Feeding the Goldfish

A writer friend recently asked me to critique the first couple of chapters of her new novel. As she’s a very good up-and-coming writer, and she’s written wonderful reviews for my novels on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads, I agreed.

I was immediately interested in the subject matter–a young girl worshipping her older brother and grieving over his death–but it surprised me that the writer, whose work was usually a lightning-quick read, had written two chapters (almost 9.000 words) and I was struggling with it.

Why?

I knew before I’d finished the chapters, and I hung my head in shame, because it’s one of my own greatest faults as well:

WAY too much back story, WAY too much unnecessary detail, and not nearly enough happening in the present time.

You’d be surprised how fast that kills a reader’s interest.

This might not sound like such a sin–after all, in the opening chapters, you HAVE to tell the reader a little about your characters and describe them, and get into a little of who they are, and what they want, and where they came from, and … watch out. That’s a slippery slope.

What’s really necessary is to introduce your story in a way that’s inherently dramatic–ie, something is happening right now, and we jump right into the middle of it. How much do we need to know to understand it? How many details can you leave out?

To me, here’s the rule of thumb: TELL THE READER ONLY WHAT’S NECESSARY TO KNOW IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.

That’s it.

And then–open with a truly dramatic situation that the readers can get involved with right away. You will hook them, they will want to know more, and I promise, they will stick around even when you tuck in bits of NECESSARY exposition here and there (and be careful; only a little bit at a time–giving exposition is like feeding a goldfish–give it too much at a time and it’ll die.)

Too many writers think if they get into tons of back story, they can disguise (or in some cases not even notice) that their opening chapters have NO DRAMATIC MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER.

In the first chapter you introduce  and describe your characters (and it’s always better to describe a character through the actions they take and the words they speak, rather than giving physical description and back story). You can tell the reader REAMS about your hero if, as in a very famous instance, you show him not wanting to whitewash a fence on a Saturday morning but figuring out a clever way to get others to do it for him–and pay for the privilege. (Thanks, Mark Twain.) This is the famous school of SHOW, DON’T TELL, and one I heartily subscribe to. But that’s action, and it’s happening in the present time. We’ll like that, and we’ll stay with it.

Almost my favorite novel opening comes from Dick Francis’s THE DANGER: “There was a godawful cock-up in Bologna.”

There is NO WAY I was going to miss reading the next sentence, and paragraph, as Francis talked about the kidnapping negotiation that had gone wrong and now there were innocent lives at stake in a high-rise apartment building and the hero stood frustrated on the street. You want to talk about compelling? He did NOT get into the hero’s angst or back story, except to say that he was there as a kidnap negotiator. He saved ALL the other details (except a couple about the kidnap victim and the previous attempts at ransom) for later in the story. I devoured it, and it was grand.

I also cannot stress enough that while you will undoubtedly, as you live with your characters and your story, come up with a million different ways of showing (or telling) details about them, you need to rein in that impulse as much as you can. You might say that as long as you ‘save’ them for a later chapter, it’s okay to tell us everything you’ve ever thought of about that character.

Wrong. You NEVER need to say it (think of it as a first date–where would you be if you blurted out everything you were thinking to someone you hardly knew?) If there are 12 instances in which you intended to show your character’s greed, drop 10 of them and use the best two in the story. Your readers will appreciate it and will not feel as though they’re being bludgeoned with a heavy stick to get your point.

This summer, while Kevin Finn and I were doing the final edit on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I found myself confronted with my own prose again, for the first time in 10 years, and while we did correct a few minor historical points (and I feel better for it!), the majority of the time was spent first trimming, then chopping, whole sections of the book. Kevin pointed out that I had a bad habit of saying everything twice, and I did: I realized I said something first to announce it, second, to set it up for a dramatic moment. This was obviously not necessary, and I found a lot of places to cut down–WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE DRAMA OR THE FLAVOR OF THE BOOK.

Believe me, writers can be among the most self-indulgent people on earth, and it’s terrible to realize how much we love the look of our words on the page. (We can be like those awful public speakers who go on, and on, and on.) Minimize it and use the strongest examples. Say little about your characters and let their words and actions (and what others say about them) tell us who they are. That’s good storytelling.

Of course, you will always find those who insist that the ‘inner monologue’ is beautiful and is the crux of a ‘literary’ novel, in which action is not nearly as important as thought. To me, a literary novel is usually one that has pretensions to being high-blown and arty, but in reality is just a story written by an author who can’t handle simple storytelling. To me, simple storytelling–getting the hero up the tree and figuring out how to get him down–is all there is, and the hardest thing in the world to do well.  That’s what I’m always aiming it, and I hope you are, too. The world needs more good storytellers, and far fewer ‘literary’ artists.

But that is a post for another day …

The ‘C’ Word – Why WON’T They Call It Conspiracy?

In my first two blogs about the JFK assassination, commemorating the 50th anniversary of that event and the new release of my novel (co-authored with Kevin Finn), FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I talked about the circumstances surrounding November 22, 1963, which many, many people are not really aware of. They know the president was shot and killed in a Dallas motorcade; they know Oswald was arrested and then shot on live television; they know a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby was wrestled to the ground afterward and that there couldn’t be the slightest doubt that he’d done it, as he’d committed the act in full view of the TV cameras and the seventy Dallas cops (among others) in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters.

But since 50 years have elapsed since then, the details have blurred for a lot of people. I think knowing the details is important, because it gives you a chance to draw your own conclusions. Given only a blurry outline, it’s easy to believe whatever half-cocked theory other people come up with.

This has been a source of continuing irritation for me, for years. I don’t expect the average person to have anywhere near the interest I do in this subject, or be conversant with some of the more arcane topics surrounding it: “Operation Paperclip”, “Alpha 66”, “S-179”, “George de Morenschildt”. (If you’re curious, Operation Paperclip was the secret government operation to transport the top Nazi scientists to the US after WWII ended, to use their expertise to develop rockets of our own; Alpha 66 was the violent anti-Castro group dedicated to overthrowing Castro and establishing a new government in Cuba; S-179 was Lee Oswald’s FBI informant number; and George de Morenschildt was the petroleum expert from a White Russian background (also accused of being a Nazi sympathizer in WWII) who was Oswald’s closest friend–an odd friend for a supposedly uneducated, belligerent whining loser to have, especially as de Morenschildt was also about 20 years older than Oswald. Yeah, I knew you wanted to know. Secretly.)

My point is that if you don’t really know much about the assassination, and you’re told that a blue-ribbon commission appointed by none other than President Lyndon Baines Johnson (JFK’s successor) thoroughly studied the entire event, and after talking to scores of witnesses and with the help of hundreds of exhibits, autopsy photos, x-rays, films and expert advice in many fields, they conclusively decided it had to be Oswald alone … well, you might just believe it.

Because all those smart people couldn’t have gotten that much wrong, could they? And they were acting in our best interests, weren’t they? And they had only the purest motives, right? And they had all the evidence they could possibly need, right there at their fingertips, didn’t they?

Well–uh–yes, they could have gotten it wrong. And they might not have been acting in our best interests, and not with pure motives, and plenty of evidence they should have seen they never did. And when it was finally published as the 26 volumes of exhibits of the Warren Commission Report (making this a 27-volume set that would take up an entire bookshelf in the average home), some of that evidence had been strangely twisted and re-arranged to fit the Commission’s conclusion that 24-year-old ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nut. (In the last page of the Report, summarizing the evidence, they admit they couldn’t really come up with a motive for Oswald, but attributed that to the fact that he was really SO crazy they couldn’t explain it. I’m not kidding.)

Allen Dulles, the ex-CIA chief, was fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (and yet this guy, who probably hated JFK, sat on the Commission to study his death? Seriously? Can you spell ‘conflict of interest’???) Dulles, being the charming cynic that he was, said it really wasn’t important what the Warren Commission Report said; the American public didn’t read, anyway.

He was wrong about that. Turns out quite a few Americans, troubled by the events of November 1963, took on quite a bit of reading, from 1963 onward, to try to get at what seemed to be a more plausible truth than what we were told. In fact, virtually all the hard evidence we have that has helped us put at least a sketchy outline together of the events surrounding the assassination, come from the relentless pursuit of fact and truth of private citizens who just couldn’t leave this subject alone. The people supporting the Warren Commission Report — and there are legions of them still, poor things — say that these private citizens still studying these arcane and puzzling bits of history are ‘conspiracy nuts’.

Uh-huh.

Why not? When you can’t make something go away, ridicule it. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

But that doesn’t make the facts of the case any more palatable to anyone who knows them. It’s the ones who DON’T know them, and who want to say indignantly, “How can you say your government is lying to you?”, that give the most trouble. They don’t want to be bothered by facts, and they aren’t guided by logic, so no matter how clear it is that MORE THAN ONE GUN was fired in Dealey Plaza, they don’t want to hear it.

I have a theory that partially explains this. I think of all the nationalities in the world, Americans are perhaps least likely to accept a conspiracy as real, because it’s so against our national character. Generally speaking, we live in the sunlight. We’re open people. Open borders between states. Open about our lives (for the most part) with our families, friends, neighbors. We rush to post our latest doings (and photos/videos of same) on Facebook and tweet about them endlessly.

Conspiracies are dark, quiet things that fester in the shadows. They’re built on whispers and secrets, on people who melt into the background and who lie for a living. So Americans, who can’t imagine living like that themselves, assume NO ONE can live like that. NO ONE could live in another identity (ok, except in witness protection, which is justified). NO ONE could keep that kind of secret. NO ONE could be part of something that unholy, and SOMEONE would have to have talked after all these years, if it had really been a conspiracy.

Well, there are two answers to that. One is that OF COURSE there are people like that. We do have a functioning CIA and other intelligence networks, in which the field agents spend their careers lying, committing illegal acts and gathering information for our country. It’s what they do. And OF COURSE there are professional assassins out there who do ‘wet work’ (killings) on a regular basis. (Like Vince Vaughn’s great response in MR. & MRS. SMITH when asked how he’s doing: “Same old, same old. People need killin’.”) Just because you don’t do it, you don’t believe there are others who do?

The second is that PEOPLE HAVE TALKED FOR YEARS about the assassination and what they knew about it. The problem is, what they say hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention. It should have. There have been deathbed confessions from some pretty interesting people, like E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar, and others. The mainstream media has decided that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, and that’s all they’re willing to say.  Smaller publications have published some very interesting information, but it hasn’t gotten out there, or validated by any government authority or highly-rated media sources.

So people are still uneasy about calling it a conspiracy, when it can’t be anything but.

Stay tuned.

Debunking the Mystery – Guest Blog by Kevin Finn

Kevin Finn

Kevin Finn

Today’s post is a guest blog from one of my favorite writers–in fact, my writing partner, Kevin Finn. Kevin co-authored FORWARD TO CAMELOT and its latest edition, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, with me. He is the author of more than a dozen screenplays and produces content for Princeton Community Television, including promotional trailers and independent film projects like the 2012 documentary SETTING THE STAGE: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. He lives in East Windsor, New Jersey.

Here’s Kevin:

Everyone loves a good mystery, right?

Cool, we’re going to have fun together today.  I’m going to solve a great mystery of our time.

The mystery of the Exalted Writer.

Ahh..the writer.  He or she of the noble word, those that live locked in ivory towers as prisoner to their craft, benevolent caregiver to the imagination.

Salinger, the recluse, embodied this, and it worked for him.  Created his myth, the aura of the raconteur, He Who Shall Not be Seen.

We’ve all seen the picture of Shakespeare, regal cock to the head, mischievous grin aside, collar tightly starched.  The picture of of poise and eloquence.

By all accounts, Shakespeare was an attention whore, the Snooki of his time.  Braggart, drunkard, possibly a fraud.

Shakespeare would’ve loved the 21st Century.  He’d have made himself an instant celebrity and instead of waiting for time to tell his legend, he’d have created a name for himself instantly,  Like Kathie Lee and Hoda.  Nancy Grace. The Kardash…

You get the idea.

Writers no longer live in ivory towers, we live among the people.  And that is the way it should be, for we are no more than common people touched with the gift of good vocabulary.

What once served as ‘mystique’ for Salinger and Shakespeare is now called ‘branding’ by the marketing and publicity hounds who help us hawk our wares.

Every writer has a brand, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and the brand is supposedly their ‘name‘.  I prefer to think of it as a ‘theme’.

So what is my theme? Well, if I had to sum up the theme of my writing in a singular title, it would be ‘Guys, Dolls and Curveballs.’  No one is as evocative as Damon Runyon, and that’s what I write about; Guys, hard-nosed manly men on the outside, like Sinatra or Gene Kelly (yeah, Gene Kelly. A dancer, but a tough guy.  You wanna make sumthin’ of it?). Soft on the inside.  Dolls, beautiful and sensitive women who’s strength lies in their intelligence, always percolating just below the surface.  Which makes them all the more alluring.

And baseball.

There’s the old adage ‘write what you know.’  I write what I like. 

What I like is meeting people.  People are characters, which is why writers need to abandon conventional notions, get out of the ivory tower and meet as many people as they can. Ask any author who their favorite character is and they will undoubtedly answer, ‘well, my favorite character is actually based on someone I knew.’ Today’s social media innovations give writers opportunities and advantages never dreamed of.  We must embrace them, learn them, love them, if readers are to embrace our work and our passion.  Everyone knows what George R.R. Martin, Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts look like.  While Shakespeare trends, Salinger would’ve wallowed, a footnote in the caverns of paperless publishing.

Like the written word begun in calligraphy, writing has changed with the times. So, too, have writers.  Writing is hard work, an eight-to-eighteen hour job before lunch, six days a week and any writer who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves as much as Rapunzel waiting for rescue.  Or Salinger waiting for a photo op.

So what do you like in your writing? And your writers?  If you could sum up your writing (or favorite writers) in one thematic title, what would it be?  And why?

I’ve shared with you.  Please share with me.

The JFK Assassination (#2) – November 22, 1963 Continued

In my first post on the JFK assassination last week (honoring the release of Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, which I co-authored with Kevin Finn), I discussed the events of the assassination itself–that tragic Friday in November 1963 that changed our world.

Today, let’s continue with those events–in which you may begin to see a disturbing pattern:

After the president was pronounced dead, Lyndon Johnson, now the new President, was hustled out of Parkland Hospital under heavy guard and taken back to Air Force One, still on the tarmac at Love Field. He immediately took steps to take the oath of office on the plane, calling an old friend, Judge Sarah Hughes, who lived in Dallas, and asking her to come to Love Field to administer the oath, calling a shell-shocked Bobby Kennedy in Washington to ask for the wording.

Meanwhile, Earl Rose, the County Coroner, was at Parkland Hospital insisting on doing an autopsy on JFK’s body, which was Texas law (it was not yet a federal crime to kill a president, so this was a standard homicide). But JFK’s Secret Service detail and some of his aides were so shocked and angry that they were in no mood to bend to Texas law. Their Commander-in-Chief had just been murdered, and they’d be damned if anyone would touch his body in Texas! Rose was (literally) shoved aside as they called for a local mortuary to deliver a casket. The president’s body was wrapped in a sheet (his blood-soaked clothes had been cut off in the operating room) and placed inside a heavy mahogany coffin. And over Rose’s continued protests (and he was legally in the right), the president’s men took the coffin back to Air Force One, where Jackie Kennedy insisted she would sit with it all the way to Washington. She was disturbed only once; when Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath, Lyndon Johnson requested Jackie’s presence at his swearing in. He also requested that photos be taken, and that the ceremony be recorded on tape (which it was). The famous photo of that ceremony (which we mention in Forward to Camelot) showed a solemn Johnson with a pious hand raised, another hand on a book (JFK’s own Catholic missal–prayer book–which was all they could find to use for the oath. We deal with this at length in the novel–it’s the lynch pin of our plot–though in the context of history, it’s a minor point.) Next to him stood Jackie, her eyes staring at nothing, blood still visible on her pink jacket (though Cecil Stoughton, the Army captain who took the photo, did all he could to minimize the bloodstains). It is one of the most haunting images of the day–the new president so eager to be sworn in that he can’t even wait to get back to Washington, insisting that the widow of the dead president witness the moment. Once the ceremony was over and the camera stopped clicking (and one disturbing photo shows LBJ with a big smile), Sarah Hughes left the plane and Air Force One lifted off for Washington. The Kennedy contingent sat with the coffin in the back of the plane, away from the Johnson people, who were hustling along busily at the front.

Back at Dealey Plaza, the site of the shooting, there was chaos. Horrified spectators, some of whom had hit the grass at the sounds of gunfire, were being questioned by police, after many had initially run up the hill now called the Grassy Knoll, hoping to nab a shooter behind the picket fence, where they had heard shots. A motorcycle cop named Marion Baker had run into the seven-story brick building at the corner of Houston and Elm Street, the Texas School Book Depository, looking for a shooter there, and after locating Roy Truly, the superintendent, ran into a young man in the second-floor employee lunchroom, very calm and drinking a coke. The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald, a new employee, and after Baker drew his gun and asked Truly if Oswald worked there and Truly said yes, they left Oswald alone.

Oswald left the building shortly afterward, still alone, and made his way by bus and cab to the rooming house where he was staying temporarily in Oak Cliff, a rundown residential section of Dallas. There he went into his tiny room, changed his shirt and picked up his revolver. His landlady heard a horn honking outside and saw a Dallas police car pulled up at the corner by her house. Oswald left the house and walked several blocks.

Some minutes later, a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit was patrolling in his police car near Tenth and Patton, where he stopped a man walking by, who leaned in and conversed with him for a minute through the window. As Tippit got out of the car, the man fired three shots at him, in front of several witnesses. Tippit was dead before he hit the ground. The man ran off. (Here’s where it gets confusing, because while some witnesses saw one man, others saw two, who split up and ran in different directions after the shooting.)

In any case, Oswald was spotted by a shoe salesman some minutes later on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the site of the Tippit shooting. He was at the Texas Theater, where he did not stop to buy a ticket but just walked in. The shoe salesman called the police, and when the house lights went on in the theater, the salesman pointed out Oswald sitting alone in the audience. After a short scuffle (in which Oswald called frantically to the other people in the theater, “I am not resisting arrest! I am not resisting arrest!”), he was handcuffed, his face bruised, and led outside. He was taken to Dallas police headquarters, where word began to spread that he was the man who had murdered J.D. Tippit and likely, assassinated the president.

But disturbing contradictions were turning up. The Dallas police, all familiar with firearms, had found a weapon at the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle stamped “Mauser”, which all of them knew was a superior German rifle. However, within less than 24 hours, the police were reporting that the weapon found was a cheap, inaccurate Italian rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano (which the FBI quickly found Oswald had bought by mail order earlier in the year). All trace of the “Mauser”–all mention of it–was suddenly hushed. And when the FBI ran the rifle through their world-class fingerprint lab, they could not find a print.

The witnesses at the Tippit shooting were also problematical. Their description of the gunman (or gunmen) did not come close to fitting Lee Harvey Oswald–though supposedly it was in response to that description that he had been picked up by police. Witnesses said the man firing the gun was short, heavy-set and in his 30’s. Oswald was 24 and very slender. To make matters worse, the cartridges the police found at the Tippit murder scene were made for a pistol. But Oswald owned a revolver, not a pistol. And even more peculiarly, the cartridges didn’t even match each other. Dallas PD Officer Poe, who marked them with his initials for the chain of evidence, could not find his initials on the cartridges he was shown later, which indicates they were not the cartridges recovered at the scene.

Oswald was interrogated at police headquarters for over 12 hours, but not one word was recorded (which meant none of it could be admissible in court later). When he was paraded in front of reporters his demeanor was calm, and instead of proclaiming his great deed in front of the world, he stubbornly maintained that he had not shot anyone and further, that he had nothing against Kennedy. When he was shown some of the evidence seized in a search of the garage where he had stored some of his belongings, he told the police that the photo of him holding a rifle and a pistol and dressed in black was a fake; it was his head pasted on someone else’s body.

Constantly present when Oswald was in public was a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who was well known to the Dallas police and liked to host them at his club, the Carousel. Footage available on YouTube shows Oswald being moved in and out of various rooms at police headquarters, with a man who looks a lot like Jack Ruby never far away.

Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an official autopsy, but there too, strange things were happening. Orderlies saw different caskets brought in at different hospital entrances–one the expensive ceremonial coffin bought in Dallas, the other a cheap gray casket. The wrapping of the body was different, and most oddly, the doctors at the autopsy (and all those present in the room) saw an entirely different kind of head wound than the one described by a dozen doctors and nurses who attended Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. (Check out David Lifton’s Best Evidence for more information on these strange anomalies, including the alarming possibility that JFK’s body was altered to make the wounds look different and more consistent with a single shooter than multiple shooters.)

The surreal weekend continued, with Oswald paraded in a bizarre police lineup where he was placed with teenage boys, which angered him. Who couldn’t pick him out of that group? (Among those who did was an hysterical woman named Helen Markham, who claimed to have talked to Officer Tippit for 20 minutes after he was shot. Since he was dead on impact, that must have been some conversation.)

On Sunday morning, as the world mourned and the president’s body was lying in state (where a quarter of a million people would file by to pay their respects), newsmen were notified that Oswald was finally going to be moved to the Dallas County Jail. Surrounded by police (and handcuffed to one), Oswald moved forward in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, where a car was waiting. TV cameras were rolling; the whole world was watching.

There was a sound of a car horn blaring, and suddenly a man leaped forward and fired. It was Jack Ruby, and that one shot smashed into Oswald’s stomach and dropped him at the scene. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize him, but the effort was hopeless. He was pronounced dead.

The president was dead. A Dallas police officer was dead. The accused assassin was dead, shot on live television in front of millions.

What the hell was going on?

Out of the Ether: A Writer’s Strange Confession

Today’s post is a combination of two posts I wrote recently for other blogs, about a strange but undeniable phenomenon that most writers don’t talk about… because it freaks us out. But I’m coming out of the ether (and the closet) to discuss it here, and invite you to share your own stories, if you dare:

Cue the creepy music …

Here’s today’s question for all you writers:

Have you ever written something as fiction that later actually happens?

I have.

So have other writer friends of mine. We can’t explain it, and we can’t control it. And when it happens, we think it’s cool… and a little scary. Believe me, this isn’t something we trying to do.

But I think I have an inkling of how it happens.

There’s a very famous example of this (I’ll tell you my own story later). A writer named Morgan Robertson published a novella titled Futility about the world’s greatest ocean liner, which on a voyage in April in the North Atlantic struck an iceberg on the starboard side and sank, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland. There were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers, and more than half of those on board died.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the story of the Titanic. Heck, that’s not fiction; it’s history.

Except it’s not. Futility was published in 1898, more than 14 years BEFORE the Titanic set out on its maiden voyage, and years before it was even designed, let alone built. Yet Robertson eerily forecast the name (Titan/Titanic), the iceberg, the exact spot of the sinking, the lifeboat issue, almost the exact speed at which the ship was traveling, and the fact that the voyage took place in April in the North Atlantic and the ship struck the iceberg on the starboard side.

No one’s ever figured out how he did it. As a writer, I’m sure he was just… picking the story out of the ether, as it came to him. It’s what we all do.

He picked another story out of the ether in 1914, which described a sneak attack by the Japanese in the Philippines and Hawaii that began a war in the month of December–which described exactly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened in December 1941. Obviously, this is a guy who was really tuned in.

Now while you’re considering that, let me tell you about mine.

When I was fifteen I began writing my first stage play. I had first seen Jerry Lewis on TV when I was about nine, and I just loved him. (Still do.) But I didn’t know he had ever been teamed with Dean Martin, and when I found out, it shocked me, because their careers had taken such divergent paths afterward. So I decided to write a play that began with the breakup of a similar comedy duo, followed them through the years and ended at a charity telethon (modeled after you-know-what). I worked on it for years, and finally wrote the last scenes in July 1976. I set the first scene onstage at a New York nightclub, where the duo did a song and dance that ended their partnership. The entire third act took place at the telethon, where the penultimate scene showed the two reuniting onstage.

Six weeks later came the Labor Day telethon, a staple of our holiday weekend. And lo and behold! There was Dean Martin, walking onstage with Frank Sinatra (who engineered the whole thing), greeting a truly stunned Jerry Lewis with a hug. It’s a beautiful moment; you can watch it on YouTube.

But… I wrote it before it happened, virtually the way it happened.

And that first scene I told you about, the nightclub scene where they ended their partnership? I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s actually the way Martin & Lewis broke up—their last engagement was at the Copacabana in New York, the most famous nightclub of its time. I had no way of knowing. But somehow, I just knew.

It’s happened to me on other writing projects, too, most recently on the novel Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, and I don’t consider myself psychic. But I’ve thought about this a lot. Here’s my explanation, because I don’t believe in coincidence, and I do believe in the energy connecting us all.

When writers truly get ‘plugged in’ on a project, we not only plug into our own creativity and our passion for the project; on some level we plug into the universe, too, on our own crystal-clear frequency. We pick up invisible threads of information floating out there in the ether, which we call inspiration but might also be old stories still hanging around, or new events about to unfold. When we’re in the flow with our writing, we somehow have access to all that energy, and it just comes to us, as naturally as a bee to a flower. And we think of it as inspiration, when it might be real but invisible history, or the energy of an event about to happen. I also think we can only access it at moments when we’re really plugged in, through our writing. (You could say this is related to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.) It won’t work if you try to access it. There’s all kinds of magic out there in the ether, but you can’t chase it or command it; you can access it only when you and the universe are truly one.

So the next time you’re writing (cue creepy music here), be careful what you’re writing about. Because it may not be just a story. Your thoughts really can become reality… and do you really want that vampire strolling down Fifth Avenue?

Think about it.

The JFK Assassination (#1) — Remembering the Day

As this is my very first blog post about the JFK assassination–in honor of the publication of my new novel with Kevin Finn, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition–I’d like to start at the very beginning in talking about November 22, 1963, the event that lies at the heart of our story.

It’s been 50 years since that sunny November Friday just before Thanksgiving, and many people now walking the earth were not alive then. Many probably don’t want to admit they don’t actually know what happened. The Kennedy assassination is supposed to be a seminal event in American history (and it was). But as with events that had huge impact at the time, those who came after were not as affected (though what began then is going on even more so today). I honestly believe most people of a certain age don’t actually know much of the story beyond the bare fact that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. So today let me set the scene, bring you into that vanished world and recap the actual crime. And from there, we can talk about the who’s, the why’s, the what’s and the how’s.

After World War II, the period known as the Cold War began (cold because there was no overt fighting by soldiers). The standoff between democracy (represented by the US) and Communism (represented by Russia), was the defining struggle from the late 1940’s to the 1990’s. Russia was our greatest foreign-policy concern, and almost greater than that was the worry that our differences would lead to nuclear war, an option that wasn’t even possible until the US used the atom bomb to end the war with Japan in 1945.  There was tremendous covert activity in the intelligence services of the US, Russia and their allies. It was the era of James Bond, the Cold-War spy.

The thorn in our side was Cuba, a tiny island 90 miles from Florida whose dictator, Fidel Castro, swept into power in 1959, sweeping out Batista, a dictator of another kind. Castro promised economic equality to his people, and aligned himself with Russia as a Communist leader. It was important to Russia to have this toehold in the Western Hemisphere, especially one so close to the US. So they were going to support Fidel in any way they could.

All this was very much on the mind of John F. Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts who was elected President in November 1960. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president (43); his wealthy and ambitious father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had long intended that his son be president. JFK had been a war hero in the Navy during World War II, even though his health was so bad he should have been 4-F. But Kennedy went to Officer’s Candidate School, got an intelligence assignment, then persuaded powerful friends of his father to lie on his behalf to get him INTO active service on the PT boats in the Pacific, where he saved 10 of his men after his boat, PT-109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer on a dark August night.

Kennedy’s fame as the hero of PT-109 and his father’s money propelled him to a seat in the US Congress as Representative from Massachusetts (in the same freshman class with Richard Nixon); six years later he became a US Senator. He married a debutante named Jacqueline Bouvier, and while his health issues were carefully concealed and his family’s PR machine worked overtime to make him look hearty and vigorous, Kennedy suffered debilitating pain every day from a bad back and from Addison’s disease, which almost killed him until he began taking daily cortisone injections.

Jack and Jackie became media darlings (Jackie was the most photographed woman in the world, preceding Princess Diana in that role), and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., became national favorites.

Still, the Kennedy Administration faced a battery of problems: trying to get rid of Castro secretly (a CIA program called Operation Mongoose); civil-rights unrest; Russia’s insistence on placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, so close to US shores that one strike could wipe out 80 million Americans; and the beginning flutters of what would become the war in Vietnam.

In late August of 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave birth to their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, a child they were anticipating with joy. But Patrick was born with lung problems, and died just a few days later, devastating both parents. Jackie remained in seclusion for several months, trying to recover and spending long hours with her other children.

Meanwhile, the Texas branch of the Democratic Party was having their own problems. There was a lot of in-fighting, and the President decided to do a three-day trip to Texas to help the fractured party mend fences before they began serious campaigning for the 1964 election.

Texas was not Kennedy country, but the first 2 days of the trip went well. Jackie Kennedy made the trip with her husband, the first time she’d traveled with him publicly since Patrick’s death. She was as popular as he was, and the turnout was tremendous to see her. In every city where they stopped, they did a motorcade, with the President and First Lady traveling in an open car.

Dallas, however, was a real worry for the Secret Service. It was much more vocal in its opposition to Kennedy than any other Texas city, and the Secret Service had already cancelled two scheduled trips, in Miami and Chicago, because of threats against the President’s life. Still, they had checked out the city and felt satisfied that the  plan they had in place would work.

On Friday, November 22nd, the President spoke at a breakfast meeting in Fort Worth. Jackie joined him, in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, and afterward they flew to Dallas (a very short ride, done only for show), where big crowds greeted them at Love Field Airport. But the atmosphere here was different: there was a nasty ad, “Wanted for Treason”, that ran in the Dallas Morning-News that day, accusing Kennedy of crimes against the US, and though there were still friendly crowds, they were dotted with signs like “Traiter” (sic). It was warm and sunny in Dallas after a rain shower earlier that day.

The President and the First Lady got into the back seat of the presidential limousine, the President on the passenger side of the car. In jump seats ahead of them were Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, and ahead of them were Roy Kellerman, head of the security for the President’s detail, and Bill Greer, the 54-year-old driver (oldest man on the President’s Secret Service detail). The bubble top which could be used to protect the passengers was removed because the weather had cleared up.

The car drove through the downtown area, turned right onto Houston Street, then slowed down to take a sharp hairpin turn at the corner of Houston and Elm Street.  On the northeast side of that corner was a seven-story red-brick building, the Texas School Book Depository.  The crowds had thinned out, but there were still dozens of people lining the streets, many with cameras. A dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder was standing on a stone pedestal near the sidewalk, filming with his new 8mm movie camera.

As the car started down Elm Street, a curving road leading toward the Stemmons Freeway, gunfire rang out.

To this day, there are still arguments about how many shots there were, where they were fired from, and when and how they hit.

The President was struck in the throat. His hands came up toward his tie. More shots were fired, and the President (who was wearing a brace under his clothes to support his back) slumped down. Governor Connally was hit, too, by a bullet that shattered his wrist and eventually imbedded itself in his thigh. (To the end of his life, the Governor insisted that he and the President were hit by separate bullets.) Connally shouted, “My God, they’re going to kill us all!”, but Nellie Connally, thinking quickly, pulled him down into her lap, out of the range of gunfire, and told him to stay down. The car by this time was almost stopped.

Jackie Kennedy leaned toward her husband, and when she was only a couple of inches away, the final shot blew away part of the President’s skull. He fell onto the seat as Jackie (who never remembered doing this for the rest of her life) jumped onto the back of the car, reaching for something (it was part of her husband’s brain). The blood soaked everything in the car: the entire back seat, the Connallys, the red roses Jackie had been given at Love Field. Jackie herself was so drenched in her husband’s blood that the white gloves she wore retained their shape when she took them off later that night. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, part of Mrs. Kennedy’s detail, was the only Secret Service agent who moved, jumping off the follow-up car where the Secret Service was stationed and jumping onto the back of the Presidential limousine, pushing her down.

The car sped up (finally) and the motorcade led by Police Chief Jesse Curry scrambled onto the Stemmons Freeway to Parkland Hospital, where the President and the Governor were rushed inside. The Governor was in critical condition but would survive. The President was pronounced dead at 1 pm, Central Standard Time. Cause of death was a massive gunshot wound to his head.

And there began the greatest mystery of the 20th century.

My Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read (recognize any?)

Let’s face it, I was a reader (and so were you) before we became writers. In fact, most of us became writers in part BECAUSE we were such devoted readers. At some point in that process, the thought occurred to us, ‘I can do this too, and I have a story I want to tell’. And that’s how we ended up here …

As part of my journey to a writer’s paycheck, I have for years read, analyzed and edited others writers’ work. On one hand, it’s a wonderful way to be reminded of what’s good in the writer’s life (and to read some terrific new work); it’s also enough, on my bad days, to make me want to run screaming from the written word – and part of that, I have to say, is because of the way others choose to write it. (Remember, if something bothers you, it’s never YOU – it’s always THEM.) 🙂

Today I’d like to talk about some of those no-nos on which I turn a firm thumbs down (2 thumbs, if I’m feeling especially ornery).  Here’s my Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read:

10.  The word ‘stated’. This is one of the toughest words to use well, because ‘stated’ implies that whatever you’re ‘stating’ has immense weight. About the only way I think it works is “Here are God’s Ten Commandments,” Moses stated. And even that is dicey. Whatever happened to plain old ‘said’?

9. Over-stating (or melodrama). The more overblown your prose, the more silly your words will sound. And if you then compound that error by writing metaphors and similes as old as the hills (there’s one), you have no one but yourself to blame if your readers put the book down. Do any of us really need to be exposed to stuff like “wrapped in a voluminous shimmer of white tulle, feeling as though the night will never end”? C’mon. There has to be a more original way to say this stuff.

8. Dialogue that goes on forever and says nothing. “What do you want to do?” “Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to do?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, what should we do?” Don’t laugh, but there are writers who have PAGES of this stuff, in which characters discuss their options and never quite make up their minds. This makes for a long, drawn-out and exhausting ride for the reader. I’m a big believer in dialogue, IF IT HAS A POINT AND IS ALSO SHOWING CHARACTER. Make your dialogue work to be included. Give us story information AND show us how the characters feel about it; dialogue should have at least two functions in order to make your final cut. And if you can write wonderful dialogue, feel free to lean on it heavily to tell your story; it’s easier for a reader’s eye to absorb than pages and pages of narrative.

7. Characters we’ve already seen somewhere else. I’m not suggesting here that if you want your romance hero to be, say, a blacksmith, that you have to check every romance novel ever written and give up if someone else has used that profession before. What I am saying is that sometimes characters have EXACTLY the same personal qualities that other characters you’ve written or someone else has written already has. Do we really need more romance heroes with chiseled features, staunch independence, a maverick streak and a tough-but-tender persona? (I know I have NO CHANCE of persuading you of changing this, because that’s what sells – sigh – but it gets SOOOO old after awhile.) For the record, my favorite author actually did this all the time – but he did it cleverly. Dick Francis essentially wrote the same hero over and over again — smart, strong, courageous, someone who took quick action and defended those who were weak. BUT – he mixed up their backgrounds, their professions, their interests, etc. So while the heroes all definitely had qualities in common, they were so well drawn, and seemed like such individuals, that nobody cared.

6.  Cardboard characters. This is usually a result of an author not asking enough questions to draw the character distinctly in his or her mind before writing him. Don’t go with the easy answers on character questions; usually it means you’re copying someone else, even if you can’t recall whom.  You can have two characters who are strong, brave, romantic, etc. – but one can be cardboard and the other can be breathing and real. Judith McNaught did this very well in her historical novels.  Sure, they were mid-list romance novels, but the heroes had had enough worldly experience that they had become cynical through exposure to the wrong people. Their first instinct now is to mistrust any women they meet who seem guileless and innocent, and as the twists and turns of the plot unfold, they genuinely decide at some point that they were right; the girl they love is not who she seemed to be, and they’re right in mistrusting her. (I’ll also admit that Ms. McNaught is guilty of #7 – she writes the same people over and over – but frankly, there’s so much dimension in her stories that I tend to overlook it. Shoot me.)

5. The easy ending. Easy endings aren’t satisfying endings. This one is a mistake usually made by a new writer, who either runs out of invention or decides his characters have suffered enough and throws in something ridiculous and coincidental to make things turn out okay by page 300. The point of any story is to have the hero or heroine face a challenge and have to WORK (and change internally) in order to overcome the challenge and achieve their goal. If you make it easy, you also make it unnecessary for the hero to change – and without that, there is no satisfying story. Put up a high wall, not a low one. Make your hero work.

4. The straw villain. This is related to #5–having a villain it’s easy to defeat makes life very easy for the hero, and makes the story not worth reading. C’mon, make that hero sweat! (That’s how we know he’s a hero worth rooting for.) Your bad guys – whether it’s a blizzard, a group of drunken Cossacks or the landlord about to evict – have to be formidable. They don’t all have to be wielding swords, but they absolutely have to hold a significant threat for the hero, something he’ll have to work like crazy to overcome.  You build character (in your children and your fictional characters) if you make them face real challenges. Make your bad guy REALLY bad.

3. Horrible (or no) editing. I side firmly with Stephen King here: I think if you’re a writer, part of knowing your craft is knowing how to spell and punctuate, and which usage is correct. When you turn in a draft, it should have been spell-checked and gone over meticulously (and yes, I mean every word). Every good writer I know does it, even if it means going through the same manuscript ten times during the final editing and production. Hire an editor, if you can, before your book goes out to a publisher, and know that a traditional publisher will bring in an editor as well. Be open to what they tell you, including suggestions for word changes because yours are wrong. DON’T take the attitude that you’re a creative person and therefore not bound to silly rules as lesser beings should be. If your book goes out over your name, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. Do you want people to notice you for being a brilliant storyteller–or put the book down because they can hardly understand what you’re saying, your usage and grammar are so atrocious? If you don’t know this stuff, pick up a style book and learn it. Authors learn what they need to know in order to put out a superior product.

Before my books go to my publisher, I’ve edited and re-edited, spell-checked and sometimes brought in my own editor. Then my publisher brings in an editor. Once I’ve dealt with their notes, the formatting and typesetting begin, and the publishers look to catch more errors. THEN I ask for the book back, to do my own final check–and I inevitably find more errors we all missed. It’s my last chance to go through it again, for which I’m always grateful. Be prepared for this; it’s not fun, but it’s part of the writing life.

2. Sloppy research. I’m treading lightly here, because I have myself made some errors of fact (fortunately just a few and most of them were totally hidden in the story). But I don’t like getting things wrong historically; it’s too easy for someone to step forward and pull the curtain on our ignorance. Unless your story has a reason for mixing up historical facts, and that’s part of the style of the story, don’t do it.  I love reading historical stuff (fiction and non) and look forward to learning when I do. So when an author says Bonnie & Clyde died in 1936 (uh, no – they were killed in 1934) or Henry VIII had 7 wives, I see red. Get your facts right, ok? (That said, Kevin Finn and I have a doozy of an error in our novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, which we only learned of after the original edition had been published in 2003. But because it’s an error that drives our plot, we dealt with it by keeping it and then writing an Afterword in the new version, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition. ) On the other hand, the original edition had about 6 small errors of fact that we fixed in the new edition. This pleases me; I do NOT like getting caught in an error of fact. Writers should be able to get the research right!

1. TYPOS!!!! Sorry, while I do sympathize with how hard it is to get them all, I think you should make every effort to keep typos to the absolute minimum. It’s sloppy, it’s unprofessional and it brands YOU as not a very serious writer when you let them slip through. Remember always that YOUR name is on the book; is that how you want to present yourself? (Would you go to a job interview without ironing your shirt?) For a lot of readers, the book they’re holding (or reading on an eReader) is their first introduction to you. If you sprinkle enough typos throughout the story, it will be the last time they read your stuff.

Sophisticated readers welcome good new writers and will often read and review them again and again (which is great–a built-in cheering section!) If you put them off with bad grammar and spelling, sloppy usage, awful formatting and a mass of typos, don’t count on their being in your corner again.  You’ll have branded yourself, all right — and it won’t be a brand you’ll enjoy carrying.

What are YOUR Top 10?

Look for a JFK-related post from me on Thursday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, which I’ll be doing for the next two months.

Now back to the keyboard, and watch those typos …

In Honor of FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition

Today’s post is an announcement, and it’s something I’m excited about. I hope my regular readers, who follow the blog for its discussion about writing, will either find it equally exciting or at least put up with it for the next two months. And I hope more readers will join in the chatter on this new topic.

The official publication date of FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition (co-authored with Kevin Finn) is October 31st, though the book is already available online. In honor of that, and as this fall is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, the event on which CAMELOT is based, I will be blogging more often here and EVERY OTHER blog, through October and November, will be on a topic related to JFK and/or the assassination.

Part of this is commemorating the event (and the fact that this blog is titled Let the Word Go Forth, a direct reference to JFK), but part is also about the writer’s life, celebrating one of the writer’s best tools: research.

Kevin and I spent literally years steeped in the research for CAMELOT. While I admit that research can be one of the great time-wasting activities of writers (“I can’t start writing; I’m still researching” – we’ve all heard that one), there are also writing projects that really can’t come into the world WITHOUT rigorous research. In the case of CAMELOT, it wasn’t enough just to research the facts of the assassination (a huge topic in itself). We also spent time researching a plethora of OTHER topics, which we used to make the world of 1963 Dallas, the setting for most of our novel, as alive, as real and as plausible as possible: the early 1960’s, JFK, his life, his family and his Administration, Lee Oswald and his life and mysterious associations, and the culture of the times.

I’ll also talk about how that research helped us fit together the complex puzzle that became the plot of FORWARD TO CAMELOT and how it made possible some wonderful moments in the book we could never have stumbled upon ourselves. (You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)

Here’s  just one tiny example of how research drove our plot:

In the story, our heroine is Cady Cuyler, an actress living in New York in the year 2000. Cady is smart and resourceful and courageous, and when she time travels back to Dallas in 1963 to solve one mystery, she discovers another mystery that begins with the disappearance of a young woman from the place where Cady gets a temporary job. In fact, Cady is taking this girl’s place as a telephone operator.

Cady looks for clues to the girl’s disappearance–how can a girl with little money and no motive to do so just vanish?–and at one point she finds a woman’s head scarf in a desk that has small metal photo frames on it. In this scarf there are several photos of this girl, obviously at a party, with a man.

That one came out of research. I found a terrific book called THE WAY WE WERE: 1963, THE YEAR KENNEDY WAS SHOT by Robert MacNeil. It was a fascinating look at popular culture and important events in that year, leading up to JFK’s assassination in November.  And guess what? In the October section in the book, there was a mention (and a photo) of a woman’s headscarf with those little photo frames spaced across it. It was a passing fad and only lasted about a month. But if Cady’s seeing this scarf in November, it’s not out of the question that a girl who likes the latest fashions would have bought one a month before when they came out.

Small? Sure. Not very significant at all. But it was a tiny detail that could help make the story feel real. And we used many of them.

I’ll talk more about the large and small issues we faced in the research for FORWARD TO CAMELOT in the upcoming weeks. Meanwhile, expect a regular writing topic post from me once a week, and a second blog about CAMELOT-related topics once a week, for a total of 9 additional CAMELOT-related blog posts through November.

Looking forward to ‘talking Kennedy’ with you this fall!!

The Toughest Part of Writing — and How to Overcome It

Syd Field, the great screenwriting guru, said the most difficult part about writing was knowing what to write, and all these years, I’ve agreed with him. We’ve all hit that moment in a project where we just DO NOT KNOW what to do next, what happens next, or how to even GET to what happens next. We get frustrated and discouraged, and since writers are the world’s best procrastinators, often we tell ourselves we may not know how to fix it now, but tomorrow, we surely will. We put down the project with a sigh (of relief) and tell ourselves we’ll come back and nail it.

And then we don’t. Because tomorrow the wall looks even higher and more insurmountable. So we put it off again, telling ourselves that next time, we definitely will fix the problem. And the next time the wall looks even higher—and so on and so on. Ultimately that putting off and putting off might be the #1 reason why so many writers give up on a project they really, really wanted to finish: we just can’t find a way through the forest, and each time we try to come back to it, the wall looks higher and higher. First we were frustrated; now we’re completely intimidated. And the project languishes, sometimes forever.

For me, coming back to a project where I didn’t know how to fix the insurmountable problem was the most difficult part about writing. Just dragging myself to my desk to face it was almost more than I could deal with. It would get to the point on many projects where I so dreaded trying to deal with a problem I had already put off and put off that I would tell myself I really didn’t want to write that project anymore anyway; it was probably better to go on to the next one, which would surely be much better and go way faster.

And so the cycle would start again.

Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING, provides what I believe is the best possible remedy for this problem. Leave it to someone that prolific to give you that light in the forest.

King has an inflexible rule about writing, which by its very nature forces you to confront your issue and deal with it.

He says simply that YOU WRITE EVERY DAY.

Period.

And you get a certain number of words written every day, a number you yourself decide on. No discussion.

And you don’t get up from your desk until that number is completed. No excuses.

He explains that doing this keeps the one quality in our writing that keeps us coming back to our desk. It’s MOMENTUM. The more of it you build up, the easier it is to face a mountain in your path. If you’ve got a juggernaut behind you, with all those words you’ve already written, a mountain ahead looks like an anthill. You know you’re going to get through it, over it or around it. It’s just a matter of getting the words down without stopping.

That’s the principle on which Nanowrimo is built. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days leaves precious little time to procrastinate. Got a problem? Write on the other side of it. It’s a way to get through the morass, and what King and Nano both want for you is to KEEP WRITING, because sooner or later you’ll solve that creative problem. It’s the best answer I know. And forcing myself to stay with the problem — or write on the other side of it, so I’m building up my word count even when I have no idea how certain plot points will come together — has made it possible for me to finish projects I never thought I could finish.

There’s a famous story about Richard Harding Davis, who wrote serialized magazine stories many years ago. At one point in his latest story, his hero had fallen into a well (dry) and could not get out. No ladder, no one above to help him, smooth sides all around him; nothing to climb. What to do?

Then Davis got into a contract dispute with the magazine and refused to write more until they came to terms. His editors panicked. How would the guy get out of the well? They tried other writers; no one could solve it. They had to forge a new agreement with Davis, and they waited breathlessly for his next chapter. How would he get the guy out of the well?

The new chapter arrived from Davis and they ripped open the envelope. And here were his first words: “Once out of the well … ”

There’s always a way out of the well, even if you have to finesse it as Harding did.  (That to me is the ultimate of a guy writing himself into a corner, and I try to remember it when I’ve done the same thing.) Just stay at your desk and keep pouring out the words. It’s your story, after all, and it’s a story that cries out to be finished, even when you have no idea how to get your hero out of the well.

You’ll find a way.  Believe me.  Just sitting at your desk can produce magical results.

Good luck.

 

Tell Me Again Why I Can’t Just Write?

The first full week of promotion on STEALING FIRE (official promotion efforts on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition begin in late October), and I’m already exhausted. “Don’t stress,” I’m being told. “This is supposed to be fun.”

Uh-huh.

Last Thursday I finally faced my most daunting giant–revamping my author website. The Super Book Blast for STEALING FIRE began the next morning. I couldn’t have interested readers coming to a site that hadn’t really been overhauled since 2004.  But GoDaddy’s new Website Builder was not particularly intuitive. However, having been a GoDaddy customer since 2003, I also know they have among the best customer-service people in the world. So I sat on the phone for about three hours, with 3 different GoDaddy Tech Support guys (all wonderful), and by golly, when I finally went to bed that night (understanding Web Builder MUCH better by then), not only was the site completely written and re-designed, it had been published and re-directed to my original domain, where anyone could find me.  (Yes, please, check out my updated website!) It’s much simpler, but contains all the important information about me, my books and my upcoming events.

And hey, updating it should be a lot simpler. (I found out this morning that wasn’t necessarily true–turns out some revisions I made on the site now don’t show up in the behind-the-scenes Website Builder, though they DO show up on the published site.  Another call to GoDaddy in my future, I guess.)

Friday was the Super Book Blast for STEALING FIRE (through Goddess Fish Promotions). This involved visiting 34 sites (and a separate blog on the Book ‘Em NC blogspot, which brought it up to 35), which I did 3 times on Friday and again on Saturday, to check for comments from readers and respond to them. I got the hang of that pretty quick, so while it took 2 hours the first time I checked them all, I was able to do later checks in 40 minutes or so. I answered all comments and at the end of the Blast Day awarded a gift to one person who commented. Since I got to pick the person, I chose the person who had followed the Blast so assiduously that she left a comment on something like 20 different sites! How can you not reward enterprise like that?

Monday began my first virtual book tour (hereafter referred to as VBT) with Goddess Fish Promotions – 22 stops in 30 days (weekdays only), at pre-arranged sites. So I was checking the site of my first stop, Christine Young Romance Writer, before 7 am to make sure all was well and leaving my first comment. Sunday night, I had tweeted this, along with posting it on LinkedIn and on both my Facebook personal page and my Facebook Author page.

I spent the better part of that day driving to Myrtle Beach to meet with media people about upcoming appearances on radio and TV shows.  (This is about a two-hour drive from Mount Pleasant.) When I came home I re-checked Christine’s site for comments, answered email and worked on promotional stuff I needed to send out, along with interview questions and other material for upcoming blog sites where I was appearing.  I also queried other bloggers with big followings, hoping to get a book review or interview spot with them.

Tuesday I did some follow-ups for the Myrtle Beach meeting, followed my 2nd book tour stop–Teena in Toronto — wrote some new promo material and finished the electronic press kit for CAMELOT. I also looked at a novel-in-progress (with longing), wanting to dive into work on that, but feeling I needed to devote most of my time for awhile to getting promotional efforts up and running. (The good news here is that I try to mention FORWARD TO CAMELOT in every promo I do for STEALING FIRE. And my promo efforts for FORWARD TO CAMELOT will of course also include mentions of STEALING FIRE.) When I unchained myself from the computer for a short break, I spent that time running to the post office to mail out the gift I awarded in the Super Book Blast plus other promo-related packages.

Wednesday I had two tour stops. Reviewer Julie Whiteley, who’d given STEALING FIRE a fantastic review, hosted me (her first author interview!!) on her blog, Clue Review. (Thank you, Julie!) And my Goddess Fish tour stop that day was Farm Girl Books, who also did a great job.  Each night I’ve been tweeting my next day’s stop, plus posting that information on both Facebook pages and LinkedIn.

I also continued the Myrtle Beach followups, plus more inquiries to other bloggers, plus inquiries to other media outlets. My writing partner on CAMELOT, Kevin, phoned at 11:30 pm because ‘it’s not okay to call other people at this time of night, but you’re a writer, so I knew you’d be up’. Uh-huh. We talked for an hour about book promotion for CAMELOT.

I’m beginning to side with those writers who say they’d love a writing career, as long as it’s just writing. The other stuff–this stuff–is what they dread.

I so totally get that.

But to be fair, I should also say that what I really dread is the admin work. I LOVE going on radio and TV. I love speaking in front of live audiences. Interviews are so much more fun than sitting at the computer for endless hours, looking up email addresses, radio stations and TV outlets and begging people to have you on. That is not fun. Even writing, with those moments where you’re so lost in the forest you have no idea which way is up, is more fun than this. (Though also to be fair, I would say that the most flying moments I’ve ever experienced in my career are those moments when I’m in the middle of writing, totally lost in what I’m doing, with complete clarity of thought and totally focused on the road ahead. NOTHING is better than that.)

So part of living the writer’s life–at the time of a new release–involves all this promo work. I did try to hire a PA, but the woman I hired had to drop out, for personal reasons. I know having her, or someone like her, working with me would have made a big difference. I still don’t despair totally of finding someone to help me, but right now, there’s no one on the radar. I’d love to turn over all this stuff to someone else, and you know what? At some point, I will.

At that point, the writing life will go back to being a lot of fun. Because I love the writing and I love the appearances afterward. I just don’t like all the organization in between. And I’ve just decided–while writing this post to you–that I’m not gonna do it anymore, as soon as someone else can take it over. The lesson here, I think, is to do only what YOU as a writer really have to do–bring your unique point of view and sense of life to your writing, and show up to have your picture taken and talk to readers, so they get to know you. No one else can do that, but on the other hand, why would you want them to? That’s the fun part.

Remember that scene in JULIA (assuming you remember the 1977 film) where Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman gets so fed up with her writing that she throws her manual typewriter out the window? I remember that scene with great fondness.

And right about now, I feel like doing the same thing.

Obviously, I need to get back to writing, folks.

See you on the other side of more promotion–and please, do visit my website for upcoming stops on my book tour–really would love to see you there!