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

 

 

3 Patience Exercises to Help You Finish Writing Your Novel

More than anything, a writer needs to be patient in order to succeed. Far too often, we get frustrated and step away from the computer/typewriter and never go back. We write 2,000 words, or 10,000, or 30,000, and then get stuck. Sometimes we get bogged down with details, or research, or voice, or plot. But whatever the reason, we just can’t seem to see the project through to completion. I should know, for I wrote in the neighborhood of 100,000 words before I finally finished (not published) my first novel, which wasn’t worth using as a coaster let alone as a form of entertainment.

Which leads me to some simple but albeit odd exercises I did (and do) in between writing sessions that helped me finish writing Go Go Gato. These exercises helped me become more patient and deal with the general stresses of life a whole lot better.
1) Stand in long lines. Whenever I go to the grocery store or post office, I deliberately join the longest line. While standing there, I slow my breathing, clear my mind, and focus on a spot on the wall like a colorful poster or a window. As I stare at the spot, in my mind I repeat the mantra that calms me down: “Patience is a virtue.” After several seconds, my blood pressure slows, and I begin to notice the other people in line muttering to themselves and frantically checking their watches. Funnily enough, the more I did this the easier it was to endure the daily frustrations of writing a novel.

2) Don’t pass slow cars. When I drive on the highway, for instance, and a car in front of me is going well below the speed limit, I do not tailgate or honk. Instead, I take a deep breath, slow down, and maintain at least a two-car length distance. As I drive, in my head I calculate just how many minutes I would save if I passed the slow car. Usually, the amount of time saved is very small. This exercise also proved helpful to my writing process as I often have to slow down my breathing and my racing mind to hit my daily word count target.

3) Listen without interrupting. When I listen to other people talk, instead of allowing my mind to fill up with what I want to say next, I clear out the words and images pinballing around in my brain and focus on the speaker’s words. I do not interrupt the speaker; I wait until he or she has finished talking, I count to three, and then I respond to what was said. I have noticed I retain a lot more of the information that was said since I’ve begun doing this exercise, and I have also noticed I enjoy my conversations more. Too, when I do not interrupt people, they are far more likely to say something interesting since they are confident that I am giving them my full attention. Likewise, when my characters are speaking I do not interrupt them. I let them speak—at length, if needs be. That’s when they’re more apt to say (or do) something interesting.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has a tip for staying patient while writing.

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On Why Villains are Fun. . .

The world needs villains. Especially in Judeo-Christian America, we need villains in order to validate our own moral superiority; we need villains to be the living embodiment of Evil, to be out there committing the Big Crimes, so that the rest of us can shake our heads and keep right on cheating on our taxes and stealing our neighbor’s WIFI and parking in handicap spaces.

But philosophical and moral arguments aside, we need villains because well, they’re cool. And they have way more fun than most of us.  They allow us to watch (from a safe distance) as they not only succumb to their base desires, but really revel in them. Personally, I enjoy them for their unapologetic nature, for thumbing their collective noses at the world and saying, “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and stop me. . . if you can.” Really, how fun does that sound?

Now think about this.  What would Superman be without Lex Luther?  Answer: just an uptight guy with glasses and a strong chin.  I mean, James Bond is just a womanizer without the likes of Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No;  without the many foes Bond has battled and defeated in those books and movies, he would be a cliche, a very one-dimensional character, who would have to find a rich widower to pay for his first-class air travel, gadgets, and dry martinis.  Hell, even my beloved Red Sox are much more fun to watch when they are pitted against the Evil Empire known as the New York Yankees.

Which brings me to an article on villains and villainy I found at a tumblr site called CleverGirlHelps. I linked to the entire article below, but I’ve excerpted some choice bits for those interested, as I am, in the dynamics of villains.

On the difference between a villain and an antagonist:

What makes a villain a villain is action. What makes an antagonist an antagonist is force against the protagonist. Again, these things can overlap, but do not always do so. I would like you to disregard the notion that villains and antagonists must be characters. They can be, but they do not always have to be.

On villainy as a reflection of the hero:

A villain can be a reflection or shadow of whatever the hero stands for and loves. A villain who is good at their job might be this because they represent whatever the hero fears, loathes, or is scared of. A reflective villain is more than not-the-hero, a villain is the essence of not-the-hero.

On villainy as conflict:

Conflict and villainy can easily coincide. Conflict is the basis of the story, the thing that drives the plot and spurs on the characters. Bear in mind, if your villain is a part of the conflict, I expect you to deal with the villain somehow before resolving the plot in its entirety.

Here’s the entire article, which is filled with smart observations on the subject as well as a variety of examples to back up her opinions. Check it out.

http://clevergirlhelps.tumblr.com/post/84565698794/hi-i-was-wondering-if-you-have-any-advice-on

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DRIFTWOOD: A California Road Trip Novel by Elizabeth Dutton

Folks, Driftwood, a first-rate novel by my friend and colleague Elizabeth Dutton, is now out in paperback! Only $9, so snag it here. To celebrate the occasion, and, hopefully, entice more to buy and review this excellent book, I’m re-posting my review of Driftwood.

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I’ve been a serial obsessive for most of my life, and many of the things I’ve obsessed over–eating shrimp two meals a day, wearing green sweat pants, and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, to name but three–I’ve managed to, more or less, move past.  But music and California are two obsessions that will always dominate my imagination. And in Driftwood, the debut novel by Elizabeth Dutton, I can indulge in both of those long-standing obsessions.

Here’s the basic set-up: Clem Jasper (great f-ing name!) is an L.A. trust fund kid with a well-known rock musician for a father who dies suddenly while playing ping-pong.  Still reeling from the loss and trying to figure out her place in the world, Clem receives a rather strange inheritance: a bundle of letters from her father instructing her to visit several meaningful yet mysterious destinations around California.

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Clem’s a quirky and relentlessly self-commenting narrator, but an oddly likeable one.  She is one part misanthrope and one part romantic.   As a reader, I sympathized with her, gobbled up her irreverent remarks and witticisms and spot-on commentary about, well, everything. In short, Clem is that often-talked-about-but-rarely-realized round character.

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The other brilliant aspect of this book is the setting: California. In Dutton’s hands, California comes alive, becomes something more real, more interesting, more quirky than the glittering yet static version of California that’s lived in my imagination for so long. I particularly enjoyed the oddball characters Clem meets in the towns she visits; I relished the descriptions of the landscape, the weather, the vibe of each new place she goes in search of gaining a deeper connection with her father. And, of course, there is the music. Yes, many songs and bands (both real and fictional) are mentioned, discussed, and evaluated, but what struck me the most was the (forgive me) music of the road.  Throughout Clem’s journey, she is attempting to find a rhythm for her life, to write her own song, one that redefines who she is and what family means.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Make Your Mystery Stand Out: Tips from the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing

True story: about a year ago, I received feedback on my mystery novel from a literary agent based out of Los Angeles. Along with a two-page critique, she also sent a multi-page checklist of items she and her agency require before signing a new client. The checklist included dozens and dozens of very specific items–too many to mention here–and while I studied the checklist carefully and gained some helpful insight on what agents are looking for, I was still a bit overwhelmed. . .which brought me back to The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Below are excerpts from an article entitled “Make Your Mystery Stand Out.” In it, Evan Marshall–literary agent and best-selling author–boils down the list to three essential elements.I found this incredibly helpful, especially when I was writing the first draft of my detective novel Go Go Gato.

Look for the Hook

In fiction, a hook is a way to promote a book through some aspect that has commercial appeal or provides publishers with a gimmick or “handle” that lends itself to publicity. Your detective might have an occupation that is of high interest in the current culture, is especially timely, is interesting for its very obscurity, or is the same as that of the author. For instance, Patricia Cornwell’s series of mysteries featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta first became popular at a time when public interest in the world of medical examiners had been heightened by such nonfiction books as Coroner by Dr. Thomas Noguchi, L.A.’s coroner to the stars, not to mention the tremendous public fascination with true crime. That’s Ms. Cornwell’s hook.

 

Dig Into Your Characters

Today’s readers want richly textured characters, especially in the series detective. A clever puzzle for your mystery novel is important but not enough. We must know all of your major characters as people, just as we would know the characters in any well-written novel. For purposes of characterization, think of your book as a novel with mystery, not a mystery novel. Tell us about your characters’ pasts, their psychologies, their faults and weaknesses, their relationships to one another. Remember, it’s your characters who will bring your readers back for more.

 

Devise a Clever

Don’t settle for a plot device if you can recall seeing it in another book, in a movie, or on TV. Work hard to come up with something different. Granted, there are only so many ways to kill someone, but the canny mystery writer will give one of those ways a new twist. The same goes for motive. There’s no excuse for stale clichés; your plotting is truly your own and should bear your distinctive fingerprint.

See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/mysterystandout.htm#sthash.WDGd8jxA.dpuf

Book Review of LA Late @ Night by Paul D. Marks

If you like tautly-constructed hard-boiled stories featuring gritty characters, snappy dialogue, and plenty of action, then LA Late @ Night is right up your alley.  The title story features a hotshot defense attorney–Cassie Rodriguez–who successfully defends a rich Hollywood director on murder charges.  Several elements of this story interested me, beginning with the format. Written as a modified movie script, this story feels as if you’re a cinematographer, simultaneously shooting and observing the action up close and personal from behind a camera. Another compelling element was the theme. I mean, how often does a wildly successful attorney even attempt to right a wrong the justice system couldn’t, let alone actually succeed? But in this story, it happens. And it’s believable, primarily because of the way Cassie’s character is portrayed and developed.

The title story is by far the most original of the five tales, but my favorite is definitely “Angels Flight.” This one is about Tom Holland, a jaded homicide detective who gets saddled with Lucy Railsback, a member of the mayor’s Community Police Action Committee.  Lucy assists Holland in the death investigation of a body the police find in Echo Park Lake. Without spoiling the ending, Lucy uses both good old fashioned street smarts and voodoo to help solve the case.  Similar to the title story and the other tales in the book, “Angels Flight” is satisfying for its memorable characters, quick dialogue, and clipped prose. But what I enjoyed most about this story was what I enjoyed most about the collection in total: the setting of Los Angeles, which simply comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer like Marks. The L.A. Marks depicts is dangerous and raw, and it is, for my money, the most compelling character present.  Just like in his excellent PI novel White Heat, Marks manages to capture the dirty underbelly of one of the most written about cities in modern history, and, miraculously, he does so in a uniquely singular way.  . .a true literary feat indeed.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this collection to any true fan of the hard-boiled/noir genre.  Oh, and make sure to read the excerpt from White Heat; the opening chapter hooked me from word one.

http://www.amazon.com/L-A-Late-Night-Mystery-Streets-ebook/dp/B00I9289HM/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eat More Vienna Sausage, Listen to More Phish: Why Writers Should Go Back to Their Childhoods

Proust had his madeleines, but when I want to remember something from my childhood, I reach for a tin of Armour’s Vienna sausages. There is something about the taste of mechanically separated chicken, pork, salt, corn syrup and hydrolyzed soy that floods my brain with images from my misspent youth. . .me in my Little League uniform, looking out the bay window in my parent’s house, cursing the storm clouds on the horizon, knowing that the game would be canceled. I’d stomp my cleats on the wood floors and call Mother Nature horrible names and slam my head against the wood paneling in the living room until the anger subsided. (What can I say? I was an angry child, and I loved baseball.)

Now when I want to remember something from my so-called adolescent years, I queue up Phish on Spotify, and suddenly, I have bleached blonde hair and a face full of acne and a chip on both shoulders.  Suddenly, once again, I have a head full of dreams of becoming a granola-chewing, psychedelic-drug-taking guitar god a la Trey Anastasio, or Jerry Garcia before him. The songs–“Bouncing Around the Room”; “You Enjoy Myself”; or “Sample in a Jar” for any fans of the band–transport me back to how I felt dancing (horribly!) at their shows, how I felt driving around and around listening to live shows on my cassette deck and wondering if I could one day create music that made people feel the way I felt at that moment. The music was an escape from the (then) purposelessness of my existence. . .

Which brings me to my point: I love to write, to turn pain or pleasure into stories, and sometimes I need a tangible trigger to get me reacquainted with certain emotions from my past. Otherwise, how could I write convincingly about anything? I suggest that writers who might be stuck with a piece of writing try going back to their childhood and rediscovering a favorite food or favorite band.  Or, you could go the other way and revisit the sight of an embarrassing moment, the location of a cringe-worthy failure. (Believe me, I have enough of both of those to last three lifetimes).  In my opinion, writers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone from time to time, and what better way to do that than by eating over-processed foods that will cause hypertension and strokes, and listening to Hippie music with nonsensical lyrics and never-ending jam sessions.

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Creative Writing Exercise

So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development.  I recorded them here as well as my answers.

Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?

Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:

Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life.  His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often.  During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand.  As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance.  But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.

Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations.  Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106

Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?

Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

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