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.