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Life in the DMV – that’s Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to you out-of-town folks – has improved dramatically this month. My day job has gone to 80% telework, meaning I only have to go into the office on average once a week. This pay period, I’m checking both boxes by teaching a 2-day class, so I’ve been enjoying a week and a half long telework binge, falling right after 2 weeks of vacation. Getting up at 6:15 to get on that train was almost novel enough to be fun.
The novelty wore off, however, by the time I reached Union Station, transferred to the Metro and stepped off into a cool 71° but a soggy 98% humidity. I moved to the right and rode the escalator up to the surface, willing the sweat to stop trickling down my back.
Halfway up, a burly young man in black pants and an unbuttoned white Oxford bustled by carrying a disheveled satchel and muttering something about “those of us who grew up in the country.” Guess only City Slickers ride the escalator.
Almost as quickly as my ego jumped to defend my apparent laziness, I realized that moral judgments about escalator riding were not foreign to my character. And though I’ve never voiced my thoughts, I’ve certainly been guilty of basking in smug superiority while striding up in the fast lane.
It’s easy to do, jumping to conclusions. Your mind and body are in a hurry to get to work, you’re uncomfortable and generally not thrilled about the process. The whole exercise is about taking shortcuts: avoiding traffic, deciding whether the MARC train or the Metro will be the best bet this morning, shaving angles as you walk obliquely across streets and around buildings. Stands to reason that one’s mind would fall into the same rut. That guy standing on the escalator? Must be lazy. Lacking in ambition. Or just pathetically out of shape, a consequence of said laziness and complacency.
Metro Riders, too, play their roles. The guys in paint-stained work pants and boots carrying hard hats. Women in business skirts and tennis shoes reading their Kindles. The summer interns, hoping they’ve dressed the part. The scented oil hucksters, bandoliers of multi colored bottles across each shoulder, smoothly peddling their wares through the car. The panhandlers’ various poses: ingratiating, pathetic, confrontational.
Alerted to this somewhat shameful process of categorization, I look at myself, as introverts are want to do. What do people see? The tailored pants and Brooks Brothers shirt, the more casual slip-on leather Skechers. The service academy ring. Slightly balding and slightly receding gray hair. The leather courier briefcase. Do I really look that put together? Where am I in all this?
Maybe in my sunken eyes they can see the four kids at home, clothed, fed, housed (if compactly), guided, cajoled and loved. Maybe my slight stoop betrays the tuition bills and the months of rent my tenant owes and the divorce debt. Maybe they can discern in my rigid stance the work before me this day – teaching for the first time in 6 years. Maybe my hurried gait implies impatience or anger or worry or drive or purpose or inertia.
Taking the time to observe, to see the possibilities that just graze the surface. Sometimes the morning commute is a writing exercise in itself.
I just digested a rather dense essay that speaks to some of the themes running through my forthcoming book, Displaced: A Darkening Path. In this essay, Russell Hittinger, who holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and is Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa, traces Catholic teachings on how people live in the contexts of family, polity, and Church, and how these teachings have responded to competing ideologies. You can find it here.
Hittinger explains that the Church has long held that a person must live justly within the domestic, political, and ecclesial societies to achieve human happiness. He then traces the threats posed to family, political life, and religious institutions by the French Revolution and – in our times – by both the cultural revolution of the 1960s and what Pope Francis has called the techno-economic revolution of the global economy and global communications.
The former revolution shook the ground under the three necessary societies, upending political forms, subverting the Church’s authority and slackening familial ties with measures like no-fault divorce (yes, Napoleon started that).
The revolutions of the last 50 years have made out these necessary societies to be all but optional. Marriage and children, political action and affiliation, and religious devotion are now seen as mere lifestyle choices rather than frameworks within which a person may discover and then become what he was made to be.
Throughout these events, the Church has sought to teach “in light of a non-negotiable principle . . . that we are domestic, political, and ecclesial animals who achieve perfections by rightly dwelling in the perennial societies.”
“But,” Hittinger concludes, “sowing and harvesting the daily bread of this social principle remains a difficult labor.”
For Frank Smith, the protagonist of the Displaced series, these ties are at best duties he begrudgingly fulfills. At his worst, he disregards or wantonly violates them.
And that’s only before his world falls apart.
It’s official! Volume I is headed to the presses.
Or: “What the Heck Have You Been Up To?”
Yes, it’s been awhile. But I have not been idle. As you can see from the word count on the right sidebar of the main page, novel number two is well underway, with a sequel planned, too. Sooooo….what’s this one about? Well, I’ll give you hint.
In a previous post, I discussed the process of character creation, and shared a fully-fleshed out character description for Jerrod Beams, main character of The Point of Escape: A 4-Hour Novel. Here’s the same kind of thing for a secondary character in Displaced, the first of a planned trilogy about a particularly hellish departure from Suburban Hell:
Name (Role): Mindi Overbeck Lane (Frank’s mistress)
Age: (DOB) 23 June 1981
Motivation (abstract want): Affection and relief from boredom
Goal (concrete want): A good lay and some pillow talk with Frank every couple of days.
Conflict (Preventing him/her reaching goal): Both are married and have jobs, which get in the way.
Epiphany (What he/she learns; how he/she changes): Nothing. She’s a static character, and other than unwillingly assisting the FBI investigators, she largely disappears from the story after the robbery.
General physical description: A hottie: slim and toned, but not petite (5”5’, 120 lbs), bleach blond (but well done) nice skin and teeth. Perfect nails. No kids, so her figure is still youthful. Her (ahem) intimate grooming is also carefully attended to, something her husband appreciates even as he fails to grasp that it’s not for his benefit.
Hometown: Pasadena, MD, now lives in Wheaton, MD
Relationship status: Married to John “Johnny” Lane. Mistress to Frank Smith.
Family background (parents, previous marriages, etc.): Grew up in the “Shithouse” side of Maryland, lower middle-class sprawl. Parents – Joe and Marla – are still together and have moved to a trailer park in central Florida. She visits only rarely. One sister – June – died in childhood.
Friends: She and Karen Lane will share a lunch date on occasion, usually at Karen’s suggestion (she mothers Mindi somewhat). Mindi has a few girlfriends, but, being childless, lacks the usual suburban social circle of fellow moms.
Relationship with men: She isn’t a serial adulteress yet, but will be. Men are sites of raw emotional and – what is much more – physical pleasure. She blames Johnny for her lack of emotional fulfillment, but he would complain just as much about her essential distance from him. Other men are evaluated according to wealth and – more importantly – physique. Playfulness, though, is also an important criterion (this may be brought out in a conversation with Karen about some man they both know).
Relationship with women: In general she is bored with them, having no lesbian proclivities and therefore no real use for the fairer sex. With Karen she opens up a bit, and appreciates the opportunity, but isn’t really equipped to enjoy the full benefits of emotional intimacy.
Education: High school diploma, continuing the working class family cycle.
Job: Administrative assistant at retirement home company headquarters where Frank Smith works.
Dress style: Office sexy (short skirts and low-cut blouses) for work, sexier on her own time. Her miniskirt, for example, raises eyebrows at the Lanes’ pool party, as does the bikini it covers.
Religion: Raised Lutheran, and her parents are still regular churchgoers. Mindi was never “religious” and stopped attending church when she moved out.
Attitude to religion: Some bitterness over her younger sister’s death, and the ways she saw others grieve and make sense of it. But this is in the distant past now, as she sees it. What remains is a distaste and, as said, bitterness that is unarticulated.
Favorite pastimes: Shopping, working out and – on occasion – bar hopping.
Hobbies: (is there a difference?) Vacationing in warm, beachy places. At least twice a year.
Favorite sports: She’s a runner, having competed in cross country in high school, but also does a good amount of resistance training. As a fan, she does the usual DC-area things, though having grown up in Pasadena, she’s an Orioles and Ravens fan.
Favorite foods: She loves all the bad stuff – chocolate and beer and fries… – but sticks to low-carb meals most of the time. Health conscious. A good salad with oil and vinegar is a usual lunch choice, eaten with the thought of how her body will look to her lover in mind.
Strongest positive personality trait: She is an enthusiastic lover, both in body and in voice.
Strongest negative personality trait: Essentially selfish. What can look to some like healthy self-care is really self-regard. She readily discards things and people who don’t meet immediate needs.
Sense of humor: Crass and playful. Tones in down in public, though not enough. Known in the office for having a raunchy sense of humor just under the surface….or just above.
Temper: More simmering resentment than anger. Not the bubbly type at all. Choleric without the flashes of expressed anger.
Biggest fear: Being controlled.
Consideration for others: Means to various ends, including emotional. She isn’t Machiavellian, or at least not self-consciously so. But her actions are far from charitable.
How other people see him/her: Sexy, saucy, brash, playful, fun but not to be crossed or aspired to lightly. Some women resentfully whisper “Slut.”
Opinion of him/herself: That she meets all the needs for others that she wants met for herself: a friendly conversation with Karen or a sweaty, breathless romp with Frank.
Other traits, especially those to be brought out in story: She has great disdain for her husband and his suburban ilk; she does not hide the former, but makes a point of broadcasting the latter, a sort of proxy criticism. She would never think in these terms (she enjoys the freedom of childlessness), but some of her antipathy may stem from his inability to get her pregnant.
Ambitions: Unclear, especially as her pursuits “lack roots,” for want of a better term. She wants happiness, like everyone, but seeks it in unsatisfying places. At the story’s close, she is seeking a new lover in a bar.
Philosophy of life: Love me or leave me. Perhaps this is another source of her disdain for her husband, who just hangs on, moving in neither direction.
Most important thing to know about this character: She is in some ways the perfect mistress: hot, playful, low-maintenance, discrete, and somewhat detached.
Will readers like or dislike this character, and why?: They’ll be turned on but ultimately judge her unfavorably.
One-Paragraph POV Summary
What we had was the tingling rush of meat plunged into meat, and the lazy afterglow. A couple time a week: lunch hours, stolen afternoons, even a weekend or two when we could arrange some rouse or our asshole spouses got themselves out of the way. I loved fucking Frank. I loved being fucked by Frank. All the sweaty, sticky, aching, moaning, growling of it all. And I loved the way we would rest after, no burden of “Will this convince him to clean the raingutters?” Just that lovely loosened and chafed feeling. Sounds shallow, doesn’t it, just getting laid? And cheating? Yeah. Cheating. A. D. U. L. T. E. R. Y. I get it. But you have no idea the agony of the suburban life. The whole earn-spend-marry-procreate-dry up-die treadmill. God, what a life-killer. Enough to drive you to cheat. To drive you mad. I guess that’s what finally got to Frank.
Needless to say, this book is a little rougher and a lot darker than the previous one, though not so much as the previous paragraph suggests (Mindi doesn’t get to narrate, for obvious reasons). And I will tell you that despite treading a darkening path, the main character is ultimately led on a hopeful journey, and a hopeful theme underlies the whole. So, hope this sneak peek whets your reader’s appetite!
When I planned the launch of my new novel – The Point of Escape – I lined up several dozen advance readers. Each received a free e-copy of the book in exchange for posting a review on launch day.
Problem was, a good percentage of these folks ran into trouble when trying to post their reviews on Amazon. Either they were told they couldn’t post without buying the book (this isn’t true) or the link didn’t work for them. Many have called and emailed to say, “I tried but I can’t!” Bummer. Maybe you’ve had the same experience. This post will explain the best process.
So, the first thing is to have an Amazon account (if you already have one, then scroll down to “BUT WAIT!”). Setting up an account costs nothing, but is necessary to post a review (so is making a purchase of some kind; more on this below). Go to the Amazon homepage (www.Amazon.com) and scroll your mouse over the “Your Account” dropdown menu, and click on the “New customer? Start here” hyperlink that appears beneath the yellow “Sign in” button:
Fill in the information and click on the “Create Account” button.
You’ll be taken back to the Amazon homepage, but this time you’ll be recognized:
Now, at this point, you will need to buy something in order to be able to post a review. It can be a $0.99 ebook, or a $0.01 paperback, anything. Hey, it could be my book (the ebook version will only set you back $2.99). Amazon just requires that reviewers be customers.
Now, from any Amazon screen, type the book title into the search field, and click “Go”…
…which will take you to the search results page. The Point of Escape will be listed first:
If you look to the right of the ratings stars (note the 5-star rating for The Point of Escape, folks), you’ll see a hyperlinked number indicating the number of reviews posted, 17 in this case. Click on the link, and you will be taken to the Customer Reviews page:
Click on the “Create your own review” button, and you land here:
Scroll over the stars to select the rating you’d like to give the book, and then type up your review in the “Write your review here” box. Amazon will require a paragraph (sorry, I was wrong about one-word reviews), but not a lengthy one:
Yes, I deleted this “review” and hit the “Clear” link to erase the rating after I took this screen shot. For demonstration purposes only, folks.
Note that when you place your cursor in the review-drafting box, a title box opens and a “Submit” button appears. When you are done, click on this button, and Amazon will tell you that…
Within a day you will receive an email telling you that your review is live, and I will be eternally grateful.
“BUT WAIT!” you say. “I ALREADY HAVE AN ACCOUNT, AND I DOWNLOADED YOUR BOOK, JUST LIKE YOU ASKED!”
Yup. Some folks have had problems posting reviews by the above method. So…..here’s the work-around.
When signed into Amazon, you will see on the Amazon banner the “Hello [your name]/Your Account” link:
Click it, and it takes you here:
If you scroll down, then you will find:
Note the third and fourth links under “Community.” “Product Reviews Written by You” takes you to…well, to a list of reviews written by you. But “Your Reviews” (oddly enough) takes you to a reverse chronological list of all the products you’ve purchased (or downloaded for free) from Amazon for which you haven’t yet written reviews:
From here you know the drill: rating, review, heading for your review and “Submit” button.
So, I hope this clears up the process, and enables you to post reviews for all manner of products on Amazon.
The Snowflake Method in Action
One major planning step – done before any real drafting takes place – is character descriptions. Getting to know your characters helps to guide the plot when it comes time to actually draft the story. I use an extensive heuristic device (a series of questions) to help me describe the people who populate the pages of my books. This series of questions forces me to know important things about these people, some of which never finds its way onto the pages, but all of which affects the outcome.
As an example, here is the character sketch I did for the main character of The Point of Escape, Jerrod Beams:
Jerrod Beams (Protagonist)
Age: 48 (11 August 1964)
Motivation (abstract want): Fullness of life, happiness in the Greek sense of eudemonia.
Goal (concrete want): To split the dilemma of escaping a dreary, meaningless job and living up to his responsibilities as a bread winner and realistic “grown up.”
Conflict (Preventing him/her reaching goal): Jerrod lacks self-knowledge, so he doesn’t understand what would make him happy, and he is locked into financial and moral commitments that appear to bind him to his work, which in turn discourages self-reflection.
Epiphany (What he/she learns; how he/she changes): Jerrod comes to see that he doesn’t know (Socrates’ wisdom), and begins to question what it is that he wants and must do.
General physical description: Of medium height (5’ 10”), with brown hair thinning on top, and grey temples, he weighs 170 lbs. (14% BMI) down from 190 lbs., or about 25% body fat before he started working out with colleague and friend Fred Trudham, his once-athletic frame weighed down by neglect rather than abuse.
Hometown: Born and raised in Bowie, Maryland, he grew up in the suburbs that sprawled to accommodate the growing federal workforce.
He is married to the former Janice Howland of Laurel, Maryland, whom he met at a coffee shop soon after returning to the DC area after college. This is the only marriage for each of them, and together they have one grown son, Matthew, who lives in Seattle.
Jerrod’s parents, Matthew and Mary, retired to Naples, Florida, seven years ago. Matthew worked forty years for McDonnell-Douglas, and Mary held a job as a high school administrative assistant once Jerrod and his two younger sisters entered school.
Friends: Jerrod has no close friends, a consequence of his long years of 13-hour days. The closest relationship he enjoys is that with co-worker Fred Trudham, with whom he has struck up a workout partnership. Jerrod has no “guys” upon which to call for companionship or assistance.
Other close relationships: He remains close to his parents, whom he calls regularly and visits annually. He also keeps in touch with his two younger sisters via email and social media (Facebook).
Relationship with men: Jerrod establishes “good working relationships” with those around him, but nothing deeper. It’s not that he lacks a “deep-down” (pace, Hermione Granger), but that he has habituated himself to emotional solitude. He enjoys company, but does not seek it out for lack of time, but more so for lack of practice and hope.
Relationship with women: He is and has been a faithful husband, though not immune to the charms of a pretty face or shapely leg. Knowing his weakness, he is careful to maintain professional decorum with the few women of his acquaintance.
Job: Jerrod is a GS-14 Office Manager in RITA’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, with two employees reporting to him (GS-7 and -11). Both are competent and reliable, making his role almost superfluous. Still, he is in line for promotion to Deputy Associate Administrator, and occasionally serves as Acting AA in the absence of the AA and Deputy. He does not aspire to promotion, but takes the steps expected of someone his rank who does. He does so more out of inertia than duty; it’s “what’s done,” but it’s habit that makes him join in to the extent that he does.
Dress style: Since his promotion to Office Director, he has been one of the “suits.” Joseph A. Bank was his friend at first. Later raises have allowed him to explore Brooks Brothers, ascending the earning-and-spending spiral of the government executive.
Religion: He is a faithful Catholic, born and raised. Temptation brings his faith to the surface. Still, his faith is usually in the background. He is dutiful, and follows the rules, but not out of any close personal sense of God in his life. This will challenge him as he begins to examine his life, and he has the opportunity to either see his faith life as another manifestation of the Void, or this question itself as evidence that the 4HWW life is suspect.
Attitude to religion: See above.
Favorite pastimes: Reading, cooking and, lately, exercise.
Hobbies: None really. He is too time-starved to imagine carving out any hobby time.
Favorite sports: He watches pro football, a lifelong Ravens fan
Favorite foods: Jerrod is an omnivore in the fullest sense, and enjoys exploring in the kitchen when he can. This is an area for growth.
Strongest positive personality trait: Perseverance.
Strongest negative personality trait: Exteriorly, the willingness to doggedly endure. Interiorly, the ability to suppress displeasure and the resulting anger.
Sense of humor: He is “quick,” and given to quoting or paraphrasing lines from movies and literature. Janice, though far from unintelligent, is often left behind by his rapid trains of thought, something he finds endearing.
Temper: A melancholic, but on the cusp with choleric, which will come out more so as he realizes his plight.
Consideration for others: He is kind in his words, but doesn’t go beyond the surface. He’s not a “get to know you” boss or coworker.
How other people see him/her: Some see him as detached and uncaring, but he is simply habitually a man apart.
Opinion of him/herself: He knows he has done well by his employer and his family, and feels a certain pride. But he believes he should be happier for this, and suspects that he is missing something or doing something wrong.
Other traits, especially those to be brought out in story: Fast driver; needs alone time, but not as much as he thinks. And he is angrier than he knows, and doesn’t know why when he discovers that he is [quere: Does the anger come out before or after the 4-Hour process has begun?]
Ambitions: A secure retirement, but not much beyond that Void.
Philosophy of life: He lacks one. He has “done” more than thought of why. He will probably not address this aspect of the Void, but will feel satisfied with the rich life of exploration Ferriss sells.
Most important thing to know about this character: Though he is unhappy, he doesn’t know how unhappy he is. Though he is capable, he doesn’t know how capable. Though he knows he could be happy, he doesn’t know how happy. In short, he does not know himself.
Will readers like or dislike this character, and why? Readers will relate to his dull existence, and his anger when he sees it for what it is. They will vicariously thrill to the escape theme and Jerrod’s ultimate triumph.
One-Paragraph POV Summary
The dullness, the monotony of my life first became apparent to me as I droned to work in DC, where I contributed to the hive-collective. The hum of tires on the Beltway concrete had for years filled the hollow space that was my life; now I heard an echo. I had sounded the Void. Seeking “escape,” I found inspiration in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and stepped through the looking glass. I didn’t know what I wanted to escape to, just that I wanted to escape from, which was good enough for me. Or so I thought. I cleared all the fillers from my life, from the hum of my tires (telework reduced it, then remote work eliminated it), to the 10-year-old moving boxes in my garage (I can park my car in it!), to every unnecessary email twitch. Following Ferriss’ advice, I started my own business , which grew rapidly, as did that Echo inside me and the unease of my family, until Panic! I retreated to the safety of my office, only to discover in the midst of bureaucratic conformity the strength and peace necessary for a self-directed life.
So, there you have it: a glimpse inside the process that brought The Point of Escape to life. In future posts I’ll offer some sneak-peeks into the current project, and maybe even invite you to contribute to the process.
Wow! What a launch day!
After spending the day posting to dozens of sites, sending dozens of messages on Goodreads and Twitter (and getting politely asked to stop by the former and suspended by the latter!), and clicking on the “Refresh” buttons on the Kindle Direct Publishing sales report and the Amazon book page, I called it quits around 6:30 pm. I was happy with the results. Sales stood at 125, breaking the triple-digit goal I’d set. Comfortable in that this metric had been met, I headed out for a local concert with some friends.
A good time was had by all.
By the time I got home and checked One Last Time, though, sales were over 200! That’s twice the goal I’d set. And, the book stood at #25 in the General Humor category for free Kindle books, just under 2,000 overall. Not too shabby for first novel.
And then, this morning, this greeted me:
That’s right. Almost 300 downloads, three times my goal. Whoot!
Curious, I headed over to the book’s Amazon page and saw this:
#13?! That’s above the fold. And teetering on the top 900 overall! [And the news is even better. In the time it’s taken me to compose this post, the book has climbed to #12 in General Humor and #863 overall.]
I share all this with you, well, because I’m so excited. But more so to say thank you to all those who lent their support and spread the word. Writing the book is only part of the process, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have helped make this launch a success.
And the launch goes on. Today is The Point of Escape‘s second “promo” day (i.e. it’s free!), so keep spreading the good word, and I’ll keep you posted on how things shake out.
Any author worth his salt writes with a genre in mind. I’ll make no claims about my saltiness either way, but The Point of Escape was written with a couple genres in mind, one of which I’ll discuss today: suburban fiction.
Conversely, the Goodreads shelf for the genre that pops up as the third link in our Google search includes a majority of young adult lit. OK, teen girls’ lit. Judy Bloom and the like. Angst, adultery and ennui writ young. Not exactly what I’m going for here.
“So,” you ask, “just what are you about?”
Glad you asked. There are actually several flavors of suburban lit, all of which – unsurprisingly – draw thematic elements from those ubiquitous sprawling subdivisions and side streets. As you can tell from the brief descriptions above, this can be a fairly dark mode of writing, inevitably contrasting with the cheery stereotype of white picket fences and 2.5 kids. The darkness can become pervasive, as in subgenres like suburban gothic – which introduces elements of the supernatural and science fiction – or suburban noir – which slides into psychosis and horror.
My current project (yes, I’m writing The Next One even as I steer This One toward launch day) edges into these subgenres. It’s a three-part series that takes a rather dark look at what the world of cookie-cutter houses and conspicuous consumption can do to your soul. I hope to have the first installment in beta form by the fall, and to market before Christmas. Weary food for cheery souls. Ho. Ho. Ho.
Not so much The Point of Escape. I wrote it with beach reading in mind, and so – though not uncritical of suburban life – its themes are far more uplifting, its trajectory more hopeful. Jerrod Beams experiences all the aimless ennui of any suburban fiction hero. But although the ‘burbs in some ways embody the Faustian bargain he has struck with the Federal Mephistopheles – they and the life they promise are the false fruits of his soul-crushing labor – Jerrod is largely happy with what he has provided for his family. Just not how he has provided it. That’s what he hopes to change.
The great source of that hope – the ability to take stock and the courage to change – was inspired by a non-fiction work, and places the novel itself into a new genre, something I call entrepreneurial fiction. Defining this new genre will be the focus of my next post.