Monday, July 31, 2017

A Deaver Do

Naomi and I attended a one-day workshop sponsored by the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA) this past weekend in Columbia, South Carolina.  Once again, as with all writer events I've attended, including Bouchercon, Killer Nashville (twice), and Sleuthfest, I immediately felt at home, as though this was where I belonged.  Our speaker/instructor, multi-million-copy worldwide best selling author, Jeffery Deaver, was highly informative, witty, unpretentious, and likable.  As with all such events, I took a lot away that will help me in my writing.  Thank you, Jeffery Deaver, thank you Maggie Toussaint, president of SEMWA, and thank you members of Sisters in Crime.

If you're a struggling writer, I strongly recommend you attend every such event you can afford.  It will neither be time nor money wasted.


Monday, July 24, 2017

On beginnings

      For many years I wrote articles and short stories for magazines (more than 300 pieces for magazines including Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, and Heartland USA), usually on pure speculation, and I learned early on that it’s critical to begin strong, first to interest an editor to buy the piece and then to capture the reader, so I focused on beginnings that would plant a hook in the first paragraph if not the first sentence in some vivid and unusual way.
     I still think the start of a fiction or non-fiction piece is critical, so I spend what some might consider an inordinate amount of time getting it just right, often doing many revisions.  By the time I have what I consider an effective beginning (which can be anything up to a full first chapter of a novel), I’ve invariably also created a reservoir of confidence and momentum, drawing me into the story myself and carrying me along with its flow.  I think subconsciously the process begins to organize and clarify the work for me, and the remainder of the work must then support and live up to that beginning, right to the last sentence.


Monday, July 17, 2017

 Writing is a lonely enterprise.  You can spend months or years creating a novel, all the while with no assurance it will interest an agent or publisher at all.  Joining a group—a local, regional, or national organization of writers—can not only alleviate the loneliness, but it can also offer training and tips, provide invaluable advice about the business from those who've climbed further up the literary mountain, and offer opportunities for promotion.
For years I've happily belonged to Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and a Southeast sub-chapter (SEMWA), and to International Thriller Writers (ITW).  These organizations offer fellowship (if that word is still politically correct), valuable business contacts, and excellent advice on every aspect of writing and publishing.  I've learned much from their newsletters, which I keep on file for reference.  Both organizations publish excellent short story anthologies open to member submissions.  Both are heavily involved in conferencing functions.   I've recently joined the North Carolina Writers Network, as well.  They sponsor two conferences and respected writing contests of their own each year.  Naomi and I will be attending a SEMWA workshop put on by best-seller Jeffery Deaver in Columbia, SC, later this month.

     There are many unexpected benefits.  For example, I served three years as an ITW awards judge, twice for novels and once for short stories.  I had to critically read a wide array of authors from all over the world, authors I never would have been exposed to otherwise, and that couldn't help but broaden and enhance my view of the craft, and to teach me a good deal.  Plus all those books were free.

     There are a goodly number of similar organizations from which to choose.  Sisters in Crime (bit sexist, that, but they do accept a male or two), Romance Writers of America, Western Writers, the Historical Novel Society, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, even the Cat Writers Association, whose members write about felines.

     Any of these fine organizations will warmly accept like-minded souls who are struggling to achieve success. So fill out an application or two.  Learn the secret handshakes and online passwords.  Banish that loneliness.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Living in the NOW

     My tall instructor, Bjorn Johansen, thought I was ready to take the Big Leap, even though I was none too sure myself.  Without warning, he got out of the right-hand side of the idling two-place Cessna 150 trainer on the taxiway one breezy morning in 1981 and hollered at me over the slapping prop noise, “Okay, do two touch-and-goes and a full-stop, and I hope you’re wearing a cheap shirt.”  He closed the door, leaving me alone for the first time.

     I radioed for takeoff permission from Flight Service, swallowed, cinched up my seat belt a bit tighter, released the toe brakes, and swung out to line up on the runway centerline.  Took a deep breath and pushed the throttle knob to maximum power.  The brave little Cessna gathered up her skirts and sprinted down the runway, popping into the air quickly because she was lighter by nearly two hundred pounds, carrying me into the NOW as few other experiences quite can.

     If you drive a car down a highway, you always have the ready options to slow down or turn around or pull over and wait for traffic to thin or a storm to abate.  If you’re faced with any of life’s innumerable daily situations or dilemmas, you nearly always have the option to defer making a firm decision until tomorrow, or next week, or next month.  You can cut the grass or paint the living room or straighten out your filing cabinet when you’re feeling a bit more rested.  You can begin writing that novel when you’re not quite so busy.  You can learn a second language next year.  You can travel after the kids are grown and gone.  You can get along quite comfortably living to a large extent in the future.

     But when you’re cut loose to solo an airplane, once the wheels leave the runway, you are propelled irreversibly into the NOW.  You can’t pull over and think about it or wait for a better time.  You can’t put off landing until tomorrow.  You have to get that kitey little plane, and yourself, down in one piece and with a modicum of finesse, because your instructor is standing way down there beside the runway shading his eyes and watching your every move.  And you have to do it NOW.  It focuses you.

     I must have been ready because I managed the three landings despite some unexpected traffic appearing in the landing pattern in front of me on the last one, forcing me to extend the downwind leg, which I’d never done before, and back at the flight office Bjorn, in accordance with long tradition, happily cut the back out of my shirt, marked it with my name and the date, and tacked it up on the wall alongside a few others.

     It was a liberating lesson, not only about achieving a challenging dream, but also about how to live in the NOW.


Monday, July 3, 2017


             In 2013, I decided to finally realize a lifelong dream, despite the considerable cost and logistics.  I flew all night long at eighty percent of the speed of sound to Santiago, Chile, where I joined a group on a fantastical trek along the Ruta de las Estrellas.  The Route of the Stars.

From an arid mountaintop high in the bone-dry Atacama Desert, where it has not rained since 1973, where there is no light pollution, negligible air pollution, and insignificant atmospheric moisture, I saw a night sky few others are privileged to see these days.  Many who live out their lives in heavily populated urban areas have not the slightest idea what the universe actually looks like.

          It was spellbinding.  The planet Venus was casting my shadow onto the barren mountaintop, and the elusive zodiacal light softly tinted the night.  The Pleiades—those ancient Seven Sisters—were stunning, with their own scattering of jewel-like attendant lesser stars I’d never been able to see with only my eyes.  The sprawling Milky Way was heart-breaking in its riverine splendor.  The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the beautiful Southern Cross were boldly prominent.  From my yard back home, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula had never been more than faint smudges on the clearest of nights.  From the Atacama they seemed almost touchable.  I lay on my back for hours with a pair of binoculars, utterly enthralled.

          Our small group also got to scrutinize the incredible panoply in detail over two nights through large telescopes, which burst 47 Tucanae into a dense cluster of more than a billion suns, quickened the heart by plucking out an astonishing super-giant blood-red star, and revealed abstract distant nebulas and galaxies in all their glory.

          The experience filled up my whole being, and I’ve never been so glad I decided to actually carry out a dreamed adventure.  The price was insignificant when weighed against the benefits to my soul.  In fact, in retrospect, it would have been worth almost any cost to me.
A number of people have told me they want to write a book someday.  For those and for others who harbor longed-for achievements and adventures in their hearts, please bear in mind two of my own rediscovered life guidelines:

          Each of us has only a brief time to be alive and aware on this beautiful borrowed planet.

          And, near the end of those allotted days, not a thousand sad Shouldas will begin to equal a solitary Didit.

           I hope you’re getting ready for the total solar eclipse next month, and that you’ll travel enough to be in the narrow path of totality.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Don’t let it go by as yet another Shoulda.