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. 


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. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding Motivation

Motivation is defined by Merriam-Webster as a force or influence that causes someone to do something.
Motivation is abstract.  It’s not something you can see or touch, and it’s different for everyone.    Speakers make a living selling it.  Drill sergeants instill it.  Some people wake up in the morning filled with it, while others never can seem to find it.  But one thing is for sure, writers need it. 
Many articles describe ways for writers to get motivated.  I’ve included a few at the end of this post.   Some of the tips in these articles work for me, but just as many don’t.  Here are ways I’ve found to get in the right frame of mind to write:
Switch Gears - My blog is called Thoughts, Stories, and Novels.  I post thoughts to my blog two or three times a month.  I’ve written dozens of short stories and maintain an inventory of ideas for the next one.  When I get bogged down on my current novel, I’ll switch gears for a day or two, diverting my attention to writing a blog post or possibly beginning a short story.   I find the diversity helps stimulate ideas.  
Brainstorm – If I’m stuck at a certain point in a novel or story, I’ll try breaking away from the manuscript and brainstorming.  I might jump to the conclusion and jot down ideas on how the book might end.   Sometimes I’ll go back to visit a particular character to see what improvements could be made.  Was I consistent in building the character? Could I make the character more compelling through dialogue and actions?  Other times, I pick a chapter in the book I thought was particularly exciting and well-written and re-read it, hoping to rediscover the motivation that helped produce it.
Find the Best Time of Day – Early morning (and I mean really early) is the best time for my mind to be clear and ready to produce my best writing.  There is something about getting an early jump on the day to make me feel more energized.  Other writers may produce better work at different times of the day.  The key is to know what time works best for you.
Hit the Trails – Exercise is a great way to shake the cobwebs loose.  For me, there’s no better exercise than hiking the mountain trails around our home.  An hour or two on the trails, and I’m usually in a better frame of mind to write.
Envision Success – Reading about aspiring writers who’ve found success is very motivational. Writer’s Digest is a good source for these articles, but there are several websites, blogs, and Facebook pages featuring authors who’ve broken through. 
Be Happy - It’s always easier to write when you’re in a good mood.   Take a break and do whatever makes you feel better.  Listen to uplifting music, play catch with your dog, or check out this YouTube video on motivation:
These are just a few ideas that work for me.  I’m sure you have others.  I’d be interested in hearing them.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Do Authors Peak?

Whether it’s your career, athletic capabilities, sexual proficiency or anything else with a start, middle and an end, reaching your peak sucks.  Most don’t realize they’ve peaked because they’re too busy enjoying their view at the summit.   But when the slide down the backside begins, they know it, and there’s little to be done.
Being a baby boomer, I know it’s vogue to hype the advantages of aging.  I’m sure you’ve heard the “60 is the new 40” mantra coming from an ever-greying population.   I even wrote a novel, “Better Late Than Ever,” where residents of a futuristic retirement community become fixated on regaining their youth.   But the older I get, the more I accept that I will never be 25 again, or even 45.  Medical advances have enabled us to live longer and have made it easier to age, but these advances have yet to reverse the process.  Today, I hit a golf ball as far as I ever will.  I ran my last six-minute mile 30 years ago.  High school was the last time I’ll ever take to the basketball court in front of cheering crowds.  And I knew long before Bruce Springsteen that “Glory Days” will pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.  
Peaking is more noticeable in some careers than others. Most professional athletes plateau before reaching 40.  Even in golf, a game many play ‘til they die, no professional player has won a major championship past age 46.  In business, corporate executives reach full stride in their 50s and early 60s, but the race to the top narrows dramatically for advancement-minded managers in their mid-40s.  By that age, if you’ve yet to be identified as executive material, you have likely begun a slow glide pattern back to earth.
Still, not everyone peaks by their mid-40s.  There’s good news for authors and others using their mind to make a living.  Studies (1, 2) have shown the more you exercise your brain, the longer your cognitive skills remain.  It turns out that learning and brain development can be a life-long process.  For writers, the message is to keep writing.  Staying healthy and physically fit also play a major role in these studies, so a long walk every day is advisable.  I find this news encouraging given I started my writing avocation in my mid-50s.  
There are many successful authors who didn’t publish their first book until later in life (3).  Laura Ingalls Wilder published “Little House in the Big Woods” at age 64, and then went on to write others in the series.  Earnest Hemingway was most prolific in his 20s and 30s, the period when he wrote “A Farewell to Arms.” It was generally accepted by critics that Hemingway was washed up by the time he reached 50.  Not so.  He wrote and published “Old Man and the Sea” at age 53.   Had he not suffered long-term injuries from plane crashes later in his life, who knows how many more Hemingway novels we would be enjoying?
I, and other aspiring writers like me, may never become bestselling authors, but as long we keep testing ourselves, we can enjoy the long uphill climb.  Who knows?  Our glory days may still lie ahead.

Friday, March 24, 2017

New Authors - Why So Many?

I’m amazed by the ever-growing number of new authors. 

In the U.S. alone, reports range from 250,000 to more than 500,000 new book titles published each year.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported 305,000 titles published in 2013, with a growing percentage of these books being self-published.

The growth in the number of authors and new books seems to defy trends in the book publishing industry.  A Pew Research survey of U.S. adults indicates those reading a book in the previous 12 months decreased from 79% to 72% between 2011 and 2015.  A July 2016 report from the American Association of Publishers indicates revenue from U.S. book sales was nearly flat from 2013 through 2015.  Competition is fierce.  Some genres and markets are saturated to the point it’s nearly impossible for new authors to be noticed by readers.  A writer self-publishing his/her first novel can expect to sell fewer than 1,000 copies.
So, why do more and more self-published authors elect to spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours writing, editing, publishing, and marketing their novels?   It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but here I am, writing my seventh self-published book.  I don’t have a concise answer, but for me, it boils down to the following:
  • FLEXIBILITY - Writing is exhausting, but it can be done at a time and pace to fit most schedules.
  • MINIMAL BARRIERS - The cost of entry is minimal.  All you need is a PC, printer and access to the Internet to begin.  For those serious about being successful, a professional cover and editor are a must, and neither is cheap.
  • SELF-PUBLISHING TECHNOLOGY - The availability, simplicity and low cost of self-publishing make it easy for new authors.  The number of offerings and quality of tools continue to improve.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA - Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media sites offer writing groups for new authors to share ideas and market their books.   A new writer never needs to feel alone in the process, and for those wanting to learn, educational offerings are endless.
  • HOPE – Optimism is a trait writers must possess.  At times, our views of success are blind to reality, not unlike Jim Carrey’s view in Dumb and Dumber.
  • IT’S A CREATIVE OUTLET - I’d love to sell thousands of books, but I also write for me.  I enjoy writing.  My primary goal is to make each short story and novel better than my last.  It’s an objective that keeps me moving forward.  I think most aspiring authors feel the same way.      
I started writing books in 2010.  I’m not sure I would have made the effort 30 years earlier.  I don’t know if I could have sat at a typewriter, feeding in one sheet at a time, unable to share my progress in real time with other writers, and not knowing if my manuscript would ever be read, let alone published.
A lot has been written about the evils of self-publishing, claiming it’s watered down the quality of books by allowing less-skilled writers to be published.  This negativity isn’t likely to alter the growth in self-published authors.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my three decades in business, it’s that you can’t fight technology or the role it plays in creating and satisfying markets.  Self-publishing companies serve two markets: writers and readers.  They generate revenue from authors by providing services beyond publishing (editing, cover design, marketing, etc.).  Many such companies also get a percentage of sales from every book sold.  Self-publishing is a business designed to make a profit.
I’m thankful for self-publishers. They came along at a time when I was ready to test my creative skills.  I expect we both will be around for a long time, although for different reasons.  Their longevity is tied to profitability, while mine only requires hard work and hope.  And that’s why there are so many new authors.                  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Optics Can Distract

My mind wanders when I write.  As an example, I often think how the use of a word has changed.  I’ll come across a specific word, and the next thing I know I’ve been shot off on a tangent far from my writing project.   
Take the word “optics.”  It used to be defined as an area of physics involving the study of light.  I guess it still is, but it’s more frequently used to describe how something appears to an observer, as in, “The optics of the situation make them appear guilty.”
I believe the word has become popular in its new context because it allows the user to influence opinions without facts.  All you have to do is claim the optics support your position.  The word comes in handy in a country where politicians, media, and everyday Americans are engaging more frequently in debates where neither side presents sufficient facts.  What better way to win these disputes, or to cloud the discussions, than to state the optics support your views? 
When people don’t know what to believe, they usually believe what they want. We live in a world that is guided more and more by optics, opinion and ideology and less and less by facts. Opinions and polls seem to matter more than what is actually happening.  Indisputable facts bounce off of today’s ideologues like rain off a duck.
Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  The difference between Franklin’s 18th century and now is no one currently works very hard at convincing the other side.  Instead, it’s all about “rallying the base,” hanging around in “safe zones” where those with opposing views can’t speak out, and labeling instead of listening.
It could be that social media magnifies discord in the 21st century, but I can’t remember this country being so divided.  I hope we find a way to come together soon, but I must admit, the optics don’t look very good.
See what I mean?  Words distract me.  Well, I better get back to writing.     

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Writing Distractions – Not All Bad

Most aspiring authors have real lives outside of writing. Even I do.  I often wonder if life gets in the way of writing, or if writing requires having a life, but that’s a much larger topic than what this post is about.

There are very few things I’d rather do than write. I find it relaxing, challenging, and satisfying. Yet, a number of distractions easily take me away from writing.  I’m not talking about time with family and friends.  They always take priority.  I’m referring to distractions I face while actually at my desk.
My office has an expansive window with long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’m fortunate to have such a serene setting in which to think and compose.  I frequently gaze out this window, distracted by the natural beauty of the trees and faraway hills.  In the winter months, days pass without seeing another person, but rarely a day goes by without seeing a herd of deer wandering through my view.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.  The quiet and solitude which make this a great place to write often has me focusing elsewhere.
Research is a large part of writing, even for a fiction writer.  The internet puts sources of information at my fingertips. With one keystroke, I can switch from composing a novel on Microsoft Word to searching a range of topics on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. While this is infinitely more productive than going to the library and digging through periodicals, internet research also presents a risk.  The risk is never getting back to writing.  One minute, I’m verifying the location of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and the next minute, I’m buying a lawn trimmer off Home Depot’s website or reading my book reviews on Amazon.
I’ve concluded these distractions can actually be constructive.  While writing requires deep concentration to ensure continuity, consistency, and correctness, it also requires an inventive and open mind.  I am able to write head-down for an hour at most. Any longer, and I lose my imagination and my writing grows stale.  It’s at these times a cup of coffee is in order.  I’ll return to my desk to sip coffee and enjoy the views out my window, or maybe read an interesting article on my laptop.  These breaks often refresh my thoughts, enabling me to return for another period productive writing.
I must admit there are days when I stare out my window, never focusing on my writing, and that’s not all bad.  If my mind’s not into writing, I’d probably produce garbage anyway.  Oh, look!  My nephew just posted pictures of his new puppies on Facebook.  I’ll finish this post later.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does a novel need to deliver a message?

Does a novel need to deliver a message or lesson, or can it succeed on entertainment value alone?
Most of the books I read are suspenseful crime novels or legal thrillers.  I enjoy Michael Connelly, John Grisham, James Patterson, Vince Flynn and many others.  At times, these authors insert political or social messages, but they seldom detract from the main theme or plot of their book.  The messages are usually used to provoke thought, develop a character, or possibly create conflict.
Complex messaging is not needed for romance novels (or other genres) to be popular. That’s not why readers buy these books.  I doubt romance authors begin their stories with the intent of bringing attention to world hunger or saving homeless animals.  Still, an antagonist who verbally or physically punishes his partner in a romance novel can shine a light on the evils of domestic abuse, delivering a message within the context of the story.
I believe a fiction writer’s objective is to entertain. Readers come back to a given genre because they enjoy what it delivers: fantasy, suspense, romance or adventure. It’s difficult to write a fiction novel with a political, social, or religious message as its main theme. The few I’ve read kept dragging me back to the message, not giving me, as the reader, a chance to fully engage in the characters or the story.  I also think an author who continues to use his/her novels to convey messages and lessons risks becoming known for promoting specific causes, and not for writing.
So, does a novel need a message?  I liken messages in a novel to salt on a good meal.  If sprinkling a few messages throughout a novel enhances the reader’s experience and doesn’t overwhelm the main story, then I say season to taste.      

Friday, January 27, 2017

Persistence - It's Necessary, but not Sufficient.

I have a master’s degree in mathematics, and I followed it up with 32 years in sales and marketing for the same multinational company.  You may ask what either of these facts has to do with writing novels, but bear with me.  There is a connection.
Years ago, I was fortunate to retire with mileage still on my tires.  For the first time in my life, I had an abundance of free time. I filled it with many things, some productive, some not.  The most creative activity I pursued was writing.  I’d always wanted to write, but writing a novel required time, something I now had.  
I took on this venture knowing the odds of producing a published novel, or for that matter a novel that would be read beyond my small sphere of friends, were low.  After all, I spent six years studying mathematics.   The formula is fairly simple.  You take 200,000 new books written each year as the denominator and a couple dozen best sellers as the numerator, and you can calculate that 1 out of 10,000 authors might have his/her books read by someone outside their hometown.   I know there’s a middle ground for success between bestseller and throwing the manuscript in the garbage, but you get the point.  It’s hard.
So why did I think I could write a novel?  That’s where persistence comes in.  Anyone who works 32 years for the same company doesn’t give up easily.   A career is not a smooth uphill climb.  There are plateaus and even slippery downhill slides along the way, but if you keep moving forward with your eyes on the finish line, you’ll eventually get there.   It’s not unlike writing.   There are periods where the words flow, the characters develop, and the story explodes with action.  Then there are days where the page sits blank, or worse, you decide to scrap a chapter and start over.  
As I anticipated, my persistence paid off.   Over the past six years, I have self-published four novels and two short story collections.  None are bestsellers.  In fact, I’m often frustrated with the pace of sales.  After three decades in sales and marketing, it’s where I’ve faced my biggest challenges.  My books are all professionally edited, and naturally, I feel they’re well written.  I’ve received dozens of favorable book reviews, as well as contest recognition for several of my short stories. 
I’ve concluded that to be a successful writer, as measured by book sales, it not only requires a well-written book, it takes a cadre of support services.  You need to identify your target market, deliver well-written books that hit that target, construct a multifaceted marketing plan, and commit sufficient resources to execute your plan.   Most importantly, I’ve learned persistence is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Authors, do your characters resemble you?

Should authors channel their personalities and experiences into their characters?  
It took me five novels to ask this question, and when I did, I realized something.   My protagonists are pretty much alike, and for the most part, they have my values.  I even share a few experiences with them, and friends who know me well say my characters reflect my personality at times.  I believe it’s natural to reveal your experiences, thoughts, and beliefs through your characters, but I do this sparingly.  My protagonists are younger, braver and more cunning than I am. They find themselves in situations I hope never to face and react as only they could.
It’s obviously not necessary for authors to share the values of their protagonists, but I’ve found it makes it easier to get inside the heads of my fictional characters and to have them think and act naturally.  Consistency is important in making characters believable.  What better way to stay consistent than creating characters who think like you?  I know the counterargument is that truly great authors can relate to any character they create.  Stephen King isn’t a maniacal killer, and my guess is he wouldn’t be friends with many of the bizarrely malevolent characters he’s created, yet he’s been successful in producing suspenseful thrillers for many years.
I’ve written short stories where the protagonists are greedy brokers, thieves, or even pets. I’ve never been any of these.  I admit it’s more difficult to develop these diverse characters and have them think and act consistently throughout the story.  I often find my personality working its way into their character, requiring revisions.  Still, I enjoy the challenge and have received contest recognition for some of these stories.           
Some authors have had successful careers creating characters that make repeat appearances in their novels:  Michael Connelly has Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Sue Grafton created Kinsey Millhone, and even though John Grisham varies their names, many of his characters are crafty male attorneys.  I haven’t spoken to Connelly, Grafton, or Grisham, but I expect they easily relate to the characters they’ve created.  Connelly was a crime beat reporter in Los Angeles, where Bosch is a criminal detective and Haller an attorney.  Grisham was a successful criminal defense lawyer before writing legal thrillers.
Miles Stevens, Sam Stone and Phil Greenfield are the protagonists in my novels.  I can easily see them sitting down for a cup of coffee, discussing their adventures.  They have a lot in common with each other and apparently, with me, too.  I’ve concluded that’s a good thing.   
Protagonists in D.R. Shoultz novels:
Miles Stevens is the lead character in the Miles Stevens Series, which includes MELTNG SAND, CYBER ONE, and GONE VIRAL (to be released in 2017).  Miles is a 37-year-old Yale law grad and former U.S senator who gives up his political career after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife.  He turns to the CIA and the recently formed Department of Historic Intervention (DHI) as a way to escape his grief.  A strong, tough-minded CIA agent, Miles and his DHI partners are sent back in time from the year 2050 to alter historic disasters.   
Sam Stone, the lead character in CORRUPT CONNECTION, is at the peak of his career, recently widowed and losing interest in life, when he meets Dr. Britney Young, a recently hired, beautiful and brilliant researcher at MemOne, Inc.  Sam is a low-profile, self-confident, fit but not athletic, 48-year-old sales executive when he’s thrown into the role of protecting Britney and MemOne from a deadly drug cartel.  Britney and the company’s biocomputer technology are targeted by the cartel to advance their illegal drug trafficking.  Fearing the threats against Britney, Sam works alone as he transforms into a fearless guardian and investigator.
Phil Greenfield is a handsome, silver-haired, divorced, 60-year-old retiree and the main character in BETTER LATE THAN EVER.  Phil sells his successful technology firm and retires to The Glades, a futuristic retirement community in Florida, seeking maintenance-free living, unlimited golf and sunsets by the pool.  Instead, he discovers the residents are fixated on reclaiming their youth through an underworld of medications and surgical procedures.  Phil meets an old flame, Sue, and the flame is rekindled.  Looking much younger than her age, Phil learns Sue is also under the influence of these drugs.  Tempted to join Sue and the others on their youthful journey, Phil becomes suspicious that there’s more to the story of The Glades. Unfortunately, he is right.