08/30/13

My Legs are Missing!

Killer Nashville 2013 scored again, staking its claim as one of THE writing conferences in the nation for Mystery-Thriller gluttons. This was my second KN, and for an incurable lifelong introvert, not quite as intimidating as last year when I meekly inched through the Hutton’s front lobby knowing exactly nobody.

I tried harder this year to escape my comfort zone and mingle (without alcohol). Writing may be a challenge, but for me networking is tougher – only a little less painful than waterboarding and watching reruns of Petticoat Junction. To my surprise I made several new friends and acquaintances: fellow authors, KN staff, one panhandler on 19th Avenue named Scratch.

This year, though, I showed up a tad puffed up. Somehow I had backed into the top ten in the Claymore competition. Heady stuff. (A blind pig can find an acorn in the forest.) But it didn’t take long for the proven experience of agents and publishers during roundtables and critiques to surface and let me know I had work to do.

Like a flasher with modest junk, I had openly displayed many of the usual suspects.

*  I poured out gallons of undeniably artistic and creative words, phrases, and sentences that I was so proud of (like this one), breathtaking prose that practically insisted the reader halt his journey into the story and marvel. I could almost hear Elmore Leonard’s ghost puking in disgust.

*  I buried my best chapters behind pages of backstory, every one loaded with overbearing description. My writing sounded exactly like writing.

*  Those predictable issues with the all-important story Structure, the tension and suspense all hiding safely in Chapter 12. All this despite my PE license as a structural engineer in a former life. (At least I had irony.)

*  Mostly I forgot that ‘story’ is infinitely more important than the gaudy ramblings of a self-appointed wordsmith.

So I learned stuff. Including how not to use “valuable insights” when “stuff” works better.

Back home, once I hauled up the anchors of disappointment that reminded me I had not yet arrived, and reached out to valued new Facebook contacts, I dived into several books I purchased at KN by successful writers, notably the first several chapters of each.

And before long it came to me like a forgotten anniversary. Despite my envy of those published authors, everything I was reading was somebody else. Their voice, their style.

Unless I’m really stupid I’ll learn from them all. But I’ll never be a Hemmingway or Faulkner. Nor a King, Child, or Patterson. Nor anybody else I met at KN. But if I pay attention and believe, I will soon be a very good Peden.

Like a sea cucumber or a lizard with his tail chewed off, I’ve already started re-generating  the literary legs that got chopped off at KN. I’ll come back next year, drop my next manuscript on the table – bam! - and dare somebody to try it again. I push on, full of new tools and promise, looking forward to the semi-holy grail of all writers, not just that of published author, but of author with a long trail of readers, brows furrowed, anxiously turning the pages.

Like my buddy J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

08/22/12

The Evil in Blogs

A Blog is the lifeblood of authors and writers…and the handmaiden of the Devil.

Oh sure, Blogs (Weblogs) are everywhere these days, millions of them scurrying around like roaches in an abandoned house, populating themselves exponentially, preparing to take over the world. If you don’t have a Blog, especially in our world of writing, you might as well hang a No Trespassing sign on your door.

Since I was nearing authorship of my first novel, and since so many writers had their own Blog, I decided I would too. It was so easy. The intros on the websites and blog pages said so. “Anyone can start a blog in 5 minutes.”… “Build a great-looking, fully-functional website in 48 hours.”…  “The only limit is your imagination.”

The only limit for me, I discovered, was my tolerance for emotional pain and how much liquor I kept at the ready.

I figured, since I was fairly literate in word processing, spreadsheets, email, the Internet, and other programs and tools indigenous to the computer world, the learning curve on how to build a Blog would be short. I envisioned the concept of drag-and-drop. It turned out to be drink-and-curse.

I did have at my disposal a son-in-law who is a webmaster, but instead of just plopping it on the web in a couple of hours, he gave me an instructional weekend and then told me to play around with it. So I dug in and spent the better part of a week learning now to build my Blog and maneuver behind the scenes on what is known as a Dashboard. I was my own Blogmaster.

First I had to select a Theme. There’re thousands of ‘em, luring you in with colorful images and theme options, none of which I had any idea what they meant. That done, I had to wrap my head around the differences between Pages and Categories, and how to make Posts appear in each. Then came the Widgets, followed by the Media Library, and the Links, and the Menus. The bourbon flowed, the late night sessions got longer. I doubled up on my prescription of Xanax. Satan smiled knowingly.

Finally as I found some minor satisfaction with my end product, I encountered the coups de grace (definition: a death blow, especially one delivered mercifully to end suffering). The Plug-Ins. Hundreds of them too, some of which worked. Simply deciphering how to access them was a journey: search…download…locate…upload…install…test…move…drink more bourbon.

I finally succeeded in building a Blog. Whether or not it is an effective one I won’t know for awhile. I’m not selling anything yet, at least not until my first novel is done. I don’t offer professional instruction, insightful information or pearls of wisdom. But it’s done, even though it will evolve.

I did re-learn a valuable lesson, one we all have heard many times. The countless things that take us away from the craft of writing, which is the common denominator that brings most of here in the first place, is a dangerous diversion. The week I spent learning how to build a blog could have been spent knocking out the final chapters of my Novel.

Unfortunately these days, writing is not just about writing. We’re forced to spend more time marketing and networking than most us prefer…and specifically, tackling the not-so-pleasant beast of social media, which turns out to be one of the largest time-sinks known to man. It’s been said that success is 3% talent, and 97% staying off the Internet. We’re all going to have to find that balance between what we choose to do ourselves that is not writing and what we decide to outsource to professionals, for a fee of course. When you find an answer, let me know. Until then, I’m going to go write something.

08/20/12

Rabbit Ears on Ice

February 2008 was freezing in Kentucky. It was also a time when I rediscovered some moldy scraps of feelings that had been lying dormant for years, held in check by those pesky everyday realities of ambition, stress, and anxiety…those things that appear to be important in our journey, but really aren’t. I rediscovered how great it feels to do something to help others who will never know what I did.

One of my daughters, in addition to being a newly minted college graduate and veterinary technician, was also a bartender-waiter-manager at Mellow Mushroom. She and some of her friends there, being carefree, adventurous, and possessing the “careless abandon of youth”, had decided to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge to help raise money for Special Olympics.

Naturally I cautioned her about the foolishness of plunging into an icy pool in the middle of winter, although secretly I was proud of her commitment and her willingness to be bold. Then two days before the event, several teammates got cold feet and, for some totally illogical reason…I offered to plunge with them.

Their costume theme was Alice in Wonderland, and I did possess a floppy rabbit-ear hat from a previous Easter skit at church. So I became was the Rabbit. A 60-year old rabbit.

To help raise a little money I turned to my large email address book at work in a desperate attempt to beg for pledges. Surely one plaintive plea for money, sent to 300 recipients would exponentially increase the chances of getting a few token contributions from sympathetic friends and associates. Then the surprise came.

Within 24 hours, by plunge day, our team had accumulated over $1,800 in checks, cash, and pledges. Most of the 11th hour contributors were old friends and business associates I had not seen in a few years, and they all were intrigued at the image of a grown man jumping into an icy pool with rabbit ears. Many responded with some cute comment, most insisted on pictures, and all opened up their wallets to the Special Olympics.

I learned a valuable lesson. If you ask people for something you get one result, but when you get people emotionally invested in the same goal, you get something entirely different. I became involved by plunging, and they became involved by contributing.

The Saturday plunge turned out to be fun. At zero hour, temperatures were in the mid-20’s, sky overcast, wind blowing…perfect conditions for hypothermia. 20 large blocks of ice stacked imposingly next to the above-ground pool at Applebee’s Park made us rethink the sensibility of the cause. But just before the plunge, standing in line next to Beetlejuice, Superman, and other year-around Halloween fans, I was proud of us all. And I treasured the time I got to spend with my daughter, doing something goofy, irresponsible, and memorable.

We got TV and newspaper coverage, but the real victory was in the event and the reasons for it, to raise money for Special Olympians, and the way we all, plungers and payers, did our respective parts. I told my contributors that even though the Special Olympians would never know who the money came from, they would. It’s gratifying what we can accomplish when we don’t worry about who gets the credit.

Eventually our team raised almost $2,500 for the Kids. It’s all over now, and I go back to being a non-rabbit. I didn’t perish in the ice water. I didn’t even catch a cold as my 90-year-old Mom promised.

But the spirit of the Special Olympics emphasized to all of us “normal” sports fans what competition is really all about. The object is to participate. And winning, while a natural and worthwhile objective, is not the only one. There is a quote on the Special Olympics Kentucky website:  “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

So I’m guessing this is why my teammates and the other 275 plungers did what we did. We wanted to participate in this short event called life. We didn’t care about the humiliation. We didn’t care about winning. We didn’t require any compensation. And we would not have traded the opportunity for anything.

Life is not a dress rehearsal.

08/19/12

Sebring, Venison, & Dilly-Dally

Last March, while visiting friends in Florida, I dropped in on an over-sized yard party disguised as a car race.

Held every year since 1953, the “12-Hours-of-Sebring” is technically America’s oldest sports car endurance race. In reality, it’s an exhaust-flavored Woodstock without the hippies. Lots of blue-collar buds and gals, hanging out for three days with their favorite adult beverages, grilling and chilling, while brightly-colored, corporate-sponsored, turbocharged, fuel-guzzling death machines, engines wound tighter that Pamela Anderson’s bikini, speed around a track at 130 mph.

Don’t mistake it for anything NASCAR, though. Instead of a symmetrical oval, the course is a drunkenly-inspired, 3.7 mile track snaking its way through 17 hairpin turns. But the point here is that it wasn’t so much about the cars, or even who won the race, but the underlying subplot, an ultra-casual block party, stuffed wall-to-wall with several-thousand RV’s, three times that many tents, hundreds of grilles and smokers, plus a cast of some 107,000 happy souls, all satisfied to lay back and cruise on their own tiny tract of scrub for three days, with no responsibilities but to eat, drink, play music, sling BS, and generally just take a breather from life.

This is something I have trouble doing. It defies my sense of order, my need to justify how much I accomplish during each hour of my spare time, something I call “casual productivity”. But this weekend, I was determined to abandon my orderly lifestyle and “waste” a weekend.  So off I went with my friends, who over the years had already learned to successfully navigate the road of sloth.

We quickly stumbled onto one party of typical die-hard Sebring-ites.  One RV, 5 tents, assorted canopies, four LP-cooking units, and enough supplies to fill three shopping carts at Publix.  Oh, and numerous characters.  Steve, the cook, held court in his tank top and Mardi gras beads.  He was engaging and eager to offer samples of his venison steak filets.  When I gushed about his efforts, he slipped me some of his “secret stash” of special-battered shrimp.  Catching on quickly, the more I bragged, the more he shared.  Before the weekend was over he and his buddy, Dallas, a former butcher, insisted that I try some of their venison jerky. And the coupe-duh-grass:  Dallas’s homemade venison-garlic-onion sausages, grilled on a warm bun, flavored ever-so-slightly with the essence of diesel fumes.

Dallas turned out to be a character in his own right.  A certified fire-inspector in Georgia, Dallas also answers to his professional name:  Dilly-Dally the Clown, a proud member of the Georgia Firefighters’ Clown Society, specializing in balloon animals and magic.  And, like me, more interested in how cold the beer was than in the race.

Later during a random walk through RV city, beverage in hand, I encountered others worth remembering.  The three “liquidly-enhanced” amigos in Chick-fil-a Cow costumes; one burly fellow lumbering through the 80-degree day in Viking horns and hides; a chap riding a motorized beer cooler.  I observed dozens of the obligatory cornhole games, two pole-dancing stands (G-rated), hundreds of lawn chair lawyers, at least two professional BBQ cooking teams with sophisticated grille rigs with sinks, one generator-powered 96” TV, and a life-sized female inflatable doll, swimming with her “date” in a kiddy pool.  But no troublemakers.  Just a lot of “individuals” making a good case for relaxation.

Oh, and there were those pesky cars, zipping around the track, fans parked in lawn chairs at strategic dangerous turns hoping a driver that might down-shift too slowly and lose some minor accessories, like, oh, say tires, or transmissions.  The constant decibel level at these track-side viewing areas was intense, something I liken to a high-pitched chain saw revving full throttle a foot from my ear.

But when the weekend was finally over Saturday evening, and the hundreds of thousands began to pack up and orderly stream out, I realized that even though I had not actually “accomplished” anything, I did have a surprising sense of mental well being.  My stress level was abnormally low.  And in retrospect I recognized that Steve, Dallas, the Cow Boys, and even the professional racers and pit crew, all had one thing in common.  They had all taken a break and taken part in something that filled some unnamed void, whether it registered on the value meter or not.

Not sure if I will make another Sebring, but I made some new friends and gathered some new memories and maybe learned how to slow down a little bit, even if no goals were met.  Maybe between now and next year I can learn to do balloon animals.  That would make Dilly-Dally proud.

08/18/12

Father’s Day @ 9,000 Feet

Terry Wilson and I are not related, share no common blood, friends, life skills, or job interests. We do share the fact that we were once married to the same woman (not at the same time)…and one other critical thing. We share, along with Mary Beth, an uncommonly common bond.

We share daughters.

It came to light as I contemplated the lunacy of jumping 9,000 feet to my certain death.  Well, not actually certain death…the previous hundreds before me that attempted skydiving had never discovered that sudden, breath-taking impact. They all survived. And so would I, I concluded, while I waited in the terminal (inappropriate choice of words I think) for my time to come…my first skydive. A gift from my daughter and step-daughters for Father’s Day.

What happened to the time-worn tradition of a gaudy tie and a hug? Or maybe just a casual dinner with goofy cards?  I encouraged them to be creative but this was outside the lines.

Layne is my birth daughter. Tiffany and Hailey are Terry’s birth daughters, who became my step-daughters by marriage. We all know the differences, yet the heart forgets and takes it own course. All three girls became full sisters in heart and mind, and remain so today.

So today, here we all were, blood and not, celebrating Father’s Day with Terry and Ray. We shared the father-feast with Elmer, Tiffany’s husband, and granddaughters Lily and Rosalie. And with Tom, Hailey’s soon-to-be hubby who would later father grandson Finn.

It was a good excuse to gather. My eventual plunge headfirst into open air from 9,000 feet, dropping like a rock toward the patchwork of verdant fields below, was literally a leap of faith. It defies the natural senses to look down, see nothing but a mile and a half of open air…and then step out anyway. The knowledge that I was plummeting toward the earth at 62.4 feet-per-second was exhilarating. Then at 6,000 feet, feeling the reassuring “catch” of the parachute as it responded to my tug on the rip cord… that was exhilarating. And as Mike (my tandem coach) and I glided down, using the guide lines to perform several 360’s, challenging my stomach to keep the faith, the thrill of the gentle descent through clean country air at dusk was part peaceful and part exhilaration as well.

But as I glided closer and closer to the landing zone, my extended family waiting and cheering and laughing and videotaping every goofy move, I found a strange exhilaration that was un-related to physics or gravity or the environment, but rather of the pure joy of the moment.

My skydive was without a doubt a “high” point in my life.  Certainly part of it was the actual plunge from a perfectly good airplane.  But most of my emotional high originated and ended at ground zero, as I realized how my daughters had planned, organized, coordinated, participated in, and paid for such a luxury.  The thought was original and a little bizarre, the picnic spread impeccably planned, and the cumulative party one for my mental highlight reels.

But I measured the success of the entire day as I quietly observed the entire group, gathering, hugging, laughing, sharing, living the moment. It was quite spellbinding. I watched an un-choreographed dynamics of beautiful daughters, step-daughters, grand-daughters, amazingly original sons-in-law, even ex-husbands of ex-wives, all bonding in one mass of laughter and joy, forsaking all parts past for the joy of parts present and the promise of parts future.

I know the day was not entirely mine.  I caught Terry several times beaming with paternal pride. And Elmer’s shared joy, with two perfect daughters of his own, was clearly equal to ours.  But I did realize a virtual “high” on this day I may never be able to adequately describe.

And the skydive was pretty cool, too.