Tuesday, August 31, 2010

October, 1960

Last week, in the rare bookstore, I also purchased a 1960 Methodist Discipline to go with my small, but growing collection of other Disciplines. Why a 1960 edition? I thought having a copy from my birth year would be important.

A lot of important developments back in October of 1960. I was born. The 1960 Discipline was published. And The Andy Griffith Show premiered the week I came into this world. I was naked at the time, but as I grew into my clothes I also grew to enjoy the show, and it's been a part of my life ever since.

And speaking of The AG Show . . . I'm going to offer another Andy Griffith Show Bible Study in October. Three great weeks of Andy, Barney, Goober, and Earnest T. Bass. And while I'm at it, I hope you might enjoy a few of my favorite quotes. Write me if you can identify the characters associated with each quote:

Short cut will only get us into trouble I said to myself . . . but would I listen to myself? No!

I lived with a possum and a raccoon. That's where I learned to wash my food before'st I eats it!

Nip it! Nip it in the bud! You talk to any child psychologist and every single one of them will tell you they're in favor of bud-nippin!


Monday, August 30, 2010


Bishop McKendree

Last week I discovered a rare gem of a bookstore off of 86th Street: a shop filled with old books, and yet older books, and first-editions galore. I left with four books under my arm, including a 1921 edition of a biography of John McKendree, the first U.S. born Methodist bishop and successor to Francis Asbury.

This was an interesting read, especially on the heels of completing American Saint . . . the new quintessential biography of Francis Asbury. McKendree was a saint, too. Toward Asbury's latter years, the younger McKendree often carried the older bishop around like a babe-in-arms, totting him from pulpit to pulpit.

This is how I hope to go out . . . with someone carting me around, not having to lift a finger, being fed donuts and coffee cake (pureed) through a straw. I doubt it will be my wife doing the carting, but perhaps I can hire someone young like McKendree to wait on me hand and foot and set up appointments, etc. It was be an interesting retirement. People rarely question invalids, and by the time a person is too old to speak, they are usually regarded as sage wisdom. I suppose wisdom arrives the moment a person no longer has the ability to speak. People listen much better to people who don't have opinions or can't remember names.

McKendree was a saint. And it will take a saint to put up with the likes of me in just a few short years. I won't recognize myself.

Friday, August 27, 2010

King Under Glass

At long last I have finished reading Stephen King's massive novel, Under the Dome. Weighing in at nearly 1100 pages, Under the Dome requires both a commitment of time and muscle, and there were several times when, after picking up the book, I felt my rotator cuff tear twinge under the heft.

To date, this is not one of King's better efforts, and in his postscript, he mentions that he tried to write this book back in the late 1970s, but couldn't complete it. I wish he had stopped writing this one in 1979 and called the shortened version, Under the Petrie Dish.

Like many of King's more recent works, Under the Dome cannot be categorized as horror or science fiction, though it contains elements of both genres. Rather, King's more immediate concerns center on social-religious-domestic-universal-human interplay. I do like the dome imagery, and his various social and religious allusions were not lost on me, but do we really need 1000-plus pages of domestic study to make one point about our own home towns and our militaristic-politically torn- socially inept world?

I'm glad I killed off King and put him under glass (at last) . . . and I can't imagine another writer in America who would be given carte blanche permission to create a 1000 page book. Scribner is mighty gracious, and as far as publishers (and writers!) go, more power to 'em.

I'll await King's next novel hoping that a window opens somewhere in the dome and lets in some fresh air.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cold Cuts

Writers must have tough skins . . . especially if they are receiving feedback from editors about their work.

Take me, for instance. My skin is so tough my wife frequently fillets my back when she needs a new leather purse. My skin is so tough, not even Goldmember would eat my skin when it peels from sunburn. My skin is so tough, I would break the tattoo artist's needle. Editors have made me this way. And over the years I've received some very cold cuts from them.

How about the publisher, for example, who recently told me, "We can't publish your book because you are not a name. Make a name for yourself and we'll think about it." A name for myself? Who's got a stranger name than I do? Who's more warped than I am? Who's your daddy, Mr. Publisher?

Or how about the publisher, some years back who, after publishing three of my books, called to tell me how disappointed he was in the sales numbers (which weren't, actually, all that bad). "We can't work with you again until you get your numbers up," he said. Get my numbers up? Holy guacamole, what do I do? Accost people in the bookstores at gunpoint and tell them, "Buy my book, or the old lady in the wheelchair gets it!"?

And let's not forget, I've been dumped by four literary agents. Count 'em: four. The last one who dumped me tried to put it mildly, but he came off sounding like a bass fisherman. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you loose." Cut me loose? I've seen Footloose and I'm less than six degrees removed from Kevin Bacon. I know how to cut loose and to be cut loose. Been there done that. And I'm free fallin'.
Still, cold cuts hurt. I'm weeping as I write this. I've used two boxes of Kleenex to write this single blog. I'm calling my mother later.

And then, when I'me done grieving . . . I'll be sending some new book proposals and essays back to these same folks. They haven't heard the last of me.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Meet Me

Every now and again I receive invitations to meet or greet "well-known" writer (so-and-so) and author of the book (whatever). Usually, I have never heard of either the well-known author or the book (and I read A LOT of books). These meetings are usually couched in rather flamboyant terms, with many perks noted, and the notion is that, after meeting this writer, my life will never be the same.

Still, I wonder what it would take for someone to want to meet me, or spend an afternoon with me drinking coffee, or discussing literature and art on my front porch? Surely there is someone out there who would welcome an afternoon with me, and all for the low-low price of just $57.95, and this includes the coffee and a choice of any of my paperback books. I'll offer two hours of conversation. Here's the pitch.

Meet author Todd Alleycat on his front porch and discuss literature with this Hoosier legend. You'll recline on a white wicker bench (painted by the author's first wife) as you toss back a few Starbucks highballs and eat pork-n-beans straight out-o-the can. Pick this author's mind (if you can find it) and plan to bring along some of your own work-in-progress. He'd love to read it. This package could also include greeting the Fed-Ex delivery boy, or cooking wieners over an open pit, or participating in a discussion with the author's seventeen-year-old son about his high school curriculum and his jock itch. Side trips (just the price of gasoline) could also include:


You'll never be the same (and Lord, why would you want to be?) after meeting this master of the keyboard. Only $57.95 gets you in the front door of his home and he'll even show you the master bedroom. Sign up today, spaces are limited.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Finding Myself

A few days ago a friend of mine informed me that she had seen my book, Before You Say "I Do", in the reading rack of a hospital waiting room. Hearing this surprised me, even though this was the first book I wrote (published originally back in 1998) and also one of the few books of mine that is still in print. (Most of my books go out of print a few months after they are published.)

Hearing about this book also brought back memories of how I wrote it. I was in Evansville at the time, and my writing space was located at a small desk in the basement of the parsonage. This basement area was dark, dank, and infested with camel-back crickets. At the time, I was writing on an old Tandy 1000. My goal was to write a book and, hopefully, make a few bucks so I could trade up to a Compaq computer and write even more books. (I accomplished both with the sale of Before You Say "I Do"--a book that I sold on my own, to a New York publisher, with no help from an agent or anyone guiding me through the writing/publishing process.)

But writing the book was not an easy task. There were many obstacles. I wrote, for example, while sitting in my bare feet because the carpeting in the parsonage basement was often cold and damp. Sometimes the carpeting had standing water. I also had to combat hundreds of crickets. I wrote in the dark (very early in the morning or very late at night). I also had to combat the wife and kids. Chelsey was kindergarten/1st grade, Logan was an infant. They demanded my attention while at home, and my writing was frequently interrupted by crying, wailing, or arguments. And, of course, there were Becky's frequent screams echoing from upstairs: "Where the hell is your father?" "Don't tell me he's downstairs in the basement!" "Get your ass up here and help me with these kids!"

Ahhh, such is the life of a young writer. But good Lord-a-mighty I'm glad I can actually write from time to time now in peace and quiet. I write what I want to write. I write even if Becky doesn't want me to write. I write even if my kids are calling me on the phone. I just don't answer.

And thank God . . . the carpeting is dry and the only bugs I have to contend with now are the ticks I pick out of my scalp.

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Believe it or not, I can remember watching the original Star Trek episodes when they originally aired in the mid 1960's. During my first year of kindergarten, I recall watching the show and feeling a bit frightened by some of the imagery of strange-looking creatures and technology that made people disappear. (And remember, this was pre-cable, pre-satellite, pre-"everything" TV when there were only 2-3 channels available!) At that particular hour of the evening, it was Star Trek or nothing, basically.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, it's strange how worlds collide and how futuring visionaries often give us the world we dream about.

Even as I write this blog the world of publishing is changing rapidly. The world of paper and ink books seems on the decline (and the world where people have the attention span necessary to read, say, an 80,000 word book). The world of online publishing seems to be increasing (and the world where people only have the attention span necessary to read a Twitter, a Facebook entry, or a one hundred word blog).

Personally, I find the world of Facebook and Twitter disheartening. Why can't people talk to each other face-to-face? Why are we allowed only 26-characters to communicate something deep or resonate with another human being? And why, as many Facebook entries offer, do I really care about when a friend's child pooped his pants or what someone ate for dinner? Are these really the conversations people long for? It is no wonder our children have no social skills or cannot communicate with their parents.

Recently, I had an editor tell me he liked one of my essays, but that it was a bit too long for publication. Too long? Too long? The essay was a mere 1500 words. Did the editor possess an inability to read for ten minutes? Could the editor read? Was space limited? Was his mind limited?

Okay, but my essay will stand as I wrote it. I'm not boiling a great entree down to a thick gravy of 26 characters and three bullet points so some kid who can barely tie his own shoe laces might read it on Twitter.

I wonder . . . does anyone else out there keep asking Scotty to beam them up? Isn't there an unexplored, brave, new world out there where people actually communicate with each other in longer forums? Where people might want to read a column? A longer blog? An essay? A book?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writing for Money

From time to time I reread books in my library, and last week I perused Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe. This book, containing essays from various writers on the art of writing, offers insights into why writers write. Personally, only one of the essays in this volume seems honest to me, and that is the one written by Mark Jacobson where he admits, "I write for money. What other reason is there?"

This is the most honest answer to the question of writing, but it is also confusing, in that most people think there is great money in writing, or that writers make a lot of money. But the reality is quite the opposite. Writers starve, which is, of course, the reason they write . . . to make money so they won't starve.

In his 1975 collection of prose entitled Picked Up Pieces, John Updike notes that he believed there were fewer than 100 people in America (outside of those employed by newspapers, magazines or journals) who were able to make a living as writers. Personally, I think Updike's estimate is a bit slim, but it's probably not far off. Today, I doubt there are 1000 people in America who are able to make a living writing books. It is that difficult to do.

Sometimes, people ask me how much I make each year from my book royalties. I can tell that, by the way they ask the question, they expect me to offer a large sum of money as the answer. But, if my recent book royalties and checks received (twice a year) are any indication of my talents as a writer . . . well, then I am one poor S.O.B.

A month ago, I received a check for $2.40 from Amazon.com. This was the sum total of my royalties from Amazon.com over the past four years. The past FOUR YEARS! Think my family can eat on that? A Slim Jim and a Coke, maybe.

The fact is, a book has to sell thousands of copies . . . and I do mean hundreds of thousands, before a writer can even come close to earning a living from book sales. Most books (90%) lose money for both publisher and author. It's a crap shoot. And I've always been on the losing end of the dice roll.

As I have pointed out many times. If I would have worked at McDonalds, putting in the same amount of time I've spent writing these past thirty years, I would be thousands of dollars richer slinging fries at minimum wage. And that's no joke. In fact, the sums wouldn't even be close. I would have earned ten times more money flipping burgers than I have writing books.

But whenever someone asks me, "Why do you write?", I will try to give an honest answer. And the most honest answer would be, "I write for the money." Or, in my case, the hope that next time, next book, I might potentially possibly probably, make a little money. Enough, perhaps, to buy a milk shake instead of a Slim Jim.

And, if memory serves, I might be able to buy a dozen donuts from Wal-Mart for $2.40, and have a little change left over to place in the Salvation Army pot.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Library Part 6

This will be the last blog about my home library (for awhile) but I thought it might be helpful to point out the obvious. After I got married I stepped up my book collecting for the home library. But for singles, I'd still recommend the public library as a great place to meet a future husband or wife.

For example, let's take pick-up lines. There are many that can be used in a library that, well, you just can't use anywhere else.

Some great pick up lines for men would be:
Nice bookends!
Do you know where I can find the relationship section? I want to read a book on commitment!

Some great pick up lines for women would be:
Mind if I check you out?
I love the way you carry that library card in your hip pocket!

You see what I mean? Books are romantic. That's why I carry an ample supply of titles that my wife might want to read. I can point them out from time to time and say things like, "Hey, why don't you and I get naked and read a book together?" I can't tell why this line has worked twice but if it doesn't, well . . . then both of us have learned something. Over the years my wife and I have read many books together, including such great marital titles as Gone with the Wind, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the "Q" volume of the World Book Encyclopedia where we learned a great deal about the TV show Quincy and how to cut up a cadaver.

Having tall library shelves is also a great way to get something started. Frequently, I ask my wife, "Can you reach that five-volume set of Shakespeare up there on the top shelf?" When she reaches for it, I sneak up behind her and make a move . . . like pulling the tiny ladder out from underneath her and then trying to catch her heft as she falls backwards into my arms. This has been tougher since I've been dealing with a torn rotator cuff, but we've managed. Sometimes she catches me. And if I miss, well . . . we both end up on the floor with lots of reading material.

Folks, enjoy your home library. It's a great place for love to bloom.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Library Part 5

While in search of additional titles, I often come across some fascinating used books: editions I didn't know existed, fascinating subjects, and even autographed copies.

Last week, while surfing a used book site, I even encountered a book autographed by me! The seller had written up a description: Candles in the Dark--used copy in good condition autographed by the author.

Now, whenever I encounter one of my own books autographed by me, I have to ask several questions:

1. When did I autograph this book (seeing as how it sold only two copies)? Which copy was it?
This is troubling to me, as either my mother or my wife is trying to make a few measly bucks by unloading the book I signed for her. Becky denies short-selling our precious items, so it must be my mom. However, dad does need a hip replacement and if she sells my autographed book for $10.95 she could purchase a box of cotton swabs. Still, I don't trust my wife completely on this thing and, if I see a new blouse or skirt hanging in her closet, I'm going to confront her on this matter of selling my autographed book. You can bet she won't get another autograph from me. The next time I sign an autograph for my wife I'm using a Sharpie and signing my name on her backside where she can't wash it off.

2. Why didn't my autograph increase the value of the book?
Come on . . . usually a book autographed by the author shoots the book value into the stratosphere. What's up? $10.95? That's less than the original cover price, and usually, when I sign an autograph, I write something for the ages like, Best Wishes, or, Fun Smoking With Ya! Why is this moron now trying to sell my book online for a loss?

3. Did the person selling the book even read my book?
See, having to ask this question really galls me. But I see people buying books all the time who have no intention of actually reading a book. Men buy books to impress women (or in hope of getting laid). Many women buy books to impress the boss or to look sexy. Only the best of us buy a book to actually read it. That's why I buy books. God knows buying a book has never increased my other options. I buy books to increase my vast storehouse of knowledge about The Andy Griffith Show and to be able to quote Shakespeare to my 17-year-old son before he mows the lawn (...once more to the brink, dear friend! . . . alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well).

I don't buy books (absolutely don't buy books!) because I think it increases my chances to wrestle with my wife. She buys books, too. And every night she grades papers.

4. If I purchased this book myself, would this look vain?
There is a part of me that wants to redeem my own creation. Isn't that the gospel, after all? Oh, how I have wanted to gather all of my books unto myself, but I could not! (The Gospel of Hesitations 25:1) But my hope here is that some unsuspecting loser will purchase this autographed copy for $10.95 and in, say, six-and-a-half years, will be able to resell it for a profit of $1.05.

As my wife has told me, I just have to let go of this. Let go and let God. I need to find a better place, she tells me, a more solid emotional ground. I have. And I hope she enjoys her new blouse.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Library Part 4

In my library I have a fair number of books published by pastors which are, for all intents and purposes, actually collections of old sermons. Harry Emeron Fosdick was a master of this style of book creation back in the 1940s/50s, and even noted theologian Paul Tillich got into the act with three volumes of his own.

In more recent times preachers like Peter Gomes (chaplain at Harvard) have made a nice living revamping old sermons into collections and I even have a collection of "celebrity sermons"--supposedly religious messages delivered by TV personalities, Hollywood stars and icons, including a sermon by former Today Show weatherman, Willard Scott.

Where do such books come from and why would we want to read them?

Many times over the years people have asked me: "Why don't you make a book of old sermons?"

My response has always been: "Why would a publisher want to publish it, and who in their right mind would read it?"

And there is another problem. I don't have any old sermons. All I have are scant outlines and notes, and it is tough to recreate an oral act into a written one. The amount of time it would take for someone to transcribe from tape recording to page would be immense, and, in the end, hardly worth the time.

Still, I do have some titles in mind that could eventually end up on a bookshelf. My sermon collections could be:

Oral Outcasts by Outcalt
The Most Boring Sermons You've Ever Read (and They're No Better if You Could Hear Them)
Pulpit Antics

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Library Part 3

A few weeks ago I began a search on the internet for a first-edition of John Updike's Assorted Prose--the first of five books that Updike published containing his broad assortment of essays, book reviews, and short pieces, most of which were originally published in The New Yorker. I had managed to find the last four of Updike's book review collections, but Assorted Prose (published in 1965) eluded me.

Then it happened.

Last week I noticed a small stack of older books sitting atop the headboard of our bed--where the wife and I often talk at night and, occasionally, wrestle. I had forgotten about this little stack of books--which Becky intended to serve as "bedroom decor". Why we'll never know.

But one title in particular caught my eye. I gathered up the stack and began reading the flyleaves of these books. I was astounded.

One of the books was a first-edition copy, in pristine condition, of John Updike's Assorted Prose. Another book was a 1902 copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. And a third book was a collection of Aesop's Fables that had been published in 1895.

Then it hit me. I'd purchased these books back in 1983, during my first summer pastoral internship near Asheville, North Carolina. I often visited an antiquarian bookstore in Asheville and spent my meager salary ($35 a week) on books instead of food. I purchased books by John Updike instead of eating vegetables. I lived on bread and water and bacon grease and spent everything I had on old books . . . books that I intended to read some day in my old age while sitting on the back porch.

Now I am that old man, and I have a front and a back porch, and I have the books. But I'm nearly blind and need thick reading glasses.

But at least I can say that, back in 1983, I had the foresight and the vision to buy a book I'd be looking for in 2010. Not bad, huh?

My Library Part 2

During my seminary days at Duke (back then I spelled it "Dook" and didn't know any better) I met another graduate student in an Aramaic class taught by Dr. Orville Wintermute (B.A., M.A., D.D. Ph. Lit. Ph. D, etc.) named Bob. There were only three of us in the class, and Bob arrived each day with books wrapped in cellophane, their spines marked with Dewey Decimal system numbers.

One day I asked Bob why he was always checking out library books and he informed me that these were not library books, but his own. "I inscribe all of my books by Dewey Decimal, bind them in permanent cellophane, and keep a card file catalogue in my home of all my books so I can locate them easily." Bob informed me of this with all of the bravado of an opera singer and, while Dr. Wintermute droned on about conjugating Aramaic verbs, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Bob, you are such a nerd!"

Thank God I have not become Bob. Bob likely lives today in a small shack surrounded by books and kitchen knives and may (or may not) have two dissected human bodies in his freezer alongside the ground chuck. Me, on the other hand, I've gone on to an illustrious career purchasing books on Amazon.com and sleeping inside the freezer on hot summer days in order to stay cool. Same difference, perhaps . . . but at least I'm not a nerd.

While Bob catalogues all of his library books, I stack mine reverently in neat, orderly piles, somewhat categorized by subject matter (biography in one section, history, business/leadership, theology/Bible, science fiction, westerns, etc). Well, I used to. But now my library is a hodgepodge. I've blended decaf with caffeine, nonfiction with fiction and so forth to the point now where I have difficulty locating some books when I need them.

But I repeat . . . at least I am not a nerd. Please . . . compare me to Bob, who keeps a card file, a tiny catalogue in his house alongside his bloody steak knives. I don't have the knives. And I only have a tiny card file to keep track of my many stories, proposals, essays, and submissions to the editors. I know where my children are. I know who might adopt them.

And as for Bob . . . I have a feeling he's still back there at Dook, studying up for his second post-doc in Syriac or ancient Ethiopic. He's not married like me and living a full life with a 1991 Chevy Caprice wagon with two hub caps and $2.88 remaining on his $10 Starbucks gift card. He's not having great sex twice a year, or mowing two and half acres of lawn, or sitting on his back deck in the evenings in a tattered pair of Ralph Lauren underwear while writing love poetry to his old lady. Bob probably drinks tea . . . and gets his ice cubs from the freezer.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

My Library Part 1

Some years ago--when I was in my late twenties or early thirties--my brother would visit and make snide remarks about my growing, but not yet expansive, home library. At the time, I probably had 1000 volumes sprinkled throughout the parsonage, and my brother didn't believe that I had read most of the books. Sometimes he would take a book from the shelf, open it, and ask some piss ant question like, "What did Louise say to her husband Jimmy on page 313 of the novel Your Momma Wears Combat Boots?"

Of course, I didn't know my library that well.

I would, however, challenge my brother to a best of three blind challenge, where I would leave the room, he would select a book title, and then, upon my re-entrance to the library, I would have ten seconds to locate the book on the shelf where I had catalogued it. I always won.

My brother just couldn't believe that I knew where all of my books were located on the shelves.

That was years ago, however, and just a few days back, my son asked the question, "Dad, just how many books do you have?"

It was a great question, and I didn't know the answer. However, after a bit of finger pointing and tallying and estimating, I've come to the conclusion that my library is now somewhere between 3000 and 4000 volumes. That's not a huge library, but it's large enough that I can no longer locate books the way I used to. The other night Becky asked me to find a business book I had recommended, a title on leadership. It took me the better part of fifteen minutes to poke, prod, sort and cull through the double stacks and the backlogged piles strewn throughout the house to locate the book.

Having a library of size also has its advantages. Every now and then I come across books I had forgotten about. And even though Becky wonders why I keep buying more books and adding great heaps to the already mountainous tally, she's sort of enamored in her own way of being able to find most anything she needs among my shelves. I've got everything from encyclopedias to trashy novels (actually, far more trashy novels . . . for Becky, of course).

This week, I'll relate some fun and funny stories about my home library and how some of these books have impacted my life.

As Forrest Gump once said, "Life is like an expansive library . . . you never know what you're gonna find."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Murdering Magazines

This morning, when I realized it was Friday the 13th, I considered the many magazines that I have helped to kill. There have been several . . . and all of them seem to be linked to my publication in those respective periodicals.

Take The Wittenburg Door, for instance. Now there was a magazine that published a great deal of my religious satire, but about a year ago, they went belly up. The web site is still there, but there's nothing new on it . . . as if, after I killed it, I am forced to stare into its blank eyes.

Pangolin Papers was another literary magazine that loved working with me, but as soon as I began having some great success there, it went bankrupt. No thanks to me.

Perhaps I am one of those authors who kills magazines.

Or, as one of my agents once told me about getting published with New York firms: "No one will work with you here. You'll never work in this town again."

But I do have my knives and chain saw. And I'm still writing. I thought publishers were made of sterner stuff.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Somebody Stop Me

On Tuesday, as the mercury rose to nearly 98 degrees (F), I was relegated to driving my 1991 Caprice wagon to the post office to mail some manuscripts. In the summer, it is always an interesting treat to drive the wagon, as the electrical components don't work and the air conditioner went the way of the dinosaur back in 2001. There is no way to roll the windows down and there is absolutely no air circulation.

Temperature inside the wagon on Tuesday? A nice, sweltering 112 degrees.

Yes, I drove around in this sucker (it's our most dependable car) and I tried to look professional even as I sported sweat sideburns reminiscent of Elvis at his pudgy best. A few other drivers looked at me and wondered, why are you sweating? Don't you have air?

Well, no. Only two of our cars have air conditioning now, which means that among a family of four, at least two people are going to be unhappy. Dad always draws the short straw. And besides, I'm still losing weight.

I lost five pounds on Tuesday alone.

And I did get my book manuscripts in the mail. They were soaked with my sweat, but fortunately my editor knows me by my scent.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing With My Wife

Perhaps not everyone knows that my wife, Becky, decided to once again return to school. This time, she's hot in pursuit of an administrator's license so she can, hopefully, some day be a school principal. She's also teaching full-time (actually, teaching is MORE than full time) and is now taking night classes and writing papers on the weekends to boot.

The long and short of it . . . we rarely see each other except in passing in or out of the door and most of our conversations and communication is done on the fly or through mental telepathy. Still, it's exciting for me to think of my wife being in charge. This brings a whole new dimension (for me) to being spanked by the principal.

A couple of weeks ago my wife also received an invitation to contribute to a book, and after she told the editor that her husband was a writer (no really, she said, he writes books and stuff, like real books! I don't read them, but I think he's written several!) the editor invited us to write a co-authored essay about the insights, stresses and challenges of a spouse pursuing a graduate degree at such an advanced age!

Neither of us really want to write this . . . and I have my doubts about whether or not my wife and I can collaborate on a writing project. Becky is, in fact, a great writer. She's slow, methodical, and precise . . . three wonderful qualities for a writer which I do not possess. She is more in the analytical vein and usually rewrites every sentence five times before she is satisfied with it. Me? I write, read, and maybe re-write once, and then I'm off writing another paragraph, another essay, another book. I could give you more examples from other areas of our life, but believe me, you don't want the details.

I'm afraid of what this collaboration might do to our relationship. Good Lord, what if we actually end up liking each other and want to write more things together? What if, after writing this essay, Becky decides that I should go back to school and become a plumber? What if we talk more? It could lead to things like casual sex or meaningful conversation. I think we both like our marriage the way it is: boring, with a hint of passion every seven months or so and plenty of personal space for solitaire and reruns of I Dream of Jeannie.

No, I'm not sure about this.

And what about the money? I mean, how are we going to split the royalties? There's not much to split now, and I hate it when we haggle over $2.40. She wants to buy coffee and I want a donut. That solution would be fine, normally, but she won't let me dunk.

Last night, before we found each other in bed around 12:30 a.m., I asked her if she would like to call the whole thing off. "I don't think we were meant to write together," I said sadly. "I think I should be on my own. But it's not you . . . it's me."

"So," she said, "are you suggesting a breakup? Separate by-lines? Different agents? What?"

"We weren't meant to write together," I said. "I'm sorry. I can't do this. It's all happening too fast."

There were tears, yes . . . but in the end we agreed to make it work. And now, I'll never let her leave. I'm in too deep now . . . up to four paragraphs with the woman and she's still writing.

I can't wait for my turn.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Writing Under Contract

In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller offers an eloquent explanation of the pitfalls of writing without a contract:

. . . when you are writing without a contract, you feel as though everything you say is completely worthless (technically it is, until you get a contract).

You can write all day and still not feel that you have done anything. (Pgs 188-189)

Kudos to Mr. Miller here, as this is what I have been experiencing for the past eight months. No new contracts. No shouts from my agent telling me that a publisher has accepted one of my proposals. No book deal. No deadlines. No editor asking questions about my progress. No publicist calling to arrange interviews, book signings or speaking engagements. In short, nothing pressing my writing toward some defined end.

Still, a writer writes. And I've been writing. A great deal, actually. And because I have no contact presently, I've been writing whatever I please . . . which is not an all-together bad thing. This is a time for creating. Attempting new and daring feats with words. It is a time for me to stretch outside of my old stand-by zones and get jiggy-wid-it.

Some years ago (when I was also between contracts) a person asked me, "What do you write?"

My answer was, "Anything I want." I wasn't trying to be facetious, just truthful. I write what I want . . . especially between agreements and deadlines.

And so now, I've got time to finish another novel, a teleplay, a breviary of essays, a peck of poems, and a quiver full of new book proposals. In fact, I sent three book proposals out last week, and a novel, and a big-ol greasy pile of poems. Somewhere in that mix, I hope to pick up another contract (maybe two?).

It's time. I need to sign on the dotted line. I need commitment. I'm looking to get married to the first publisher who will say "yes" to my proposal.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Telephone Call

Last Monday I answered a very unusual phone call. The party on the other end was an older man, who promptly informed me that "he recently found my book, Candles in the Dark, and was reading it and enjoying it very much, and I just wanted to call and tell you that you've done some great work here!" (CLICK)

Yeah. Click! End of conversation.

As of today, I still don't know who called me (the caller ID indicated, it seems, a cell phone number not connected to the individual). I'd love to have some further conversation with this guy and ask the following questions:

* Did you find this book on a remainder table at Bob's Book Barn, or did you pay full retail price for it?
I actually know the answer to this one, as the book has been out of print for some time . . . Bob's Book Barn it is.

* Are you calling from a truck stop?
The answer here would narrow the field a good bit, as I know very few truckers.

* What was your mother's maiden name, and could you provide your social security number and thumb print for identification?
The answers here might help the private investigator I have hired.

* Have you ever, or are you now, serving time for a felony?
Just want to eliminate my dad from the list of suspects.

* Have you ever thrown a rock through a window?
This would be Earnest T. Bass!

* Would you be willing to send me the book so I could sign it and return it to you . . . and would you be willing to provide your name for this?
This might do it.

Gotta love a mystery caller!


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Even More Women Who Have Rejected Me

Once a writer like me begins allowing his mind to go berserk with memories of lost loves and editors, the depression really begins to set in. There have been so many . . . women, I mean. And all of them have rejected me.

Take, for example, that trio of women at John Wiley & Sons in New York who, after reviewing my follow-up book to Candles in the Dark, decided that my future was with another publisher. Publisher, Senior Editor and Editor all told me the same thing: It's not you . . . it's me!

I'd heard this before from other women: "I'm sorry, but I've just outgrown you." "I'm sorry, but well . . . I've met another writer who makes my heart skip and constricts my capillaries." "I'm sorry but you deserve someone better who can really concentrate on your mediocrity . . . I'm just too busy looking for a genius."

I'm glad my wife understands below average. She's been telling me for nearly thirty years: "You ain't much, but you do mow a mean lawn."

When I show her samples of my writing, she yawns and stuffs the manuscript under the sofa cushion. "For later," she says, "Right now I'm concentrating on important stuff like America's Got Talent, and later I'm gonna watch Man Vs. Food."

"I can be your man," I tell her. "I've got an appetite!"

"Not now, you idiot," she'll say. "Deal or No Deal is coming on."

Rejection? I wrote the dictionary definition. Now, if only I can find that manuscript I'm looking for. Wait a minute, it's under the sofa cushion.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Other Women Who Have Rejected Me

Now that I think about it, my life has actually been one long series of rejections. Setting out to write in my early twenties, I should have taken out an ad:

Wanted: various women of editorial and publishing authority willing to dominate and humble young, aspiring male writer by whipping him into submission. Looks not important. Should have resume to match the whip and chains and a willingness to state in twenty-five words or less why you are rejecting the author's work. Lord willing, you'll call today and become dungeon mistress to this idealistic young whippersnapper with a dream.

Let me tell you, I would have had takers.

Over the years I've been rejected by three male literary agents, but the most painful (and no, it wasn't a good painful, not a thumb-rack or clothespin painful!) was when Ms. M---- informed me in 2002 that, after two years, she was "letting me go" because I wasn't her type of writer and my prospects seemed limited.

Heck, I wish she would have told me how she felt much sooner. I could have informed her that my wife knew about my limited prospects way back in 1977 when my zits were in full bloom and I informed my high school classmates that I wanted to be a chiropractor with a thriving business in Farmersburg. Not even Sally S----, the class bimbo, would associate with me after that. I was the only guy who respected her for her mind in those days, and we often talked by the water fountain about literary classics and molecular physics.

No, rejection is rough on a guy like me. Especially since I put so much of myself into my work (as you can tell from this blog) and I actually think my words were meant to be read.

After thirty years of rejection, I'm just glad my wife still reads the tiny slips of paper I tape to the front of the refrigerator: We need milk! What the heck happened to the skim milk? Why haven't you read my last two notes about the freakin' milk?

She is, indeed, my first reader, my critic, my soul mate. Now, if only I could talk her into becoming my dungeon mistress, also. Believe me, sweetheart, I would feel right at home!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Women Who Have Rejected Me

I began writing for pay when I was eighteen years old. And since that time there have been many women who have rejected me. This is not surprising, since many editors are women and it is so easy for women to discover my weaknesses and hurt my feelings.

One of my earliest rejections took place when I was twenty-five years old. I was newly married and had my hands full just trying to please my first wife. This editor calls me and, in a voice that conjures up images of supermodeldom, wonders if I might be interested in writing one of the essays that will be included in an upcoming youth ministry book. Naturally, I swoon, agree to the contract and the meager pay, and set out writing my masterpiece. A few days later I send in the piece, thinking I have written an essay that will change the world. (This was before the real explosion of PCs, when writers had to send material in "over the transom" of the U.S. mail.)

Some weeks later, I receive another call from this same editor telling me that she cannot accept any of my essay as it is, and that I need to re-write it top-to-bottom, and that she needs my rewrites the next day. (What I hear is: "And you call yourself a man?" "Is this your best performance?" "If you are married, your wife must have settled for the bottom rung cause you sure can't ring my bell, honey!")
I do the rewrites in my underwear, thinking a change of scenery might inspire, but gosh darn it if this editor doesn't reject my rewrite too. She ended up writing the essay herself.

I was, to say the least, emasculated.

But I also vowed that I would make it tougher for women to reject me after that. Still, after thirty years of writing, it's still happening on a regular basis. A woman calls, I get all excited and flustered and go out and buy a nice bottle of wine and some fancy cheese bearing a name I cannot pronounce, and then she tells me, "You can't write worth a cowpie!"

My wife, of course, is no comfort. She eats the cheese and drinks my wine and tells me to "get over it." Practicality has no place in a writer's world. I love the dance too much.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I received a rather large box filled with used books. Many of these came from libraries around the country, where they had been stamped "out of circulation." Most were first editions and in pristine condition, which surprised me.

One book, John Updike's More Matter, is a massive collection of his assorted prose (his last of four such collections) and I noted last night, pasted next to the back cover, that this particular book had once been a proud member of the Houston Public Library. The old-school "check out" grid, where the librarians used to stamp a date, was still intact.

Much to my surprise, I noted that I was the first person to read this particular book, the first, likely, to open its pages. Other tell-tale signs also elicited evidence that this was a virgin book and I was giving it its maiden voyage.

Of course, generally speaking, I like new, untainted things. That's why, for example, I married Becky. She was unsoiled when I got her (or so she tells me) and I've used her sparingly throughout the years to preserve as much of the new marriage smell as possible. The last time I used her was about a year ago, when I asked her to clean out my sock drawer and locate the singles in exchange for a good-night kiss and a peek at me as I walked away in my underwear.

My children were new at one time, but their circuitry is haywire now. Of course, as a parent, I expect to see this tendency as natural wear-and-tear of the young grinding against my superior fathering skills and the perpetual "NO!"

And as preferred, I do enjoy new books. I love the smell of the binding and the gentle "crack" when I pop open the pages of a hardback that's been sitting in a New Jersey warehouse for months.

There are some things, of course, that I have never enjoyed new: like cars. All of our cars, through the years, have been as used as a fifty-five-year-old hooker. Same applies to the houses we've lived in, mostly parsonages of questionable moral fiber and sagging drywall. But I'm not complaining about these things . . . I've learned to live with them.

Now, I'd have the perfect day if I could read a great book and then convince Becky to reprise her role as virgin bride and play act our honeymoon. As I recall, nothing happened. And I got a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blue Like Jazz . . . For Writers

After reading Donald Miller's memoir-coming-of-age-reflection-spiritual-theological-whatever-you-want-to-call-it Blue Like Jazz in a single-sitting, I pushed away from the beach front wondering what in the world I had just read. The book is good-to-great at times, but Miller's "nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality" would only be deemed breakthrough spirituality by those who don't have any theological reflections to start with. Anyone in the church who has ever thought about the church would reach some of the same conclusions regarding the church. Most of Blue Like Jazz is more personal than revelatory (which has its place, I'm sure, among "non-religious folks" which was Mr. Miller's intention)--but I would use his chapter entitled "Money" as a perfect example of finding out about things I already knew and was not afraid to ask.

In his "Money" chapter Miller writes:

Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It's terrible.

Welcome to the writer's club, Mr. Miller. Anyone who has ever set out to write for money quickly discovers this reality: writers starve.

This was brought home to me through my personal experience the moment I returned from vacation, where I discovered a royalty check from Amazon.com waiting for me in my stack of mail. Now, I have been waiting for this royalty check from the Big Boy Amazon for three years--the accumulation of my various Amazon.com original downloads that the Amazon.com staff assured me was coming my way very soon.

The total: $2.40. That's right boys-n-girls . . . not $2,400 or $240 or even $24. That's two (POINT) four, zero.

There are various ways to analyze this windfall, of course. But if I were to break this down, I've earned less than $1 a year . . . A YEAR!!!! . . . from selling my digital originals on Amazon.com. Or, if I were to break this down by month, that's six cents per month!!!

And Mr. Miller thought he was going to make money writing his book? Join the breadline of writers Mr. Miller. Sort of makes you feel blue all over doesn't it?!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mouse Tale

I also read The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, on the beach last week. This Newberry award-winning (children's, fairy, morality?) tale was a quick read at 264 pages, but it certainly had many adult themes thrown into the mix . . . that, and a lot of rats and mice.

I hear they also made this book into an animated movie, which makes sense. It's tough to find a mouse that can act . . . I mean, really act. Most mice get typecast very quickly these days and end up with small, insignificant roles. Oh sure, a few break out and get leads in high-pitched Broadway musicals, but for the most part, their voices don't carry well to the big screen. That's why most mice end up committing suicide in traps . . . they just can't catch a break and end up living under the sink or something. What a life! Hollywood should really do something about this stigma and try to break it. Actually, it's discrimination.

In fact, I'm so pissed right now, I'm calling a producer. Is Matthew Broderick still in New York?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mona Lisa

I have returned from six days of R & R in Muskegan, Michigan where, each day our family hiked 4-6 miles of beach and brought along enough books to start another Muskegan public library. My first day on the water, I read Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa, by R.A. Scott. It's the story of the 1911 theft of the famous painting from the Louvre and the three years the French searched worldwide for the painting before it turned up in Italy.

Originally, one of the prime suspects in the theft was Pablo Picasso (who was young and innocent at the time). For centuries now, La Joconda (the French name for the painting) has dazzled visitors and been the cause of many people going insane with love or jealousy or desire to covet the woman in the painting.

Not me, though. I was happy with the book and the cover photo of La Joconda because I carry photos of Becky in my wallet. I've always got her pressed against my buns and I kept doing push ups and sits ups on the beach to impress her. (She wasn't, of course.) Becky just looks at me like the woman in the painting, with a wry smile that says, "You may be getting a tan and trying to look buff, but you're just an old man with gray chest hair and a tattered pair of bathing trunks that were worn by your father in the 1940s. There's nothing on this beach but sand and if you touch me I'll break your cheeks!"

How much a vacation look says! But hey, I wonder if anyone has the address of that Mona Lisa chick? Is Picasso dead? From the glint in La Joconda's eyes, she seems like a real sport. Maybe I'll write her . . . care of the Louvre.