Friday, October 20, 2017

Redefining Forever

Used as an adverb, forever means “for all future time.”  Couples want their love to last forever.   As an adjective, it means “lasting or permanent.”  Pound puppies are looking for their forever home.
Forever is a feel-good word, but does forever really exist? You could make the argument that it depends on how you define “all future time.”  If you use our universe to establish the parameters on time, there are few things today that existed when the earth was formed billions of years ago, and few of today’s earthly things will exist billions of years from now.     
As a child, a promise of forever is comforting.  Children don’t question their parents when told their mom and dad will be with them forever. When you’re only six, you don’t think in terms of billions of years, or that life on earth is finite.  You just want to be sure your mom will be there at 3 o’clock to pick you up after kindergarten.  Forever easily covers that length of time.
Many teenagers believe they are indestructible, maybe even immortal. To them, the future is something that will take care of itself.   They plan as far as their next date, the next football game, or maybe even where they’ll go to college, but forever relationships, careers, or commitments are something for another time.  They just hope high school will last forever, and for some it does.
When I was in my early twenties, starting my career and family, my future was filled with opportunity and extended before me, forever, like an Oklahoma sunset.  I’d lost my teenage feeling of immortality, but I still didn’t worry about forever.  Even my parents were young and productive.  Why should I be concerned if forever would end?  We all had a lot of living to do.  
I enjoyed my career.  There were times I wanted my career to last forever, but after a few decades of business travel and time away from home, my goal shifted toward an active, relaxing retirement. If I could afford to retire in my mid-50s, I’d have a long time to enjoy a carefree life.  Notice that I used “long time” and not forever to describe how much time I’d have.  By then, I knew forever had its limits.  My parents were slowing down.  I began to see my future in them.
I’ve been retired for nearly ten years.  I went on Medicare the other day.  My wife and I are fortunate to be healthy and active.  We read, write, walk mountain trails and spend a fair amount of time traveling.  We have many friends who live nearby; some are younger and some are older than us.  We’ve lost friends recently.  We’ve reached that point in our lives where we go to more funerals than weddings.  Each passing is painful.  It clarifies that we only have today. We don’t have forever, at least not on this earth.
Forever gets redefined as we age.  I’ve never been a deeply religious person, but I accept there’s a God and there is more to life than what we experience during our time on earth.  In this light, maybe a couple’s love can last forever and there really are forever homes.
I certainly hope so. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hearing Hart

I recently accompanied my wife’s book club to West Jefferson, North Carolina to hear John Hart speak at the Ashe County Literary Festival. It was a crisp September morning for the 40-mile drive, perfect for meandering along mountain roads and taking in the long-range vistas.  The book club had just read Hart’s latest book, “Redemption Road,” and all were excited about meeting and hearing the author.  I’ve  read Hart’s previous four novels, and count him as one of my few favorite authors.

If you’re unfamiliar with John Hart, you’re among a shrinking population of readers.  Hart, a North Carolina native, is a New York Times bestselling author of suspenseful, literary thrillers and stands alone in winning back-to-back Edgar Awards for best mystery novel.   

The activity room at the Ashe County Library was at capacity when Hart entered the room. It had been a morning filled with writing seminars and presentations, and Hart was the culmination of the day and the week.  I’ve been to similar presentations, but none that featured someone with the writing chops of John Hart.   I must admit, I was more than a little starstruck as he took the podium.

With the writing credentials to be full of himself, Hart was anything but.   He was clever, humorous, and informative, and at times, self-deprecating.  He spoke like someone addressing his peers, rather than a world-famous author speaking to a room filled with mesmerized readers, writers, and book promoters.  Without notes or props, he assessed his audience and our knowledge of his work before giving us an hour-long inside-the-tent look at his past, present and future writing projects.

As an aspiring writer, I came away from Hart’s presentation inspired.  It was insightful to hear him discuss how he approached writing, viewing himself as a writer of “character-driven” fiction. For him, and unlike many authors, the characters come first, not the story.  Hart has deep feelings about his protagonists. He gets to know them well early in his novels, long before he figures out where they will travel and the challenges they will face.
 
Hart takes exception to those labeling him as a writer of dark novels. Instead, he says he “searches for light in dark places.”  It’s true.  Through no fault of their own, many of his protagonists are damaged individuals, facing what seem to be unscalable barriers.  Hart describes their trials, their errors, and their relationships with other characters, as they attempt to overcome these barriers and step into the light.  

Oddly, I also felt a little diminished as I filed out of the meeting room.  I’ve long known that achieving writing success isn’t an easy journey, but after hearing John Hart, I realize success is even further away.  I fall short of the insight, preparation, and quality writing demonstrated by Hart.   His discussion of character development brought this home.  Admittedly, I don’t know my characters nearly as well as he does.

I will take what I learned in West Jefferson and refocus my efforts.  Writing is a process, where even your recognized shortcomings need to be viewed as stepping stones forward.  I will likely not come close to achieving the success of John Hart, but I continue to appreciate the process.  What better way to enjoy an early autumn day than driving to West Jefferson with my wife and friends to attend the literary festival?  The only thing better would be to someday view it from Hart’s side of the podium.      

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Two Types of People

I believe there are two types of people: those who read instructions before operating new devices, and those who don’t.  My wife Claudia is the former.  I am the latter. 
 
We recently purchased a new washing machine.  The old one finally committed suicide after 10+ years of faithful service.  For months, we tolerated an ever-increasing vibration during the spin cycle, at times registering a 6.0 on the seismic scale.  However, the bursting of the tub seal couldn’t be ignored.  What had been a minor leak suddenly exploded, leaving a small pond at the base of the machine.  We paid $100 for a service call to verify what we already knew.  The cost of repairs would exceed the price of a new machine.
 
Through the miracle of the internet, we found a washer meeting our needs and ordered it.  The new appliance arrived 48 hours later.  In less than 15 minutes, the old one was loaded on the truck and the new washer was installed in the utility room, ready for a backlog of dirty clothes.   Our old washer had two dials, one to select the cycle and the other to select the water level.  The new one has five dials and more indicator lights than a Boeing 767 cockpit.   Still, I saw no reason to read the owner’s manual before loading it and hitting start.
 
“Wait! What’s the difference between tap, cool tap, and cold water?”  Claudia asked, placing her hand over the start button.  It wasn’t a question I found critical to the maiden journey of the machine.  
 
“This washer can calculate the required water level.  Do we have that set correctly?” Her questions continued.  “We should read the manual.”  It was obvious my devil-may-care approach wasn’t acceptable. 
 
I have always waited until something didn’t work before breaking out the owner’s manual.  It’s a process that’s served me well for nearly six decades.  I’m probably lucky that I’ve never been injured or burned the house down, but in the long run, I’ve saved many hours by not reading technical manuals.  Claudia not only reads them, she highlights relevant portions. She has saved every owner’s manual of every device she’s ever purchased.  They’re filed chronologically in a kitchen drawer.
 
I’ve wondered if our different views toward owner’s manuals were learned or if genetics played a role.  After some thought, I’ve concluded they are learned behaviors.  Claudia grew up in a household where the first item out of the box was the operating instructions.  Her father placed high importance on reading them cover to cover before going further.  I don’t remember ever seeing an operating manual until I was married.
 
I was fortunate to find Claudia to balance my haphazard approach to operating new devices.  It’s one of the many examples of yin and yang influencing our lives.   Our complementary traits have also allowed me to write with freewheeling thought and reckless abandon, knowing Claudia’s editing and attention to detail will tidy things up later.  I’m creative.  She’s precise. 
 
And if it wasn’t for Claudia, I would have never learned the difference between tap, cool tap, and cold water.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Morning Moods

What’s your mood when you wake up each morning?   Do you look forward to the day ahead, or are you hoping you can just get through it? 
 
Admittedly, I am not a “morning person.”  It takes me a while to get my footing after I wake, but I usually look forward to the start of each day.  I have the same routine every morning—drink a cup of coffee with a blueberry muffin and/or bowl of cereal, watch a few minutes of the morning news, and then take our dog, Milo, for a long walk.  This all happens before 8:00 a.m., leaving plenty of time for whatever I have planned for the day.
 
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 defined as bursting with energy and optimism each morning and 1 as wanting to crawl back under the covers, I’m somewhere in the 6-8 range.  I’ve known a few 10s.  It’s best to avoid these people until at least noon, especially if you’re a 3.  They act as if their morning coffee is laced with crack cocaine, talking rapidly with exaggerated inflection and arm movements. It is fine to be a go-getter in the morning, but please keep it to yourself until everyone else can catch up.
There are several factors that determine my morning mood and my overall outlook on life.  I imagine these factors are consistent with most people.
·         Health – If I feel well, I think and act with optimism.  I believe good health is the number one factor affecting your quality of life and attitude.  Everything else is a distant second.  That said, I know individuals fighting severe illnesses who face each day with a smile. These are extraordinary people.  I ask myself if I could do the same, and I’m not sure.  

·         Purpose – Your job or your hobbies may provide inspiration for the day.  Writing is a big motivator for me. It keeps me thinking. It keeps me moving forward.  I believe everyone needs goals to get them started in the morning, no matter how large or small.

·         Family and Friends – Without good relationships, it is difficult to face daily challenges.   When all is well with my family and friends, each day starts off a little better.    

·         Intangibles – I believe some people are predisposed to being positive and upbeat in the morning and some are not.  This could come from a combination of genes and environment.  If you come from a family of optimistic early risers, you have a better shot at being upbeat in the morning. Where you live may also play a role.  There have been studies (1) showing the time people report to work varies greatly by city and region.  For example, on average New Yorkers report to work 45 minutes later than those living in Phoenix. This isn’t to say Phoenicians are more upbeat in the morning than New Yorkers.  It just says they face the day sooner. 
One final note--It helps if your morning mood is shared by your spouse, or is at least in the same range. If not, evasive actions may be needed. 

(1)  https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/which-cities-sleep-in-and-which-get-to-work-early/

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Goodbye, Old Friend

My laptop computer is nearly seven years old.  I use it mainly for writing my books and short stories.   It’s been a good friend, but its days are numbered.
 
I’m reminded of the age of my writing companion every morning when I power it up.  It seems to take longer and longer to ready itself for the day ahead, not unlike its AARP-age owner.  It’s hard to imagine how a computer with a 2.1Ghz processor, 4Gb of RAM and 500Gb of storage could become tired and sluggish. But then, not long ago I was running five miles each morning.
 
Seven years is an eternity for a computer given the rapid advancement of technology.   Today’s laptops have twice the computing power of my aging partner, enabling users to activate multiple concurrent applications, each with streaming audio and video.   My computer, on the other hand, resents pop-up ads and grinds to a halt if too many of them appear. 
I guess I’m fortunate to have stretched the life of my laptop seven years.  Smartphones don’t last nearly that long.  It seems these devices become obsolete within a year, or so their manufacturers would have you believe.  I try to get at least three years use out of mine before I succumb to the down-the-nose stares of millennials as they watch me painstakingly type with my index finger on the undersized screen.
As a child, our only family phone was permanently attached to the kitchen wall.  It stayed on that wall for more than 20 years with no upgrades or new apps, unless you consider adding a 20 foot coiled cord an upgrade.  The cord was intended to provide freedom of movement and next-room privacy, but it was forever entangled in a massive knot, defeating its purpose.
Young people today could never imagine their phone lasting 20 years or having it affixed to a wall.  Cellphones have become their life support systems with voice calls being the devices’ least used capability.  They use them to text, Skype, tweet, play games, navigate, watch movies, and search the web via voice commands. You often see couples sitting across a table from their dates at restaurants, each staring down at their cellphones.  Face-to-face verbal communication is becoming obsolete…but I digress.
I wish my laptop could hang around a few more years.  It’s like a familiar home.  I know where everything is.   One option to extend its life is to use it only for composing and editing my books.  It does fine with these tasks.  It’s when the internet is enabled and video, pictures and useless information come barging into its memory that it gets confused and begins to strain.  My computer and I are alike in that way.   The world sometimes moves too fast for us.
Replacing my laptop is admitting nothing lasts forever--not cellphones, not computers, and not me.  I’m not ready to step aside, but alas, it’s time to say goodbye to my tired computing friend.   Thanks for the memories, old partner.   

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A new definition of success?

All writers define what success means to them. 
 
Success could include:  favorable reviews, completing the first draft of a novel, winning a writing award, a well-attended book signing, and of course, a publishing contract.  With the exception of a contract, I’ve experienced these achievements to varying degrees.  
 
Writing can be a lonely avocation, with days, and even weeks, passing without positive feedback. Writers need to be self-motivators, finding inspiration wherever and whenever possible.  I recently stumbled across what might be a new source of encouragement for authors—used booksellers.
 
I was checking my reviews on Amazon and noticed one of my books, CORRUPT CONNECTION, had five sales offers.  I thought it strange, so I clicked on the offers and found that in addition to Amazon, four other booksellers were offering used copies of my paperback at prices ranging from $10.75 to $33.95, plus shipping.  Keep in mind this book sells for $11.95 on Amazon and the Kindle download is only $2.99. 
I looked at my other books and found MELTING SAND marketed by several resellers with a top price tag of $19.95. One copy was featured as “signed by author.” The ad even had a photo of the signature page which I’d endorsed to a reader named Cliff.  Good ole Cliff must have picked up my book at one of my signings and decided to recoup his expenses after reading it. (The ad stated it showed slight wear.)
My first reaction was amazement.  How in the world could anyone expect to get $33.95 for a used copy of a book I sell as new on Amazon for $11.95?  I did a little research and discovered the selling of used books is a growing business, both online and in brick and mortar stores.  Amazon even offers instructional books for entrepreneurs on how to make a buck selling used books online. There are several book reseller websites where you can plug in the ISBN of your used book, and out pops a price they will pay you for it.  This still doesn’t explain the unusually high prices resellers ask for some of my used books.  I hope they don’t think I’m going to die soon and develop a cult following.    
After thinking about it more, I’ve decided to consider it a compliment that readers and resellers believe my books have a used value.  It’s better than ending up in a landfill. It gives me some pleasure to know that once my books are printed, they could float around for years, finding their way to new readers.  In fact, if it turns out my used books are selling better than new, I may even dog ear a few copies and open my own used bookstore.       

Saturday, April 29, 2017

One-Star Reviews

Well, it finally happened.  I received my first one-star review for one of my books.  Being 18 words in length, it really didn’t qualify as a review.  Frankly, it struck me more as a protest sign than a review. 
 
I’ve received about 100 reviews posted to Amazon and Goodreads, so it’s not like this one-star rating would sneak by me.  I notice them all.  While 80% of my reviews are 4 and 5 star, I’m not new to receiving 3-star reviews.  I’ve even been able to cope with a couple 2-star appraisals, but for some reason this 1-star slap in the face was different.  It bothered me.
 
I’ve read blog posts from authors addressing the subject of one-star reviews, each offering advice on how best to absorb harsh ratings.  I agree with most of what they recommend:  Don’t respond to poor reviews. Don’t contact the reviewers.  Accept the criticism as “part of the territory” of being an author.  If possible, learn from the criticism.  There are exceptions to these recommendations.  If the attack on your work becomes repetitive, lacks constructive content, and/or appears to have destructive motivation, it’s reasonable to contact Goodreads and Amazon to alert them to the problem.
It’s human nature to be disappointed, even hurt, by these punitive reviews.  How could anyone be so critical of something you spent months, possibly years, creating?   The book (a short story collection) receiving my first one-star review had a 4.5-star average prior to this blemish.  It even received contest awards for several of the stories included in the collection.  Still, my first reaction to the one-star rating was to be hurt rather than angry.  
Another typical reaction is curiosity, wanting to know more about the person who would tell you your child is ugly.  Are they outside my intended audience?  Are they experienced reviewers? Could they have other motives for being so critical? As I said earlier, it’s not wise to contact the reviewer or to publically react in any way.  It might escalate the situation.  However, it’s not hard to learn more about an Amazon or Goodreads reviewer without contacting anyone.  There are few secrets on the Internet.
As an author, I have principles regarding giving and receiving reviews.  Every reader has the right to critique my books.  In fact, I welcome ALL reviews.  I also believe reviewers should provide constructive feedback and a reason for their rating, regardless of the number of stars.  I will never give an author an overly harsh critique of their book or one that doesn’t include a balance of positive and critical comments. I’ve posted 2 and 3 star-reviews, but I’ve offered constructive comments as to why the book didn’t meet my expectations.  I’ve yet to give another author a one-star review.  After all, who am I to levy such a punishing literary verdict? Instead, I’ll send her/him a private message with my comments.  
I wrote this blog post for a couple reasons.  For one, it helped me calm down and move on.  I also hope readers will better understand how important reviews are to authors.  We are just people, proud of our work.  We don’t anticipate that everyone will like what we produce, but we hope they’ll take time to let us know why or why not.