Friday, December 27, 2013

Writing in the New Year

We have all heard Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting to get different results. As we usher in a new year, most of us ponder the year just passed and consider what we might do to make next year better. In my case, 2013 set a pretty low bar. 

On the other hand, Jan and I did get a lot accomplished in 2013—things that had been put off for many years because they were stressful and we dreaded them. As Brian Tracy says, “We ate the frog” this year, tackling home repairs, etc… The many things that went wrong are probably not worth mentioning. 

If you follow my posts, you know that I believe life is lived forward, but understood backward. Looking back, I have to admit that most of what I did in terms of promoting my books last year did not work. I suppose I could put a positive spin on it and say that the methods just haven’t had time, but my instincts tell me that what I have been doing is not likely to ever work for me.

I have attended many seminars and read many books on the subject, but have not seen broad-based empirical evidence that social media is efficient for promoting (selling) the type of books I write. Many (make that most) strongly disagree with me and I certainly want to hear more arguments to the contrary. But don’t bring me any more stories of outliers and flukes. I have heard plenty of those. I want the same sort of statistics and proven results that any company would use for launching or scrapping a product, service, or marketing campaign. 

I post a lot of book reviews to Amazon and Goodreads. I do Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, and many others. None very well, however, because I simply don’t see that as the highest and best use of my time. I think I understand why others do. But one thing seems sure—one must seriously post to and read these sites to make them work. You can’t do it halfway. Doing it right takes up a tremendous amount of time—time that I feel would be better spent writing books that reflect my best efforts.  

I enjoy writing blog posts, but I don’t enjoy posting them to all of the social media sites. I like writing books more than Tweeting or Pinning. And I like writing and reading print books more than e-books and serial books. Now there are studies that show comprehension rates for reading a print book is 30% higher than reading from a screen. 

I sincerely hope that the day of the print book is not gone. Woe to good books if it is. Will “curling up with a good book” really be replaced with “curling up with a battery operated gadget”? Will Tweeting ultimately destroy spelling and grammar? Will the style of blog posts become the style of good books?

I like taking the time to structure a novel, to edit and revise it until I think it is a good as I can make it before showing it to others. I feel the need to let it simmer in my mind and on the page before I release it. I feel an obligation to myself and my loyal readers to do those things. 

Lest I sound elitist or grandiose, I am well aware of my limitations and my low position as an unknown writer. That’s probably one of the reasons writing requires so much concentration for me. With all that, errors are still missed. And those errors will always be there.

I don’t write thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, suspense, crime, romance or any of the genres that usually make up the bestseller lists. Home Light Burning would fit on historical fiction shelves, but bookstores don’t have a section for my other novels.

My protagonists are not cops, private detectives, doctors or lawyers (not so far, anyway). There are no superheroes in my books, only ordinary people handling extraordinary as well as normal problems many of us face. I learn from how my characters deal with these problems and hope my readers do the same. Elmer Kelton once said something like this, “Most Western heroes are six-two and fearless. My heroes are five-nine and afraid.”

So far, all of my novels have been based on real events and people. Most have a central theme, a symbol or two and lots of metaphors. I try to put in subtle, positive messages.

Many say that all that is required for high book sales is to write a good book. Nonsense. Some of the best books I have ever read failed to sell well and many of the worst were best-sellers.  Best- sellers are usually made by an organized and efficient marketing campaign, the kind that can usually only be accomplished by a large publisher. Other best-sellers have almost always benefited from some type of unusual event or events.  

I have found that I can only write the type of book I like to read. And yes, I read many writers who do it better. Thanks to them for setting the bar high so I have something to try and reach.

My readers have taught me so much. They are an eclectic bunch, but have a lot in common. They like stories; they don’t like to be manipulated with artificial hooks or too many flashbacks; they want almost no flash-forwards; they want characters and events to be believable (that’s why I base my books on reality); they don’t like to “work” to read a book and don’t appreciate authors who sacrifice readability on the altar of literary style.

They like antagonists they can root against, but the bad guy doesn’t have to reach the level of Hannibal Lecter. And they want at least one character they can like and identify with—someone they can pull for.
I am grateful for all my readers, and yes, I wish there were more of them. 

I have my next novel almost ready for a team of early readers. I continue to believe that one should pay attention to the little things in life, because we may later learn that they are the big things. Stories are little things that I consider really big things. I plan to continue telling them—even if they are read only by a small but loyal audience.
Unless I am convinced otherwise, I plan on changing things in 2014. If not, I would have to plead insanity. I am just not sure what those changes should be. Maybe you could give me some ideas.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Collision Course

Two days before Thanksgiving, I was traveling down a state highway and saw a car in an intersection ahead. As I drew within thirty or so yards, the car entered the left lane in front of me. I honked and moved right. When I saw that he might not stop, I laid down on the horn and the brakes, but it was too late. He “t-boned” me and sent my car careening sideways down the highway, finally coming to a stop facing the wrong direction. I looked out and saw pieces of my pickup in the road.

I sat there a few seconds to see if I had gone to heaven or was still alive. There must be a brief time when we are protected somehow, seconds when our minds block things out. Because when I looked out the window, a wrecker was already parked across the road and sirens were blaring.

Then I saw the car that had hit me. Smoke boiled and liquids poured out of the little convertible. I thought the “jaws of life” would be needed to extract the driver and any passengers from this metal pancake. Had I just been involved in an accident that had taken a life?

I pushed open my broken door, stepped out and, heart racing, started toward the car. Seconds later, the driver kicked open his door and stepped out unhurt.

In the old days, after I pinched myself to see if I was alive and asked if the other driver was alive, I would have probably uttered a string of expletives at the situation, maybe even at the other driver.  “Are you drunk or just stupid? Where did you learn to drive? Look what you did to my truck,” might have been some milder exclamations.

This time, I think I only uttered a single expletive, and that was to myself. When I met the other driver between his car and mine, I just said “Are you okay?” He asked the same of me. Now, I’m not going to tell you that I stepped out of my car with a feeling of gratitude in my heart. I didn’t say, “Thank you Lord, for sparing us both” until a few hours later.

I’m also not going to claim that I felt great sympathy and goodwill for the fellow whose mind temporarily deserted him for parts unknown, allowing him to pull out on a state highway without looking. We could have both been killed or badly injured (I think the step rail on my pickup kept that from happening). But I was glad he was alive and told him so (I learned that he is the father of three school age children). He admitted fault and we shook hands.

I have had a few near misses in the past, been run into at stop signs twice, but I have never had a wreck that could easily have killed me or someone else. So it seems I should learn something from the experience.

I write a lot about coincidences, luck, blessings, and Godwinks, but usually to tie positive events together. I think I understand why, when good things happen. But I can’t explain those moments in time when two forces collide, often tragically. Who knows why two fathers hit a collision course that morning? I don’t have space to tell you the unusual circumstances that put me in that particular spot at that exact moment. Suffice it to say that it was a highly unlikely series of events that put me there. Also, three seconds sooner or later for either of us, and we would have avoided the collision.

So what did it teach me? The old Jim would have only focused on the terrible and expensive event, how my pickup will never be the same, how it was sure to upset my life for weeks, maybe months to come, and how it ruined both Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the new Jim asked questions like:
Was this father of three headed for death by an eighteen wheeler later in the day or the next? Did this wreck save him from a fatal encounter with a truck that might have hit him before I did? Was there a safety flaw in his vehicle that could have taken the lives of his entire family later?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions, of course, but I’m glad they come to mind.
I dreamed about the wreck for several nights, replaying the scene and wondering what I might have done to avoid the collision. No answers came.

The event told me more about the person I want to become. That person is one who would have stepped out of the car with not just concern, but forgiveness for the driver who had almost killed me, recognizing that our roles might have been reversed. The person I want to be would send up an immediate prayer of gratitude. I will eventually get there. 

Questions come to mind when one is talking about fate, predestination, coincidences, luck or Godwinks. What if someone had been killed? What happens when the cosmic forces collide and terrible things happen to innocent and good people? Why do bad people sometimes succeed while some good people never realize their dreams? Using logic and normal cognitive thinking to explain these things can sometimes get in the way of opening ourselves up to faith and timeless truths.

So did the wreck ruin my Thanksgiving and put a damper on my Christmas spirit? I should mention that my pickup is still in the shop awaiting repairs, and that I am having to spend countless hours dealing with insurance claims and the repair itself. And I am doing it all without my truck.

As for Thanksgiving, it went pretty well. But when we had possibly the worst ice storm ever about ten days later, I started to feel sorry for myself again. Like many others, we lost power for three days, telephone service for two. We lost all our refrigerated food. I had to literally saw my way out of our driveway the next morning. Our place looks like a tornado hit it, with more than fifty large tree limbs on the ground and probably a hundred smaller ones. But a tornado did not hit. We have a wood stove and I have a lot of dry wood. I still need my truck and I don’t like dealing with insurance claims, but family is coming for Christmas and I promise not to let these things spoil our celebration.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Visiting with a Living Legend

At the Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo, I signed up for a pre-conference workshop for beginning writers.  I checked into my room and barely made it down in time for the first session. The instructors treated us not like beginning writers, but like small children. I was discouraged a little as I heard college professors rattle off rules I had already broken. My left brain that likes to abide by rules battled with my right brain that likes to break them. 

The CEO of Hastings bookstores talked at a banquet that night. I learned a few things.  

On Saturday, my first sessions were almost as bad as the pre-conference, but I did get to spend an hour and a half in an informal conversation with Elmer Kelton and three other writers. Kelton was probably the best living author of westerns at the time, a consummate gentleman who imparted more information in that time than I had received in all my previous sessions combined.

He told us how he corrected and edited each page before going to the next one. It was not a method I adopted, but he was clear that it was not a rule, just a preference for him.  My favorite story was of his by-pass surgery.  As he came back from anesthesia, he hallucinated and imagined himself to be Huey Callaway, one of the characters in The Good Old Boys and The Smiling Country who was hurt while riding a bronc.  He said he was pretty sure the pain he was experiencing was from a bronc, not surgery.

Elmer  Kelton and I crossed paths a few more times before he passed away. One of the nicest people I have ever met. Years later, Sam Brown told me that Kelton agreed to read his first book and advised him on getting published.  I know he did the same for many authors.

Naturally, I was flattered, when seven years later, this review by Dr. Stephen Turner appeared. ''Jim Ainsworth is a master story teller. He is cut from the 'old rock,' the stone of Kelton and Dobie. He is able to weave a story that can transport the reader to a different time and place. Home Light Burning is a well written page-turner with crisp prose and dialogue that flows like a spring from a limestone bluff.'' --Plainview Daily Herald, December 24, 2009.

Then later, George Aubrey penned this review on Amazon for Go Down Looking. "This is one of the best pieces of fiction since Elmer Kelton died.

Okay, I don’t claim to be in the same class as Kelton, but the comparisons are nice.

Even if the first day had been a disaster, I knew I would always cherish that short time with Kelton, even if I never wrote another word. But I still was disappointed that I was not taking something more concrete away from the conference. I found it in the last two sessions.

Jane Kirkpatrick , author of several books, was down to earth, humorous and an all-around excellent speaker. My ears perked up when she said she had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and now lived in a remote part of Oregon called Starvation Point. What was she doing in Amarillo?  

In the final session, I met Jan Epton-Seale from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Like Kirkpatrick, she had traveled far to speak in Amarillo. She spoke about writing memoirs and creative writing. She had also written several volumes of poetry, and also published both fiction and non-fiction. She was later named Texas Poet Laureate in 2012.  But she made a big mistake when she hinted that she also did professional editing.

I approached her at the end of the seminar and asked if she would read my manuscript. She asked how long it was and I said about 425 pages. She frowned at the length but still quoted a price. I went to my car to retrieve the nice manuscript box I had put the draft of Rivers Flow in. When she opened the box, she frowned again. “This is single spaced.”

“I double spaced it when I wrote it, but changed it to single so it would fit in the box.” She smiled and said the price would be a little higher. To her credit, she did not double the fee.

I left the seminar feeling pretty good and had a relaxing trip home. Something had been accomplished, maybe something substantial. I had an experience working roundup and branding on a huge Texas ranch, reconnected to a friend from long ago, visited my old home place and had hired an accomplished, unbiased author to read and critique my first novel.

I mentally charged my batteries all the way home, giving myself pep talks. When I arrived home by one in the morning, I was charged. Jan and I talked till three.

I didn’t hear from Jan Epton-Seale for several weeks. She called the house on a Sunday afternoon and my Jan answered. I was team-roping that day, so I will probably never know exactly what Jan said to Jan. I am sure it was more critical than my wife said. However, when I received her written critique and marked-up manuscript the next week, the first sentence began   . . . First, you can write. Excellent criticism and suggestions followed, but that first sentence was what I needed. Jan Epton-Seale, South Texas editor for Texas Books in Review, knew that. Someday, I’ll write about a surprise meeting with her eleven years later in a Highland Park mansion.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Old Tascosa, The Mother Road, and The Bent Door

I left the Quien Sabe about mid-afternoon and headed south toward my high school stomping grounds, but could not pass Boys Ranch and old Tascosa without stopping. I toured the Tascosa courthouse donated by Julian Bivins.  Tascosa is an aberration of Otascoso (means boggy–for a nearby creek). Western legends abound here and the town has been featured in many books and movies.

Bivins also donated land to form Boys Ranch. Cal Farley and his wife then established a home for wayward boys and orphans. They ran the place for many years and are buried in front.  Cal was a semi-pro baseball player and a professional wrestler before he came to Amarillo to open a tire shop. Mr. and Mrs. Farley were there when I played high school sports there many years ago.

I left the town and the homes where boys stay with foster parents and drove up to Old Tascosa Boot Hill. It was serene to sit on top of the hill with so much history laid out before me. I always feel a deep connection to the place–as if I have lived there in another life. 

I drove south to Adrian and roamed around the town full of high school memories. Route 66, what Steinbeck called the Mother Road, ran straight through the town when I attended school there as a boy. The Mother Road was lined with service stations and cafes, a grain elevator and one of the best general, hardware, mercantile and clothing stores I have ever seen. It was two-story and had once been the Giles hotel. But traffic has been rerouted to Interstate 40 and it bypasses the tiny town.

Adrian has almost become a ghost town, but my old school was still there. I drove across the cattle guard and onto the Matador Ranch. I drove out to find the old abandoned corral that used to be the southern loading pen when this land was part of the XIT. The ranch is said to have done spring works here, then shipping in the fall. The Matador reached all the way to South Dakota. Not connected, of course.

From Rivers Ebb: Something about the place stirred him. Maybe his great-grandfather or even his grandfather had worked cattle here. Maybe he had been a ranch cowboy in another life.

I drove back to Adrian and rode around reading caution signs that had been painted with all sorts of weird proclamations that I can’t recall. It looked like an artists’ colony of sorts. I stopped in at Mid-Point Café (Adrian is the halfway point between Chicago and Los Angeles (1139 miles).  Inside, I found copies of Sam Brown’s (the high school friend who became a cowboy poet and author) books and I learned that the post office had cancelled a commemorative stamp with Sam’s image a few months earlier.

As I headed out toward our old home place, I saw the Bent Door Café and stopped to look through its abandoned windows. What a waste of a unique old building with bent doors and windows. Looking at the booth where I sat so many times inspired me somehow. I wanted to take a few notes. I had left this country unwillingly, my cowboy dreams abandoned. Now, I had come back with dreams of becoming a writer.  Suddenly tired, I realized I wanted to stay in Adrian a while longer.

The Fabulous Forty motel seemed my only choice. The old woman who had me sign the register was really gruff and unwelcoming. The room was clean enough, but austere. I pulled a metal chair outside, leaned against the building and listened to traffic going by on I-40.  Still inspired, I wrote about my time on the Quien Sabe and the visit with Calvin on a tablet.

I had brought along a copy of Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a book Dr. Fred Tarpley had suggested was similar to my manuscript. I finished it before bedtime.

On Fri. Morning, I put a copy of Biscuits Across the Brazos on the table beside Sam Brown’s books in the Midpoint Cafe and drove out toward our old house and farm. We leased the place back then and cousin Arliss farmed it for another forty years after we left. But Arliss had died the previous Christmas and the place seemed doubly sad. His old farm truck was in the shop garage with a lot more dings and dents.  The shop building seemed in better shape than when we left, but the house we had lived in was falling down.

I shoved open the back door and walked in. The place was hardly recognizable because it had been used as storage for farm castoffs. I could see through the ceiling, the roof and holes in the sides. The place was falling in. I worried a little about rattlers because Arliss said they liked the place.

I spooked a little when a white owl fluttered its feathers and flew out through a hole in the side wall. I have returned to this old place about three times in forty years, and a white owl has flown each time. I wondered if it was a sign I am not perceptive enough to decipher.

I was dressed for conference registration later in the day, so I decided not to climb over the junk blocking the doorways. I stood still for a while, trying to reconnect to the three people who had lived here for only a brief period in our lives. I always felt the presence of my parents here, though we spent most of our lives five hundred miles southeast. Maybe it’s because it was just the three of us then, alone in new country. Looking back, I now realize how frightened my parents must have been in this unfamiliar life. I grew to love it, but they never did.

Next—A Memorable Visit with a Famous Writer