Rhinoceros

What if a rhinoceros, an armor-plated pachy

from a hot-fudge sundae dream,

could stand on two legs,

speak in polysyllables,

smile,

type haiku on keys the size of manhole covers

while devouring watermelons as if they were red grapes

with his hoof-piece pinky extended just so?

What if that rhino drove a hybrid car (a bus, more likely),

recycled,

read Dr. Seuss to book-deprived children,

admired Dr. King and Gandhi,

rescued ladies in distress?

Would we still stare at his long lumpy face,

his wine-barrel body,

his tree-trunk legs,

his gray washboard skin,

his undersized ears,

and call him an animal?

Would we still hunt him down

and lock him up behind high steel fences

and point and whisper and wonder if rhinos,

like humans, go to heaven?

 

 

 

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Farewell to a Friend

My good buddy Doug Yamada was the inspiration and source of much of the background information for my novel THIN WOOD WALLS. Without his fascinating family stories and gentle nudges, the book simply wouldn’t have been written. He filled my ear (and my head) with chapters of national and local history I’d barely glimpsed and introduced me to places where shadows of the past still lingered and to people who were more than willing to share their personal stories of how history impacted their lives and how their lives impacted history.

He was so happy when the book got published, and not just because his name appeared in the acknowledgments . He believed the story needed to be told, and people needed to read it, and he was gratified that he had a part in getting it out to readers who, sixty-some years after the events surrounding the story of Joe Hanada and his family occurred, still didn’t know the history and might be vulnerable to letting it happen again.

This afternoon Doug’s daughter called to tell me that he died last night. The news came like a tsunami, a sledgehammer, a punch in the gut. Unexpected. Unbelievable. Sad. And so final. He had a big, warm, generous heart, but his flesh and blood heart finally gave out, and those who knew him are the poorer for it.

I’ll miss you, buddy, but you’ll be with us in our thoughts, and in the pages of a book that never would’ve been written without you.

 

 

Editors: Gotta Love ‘Em

No writer looks forward to opening a ten-page editorial letter the leaves you wondering what it was about the manuscript that led the editor to buy it in the first place. And nobody likes to get back an entire manuscript with comments and “suggestions” on every page that will eventually require some kind of action on your part. But you have to remember the mantra: we’re all in this endeavor together, and our job, as a team, is to make the best book possible. And add to that, two or three or more eyes on a piece of writing is better than one.

You make a mistake. You get something wrong, leave something out, say something twice, put in the wrong word, or words, or screw up the grammar, or fill a paragraph with cliches or have a whole scene that’s unnecessary and boring. You make a factual error that lots  of readers (or at least some readers) will notice. Who’s gonna catch it? You? You’ve already gone through your manuscript dozens of times. You’ve mentally declared it perfect. As far as you know, the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor and Neil Armstrong was the second man on the moon but the first to get out of Apollo 11 after it splashed down in Lake Michigan.

So we’re thankful for editors, even if we don’t always react that way. They catch a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t want going out into the world if you knew about it. And most of the time, you do get to know about it (after it’s caught). I’ve personally had things captured and corrected pre-publication that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. I’ve also, during the editorial process, caught stuff on my own because I was doing careful reading in response to editorial comments. For instance, my editor and I were just about in the final edit of HAUNTING AT HOME PLATE when I realized I’d used the word “bow” for one of those big greenery-draped branches that sticks out from the trunk of a cedar tree. In the nick of time we changed it to bough. Another time, a small glitch (mine, of course) wasn’t caught. That’s why, in SOMEONE WAS WATCHING, a “door,” instead of a “drawer,” gets pulled out from a cash register. I didn’t catch it, the editor didn’t catch it, but a friend did.

Everyone is vulnerable, even some of the finest writers around. The finest writers around, even though we tend to think of them as whipping out a perfect book in no time the first time, are forever filling their acknowledgements with thanks to their second and third readers and spouses and significant objects of their affection and agents and most of all their editors for helping to make a book what it eventually became. But as I said, sometimes editors miss.

I’m reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY. I’d heard a lot about it since it was published, and I’ve not been disappointed. She’s a wonderful writer who has a talent for words and story and voice and connecting with kids, both imagined and real. I had the good fortune to serve on the committee of judges for the SCBWI’s Golden Kite award for fiction the year SPEAK  was published, and that amazing book made the committee’s job much easier. But in MEMORY, one of those gremlins slipped through the editorial cracks and made it to the page and became a distraction, at least for me. Not a permanent distraction, but one that for a few pages threw me off track and took me out of that “suspension of disbelief” mode that writers (and readers) try to attain.

The gremlin? The main character (Hayley) grabs a creeper and joins her dad under his old pickup, where he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with it and get it running again. And in her head she’s thinking about the “half ton of metal above us.” Not significant, to the plot or anything else. But it tripped me up, took me out of the story for a bit, made me wonder what else isn’t going to ring true. And that’s because a half-ton pickup doesn’t get that designation because of how much it weighs, but because of how much it can haul. If Hayley is worried, or reassured, by how much metal is above them, she should have been worried or reassured by having A WHOLE BUNCH MORE metal up there–two and a half tons, about (I looked it up–isn’t the Internet a nag?).

Should the author have known this? Probably not. You can’t know everything. You for sure can’t know that you don’t know something if you think you do know it. Or something. You just have to hope that sometime during the editorial process, someone–editor, line editor, whoever–will catch whatever you don’t.

The inconsistency in MEMORY isn’t a big deal. It probably wasn’t noticed by most readers. But I recall reading another book–WE WERE THE MULVANEYS–by another talented writer–Joyce Carol Oates–in which a prominent character gets date-raped in the back seat of a Corvette. It’s a pivotal occurrence affecting the characters and pretty much the direction of the whole story. It was brutal and disturbing. But a Corvette doesn’t have a back seat. All the models are two-seaters with very little room even in the front. So for the rest of the book that rape scene, as powerful and full of fallout as it was, stuck with me but it did so with extra baggage and without the verisimilitude it deserved to have.

Again, should the author have known? Maybe. The number of seats in a car is a little more obvious than the weight of a truck. But I’d put at least half the blame, if we’re looking for someone to blame, on the editorial staff. Like most monitoring-type activities in life, we don’t notice all the stuff that gets caught, we notice the one thing that doesn’t.

But imagine not having editors. They might slip up now and then, but nobody’s perfect, even when backed up by a team. And you gotta love ’em.

 

Something Old, Something New…

A while ago I posted something on this blog I called (I think) “Get Out.” It was about the advantages for a writer of getting away from normal routine and surroundings and out into the world. The getting out could be for a specific purpose, as in researching a setting you have in mind for a story, one you may want to devote more to than online searches and a trip to the library. Or it could be that you’re simply looking for a change of scenery, a different frame of mind, some objective inspiration.

What I’m doing right now is the first version, in which I’ve traveled to New Mexico to clarify in my head and on note paper and through photos the setting and history for a novel I’ve begun working on. The trip has been more than worthwhile. I still have questions, but I also have answers, and information I didn’t even know I was looking for, and new sources for more information. And the setting–warm New Mexico desert, flowering New Mexico plants, big New Mexico sky–has been inspirational.

So that’s the new project.

My other project is a blend of old and new. In 1995 Albert Whitman published a collection of my short stories (mysterious, eerie, spooky). The collection was called Dark Starry Morning. After about ten years the book went out of print and I got the rights back. A few years ago, after e-books came on the scene in a significant way and self-publishing became (at least in a theory) easier and more practical, I decided to revitalize Dark Starry Morning.

I had the rights, but I didn’t have an electronic record (you have to think about when it was published), so I had to retype the whole thing. Which was a double-edged sword. A nuisance, yes, but the exercise also gave me a chance to revise and update. It also allowed me to add to the collection. Originally there were six stories. One of them I had already begun expanding to a novel, which I’m still working on. So that leaves five (I’m not just a writer, I’m a mathematician!). Over the course of a few years, in between rewriting the original stories and working on other projects, I wrote five new (mysterious, eerie, spooky, and in one case poetic and tall-tale-ish) stories to go in what would be the new collection.

So it’s getting close to ready. I’ve got it written and revised and edited and mostly formatted for the e-book universe (I hope), and my daughter Jaime, graphic and book designer extraordinaire (if I do say so myself), is working on the cover. We’re excited about it, and I’m excited to try something new while still keeping some of the old. With a nod to the Halloween season,  we’re shooting for this month sometime. When I get a firm date, I’ll pass along the details.

The title? Uneasy Pickings

Get out!

Decisions, Decisions

The road to publishing a novel is long and winding, even if you crank ’em out at a relatively fast clip (J.K. Rowling) or an even faster one (Stephen King). Along that long road writers have to make many decisions–characters, conflict, choices, changes, setting, point of view, tense, style, language, voice, blah, blah, blah. In other words, how the *%#@&$ do I come up with a great story, and how do I write it?

For many writers, one decision that happens early in the process is whether to outline or not. For others it isn’t a decision. They have a fixed philosophy, and they’re either firmly for it or against it. Consistently. Always. Come hell or high water. They do it or they don’t and they’re not open to options.

Avi, who has had a long and successful career writing kidlit, is in the no-outline camp. He is reported to have said, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.” I once heard Earl Emerson (adult mysteries) speak about outlining, and he had an opposite message: He wrote twelve novels, all unpublished, before someone suggested he try outlining the thirteenth. He did. It was published. As were a lengthy string of other novels in the Thomas Black series.

But those who haven’t fallen in love with a particular outline/no outline approach have that decision. Me? I’ve done both. At first, mostly because I didn’t consider the possibility, I was a no-outliner. The outlines of my first three or four stories were in my head. It worked. I sold the stories. But the writing often seemed like more struggle than it had to be. Then I decided to give outlining a try. That worked, too, and I came to favor it. My revised process included writing a scene outline (a short paragraph describing what occurs in each scene, beginning to end) before I began on the the actual manuscript.

I’m starting on a new story, and I’m not sure what my approach will be. The tale is taking shape, and I’ve got a synopsis down in writing, but it’s kind of a wild premise and I’m feeling as if I want to let it go and see where it takes me. So far I’ve got a couple of chapters written (roughly), but no outline, and maybe it will stay that way.

You? What’s your approach? Seat of the pants? Tightly choreographed dance? They both can work. What doesn’t work is “thinking” about it. There’s nothing wrong with getting started and then adjusting. Choose a path and get rolling.

Enter Title Here

“Enter title here…” That’s the suggestion or command or instruction or whatever you face first when you’re getting ready to put some words together for this thing they call a blog post. Of course you don’t have to do it first. But somewhere along the way, at least before you do the official posting, you have to come up with a title.

On a blog, it’s probably not all that important a step. You try to think of something descriptive without giving it all away, something clever, something funny, something ironic, something engaging. But unless you come up with a title that’s completely boring, readers will probably at least give your post a look.

But what about a book title? How important is it? We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t tell a book by its cover,” but regardless of how true that declaration is, research finds that people do make reading choices by looking at the cover. And the title is a significant part of the cover.

So it’s important. How important? Hard to say. Could a book’s success, or lack of it, ride entirely on the effectiveness of the title? Probably not, but would TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD have had the same success if the title had been ATTICUS FINCH, LAWYER? Would THE CATCHER IN THE RYE have done as well if the title was HOLDEN DOES CALIFORNIA? How about  instead of JAWS, Peter Benchley had convinced his publisher to call his novel I SAW A BIG FISH? What if HOLES had been titled DESERT HABITAT FOR LIZARDS? Or SHOVELING HURTS MY HANDS?

We’ll never know exactly (or even inexactly) how big a role these titles, or any titles, play in the sales figures of their books. But when it comes to titles, you don’t get do-overs. So you, along with your agent and editor and publisher and marketing team and whoever else you’re listening to for suggestions, better get it right before your book heads off to the printer.

My titles? Some of my “working titles” (you have to call that manuscript something while you’re plugging away at it) have survived, some haven’t. I came up with DARK STARRY MORNING, THE LAST MAN’S REWARD, THIN WOOD WALLS, A PIECE OF THE SKY, and EPITAPH ROAD. SOMEONE WAS WATCHING (originally THICKER THAN WATER), FRAMED IN FIRE (THE WILD BLUE), HAUNTING AT HOME PLATE (THE GHOST OF PHANTOM LIMB PARK), COLDER THAN ICE (TWENTY-THREE DEGREES AND FALLING), and DEADLY DRIVE (HER MOTHER’S EYES) were suggestions from my editor or collaborative efforts (make a huge list and whittle it down together) after the powers that be decided my title wasn’t strong enough.

What do you think? Were all the changes for the better? It’s intriguing to think about how the books would’ve done with their original titles, but the answer to that is in the air somewhere, along with all the other titles that got passed over during the process.