How I Spent My Summer (OK, Year-and-a-Half) Vacation

A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. –Earl Wilson
Read more at BrainyQuote

One big problem with maintaining a blog about–well, about anything–is that you set yourself up with certain expectations about your productivity. Usually it starts with a stream of consciousness daydream that ultimately leads to this revelation: “Hey, I should write that down!”

Then you start thinking “Hey, I’ve got more stuff I think about that I should write down.”

And so you do. For a while. You spend days or weeks putting fingers to keyboard, trying to be clever, crowing a little and maybe even eating a little crow. All to the good.

Then life creeps in. Suddenly you find yourself thinking, “Ok, I really don’t have time to come up with another blog idea this week, so I’ll skip this week and put something up next week. Only two or three people read this thing and it’s mostly for me anyway.”

Then next week comes. And the next. And the next. Before you know it, July 2012 is long in the past and you begin to wonder what happened to the dude with all the ideas he wanted to post about. Where did all that energy go? You discover that you’ve taken a year-and-a-half unintended vacation from your blogging, so as far as the Interwebs is concerned, you might as well have died.

Fact is, I can’t really account for where it all went. One minute I was thinking about posting here. The next I’d forgotten all about it and was well into some other project or mundane task. However, I do take some solace in the fact that I have not been goofing off all this time. In fact, I’ve been quite busy. Here are a few things that have happened in the past year:

WordPress Plugins

I updated both my WordPress plugins (ScrapeAZon and GoodReviews) with some new features and fixes. As of this writing, I’m testing the latest versions in WordPress 3.8.

Ebook Publishing

I played a small part in ushering some writer friends (one known and one unknown) into the age of ebooks by performing some of the development end tasks for them.

Writing/Blogging

I wrote a buncha entries for Boson Software’s IT blog. I also worked on a few of my own short stories, a novella, and a little bit on a novel.

General Handiness

I finally finished building that entertainment center I’ve been wanting to finish for three years.

Mostly, I’ve been working my day job and being a family man. And that last is what matters most.

In light of my revelation that I will never, ever post to this blog more than weekly (if that), I’ve decided to make myself this promise: I will continue to blog here when it strikes me. It might not be weekly. It might not even be monthly or semi-annually. But occasionally a man needs a place to dump his head. It might as well be here. And I do plan on it not being an entire year before I blog again.

Onward!


Giving Instead of Giving Back

A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog. –Jack London

Every now and then, a person who is ordinarily wrapped up in his or her own day-to-day life and problems will see a news story, a post on Facebook, or some other information conduit that spurs him or her to action. Be it the burned down home of an struggling family, the passionate support of a political cause, or the hurtful neglect of an innocent pet, the story touches the heart and fires the soul.

It is those times that the creatives of the world are often at their best. Michael Jackson was moved by stories of drought and famine in Africa to enlist the aid of other artists in “We Are The World.” More than two decades later, musicians united to re-record the song to raise money for victims of a particularly violent earthquake in Haiti. Many times, you hear the rich and famous state that they simply wanted to give back to the people who have so blessed them.

I won’t criticize those efforts. They are meaningful and important and the right thing to do. However, I am more often moved by the giving and community service efforts of those who are not so high profile, those who cannot necessarily afford to donate large sums of cash and whose faces are not famous enough to prompt the average citizen to open their wallets for a worthy cause.

My Name Is Walter

That’s why I am particularly excited right now about the release of a new children’s book that was mostly authored by my wife, Paula, and illustrated by my 12-year-old step-daughter Laura. The book, My Name Is Walter, is based on the true story of a cocker spaniel/poodle mix who was thrown out of a moving vehicle in Nashville, Tennessee in the spring of 2012. The dog was in atrocious shape. His fur was so matted that his rescuers, a city councilman and a local dog rescue operation, were unable to determine his sex until veterinarians shaved him. He was also starving.

For two weeks, Nashvillians and the world watched on Facebook as Walter struggled to survive his abuse. The effort to save his life attracted the attention of news media, film and television star Ashley Judd, and countless people from all over the globe. Unfortunately, he eventually succumbed to the effects of the abuse and neglect. Walter went to his place of rest on May 11, 2012.

His story inspired my wife and step-daughter to collaborate on My Name Is Walter in an effort to raise awareness about responsible pet ownership and to raise money for Snooty Giggles Dog Rescue, the organization that attempted to save Walter’s life. They worked tirelessly for weeks on this project, and I am proud to say that in the first two days of its launch it has already generated an impressive amount of interest and number of sales. It is our hope that sales of the book will be able to help Snooty Giggles put the word out about Walter’s Law, which is a movement to strengthen animal cruelty laws in Tennessee.

Prior to the release of My Name Is Walter, my step-daughter had no widespread name recognition, nor had she any reserve of money to donate to her cause. She was just a 12-year-old who wanted to help. So she did what she does best: draw. She chose to use her creative talents to directly benefit a good cause–in the middle of final exams and other spring activities–rather than for herself.

My Name Is Walter is available for purchase from Two Peas Publishing, as well as Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com, to name a few. One hundred percent of the royalties received from sales of the book will be donated directly to Snooty Giggles Dog Rescue.

Laura chose to give because she felt she could and should, not just because she’s been blessed with a comfortable home and lifestyle. I could not be more proud.


The Never-Clean Closet

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
–Maya Angelou

The process of packing, whether for a trip or to move to a new location, often results in a mental divergence from the goal of closing the suitcase and toward the memories that are invoked by the particular objects you are packing. Perhaps it’s the subtle aroma of an old paperback book you’ve cracked open that recalls memories of reading a particularly gripping novel under the golden afternoon sun of a lazy summer day. Or maybe it’s an old photograph that prompts memories of a new and exciting time in your life that you sometimes wish you could revisit.

Then again, it could be something like a story idea list, a hastily scribbled assortment of characters, events, settings, or plots that, once upon a time, struck you as something you must write but for some reason never did. I have such a list. It is a long list. Occasionally, I rediscover it hidden among the files and folders I use every day.

At those times, I am confronted with three choices: I can despair over the fact that I’ve never forced myself to make time to flesh out those ideas, I can sit down and force myself to flesh them out, or I can strike them from the list and abandon them as bad ideas and wastes of time. I can tell you that I seldom use that last option. That is why I refer to my idea list as the never-clean closet.

Although I am not fool enough to believe that every idea is a good idea, I am optimistic enough to hope that I can take the ideas and sketches I’ve jotted down and flesh them out, if for no other reason than to see where they lead. How can you know whether your story is a good one unless you write it first? Alas, there are literally dozens of ideas on the list, which technically spans multiple files, and only so many minutes in a day that I can devote to writing for my own pleasure and edification.

Thus, the never-clean closet remains stacked full of could-bes and maybe-somedays, always with the rationale that any idea struck from it will be because I have either developed a finished story from it or because I finally attempted to do so and failed miserably. After all, the goal of the list is not to strike chores from it, but to explore the worlds that are suggested by it.

Perhaps I should add one more idea to the end of that list: sit down, shut up, and start writing.


Something Shiny!

I’ve posted a new guest blog over at amwriting.org.

Remember how technological advancement was supposed to make life so much easier? A few days ago, I sat in a restaurant watching my step-daughter work some of her amazing illustrative magic with her pencil and sketchpad while we awaited the delivery of our meals. I thought to myself, How nice it would be if I could just sit down and work like that whenever I’m waiting on something or someone else. That thought was immediately followed by that problem-solving voice in my head; the one I developed after having spent more than a decade solving other people’s information technology problems.

Why can’t you? it asked.

Read the entire post here.


‘It’s Tennessee Williams in Hell’

Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
I don’t approve of anything you do
Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
Cain and Abel and me and you

–John Mellencamp, “Brothers”

Rated SKFor more than thirty years, I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp sing about the struggles of life, love, race, and redemption. For approximately that same amount of time, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s stories about the struggles of good versus evil and…well, redemption. Ever since I learned that the two idols of my youth had collaborated to create the Southern gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, I’ve been bouncing around the Internet like a puppy chasing a tennis ball, looking for any news or information I could find about the production. With boundless anticipation I waited, longing for the announcement of show dates much the way neophiles slobber over rumors about the latest Apple gadget.

At long last, on April 28, I attended the matinee showing of Ghost Brothers.

I was not disappointed.

True to the character of both artists’ previous works, Ghost Brothers is, at its core, a tale of redemption. Two present-day siblings, Frank and Drake McCandless, are constantly at each other’s throats, much to the chagrin of their beleaguered father, Joe “Skunk” McCandless, and their no-nonsense steel magnolia of a mother, Monique. When the rivalry becomes violent–to the point of Drake breaking Frank’s arm–Joe attempts to intervene. He calls a meeting at the family’s cabin in Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, hoping to accomplish two objectives: to prevent his sons from killing each other and to clear his own conscience. Meanwhile, Frank has formed a relationship with Drake’s girlfriend, Anna, who only stokes the fires of the brothers’ animosity.

It turns out that the boys’ uncles, Joe’s older brothers Jack and Andy, had in 1967 allowed their own rivalry to fester to the point that it cost both of them their lives, not to mention the life of their mutual love interest Jenna and (possibly) Dan Coker, an elderly black man who was the caretaker of the family’s cabin and who, for reasons not exactly clear at first, also tends bar at The Dreamland Cafe, which Joe frequents.

As a ten-year-old child, Joe witnessed the deaths of his brothers and Jenna in 1967. He has never come clean about what happened to them. Now that his own sons are at risk of repeating history, he finds himself struggling with the truth. If he tells what he knows, will it put a lid on the boiler of the modern rivalry? Or will he simply provide more fuel to the demons that have haunted him his entire life?

To make matters more complicated, the living McCandless family’s thoughts, words, and actions are all quietly influenced by a malicious devil figure known as The Shape, who makes it his business to both enflame resentment and offer one-liner witticisms to the audience about the events as they unfold. Meanwhile, Dan Coker, Jenna, and the deceased McCandless brothers all work to mitigate the evil influence of The Shape and come to terms with the circumstances of their own tragedy in the wake of the one unfolding before them.

Mix all that twisting Stephen King plot together with the emotionally charged music and lyrics of John Mellencamp, and you get exactly what The Shape says you get: Tennessee Williams in Hell. The story is brilliant. If you get emotionally invested in it, the ending might even force you to swallow a lump. The musical numbers are foot-stomping. “Tear This Cabin Down” at the end of the first act makes you want to stand in your seat. But it is the skill of the actors and the never inappropriate use of the projected special effects that really makes this show the entertainment that it is. Both The Shape and the projector act as a sort of Greek chorus to the events of the play. As such, something interesting is always happening in every corner and crevice of the set. Often you’ll find yourself eyeballing areas of the set that have little to do with the current main action because you’ve caught a glimpse of a ghost, or a phrase, or an image from the past that reflects the thoughts and feelings of the character emoting.

The entire cast is superb. I happened to see the show at a time when Gwen Hughes, a member of the ensemble and understudy to Emily Skinner, was playing mother Monique McCandless. In spite of the criticism about female characterizations that was offered by one member of the audience during the after words, Hughes’ portrayal of Monique led me to the conclusion that her character was actually the strength in the family. I have no doubt that if we had been allowed to follow the McCandless family from marriage through the boys’ early years, it would have been Monique alone that held them together for as long as they were. She can also take a punch to the mouth better than most men. In fact, it is only when tragedy befalls Monique that the rest of the fecal matter is splattered by the spinning blades.

Then there’s The Shape, played by Jake La Botz. As in any Stephen King tale, it is always the purely malicious character who is the most fun. Part sideshow barker, part Hank Williams, and all devil, The Shape is evil, charming, and able to make you laugh. Part of you even wants to root for him.

In the end, though, I was most impressed with the performance of Christopher L. Morgan as Dan Coker, the elderly black man who primarily serve’s as the Mother Abigail/God figure of this tale. Morgan himself is a young man, but I never would have guessed had I not looked at the cast photos in the playbill. From my spot in the Mezzanine, Morgan truly had me believing that he was a hobbling older fellow. Additionally, he has an incredible singing voice that probably could have filled the auditorium without the use of amps and mics. Morgan’s portrayal of Coker is the heart and soul of this play, as far as I’m concerned, and I wish that he’d been explored with a little more depth.

In fact, my sole criticism of this production is that Dan Coker’s living role during the events of 1967 seemed glossed over in more than one way. We do find out that his death is related to the deaths of the older McCandless brothers and Jenna, but how is only briefly touched on during a family discussion about the broken grandfather clock that stands in the cabin. Secondly, there’s a brief mention about the role of 1960s racism in Dan Coker’s life. “It was always convenient to have a black man around to blame,” he says at one point, which leads the audience to the conclusion that Coker was suspected of having been involved in the deaths of the three youths. Again, it’s only hinted at. Given both Mellencamp’s and King’s passions for the Civil Rights Movement, I was a little disappointed that, at times, Coker’s role in the story seemed to be little more than an aside.

Overall, however, I couldn’t have been more fulfilled in my expectations for Ghost Brothers. It is my sincere hope that this production will move beyond Atlanta after its May 13 closing date there. This tale may be Southern gothic in the truest traditions of that genre, but it is one that all of the country needs to see.


Soundtracks In Your Head

Do you pick out a “soundtrack” to listen to while you write a specific type of scene? What about when you read? Would a soundtrack in an eBook be distracting? I share my thoughts on reading and writing to music in a new blog post over at amwriting.org. Here’s an excerpt.

I read an article about a New York company, BookTrack, that is developing eBooks with soundtracks. The principle is essentially the same as that of watching a movie or playing a video game: the soundtrack enhances the emotion you feel as the scene plays out in your head. Given the Web-like capabilities of eBook technology, it is perhaps a natural evolution of the platform as long as you’re not too ADD to become distracted by it.

Read the rest at amwriting.org.


New WordPress Plugin Enables Goodreads Integration

As of yesterday, my newest WordPress plugin, GoodReviews, is available for download from the official WordPress repository.

The official description appears below, and you can see the plugin in action by visiting the page for my time travel novelette, Timecast. If you use the plugin and enjoy it, you can donate to its development effort by purchasing a copy of Timecast or any other title from this publisher.

The GoodReviews plugin displays information about a specific title from Goodreads, including reader reviews. This plugin was developed mainly for authors or booksellers who want to showcase Goodreads information about specific titles on their WordPress sites. You must obtain a Goodreads API developer key in order to use this plugin. You can obtain an API key by following the instructions at goodreads.com/api.


Refreshment is Served

Unless you’re one of those people who collapses in a heap and writhes uncontrollably on the floor because someone moved the television remote, a little change is a good thing. Sometimes you just need to reboot.

We all struggle with change, of course. It interrupts the comfortable flow of our day. Last month, it even interrupted the flow of my semi-regular, sort of habitual blog posts. Six weeks is a long time to go between postings, but I have some very good reasons. March was a terrible month in many ways. In spite of that, I did manage to see a few bright spots:

  1. I finished a mammoth editing job on another writer’s excellent stab at an epic historical romance.
  2. I finished editing and paring down the utterly absurd and gross short piece I mentioned in my last post.
  3. I completely reinvented this blog on a new platform.

If your brain isn’t reeling and your eyes aren’t bleeding yet, you might notice that the look of the blog itself has changed dramatically. There’s a new menu system, a new design, and new functionality that comes as a result of having ported the blog from a CMS platform that is designed to be a CMS platform to a CMS/blog platform that is designed to be a blog platform. I won’t go into all the nuts and bolts of the new features here. I’m sure you’ll discover them if you need them. However, I would like to point out a couple of things. Because change is overwhelming, I’ll step through it slowly for you.

If you hover over the Plugins menu, you’ll see that I’ve added information about a brand new WordPress plugin: GoodReviews. It’s not available for download yet, but should be soon. It’s intended to allow authors and booksellers to use the Goodreads.com API to showcase book information on their own WordPress sites.

Still conscious? Good.

If you hover over the Publishing menu, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted some of my previous writing and editing work. I also plan to add an information technology section to this site as time goes on, because IT is so much a part of me.

More posts are on the way soon. I’ll also be guest-blogging on another site next week. Links to that post will appear here when it’s live.

Changes complete. Now, breathe.

Onward.


Since You Didn’t Ask…

No one wants advice–only corroboration. –John Steinbeck

One of the biggest problems with the business of writing and submitting short fiction for publication is the fact that there are few editors who are able to provide useful feedback on a rejected manuscript. They don’t have time. Who would, given the dozens of manuscripts writers tend to submit? Additionally, those editors don’t want to be bothered with writers who take constructive criticism as a personal attack, or as permission to submit a rewrite. Therefore, most editors simply say "this is not for me" and let it go while writers proceed through many a trial and error and beta audience before they ultimately give up or figure out on their own the answer to the burning question: "What’s wrong with my story?"

Recently, I spent a week furiously writing and polishing a horror story that I thought was pretty good, perhaps even the best I’ve written in a long time. Without giving myself a couple of days to let the finished work cool in my mind, I rushed it off in an e-mail to a bestselling author who is compiling stories of such types for a new anthology. Turns out that was a mistake. Well, sort of.

It was a mistake for me to not review the story with my own critical eye before submitting it. However, it was not a mistake to submit it, because the feedback I received on it was perhaps the most valuable I’ve ever received from an editor.

The verdict was that the story was ok but way over-written, meaning that in the process of developing the piece I’d pretty much thrown in the kitchen sink, showing and telling and describing to the reader every little piece of information that popped into my head. The result was a 9,100-word work of short fiction about a murder in a fast food restaurant’s men’s room that could have easily been told in a fraction of that space.

Did I feel the sting of rejection when I received that editor’s e-mail reply? You bet. I think any writer who receives genuine constructive feedback upon rejection would and should feel that sting. It’s the prick of the needle of truth. You only feel it when you know the reader is without a doubt correct in his or her assessment. Besides, if every manuscript you’ve ever cranked out receives nothing but positive feedback, you’re really only reading it to yourself in the mirror.

That sting is important. It doesn’t need to be nasty or unfriendly. It just needs to be honest. As for me, I spent a day licking my wounds and reconsidering my life. Then I went back to the manuscript and started cutting. Upon reviewing my first couple of paragraphs, I knew immediately that the editor had been right. A scene in the beginning of that story was originally four pages long. It is now approximately one page. 

In her Authors@Google talk last week, bestselling author Anne Rice discussed how she gets through writer’s block. She does it in the exact same way I wrote the restroom murder story. She sits and she writes and she writes until something appears. The big difference between what she does and what I do is that she knows how to throw away the unnecessary stuff. Until now, I was apparently just leaving it in.


Why We Do That Thing We Do

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
–Ray Bradbury

Ever since I released my time travel novelette Timecast into the eBook Ethersphere, I’ve been asking myself how I can get more eyeballs on it. I’ve read all about Amazon’s KDP Select program. I’ve read all about how other authors have made a huge splash on Twitter. I’ve even read some posts by an author who says that all this Internet marketing schtick is hogwash and authors should learn to rely on more traditional means of marketing to get their words out there.

The glut of information out there about how to successfully market an eBook is overwhelming, to say the least. It is also depressing because there does not truly seem to be a right answer. This author says you must build a following, a brand, on social media. That author says you must get yourself an agent. Another author says you should pursue KDP Select if all you want tons and tons of downloads.

Perhaps the right answer, then, depends on these questions: why do you write and what do you want to accomplish by writing?

For me, those questions are easy to answer. I am a technical writer because it is my day job and they pay me to do it. I also get a certain amount of personal pleasure from imparting knowledge to those who seek it. I write fiction, on the other hand, because I have stories in my head. I think they are good stories. Therefore, I want to tell them.

Now, there are some obvious follow-up questions I might receive from others based on the answers I put forth above:

1. By wanting to tell your stories, you mean that you want to be a famous author. Like Stephen King. Right? Well, no, that’s not what I mean at all. Fame kills, fosters addiction, and creates insanity. And those famous people who are not dead, addicts, or insane are probably just well adjusted to their extravert natures. I am a notorious introvert. I like quiet and solitude.

2. Ok, so you don’t want to be famous. You’re already paid for writing, though. I’m sure you want to be rich. Ok, well who doesn’t want to be wealthy? However, I’m not seeking to make my fortune off published fiction. If getting rich were my ultimate goal, I would no doubt seek a psychologically healthier and more proven method, like winning the lottery or robbing a bank. That said, I don’t mind making a little side money on sales of my work. That’s one of the reasons Timecast has a price tag. The other reason is that I want to demonstrate that I believe my work has value.

3. So let me get this straight: you don’t want to be famous and you don’t want to get rich quick, but you do want tons of eyeballs in front of your stories? That’s it exactly.

4. But isn’t wanting tons of eyeballs in front of your stories exactly the same as wanting to be rich and famous? Why no, it isn’t. Not at all. I love to read. I want tons of eyeballs in front of my stories because I want others to love to read the same things I love to read. If I make a little money, that’s great, but I’ll never expect to be rich from it, unless you count the simple enrichment of sharing my tales.

5. My head hurts. Ugh, mine too. I think it’s all the social media noise. I would turn the volume down for you, but I’m not sure that I should. You see, I’ve answered my own questions to my own satisfaction, but I still have no real answers as to how to successfully implement a marketing strategy to achieve the goal those answers revealed.

So, what does the future hold for for this author? I’m going to keep writing and putting my eBooks (and eventually print books) out there. Beyond that, you’ll probably see me tweet about them from time to time. I’ll also update other related social networks, such as Goodreads, as I go. 

Of course, I’m open to other ideas.