Getting Closer to a Completed Novel

This past week has been an exciting one for me. Last weekend, I finally finished revising my new novel, Driven. The book takes place in Miami in the early 1980’s, and is about a young man determined to become a professional race car driver. When money stands between him and his dream, he turns to drug smuggling as a way to make the money he needs. In the process, he wins races, falls in love (a couple of times), and becomes wealthier than he could have ever imagined. But not everyone wants to see him succeed, including his fellow competitors and the cops.

For some reason, this book was difficult to write. I had planned on it being finished several months ago, but as happens so often, life got in the way. I never gave up on the project, but I did have to attend to other matters from time to time. Despite the difficulties, I’m really happy with the book that resulted.

On Sunday, I sent Driven off to the editor, who promises to make it even better. He’s working on it now and should have it back to me in a few weeks. While I’m waiting, I’m having a book cover designed, and I’ve already started on my next book, a time travel novel. Once I get Driven back from the editor, I’ll need to make final revisions, finalize the book cover, send it to the proofreader, and get it ready to publish. I hope to have all of this completed by the end of October.

Finally, late this past week, I started the process of creating an audiobook for my novella collection, Road Stories. Right now, I don’t have a feel for how long the recording process will take—it’s more involved than I initially thought—but I hope to have it completed in the next couple of months. Once that’s done, I’ll start the process of recording the audiobook version of Driven.

I’m excited to complete these projects and send them out into the world. It really is a joy to create novels and audiobooks. The only thing better is to have you read them, listen to them, and enjoy them.

Happy reading (and listening)!

Facebooktwitter

Update on Driven

Wow! It’s been more than three months since I last posted on the blog. I hate to go that long between posts. Sorry for the long absence.

The good news is that I have been very busy on my next book, Driven, during the last few months. In fact, I completed the first draft of the novel a couple of weeks ago, and I am currently hard at work on revisions. At the moment, things are going very well.

To get you up to speed, let me tell you a little bit about the book. It takes place in the early 1980’s, primarily in Miami. The main character, Alex Booth, is an aspiring race car driver who is long on talent, but short on money. Alex reluctantly turns to drug smuggling to fund his racing dreams. In the process, he makes a lot of money, a few enemies, builds a racing career, but makes a mess of his life.  Is realizing his dreams worth the headaches and potential prison time?

In the next few weeks, I should be able to share the book cover design with you. In the meantime, I’ll be working on revisions and trying to make Driven as good as it can be

Talk to you soon.

Facebooktwitter

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:

Facebooktwitter

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.

Facebooktwitter

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).

Facebooktwitter

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. 😉

Facebooktwitter

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.

Facebooktwitter

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.

Facebooktwitter

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.

Facebooktwitter

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Quote -- E.M. Forester

Back in January, I laid out my plans for the year, listing month-by-month what I intended to do from a writing and publishing perspective. For the first three months of the year, this is what I had on my agenda:

 

Good news! During the first quarter of the year, I accomplished everything I set out to do. I pushed things to the limit, publishing Road Stories on the final day of February (Thank God for leap year!), and Promised Land on the final day of March. Even so, I’ll count this as a success.

I’ve gotten really good feedback on both Back on the Road and Road Stories. Promised Land was just published last week, but I’ve already heard from a few people who bought the book and really liked it. This is all good news. I made a plan for the first three months of 2016 and I stuck to it. That’s about to change.

My plan for the next three months was to publish A Good Life in April, and my first novel, Driven, in June. That’s not going to happen. A Good Life has been a difficult story for me to get right. I’ve worked on it on and off for the past couple of years, and it’s just not coming together the way I would like. I have some ideas to make it better, but that’s not going to happen for a while. As a result, I won’t be publishing A Good Life (or anything else) this month.

Driven is coming together, but I’m not certain it’s going to be ready in June. That’s still the goal, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Not sticking to my original plan bothers me, but not too much. I’m a big believer in getting the book written and out to the readers, but I also know that if I want to put out the best books I’m capable of, I need to give the writing process the time it needs.

So for the next three months, I’ll be concentrating on finishing Driven. I’ll spend whatever time it takes to make it the best book it can be. And if I can get the book done and ready to be published by June, I will. If it takes more time, then I’ll invest more time. I just want to write a really good book.

At some point, I’ll revisit A Good Life, but for now, it’s going on the back burner. When the time is right, I’ll pick it up again. Until then, it’s time to work on Driven.

Facebooktwitter