as she hands me a gift certificate for a private horseback riding lesson with Sam at the Holbrook Ranch. “After that mean-spirited book review criticizing your knowledge of horses, I thought you might appreciate some hands-on experience.”
“Thanks so much!” I find it cute she thinks I have more to learn about the ways of the old-time cowboy. I have a huge skill set gathered from many hours of dedicated TV watching. Plus, as I’ve told her several times, I learned plenty of equestrian skills at Tim Murray’s ninth birthday party where I took three turns on the pony ride.
But a private lesson sounds fun, so when Saturday dawns, I dress in my one western-ish shirt and a cowboy hat I got for Father’s day.
“Horses are big and unpredictable,” says my wife. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
“Sweetheart. I write about cowboys because it’s who I am. I’m practically a horse whisperer.”
The Holbrook Ranch is a handsome spread on the edge of town—an impressive red barn paired with a rambling white farmhouse. Wooden fences loop around big and small fields behind the buildings.
A slim brunette who looks like she’s a senior in high school comes galloping from the barn on a beautiful brown horse. “Hi,” she says, orbiting my car on her steed, the stomping of the massive hooves driving home how big these animals actually are. “I’m Sam.” She bobs in the saddle while the horse prances. “Tell me your skill level and I’ll pick out a horse to match.”
“Horse whisperer,” I say with confidence.
She touches the brim of her hat with her finger in a cowboy salute and gallops off in a cloud of dust. I follow on foot, making my way to the barn.
As I approach, she rides out holding the reins of a second horse—a gorgeous white creature with swirling brown splotches that look like they’ve been painted by an artist. “Meet Leonardo.”
I get into the saddle on the third try, and by the time we reach the trail out behind the barn, I’ve advanced to the point where I only need one hand to hold onto the saddle horn. Leonardo seems happy to mosey along behind Sam’s horse. My confidence soars and I decide to up my game.
A majestic oak—its trunk as broad as I am tall—bisects the trail ahead, splitting the path into parallel tracks that rejoin on the other side. Leonardo angles toward the path to the right of the tree. Taking control, I tug on the reins to see if I can guide him to the left.
The horse ignores me, so I pull harder and say, “Heeya,” like the cowboys do on TV. I guess Leonardo watches different shows because he doesn’t react.
Doing what I think most people would do in my situation, I grab my laser pointer from my breast pocket and I wiggle the red dot on the ground to the left of the tree, showing the horse where it should go.
Now, as a public service, let me say that while you’re probably nodding your head at my resourcefulness in this situation, it turns out this is a bad idea. I’m surprised myself when Leonardo rears up and bucks me to the ground.
I remount as fast as I can—the tree blocking the view of my humiliation from Sam. The fall did its damage, though, because my back starts to spasm. I grit my teeth and hold on, and after an eternity clomping along a winding forest trail we return to the barn. I thank Sam as best I can and make my escape.
Walking with a zombie-like gait, I head for the car, every step sending shockwaves up my back. As I slide behind the steering wheel, hot needles join the shockwaves.
The drive is agonizing, and when I pull into my driveway, I’m glad to see that my wife’s car is gone. This means I can take my time getting inside the house. After a full minute, I make it to a standing position and am leaning against the car when she pulls in next to me.
“How’d it go?” she asks, clutching a small bag of groceries.
I give her a thumbs up while bracing myself with my other hand. “I told you. Horse whisperer.”
“Wonderful! Tell me all about it inside.”
She enters the house and I breathe a careful sigh. I’ll give her a quick summary and then climb into the tub. A good soak, a handful of pain relievers, maybe some scotch, and I can carry the secret of my humiliation to my grave.
The door to the house opens and she sticks her head out. “I bought one of those huge bags of dog food and it’s too heavy for me to lift. Would you grab that on your way in? Hoover is hungry.”
“Woof,” barks Hoover through the crack as the door shuts.
My pale face turns ashen. “Oh, no,” I moan in a hoarse whisper.
July 16, 2016 – Marketing Problems
As I step inside Bob’s Bookstore, my back groans. My darling wife is friends with Sidrha, the owner of the store, and she arranged for a reading and book signing right here in the shop. The box I carry is filled with copies of my first release, Wrestling Cattle and Rustling Grub.
The place is bigger than I had imagined and I grow excited to see customers milling about. I wander to the front desk, introduce myself, and thank them for hosting me.
“No problem,” says Megan, a perky brunette who looks like she might be a senior in high school. “Let me show you where to set up.”
I follow her over to a far corner and when we get there, she points to the wall. “Do you have a poster or anything? Feel free to hang it there. You can stack your books on the table.”
Megan watches me unpack. Since this is my first event, I want to ask her for tips and tricks, but I refrain because I don’t want to admit that I’m clueless.
I hang the poster for the book I’m currently writing, Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45, on the back wall. The artwork was created by Kaitlin, my neighbor’s daughter, who’s about the same age as Megan.
Finished, I survey my domain. “Any chance we could pull over some chairs?”
“No problem.” Megan walks through a door into the back of the store. I try to decide if I should follow, but then the door opens and a man walks through carrying a chair in one hand and a plate of food in the other. Plopping his chair in front of the table, he sits down and begins to eat.
He’s followed by two more people carrying chairs, and then three more come out. In the end, twelve chairs are arranged in front of the table, ten of them holding people.
While the audience members are eating and laughing like they know each other, I ask Megan to take a photo. “I want a nice, honest picture of the event. Do you mind taking a few test shots to see how it frames up?”
“No problem,” says Megan, taking my phone from my outstretched hand.
I stand behind the table, hold up my book, and pretend to be talking to the audience. Seconds later, she shows me a wonderful picture of me lecturing to a rapt group. “Perfect,” I say. “Let’s do one just like this with the final crowd and I’ll post it on the web.”
I turn and confirm that the poster is straight, and as I do, someone from the audience asks, “When will you be done?” I scan the group to see who asked about my next book.
To my delight, it becomes a groundswell. “Yeah,” calls another. “When will you finish?” Several ask the question, and those who don’t nod to show they want to hear the answer.
“I hope to finish writing by the end of the year.” It’s time to start my presentation, so with a big smile, I continue. “Thanks to all of you for coming. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to chat with you about my books.”
“No, dude,” say a huge man who stands as he speaks. “This event here. Will you be done by three? That’s our next break and we need these chairs back in the breakroom.”
With that, every one of them gets up and walks through the door leading back into the bowels of the store. I realize then that they are all employees who have just finished lunch.
“Ready?” asks Megan.
I look at the empty chairs and squeak, “Maybe wait a minute more to give stragglers a chance?”
In the end, I read the marketing blurb off the back of my book to Megan and a man who needed a place to sit while he texts his wife. I load my books back into the box and perform the walk of shame, carrying everything out that I brought in.
Later, back at my computer, I study the pictures from the event. I don’t want to document my humiliation, but I’d like to post something. I skim Megan’s shots, hoping for one taken at an odd enough angle that it’s hard to tell the chairs are empty.
On my fourth pass through the photos, I stop at the test shot—the one with the employees filling the chairs. It’s really the perfect picture.
Choosing my words with care, I write the caption. “A lively group asks, ‘When will you finish?’ even before I have a chance to tell them about my next book.”
Hey, it’s marketing, not journalism. Still, I hesitate.
“Nice event,” says my wife, who walks up behind me and studies the picture on the computer screen. “Look at your success. And look how excited your fans are!” She rests a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for getting out there and promoting your work.”
With that encouragement, I tap and post the picture to the web. “No problem.”
July 11, 2016 – Cross Words
“Nonsense,” I exclaim as I read from my computer screen.
Sitting across from me on the couch, my darling wife counts with her fingers. “No. It needs to be ten letters and hopefully have a couple of d’s in the middle.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A ten letter word for hogwash.” She holds up her crossword puzzle. “I’m stuck and thought you were trying to help. What are you talking about?”
“My book, Wrestling Cattle and Rustling Grub, finally got a review on Nile.com.”
“Exciting.” She straightens from her slouch. “How did you do?”
“Three stars. From a guy named Jake.”
“That’s good!” She can make cholera seem desirable. “What did he say?”
“Let’s see.” I begin to read. “A modest first effort with demerits earned as listed below.” I look at her. “You know you’re in trouble when they lead with a demerit system.”
I continue reading the review aloud. “In the middle of a shooting scene, with bullets flying and death at his doorstep, the cowboy hero, Skeeter Stephenson, takes a moment to look at the tail of a horse and reflect on the fact that violin bows are made from horse hair.”
I shake my head in disgust and gesture at my computer. “But it’s true! This guy is a jerk.”
“I’m so sorry.” I hear empathy in her voice. “I guess some people just don’t want fun facts mixed in with their action scenes.”
“That makes him more of a jerk.” Now my annoyance is justified. Bristling, I read item two from Jake’s review. “The author needs to learn some basic terminology if he’s going to write about cowboys. On a saddle, the horn is not a handle, and a billet strap is not a saddle belt.”
That one hurts twice because my wife had encouraged me to check my terminology on Google.
“As I told you,” I say to her, resuming a discussion we’d left off perhaps a year earlier. “I want my books to be accessible to the non-cowboy reader. If I lard up on technical mumbo jumbo, who can follow the story?”
“Maybe Jake?” she says, tapping the eraser of her yellow number two pencil on her chin as she studies her crossword and avoids my glare.
Now seeing red, I read the last bullet to myself, where Jake opines, “And in three separate places, our author provides pages of detail on the clothes Bonnie Breathless is wearing. He not only describes the outer clothes, but also provides painstaking details on the undergarments as well. Three separate times.”
Then Jake really insults me. “And it seems he knows as little about women’s underwear as he does about a horse’s saddle.”
Affronted on so many levels, I look at my wife and vent. “Balderdash.”
She starts counting, and then furrows her brow as she writes on her crossword puzzle. “It fits! Thanks, honey.”
July 6, 2016 – Accounting for Taste
My darling wife sits at the kitchen table and places a single hand-written sheet of paper in front of her. I pretend not to notice, but I know she knows I know. I grab a spoon and start eating potato salad right from the bowl.
“Can you pass the salt?” It’s sitting in the center of the table.
She grabs the salt and places it near me. “Time for accounting.”
Every six months she sits me down and details the financial ruin that is my writing career. We then plan for the next six months.
“I can explain.” It sort of slips out as a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t know what she’s going to say. I’m not a numbers guy. But my sales have been doodle squat and I know enough to know that generates a similar income.
I dig deep into jargon I learned from a get-rich-quick infotainment commercial. “I need a financial runway, sweetie. If I stay the course, the steady breeze of profits will lift my wings and I’ll soar with the eagles.”
“That was nice.” I can’t tell if she’s serious. “I just think we should talk about these three big expenses.” She turns the sheet for me to look.
As a stalling tactic, I start shaking a thick layer of salt across the entire bowl of potato salad. “Okay,” I say as I pretend to look at the sheet over my bobbing hand.
Using a pencil—a yellow number 2 with a pretty decent eraser—she points to the first item. “You lost eight hundred dollars on the pamphlet-drop fiasco.”
So, I had this idea of dropping thousands of printed leaflets from a helicopter. The sheets would be printed with pictures and passages from my first book, Wrestling Cattle and Rustling Grub. We’d drop them from the copter over the state fairgrounds during the huge May Day festival.
The day before the big drop, my wife was chatting with our neighbor, Jenna Soledad, who told her about a similar stunt by a guy with a Volvo dealership three towns over. The guy ended up paying a ten thousand dollar fine for violations of everything from public safety to littering without a permit.
Needless to say, I didn’t go through with the leaflet drop, but I’d already paid to have them printed, plus I’d paid a nonrefundable deposit to hold the helicopter reservation.
“You’re looking at it wrong. By not doing it, I saved us more than nine thousand dollars. That’s a huge win.”
She says that a lot during these discussions.
She moves her yellow pencil so it points to the second item. “You spent two hundred dollars placing click ads on the web.”
Okay, the web company that sells my book, Nile.com, lets me advertise my book on their website. The way it works is they display my ad to their e-shoppers. Every time one of them clicks on my ad, I pay Nile.com forty cents whether the shopper buys the book or not. I figure it can be profitable if enough shoppers buy, so I gave it a try.
I deposit two hundred dollars with Nile.com to kick off my ad campaign. When I make the deposit, the site asks me to choose one of two options. I can either spread the money out over a period of weeks by having the ad show in dribs and drabs. Or I can spend it fast and make a big splash by having them show the ad a lot right from the start.
It’s my first time and I go for it. “Let’s make a splash,” I say to the screen as I click on the “spend fast” option.
I learn the next day that not all those whiz kids you hear about in the news are working on computerized stock trading and nuclear launch codes. At least one of them spent time developing an algorithm that, when asked to spend my money quickly, obliges with amazing efficiency.
The whiz kid’s algorithm showed my ad to people who like to click but don’t ever buy. And apparently there are lots of these people because my account was drained in eight hours. I sold two books.
“I got good exposure with that money.” I take a bite of potato salad and salt granules crunch between by teeth.
She moves the yellow pencil down to the third item and I stop mid chew. I let out a whimper.
“You list the purchase of three cases of craft-brewed beer as a business expense.”
“Are you saying you don’t want me to be a great writer?”
“What are you talking about?” She turns in her chair to face me.
“Ernest Hemingway said to write drunk.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s more to that saying.”
“If there is, I don’t know it.”
My back is against the ropes and I come out swinging. “Anyway, I buy that beer from Ken. Since our writers group meetings are always at his house, I look at it as taxes or dues or something like that.”
She picks up the yellow pencil and places it next to the first item. The pencil swoops and she crosses “leaflets” out with an X. “No more leaflets. Agreed?”
The pencil moves to item two and she makes another X. “No more giving whiz kids access to your credit card?”
I nod, this time more vigorously.
The pencil moves to item three. It hovers over “craft beer.” I whimper as the pencil starts down. At the bottom of the first line, she swoops upward, creating a checkmark.
“I love you, honey,” I lean over to give her a kiss but she stops me with a raised finger.
“You can have the beer.” She turns the paper toward her and looks at it. “But this German-style seven-grain double-bock barrel-darkened lager cost twice what the other two cost.”
“It’s twice as delicious.” I’m giddy and not thinking straight.
“No more of that one.”
“Okay.” I can drink from Ken’s stash during our regular writers group meetings.
“And, I get to count this as one of your anniversary gifts. Can you believe we’ve been married fifteen years this weekend?”
“What a great gift. Thank you so much!” Standing, I give her a big hug. I show a broad grin, but inside my head I’m panicking.
Did she say this weekend!?
June 30, 2016 – Clearing A Blockage
I’ve been suffering from a bad case of writer’s block and need to find a way past it. I sit down to write every day but can’t seem to make any progress on my story.
As you know, I write cowboy westerns and I’m working on my new book, Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45. I’ve been struggling with the scene where our cowboy hero, Skeeter Stephenson, finds himself on one side of a deep, narrow ravine, while our fair damsel, Bonnie Breathless, is stranded on the other.
And I know you don’t know Bonnie—yet—but to give you some insight, in the book I summarize her with the line, “She had a pure smile and a pure heart.” It’s a beautiful phrase to help you conjure the image of a beautiful woman. No wonder Skeeter loves her so much!
Anyway, I keep getting stuck on what Bonnie should be wearing. I started out by saying she wore a petticoat, thinking that was a kind of old-timey dress. But during my research where I viewed images on the computer, I learned that it’s a form of underwear! During that same research session, I discovered that a camisole is underwear, too. Huh.
I decided a dress wasn’t quite right for that situation. I had a thought that maybe in the cowboy West she might be wearing a cowhide outfit, so I Googled “leather outfits for women.” I’ll be honest and say that I spent an entire writing session on that research. And I decided it would be safest to delete my browser history when I was done. Enough said about that.
So today I’m going to nix that deep ravine scene altogether and take the action in a new direction. An idea that’s starting to gel is one where Bonnie is sitting on a blanket in an open field, enjoying her lunch and reading a book. A bear is sneaking up on her from behind. Skeeter and his Colt 45 come to the rescue in the nick of time.
I’m not sure that a pistol can stop a bear, though, and I’m not the type to waste time on unnecessary research. I erase “bear” and make it “mountain lion.” Still not sure, I change it to a “young mountain lion.” Prove me wrong on that one.
So in this scene, Skeeter comes to the edge of the forest. He looks out across the open field and sees the perfect Bonnie Breathless sitting and enjoying the day, oblivious to the young mountain lion stalking her from behind.
Now I need to decide what she’s wearing. I have a sinking feeling that writer’s block is about to strike again.
June 27, 2016 – A Horse By Any Other Name
“Hello, everyone,” says Glenda, addressing us with a pronounced Boston accent. “I’m so honored to be joining your writers group.”
With a craft-brewed beer in one hand and a plate of salty deli snacks in the other, I sit back and watch this interloper hijack the meeting. We sit in a loose circle and she turns to her right.
“What do you write, Hon?” she asks Satchel.
“Historical fiction,” Satchel replies. “Late eighteenth century London, to be precise.”
“Is it out yet?”
“It’s been out for about six months. It took me four years of research and then a year to write it.”
“Have you sold a copy to anybody you don’t know?”
Glenda pats Satchel on the knee. “I’m sure your next book will do great.”
Continuing around the circle, she moves her head up and down as she gives Claire a visual appraisal. Leaning toward Ken, she raises a hand to hide her lips while she whispers something in his ear. He nods and grins.
“What do you write, sweetie?” Glenda asks Claire.
Glenda winks at Ken. “Pornography,” they say together.
“Excuse me, but it is not pornography,” Claire says with a huff.
Glenda pulls her tortoiseshell glasses to the end of her nose and looks over the top of them at Claire. “Of course not, sweetie.”
I start to sweat because I’m up next. But for some reason Glenda skips over me and turns to Ken. They start a discussion about his murder mysteries, and I use the time to see if I can put a positive spin on the western cowboy novel I’m currently writing.
I gaze out the widow behind Glenda and see a gorgeous sun slowly setting in the west. Its beautiful orange rays distract me for a moment.
And then I hear Glenda say, “I write science fiction, so anyone who likes science might read my books.”
“Well,” says Ken, sitting forward in his one-upmanship pose. “Anyone who likes a good mystery would like my books. Plus, I get readers who think science is a mystery, ho ho!”
Satchel sits quietly, and Claire speaks up. “Anyone who likes romance likes my books.” She smirks. “So I get both groups—readers who like science and readers who find it mysterious.”
“C’mon, sweetie. Porn is not romance, though I admit it might be more popular.”
“It’s not porn,” Claire insists. But Glenda ignores her and turns to me. She doesn’t call me “sweetie” or “hon.” She just points at me with her chin. “What do you write?”
“Westerns,” I squeak. “I’m working on my next book, Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45.”
She wags a finger at me. “Isn’t Colt 45 a malt liquor beer? I heard stories about you.” Glenda indicates Claire with a tilt of her head. “While her books may be naughty, it’s not nice to always be talking about beer like that.”
“While Colt 45 is indeed a commercial brand of malt liquor beer, a Colt 45 is also a revolver used by cowboys to tame the wild West. I write about that one—the one used to shoot and kill.”
“Oh, never mind, then,” she says. “My mistake.”
She seems contrite so I press my advantage while I have her on the defensive. “The tag line I use for my books is, ‘guns, gals, and gallops.’”
“Guns, gals, and what?” she turns and looks at Satchel, who shrugs and shakes his head.
“Gallops,” I repeat. I put my hands out in front of me and mime holding reins.
“Who reads westerns anymore? Who do you have for fans?”
I think about saying, “Everyone who likes guns, women, and horses.” But I sense that’s not a big enough group to win what’s become a silly competition.
As the last rays of light disappear through the window, it hits me. “Everyone who likes sunsets,” I say. “Nothing could be more western than a sunset. And everybody loves them.”
Confident I’ve come out on top in the exchange, I add my insurance move.
“And everyone who likes delicious malt liquor beer.”
June 23, 2016 – By The Fact Itself
“What’s that fancy word I like to use in my legal contracts?” I ask my wife.
She looks up from her crossword. “Ipso facto. But it’s not really a legal term and you tend to use it wrong. What are you working on?”
“I’m thinking ahead to when they make a movie from my new book. I want to be sure I have a say in who plays me.”
“You realize you’re the author. You aren’t in your book so you won’t be in the movie.”
“Ha ha. I know that. I was thinking about who would play Skeeter Stephenson.”
“Who’s on your list so far?”
I look at the list I created when I was thinking about someone playing me. I only have one name. “Matt Damon.”
“May as well swing for the fences.” She nods in approval. “Who do you have playing Bonnie Breathless?”
“I need to think about that one a bit.” I make a note to delete my browser history so my wife can’t find what I’m looking at during my research.
“Does that mean you’ll be deleting the browser history? I lose my favorites when you do that.”
“Ha ha. Of course not.” I erase my note.
“So how are the book revisions coming? Are you making progress?”
“I’ve been making great progress. Ipso facto, I revised another chapter last week.”
“Sorry, sport. It doesn’t mean ‘for example.’ And how about the book cover?”
“Well, I’ve made a start on it. Ipso facto, I’ve started a short list of designers.”
“Nope. Doesn’t mean ‘that is’ either.”
She has my back against the wall, so I go minimalist. I can’t be using it wrong when there’s no context.
“Ipso facto.” I nod my head when I deliver the line.
Rolling her eyes, she returns to her crossword puzzle.
Which, ipso facto, means I win.
June 19, 2016 – Opinion and Editorials
I hired a new editor for my latest book—she’s listed as Elizabethan Consuela on the web, though the bank made a deposit to Liz Conway—and she sent me my story evaluation last night. Her analysis was brutal. The only compliment was on my font choice, and even then she wrote, “Thank you for not using comic sans in the manuscript.” It’s my go-to font for all my email.
Nursing my wounds, I sit in my front yard and sip lemonade under a shade tree. As I lounge, a white van with an extension ladder strapped to the side pulls into the driveway. A colorful sign beneath the ladder announces that it’s Pipsi’s Power Wash and the pieces fall into place. My wife is having the outside of our house cleaned in preparation for new paint.
A man, presumably Pipsi, clambers out, walks behind the truck, and starts unloading. His first item is a boombox, and he cranks the volume on an unfamiliar singsong of ska, salsa, syntho, and strings.
He bops to the weird music while he unloads the rest of his gear. Then he starts up a machine and, holding the hose, blasts an intense jet of liquid at the house, swooping the stream back and forth as he works his way along the length of the two story home. The spray hits the wood siding with a fierce hiss. Dirt and old paint fly off in the tumult.
I’m hypnotized by his work, but my trance is broken when I see that he misses a spot between two of the windows on the top floor.
A man of action, I take my laser pointer—the one I carry in my shirt pocket—and direct it at the house. With a tiny swoop of my hand, I draw a bright red dot of light, hovering like an angry bee, right where he missed.
Pipsi sees the laser light and turns with a snap, his eyes darting around the yard. I smile and wave. When he sees me, he waves back, though I’ve never seen anyone wave with a closed fist before.
Anyway, I drift back inside the house and I sit with my darling wife to discuss the book editor’s terrible assault on my talent and honor.
“I don’t think she even read it.” I try not to sound whiny.
“She made notes in the margins of every page.”
“She’s says my protagonist is one-dimensional.”
“All we know about him is that he likes craft-brewed beer and salty snacks.”
“She says he’s dimwitted. Can you believe it?”
“She actually said vapid and dull-witted.”
“That’s only a little better.” I see a hint of sadness in her eyes and I’m gratified to know she sympathizes with my case.
“Maybe you should let this rest for a day or two,” she says. “Remember, you said you’d help little Tommy brainstorm an alien world for his school project.”
I nod, dredging up a faint memory of such a promise.
“How far have you gotten?”
Cornered, I wing it. “I have this idea for a world where the air is filled with mystical music, the weather can change suddenly and blow the paint off of houses, and the natives have customs that we on Earth would normally find insulting. Oh, and lasers come out of their fingers.”
“Wow. That’s pretty specific, but I’m glad you’re taking it seriously.”
“Of course. Since you like it, maybe I’ll go sit outside and flesh out my ideas.” I light up my glass with my laser pointer. “But first, is there any more lemonade?”
June 13, 2016 – Cover Your Thumbnail
At my writers meeting, I grab a craft-brewed beer and plop down next to Claire.
“Did you see this?” She holds up her bottle and points to a sticker on the back.
I turn mine around and see it has a sticker as well. Tilting my head, I read the hand-written note. “If you enjoy me, please consider buying some to take home.”
Claire hands me a price sheet. “It seems Ken brews these himself. All this time he’s been getting us hooked and now he’s moving in for the kill.”
My eyebrows rise to my hairline when I see the prices and I instinctively cradle my bottle like it’s filled with liquid gold. “I need to buy beer for when I watch the big game this weekend. With these prices, I’ll stick with commercial brands.”
Ken and Satchel take their seats, then Ken pulls out a paper-thin computer tablet and starts pressing buttons. A hum from above lifts my eyes to a ceiling-mounted projector. It warms up and casts a crisp image on the far wall screen.
“It’s book cover reveal day,” says Ken, the excitement clear in his voice. “This is the new cover for my upcoming release, Murder With Tea.”
We all ooh and ahh as the picture resolves. The cover has a classic haunted house scene with a rambling old mansion, an overgrown yard, boards missing on the porch, and a shutter hanging loose next to a top-floor window.
Working his tablet, he zooms in on the house. “See how the artist put all these murder implements so they appear like wood grain in the siding?” He zooms closer and traces a shape along a board with the cursor. “Here’s a knife.” He moves across the front of the house. “Here’s a gun. And here’s an axe.”
“Readers often see a book for the first time as a thumbnail image,” said Satchel. “So it’s important that a cover look good small. Pull back and let’s see.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” says Ken, zooming in yet more. “Look. See how the knife image is made of up of a collage of tiny knives? Same for the gun and axe.”
“Can I give it try?” Claire holds out her hand.
Preening, Ken gives her the tablet. “I got this today.” He shows Claire how to work the device and she zooms in on the axe.
“I really think we should look at the cover as a thumbnail,” says Satchel. He reaches over Claire’s arm to make the adjustment and she pushes his hand away. She tries making the adjustment herself and the zoom increases, so Ken leans across to show her. She gets it wrong again. Both Ken and Satchel reach at the same time. A jostle later and the tablet falls to the floor. With a sharp smack, the screen fractures with a craze of hairline cracks.
As we stare at the wreckage, Ken looks like he’s about to cry. Satchel breaks the silence. “I want you to know that I’ll take two cases of beer.”
I nod in support of Satchel’s decision and decide I’ll watch the game at his house this weekend.
“Two cases for me,” says Claire. “And that’s really a great book cover, by the way.”
I rack my brain for ways I might share in Claire’s bounty but can’t come up with anything plausible. It’s my turn to make Ken feel better, but there’s no way I’m spending huge sums for beer, even if it is delicious. Casting about for an alternative, I glimpse the picture projecting on the wall screen.
Like the broken display of the tablet computer, the picture on the wall now shows as a dozen individual fragments, and each fragment shows a miniature of the original tablet image. There are now twelve tiny pictures of Ken’s book showing on the wall screen
“It is a great book cover.” I stand and point. “And it also looks great as a thumbnail.”
While the others chirp in excitement at my discovery, I think about the Electronics-n-Fun box I saw on the way in. The store has a thirty-day “return for any reason” policy, including unintentional damage. So Ken sold four cases of craft beer and he gets his replacement tablet tomorrow.
Then I smack my forehead. Why am I approaching shoppers when I can go straight to the store? “Hey, Ken.” I point to the wall screen and give a winning smile. “The game sure would look great on this baby.”
June 7, 2016 – Paying It Forward
As I dress for my writers meeting, my wife holds up a piece of paper. “The price estimate came for painting the house. Four thousand, and he can do it next month.”
I parse her words and understand she’s talking about a chore that she is now handling. If I say the right thing right now, I may never have to be involved. “Sounds good.” Crossing my fingers, I wait. She moves on to a different topic and as she turns away, I fist pump the air.
A half hour later, I’m with my writers group and surveying the food table in Ken’s kitchen. Claire brought homemade potato salad and she watches as I load my plate and then sprinkle a generous dusting of salt across the top. “Tastes great this way with my craft beer,” I assure her.
As we get seated, Satchel sighs. “The quote came to format my new novel. Can you believe my guy wants three hundred dollars?”
“That’s nothing,” says Claire. “The cover just arrived for Taken Again, Too. It’s so beautiful. It set me back eight hundred bucks but was worth every penny.”
This is usually the time I change the subject by suggesting we get more potato salad. While this group spends lavishly on their writing projects, my last book was edited by Kaitlin, my neighbor’s daughter.
A senior in high school, Kaitlin wants to be an author. Aware of my longing to be known as someone who fancies himself a writer, she quite naturally turned to me for advice.
“Editing,” I lie to her. “Every good author has spent a lot of time editing other peoples’ work. Because I believe in you and feel you have so much promise, I’ll let you edit my next book.”
She was in heaven and ended up formatting it, too. Feeling a bit guilty about taking advantage of her, when I stopped by to pick up the final copy, I gave her a kitten I’d found in a parking lot. I was going to stay to see what she named it, but she started sneezing when she opened the box and I left before I caught her cold.
And for the cover of my latest book, I bought a pre-made job off the interwebs for forty dollars, not knowing they would keep selling it long after I made my purchase. There’s now a romance, two mysteries, a memoir, and my book all lurking on websites and looking the same, though mine is still the only one to use red for the font color.
Anyway, after Claire finishes, Ken signals he is ready to one-up the group. “That’s nothing. My editor invoiced me fifteen hundred dollars just to hold my copyedit slot for later this fall.” He pops a stuffed mushroom into his mouth and assumes the smug expression of someone who has won yet again.
“That’s nothing,” I say, trying to remember if I was already on my second beer. “I commissioned a painting today for four thousand dollars, and I don’t know that I’ll use any of it on my book. We’ll just have to see.”
The satisfied look falls from Ken’s face and he scrunches his forehead so his eyebrows are level. “Really? Who’s the artist. What’s the subject?”
“Ha ha,” I say, wondering if this could be my third beer. “It’s someone my wife knows. Very talented. I’m not really sure of the process he uses.” Then I hold up my empty plate. “Anyone for more potato salad?”
June 3, 2016 – Framing The Framis
At my writers meeting, I pitch the idea that I can mask my ignorance of any subject by following a formula. “I break whatever it is down to three steps. Take piloting a helicopter, for example, which I should note I’m practically an expert in since I took a ride that one time at Disney.”
“That is good experience,” says Ken, nodding.
“Anyway, the three steps for this are: you take off, fly, and land.” I take a sip of my craft-brewed beer and continue. “Now, take each step and discuss it using generic jargon. So, for taking off, I might say, ‘After strapping in, I scan the framis and flip a row of switches. Then I grab the doofer and lift us into the air.’”
Ken shakes his head. “I’ve found that when you’re winging it, it’s best to combine two words from science. Like, ‘After strapping in, I scan the avionic modulator and flip a row of switches. Then I grab the logistics exchanger and lift us into the air.’”
Satchel sits forward. “That’s too hard and readers know you’re faking it. The way to do it is to call everything exactly what it is, only put a person’s name in front like they were the inventor. ‘After strapping in, I scan the Benson control panel and flip a row of switches. Then I grab the Carlson lever and lift us into the air.’”
“Wow. That is good.” Now I’m the one nodding.
“How about this,” says Claire. “Open the throttle and when the motor reaches operating RPM, pull up on the collective.”
“That doesn’t work,” says Ken.
“Sorry, Claire,” says Satchel. “No one will believe that.”
“It’s right from an instruction manual so I’m guessing it’s probably right.” She holds up her phone.
“Is it a ‘Helicoptering for Idiots’ book?” I ask.
“I couldn’t find an Idiots book. This is an online pilot’s guide.”
“No Idiots book?” I sit up, my mind racing. I’ve been looking for a side project and Helicopter Piloting for Idiots sounds like a winner.
And I won’t let the fact that I’ve never even read an Idiots book slow me down. First, I’ll break the book into three pieces, an intro, body, and conclusion. For the intro, I’ll start with a basic framis…
May 30, 2016 – I Know I Don’t Know
My homework for the next writers group meeting is to explore the maxim, “write what you know.” The idea is that authors can write rich scenes and real characters if they draw from their own personal knowledge and experience.
I’ve been looking to add new skills to the characters in my book, so I take an inventory of what it is I know. My list of skills explodes and I test drive a few of the more interesting ones on my darling wife, who sits across from me in our living room. When it comes to telling me what I know and don’t know, she’s always eager to offer an opinion.
“Honey, do you think I have enough experience as a helicopter pilot to give a character that skill?”
“What experience do you have beyond that ride we took at Disney ten years ago?”
Okay, her point is technically true, but I’m a firm believer that you can mask your ignorance of any technology by using generic terms like gizmo, doohickey, and such. But I decide not to fight it and move on. “How about a chef?”
“You make chili by mixing baked beans and ketchup. It’s so disgusting even Hoover won’t eat it.”
Our dog, Hoover, is named Hundo on his paperwork. But from the first day he could walk, he started vacuuming the floor with his face, eating anything and everything he found. The nickname stuck.
Until one day he came to a stray chunk of my chili. He treated it like radioactive waste, keeping a no-man’s-land zone around it until the hazmat crew—my wife—disposed of it.
“I know,” she says. “How about having a character that lounges all day, rotating between eating, sleeping, and watching TV. That is, until he begins drinking at happy hour, and then he falls asleep and starts snoring.” She stands and heads for the kitchen, and then she stops. “Oh, and when he’s not sleeping or eating, he’s scratching himself in gross places.”
She seems to be teasing me, but I’m not sure. Either way, I need time to mull this one over. So I recline my chair and flick on the flat screen.
“Honey,” I call. “Is there any of that kielbasa left in the fridge?”
May 27, 2016 – Show And Tell
Ken, the self-appointed leader of my writers group, announces the evening’s topic is on “show don’t tell.” This concept says that a writer who tells you a story is bad, but one who shows you a story is good.
This may be confusing for the novice, so let me give an example of “telling you” something with words: Claire sits in a chair to my left.
See how it’s flat and boring and just bad? Now I will “show you” in words: With a fresh batch of barbecued chicken wings on the table, I dash to be the first in line. My plan is thwarted, though, when I trip over a chair to my left that no one told me about.
See how you almost feel the chair? It’s a powerful technique, although it’s become awkward in my stories with characters tripping all the time.
Anyway, Satchel, new to the group, tells us about his computer program that analyzes a document and, using a special algorithm, finds cases of telling instead of showing. “It really just finds reflexive conjunctions,” he says. “But that’s pretty much the same thing.”
Okay, he didn’t say reflexive conjunctions. He used other words I also don’t understand. But you get my point.
So then Ken clears his throat and announces that he ran my latest book through Satchel’s program and it found eighty-seven reflexive conjunctions. “Sounds like your work has a bad case of conjunctivitis, ho ho!”
I smile and nod. “Too bad for the publishing company that just offered me a huge advance for that book.” He starts choking when I tell him the number.
Of course, I don’t have a publishing offer. I just couldn’t let it end like that. While Claire and Satchel argue about who should give Ken the Heimlich, I make a beeline for those barbecued chicken wings. And this time I don’t trip over the chair.
May 23, 2016 – The Funny Thing About Humor
With his normal buffoonery, Ken starts our writers meeting by calling “Engage” from his captain’s chair. With a craft-brewed beer in one hand and salty snacks in the other, I lean back in my seat ready for an evening of camaraderie.
Then, out of nowhere, Ken ambushes me. “So, I read some of your comedy bits last night.” He doesn’t finish his thought; he just let’s his words hang out there. Claire delivers the knockout blow. “Are they supposed to be funny?”
“Ha ha,” I say. Then I help them understand the nuances of jest. “I’m not a comedian. I’m a humorist.”
Claire nods. “What’s the difference?”
“A comedian tries to make everyone laugh. A humorist sculpts a message of wit that a narrow slice of society finds funny.”
She looks at me with the same blank expression my wife used when I said this to her, so I keep going. “It’s challenging to target a humorous piece just right.”
“How do you know if it’s working?”
“People laugh when they read it.”
“How do you know if it’s working well?”
“Ah,” says Claire, echoing my wife.
Then a chill of anxiety drowns my annoyance. Ken had told us on numerous occasions that he doesn’t “cruise the web.” So how does he know about these bits?
Ha ha. I just want to end by letting everyone know that Ken is a great guy and the perfect leader for our writers group. Is it getting hot in here?
May 20, 2016 – Just Don’t Call Me Late For Dinner
My last writers meeting was the best! Ken gets the meeting started with his usual call to action from his captain’s chair. Then he announces the topic of the week, which is “how to choose names for your book characters.”
Well, Claire Underwood, sitting to my left, laughs out loud and says something in an off-handed manner as if it’s common knowledge, “This from the guy who identifies his murderers by giving them quoted nicknames?”
For those of you who don’t know, Ken has written four murder mysteries. And, off topic, he frequently espouses the opinion that good mystery writing requires more intelligence than any other genre.
Anyway, Claire had whispered to me about this last week, and now she was calling Ken out in front of everyone. She told me that each of Ken’s books introduces a character with a quoted nickname, like Eddie “Swamp Dog” Meechum, or Garrett “Steel Jacket” Walker. And this person turns out to be the answer to his whodunnit mystery.
Ken sits in stunned silence. Then, in a show of calm restraint, he stands, puts a cup into his microwave, and as he presses the button, says, “Earl Grey, hot.” When the timer pings, he doesn’t turn around. Instead, with his back to us, he says, “At least I don’t name my characters after strippers.”
It doesn’t get any better than this! I sip my beer and look to Claire, waiting for her rejoinder. Claire, by the way, writes romantic adventure stories, and her characters have names like Luscious, Chardonnay, and Cherry.
Then I freeze, my beer caught in my throat. What it they check my characters against the cast for TV’s House of Cards…
May 16, 2016 – Meteorites Minus the Meteor
Ken emailed the writers group to say that everyone should contribute a snack for our next meeting. I told my wife that this sounded like too much effort and maybe I should stay home.
“I can make a crew-dee-tay,” she offered.
I’m already sold because this means I’m home free, but I’m curious. “What’s that?”
“Sounds perfect.” The daily double—I don’t have to work, and the French make delicious food. So I get ready for my meeting, including putting my old flip-style phone on my belt, the one that looks like a Star Trek communicator.
“Where’s the snack?” I call from the kitchen.
“In the fridge,” she answers from the living room.
I open the door. “All I see is a sorry plate of vegetables.” Now, I don’t remember if I said “sorry plate of vegetables” or “plate of sorry vegetables.” But I know I didn’t say “sorry” as in “I apologize,” and that was a mistake.
It seems that crew-dee-tay is spelled crudites. There may be an accent here or there, but basically, start with something cool like meteorites, then replace the coolest part with the word “crud.”
I use my phone to check crudites on Urban Dictionary and learn that this is no mistake. Their number one definition is: “rabbit food.”
“Ha ha,” I call from the kitchen, trying to make my comment seem like a joke.
“Don’t forget the dip.”
“Ha ha,” I say again, bobbing my head inside the fridge looking for anything that might be that. With vegetables and dip in hand, I give her a peck on the cheek. “I’m going to leave early so I can put gas in the car.”
While my gas tank fills at the corner store, I pop inside to look around. This shop has two long aisles dedicated to nothing but salty snacks. After walking the loop twice, I fill my basket with tasty goodness.
May 12, 2016 – Killing The Ones You love
Ken, the self-appointed leader of my writers group, presents this writing tip at our meeting. I think he read it somewhere on the interwebs. It’s called, “Kill Your Darlings.”
Now, first about Ken. He wears this ensemble that includes a sweater vest with epaulets. Then, he sits in what he calls his captain’s chair, points to the middle of the room, and shouts, “Engage” to start the discussion. I tell you, if it weren’t for his craft-brewed beer and deli snacks, I’d probably quit the group.
Anyway, he says that if you write something and other people like it, then it’s good and you should keep it. But if you write something and you like it, well then, it’s your darling and you must kill it.
My problem is that I’m the only one who ever likes anything I write, and so I’m not sure where that leaves me. I went through my latest book, Forty-Five Colts and a Colt 45, line by line and deleted everything I liked. When I was done, all I had left was fourteen pages of adverbs, and now I’m thinking that’s a different problem.
I’m probably getting worked up over nothing. I’m going to cruise the writers blogs to see if I can find something all smarty-pants to show up Ken at the next meeting.
Who knows, maybe I’ll score a chance to sit in the captain’s chair. If that happens, though, I’ll need to come up with a clever line to start the meeting.
May 9, 2016 – To Go With Boldness
I’m at my first writers meeting, and Ken sits in his big squarish chair, introduces himself as the leader of the group, and announces that the topic of the day is adverbs.
Claire, sitting to my left, leans over and whispers to me, “We let him be leader because it’s his house.” I smell craft-brewed beer on her breath and look around to see if there’s more.
Ken tells us that somebody either smart or famous decided that adverbs are bad. Then he passes around a petition to have them banned forever. At least, I think that’s what the paper says. It reaches me at the same time I spy the beer table, and I end up signing it while I’m studying the selection of brew.
Anyway, in case you forgot, adverbs end in –ly. Good writers don’t use them. Great writers hate them. If you aren’t following, let’s consider an example.
“To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Do you see it? It’s an acquired distaste, but after you’ve been trained, well, it makes my blood boil. Now consider good writing.
“To go with boldness where no one has gone before.”
It’s magic, right? I’m surprised Gene Roddenberry could succeed making such a rookie mistake, and with his signature line, no less.
There’s probably more to this rule than I understand. Send your questions and I’ll ask Ken at the next meeting. Now I’m off to buy my darling wife some flowers cut with freshness.
Copyright © 2016 by Doug J. Cooper All Rights Reserved.
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