How to drive readers away. Cover fails…

cover gummyGood covers help sell books; bad ones almost never do. I say “almost” because you might find a cover are so utterly awful, amateurish or dumb that you’re tempted to buy it to see if the writing is just as bad. This is like hitting your head with a variety of hard objects to see which generates the worst headache. Don’t let your cover be one of them.

No matter what kind of book you’re writing, a bad cover can sabotage all your hard work. If you can’t think of a good illustration, a nifty font, or a way to typographically promote your idea, just use plain bold text on a color background. It might not be sexy, but at least it won’t completely suck. And people will be able to read the title!

Consider the Gummy Baby cover above. I have not read it, nor do I intend to, but readers of gruesome short stories featuring young children might like it. (Get your copy here.) I’m posting it simply to point out some of the issues one can run into when designing a cover.

Let’s start with the overwhelming background image and the photo overlay of lips and a tongue. Even assuming the mouth addition is a good idea (which I doubt), you’d be hard pressed to see it in the thumbnail version. The title also disappears amid the candy even though it’s big enough to stand out. The color is just… wrong. The blurb likewise dissolves in the confectionery madness as it does on a full-size rendering. Last of all, the author’s name is nearly invisible in a thumbnail, and doesn’t do much better full-scale. The one message we can’t escape is that this story has something to do with gummy bears. Yuck.

A good book cover should deliver a message, but it ought to be one that puts an idea in a reader’s head, and more specifically, an intriguing idea. You do, after all, want to sell what’s inside, so why make the wrapper appear toxic?

cover IsisConsider the cover for Isis: The Beauty Myth (buy it here). I’m going to crawl out on a limb here and guess the cover illustration was not done by a professional artist. Conventional wisdom suggests that a pretty face, which I’m guessing is the goal here, ought to include a nose, two eyes, and maybe even an ear. Isis here, despite a charming, albeit massive, pair of ruby lips, appears to be missing some of the aforementioned standard equipment. Maybe that’s the whole point of the story; I don’t know. I haven’t read this one either, and with this cover, I’ve no intention of doing so, which is sad because it might be a great story.

If I were re-designing this, I’d focus on the title font, enlarge it and find a compelling image to go with it. I’d also beef up the size of the author’s name so it’s not lost in the shuffle.

cover BigfootNext up is the cover for Bigfoot Bob (available here). Bob Smith is Bigfoot Bob, and I’m guessing the hirsute fellow on the cover is the author rather than one of the critters he’s after (or possibly a lost member of ZZ ZZ TopTop).

The large black box which, thankfully, obscures Bob’s nether regions tells readers exactly what this wannabe blockbuster is about. Unfortunately, it’s done in a font and color scheme that’s barely legible here let alone in a thumbnail, which is all most readers will see. Likewise, the image suggests this is what a bigfoot looks like rather than a bigfoot hunter. Why Bob hunts in the nude is a question for another day. This cover needs a makeover in the worst way. Sorry Bob. You, too, bigfoot.

cover DeadendZipping right along, we find the cover for  Dead End in The Pyrenees (get your copy here). I’ve got to say I love the background photo. I just wish the designer hadn’t quit right there. Would it have killed him or her to center the title? Or use a photo of a real Volkswagon instead of something from a freebie clip art collection? Or, at the very least, make the author’s name big enough to read, and in a font that doesn’t get buried in the background?

What’s also interesting to note (from the Amazon sales page): this is the fourth book in a series. I have no idea if the first three covers were similarly mangled, but I suspect so. There’s potential here, but all of it has been overlooked and/or misinterpreted. I also note that “Author Way” is the publisher. Evidently, they don’t know squat about covers either, or they’d never have let this one sneak by. My guess is they were done the instant they got paid.

It’s not that hard to come up with a good cover, even on your own. You can pay a designer to build one or use any of the cover construction tools available on the internet. I will revisit this issue soon with a list of things to keep in mind if you opt to design your own.

–Josh

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Saving your family’s words of wisdom

I touched on this topic a couple years back, but it bears repeating, especially for those working on a memoir. For many of us, there are precious words of wisdom tucked away in our memories. Odd and typically quirky, these folksy lines played a subtle yet important role in our childhoods. We ignore them all too often today, because they haven’t been run through a Madison Avenue filter, nor are they used by the relentlessly Mid-western broadcast voices we hear every day.

If we’re lucky, we won’t have much trouble digging them up to share with our own progeny. BUT, we have to commit ourselves to doing so. Memoir writers, on the other hand, have additional opportunities. They can work these gems into their personal histories and leave these verbal riches for posterity.

“Wish in one hand, spit in the other. See which fills up first.”

Gramma02I’m channeling the wisdom of the diminutive Anna Gunderson Hasdal, the only one of my grand quartet to survive past my third birthday. Doubtless the other three could have provided similar proverbs if they’d only had the chance, and I ache for the memories of them I’ll never have.

Happily, Anna lived a long and bountiful life, and I have many great memories of her. Standing all of 4 foot 10 in her sensible, sturdy, little shoes, Anna left Norway at 18 and sailed to America. She shuffled through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century and made her way to Chicago where she sought her fortune as a housekeeper. She met and married yet another ex-pat Norwegian, and they had four children, one of whom was my late mother.

“Gramma” was a no-nonsense gal, and I dearly wish she could share her wisdom with me and my writing classes today. She could teach me so, so much about a world which no longer exists–the one she grew up in. What she learned about that world, however, still applies to this one.

“What you don’t have in your head, you have in your feet.”

This one annoyed me greatly as a child, because I heard it so often. I hated it because it was true; it’s still true today: forget the car keys? Walk back and get ’em; forget my class notes? Go back and get ’em. Forget the grocery list? Thankfully, parts of my memory still work, and I know I can survive without everything on the missing list. I’ve gotten quite a kick out of using the phrase on my own kids — and with any luck, they’ll use it on theirs, too. We’ll see.

“I have more time than money.”Gramma01

It was true for Anna, and it’s still true for me and my bride. Better still, it requires no explanation.

“We don’t count the food.”

Anna wasn’t the only one to dole out familial wisdom. The above line was one of my dad’s favorite expressions. The third of five boys in his family, they shared a house with their parents plus various aunts and uncles all through the Depression. There’s no doubt in my mind a limited budget demanded that all food be scrupulously accounted for. As an adult, Dad no longer had such concerns, and that provides everything I need to understand.

Anna Mpls 59“Chickens don’t praise their own soup.”

I seriously doubt my grandmother ever said this, but I can easily imagine her doing it, and I can almost hear that faint Scandinavian lilt in her voice, which was every bit as small and charming as she was. Best of all, this one takes a moment or two to absorb. And, seriously, shouldn’t advice be something one has to think about to appreciate? Otherwise it’s not much more than, “Be careful, or you’ll shoot yer eye out!” Okay, got it. Moving on now, sans BB gun. And self respect. Here’s another my great dame would surely have endorsed:

“Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”

If only our elected representatives put this to use! In lieu of that, we must do what we can, and this is prime stuff for a memoir. It’ll go in mine, for sure, one way or another. Which brings me back to the beginning–spend the time it takes to dig up the sayings which got traction in your family.

“Cook ’em; don’t Shermanize ’em!”

This one I remember quite vividly; it was a favorite of my late father-in-law. Long ago, when I dated his youngest daughter, he would dispatch us to the backyard barbecue grill on Saturday nights with that one grand injunction. Saturday night was steak night, and you didn’t want to mess with that man’s favorite meal. Fortunately, we didn’t screw it up too often. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have had his blessing when I asked for permission to marry his sweet baby girl.

Please, do your best to capitalize on these things. They may help to keep alive the memories of loved ones long gone. Though the sayings may have been corny, or ungrammatical, or phrased with a degree of color rarely seen today, your memoir will benefit from them. And so will your readers.

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The Great Skippy Peanut Butter Factory Massacre

For too many memoir writers, the task is about recounting a life and nothing more. What these folks miss is the opportunity to share life lessons from a more mature perspective. I’m not talking about Monday morning quarterbacking. There’s a reason we remember some incidents in our lives and not others, and it isn’t based on the degree of trauma involved. Examining those episodes through a present-day lens can help put them in a more useful context. And, in some cases, may offer opportunities for humor–an all too rare commodity in most memoirs.

To wit: an excerpt from my own life story from the 1950s, which I refer to as “The Great Skippy Peanut Butter Factory Massacre.”

His name was Bennett, but I can’t remember if it was his first name or his last. He lived in the house at the end of the block, but I can’t remember what the house looked like. I can’t even remember what he looked like. But I do remember he was the luckiest kid on Earth, and the massacre was really all his fault.

Howdy podnuhBennett had everything: a big-screen TV (a full 13 inches, measured diagonally), no older brothers, a basketball hoop mounted eight feet off the ground instead of ten, and he had a spring board. Topping it all off, he had not one, but two junior-size Lakers basketballs, the kind an eight-year-old can almost palm if the rubber hide isn’t too dirty or worn too smooth. It’s not that I was a great fan of the Lakers, because I wasn’t; not many people in Minneapolis were, which probably explains why the team wound up moving to Los Angeles. But I sure liked those junior-size basketballs–and Bennett had two of ‘em!

When I was at his house, we could both take shots. We would drag the spring board out of the garage and set it up in strategic positions near the basket. We used leftover house paint to outline the square base of the spring board in several places on the driveway. (I recall Bennett’s mom saying something about that; she wasn’t pleased.) We took turns running down the short drive from the alley, leaping as high as possible and landing, heels down, on the spring board. The board catapulted us into the air and empowered us to make incredible dunks and miraculous saves. I could go from ground level to eyeball-even with the rim of the basket; I was Jerry West, Bob Cousy, and Peter Pan–all rolled into one!

Or I could stay at home. Our basket was ten feet high and our regulation-size ball was so smooth it was hard to hold with two hands unless it was wet, or unless you were one of my brothers or one of their friends. Turns were something they had three of for every one of mine, unless we were playing “Pig,” a follow-the-leader game where you got one letter of the game’s title word every time you missed a shot. When you had all the letters, you were out. I was out a lot. Bennett and I played the same game at his house, but we called it “Tyrannosaurus Rex” or “Duck-billed Platypus.”

Howdy_DoodyThe other thing I really liked to do at Bennett’s house was watch TV. When Buffalo Bob came on and asked, “Hey kids, what time is it?” we didn’t have to listen to my clever brothers say “It’s ‘Captain Video’ time!” which is what they always said at my house. They always insisted on using the democratic method to determine which program to watch. I think my brothers invented block voting. As I recall, we only had three TV channels back then, so there weren’t any other choices. If I wanted to watch “Howdy Doody,” I just about had to be at Bennett’s. 

Don’t get the idea my brothers and I never agreed on anything, even though there may be some truth to it. There was one particular show we never missed. Each week the whole family would gather in front of the old Zenith to watch “You Asked For It!” with Art Baker. It became something of a tradition.

The show’s sponsor was Skippy Peanut Butter, and in our house, it became something of a tradition, too. It wasn’t a case of the other brands not measuring up, they were simply never considered. But only creamy Skippy was acceptable. Somebody, probably my father, brought home a jar of chunky once, and it lived in the cabinet for years. Sometimes my mother would try to sneak some into a PBJ sandwich, but she never got away with it. There must be a law of nature that prevents chunky peanut butter from spoiling, ‘cause that jar lasted forever.

You asked for itLife would have been truly idyllic if only I could have spent the afternoons at Bennett’s. Alas, my folks said a family ought to be together at dinner time. Mom and Dad would sit at opposite ends of the big table; my brothers would be on one side and my sister, who’s the oldest of the four of us, would sit next to me. She and I got along great since the only thing we had in common was a last name.

Now, any kid who’s ever’ swished a shot from the foul line knows the best time to shoot baskets is during those special hours tucked between the end of school and the beginning of dinner. There’s a kind of magic in effect at that time of day, a special something that enhances a shooter’s aim, adds loft to a lay-up and takes the edge off the worst arguments about who fouled whom. As far as I can tell, it still holds true today.

Back then, the best way for me to follow up an afternoon of basketball was to watch the “Howdy Doody Show,” which is why I was frequently late getting home for dinner. When I eventually got home, my mother and I would observe yet another tradition, like a responsive reading, except we both had our parts memorized.

“You’re late,” Mom would say.

“I know. I’m sorry,” I would always respond.

“Don’t they have any clocks at Bennett’s house?”

“Sure, but you know, we were busy, and I sorta forgot to look.”

“You didn’t notice it was getting dark?”

“Well, yeah, but it gets darker earlier every day!” (After all, basketball is a winter sport, and the best time to get ready for it is in the fall. Finding a place to shoot baskets outdoors during a Minneapolis winter is tricky.)

“But if the sun goes down earlier, shouldn’t that give you even more time to get home?”

“I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Okay, you’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“I’ve heard that before.” Which is true, I made the same promise every time. I suppose I should have said “It won’t happen again, tonight,” but I never did.

Skippy jar 1955One night, after we had observed the usual “You’re late/I’m sorry” ritual, Dad made an exciting announcement: his company had been hired to produce a training film for the local Skippy Peanut Butter factory. That was a shocker, we hadn’t known there was a local Skippy Peanut Butter factory! Dad planned to make arrangements to tour the facility, which was only open to the public on Saturdays, and wondered if any of us wanted to come along. He knew the answer in advance; even my sister wanted to go! The date was set: a Saturday some four weeks off. Who knew–Art Baker himself might even be there!

I believe it was the following day, an hour or two after resuming my usual occupation in Bennett’s driveway, that I really noticed how dark it was getting. I must have said something to Bennett because I remember him running to his garage, swinging his arm in a theatrical flourish and yelling “Ta-da!” just before he flipped on the newly installed floodlights. Sundown? Hah! We managed to get in at least an extra half hour. I returned home tired, but happy.

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sor–“

“Don’t say it!” My mom had a stare that could freeze water coming out of a spout.

“But–“

“Don’t say another word. I’ve heard it all anyway.”

“I–“

“Shush!”

I shushed.

“Your father and I had a long talk about you. We’re tired of having to track you down every night before dinner.”

Track me down? Right. As if my location had ever been a mystery. But I opted not to respond as I could already feel little red chunks of ice bobbing around in my bloodstream.

“It’s about time you learned some responsibility,” she said. “So here’s what we’re going to do.”

I’ve always had a pretty vivid imagination so it wasn’t difficult to conclude that my trips to Bennett’s would soon be banned.

“The next time you show up late for dinner, you’re going to lose a privilege.”

“A privilege? You mean like stayin’ up late on a Friday night?”

“I mean like going to the Skippy factory.”

“The Skippy factory?”

All of a sudden the little chunks of ice floating around in my system decided to have a team meeting at mid-court–somewhere near my heart.

“Yup,” she said. I remember her voice was light, almost unconcerned, and wouldn’t have been any less incongruous if she had confirmed that one of my toes was about to be removed–at about the knee.

“I won’t be late again. I promise.”

“Good,” was all she said.

For the next two weeks, I was the most punctual child on the planet. There were times when I was even early. I figured I was storing up “earliness” like a squirrel stashing nuts for the winter.

Color TVIn all fairness to Bennett, I shouldn’t really blame him for what came next. While President Eisenhower was warning everybody about the “military/industrial complex” Bennett’s folks went out and spent their vacation money on the entertainment industry’s greatest achievement: color TV!

Somehow the magic went out of the junior-size Laker basketballs, the springboard, and the dwindling daylight. How could it possibly compete with the likes of “Crusader Rabbit,” “Tom and Jerry,” or “Huckleberry Hound”–in full and sometimes accurate, color? Dinnertime couldn’t compete very well either. I went home late.

Mom met me at the door. “You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sor–“

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

Even someone with extremely limited deductive powers could tell this was not a happy woman. “The Skippy trip?” I asked.

“The Skippy trip,” she confirmed. “Your dinner is in the kitchen.”

That’s all she said! Period. She didn’t ask why I was late or anything. There was no argument, no pleading, no tears, no second thoughts–nothing. And it was two whole weeks before we were going on the tour! There was no way in the world she could possibly remember I had been late that one lousy time.

If I had turned punctuality into an art form before, I became one of the “Old Masters” in the days that followed. I made sure I was home early every night, not just once in a while. I was the first one at the dinner table. I ate the liver. I even helped with the dishes when it wasn’t my turn. I wagered everything I had on the value of good works to dull the memory of my earlier transgression.

The long-awaited Saturday finally arrived. The house was a bustle of activity as we all got dressed and ready. I remember helping my sister clean up after breakfast as Dad loaded the Brownie with fresh film and stuffed his pockets with little blue flash bulbs.

We all prepared to troop out to the car when Mom pulled me aside and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”

That was definitely not a question I was prepared to hear. “The Skippy factory?” I suggested.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I told you what would happen if you were late one more time.”

I wept. I moaned. I sobbed. I rolled my eyes so far back in my head it hurt. I fell to the floor and actually begged. Oh, such pathosEveryone tip-toed by me, avoiding eye contact as if it would somehow ensnare them in my guilt. No condemned man ever created a greater spectacle than I did that morning, nor was any such protest less effective.

No reprieve. Mom was a rock, her face a mask of steely resolve. While my family spent the day reveling in Skippydom, I languished in my room.

That evening I discovered I represented only half of the casualties. Rounding out the massacre was my father, the very architect of the whole affair. His undoing came when a security guard spotted his camera and leaped to the conclusion there was industrial espionage afoot.

While I sat in my room, Dad sat in the car. (When he and his film crew arrived some weeks later there was a similar scene with the same uniformed enforcer, but the outcome was entirely different. I never did get to see the training film.)

Much later, I learned there were other casualties as well, including at least a part of my childhood innocence. And despite my considerable display of grief, my mother suffered most of all. In later years she confessed that saying “no” to me that day was one of the hardest things she ever had to do.

~End~

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Sometimes…

…you’ve just gotta resist temptation. And most especially if you’re writing a memoir.57882146_ml cut out

Trouble is, there are several temptations which often crop up during the writing of a memoir, and in almost every case, caving to any of them will result in a disappointing end product. There’s no point in numbering these as they’re all roughly equal in importance, and while a very few writers might be lured in by all of them, most memoir writers will only deal with one or two. (Thank goodness!)

So, let’s start by managing expectations. There’s very little chance your life story will be so utterly captivating and/or so profoundly worthwhile, that it will hit the New York Times Bestseller list, or anyone else’s for that matter. Think hard about who will be reading your memoir–family, certainly, and friends, possibly even business acquaintances or genealogists in need of period and setting details. For most people, having just such an audience provides all the justification needed for embarking on, and completing, such a major undertaking. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to call, unless you’ve been involved in something truly world-changing.

Another common pitfall is accepting less than your best. It’s ironic, I suppose, in light of the topic just discussed, but just because your life story is unlikely to be a runaway bestseller, you are not absolved of the responsibility to write it in the best way you can. This means taking the time to organize your content in a way readers will enjoy. Strict, chronological order might be helpful to you, but it might bore your readers to tears. 18396339_ml fanaticIf, however, the content is flavorful enough, a straight chronology might be the best way to go. Just make sure you choose a format for a reason and not simply because you didn’t take the time to think about doing it any other way.  The second part of this issue addresses writing mechanics. If you expect readers to take the time to read your work, you owe it to them to write good material. There are many techniques for writing powerful prose, take the time to learn some of them. (You could do a lot worse than studying my writing textbook, Write Naked!)

Despite what the all-but-sainted Ann Lemott had to say about owning your stories–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”–please don’t assume your memoir entitles you to take pot shots at everyone who pissed you off during your lifetime. That’s NOT the point of a memoir. Yes, by all means, be truthful, and if someone hurt you, for God’s sake, don’t worry about their feelings when you recount the incident(s). But please, don’t use your memoir as a means to get even. Your life story should be more than a vendetta. If that’s the route you choose, just understand that when it’s done, nobody will like it, including you.

12688416_ml YOUFinally, please understand that you don’t need to save space in your book to mention everyone you’ve ever met. That may sound ludicrous, but all too often, writers I know have agonized over whether or not to mention this person or that one, when–in the grand scheme of things–it simply doesn’t matter. You’re not writing an address book; you’re writing a story. It’s about YOU. It’s not about every teacher you had, every boss who said something nice (or ugly), every guy or gal you dated, every traffic ticket you got, or every movie you saw.

Your story needs to be about you and the things in your life that matter–to you! Deciding what to include in your memoir should be as easy as asking yourself: did this matter to me, or was it just another incident? Running off to Peru with a bongo-playing socialist might have had some impact on your life; running off to Dairy Queen with your best friend on a Tuesday night during summer break probably doesn’t rate inclusion, unless that was the night you met… you-know-who.

Enough foolin’ around. It’s time to get back to work!

–Josh

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Damn the skeletons! Open the closet.

One might be tempted to think that only readers find surprises in a memoir. But if the writer incorporates some genealogical research, he or she is just as likely to stumble onto little-known, if not completely forgotten, family lore. I’d be fascinated to discover that my great-great-uncle Waldo was a horse thief, or that his step-sister danced the can-can to entertain gold miners from Cripple Creek, Colorado, to the Klondike. Finding such gems isn’t easy, but they’re oh-so-worth it.

But one doesn’t even have to hunt down specifics to add an element of intrigue to a memoir. One of the easiest ways to do this is via a DNA test.

Currently, there are four major outfits offering DNA testing, and they don’t all offer the same thing. Much depends on what you hope to learn, and different organizations offer different kinds of results. Also, you need to know up front that such testing isn’t cheap. Prices range from $99 to $199, and in order to get the full range of information available, you’ll need to pony up for three of the four. There’s a way to reduce that cost however, and I’ll get to it later in this post.

Most folks will be interested in autosomal DNA testing, which looks across genders and seeks out potential cousins anywhere within an individual’s lineage. YDNA testing is available to men only and concerns itself solely with paternal ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA testing involves only the maternal line.

As of this writing, your best bet if you only want to take one test, is through Family Tree DNA. From my admittedly limited research, it has samples from more genealogists than the others, and it’s easy to use.

Ancestry DNA, however, is the only one which links–or attempts to link–your DNA results with your family tree. This is only helpful when your family tree is registered with them, otherwise there’s nothing with which to link it. I’m told that’s not uncommon, but as more folks do the testing and delve into their ancestors, this will continually improve.

If you’re looking for general information on the source of your genetics, your best bets are the Ancestry Composition report from 23andMe and Ancestry DNA’s Ethnicity Estimate.

There’s also National Geographic’s Geno 2.0. You won’t get nearly as much useful genealogical feedback, but you’ll be doing your fellow humans a service for the future as this data will be used more comprehensively going forward.

Here’s how to save a few bucks and get the results from the three commercial services: Do the AncestryDNA first. It’s data is the most compatible, and it’ll set you back $99. When you get your results from AncestryDNA, transfer the raw data to Family Tree DNA. That’s only $69, and it doesn’t limit your options with the first company. It does, however, link you with the Family Tree DNA system, for which there are significant benefits.

Later, when you’ve got another $99 to spend, test with 23andMe. (And if you feel a pang of humanity, think of National Geographic. They’re in it for all of us, and their research is far more serious than the rest.)

Why do all this? To find out where you’re from! There may not be any skeletons in your closet, but wouldn’t it be nice to know where it all began? Most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, and there’s no telling how long ago that happened, unless someone in your family has already done some extensive research. For the great majority of us, we rely on what we’ve heard and very little else. Maybe it’s time to see what’s behind your genetic curtain.

–Josh

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Mistakes can be blessings

oops2Usually when I make a mistake, it’s something that continues to kick me in the head no matter whether I admit it or not. There’s always payback. Bent nails, split wood, crooked trim, creaky hinges–the list goes on and on. And when it comes to my writing, it’s worse. On the plus side, however, many of the mistakes I’ve made ended up as object lessons. Sure, they focused on how not to do something, but they were still valuable.

It took a long time to come to that realization, and to this day I hate it when I get things wrong. Over the past few months, however, I’ve found that a mistake I made is actually guiding me to writing a much, much better novel.

I know it sounds weird, but here’s what happened. I started a new novel set somewhere in the Midwest in the early 1970s. It would be a paranormal tale, but it wouldn’t feature vampires or any of the other other-worldly critters that are so popular these days. The scenes came flying out, and I was having a fabulous time putting them in order. My multiple point-of-view tale had some excellent opening scenes, a solid tension level, and a charming array of oddball characters. It also had a fantasy element sure to drive a highly entertaining story.

But about 25,000 words in, and after a few kind volunteers read and commented on the first three chapters, I realized I’d completely missed the mark on the setting. Not that I’m all that good on setting anyway, but on this occasion it wasn’t a less-than-stellar job of description. This time I missed both the best time and the best place for the story. I just couldn’t get the mileage I needed out of the 1970s or from a vague, imaginary metro area somewhere in the heartland. More than anything else, the story’s reliance on a syndicated gossip columnist dictated that it needed to take place in the post-Depression era.

It also became apparent I needed to focus on an area I know well–the South, and more specifically, Atlanta, GA.

OopsThirty years worth of technology–to say nothing of a world war, and more words added to the English language than at any other time in history–presented me with a challenge. Moving the story in time and space would require big changes. Of course, I always had the option of ignoring my misgivings. I wouldn’t be the first to wave off early warnings. (Or lament it!)

Yesterday I finished revisions of those first six chapters, and I’m now ready to move on with the story. The good news is that I’ve got a much greater appreciation for the world my characters inhabit, and I’ve developed it through researching ways to get around the many social, linguistic and technical differences between 1973 and 1943.

Slang, hospital equipment, cemeteries, newspapers, clothing, a virtual absence of television–all of it contributed to a tidal wave of changes. And the story will absolutely benefit from it. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll post part of it here, but that’s a definite possibility. Keep an eye out for it!

And for those of you struggling with an evolving story, I urge you to take a fresh look at your setting. Make sure it works for the tale you’ve decided to tell. There might just be a much better one!

–Josh

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Land of the Midday Moon

Wait. “Midday moon?

Yep. It remains the land of the midnight sun, but I like this alternative story much better, especially since I experienced it.

A little background:

Seems there’s a little town in Alaska called Ferry, population 32, although that could easily have changed since the number appeared in a Houston Chronicle article a decade ago. The story we heard on the train from Denali National Park to Anchorage covered, or perhaps uncovered, the same stuff.

Greater Metropolitan Ferry straddles the Nenana river a short distance south of Denali National Park. Roughly a generation ago, the Alaska Railroad built a bridge across the Learning the truthriver. The folks in Ferry were delighted to finally avoid the 20-mile detour they’d had to endure to cross the Nenana without getting their feet wet. They drove everything but livestock across that bridge, which didn’t set well with the railroad which focused on other issues, like safety, especially after a locomotive hit a vehicle on the tracks. No one, evidently, was hurt. Embarrassed probably, but not seriously injured.

However, the incident caused the railroad to try and enforce it’s “no crossing” policy. Legend has it the railroad installed spikes in the bridge to discourage drivers. The Ferry

School photo of an early migrant (top right) to Ferry, Alaska.

School photo of an early migrant (top right) to Ferry, Alaska.

folk retaliated by covering the spikes with wooden planks and continued driving across.

The railroad appealed to the state government which threatened to fine anyone who used the bridge. The residents were displeased, of course, but had little recourse. It’s hard enough to fight city hall; state governments are even tougher. So they resorted to using the only thing left for honest, law-abiding, American citizens: their first amendment rights. From then on, the story goes, the town folk of Ferry, Alaska, would line up on the Fourth of July each year and moon the Alaska Railroad’s Midnight Sun Express as it rolled by. In both directions!

But the story goes on. When the railroad brought in the Alaska State Patrol to quell the protest, the residents simply switched their demonstration to the following day, or whenever the troopers weren’t available. Nowadays, anyone riding the Alaska Railroad is mooned carlikely to be mooned almost anywhere. Alaskans, it appears, take their protests seriously.

This was born out when our train was “hit” by a lone mooner as we chugged between Denali and Anchorage. The accompanying photo, though pure fiction, may give you a feel for the experience. Not sure if it’ll help with digestion, but catching a full moon at midday certainly made us all smile.

I can’t wait to write a story about Alaska, its marvelous scenery, and magnificent people.

–Josh

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