Overseas and underwater

Floating on the Mekong

Sorry for the long absence. I owe you some updates! Here goes:

  • I took some time off from all writing while I went on a trip through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It was an amazing experience. Angkor Wat was incredible, the killing fields were even more powerful than I thought they would be, and Vietnam had Communist flags flying but capitalism ruled all of the streets. I also had a few martinis on the rooftop bar seen in The Hangover 2. All told, it was a great trip. Well, minus the jet lag. That was terrible.
  • I’ve had a few essays featured on the online arts journal Rebelle Society. I was lucky enough to have one of my articles classified as a “Classic,” and they picked up another essay soon after the first. They’ve also asked me to be a regular contributor, which is incredibly flattering. That’s where some of my writing time is now going. If you haven’t seen my work at Rebelle, I would love for you to check those essays out (and share them if you like them).
  • I am getting closer and closer to having my novel published. I’m continuing talks with Oak Tree Press and it looks like there could be an October release date for my mystery Ghost Music. I’m incredibly excited and, while I wait, am continuing to refine my thoughts on marketing the novel after it’s released. Prepare yourself for giveaways and other goodies.

Basically, I wanted to let you know that I’m back, that I’m still writing, and that I really appreciate you stopping in to read my work/musings. I’m no longer underwater while trying to move between my job, writing, parenting, etc.–you know, life. Thanks for sticking with me. More posts, more frequently–that’s what I’m aiming for here. Stay tuned 🙂



Spiritual confessions, from the devoutly non-religious

skeleton holding a sign reading "confession"A confession. Actually, multiple confessions. I know–it all sounds so JUICY! But before I start, a qualifying note—some confessions prior to confession, if you will. First, these confessions ain’t all that juicy. So get your mind out of the gutter (those are reserved for a later time). Second, “confession” brings with it a quality of guilt and need for reparation, either with something bigger or with yourself or with another. That’s not what my confessions—what these particular confessions—are about. Yet there is most certainly a spiritual undertone and undertow to all of what follows. Let’s continue.

First confession. I grew up in Kansas. When young, I regularly attended Sunday School (of the Methodist variety). My parents were friends with the pastor and I remember visiting their house even after they had moved to another city (sidenote: their house had a cool stairway from the kitchen to the upstairs—reminded me a bit of playing Clue and escaping via a secret passage). After my parents divorced, I also spent a fair amount of time at Catholic mass. Growing up, I attended small churches where everyone knew who you were, as well as giant mega-churches where you were anonymous yet (supposedly) somehow part of something so much larger. My best friends in high school were a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon. I know, it sounds like the start of a joke: so this atheist/agnostic walks into a bar (well, probably not a bar) with a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a Mormon… If Kansas is part of the Bible Belt, then growing up I felt situated squarely in the middle of the buckle.

Second confession. I never liked any of it. It didn’t feel comfortable to me. Ever. Even as a child. While young, I loved exploring the darkened church, running behind the alter and choir area in what felt like hidden walkways that few ever saw or even knew existed. I still remember hiding behind the trees and bushes in front of the church and climbing into the newspaper recycling container with my best friend Rob. I liked trying to figure out the fire escape with its counterweight. But beyond the cool, young boy explorations, I didn’t like it. I felt uncomfortable wearing the gown-like garment (aww, let’s face it, it was definitely a gown, nothing “gown-like” about it) as I walked down the aisle to extinguish the candles on the alter. The special candle snuffing device was cool, though, as was the smell of the wick after it went out. “Lock-ins” were cool because I got to play basketball all night long. “Lock-ins” weren’t cool when we had to stop and talk about religion. Hide-and-seek in a church is pretty much more awesome than anywhere else. It’s creepy late at night and there are a million places to hide, hoping that the girl you like will find you before anyone else. It’s not nearly as cool to stop and join together in prayer.

Third confession. All of these feelings made me feel alone and lost and confused at times. One friend was going on a mission. Another friend’s brother went to divinity school. Another friend was so devotedly involved with his church that he always felt the most religious of all of them to me. This same friend gave me a book a few years later, an attempt to save me, I think, but done in a way that never made me feel uncomfortable or pressed upon. My mom gave me a plaque with the religious connotation of my name. I’ve kept it, and the Bible I was given as a child, all of these years, but simply have them boxed away. I tried to read the Bible from cover to cover once, maybe twice. I didn’t make it. And so what was I in the midst of all of this? A fraud? Not really, because I never professed to believe like the rest. They knew I wasn’t religious. It was more like I was the one who missed the day at school where everything was explained. I somehow just didn’t quite get it. Or, I was the one who saw the punchline that everyone else missed. Either way, there was a certain outsider status that I felt, though none of them ever placed it upon me.

Fourth confession. One of the above-mentioned friends told me years later that he thought of me as the most spiritual of all of them. Took me completely by surprise. I’d never thought of myself that way. I moved to the Pacific Northwest but I hadn’t become a new-age hippie or anything. Where did this come from? It did two things, though: 1) it altered my understanding of my friend, who before I would have guessed as being the most dogmatic and proscription-driven (he didn’t drink, smoke, etc). His concept of religion and spirituality turned out to be much broader and inclusive than I had ever guessed (broader, certainly, than mine since I could never conceive of myself as “spiritual”). 2) it made me think about what, in fact, was “spiritual.” Nothing dramatic happened, but I think it planted a seed.

Fifth confession. I’ve come, when I’m most open and at my best, to believe in trusting the “universe” and keeping myself as open as possible to it. That’s when the best things in my life have occurred. It’s hard to do, though, with guilt about the past and worries about the future and anxieties about my self-worth robbing that comfortable melding with the present that has been fuel for when the tumblers of life click into place and things move unimpeded toward the beauty and love that means more than anything else in life to me—whether that’s being filled with thankfulness when staring at the ceiling and asking that I be a good enough father to teach my soon-to-be-born son about love and ask that he feel love surround him like a bubble throughout his life, or putting all fears aside and risking myself in a relationship by fully letting go in the pursuit of unprotected love (big difference, kids, between unprotected love and unprotected sex: yes on the former, no on the latter).

Sixth confession. I want to believe in something bigger. (Have I indeed become a NW hippie after all?). For me, that something bigger is love and understanding that nothing happens in isolation. I think about my novel Ghost Music and I see those undercurrents swirling through the plot and character growth. The past, present, and future chase one another. The main character, Marcus Brace, has to learn to heal his wounds and risk himself with another woman again. At one point (in a pop culture nod toward a Brady Bunch episode where the kids break a vase playing ball in the house and try to glue it back together) Marcus wonders whether what has been fractured grows stronger for that break or remains forever fragile afterward. I say, with all due acknowledgment to the more typical Biblical aphorism, that you reap what you risk. Willing to risk fragility is its own type of strength. Be willing to be fragile, my friends. And in that, know that you are strong and there is love coming back to you.

Thanks for stopping by. Please help out by spreading the word about my blog and my soon-to-be-released novel Ghost Music by emailing the link above or sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Google+. And always feel free to email me with any questions or requests. 

Building your writing platform: writers as marketers.

wooden platform“Platform” is the buzzword in publishing and writing circles at the moment. It’s tossed around so casually that you might find yourself nodding along with the crowd but lost once you’re by yourself. If so, I’m here to help.

So what’s a platform? Think of your platform as the structure you’ve created to reach potential readers. The bigger the platform, the bigger the potential reach. You probably have several “planks” already, even if you don’t know it. Do you have a Facebook account and mention your writing on there? Do you tweet about writing or books? Do you have a blog? A LinkedIn or Google+ account? You should. All of these are free. They make easy, foundational planks to promote your work and connect with those who are interested in your writing.

There’s good news for writers looking to create a platform. The best advice I have is something that should be second nature to you: write, write, write. It’s obviously one of your strengths: play to it. The caveat? You can’t spend all of your time writing the great American novel; you also need to spend some of your writing time and talents to connect with others. Write responses to blogs you follow. Write and contribute to forums. Write tweets and write additions to re-tweets. You are your own best advocate. Get your name out there and connect with other writers, other reading groups, other folks who love the written word. Despite what television and the “internets” want us to believe, there are tons of us book/word lovers out there.

Even better news: I’m convinced that writers can be great marketers. Why take my word for it? Well, I have experience at both. I’m a writer, by both proclivity and profession. I’m a marketer, by both inclination and occupation. Yes, that makes me a “marketing writer” and “communications manager” (my official title). I’ve spent years thinking about and exploring how narrative works, in both novels and in real-life. I have a PhD in English, a certificate in marketing management, and a novel (hopefully to be published this summer) under my belt. Writers, I adamantly tell you, make fantastic marketers.

Don’t be intimidated by marketing. Use your writing skills and think of it as an exercise in narrative. If you’re a writer, then you’re a storyteller. That gives you a huge advantage when thinking about marketing yourself and your book. Here are a few questions to get you started (or if you’re already started, these should be easy for you to answer):

  • What story do you want others to tell about your novel? I know, this is a bit meta: what’s the story about the story?
    • Don’t think of “story” in a negative, un-true way. I’m simply suggesting that you should know up front what story (or “history” if that makes you feel more comfortable) you want people to understand about why you created your book, how it came to be, why it’s important, etc.
    • What story do you want readers to understand about you? How does that story (set of facts) tie into the story from the bullet point above?
    • How do your stories (both the novel you wrote and the life you’ve created) fit with or contest the stories (again, plural) of other authors you come in contact with?

I’m fascinated by this connection between authorship, promotion, platform creation, and narrative. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Lots more to come on this topic, with lots more concrete suggestions on platform building.

While you’re here, take a look at other recent blog topics (list is on the left-hand side, under the menu!)


The past you like, the past you hate

pencil erasing the phrase "the past"

The great thing about America, they say, is that it’s a land of second chances. People come here to make a fresh start. Your ancestors probably did. And it’s a land that loves to forgive, to let people try again and start over after their mistakes.

That’s a lovely theory. But how do you “start over?” There’s no reset button to life. There’s no way to erase the past. There are real-life reasons (financial and familial and familiar) why most of us can’t just fold up our tent, hop a train, and start a new life in a different town. And even if you could, would that really be escaping from the past? You tote your past with you everywhere you go. It’s the invisible baggage that no porter will ever carry for you; only you get to push and pull and tug and lug it from place to place.

Whitman, one of America’s first great poets (and a personal favorite), famously claimed that he was large, that he contained multitudes. Beautiful. Lyrical. It’s a fundamentally democratic poetic statement, abundant and amenable to differences. I loved it as a college student. I love it as a theory.

The darker side that I overlooked in my first enthusiastic embrace? What if you can’t stomach some of the past (personal, cultural, national) that you contain? How do you make sense of not just the good that you have done but also the errors, sins, and mistakes that you have committed?

In my novel Ghost Music, characters try different tactics: some attempt to ignore the past wholly, some are swallowed by the past and lose the present, while others learn to balance what happened (good and bad) with the present. It’s a delicate issue, this effort to contain not only the multitudes that you like, but also those that you want to excoriate and burn and vomit away.

Yes, Mr. Whitman, we do indeed contain multitudes. At times, though, it is easy to wish we did not, that we could be simple, happy, uncomplicated monads, blissfully unaware of the past and able to leave all mistakes behind. Ghost Music shows the impossibility of that wish. It is a novel not just about past sins, but also about learning to forgive (both yourself and others) and attempts to reconstruct.

Life, in a can of paint (changes for 2013)

I spent part of the holiday break painting a couple of “accent” walls in my house. I wavered between two color choices: a grey-blue, or dark red. I went with red, preferring the sense of fire and passion and emotion it brings up for me.

photo (1)I find painting tedious and routinized. The advantage, though, is that you can spend the time thinking about other things. Since it’s the start of a new year, my thoughts wandered into resolutions, the idea of beginning anew, and “character” development.

To be very charitable, 2012 held a “rough patch” for me. I’ve since been working to paint a new (or renewed) self. Among other changes, I want to (re)discover a feeling of fearless love, toward life and toward myself and toward the passion and willingness to be vulnerable and caring that have led to the best things in my life. Somewhere along the line, life snuck in, snatched that away, and sabotaged the good. I want it back.

paint canHere’s where I’m taking direction, as absurd as it sounds, from a paint can. Redecorating requires that you follow a few rules. First, there’s prep work. Painting, both walls and the self, is a messy process. If you don’t take time to set up your work area, you’re likely to do as much harm as good. Set your drop cloth down, tape off the area that you want the new paint to cover, and don’t forget to clean the work surface. No matter how it got there, you’re responsible for the gunk and grime on the walls you live in. Simply covering up what’s currently showing doesn’t work. For the paint to stick, you’ve got to clean up the old and repair cracks and scars.

Second, you need to give the paint time to dry. Often you’ll need several coats. Rushing the process doesn’t work and can actually be counter-productive, muddying the finish you want. Patience and a willingness to sit calmly in the midst of mess are required.

I’ve realized that my writing often turns to a similar interplay between surface and what is covered. As a writer, I’m fascinated with what lurks beneath. I talk in Chapter One of Ghost Music about how we live on top of a palimpsest, with hidden layers under our feet. I mention elsewhere the idea of running atop a cracked surface, trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling ground. Characters try to escape the past, only to find that they never leave anything truly behind. Words create a veneer that says one thing but vibrates with the weight of unspoken emotions. For me, it always comes back to emotion, which some characters push down in a (doomed) effort to contain it.

Ghost Music is a murder mystery. Of course, murder will out. But the same is true of emotion and history. Emotion will out, while history is in fact always present. I can’t undo 2012. I also can’t just cover it up. Painting—whether it’s a scene for readers to envision, a new self, or even something as ordinary as a wall—involves a great deal more than just slapping on some color. Done properly, it’s not as much covering up as it is repairing, adding to, and building upon what’s underneath.

Tattoos, pain, and writing

I have a few tattoos already. I have plans for a few others: when I qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ll get a tattoo that captures that moment on my calf; when Ghost Music is published, I’ll get a tattoo celebrating that dream. Those of you with tattoos are probably familiar with this question—people often ask me if getting a tattoo hurts. My answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. For me, there’s a powerful connection between my writing, my tattoos, and that question about pain.

I’m not talking about physical pain from getting a tattoo (though I will say that getting a tattoo on the side of your torso isn’t the most fun). Rather, my tattoos have me simultaneously celebrating and second-guessing how I’d like to live my life. Both tattoos are related to my writing. I mentioned before that I am an emotional writer. When I’m at my best, I’m ready to burn with emotion, explode with the passion and pain of feeling, and willing to grab hold of the live wire of emotional existence with bare hands. The tattoo on my torso is meant to capture this: Icarus is flying into the sun, wings melting and feathers falling. Though the original story isn’t intended this way, I take Icarus not as a cautionary tale but as a promise to myself: I’m willing to scorch myself and push to the point of no return in pursuit of emotional intensity.

My other tattoo has a literary bent as well: on my upper left arm, a stone gargoyle sits hunched over, sadness in his eyes, eating his own heart. A response to Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” this tattoo reminds me of how I feast on emotion and have a love-hate relationship with feelings of sadness. “Love:” the intensity of the pain often shakes lose new creative directions for me. Hate: feeling the pain is overwhelming at times.

A few caveats to this creative process. First, let’s not romanticize the method. I don’t like feeling lousy. It’s not a mystical muse that I want to court or think is special. Yes, “pain is real,” but when you’re in pain feeling “real” isn’t so cool. Second, you have to take that emotional energy and compress it, hammer it out into a cohesive plan. I’m a planner when I write. I know the general framework of where I want to go and how I want to get there. I use the emotional upheaval as a planning block: how does emotion X fit into plot Y and advance character Z?

For me, this becomes the best of all possible worlds: it makes the writing less mechanical, it balances pure emotion within a broader perspective/plan, and it makes room for an important tweaking of that platitude to “write what you know.” More on the last point in a later post…

Writing and eating–food for thought

Today I’m thinking about how writing is like eating. There are lots of ways to take this simile.

We can go the modernist route and suggest that art is the very bread of life, that words provide an almost spiritual sustenance to us. Personally I think that’s a bit over the top and puts a wee bit too much pressure on writing. But the writing as nourishment angle is interesting.

We could argue that some authors have almost compulsive styles of writing, so that Hemingway or Raymond Carver are anorexic in the sparseness of their prose and refuse to add any morsel that isn’t absolutely necessary to the life of their work. Other writers gorge themselves (and their readers) on a literary style that refuses to hold anything in, creating incredibly long, convoluted sentences that would make Hemingway or Carver nauseous.

And there are of course the great majority of us, who enjoy good meals and good writing and aspire to create both but, generally, seem to be missing the secret ingredient. This all came from my sense that I am, I here confess, an emotional writer. I don’t emotionally eat, I emotionally write. What does that mean? Simply that writing often helps smooth away the rough spots of the day for me and often gives me the space to step back and gain a little perspective. I need that. It’s a productive, therapeutic synergy for me: writing helps me process the emotions; the emotions become fuel for the writing.

This can be a dangerous game, though. No one wants to read regurgitated, stream-of-conscious wailing at the universe. Good writing, like good cooking, necessitates preparation. The menu needs to be thought about in advance and you can’t forget to clean-up after the cooking is finished. If you’re lucky, people will want to come back for more.


Shopping for concrete shoes with Faulkner

I’m thinking of murder again. Fictional, of course. There’s no mystery to the deaths I’m contemplating, though. They have to go.

So whose eminent demise am I talking about? It’s time for select phrases, sentences, and even sections of my novel Ghost Music to sleep with the fishes. I’m fitting them with concrete shoes, courtesy of the delete key.

I’ve of course revised and edited and cut a great deal from my novel already. It’s in a spot where I even think of it as “final.” Writing is rarely final, though. What I have, I think, is good. But it’s still too long. It’s bloated in spots and needs to be made leaner and more efficient.

All of which returns me to murder. I’ve made the easy cuts to my novel. It’s time to “kill my darlings.” The advice comes from Faulkner (though I’ve also seen it ascribed to others, including Stephen King). As a writer, there are probably sections or phrases that you particularly love. Words that you’ve hammered together that feel especially well constructed and resonate with exactly the right type of emotion. I have several spots like that. They need to go.

Why do I need to cut them if I like them so much? In part, it’s smart to kill your darlings because you are simply much too close to them. You love them. You can’t see them as objectively as you need to. And because of that, they can actually be disrupting the flow of your novel.

That’s what’s happening in my book. My darlings are sabotaging a few chapters. So should you immediately and always murder your favorite parts? Of course not. Sometimes your favorite parts are your favorite precisely because they do such a good job. But equally, you shouldn’t refuse to cut them just because they are your favorites. Divorce your ego from the writing. Look at the work as objectively as you can. Have others read those sections and don’t let your feelings be bruised if they don’t think as highly of the work as you do.

It’s not easy. It hurts to kill them. I feel guilty. But I know they need to die. To continue this strange pairing of Faulkner and the mafia, I need to murder some of those that are closest to me but have put the rest of the work in jeopardy. So here I am, shopping with Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County for a pair of concrete shoes to put on my darlings. Murder, for a better manuscript.


Black Friday and murder

It’s Black Friday. If you’re out shopping, I wish you luck. You are a braver soul than I.

As a mystery writer, the phrase “Black Friday” twists another direction for me: it sounds like the title of a murder mystery. For fun, I’ve taken that idea and cobbled together what it might look like from a few different genres of mystery. Happy Thanksgiving/Black Friday everyone.

Suspense thriller: Thanksgiving was even more tense than usual. The entire town was nervous. Prayers of thanks had been more fervent this year and quickly shifted into prayers asking for protection. It had started on New Year’s Day. Then Valentine’s. Then Easter, the Fourth of July, even Veteran’s Day. The town paper already had the headline ready for tomorrow: “Black Friday — Holiday Homicides continue.”

Legal mystery: John knew his client was innocent. Maybe “knew” was too strong. He thought he was innocent. It didn’t really matter, legally speaking. And it shouldn’t have mattered from a personal standpoint. But for John it did.
John had spent Thanksgiving nodding politely at the dinner conversation and not really hearing anything. His client hadn’t spoken since his arrest last Friday. With no ID and no hits after his fingerprints were taken, the police referred to him as “Black Friday,” blending their racism with the upcoming holiday to create a moniker for the anonymous man they’d arrested.
The evidence continued to gnaw at John. Something was missing. He’d need to put the puzzle pieces together, showing the jury a different picture. But to do that, John needed to first find the missing pieces.

Cozy: Uncle Bertrand sat in his favorite armchair, reading the paper and occasionally clearing the phlegm from his throat. The leather squeaked with every slight movement Uncle Bertrand made. Thanksgiving had gone surprisingly well. No one liked Uncle Bertrand. Holiday squabbling, however, had been strangely muted this year. Uncle Bertrand slouched to the side of his chair, apparently falling into a post-meal slumber.
[but wait, it’s not tryptophan, it’s poison! And all family members are now suspects. Uncle Bertrand’s niece, Constance, must unravel  family secrets to find the Black Friday murderer.]

Hard-boiled: The mall was a zoo. Bodies crowded and crashed into one another as they grabbed for the best of post-Thanksgiving deals. Lonnie needed to find one guy in this mess of body odor and consumer excitement. And he needed to find him quick. The proverbial needle in the haystack. Cyrus was nasty. He snapped necks like kids snapped wishbones after Thanksgiving meals, with a smile and excitement.
Shots rang out from The Cheesecake Factory. Lots of shots. Lots of screams.
Lonnie dashed to the door. Too late. Cyrus was gone. He left eight bodies. Blood covered the floor. Brain matter slid down the wall. A clump of hair stuck to the board advertising the daily specials.
“Welcome to Black Friday,” thought Lonnie.

Literary mystery: Friday was black. The ionized air lifted the hair on my arms as the storm rolled in. Clouds twisted upon themselves as they raced across the purple sky. Though midday, sunlight struggled to find its way through the roiling mess.

The darkness crept over everything. Or maybe the darkness was instead crawling out of my heart, changing how I saw everything around me. Since Sara’s murder, I felt as though I’d collapsed in a house of mirrors. I couldn’t find reality. There were fractures everywhere I looked.
Today, though, I was ready to crawl out. I owed that to Sara. She’d whispered one word to me as she died. One word. I was ready to unlock it, no matter where it led me. One word: giblets.

Waiting for the publisher

Writing a novel, I’ve discovered, is not an ideal undertaking for those who are impatient. I’m not good at waiting. I hate going to the bank, or the post office, where lines seem to take forever. I’d rather take surface roads and drive the long way home than sit on the freeway in rush hour traffic and move slowly. You get the idea.

Beyond the hours and months and years invested in taking an initial idea to completion as a novel, though, there is an unbelievable amount of time where you can’t do anything but wait. What looked like the finish line–completing the novel–is actually only about the midway point. Then it’s time to find an agent or look for a publisher directly. That means a query letter. Then waiting, weeks or even months, to hear back. If they like what they read, maybe you’ll be asked to submit a longer sample, or even the full manuscript. If not, welcome to form letter rejection hell.

I’ve experienced both, several times. I’m never quite prepared for either outcome. Logging in to find an email from an agent or publisher still gives me a shot of adrenaline. Opening the message is like getting a gift from a secret Santa at work: you have no idea whether it’s something you’d like to display on your desk or bury in a drawer, but you’re pretty sure that whoever is doing the gifting would do a much better job if they just knew you a little bit better.

Assuming the gift is a good one and you’ve been asked to submit a full manuscript for review, the process feels like it’s jumped forward dramatically, only to come to a standstill almost immediately afterward. Publishers and agents are ridiculously busy. And though your novel should, obviously, be their top priority and you know it will grab their attention once they start reading it, there is evidently some unusual wormhole in the publishing world that slows time to a crawl. Four to six months seems to be pretty standard for a manuscript review. In an age filled with texts that jump back and forth with ease and messaging that has become “instant,” waiting months for something that is so important to you feels interminable.

I’m in that interminable, difficult, wormhole-like spot right now. The good folks at Oak Tree Press have asked to review my manuscript. They are exactly the type of press I’m looking for: a company that has helped other new writers get a start and forms a partnership with authors. Sunny has been especially helpful already, quick with replies and suggestions. Check out their books when you get a chance. Here’s hoping that this time my gift is an offer for publication–that’s a gift I would definitely enjoy seeing on my desk.