What Does it (Still) Take to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

John Jakes was a journeyman pulp writer for 20 years before bursting onto the New York Times bestseller list with The Bastard (1974). This was the first book in what would become the Kent Family Chronicles, eight historical novels written to ride the wave of the American Bicentennial. It worked. Jakes was the first writer to have three novels on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. More than 55 million copies of his Kent Family Chronicles are currently in print, along with 10 million copies of The North and South Trilogy. Six of his novels have been filmed as television mini-series. He currently resides in Florida with Rachel, his wife of 71 years.

Nice life. Nice career.

I recently re-read an article he wrote back in 1988 for the annual market report put out by The Writer magazine. The title: “What Does it Take to be a Writer?” As I looked at his advice I wondered if it still applied, or if some modification is called for. Here’s a bit of it, with my comments.

  1. Be sure

“Do you really want to pay the price? It isn’t small. Are you willing to isolate yourself day after day, session after session, year after year, in order to learn your craft the only way you can–by writing?”

Do young writers—heck, young people in general—think this way anymore? We live in the age of instant gratification, where if you’re not a TikTok influencer by age 16 life simply cannot be endured. The thought of spending years of hard work before getting a payoff is anathema.

I determined to become a writer at age 34. To do whatever it took to get there. I knew the odds. I knew it would take a long time to make it, if I ever did. Not a day went by in those early years when I wasn’t writing and studying the craft. It took me seven years before my first novel was published.

Today, with everything moving at the speed of digital light, is this advice quaint? Does the concept of hard work and persistence resonate anymore?

  1. Be determined

“With determination and practice, you can probably become at least a part-time professional. To do it, however, you must write and keep on writing, trying to improve all the time.”

This is an obvious corollary to #1, above. What Jakes adds is that virtually anyone can get to a place where they’re making some dough in this game. I think that’s truer now than ever. Being a determined student and practitioner of writing makes income almost inevitable—so long as you recognize it’s not always going to be big bucks. Mega deals from the Forbidden City still happen, though not as frequently as in years past. More likely is a modest advance and a “wait and see” attitude by the publisher.

Of course, we now have the indie route. Determined writers are making money here. Even if the revenue stream is small, it’s worth it as long as you are enjoying the process of making up stories.

  1. Be open

“I mean being willing and eager to have all the flaws in your work exposed, so that you can fix them… you must want to find the weak places for yourself, before the editor sees them. It is this rather cold-blooded attitude that sets most money-earning writers apart from dabblers and those who would rather talk about being a writer then do what it takes to be one.”

This still holds true. You can’t have a chip on your shoulder, especially early in your career. I don’t mean you shouldn’t have confidence. Maybe even a little attitude. But if you never take any criticism and refuse to consider that you might not yet be God’s gift to the literary world, you’ll remain a dabbler.

  1. Be curious

“Read everything you can read. Read widely, not merely in your chosen field of writing. Spend as much time as you can with your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open…Watch people. Watch the sky. Watch a baby’s repertoire of expressions. Watch the way sun puts shadow on a wrinkled garment. Nothing should escape your notice. Everything eventually contributes to what you write, even though the way it contributes is totally unknown to anyone, including you.”

This is obviously sound advice for a writer. “You can observe a lot just by watching,” Yogi Berra said. But with people walking along on a sunny day with their eyes glued to their phones, you have to wonder how much observing is being done anymore.

  1. Be serious

“Give unstintingly of yourself when you write. The kind of effort NFL players casually refer to as ‘110 percent’ There’s something to it… Give your work the best you have to offer at the moment you do it. Give it a clear head, and a body that’s fit and rested.”

This requires focus, a rare commodity these days. We are all under the curse of the multi-task. Or attention spans are fractured. We have lost the concept of “deep work.”

Jakes says that anyone following these requirements will find eventual success. “Not enormous wealth, mind you. Not a best seller every year. Not immortality—just the solid satisfaction of being a writer. It’s a proud and ancient profession, and it’s a great feeling to achieve even a little success in the business of entertaining and enlightening millions with your own words. It’s a calling very much worth the price.”

Do you agree? How would you modify or add to Jakes’s advice?

 

The Dead Deer Crossing

I often utilize reality into works of fiction. I can honestly say that actual conversations can be so bizarre and funny that your agent or readers will sometimes say they can’t be real. The old saying, “you can’t make this up,” is true.

For example, back in 1982 my starter wife and I were in a popular Dallas steakhouse called The Shed with another couple. Partway through the meal, I watched four people take a table not far away. I assumed it was a set of parents and their children until I saw the teens holding hands. The young lady and her boyfriend sat facing me across the room and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Halfway through the meal, she and her beau had a spat, and she left for a few minutes. When she came back, the older woman said something and the brunette threw her head back and laughed. The evening ended for our dinner party and the four of us left, but the dark-haired girl never left my mind.

Years passed. Life happened. Divorces occurred.

The Bride and I were sitting in our back yard one cool evening about ten years ago, sipping Coppola’s Director’s Cut wine. The conversation wandered to our lives before we met, old Dallas, and long-gone restaurants. I mentioned The Shed, she told me it was her high school boyfriend’s parents’ favorite restaurant.

I recalled their rustic dining room. “Didn’t you love that all you could eat steak idea?”

She threw her head back and laughed. “I could pack it away back when I was eighteen or nineteen.”

Her huge laugh snapped me back to 1983, and that’s when it clicked after all our years of marriage. “Did you have a white fisherman’s sweater at one time?”

“I did. I loved that sweater. I wore it in high school and college…” She paused, giving me a long look over the top of her glass.

“You came in with your boyfriend while I was there. Y’all had a disagreement…”

Her eyes widened. “It was his parents’ favorite restaurant.”

“That was you.” I told her about what I saw that night. “I knew you were the one for me even then.”

The Bride allowed it was her. I’d been captivated my Shana Kay way back when she’d just graduated high school, eight years before we met.

I used that coincidence in a manuscript, but my agent said it was too unbelievable. “I’d take it out.”

Sigh.

Incidences and conversations like this are inspirations, and usually make their way into my work in some way or another. I think I’ve mentioned in passing that I’ve been a newspaper columnist since 1988, and in that time, I’ve written well over 2,000 columns and magazine articles. Most stemmed from real life, and as I’ve always said, there’s always a grain of truth in every column.

The following conversation among the strangers in the following story is absolutely true. I swear, because I lifted all of the unbelievable dialogue from a neighborhood chat/complain social media site, and can testify it’s still on my cell phone. All I had to do was change it enough to avoid plagiarism, (but then again, is it plagiarism if I’m really reporting what was said?) add a setting, personal characteristics, and descriptions to make it my fictional story.

Why did I post my newspaper column for June 26, 2022, on this blog? Because I’m firm a believer in teaching by example. Hope you enjoy this and maybe it’ll help in some way.

*

The Hunting Club membership (my old, graying friends who have hunted and fished together for over forty years) was gathered around the large round corner table in Doreen’s 24 HR Eat Gas Now Café when a gaggle of women pushed through the glass door.

It’s our local gathering place out on the highway, and we’d spent the morning sipping Doreen’s excellent coffee and talking about a big doe lying in the median. Someone hit her the night before and we wondered if she had a fawn when she died.

Woodrow rested his elbows on the Formica table and ran his forefinger through the handle of his thick white coffee mug. “It’s a surprise to see a doe hit this time of the year.”

“I wish it had been a rabbit.” I sighed and watched the women stop to survey the cafe. “Rabbits are like roaches around here these days.”

The ladies ignored us and took a table in the center of the café, putting them in close proximity to our big booth. Had it been a group of men, they’d have moved to the opposite end of the large eating area, as far as possible from where we sat.

One woman who looked like Maude on the Golden Girls spoke with a voice heard by cattle dogs a mile away. “I texted out a warning on the way over here. I just saw a dead deer on the side of the curb in the middle between Eldorado and Panther Creek.”

Woodrow grinned and scratched at his gray beard in thought. “Now I know where to hunt this season. That has to be the same doe we were just talking about, but it’s in the median, so there’s no danger to anyone unless folks are slowing down to look, or texting while they drive!” His voice rose in emphasis, but the newcomers appeared not to hear.

“That’s so sad.” It was a skinny gal with lots of eye makeup and a set of artificial lashes that reminded me of large, dead spiders. I assumed she was talking about the doe, and not Woodrow’s comment.

Jerry Wayne spoke in his usual loud voice, since he can’t hear it thunder these days and refuses to wear his hearing aids. He says he’s cutting down on caffeine, but the big guy still twitches like an outhouse fly. “It’s not so sad. It’s the nature of things. I was raised on venison in Mississippi. Wish I’d have seen that little doe right after it was hit. I could use some backstrap right now.”

As a group, the women frowned and leaned in.

Wrong Willie shook his head. “I’ve told you over and over again it ain’t right to eat roadkill.”

“Depends on how long it’s been on the ground.” Jerry Wayne leaned back to make his point, his version of “drop the mike.”

Maude waved Doreen over to order. “Poor animals. No wilderness to live in anymore. It’s because of all this construction around here. These animals are going to come out more and more. They should take them to a habitat somewhere, because it is very dangerous and sad to see them die this way.”

Constable Rick’s mouth opened and closed, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t get enough air. He was either laughing, or in shock. Her astonishing comment clammed all of us up, and we listened as they took turns spilling inaccurate thoughts.

“If you call the game warden and tag it, they will give it to you. If you want the meat.”

Woodrow slapped his forehead. Doreen shot him a glare from behind the counter. She wiped her hands on a stained towel and gathered up a handful of empty mugs. I took a moment to look for the mole on her face that seems to move at random from one day to the next.

It must have migrated to the back of her neck that day.

A brunette lady with painted-on eyebrows frowned them together. “You have to bleed it out immediately for it to taste good. That one’s been dead too long, unfortunately. Sad.”

“I can’t stand deer hunters and I’ve been living here twenty-one years when it was wilderness and I’ve never seen anything but bobcats, coyotes, and greyhawks.” That run-on sentence came from a lady covered with tattoos.

Willie tore his eyes from her art and turned to me. “Wilderness? This has been farmland for over a hundred years.”

I shrugged. “Who knows. They’re on a roll, but there’s a million rabbits and squirrels they haven’t seemed to notice.”

“You know,” Maude took a cup from Doreen and smiled her thanks as our favorite waitress and business owner filled it from the fresh pot in her hand. “We need one of those Deer Crossing signs so these poor animals will know where to cross safely.”

Doreen glared in our direction, daring us to say anything. I looked around the table and saw Jerry Wayne, Willie, Woodrow, and Constable Rick all bite their lips at the same time.

The youngest of the female troupe frowned. “I didn’t know deers were prevalent in this area of Texas. It looks like we need wildlife overpasses.”

Willie slipped down in the booth, dissolved into hysterical giggles, and slapped the table. I hoped his red face wouldn’t explode.

A dishwater blonde shook her head at the enormity of it all. “I was surprised to see a deer in the residential neighborhood by the ponds. But to a deer, the ponds are connected to the wooded lakeshore that is their habitat encroached by human development and cars and roads. It’s arguable whether that backdrop of wilderness area is manicured by human development or if it belongs to wildlife or humans.”

Jerry Wayne raised a finger to make some point, but I shook my head. I wanted to hear more.

“Of course, they don’t have GPS to guide them back to the wilderness areas.” The blonde sighed. “Of course that poor deer was lost because how would it expect wooded lakeshore pond trails to dead-end in concrete roads and blocks of framed structures that we call houses?”

The boys, who were having a helluva time, nodded in encouragement, hoping to keep the conversation on track.

“It’s a puzzle for the deer to navigate their way back to the native wooded areas without running into human-erected structures.” Maude squared her shoulders and sent us a glare, likely preparing for battle. “They are stuck in the urban area not because they want to live here, but are lost in the maze, thinking crossing the street would get them back to the wild when they’re desperately trying to find a way out.”

I studied the boys’ faces. “I don’t even know what that means.”

She paused again. “You know, I have an idea. I suggest the city create a deer farm for them so they don’t have to run in the street. Then you’ll have time to stop even when a deer dashes out in front of you, and people need to slow down. It’s hard to hit a deer if you drive the speed limit.”

Wheezing in delight, the guys slapped the table, giggling like schoolgirls.

Doreen came over and spoke through her teeth. “Don’t! Y’all shouldn’t be eavesdropping anyway!”

“But we were here first. They’re the ones who sat within earshot.” Woodrow laid his head on the table. “Put the deer in farms!!!???”

Doreen’s demeanor cracked and she leaned in to whisper in a giggle. “Well, they’re move-ins, bless their hearts.”

Maude took a deep breath. “Well, at least we’re aware of the deer now. That makes me feel better, but you’re right. They need to move the deer crossing somewhere with less traffic.”

And we all fell out.

 

Reader Friday: Music to Your Words

 

Reading for the Pleasure of Reading?

Looking for Lyrical?

 

 

Definitions:

  • Lyrics – words of a poem, words to a song, from ancient Greek poetry accompanied by the lyre – a portable harp
  • Lyrical style (literature) – expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way

I recently read in Dean Koontz’s How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “The average reader demands eight things…” Number 8 was “…a style which embodies at least a trace of lyrical language and as many striking images as possible.”

John D. MacDonald was quoted in a Writer’s Digest, 3/15/16, interview, that he wanted “a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

Constance Hale, in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, quoted Joan Didion: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power.”

  1. When you are looking for an enjoyable read, just for the pleasure of reading, do you have a favorite poet or a favorite author with a lyrical style?
  2. Who are those favorite poets and authors?

 If anyone would like a list from today’s discussion, I will compile a list and post it at the bottom of the comments (late tonight or tomorrow morning).

True Crime Thursday – Instant Justice

Not the site of the actual crime. Photo credit: Eli Duke, CC by SA-2.0

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Oxford Languages defines the informal use of the word karma as “destiny or fate, following as effect from cause.”

Today’s True Crimes are two different cautionary tales of instant justice for wrongdoing, proving karma’s a b*tch.

According to this story by NPR, Joseph McKinnon learned that lesson the hard way. 

In May, 2022, Patricia Ruth Dent, 65, didn’t show up for work at the Mount Vintage Golf Club, North Augusta, SC. Concerned coworkers called her and left messages but she never answered.

Then deputies and paramedics received a report of a man who’d collapsed in his yard in Trenton, SC. They found Joseph McKinnon, 60, dead at the scene. There were no signs that his death was anything other than natural causes–a cardiac arrest.

While searching his home to find information to notify next-of-kin, deputies found blood.

McKinnon shared the house with Patricia Dent. There had been no previous police calls to the residence for domestic violence.

However, deputies soon realized Dent was missing and suspected foul play.

Their investigation led them to search the property where they found a large, recently-dug hole in the ground. Dent’s body, bound with tape and wrapped in trash bags, was in the pit, partially covered with soil. The coroner determined her death was a homicide by strangulation.

Evidence indicated McKinnon had strangled Dent inside the house then attempted to bury her body in the yard.

The effort of covering up his crime evidently triggered the cardiac event that killed the killer.

~~~

Here’s another case of karma on the other side of the world. In June, 2019, the Taiwan English News reported an unidentified dead man found head first in a hole in the Jiaboa public cemetery in Hemei Township, Changua County, Taiwan. A passerby saw legs sticking out of a hole in the ground and discovered a decomposing body.

The body was shirtless, wearing jeans, and described as a balding, middle-aged male with missing teeth. He was not identified.

Beside him was a shovel and tool case. The hole was directly above a coffin.

Police suspect he fell head first into the hole and suffocated while trying to rob a grave.

~~~

Karma’s a b*tch, all right.  

~~~

TKZers: do you know of any crimes where the punishment was especially appropriate and/or ironic? 

~~~

 

 

Irony and karma play roles in Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Until Proven Guilty, on sale for only $1.99 at major online booksellers at this link.

Library Events, Longmire, and Craig Johnson

Library Events, Longmire, and Craig Johnson
Terry Odell

Library EventsI had the pleasure of attending a local library event where Craig Johnson was the invited keynote speaker. I’d heard him speak before, and he’s got a great sense of humor, so I knew his talk would be entertaining. His talk was paired with an “Author Showcase” where 30+ authors, writing in a multitude of genres, were given tables to display their wares. I was fortunate to be accepted.

I’ve done this event before. The structure of this year’s event was different from its predecessors. Previously, there were several “writing-related” panels, separated by breaks where attendees were encouraged to wander the room and look at the authors’ wares. The final presentation was the keynote address, and attendance jumped as “normal readers” came for just that, but there were people at the venue throughout the schedule.

Library EventsMy experience this year. YMMV. This was an event focused on a well-known author. It’s not a craft workshop by any means. The majority of attendees are coming to hear Johnson speak, not buy books. Overall, most people who come to library events aren’t coming to buy books, unless, of course, you’re the keynote speaker, in which case you’ll probably sell a lot of books. Johnson also had a table full of Longmire-related merchandise.

This year, there were no panels. The authors were invited to show up about 2 hours early to set up, have lunch, and a chance to interact with Johnson. The doors were scheduled to open to the public an hour before Johnson was scheduled to speak, during which time attendees were free to roam the showcase tables. Very few did. They were there to listen to Craig Johnson, evidenced by the fact that when the library decided to open doors to the public ahead of their announced time, the ‘early birds’ filed in and found seats even though they had almost two hours to wait. Very few wandered the outskirts of the room where the authors had their tables. At the advertised “doors open at” time, a lot more people filed in and headed straight to Johnson’s table.

Johnson began his talk by saying he comes from a small town of 25 people. He was a rancher, and he still is. He spoke of wanting to become a writer. At the time, noir was the big thing, but he didn’t want that, so he came up with the idea of a small town sheriff. He wrote and rewrote the first few chapters of his manuscript. It was bad, and he knew it. He realized if he was going to write about a small town sheriff, he needed to know more about what the job entailed, so he visited the local sheriff who was willing to speak with him. They chatted for a short while, and Johnson was convinced he now had the answers and was going to write the book and become famous. So much so, that he remodeled his house, updated his ranch structures, and worked on renovating a store for his wife.

When he opened his bottom desk drawer one day (looking for something else, of course), and saw the manuscript, he realized ten years had passed. He happened to run into the sheriff at the gas station one day shortly thereafter and re-introduced himself as the man who’d come to the sheriff for advice for a book. The sheriff’s response was, “This book’s going kind of slow.”

Johnson went home and reworked the first chapter and, late one night, went against his instincts and sent it to the sheriff. Early the next morning, in the ‘quiet time’ while Johnson was on his front porch having his coffee, the sheriff sped down the ranch road and skidded to a stop, got out of his vehicle, and said, “I know who did it!”

He was wrong. In fact, Johnson sent him chapters as he wrote them, and the sheriff was wrong every time.

Johnson went on to talk about the Longmire series. When the producers wanted his input for casting Walt Longmire, Johnson had no idea. All the actors he though would be good for the part were long dead; he wasn’t up to speed on the younger ones. There were two issues to consider: whether to go with a popular actor or an unknown. The popular cowboy-hat-wearing actors, according to Johnson, were a small handful, and people would associate them with previous roles. However, Walt Longmire was supposed to be in his 50s, and unknown actors in that age range were probably unknown because they weren’t very good. The studio sent Johnson a box of CDs with all the auditions for the role, and he begrudgingly, but dutifully watched them. The audition scene was a ‘death notification’ which is one of the most dreaded jobs for law enforcement.

As Johnson told it, he got to the last CD, not having been impressed yet. He saw the actor’s name: Robert Taylor, and his first thought was “They took my advice.” Only the over-30s in the audience got that joke. At any rate, in the audition, when Taylor went to deliver the death notification, he removed his hat and put it over his heart. That gesture—and a comment by Johnson’s wife as she was watching (Oh, my!—and not for the gesture) got Taylor the job.

A member of the audience asked how Johnson and the writers got along. Johnson declined to be in the writer’s room, but asked the scripts be sent to him, and they’d discuss points Johnson disagreed with, usually explaining their rationale. One in particular, was that they wanted to make the main characters 10 years younger. Johnson objected, but their explanation was, “We want this to be a long-running series and can’t have the major players using walkers.”

Johnson spoke of his first invitation to a library event, where the librarian said they were a very small county and didn’t have much to offer in the way of an honorarium. Johnson (after looking up what an honorarium was), said he didn’t like to negotiate, so he’d ask for the same he asked of all libraries. A six-pack of Rainier beer.

Years later, he was invited to another event where the librarian handed him his honorarium, which, due to the rules against alcohol in the building, was wrapped in brown paper, taped, and tied with string. Johnson commented that it looked more like heroin than beer. At any rate, the librarian said  it had been hard to procure the beer, and Johnson said he understood that most bars didn’t serve the “cheap stuff.” She said, no, that wasn’t it. Everyone was out of stock, including the brewery. Johnson called the brewery the next day, and was told that yes, the librarian was right. They had run out. Why the shortage? This was two weeks after Longmire hit the screens, and everyone was drinking Walt’s favorite brew.

Library EventsOther “issues” for being an author with a popular television series as related by Johnson. He was paying for lunch at a café on a road trip. He was wearing one of his ball caps that said “Sheriff, Absaroka County, Wyoming” and the clerk questioned it. Johnson said he wasn’t really the sheriff, and it wasn’t a real county. She came back with “It is, too. That’s Walt Longmire’s County.” He introduced himself and she said, “Huh?” He said he wrote the books the series was based on. She said, “There are books?”

One of the best takeaways for me was in response to a question about the differences in books versus the visual media. He said books have one big advantage—the author sets up words like dominoes, and the first sentences tips the first tile, and they tumble along, propelled by the reader’s imagination.

Other takeaways from the event, on the extremely rare chance someone would invite me to give this kind of a talk:

  • Open with a VERY short background sentence or two.
  • Talk a little bit about how you began writing. Make it a story, not a recitation of events.
  • Talk a little bit about the life of a writer and experiences you’ve had. Johnson spoke of being able to donate generously to his favorite charity.
  • Read a little bit of one of your works. In this presentation, Johnson spoke of going to a high school girls’ basketball game with the father of one of the players. What he saw there led to a scene in one of his books, and he followed that story by reading it.

**Note: The library will be offering the recording of his presentation in its entirety, and once I have the link, I’ll post it here at TKZ. I admit my note-taking skills have degenerated along with my memory, so you’ll not only be able to see what I left out due to space constraints, but also my mistakes.

All right, TKZers. If you were invited to give a non-craft presentation to readers (or viewers), what would you talk about?


Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Happy Summer Solstice!

Photo credit: Salix alba at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Welcome to summer and the longest day of the year…at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

To readers in the Southern Hemisphere, sorry, this is your shortest day but, from now on, the days will grow longer, honest.

To folks who live in the far north, summer solstice is especially appreciated after long, dark winter days. Today, at my Montana home, latitude 48 north, the sun rises at 5:37 a.m. and sets at 9:41 p.m. But dawn can be seen coming for almost an hour before then and twilight lingers until around 11 p.m.

At latitude 64.8 north, Fairbanks, Alaska enjoys almost 24 hours of sun today. Here’s time-lapse video:

 

For TKZ’s crime dogs who are also star-gazers, five planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—are currently lined up across the sky like train cars with the moon as the caboose. According to Space.com, the last time this type of alignment occurred was March 5, 1864.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers these tidbits from history and how different cultures celebrated summer solstice.

  • In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice coincided with the rising of the Nile River. As it was crucial to predict this annual flooding, the Egyptian New Year began at this important solstice.

  • In centuries past, the Irish would cut hazel branches on solstice eve to be used in searching for gold, water, and precious jewels.

  • Many European cultures hold what are known as Midsummer celebrations at the solstice, which include gatherings at Stonehenge and the lighting of bonfires on hilltops.

Here’s a fun quiz about the summer solstice, also from the Farmers Almanac. Feel free to share your score in the comment section.

In the early 1960s, archeoastronomer Gerald Hawkins was the first to theorize that Stonehenge (built somewhere between 2950 – 1600 B.C.) was a giant astronomical calendar that tracked movements of the sun and moon. According to Wikipedia:

He fed the positions of standing stones and other features at Stonehenge into an early IBM 7090 computer and used the mainframe to model sun and moon movements. In his 1965 book, Stonehenge Decoded, Hawkins argued that the various features at the monument were arranged in such a way as to predict a variety of astronomical events.

From the center, the observer can see the summer solstice sun rising and setting in exact alignment between the monolithic stones.

Photo credit: By simonwakefield – https://www.flickr.com/photos/simonwakefield/3149066878/ (cache of original license), CC BY 2.0,

While rabbit-holing, I ran across a site called Spiritual Gangster, which sounded appropriate for crime writers and readers. Here’s an excerpt about setting summer intentions:

The Summer solstice is an energetically charged day and an important one to set intentions. Direct your intentions on the themes of this phase, which are patience, nourishment and trust. Create powerful “I am” statements that reflect these qualities and the development of them. Include “reception” statements that open you up to receiving the energies available on this day. Examples are; “I am open to receiving nourishment and growth” or “I am able to receive the energy needed to develop trust in my life.” Set your intentions and continually remind yourself of them all summer long. 

The longest day of the year is a good opportunity to review New Year’s resolutions you may have made in January and assess how well you’ve achieved them (or not!).

Remember that solemn vow to write XXX words or pages each day?

Or submit to XX agents?

Or organize your writing space?

Or finish that #%&$ manuscript languishing on your hard drive?

Or send your First Page to TKZ for critique? Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this link. We’re waiting—don’t make us come and get it! 

Who cares if you didn’t check off resolutions in the first half of 2022? You still have six months to nail goals you want to accomplish.

June 21 is the longest day of the year. Grab your hazel branch, set a bonfire, and dance like a Druid. Make the most of that additional daylight and score some extra words.

Happy Summer!

~~~

TKZers: Do you take stock of your writing/reading goals at the year’s midpoint? How are you doing?

Do you celebrate the first day of summer? Favorite activities and traditions?

 

Theory of Blueberries

I’m not usually a fan of fitness magazines, but I found myself in a waiting room once before the era of cellphones, and I had forgotten to bring a book. I had to decide between twiddling my thumbs, staring off into space, or reading one of the magazines on the table next to me.

I picked up the magazine that was on top of the stack, which happened to be about fitness. I flipped through it and found an interesting article. It was all about the stuff you have to do to stay fit. You’ve seen the list: drink gallons of water every day, run thousands of miles, eat only organically grown super foods…  One could grow old just reading the list.

But the kicker was the conclusion of the piece. The author noted that most people can’t do everything on the list perfectly. As a matter of fact, many people read about all the things they need to do and become frustrated. They think, I can’t do all this stuff, and they give up.

But the article advised if you can’t do everything, at least do something. Their premise was to start small, then add to your fitness regimen as you get used to each step. Their suggestion was to throw a handful of blueberries on your cereal each morning. Blueberries have tremendous antioxidant properties and are very beneficial to one’s health. I read the following in an article about antioxidants on WebMD.com:

Wild blueberries are the winner overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants – vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s about 10 times the USDA’s recommendation, in just one cup! Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

The theory of blueberries made sense to me. Even though I read that article years ago, I still drop a handful of blueberries on my oatmeal every morning.

* * *

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to make a comparison between getting physically fit and getting fit as an author. There’s a lot to this writing business. I’ve heard people return from writers’ conferences feeling overwhelmed by all the information they’ve been trying to absorb: plotting, characterization, self-editing, point-of-view, editors, agents, self-publishing, just to name a few.

A new author may feel he/she has to incorporate every aspect of good writing in order to write that first novel, and may be too intimidated to try. “There’s no way I can do all that,” she says, and gives up.

But maybe there’s a blueberry way for writers to ramp up to speed. If new authors tackle one or two of the basics, they could begin to grow their skill and confidence. With time and attention to the craft, their writerly fitness would make them the Chuck Norrises of the literary community.

So TKZers: If you had to choose one or two things for new authors to concentrate on as they begin their writing adventure, what would you suggest?

Advice to My High School Self

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. May you enjoy it to the full.

Here is something I recently enjoyed—my 50-year high school reunion. Hoo boy! “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Erroneously attributed to Groucho Marx. But whoever said it probably had been to his 50-year.)

We had a graduating class of 1100, being of the Boomer generation in the San Fernando Valley. About 185 of us made the reunion. I had a grand time seeing old friends (some I’ve known since elementary school) and catching up. It was also a chance to see how some of our graduating class award winners made out.

Most Likely to Succeed, Paul, certainly has filled the bill. Yale Law School and a partner in one of the biggest firms in the world. He works out of their London office, specializing in international law.

Class Clown, Steve, is still a good friend and the most spontaneously funny guy I’ve ever known. Example: We had a Vice Principal at Taft named Mr. Gibb. Not much for small talk. One day he walked by Steve and me, said nothing, nodded, and moved on. Steve leaned over and said, “He’s got the gaft of Gibb.”

Steve has gone on to a successful career in TV comedy writing. Even more, in a fascinating turn of events, he became personal secretary to Groucho Marx near the end of the legendary comedian’s life. Steve put his account of those years into a memoir, Raised Eyebrows, which is about to become a major motion picture starring Geoffrey Rush as Groucho. (Your humble scribe makes a minor appearance in the book. I am a letter saver. Back then we actually wrote letters on paper and sent them through the mail. So when Steve asked me if I had any of his letters to me during the Groucho years, I was able to send him about a dozen, which helped him fill in some gaps.)

Sad, of course, to see the additions to the In Memoriam page. People I laughed with, went to Taco Pronto with, played basketball with.

All of which puts one in a reflective mood about this time we have on Earth. It’s good to think about that from time to time, even when you’re young. Maybe especially then.

In the movie City Slickers, 39-year-old Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) makes an appearance at his son’s school career day. Having just been demoted at his rather thankless job, Billy tells the class:

Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, “What happened to my twenties?”

Your forties, you grow a little pot belly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway.

Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two in the afternoon, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering, “How come the kids don’t call?”, “How come the kids don’t call?” By the eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand but who you call Mama. Any questions?

Which makes me wonder, if I could go back in time, what would I tell my high school self? Three things.

First, don’t be disappointed. Lots of men lose their hair.

Second, take more risks. Not stupid ones. Not life-might-end ones. Just do more things that take you out of your comfort zone. Especially if it involves real estate.

Third, don’t give in when somebody tells you that you don’t have what it takes to do something. Even if that person has a Ph.D. If you want something bad enough, go for it and find out for yourself.

Now over to you. Have you been to any of your high school reunions? What would you tell your high school self?

TKZ Words of Wisdom – Ladies’ Day at TKZ

Emotion, Beginnings, and Anti-heroes

Ladies’ Day at TKZ

 

Emotion in fiction

Why doesn’t fiction evoke the same response as film? I don’t believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor a while back. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romantic suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction? – P J Parish – February, 28, 2017

 

Beginnings

Which brings us to today’s topic: Great Beginnings.
For an example of a great beginning, let’s reach WAY back to a sort-of thriller, Rebecca, and its simple but great first line:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
That line launches the spellbinding tale of its protagonist, who is haunted by the ghost of her husband’s dead wife. And there are many other great openers we could cite.
Here’s a link to the best 100 opening lines of novels, as chosen by the editors of American Book Review.
But those are mostly first lines of…ahem, “literary” novels. For Right now, let’s limit our discussion to the first lines of thriller novels.
You know ’em when you read ’em. They’re the ones that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck on page one and you don’t go to sleep until THE END.
So I’m wondering…what is the BEST grab-you-by-the-throat opening line (and para) you ever read in a suspense book? And what made it so good for you? – Kathryn Lilley Cheng – February 23, 2017

 

Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice. – Jordan Dane – March 2, 2017

Please comment. What are your thoughts on emotion, beginnings, and antiheroes?

Reader Friday: Favorite Summertime Treat

The nice weather has finally hit New England. Yay!

As soon as the sun’s warmth spawns new life, the grass greening, trees filling in with leaves, flowers blossoming, it triggers me to crave seafood, ice cream, and burgers on the grill.

What’s your favorite summertime food, beverage, or treat?

Bonus points if you include a recipe. 🙂