Monday, December 21, 2009

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, from his novel The Little Minister (1891)

When I think of growing up, the characters and imaginary places in the works of James M. Barrie are never far from my thoughts. I've stood in front of his house looking across at Kensington Gardens, not at all surprised at this being a source of his joy and inspiration. He drew that line between youth and adulthood so dramatically and precise that you were on one side or the other, but never balanced between the two. Like many of his characters, the days of our youth were filled with adventures; you had the strength and courage to be anybody you wanted to be. It doesn't seem so long ago that we were slaying dragons, or circling the world in a balloon, or thrashing our way through a jungle with sword and shield to discover hidden civilizations. Imagination was the vehicle of choice and the path was lit with the light from our dreams and aspirations. Not even the dark of night could cut short those adventures; fore our dreams were filled with the next exciting voyage, eagerly planning the right moment to shake us loose from the comfort and security of our beds.

So here I am, older - and certainly with responsibilities never dreamed of in those adventurous days of youth - but can I say I've grown up? I still find myself slaying dragons, though they appear more like art directors and editors now; the world I hover high above is one I've created, mapped out in the pages of the mysteries I write; and wielding only a keyboard and screen, I journey deeper into a jungle of networks and cultures daily, evermore surprised to find them filled with adventurers just like me.

With a quiet thought to Mr. Barrie and that humblest hour, I feel fortunate the light from my dreams and aspirations has allowed me the tiniest glimpse or two into the pages of my life along the way. You may wonder, Is my life what I vowed to make it? Have I grown up, or have I further adventures before the last entry is penned? Let me sleep on it and I'll get back to you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Tip Of The Hat From Sherlock Holmes

Some of my earliest memories of reading center on the excitement I found in the pages of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was just a lad, so I was forever looking up those huge words Sir Athur Conan Doyle used in his narratives with Holmes and Watson. I couldn't pronounce most of them, and I was quite sure they would never come up in conversations with my school mates, but I was determined to understand every aspect of the stories. Doyle made quite an impression on me, and that excitement has stayed through these many years. It is the foundation for my love of mysteries and probably the driving force behind why I began writing mysteries. So you can imagine my excitement when Mysterious Reviews published their review for my new mystery "Along Came A Fifer" and mentioned the "Holmesian" feel of the story and characters. It was as if Holmes himself, peering down from a window in his flat on Baker Street, tipped his hat with approval as I strolled by. I could never compare my work to such a great writer as Doyle, but I'm thrilled I could convey through my story a tribute to the lasting impression his work has inspired in me.
I'm much older now, but on a crisp winter's night, when objects along the road cast long ominous shadows across the side yard, and the wind resonates through the trees like a faint cry in the distance, I pull out that old volume and once again follow Holmes and Watson through the streets of Victorian London.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Have you hugged an editor lately?

It takes talent, patience and a skilled editor to make a good book great. This is a friendly reminder in an age of POD and the “you can’t get it out there fast enough” attitude. Don’t let the enthusiasm to see your name in print allow you to sidestep these three elements. Getting it out there fast might satisfy your ego, but the last time I checked, egos don’t buy books.

Here you are, two years of your life spent compiling the pages of your first novel. Think about all the research material piled in the corner, all the time you spent chasing down facts and making sure your characters and settings are believable. After all those nights of cold pizza and warm orange soda, you now hold in your hand the result of all that hard work and sacrifice. But are you really done? Are you ready to start submitting the work to publishers? Should you self-publish? No matter which avenue you venture down after you think your manuscript is complete, there is nothing more important at this point than the impartial eye of a good editor. And by good editor I mean a professional in the industry who cares more about the quality of the book than your feelings.

We all know mom and dad, and even crazy aunt Marge who reads nine books a week, will love your contribution to literature just because you wrote it. This will be painfully evident by the artwork you did in third grade, which is still adorning mom’s refrigerator door. They mean well but, no matter how much you insist on an honest critique, there will always be some hesitation on their part to give you the honest, critical opinion the manuscript needs. Lingering in their subconscious is the fear of becoming the main characters in your conversation with a therapist; that negative light they cast on the work, discouraging you in your quest to author the next great American novel. You may want to entertain the idea of bypassing their opinion at first, unless mom or dad or crazy aunt Marge is actually an editor for a New York publishing house, and you give them the manuscript claiming it belongs to a friend. It worked for me.

When I first started writing my mystery, “Along Came A Fifer”, only my wife and son knew I was writing a book. It took two years to write and, despite being in the same home, by the time it was finished they had yet to read a single word of the story. They knew the characters and parts of the plot, mostly because I roamed the halls of our Victorian like Marley’s ghost, talking through the dialog and staging the scenes. It wasn’t until it was finished that I told the extended family and friends of the project, followed with a promise to keep them posted on the publisher and release date.

Now what? I’m not good with criticism, but, as much as I hesitated about someone picking through my work, I put the manuscript in the hands of that all-important critical eye. They took the story, weeded out the confusion, tied up loose ends, made changes that enhanced the plot and the character interaction, and I could go on and on. This is not to say I agreed with everything. There were a few loggerheads, and a couple heated discussions, but compromise and respect for each other saw us through the otherwise painless process.

The bottom line is, it didn’t matter when I thought the work was ready for the public, what mattered was when the editors and publisher felt it was ready. That day finally arrived. Almost four years after I typed the first word, my book was published by a small independent publisher and introduced to the mystery lovers of the world. What a tremendous feeling. Finally, my name in print on the cover of a mystery novel. I was filled with excitement for days, almost forgetting about the next reality check- my first review.

I didn’t have long to wait. With my reading glasses in place I couldn’t procrastinate any longer. I picked up the newspaper, turned to the arts and leisure page and read the headline. It was at this point I truly appreciated the journey and the contribution of the editors. The Sentinel gave my book a glowing review, which I read at least six times just to make sure it was my book they were talking about, followed finally with a sigh of relief. I don’t know how the book would have been received if I had just charged forward, rushing the book to market myself, but I’m sure the success the book enjoys now is due to a firm grip of all three elements.

About a month later, and with a few books under my arm, it was off to the family picnic. Mom and dad loved it, and couldn’t wait to put a copy of the review on the fridge on top of my artwork- the fact that I’m 50 now doesn’t seem to matter to them - and Aunt Marge had no idea I knew so much about London. I just sat back and smiled, this was certainly worth the wait.

I don’t know if Hallmark is looking to add another holiday to their card line, or even how politically correct it would be, but “Hug An Editor Day” is the one that would get my vote.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Story Behind The Art

I'm an artist by trade and the urge to write came quite by surprise. I've dabbled in it a bit before but nothing as monumental as writing a mystery novel. Writing, I found, and very much to my surprise, was just painting with words. With a brush I can gently stroke indigo blue or vermilion onto a canvas to shadow a face in remorse. The same can be said of the words I brush across a page to project that same face, slowly drawn down into the collar of a borrowed, wool coat that was shiny from wear, yet retained the strength in its weft and warp to comfort a penitent soul. Add to that the ability to close my eyes and see how sunlight would dance across a marble floor after a rain, or how the long shadows of dusk transform even the most ordinary of objects into that which we fear most, is inspirational. I enjoy the writings of Agatha Christie and Henry Fielding, but I draw inspiration from the stories hanging on the walls of museums.
As an artist I've captured only a single moment in this skater's life, but as a writer I can fill in the lifetime that came before and after this moment.

"The Skater"
Original Oil after Sir Henry Raeburn, collection the artist/author.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reading between the lines.

Just a quick thought on those meanings behind the words. Writers take up pen and write for many reasons. In the same respect, readers pick up books and read with the same ideas in mind. Some to get a better insight on a person or event, some to escape the the realities of life and others purely for relaxation or entertainment. I read to relax and broaden my knowledge, which includes the subtle, sometimes hidden agenda found in some works of fiction. When you read between the lines you will find there are still those out there like Dickens and Fielding who interlace in the pages of their work a greater awareness of social injustice, or political ineptitude, or any other social malady that needs a champion. You need only thumb through the headlines to find a cause and then charge forth into the pages of a good novel. I write with a hope to entertain and not disappoint those who have willingly invested their time in me. That's not to say I don't have my opinions. If I feel strongly enough to interject a few random thoughts into the story line through my characters, and something they say brings an issue out into the open, then that's certainly a plus for the issue. It's a very inoffensive way to arouse awareness without turning the work into a platform for debate; we have enough non-fiction work doing that. I'll feel good knowing I've done something more than just write a mystery, albeit small, and hope when a reader finishes my book they look at the person next to them and say, "Hey, that was pretty enjoyable."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Write what you'll know about tomorrow.

I was participating in a conversation recently about motivating young adults to write. Someone mentioned when they address young writers on this subject they suggest they only take on subjects they know, and not venture into unfamiliar waters; siting the fear of discouragement as the reason. I was quite surprised at this, especially coming from an author. My argument was that a young writer should never limit themselves to only what they know. The whole idea seemed preposterous to me. How would knowledge ever expand? How would "style" ever evolve? Look at the mystery genre. If people only wrote about things they knew, it scares me to think there are that many writers out there who know how to murder people in so many creative ways.
Young writers have their own take on the world. Because of their age, the world is still new to them and they should be encouraged to challenge the norm. Because something was held as fact yesterday does not mean it will be acceptable as fact tomorrow. A young writer should seek out subjects that intrigue them and learn as much as possible about them. One of the greatest aspects of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is the research and discovery process. This also applies to style and structure. They should take hold of a topic, build a passion within and then set that passion to words. Sure, they'll stumble along the way, that's inevitable, but that too is part of the process. Look at the great Impressionists. The artwork we now acclaim as genius was once panned by the critiques. Writing is painting with words and, in that respect, it's an extension of our inner self. It's how we express that which inspires us to pick up the pen. Some will cheer at the result and some will pass it by, but they will never know if the work goes unwritten.