Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back Talk

For the past three months I've experienced a dearth of topics for this blog.  During a time in which I've written dozens of essays and book reviews and more, I seem to have reached my creative limit for blogging . . . as I've created, now, nearly 1500 of these blog posts for "Between Pages" since 2007.

I'm certainly not "written out", but I may be "blogged out."

Unless . . .

You have a topic, a question, a comment, a dream, or even if you just need a forum for bitching . . . .

So, your ideas may be essential for keeping this blog going into a seventh year.  Anything you want me to chat about?

~Todd Outcalt, your friendly neighborhood mid-list writer

Monday, July 29, 2013

From the Mailbag

This past week I received several pieces of fan mail.  A couple actual letters, an email, and a few notes (and comments) offered up face-to-face.  Fan mail runs like this sometimes . . .

However, in the interest of time, I thought I would try to respond to a few of these fans here, so that others wouldn't feel the need to waste a postage stamp on me.  I have a feeling that many of my fans have the same ideas about my writing and so it might be helpful to just get things out in the open here.

Letter # 1You seem to have an ability to write about most anything and you even make me laugh.  How do you combine insights with humor?

Well, I'm not sure I can actually do two things at once.  When I was ten, for example, I attempted to cure a bad cold by chewing a tablet of aspergum while giving myself a suppository.  But the mixup was astounding and I ended up (sorry for the pun) with a refreshing spearmint sensation every time I took a step. Soon after, my lips went numb.

As for combining insights with humor, I'm not sure I was trying to be funny.  Perhaps you are laughing at the wrong jokes.  

Letter #2:  You have a unique voice in your poetry.  How would you describe it?

Over the years I have attempted to refine my voice by singing in the shower.  This is also where I write my poems--usually on bars of soap, or by etching words in the soap scum with my fingernails.

I also inhale helium from time to time, which gives my voice a falsetto lilt.  Using this falsetto voice, which my wife has described as Michael-Jackson-like in quality and creativity, I often recite my poetry while speaking into a rapidly rotating fan blade.  This provides an echo and confuses the hell out of my wife, as she cannot tell if I am upstairs in the bedroom or downstairs in the garage sitting on the lawnmower in my underwear.  She often comes running out of the house screaming.  But really, you've got to be here to appreciate it.

Letter # 3:  When you are travelling to other cities to do research for your writing or when you are being whined and dined by publishers, can you write any of your expenses off?

Absolutely.  Some of these expenses also include black licorice, which I eat by the pounds while I write and, of course, any shower caps that I might purchase in the hotel gift shop (if they don't come complimentary along with toilet paper and those tiny bottles of shampoo).  I also write off all expenses associated with my son, who eats upwards of ninety-seven hamburgers a day and four bags of green apples.  Any costs associated with my sex life are also a given--as my wife frequently travels with me and must--and I repeat MUST--have a full spa treatment before anything happens.  Oh, and if I still had a dog I'd write it off, too.  Canines are essential for writing dog stories, and I haven't written a single dog scoop since our pug was eaten by coyotes.  

Letter # 4:  What are you currently working on?  

Work?  Let's not get obscene.  (Not unless you want to tell my wife how to do it.)

I'm actually working on several new projects, including a book that I hope will be published on sheepskin.  I also hope to write a book about pirates so that I can, at last, use the word "swashbuckler" in a sentence.  I've always wanted an opportunity to use this word profusely, and the only way to make that happen is to write a book with lots of swordplay.  So you can see why a book on pirates is essential to my literary career.  Otherwise, I'll have to settle for writing a book about the Amish, but I'm not keen on using the word "buggy".  I have other favorite words, and "swashbuckler" is one of them.  I love to swashbuckle.  And I'd love to write a very thick, fully-illustrated book about swashbucklers.

But listen, I'm writing other stuff, too.  I'm considering an article about paint:  how it dries, how to watch it dry, how to make sure it's drying.  I'm also hoping to write an article about antique fishing lures.  This is not a joke.  I'm hoping to hook an editor with this idea.  It's the kind of article I could really sink my teeth into.  I'm writing a plug for it.  Gonna toss it out there, see if anyone bites.  But most of the editors, to date, have told me they find this subject hard to swallow. 


Friday, July 26, 2013

The Re-Invention of the Book

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Barnes & Noble, the last remaining retail giant of the book biz, was profiled.  It seems that The Nook, which Barnes & Noble brought out to counter and compete with Amazon's Kindle, is actually a losing proposition.  In short, few people are buying The Nook, or even buying into The Nook as an option for reading books.  Rather, Barnes & Noble is losing money on The Nook but actually turning a tidy profit in paper book sales.

What does this mean for the future of actual (traditional) paper-bound books?

Well, according to the article, devices like the Kindle and The Nook have actually increased sales of digital books, but for the most part, these digital offerings are centered on what one would have classified ten years ago as "mass market paperbacks".  In other words, people use these devices to read quick, low-cost, or what some might consider genre (mystery, romance, etc.) titles. 

But when people venture into a Barnes & Noble store, they walk out with a bound book.  And most of what Barnes & Noble (and yes, even Amazon) is selling is still cloth-bound, or paper-bound books. 

The fact is, the publishing industry and books as a whole are being re-invented.  I've seen this myself from the vantage point of the writer.  Five years ago publishers were shutting down, turning off the spigot, but have since realized that the traditional book is, even yet, the most sought-after, most read product they have to offer. Naturally there is growing presence of the digital book, too--and rightfully so.  But books aren't going away, and as a product that people want to hold and to purchase, the traditional book still holds a deeper appeal and, in many respects, is far more user-friendly than the Kindle or Nook counterparts.

These days, most every book is published as both print and digital (or with digital following soon after the print version).  But it's a wonderful affirmation for most writers to see that there are still readers who want to hold a book, and who would, in fact, prefer print to digital. 

I use both.  I have both.  I appreciate the two presentations of reading material.  But I know as long as I'm alive I'll be reading, for the most part, a book that I can hold in my hand and turn page by page, underline, or otherwise destroy with my grubby paws. 

I appreciate the fact that traditional books aren't going away any time soon.  Makes me want to collect more first-editions . . . and you can't find those on any Kindle.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Editors

Sooner or later a writer feels that he comes to know the editors he is working with . . . even if he has never met face-to-face.  These people, these editors who delve into the idiosyncrasies of a writer's work are also, in a sense, digging into his psyche.  The best relationships between writer and editor are those where, in a type of symbiotic dance, both writer and editor reach a mutual understanding, come to a meeting-of-the-minds. 

Often, the only discourse that flows between are comments (no longer made in red pencil on paper, which was the old way) . . . comments like:  Do you mean to say this? or What was your intention here? or What'say we throw out this comma? or I need two more pages by tomorrow morning!

Now days these editorial considerations are completed in massive Word documents with commentary boxes designed for editors, or PDF files, or sometimes through ongoing email conversations or the occasional phone call where, in essence, an editor calls just to say, I love you and I need your final draft by next Wednesday.

Over the long pull of nearly forty years of word play, I've generally loved all of my editors.  There have, by now, been hundreds of them.  I've sent gifts.  I've counseled them.  They have counseled me.  I've celebrated with them.  Despaired, as well.  I've heard their curses.  Cursed back. 

I have also rejoiced with editors when they have received word of a promotion. And I've lamented my loss when they have called to tell me they were moving to another publishing house, or taking a new position, or otherwise abandoning their relationship with me or my work.

Yesterday, sitting on the back deck at sunset with my wife, I noted that I had had no less than five conversations with editors that day . . . and dozens over the course of the week.  My editorial conversations these days range from Boston, to New York, to Nashville, to Denver, to back home in Indiana.  At times the names and the naming criss-cross like a swarm of gnats and I find myself batting at confusion, as if I am attempting to complete a crossword puzzle in my head while simultaneously creating new ones.

But this is my love.

Yes, I like my editors.  I have to.  Anyone willing to read, say, a 1500 word article on charter fishing, or a book review, or especially a book manuscript complete with my illustrations deserves a medal.  I can scarcely stand to read my work twice, much less comment on it, and once I write a book or an article it's safe to say that it takes on the ambiance of the other.  In a sense, it exists outside of me, and is no longer mine.  The book, in its final form, belongs to the editor, too. 

And I thank them.  Every one.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Red Eye

I feel as though I am developing a serious bought of red eye. The reason?  After reading so many books to review, and now proof-reading another galley book manuscript, the eyes get a bit weary.  Thousands of words have a tendency to run together and in short time the brain begins to grow numb.

My wife, of course, accuses me of having a numb brain all the time.  I haven't the heart to tell her that it is associated with all of the words.  I'll let her have her fun thinking I am a numbskull.

Oddly enough, after a recent vision check-up, I learned that my distance vision has vastly improved since my last exam.  In fact, the optometrist noted I could probably pass my driver's exam without glasses . . . something I have not been able to do for at least two decades.  I'm not 20-20, but getting closer.

My reading-distance vision, however, is getting worse.  I attribute this to my reading and writing hours, and to the fact that I no longer have the ability to check food labels and have, in recent weeks, taken to eating cans of dog food.  The stuff isn't bad, especially with the gravy warmed, and I'm sure the protein content is greater than, say, a can of SPAM (which is 50% sodium). 

I wonder . . . could I write an article about living on dog food?  Surely there's an audience out there somewhere for this style of journalism. 

Until then . . . bon appetite.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Whip It

Following our recent vacation in Michigan I discovered some ideas that I am now whipping into essays.  Even while lounging on the beach or watching fireworks, I was steadily working these concepts into useable presentations. 

Becky had issued an ultimatum that I was to do no writing on this vacation, and I obliged . . . but now that it's over, the vacation ideas are crawling back in.

I've already had one outdoor & recreational magazine give me the nod for one of these pieces, and I expect more.

In fact, I have so many deadlines to meet that this blog has taken something of a back seat of late.  I have to whip these other ideas into submission. 

But don't worry.  I'll be back to blogging more regularly very soon.   

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Cover

Working with a publisher to create a book cover is a fascinating process . . . especially when, as the author, I have some creative license.  Not that I need a license.  I operate lots of heavy machinery, and a wife, without one . . . but when it comes to book covers license is a marvelous thing.

I have ideas for book covers actually, but I'm running out of dedications.  I could dedicate another book to Becky, but I've done her already, and she's probably getting tired of seeing her name bantered around inside the copyright page.  I could do my kids . . . but since I've done them, too, and they are now old enough to know better, I'm not sure their association with their father would be a boon to their careers.  And as for my parents and in-laws, they are getting too old to read (or even to care about reading) and thus I just don't see the point of wasting a page.

I've spun through my wash cycle of dedications, but book covers are another story.  I could use a photo, or a painting, or work up a simple but elegant computer-generated color scheme.  Or I could give all of the creative energy back to the publisher (which I usually do).

But for some reason, I'd like to have a hand in creating one book cover.  I'd like to be able to say:  See that cover there?  The one with the clown face?  Well, I designed that and ain't it a beauty?

I also hope to enlarge my name on the cover.  Like Stephen King.  Or Dan Brown.  Notice how their names outshine the titles of their books?  Or do you notice things like this?  I'm surprised some authors don't insist that the book title appear on the back cover only . . . with their names plastered on the front. 

Maybe that's my angle.  Not sure.

Soon and very soon I'm going to create a book cover, though.  I nice one.  I'm going to insist on it.  I'll put my foot down.

Probably in a pile of manure . . . which gives me another idea . . . .


Friday, July 12, 2013

Foot Traffic

Due to a kitchen renovation, which has now blossomed into an entire-house fix-up loaded with scaffolding, wet saws, trowels, dry wall hammers, and the constant roar of power tools, I have usually had to write from various vantage points and locations inside.  This is more difficult than I imagined, but this displacement has offered certain bonuses, too.

For example, I've written in the bathroom as well as the closet.  I've had to find time in the basement late at night (amid piles of boxes and stacked furniture) and also in the office in the wee hours of the morning (stuffed inside a ladder and enormous stacks of displaced books).  Perspective changes here, as does the pace and the comfort of the work.

Amazingly enough, despite these weeks of incessant hammering, vibrating walls, and the ever-present voices of contractors, plumbers, electricians, and delivery services, I've managed to produce under pressure and the ever-present reality of deadlines.

While on vacation last week I snapped some decent photos that I hope to use in some travel pieces, and late at night I've been writing articles on subjects ranging from charter boat fishing, to wine tasting, to the history of fishing lures.  Somewhere inside of me there is also a series of articles about enduring a home renovation.

My final option for retreat is usually the car.  But first I have to choose which jalopy I'm going to sit in . . . and this has commonly included my son's 1993 Chevy 4X4 pick-up with no air or radio. 

Writing outside, even at night, breaks me into a cold sweat.  But sometimes the moonrise is beautiful.  And it's an amazing thing to consider living in an automobile just to have the experience of such a simple existence.  No fridge.  No microwave.  No table.  No available entertainment or eating utensils. 

Just like inside the house with all of the foot traffic. 

Perhaps writing an article about slugs would put it all in perspective? 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Crash Course in Deadlines

It was just one week.  One week.  A mere seven days weaned from the civilization of computers, television, emails, voice-mails, and decent cellular reception.  I loved every minute of it and, believe me, I could make a life as a Luddite writer working with pen and paper in a dimly lit cave. 

When the vacation was over I did, of course, return to a computer filled-to-the-brim with emails . . . most of which were "junk" but which also included a surprising number from publishers (4), from editors (2) and even a PDF contractual agreement for six magazine articles that I have since signed, mailed, and will celebrate in the form of cold, hard cash . . . which is just as good as money usually. 

One email, from my Perigee (Penguin) publisher informed me that this huge publishing conglomerate has been purchased/merged with Random House, the latter being the largest publisher in the world, and now made larger yet.  So, I'll soon be a part of the Random House family of writers, for what it's worth.

And another email informed me that I now have two weeks to re-write, proof, and edit a galley-proof of a book manuscript that needs to be sent, pronto!, to a major reviewer before a July 22 deadline.

I'm not complaining . . . I'll stay up all night if I have to (and probably will).  This type of duress actually hardens my arteries, casts my back in concrete, and sharpens my mind.  Or, at least, that's what I tell myself when these things happen.  

So . . . welcome home.  I'm getting a crash course in deadlines.  There is work to be done.  Coffee to be brewed.  Cashews to eat.  And sunrises to greet on the road to the final galley.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Big Gulp

In the past decade science writer Mary Roach has made a name for herself with her quirky best-selling books about life and death (Spook), sex (Bonk) and now this fun and rollicking read about the alimentary canal, Gulp . . .which takes us on an excursion beginning with the tongue and ending with the anus.  Yes, there's no delicate way to describe the human process of eating and what scientists are discovering about the food we eat, what happens to it after we eat it, and how we eliminate what we don't use.

But Gulp is a fun read--a book that I stowed on my beach vacation last week and read in a single sitting under a blazing afternoon sun and a quiet red sunset over the waters of lake Michigan.  Reading Gulp made me want to eat something so I could test the theories set forth about digestion, flatulence, and regularity.  (See, nothing delicate about these subjects!)

What makes Mary Roach's books so fascinating is her research.  Where does she find these people and these programs?  How did she know where to find the world's preeminent fart expert, for example, and how did she know that some of the best research on testicles is being conducted at, get this, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana? 

If you find any of these matters even remotely interesting (from a scientific perspective, of course . . . not as a means to impress and astound your friends over dinner conversation) then you'll love reading Gulp.  The book begins with the most up-to-date information about human saliva (what it is, how it works, why we have it) and ends with the most recent medical advancements in the area of fecal transplant.  You think I'm joking, but turd transplants are catching on as a means of healing a great many colon-related diseases and some doctors are laughing all the way to the bank.

After reading Gulp I attempted to describe my new-found appreciation for all things alimentary, but my wife and daughter were not impressed.  They were watching a beautiful Michigan sunset and did not want hear about how Beano works or how to soften a stool. 

I don't get this total lack of scientific respect from my family, especially since my wife is a science teacher and my daughter sometimes uses the word "colonoscopy" . . . but then, I do have a tendency to discuss the books I'm reading.  Lord knows they never want to hear about the books I'm writing. 

But that's another story . . . and i find it really hard to swallow.