Monthly Archives: November 2013

So Much to Be Thankful For …

Happy, happy Thanksgiving! This holiday wish goes out not only to all my American friends, family and colleagues, but also to those who may not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday (to be followed shortly by the ritual of Black Friday, which will make a man out of you even when you’re a woman).  I believe that we need to take time to give thanks often. One day is not enough. But it’s good to have the reminder.

As writers, we need to be thankful for many things, and we need to remember how much we’ve been given. On days when we can’t think of a thing to write, it’s easy to forget all the words we’ve already written. When we don’t know how to get to the top of the mountain, we forget that we’re the ones who put up the mountain to begin with, and hey, we can move it if we want to. We can lop off a few feet or we can shrink it down to a hill, or a footpath. But we always have the choice.

We have many blessings as writers, and counting them often is a good exercise. It makes that mountain a lot easier to climb, in the long run.

This year especially I have so much to be thankful for.  Every year at New Year’s I hope for the following year to be transformative. 2013 really was, and I believe my life and career will be substantially better going forward. I’m sure you have your own list of writerly blessings. Here, in no particular order, is mine: 

1) My family, especially my two wonderful sons. Thank you for Colin’s scholarships to Clemson and for Kenny’s injury-free baseball seasons (all of them) and for all the time I’ve been able to spend with them, and for their forgiving me the times I didn’t. The truth is, much as you want the whole world to stand still and gape at your brilliance, there are days when you’re less than brilliant, and sometimes even less than kind. On those days (and the joyous ones as well), it helps to have people who love you and root for you. I will never forget that after Colin read the original version of FORWARD TO CAMELOT, his response was, “Gee, Mom, it didn’t suck.” I may embroider that on a sampler one day.

2) The three books I’ve published this year: STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, through Drake Valley Press, and REALIZING YOU (through CreateSpace). I’m so grateful they were out on time and for the wonderful reception they’ve all received so far.

3) Kevin Finn, my co-author on CAMELOT, for his patience and perseverance (especially when I argued) and for his talent, wisdom and willingness to concede on occasion (which I’m not sure I would have had the strength to do). His editor’s eye and his ability to coax me into cutting made the final version of this novel by far the best we have ever done. I believe the novel’s amazing reviews are due, in part, to the work we did this summer, cutting it down from an unwieldy 488 pages to a tighter and more manageable 382 pages. Thanks, Kevin.

4) Ron Doades, my co-author on REALIZING YOU. Ron and I struggled for a long time to create an entirely new genre, which was never easy, but his patience and optimism made the process so much simpler than it could have been. His vision for a new kind of self-help book was the catalyst for an amazing journey we both took. Thanks for inviting me along, Ron.

5) Drake Valley Press, for its hard work, prompt turnaround and endless dealings with the details. The company’s belief in STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT supported me greatly through two back-to-back production cycles. I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without their encouragement.

6) The reviews, which lifted up my heart with every line. Astonishingly, there hasn’t been a SINGLE negative review of any of the books, which is almost unheard-of. One of the two 3-star reviews of STEALING FIRE began, “STEALING FIRE is an exceptionally well written novel” and ended with “Perfect ending. Great beach read.” If that’s the worst thing I ever hear about something I wrote, I have NOTHING to complain about!

7) The cover art, which was an exercise in frustration on CAMELOT and REALIZING YOU and only went smoothly with STEALING FIRE, where I discovered almost at once the right image and already had the right color and font, so everything came together when they were blended. Kevin and I fought some of our toughest battles over the new cover for CAMELOT, and Ron and I went back and forth for the better part of a year over the final cover and cover text for REALIZING YOU. Nonetheless, they all came together beautifully, and just looking at the paperbacks on my bookshelf makes me happy. Thank you to the designers and publishers for a masterly job.

8) My author photo on STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT (same pic), which was beautifully shot by photographer Vicki Faith. I knew what I wanted to look like but wasn’t sure all those qualities could come out in a single image. She managed it, and bonus–it looks great on both book covers and every website where the image is displayed. Thank you, Vicki. You made me look glorious!

9) The readers who have already bought it and enjoyed it, and those who will in the future. The deep dark truth is, I don’t really write for readers. I write because I have an impulse I can’t resist. It makes me want to get it down on paper and it’s impossible to deny. The pleasure of crafting the story as I see it and then seeing it finished, as though by a force outside myself, is the greatest joy of my life. That others actually want to read it–and enjoy the experience–is the greatest bonus on earth. I am thankful for that impulse and the process that draws others to my work, and with all my heart, I pray it continues for the rest of my life and beyond.

10) Most of all, my heart goes out to God with thanks for the gift He has given me. It is so easy to think that what you can do, what seems to come naturally, is of no value–or that everyone else can do it too, so it’s not that important. If I’ve learned anything worth knowing this year, it is that this gift is only given to a few, and those who are given it are expected to use it constantly and wisely. It’s not for me to say whether I have used it wisely, or whether my efforts in the future will count as wise. I do know that this time, these last few years, are the first time I have felt I knew what I was doing as a writer. Whatever my shortcomings and whatever other writers can do that I can’t, I can still do what I’ve done this year. I’m very, very proud of all I’ve accomplished, and it’s clear to me that the only way forward for me is with my writing and with what I will learn through each new project.

My best wishes to everyone within reach of this blog, for the happiest of holidays, and especially for those writers who are struggling, for a way to find your light in the darkness. I promise, no matter how it seems right now, it’s there.

Remembering the Day with JFK’s Favorite Medicine – Laughter

On this November 22nd–the 50th anniversary of the most notorious murder of the 20th century–let’s take a quick look at some of the–how shall I say it?–lighter conspiracy theories. While I firmly believe a conspiracy was at work in Dealey Plaza in 1963 (and for some years afterward), some of these notions strain all credibility and provoke little beyond stares of stupefaction and laughter.  And since JFK’s own wit and joy for life were two qualities that his friends remembered about him always, I think he of all people would get (sort of) a kick out of the following theories on his own assassination:

1) The Secret Service shot him.

In this theory, seriously advanced some years ago and still popping up today, it was a Secret Service agent I won’t name, on the side of the follow-up car behind the Presidential limousine, who accidentally fired the fatal head shot at the President after hearing other shots in Dealey Plaza. Got that? He had a rifle in his hands and wanted to fire (I assume) at the source of the gunshots he heard, so of course he fired right at the President, who he probably suspected of trying to commit murder on himself in the motorcade (ok, I made that last part up–but if you follow the rest of it, it’s logical).

While I certainly will not be pinning any medals on the Secret Service for the job they did on November 22nd (except for Mrs. Kennedy’s own protection officer, Clint Hill, who deserves one), I never could buy this. If an SS guy could pick up, aim and fire a rifle in the motorcade while in a moving car in front of hundreds of people–why didn’t ANYONE in Dealey Plaza see him or photograph him doing it? (As far as I know, no one did.) And it would have been impossible for him to have performed such a feat without witnesses. (Of course, if Oswald could run down several flights of stairs after supposedly shooting the President without being seen by two witnesses who were on the stairs at the time, why is this a surprise?)

2)  There was no conspiracy–just TWO lone nuts!

This one comes from Norman Mailer, who wrote the novel Oswald’s Tale, and it’s my personal nomination for ‘Funniest Non-Conspiracy Theory Ever’.

Mailer apparently could not get away from the idea that the final shot that killed JFK–the head shot–had to have been fired from the front, but he also was too in love with his postulations about crazy obsessed loser Oswald to let go of him so easily.

So he came up with a truly novel (no pun intended) suggestion: yes, there were two shooters in Dealey Plaza, Oswald up in the Texas School Book Depository, and another unknown shooter on the Grassy Knoll.

But–wait for it–they just happened to be there together on the same day, firing independently, and they didn’t know each other.

Any mathematicians out there want to even attempt to calculate the odds?

Wow. If Kennedy had lived through the ambush in Dealey Plaza, I suspect he’d have died laughing at that.

3) It was Oswald acting alone–but he wasn’t aiming for Kennedy.

This one was absolutely new to me, though I’m told it’s been around for awhile. I first learned of it only last week (see? The more time goes by, the more we learn about the assassination … )

In this one, which is the subject of a new book, the author states emphatically that there’s no such thing as a conspiracy. (Got that, Julius Caesar?) Conspiracy theories are nonsense, and conspiracy believers are nuts.

Oswald did it alone. Clearly. So says the author.

But … Oswald did say repeatedly while in custody that he had nothing against the President, and the author believes we should take him at his word. (Wow. You think?)

So … what happened was, he wasn’t actually aiming at Kennedy. You see, Oswald’s Marine Corps discharge had been downgraded to dishonorable while he was in the Soviet Union, and when he returned to the U.S. sporting a dishonorable discharge, he found it difficult to find work. So among other measures, he got in touch with John Connally (Governor of Texas on November 22, 1963 and sitting in front of JFK in the Presidential limousine). At the time Oswald reached out in 1962, Connally was Secretary of the Navy and would have been the person best positioned to help Oswald upgrade his discharge from dishonorable to honorable.

Apparently, Secretary Connally had no idea who he was dealing with–because he apparently never answered him or did anything to help him. Shame on you, John.

So on November 22, 1963, knowing that Connally would be in an open car passing right under the high windows at his workplace (by sheer coincidence, of course), Lee Oswald took his cheap surplus Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with its badly misaligned scope up to the 6th-floor window, waited for that snake Connally to pass by (instead of firing as the car came toward the building as it drove straight on Houston, a much easier shot) and knocked off three shots in 5.6 seconds (which is virtually impossible), managing to wound that rotten Connally badly, but–oops–unfortunately killing the President at the same time. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Sorry, Mr. President. You’ve heard of collateral damage, right?

And the last word on funny JFK theories comes from great playwright David Mamet, and his wonderful movie WAG THE DOG: “Truth? What’s truth? I read the first version of the Warren Report. It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver.”

In keeping with the theme of laughter, let’s also remember today that Kennedy’s death should not be his defining characteristic: his life and his words should be. Here are a few of those to remember this still-vivid and fascinating man:

When asked by a young boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”

When asked a long, rambling and technical question while he was lecturing in the Navy as a young lieutenant: “I’m very glad you asked that question. There’s a man coming in a few weeks who may be able to answer it.”

On a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Reading what he said was a telegram from his father at a 1960 press dinner, during the presidential campaign: “Jack–Don’t buy one vote more than you have to. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

While Kevin Finn and I were writing Forward to Camelot, I experienced a great sense of loss when the final manuscript was sent to our publisher. It happened both in 2003, with the delivery of the original novel, and this past summer, on delivering the 50th Anniversary Edition to our new publisher, Drake Valley Press. Like many authors, I grew very close to my characters as we wrote, though in this case the characters I felt closest to were President Kennedy and Lee Oswald, each of them major players in the novel. For a day or so after delivering the manuscripts each time, I felt a sense of real loss, that those men who had perched on my shoulder for years during the writing were now receding from me.  As this 50th anniversary of the actual event arrives, I feel that same sense of loss–for who they were, for who they could have become, for what we could have become as well.

Rest in peace, Mr. President, and Lee.  We didn’t have you for long enough, but our world is better for your having been here.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: We Never Really Believed It

NOTE: My original plan for October and November, which I posted here, was to blog twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For these 8 weeks, I would blog on Tuesday about writing-related topics, and on Thursday about JFK-assassination-related topics. But with my increasingly-hectic schedule promoting my novel Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, the Tuesday-Thursday thing went by the wayside a little. So this week of the 50th anniversary, I’ll post two blogs, both on JFK–it’s appropriate–the first of which appears below:

At rock bottom, Americans have a straightforward, common-sense approach to life. We may stray from that common sense for awhile (and there’s enough evidence in our history of that), but eventually, we tend to see things more clearly. Abraham Lincoln once observed (in one of his most-mangled quotes) that “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” (Funniest version I ever heard was Bob Newhart’s famous one on his early comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Listen to it; it’s worth it.)

That same common sense was at work as we observed the incredible events of November 22-24, 1963. What happened on the 22nd was shocking and horrifying. But what happened after that was simply incredible. A Dallas police officer is killed, for no discernible reason, less than an hour after the president, but the two crimes are immediately linked.  A man is arrested for that crime (far away from the crime scene) and then charged with that murder and the murder of the president, though presidential assassins typically proclaim their guilt in front of the media, and this one vehemently denied it. Then the accused assassin, surrounded by seventy police officers and handcuffed to a police officer, in the basement of the Dallas Police Department, is shot dead by a man who had no business being there, while the police just watched? We are then presented with the comic-opera explanation that the killer of the accused assassin (are you following all this?) felt so terrible about Mrs. Kennedy and her young daughter having to return to Dallas for the trauma of a trial that he took it on himself to rid the world of this malevolent menace.

But the man who cried crocodile tears for Jackie and Caroline was a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, and in the dictionary under ‘unsavory’, you’ll find his picture. Ruby was known to have long associations with the Chicago mob. Less well known are his ties with the CIA (he was involved in some of the earlier CIA gun-running operations, going back to about 1959). There’s also the fact that Ruby had known Lee Oswald for a number of years (documented, among other places, in Judyth Vary Baker’s book Me and Lee, which also documented inconveniently that far from being a monster, Oswald was almost certainly the ‘patsy’ he himself claimed to be, and to go even further, his reason for being in Dealey Plaza that day was not to kill the president, but to try to save him.) How’s that for a twist? (I won’t deal with that here, but there are multiple sources for the notion that Oswald was communicating with the FBI regularly about the plot to kill the president, and that his role may have been to penetrate and expose the plot while posing as a potential assassin. There’s even a suggestion that Oswald may have been involved in quashing the November 2 plot to kill JFK in Chicago–yes, there were similar plots in both Chicago and Miami–check out Max Allan Collins’ Target Lancer for more. That alone suggests way more than a disaffected lone nut, doesn’t it?)

Most Americans didn’t know any of this at the time. Relatively few Americans know it even today. But … what Americans did know then and still know now is … SOMETHING about this case stunk to high heaven.

The numbers don’t lie: pollsters have been asking Americans their thoughts about the Kennedy assassination since the 1960’s, and when they do, Americans say loud and clear that they don’t believe the lone-assassin theory. And the media, trying to spin it, tries to find a way to make their disbelief look like belief.

The latest of such articles was November 3rd, where a Newsmax article was headlined “Poll: Belief in JFK Conspiracy Slipping Slightly“.

Oh, really?

The article stated things rather differently. It conceded that a ‘clear majority of Americans’ still believe there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, but that ‘the percentage who believed accused shooter Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is at its highest level since the mid-1960’s.’

Hm. And what percent would that be?

Well, according to the April 2013 Associated Press-GfK poll, conducted among 1,004 adults nationwide, it’s a whopping 24%. That’s LESS THAN ONE QUARTER OF AMERICANS. However, 59% (more than twice the number of those who believe in the lone nut) believe there was a conspiracy involving two or more people, and 16% are unsure.

That huge 24% who believe in the lone gunman is the highest since 1966, when 36% who believed in the lone gunman.

Let’s say that again: in 1966 (2 years after the Warren Commission Report was released stating that Oswald acting alone killed the president), only 36% of Americans actually believed in the lone-assassin theory. And that was the highest percentage of Americans who ever did.

That’s just over one-third of the population.

And that was in 1966, after the Warren Commission Report had been widely disseminated and proclaimed as ‘the answer’ in the media, which included all the major newspapers and magazines and on radio and TV (yes, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, I’m talking to you). It was also before any major books had appeared from authors criticizing the Warren Commission Report, which is important: in many cases, those critics were the first people offering important and cohesive evidence that no lone gunman could possibly have committed the crime as the WC said it had been committed. So you could understand why that many people believed in a lone gunman: there was no one offering a reasonable alternative. But even so, the rest of the population didn’t believe it–they knew in their gut something was very, very wrong with that explanation.

Today, the percentage of those who still believe in the Warren Commission has dropped to LESS THAN ONE QUARTER of the population, with more than twice as many who believe in a conspiracy.  And if you add in those who are unsure, the number of people willing to consider the possibility of conspiracy rises to 75%, THREE-QUARTERS of the population.

It’s worth noting here that a 2003 Gallup poll found that 75% of Americans said they believed in a conspiracy. And that’s after it had been pounded into them for FORTY YEARS by Warren Commission defenders that it was Oswald, Oswald, Oswald. They still didn’t believe it.

But let’s play with the numbers in this poll for a minute here, just for fun. The AP-GfK poll has a +- margin for error of 3.9% (I’ll round up to 4 to make it simple). Let’s add that 4% to the lone-nut believers, bringing it up to 28% of who might believe in Oswald alone. Let’s then subtract that same 4% from the 59% who believe it was a conspiracy (which is really 8%, not 4–4 for those who believe in the lone nut PLUS 4 from those who believe in conspiracy). That gives us 55% who believe in conspiracy vs. 28% who don’t — even with all that tampering, it’s still about DOUBLE the number of people who believe in conspiracy. Let’s add that 4% margin of error to those who aren’t sure (16%), bringing that number up to 20%, and assume all those who are unsure would, if pushed, come down on the side of a lone assassin. Then let’s ADD that 20% to the inflated 28% (because of the margin of error) that we already know favor the lone-gunman theory. That would be 48% TOTAL for the lone nutters–but 55% (at the very least, and without adding in the unsure) for those favoring conspiracy.

So EVEN IF we give the entire numbers game to the lone nutters, and reduce the number of people who believe in conspiracy, and inflate the number of people who don’t, and give the lone nutters all those who aren’t sure and inflate that number too… the conspiracy believers come out on top, by at least 7 percentage points (and odds are very, very high that the spread is much wider than that–even allowing for the margin of error on both the lone nutters and the unsure, there’s no way every person who’s unsure will come down on the side of the lone nut).

What that tells me is that Americans still rely on common sense, and that what they do know–about the shooting of JFK and then the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald–still makes them think there’s more to it than what they’ve been told. No matter who tells them, or how often they’re told, that it was just a lone nut, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… well, to Americans, it’s still a duck.

Hope it’s a duck to you, too.

Cutting Down to Size

Here’s a post I wrote originally for the lovely and talented Marni Graff, who runs the Auntie M Writes Blog – don’t tell her I borrowed this, okay? It’s about a subject I loathe… cutting down your manuscript:

 

     You would think that cutting your manuscript was relatively easy. I mean, compared to getting the words down on paper in the first place, cutting what’s already there should be a snap. Didn’t Michelangelo say airily, “I just took a chisel and cut away everything that wasn’t David”?

Well, that sounds simple enough. You drop an extraneous phrase here, a flabby sentence there—and suddenly your manuscript is ten pages shorter and a million percent better, and you’re all ready for the next step.  Nothing to it, right?

Uh—wrong.

I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do it until I began a much-needed revision this summer on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, the 2003 time-travel thriller I co-authored with Kevin Finn. We had both loved the book as written, but with a 50th-anniversary edition about to be published (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is the subject of our novel), we felt it was a good time to fix some of the usage and grammar errors that had slipped by us the first time, and especially to tweak a couple of small historical points that had bothered me for ten years.

That was the intention. Make sure the quotation marks are facing the right way, check the history and turn in the book to our publisher.

Then Kevin and I began to look at what we had, and we realized there were other issues we wanted to address. What started as a simple fix became a much more complex, line-by-line scrutiny, and what we were eventually looking for were the words, sentences and even paragraphs we could cut to bring down the length. Our publisher, Drake Valley Press, explained gently that a book as long as the original version (almost 500 printed pages) would cost so much that we might not see any profit on it at all in paperback, and it could affect eBook sales as well. But if we could significantly reduce the word count, we would do a lot better. And besides, the narrative really did have its flabby moments. Keep the story, by all means—just make it, you know, a lot shorter and simpler.

I began to feel as though I had an “Everything Must Go!” sign on my computer screen.

While I began the historical fixes, Kevin began streamlining the manuscript, pulling out sections he felt could safely be cut while maintaining the pace, the plot and the flavor of the original. While we both resisted cutting entire scenes—we cut only one full scene, and that one only reluctantly—there were certain scenes that we also knew we wanted to rewrite; we hadn’t got them right in 2003 and we had another chance now.

But when I finally saw Kevin’s long, meticulous, detailed (and did I mention long?) document listing all the changes—which ran about 30 pages—I almost cried. Then began the bargain-with-your-partner phone calls: “Look, we have to keep the hunt scene at the end.”

“But it’s ten pages; that’s way too long.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll cut it way down, as long as I can keep the gist of it.”

“You can have the gist. Just get rid of the gristle!”

Thus began the slash-and-burn portion of the rewrite, where I began incorporating Kevin’s notes. (“Did you realize you write everything twice?” he asked me. “If you could cut it down to one telling, we could really cut through this manuscript.” By this time the word ‘cut’ or ‘slash’ made me queasy.)

We argued, and we both agreed to accept less than what we wanted. Kevin let me keep almost all the scenes intact, as far as intent; I swallowed a good deal of bile and pride and slashed away at anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.

Within a couple of weeks we’d brought down the 488-page original manuscript to a lean-and-mean 382 pages, cutting 100 pages (25,000 words) in the process. It was still the longest book either of us had ever written, but the word count was at least in the ballpark.

Did I enjoy the process? Losing all those threads of story, no. But on some level I did like examining each paragraph and finding a way to cut straight to the heart of what we were trying to say. It’s a process writers need to go through all the time—understand what we want to say and say it as effectively—and as simply—as we can. We can never afford to forget that part of our process, especially writers who become very successful, and whose editors then seem to somehow mysteriously evaporate (or more likely, are intimidated or overpowered by the author at that point).

I know I’ll do the same process from now on: I’ll look for stuff I’ve said twice and hack away at it, along with everything else the reader doesn’t absolutely need to know.

And maybe that snob Michelangelo was right: when you finish slashing with your machete, what you end up with looks a lot less like a flabby ‘before’ picture and a lot more like that glistening David in marble.

That alone makes it worthwhile.

Good luck with your own machete …