Author Archives: Susan Sloate

Safe from Irma, and Writing Your Own Story

After being battered for a week with dire predictions of what Hurricane Irma MIGHT do to Charleston, it was a little anti-climactic to experience it here in Mount Pleasant and realize it was NO BIG DEAL.

Yes, I know downtown Charleston flooded horrendously (but Charleston has very low roads and tends to flood even in a bad thunderstorm). And I know there were cyclones all over Charleston County–but not one came near me, safe and snug in my apartment on Park West Boulevard.

I did lose Internet service and my office phone (which is voice-over-Internet and goes out whenever the IP goes out). That lasted all of five minutes. Otherwise, apart from heavy rain and winds, a few downed tree limbs and some debris, everything was fine.

On Tuesday, I woke up to brilliant sunshine. (It was just like your child, when he knows he’s been bad; he’s suddenly angelic to make up for it.)

I do sympathize with the tough conditions in Florida, but from everything I hear, it could have been so much worse than it was. It’s bad, but not nearly as bad as they thought it would be.

And here we are, in a new day.

This morning I spoke in front of my weekly networking group. The topic was “Writing Your Own Story”, which is something I talk about often with people who meet me, find out I’m an author and immediately exclaim, “Oh, I’ve got a great story for you to write!” And they insist it would be ‘a bestseller’ if only I’d just write it down for them, ‘because I’m not a writer’.

I have news for you. In today’s world of DIY, you don’t necessarily need a writer at all.

YOU can write your own story.

Here’s a brief recap of what I said this morning:

  1. If you truly think you have a story worth telling, sit with a sympathetic friend (even if he/she has already heard all your stories) and ask if you can tape yourself telling her the story.
  2. Get a small inexpensive tape recorder, sit with your friend and TURN IT ON. Then tell the story to your friend as clearly and enthusiastically as you possibly can. TELLING the story out loud, for non-writers, is a great way to get it out of your system. If you try to write it on your computer, you might freeze up and get discouraged, or think you need fancy language to convey it. Fancy language gets left at the door these days; if you can write like you talk, you can tell any story.
  3.  Transcribe the tape afterward, so you can READ what you just said. Chances are, the story will sound pretty good to you as you read it.
  4. Decide whether this is the story of your ENTIRE life or only a small PIECE  of it. If it’s the story of your life, beginning to end, BEGIN IT AT THE BEGINNING, with your birth, growing up, etc.

HOWEVER… the story you want to tell may NOT be the entire story of your life. It may be about only a few years, or one incident. In that case, you can organize your story differently. You can tell it in chapters, EACH chapter about part of the incident, OR about various OTHER incidents in your life.

This is very freeing, in a lot of ways. I’ve always felt if I ever wrote my life story, I’d do it this way–talking about various ASPECTS of my life and what I learned from them, as separate stories I could string together as separate chapters. I think it would still be interesting, but less tedious than my trying to wade through my entire 60 years here on earth. Let’s face it, for long periods of time I haven’t done anything all that exciting. No reason for the reader to deal with that. Why not read the best parts? (A great example of this is the book Sheila Haley wrote some years ago, about life with her author husband, Arthur Haley. It’s called “I Married a Bestseller”, and it’s great fun. She talks about helping with book research, moving multiple times and even dealing with his extramarital affairs.) The point is, she could have written a beginning-to-end story but chose not to. She organized the book into chapters about various aspects of her life, and told them very entertainingly. It’s still a valid way to tell your story.

5.  Continue to sit with sympathetic friends (one or more) until you’ve talked the entire length of what you want to tell into that tape recorder, and transcribe it all.

6. Organize it into relevant chapters.

7. Send it to a good editor for a developmental edit. You can find a list of good, ethical editors at the website Editors and Predators. ASK for his/her advice and LISTEN to it. They can tell you whether the story is on track or if it needs connecting sections, and how to do that.

8. When you have the story edited and you think it’s ready, you can decide whether or not it’s worth publishing, or simply copying and binding as gifts for your family and friends.

If you do decide to publish it, the single best place for print-on-demand (today’s self-publishing) is http://www.createspace.com, which is the best of the POD publishers. For just a few hundred dollars, they’ll format and typeset your finished book, and you can get it copy-edited (do this if you have any issues with spelling, punctuation and usage) and have a beautiful book cover done there as well. And once you’ve given the final go-ahead, they’ll distribute it to Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com and many other online bookstores, around the world.

9. If you choose (and you should do this), have it done as a Kindle version as well. More and more people are reading books on their phones and tablets; give them that option with yours. And you can go to Audible.com or other sites if you want an audio book version (something which, again, is becoming more and more prevalent).  As the author, you can choose which actor reads your book, which is a thrilling experience. (An author friend of mine chose an Irish actor to read her romantic thrillers–and since her hero was Irish, it was a double pleasure.)

Go to http://www.kdp.com for Kindle Direct Publishing; they’ll format and typeset the book into their proprietary version. And because of their symbiotic relationship with Amazon, it’ll go up on the mega-giant’s site almost immediately, once you give the final approval.

Does this work? I can’t tell you your book will be a giant bestseller, but when I was nine, and long before POD publishing OR Kindle, I received a paperback copy of KAREN by Marie Killilea as a birthday present. It’s the very moving story of her daughter, who was diagnosed in the 1940’s with cerebral palsy and struggled to learn to walk, write and lead a productive life. I’ve re-read it at least every six months since then, and that was more than 50 years ago. The book won all kinds of prizes and tons of acclaim, and is still one of my favorites.

I can’t promise you’ll write KAREN, but I do promise if you have a family story that’s inside you, this is a way–finally–to get it out, whether as a gift to your family or as a gift to the world.

Best of luck with your story–and keep me posted on your progress!

 

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Irma and The Craziest Diet of All

Hello, all, and welcome to the wonderful world of hurricane prep.

Since we first learned of Irma–was it just a week or so ago?–things have gone crazy on TV and the Internet, with dire warnings to ‘take this seriously’ and ‘get out if you can’. Here in the Charleston area, water is scarce, there are lines to get gas, and you can’t find a D battery (for flashlights) anywhere in town. School has been cancelled from today through Tuesday.

Despite all this, I’ve chosen to stay and ride it out. According to the latest tracks I’ve been following on http://www.weather.com, by the time it gets to us, the storm will be a Cat 1 at most, and might be down to a tropical storm. Hell, it’s not even worth getting out of bed for a tropical storm.

In the last 2 years, I’ve ridden out the 1000-year flood (which devastated parts of South Carolina, and guess which area got the highest amount of rainfall? Yup, Mount Pleasant, which I call home–27 inches.) I can remember the entertainment value of watching the Clemson-Notre Dame game (which they play about once every 30 years, so it was a big deal), played at Death Valley. (I had more than a passing interest in this, as both my sons were there, attending the game. ) You could literally SEE the rain pouring down as they played, but they got through it. (My younger son, when he got back to his brother’s apartment, stripped off his clothes and told his brother to throw them out; they were too waterlogged to bother washing. He also put in an immediate request for duck boots, which has stood him in good stead during storms in the last year.)

We also rode out Matthew last year, and aside from losing power for a half hour and being basically pretty bored for about 8 hours (I’m not a television freak, so there wasn’t a lot for me to do), nothing else that was bad happened to us. I had thought we might have a tree come down on my car, but we only had a few branches scattered around in the aftermath. And once it was over, we dried out and moved on pretty quickly. (I realize this wasn’t the case with everyone affected by Matthew;  I’m well aware that we were very lucky.)

So with four flashlights ready to go, candles, bottled water (3 cases), plenty of junk food (in case we lose power) , cash from the ATM and my car full of gas (in case it turns out the models were wrong), I think I’m all set for Irma. Will report on my experience with THAT next week. But all my life I’ve been very lucky with weather, so why shouldn’t it be the case now, as well?

Meanwhile, I’ve begun a new program–well, a new OLD program–which I’ve known about for 30 years and which, unfortunately, I never took seriously enough when I was younger to try out. And this one is way more important than weather, because it affects my health.

Most of you who know me, know I’ve been very frustrated about my weight, for quite a few years. Since moving down to Mount Pleasant, I’ve gradually put on more and more poundage, until I hardly recognize myself, and even worse, I suffered a minor stroke last November, which I’m convinced is the result of my weight issues. In fact, I’m pretty certain that virtually EVERY health issue I face right now is the result of uncontrolled weight gain.

BUT… finding a program I could do FOREVER has been a challenge. I’ve explored a lot of options, including a return to Weight Watchers (which has become more restrictive, though also, I think, a lot healthier), programs offered through local doctors, and things that involve behavior modification, like eating in a five-hour window and at no other time.

At this point in my life, I’m not willing to do anything that’s difficult, complicated or too restrictive. I had lost 35 pounds 9 years ago with Weight Watchers (on an older version of the program), but that program, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. They’ve added things such as unrestricted fruits and lessened the point values for protein (they want you eating lots of protein), but have also heavily weighted a lot of foods I used to eat on the program, with tons of extra points since they’re carb-heavy. And the doctors’ programs more often asked me to give up things like gluten and sweets (forever) and almost everything I eat now, to eat organic fruits and meats (which I have no objection to doing) and essentially, learn to like stuff that there’s no way I’ll ever enjoy.

The result is that I’ve been unable to COMMIT and STICK TO any program for any length of time. I knew that I needed something that would allow me to eat A LOT and feel good about it, that would give me a chance to correct myself when I went off the reservation, and something simple enough that I could do it now and do it FOREVER and not have any concerns, while I was staying healthy.

Then a few weeks ago, while I was brooding over (non) weight loss in a Weight Watchers meeting, one of the people there was talking about eating pineapple, and someone else said, “But you don’t get the bromelin in the pineapple by eating it that way.”

And a light bulb went off in my head.

Thirty years ago, I had read THE BEVERLY HILLS DIET and been fascinated by the idea of food combining in order to promote proper digestion, which many people believe facilitates good health. The idea, which led to a #1 bestseller in 1981, is to begin your day with an enzymatic fruit: pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi, strawberries and others. The fruits have marvelous properties in their enzymes which allow you to eat and lose weight, because they aid in proper digestion.

The other most important rule is NEVER to combine protein and carbohydrates, though you CAN combine protein and fat, or carbohydrates and fat (which means you can have oil on your salads, or dip your bread in olive oil). The reason for that is the enzymes needed to digest protein and carbs do not mix well; they tend to fight each other, resulting in awful digestion and eventually, disease and certainly, fat.

I had read this with great interest 30 years ago and even tried it half-heartedly. (The program began with 42 days of, pretty much, nothing but fruit.) You HAD to eat pineapple and papaya and mango, and give up EVERYTHING ELSE (though Judy Mazel, who created the program, swears she will only ask you to give up two things FOREVER: diet sodas and artificial sweeteners, because they can’t be digested at all). I actually decided to eat strawberries instead of pineapple (they also have bromelin, just not as much), and found after trying it that I couldn’t handle it, and gave it up. (Here’s the good news: I did eventually lose all the weight I wanted to–in my 20’s–and remained a size 5 for six years. But I didn’t give up junk food or learn to eat better–I kept all my bad habits intact. Still, I kept my weight down, until my late 30’s, when I had my first pregnancy. That’s when things went crazy.)

I keep a shelf full of diet books in my library (I admit I love re-reading them, because however good or bad the diets are, they’re all written with enormous optimism:  they give you hope that you can change). I went in and dug out THE BEVERLY HILLS DIET and re-read it. And then I did what I had never done when I first read the book (because I couldn’t at the time): I went on the Internet to check it out.

I learned that Judy Mazel had, alas, died in 2007 (likely from a stroke). I learned that she had in 1997 published THE NEW BEVERLY HILLS DIET, a modified version of her great program, and immediately ordered it, to see what was different about the new program. And I began to think seriously about adopting food combining as a way of life: With no food restrictions or portion control, and no food I can’t eat, as long as I plan for it–I can do this. 

The new book finally arrived, and I dug into it. The new plan was FAR less restrictive than the old one: in fact, she introduced foods beyond fruit ON THE FIRST DAY, which I found to be much easier to handle. There were several days where you could go off on your own (to prepare you for the lifetime version) and foods like pasta, popcorn, steak and shrimp in a 35-day ‘starter’ program that promised to knock pounds off you. (And if the testimonials in her book are any indication, they do–10-20 pounds in those first 35 days.)

I decided to commit to this way of life FOREVER (which means giving up my beloved Diet Cokes, though I CAN have champagne even while eating fruit, and I love it partially because it’s carbonated). And I interviewed my local produce guy, who explained how to eat a papaya and showed me where to find figs and cut-up pineapple. I spent a small fortune buying cut pineapple, strawberries, grapes, figs and apricots (full of potassium–very good for you) and this past Tuesday (because I always start a diet on Monday, and this past Monday was Labor Day), I began.

Does it work? I didn’t love eating the pineapple, but I did, all day Monday, until I got to make and eat a big salad and corn on the cob. Tuesday, I decided to skip the 8 ounces of prunes (which I loathe) and eat figs instead. After one fig, I decided I really couldn’t like them. So I went to the strawberries (after waiting an hour, as directed) and that night, I had 1 1/2 baked potatoes with butter and black pepper. (I’ll admit I dusted a little salt over the potatoes when it seemed just too dull.)

Day 3 was simple. I ate green grapes (which I love) all day long. Drank plenty of water.

Today, Day 4, is dried apricots (which I don’t like at all, but maybe that potassium is worth it) and salad and for dinner, PASTA. I’m so excited about this!

I’ve had no issues doing this, apart from one or two moments of longing, and am even prepared to do this when we’re in the middle of Irma (I’ll make sure to have enough fruit on hand!) I can have shrimp and steak on Sunday, but it’ll have to be early, because it’s supposed to start raining early in the evening.

In three days, I’ve lost more than 5 pounds. I’ve eaten my tablespoons of sesame seeds (required) every night. I haven’t taken a single antacid tablet (usually something I take every day), and I’ve slept really well (must be the calcium in the sesame seeds). I have more energy (no doubt because I’m digesting properly–FINALLY), I haven’t had a Diet Coke in four days–haven’t missed it–and I’m feeling very optimistic about the rest of the program.

Will it work forever? I don’t know. But for now, it’s working. And if I have to modify during Irma (ie, eat fruit early and then combine properly for the rest of the day after that), I will.

Be safe from Irma, everyone!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Over

Okay, fans… or for any of you left out there.

I know it’s been (looks at watch) about 3 1/2 years since I last blogged here. Believe me, it’s not been for lack of interest, more like the fallout of literally MONTHS of exhausting book promotion that I finally decided I WAS NOT GONNA DO ANYMORE ON A FULL-TIME BASIS. I had already done SIX book blog tours in a row (promoting 3 books), multiple book signings, Twitter and Facebook posts ad nauseum, a dozen radio and TV appearances, AND committed to blog TWICE A WEEK, EVERY WEEK.

It turned out not to be possible. By late March 2014, I had simply run out of topics to write about. And I was burned out beyond belief.

But guess what?

I’m back

And since any self-respecting writer should be able to write a simple blog post at least ONCE a week without doing serious harm to him/herself, that’s what I’m committing–today–to do, once a week without fail. I may on occasion have the odd writer/guest blogger, but it won’t be often.

Yes, you’ll be hearing from l’il ole me on a regular basis again, on a variety of topics, some of which may be about writing, some of which may just be about life.

So… to catch up on 3 1/2 years’ neglect… here’s what’s been happening.

I have not published any new books since late 2013 (when I published 3 in 90 days–note to self: never do THAT again!) While REALIZING YOU and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition are still available from their original publishers in all book venues, including Amazon and B&N, I’ve recently ended taken STEALING FIRE (originally published in July 2013) back from my publisher and look forward to re-publishing it, under my own imprint, very soon. (I hope that will happen by the end of 2017, but not sure of that at the moment.)

As usual, I have my list of ongoing projects I want to finish and publish soon, as well, including the first book of a series based on my two sons (if you can’t make money off your children, what’s the point of having them?), the first book of a limited fantasy series (six or less) for young girls, and the first book of an ongoing Y/A series set in 1950’s New York (no, I’m not kidding). Included in that list is a sequel to FORWARD TO CAMELOT set in the present and NOT including time travel this time (though I do have an idea for a 3rd book that WILL involve time travel again).

As usual, I’m indulging my love of history as well as adventure. Right now, the challenge is to write each book in less time than any previous books have taken me. (Actually, not true: Under serious deadline pressure, I once wrote an entire Y/A novel in 3 days, and another time, I finished a Y/A book in 9 days. But those, I assure you, are the exception, not the rule, though my publisher on the 3-day book called me after she’d read it to tell me that ‘at the highest levels’ of her publishing house, they loved the book. Hm… maybe they’re trying to tell me something–like WRITE FASTER!)

At this point in my life, I’m an empty nester, as my second son left for college last year (he’s now a sophomore, and my older son is in his final year at school as well). Adjusting to THAT has been interesting and challenging, and at this point, after a full year to think about it, I’m ready to make some serious changes in my life and lifestyle. This year alone, I’ve actually read through the entire Bible in 90 days (something I’ve tried unsuccessfully to do for five years–I feel very accomplished!) I’ve also committed to join a Bible study group this fall, and I’ve helped found a new writers’ group in my local area (Mount Pleasant, SC), which is growing steadily.  There’s much to be grateful for, and I am, every day! I’m also beginning a new health initiative to bring down my weight and become seriously healthier in all areas of my life.

Please wish me luck–I’ll be talking about that in the upcoming posts–and feel free to leave comments below!

Very happy to be back with you once more, and look for another post from me next week!

 

 

 

 

Writing Lessons We Can Learn From HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

I have lost all respect for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

In eight previous stellar seasons, they’ve only awarded the CBS smash hit TV show HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER Emmys in technical categories  (cinematography, editing, makeup, etc.).

They’ve never ONCE nominated the show for a writing award. Not once.

How is this possible?

The only above-the-line (ie, creative) person who has consistently earned Emmy nominations is Neil Patrick Harris, for playing the irrepressible Barney Stinson–and even he has never won. (Seriously, people, what’s up with that?) As a die-hard HIMYM fan, I know he’s deserved to–multiple times. (It’s especially sad because he’s won Emmys for HOSTING awards shows–just not for, you know, being an actor. Unbelievable.)

So if the (cough, cough) esteemed Academy (along with lesser lights such as the Golden Globes) can’t seem to get excited about the writing of a hit show that’s run nine amazing seasons (and why do shows like that run 9 amazing seasons???)–then why am I talking about it?

Because, writers–THE WRITING IS AMAZING. For my money, it’s the best television writing today, and among the top TV writing of all time (I’d put it a half-step below I LOVE LUCY for best TV writing ever–and no, I’m not kidding.)

And I don’t need the Emmys or the Golden Globes to prove me right on this.

If no one else is giving them kudos for writing – well, okay, ALMA (whoever they are) apparently awarded ONE writing award in 2008 for a specific episode (thanks, ALMA, she says grudgingly)–then I’m awarding them the kudos. Because HIMYM is in every way an outstanding example of great series writing.

Consider the following:

1) They use flashbacks.

Flashbacks, as every screenwriter who breathes can tell you, are one of the biggest screenwriting no-nos out there. YOU DON’T FLASH BACK because it disrupts the dramatic flow of a scene, often is completely unnecessary, and almost no one knows how to use them effectively.

Well, try this: HIMYM–the entire show itself–is ONE BIG FLASHBACK. The whole series is a story told by a much older Ted Mosby to his teenage children, starting with his coming to New York in 2005. And each episode is part of the epic story of his search to find true love–along with the growing and changing relationships of his four best friends over a period of years.

Not only that, but they use flashbacks in EVERY EPISODE, multiple times–and they WORK. They flash forward in time, they flash backward, they even (this is stylish) flashed to a full epilogue recently, telling us what happens to our favorite minor (guest-starring) characters in the future – and they DIDN’T EVEN WAIT TILL THE END OF THE SHOW, or even the EPISODE, TO DO IT. You gotta love it.

2) They created their own culture.

If you watch the show, you know what The Bro Code is. What The Playbook is. Who says, “Suit up!” and why. You may even have thought about whether you’re too old for some of the items on The Murtaugh List, or whether you’ll be one of the ‘2 out of 3 times’ that the Naked Man ploy works. You know the secret of Robin’s shameful past, and the name of the bar where they hang out (don’t make me say it for you).  This comes not just from funny lines or moments, but from the repetition of said points, often in episodes far removed from the original episode where the stuff was first coined. Episodes further on refer back to episodes that have aired previously. It keeps you watching. Keeps you connected. Keeps you CARING.

In addition, there are ongoing characters who do NOT appear in every episode, but who have appeared often throughout the series. Ranjit the driver is one great example. He’s been with the gang from the beginning, through to their wild New Year’s Eve celebration several seasons back, to Ted’s first attempt to court Stella with a five-minute date (SO charming!), straight through to Ted’s touching advice to Robin in the back seat of his limo on the night his building is officially opened as part of the New York skyline.

How about Brad, Marshall’s friend from law school? He shows up to pair with Marshall when Marshall’s lonely for couples things to do, now that Lily is (temporarily) gone. He shows up again as a down-and-out guy Marshall takes pity on and gets into a job interview at his law firm. (BIG mistake!) It gives the actors a chance to do a lot of different things with the same character.

Genius.

3) Each episode has an uplifting moral.

Yes, an honest-to-goodness moral–mostly derived from two separate (but equal, of course) plot lines. Or the A story and the B story, for you TV writing purists. Since the story is, after all, directed at Ted’s two teenagers, Ted makes the point to them often about things in life they could forget, discount or overlook. So the end of each episode is not just an arc for characters in the show, but also for the teens listening to the story.

My favorite, I think, is “The Best Burger In New York City”, in which Marshall finally tracks down what he remembers as the very best burger he ever ate in his life–but as it was his first week in New York, he got lost trying to find the place where he’d eaten it. Ted at one point tells him, “Buddy, you’re going through a tough time now. I get that you want to find this burger, but Marshall, it might not be the same burger you remember–or it might really not have been that good to begin with.” Because all of us, let’s face it, when we’re in a tough situation, like to remember something as possibly more wonderful than it was, if only to lift ourselves out of the dull gray routine of now.

Know what I love about this episode? They do finally find the burger joint–and the burger IS as good as Marshall remembers. I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t been–and I think the writers knew most of their audience would have been. So they let us know that sometimes, life really IS as good as we remembered it. That’s a lovely thing to know.

4) It has moments of being magical.

Some who read this who won’t think much of this point–but I think the idea that life can be–and often is–magical, is a great lesson to teach your kids.

In one especially beautiful episode, “Miracles”, Ted points out that just taking a random step or two in one direction or another can be a life-changer–and that those small changes can lead to extraordinary things. What’s even better is how the seemingly random connections of early episodes will lead us–and Ted–inevitably to the moment where he meets his soul mate. The seeds for this are planted several seasons ago, and are just now coming to fruition.  And that leads to perhaps my favorite point:

5) The series has a wholeness, a continuity and a unity that most others seem to lack.

At least once or twice a season, a character asks Barney, “Really, Barney, what is it you do for a living?” Barney always answers, “Please!” and goes on to another point.

It wasn’t till a few weeks ago that we actually learned what Barney did for a living–and “Please” is an ACRONYM for it!

How can you not love this?

As a writer, realizing that these writers are thinking ahead, staying with the game plan and that each episode is part of an organic growth pattern, not just a desperate grabbing for whatever they can think of, makes the whole series so special. THEY HAD IT FIGURED OUT A LONG TIME AGO, no matter how long–or short–the series would last. That it lasted this long, IMHO, is not just about the stellar performances, the amazing cohesiveness and likeability of the cast and the great directing (along with all the other great technical stuff), but more importantly, about the underlying plan the writers had and STUCK WITH virtually to the end. (I’ll interrupt myself here to say that the opening episodes of Season Nine were, unfortunately, very disappointing. Written by writers who had not been credited on previous episodes, they DID seem stuck-on and often not very worthwhile, but fortunately for all of us, the real HIMYM came back in full force around episode 6 or 8 and hasn’t disappointed for a second since.)

This also includes the fantastic growth we’ve seen in all the characters, particularly Barney, who goes from selfish, self-centered and sleeping with any woman he can to falling deeply in love with Robin and learning to deal with committing to one woman. (In “The Bracket”, possibly my favorite episode, Barney tries to identify a woman who came up to Lily and told her to stay away from Barney, who had once dumped her. When Lily fumbles, Barney tries to help her: “Did she have dead eyes and an air of self-loathing and despair?”

“Yes!” Lily says triumphantly.

“That’s all of them,” Barney says.)

But before he does fall in love with Robin–a plotline that unfolds slowly over several seasons–we have a terrific episode where Lily, currently separated from Marshall, moves in with Barney platonically and ends up helping him drive away his one-night stands by pretending to be his wife. What she learns is that Barney is TERRIFIED of intimacy, and that’s something we need to know in order to understand his slow turn from having Robin as his ‘wingman’ when he picks up women to being the woman he proposes to oh-so-romantically at the end of last season. (Seriously, guys, I would say yes to a proposal like that.)

I’ve heard a rumor (?) that they’re actually doing a sequel–I kid you not–called HOW I MET YOUR FATHER. It’s Hollywood–why are we surprised? BUT–I’m also told the original writers will be back at the helm. If they are, I’ll watch it.

Because the lovely life lessons of HIMYM will be applicable yesterday, today and tomorrow–and when they’re written as well as this series, they’ll always be worth tuning in for.

And as writers, I can’t urge you enough to study writing like this (whether you’re a novelist, playwright, screenwriter–doesn’t matter) in order to see how beautifully good writing supports everyone else involved in a creative endeavor. Of course the great part of that kind of research is–it hardly feels like work at all. And THAT should tell you that they’ve hit on something VERY good, something well worth tucking into YOUR bag of writer’s tricks.

New Help for Writers

There’s nothing like attending a writers conference to make it clear that there’s WAY too much bad advice given to newbie writers.

Newbie writers, like newbies of all kinds, need nurturing, support and lots of encouragement. But what they need more than anything is solid, reliable information. Saying, “Atta boy! You can do it!” and pointing them in the wrong direction is the quickest way to destroy a budding talent. They use the precious time they have for writing, marketing and promotion and spend it (and often thousands of dollars as well) on plans that too often don’t take them anywhere near their goal: to publish, get known as authors and SELL BOOKS. But since they’re being given this advice by (supposedly) experienced authors and publishers, off they rush to try to fulfill all these plans, in the process exhausting themselves, alienating all their friends and often as not ending up with a product they hate.

And how can you blame them? This is all new to them. They’re told: “You need an agent, you need a great website, you need a great book cover, you need testimonials from famous people for your book, you need a presence on social media. You need to blog every week, you need to be tweeting constantly… you need… you need… you need… ” An hour or so of that and the shaky writer is questioning whether any of this is worth it–just to put out a simple book!

This past weekend, I was invited to speak at Book ‘Em North Carolina, a relatively new event that’s become a staple in Lumberton, NC and attracts large and lively crowds of aspiring authors, who are hungry for information on the nuts and bolts of writing, both the craft and the business. They come specifically to listen to successful authors and learn from them.

And how helpful is it?

Well, at last year’s event, the keynote speaker, a phenomenally successful and very talented author was speaking on “Hitting the Bestseller Lists”. Trouble was, she hadn’t picked the topic, and though the place was packed to hear her, her advice wasn’t useful for new writers. When she admitted that she actually didn’t know the secret of hitting the bestseller lists because ‘my publisher took care of promotion for me’, it was all over. She had become famous in the ’90s, when publishing was far different than it is today, and authors were essentially just expected to embark on physical book tours set up by their publishers, and somehow good things would happen. They certainly did for her–and she deserves it–but none of that is part of the paradigm for new writers confronting the writing business now.

At this year’s event, I did a solo talk and a panel talk, both on promotion. The panel talk was very general in nature (I think most writers attending could have heard much more detailed information), but what appalled me was when one of my fellow panel members mentioned that as a matter of course, she always sent out advance reading copies of her books BY SNAIL MAIL. This meant printing, binding, mailing and PAYING FOR a large number of her own books in order to reach reviewers and other people in a position to spotlight the books.

I haven’t sent out a hard-copy ARC for ten years, and I don’t plan to ever again. When someone wants a reading copy, I either refer him to my URL at Smashwords (and give him a coupon code for a free copy of any eBook version) or send a .pdf from my own email account, which is always ready with my bio, book blurb, book cover .jpeg and buy links, in a draft email saved in my Drafts folder. I said that when it was my turn on that question, and hope the woman who had discussed the hard-copy ARC’s wasn’t offended. But if someone else on the panel hadn’t mentioned sending them out electronically, would all those people have assumed that hard-copy ARC’s were the way to go? And (heaven forbid) would they all have done it?

For that reason–and because I find myself around writers all the time, most of whom have tons of questions about writing–I have decided to make myself available on a regular basis to work one on one with writers, to offer feedback and suggestions on all aspects of writing, publishing and promotion. I want them to get information that will help them NOW, not send them running in circles. I’m also offering personal feedback on their writing: what works, what doesn’t and HOW TO FIX IT (I’ve spent many years as a story analyst and am especially experienced with issues involving structure, plot and characterization).

I’ve added a page called Coaching for Writers to my website; if you have a question about your project or a project you’re thinking of writing, I hope you’ll check it out. I want to suggest ways you can build your writing business better, quicker and more effectively. I’d like to take you from A to Z without your getting stuck at 3 and 7.

So if you’re stuck in a creative rut where you need to brainstorm or just want to figure out how best to promote your novel–I’d love to hear from you. Email me directly at susan@susansloate.com or use the form on my site.

After years of watching writers run around like rats in a maze, I’d like to see the writing business reduced to simple straight lines, and reduce the frustration of new writers to something a lot more manageable than what I’ve seen. Writing’s hard enough, and the writing business is humbling enough. It’s time for simple, effective answers.

Best of luck on YOUR writing journey!

#whatsyoursuperstition

Happy 2014!!

I wish you all a healthy, prosperous, abundant and joyous New Year. To my writer friends, I wish you rivers of words flowing easily and well, and mountains of eager readers. To everyone else, whatever your New Year’s wish is, I hope it is granted.

This holiday season has as usual been full of wonderful things–including some better-than-normal TV commercials. I was especially impressed with the beer company campaign showing crazed spots fans trying to influence the outcomes for their favorite teams with all kinds of odd rituals, and the tagline on the commercial: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

And doesn’t THAT speak to us as writers?

Writers are by nature superstitious. We never really know where the words are coming from, and when they’re going well, we want them to continue. When they’re not, we want to start the flow again. Either way, we’re never sure it’s what’s inside us that makes that happen, so too often, we ascribe it to an outside force we have to woo and anxiously placate.

What’s YOUR superstition as a writer? Do you have more than one? (C’mon, we all know writers have superstitions, whether they ever admit to them or not.) Do you give in to your superstitions or have you tried to bat them away and act like a ‘normal’ person? (Who am I kidding? If writers were normal, we wouldn’t be writing.)

I have a number of superstitions that affect my writing. Most I won’t mention, because as everyone worth their superstitions knows, the minute you tell it, you destroy the magic. (A lot like telling the story of your novel during a drunken evening with your friends–that’s a guarantee it’ll never get written.) And I’m in no mood, on this first day of a beautiful new year, to destroy any magic that might be coming my way in 2014.

But I’ll tell you about my superstitions involving numbers. It’s one of my longest-lasting superstitions, and as of this writing, it’s still true.

I have a peculiar relationship with the numbers 3 and 8.

They’re–well, how shall I put it? Lucky?

Yeah, maybe.

All I know is, whenever the numbers 3 and 8 show up in my life, something positive follows. For instance, 12 years ago when we left Chicago to move down to Charleston, and I was setting up our new phone service, I found out the area code for this part of South Carolina was 843.

An 8 and a 3–in the area code! That’s when I knew the move was going to be a good one. (And it has been; this has been by far the best place I’ve ever lived.)

At that time, the telephone company allowed you to pick your own phone number, and when I asked the woman on the phone for something with double numbers (easy to remember) that included the numbers 3 and 8, she suggested one that ended in 8833. And the other three digits, added together, came out to 8.

I’ve had that same phone number for 12 years. My South Carolina driver’s license also features the numbers 8 and 3, and the digits on my license plate come out to 3 (both through random circumstances–I had nothing to do with them). Are you starting to see a pattern here?

In choosing the price for two of my 2013 novels–STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION–I explained my superstition to my publisher at Drake Valley Press. She was totally on board with it, and together we experimented with combinations of numbers till we came up with pricing that would be fair for the books while still favoring my 3 and 8 trend (STEALING FIRE is $8.99 for the eBook, $17.99 for the paperback, FORWARD TO CAMELOT at $8.99 for the eBook, $23.88 for the paperback–add up the numbers and reduce to a single digit–it works).

I certainly can’t claim those digits affected sales, but STEALING FIRE became a #2 Amazon bestseller within a day or so of going live in July. CAMELOT has received the best reviews I’ve ever gotten, and both books were named to separate Top Ten lists for Best Reads of 2013.  It will be interesting to see whether the pattern continues as both books continue in the marketplace.

Ultimately, what matters here is nothing but my belief that those numbers affect my outcome. When I see them in relation to a phone number, an address, or any other numerical designation, they make me smile. They make me trust.

Do they make me a better writer? Well … if I believe I am as a result of those numbers, then yes, I am. If I’m relaxed enough to do my best work because of some ephemeral (and probably silly) but recurring pattern that seems to bode well for me, then everyone involved with my work benefits. And so far (knock on wood), the 3’s and 8’s in my career haven’t let me down. Something good always follows when I spot them. (And yes, I’m looking.)

My mother always laughed at superstitions and said they were ridiculous. She may be right. I’m the only one who goes hunting for those numbers and lights up when they show up. Probably they don’t mean anything at all.

But, I mean, why take the chance?

What’s YOUR superstition??? And might it have anything to do with a new year meaning a fresh start and a new chance to do your best work?

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 …