Three Stories from Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston 3Bret Anthony Johnston is one of my favorite writers. He is a former competitive skateboarder from Corpus Christi, Texas who went on to become the director of the creative writing program at Harvard. The reason I’m so attracted to his writing is because it tends to be sparse while still being detailed and evocative. Normally, that would be a contradiction, but in Bret’s writing, it’s not.

A couple of years ago, I studied with Bret as part of the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. One of the things I liked about him was his no nonsense approach to writing. A lot of writers—especially literary writers—treat writing like it’s something beyond our comprehension. It’s part imagination, part magic, part inspiration, and it’s all controlled by the muse. Bret pretty much blew that approach out of the water. His philosophy was that good writing had much more to do with hard work and time in the chair than it did with magic and inspiration. I tend to agree.

I wanted to share three of Bret’s short stories with you. The first is “Dixon.” There are two reasons that this story resonates with me. First, it shows a glimpse into Bret’s creative mind. He takes something relatively mundane (kid’s meals toys from Dairy Queen) and builds a complicated, yet easily understood, story out of seemingly nothing. I like that because I think that’s what our lives are like, mundane moments that, when taken together, become something much more. The old saw, “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts” definitely applies here.

I also like the way Bret uses place in the story. In fact, place is always important to me, and Bret does a great job of using his former south Texas home as a background character in the story. Much of Bret’s writing takes place in south Texas, and it’s obvious that he knows the place like a family member.

The second story is “To a Good Home.” Bret usually doesn’t get too political in his stories, and this one isn’t purely political, but it will make you question your preconceptions. I know it did for me. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. I wanted more. More information? More resolution? Something. But maybe that desire for more is what a good ending does. If Bret was writing a mystery, this ending wouldn’t work well at all. But for literary fiction, maybe it does.

Finally, my favorite Bret Anthony Johnston short story is “Republican.” This was the very first story from Bret I ever read, and it remains my favorite. There’s a sense of humor in this story that I really connect to. It’s not a humorous story, but there’s humor in it. I just really like it.

Enjoy these stories and let me know what you think.

If you didn’t catch the links to the stories above, here they are again:

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

Best Books of 2016Ann Patchett is a terrific writer who has won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She also is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, a fantastic bookstore that is at the forefront of making independent bookstores not only successful, but indispensable. In 2012, Time magazine named Patchett one of the 100 most influential people in the world. High praise indeed.

So when Patchett wrote in a recent blog post that 2016 was a knockout year for books, I took notice. Her claim surprised me a little because I had just been thinking that it had been a long time since I had read a really good book. The kind of book I’m talking about contains excellent writing; a terrific, interesting plot; and characters that I care about, and who change (for better or for worse) during the course of the book. I didn’t read many of those kinds of books during 2016

As I read Ann’s blog post and took note of the books she read during the year, I was envious. I hadn’t read one book that she referred to in her list of the year’s best books. Thinking about the books I had read over the past year, I realized that I read fewer books than I have in past years, and many of the books I read were being consumed for research purposes, not for pleasure.

Even so, when I listed out the books that I did enjoy and would recommend, I still came up with an eclectic list of ten books. Not all (or even most) were written during the past year. I just consumed them during 2016.

Here they are:

Bob Honey10. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff by Pappy Pariah (Available only on audio) – This is probably the weirdest book I have ever read. In fact, everything surrounding the book is weird. No one knows for sure who the author, Pappy Pariah, is. Actor Sean Penn has been making the rounds of talk shows promoting the book, but he swears he is not Pappy Pariah. He says his only connection to the book is that he signed on to read the audio book. The book is about a strange man named Bob Honey, a septic tank specialist by trade, who works for foreign governments by going around to retirement communities and dispatching the elderly with a firm thump to their heads with a wooden mallet. But that’s really not what the book is about. That’s the story that flows through the novel, but the book is also a political commentary of sorts. It’s smart, funny, well-written, and endlessly weird. If you’re looking for strange, this just might be the book for you.

Axis of Aaron

9. Axis of Aaron by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant– Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant are prodigious writers who churn out commercial fiction (mostly sci-fi and horror) most of time, but each year they set aside the time to produce one literary fiction novel. The duo admits that despite their literary fiction being their least profitable venture, it is also the favorite (and some would say “best”) writing they do all year. Axis of Aaron is Platt and Truant’s literary effort for 2016. The novel is a mind-bender that follows the protagonist, Ebon Shale, back to his childhood home on Aaron Island following the death of his wife. But things on Aaron don’t match his memory. In fact, Aaron isn’t even the same from day-to-day. Neither Ebon nor the reader are ever sure what is real and what is fantasy.

The Man From Primrose Lane8.  The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner – This is one of those books that turned out to be quite different from what I expected. It was recommended to me by a friend, but he wouldn’t tell me much about it, other than to say that it was good and he thought I’d like it. I thought I was going to be reading a crime novel, and the first half of the book was exactly as I expected. But without warning, the book turned into a time travel adventure. To be honest, the change kind of irritated me, but I had already invested myself in the characters, so I kept reading. Normally, I don’t like books (or movies) with a split personality. I want the author (or director) to know what they want their story to be. In my experience, when you try to cater to too many different tastes, you end up disappointing everyone. Even so, I have to say that I enjoyed The Man from Primrose Lane despite my initial irritation. Renner’s characters are a bit stock, and his ending is a little schlocky (not to my taste), but the overall experience was still a good one.

Nobody Move

7.  Nobody Move by Denis Johnson – This is the worst book I have read by author Denis Johnson. Train Dreams, Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, and The Laughing Monsters were all better. Even so, it still makes my top ten list for 2016. This should give you an indication of what a great writer Johnson really is. As I said, this is not his strongest work, yet it’s still very good. It reminds me a little of Elmore Leonard’s work, but with Johnson’s unique perspective of life on the street. In Nobody Move, Jimmy Luntz is a two-bit hustler who owes some bad people money. When he decides to fight back rather than pay his debts to a local crime boss, Luntz has to go on the run. As in all of Johnson’s books, his characters are terribly flawed and often in trouble. While his attempt at true crime noir falls a little flat, Nobody Move is still a satisfying read.

The Paperboy

6. The Paperboy by Pete Dexter – Many years ago, I picked up a book called Deadwood by an author I was unfamiliar with named Pete Dexter. It turned out to be a revelation of sorts. I fell in love with the book, and I vowed to read more of Dexter’s writing. It took me several years, but I finally picked up another Pete Dexter book. The Paperboy was first published in 1996 (better late than never), and was made into a forgettable movie starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and John Cusack in 2013. It tells the story of an investigative newspaper reporter in South Florida in the 1960’s who sets out to prove that a backwoods swamp dweller didn’t commit the murder he was convicted of. I can’t speak for the movie (I never saw it), but the book is terrific. I’m making the commitment to read more Pete Dexter. He really is a sensational writer.

Modern Romance

5. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari – This is one of two nonfiction books that made the 2016 list. A friend recommended Modern Romance to me when I was going through a divorce. The book is Ansari’s take on dating in the Internet age. I was not particularly excited to read it. I didn’t feel I needed dating advice from Ansari–a comedian I thought was just okay–but it came so highly recommended, I felt I had to take a look. I’m glad I did. Modern Romance is a very entertaining book that talks about presnt day dating without stooping to giving dating advice. Ansari’s writing is humorous, but he never goes into one of his stand-up bits, something I feared when I bought the book. Whether you are out on the front lines of the dating scene or comfortably ensconced in a relationship, Modern Romance is a fun, entertaining, educational read.

Pirate Hunters

4. Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson – To me, Pirate Hunters is exactly what a nonfiction book should be. It tells a terrific, compelling story without inundating the reader with the “inside baseball” minutiae that many nonfiction books get lost in. That’s not to say that Pirate Hunters isn’t detailed. It is, but the small details are revealed as part of the story, not as a history lesson. And it’s the story that is the strength of this book. Pirate Hunters tells the story of two men who risk their finances and reputation to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous Joseph Bannister, a former British naval officer turned pirate. It isn’t for riches that these treasure hunters seek Bannister’s ship, but for history, which somehow makes the story all the more compelling. A terrific, suspenseful, endlessly interesting read.

Eleanor

3. Eleanor by Jason Gurley – There’s a rather famous story about the publication of this book. The author, Jason Gurley had made a living designing book covers, but he wanted to write fiction. The problem was that he was a really in-demand cover designer, and he never had enough time to write. So he began scaling back his design business–losing money in the process–and wrote his first novel, Eleanor. When he was finished, he self-published the book to great success. In fact, his success caught the eye of an agent, and the agent eventually sold the book to Crown Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. In some ways, Eleanor reminds me of Axis of Aaron (see above) in the sense that it is a mind-bender where reality is fungible. The story could have easily gone off the rails, but Gurley does a good job of making the unreality real for the reader. It’s weird, but it never gets so weird that it loses its audience.

Ready Player One

2. Ready Player One by Ernest Grimes – The year is 2044 and the world is not a very nice place. Society has largely broken down, and people spend their days in high-rise single-wide trailers called “stacks,” which often collapse, killing the residents. The one constant form of entertainment and distraction is an online virtual utopia called OASIS. When the creator of OASIS—the wealthiest man in the world—suddenly dies, his estate holds a contest in the OASIS world involving the creator’s pet obsession: 1980’s pop culture. The winner takes over OASIS and will become instantly wealthy. The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, is up against powerful corporate interests and a rag tag group of other OASIS players. To win the contest, and perhaps save the world, Wade must overcome his dysfunctional family and the corporate minions determined to stop him. Ready Player One is an incredibly entertaining novel that combines a post-apocalyptic world with 1980’s video game culture. I enjoyed this book much more than I expected.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

1. The First Fifteen Live of Harry August by Claire North – I enjoy novels that play around with time. Time travel interests me, but many of the novels I’ve read involving time travel concentrate too much on the time travel and not enough on the characters and the plot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gets everything right. The writing is great, the characters are complex and engaging, and the plot is solid, intricate, and well-engineered. I like the final paragraph of the book blurb on Amazon. In describing the book, it says, “This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.” Sound interesting? Trust me, it is. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is not a perfect book, but it’s very good. And it was the best book I read in 2016.

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The Comic Me

Sean IronmanSean Ironman (not a made-up name) is a talented writer and cartoonist. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Central Florida, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. Sean writes mostly nonfiction, and he sometimes combines his writing with his talent for drawing comics. I’m not sure if the proper descriptor for this type of writing is graphic essay or comic memoir or nonfiction comic or something else. Whatever you call it, Sean is good at it.

One of Sean’s comics was recently published in Vanderbilt University’s literary magazine, Nashville Review. You can read it here. As you read, keep your eyes peeled for a familiar face. I make a cameo appearance to give Sean some potentially bad news (although in real life, it was just a joke).

If you’d like to read one of Sean’s essays, take a look at Superstition Review for “Hank Canine Ironman” (Sean loves dogs).

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Return to Lake of the Falls

Lake of the Falls 6If you’ve read the novella Lake of the Falls (and if you haven’t, what possible excuse could you have?), you know that the falls at Lake of the Falls County Park in Mercer, Wisconsin play an important role in the story. In the book, Kevin and his father, and later, Kevin and Annie, spend time at the falls where they find clarity to the issues they are struggling with in their lives (I hope that wasn’t too much of a spoiler).

In September, I had the opportunity to go up to Mercer to explore one of my favorite places in the world, and spend some time at the falls. It didn’t disappoint.

The day I visited was a little overcast as I turned off Highway 51 onto County FF toward the park. I drove past Crystal Lake where Kevin grew up, and down the twisty, turning road lined with tall, thin pines. The park was quiet, and I was the only person at the falls. I walked along the bank and took a few photos. The leaves had not changed colors as much as I had hoped. I was told they were a couple of weeks behind schedule due to a bit of a drought over the preceding few months. Even so, the place was spectacular.

Lake of the Falls 4I went up on the snowmobile bridge and stood looking over the falls and downstream at the Turtle River, just as Kevin did in the book. The mixture of the crisp fall air, the smell of nature, and the sound of the falls was a feast for the senses. Being there transported me back to when I was a kid, when we used to hang out at the park. It was a much different place then, much more rustic. But the feelings were the same. As I stood near the falling water, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, even as my soul was energized. The falls are a very special place.

Lake of the Falls2While I was in town, I learned that the cabin on Crystal Lake I based Kevin’s cabin on in the book is for sale. If you’d like to start a GoFund me campaign to raise the funds needed to buy the cabin for me, I will not stand in your way. In return, I will spend my summers in the cabin, and will thoroughly enjoy my time at the lake. If you could raise about $250,000, that should be enough to buy the cabin and pay closing costs. Thanks in advance. 😉

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A Postmortem of the 2016 Presidential Election

President TrumpJust what the world needs, another political post. I usually don’t talk about politics on social media or on this blog. I have plenty of my own opinions, but I’ve never felt the need to convince others that I’m right. So I’ve kept my thoughts to myself throughout the election. Now that the votes are in, I’d like to share a few things I have on my mind.

Let’s start with President-elect Donald Trump (I never thought I’d type those words in the same sentence). Donald Trump is not my cup of tea. To me, he is a lying, narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, bloviating self-promoter. His rhetoric is often hateful, ill-considered, and unnecessarily provocative. I’ve never felt like his candidacy had anything to do with making America great again. Instead, I felt he was out for himself. This is not the kind of person I want sitting in the Oval Office.

Having said that, unlike the Clinton camp, I’ve never considered his supporters to be hateful, racist, sexist, misogynistic people. I know a lot of Trump supporters, and none of them meet this definition. They are good, decent people who feel abandoned by the government and the career politicians who run it. They’re frustrated that they have to work harder and harder just to keep the status quo, while Wall Street bankers, who nearly bankrupted our nation, take more and more of the economic pie.

These Trump supporters are people who have followed the rules only to be left behind by those that have thumbed their noses at those very same rules. They were (and are) frustrated, and they looked to anyone who would stand up for them and be their voice. Granted, Donald Trump seemed like an odd savior for the working class, but unlike Hillary Clinton, he reached out to them and offered them hope.

Hillary Clinton and her camp never understood that Donald Trump supporters were not simply uneducated morons. Hillary showed exactly what she thought of those who didn’t support her when she called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” She further marginalized these already disenfranchised voters who were simply looking for someone—anyone—to recognize their concerns. This was a huge tactical error because it not only strengthened the resolve of those already supporting Trump, but it showed the elitism of her candidacy, and drove undecideds into Donald Trump’s waiting arms.

In some ways, the 2016 election was a flip-flop of roles for the Democratic and Republican parties. Unlike past elections, Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, was the war hawk candidate who wanted the tentacles of our democracy reaching out to every country and every regime throughout the world. She was inextricably tied in with Wall Street, and seemed to care more for their welfare than the welfare of the folks on Main Street.

Donald Trump, the Republican, by contrast, called for more protectionist trade policies, less military intervention, and a focus on “America first.” Trump’s platform, as ill-defined as it was, was a siren song to voters who felt ignored and alienated. He was an imperfect messenger, but at least he was saying some of the right words.

What Donald Trump talked about mattered to the working class at a time when the Democratic candidate seemed to be more concerned with soliciting donations to the Clinton Foundation from foreign dignitaries, and giving high-priced secret speeches to corporations and Wall Street high rollers. We looked away for a moment and the Democratic party became bedfellows with big business and moneyed interests, while Republicans nominated a candidate that at least appeared to be a populist. When did the world turn upside down?

Just as I have many friends who are Trump supporters, I also have many who supported Hillary Clinton. Even still today, the morning after the election, they are treating Trump voters as evil and hateful. They are continuing the claim that these Trump voters are all racist, sexist, misogynistic dopes who aren’t smart enough to look out for their own best interests. They have refused to look below the surface to see the actual people who supported Trump and understand their legitimate concerns. It was arrogance, pure and simple, and it ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the election.

At the same time Clinton supporters vilified Trump, they canonized their candidate, ignoring her warhawkishness, ignoring her ties to Wall Street, ignoring the role she played in her email scandal and the questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation. Donald Trump was a clearly flawed candidate who almost daily reminded us why he was uniquely unqualified to be president. But criticizing his shortcomings while completely ignoring Hillary’s only served to drive potential supporters away. They didn’t want to take part in the besainting of Hillary or further the Clinton political dynasty.

The thing that I will take away from this election is the uncivility of it all. It was discouraging to watch people that I like and respect act with such disdain and intolerance for their friends and neighbors. The candidates were relentless in going after each other, offering little in the way of a vision for the future, instead spending most of the campaign in the gutter, name calling and acting like children. But I honestly thought that the supporters for each candidate would rise above this pettiness and division. I was sorely disappointed.

I’ve also been discouraged by the willingness of people on both sides to share articles from partisan spin websites on social media that clearly contained erroneous information. By doing that, these people proved that they were more concerned with winning an election than they were with being a good citizen and pushing for a better America. These websites—many set up in foreign countries with a clear profit motive—are nothing but propaganda machines designed to create a great deal of heat, but provide absolutely no light. Sometimes they spin an unsubstantiated rumor, magnifying it tenfold. Other times they create and disseminate outrageous, ridiculous lies. Sadly, the people who posted and re-posted these articles did so, not because they thought the information being shared was true or helpful, but because the information in the article agreed with their own beliefs. This “echo chamber” approach to politics is the main reason that we as Americans can’t find common ground, and continue to talk past each other rather than to each other. It is a sad commentary on what political discourse has become in the United States.

I did not support Donald Trump, but I sincerely hope that moving forward, he can be a rational, inspiring leader who runs the country in a much more unifying way than he ran his campaign. He won the election, and he deserves our open-minded support. He also deserves to be vigorously opposed if he decides to follow through on some of the foolish, odious policies he mentioned on the campaign trail.

One final thought: Like so many others, I am fearful of what a Donald Trump presidency will look like. I fear that he will try to turn back the clock on human and civil rights. But I also have great faith in the American people. I have faith that they will hold the president-elect to a high standard and will no longer turn a deaf ear to some of the more hateful things he says. I trust that there will be no mass deportation of illegal immigrants. I trust that Muslims will not be discriminated against or forced to carry special IDs. I trust that we will not turn our backs on our NATO allies. I trust that people of color will not be treated as anything other than full and respected citizens deserving of all of the rights and responsibilities afforded to all other citizens. I trust that the rights gained by the LBGTQ community in recent years will not be threatened or eroded. I trust that our democracy will continue to work and won’t allow one person to have undue power. And more than anything, I trust that our decency—what Lincoln referred to as the “angels of our better nature”—will always triumph over the hate and divisiveness of self-interest and greed.  These things are foundational to our life as Americans, and we cannot allow anyone, including Donald Trump, to take us back to a day when fear and hate played a much larger role in our lives.

As Americans, we are a large and diverse people who share certain foundational values that inform and define us. I trust that these values will guide all of us, including our president, in the months and years ahead.

Note: The best postmortem of the 2016 election I’ve read is this piece in The Intercept by Glenn Greenwald. I think Greenwald has it exactly right.

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The Man of Many Excuses

No Excuses

 

 

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”)

 

Hi. It’s Lou. Remember me? I used to be a writer.

When I set up my schedule for the year, I had planned on publishing my novel, Driven, in June. For the first five months of the year I had been cruising along. In January I published the novella, Back on the Road; in February I published the novella collection, Road Stories, and in March I published the digital novella, Promised Land. Then life happened.

First, I moved in April to be closer to my son’s school. In May, I moved my 90 year old father in with me, then a couple of weeks later my divorce became final. A couple of weeks after that I got bronchitis for the first time in my life, then my father wound up in the hospital (We’re both doing fine now. Thanks for asking.) Then there were vacations and car breakdowns and dating and a particularly nasty sinus infection, and…well, you get the picture. A lot of stuff happened, and I used all of it as an excuse not to write.

I find this particularly embarrassing because I’m the person who has preached for some time that the difference between writers and wannabe writers is that writers actually write. Wannabes make excuses. In the last few years, I have not allowed anything to get in the way of my writing. My marriage broke up, I kept writing. I went back to grad school, I kept writing. My mom died, I kept writing. I was determined not to let anything get in the way of my word production.

Then life happened…

I’ve been feeling pretty bad about myself these past few months. I kept making plans to start writing again, but then another excuse would present itself, and I’d stay on the sidelines, letting my half-finished novel gather digital dust. Finally, that changed last week.

I’m not sure what changed, but I forced myself to sit down and work on Driven. In just four days I was able to finish the outline for the book and get ready to put it all together. Life is still happening, but at least for now, I’m continuing to write.

Driven should be out in the next few months. I’m going to keep writing, but there’s Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. Life will keep happening, and I’ll do my best to keep writing.

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A Few Thoughts on the Mass Shooting in Orlando

Orlando

 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Today was a very tough day. I woke up to the news that a gunman had opened fire on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, my former home. The first report I read indicated that more than twenty people had been killed, but fairly quickly, that number rose to fifty, with fifty-three others injured. What horrible, horrible news.

Throughout the day, I read reports of the shooting, heard calls for a ban on assault rifles, as well as the predictable backlash from those who oppose more restrictive gun laws. It didn’t take long before well-meaning people on both sides of the issue were arguing and calling each other names. Everyone thinks they have the answer to prevent future tragedies, and I have no doubt that everyone wants what’s best for their loved ones and for the country, but the vitriol on both sides saddened and disappointed me.

It would be really easy to look at the situation that is still unfolding in Orlando and get discouraged. I hate what has happened, yet I can’t help but notice the way this tragedy is bringing people together from all over Central Florida, as well as from around the world.

  • I am struck by the outpouring of love and support expressed by so many people, all prompted by the evil acts of one misguided soul.
  • I am filled with hope and pride at the way people from all walks of life are taking a stand against the hate that was directed at the LGBTQ community.
  • I am gratified to read posts on Facebook from Muslims decrying the senseless killings done in the name of Allah, and denouncing the killer’s association with Islam.
  • My heart is filled to read messages sent by some of my friends who teach at the University of Central Florida in Orlando to make certain that their students are safe.
  • I am grateful for police and other first responders from Orlando and the surrounding community who went into harm’s way to help the injured and stop the killing.
  • I am thankful that all of my Orlando friends and family are safe and accounted for.
  • I was brought to tears to witness thousands of people standing in line in the sweltering Florida heat to donate blood, and I stand in awe of the individuals and business who distributed water and opened bathrooms to those waiting in line.
  • And finally, I am reassured that every time I have seen hate rise up to consume us, love has rushed in to destroy the hate. It always has, and I am confident it always will.

I know there can be love and beauty in the midst of hate and ugliness. I’ve seen it before, and I saw it today in Orlando. Somehow, we must to find a way to accentuate the love and magnify the beauty. We cannot allow the enemy to win. We must build something good out of this horrendous situation. It’s up to each of us. We can either be weak and hopeless, giving into our fears, or we can be strong and hopeful, knowing that we have the power to create a better world. I choose the latter.

#OrlandoStrong

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Promised Land (Chapter 1)

FINAL EBOOK

 

Have you read Promised Land yet? A couple of months ago, I wrote about the story-behind-the-story of Promised Land. You can read it here. If you haven’t read the book yet, here’s chapter one, free of charge. No. No. Put your money away. It really is free. Of course, my hope is that you like what you read, and you go out to buy ten or twenty copies.

Happy reading!

 

Promised Land

 

Chapter 1

The first call came on the night we set up the toll-free number. The phone was in my room because the jack in Daddy’s room wasn’t working. When the phone rang, I jumped out of bed and stared at it for a second. On the second ring, I answered it.

“Mandy Reeves Hotline,” I said, just as I’d been instructed.

“I know where she is,” the voice on the other end said. It was a man’s voice, rough as gravel.

I felt weak and misty-headed.  Mama had been missing for two weeks. “Where is she?” I blurted into the phone.

“Not so fast. Is there a reward?”

I turned on the light in my room so I could read the words right off the missing person poster. “The family of Amanda Reeves is offering a one-thousand dollar reward for information leading to the solving of this missing person case.” My Aunt Kay had put up the money for the reward. It was her idea. We didn’t have that kind of money.

“Just a thousand dollars?”

“Where is she?” I asked, trying not to yell.

“I guess a thousand is better than nothing,” he said. “She’s in Egypt, near the pyramids. I saw her in a dream, clear as day.”

I realized I had been holding my breath. When the guy with the gravelly voice said “Egypt,” I sat down hard on the bed. “Who is this?” I asked, trying to command as much authority as my fifteen-year-old voice could muster.

“I don’t want to give my name.”

I was holding a pen, getting ready to write the information into the notebook on the nightstand. “How can we get the reward to you if we don’t know your name?”

“Oh, right,” the man said. Then he went quiet.

“Hello? Are you there?”

“Never mind,” he said. I heard a crackle as the line disconnected.

I hung up the phone. In the notebook I wrote, “Man says Mom is in Egypt by the pyramids. Wouldn’t give his name.” A worthless lead.

The detective Daddy hired, a guy named Billy Hanks, got the toll-free number, 866-Find-Mandy, and told us to write down everything anyone said when they called. He said you never knew what little piece of information might lead us to Mama.

Daddy couldn’t afford to hire a detective, so he cashed in what little retirement he had to get the money. Billy’s ad in the Nashville phonebook said he specialized in “missing person cases.” Daddy gave him a call, and Billy drove out to our place in Christiana. He said the cops didn’t know what they were doing, and it was a good thing we called him. I followed him around the house as Daddy asked him questions, hopeful he’d have the answers we’d need to bring Mama home.

I turned the light out and went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I was buzzing, full of adrenaline from the phone call. I thought about the day Mama went missing. She had gone to work that morning at the nursing home. The ladies there said she acted normal all day and then left to go home after her shift. Nothing unusual. No one saw her after that.

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The Real Secret to Pixar’s Success

PixarI’m a fan of Disney animation. I’ve always been impressed with the artistry of the films. Even so, they pale in comparison to the animated films produced by Pixar. It’s not that the animation is better. Truthfully, I can’t tell the difference. What separates Pixar from Disney is the quality of the storytelling.

Disney’s stories seem to skim the surface. They’re interesting and entertaining, but they’re almost always shallow. Pixar, on the other hand, dives deeper into their storytelling. Their characters are better developed and their plots more complicated, more nuanced, much like our real lives.

This video does a good job of explaining what is different about Pixar’s storytelling technique by focusing on why the story is being told and what greater purpose it serves. After watching it, I now have an even deeper appreciation for the great work being done by Pixar.

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Pantsing vs Plotting

Literary SausageThis post is a little “inside baseball,” and delves into my writing process. If you don’t like watching the sausage being made, this post may not be for you. On the other hand, if you like sausage manufacturing, read on. (NOTE: This post has nothing to do with making sausage.)

Basically speaking, there are two types of writers: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants (hence, the name). They don’t plan out their story. Instead, they allow it to unfold as they write. Often, you’ll hear writers say they were as surprised as anyone about what happened in a story because they didn’t see the twist coming until they wrote it.

Plotters, on the other hand, plan out their stories. They’ll often start with an outline, and they’ll know the beginning, middle, and end of the story before they start writing.

Until recently, I was a pantser. Everything I’ve published to date has been written by the seat of my pants. I had a vague idea for a story, and I started writing, not knowing where the story was going to end up. I think most literary fiction writers are pantsers. It might have something to do with allowing the muse to direct their writing rather than being too logical and planning things out ahead of time. That’s just a guess, but I think it makes sense.

I attended a conference one time where bestselling thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver was the featured speaker. Deaver explained that his writing process consisted of six months of research, two months of outlining, one month of writing, and one month of revising. In other words, it took Deaver ten months to complete a novel, but only two of those months were spent actually writing. He said that his outline was so detailed that it was almost like a very poorly written first draft. It just needed to be beaten into shape.

I was sitting with mystery writer Don Bruns during Deaver’s presentation, and he said that while he appreciated Deaver’s process, it would never work for him. As a former attorney, Deaver was very analytical and process oriented. Outlining his book before writing it was very natural for him. But for Don, a former musician, being a pantser was much more natural.

For Driven, my upcoming novel, I’ve changed my approach. I’ve turned to outlining for this book, and I have to admit, I like it. It’s taking some getting used to, but it feels right. So far, I’ve written beats for 48 chapters, and I can tell that when it comes time to actually write the book, the writing is going to come fairly quickly and easily (or at least more quickly and easily than my previous books). I’m looking forward to finishing up the outline and getting down to the actual writing.

That’s all the sausage talk I have for today. Stay tuned for my ten-part series on Dieter Roth and the Wurst of Literature.

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