Pets and animals in fiction is a huge topic. Interestingly, a quick search of Amazon didn’t bring up any book on the topic. So, readers/writers, there’s a void to be filled by an animal enthusiast. I did find an excellent post on the subject by Sue Coletta – Tips to Include Pets in Fiction
Today, let’s discuss two things:
Your favorite pet:
Looking back at your entire life, which pet was/is your all-time favorite? Tell us about that pet and why he or she was so special.
The roles pets and animals play in books you enjoy:
As a reader of fiction, what way of using pets or animals in the story do you find most enjoyable? Explain.
Good question, and one put to me the other morning that caused evening introspection. Let me tell you how that came to be.
Rita (my wife of thirty-nine years) and I are on a week’s getaway to Galiano Island near our home on British Columbia’s Pacific west coast. We met another couple at the tie-up wharf and got talking. You know, general stuff… “Where you from? How long you here? Where you headed after this?”
Then came a question aimed at me. “What do you do when you’re not on vacation?”
“’Besides bleeding money through the stock market,” I replied. “I’m a writer.”
“Interesting. What makes you want to write?”
I wasn’t stuck for an answer, but I was stuck for the right answer. Later that night (after five five-o’clocks on the dock which is mandatory attendance among the boating fraternity), I introspected with Google searches about writer motivation. I came up with a Youtube video by a remarkable young singer/songwriter named Meskerem Mees. She summed my introspection with this line in the lyrics from her piece titled The Writer:
“And I am but a writer, so writing’s what I do.”
Kill Zone writers, Ms. Mees’s song is uplifting. Here are the links to the video and the lyrics.
And the takeaway question which you’re expected to answer—why do you want to write?
My recent reading has included two mysteries where the ‘bad guys’ went into “do I buy this?” territory for me, for various reasons. Both were well-written and good reads, so this post is more for discussion than me saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this.’ I always like what the TKZ peeps have to contribute. Sadly, I have an emergency trip so I won’t be around much to respond to comments, but I know you will keep things going.
Keeping the villain’s identity hidden from readers in mysteries (my genre of choice) is a challenge. Neither book fell into the “you don’t see the villain until the gather all suspects into the parlor category, so there was no sense of cheating the reader.
In one book, there was a set of identical twins. No, it wasn’t a case of them pretending to be each other, which I consider a major contrivance (and I happen to be the mother of a set of twins, although they’re fraternal). Before I gave birth to them, I was of the “twins are a plot copout” mindset. They still can be, but that’s another issue, and I digress.
In the twins book, one was a very dependent individual, who the dominant twin, who also happened to be the killer, took responsibility for. Another twist—the dependent twin was in the midst of transitioning to female (is that a correct term these days?) and was more or less in hiding during the process. The reader was aware of the character’s existence via phone calls from the other twin, but there wasn’t much of an on-the-page presence until it was time to reveal the secret. When I got to that point, I had minor niggles of “is this playing coy with the reader?” Was it too much of a stretch from day to day reality? Or, do reader want departures from the logical, day to day reality?
The other book relied on the killer having Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities) and the cops were looking for what they thought were two different people. Who later turned out to be three. DID is real, but it affects less than 2% of the population, and most cases are female. In this book, the character was male. Still, it’s a “this could happen” scenario.
For the twins, I can accept the ploy, because the second twin could have been anyone the killer felt close to or responsible for.
In the case of the DID character(s), the condition is so rare that there was an underlying feeling of “although it could happen, I’m not sure it’s working for me.”
What’s your take on using the very low percentage condition for a villain in a mystery? Would you go back and re-read to find where the author left clues?
After a couple of years of Covid, writers are again taking to the highways and airports to gather with colleagues at writers’ conferences.
My husband and I recently returned from attending two conferences just a couple of weeks apart. Although the conferences were different in their content and presentation, they were each wonderful in their own way.
Killer Nashville is targeted (love that word) at mystery, suspense, and thriller writers. We were there for two reasons: First, Hank Phillippi Ryan was one of the keynote speakers, and studying Ms. Ryan’s book Truth Be Told had a great influence on me when I was working on my first book. Secondly, my novel Time After Tyme was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award in the cozy mystery category.
The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference was held in St. Louis this year. One major reason we chose that one was to meet James Scott Bell and attend his Story Grinder course. Mr. Bell’s books on the craft of writing, his courses and novels have been hugely instrumental in my own writing career.
There are many reasons to attend a conference, and lots of benefits to be had. Here are a few:
Gather with fellow writers. Authors spend a lot of time in solitary pursuit of the perfect story. It’s a good idea to get out occasionally and meet new people. Even for those of us who are introverted, the company of fellow authors is special. After all, most of those people are introverts, too.
Learn a new skill. Workshops, lectures, and courses give writers an opportunity to sharpen their expertise in the craft.
Get feedback on a current project. Most conferences provide some critical feedback of an author’s work for free. Others charge a small fee.
Pitch your work. Conferences are an opportunity to pitch your work to an agent or an acquisitions editor. Remember to rehearse your pitch and have it ready. You never know who you may bump into on the elevator.
Sell some books. Most conferences have a means to offer your books on consignment. We’ve had success in selling a few books at each of the conferences we’ve attended.
Help a new author. Many attendees are first-timers. This is an opportunity to provide encouragement and feedback to someone who is just beginning their writing journey.
Get motivated. Conferences have a way of energizing the author and getting the creative juices flowing. Use the excitement to build on your next novel.
Deciding on the ideal conference
Choosing a writing conference is similar to finding a college to attend. There are plenty of choices, and you’ll want to consider size, focus, cost, and travel distance. Some conferences are specifically tuned to a narrow genre selection. Others may be open to any writing area. There are plenty of lists online, but I think the best resource for finding a good conference is from your colleagues, like those here at TKZ. I hope we’ll see some recommendations in the comments.
Before you sign up
Check out the conference to see if it offers the kinds of courses and workshops you’re interested in.
Research the professional editors and agents who will be onsite for appointments, and register early to get appointments with the ones you want to meet with.
If you’re going to put your books on consignment in the book shop, be sure you understand when to drop the books off, when you have to pick them up, and any other requirements
One more thing
I wanted to have some clever and useful give-aways at the conferences this year to advertise my mystery series, so I had some jar openers made to take with me, but they didn’t arrive in time for Killer Nashville. No problem, I thought. I’ll take them to ACFW. However, when I arrived at the ACFW conference with over a hundred jar openers ready to be placed on a swag table, I was told they didn’t have an area for that. I should have checked.
So, TKZers: What conferences have you attended and which would you recommend? What benefits have you experienced by attending a conference?
A gripping experience! If you’d like one of these FREE cute and practical jar openers (5-inch diameter), send me an email or contact me through my website at kaydibianca.com with your name and address. I’ll send you one while supplies last.
Remember The Book Thief by Markus Zusak? It was the story of a young German girl during World War II who steals books to comfort her during her family’s travails.
Unfortunately, about a year ago, a new breed of book thieves came on the scene when some slimy social media influencers promoted abuse of Amazon’s ebook return policy.
An ebook can be returned seven days after purchase in the US or 14 days after purchase in other countries, even after it’s been read.
When you read on a Kindle, Amazon knows exactly where you stopped and takes you to that same spot when you open your Kindle for a new session. When you switch from a Kindle to reading on a different device, it takes you directly to the correct location.
Amazon knows when you finish a book because you immediately receive a message asking you to rate it.
Amazon knows everything. Really.
Viral social media publicized this loophole. The practice of “buying” an ebook, reading it, and returning it for a full refund ran rampant.
Indie-published authors were quick to sound the alarm over sudden upticks in returns. That’s because Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) gives access to nearly-instant sales reports, whereas royalty reports from traditional publishers lag months behind.
Series authors reported that book 1 was purchased and returned a week later. Same happened with book 2. Then 3, 4, 5, 12, and 19. Obviously thieves had to read the entire series before they decided they didn’t like it.
Book thieves quickly learned Amazon could be used as a library, reading as many books as they could consume…FOR FREE! All they had to do was return them within seven days. Why pay a $10 monthly fee for a Kindle Unlimited subscription?
Clearly, Amazon could track this new trend but did nothing.
Incomes went down for many authors.
Another Amazon policy allows them to penalize authors if too many books are returned. They may even pull your books from being sold, citing poor quality as the reason for returns. What is poor quality? How many is too many? Who makes those decisions? Only the algorithm knows.
Book thieves may have justified their actions because they figured they were sticking it to Amazon.
In reality, thieves were sticking it to authors who work hard to write quality books. Their work and investment in cover art, editing, proofreading, etc., were being stolen the same as if books were shoplifted from a store.
A petition protesting the policy gathered more than 70,000 signatures. The Authors Guild and the Society of Authors (UK) took evidence of abuses to Amazon.
On September 22, 2022, the Authors Guild made this welcome announcement:
Amazon informed us of its plans to change its ebook return policy to restrict automatic returns to purchases where no more than 10 percent of the book has been read.
The planned change will go into effect by the end of the year. Any customer who wishes to return an ebook after reading more than 10 percent will need to send in a customer service request, which will be reviewed by a representative to ensure that the return request is genuine and complies with Amazon’s policies against abuse. This process will create a strong deterrent against buying, reading, and returning ebooks within seven days, and readers who attempt to abuse the return policy will be penalized under Amazon’s policies.
A big thank you to CEO Mary Rasenberger and the conscientious staff of the Authors Guild for protecting authors’ interests and income.
TKZers: Do you believe you were targeted by book thieves? Did you experience an uptick in ebook returns?
Marx is a man who stands astride history, whose influence is so widespread and undeniable that he demands our awe and admiration, and who has made the world a better place because he was in it.
I speak, of course, of Julius Marx, better known as Groucho, born on the East Side of New York on October 2, 1890.
Create and Refine
Though a comedy icon, Julius’s initial ambition was to be a singer. At age 15 he began appearing on the vaudeville stage with an act called The Three Nightingales. He was later joined by his brothers Arthur (better known as Harpo) and Milton (Gummo). They traveled the circuit all over the land.
One night in Nagadocious, Texas, a donkey ran loose outside the theater during the act. Several audience members got up and left to see what was going on. Julius, aghast, quipped out loud, “Nagadocious is full of roaches!” He added, “The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass!”
To his surprise and delight, the audience laughed. And thus comedy entered the act.
Harpo, Chico, Groucho, Gummo, c. 1913
For the next several years the boys, now joined by Leonard (Chico), developed an act built around music and a comedy sketch about a classroom. Fun in Hi Skool, like all vaudeville acts, ran under ten minutes and featured the rapid-fire dialogue and hijinx that would develop into the Marxian style. They worked it, refined it. It took over a decade before the brothers made it to Broadway with a revue called I’ll Say She Is. It was a hit, but still only a vaudeville-style show.
So the boys took the next step and developed a comedy with an actual plot—The Coconuts (1925). This was the first iteration of the Marx Brothers as we know them today. Herbert (Zeppo) had joined the troupe after Gummo dropped out.
They kept on refining and had another Broadway hit, Animal Crackers (1928), that came at the same time the movies were moving into the sound era. Perfect timing! The talkative Groucho, the language-mangling Chico, and the horn-tooting Harpo never would have made an impact in the silents.
The film version of The Coconuts came out in 1929. More refining as they learned the art of the motion picture. Two more movies followed (Animal Crackers and Monkey Business), leading finally to their greatest achievements: Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
Lesson: Never stop working, learning, correcting, refining, polishing. This is especially important in your early years. But it should also continue as long as you call yourself a writer. Never rest on your laurels (or your Hardys, either).
Groucho was the ultimate rebel, always sticking it to pretentions. That’s why the quintessential Groucho song is “I’m Against It” from Horse Feathers.
Margaret Dumont, a real socialite, was his favorite foil. She was upper crust and formal. Groucho romanced her, primarily for her money, while his rat-a-tat and oddly connected dialogue flummoxed her. There were other targets, too. In Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is trying to woo Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) in the presence of the officious Trentino (Louis Calhern):
Lesson: “The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.” – William Saroyan. “You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation.” – Leon Uris.
Know what you believe, and be bold with it in your fiction.
Groucho’s comedic mind was always at play, even in “real life.” You can see it at work on his TV show You Bet Your Life, which was built upon spontaneous riffing off his guests.
Even after he was slowed by a stroke, Groucho’s wit remained rapier-like. Case in point: Milton Berle was an attention grabber, always trying to take over a room. One night he showed up at a birthday party for George Burns, where the enfeebled Groucho was also a guest. After Berle loudly told a few jokes, Groucho snapped, “I don’t think you’re funny.”
“But Groucho,” Berle said, trying to save the moment. “Everything I know I stole from you.”
“Then you weren’t listening,” said Groucho.
Lesson: As writers, we should always be writing…even when we’re not writing. We must keep our minds active in looking for material. Train yourself to ask “What if?” all the time.
You’re sitting at a traffic stop. An elderly woman pushes a shopping cart of clothes in the crosswalk. You think: What if she is the missing heiress of a huge fortune? What if she is an undercover agent in disguise? What if she is an alien in a host? What if she has gold bricks hidden in that cart? You let the ideas park in your mind so the Boys in the Basement can play with them.
Also, this is good for your health. My theory on dementia is that the always-active imagination is a preventative. I point to all those great comedians who lived long and stayed sharp: George Burns, Carl Reiner, Bob Hope. And right now, Mel Brooks. By “thinking funny” every day, even in private conversation, they kept their brains active and alert. (Burns was on The Tonight Show once, aged 96, smoking his ever-present cigar. He told Johnny he smoked 15-20 cigars a day, and had a martini in the evening. “What does your doctor say about that?” Johnny asked. “My doctor’s dead,” said Burns.)
In 1945 the brothers were developing a spoof of the Warner Bros. classic Casablanca. Purportedly, one of the characters in the parody was to be named “Humphrey Bogus.” Wanting to protect its property, the legal team at Warner Bros. sent an inquiry about the Marx project, with the subtle threat of possible legal action.
Groucho immediately saw a way to generate publicity. He wrote a letter to Warner Bros., making more of the kerfuffle than there really was, and leaked it to the press. It became the talk of the town. Groucho was in his element, with paragraphs like these:
I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if they plan on re-releasing the picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.
You claim you own “Casablanca” and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers — do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.
Lesson: Be alert for creative marketing opportunities. For example, an event or anniversary that relates to your book might arise, giving you occasion to mention it to your email subscribers or on a blog. You can also use a deal price promotion whenever you like, as I am about to do now! (This is called the art of the segue.)
My next Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rage, is up for pre-order at the deal price of just $2.99. Yes indeed, it can be ordered now and will be auto-delivered to your Kindle on Oct. 16. Click the above link. Outside the U.S. you can go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BFRP7SQV
There will be a print version, too.
Well, this post has gone on long enough. And so, as Groucho once sang, “Hello, I must be going…”
Openings: Creating the beginning of the story for the reader
I am honored to now be a KZB regular, and to be given the biweekly Words of Wisdom spot that Steve so ably started and ran for the past several months. He will be a hard act to follow, but I will do my best.
While this isn’t my first post at the Killzone, not even my first Words of Wisdom, I thought revisiting past posts on openings a fitting post for today: first chapters, effective openings, and focusing on crafting a compelling opening line or paragraph. Like Steve did, I see myself as laying the table for a discussion about these three nuggets of past wisdom today. You can read the full post for each excerpt via the date links.
So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:
Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:
An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist:This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads to…
Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.
We crime writers talk a lot about great hooks and how to get our readers engaged in the first couple pages. We worry about whether we should throw out a corpse in the first chapter, whether one-liners are best, if readers attention spans are too short for a slow burn beginning. This is especially true if you are writing what we categorize as “thrillers.”
But I’m tired of hooks. I’m thinking that the importance of a great opening goes beyond its ability to keep the reader just turning the pages. A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature. Within those first few paragraphs — sometimes buried, sometimes artfully disguised, sometimes signposted — are all the seeds of theme, style and most powerfully, the very voice of the writer herself.
It’s like you whispering in the reader’s ear as he cracks the spine and turns to that pristine Page 1: “This is the world I am taking you into. This is what I want to tell you. You won’t understand it all until you are done but here is a hint, a taste, of what I have in store for you.”
Which is why, today I am still staring at the blank page. We turned in our book last week to our new publisher and now it’s time to start the whole process all over again. I give myself a week off but then I try to get right back in the writing groove. I have an idea for a new book but that great opening?
Nothing has come to me yet. And I know my writer-self well enough by now that I know can’t move forward until I find just the right key to unlock what is to come. So here I sit, staring at the blinking curser, thinking that if I can only make good on my beginning’s promise, everything else will follow. Because that is what a great opening is to me: a promise to my reader that what I am about to give them is worth their time, is something they haven’t seen before, something that is…uniquely me.
Oh hell, I’ll let Joan Didion explain it. I have a feeling she’s given this a lot more thought than I have:
Q: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.
Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
Q: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.
Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.
Didion gave this interview around the time she published her great memoir after her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking, the first line of which is: “Life changes fast.”
Over the past couple weeks, we’ve had two excellent discussions that can help us with crafting more interesting and complex villains. Debbie described the villain’s journey. And Sue discussed the three dimensions of creating characters. So, I thought today would be a good day to apply and reinforce what we’ve learned.
In high school and college biology courses, there are two components: the lectures and book work, and the laboratory sessions (labs) for exploratory, hands-on learning. In biology, we have anatomy (the structure of the organisms) and physiology (how they function).
Debbie’s look at the Villain’s Journey is the physiology of the villain, how the villain has functioned. And Sue’s look at the three dimensions of character is the anatomy of the character.
Today is lab day, so let’s study and dissect some villains.
Pick a villain (one). One of your own villains. Or a villain (created by another writer) that you have found complex and interesting. Or create your own new villain. N.B. Any new character you create and publish here is yours. You maintain the copyright. No one else may use your creation.
Study the physiology, the live function, the journey, of the villain.
Study the anatomy, the 3-D layers, of the villain. Yes, you must euthanize your specimen. We will provide chemicals for a painless, humane demise.
Report your findings to your colleagues (that would be the rest of us, here at TKZ) today. Give us a concise report on the journey and 3-D anatomy of your specimen (I mean villain).
In 1967, alligators were close to extinction in the US and placed on the Endangered Species List. Under federal and state protection, the reptile population rebounded enough that they were removed from the list in 1987.
Alligators have recovered nicely, thank you very much. Nowadays, many people consider them pests because they’re found in swimming pools, on golf courses, and in carports. In Florida, special fencing was installed along interstates to keep them from wandering onto freeways.
There’s even a long-running reality TV series called “Swamp People” about professional gator hunters.
Florida’s gator hunting season runs from August 15 to November 1 with more than 7000 permits issued. Over this past Labor Day weekend, a woman caught this shot on I-95 in Brevard County and the photo went viral. Apparently, this hunter successfully filled his tag.
Deep-fried alligator tail is featured at many restaurants—the texture is similar to gristly Rocky Mountain Oysters (bull testicles) with a fishy overtone. Neither is on my list of favorite delicacies.
In October, 2015, Joshua James, in his early 20s, picked up a live, three-foot-long alligator at the side of the road and tossed it in the back seat of his truck. At 1:30 a.m., he ordered a drink at the Wendy’s drive-through in Loxahatchee, Florida. When the cashier momentarily turned away, James added an unexpected tip—he tossed the gator through the open drive-up window and drove off.
He wasn’t caught for several months. When arrested in February, 2016, he admitted throwing the gator and claims he didn’t realize anyone would take his prank seriously. Apparently, he knew someone who worked at the restaurant and thought they would be there at the time.
James was charged with “assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do less than murder” and “unlawful possession of alligator or parts,” both misdemeanors. Bond was set at $6000 with the condition he stay away from any animals except his mother’s dog.
Here’s an interview with James after he made bail.
According to his mother, Linda James: “It was just a stupid prank that he did that’s now turning into this. He’s a prankster. He does stuff like this because he thinks it’s funny.”
When asked if she thought the Wendy’s employees saw it as a prank, she replied, “Well, I mean, how could you not think something like that was a prank?”
Judge Barry Cohen didn’t agree.At trial in May, 2016, he told James, “In my view there is absolutely no excuse for taking an animal, particularly an alligator, and throwing it through a window at a total stranger.”
According to the Sun Sentinel, “David Hitzig, executive director of the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, testified that the alligator, while under four feet in length, would still be ‘very powerful’ with extremely strong jaws.”
James apologized for his “stupid prank.”
Judge Cohen sentenced James to a year of probation, $500 fine, and 75 hours community service.
No one was hurt in the incident, including the alligator. It was not called to testify and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers released it into a canal.
As the woman who took the viral gator photo said, “This is Floriduh.”
TKZers: Have you heard of unusual weapons used in commission of crimes? Please share.
At some point along the line, I apparently set a recording on my DVR for a retrospective of the Ed Sullivan Show and Rock and Roll. The other night, as I was trying to bore myself to sleep, I watched the episode that features the rock-n-roll hits from 1968-1970. I watched songs from The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even Tom Jones’s Delilah. Everything about that show–from the fashions to the songs themselves–brought an unexpected feeling of melancholy.
I turned 11 years old in 1968. When that year dawned, we had already seen one president shot dead on the streets of Dallas, a neighbor of mine–the father of a classmate–had been gunned down at his front door by a stranger who remains at large to this day. Three of my heroes–the astronauts of Apollo 1 (and previous astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini Programs) had burned to death while trapped inside their capsule. More than a few of my neighbors’ dads had been shipped off to Vietnam. Five years earlier, I had been rescued from the roof of my grandparents’ burning apartment building in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the most egregiously misnamed city on the planet.
By the end of that year, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be dead, and just a few miles away, Washington, DC, would be set ablaze, just like so many other cities across the country. That was the year when civil rights-based busing came to my neighborhood, causing me to be shipped off every day to a school 35 minutes from my house in the midst of a culture where everyone was angry and nobody told us kids how we supposed to deal with such startling changes. I learned to fight, but I never liked it, and I was never very good at it.
1969 brought such protests to Washington that my father, a career Navy officer, was ordered to wear suits to the Pentagon for his own safety. Woodstock happened that year, but that was also the year when Charles Manson went on his rampage. Things at home were beginning to unravel between my parents, and I was still fighting a lot in school. The thrill of my lifetime occurred on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 conquered the moon. Five days later, another Kennedy, Ted, was in the news for his actions in Chappaquiddick. We closed that year with the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
In May of 1970, soldiers from the National Guard opened up on student protesters at Kent State University. We actually had the discussion at our dinner table that perhaps the protesters brought it on themselves. In August of that year, our vacation at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos ended after the first night when the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our stuff with it.
By autumn of 1971, my brother had gone to college, leaving me to cope with family stuff as a solo.
As I write this post, that knot of anxiety returns to my gut as a ghost from the past–equal parts fear, anger, sadness and disorientation. It was during those years when I turned most desperately to fiction–both reading it and writing it. I escaped to places in my head where good guys always won and bad guys were always brought to justice. I rarely showed my writing to anyone back then, and I’m not sure why. Looking back with decades of space between then and now, I think I was afraid of people knowing just how twisted up I was inside. The “me” I projected was immune to such things as emotion. Back then, there was no greater embarrassment for a boy than to cry in public–or show any real emotion for that matter. In those days, I never had a friend who was close enough to let me lower the armor. Hell, maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend to anyone else to let them share with me.
Life in a bickering household can be very lonely. I think now, in retrospect, that the adults in the house were so wrapped up in their own unpleasantness that having me be quiet was probably a blessing. I know that it was a blessing to be relieved from my role as marriage counselor, listening to their grievances as they each tried to pull me to their side.
My high school had 4,500 kids. Talk about anonymity! As a young teenager with less than zero athletic ability (or interest in such), the school library became my hangout spot. I have no idea how many books I read in those days, and how many stories I wrote, but they have to number in the hundreds. When I was into a book or writing a story, I was safe.
Life took a sharp turn for me when I was sixteen years old. I called a family meeting–the first in the family’s history–and I announced to Mom and Dad that I wasn’t doing this anymore. I told them that they were being unfair to me by airing problems that I could not solve, and that I was going to start taking chances at school. I was going to join things and risk the taunts of others. Since my parents wouldn’t drive me and we couldn’t afford a car for me, I told them that they would have to let me ride with friends. I told them that an 11:00 pm curfew was unreasonable on a weekend night. To bolster my argument, I had a long list of straight-A report cards to show them.
As I presented my case, they said nothing. I think they were shocked–in fact, I know they were because that night is still the stuff of legend among my extended family. But they didn’t argue. From that moment on, the “me” I projected moved closer and closer to the “me” I actually was. I don’t think the two will ever meet, but asymptotic is close enough.
I realize now that my imagination saved me from what could have been a terrible end. I don’t expect the demons ever to go away, but at least now they know their place. August 27 marked the 40th anniversary of my first date with my best friend, who would become my bride. Later this month, we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed in countless ways, but had I not planted my flag on Mount Angst, and opened the spigot to honest emotion–which still flows much more easily through my stories than in real life–I don’t think I would have recognized the blessings for what they are.
As a society, while we fawn all over celebrity, we don’t show a lot of respect for the inherent virtue of artistry. I think that each of us needs an outlet to shorten the distances between the “me” we project, the “me” we know ourselves to be, and the “me” to which we aspire. Whether through music, dance, writing or perfecting one’s golf game, it’s the process that matters, not the sales record. It doesn’t matter if no one else in the world appreciates your art if it honestly reflects that slice of time in your journey.