Little Pillows

My mental state has slowly progressed from irritation, to concerned, and now alarm.

It started innocently enough, as these things usually do. I’m fairly certain the place of origin was in the bedroom, but my mind is so fragile that the facts could easily be jumbled up there. Where it started is hardly the issue anyway. It’s survival! It’s either me or them!!

It all began six months ago when we brought home a new comforter for the master bed. The bundle we purchased included a set of matching pillow shams. We never used shams before, so in addition to the two pillows we each slept with, now there were two more sham pillows. That’s six pillows total. After my wife made the bed each morning she would carefully place the sham pillows on top of the others, eliciting the desired decorative effect.

That’s when the other pillows started to appear.

According to my wife, the smaller throw pillows were necessary to “bring out” the color of the comforter and tie it in with tones and hues present in the room. That was their only purpose! At first there were only two pillows, but when more and more started to appear I began to wonder just how many colors we had in the room to tie together. Nobody ever laid a head upon them, used them to prop up an arm, or even stuck them under a shirt to fake pregnancy. Their whole existence revolved around adornment. Soon it wasn’t just the bed space they occupied. It became a 15 minute ordeal to remove the pillows at night and toss them in a semi-organized pile in the corner of the room. Sometimes they didn’t all make it back onto the bed the next morning and hung out elsewhere. It wasn’t long before they were everywhere in the room, under-foot and in the way. However irritating I thought the whole situation was, I humored my wife and kept my mouth shut.

The pillows soon took advantage.

A month ago I was sitting in my recliner reading a novel, when something caught my attention. I peered over the top of the page, scanning the room for anything out of the ordinary, when I spotted it. Nestled in the corner of the couch, half-hidden underneath a lap blanket . . . was a red throw pillow. I didn’t recall seeing it there when I sat down, and nobody had wandered through the room. At first I thought it could have been an escapee from the bedroom, attempting to blend in as it made its way toward the front door, and freedom? But it wasn’t a color I recalled seeing before. During an intense cross examination of my wife that evening, she admitted that her practice of using pillows to accent color combinations had spread to the living room. My mood switched to concerned.

Slowly, but surely, the pillows spread. At one point I swore that the little buggers were procreating, evidenced by the fact that I’d go to bed with three pillows on the couch and the next morning I’d find four. Of course my wife told me I was crazy, letting my writers’ imagination get the better of me, but I had seen enough. I put my foot down (ironically on top of a pillow) and told her NO MORE PILLOWS!

Despite my edict, soon our daughters room was infected, and then the playroom. There was nowhere to sit without moving a pillow. I was at a loss trying to figure out how they were getting around. My concern even drove me to slipping out of bed one night, easing out the backdoor and peeking in through the porch windows using my son’s night-vision goggles to try and catch some sort of nefarious night time activities. But I saw nothing. The bedroom pillows must have warned the others what I was up to.

Finally, I went on the offensive and stuffed a handful in the hall closet, only to have them reappear in their original position the next day. I was reaching the end of my rope.

The rope broke last week. I caught our ten year old son walking through the kitchen on his way to his own room, carrying a pillow. THEY HAD TAKEN CONTROL OF MY SON TO MIGRATE! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

So now I’m alarmed and what’s even worse, I think the pillows are on to me. Just the other day I woke from an afternoon nap, out of breath. A pillow was covering my face!

I have to find a way to turn the tide. After I finish posting this I’m going to print a copy and place it in our lockbox next to the life insurance policy. If I should die under mysterious circumstances, especially if there are PILLOWS nearby, at least the truth will be known.

This battle is only beginning!

Thank you, Santa.

I don’t imagine Santa receives very many of these. Thank you letters. After all, who has the time? The children (and those adults who still believe) tore into their gifts on Christmas morning and never looked back, except maybe to complain about a present that wasn’t under the tree. They’ve been playing non-stop for days and as the newness begins to wear off, they’ll seek out their friends and relatives to play with their new toys. Soon it will be time to return to school and the holiday season will officially be over, just a fading memory with a trail of AAA batteries and bags of trash left in its wake.

Well, I’m not going to let it go this year. Is there a better way to start a new year by taking one last glance over your shoulder? Santa deserves his do. We know Santa doesn’t do what he does for the recognition, or appreciation. His reward is in the smiling faces on Christmas morning and the glow his generosity leaves behind and touches us all. But just because thanks isn’t expected, shouldn’t mean it’s not offered. A thank you means so much more when it’s unprompted. I mentioned this to my youngest son and he agreed whole-heartedly. I told him I would be writing this post and received his blessing.

So, thanks Santa. Not only for the gifts you left for me (which were unexpected and awesome), but for those you left for the rest of my family. My wife and I were the recipients of the joyful hugs and kisses your presents elicited, despite our attempts to give you the credit. Each year we’ll strive to take more of the burden off you and let you concentrate on your younger admirers, but we’ll always keep your mystery and spirit alive in our household.

Enjoy your time off and I look forward to your return next year!

If anybody else would like to tack on your own thanks before this gets sent northward, by all means.

Happy Holidays

I wanted to take a moment to wish all my faithful readers HAPPY HOLIDAYS! I hope you are spending it with family or friends and the spirit of the season is within you.

I also want to thank each of you for your support and encouragement this year. I’m really looking forward to 2010!

Anna
Bethany
Brandi
Cheryl
Claire
Cody
Donny
Eisley
Elana
Elena
Greg
Jaime
Jaleh
Jeff
Jessica
Karen
Kate
Kim
Lisa
Louise
Mark
Megan
Melissa
MB
Michelle
Michey
Myra
Patricia
Portia
Sharon
Shelli
Suzette
Sweetness
Wilhem

I’m hoping that the list next year will take much longer to type out . . . but each name will remain just as important.

Query Letters - Update (An Early Christmas Present)

Amanda received an early Christmas present this morning, and it brightened my holidays as well.

Who's Amanda? She's the woman who authored the query letter (Gargoyle Moon) I posted in my first update. Why is she smiling right now? Because this morning I received an e-mail from a literary agent. She works for an agency (redacted - there's that word again) who represents YA and Children books. She was reading my blog (MY BLOG!!) and came across the query letter Amanda had written. She was very interested in it and wondered if I could give her Amanda's information so she could get in touch with her.

I immediately went on-line and checked out the woman who sent the e-mail as well as the agency she said she represented. Both were legitimate. I e-mailed her back to thank her for the kind words about my blog and inform her I would forward Amanda her e-mail and the two of them could take it from there. She e-mailed me back a thank you.

I forwarded the agents e-mail to Amanda at 7:15 this morning, along with all of the links to the sites verifying the agents legitimacy, and I've been on pins and needles all day long waiting to hear back from her. She just responded 30 minutes ago. Excited would be an gross understatement. She promised to keep me updated about how things progress.

I don't know which to be more tickled at . . . the fact that my goofy idea for a blog post possibly ended up landing a reader an agent . . . or the fact that an agent was reading MY BLOG.

I choose both.

Writers Toolbox

I take a backpack with me wherever I go. Its black and the straps have stretched to the point where it’s constantly slipping off my shoulder. I originally purchased it because I was always carrying various papers and manuals related to the sports teams I coached, as well as stuff related to organizing the leagues where we live. I’m not involved in all that anymore, but I still lug around the bag.

Last week my wife was cleaning and attempted to move the bag out of the way. I heard her cry from the other room, “What do you have in this thing? Bricks?” I hadn’t noticed how heavy it had become and it made me wonder just what was making it so heavy. After taking an inventory of its contents I discovered most of it was writing related. I had collected all sorts of materials I reference, or used, when writing. You never know when inspiration will strike you, or a chunk of time will suddenly present itself to work on a project, so I prefer to stay mobile.

After seeing all that I had collected, I decided to take a complete inventory of everything (in the bag or not) I’ve acquired to help me learn the craft of writing. Here’s what I discovered:

1 - Digital voice-recorder
1 - IPod
1 - Bottle of Excedrin migraine
1 - Bottle of Visene
1 - Mini-book lite
1 - Writers Market (2010)
1 - ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King
1 - ‘Don’t Murder Your Mystery’ by Chris Roerden
1 - ‘Word Painting’ by Rebecca McClanahan
1 - ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
1 - ‘Echo Park’ by Michael Connelly (pleasure reading)
2 - Lead pencils
4 - Legal notepads
6 - Membership in writing forums
10 - Printed research articles for latest book in-progress
13 - Copies of Writers Digest magazine
47 - Blogs following via Google reader.
108 - Firefox internet links to writing articles

So, what’s in your toolbox? What do you have on your Christmas list that’s writing related?

Query Letters – Update Vol. 1

I was tweeted by Rachelle Gardner. Does that make me a twit? Whatever, it was way cool! I have also received a slew of awesome query letters from aspiring writers just like me. It has been truly a joy, and a learning experience, reading through them. The talent waiting to be discovered is both awe-inspiring, and humbling. It causes uncertainty within me when I read the quality of work being slow-brewed out there. But if I’ve learned one thing over the past eighteen months delving into the literary/publishing world, it’s that no matter how many books you’ve sold, self-doubt comes with the territory.

Not everybody has been as accepting of my offer however. A few members of forums I posted to had suspicions about my motives and questioned my standing to pass judgment over your queries. What I told them, and what I’ll reiterate again here to you, is that I have no standing. I’m a regular Joe (or Jill) . . . like you. I am not judging, critiquing, or evaluating these queries. I am simply posting those for books that I personally would be interested in reading. Nothing more . . . nothing less. It’s not a contest. There is no contract waiting to be signed. Just a little bit of exposure on an obscure blog existing of the fringes of the internet.

I’d also like to say that in doing this I’m gaining a better understanding of the struggles agents go through. I’ve read some beautifully written letters for stories that demonstrate the power of imagination. But no matter how meticulously prepared the letter, if the material isn’t something that stirs interest in me I can’t honestly post it here. Although I’ve experienced just a taste of the process, I can see how an agent could agonize over sending a rejection letter to an author. Not because their work isn’t good, but rather it just isn’t right for them.

That being said . . . here is one I’ve put on my list to watch for. It’s targeted for the young adult market, but my wife says that’s what I am anyway (the actual term she uses is adolescent). But seriously, this is one I would pick up for my son. I’ve redacted (that’s the second time I’ve used that word – I’m on a roll) the personal information.

I wish the author the best of luck!

DL

Dear Query Guy,

When bizarre things start happening to her, high school student Madelyn Tate discovers a connection between her brother's childhood ghost stories, an ancient book of prophecies, and the stone gargoyle that has gone missing from the roof of her family's Victorian home.

Maddie is a volleyball player for East Arken High, sub par student, and social climber extraordinaire. But when she takes a wrong turn running from the police and is implicated in a church fire, her social status plummets and her volleyball career is cut short. She meets mysterious and charming Jesse Slater, who has a penchant for pyrotechnics, and aloof Charlie DeLuca, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the stone statue that has disappeared from her roof. To add to her problems, Maddie discovers that her brother Sean isn't the only one with a secret to hide. The Tate family has a dark history of witchcraft, and the strange abilities that lay dormant for centuries have awakened themselves in her. And Maddie isn’t the only one waking up; a magic wielder known as the Dark Son is gathering strength. Now Maddie must decide whether to suppress her new found abilities and allow the Dark Son to wreak havoc on the city, or to plunge herself into a new, mysterious world.

GARGOYLE MOON is a 65,000 word young adult novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Keep Those Query Letters Coming

No. I’m not an agent. Nor a publisher. I’m just a regular schmuck…like you… trying to get somebody interested in my novel. But it’s difficult when half the literary agents in America are taking a hiatus for the holidays. Even for the ones that are still accepting them, there’s plenty of advice being passed around that suggests that querying during this time of year may not be in our best interest anyway.

I can’t say that I blame the agents for stepping back though. They work awfully hard year-round. And not just for themselves, but their clients as well. So they’ve earned the right to take a break from reading our confusing, rambling, unfocused, misguided pitches that are just a step up from smelly fish bait. The never-ending search for a diamond in the rough takes a toll. So, enjoy the time away Mr. and Ms. Agent.

But because they’ve turned off the spicket shouldn’t mean that we writers have to break up our submission routines, whatever they might be. Don’t know what to do if you can’t send out a letter this month? Does it make you feel like you’re going to explode having to wait until 2010? This is where I’m willing to help. While the agents are away, go ahead and send your query letters to me. Were you about to send one off to the Bookends agency, or Rachelle Gardner, or one of the many others before you read the notification they were not accepting any until next year? Send it to me instead. I’ll read each and every one of them and I’ll even post a few here on my blog. Don’t worry, I’ll redact (wow – that’s the first time I used that word in a sentence – fun) any personal information first. The ones I post won’t be for ridicule (I’ll do that in the privacy of my home), or held up as an example of what works or doesn’t work (like anybody really knows anyway), but rather because they’re about books I WOULD BE INTERESTED IN READING.

Submission guidelines: From now until January 15th, send your query letter only to tbone.don@gmail.com No synopsis or partial manuscripts. You can consider your submission an instant rejection because I won’t respond back, but I will post the ones that really stand out.

I’m glad to do my part and give back to the community that has given so much to me. If this is successful maybe someone else will step up and carry the torch next year.

Keep those query letters coming!

A Writers Circular Logic


I write . . . therefore . . . I am
I am . . . therefore . . . I must have purpose
I must have purpose . . . therefore . . . I set goals and objectives
I set goals and objectives . . . therefore . . . I am singularly focused
I am singularly focused . . . therefore . . . I am easily distracted
I am easily distracted . . . therefore . . . I must have Netflix, Gamefly, Dish, and the internet
I must have Netflix, Gamefly, Dish, and the internet . . . therefore . . . I am in debt
I am in debt . . . therefore . . . I need a real job
I need a real job . . . therefore . . . I must have a decent education
I must have a decent education . . . therefore . . . I would have attended an institution of higher learning
I would have attended an institution of higher learning . . . therefore . . . I would have partaken in the college experience
I would have partaken in the college experience . . . therefore . . . Many of my brain cells have bitten the dust.
Many of my brain cells have bitten the dust . . . therefore . . . I can’t remember what my next point is
I can’t remember what my next point is . . . therefore . . . I make notes
I make so many notes . . . therefore . . . I write
I write . . . therefore . . .

What If Your Critique Group Doesn’t Like Your Novel?

It’s time to look for a new group.

I’m serious.

What? You think that sounds a bit childish? A little like “I’m going to take my toys and play somewhere else.” It should, because that’s exactly what it means. Let me explain.

First off, let me clarify what I’m trying to get across by saying - If the majority of your critique group doesn’t care for your novel, you should look for another group. When the group has seven members (apart from yourself), and all seven have issues with your book, then you should probably listen to what they have to say. Having worked with statistics most of my career, I concede that your novel probably hasn’t much of a hope if you can’t interest even one person from a sampling of seven. But if two or three see merit in what you’ve written, then it’s time to move on to a group where the numbers are more in your favor.

This is my rationale. I’ve read a lot, and I mean a lot, about how there are hundreds of agents out there and it take’s drive and determination to find the one agent that see’s something special in your work and believes it can be sold to a publisher. All of those other agents either don’t represent that particular genre, don’t feel the work is publishable, or recognize the potential but sense it’s not right for them.

The make-up of the individuals in a critique group is the same way. Some have no interest in the genre you write in, some can’t warm up to the creative voice (style of writing) you choose to use, others are genuinely helpful and offer constructive suggestions, and the rest think you can do no wrong and your crap smells like roses. So why would you make changes to your manuscript based upon the recommendations of people who most of which aren’t 100% behind it?

Maybe an example would better illustrate my point. In the town where I live there’s a local writers organization. I joined the group about six months ago, anxious to have my book critiqued by its members. What I quickly discovered was that 95% of the members were Christian romance writers. I write mystery/thrillers. Although a couple members graciously offered to take a look at my book (though they doubted they could be of much help), none of the others were interested. I didn’t blame them. I’ve critiqued for other authors before and I know how hard it is to look over a story you wouldn’t normally read. Clearly I had come to the wrong place and I would have to search elsewhere for help. I ended up having to find my critiques from the on-line community (except for my wife of course).

Now that was an extreme example, but my core philosophy is still sound. The people you choose to critique your work should be from a diverse group. Some should hate it, some should love it, and some can take it or leave it. That group will make your book better and help it find the agent it deserves. A group made up mostly of doubters will turn your book into something you don’t recognize. Three of the people I’m currently using really like my work, the fourth one believes I should try writing screen-plays instead. But I receive a ton of creative input from all of them! I’m always on the look-out for another eye, so if you’re interested drop me an e-mail.

But if you’re having a hard time finding enough people to be on the positive side, maybe it’s time to start listening to the doubters.

Transformation

Every year, usually the weekend just after Thanksgiving, our home becomes encased in this sort of pupa shell and a couple days later it emerges as this beautiful Christmas butterfly. What goes on inside that cocoon during that time isn’t pretty, but the result puts a smile on my face every time I walk through the door.

I’ve already professed my love for Christmas in an earlier post here, but what I didn’t make abundantly clear was my wife’s own affinity for celebrating the holidays. Over the years the number of boxes stored in the attic that are stuffed with decorations has reached the 30+ mark. The day we wrestle the boxes down has been affectionately labeled GRUNT DAY. Just the creative stacking necessary to still allow us to pull our car into the garage is remarkable. I’ve always feared that one day the attic floor would give way under the weight of all those boxes and something resembling Christmas vomit would cover of the house below.

Aside from the humongous tree in the living room, there are four other mid-size ‘theme’ Christmas trees scattered around the house, and that’s not including the tiny ones in the kids bedrooms. There’s a teddy bear tree, a precious moments tree, an LSU tree with purple and gold lights, and one that gets re-invented every year. But I would stack our main tree up against any challengers, those impressive enough to be featured on a hallmark card or on some sentimental advertising campaign. With enough lights to illuminate a small town and inter-mixed with various kinds of garland, we’ve learned from past experiences to plan for disaster and tie the top of the tree to the wall to prevent it from falling. Ornaments, each imbued with special meaning for everybody in the family, top off the grand display.

Adornments are intricately placed everywhere throughout our home. No nook, cranny, corner, or crevice is spared. There are knick-knacks that dance and play tunes, or tiny reindeer that drop milk chocolate whoppers out of their backside. One of almost 50 holiday themed CD’s blares throughout the house during the day (Transiberian Orchestra is our favorite) and every night a different Christmas movie is played. Our abode is literally filled with Christmas, and the effect is nothing short of magical.

Of course we don’t neglect the exterior of the house. Icicle lights hang from the gutters demonstrating our longing for the real thing. Tiny sparkling deer nibble on the grass in the front yard and flickering candy canes line the driveway. A large lighted wreath hangs from the eave above the garage, which can be seen all the way from the end of a very long block.

On that first night after the strands have been hung, when we’re all standing in the middle of the street admiring our efforts, only the glow of the lights brightening our smiles, we can feel a small piece of what Christmas really means.

It’s not just our surroundings that change during this time of year. We all smile a little easier. Laugh a bit louder. Volunteer our time and support more frequently. Forgive transgressions more readily. Most of us transform into a better version of ourselves during Christmas, and it’s not because we’re reminded that Santa’s watching.

That’s the part I choose to celebrate.

Query Revisions

I've revised my query letter and in keeping with my promise to detail the entire process of attempting to get published, I'm posting it again. 

I'm actually including two versions this time.  The first is an edited copy of my original.  The second is a version that focuses on Lee's POV (Point of View).  A critiquer from another forum suggested this tact, so I'm giving it a try.  Let me know which one you like (if either) as well as any suggestions for improvements.

Query #1
Dear Ms. Agent,

Dianne Williams, the manager of Greenville’s largest Private Detective Agency, is desperate for answers. The investigators at her agency have been poisoned and now she’s stumbled across the badly beaten body of her newest investigator. But before she can begin the search for the person responsible, she must first ask for help from a most unlikely source.

Lee Hamilton is a human resource manager in a small southern town, but he was also once a knight. One of six close friends labeled ‘The Knights Who Say Ni’ in college twenty-five years ago; he’s shocked to learn that one of their group has just been savagely attacked. He immediately responds to Dianne’s beleaguered request for assistance by rallying the remaining knights to her aid.

Despite the dire circumstances, Lee and the knights see an opportunity to rekindle their adventurous past and escape the doldrums of everyday life. For Dianne, the amateur-sleuths are simply a means to an end. But along the way she forms a respect and friendship for the knights and soon worries about the danger her selfish vendetta has placed them in.

The group follows a trail of clues to Manassas Virginia and the horrific events surrounding a high school shooting and the suicidal boy whose final note claimed I’m not finished yet. When the massacre is connected to the troubles at her agency, as well as a string of other serious crimes, Dianne’s investigative abilities and the boundaries of the knight’s friendship are soon tested.

As the rag-tag group must scramble to avoid arrest by both the local police and FBI, the puzzle pieces slowly come together revealing a plot whose evil intent can only be matched by its scope. It all climaxes with the Dianne and the knights racing the clock to prevent the release of the largest bio-terrorism attack in U.S. history.

Fallen Knight is a 105,000 word Mystery/Thriller. Thank you, Ms. Agent, for your consideration of this query. At your request, I will be happy to send along the complete manuscript.

Query #2
Dear Ms. Agent,

Lee Hamilton is a middle-aged human resource manager in a small southern town, but he was also once a knight. One of six close friends labeled ‘The Knights Who Say Ni’ in college twenty-five years ago; he’s shocked to learn that one of their group has just been savagely attacked and left for dead. He immediately responds to a beleaguered request from the owner of the detective agency where their friend works by rallying the remaining knights to assist in the investigation.

Despite the dire circumstances, Lee and the knights see an opportunity to rekindle their adventurous past and escape the doldrums of everyday life. The group follows a trail of clues to Manassas Virginia and the horrific events surrounding a high school shooting and the suicidal boy whose final note claimed I’m not finished yet. When the massacre is connected to the troubles at the detective agency, as well as a string of other serious crimes, the boundaries of the knight’s friendship are put to the test.

As the rag-tag group must scramble to avoid arrest by both the local police and FBI, the puzzle pieces slowly come together. They reveal a plot whose evil intent can only be matched by its scope. It all climaxes with the knights racing the clock to prevent the release of the largest bio-terrorism attack in U.S. history.

Fallen Knight is a 105,000 word Mystery/Thriller. Thank you, Ms. Agent, for your consideration of this query. At your request, I will be happy to send along the complete manuscript.

Thanks everybody!

Road Critique

This past Thanksgiving weekend the family traveled down to Monroe, La. to see my family and then continued down to Baton Rouge for the LSU - Arkansas game.  The food was awesome, the company entertaining, and the game . . . victorious (GEAUX TIGERS!). 

From where we live in Arkansas it's a 4 hour drive to Monroe, and another 4 hours down to Baton Rouge.  Our usual habits when driving as a family is the two older kids jam in their ear-buds and listen to music on their IPods, the youngest either watches DVD's on a portable player or plays games on his DSi, and the wife reads a book.  If a DVD isn't playing, I listen to the radio, but if it is, I'm forced to listen to a movie I can't watch.

Just before we pulled out of the driveway an idea popped into my head.  I had been looking for a way to jump-start the process of going through the final edit on my manuscript, and maybe I could kill two birds with one book.  I wasn't sure if the family would go along with it, because it meant some sacrifice on their parts, but I decided to pitch the idea to them anyway.  What if everybody took turns reading a chapter of my book as we drove (except me of course - duh), critiquing along the way?

Surprisingly, everybody was up for the idea.  The ten year old didn't want to read aloud, but he would offer opinions.  So down the road we went, driving and critiquing.  At the end of every chapter I took the opportunity to quiz them about plot points, motivations, character development, sub-text, etc.  My wife jotted down notes for suggestions they came up with and each individual reader highlighted sentences that needed work as they read.

Between the two drives we managed to cover eight chapters.  We didn't do any reading on the way back because nobody was in the mood, but I'm still pleased with the progress I made.  I'm also glad that we did it as a family.  It was a great experience and SO VERY HELPFUL.  I hope we can do something like that again.

So, if your a writer and struggling with your book, may I suggest that you take a drive with your family.  Both your work, and your relationship, will be better for it.

Greatest Hits - Part Two

In my last post (http://dlcruisingaltitude.blogspot.com/2009/11/greatest-hits-part-one.html duh), I reflected upon losing touch with a great many of my favorite songs during the transition from vinyl albums to digital CD’s. One day an on-line friend of mine suggested I look into the plethora vinyl to digital conversion tools out there in the marketplace, so I took his advice. I purchased a turntable that could hook up directly to my PC, downloaded the appropriate software that would handle the job, and during nights and weekends for four months I meticulously turned all of the songs on my vinyl albums into MP3 files. The journey was incredible!

What a treasure trove of nostalgia I unlocked. The album art alone had me reminiscing uncontrollably, swimming in a flood of memories. Listening to the songs and reading the linear notes awakened dormant brain cells in me undisturbed for years. Sights and sounds (I have no sense of smell, so I missed out on that) as well as emotions overwhelmed my conscious mind. I found myself transported. I also felt physically younger during that four month period.

It was more than just hearing the songs themselves, for there’s something magical about listening to recording played on a phonograph. The pops and hisses, just like it was when it caressed your ear drum for the first time, added a quality only detectable to those of us who came through that era. The imperfections were part of the music.

While I was listening my way through 600+ albums, I stumbled across a few songs that held certain significance. I imagined that if my life was a movie and a soundtrack accompanied it, these are a few of the songs that would be on it.

“Another Saturday Night” by Cat Stevens
Man did this song come to epitomize the loneliness of my high school years. The lyrics from the first stanza said it all. I remember numerous nights lying on my the bed in my room, alone, feeling sorry for myself. How can such a depressing song have such an infectious tune?

Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody
I’ve got some money ‘cause I just got paid
Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to
I’m in an awful way

“You Ain’t See Nothing Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
This song represented the flip side of my high school experience and was the first album I ever bought. It was our high school class song and I remember listening to it over and over in a hotel room during our senior weekend at the Moorehead City beach. I also remember thinking that mixing beer and orange juice was a good idea as well. Can you say RALPH!

“Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
This was my first realization that there was more to music than just the top 40 radio hits and three chord power ballads. I was first intrigued by the album cover. During the summer between high school graduation and starting school at LSU, I would explore the area around the campus and I found this record store where I ultimately purchased the bulk of my collection. On the wall behind the newly released records was this album cover that was folded out and pinned to the wall. On a pure white background was a black and white picture of a scraggily, unshaven guy wearing a black leather jacket holding onto a cross between a fender telecaster and a fender esquire electric guitar. He was shown leaning against a large black man playing a saxophone. I asked if they could cue up the album so I could listen to it and although I fell in love with and bought the album because of the first song (Born to Run), it was Jungleland that opened my eyes to musical depth. It was constantly playing on my eight-track as I traveled the roads of Louisiana.

“Slow Ride” by Foghat
As much shit as I give my son for wasting money on frivolous things in college, I have to admit that my parents said the same thing when I blew a good portion of my summer payroll on my first stereo during sophomore year. One hundred watts per channel of power (which was a lot back then) and floor speakers that came up to my waist could rattle even the most sturdiest of doors. The first weekend after I purchased it was a beautiful summer day, so we took my speakers and propped them against my dormitory rooms open 7th floor window and blared this song to anybody walking in the quad below. The campus police were not impressed with the song, or my new stereo, but even they couldn’t ruin my mood that day.

“Slow Dancing, Swaying to the Music” by Johnny Rivers
This is a song that to this very day still gives me a sweet, warm, melancholy feeling when I hear it. The act of re-discovering this song was also the inspiration for my first book. It is a song that will be forever intertwined with memories of friendship, the Florida beach, and the first girl I ever loved. Ironically, the book I wrote is a murder mystery. Go figure.

“Thriller” by Michael Jackson
I’ve already written a blog post http://dlcruisingaltitude.blogspot.com/2009/08/thriller.html dedicated specifically to this song and its significance.

“When I Wish Upon A Star” by Jiminy Crickett (Cliff Edwards)
A testament to the fact that wishes do come true and they should be celebrated in their hometown. My wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon at Disneyworld. When I married her I joined myself to my constant companion, my best friend, my critic, my conscience, my coach, my cheerleader, and my lover. And I am all of that for her. We are a partnership in the purest form. We have survived the lean times, the changing environment, growing pains and the hostile takeover bids. It hasn’t always been easy, but what dreams are?

“Long Live Rock” by The WHO
It’s sometime past one o’clock in the morning and I’m breaking the speed limit trying to get to the hospital in Arkansas from a soccer tournament in Oklahoma. My wife’s about to deliver our 3rd child and I’m desperate to get there before it happens. I’m tired from already driving for hours and the radios blasting to keep me awake, but the signal is fading. Luckily I have my own compilation CD and I pop it in. I’m thinking about the birth of my other two children, about the fact that I’m going to be a father again at the age of 43, and wondering if I’ll have the energy to go through diapers and colic again. Then this song starts playing. Hell, if the WHO can play rock & roll well into their 50’s, then I can do this! I played that song over and over a dozen times. I made it back in time as well.

“18 ‘til I Die” by Bryan Adams
Just ask my wife.

“Land of Hopes and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
This one will play at my funeral. The lyrics say it all.

This train
Carries saints and sinners
This train
Carries losers and winners
This Train
Carries whores and gamblers
This Train
Carries lost souls
This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin'
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin'
This Train
Carries broken-hearted
This Train
Thieves and sweet souls departed
This Train
Carries fools and kings
This Train
All aboard

Greatest Hits – Part One

In 1984 when I purchased my first compact disc player, I was both thrilled and sorrowful. I was excited about the sound quality and feature filled possibilities that the new technology offered, but I was forlorn over my 600+ album collection that had instantly become obsolete.

I knew it would be cost prohibitive to try and replace all of my albums with the CD version, so I did the next best thing and purchased the greatest hits collections of all my favorite artists when they were released on CD. The record companies weren’t idiots and knew that millions of audiophiles were in the same boat as I, so the market was instantly flooded by greatest hits collections. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, Aerosmith, BTO, Queen, Cars, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Yes, Elton John, ELO, Journey, the list goes on and on. The only exception was THE BOSS, Bruce Springsteen. I had to have each of his individual records on CD.

I continued to listen to my vinyl albums off and on until 1990 when our family moved from Georgia to Arkansas, forcing all of my albums into storage boxes. Because the home we moved into didn’t have bookshelves to display them, my albums remained sequestered in a dark closet until just recently.

For a while I was perfectly content with relying on my greatest hits CD’s when I became nostalgic and yearned to hear some vintage tunes, but I realized on numerous occasions that something was missing. More and more I was feeling unfulfilled. It didn’t take me long to figure out what the problem was…..the hidden gems. You know what I’m talking about, the songs that never play on the radio or make Casey Kasem’s infamous top 40 list, but yet harmonize with your soul. The song between track number five which was a #1 single for twelve weeks straight, and track number seven which won the MTV award for the most sleaziest video. It didn’t matter that nobody else seemed to care for that song, it moved something in you. Hidden gems are what any self respecting music collector is constantly in search of.

Contemplating this makes me wonder how many other times in life we focus on the most popular parts and ignore all the rest. We are a cut and paste society after all. Today’s youth download all of their songs into their IPod and engineer playlist full of favorites, allowing the less popular songs to fade into obscurity. Writing this blog I’ve found myself doing just what I’m trying to describe. As I think about events or feelings to write about and I concentrate on the highlights. It isn’t that smaller, more intimate moments aren’t any less important to me, but for the sake of time and space I condense it all down into what I think is entertaining and enjoyable to read. In essence what I’ve done is edit out some memories that were special only to me. Moments such as staring at Boo’s peaceful face as he slept soundly in his sleeping bag on one of our camping trips, remembering feeling so much love for him that it was literally impossible to describe.

I know that as the years pass me by, intimate memories such as that will be harder to hold onto as they compete with grander, more life changing ones. It may not be a greatest hit, but it is a treasured one none the less.

As the title of this post suggest, this is the first of two parts. In my next posting I’ll try to be less metaphorical and talk about actual music that comprises the sound track of my life.

I’ll also tell you how both of these posts ultimately formed the foundation for my first book.

Until then, I hope that those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving (hey - I could have some international readers), have a safe and happy holiday!

Crossing Guard

My son’s pin went missing last week and he was in a panic. It was his Ambassador pin from school and he needed to wear it because he was supposed to escort visitors around the grounds that day. As my wife described the chaos of that morning as they turned the house upside down looking for this stupid little pin, I simply shook my head and smiled. Eventually the pin was found and everything was right in Boo’s world again, but at the time I found it comical how something as insignificant as a pin could create such a stir in their morning routine.

But later their little ordeal got me thinking about something in my own past. A similar recognition I earned when I was a kid. In the sixth grade we were living in Silver Springs, Maryland, and I attended a fairly new facility located in the center of a dense middle-class district. I remember something else from that area that seems oddly missing from the American neighborhood now-a-days, sidewalks. In my skewed view of the past, it seems like more people used to walk back and forth between destinations then. I know that more kids walked to school because those same sidewalks were jammed with students in the mornings and afternoons.

The school had two drive-ways leading to the teacher parking and bus drop-off from opposite sides in the front of the building. The amount of foot-traffic crossing those vehicle entrances was considerable and necessitated that somebody be stationed there before school in the morning and after last bell every afternoon to prevent problems. The school ingeniously chose the situation to not only satisfy a definite need, but bolster a few self-esteems as well.

Students were selected at the beginning of every school year to serve as these crossing guards. Being chosen was a big. Teachers would recommend possible candidates to the Principal, and only those with A’s and B’s on their report cards and zero disciplinary marks could be considered. Aside from the prestige of being selected and the little bit of responsibility they gave us, there were special benefits as well. Duties would rotate and sometimes assignments would range from walking the school grounds, to assisting the teachers setting up for assemblies. You were allowed to be late to class in the morning and leave early in the afternoon. And there were parties just for the crossing guards. But by far, the most important thing about being one of the selected few, was the BELT! It was bright orange, made from a synthetic fiber that went around your waist and over one shoulder. The cool thing to do was folding it in a special way and hanging it from our belt when we weren’t on-duty.

Thinking back on that experience I wonder how much of what was ingrained in me then is still relevant today. Was I just a crossing guard, or was there more to it? The answer I came up with surprised me. As a coach, I feel that I Sheppard the kids on my teams across fundamental times in their lives, ever watchful for dangers on the horizon. As a father, I accept that my role is sometimes invisible and I do the little things without need for recognition or acknowledgment. And as a husband, I’m counted upon to be there every day, rain or shine.

Considering this, I’ve chastised myself for the way I reacted to my son’s missing pin. He was chosen as an Ambassador to his school and it’s a big deal, rightly so. It signifies the trust his teacher bestowed upon him to represent his school honorably, and recognition of a character trait that should be celebrated. His pin, and everything it stands for, is just as important as my belt was to me.

Good for him.

Fallen Knight Query Letter - Original

I wanted to share with you my first attempt at a query letter for my novel.  I imagine it will undergo numerous re-writes before its ready to forward to literary agents, and I'll post those revisions as well so you can see what the process is like.

The intent of this letter is to communicate the overall 'flavor' of the book.  If I had any serious writing credentials, those would be included as well, but composing technical journals where I work doesn't really count as one.

Anyway, let me know what you think.  I'm eager to hear any suggestions.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Dianne Williams, the fiercely independent manager of Greenville’s largest Private Detective Agency, has just seen her week go from bad to worse. It started off with her stable of investigators dwindling to alarming low numbers due to a rapidly spreading illness that seems to be affecting only people from her agency, and now she’s stumbled across the badly beaten body of Steven Ebe, her newest rookie investigator. Shaken and off-balance, with Ebe in a coma fighting for his life and her agency barely staying afloat, Dianne must go against her better judgment to enlist help from a most unlikely source.

Lee Hamilton is a reserved, middle-aged human resource manager living with his new wife in Conway Arkansas, but he’s also a knight. One of six tightly-knit friends who came together during their time in college, their mischievous group came to be affectionately known as ‘The Knights Who Say Ni’. Now that the gang has recently reconnected, Lee’s been infused with a newfound sense of belonging. When he receives a call from Dianne informing him that one of their own has been savagely attacked, Lee uses the situation to reawaken his adventurous past and rally the knights to Dianne’s side and help find the person responsible.

Dianne, Lee and the rest of the knights quickly discover a veiled connection between the not-so-random attack on their fallen friend and the poisoning of her agency. Following Ebe’s trail of clues from a previous trip to Manassas Virginia on agency business, it leads them to the horrific events surrounding a high school shooting that claimed the lives of twenty-three students six months earlier. They reluctantly joins forces with a young, ambitious FBI agent to decipher how they’re discoveries tie back to their friends attack and they soon realize that things in Manassas aren’t what they appear . . . they’re much, much worse! Suddenly in over their heads with an investigation that test the limits of Dianne’s abilities and the boundaries of the knights friendship, Dianne must come to grips with her desire to find retribution for Ebe and the very real danger she’s put her group of amateur-sleuths in. The rag-tag band must ultimately race the clock to fit the puzzle pieces together and prevent the largest bio-terrorism attack in U.S. history.

Fallen Knight is firmly positioned in the Mystery/Thriller genre with a generous dose of humor as a bonus. Thank you, Ms. Agent, for your consideration of this query. At your request, I will be happy to send along part of the story, which is complete at 105,000 words.

Regards,

DL Hammons

 

Mom

My mom died six years ago today. It was a Monday. It was chilly outside and the sun was trying to peek out from behind mostly cloudy skies. I know because I was looking to the heavens a lot that day. Her death wasn’t expected, but neither was it a complete surprise. She went into the hospital a healthy woman with a minor case of Pancreatitis, which she suffered and recovered from a couple times previously, and two months later she was gone. There were infections, multiple surgeries, breathing problems, kidney failure, and a long list of other complications that led ultimately to a coma. In the end it reached a point where it became a family choice to discontinue the life saving measures that were keeping her alive and prolonging her suffering. When she slipped the bonds of her tortured body and moved on to her next journey, I wasn’t in the room. I couldn’t. She was 69 years young.

A few days later, just prior to her funeral, I was alone in the basement of my parents home when my Dad came to me. He had a question for me. He wanted to know if I would say something during the service. I had already been contemplating the notion, so I agreed without hesitation. My dad appeared relieved and I realized he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand up in front of our friends and family due to the emotion of the day. He knew that even as shy and withdrawn as I am, through my work I had experience communicating at group functions. It was important to him, and me, that somebody who knew her well speak for her at the service.

Even though my parents weren’t regular church goers, my mother was raised Methodist and the services were held at a quaint little church not too far from where they lived. The two of them had only lived in Loganville, on the outskirts of Atlanta, going on ten years but you wouldn’t have known it from the number of people who made it to the funeral. Family and friends overwhelmed that poor little church. Fortunately they found a seat for everybody who wanted one.

The main service was performed by a priest I had only met that day, and that my mother had never met. It was fairly generic, as only it could be, until he asked if there was anybody who wished to offer a few words. I stood up, nervously stepped to the podium and looked out over the gathering. A rush of panic momentarily seized me, constricting my vocal cords and raising the temperature in the room to 120 F. Then I locked eyes on my dad, and calmness settled over me, driving out the uncertainty. I was ready.

Although what follows isn’t word for word what I said back then, it’s pretty close.

“When Dad asked me if I wanted to speak here today I immediately said yes, but then I had a couple of days to think about what it was I wanted to say. The more I kept trying to think of things to say that could best exemplify who Mom was, the more this one particular question kept popping into my head. Before long that question was all I could think about. It tormented me day and night. Then the answer came to me and part of it is actually one of the reasons I’m standing here now. I also realized that a lot of you may be asking yourself the same question. I hope I can help answer it for you.

First I want to tell you of two memories of my Mom that I keep not in my head, but in my heart. They represent who she was to me and to a lot of you as well. The first one took place when I was just 7 or 8 years old and we were living in military housing at Quantico Virginia. For some reason I was in a different school system than my two brothers, which meant I had to take a separate school bus. This really terrified me, but I never let on to anybody. One morning my brothers were already gone off to school and I was dragging my feet getting ready, feeling especially alone that day, and mom asked me what was wrong. I can still see her standing there in her white housecoat that was three inches too long and dragged on the carpet wherever she walked. Of course I said nothing, but she must have known something wasn’t right. She asked me if I wanted to take the day off. The DAY OFF? You can do that, I asked her. We sure can, what do you want to do first? We never left the house that day. She made me pancakes, we played game after game, she watched cartoons with me, it was great. It was one of the best days ever, and it came at just the right time. And she knew it without me even saying a word.

The second story occurred years later when I was a sophomore in college. I had just broken up with what was my first serious girlfriend and I had crawled home to lick my wounds. Of course I didn’t come out with it right away, but Mom again knew something was wrong. Eventually she got me to open up and I cried my eyes out to her. The whole time she was calm and soothing, letting me just spill my guts out. After a while I felt much better, so she informed me that she needed to run into town to pick up some groceries. I didn’t find this out until much later, but when she left the house she drove to the first gas station on the way and called Dad at work from a pay phone and cried her eyes out to him over the phone. She didn’t want me to see what my pain was doing to her.

That’s the way Mom was, and I think that’s why Dad asked me to speak to you today. My Mother was not an emotional person on the outside. It was hard to tell where you stood with her sometimes. Everything with her ran very deep, with very little showing on the surface. But she always knew when you were down or needed a little extra attention. She was very in tune to peoples feelings, even though she didn’t demonstrate much of that herself. And I’m the same way. Of all us in this family, I’m the one who is most like her.

That is why I figured out the answer to the question that was upsetting me, because I’m like my Mom, and she was like me.

And what was that question? It was…Did she know? When she left us, did she know how much I loved her, how much we all loved her and will now miss her? Did I tell her enough? Did I show her enough?

I can tell you now that the answer is yes. She may not have been the hugging, kissing, or fussing type, in fact that may have made her uncomfortable, but she knew how we felt just the same. Just as I would.

She knew we loved her, and will miss her terribly. Goodbye, mom.

A parent’s passing is a loss that cracks your very foundation and makes you question your every step. I feel cheated that now that I’m a father with older children of my own, and I’m really starting to appreciate what it truly means to raise a child, that I won’t have her here with me so that I can thank her all the more. But writing this blog helps me keep her alive in my thoughts.

I appreciate your patience with me as I remember her again this year.

I miss you Mom!

Where Do I Fit?

I’m getting closer.

My book has reached a point where I’m feeling more comfortable about sending out a few query letters to perspective agents. The process of writing a query letter is daunting by itself. I can’t tell you how many blogs, magazine articles, e-mails, and book chapters I’ve read devoted to this one subject. There are also on-line courses and live instructor seminars centered on the topic. It’s that big of a deal.

Being who I am, I disconnected the cart and moved it in front of the horse by researching which agents I wanted to forward the query I hadn’t written yet to. These agents are a rather picky bunch and prefer to receive letters only for the type of writing they represent. Go figure. So I’m doing my due diligence and researching which agents prefer what, and that’s when I get confused. I thought I had a handle on the type of novel I had written until I started reading the many categories. Talk about making something more complicated than it needs to be. Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about. There’s literary fiction, contemporary fiction, adult genre fiction, commercial fiction, hard-boiled mystery or crime fiction, cozy mysteries, and mainstream mystery/suspense. Sheesh!

Rolling up my sleeves (I usually wear short sleeves, but I wanted to provide you with that mental image, so just go with it) I dove in further to figure out what the true meaning of these categories were, like literary fiction is the term principally used to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit). Sometimes it seemed as if the agents weren’t using the same playbook, I mean what’s the difference between a mainstream mystery, a hard-boiled mystery, and a cozy mystery? It would be so much easier if we could just use a differently methodology to label our writing. How about food? If literary fiction were the five star dining cuisine of the writing world, say Jean-Georges in New York, then I’d liken my writing to Applebee’s, or maybe even a Joe’s Crab Shack. Definitely not fast food though!

Now that I have a better understanding of the landscape, I can see where perspective authors who are misinformed or too lazy to figure out the system could carpet bomb the industry with their queries.

Me, I’m planning a surgical strike.

The Santa Clause Equation

Let the countdown begin.

I can almost hear the groans ringing out across the internet as you read this.  At the time of this posting there is only forty-five more days remaining until Christmas, and for our family that means making lists, watching for newspaper ads, and scouring the internet for any deal that will save us precious dollars.

Everybody goes about their holiday shopping differently and you should feel free to post your own particualr habits in the comments section.  Honestly, our family has tried many different approaches. I’ve done the shopping extremely early in the year thing, but that left me feeling as if I'd suffered premature consumerization.  Then there were the years where last-minute runs to Walmart was common, and I'd like to apologize to all of you who still have presents collecting dust in the back of a closet from those Christmas's.  I've even thrown caution to the wind and subjected myself to the phenomenon called Black Friday a couple times.  Let me just say this about that experience . . . it is not for the feint of heart . . . and hell hath no fury like a woman shopper who's been butted in front of.

Thankfully the process of shopping has changed dramatically over the years.  I’ve gone from running around the state in search of that one SKU that nobody seems to have in stock, to buying 85-90% of the presents on-line and having them delivered to our front door, sometimes even gift-wrapped.

But it's all worth it because I adore Christmas! Just ask my wife, the largest kid in our family isn’t one of our children when it comes to this time of year. I love giving presents and I’m not ashamed to admit I get excited when I receive them as well. I guess my parents are partially to blame for my Yule tide enthusiasm, having spoiled us kids year after year. They did so regardless of the family’s financial standing, or the state of the economy. Inside our bubble we were oblivious to those problems, always awakening to mountains of presents under the tree to tear into.

My wife is the pragmatic one in our family when it comes to money matters. It took awhile, and I’m still have to go to meetings and be faithful to the 12-step program, but she finally made me take a hard look at my addiction and see the burden of debt the holidays put us under when I was in charge of the present buying. Now we’ve adopted a budget for our holiday spending. That includes swearing off credit cards and the evils of other same as cash incentives. We decide on a number we think we can afford and work backwards from there.

When it comes to buying presents, the formula for working within a budget isn’t as simple as you’d might think. It’s definitely not as straight-forward as this:

$$ ÷ #people = $ per person

There are all sorts of other factors influencing the equation. For instance, factor #1 = relationship. Your children always receive the largest slice of the pie. It’s a golden rule that cannot be fooled with. Parents, bothers & sisters, nephews & nieces, and co-workers are left with the scraps. Then there’s factor #2 = age. The younger the recipient is, the higher the present quotient. Christmas is for kids, after all. But if we’re talking about grown kids, is it right to consider such things as distance, both physically and emotionally? Does a child who stops by and calls frequently deserve a bigger gift than one who you rarely see or hear from? And then there’s factor #3 = the reciprocation factor. How much do you spend on the relative whose presents look like re-gifts from a dirty Santa party?

Think that's complicated?  We're just getting started.  Now that you've broken down how much $$ you can spend on who, there are the sub-factors to consider as you plan how Christmas morning will play out.  Will the children be opening up an equal number of presents?  This can be a real challenge for families who have both tiny tots and older kids whose gift lists are loaded with items where a single choice could consume their entire $$ alotment.  What about the size of the presents?  You have to acquire at least a couple gifts with enough bulk to fill out the space beneath the tree.  I can go on and on.

Eventually the equation I mentioned previously resembles something more like this.





Oh. . . I left out the most important element of all. It’s the one component of the whole equation that impacts every other part.

Does the intended recipient believe in Santa Clause?

After all, everybody knows that people who believe in Santa receive more presents than those who don’t.

Plus One

I picked up a couple more followers last week, which I am extremely grateful for, and even more exciting is that they don't know me personally.  Nobody burst their bubble and spill the beans about me.  At least not yet. 

Unfortunately, at this rate I won't hit my goal of 100 until mid-way through 2010.  So I'm going to throw a cyber-party Friday.  I know . . . I know . . . it's completely accidental that it happens to be Friday the 13th.  You all are invited, and I EXPECT everyone to bring with them one guest.  If I'm truly writing content you find entertaining, or poignant, then share it with at least one other friend and lets have a ball together!  We can do this thing!

It'll be BYOK (Bring Your Own Keyboard).  I'll be collecting modems at the door and they won't be returned when you leave unless I'm convinced of your sobriety.  

See you then!

Revenge of the Interviewer

Interviewer:  May I come in?

Me:  What are you doing here at my home?

Interviewer:  I didn't like the way things ended during our first meeting, and there's a few things I felt needed to be said.

Me:  And you had to confront me in my home?  If you would have called, I would have come back in.

Interviewer:  Are you going to let me in, or not?

Me:  Sure.

Interviewer:  What are you smiling at?

Me:  I just find it humorous that one of the tips everybody hears about interviewing for a job is to imagine the person your speaking to not wearing any pants on the other side of the desk.  And lo and behold, here you are, not wearing any pants.

Interviewer:  It's a warm day.  Isn't that a Henschel Deerstalker your wearing?  The hat Sherlock Holmes wore.

Me: Yes.

Interviewer: And a Calabash Pipe?

Me:  They help me think when I'm writing.

Interviewer:  Do you have a magnifying glass as well.

Me:  What is it you wanted to say?

Interviewer:  I wanted to point out to you that even though it doesn't require social skills to write a good book, that isn't all there is to becoming a successfully published author.  Landfills are full of worthy manuscripts that have never seen a publishers desk.  Its a cut-throat business and it increasingly takes more than raw talent to break through.  You have to be willing to become a champion for your work.  Pitching both it and yourself to skeptical editors at a steady stream of writers conferences and literary retreats.  Are you capable of schmoozing in order to establish the necessary connections?

Me:  I . . . ah . . . I hadn't --

Interviewer:  You hide in your solitary world because you, in part, abhore rejection.  Well you had better overcome that fear, and fast, because a title wave of negativity is headed your way if you pursue this.  In order to find the one agent that feels the same way about your book as you do, you'll have to wade through a pool of indifference.

Me:  But --

Interviewer:  And if by some quirk of luck you do find representation and land a publishing deal, are you willing to do what it takes to promote the book so it earns back whatever amount the publisher advances you?  Will you sit at that small table inside the tiny bookstore in a city whose name you can't pronounce on a Sunday afternoon for a book signing that nobody shows up for?  Can you do that?

Me:  (Silence)

Interviewer:  You look rather pale.  Do you feel okay?

Me:  I'm not sure.

Interviewer:  I'll be going now.  I've said what needed to be said.

Me:  I guess this means I didn't get the job.


InterviewerOn the contrary, I've read your book and I think there's potential there.  We'd like you to start today.


Me:  Why do I feel like there's a huge BUT coming?


Interviewer:  Once you make a commitment to us you'll basically have no free-time, constant pressure to produce, your work will become our work, and all of that for a salary of zero.


Me:  Can I think about it for a while?


Interviewer:  Isn't that what you've been doing for months now?

Me:  Thanks for coming by...I think.

Interviewer:  There is one more thing though.

Me:  Yes.

Interviewer:  Having an active imagination can be a bitch sometimes, don't you think?

Can a man of few words . . . write a book?

I posted this as my Facebook status this morning, but the more I thought about it the more I felt it deserved its own blog post.  As I contemplated what to write, I started envisioning what the publishing process would be like if it were more similar to applying for a job.  This is the way my mind works sometimes.

Interviewer:  Good morning Mr. Hammons.  Won't you please have a seat?

Me:  I'd rather stand.

Interviewer:  Hmmmmmm.  That would make me feel uncomfortable.  Let me change that from a request  to a command.  Have a seat.

Me:  Is that better?

Interviewer:  Much.  I see here on your application that you would like to be hired as a published writer.  Lets start by you telling me what qualifies you for this position?

Me:  Well . . . I've written two full-length novels, although only one of them is what I would consider publishable right now.

Interviewer:  Do you have any other qualifications?

Me:  Like what?

Interviewer:  Have you ever written a short story that has done well in a contest?  Possibly there's something in your education, a degree in literature?  Maybe you've worked in the publishing industry in some fashion?  Anything along those lines that demonstrate a propensity for writing?  Do you write a blog that's extremely popular?

Me: I do write a blog, but it's still new and I don't have that many followers yet.  Aside from that, I don't have any of those other things you mentioned.  But I do write a lot of instructional manuals where I work.  Does that help? 

Interviewer:  Not at all.  Did you base your novel on a topic that you alone are uniquely positioned to write about?

Me:  It's a murder mystery/thriller.

Interviewer:  Oh.  No help there.  I'm afraid I'm not seeing anything on your application that would even remotely suggest that you'd be successful as a published author.  To top it off, the results of the test you took when you arrived wasn't very favorable.

Me:  Are you talking about peeing in the cup?

Interviewer:  Ewwww...no.  I'm referring to the personality questionnaire you filled out.

Me:  What about it?

Interviewer:  Is that a banana?

Me: Yes, it is.  I didn't get any lunch today.  I also brought an apple, would you like it?

Interviewer:  No thank you.  Back to your personality test.  It basically paints you as being an introvert, lacking social skills and uncomfortable in group situations.

Me: (Chewing) So.

Interviewer:  That hardly constitutes the personality of someone able to tell a story in a manner that it keeps the readers hanging on every word.  I could see where just the dialogue alone would be a challenge for you.

Me: Dialogue is one of my strong points.

Interviewer:  I find that hard to imagine.

Me:  And that's why your not a writer.  For your information, there is very little correlation between social skills and the ability to write. Amazing writers such as J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy are known for being recluses.  You not hiring me to be a writer because I'm not outgoing enough is like not hiring a lumberjack to cut down tree's because he's a vegetarian.  One's got nothing to do with the other.  I'm insulted that you've judged me and made up your mind without even reading my material.  The book should speak for itself.

Interviewer:  I know.

Me:  You do?  Then why were you giving me such a hard time.

Interviewer:  I wasn't . . . you were.  This is your imagination.

Me:  Oh. 

The Hole in his Smile

We sometimes call our youngest son … Boo. As an infant he had a curious addiction to peek-a-boo games, laughing and giggling every time his mother or I would pop our head out from behind anything handy. His fascination for the silly along with that cute, endearing smile was something a parent could never grow tired of. At work on Monday mornings, before the coffee was brewed and the copier was warmed up, I would commonly find myself sitting at my desk enduring a bout of depression. I regretted not spending more time with our children over the weekend, I still do, and thinking about the smile that lit up Boo’s face when I did my best to startle him made it all the more painful.

When he was seven years old he lost his first tooth. It had been dangling tenuously for awhile, stubbornly hanging on by a single meaty thread like an apple in a tree waiting for a stiff wind to finally shake it loose and send it tumbling to the ground. I thought he was just being extremely patient, willing to let Mother Nature decide when it was time to fall out, until his sister opened his eyes. She informed him he needn’t wait for it to drop out, that he could pull it himself and collect the booty from the tooth fairy right away. You could see a light bulb come on in his head, so much so that I started worrying about his other healthy teeth. He disappeared into the bathroom and his mother and I smiled at each other, returning to watching the TV. Suddenly I heard a gasp from the other room and then the pitter patter of bare feet across the linoleum floors. It was out, he declared! He was so proud of his accomplishment that he marched around to everyone, showing off the tooth and the bloody hole it had emerged from. Afterwards, he spent a lot of time smiling at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. This was a big deal. When it was time for bed I watched as his mother gently wrapped the tooth in a piece of tissue and instructed him to place it under his pillow. When I turned the light out and said goodnight, he still had a smile on his face.

Hours later it came time for the obligatory tooth fairy pay-out. His mother and I had to think a little bit about how much to put under his pillow. We couldn’t remember how much our other two children had received for each of their teeth. How high had we set the bar? Did it matter? Absolutely, I told my wife, kids compare notes when it comes to things like this. In the end we decided on a crisp dollar bill. I imagined that children from privileged families probably received their first credit card this way. I was designated as the tooth fairy since the wife was going to bed to read. When it came time, I snuck into his room, stumbling several times over the booby traps he no doubt leaves for the bogeyman to trip over. I deftly made the exchange without stirring him, and quickly left.

Back in the living room, hunkered down in my throne (recliner), I noticed I still had the tissue with the tooth in my hand. Looking at it made me wonder what had happened to the other “first lost teeth” the tooth fairy had collected from our other children. I was certain my wife had them squirreled away somewhere, but then I realized she didn’t leave me any specific instructions with what to do with the tooth. That cascaded into a flood of other memories, plenty of reflection, and a little bit of worry.

Boo is our “bonus baby” and at times I’ve thought long and hard about how we keep things fresh for him (and us), having been through everything years before. It is so easy to slip into the “been there, done that” mode at times. It is not fair to him. He deserves all of the attention and fussing that a first born receives. But how do we remind ourselves to fight that temptation. Staring at the rolled up tissue in my hand I wondered if this was an example of us not treating him special enough. I thought about what I could do to make sure that wasn’t going to happen.

When Boo was staring at himself in the mirror, smiling, and again just before the light went out in his bedroom, I amusingly noticed that there was a hole in his smile now. A piece was missing. It now rested in the palm of my hand. On my way to bed that night I transferred it to a tiny pocket in my wallet.

From that day forward I’ve carried a piece of Boo’s smile with me. I think about it on Monday mornings, when I’m missing him more than usual.

It will always be the most valuable content my wallet can hold!

Oh . . . You’re One of Those

I think of a person as a complex crossword puzzle. Clues lead us to answers that reveal an individuals make-up and/or personality, and the puzzle answers are inter-connective and play off one another. In meeting someone new, the way to get to know who they are is to fill in the blank spaces on the puzzle by asking questions to figure out the clues. Pretty straight forward . . . right?

Except what really happens is when we uncover an answer to one of the clues, we immediately use that information to cheat. Let me illustrate. Number 10 across – who did you vote for in the last election? Now instead of filling in that answer and moving onto the next question, we automatically fill in answers to a lot of other spaces in the puzzle based upon assumptions we derived from the first answer. It’s similar to overlaying a pre-determined template. The fact that a good number of our assumed answers don’t fit the spaces in the puzzle doesn’t seem to matter. We simply don’t have the patience to go about the process the right way. We want short-cuts and easy answers. Who has that kind of time to devote to getting to know someone anyway? It’s also ironic that the person in question, the one you’re trying to figure out, doesn’t know the answer to some of the questions themselves. They’re still trying to figure it out.

Life is so much easier if we just use the template, because real people are chocked full of contradictions. I mean, how do you explain a man who is non-violent, but believes in the death penalty, or a woman who will donate hundreds of dollars to an on-line charity for the protection of abused animals, yet won’t give the change in her pocket to a homeless person she passes on the street? My wife likes to always tell me that there’s just as much grey in this world as there is black and white, but if that’s true then why isn’t that one of the choices on the ballot sheet?

You can probably tell I don’t like being labeled, and I have issues with people who do that. I won’t fit neatly into a box, and if you think I can then I’ll make an exception and apply a certain label to you.

Misguided.

Forum Trap

One way or another I’m determined for this blog to serve a useful purpose. If I’m gifted enough (I already know I’m determined enough) to actually find my way to being published, then my blog will hopefully be educational and serve as an inspiration for the aspiring writers who may find their way here. Much like the blogs I have embraced. And if I never reach that pinnacle, it can still serve as a roadmap for how to get there, just drawn by someone who couldn’t drive.

Today I want to discuss the topic of writer’s forums. What purpose do they serve? First and foremost, they offer a medium to have your writing critiqued. Whether you’ve written your first short story, or finalized the first draft of your 10th novel, everybody needs to use a sounding board to see where they stand at some point. For me, I sought out the forums so I could have someone other than a family member or friends give me opinions about my writing. A lot of writers don’t have enough people around them to offer the kind of no-nonsense, unemotional assessment of their work, so they turn to the on-line forums. But these forums offer much more than just critiquing. They are a great source of information about all kinds of topics in the publishing world, and a social community full of like-minded individuals.

There’s a multitude of forums on the internet, some good, some bad, and some exceptional. The thing is they are different for each person who visits and you really need to shop around until you find one that you feel comfortable in. The social dynamic you find in these forums are all the same. You’ll have the members who contribute frequently and always seem to be on-line. These are usually designated as moderators and ensure that all members follow the forums guidelines (no flaming). Then there are the veterans who have been a part of the forum a long time and really are its backbone. They are the ones that offer the most useful critiques (along with the moderators) and can seriously help shape your writing if you listen to their comments. Finally there are the newbies. Visitors in that group come and go often. Writers with thin skin who don’t respond well to honest opinions don’t stick around very long.

The manner in which the forums operate is also similar, but each forum has its own guidelines and rules for critiquing. One universal aspect is that in order to have your writing critiqued, you must offer criticism of other writers work first. Some sites have rules in-place like - for every five critiques you write, you’re allowed to submit one piece of your own work for review. Other sites are less strict. Regardless of the rules, the more useful input you give, the more you get. Reading a chapter and leaving a comment that simply says “I liked this” doesn’t cut it. And for me, there’s the rub. I’ll explain in a minute.

All of these writing forums are sub-divided by genre, and by far the most active boards are the ones in the Sci-fi/Fantasy category. Second most active is the Romance forums. The Mystery/Thriller groups (the genre I write in) see very little activity. Don’t ask me why, that’s just been my experience on these forums. There is a lot of crossover though, so while I was a member of these forums I received a lot of valuable input from Sci-Fi / Fantasy writers. The problem was that in the give & take world of these forums, I was reading and critiquing a lot of material that I was only moderately interested in. Pretty soon I realized I was devoting so much time to these forums, and reading stories I wouldn’t normally read, that it was distracting me from learning my craft. As a result I was posting material for review that was sub-standard and I knew I could do better. I decided to back away from the forums all-together and just concentrate on improving my own work.

For those of you who are looking for a forum to fill your needs, here are a few suggestions:

Writers Digest
http://forum.writersdigest.com/category-view.asp?catlock=1

Absolute Write
http://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php

Writers Beat
http://www.writersbeat.com/

Writing Forums
http://www.writingforums.org/index.php

The Writer Magazine
http://cs.writermag.com/forums/default.aspx?ForumGroupID=4

Be forewarned though, these can become addicting. In most of these forums I go by the tag of IMPOSTER, so if you see a post by me make sure you say hi. Someday soon I’ll return to them and pick up where I left off, but not quite yet.

Broken Wing

I was pulling my hair out (what’s left of it) trying to think of something to post today. I’ve already updated about my book this week, so I needed to find another subject. It’s important that I get more consistent with my posts and use them to improve my writing. I also don’t want to disappoint my loyal followers who are sitting on pins and needles waiting to see what I come up with (*cough*). I’m looking around, grasping for ideas, when I glanced at my Outlook calendar. On it I see where I’ve noted that Monday was the twelve year anniversary of breaking my left arm. That could make an interesting story . . . yeah yeah . . . that’s the ticket.

This wasn’t one of your run-of-the-mill breaks. It required surgery where they used two metal plates, seventeen screws, and oodles of staple sutures to repair the damage. I broke both bones in the lower portion of the arm, and one of those bones protruded out of my skin. They call those compound fractures, you know.

The incident instantly climbed to the top (where it has remained) of a list of serious illnesses and injuries I’ve put my body through over the years. It’s been my only exposure to surgery and I’m happy to report that I didn’t experience a problem with anesthesia like a lot of people seem to.

You’re probably asking yourself, ‘Was it a car wreck?’, ‘Did he have a horrible mishap doing yard work or some such endeavor around the house?’, or even maybe ‘Could it have been an industrial accident where he works?’ Nope. It was the right foot of a twenty-two year old intramural soccer player from a local college. Twelve years ago (Geez . . . it seems like a lifetime ago now) I was a member of an adult soccer team who played most of their games in an indoor arena in Little Rock. One bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, arrangements were made to scrimmage one of the intramural soccer teams at the university here in town. I know . . . I know . . . a bunch of 30-40 year olds up against a pack of college kids with enough hormones coursing through their bodies to fuel a race car . . . that’s a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. I went out there with my oldest son, who was ten at the time, and prepared to do battle anyway.

I was the team’s goalie, and for the first twenty minutes we old guys held our own against the studs. Then there was a foul right in front of our goal, which led to a penalty kick. For those of you not familiar with soccer, that means one of their players would face off one on one with me. The player they picked was six feet tall and four of those were just his legs. The two teams were tied at the time, so I was feeling the pressure to not allow a score and let the guys down. I sucked in some deep breaths and hopped up and down to get myself energized. I took my time getting into position, making the kid wait for me. I gulped down a swig of water, tossed the bottle to the side of the net, then moved to my spot.

The opposing player placed the ball on the penalty spot (13 paces from the goal), then backed away. I attempted to read his posture, his orientation to the goal, to anticipate which corner he was going to shoot for. I knew that 80% of the time right footed players shot for the opposite corner, which was my right, but I resisted the temptation to lean that way. I didn’t want to give away my strategy and cause him to kick in the opposite direction. He started approaching the ball, but I held my ground until the last possible moment. I leapt to my right just as his size 12 shoe struck the ball. The ball headed right for me. It struck me in the chest, but it was moving too quick and bounced off before I could wrap my arms around it.

The ball began rolling back out into the field of play and the opposing player, seeing the ball recoil off me, saw an opportunity to kick it again and score. I watched as he moved towards the rolling ball and without thinking knew I had only one hope to stop him from scoring. I dove once more, making a sweeping motion with my left arm to push the ball out of the path of the oncoming attacker. My arm and his foot reached the ball at the same time, except I was more accurate than he. I hit the ball . . . his foot collided with my arm.

I knew instantly the arm was broken, and it was bad. I clenched my arm tightly to my chest and laid there on my back. A lot of what happened following that moment is a blur. Making sure somebody found my son and got him home. Transportation to the emergency room laying in the rear of somebody’s Jeep Cherokee. Waiting to be seen. X-rays (the most painful part of the whole ordeal). More waiting. Friends showing up to see how I was doing. More waiting. Getting the news I would need an operation. Still more waiting. Finally being taken back and prepped for surgery. Laying on the operation table and being instructed to count backwards from fifty. 50 . .49 . . 48 . .47. Blackness.

I scared my wife that day. I didn’t mean to, but I did. She spent the hours during my surgery and waiting for me to wake up, fretting. I’m sorry for that, because that kind of worry stays with you for a while.  I guess I scared myself a little as well.  Up until then, apart from a stitch here or a burn there, all of my injuries were minor ones.  Going through all of that, especially the rehab and recovery afterwards, knocked me off of my indestructible throne.

Anyway, that’s the story about my broken wing. The plates and screws are still there, as well as one of the incision scars. I can even tell when a change in the weather is coming from the dull ache deep within the arm. If you remember only one thing from my tale, I hope it’s just one thing.

That SOB didn’t score!
 

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