Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Last week I received an invitation from an editor, an open door to submit material to her magazine.  I enjoy invitations like this . . . and always feel a sense of obligation not to blow it.  Lord knows I've blown a lot of other invitations through the years.

My wife, for example, has invited me to cook meals on numerous occasions.  In fact, I'm right now the primary "chef" in our house.  But there have been many times when I've let her down.  I've burned some meals beyond recognition, over-seasoned others, attempted to create my own recipes from scratch . . . and not usually with good outcome.

In the past six years, I've also been invited to speak in numerous churches, at special events, and at other venues.  But with one or two exceptions, I've turned down all of these speaking engagements citing, usually, exhaustion or rickets as the primary reason for my invitational decline.  Quite frankly, I could write sermons or speeches until the cows come home, but when it comes to giving a keynote address at an insecticide convention, I usually pass.  I'd rather write an essay entitled, "The Life and Times of the Dung Beetle", or whip out a magazine article for Women's Day or Redbook entitled, "Twenty-five Sexy Moves He Doesn't Know About and If You Tried 'Em on Him He'd Dislocate a Hip."

Still, I love invitations.  I wish more editors would write.  I wish they would send me long, flowing e-mails like:

Dear Mr. Alleycat,
I recently read your article on the Indiana Beaver and wish you would write something for Missouri, the Show-Me State.  There's a lot of things you could show us out here.  For example, you could write a 1000-word piece about your varied experiences at the top of the St. Louis arch, especially the last time when you puked on the way down riding in that tiny elevator.  Our readers love vomit stories and we hear you have some doozies.  Whatdaya think?
Signed . . . an admiring editor.


Dear Mr. Allleycat,
I'm eager to bring you on board and pay you a huge sum of money to write a feature story on electro-shock therapy.  We've had trouble locating a writer who would subject himself to this therapy in the interest of science, but we hear your brain is already fried.  Perhaps you wouldn't mind?  And you could spend the money on a decent mousse to make your hair lay flat.  Give me a jingle if you are interested.
Signed . . . (anonymous)

Yes, I'd love to receive more invitations like these.  But I have a feeling I'm not in that high of demand.  My wife won't let me leave the house anyway.  I've got to get back to the microwave before those TV dinners burn. 


Monday, February 25, 2013

Coughing Up Words

For the past three weeks I've had a hacking cough.  I can't seem to shake it.  I've tried allergy medication, cold medication, home remedies, soft drinks and hard liquor.  I've tried starving it, feeding it, supressing it, and letting it rip.  I've subsisted on hot tea, coffee, water, and anything that will give me relief from that scratchy feeling.  And I've also tried prayer and fasting.  It is, after all, Lent.

But for the past three nights I've awakened at 1 a.m., unable to stop coughing.  The only activity that gives me relief is writing.

And so, that's what I do.  I sit.  I cough.  I write.  In the dark.  Alone. 

Amazing how the mind works on scant sleep.  I imagine all sorts of scenarios and visions.  I've written poems, essays, papers, features.  I've written chapters and cover letters.  I've written book reviews and columns.

In the morning, usually after falling asleep on the couch with spittle running down my cheeks . . . I don't recall a thing. 

I'm always amazed, the next day, to discover my latest files.  I wonder:  "How did I write that?", "What was I thinking?" or "Must have been the medication (or lack of it)."

All in all, this nagging cough is increasing my production.  Some nights, I've written all night long or until the break of day.

Still, I don't get no satisfaction.  But that's a song, isn't it?

Friday, February 22, 2013

It's a Mystery to Me

Every year I obtain a copy The Best American Mystery Stories.  I've done this since the series' inception some twenty years ago . . . and by now my shelves are filled with the spines of these books.  I'm now having to stack them in closets.  (My wife suggests I sell them at Half-Price Books, which is anathema.)

Over the years I've had a few published stories that were submitted by their respective editors for this anthology (my stories entitled "Bag of Tricks", "Peeping Tom", and "The Palm Reader" being examples).  But alas, none have garnered even an honorable mention . . . so I'll have to keep improving, and creating better plots and characters.

I do have a spate of new stories floating around in the ozone currently--at least a dozen--and most of these might be loosely categorized as mystery or crime fiction.  It seems I always find a home for 3-4 of these stories a year, so I anticipate hearing from some editors very soon before the door closes on 2013.

Mysteries are fun to write and I often stay up late to create them. 

I'm just getting started on a few others, in fact . . . and I like the titles and concepts for these two that I'm working on:

"The Deltiologist" --about a guy who collects post cards and becomes involved in a murder investigation.

"Prayer Line"  --an older woman becomes involved in a prayer ministry hotline, only to discover that she may have information about a serial killer.

Sometimes, writing mysteries keeps me up nights.  I love a full moon when I write these, and owls hooting outside the window.  And if the wind is blowing just right or the thunder is cracking, it's a bonus.  I may not go to bed until morning.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Status Update

I note that people are often changing their "status".  This is, of course, just another way of saying:  My life was boring yesterday, but I've made some significant changes, and today my life is fresh and exciting . . . I can hardly wait to get at it.

Toward that end, I want all of my friends to know that I've updated my status.  I'm sure no one wants to be left out of the loop, so I'm sending my new updated status to everyone . . . family, friends, neighbors, and to Myron--the guy who washed my windshield on the corner of Massachusetts and Alabama and asked, "How are you doing?"

Please be aware, however, that my status may change again tomorrow.  I'm just funny that way.  I never want to sit pat on my old status.  I like to keep things fresh and exciting.  But at this moment in time, here's my new status:

Todd is still married to Becky (although she has hinted recently that she is growing dissatisfied with his cooking, as his recipes lean heavily upon post-expiration-date cottage cheese and brown bananas).  Todd recently visited his son at Vincennes University and gave him two cans of Lima beans and a package of beef jerky.  In addition to these changes, Todd most recently:
* Ate a package of black licorice
* Realized he should not have eaten an entire package of black licorice
* Bought more black licorice
* Purchased a box of Musinex
* Told an editor he had cramps and couldn't write for 24 hours
* Gave his wife roses and poems for Valentine's Day (and felt this was more than adequate)
* Purchased a box of used books
* Shaved
* Updated his status

Thank you for noting these updates.  I hope some of them will last more than 24-hours.  My wife has remained commited since my last status update, and I still have a can of Lima beans from 1979, but beyond that . . . .

Look for new updates tomorrow.  I anticipate that I will be:
* Not dying of scurvy in the night
* Getting out of bed
* Completing a workout at the gym while the rest of America sleeps
* Writing an article about beautiful women (and the ugly men who love them)
* Shaving

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Short Stuff

Without doubt, one of the apparent changes in publishing in recent years has been the push toward brevity.  There are many reasons for this.  First, people generally have much shorter attention spans than previous generations.  Our minds are accustomed to processing emails, tweets, and 22-minute TV sit-coms. Most people can no longer hold court in the protracted processes of thought.  Publishers know this.

Likewise, in the crush of time, people feel that they no longer have time.  The average American reads less than one book per year (on Kindle or otherwise) and any piece of writing that takes longer than ten minutes to read is often viewed as bothersome.

Toward that end, I've noted that many journals and magazines have strong tendencies toward brevity.  Write fast.  Write few.  Write well.  This seems to be the motto.

But writing brief is difficult.  Like a poem, the fewer words one has to work with, the more essential every word becomes.  Every comma counts.

Last week I did submit several "stories" to a publication calling for 100-words only.  Yeah . . . 100 words.  Listen, you start out to write a story with only 100 words, it had better be good.  There has to be a story.  There has to be a plot.  Great characters.  And at 100 words, it had better move along at a crisp pace.

I wrote two of those suckers.  Good ones.  Both with "surprise endings". 

I can appreciate brief (and briefs).  But these stories made me feel like I wasn't wearing any underwear.  When you take only 100 words to work (no more, no less) you really feel vulnerable.      

Friday, February 15, 2013


It is one of the most intriguing books I've read in the past five years:  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.

Naturally, I took the "introverts" test . . . and learned that, indeed, I have strong introvert tendencies.  Some of these include: a propensity toward considering all options before acting; processing information in solitude; a strong bent toward reading; an affinity with and preference for writing; the ability to sit for long stretches in silence and create from scratch. 

About 1/3 to 1/2 of the human population fits into the "introvert" category according to Cain . . . and her study here includes many insights about the unique tools and strengths that introverts bring to bear on the history of creativity, new invention, and paradigm shifts.

Interesting stuff in Quiet

Naturally, I wanted to see if my wife was an introvert, too . . . so I made her take the test.  She tested as high as I did on the introvert scale . . . which explains why we are able (even as I write this!) to sit alone at home, side-by-side for hours, and never speak a word.  We have no TV.  No radio.  Only our books, our writing implements, and our hours of strung-out-existence in complete quiet and solitude.  She doesn't look at me.  I don't look at her.  We communicate through sounds like Hmmfffggg (which means: "get your butt off the couch and bring me an orange!") or Grbiglel (which means: "I've got the hots for you and want to feel you up after I eat this orange!").

Why, even last week, our introverted tendencies led us to new heights in communication.

Me:  Ygelgemish  ("Did you turn the thermostat down?  It's cold as a brass monkey's elbow in here!")

Her: Nbbgrplck ("Don't you understand anything about menopause?")

Me:  Mvywoklunk ("Try using a vowel once in a while, will 'ya?")

Her:  Yooouuiieeeaaa ("There, I used 'em all, and even threw in a y, which can be a vowel also!")  

Me:  Vanavanafufana ("Who do you think I am, Vanna White?")

Her:  Wigglepoop ("Oh, go back to your little blog!  Write another book chapter, see if I care!")

Me:  gggdddnt ("Goodnight")

Her:  lllvu ("Love you") 

As you can see, introverts have highly-tuned communication frequencies and most introverts can turn out 2000-words or more a night when they are not freezing their nuts off.  And having a space heater really helps, too. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I'm not much on Valentine's day, but I am a romantic.  I will be purchasing a dozen roses and preparing a dinner at home (pick a can). However, in lieu of premade cards, I always give my wife a sheaf of my most recent love poems.  She will have several forthcoming tonight.

In case you other romantics out there need a poem to spark some romance, here's one I wrote more than 3 years ago . . . an oldie, but a goodie.

Happy Valentine's Day.

We Shall Be Old Some Day

We shall be old some day when the children are grown,
When the house is cold, the attic spare . . .
And then I will see you everywhere.

We shall be old some day with a pension plan,
Our passions quenched by a coffee thirst . . .
And I will love you as at the first.

We shall be old some day when the evening is dark,
When our teeth are false, our opinions honest . . .
And I will love you as I promised.

We shall be old some day with our photos faded,
The mortgage paid, our work at end . . .
And then we shall be young again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Back to England

I've never been to England.  Never watched Dr. Who.  But early Sunday morning I was there, talking to a British editor who wants to publish one of my science fiction stories.  This one is about a team of scientists in deep space who are forced to contain a fire inside their ship.  At last, in an attempt to save the crew, they turn to the little red box on the wall which reads:   In Case of Emergency Break Glass.  They do.  And they get more than they bargained for.

Well . . . thanks again, Adam. 

The wonderful thing about writing science fiction is, truly, that there are no boundaries for the imagination.  True, the story must hold together scientifically and have some humanity infused into it, but beyond that . . . the story can unfold in any number of ways.  Once the world has been created, a writer just has to live inside of it for awhile and see what develops.  Sometimes, the writer is surprised at the discoveries, too.

That's how I felt writing In Case of Emergency . . . I was surprised by how this one turned out.  And I know the same applies to that crew that I left stranded in deep space.  They'll be coming home by a different route.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Violin Music to My Ears

Saturday afternoon I received word that my short story, "Steiner the Violinist" will be published this fall.  (Thanks for the kind words, Don.)  There's a great deal of emotion in this acceptance, as Steiner is a story I have worked on for over 15 years . . . so let this be a lesson to you boys n' girls.  Never give up.  Keep working.  Keep improving.

In my estimation, Steiner is one of my best short stories . . . the tale of a Jewish violinist who must make time in a butcher shop to support his family.  It's melancholy, harrowing, soulful.  Well . . . I like it.  I hope others will, too.

Odd thing now . . . I have enough published science fiction stories to form a collection.  But I also have enough literary or mainstream stories for a nice little book, too.  These two give me something to think about, and to work on, in the coming months.  And I'm closing in on a collection of mystery stories as well.

I'm always grateful when my stories find a home, and I look forward to buying a robust supply of this magazine when it is finally published. 

Funny thing, too.  I don't play the violin.  But I can hear the music.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Problem With Contracts

This week I had cause to dig into my filing cabinet to locate a book contract.  What I discovered was a jumbled assortment, essentially an entire drawer filled with contracts of every description:  for books, articles, series, columns, even poems.  But, since a contract is something they say a writer should never throw away, I've kept all of these . . . and they are mounting.

A few discoveries made along the way, however.

I did take note of three books that I wrote back in the environs of 1995.  I had contracted to write one of the books--essentially ghosting, with my name not appearing anywhere on the cover or inside the masthead--when the editor called me back a few weeks later and said that two other writers had pulled out at the last minute and . . . get this . . . I could write the other two books if I was up to it.  I was up to it.  I signed all three contracts, whipped out the entire trilogy in less than six months, and received three "lump sum" checks for my labors.

I have never counted these three books among my tally, however, as I arrived at a rule many years ago: If my name ain't on the cover (even if I wrote every word) it ain't my book.  I decided that my work could only be my work if I was listed as the author--same for articles and essay contributions to anthologies.  I don't count 'em if I'm incognito.  (But I'll still take the money!  I'm not above prostituting myself for cash.) 

Another fun contract I located was with Bride's magazine (actually two of 'em). Bride's is one of the staples of Conde Nast Corporation--New York publishers of eclectic and upper-crust tastes (think The Devil Wears Prada).  I'm not sure how I managed to write for Bride's, since I ain't upper-crust . . . I'm barely crust . . . but I wrote an article on pre-marital stress.  (My wife asked me:  what do you know about pre-marital stress?  I told her:  nothing!  I only know about post-marital stress.  But I figure, for a woman, it's the same thing.)

Well, as you can see, my contract history is quite expansive and elusive.  I don't read 'em . . . I just sign 'em.  The way I figure it:  the sooner I can get my signature on a line, the sooner I can get to the writing itself.  And a $10 check never hurt anyone.  In fact, if I keep working this hard at the craft, some day I'll be making upwards of .5 cents a word! 

Some day, I'm gonna buy myself a pencil. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013


For the past three months I've been attempting to collect and collate my backwash of published fiction--namely the short stories that would fall loosely into the genre of mystery or crime or thriller category.  I have quite a few of these puppies roaming around on my floppy disks, in the piles of magazines in my closet, or tearsheets stuffed into filing folders.

I did make one discovery this past week:  a short story that was published many years back in a mystery anthology.  Funny, how I forget these things so easily now-a-days.  But I really liked this one and can't believe I had forgotten about this old friend.

The title of the story was "Peeping Tom" . . . and like the title suggests, it begins with a guy who gets his thrills from peeping in his neighbors' windows.  Obviously, the guy sees more than he bargained for when he witnesses a murder (or thinks he does).  Creepy . . . but that's what makes for a good murder mystery I think. 

I didn't take the time to re-read this story, but if memory serves, it does have a twist ending to it.

Once I get these stories collected, I'm not sure what I can do with them.  Short story collections are a tough sell these days--indeed, one of the toughest of all. But there was a time when I was cranking out one of these babies every month.  Becky used to ask me: "What are you planning on doing with all of those?  Why do you waste your time?"

But is time ever wasted on a thriller?  Somebody out there has to put the creep in creepy.     


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Taking to the Water

Sunday evening, during the Super Bowl, I whipped out several short pieces of writing, including a 1000 word essay about kayaking.  Based on the invitation from an editor at an outdoor magazine, I think I'll find a home for this one.

I hope so.

So . . . when I pitched my kayak article I also pitched two others.  A writer has to think ahead.  An editor wants one piece, but perhaps he'll buy two more.  We'll see.

At any rate, it was an odd juxtaposition--writing about water and paddling while guys were tossing and kicking footballs in a dimly-lit stadium.  But sometimes ideas come from change of scenery, relocation, thinking outside the box.  One doesn't always have to move to France to find this kind of inspiration.

I've been trying to put together a short list of other subject matter I plan to write about soon.  Included here:

Kitchen Renovations
Another Beaver article
Haikus about Goober Pyle
A Poem on the Painting: The Starry Night

I'm not sure what I'll be writing about tonight . . . but something. Certainly not the Super Bowl.  I've read too much of that already. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

A Month of Stories

I enjoyed reading George Saunders's:  Tenth of December.  This collection of stories, most notably published in The New Yorker, Harper's, and McSweeney's, is indicative of the author's trademark style and humor.  Most of these stories would border on the raucous--wildly ridiculous scenarios and characters the Saunders manages to navigate with depth and panache. 

I like Saunders because few people have heard of him, yet he's still managed to carry off his writing principally as a short-story writer:  a most difficult achievement in this day and age.  Kudos.

Saunders collection offers promise to those who are trying to establish their own stories in literary journals and smaller magazines.  There is still a market--though be it a small one--and yet there will always be a remnant of readers.

I'll shelve this volume along with many other short story collections in my library, and time will tell how it stacks up against the classics.  But the fact that this collection is on the best-seller lists makes a statement.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Contracts & Titles & Tears . . . Oh, My!

This past week included an amazing adventure:  I had a two-hour conversation with a publisher.  I say it was amazing because this is by far the longest conversation I have ever had in 40-years of writing about writing.  I was in my element, in my world . . . and it was an incredible experience formulating titles, discussing marketing plans, working through the intricacies of contractual agreement, determining deadlines and "rollout" dates and catalogue copy. 

Later, at home, I wept over the awesomness of it. 

I know most people won't get it . . . but to a writer--or at least someone like me who has been writing with determination, focus, and hard-headed resolve since he was twelve years old--a conversation about publishing with someone who knows publishing and understands this world is a rare gift.

I've never been part of a writers group (I would rather write than talk about writing).  I've never joined a writer's club or read magazines about writing (I've always learned the hard way . . . by writing until my fingers turned blue).  And I have few--if any--people who read my work prior to publication (what's my wife gonna do?  How's she gonna help me write it?).

But when I can talk to the people who know this biz . . . really understand it . . . Lord-a-mercy it's an awesome experience.  And when a publisher recognizes that I know the biz, too--that's even better.  There's a bond.  It's like recognizing the secret handshake and being ushered into Zanadu.  

And so we talked . . . profit margins, royalty rates, hardback vs. trade/digital, titles, subtitles, connotative meaning, advertising, direct mail, etc. etc. etc.

I'm still overcome by the thought of it.