Monday musing: Writing, like life, depends on which road you take

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By Caleb Pirtle III

This post originally appeared in Caleb and Linda Pirtle’s blog on February 22, 2017.

Writing is like life. You can take any road you want. Each has a different story.

Each choice has a consequence you have to live with for the rest of your life.

“WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?” I asked the old man sitting in the back chair at the back table of a writer’s conference.

He looked at me strangely, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Writing?” he asked.

“Writing a novel,” I said.

“Do you know anything about life?” he asked.

“Not a lot.”

He shrugged as though I was helpless, and he was probably right.

“Learn about life,” he said, sipping on a free cup of cold coffee. “Then you’ll know how to write a novel.”

He paused and watched a spider meander aimlessly across the ceiling.

The speaker droned on.

Hadn’t said anything yet.

Doubted if he would.

“It’s all about choices,” the old man said.

“Life?” I asked.

“Novels, too,” he said. “Stories are about the choices we make. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“What kind of choices?” I wanted to know.

“When I was a young man,” he said, “I could go to work, or I could go to college. I had a choice to make.”

“What’d you do?”

“Went to work.” He shrugged again. “Couldn’t afford college.”

I forgot the speaker.

I gave the old man my full attention.

“If I hadn’t gone to work,” he said, “I would have never gone to Oklahoma City.”

He grinned.

“If I hadn’t gone to Oklahoma City,” he said, “I would have never gone into the Boots and Saddles bar.”

The old man leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

“If hadn’t gone in the bar,” he said, “I would have never met Mary Ann McClure.”

He was cleaning out the cellar of his memory now.

“If I had never met Mary Ann McClure,” he said, “I would have never quit my job and took the train to Omaha.”

“Why the train?” I asked.

“Didn’t have a car.”

“Why did you leave Oklahoma City?”

“Mary Ann McClure was a married woman.” He took another sip of his coffee. “I had a choice to make. I could stay, or I could run.”

“Was she worth fighting for?” I asked.

“She wasn’t worth dying for.”

“You think her husband would have killed you?” I wanted to know.

“He had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could shoot me, or he could forget it, forgive Mary Ann, and let the whole sordid thing go.”

“He didn’t let it go, I guess.”

“Shot at me twice.”

“Did he hit you?”

“He wasn’t much of a lover, Mary Ann told me. He was an even worse shot.”

“What happened to Mary Ann?” I asked.

“She had a choice to make,” the old man said. “She could stay with him or leave.”

“Where would she go?”

“Certainly not with me.”

“How about divorce?”

“That was his choice.”

“What did he decide?”

“He and Mary Ann took a second honeymoon to Estes Park in the Rockies,” he said. “Love is a wonderful thing. So is forgiveness. They went hiking early one morning. She came back. He didn’t.”

“She kill him?”

“She said he fell.”

“Did they ever find the body?”

“The Ranger had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could investigate a crime or spend the night with his primary suspect.”

“What’d he do?”

“Never found the body.”

“Anybody ever look for it?” I asked.

“No reason to.”

“Why not?”

“The missing man was never reported missing.”

The old man grinned.

The speaker was through.

And so was he.

I looked at him strangely, a puzzled expression on my face.

“Do you expect me to believe all of that?” I asked.

“Don’t care if you do,” he said. “Don’t care if you don’t.”

His grin grew wider.

He stood up and ambled toward the back of the room for another cup of coffee.

“That’s the choice you’ll have to make,” he said. “When you come to a crossroad, it’s all about choices.”

“How will I know which road to take?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “There is no wrong choice, but each choice has a consequence you have to live with for the rest of your life.”

Those were the last words I heard him say.

I waited for him.

There were other questions I wanted to ask.

But he was like the man on the mountain.

He didn’t come back.

In my Ambrose Lincoln series, Ambrose never knows which road he took until it’s too late.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of more than seventy books, including four noir thrillers in the Ambrose Lincoln series: Secrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of LiesNight Side of Dark and Place of Skulls. Secrets and Conspiracy are now audiobooks on audible.com. His most recent novel is Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle is a graduate of The University of Texas in Austin and became the first student at the university to win the National William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. Several of his books and his magazine writing have received national and regional awards.

Pirtle has written three teleplays for major networks. His narrative nonfiction, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, is a true-life book about the fights and feuds during the founding of the controversial Giddings oilfield in Texas. From the Dark Side of the Rainbow is the story of a woman’s escape from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. His coffee-table book, XIT: The American Cowboy, became the publishing industry’s third-best selling art book of all time.

Pirtle was a newspaper reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and served ten years as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine. He was editorial director for a Dallas custom publisher for more than twenty-five years.

Get to know Caleb on his:

And follow him on Twitter @CalebPirtle.

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Monday Musings: Readers and writers together

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Yesterday, I took part in an event called Art in the Park, a sort of market in the town next to the one I live in. I set up a table to display and sell some of my books, alongside painters, jewelry-makers, knitters, potters and a couple of other writers. In the middle was a covered area, where children were playing music. Across the aisle from me, the Ottawa Art Gallery set up a tent where small children could make crafts.

I did not have great expectations for the event, but am I ever glad I was wrong. For the first two hours, I barely had a break between people who asked me questions about my books. It was ego-boosting, fun and informative, as well. My favourite part was people saying “Wait—are you the author? Wow.”

As it turned out, I should have brought more books.

I sold several sets of the Eastern Front trilogy, and completely sold out of volume 1, Army of Worn Soles.

Scott Bury at his display at Art in the Park, Stittsville, ON, June 4, 2017

But more important than that was the opportunity to talk with readers. Many people stopped at my table, curious about the poster I put up: “A Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War.” That led to questions and conversations about history, their personal interests and preferences, and their stories.

A preponderance of people who bought the war-based trilogy had some kind of connection to a military, or experiences in conflict. More than one was a veteran of the Canadian or British armed forces.

And all but two were older than me. One lady told me she was an avid reader but never read war stories, because she had lived through the London Blitz and had had enough of war, directly. She also never read romances.

Another man was interested in the eastern-European angle of the story, because his mother was born in Germany, and his grandfather had disappeared after being captured by the Soviets.

Younger people were more interested in my first novel, the historical fantasy, The Bones of the Earth. But being young, they did not buy any copies. Still, it was fun to talk with them about fantasy, reading, writing and what subjects or ideas caught their interest.

Reader engagement

All the writing coaches and advisors tell us writers how important it is to “engage” with your audience, to exchange ideas and to learn why they read, or don’t. While it’s relatively easy for musicians and other performing artists to do, for writers, engaging directly with an audience is more of a challenge.

Social media is supposed to be a way to engage with readers, but there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face.

What about you, readers? What would you like to ask writers? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Boost your reading experience with conventions! – by Jesi Lea Ryan

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image001For most of us, reading is a solitary activity–something we do to at the end of the day to unwind, or to pass the time waiting for the train.  If we want to be social with our reading, we might join a book club or go to a local book signing.  While all of these activities are wonderful, why not kick your reading enjoyment into high gear and attend a book convention?  Book cons take place year round and all over the world, and offer readers many benefits.

Meet your favorite authors and discover new ones

Conventions offer much more than a meet & greet with your favorite authors.  The fun, laid back atmosphere really let’s you get to know them as people.  Remember, writing is also a solitary activity, so for authors, cons give them an excellent opportunity to discuss their work directly with readers. While the big name authors might draw you in, sometimes the most exciting part is discovering new authors and books to read.

Whether it is in workshops, panels or through one-on-one conversations, these interactions will create memories.  After all, how many of you can say that you’ve played Apples to Apples with a bunch of erotic romance writers?  It’s also super cool to watch the authors interact with each other.

Tiffany Reisz and Andrew Schaffer - RT2013

Authors Tiffany Reisz and Andrew Shaffer – 2013 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention

 

Network with other readers 

The best way to find your next read is often from word of mouth.  Readers love to talk about the books and authors that excite them.  I first heard of Graceling by Kristin Cashore while at a sci-fi convention.  As soon as I got home, I ordered it, and boy was I glad.  Cashore is one of my favorite authors now. 

Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, conventions reward you for stepping outside of your comfort zone.  If you open yourself up and speak to other con attendees, you can not only get recommendations, but make new friends.  I recommend always wearing your name badge and carrying business cards to facilitate quick introductions.  People who recognize my name from Twitter will come up and hug me like we go way back.  (It just supports my belief that Twitter friends are real friends.)

Supplement your reading through learning

Panels and workshops are the heart of conventions.  Most cons offer a wide variety of programming to suit every interest.  I attended a workshop recently led by historic romance author Deeanne Gist on Victorian women’s clothing.  She started in her bloomers and ended up dressed for dinner out, explaining the history of the garments and how they are put on along the way.  It was both fascinating and exhausting to watch.  Later that same day, I went to a program on Scotland where we sampled whisky and haggis.  Yes, I choked down a bite.  It was gross, but now I can relate to the characters in my “hunky highlander” novels on a whole new level.

2013 RT haggis

Nasty haggis at 2013 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention

Free books!

I’m not going to lie, some conventions are pricey, but many of the smaller ones are very affordable.  Something that helps to offset the costs is all of the freebies!  Author swag, t-shirts and free books can be found in abundance.  In my experience, the larger the con, the more free books you get.  These are the free books I picked up last week at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention:

2013 RT books

This doesn’t include the several free ebook downloads I received as well.  The really cool thing is that most of these books are signed, and several are advanced reader copies, not even for sale in the bookstores yet. 

So which convention is right for you?  Well, that depends on what you like to read.  Below is a list with links to several of the large conventions in the United States, but if you are looking for something a little more local, you can always do a Google search or check with your local library/bookstore.

Romantic Times Booklovers Convention

 Book Expo America

 Bouchercon World Mystery Convention

 World Science Fiction Convention

 ComicCon

  World Horror Convention

  utopYA Con

 Authors After Dark

And if you happen to be in the Madison, WI area, feel free to come see me speak at WisCon (The World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention) on Memorial Day weekend. 

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Jesi

Jesi Lea Ryan grew up in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa. She holds bachelor degrees in creative writing and literature and a masters degree in business. She considers herself a well-rounded nerd who can spend hours on the internet researching things like British history, anthropology of ancient people, geography of random parts of the world, bad tattoos and the paranormal. She currently lives in Madison, WI with her husband and two fat kitties. On Twitter? Feel free to say hi! @Jesilea

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What Readers Have In Common, by Christine Nolfi

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TheDreamYouMakeShadedTo my mind, the lot of humanity is separated into distinct camps. In the first, you’ll find most people, the busy bees and the slackers, the viciously ambitious and the sadly confused. Your employer resides in this camp with her irritating habit of texting her lover while you try to conduct a conversation. So does the gap-toothed cashier at the drugstore, the neighbor with his fixation on golf and the acquaintance who drinks too much. The ranks are filled out with politicians, pastry chefs, gang members, and churchgoers. You’ll also find doctors, college students, dog lovers and pencil pushers.

In the other, much smaller camp sit the readers of fiction, those obsessive souls with nightstands crammed with books. They read on the bus, while dining, on the beach and in the john. They arrive late for parties because “just one more chapter” beckoned.

Why, you may ask, does anyone pick up the habit?

Sure, reading is pleasurable—but not merely for the reasons you assume. Immerse yourself in a story and you shuck off responsibility, choose your companions, avoid everyday tasks and explore an inner world most people never visit. A favorite novel takes the reader on a journey into distant lands and unusual lives. The experience is more compelling than a day-to-day life with its dull predictability and frustrating demands. The process allows the analysis of hundreds of motives and the passage through experiences we’d never otherwise know.

A novel promises two stories—a surface plot, and a deeper exposition of what really happened. A character’s motives are revealed in chapter twelve, or a plot twist arrives to rip away the veil and display the true happenings in a heartfelt or hideous way. Avid readers learn to hunt for meaning, and they carry this lesson into the other world, the one of 9-to-5 tedium. They live richly because they enjoy many lives and embark on adventures in the most unlikely places—on lunch breaks and while sitting on the sidelines of a child’s soccer practice, in the elevator and late at night curled up in bed.

The rest of the world exists in a surface life. Not you. Open a book, and dive deep.

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ChristNolfi Author Photo1ine Nolfi’s contemporary novels provide readers with heartwarming and inspiring fiction. Her debut Treasure Me is a 2012 Next Generation Indie Awards finalist. Midwest Book Review lists Treasure Me, Second Chance Grill and The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge as “highly recommended.” Look for her next release, The Dream You Make.

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Surprise Me! by Douglas Dorow

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doug dorow profile photoMy son doesn’t like watching mystery/suspense/thriller movies or TV shows with me because I’m always looking for the clues or props that the story teller is weaving into the story and trying to figure out how they’ll be used later.

OK, maybe it isn’t just that I’m looking for clues that my son doesn’t like, it’s my sharing of them during the show when I see them that really makes him mad.

For example, we were watching one of the newer Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr.

In one scene, Sherlock grabs an underwater breathing device off the desk of a person they’re visiting. Hmm, I wondered, why did he grab that? Later in the movie, Sherlock appears to sacrifice himself by falling off a ledge with his nemisis into water far below. I whispered to my son, “the breathing device”. Those are the moments he doesn’t like. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Sometimes I wait until after the movie to see if he caught the clues I did, but sometimes I have to share them when I see them)

What movies do we remember? Those that thrill us, make us think, surprise us. One that did that for me was THE GAME.

The story unfolded in front of us and we could follow along, but each step along the way was a surprise, all the way to the end.

As a long time consumer of thrillers, I still come back for more, but I want to be surprised. I want to be surprised and it has to make sense and fit with the story that’s being told. If the story isn’t interesting I’ll quit reading and pick up another. But, if I find that thrilling story, I’ll read late into the night and want to read another by the author. (You know what I’m talking about)

As a creator of thrilling fiction I keep trying to learn and one lesson I heard recently was, don’t go with the first thing that pops into your head, that’s what the reader9-English - high res will probably be thinking or expecting. They’ll find your story uninteresting and boring. And don’t go with the second or third, instead go with the fourth. The fourth idea you think of will still fit with the story, but it will be unexpected both by you and the reader and that will make your writing more interesting and keep the reader engaged.

If I can surprise myself as I’m writing the story, I can surprise the reader and we’ll both enjoy the thrill. My goal in my writing is to have fun, and to thrill and surprise myself. If I can surprise me, I know I can surprise you.

Keep reading and enjoy the thrill. What thriller writers surprise you?

 

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Douglas Dorow is a thriller writer from Minneapolis Minnesota, the home of many thriller/suspense writers. Is it something in the water or the long, cold winters?
His first thriller is The Ninth District.

He is working on the second in the series featuring FBI Agent, Jack Miller. He has also started another action/adventure series.

Want to know how a good book can be like cheeseburgers? Stop in this Thursday, January 31 and check out Shannon Mayer‘s “Cheeseburgers and Literary Fiction.” Shannon is the bestselling author of ten books including Dark Isle and Dark Fae.

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Focusing on Readers by Andy Holloman

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Andy Holloman

In the busy world that all of us writers/readers operate in, keeping one’s focus on THE ALMIGHTY READER is a struggle.  This is why I decided to focus this post on some things that I keep at the top of my priority list (mostly) when constructing a story for my readers.  For any writer, putting on the “reader” hat helps us focus.   (And boy do I need to remember that myself!)  So here goes:

1. Build a story that makes people want to turn the page

In the Amazon/Nook/Ibooks world of free or reduced-rate books, readers are much more likely to discard something that doesn’t make them want to turn the page.  Start with a slow moving passage – meh.  Build in a complex twist that confuses readers, bye-bye.

Instead, keep your reader wanting to move ahead with a concentrated focus on interesting plot points and pacing that drops in just enough clues/suspense/mystery/romance such that a reader is thinking “hmm, I wonder what is going to happen” or “OMG, I can’t believe what that person just did!”

2.  Make your characters interesting

Easier said than done, huh?  Put yourself in the reader’s shoes.  Do your characters have qualities that readers can relate to?  Do your characters have interesting quirks that make your readers smile? Hmmm, they don’t? Then ask yourself why any reader would want to invest 10 or more hours getting to know them.

If you went to a party and mingled with the folks there and everyone bored you to tears or seemed to be a copy of folks you’d met before, then you’d leave.  Keep your readers at the party with interesting partygoers that liven the place up.

A bestselling writer told me once that he likes his characters to be “scuffed up,” by which he means they need strengths and weaknesses and quirks.  Traits that make you like them, and traits that create some empathy for them.  Put some scuff marks on your characters.  Give someone a physical or mental handicap.  Make a supporting character gay, or a former felon, or divorced 6 times.  Give someone an occupation that is unusual – garbage man, bill collector, or animal rights activist.

3.  Focus hard on the first few pages

I struggle with this one.  But go back to item #1 for a moment. Remember we live in a world where books are becoming less expensive and MUCH easier to dispose cvrof.  Lose your readers in the first ten pages and you’ve lost them for good.  Who cares if your story begins to really “rock” mid-way through if you can’t keep the readers interest in the beginning?

Writing mystery/thriller novels?  Then you better think about “killing” someone right away.  Romance?  Then be sure you entice your readers with an interesting love interest or a break up or just something MORE exciting than a few lingering glances.  Horror?  Then make sure you set the mood and drop in some hints regarding the impending doom that your characters are going to face.

I call it the “Love at First Sight” component to your story.  If you can’t entice your reader with your “looks”  at the beginning and get them interesting in “dating” you, then they are going to move on.  And just to continue this barely worthy analogy, remember that for readers, there are ALOT of other “fish in the sea”.

Are any of the above suggestions brand new to the writing world? Heck no.  But for me, writing this post is just another reminder of how important it is for me to remain focused on the reader.  Remember, lose your reader, and you’ve lost the battle.  Make you reader happy, then you will have gained two or three new readers.  And isn’t that why we spend so much time hunched over the keyboard?

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Andy Holloman grew up in Greenville, NC and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Economics.  All through high school and college, he was notorious for scribbling out stories and ideas for novels, which he always kept in a top secret shoe box.

After college, Andy fell into the travel industry by accident and was able to grow a travel business into an Inc. 500 company.  The agency grew through the use of the Internet and by acquiring three other companies.  Late in the 1990’s, he became familiar with the story of one of the company’s clients who was murdered in Durham, NC and was a suspected drug smuggler.  This story and the subsequent downfall of the travel agency industry (and Andy’s company)  after 9/11,  planted a seed in his head that grew into his first published novel, Shades of Gray.

Today, Andy lives in the Raleigh, NC area.  He is the father of three, and has been happily married for 20 years.  He enjoys (mostly) attending his kids’ sporting and school events, supporting the local real estate industry, and watching fine films with his wonderful wife.

 

Tomorrow we feature Douglas Dorow, bestselling author of the thriller, The Ninth District, whose surprising piece is entitled, “Surprise Me!” Find out why Douglas’s son doesn’t enjoy watching movies with his dad.

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