Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I should have written this near Halloween, but I was too busy. A writer friend is going to do a book on Cemetery Travel true stories and it really excited my memory of a place I found to be peaceful when I was a little girl.

We lived in Helena, Arkansas and I was thirteen. In the summer I'd make a sack lunch, take a book, hop on my bike, and ride off across the hills and ravines to the Civil War cemetery that draped across a hill, the old tombstones rising step by step up into thick woods. It was a well-kept place, with the pathways smooth dirt; the grassy areas where the graves resided was the green of emerald deep water. Black cast iron gates opened at the bottom and I would push my bike, lunch sack in the basket, up the path. I was alone and relished the pure peace emanating from this place. I'd been taught in school about the Civil War and here lay many of that war's dead. Yet it wasn't a sad place and I felt no unhappy spirits lingering. It felt more like a lovely park for imaginative children than a haunted arena of long lost souls.

I'd turn off the path into the smaller paths leading between the graves. Later I discovered there had been a tremendous battle in Helena, with the Confederates defending the city and the Union in massive war ships coming in their determined way down the Mississippi River to raid and conquer. Hundreds of tombstones lay on this long hill testifying to the outcome.

I'd put aside my bike, and walk slowly, softly among the tombstones, curiously reading the names and dates of death. No one ever seemed to visit this open, historical cemetery. I was always alone and preferred it that way. No one worried about their children going off on their own for the day unaccompanied. I never felt threatened, worried, or afraid some male stranger might come by to whisk me into oblivion. It never crossed my mind the way it would today.

I found peace in this ancient cemetery. I contemplated the battle these soldiers had fought, the pure bravery, misery, and insanity of it all. I'd run my hand over the rough, pitted stone of the angels and statues. After visiting with the dead, I'd return to my bike and get the book and the lunch. I'd go walking again and find a spot on the amazing grass in shade and lean my back against a tombstone. There hours would pass as the sun skimmed over the surrounding forest, the tombstone shadows leaning, upright, then leaning again down toward twilight.

Birds sang and that's all. No person traversed this place and through the summer I began to feel it was my special, secret place, the only place I could find quiet and harmony. At noon I'd eat my meager lunch--baloney sandwich and sometimes an apple or banana. I'd grow sleepy and doze a bit sitting up.

No one came to intrude. I was not lonely or sad or afraid. It was peace I sought and peace I found. I went to this cemetery day after day, many times throughout that summer. One day a friend who lived down the street and with whom I crossed the levee and went down into the delta left fertile and growing corn until the Mississippi came roaring back into the land, asked me where I went every day on my bike. "You don't come back until almost dark," she said.

I told her I'd take her there, my place, and show her. The next morning we both rode off on our bikes and when I turned into the black gates with the toothy stones sticking up row after row up the hillside, my friend paused, stopping abruptly at the gate. "This is a cemetery," she said.

I told her I knew that, come on in, it wasn't scary at all. She came slowly following behind me and I showed her the marvelous pathways, the soft grass, the names and sayings and dates on the markers. None of the tombstones leaned. It was all as pristine and perfect as cookies laid out on a slanting platter.

"But what do you do here? It's so empty."

No, it was filled, I told her, absolutely crammed with people but they were silent now and left me alone.

Her eyebrows rose and I knew then, if not before, that I might be an eccentric child. Today thirteen year old girls wear make-up and short tops and dance to music I don't understand. In my thirteenth year I was a child, a real child, a little girl. Yes, I was on the cusp of becoming woman, but not today, not on this day.

We sat and nibbled on our lunches while I went on about how marvelous was this place. How silent and peaceful. How welcoming. I urged my friend to listen to the birdsong. I pointed to where the shadows grew and withdrew. I told her to listen, just listen, and wasn't it the best silence she'd ever heard? No adults talking, no car horns, no radio music. It was pure here and clean and peace lay over it all. When here I walked carefully not to step on a grave. I tried not to rustle my paper sack too loudly or scrape the rocks on the path with my bike tires. If there was serenity anywhere in Helena, Arkansas it was here and only here and I'd luckily discovered it, my secret hideout.

We left early and I don't remember that girl being much of a friend anymore. I understand the reasoning for that now, but it was a little hurtful at thirteen. What had I done so wrong? Was it weird to like to spend time reading and dozing in a cemetery of the war dead?

But I wasn't going to change or pretend I was not interested and happy in the Civil War cemetery. I still rose early, slipped out of the house with my lunch sack and book, and ran off on my bike every day I could.

It's possible that's the place where I learned to concentrate. I learned so well that when grown and working as a novelist I could hold a thought in my head, leave it to get my children water or food, come back and pick up with the very next word in the middle of a sentence.

It's the place that taught me not to fear the dead and their brethren. After so many years they'd departed those grassy graves or they lay quietly waiting. They had no truck with the living world, having done their best and moving on.

Odd places like cemeteries can be a place of not just solitude, but of learning, and of acceptance of one's own strangeness.

We will all go there, those who desire burial, into the earth. Having spent a summer in a graveyard was an adventure, a revelation, and one of the best summers I remember.

I don't know how the cemetery fares today, but being a national one I expect it to be the same. Gray stones rising up and up and up until the woods halt the advance. Acres of the dead reminding us of what civil strife can cause, of what we can head toward if we begin to hate one another because of race or discontent.

But once we load the musket, bring it to the shoulder to aim, and let loose Death against another man, woman, or child then we at least might meet the dark grave and grow at last cold and silent.  It's even possible a little girl walks the paths above us, reading her books and dreaming easily of days past and future. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Haters Trying to Take Down Writers

I was contacted about troubles a writer is having dealing with people via the internet. I don't know the specifics, but I want to address the situation because I've seen quite a lot of this. I don't understand it and I certainly don't condone it.

Look, people believe different things. People can't all be alike. But under the flesh the heart is the same and the blood is red and the world turns on. It's difficult sometimes today to post an opinion without someone--someone--finding it offensive and making mean, cruel remarks. It's happened on my wall on Facebook, for instance, and I either shame the person or delete his comments and delete him from my circle. I don't play. I don't have time for that noise.

But some people tend to gang up and go after certain writers. They do it, why? I really don't know. And I'm not the policer of manners, but I do know if you have no respect for others, you can't have respect for yourself. Hate and venom is like a cloud and spewing it touches the person who indulges it. You can't be a good person if you're spending time being bitter, cruel, and malicious. Aren't we supposed to be a good person? Does a good person engage in hatefulness? I think not.

What do these people do? In the worst stage they try to ruin a writer's reputation. They set up dummy accounts on Facebook and Amazon to leave comments and one-star reviews. They form groups and gossip. You'd think people would be too busy to do things like this. You'd think they had more profitable avenues to pursue than to bring down someone they don't know.

I don't know what is to be done about this or why it even happened. Only two or three years ago the internet was a pleasant, happy place for writers. Mostly, it still is. I'm just talking about how a new trend seems to be rising where disruption and disrespect for one another has been degrading social media. It's a shame, really. I guess we could blame it on the deterioration of society in general, the malaise and anxiety so rampant, the loss of jobs and money, the fear of the future. Still, how is taking out frustrations on others going to make things better? Is there a deeper sense of separation and jealousy than there used to be or are people just more willing to act out of desperation and envy today? Whatever it is, I sound a warning that this is no way to go.

My friend, Robert Stanek, has been experiencing a wave of haters and this must really cease. Here's his link Robert Stanek. He's been an author twenty years and supports writers and indies. He says, " I have supported other writers my whole career, early on with sites like Writer's Gallery and for the past 10 years with Go Indie, Free Today and Read Indies." Why would a man like this be disrespected and attacked?

When you see writers (or others, for that matter) being targeted, speak up. Talk back to the cruelty. Write a blog about it. Let everyone know you stand up for respect and being mannerly and kind to others. It costs so little to be nice and it costs so much to denigrate others--costs them and you. We don't need this, people. When life gets rough and there's a trench between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, haves and have-nots, the worst thing we can do is turn on one another. Hurting someone else doesn't pump you up. It brings us all down.

Can you disagree politely? Of course. Can you still like someone even if he or she holds different beliefs? Oh, good gracious, why can't you? If someone makes a mistake of some sort, does it have to be pointed out because you feel aggressive? Is your sadness and discontent so deep the only way to make yourself feel better is to try to hurt or destroy others, often strangers to you?

Robert Stanek has done great services for other writers and continues to do so. Come to his support and run off the badgers. Stand up to the screamers, the haters, the horrible and help make the world a better place.

You'll be doing yourself a favor.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why Stories Fail

A list of reasons short stories fail.

1-the story is an idea, not a story.
2-the ending is telegraphed too early.
3-the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.
4-the story is aimless, wandering, and wordy.
5-the writing is too stiff and impersonal.
6-half the story is all backstory.
7-logic is thrown to the wind so readers don't buy it.
8-the plot is old, overused, and boring.
9-the pacing is screwed--either too fast, not fast enough, no variety in the pacing.
10-the writing is too precious, too pedantic, or riddled with cliche.

That's the top ten. I know we can all think of ten or fifty more.  They say the short story is easy to write. It is if you know what you're doing. It's a disaster if you wing it and have never practiced the form. The short story is an age-old part of storytelling and those who are best at it are marvelous. We have to take the writing of short stories serious. I will call it an art form, for it is. It's as artful as a poem or a novel without being either.

When short stories fail, we all lose. Be a Bradbury. A Poe. Be marvelous.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LITERARY AGENTS-Good, Bad, and Ugly

It was always difficult for a writer to get a good literary agent. My first one, I suspect, didn't even submit my novel. It wasn't a very good novel anyway, so maybe he did me a favor. And then I fired him.

My second literary agent tried to talk me out of finishing my novel, WIREMAN. Write something like THE THORN BIRDS, he said. I tried to explain that wasn't the kind of fiction I wrote. The suspense of WIREMAN is what I wanted to write.

Once off the phone I wrote him a letter and fired him. What good was he if he didn't realize I was already writing in the area I should? I knew it, why didn't he know it?

I was without an agent for almost a year and then I heard of a new agent hired on at the William Morris Literary Agency in NYC. I was too shy to approach him, even by mail. My husband, an audacious man, called the agency from work (I didn't know) and someway got through to the agent. He proceeded to tell him his wife was the best writer in Texas and she'd just finished a new novel. The agent said this was highly irregular, but my husband was to tell me to send it in, he'd take a look. He warned, "We only take the cream of the crop, you know." My husband told him that's exactly what he was going to get.

When he came home that afternoon and told me what he'd done I was shocked and embarrassed. You didn't call them! You didn't say that about me being the best writer in Texas!

But he had and it paid off and I had to mail out the manuscript to the most prestigious agency on earth. Within two days of receiving the manuscript the agent called me. "I want to sell this book," he said. "I like it a lot, it's great."

My husband Lyle got me in the door and the book cinched the deal. Within a couple of weeks it was sold and they offered an advance for my first litle novel of $3500. I told my agent I had to have more. The computer I wanted for writing cost $5000. (Imagine that!) He said, wait, let me go back, see what I can do. He came back in less than hour to say they'd raised the advance to $5000.

I, of course, was ecstatic. I'd reached a dream. I'd sold a novel. And now I could afford a computer. It was 1984 and the only persnal computers in my area of Houston for sale was a big, clunky CPM operating system machine with a green cursor and it cost almost $5000. I bought it. CPM was before DOS, even, and I had to put a big floppy in with a word processor on it, take it out, and put in another floppy for the word processor to write a file to. Oh God, I loved it. No more white-out. No more typewriters. No more carbon copies. It was heaven.

Now today I don't know it's any harder to get an agent as it was in 1984. If it's harder, that's bad. It was hard enough, despite how it worked out for me in a serendippity way, that no one else in my novel writing club was able to get an agent for years more.

I was with the Wm. Morris Agency until I stopped writing in the mid-90s (more on that some other time). They sold all the novels I wrote. They believed in me and when my novel, NIGHT CRUISE, didn't bring home the Edgar, my agent was livid. He believed so strongly there was no contender.

I loved my agents there. I had two, the first one who became Vice President of Wm. Morris, then another agent who is still my friend today, though he's moved on to another agency. The treatment and care of a good agent is to always treat him with respect. If  you disagree over something, do it politely. He wants the best for you because if you do well, he does well.

The moral of this true story may be that being brave and audacious might work. But the product has to stand on its own. No amount of charming banter will save a bad manuscript from being rejected.

You never know when you'll find the right agent, but don't be afraid to fire one if the fit is bad. When you do luck into a good one, hang on tight and do good work.  A career can last for years, for your lifetime, if you know how to nurture it and do most of the right things. Or at least a few of the right things. None of us can be perfect.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

FROM THE TRENCHES: Top 10 List of Advice on Battling Cancer

This will be a joyous and life-affirming blog. Don't get depressed, not for a minute.

I thought today of how nifty my short, thick hair is compared to when I was bald. I remember one picture of me when my hair was almost all fallen out due to chemo, and there was one strand still stuck to the top of my skull. I looked like a concentration camp victim.

Don't look like a concentration camp victim.

Here's some of my advice from having lung cancer and going through 33 targeted radiations to my lung, 10 full brain prophylactic radiations, and 5 months of intravenous chemotherapy.

1. If your hair begins to fall out, go ahead and shave it smooth. Don't wait until you end up with a picture like I have.

2. I lost my hair twice. Be brave about this. It's just hair. Wear wigs and headgear, scarves and hats and such if you like. If you don't mind the coolness of being bald, go bald. Whatever you do rock it. Rock it good.

3. Don't think negative thoughts. If one comes to mind, imagine grabbing it with your hand, the whole thought, and throwing it away from you. Preferably into a corner never to be thought again. The truth is we think bad things when we fight cancer. That's natural. Just don't think it long. Throw it away. If you've thought about a dreadful future for more than five minutes, that's too long. Throw it all away.

4. Think beyond this situation to the future. See yourself on the other side of it. Make plans. Be forward thinking. Don't look back.

5. When people want to tell you about their experiences with cancer in their families or themselves, listen with an open heart. This disease touches at least one out of every five people and we're all together in this. Be kind and loving.

6. If you believe in a higher power, call on it now. And believe you're heard. If you do not believe in a higher power, call on your strongest inner self and believe you'll make it. We have to grow a backbone for this experience and like my mom once said, "Dip your backbone in cement."

7. See this as a chance to tally your positive characteristics and what you need to improve about yourself. I had a problem letting go of resentments over perceived wrongdoings on the part of others. I didn't try to get revenge, I just disengaged. Now I make an effort to let those old resentments go and engage again with people. Who appointed me judge, right? You can change. Now's the time. It's never too late. Tell those you love that you do love them. Forgive those who wronged you. Be understanding of the foolish, the liars, the hardened, the envious, and the horrid. Step away if they invade your territory and make you unhappy, but otherwise stop judging. Repair yourself by fixing what's wrong with you, or what is imperfect. Get happy.

8. This is a chance to see if you've done enough. Done enough loving and forgiving. Done enough of your life's work.  Done enough soul-searching.  Take the time now to do what you didn't have to do before.

9.  Stand tall. Take your treatments without complaint. Face the facts, but never let them dominate you into thinking you can't make it. If you have a doctor who is morose over your condition and chances, CHANGE DOCTORS NOW. I did. It made a big difference. Once you hear a terrible prognosis, you can't unhear it. Try to surround yourself with positive caretakers.

10. Don't give up. I saw a woman on the news recently who fought cancer nine times. She's still kicking. I had a 20% chance of survival. I'm in remission. I knew a woman who had cancer four times in different places on her body and survived every one. If it takes you, then there's nothing you can do about it but feel acceptance for a good life given you. If you beat it, then you too can write a blog like this and tell people good advice about living through cancer. Either way, do it with at least some joy still left in your spirit. No point in bringing others down or making your loved ones and friends suffer with you. Be strong. It's the only way.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Strange Ideas

There's something exquisite about short stories that you can't say for the novel. I suppose a novel could be exquisite, but it would be quite rare. I can think of a few novels that reach that pinnacle, but there certainly aren't many in all of literature.

However, many short stories do reflect that kind of perfection you don't often see in art. I believe it's because one small ant-like idea can become of such importance that it's a whale. The story is a complete package unto itself. If done correctly the reader should sit back after reading a successful short story and say, Wow, that was something. Then the story should linger, like a fine wine on the tongue. 

If it sounds like I love short stories, you'd be right. I began writing them first, before novels, and I practice the form all year, every year. Ellen Datlow doesn't pick them to honor and they've won no awards, but I know what I've done and I pronounce it...a pod of whales. Sometimes work gets overlooked. Perhaps that's my status with the short story, and that doesn't slow me in the least. My whales swim and a lot of readers like them. That's what matters in the end, my friends.

I wrote a short story this past week that I like very much. I just published it as a little e-book on Amazon with a great cover by my cover artist, Jeffrey Kosh. I could have submitted it to an anthology or magazine, but I just couldn't do it. I wanted this one as my own, share it personally, and get it to readers as quickly as possible. It's called THE PEOPLE OF THE TOWER. I'll try to explain how it came about.

I was sitting on my sofa, the TV on, my laptop on the coffee table in front of me. Into my head came this, truly out of the blue yonder: Tower. Big castle-like gray granite building. Someone is put there and not let out. The people who put him or her there never speaks. It's a little town.

I sat in surprise, the idea twirling around in my head. A castle tower. Really? That sounds Gothic, I thought. But why are people put there and what happens to them and who does it and why? All the story questions came to me and I knew I couldn't answer those questions unless I wrote the story. I wrote it like a suspense tale, despite I knew from the first it would be a supernatural horror story. I get an idea and I just follow to see where it leads. I know, I know, writing advice books tell you not to do that. You could end up in a big empty pasture of words and no where to go. That's not been my experience, so I trust the Muse to lead me forward, knowing whatever tale waits I want to read it so I have to write it. Writing advice is fine for most people. It doesn't work for me.

Then the denouement came finally and not more than two pages before I got there I knew what it was. I saw it coming, though readers shouldn't, and so far it appears they don't see it coming, which pleases me. I hate letting an ending get to the reader before its time. It's like comedy. It's all in the timing. You have a knack for it or you don't, there's no maybe about it. 

You may ask:

How do you know the idea that comes to you is worth pursuing? I don't know. I trust. Creativity is an instinct. I accept the idea because it came out of the ether and it tapped my shoulder and I am at its service the amount of time it takes to write the story. Nothing makes me happier than to read a new story, one that I wrote, one that gave me such pleasure writing. 

Have you ever taken an idea that came to you and it failed, you didn't complete the story? Yes, that happens, but seldom. If it doesn't work out, it wasn't strong enough, it didn't have "legs." That rarely happens for me, though, thank goodness or I'd have a hard drive filled with partially completed short stories and I don't.

Do you suggest other writers do what you do? Hell no! I wouldn't try to tell anyone else how to write. If this is the way it works for the writer, as it does for me, then fine. If it doesn't, if the writer has to outline a story, take notes, study details of character or setting before starting, that's simply the way it works for the writer and who am I to say it isn't the correct way. Because it is the correct way for THAT writer, not this one.

If you want to see how my out-of-the-blue-yonder idea came out, you can pick up PEOPLE OF THE TOWER. If you want to know why anyone is in a castle tower in a small Southern town the way I did, here's your chance. It's $.99 and I won't make much money from it, but sometimes that's not the point. That's not the point at all.

People of the Tower
To buy click here: PEOPLE OF THE TOWER

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Travel Bug Strikes Again!

Many years ago my husband Lyle drove big rigs for a big company and I often went on the road with him, traveling cross-country. From those first trips on the road a novel came into creation titled NIGHT CRUISE. (On Amazon now as Night Cruising.) Cruise was an unsuspected serial killer driving a Chrysler across country, killing as he went. Then he decides he needs a witness to his crimes, someone to take note of his actions, and picks up a teen hitchhiker running away from home. I used truck stops I'd been to, people I'd met, even dialogue I heard on the CB in the book that gave it a feeling of truth beyond fiction. The book went on to garner the prestigious Edgar Award nomination. The book lost that year to an Alaskan detective book that was part of a series--well, that's all I'll say about that. It would be rude to say more.

Travel infused a novel. The night lights, the long empty roads, the truck stops, the movement of strangers past one another on the road and in the cafes and stops held a sort of romance for me that has never dimmed. Off and on I would ride with my husband and we'd be in Northern California one week and in North Carolina the next. Every day a new view, every minute the landscape changing, and stimulating my creative juices. I'd always liked traveling, but this was like traveling on steroids, day after day a new city, a new part of the country. In the end, over the years, we drove through and enjoyed 48 of the states, from coast to coast and into Canada.

It gets in the blood. Sitting still at home gets boring for us now, Lyle and I. Over twenty years, off and on, we'd take off in a big rig and roll over the land, having the time of our lives. Whether in snow or storm or tornado, whether a blizzard raged or the rivers ran high, we rolled on through to the other side of it, often into sunshine.

We were traveling this way last December when in California I had to go to an Emergency Room and was diagnosed with lung cancer. That stopped the travel for the foreseeable future, if not forever. But I got a reprieve and went into remission. Now we may be going on the road again, Lyle maneuvering the big rig, me in the jump seat taking photos, and feeling the joy of a sunset in a new place. I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

Some are home people, loving only being at home. I like to COME BACK home, but if I can just get a few miles under my feet, I'm never more content. My grandfather said of my wish to travel that I had "sand in my shoes." He said that to me when I was a teenager pining for a way to go somewhere, anywhere. He was so right.

The experiences you can gain by travel are worth millions. It's a tough job, the food on the road is bad, sometimes the traffic is horrendous, but then you walk over to a cafe for dinner in some state and get the most marvelous meal or you see a sunset behind mountains that you know you'd mourn if you'd missed it, or you see a rushing stream over boulders shining in the morning light and your soul is lifted. Clouds drift above you in one place and five hundred miles distant those clouds are different, the world is changing, the planet is twirling, and the wheels are rolling taking you on to the next view and next adventure.

I hope I get to do that again in a few days. When inspired by the travel I'll write blogs about it and see if I learn anything new. I hope you'll follow along. The next best thing to travel for me has been armchair traveling. When not on the road I read dozens and dozens of travel books just to feel in touch with those, like me, who take to the road when life is too routine, too the same.

As my grandfather predicted so many years ago, I still have to shake this sand from my shoes.