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.