Tag Archives: Book Writing

Book Cover reveal: ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL

 

This collection of short stories is twelve years in the making. I wrote the first story that appears in ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL in 2005. Father’s Day was rapidly approaching, and I was a broke graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I had no money, so instead of buying my Dad a necktie or coffee mug on credit I wrote him a short story called “Five O’Clock Lightning.” It was about a fifty-year old high school math teacher who, with the help of his psychologist son, tries out for a local minor league baseball team. Like me, my old man is baseball fan, and he enjoyed the story.  Back in the day, practically all professional baseball games were played during the day (no stadium lights available), and when the 1927 New York Yankees had “Murder’s Row”–Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins among others–the saying went that these sluggers hit so many home runs they could change the score as quickly as lightning strikes. At the time, I thought five o’clock lightning was a fitting metaphor for a middle-aged man’s comeback.  I wrote that story when I was twenty four. Now I’m middle-aged and am looking to make a comeback of sorts.

Between 2005 and 2017, I wrote the rest of the stories in this collection, some while I was a creative writing student at UAB; others I wrote later after I became an English instructor, a husband, and a father.  “The Man Who Wore No Pants,” a lengthy story about a single father who buys a lake house with a dying man still living in it, took me nine drafts (and six months) to complete to my satisfaction. Memory serves, the germ of that story came from an NPR story about a man who had terminal cancer and was selling his house, but with two possible asking prices: a buyer could have the house for a song if the seller was allowed to stay until he died, but if he had to leave, the price was set at market value. It was a fascinating story, and I’m pretty sure I heard it on This American Life. Anyway, “The Man Who Wore No Pants” was picked for Best of the Net for 2010 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. That story marked the beginning of my dedication to (or perhaps obsession with) third person narration, for that is the point of view I’ve written in almost exclusively ever since. That story is also primarily about a father trying to connect with his son, which is why I chose it to be the first story in ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL.  The last story in the collection, “Just Gus,” also features a father and son. In this story, which I just finished in March of 2017, Gus Lockhart, an eighteen-year old about to leave for college, steals his father’s prized record collection, and the father attempts to better understand why it happened. I’m not one for boasting, but this is a very good story–it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s honest. . .

As are the rest of the stories in ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL. Or, at least, I think they are. I hope they are. Either way, I wanted to share the book cover I created. I’m planning on writing more about the process of self-publishing on Createspace, so, if you’re so inclined, be on the lookout for my thoughts on that. In the meantime, voila. . .the book cover for ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL.

Kindle book cover for ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL
Kindle book cover for ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL

 

 

ED, NOT EDDIE (Eli Sharpe #3) edits. . .

Just received the initial edits for Ed, Not Eddie (Eli Sharpe #3) from Camel Press. Delving back into this one, I’m re-discovering how much I enjoyed writing tough and resourceful and complex female characters, of which there are two in this mystery: Ed Leviner, the female knuckleball pitcher in peril, and Vivian Vaughn, Sharpe’s long-lost love who is now a TV reporter. I’m also discovering just how much I like Eli Sharpe. He’s a good guy, sarcastic and an on-again, off-again alcoholic, to be sure, but he has a strong moral compass, he is iconoclastic, and he is an excellent detective. I truly hope readers (a lot of them, please!) like Sharpe as much as I do.

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Book Review: DOVE SEASON by Johnny Shaw

In my mind, this novel can be broken down into two parts, and both of them are satisfying, but for different reasons.  Part One is about Jimmy Veeder, a good guy drifter with a sense of humor, who returns to the Imperial Valley in California to visit his dying father, Big Jack Veeder.  The highlights of this section are Shaw’s descriptions of Imperial Valley and Mexico, which is right on the border nearby.  Here is one of my favorite sections from the beginning of chapter six:

All the fun stuff is in Mexico. . . Hell, you can buy Cuban cigars. You can go to a bullfight, a dog fight, or a cock fight if that’s your pleasure. What is fun and illegal in the U.S., Mexico gladly offers in a semi-legal, slightly dangerous way. If the law looks the other way, then is it really illegal?

In this passage, Shaw comically sums up the moral and legal ambiguity of Mexico and what role America and Americans play in that ambiguity; pretty much throughout Part One, he manages to skillfully provide commentary on the complex relationship between the two countries, but without being preachy, long-winded, and, most importantly, without sacrificing the narrative thread. Another aspect of Part One I enjoyed was the relationships between Jimmy (the son) and Jack (the father).  Even in a crime novel, death bed scenes, especially death bed scenes between parent and child, could very easily come across as trite or just plain boring to read. But these aren’t.  Big Jack, a veteran and a farmer, is kind of the strong-silent type, but he has a wonderful sense of humor, especially about death.  Here’s Big Jack on death, from chapter three:

Dying is a bitch when you don’t believe in God. But I ain’t going to start now just because I’m scared. I’m afraid, and the only way I know how to kill fear is distraction. I want to die happy. I want to die laughing.  . .Let’s not let this get dark and sad and morose. Leave the crying to the women.

Throughout Part One, there are funny exchanges like this between Jimmy and Jack, the best of which happens when Jack asks his son to find him a prostitute, which, in a way, serves as the transition from Part One to Part Two.

Part Two of the novel is the crime element of this particular crime novel, and this is when the narrative really picks up speed.  Jimmy and his friend Bobby head into Mexico to locate Yolanda, a prostitute that Big Jack has a mysterious relationship with.  I never like to talk specifics about plot, but I can say this journey into Mexico brings death, kidnapping, and gangsters into the mix, which is always fun. I especially enjoy the character Tomas Morales, a stone-cold businessman who Jimmy used to look after when Tomas was a little kid. Morales is into all manner of illegal activity, but he assists Jimmy in finding Yolanda.  In this section of the novel, the reader really gets to know Jimmy, and the misadventures he gets into with Bobby are great fun.  As is their dialogue.  Here’s Bobby’s response when Jimmy asks him to go to Mexico and help Jimmy locate a hooker for Big Jack:

Your dad is fucking awesome. I am so in on this. Beats the shit out of bringing flowers. Jack wants a piece, let’s tear him off some chonch.

That made me laugh.  I also enjoyed the relationship Jimmy has with Angie, his ex-girlfriend who works at Big Jack’s hospice center. Tough as nails and every bit as funny as Bobby, Angie keeps Jimmy, a slacker by nature, focused and centered, and it is always fun to read.

Bottom line, this is an excellent book with a funny yet flawed main character and a fascinating setting.  The Mexico/US border is always fertile ground for great stories, and Johnny Shaw has certainly added a great new one.  I’ve already downloaded PLASTER CITY, which is another book in the Jimmy Veeder series. I give DOVE SEASON my highest recommendation.

http://www.amazon.com/Dove-Season-Jimmy-Veeder-Fiasco-ebook/dp/B004FPZ272/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403267409&sr=8-1&keywords=dove+season

dove season

Book Review: The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth

I’m a pre-maturely middle-aged curmudgeon, who no longer enjoys reading coming-of-age stories.  There, I said it.

Now let me say something else: The Year of the Storm, a crime/horror/literary coming-of-age novel, is a fantastic book.  Told through two perspectives, one a fourteen year old boy named Danny, the other an old man named Walter, the story revolves around two missing people: Danny’s mother and sister, who are presumed by many to be dead.  When the novel begins, Danny is desperate to know what happened, and then Walter, a chain-smoking wreck-of-a-man, appears on Danny’s doorstep in the middle of the night. Turns out, Walter may know something about Danny’s mother and sister, but in order to find them, Danny will have to engage in “slipping,” which, essentially means using the power of imagination to slip from the real world to another one.  Entered into via a hidden storm shelter, this other world is guarded by a purely evil man who is holding Danny’s mother and sister as well as two other innocent young girls. In the end, Danny faces his fears and goes into this other world, so you could also call this a quest tale.  As for plot, I don’t want to say much more.

There is much to praise in this jewel of a book, but I’ll start with the prose. Reminiscent of Ron Rash, the writing is elegantly spare with a depth of insight and heart not often seen in novels, let alone debut efforts. Throughout the narrative, I felt as if I were sitting on a back porch somewhere, cold beer in hand listening to these two men tell me a very personal, very engaging story.  It is a testament to the strength of voice in this novel that early on in the story I no longer thought of Danny and Walter as characters, but as two men, flawed and conflicted, yes, but fundamentally decent human beings, ones I could relate to and root for. Great care was put into every sentence in this novel, and it is worth reading for the prose alone, but I also appreciate–on many levels–the use of the storm shelter and the storms themselves as literary devices. Granted, bad weather–tornadoes and lightning storms, in particular–are overused tropes in literature, and in the hands of a lesser author, they might have come across as passe or trite.  But in this book, they fit perfectly and add layer upon layer of meaning.  Danny is fourteen, which, as many of us know, means he is not a boy anymore, but he is not a man either, and the storms mirror that chaotic swirl of emotions that occur during that time in adolescence. Too, the storms make for a useful metaphor for fear, or, more specifically, facing down our deepest fears.  A final element I enjoyed: this book is thematically dense while being extremely enjoyable. Weaved near-flawlessly into the fabric of the narrative are half a dozen themes: good versus evil; belief in magic; human sympathy; conquering deeply-held fears; friendship; and many more besides. And what’s particularly impressive about this is the author manages to nail pretty much of all of them.  Readers of all ages could pick up this book and find something profound about human experience, something worth reflecting on.

In the end, The Year of the Storm manages to walk confidently on that tissue-thin line between a horror/crime novel and what is known as a literary book. It manages to make a reader turn pages AND think AND feel.  That, I think, is a feat in and of itself . . .and a fairly stunning one at that.  Read this book immediately.

The Year of the Storm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-Storm-John-Mantooth/dp/0425265749

10 Vital Novel Writing Tips from The Marshall Plan

I’m always looking for a way to simplify the process of writing novels, and again and again, I return to the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. These ten key tips, I’ve found, to be extremely helpful. Click on the link below to read the full article.

http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm

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our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.d
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf

Checklist for Writing a Mystery Novel

One of the many mystery/crime writing blogs I follow is called Writing Mystery is Murder by Elizabeth Spann Craig.  Craig is an accomplished mystery novelist and award-winning blogger, and she always posts incredibly helpful articles about the business of being a writer.  Recently, I was scrolling through the archives of her blog, and I came across a post entitled “Mystery Writing Checklist.” As I was (and am) in the process of outlining my third book in the Eli Sharpe mystery series, I read the article and found still more useful tidbits about preparing a mystery novel to be sent out into the publishing world.  Below are the items I believe are the most important. A link to the entire article is posted below.

Genre: Have you got a clear genre for your book? Thriller, cozy, police procedural, hard boiled? If you can’t identify your genre to an agent or editor, your manuscript won’t go too far.

To add to that, you might want to have a good idea what published authors write in your milieu; both agents and publishers always want to know where your manuscript will fit in the current market.

An Engaging Beginning: Have you started out with a bang? Or have you started out with some messy backstory that no one wants to wade through at the beginning of your book? Make sure you’ve lured your reader in from the very beginning so they’ll want to stick with you.  Think twice before using a prologue or using flashbacks at the beginning of your manuscript.

Personally, I do not like books that begin with prologues, particularly prologues that do not begin with action. Too, and this is just my humble opinion, many times too much of the mystery is given away in a prologue. Start with action, and sprinkle in relevant backstory throughout the narrative.

A Murder that Happens in First 50 pages or so: Don’t wait until you’re half-way through the book for a body to be discovered. Your reader may give up on you.

When I read mysteries, I want someone to get killed, kidnapped, blackmailed, or beaten pretty quickly. (And yes, I know that sounds awful).

Protagonist: This will be your sleuth or police detective. Are they likable people or at least people interesting enough for your readers to want to spend time with? What special talents do they have that make them capable of solving the crime? Are they easy to talk to? Have they spent many years in the police department? What sets them apart?

Of all the elements in a mystery, the protagonist is the most important to me. If the star of the book is interesting, I’m in. Characterization is always the hook for me. Write interesting characters, and interesting situations will follow. And when interesting situations follow, I’ll be reading.

Suspects: Do your suspects all have motive, means, and opportunity? Does their motive make sense and is it believable? Have you given the reader a chance to meet each suspect and learn about them? Have your suspects misdirected your readers and provided some red herrings? Have they lied to the sleuth and the reader? Do they have secrets? Do they have some depth?

Always remember MMO (motive, means, opportunity). And when it comes to suspects, try to avoid cliches.

Clues:  The clues need to be made available to the reader as well as the detective.  You have to be fair with your reader in providing them the clues, but make sure they don’t stand out too obviously in the scene.  If they do, think about pointing the reader’s/detective’s attention in another direction, quickly.  There also needs to be more than one clue–preferably three or more.

 

Exciting Chapter Endings: Don’t let your reader put down your book and go to sleep. Do you have some exciting chapter endings so they’ll want to go on reading?

When I was rewriting the second book in my Eli Sharpe series, I realized just how important chapter endings were (and are). Think of it like show business: always leave the reader wanting more.

Resolution: Did you catch the bad guys in the end? Did you tie up all the loose ends that you created? Did you explain how the sleuth/police followed the clues?

A professor of mine once said that the ending of a story has to be surprising yet inevitable.  The resolution, by extension, must make sense, and, if you’re writing a series, perhaps you could give a bit of hint about what’s next for the protagonist.

Mystery Writing Checklist

Elizabethcraig_deathatadropin_ebook_final

Go Go Gato Book Cover

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Here is the cover for my debut detective novel Go Go Gato. This is the first book in the Eli Sharpe series, and it will be released on August 1st (Camel Press). Below is brief “pitch.”

In Go Go Gato, a strikingly handsome young ballplayer named Almario Gato goes missing.  Having recently negotiated a $1.2 million dollar signing bonus from the Colorado Rockies for her best client, Veronica Craven hires a private detective to locate Almario “Go Go” Gato.  Enter Eli Sharpe, an ex-ballplayer turned private detective.  With eight years experience, five ex-fiancées, and charm and wit to spare, Sharpe takes the case.  But after meeting the women in Almario’s life—his statuesque agent, his devoted twin sister, his spoiled girlfriend, and his cocaine-dealing fiancée—Sharpe begins to wonder if Almario is missing or in hiding.  Navigating a quirky cast of characters that could only reside in a hodgepodge town like Asheville, North Carolina, Sharpe soon discovers Almario may very well be in danger.  The mortal kind.

Book Review of And She Was by Alison Gaylin

I’ve been looking for a new series to obsess over, and well, the search is over. And She Was by Alison Gaylin stars Brenna Spector, a forty-something private detective who specializes in missing person cases. And here’s the intriguing bit about the protagonist: she is stricken (if that’s the right word) with Hyperthemesia.  (It means she has an incredibly detailed autobiographical memory…yeah, I had to look it up, too.) Spector recalls, with breathtakingly stunning clarity, practically every single moment of her life.

And She Was starts with the disappearance of Iris Neff, a little girl who suddenly walks off from a neighborhood barbecue, never to be heard from again. Cut to a decade later when one of those present at the barbecue–Carol Wentz, a mild-mannered wife with a seemingly boring husband–becomes obsessed with the case.  After years of secret investigations, Carol manages to get a beat on Iris, but before she can reach out to her Carol ends up in the trunk of a car, murdered. That’s when Nelson Wentz, the prime suspect in the murder, hires Brenna Spector, not to track down Iris Neff, but to figure out who killed his wife.  The tension mounts at every turn as Spector finds haunting parallels between the Iris Neff case and her own life.  And, naturally, Spector comes to the conclusion that the Iris Neff case and Carol Wentz’s murder are related.

Once again, I always return to the characters in a story, and Brenna Spector is downright fascinating.  Because of her Hyperthemesia, she is constantly being dragged into the past, revisiting every single detail of her life.  Now, on the surface, this might sound cool, but man, could it get annoying.  The strain of this affliction coupled with the stress of working what amounts to two cases simultaneously really make Spector a dynamic character.  The tension between Spector and Nelson Wentz, who is creepy in a vanilla kind of way, helps create an atmosphere of suspicion, and the love-hate dynamic between Spector and her metrosexual assistant Trent provides comic relief.

Bottom line, I want to read more books featuring Spector, a tough yet vulnerable detective.  I anxiously await the next installment in this series. In the meantime, read And She Was; you won’t be disappointed.

And She Was

MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eli Sharpe: Enter the Mind of my Fictional Private Detective

Question: Why is Eli Sharpe, the PI featured in my debut novel Go Go Gato, fascinated by and/or obsessed with Richard Nixon, seersucker jackets, baseball, psychology, detective novels, George Dickel whiskey, guns, the Rolling Stones, his complicated relationship with his father, and lie detection?

Answer: Because I am fascinated by and/or obsessed with those things. I write for two main reasons. First reason: I love to read, and by writing, I can write the kind of stories I prefer to read, which, primarily, are detective stories. Second reason: wish fulfillment. I’m never going to be involved in a shootout or fistfight.  I’m never going to track down a missing person or say witty, off-the-cuff remarks to a femme fatale.  I’m never going to interrogate a suspect, or go on a high speed chase, or a stakeout.  I’m never going to break into a car or house, or any of the other incredibly cool stuff that happens in detective stories. I can, however, write about those things. What I can do is create a fictional world based on my own experiences and tastes, construct an interesting cast of characters to inhabit this world, and then–this is the fun part!–I can shove these characters into a dicey situation…just so I can watch what happens. The truth? The characters I create are the adult versions of imaginary friends; they’re who I “hang out” with instead of going golfing with buddies or drinking with colleagues.  And best of all? They don’t talk at me; they talk for me.  (Pretty sure Stevie Ray Vaughn said something similar about his guitar.)

Bottom line, Eli Sharpe is an amalgamation, a Frankenstein I cobbled together out of spare parts just lying around the junkyard in my brain.  From television, I constructed my detective from Atlanta Braves games circa mid-1980s, reruns of the Rockford Files,the first season of The Wire, and the Fletch movies.  From hard-boiled PI books, I borrowed elements from Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, C.W. Sughrue, Archy McNally, and dozens of other fictional detectives. From my own life, I drew on half-remembered conversations between my father and me, fragmented images from my time in Asheville, and god-only-knows what else. But, in the end, Go Go Gato is the kind of story I would like to read, and Eli Sharpe is the type of detective that I, as a reader, would become obsessed with. Hopefully, other readers will share my obsession.  rockford_files__120417170500