Count Basie and Sisyphus walk into a bar…

Sometimes art can be found in the most unexpected places.

Sometimes help can be found in the most unexpected places.

Question: what do Count Basie and the mythical trouble-maker Sisyphus have to do with my writing?

More on that question in just a bit. First – some good news. I have just received some awesome feedback from Henery Press about my first novel, The Apple Pie Alibi. No, it’s not quite ready for publication, but major strides will be made thanks in large part to the personal comments from the staff readers at Henery. You can’t buy this kind of assistance. Well, maybe you could. But it would cost a lot more money than I have in my pocket right now. And who would have thought a literary press would take the time to do this? It was as unexpected as finding a big band in the desert.

Not familiar with Henery Press? Based in the greater Plano / Frisco area just north of Dallas, Texas, Henery focuses much of their attention on bringing cozy mysteries to the market. And I must say, their book covers are awesome. Every so often, the good people at Henery sponsor what they call a Sub-Spree. They choose a sub-genre (oh, say culinary cozy, for example) and then open a separate mailbox for those submissions – for one week and one week only.

You don’t know what genre they will choose next, so it would be near impossible to read the announcement and then write a novel to fit. Your best course of action is write your novel, and if it fits the sub-spree requirements, fine. Otherwise, you can always submit the traditional way to Henery.

What’s the difference? Neither sub-spree nor regular submissions require agents. As long as you fit their genre and style requirements, you are cleared hot to submit. But here’s the inside scoop: sub-spree submissions will be read within 10 days or so – and personal comments from the editors and staff will be sent to the author. It’s like getting 10 minutes with an agent at a writer’s conference, except there is more than one agent, and you get more than ten minutes, and you find out not only what they dislike, but also what they like. No form letter at all; just help from an unexpected source.

Henery Press. Not my publisher – yet. But still, a group you should take a minute to check out if you write cozy mysteries. If you like reading cozy mysteries? Take two minutes. Maybe three. Plenty of great stuff to peruse.

Now, after I take the next few weeks to finish the recipes for The Milk Chocolate Murders, I will return to the first novel and see how I can employ the suggestions from Henery. Who knows? By the time I finish the draft of book 3, working title The Wedding Cake Witness, I may have a published book on my shelf!

The answer to the question about how Count Basie and Sisyphus are related to my writing? That’s an easy one. It may be April, but this ain’t Paris, so it’s back to the depths of revision hell – “one more time.”

We heart writing “on location”

View from the Artist Loft - Cape Charles Coffee House

View from the Artist Loft – Cape Charles Coffee House

Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day and the two of us decided it would be a great day to do something together, out in public. No – not that. This is a family blog, you know. But given the outside temperature is in the 20’s (-3 or so Celsius) and the high winds not helping matters, a relaxing morning inside the warm comfort of the Cape Charles Coffee House was deemed to be public enough.

A few pancakes, some scrambled eggs, a yogurt fruit parfait and muffin later, we found ourselves upstairs. The building, beautifully restored to the elegance it had over a century ago, has a nice artist’s loft. Paintings by locals hang on the wall; there are small and large tables, plus comfy chairs. A perfect place to hold a small informal meeting, or in our case – plug in the laptops and write.

Truth be told – once my trilogy of culinary cozies hits the press, readers may see a coincidental resemblance of this coffee house to the diner-headquarters of the main character. Why shouldn’t I use such a great space for the setting of a novel, right?

So here we sit for a while – me catching up on my social media accounts and eventually moving on with revisions to book number two. My better half? She’s doing work. I know, not as fun as my quest, but she gets to work in an elegant space. And with such fine company!

Valentine’s Day or not, if you need a space to write, look for a quiet place that still has some life to it. You might try a coffee shop, a library (yes, that building with all of the books,) or anywhere people will ignore you, yet be visible for inspiration. Heck, try the waiting area at your local airport. You’ll definitely see a cross-section of humanity there!

Wherever you write – may inspiration hit you like a strong cup of hot coffee; and may any writer’s block be vanquished!

Revision & the Post-Nanowrimo Reality Check

How many of you participated in Nanowrimo 2014? You know, the month of literary abandon where writers of all ilk try to pen at least 50,000 words into some coherent fashion – all during the month of November?

Thousands tried it. Thousands finished. You may be one of them!

And literary agents now cry during the month of December as their email in-boxes explode with submissions. Now, let’s give credit where credit is due: there could be a bestseller in there somewhere. Odds are against it. But it could happen.

And that’s why writers submit their Nano Novels.

Alas, the writer may be ready to be a bestselling author, but the story is not. Many (smarter?) writers use December to revise their draft. Good idea! But now it’s January. The revision must be ready to submit, right?

Here’s some advice from a long time Nano winner, me. I’m the one whose first novel is getting good reviews, but has yet to be traditionally published.

Wait.

Revise.

Wait.

Revise.

Wait some more.

Revise again.

Give your brain a chance to think about other stuff. I wrote a new novel (the sequel) while I was waiting. I put the first book up for critique on the online writer’s peer group, Book Country. I had a few beta readers offer me their opinion. All good feedback, even if not always what I wanted to hear.

The point is – good on you for writing a book in November. Most people could not do it. Ever. But don’t waste that effort. Revise it. Work it. Peer review it. Do something else and then come back and read it with fresh eyes. Trust me. It is worth it.

And eventually, you will find less and less to change. Finally, perhaps a year (or more) later, you will feel confident enough in the work to send it out.

And when you do, I send you my best wishes!

Now put down the draft and go read a book! Make a bucket list and check some things off! Go to the coffee shop and – gasp – talk to someone instead of hiding in the comfy chair typing away. You can do it, you know you can!

Give your book a chance to become as ready for the world as you are!

New Years Resolutions for the Writer

The crab pot fell, signalling the new year in Cape Charles, Virginia.

The crab pot fell, signalling the new year in Cape Charles, Virginia.

Happy 2015, everyone! And now that you’ve seen the ball descend at Times Square, or in our case – the crab pot fall in Cape Charles, Virginia, let’s talk about your resolutions for the new year.

It goes without saying – of course you are going to lose weight. I think 40 pounds would be a good goal for me. Probably less for you, but to each their own. According to StatisticBrain.com, losing weight is the most common New Year resolution. You can’t fight data.

Then there’s that gym down the road. Getting fit is in the top 5 of resolutions, as you may or may not know. And next Monday this resolution will be proven true as every gym on the planet will be crammed full of people hell bent for leather on becoming a cover model for a fitness magazine. If you actually are a gym rat, you know the deal. Just come back in February, once the novelty has worn off and your gym is back to normal.

But what about us writers?

Sadly, when it comes to losing weight and getting fit, writing is an activity involving long periods of sitting down. Not much there to get our heart rate up, except maybe for those who pen romance novels. But still, writing isn’t known for its cardiovascular benefit. And for many of us, our daily nutrition starts with a pastry or two and a side of coffee. Dinner depends on what pairs well with the wine already in our glass. All of this adds up to many writers needing those two resolutions stated above.

Can we do better in 2015?

Of course we can! Make those resolutions and stick to them, right? Not so fast, Hemingway. HuffPost recently published an article featuring Harvard B-school professor Amy Cuddy, who said the typical resolution is composed of unrealistic absolutes. Goals that are not attainable set us up “for failure – and failure is not a good motivator.” It seems, to paraphrase (and take out of context) a quote from Jack London, we are like rats in a trap.

As a writer, what do you always want to do? Write, of course. So let’s be general and stay away from absolutes when creating resolutions to help us achieve our goal:

1. Write something every day. It may not be more than a few sentences, an idea for a plot twist, or perhaps just a quote overheard on the tube from that particularly nasty passenger who reeks of stale cigarette smoke and moldy newsprint from the racing forms stuck in his tweed jacket pocket – but write something.

2. If, for some reason known only unto God, you cannot write something – then read something. Anything. It may only be the back label on that bottle of wine, but somewhere along the way, a writer put those words on paper. They deserve the satisfaction of having someone to read them. And you never know, you might just pick up something you can use in your own writing. I’m not saying plagiarize by any means, but technique, voice, structure, attitude – it can all be gleaned from the writing of others.

3. We must not forget about our own health and wellness. Make better choices.  Coffee? Sure – but only one cup in the morning. Switch to tea in the afternoon, perhaps only one glass of wine with dinner. Make salad the main meal. Reduce the starches and increase the raw vegetables and leafy greens. Doughnuts? Make it a special occasion. And only three, not three dozen. Water? Start drinking it.

4. Finally, resolve to “live as long as you are alive.” Taken from a favorite quote said by a friend who is battling cancer, writers would do themselves great benefit to live a little. You can’t write what you know if you don’t know anything, right? And how do you know stuff? By doing stuff. Take a few minutes and put down the iPhone. Stop posting to Facebook. Finish writing that chapter and step away from the laptop. Now take a good friend and visit that museum you’ve always said you wanted to see. What? There’s a vineyard down the road? Well, there you go. Unless you are writing on a deadline – you have time to live a little. And if you are on a deadline? Hey, if you had time to eat – you had time to do something away from the keyboard.

One last resolution: see all of the usual doctors and dentists. And see them before you are sick. (Did you hear that? My wife is saying I told you so!) If they recommend changes – do them. You never know, you might live longer. And that means you will have more time to write. Don’t wait for any bell to toll for thee. Consider that Hemingway wrote some good stuff, but once he passed – his output dwindled rapidly.

The bottom line is this: as a writer – resolve to write – and read! And as a person, make better choices and live beyond the laptop on your desk. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your writing!

 

 

 

 

Is winning Nanowrimo your finish line?

I hope not. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Let us look at the facts:

* To ‘win’ all you need to do is write 50,000 words, preferably in novel form, during the month of November.

* Most novels are not exactly 50,000 words long.

There you have it. By all means, don’t quit writing just because I am playing down the fact you won’t really be done on November 30th. Rather, take this as a motivational speech!

Think of what you will have accomplished during the month:

* You will have found the time to write almost every day.

* You will have the bones of a story going. With luck, perhaps even a decent arc.

* People will consider you a writer!

Now, there are a few things to consider:

* Your novel will probably be longer than 50,000 words, meaning you will still need to keep writing in December.

* Your novel is a first draft. There’s a reason why Literary Agents take vacation in December – don’t be one of the thousands of ‘wrimos who send a copy of their manifesto to every agent listed in Writer’s Digest. Plan to revise; expect to edit.

* Once you are done, set your work aside for a month and go do something with family or friends. Your National Book Award and probable Pulitzer will be waiting for you later, I’m sure. No hurry.

Come back to your novel with fresh eyes. Make it February, maybe even March. Don’t be afraid to use the phrase “Did I really write that?” It’s okay. That’s why it is a draft. Change it.

So what am I saying here? Like fine wine, your novel will take some time to mature, get better. And it will. If you let it age properly. So keep writing, and don’t focus on the finish line – focus on the finished novel.

Sending you my best wishes.

D.J. (currently at 35, 058 words and counting…)

Heterographs and the art of reading

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

A recent post on Penguin’s Book Country espoused the benefit of reading. And I am in complete agreement. Hard to believe coming from a guy who in his youth read the bare minimum to keep scholastically alive and kicking. Now, however, as a writer, I am playing catch-up, and have a stack of books just waiting for me to open.

Of course, I did read something daily from the mid 1970s through the mid 2000’s – music, a different language using different symbols, but reading all the same. Helped with brain cognition and neural network formation, or so the smart people say. In my old crowd, the word “read” was usually referring to small-ish wooden slivers called “reeds.” As on online dictionary stated, read and reed  are actually “homophonic heterographs.” Try using that one at your next cocktail party. Okay, maybe not.

Anyway, with regard to reeds, a woodwind musician is on a neverending quest always looking to find the best one. With a great reed, a musician can produce a much better sound. A bad one can get you fired. And no one wants that. There are only so many jobs in the fast food industry.

For writers, a better “read” will only help them become a better writer. What constitutes such a good book? That’s the fun part, you don’t really know until you start reading!

Back to Book Country for a moment: I have been asked to read and comment on a draft of a historical novel set in mid-to-late 1800s Montana (hence the photo of Glacier Nat’l Park above.) The Ghost at Beaverhead Rock is a page-turner written by  Carol Buchanan. This book is well-researched and contains themes that could easily apply in today’s world. After all, greed and jealousy weren’t invented last week.

Because of my agreement to read the book, and comment – and because I am waaaay behind in my daily bible reading, I am taking my own advice and making this week a reading week. And by the way, in case your bible is still in your car, and your car is in the shop this week (who knew wheel bearings were so important?) you can always link to an online bible. I now have the Revised Standard Version linked on my favorites thanks to biblestudytools.com. This site has many translations and commentaries. If you are going to hang out online, this is not a bad place to spend time.

That’s it for now. Back to reading – unless the Nobel Committee calls. I hope they didn’t lose my phone number like last year.

Keep the ink well full.

DJ

Murder on the Amtrak Express?

 

          Writers on the Rails – All Aboard!

Probably not murder, but one never knows what may happen when you put a bunch of writers on a train. ICYMI – Amtrak recently announced their first class of writers-in-residence. This very cool program started out as a brief quip from a blogger and has progressed into a full blown, official long-distance residency for writers.

Imagine the benefits. You get to see the vast stretches of America you normally miss when driving your car. After all, when you are behind the wheel you are either looking for the next restroom, gas station, or speed trap. On a train? You get to people watch with a captive audience! Judging by the potential stories I see every time I go to an airport, a long train ride could also provide excellent fodder for the imagination.

Another plus – limited Internet and phone access. No distractions. Need I say more?

So who are these 24 writers now packing their bags to hit the rails like modern day Hobo-Hemingways? (I just made that up. Can you tell?) I won’t describe all 24, you can read more about them using the link above, but what a diverse group. Among them are a few nationally known broadcasters, a former spy, a sports writer, a movie reviewer, a noted transgender writer, several national award winning authors, and then there’s Ksenia Anske.

If you don’t know Ksenia Anske, you should. A Russian by birth, Ksenia arrived in the US in 1998. Since then she has been named one of the Top 100 Women in Seattle Tech. A published fantasy author, Ksenia is also very, very, very active on Twitter. Not that I am the expert on the Twitter-verse, but I will say Ksenia tweets some of the snarkiest comments I have seen there. Probably why she is so popular? if you are a writer, her Twitter feed is worth checking out @kseniaanske.

Amtrak scored big with this new residency program. I hope it continues; maybe I’ll apply some day. In the meantime, I may just send Google a note asking them to send me one of their self-driving cars. If I had one, I could start my own residency program as I commuted to and from work. That would provide me an extra hour and a half of writing time each day!

If only it came with an attached club car…