Saturday, October 25, 2014


Coming December 2014!
This has been some week and a half. At my school, where I love my kids so much, I saw the aftermath of a fight (less a fight, really, than a senseless beating) and injured myself breaking up another. Every day I hear stories of other fights throughout the school. It's getting to the point where I dread walking the halls for fear of what I'll come across around the next corner. When you add to that just how debased the children seem to have become, from little freshman girls using language that would make a trucker blush to the "good" kids doing dances that could only be described as sex with some clothes on, and I ended a tweet this week with #iwanttobeawriternotateacher.

I never thought I'd say it, but I really am losing the joy of teaching and am finding the idea of writing full-time more attractive every day. And yet, teaching pays so well, at least compared to the unsure future of writing, and I really am good at it. I like to think I make a positive impact on my students, though I become less convinced every year that my example and words have an appreciable impact.

The idea of retiring early and jumping into a writing career with both feet sounds great, but I simply don't have that option. I have financial obligations that won't go away simply because I haven't sold any books this week. If I only had to consider myself, the life of a starving writer would be fine. But I don't only have myself to consider. There's another person in my life who depends on my income and, even though we aren't together anymore, my obligation to help her live and pay her bills doesn't go away.

So early retirement is probably not an option, at least not yet. And it's not going to be an option ever if I continue to make exactly zero dollars as a writer. So it's time to quit dawdling. It's time to quit saying one of these days. It's time to quit waiting for an agent or a publisher to come along and take a chance on me. It's time to take a chance on myself. It's time to publish my books. I have two manuscripts ready to sell. I believe they're good. I'm well into the third, and I think it has potential to be just as good, if not better, than the first two.

So here's my commitment: I will publish my first book by the end of this year. I will hold a combination Christmas/publication party at which I will debut Harsh Prey to my family and friends. I will, in the ensuing months, publicize my book in every way I can find, from social media to readings and signings at bookstores, libraries, church basements--anywhere that will allow me. I will tell everyone I meet about it. And in a few months after that, I'll publish the second and do it all over again. And by then, I'll have the third book in the can and ready to go.

If I want to be able to say #imawriter, then I need to stop just saying it and start actually doing it. If it's going to happen, I can't depend on anyone but myself to make it happen.

So those of you who are looking for a good book to put under the Christmas tree for the detective fiction lover in your life, this is the year you're in luck.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lessons from George Bailey

One of my favorite movies of all time is It's a Wonderful Life. I love it for a lot of reasons, including that it stars Jimmy Stewart, one of the great treasures of Hollywood. Additionally, the message of true riches not being found in a bank account is such a beautiful theme that, I must admit, was lost on me for a long time.

There's a pivotal scene in which Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey and Mary Hatch (eventually Mary Bailey), played by Donna Reed in the best role of her career, are going home from a dance in which everyone falls in the pool when the dance floor atop it is opened. They're dressed ridiculously in whatever dry clothes they could find and singing, loudly and off key. At one point, things get quite serious and it seems like he's going to kiss her for the first time, but he falters. From a nearby porch, an old man who's been watching the scene in silence asks if he's ever going to kiss her instead of talking her to death. George says, "You want me to kiss her, huh?" The old man's reply is perfection: "Awww, youth is wasted on the wrong people!"

I've always adored that line, even when I was young and didn't fully understand why it was so apt. Now that I'm getting older, it makes more sense than it ever did before. I realize now that there's a major irony of life when it comes to what we want when we're young and what we want when we get older.

When I was younger, I wanted so much. New cars, a big house, a camper, vacations, a boat--so many toys! But I had no money. This was partly because I spent too much on little things that didn't matter, like going out to eat instead of cooking at home, and new computers and new cars that I really couldn't afford, although they weren't the new cars I really wanted. But it was also partly because I just didn't make as much money as I do now that I've been at my job a long time and have come close to maximizing my earning potential in my chosen field.

So now I'm still not rich, but I make so much more money than I did when I was younger. I'm nearly debt free, soon to be completely debt free if I'm careful, so I could probably soon afford some of those toys I so longed for when I was young. Now comes the ironic part: I don't really care about them anymore. A new car? Ellie, my aging beauty, is fine with me. We know each other. Boats? Campers? Lots of time and effort for too little enjoyment. A big house? Big bills, big time cleaning and maintaining. No thanks.

What do I want? Mostly things that don't cost much. God, friends, family, good health, love, and laughter. I want to be comfortable, but a cozy little house or even a small apartment would meet my needs. A quiet place to read, pray, write, cook (now that I could probably afford to eat out a little more, I love nothing more than to cook a nice pot of chili and eat at home), and spend time with people I love is plenty for me.

Sure, vacations are still nice, but the parts I love about them are the times spent with family and friends, not the exotic destination. Though I will admit that I am never more content than when looking out at the ocean, I can't imagine I would feel the same if I didn't have loved ones with me there to enjoy it.

This Christmas when It's a Wonderful Life comes on, I'll watch it again, like I do every year. And I'll love every minute of it--even the part where the daft Uncle Billy loses the money. But when that old man makes his declaration, his words will make more sense to me than ever before.

In case you want to see it, here's the scene in question:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Life Sucks And Then You Write

Let me start by apologizing to my millions of faithful fans (and by that I mean the handful of folks who read and comment regularly--you mean more to me than a million strangers would) for missing last week. It was just one of those weekends where being a teacher took precedence over being a writer. It happens sometimes. At least until I find a way to be a writer full time while also managing to eat and pay my bills. But that's not the point of this post.

Some of those who know me in the meat world, as people heavily into all things online call it, are probably aware of the fact that my personal life has kind of been leaking oil over the last several years and really blew a gasket over the last couple. What's interesting is that the time period where things have been the worst have been when I've been the most productive and creative as a writer. The more miserable I was the more I wrote and the better the writing seemed to be.

This is hardly new ground. A long line of miserable artists whose lives were littered with booze, drugs, busted marriages, and (sometimes successful) suicide attempts have already plowed this field. I guess the question would be just what the connection is between the two. To speak debater for a second, what is the causal link? Is the mind that's creative also prone to volatility? Almost certainly. But in my case, I'm positively boring psychologically. At least I think I am. Maybe someone could let me know if I'm really, like my friend Sherlock, a high-functioning sociopath and just haven't noticed yet.

I think the cause-effect relationship, at least for me, goes in the other direction. It's the misery that leads to the creativity, not vice versa. I have come to believe it's about two things: suffering leads to understanding and suffering leads to the desire to escape, if only temporarily. I'll hold the second of those beliefs for another occasion and concentrate on the first.

Especially over the last two years, I've learned a lot about myself and the world. These lessons have been hard-fought. I understand I tend to put off hard decisions and placate rather than confront awkward situations. I've also learned that I tend to enable the people I love to indulge in destructive behavior. Yet another thing I've learned is that some people know that and also know how to take advantage of it. Finally, I now know that I have a strong tendency toward passive aggressiveness. So all in all, I guess I kind of suck when I'm at my worst.

But I've also learned that when I'm at my best, I'm compassionate and giving and loving and sometimes quite funny.  I love to help people and I am pretty intuitive about when someone is suffering.

So what does that mean for my writing? Well, since the narrator in my book series is in many ways a somewhat idealized version of myself, knowing myself better means knowing him better. Harry Shalan is a deeper, more nuanced and realistically flawed character because I've become more self aware. And his loved ones, as well as how he interacts with them, have become more real as well.

So do I have to be miserable to be a successful writer? I hope not. But I understand that, to slightly misquote Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth writing about. And when do we examine our lives? Not when the car is running smoothly.

So here's to just enough engine trouble to make me a best seller but not enough to turn me into a suicidal drug-addled drunken bum whose estate gets to figure out what to do with all his royalties.