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#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?

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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 …

Ten Facts to Consider About the JFK Assassination (Part II)

Here is another post dealing with the Kennedy assassination, the subject of my latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (with Kevin Finn). As this is the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I will write one blog post about it every week through November, as I did in October. (See the Archives for more.) Here’s today’s:

Last week I mentioned five troubling facts about the JFK assassination, some of which few people actually know.

Here are five more, which certainly indicate that there was more going on than one lone-nut assassin with an agenda, who got off 3 quick shots and somehow luckily managed to fatally wound the President while also badly wounding Governor John Connally and nicking a bystander named James Tague:

1) Immediately after the assassination, on the direct order of new President Lyndon Johnson, the special Lincoln limousine in which Kennedy rode–the crime scene itself–was washed down, fixed up and refitted, including the windshield (which supposedly had been cracked by a bullet). To say this is bizarre, in the normal course of crime-scene investigations, is an understatement. That limousine probably contained more clues to how many shots had been fired and where they had come from, than any single piece of evidence we had. Yet it was completely sterilized and all clues were destroyed, on the orders of the new president. (Try that with a crime scene yourself some time–and see if you don’t land a jail sentence.)

2) Governor John Connally, who was nearly killed himself on that day, and who was experienced with gunfire, insisted to the very end of his life that he had not been hit by the same bullet that hit Kennedy. This is critically important, because in order for the Warren Commission’s thesis of three shots fired by Oswald–all that could be fired by one man in six seconds–to hold up, one bullet had to account for seven wounds in two men. According to the WC, the first bullet hit the president in the back; the second caused multiple wounds to Kennedy and Connally (then emerged on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital looking almost pristine, something no one who understands gunfire would believe for a second); the third was the head shot that blew Kennedy’s head off. So the second bullet had to account for all the other wounds. There was no other way for the Warren Commission thesis to work.

Except Governor Connally insisted that it didn’t happen–and he was in a position to know. He heard the shot that hit Kennedy–and he knew that the one that broke his wrist a second later was a different shot. BTW, Connally died with some of the original bullet fragments still in his knee. Researchers have wanted those fragments extracted and weighed to compare it with ‘the magic bullet’, because if the weight of the material in Connally’s knee plus the weight of C-399 (the magic bullet) add up to MORE than the weight of the original bullet, it would be another sure proof of conspiracy.

BTW, another irony of history is that the man who invented the single-bullet theory was a junior counsel on the Warren Commission. His name was Arlen Specter, and yes, that’s the same Arlen Specter who was the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania for so many years. Amazing where these people end up, isn’t it?

3)  There were no fingerprints on the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that the Warren Commission claim was used by Oswald to shoot the president. Okay, that’s understandable; the dumbest assassin would wipe the weapon clean, right? The rifle was sent to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. on the evening of November 22nd, and it was subjected to rigorous tests. Nothing. Afterward, the rifle was returned to the Dallas police. Only after that did Dallas PD show off a palm print!

Consider that at the time, the FBI lab was the state-of-the-art facility for fingerprint testing. And this was the crime of the century–the murder of a sitting president. If there was something to be found, they were going to find it at the FBI lab.

But they didn’t. Yet a couple of days later, the Dallas Police Department (who had not covered themselves with glory in the way they handled the assassination, including the murder of Oswald), discovers a palm print that matches Oswald’s? Could it have been taken in the morgue? The funeral director at the funeral home that handled Oswald’s body said they had noticed black dirt under his fingernails after they had prepared his body. How did it get there? And could it have been from the fingerprinting process?

4) A female witness who gave a deposition to the Warren Commission was disturbed about the alteration of her statement as printed in the Warren Commission Exhibits, and she discussed it with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison when he began to investigate the case in 1966. She had seen a man in a pickup truck parked with its wheels up on the curb on Elm Street, in Dealey Plaza, a couple of hours before the shooting. The day after, she went to police headquarters and positively identified him from photos they showed her. The man she’d picked out was Jack Ruby, a full day before he killed Oswald on national television. But though she signed a statement to that effect, when her statement was re-printed in the WC Exhibits, it was altered to say that she had not been able to identify the man she’d seen in the pickup truck, and the signature on that statement was not hers. In addition, there was a notary signature and stamp on the statement, though she told Garrison there had not been a notary present during her questioning at all.

How could Oswald, who by that time had been dead for three years, possibly be responsible for this? And if he wasn’t, where does the lone-assassin theory fit now?

5) The autopsy of the president was done badly, sloppily and in a crowded room where the doctors (none of them experienced in dealing with wounds made by gunfire) were not the ones in charge. They were told what to do and how far to probe, in some cases not even checking for how far a bullet had penetrated into the body. After the autopsy was complete and the report written a couple of days later, one of the autopsy doctors burned his notes of the procedure. This is not done ordinarily, or innocently. Notes of autopsy cases are typically saved, to be consulted if necessary for court testimony or in case of any questions raised afterward.

Even more interesting, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital who attended the dying president all saw the same thing: a huge, gaping wound at the back of the president’s head, which would indicate a bullet entering from the right front and traveling to the back of the head–ie, the gaping wound was an exit wound. Yet at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where the autopsy was done late in the evening of the 22nd, the doctors there saw something completely different; the wound at the back of the head was small, indicating it was an entrance wound; the wound at the front of the head was much bigger.

There has been much thoughtful discussion over the years whether or not this indicated that some sort of surgery had been done to the president’s head before the autopsy officially began, and orderlies at Bethesda have described seeing two different types of coffins altogether being rolled in from two different hospital entrances, and the president’s body being wrapped two different ways.

Are you uneasy yet?

These are just a sprinkling of facts that indicate something much greater was going on than just a disaffected young man seizing a moment of glory. At the least, it indicates a serious effort by some very powerful entity to change our perception of what happened in Dallas. And where you have a change of perception, you have cover-up. And where ou have cover-up … you have conspiracy.

Ten Facts to Consider about the JFK Assassination (Part I)

OK. Let’s get down to meat and potatoes. We’ve talked about the events of November 22, 1963 and the rest of that tragic weekend, and we’ve talked about conspiracy and how many Americans simply refuse to believe in it.

However, and paradoxically, consider these additional facts (and yes, they’re all documented; you can look them up):

1) When Oliver Stone’s superb film JFK came out in late 1991, it made a great impact on audiences. Polls taken at the time showed that SEVENTY PERCENT of the American public believed there had been a conspiracy in his death. The movie made such an impression that it led to Stone’s testifying in front of the US Congress, and the subsequent creation of the Assassination Records and Review Board, an act Bill Clinton signed into law. The purpose of the AARB was to review still-classified files and determine whether it was possible to de-classify them at this point in time. Hundreds of files were released as a result, some of which had explosive information in them. (But you had to know enough about the case to understand their significance.)

2) Among the declassified files reviewed by documentary filmmakers Ray and Mary LaFontaine were some that became the basis for their book OSWALD TALKED, a much under-rated (at least according to Amazon) book that presents evidence that’s crucial to the discussion of the assassination. They focused much attention on the gun-running operation in and around Dallas that Kevin Finn and I talk so much about in FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Why is this so important? BECAUSE THE GUNRUNNING WAS KEY TO UNDERSTANDING WHAT ELSE WAS GOING ON IN DALLAS AT THE TIME OF KENNEDY’S DEATH. The LaFontaines contend that while Oswald was locked in a Dallas Police jail cell, he knew a gunrunner who was also there, and had been arrested days before (an event we used as a plot point in CAMELOT). Why would lone-nut crazy Oswald know a gunrunner, when he was a $1.25/hour stock boy at the Texas School Book Depository? Doesn’t anyone find that strange?

3) On Thursday morning, November 21st, Dallas PD Officer J.D. Tippit (remember him? Shot in Oak Cliff, a Dallas suburb, 45 minutes after the president was shot–the second shooting Oswald was accused of?) was having breakfast in a Dallas coffee shop when a young patron at the counter made a commotion. He insisted his eggs hadn’t been cooked right, and he was so loud and obnoxious that everyone in the shop noticed him (including, presumably, the alert Dallas PD officer). That patron was Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? The man accused of killing Tippit (whom supposedly he had never met) was in the same coffee shop only 24 hours before the shooting? Can you spell ‘coincidence’? (The explanation I’ve heard–which makes a lot of sense–is that Oswald made the scene deliberately as a way to identify himself to Tippit, as is often done between intelligence agents. Consider that the next day–the 22nd–Oswald went home to his rooming house in Oak Cliff after the assassination, picked up his revolver and a jacket and headed out, but his landlady, Mrs. Earline Roberts, saw a police car pull up outside her rooming house and heard the sound of car horn.) There has been speculation that this was a prearranged signal. If so, was Tippit involved?

4)  There are a troubling number of unusual or untimely deaths of people who had some connection or were witnesses to the assassination.  They are too numerous to discuss here individually. The best source on this is Richard Belzer and David Wayne’s new book HIT LIST, an in-depth investigation of many of the ‘unexplained’ deaths from 1963 onward, including a very good chapter on J.D. Tippit, who has received relatively little attention in the research community.  Because Belzer and Wayne go thoroughly into the details of each case, it’s possible to get a troubling overview that leaves little doubt that these people’s connection to the assassination or the relationship between Oswald and Jack Ruby is what caused their deaths to be ‘untimely’. (The mathematical odds against this number of people dying in such a relatively short time are astronomical.)

5) The Warren Commission Report and Exhibits, which total 27 volumes (the one-volume Report and 26 volumes of exhibits), show a strange schizophrenia: though the Report categorically declares Oswald the lone-nut assassin, there are numerous instances in the exhibits where witness testimony indicates clearly that there had to be more than one shooter. Consider the WC testimony of Bobby Hargis, Dallas motorcycle cop, who was riding alongside the presidential limo at the moment of the head shot, directly to the left of Mrs. Kennedy. He was struck on the right side of his helmet with the president’s blood and brains so hard that for a minute he thought he had been shot. Think about this–Hargis was hit on the right side of his helmet. And he was facing forward (check the film footage) at the time. So the blood and debris were flying at him from his right. There’s only one way this could happen–if the shot itself came from the grassy knoll.

The laws of physics don’t change, not even for the president of the United States. Hargis’s testimony alone proves there was a gunman firing from the grassy knoll, which means at least two gunmen, which equals conspiracy. (Norman Mailer tried hard to get around this–I kid you not–by saying that it was perfectly possible there were two lone nuts, each intent on killing the president in Dealey Plaza, but they didn’t know each other or know that the other would be there. I’d love to know what the mathematicians would say about the odds against that.)

Mull over those facts, and we’ll meet back here next week.

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.

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.