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.
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.
I’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.
This 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.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life.” –Prince (“Let’s Go Crazy”)
I once saw a video of a pre-show sound check. I’m not sure where it was, and initially, it wasn’t clear who was preparing for a concert. As the band launched into a song, the camera panned across the empty arena, and in the distance was a small man, flamboyantly dressed, strutting toward the stage with an ornamental walking cane. It didn’t take long to realize that this couldn’t be anyone other than Prince.
As he stepped onto the stage, the band still playing, Prince was greeted by a man in an expensive-looking suit who slung a guitar around his dainty neck. He launched into a guitar solo that was as good as anything I’ve heard before or since. He stood in one place, not expending any energy except through the guitar, and then after two or three minutes, satisfied with the sound, he took the guitar from around his neck and tossed it through the air to the man in the suit. Prince then grabbed his cane, and like a peacock, flounced off the stage.
The video was mesmerizing. It captured the magnetic nature of Prince, and showed why he was one of the greatest performers in the world. And keep in mind, this was just the sound check. It paled in comparison to Prince in concert.
I can’t claim to be a huge Prince fan. I liked his early stuff, but really didn’t follow him too closely. He recorded thirty-seven albums (an incredibly prodigious number) in his too short life, but I only owned two, 1999 and Purple Rain. Even so, I had great admiration for his incredible innovation and creativity. In a lot of ways, Prince was a pioneer, and he was an inspiration and an influence to a great number of musicians over the past thirty-five years.
To really see the genius of Prince—and make no mistake, he was a genius—you had to see him in concert. He was a performance savant, able to draw the audience into his performance with a mix of talent and passion that separated him from this contemporaries. His talent was his calling card, but it was his passion that held the audience in his sensuous embrace, leaving them exhausted and satiated when he released them from his grip.
This video from 1983 will give you a feel for the passion that Prince brought to a live performance (and I dare you not to get chocked up):
Then there’s this live performance in Milan in 2010:
NOTE: I was afraid these videos would be removed. Trust me, they were great.
Perhaps the best tribute I’ve read about Prince was written by Bomani Jones. I was worried that I was making too much out of Prince’s prodigious talent and outsize reputation, then I read this from Jones’ article:
There is no fear of hyperbole when remembering Prince. He was the best recording artist of his time, the most versatile, more influential to a broader array of artists and genres than anyone. As long as it’s not a horn, he might have been the best at playing any basic pop instrument. He was a singular tour de force, using each of his albums to defy silly record-store categories. He could be as energetic and defiant as James Brown, as traditionally masculine as Teddy Pendergrass, as unbounded as David Bowie, as vulnerable as Marvin Gaye, as insightful as Paul Simon and as electric as Michael Jackson. At the same damn time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. As Jones points out, Prince wasn’t just the best parts of so many of our greatest music superstars, he was also admired, respected and appreciated by many of these stars. Even among rock music royalty, Prince was held in high regard. A reporter once asked Eric Clapton what is was like to be the world’s greatest guitarist. Clapton replied, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Prince.” High praise indeed.
At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004, several prominent musicians, including Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as a tribute to the late George Harrison. Also on stage that night was Prince, nattily attired as always.
As you watch this video, notice how a little more than half way through, Prince takes over. But it’s not a Divo move (although Prince was certainly a Divo). The other musicians give him room and encourage him. His guitar solo is fantastic.
In 2007, Prince was scheduled to play the NFL Super Bowl half-time show in Miami. Plans were made for an elaborate open air (i.e. no roof) stage in the shape of “The Love Symbol,” the shape that he changed his name to as part of a contractual dispute with his record label, Warner Brothers. That dispute was long over when Super Bowl XLI rolled around, but the symbol was still closely associated with Prince.
On the day of the game, Miami experienced sever weather, including hard rains, and the promoters of the half-time show feared that Prince wouldn’t be able (or willing) to perform. Instead of balking, when asked if he would be able to go on with the show in the rain, his response was, “Can you make it rain harder.”
As you watch this full, uncut version of Prince’s incredible performance, notice all of the electrical equipment out in the rain. Although it’s not clear in the video, Prince used four different guitars during the show, unplugging and plugging them in as the rain fell. Also notice the dancers around Prince early in the video. They’re dancing in extremely high heels on a wet surface, and making it look easy.
Last year, Saturday Night Live celebrated their 40th anniversary with a huge show broadcast in prime time. At the after party, several musicians got up to give impromptu performances, including big names like Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, and Elvis Costello. But in this video from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Jimmy talks about the after party performances, notice how he, his band, and the crowd react when he talks about Prince coming up on stage. It just shows that even those in the entertainment industry, many of them jaded by their experiences, understood the special brand of artistry Prince possessed.
Whenever I’d hear the mention of Prince’s name, my mind would conjure up a diminutive imp of a man clothed in a purple ruffled top (similar to the Seinfeld puffy shirt), skin tight black leather pants, heels tall enough to raise his height all the way to 5′ 6″, and a hat of one sort or another that defied description and added to his androgynous fashion style. He was small in stature, but a giant in personality, who was always the coolest, smoothest, most self-assured dude in the room. And he always played by his own ever-changing rules, providing testament to the fact that if you are true to yourself, no matter how different you may be, the world will open it’s arms to embrace you.
Prince Rogers Nelson was a rare breed of entertainer who combined boatloads of passion, artistry, integrity, innovation, and genius. To be sure, he could be difficult, eccentric, aloof, and mysterious, but all the great artists possess some amount of all of these ingredients. Prince just possessed them to a larger degree than most. He was a tremendous talent, and he will be greatly missed.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have discussed my affinity and appreciation for researcher/storyteller (her term), Brene Brown. I discovered Brene by accident. I picked up her book, Daring Greatly, by mistake. I thought it was about risk-taking and building a great, significant life. Instead, Brene’s book turned out to be about vulnerability, shame, and building strong, trusting relationships. As it turned out, Daring Greatly was exactly the book I needed to read at that time in my life.
The two videos I included below are good examples of Brene’s research and philosophy on building and strengthening relationships. If you’ve not heard her talk before, I’d encourage you to put a little time aside, grab a glass of wine, and get to know Brene Brown. If you already know and like her, I don’t need to convince you to watch.
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.
Today is the official opening day of the baseball season (There were three games yesterday, but for some reason, that wasn’t opening day), and for the first time in my life, the Chicago Cubs are the prohibitive favorites to win the World Series. Why does that make me nervous?
First, this is unfamiliar territory. For as long as I can remember, the Cubs were baseball’s lovable losers. Nobody ever expected much out of the team. After all, the Cubs have only had eighteen winning seasons since they were last in the World Series in 1945. For those of you who are math challenged, that’s eighteen winning seasons in seventy years, or about one winning season every four years. In case you don’t follow baseball, that’s not very good.
Second, I’m uncomfortable with the impact these suddenly high expectations are having on some Cubs fans. These fans—primarily those too young to fully understand the soul-crushing nature of Cubs fandom—are talking trash, as if the Cubs have actually accomplished something already. As skipper Joe Maddon so eloquently put it, the Cubs are a defending third-place team. Why all the unbridled optimism?
Listen, my hopes are high for the 2016 edition of the Chicago Cubs, but I’ve been around long enough to have my hopes dashed on the rocks of defeat, disappointment, and despair by the Cubs over and over again. Now, my hopes are tempered with memories of the September swoon of 1969, the unprecedented loss of three straight games to San Diego in the 1984 playoffs, and the Bartman game (It wasn’t Bartman’s fault) of 2003. I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2003, and the Cubs collapse against the Marlins in the NLCS was still the worst thing that happened to me that year.
All I’m saying is, there’s no harm in being hopeful, but let’s not celebrate quite yet. The baseball season is very long, and a lot of things can happen. Be excited and enthusiastic. Cheer on the team every chance you get. But don’t make plans for the Cubs’ World Series party in ink. Maybe just pencil it into the calendar for now.
With those words of restraint borne of decades of disappointment, here’s how I expect the MLB standings to look at the end of the season:
I’m pleased to announce that my latest novella, Promised Land, has been published and is available on Amazon.com. Promised Land is only being published digitally for now, but it could end up as part of a short story collection I am thinking about publishing sometime in the future.
Here’s the book description for Promised Land:
Jake Reeves is a fifteen year old who should be enjoying his summer vacation from school. Instead, when his mother suddenly vanishes, Jake is confronted with his father’s strange interest in a TV preacher, and a police detective’s suspicion that foul play is involved in his mother’s disappearance, with his father as the lone suspect. Just when it seems that Jake’s summer can’t get any more confusing, an older girl he has a crush on starts paying attention to him, and then she disappears too.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
Be sure to pick up your copy and give it a read this weekend. In the meantime, I’ll be working on an update to my plans for the rest of this year. Things have changed a little, and I want to let you know what to expect.
My last three book covers have been designed by a young lady from Athens, Greece named Elena. I’ve been really happy with all of her designs, and this new cover for Promised Land is no exception. How do you like it?
Promised Land will be published this Thursday, March 31.
I had picked up a copy of the Oxford American because I wanted to read an article Tom Franklin had written about his relationship with the recently deceased writer, William Gay. I was interested in pursuing an MFA at the University of Mississippi where Franklin was teaching at the time, and I thought it would be a good idea not only to read a little of what he had written, but to also learn more about Gay, a writer who was extremely well respected, but who, at the time, was a complete mystery to me.
I was touched by Franklin’s personal remembrances of his late friend, and the article prompted me to buy a copy of I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down, a collection of Gay’s short stories. I enjoyed the book, and it helped to define for me what Southern writing, and particularly Southern Gothic, is all about.
In that same issue of Oxford American (Summer 2012), I found an essay written by David Lumpkin entitled “Church is Wherever You Are.” In the essay, Lumpkin told the story of the disappearance of his mother when he was fourteen years old. There were a lot of strange twists in Lumpkin’s story, including that his mother, to everyone’s surprise, was under investigation for theft at the time of she went missing. But the twist that stuck with me was the way his father turned to TV preachers to help him cope with his wife’s disappearance. I’m not sure why I latched on to that one odd fact, but I knew I wanted to write a fictional story about it.
I worked on a rough draft for the story back in 2012, but it really never went anywhere. Eventually, I put the story away and forgot about it.
A couple of years later, in the fall of 2014, I was looking for story ideas for a fiction workshop I would be taking the following spring at the University of Central Florida. I knew I’d have to turn in two short stories, and I really wanted to have one of them completely finished before the fall semester ended. I had no idea what I was going to write.
In late September of that year, I attended the MTSU Writes Writing Conference at Middle Tennessee State University. I had been asked to introduce the keynote speaker, Tony Earley from Vanderbilt University. I was excited for the opportunity, and looked forward to attending the conference.
As I listened to the various presenters, I thought about the difficulty I was having in finding a story to write. I knew the semester was about to get much busier, and I really wanted to have a story completed before that happened.
I remained lost in my thoughts until I heard the next speaker start to tell the story of how his mother went missing when he was just fourteen years old. Wait a minute, I remember thinking. I know this story. As I listened to the speaker (I couldn’t remember his name), I started to remember what I had read in the Oxford American, and what that essay had prompted me to write. Talk about an omen. I knew that I had to finish the story I had started two years earlier.
During the next break at the conference, I asked Karen Ford, the event organizer, about the guy who had spoken about his missing mother. “That’s David Lumpkin,” she said. “He teaches here at MTSU.” I got excited all over again. Not only had the essay been reintroduced to me, but the guy who wrote it taught in the same town where I lived.
I was so excited, I went up to David and introduced myself. It was then that I realized I really didn’t have anything to say to him. Why would he care that I had previously read his essay or that it had prompted me to write a story? I felt like an idiot. David was very polite, but it was obvious that he wasn’t particularly comfortable with the attention I was paying to him. I felt like I had blindsided the poor guy, and I knew I should just end the awkwardness and walk away.
I was about to end our encounter when I abruptly and involuntarily blurted out, “I’m writing a fictional version of your story.” Okay, I may be dramatizing it a bit, but this is how it felt to me. For some reason that I still don’t understand, I felt compelled to tell David that his life and his essay had prompted me to write a story. My excitement was genuine and my intentions were noble, but I’m certain that I must have seemed like a madman to him.
David probably should have called security or told me to leave him alone, but he didn’t. Instead, he was very kind and indulgent. I finally regained control of my faculties, and excused myself. I can only assume that I left David wondering what mental institution I had most recently called home.
I revised the story David’s essay had inspired, and got some excellent feedback when I presented it in workshop. This led to more revisions, and eventually, some quality time with my editor, Melanie Neale. Melanie had some great ideas (she always does), including the suggestion to change the title of the story. “Missing,” she said, was too bland. She proposed “Promised Land,” and just like that, the story had a new title.
And now you know the rest of the story.
Promised Land will be published later this week. Stay tuned…