Celebrating the release of “Standing Our Ground”: Scene 2

Here comes scene 2!

I sincerely hope you felt something at the end of scene 1—a question, a sense of something immanent, perhaps curiosity about Deputy Andi Pelton—and even a sense of something not so good about to make Andi’s evening anything but boring. If not, my goal for the first scene wasn’t met. 

But it’s short, and scene 2 introduces two of the other recurring main characters in this series: Ed Northrup, Andi’s life partner, and Grace Northrup, Ed’s adopted daughter who loves to call Andi her “step-girlfriend.” See what you think (and let me know, if you can!). Here’s Scene 2 from Standing Our Ground:

2

Ed pocketed his phone, uneasy. Shots fired? His worst fear was losing Andi in a violent confrontation. “Let it go,” he said to himself. “She’ll be okay.”

 Grace walked past him, carrying another box. “Who’ll be okay, Northrup?”

He picked up the box he’d set down to answer the phone, following her out. “Andi just got a call at work. Shots fired.”

“Shots? My God, where?”

“In town, I suppose. But I don’t know for sure. I’m just hoping she’ll be okay.”

“She will. Andi can take care of herself.”

“Right.” He carried the box of Grace’s things out to his pickup, still jumpy. The last shots fired in Jefferson were the ones that almost killed Andi four years ago. He tried to dredge up that reverend’s name, the one who’d started it all. 

Grace’s car, a used pink Volvo she’d immediately named the Pink Vulva, groaned with her belongings jammed into every corner. When Ed dropped the box onto the tailgate of his pickup, she called, “Careful with that, Northrup.” 

“How’d you accumulate all this junk in just four years?” He snugged the box into the last open spot in the bed of the truck and raised the tailgate.

She studied him for a moment, calculation in her eyes. “I’ve been yours only three years and eight months.”

“Then it’s even more amazing you have so much junk.”

“Jen’s folks rented a whole trailer for, as you call it, her junk.” She sniffed. “I prefer to think of all this—” She pointed at the PV and then at his pickup. “—as beloved possessions.” 

“Any more beloved possessions in the cabin?”

“Uh-uh. But would you consider letting me take a few bottles of that wine you and Andi drink so much of?”

“Ah. Would you consider first turning twenty-one?”

“Come on, Northrup. Please? I can’t buy wine for three more years. Having some in my dorm room would be a nice ice-breaker for those new friends I’m about to make.” She gave a coy smile. “Work with me here. I’m on the threshold of my new life.”

Ed took that in. Her new life. It felt too soon, after three years and eight months. “All right. One bottle for breaking the ice.”

“You’re grits and gravy, Northrup,” she sang as she dashed up the porch steps and into the house. 

Ed smiled to himself: free “dad points,” and no harm done—she’d never remember the corkscrew.

He followed Grace up the porch steps, wondering who, if anybody, had been shot. In his head, he listed his patients. None of them were likely to take up arms against their particular slings and arrows, or to invite someone else to do so. Even Beatrice John, as broken and wounded as she was, wouldn’t shoot anybody. Except maybe herself. He pushed the thought away and concentrated on Andi’s shooting four years ago and the reverend who’d caused it all. As he opened the screen door, the name rushed back to him, riding a jolt of anger: Crane. The. Reverend. Loyd. Crane.

###

The purpose of the opening has changed over the years

It used to be that the opening of a novel could be leisurely, expansive; could focus on backstory or on a panoramic conveyance of information on the setting, the times, or the characters–long before any action begins. Openings could resemble long panning shots, showing the landscape, then slowly narrowing, closing in, seeing the protagonist’s face only after a long establishing scene. Not any more, at least not in the kind of fiction I write. Now we’re urged to enter in media res (which, of course, Aristotle recommended for drama–twenty-three hundred years ago!), in the midst of action, and not to “waste” time with backstory, rambling narrative, “introductions.” We writers are warned that agents and editors–not to mention discriminating readers–will not read past the first scene or two unless something compels them: a story question (who fired the shots? why? did anyone get hurt? what’s going to happen?), something about the protagonist (who should be in the scene) that endears or confuses (in a good story-question way) or unlocks an emotional response (will Andi get hurt? what’s this about their “unofficial marriage?), something that makes the reader want to go on, if only for another page. It will be the task of that other page to re-compel the reader to stay with it.

Did anything like that happen as you read? Was your curiosity piqued? Did you want to know more, even if at the moment that wanting was mild, just enough to go on to the next scene? I’d much appreciate knowing–good writers never stop learning, how to write better, of course, but also how readers engage with their work. You’re very welcome to help me learn by sending a comment.

See you tomorrow with scene 3!

Celebrating the release of “Standing Our Ground”: Scene 1

Book 4 of the “Monastery Valley Series”

Release Day is January 23rd!

I’m excited that my publisher, Black Rose Writing, will release my new novel, Standing Our Ground, this week–Thursday, in fact, January 23rd. To celebrate, I’d like to share with you, over the next three days, the first three scenes of the novel, one each day. They will be brief, so as not to take too much time to read. I believe you will enjoy them (if you like mystery stories enriched with a deep dive into relationships and a strong comment on current events). 

If you’ve already wondered whether the title says something about the “stand-your-ground” laws, you’re right on target (sorry, pardon the pun). So here we go, without further ado, with Scene 1 from my new Monastery Valley novel, Standing Our Ground.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 25

1

9:37 p.m. The hands on the big Howard Miller wall clock above her cubicle seemed like they hadn’t moved in an hour. Deputy Andi Pelton yawned and then called home. Ed would still be up. Just as he answered, she yawned again. Stifled it.

“Hey, kid,” Ed answered. “How’s the shift?”

“Shoot me. I’ve never been so bored. If this was Chicago, we’d have four, five drive-bys by now, a couple rapes, runaway kids. Here, everybody must be in bed.” She glanced up at the clock: still 9:37.

“I miss you on these evening shifts.”

That touched her. “Me too. Ed, let’s go public with our marriage. I want everybody to know.”

“How about we talk about it tomorrow on the way to Missoula? Grace’ll be in her car, so we’ll have plenty of privacy.”

“It’s a plan. Let’s—”

Suddenly, the receptionist’s voice cut in. “Andi, 9-1-1 call. Shots fired.”

“Oh, man, I gotta go. Shots fired.”

She heard Ed yell, “Be safe,” as she hit End. She grabbed her outer vest and started putting it on as she rushed out to Reception. She passed Marla without slowing. “How many shots?”

“Two. Caller said it sounded like a handgun.”

Andi kept moving toward the parking lot door. Over her shoulder, she yelled, “Where?”

Marla called after her, “206 East Cedar Street. The call came from the house next door.”

 “Radio Xavier. Tell him to meet me there and . . .” She shivered. “And to wear his armor.”

 She ran out to the lot. Just before flicking on her siren and lights, she heard Xav’s siren fire up north of town. Good. He’s close, she thought. She finished adjusting the vest as she drove. Four minutes after the call, she swerved around the corner onto East Cedar Street, Xavier’s siren close behind. 

Shots fired, she thought. “Be careful what you wish for,” she whispered. The dashboard clock read 9:41.

###

OK, that’s Scene 1. Tomorrow I’ll post Scene 2.

Authors are told (relentlessly), that if we don’t “grab” our readers in that very first scene, we’ve lost them. I think that’s an exaggeration, frankly, but I do try to infuse that first scene with a “story question,” and some emotional connection with the character(s).

I’d love to know if the scene raised a “story question” for you–What’s going to happen? How might it affect the deputy? Did someone get shot? Who? Why? If you’re so inclined, leave me a comment with your thoughts.

And if you want to pre-0rder Standing Our Ground, you can get a 15% discount before Jan. 23 at Black Rose Writing. Use promo code PREORDER2019. Click here to go to their website.

See you tomorrow!

Planning to Market a Book? How I Do it, Part 2

How I Think about Marketing—First, what do I want to do?

I’m a psychologist and a novelist; I’m not a natural marketer. But I have skills from my teaching and consulting days that come in handy. For example, I love talking to groups, so a natural marketing activity is giving book readings and talks at bookstores and libraries. I generally limit my geographical reach to the Pacific Northwest, eastern Washington, north Idaho, and southwestern Montana, so travel by car is realistic, affordable, a pleasure (unless, like today, we get eight inches of new snow). 

When I practiced psychology (I practiced hard, and I almost got it right!), I didn’t enjoy making face-to-face “pitches” to get referrals. (Those pitch lunches we called “building a relationship.”) But I’m a writer now, and writing pitches (and communicating them by email), is not only more congenial, it’s quite acceptable because face-to-face meetings are often impossible.

Professional reviews of the books can be a valuable marketing tool; these can run from inexpensive to wildly costly: Authors Reading Book Reviews start at $59.00, while the top-of-line Kirkus Indie reviews can run as high as $725.00. I prefer to come down in the middle of that range, and there are many excellent reviewing packages available to indie authors like me. For Standing Our Ground, I’m going to get reviews from four fine review groups: IndieReader Reviews, Real Reader Reviews (affiliated with IndieReader—the professional reviewers send the book to three non-professional reviewers who buy the book at Amazon.com and post an honest review there; thus the name, “Real Reader Reviews”). I’ll also get reviews from Sublime Book Reviews and Best Thriller Reviews. 

As an aside, Amazon.com has a new policy for reader reviews: If the reviewer bought the book (either print or eBook) at Amazon.com, he or she can post the review, declared by Amazon to be a “Verified Reader.” If not, Amazon takes the review down, or keeps it from posting in the first place. The rationale for the policy change is to decrease reviews by “friends and family” who, the reasoning goes, may lack the objectivity of a professional review. That’s an argument for later. The key point is, if you want to post a review on Amazon.com, be sure to research their “Verified Reader” rules.

Another useful marketing tool is the book giveaway: for a limited time, various promotional venues such as BookBub, Goodreads, and similar sites will offer an eBook version either for free or for a much-reduced price. (Some authors like print book giveaways, but those are much more costly, because the physical book must be purchased by the author and shipped to the winner(s) of the giveaway.) The point is to get people reading the book and (I hope) to get interested in subsequent books. Because my Monastery Valley Series is up to four books so far, this makes sense. These giveaways, while they can generate later sales, are not free. Goodreads giveaways, for instance, start at $119.00, plus the cost of the book and shipping (if giving away print books); eBook giveaways on Goodreads cost only the entry fee. 

Another valuable tool is marketing to libraries. I started that with my first book of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, offering to donate a copy of the book to about three hundred libraries. That obviously wiped out any hope of sales! For the second and third books, Nobody’s Safe Here and The Bishop Burned the Lady, I instead asked librarians to purchase the book. This cost me nothing beyond my time (to write and personalize the pitch email); there was no way to determine clearly how many librarians did buy the books, but a random search of their indexes suggested about sixty of the three hundred had at least one of the books in their inventory. A key value in selling to libraries is that librarians recommend books to other librarians, so if the library’s patrons check the book out, it can boost sales to other libraries. Again, the consideration of cost makes this a good tool.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the lowly bookmark. Readers love bookmarks! I carry them in my car along with copies of all the books, and whenever I sell (or gift) one of my books, I always include the bookmark. In the past, it was a single design, but for this campaign, I ordered bookmarks for each of the books. For a small world example of how bookmarks can spread the word about a book, I went to a Friends of the Library used book sale in another community and was browsing the table when I saw a copy of my second book in the series, Nobody’s Safe Here. Sticking out of the middle of the book was the bookmark I must have given the purchaser! (I waited till another browser was beside me and murmured, discreetly, “Great book. Highly recommended.”) 

Shameless self-promotion.

Finally, there’s a long-shot marketing service that I have had good luck and good results with: Book competitions. Climbing the Coliseum (Book 1) and Nobody’s Safe Here (Book 2) each won two awards, either “Finalist” or “Distinguished Favorite” in various competitions. “Winning” means I can buy foil stamps to stick on the covers of my copies of the books, and that the publisher can add to the cover image for printing. Being able to honestly say that I am “an award-winning author” in my author bio is very helpful, and having the evidence of the win on the covers of all books sold is also a boost.

How Much Do I Want to Spend on Marketing?

Fortunately for me, my publisher, Reagan Rothe of Black Rose Writing (BRW), provides three very helpful services. First, he and his sales team negotiate reduced rates for many different marketing tools (reviews, promotions, giveaways, etc.) with the sponsors. Currently, they do this in two ways. First, they offer their “2019 Black Rose Writing Cooperative Marketing Catalog” (no doubt 2020’s catalog will come soon), which lists packages of marketing services and promotional venues ranging from $100.00 through $3000.00. They can do this because of the economies of scale, since BRW publishes many authors. 

Second, they also offer individual marketing tools—such as professional reviews with various reviewing agencies—at a reduced rate to BRW authors. They call this the “a la carte” menu. 

Third, the house will sometimes match what I pay for a service. For instance, I paid part of the cost of a recent giveaway and Reagan matched it. 

The first edition of Climbing the Coliseum was self-published (it was reissued in 2018 by Black Rose Writing with a new cover to match the cover art of the entire Monastery Valley series, all designed by David Levine). I spent many thousands of dollars on it, first for production–the full costs of producing the physical books–and then for various marketing schemes from the publishing company that never paid off. With hindsight and hard experience, I’ve learned to set a firm marketing budget and to choose carefully what services and activities I want to spend it on, rather than listening to a sales pitch and signing checks.

I described earlier the kinds of marketing tools and services I will be using in the campaign for Standing Our Ground. To the question “How much do I want to spend on marketing?” I have a glib answer (“Nothing!”) and a serious answer: I want to spend as much as I can reasonably afford. No, I’m not going to tell you what I have budgeted for this book, but I’ll close with a hint: For the amount I have budgeted for marketing Book 4I could buy 1003 eBooks of Standing Our Ground, at an unnamed retailer. 

I’d be a best-seller in my genre for a day. But what would I do with 1003 eBooks?

Wait. That’d make a heck of a giveaway, wouldn’t it?

Well, here’s what’s coming up as we approach the release of Standing Our Ground on January 23rd: Next week, I’ll offer an early scene from the book, and talk about the importance of the first page and Ray Rhamey’s evaluation of Standing’s opening. The following week, I’ll start a series of blog posts on the topic “Writing the Psychologist as a Protagonist.”

How I plan the marketing of my book, Part 1

A Series of Blog Posts Leading to Release Day

On January 23, 2020, my publisher, Black Rose Writing, will release Book 4 in my Monastery Valley series, Standing Our Ground. Here’s a short blurb from the back cover:

A cold-blooded murder. The victim: a fourteen-year-old boy. The shooter waits patiently for the cops and calmly explains his right to kill the boy. “I was defending my property.” Can Deputy Andi Pelton find the evidence to break the killer’s stand-your-ground defense? As she searches, Sheriff Ben Stewart almost dies and cannot campaign for re-election. Andi knows she must take his place—her nemesis, Deputy Brad Ordrew, runs unopposed – and he’s promised to fire her when he’s sheriff. Can she stand her own ground—to stay in Monastery Valley—while she solving the murder and defending herself against scurrilous political ads paid for by a mysterious stranger?

Folks are always interested in how I write my stories, but lately some have asked how I plan for marketing the books. I thought a brief series of blog posts describing how I’ve planned the marketing campaign for Standing Our Ground might be interesting (let me know!). I’ll toss in some juicy background about the book’s premise and theme as we go along.

What is a “Hybrid” Model of Book Publishing?

It’s a cliché to say that the days of the publisher doing most or all of the marketing are over. They’re not just over, they’re as over as the rotary phone and the party line. Even the big publishing conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, require their authors to participate actively in marketing. Sure, they offer support, but unless your name is Stephen King or Salman Rushdie, you can expect to do a lot of marketing events or activities. 

My publisher, Reagan Rothe, has created a hybrid independent publishing company named Black Rose Writing (BRW). Hybrid means that Reagan assumes the cost—and the risk—for preparing the manuscript for publication, for producing the physical books, and for basic marketing services. BRW maintains a large portfolio of relationships with various marketing providers and services, and promotes books through these services. For these, I pay nothing (compared with self-publishing, where I would pay for all marketing that is done).

For example, on Jan. 1-3 of this new year, BRW ran a giveaway promotion of the first book in my Monastery Valley series, Climbing the Coliseum. I paid nothing for this marketing. But over and above BRW’s services, I can choose to share in marketing services and activities that I can purchase through BRW. (And I can find outside marketing help on my own if I wish.)  BRW maintains an online catalog of marketing packages tailored to individual budgets that authors can purchase. Economies of scale—BRW publishes many authors—allow the house to negotiate reduced rates with many marketing services, so the cost to me is less than I would pay by dealing individually with those outside services. The hybrid model allows me to purchase more quality marketing (e.g., submission to a larger number of eBook promotional venues or custom paid advertising boost on Facebook, among many other services), than I could afford on my own.

So, What Marketing Services and Activities Will I Utilize?

Excellent question, thanks for asking! 

Not being Ernest Hemingway or J.K. Rowling, I have a limited marketing budget, as most authors do. Let’s say I can afford $1200.00 for marketing this year. The “BRW Cooperative Marketing 2019” has a variety of packages starting at $100.00 and going up to $3000.00. It turns out that the “White Rose” promotional package is, wait for it, $1200.00 on the nose. For this, I would receive the following:

  • The eBook of Standing Our Ground will be enrolled in Kindle Direct Publishing Select, with expected results including new organic reviews, new eBook sales, and royalties earned from Kindle Unlimited Pages Read;
  • The eBook will be submitted to up to 34 promotional venues (companies that put on free or reduced price giveaways, for example);
  • On Facebook, a custom paid advertising boost will be launched; 
  • An ad on BookBub will run for the length of the promotion.

I may or may not want exactly those services, or I may not consider them worth the investment. In that case I can purchase fewer—or more. Or none. The first question I must answer is which services and marketing activities I want. After that, the question becomes which ones do I want to buy from others and which ones do I want to create myself. 

These two questions are the first round I go through in planning my marketing campaign. My next blog will describe how I’m thinking about them for Standing Our Ground, and what my answers are. Stay tuned!

Jesus Comes Home-To What?

I’m no longer a Christian in the formal sense of the word. But I love the scene in Luke when Jesus returns home to Nazareth and in the Shabbat service reads from Isaiah:

  • The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
  • For he has anointed me.
  • He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
  • To proclaim liberty to captives,
  • And to the blind new sight, 
  • To set the downtrodden free,
  •  to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.

Luke says that he “won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). And then it all blows up.

Why?

“They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’” (How many of us have been condemned without a trial because of our families?)

“But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened at Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside.” And he went on, “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.’” (Luke 14, 23-24).

I love how Jesus ignores his towns peoples’ astonishment and their assessment that his words are “gracious.” No ingratiating for him, when they marvel at him in what he obviously takes as rejection, he erupts immediately in a blistering condemnation of his townsfolk.

But why?

Well, we don’t know. But we can guess. His condemnation is couched obliquely: Israeli widows were suffering during a famine, but the prophet Elijah was not sent to them, but to an Arab widow. Likewise, the prophet Elisha was not sent to cure Israeli lepers, but Syrians (Luke 4:23-24). “You Nazarenes,” he might have shouted, “don’t deserve my teaching, nor the Torah that I read to you this morning.” Is he saying that the natives don’t get how important the foreigners are?

He might have been shouting at us.

Ouch.

How do we treat Syrian “lepers”—or Hispanic immigrants? We return them to the desert.

How do we accept asylum seekers or displaced persons at our border? We reject them, sending them back to the horrors they hoped to escape. Or (some say this is us being compassionate), we cage their children.

Do we try to cure the sick? If they are immigrants without full documentation, we have until now deferred their deportation, a small moment of compassion. But no longer. Boil down the confusion around the medical deferred action program, and what do you see? Abandonment, not compassion. To the sick children and adults with life-ending illnesses, we offer thirty-three days to leave the county—for what?

To die.

To let a cowardly president with no soul, a man who plays golf and feigns strength while enormous hurricanes attack our neighbors and our coasts, boast of his compassion, while families with dying children try to encompass the enormity of the devastation his government has wreaked upon them.

A strongman-bully leads us.

Spirit help us. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s Been a While

Followers of this blog know that it’s been a while since my last post. What they don’t know is why. In one way, it’s simple: I have been heartbroken at the daily assaults on our American values by the Trump people, including himself, but I made a promise to myself when I began writing the blog that I’d avoid politics. So I have. The mission here is summed up in the subtitle: Psyche, Spirit, Story.

But finally (I’m slow), I realize that the behavior and rhetoric of the Trump people are nothing if not spiritual (in the darkest sense of that word)—and they deeply impact our individual and collective psyches and to top it off, are one hell of a story. Literally.

Cruelty at the Border

How is the separation of families, the imprisonment of children for no crime they are responsible for, something “spiritual”? It’s not. But what it compels, at least for me and for many whom I know, is compassion. Not to mention just anger. In others, it elicits either complacency or approval—and when the subject is injustice and oppression of the weak, complacency or approval are spiritual responses. All three reactions express a psychological impact, and each betrays a profound story of one’s relations with one’s fellow human beings: 

  • I care. I suffer with or for you.
  • I don’t care. You do not matter to me.
  • I’m glad you’re suffering. 

Now, I’m focused less on the “psyche” or the “story” dimension, than on “spirit.” I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I rely on the Biblical tradition when confronting puzzling and outrageous social conditions. In Leviticus, we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This is bedrock. Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, writing in 2017 on HuffingtonPost.com, said that this statement in Leviticus “is a central preoccupation of the Torah as a whole. Why? Repeatedly we are told that because the Israelites were persecuted as the hated and dreaded foreign element in Egyptian society,one of their primary responsibilities as a free people is to not oppress the stranger.” The family of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, were immigrants in Egypt. Immigrants who were enslaved. 

Liberated by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, these former slaves wandered forty years in the desert, so that the slave generation could die out and the young and free generation could develop self-reliance and could internalize the teaching at Sinai: To care for the immigrant, because their ancestors had once been immigrants, and enslaved. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s one hell of a psychological story, and you don’t even need a psychology degree to read it. Imagine: Your daughter or your granddaughter is torn from you, placed in a cage with nowhere to sleep, garbage to eat, no cups to collect water for drinking, no bath or shower for days, even weeks. Not even a toothbrush or toothpaste. You don’t need a PhD to recognize torture and trauma. You don’t need to practice psychotherapy to witness the sowing of the seeds of lifetimes of emotional pain. 

More perversely, it’s a hell of a spiritual story, because it’s main characters aren’t the Hispanic and Latino families who are torn apart—the main characters are us. It’s the story of who we are—who we side with, who we help, or who we let suffer. 

This is why I’m blogging again: I won’t stand by any longer.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing

Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off) I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.

I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.

The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.

Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?

No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.

Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.

Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.

Basho, Wisdom, and War

This morning, after the U.S. sent bombers and fighter jets perilously close to the airspace of North Korea over the weekend, the foreign minister of that country countered with a chilling statement:

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho – CBC News

“Donald Trump [in a Tweet in which he said that Kim Jong-Un ‘won’t be around much longer’] has declared war on us,” and added that N. Korea has a right, as any country at war has, to shoot down American planes even outside their air space.

Friends, this is horrifying.

After I read the foreign minister’s words, I glanced down at my desk where a yellowed index card has rested, hidden under scraps of other notes and desk clutter, for years. It contains a translation of a haiko by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it up and re-read it, and it brought tears to my eyes:

How fortunate the man

who sees a flash of lightning and

does not think “how brief life is.”

When I see the flashes of lightning striking out between Trump’s tweets and the madman of North Korea, I cannot help but think how brief life is. We are still bearing the burdens of the longest war of our country’s history, yet our president wishes us into another that will dwarf the agonies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And those countries have no nuclear arms (although our last Republican war-mongerer lied to us that Iraq indeed posed such a threat). We stand on the brink, once again. And again, we’re asking, Why?

How brief life is. I was a little boy during the Korean War, a teen and young adult during the Vietnam War. As a young man, I watched the invasions of Panama and Grenada and then the first Gulf war. In my middle age, it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How brief life is when you can count your years by their wars. And how full of rage–or cowardice– my country’s leaders seem, as they stand silent while Trump strains to unleash war—by words, and, he seems to desire, by weapons of mass destruction.

Basho was so right—how fortunate the person is who, hearing yet again the drums of war brought out and pounded, does not think how brief life is.

My ten-minute timer just notified me that my time is up. I pray that our leaders find the sanity to hear their alarms before all our time is up.

Context is Everything

Context is Everything

(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with allowing myself only ten minutes to write my blog posts. So far, it’s been fun. Today’s experiment should be fun too.)

In writing fiction (well, in anything that people do together), context is all-important. I’ll stick to fiction, but consider: If you didn’t know the context of President Trump’s infamous blaming of the victims of the Charlottesville fascist rally, you would not realize how wrong his “there’s blame on both sides, on many sides” was. So, to fiction: If the context of a dialog or a series of actions and interactions is clear enough to the reader, much can be left out. Result: The writing can be leaner, faster, cleaner.

For example, consider this piece of dialog in light of its context: A young woman is being seduced by an older man who, despite his age, holds an unaccountable allure for her. And he knows it, knows that she is almost ready to succumb:

She says, “No, this is wrong.”

“Ah, but no one is watching.”

Without knowing the context, a lot of additional dialog would be needed, because the reader would not know how close the girl is to agreeing, nor how well the man understands her. Context allows a great deal to be left out, which in turn permits the reader to exercise much more imagination.

Let me illustrate the importance of context another way, with a marvelous joke that makes exquisite use of missing context:

Farmer Joe was suing a trucking company for injuries sustained in an accident. In court, the company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Farmer Joe.

“Didn’t you say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?” asked the lawyer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule, Bessie, into the trailer and . . .”

“I didn’t ask for any details,” the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?”

Farmer Joe continued, “Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and I was driving down the road . . .”

The lawyer objected. “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman that he was just fine. Now, several months later, he’s suing my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”

But the judge was interested in Farmer Joe’s story and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his mule, Bessie.”

Joe thanked the judge and proceeded. “Well, I’d just loaded Bessie into the trailer and was driving her down the highway when this huge semi-truck and trailer ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Bessie was thrown into the other. I was hurting real bad and couldn’t move. However, I could hear ole Bessie moaning and groaning, so I knew she was in terrible shape.

“A highway patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moaning so he went over to her. After he looked at her, he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then he crossed the road with his gun in his hand and looked at me.

“He said, ‘Your mule was in such bad shape I had to shoot her. How are you feeling?’ ”

Context is everything!

Okay, my ten minutes is up. Hope you enjoyed this one. See you next time.

Ripples that Reveal

Three groups of people specialize in studying ripples: Detectives, psychologists, and people who fish. That’s right, fisher-people. Why?

Ripples point to something hidden, something lurking just below the surface. When I fished, there were two kinds of things I looked for. First was the kind of under-water structure (submerged trees, weed beds, gravel beds, and so on) where fish hunt for food. Dropping the bait in where they were, and making sure it was the kind of bait the fish liked, usually led to a catch.

Well, sometimes. Okay, now and then.

The second thing I looked for was ripples that didn’t match the pattern of waves, ripples suggesting something moving below the surface–like a fish traveling nearby. The underwater structure created a context that promised fish, and the presence of an occasional ripple above that structure suggested the movement of a fish. “Something’s there! Cast!”

Detectives and psychologists look for a different kind of ripples, although they really are similar to those in the water: They look for unexplained disturbances in the field. (I borrowed the phrase “disturbances in the field” from the excellent novel of the same name by Lynn Sharon Schwartz.) Like the ripples in the water when a stone is thrown into it, these disturbances in the field—the “field” being the client’s usual emotional equilibrium or everyday behavior or the suspect’s story, alibis, and emotional demeanor—suggest something disturbing below. The client seeking help in building self-confidence who, unexpectedly, suffers a panic attack at the mention of her father. The unassuming neighbor who starts receiving strange visitors late at night and suddenly buys a flashy new car.

Such disturbances in the person’s normal presentation of self are suggestive—nothing more—of some anomaly. If the disturbance in the field recurs—for example, if the mention of the client’s father again generates an unexpected anxiety, or the quiet stay-at-home neighbor buys a Porsche and then suddenly flies off to Monaco—the psychologist or the detective may now have a pattern to start analyzing. And that pattern may—or may not—lead to a discovery of something important. Like a fish hidden in the lake.

My ten minutes are up, so next week, I’ll write about how, in my current work-in-progress, “A Patriot’s Campaign,” such ripples make the main character, Deputy Andi Pelton, suspect something is going on with her antagonist, Deputy Brad Ordrew. See you then!