Rainy Saturdays and Literary Pursuits

A rainy Saturday is perhaps best for staying in bed, for rolling over and burrowing under the covers to forget that April in your area has had freeze warnings and snow flurries. Rising from that warm bed would require something far more stimulating than a morning cup of coffee. Fortunately, the prospect of meeting and listening to best-selling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez was well worth dodging raindrops this past Saturday in Staunton, VA.

Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, speaking at Mary Baldwin College's Spencer Center. Her appearance was jointly sponsored by Mary Baldwin College and the Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG Writers).

Perkins-Valdez, a professor of writing at several east and west coast universities, became intrigued by a snippet of information she discovered about Xenia, OH. For a few years in the 1850’s, Xenia was home to the Tawawa Resort, a place where southern slaveowners could come for the summer and bring their slave mistresses, living with them in near openness.

As she began to research to confirm this information, she had an epiphany. She could write a scholarly article about this, but her heart was telling her to do something else. As she imagined what those few weeks of near-freedom must have been like for slave women, she decided she could only tell their story in a novel.

Perkins-Valdez spoke of how “protective” she was of her first novel. “I knew I needed an agent, but this was my baby. How could I send it out into the unknown?” That someone might steal her book wasn’t her concern; rather, she feared someone might not understand or appreciate the intent of her work.

That was certainly refreshing to hear from a New York Times Best-selling author–that she could have the same fears as any of us who submit our work into that limbo of acceptance and rejection.

It turns out, she had nothing to worry about. Her agent was able to sell the novel to Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. Wench is the story of four women who are slaves and the complex relations among them and with their masters, who are their lovers, rapists, and owners.

Perkins-Valdez’s down-to-earth presentation and openness to questions from the audience was refreshing. She told the story of being at a joint book signing with Terry McMillian, who wouldn’t sign her own books for people unless they bought Wench, too. But it wasn’t a boast. It was the “oh my god, oh my god” reaction any of us gets when someone we admire acknowledges us.

When I asked a question about her presentation at AWP, which I had attended, she asked me what I wrote and asked me to follow her on Twitter, “so I can keep track of your writing.” She was just as generous to every writer and aspiring writer in the audience and at her later book-signing, where she posed for pictures with young, African-American women from Mary Baldwin. For each person who was a writer, she made certain to ask about his or her writing.

I’m in the process of reading Wench, and so far it falls into the “hate to put it down” category. It’s very engaging and authentic, and having met Perkins-Valdez and heard her speak twice now, it is a far more meaningful read. Even without having finished it, I can recommend it.

Perkins-Valdez is working on her second novel, about African-American women in the Civil War. I’m sure that will be on my to-read list as well.

It’s My Birthday, and I’ll Cry if I Want to!

Seriously, today is my birthday. A significant one. One you don’t look forward to, but considering the alternative, I’ll accept that I’m leaving a specific decade behind. And, no, I won’t say which one.

It’s been a great week–the two eBooks of the updated, revised, polished short stories from my 2000 print collection, Rarely Well Behaved, are now available for your Kindle or Kindle App. That was exciting; just as exciting as when the book itself came out nearly twelve years ago; perhaps more so because I had to transcribe it, edit it, and format it myself. Now comes the hard part–all that self-promotion that makes me cringe. Just think of all the “buy my book” Tweets as a necessary evil.

If you want to buy my two, new eBooks–Blood Vengeance and Fences–just click on their images in the sidebar to the right. 😉

To read today’s Friday Fictioneers’ story, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and click on the story “The Day After.”

I’m an E-Book Author!

I finally cracked the code on uploading my manuscripts to Amazon Publishing without formatting errors. Tucked away on an obscure “Help” page is the phrase, “Converting your file to .htm will help with formatting errors.” What? That couldn’t be in big, bold letters (capital letters) up front? That would have saved a lot of sobbing, hair-pulling, and disconsolate DM’s to writer friends. But discovering that it worked made me do a happy dance. (Good thing the web cam was off.)

Regardless, both books–Blood Vengeance and Fences–are uploaded, and if you look at the sidebar to the right, you can buy them both by clicking on the image.

If you happen to buy them, I can send you a message and a signature through Kindlegraph–who’ll be first?

So, now off to send self-serving Tweets begging people to buy my books. 😉

Formatting an eBook’s a B***h

Before I get into the topic for the provocative title of this post, let me take your time to discuss a few blogging changes.

If you come here on Wednesdays to see “Politics Wednesday,” well, I’ve changed things around again. I’ve decided to separate my political blogging from my writing blogging–not because I’m ashamed of either or because I don’t want them to be associated, but because logistically it makes sense. For months I’ve been putting the same post on this WordPress site and on a Blogger site. That led to a lot of confusion, not to mention work. For me.

People have often commented that they like both sorts of postings, some like only the political, and some like only the writing. Now, it’ll be easier for me and for the reader seeking just one type of post.

From now on, this site remains as “Unexpected Paths,” and will feature my posts about writing and the writing life on Mondays and Fridays. So, if you visit here to read the writing posts, you don’t have to do a thing. However, if you want to see my political commentary, you’ll have to go to my Blogger site and follow “My Musings” there.

Now, on to eBook formatting. I recently transcribed my print book Rarely Well Behaved, published in 2000, and separated it into two files for two eBooks. I finished polishing and editing, had someone proofread, got eBook publishing advice from an experienced indie author, downloaded an excellent guide for formatting your file for eBook publication, spent several hours Saturday night following that guide to the letter, uploaded the first book, Fences, did a preview, and was discouraged beyond description.

Despite my careful following of directions (anyone who knows me, knows I operate from checklists), there were a plethora of formatting errors. Now, I could have been the typical indie author and clicked on “Submit,” but I withdrew the file, went back over the formatting process, and uploaded it again. (No offense intended. I’ve found from reviewing indie published books, the conscientious indie authors are atypical.) The same formatting errors prevailed. I took it down again, and did a Scarlett O’Hara–as in, thinking about it tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day.

Now, it’s two days later, and I’m about to give it another try. The issue may be that the guide was written for MS Word for Windows, and I have Word: Mac. This guide is excellent, as I said, because it includes illustrations for various formatting menus, i.e., “This is what it should look like.” But they are slightly different in the Word for Windows and Word: Mac versions. In some cases, I had to give it my best guess.

The other issue is the file you upload goes through a conversion program, in my case, to make the file viewable on Kindle. (Smashwords, for example, calls its conversion program the Meatgrinder. How apt.) That means you can have some basic formatting–e.g., font type and size, first line indents, and centered text–but not much more. One indie publishing friend who received a discouraged DM from me suggested perhaps I’d left in the “curly quotes” instead of using “straight quotes,” and that may have caused the formatting issue. The formatting problems did involve multiple lines of dialogue; all lines of dialogue were indented, instead of the second line’s being flush left.

Today, then, is attempt number three, from the beginning through 30 steps and uncounted sub-steps and then another upload and preview. Wish me luck. If it doesn’t work this time, I may have to resort to something drastic. Like hire a professional.

As my indie author friend said in trying to console me, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Friday Fictioneers!!

One of the things I love about Friday Fictioneers is the wonderful photos provided by Madison Woods that just jar the creativity. I can be in an editing/revising slump, see one of the pictures, and the story unfolds in my head. Love when that happens.

And, apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment. Starting this past Wednesday, writer Jennie Coughlin started a Rory’s Story Cube Challenge–a story a week for 108 weeks! You can read about it here. Then, read the story I wrote for the first challenge.

Be creative twice in the same week? Oy!

Here’s today’s Friday Fictioneers’ inspiration photo:

And here’s the 100-word story:

The Last Druid

We expected the trees to bow in grief when the bier passed. That the plants and flowers slumped was no shock, for on our shoulders we bore The Last Druid, and the growing things mourned.

We placed the bier in the clearing at the center of the ancient stone circle, and we said the old words in that unfamiliar tongue, the words she had taught us and gave us the charge to remember.

The time for words over, we put the bier on the boat, lit the fires, and shoved it into the lake.

And even the rocks wept.


For more 100-word flash fiction from the Friday Fictioneers, go to Madison Woods’ blog. Have a read; leave a comment; join us.

Politics Wednesday – Bad Apples

You’re on a business trip, well away from home, on a different continent even. The country you’re in offers amenities rarely available at home. You’re with a group of your buds. You have an intense job, adrenaline levels spike all the time, and your job has long been a male bastion of bravado and camaraderie.

What would it hurt to go to a strip club? Who would know? And it’s cheap; you easily hide the cost on your expense account–you get a certain amount for “incidentals,” and you don’t have to explain what they are.

At the strip club, the drinks are cheap, too, and there are plenty of young, willing women. You’re a prime, male specimen, after all. You keep yourself in shape; you work out. Of course you attract their attention. You buy them and you drinks, a lot of drinks, and, well, it’s inevitable that you head back to your hotel with them. It doesn’t matter who suggested it; it’s a chance for a wild, uncomplicated ride. Besides, who’s going to find out? You don’t even care when you return to the hotel that you have to register the women as guests, per local law. You’re special. You’re elite–the elite of the elite with a hugely important job.

It doesn’t really matter when you find out the women want to be paid afterwards. Prostitution is legal in this country, but when one of the women wants more money because there were two of you and one of her, you balk. Why would a whore think she’s worth more money just because she’s serviced two men?

Because prostitution is legal in this country, the woman goes to the police. She’s a business woman, and she’s just been cheated. The policeman comes to your room, demanding entry. You refuse. Don’t the cops know who you are? Local police are beneath you, the elite ones.

But the local cops aren’t so dumb. They check the hotel register and see what country you’re from, then they go to that embassy and let them know what happens. Now, all hell breaks loose. You’ve compromised not just yourself, but your work, the security of your country, and possibly the security of your head of state.

You didn’t stop to think any one of those women could have been a honey-trap to lure you into a compromising situation her handlers could blackmail you with. Her handlers could be anyone from that foreign country’s intelligence service to narco-terrorists to al Qaeda. You didn’t stop to think that in a few weeks you might get a copy of a video in the mail or by e-mail, showing just what you and a strange woman did. The accompanying message might mention your wife and children or your family or your boss and how they’d feel upon seeing this. You want this to go away, just, you know, pass along a code word or two, a secure frequency, where a government official is going to be at a specific time.

This is an old espionage ploy and dates beyond the Cold War or even Mata Hari. The honey trap was a favorite of Soviet intelligence entities, and though the U.S. intelligence services may deny they did the same, they did.

What I’ve outlined above is not the plot for my next book–though, it’s tempting. It’s something that’s under investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Army CID. The people being investigated are members of the uniformed section of the Secret Service and the U.S. Army who were in Colombia to make certain the President’s visit had no security issues. Yet, at the last minute, when the dispute over $40 to $60 became public, those agents and soldiers had to be removed and replaced. Never a good security situation.

If what is alleged is true, I hope the book gets thrown at all the guilty. I hope asses are fired and careers ruined. The sexual aspect of it is not what’s unacceptable to me–just disappointing, but who really cares what consenting adults do or pay for on their own dimes? What bothers me is the potential bullet–perhaps literal–that we dodged. If those Secret Service agents and soldiers did what’s being investigated, they put the President in danger.

And it shouldn’t matter whom that President is. Secret Service agents protect the holder of the office, regardless of political party. (However, if I really wanted to write a good book about it, I’d posit that a right-wing cabal was behind it all, but that would just be fiction. Right?)

From pissing on Taliban corpses, to burning Q’urans, to posing for pictures with the body parts of suicide bombers, more than a decade of war and fear of the next act of terrorism have ripped sensibility from our military and our law enforcement. How else do you explain spying on female Muslim college students five states away from your jurisdiction or leaving your post in Afghanistan to murder civilians in a village in the dark of night?

It’s proper to put our military and police on pedestals–when they deserve it–but, just as with most of life, some in the military and in the police are bad apples who spoil the whole barrel. Other soldiers and police need to distance themselves from those bad apples, or they will lose our respect. In fact, remember respect is earned, and donning a uniform doesn’t automatically imbue it. Right actions gain respect. Right now, my respect for the Secret Service is qualified, as it probably is for most Americans.

It’ll take a lot for that respect to return.

G&P They Ain’t So Bad

I learned grammar and punctuation a couple of generations ago from teachers who’d learned them a couple of generations before that. My approach to both, then, tends to be on the old-fashioned side; some might say pedantic. I even learned how to diagram sentences–not that I ever used it after that classroom exercise in 9th Grade.

As a result, I’m not forgiving of “experimental writing styles” and just see that as an excuse poor writers use when it’s obvious they haven’t taken the time to proofread and correct glaring errors. “A good story will shine through,” others like to say. Well, not if you can’t see the forest for the trees of bad grammar and incorrect punctuation.

If this all sounds familiar, I’ve beat this drum before, especially regarding indie or self-published authors. You can’t succumb to the lure of instant publishing and slap up a story scribbled in your journal on Amazon then wonder why you get one-star reviews for the mess. Worse than that is when friends give you five stars because they’re your friends and not necessarily editors. That fools people into buying the mess, and where that might get you a check from Amazon, I think it’s deceptive.

The counter argument comes: Oh, I’ve seen typos and grammatical errors in traditionally published works, and they still sell.

Yes, I’ll concede that–one or two per book; I’ve spotted them myself. That’s not in the league of ten or twelve per paragraph, as I’ve seen in some Indie books I’ve read.

Of course, grammar and punctuation go out the window in dialogue, especially if that fits the character. If you’re writing in first person from the point of view of an uneducated person, then precise grammar doesn’t ring true for that character.

I recently wrote a story I submitted to a contest that is all dialogue, but without quotation marks and dialogue tags. I know my 9th Grade English teacher is spinning in her grave, but for this story, it worked. And it’s grammatically correct and properly punctuated otherwise. That’s about as experimental as I get.

Grammar and punctuation don’t stifle your writerly voice. They’re icing on the cake. They make what you’ve written “look pretty” and, more importantly, read sensibly. They make you, the author, appear to readers as a true writer, someone who has taken the time to do it properly. If that makes me pedantic, so be it.

Don’t forget, go to Saturday’s post and vote for the cover of my new e-book.