The spy craft of writing




Many writers will tell you that they build their characters from people they know, have met or have observed and eavesdropped on out in the wild. 

Not long ago I had the opportunity to sit in a chain coffee shop far from home for several hours. I spent it observing the many people coming and going - discreetly, I wouldn’t openly stare as I was bent over my notebook most of the time. 

I would imagine what their lives were like based on various clues I picked up about the clothes they wore, the way they used their cell phones, how loudly they would share information with the barista - you’ll note people will either say something for which they want sympathy or praise - what method they would use to pay for their beverage, how they talked to their kids, etc. You can learn a lot about a person just by observing. 

One individual in particular stood out. 
The more I listened in on his conversation with someone he had just ‘recruited’ for his ‘how to build true wealth’ program, the more he started to sound like the archetype conman, the trickster. 

Since he had set up shop at a table behind me, I made a point of not looking around and only listening. Piecing together the clues from only sound, such as the nervous shuffling of paper when his latest recruit told him about a stint in prison. The rushed breathing and hurried talking when he realized he was losing his recruit’s attention. 

The story as it unfolded was fascinating - for a writer - and using deductive reasoning and a very active imagination, I filled in the blanks of how this story would unfold based simply on an overheard one hour conversational sales pitch. In my story things did not end well for the trickster and judging by the way he rushed out of the coffee shop I suspect he may have thought that as well. 

I imagine spies use similar techniques to piece together information and puzzle out stories, but instead of a high level, secret report, this story might end up in one of my books one of these days. 

Spinning Straw into Gold



Well, that is the hope, intent and desired outcome anyway.

A renegotiation of the original agreement with my now 81-year old screenwriting client; that shrewd, hardcore minor real estate mogul, has resulted in my have carte blanche to rewrite the screenplay. 

I’ll keep the core idea, but will build a different, more engaging story around it. 

But before I can do that, I will need to go over the notes written all over the original screenplay and sort out what was good, what was deemed mediocre, and what was just plain bad. From there I learn and rebuild. As I mentioned in a previous post, the comments by Wendy Kram, Script Consultant, are like a master class in screenwriting. I just need to take them on board and learn. 

I will create more multi-dimensional characters, like I do in my books. I’ll take the story down to its essence and build out from there. Make the dialogue pop, and make sure there’s far less telling and much more showing. (Watch for future blogposts on “show don’t tell”)

My client has expressed an interest in being involved and has told me some of the things he’d like to keep in there, but I think I’ll sit him down and explain that he wants to cram in too much. We can’t save Detroit, build a new industry, go back to include an exciting chapter on WWII Flying Tigers in China, jump forward to 2020, and solve the world tensions by bringing together China and the US all in one 90 minute film. Oh, and somewhere in there have a big ‘ole Motown benefit concert and a tour of the Detroit auto show. All that tends to crowd out room for character development.


The core idea has to come through, and truly movies rarely tackle more than one issue-idea-action at a time. Unless of course you’re going for a 3 hour long production, but rarely, if ever, does a new screenwriter get that opportunity. Cut your teeth on the standard format and if they like you enough you might be able to go wide and step off the beaten path. 

April Book Review




Rather than review one book like I normally do, I’d like to pay homage to one of the greats who recently passed away: Terry Pratchett. 

I discovered his Discworld books quite by accident. Some years back I’d picked up a copy of Good Omens to read on a long flight to Europe. This book was a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and more than worth the price of a paperback. 

The back cover indicated it would be a laugh out loud social commentary. A witch from 1655 made a prophecy - right before she exploded - on when the world would end. That date is fast approaching, next Saturday in fact, so the forces of evil and the forces of good are gathering and picking their battle lines. Except things don’t quite go as planned. 

Good Omens made a long, boring flight much more pleasant, I didn’t even notice the poor, crying babies. 

In talking with the friends I visited on that trip I learned of Pratchett’s Discworld series of books  and I gradually started to collect and read them. I very much enjoy the humor, the social commentary and well-developed characters, some of which are so over the top that you have to wonder who or what inspired the author. The books are fantasy writing at its best, and no pesky chapters dividing the flow, or long drawn out descriptions, just page after page of enjoyable - and at times thought provoking - reading. 

Two standouts for me are Mort and Equal Rites

Mort because it makes the character of Death - a very misunderstood man - so human in his need for a break from it all. He finds a young man, named Mort and takes him on as an apprentice. The boy’s father is only too happy to get rid of him because he does not appear suited to anything. Mort seems to do well though as Death’s apprentice, which makes for interesting twists and turns in the story. 

Equal Rites because the story is about a young girl who wants to enter the wizard’s college - which is only for men. She was chosen at birth; a dying wizard wished to pass on his powers to the eighth son of an eighth son at the moment of birth, however he discovers too late the baby born is a girl. The book makes a truly worthy and highly entertaining treatise on women’s rights. 

Of course I also very much enjoyed Soul Music, Reaper Man and Witches Abroad
And as luck would have it, I found one recently I had not read yet. I look forward to savoring Snuff and will try to read it slowly. 

Mr. Pratchett and his awesome talent will be missed, but at least we have his books. 


The Hard Choices


After agonizing about this development in the book I’m working on ‘In One Night’, I finally wrote in the death of one of the characters. 

Rationally it had to be done. It made sense to the story and it fit the plot; driving forward the story and the choices the characters now face. But on a gut level - purely emotional - it was almost as if I’d lost someone close to me.

How could I have done this? What was I thinking? Why did I feel I needed to do this?

Death is never easy. Not in real life and not in fiction. 
It got me thinking about how we’re confronted with death in the media almost daily, so why would one 19-year old fictional character matter to me, a secondary character in the story at that? 

Well, because I created her for one. And, two, her death represented something not just in the story, but also in the greater context of the history the story is wrapped around. World War II left many scars on many families, and landscapes. By losing one 19-year old I suppose I was trying to represent a larger group, a group that often gets overlooked in the counting of lives lost. 

This girl wanted so to be perfect, like many teenagers. To fit in and be loved, not defined by an, at that time, common deformity, that she let herself be talked into experimental, dangerous and doomed surgery by a fanatical nazi doctor. That’s all I’ll say. By the time the book comes out I’m sure you all will have forgotten this bit. 

What struck me, aside from feeling grief, was that my remaining characters are at a loss to determine their own next moves. They’re finding themselves reexamining their choices and making rash new ones that can have even greater, disastrous consequences not only for the Detweiler family, but perhaps others as well.   


I’m taking a little time away from writing to work on a translation. This will also give me time to step back and see where the characters go next, because even though my pen’s not on the paper, the story continues in my mind until I get back to the paper.

And in further screenplay news


After a mix up with the mail, I finally received the marked up screenplay from the script consultant, via my client who sent it from his winter home in Palm Springs on a long and winding journey back to the Pacific Northwest.  

As a seasoned writer, having worked with editors, I’m used to scribbles in the margin and corrections, but my client … not so much. Rather than see it as a positive, he appears to be giving up on the project. I suppose at 81 years of age he was hoping for faster progress and instant success. He feels he’s running out of time, and let’s face it, writing and selling a screenplay takes longer than the lightning fast, mega real estate deals he’s used to making.

But, just because he’s giving up, doesn’t mean I will. Even just glancing over the notes and suggestions I realize I have gold in my hands. Reading through these notes and comments is like taking a master class to me. 

I intend to take the time to absorb the information from the script consultant and turn it around into something stellar. That’s something I’ve always done in my work … take a critique and learn everything I can from it and then do better. 

In order to have the opportunity to do this, I will need to renegotiate the terms of our agreement so I will be less constrained in the story development and writing. I’ll keep my client’s core idea, but will make it more viable. I’ve put too much blood, sweat and tears into this project to just file it away. There are at least 5 unfinished versions on my computer, abandoned but not forgotten. Each one offers something worthwhile to a proper rewrite. 

Hopefully I’ll be able to convince my client … unless of course one of you is willing to option it and let me write that new and viable version. I know he’d go for that. 


March Book Review



Doomsday Book 

Sorry for the delays in posting. February was busy and the book was long!

The Doomsday Book was a great read. It had many elements that I like; adventure, science fiction, history, and strong characters, including strong female characters. 

Set in both 2048 and 1384 (around the time of the black death). A history student at Oxford, Kivrin, prepares to got on a study trip, as many of her fellow students have done and continue to do, as part of learning. 

She gets all the necessary inoculations, clothing and together with her professor she prepares a detailed history for herself, along with a new name so she can blend in. She’s all set to go to 1320’s England and observe how people lived in that time by living among them. Yes, they do have some sort of ‘prime directive’ equivalent they are to observe so as not to alter history in any way. 

Unfortunately, a miscalculation sends her to 1384 right as the beginning of the plague. She arrives at the start of a cold winter, with shortages, and rats in the grain storage. Her professor back in Oxford is unaware of the error for quite some time, but when Kivrin doesn’t return when she’s supposed to, he begins to worry.

In the meantime, in 2048, an archeological dig just outside the city has unearthed victims of the black death who it seems are still contagious. As a mutated version of the plague rages through Oxford, effectively closing it off to the rest of the world, a race begins to figure out where Kivrin is in time and how to bring her back. 

The science seems sound, and the excitement builds throughout the 592 pages, but what really stays with you after reading the book is depth of human behavior and emotion described in a very accessible way. Ms. Willis has an innate understanding of human motivations and psychology. It’s makes her characters seem so very real. 

I won’t tell you the ending, suffice it to say, you’ll stay up late reading just to find out. 


Imagination



I’ve blogged about imagination before but the subject has come up in several conversations these past few, busy, weeks and got me thinking about it in greater depth. My conversation partners all lamented the lack of imagination in the people they'd recently had dealings with. 

As a writer I take imagination for granted, not in a bad way, I just know I have it and use it in just about everything I do. But like some friends I talked to,  I’m noticing more and more a lack of imagination in the world around me. 

It is a valuable tool, not just for writers and artists. Without imagination we wouldn’t have some of greatest inventions, or the daily tools/toys we use to do our jobs. But in talking to people in business and engineering I see many do not use this tool and, in fact, they often lack the skill. 

Sometimes imagination is confused with visualization or fantasy.

Fantasy gave us 50 Shades of Grey, imagination gave us Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Big difference. Both widely read, both controversial, but each distinctly different in quality of story and writing (and I’ll leave it at that).

Visualization, though closely related to imagination is the end goal of imagination. It is the goal we keep in mind, whereas imagination can show us the steps to get there, the variables, the feelings, the things we might need. Imagination becomes the fuel that lets us work toward that goal.

Engineers, for example, who uses their imagination before creating a 3-D model on the computer, and then in real life, will do so faster and more accurately because they will have already ‘seen’ how things fit together and how they might work. 

Or, similarly, a recruiter who uses imagination to ‘see’ the actual position behind the job description the client gives them will more likely find suitable candidates instead of just those people whose resumes have the words that match the description. 

And finally, imagination allows us all the ability to step outside of ourselves and get a sense of what someone else might be going through. It facilitates empathy and the ability to help others; it is what allows a writer to create multidimensional characters, ones readers can relate to. 

Children who are allowed to indulge in imaginative - unstructured - play grow up to be better problem solvers. Volumes have been written on this alone.

Imagination is essential for success in all things. Perhaps schools, especially those focused on STEM curricula should include a unit on imagining; (re)learning to use imagination in life. 

I’m contemplating creating a workshop, there are several simple exercises that help not only artists and writers, but anyone interested in adding another tool to their kit. Let see if I can squeeze that into my schedule. 



Fairy Tales and Screenplays



You might think I’m going off on a Disney trip, but I’m not. Over the past few days I’ve been having an interesting email exchange with a friend on the long-established story structure for screenplays. 

He feels that structure is too limited and is what’s giving us many of the cliché movies (blockbusters) out in theaters today. And he’s correct in that thinking because if your brilliant screenplay does not follow the standard structure, no agent will even look at it. 

And most of us by now have figured out that structure. Some big change/decision after the first 10 minutes, a life altering choice. Then some solid time building up to the conclusion and after the climax, another 10 minutes or so of wrap up to show how wonderfully it all came together (that’s for the happy ending ones anyway) 

I’m oversimplifying things here, but that’s because the structure as taught in screenwriting is fairly basic and simple once you grasp it. 

But what I realized in my email exchange is that the structure has been ingrained in us from an early age, not through film, but through stories told to us as children. The tradition of fairy tales and folk tales goes back centuries in our collective memory, to become part of our collective subconscious, if you will.  

Literacy and sharing stories through the written word is still relatively new in our long human history. Before that we had oral traditions. Stories told to teach others. And of course to keep the attention of the audience there had to be difficult choices that drove the main character on. Tension built, the audience felt fear, excitement and finally relief once the hero was safe. Tears,laugher, fear; by feeling those intense emotions while listening to the story, the lesson of the story was often imprinted on the listener. That’s how you remembered the lesson. 

Hollywood continues that tradition. But, today, do we really still need that very rigid structure for screenplays to tell a compelling story an audience would want to see? 

Of course the protagonist will continue to need challenges and choices to spur him/her on, but that is true of every story. Even the ones we tell each other over coffee. The ones we remember are those that have difficult choices and satisfying endings. 

Little Red Riding Hood learned her lesson about strangers and made it home safe and sound. 

Cinderella was rewarded for her patience, suffering and hard work by going to the ball and meeting prince charming. 


The little mermaid learned a very painful lesson and made a dramatic final choice. Not the one Disney shows you … Hans Christian Anderson wasn’t into happy endings, but he did follow the prescribed structure. Look it up, but bring tissues. 

Rewriting



One thing many writers don’t really want to talk about is the dreaded rewriting. Why? Well, maybe we’d like you think that our wonderful stories spring fully fledged from our pens onto the paper. 

Not realistic, but a girl can dream. 

Out in the Dark, which will come out in the summer, was written a few years back. I let it sit after it got a bunch of rejections, but last summer I looked at it again and found some areas I could improve, some words I could change. And what do you know… the story is better. Even that first chapter that’s available online, has in fact changed for the better. 

I’m currently working on both more Fountain Pen tales, those are intense, so I take them slowly, one at a time, and I’m working on ‘In One Night’.  ‘In One Night’ is again historical fiction and I was trucking along nicely with it and had 100 pages written, but then I got stuck. 

I looked over the material, read it and reread it. Took out a pen and scribbled in the margins and then put the printout aside for a few months. It was not going where I wanted it to go, but I also didn’t know where I wanted it to go. 

Now I do. Initially it was the story about a family in Strasbourg, France during WWII and events played out at a small castle in the Vosges mountains nearby. A friend living in Strasbourg had sent me reams of research and information which I dutifully tried to fold into the story. But what was starting to happen was that I wasn’t writing the story I wanted to write, I was writing what I thought my friend was expecting me to write. 

Nothing stifles creativity like trying to live up to other’s expectations. It was no longer my story. 

So then, what did I want the story to be? What was I curious to learn and who were my favorite characters? I’ll tell you:

I want to write the family drama of a widowed father, trying to raise 5 children in a time of war and occupation, when French language and culture is systematically quashed under the occupier’s boot. A family of 4 teens and one 4-yr old. A family torn apart by divided loyalties and misguided beliefs and desires. A very human family with an overstressed father, who is no longer allowed to teach at the university unless he’ll teach in German. The two eldest children who don’t want to see that their new friends are wrong. The strong middle child, Thérèse, who sees more than she should and tries to save her family. The birth of the Hitler youth, and how many of the region’s children were sucked into it without realizing, until it was too late, what it stood for. 

That’s the story I want to write. What Professor Detweiler and his children go through, what Thérèse does and the difficult choices she must make. 

And that’s why I rewrite; to tell the story I want to know, and the story I want to share. 

Stay tuned!

January Book Review


The Abyss Beyond Dreams
By: Peter F. Hamilton

I was very much looking forward to reading this book. It promised to be another story in the Commonwealth series (Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained and the Void Trilogy came before). I looked forward to meeting up with familiar characters and in that sense I was not disappointed, however, in others I was a little. 

The story picks up a long time in the future and starts with one of the founders of the commonwealth, original inventor of the technology that pretty much opened the universe to humans, Nigel Sheldon, who is on a mission to bring back a sentient starship that landed eons ago on a planet in the void; that ever expanding danger to the known universe. 

The beginning of the book was great, the last 200 pages were great - except the bit about ‘to be continued’ - but the middle many hundreds of pages felt a little like a repackaging of some of the void trilogy but without the depth of character development or story development. 

There were distinct comparisons to be made between the Waterwalker in the void trilogy and Captain Slvasta in the Abyss beyond Dreams. And the Waterwalker was a far more sympathetic character, or perhaps he had a chance to be better developed. 

It’s not like the reading of this book was a total bust, I did enjoy it and I also enjoyed trying to figure out where the author would go and how he would resolve some of plot points set up early on. Also there are recurring themes of poor against rich, social justice vs. totalitarian regimes, revolution, and how absolute power affects individuals. All worthy subjects for scrutiny whether in fiction or fact. 

In the aggregate, assuming this series will also become a trilogy, it was less about the Captain and more about battling the void. If the second book continues along those lines, then I’ll forgive the middle 400 pages of this book and take it merely as background filler. 


Now to wait for the next book and to see if I can figure out where the story will go. 

Screenplay Update



The latest news on the screenplay is that it’s being looked at by a top Hollywood script consultant! I’m excited and terrified at the same time. 

My work reviewed by the professionals with A-list movie and TV credentials!  

This came about when my screenwriting client made contact with a very well connected entertainment lawyer who suggested the screenplay be reviewed by a consultant. Where it will lead I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from it once I get the marked up pages back. 

The next step after that is to start mining other contacts and see if we can get the screenplay in front of other professionals … assuming I don’t have to make many changes to it. If I do, then I’ll be busy doing that before we start knocking on doors. 

It’s an interesting process. 

I would also love to work on some of my client’s other ideas, as they are very viable and have a high entertainment value, but he seems to be losing steam a bit. At 81 years of age I suppose that’s understandable. I suspect he had hoped the screenplay would be in production by now, something he would love to be a part of as a co-producer. But the reality of Hollywood is that most screenplays take years to even get written, and then take years to find the right home, unless they were written for a studio under contract.  

And, just like for fiction and non-fiction book writers, many studios (or publishers) won’t look at material that didn’t come to them through an agent. Just a few hurdles to overcome but I see no reason why we can’t!


Wishing you all a wonderful, peaceful and abundant 2015! 

Book Group Skype-in



Late last month I had the pleasure of being able to answer questions and talk about my novella, Tales from the Fountain Pen, with a book group on the other side of the country.

It was the first time I’d participated in something like that as an author and I learned quite a bit. Not just about how my novella was received, what characters and events stood out for the members of that book group, and how much they wanted a sequel! But also some basic information on how to go about setting up a successful author Skype-in.

For those of you - authors or book group members - who would like to organize a video conference author meeting here are some points I came up with after my first one. 

  1. Agree to parameters with the group leader or organizer on the format, the time and how long they anticipate you being a part of the meeting. 
  2. Double check your technology! Have a back up option if Skype is not cooperating, such as Google video chat or face-time.
  3. Offer some questions the moderator can use should there be a lull in the conversation.
  4. Set a time limit and know the time zone you will be calling into.
  5. Make sure you won’t be interrupted by pets, family or phones.
  6. Make sure your video image is well-lit and comes across clearly.
  7. Be professional and gracious.


Not everyone will gush over your writing, but as hard as it is, don’t take it personal. For the most part though you’ll find book group members love talking to an author. It gives them some insight into the process and story behind the story. 

If anyone is part of a book group interested in reading Tales from the Fountain Pen and would like to have me do a virtual author visit, let me know in the comment section and we’ll arrange it. 


Happy reading!

December Book Review



The Omnivore’s Dilemma


You might think this a strange pick for me to read. Well, that’s because I didn’t pick it. My offspring did, he chose it for the English class book group project. This meant that he had to ask an over 18-yr old to also read it and come with him to book group night to talk about it. 

The book is not for the faint of heart. Though the information in it regarding the state of food and food production in the US was not new to me, this was the first time I had all the information handily compiled in one book. And some of it can be tough to chew on, let alone digest (pardon the pun).

The writing is compelling and I applaud the author for his courage in actually visiting a feed lot and staring into the eyes of a cow wallowing in the misery that has become its existence. Cows should be enjoying a healthy pasture, not stand ankle-deep in their own waste, pumped full of chemicals, trying to digest a grain they’re evolutionarily unsuited to do. Corn may have been clever in how it seduced the human grower into making it the super-crop it is today, but that still does not make it suitable food for most mammals, or farmed fish.

The book is painstakingly researched and detailed in its descriptions of all four meals Michael Pollan traces. He is clearly a man who enjoys food and gives thought to what he eats and what he feeds his family. The omnivore’s dilemma is that just because we are by nature able to eat anything, does not mean everything is good for us.  Or that we should eat everything. 

The one thing I didn’t like about the book, aside from the fact that some of the information is depressing to contemplate, is the fact that the author has a tendency to repeat himself. Often referring back to previously given information as if we might forget. The further the book went along, the more often he referred back to what he’d already said. 

Fast forward to book night:
The commons of the high school were filled with the pleasant hum of conversation, the coffee, tea and juice flowed freely - though some parents voiced a preference for something stronger - and after a short while we all took our seats to get instructions from the teacher. It was nice to see so many parents involved in this with their kids. 

After our instructions we met up with the group that had read the same book (there were 15 to choose from) and headed to one of the empty classrooms. There we talked about the book, discussing questions the students had come up with while reading the book. It was interesting to note the different perspectives between adults and teens on various matters. But in the end, the book had given all of us pause and made us more aware of our food choices going forward. 

And who knew that ‘free-range’ eggs only meant that there’s a small door open in the chicken house but that the chickens are not encouraged to go out at all. For true ‘free range’ look for pasture raised. Guess I did learn something new. 


In the spring, the class will hold another book night, but this time with fiction books. I hope there will be some good ones to choose from again. Stay tuned. 

BREAKING NEWS!

In what is turning out to be a real emotional roller coaster of a week - my very dear dog and loyal companion of almost 12 years, passed away this weekend - I do have good news to report.

My book "Out in the Dark" of which you've been enjoying the first 2 chapters has been picked up by my favorite Indie publisher Untreed Reads. It will come out in the summer of next year in both E-book version and print!

This means I won't self-publish it ... and I'm also not able to post anymore chapters, but I will keep you all posted on the progress as we work on cover design, final editing, marketing, etc.

It's very exciting, and I am thrilled, mingled with just a touch of sadness to.

Chapter 2



As I said in May I will be self-publishing my Young Adult novel “Out in the Dark”. I’ve since learned more, watched the Amazon-Hachette situation unfold, and will opt for another vendor who can actually get my paperbacks into independent bookstores. Their distribution is actually wider than Amazon’s. 

Now the challenge is making sure I attend to all the details, such as purchasing an ISBN number and attached barcode; the international identifier for books. Purchasing the right package for both a print-on-demand with color cover and e-book format (which comes in more than one format and each needs its own ISBN number). Then there’s marketing, which even with a small publisher an author still has to do a fair bit of herself. So far my budget is already close to $500. Not a small outlay and I’ll have to make sure I price my book competitively and so that it will sell and I’ll make at least that $500 back. 

It’s a risk, but it does show me why publishers are reluctant to take on unknown authors because with many of them they don’t recoup their costs. With others of course they do, and in the aggregate it all works out for them because they have many titles out there on the shelves. 

While I continue to work on preparing the manuscript (if you look at the first chapter again you'll note one of my pen-names), creating the cover art, and getting book jacket quotes from published authors who are currently reading the manuscript, I can give you chapter 2 to tide you over until I publish the whole book. Depending on how long the whole process takes, you might be treated to chapters 3, 4 & 5 as well!

Happy reading!

Chapter 2.
Ballarat road was deserted and another rainstorm threatened to dump on the small town in the foothills of the Cascades. Jake was used to it, but only because he had to be, not because he liked it. He walked along the side of the road, a solitary figure treading the asphalt ribbon.
Every quarter mile there was a mailbox. Once outside the proper town people liked a lot of distance between themselves and their neighbors. They all claimed they wanted privacy, but Jake wondered what they were all up to that was so secret that nobody could see. 
Domestic violence? Alcoholism? Drugs? Or just an inability to deal with people? He figured he’d seen it all in the neighbors around their property. 
His mother had started drinking a little too and grew pot, supposedly for some legal medical pot dispensary in Seattle. He didn’t ask. His father hadn’t asked either; he would rather tinker with robots in the barn than deal with his wife. Something had gone wrong between his parents about eighteen months ago and Jake didn’t know what.
Jake couldn’t really blame his mother for wanting to be with another man. It could get very lonely out at their place, and it was about to get even lonelier for her. 
A car approached from behind him and Jake stopped to try and thumb a ride before the rain. It was Mr. Swanson, their nearest neighbor. He wondered which Mr. Swanson he’d have to deal with; the law-and-order one, or the aging hippie. The old man seemed to have a split personality.  Jake much preferred the aging hippie, that one wouldn’t turn him in to the principal, or his mother. 
“Need a ride, boy?” Mr. Swanson rolled down the window of his old Ford pickup. It had more duct tape on it than actual paint, but the engine ran smoothly. Jake knew that for a fact as he was the one who had maintained it for the past few years. Jake was gifted with all things mechanical.
“Thanks!” Jake climbed in and slammed the door so it would stay shut while driving. 
“Where to, son?” Mr. Swanson asked. Jake looked at the man and noted his breezy Aloha shirt and shorts, his feet in woolly socks and sandals. Yep, he was in hippie mode. 
“Home, please,” Jake said, and hoped Mr. Swanson wouldn’t ask questions.
“No school today?” 
“Got out early,” Jake said smoothly. Technically it wasn’t a lie, he did get himself out early, even if classes hadn’t been dismissed yet. 
“Nice.” 
“Yep.” Jake settled into the comfortable seat and thought some more about his plan. It had to be today, his dad depended on him. That much he did understand, even if everything else was unclear. 
The road remained empty. Jake looked out the window up at the foothills and saw the cloud line descending. There might even be some early snow in those clouds. He hoped the passes would still be clear. 
“Here you are, son.” Mr. Swanson pulled into the gravel drive. “Looks like your mom’s got company. Shouldn’t the coach be at school?” Mr. Swanson gave an exaggerated wink and nudged Jake in the ribs. Distant neighbors but still no secrets. He wished his mother was more discreet, he also wished she wasn’t so lonely. Mr. Caruthers was a nice enough guy, but nothing like his dad. 
Jake thanked his neighbor and slammed the door on the old truck. He waved politely as Mr. Swanson backed out of the drive and only just missed their mailbox. The man’s license should be taken away, but out here driving was a God-given right, so even if Mr. Swanson had smoked a few, he would still drive. 
“Mom, I’m home, but I’m leaving again,” he called out after he let the screen door noisily slam shut. 
He heard scuffling from the upstairs bedroom and then his mother’s voice calling out to him. 
“Jake, honey,” her voice sounded too cheerful. “What are you doing home? I was just, um, folding laundry up here. I’ll be down in a minute.” 
“No hurry, Mom.” Jake walked through the kitchen and surveyed the fridge. He’d have to take some food along, but there wasn’t much to choose from. A couple bologna sandwiches would have to do. He set up the coffee maker to brew a full pot. He would take a thermos with him. 
Then he went to his room and pulled his dad’s old Air Force duffel bag out from under his bed. It was only a little moldy, like most things in the old wood-shingled house. Mold was a fact of life in this part of the world. 
Jake threw some clothes, his pajamas and an extra pair of shoes into the bag. He looked around for a book to take and his road maps of America. He double-checked the battery on his iPhone and his laptop. He would take them both. 
“What’s up, kiddo?” His mom stood in the doorway to his room, her cheeks flushed and her hair mussed. She looked happy and Jake wasn’t sure if he felt anger or sadness that his mother had found some joy in the arms of another man. What would he tell his dad?
“I gotta go, Mom,” Jake said and continued packing. “Dad needs me. He’s been showing me.” 
“Oh, now, honey, you can’t be serious.” His mom came over with her arms out wanting to envelop him in a hug, as if he were a small child in need of comforting. “Your dad can’t communicate with you from wherever he is, that’s about as possible as seeing fairies. He should never have filled your head with that nonsense.” 
“Yeah, well, at least he did something,” Jake snapped, immediately regretting his words. He knew his mother had been there for him lots of times, just not lately. “Sorry, I mean he believes in it and it’s real. So real the government took him for experiments. He’s in trouble, mom, I have to go help him.”
“What do you think you can do?” His mother leaned against the ratty old closet, her arms crossed and the glow slowly fading from her face. She looked tired now, her hair dull and streaked with grey. She wore her old baggy sweats and his dad’s Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, a souvenir from a trip to Disneyland ten years ago. He wished she would leave with him. Go somewhere better, have a decent life. 
“Come with me?” he said, pleading like a little kid. 
“It’s too late for me, honey. I can’t go out there again,” she said sadly. “We had to move here to hide from demons that haunted your dad. I’m from here, I grew up with Caruthers. I should have married him and not been taken in by your dad. He looked so good in his uniform when I met him that I would have followed him anywhere. He was smart and sophisticated and everything I never saw in my hometown. I fell in love.” She sighed, a far-away look in her eyes. Jake wondered if she regretted her time with his dad.
“I couldn’t keep up with him, Jake. He flew planes, he read and he had this gift for knowing things before they happened. It became too much for me, so I wanted to come home.”
“But, you just said you guys came here because of Dad’s demons?” Jake snapped. “Which was it? And don’t tell me you did it all for me, because what’s here for me?” He spread his arms wide to indicate the town. He felt angry as he thought about the stories his mother was telling him. Which one was the truth, or did she even know?
“Both, neither, I just wanted to be safe and be with people I knew. Your dad went along just to please me, but when he got the call for a special project he took off. The checks stopped a month after that and even the air force doesn’t know where he is. I called them and wrote to them and badgered them.” She stopped and Jake saw tears glistening in her eyes. 
“That can’t be true. He has to be with them,” Jake said, trying to control his anger.
“Face it, Jakey, he did a runner on us. He’s gone,” she said with a wan smile. 
“No, not Dad, he wouldn’t do that,” Jake said, his voice cracking as it rose. “I know he wouldn’t. He’s in trouble, I know he is. He’s shown me. Mom, you know the telepathic link is real. He taught you too... why do you deny it? Why?” He was now practically screaming at her and fighting back his own tears. 
“Jake Hanson, Jakey, just leave it be. It’s safer that way.” She tried again to put her arms around him and this time he let her. Together, tearfully, they sat huddled on his bed. 
“I can see him sometimes, but I can’t let that lead my life. I can’t let him destroy you with it. People in town already think you’re different.”
“Then let me leave. I’ll go live with Grandpa in Portland. I’ll finish school and go to college. Mom, I hate it here.” Jake dried his eyes, slightly embarrassed that he’d been crying, and hugged his mother again. He could hear Mr. Caruthers upstairs and was grateful the coach had the good taste to stay there. 
His mother took a deep, ragged breath and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She nodded at Jake. “Okay, you can go live in Portland with your grandfather. I’m sure it’s for the best,” she said. “Even I can see you don’t fit here. I’m sorry. What about Jessica, though?”
“She’ll be fine. There are enough guys interested in her who share her ambitions, or lack of them,” Jake said. He knew he was being cruel and dismissive of Jessica but right now she was the least of his concerns. She seemed superficial and empty-headed, but she was sweet. Sometimes Jake wished she would act on her deeper ambitions and not settle, like his mother was doing now.
“I’ll call grandpa and let him know you’re coming. How soon do you want to go?” Mom asked. “I’m guessing this weekend, right?” She had given up. Jake could see it in her eyes, she was completely giving up on everything. Especially herself. It made him angry again.

“Sure, you can call grandpa,” he said, and turned away so he wouldn’t start yelling at her again. He wanted to shake her and make her come along. He wanted her to be the mother he remembered from his childhood. A vibrant woman full of life and a sense of adventure. Not this scared, mousy woman. 

November Book Review



The Silkworm
By: Robert Galbraith

The second murder mystery by Robert Galbraith (pen name for J.K. Rowling) was worth the wait. It came out over the summer and there was some to-do about distribution as Amazon and Hachette Books were still still knee deep in their battle. I opted to wait and avoid the whole mess. Some time after I returned from my trip to Europe I went to my local independent bookstore and purchase a hardbound copy.

I brewed up a big pot of tea and with the pleasure of anticipation slowly opened the book. Many hours later I came up for air - and a much needed bathroom break - and reluctantly put the book down to tend to the daily chores that come with family life. 

Galbraith is growing as a writer and his characters are too. I enjoyed learning more about the main characters and their backgrounds. They’re becoming multidimensional and more familiar. They’re also becoming more comfortable with each other which makes the interactions more natural. This is something the author has always excelled at and now is able to bring to these murder mysteries as well. 

The story focuses on the book publishing business after the body of a particularly onerous author is found after his last manuscript makes the rounds. A manuscript that is brutal and cruel in its descriptions of people the author has dealt with. That manuscript, which is circulating in London publishing circles, creates quite a stir and more than a few suspects. Galbraith seems to relish taking jabs at the publishing industry and some of the absurdities that go on there. 

The plot takes many twists and turns and every time I thought I had it figured out, I was proven wrong. I did not see the ending coming, which is always a nice surprise with mysteries. Nothing takes the fun out of good mystery like figuring it out half way through. 


I’m eager for the next one.  

The Seduction of a Pen-Name



I’ve given this much thought and even researched some of my favorite authors who use pen-names (you’d be amazed how many do), and I’ve come to the following conclusion:

A pen-name is a good thing. 

Let me explain my thinking. 

My name as you see it on this blog comes with baggage, it has emotions and expectations attached to it and it has a history; the history of my life, family, friends, experiences, etc. It comes with a its own framework, lives within its own framework. 

A pen-name on the other hand is blank. I create the persona, I create the framework, the characteristics and attitudes. Similar to creating a character in one of my books. By creating a pen-name I free myself from people I know, experiences I’ve had and my own background. I get to completely recreate who I am as a writer. 

I can write in a different genre and not get pigeonholed into a place that becomes too limited. It allows me to explore different genres, themes and ideas. 

But the best part, aside from the sense of liberation, is that I can write without my ego getting in the way. My identity and ego are put aside when I write under a different name; nothing gets in the way of pure, limitless, writing.


I’ll let you know when my other persona publishes her first book!

Freelancing



There is a romance surrounding freelance work that says freelancers get to do what we want, when we want and actually have plenty of money too. If money runs low, we just call up a client, do  some work, get paid and go off and have fun in the sun again. (Rumor has it top programmers can live like this)

The truth is a little different. A lot of time is spent finding clients, negotiating a reasonable hourly rate, and once the project is done then comes the challenge of hassling accounting to actually get paid. The difficulty there is that most freelance jobs are not built into the standard operating budget so don’t get paid along with the monthly expenses. 

Surprisingly this problem persists across the board, whether you’re working with a small company or a large one. I’ve given this problem some thought as I continue to wait for payment and send out my weekly reminders that I’m still owed money. 

It comes down to value. Is the freelance work valued at the same level as that of an employee? Is a freelance contractor working without the backing of a placement firm considered a valuable addition to a project/company/event? Usually that answer is somewhere close to ‘no’.

That’s not necessarily a fair assessment. It’s not an unambiguous ’no’. It’s more complicated than that, but when you’re waiting for your money for the work you’ve done, you’re really not interested in the ambiguities of whether you’re valued -no amount of praise affects that - or where in the budget, or the changing financial picture of the client you might fit.

So after a tough - lean - few months does that mean I’m going to quit freelancing? No. There are too many adventures to still be had in freelancing. There is that freedom to work any 24 hrs. of the day I choose, and have some time and energy left to work on my novels, volunteer at my offspring’s robotics team … and I get stay home with my ailing dog. 


It also means I get to jump on opportunities I might not otherwise. I can help somebody out who’s just starting out as a writer, by offering constructive advice and developmental editing, I get to continue to work with and advise my screenwriting client as he determines the best direction to take the screenplay. And I get to keep looking for that next challenging and exciting project that will require me to learn and grow and exceed expectations. But it does mean I will continue to evaluate this way of doing business, every month.  

October Book Review


The Brethren

I found this book in the .99 cent bin at my local Goodwill store and thought it might be a fun read. I was not disappointed. It’s a heist story of a different kind. 

Imagine 3 judges stuck in a very minimum security prison in Florida. They each have done something in their lives that caused them to be stripped of their rank and position and tossed in jail. Once there they get to know each other and help their fellow inmates with appeals cases and other minor disputes over property inside. 

They don’t do this for free, no, these guys are in it for the money. They’ve lost everything on the outside and know they’ll need money if they want to have some kind of comfortable living on the outside again. The three ex-judges, known as the brethren, are a trio of scheming, conniving and shrewd operators. 

With the help of a washed up, broke lawyer on the outside, who also has a gambling and drinking problem, they set out to prey on lonely, older men, who live respectable lives, have money but are ‘in the closet’. They’ve concocted the perfect con. (It’s what’s known these days, as cat-fishing, which is a growing ‘sport?’ or hazard at social media sites and online dating sites.) 

That is, until they snare a presidential candidate. Now, it takes them a while to figure that out and when they do, they assume they’ll have it made. Except that they didn’t count on the CIA becoming involved. 

It will take all their ingenuity and shrewdness to come out of this free, alive and wealthy. 


The book is fast paced and well written. It was a quick read and taught me some more about writing. As I’m guessing you can tell, I’m reading some very varied types of books … the goal is to learn style, writing craft and to explore different ideas. It will all lead to better writing for me. 

Flow of Information



Having worked for some years now as a freelance translator of both business documentation and magazine articles from Dutch to English, I’ve observed a real drive for information from other countries to reach American shores. If we look at history we see that information - pretty much since the end of WWII - has flowed from the US to the rest of the world. The US has been the big culture exporter. While Europe was rebuilding after the war that was all right, but I think it’s time for that pendulum to swing the other way, or at least for a greater circulation of information in more than one direction. 

The US might lead the way in many things, which is just fine, but I also feel mainstream media is very limited in what it tells us from foreign sources. Granted, it would require an investment in people who know other languages and can monitor diverse and far flung news outlets, but I think the long-term benefits would outweigh any up-front costs. That benefit being a greater understanding of other cultures around the world; a less isolationist view of the world and a greater sharing of resources, knowledge and discoveries across borders. 

The same holds true for literature. So few of good foreign writing makes it the US, and then if it is poorly translated the success of a book will only be limited. 

Despite my reservations regarding Amazon, I do like the fact that one of their imprints is dedicated solely to bringing foreign books to an English speaking market. I’m eager to assist in the translation and bringing to market of Dutch books. A number of outstanding teen novels come to mind as a good starting point, but there are many, many wonderful books in the Dutch language, published in the Netherlands and Belgium that would appeal to an English speaking audience. 

The internet of course is a great source of information and Google does a decent job of translating foreign websites, though some words and expressions become something entirely different than their original, it’s not the same as having a newsmagazine or newspaper that has at least a section devoted to information, opinion and research from overseas sources. I will say though that there is a growing trend in European institutions of higher learning to conduct business/classes in English to better mesh with a global market, but that still only captures a small portion of relevant information.

I’ve talked to small overseas blogs and news magazines that would like to see a deeper dialogue, who would like to be able to start greater cross-cultural discussions, but are stymied in that ambition by lack of funds to pay a translator (some days translating reminds me of my impoverished days writing grants for small non-profits). 

People from different cultural backgrounds will have very different opinions on the same event/activity/experience. Only through sharing of knowledge, information, opinion and research can we truly gain understanding of each other. Surely someone is willing to invest in that?