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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.

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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.

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.

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 (#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!!