Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last (Literary) Lines for 2012

Stealing this idea from NPR librarian Kee Malesky, who closes out the year by sharing last lines from classic novels. Too difficult a task to think of my all-time favorite, so I limited my search to the books I read in 2012. The winner for me was Junot Diaz's THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. Here's how he ends it:

You bust out a couple more things. Then you put your head down.
The next day you look at the new pages. For once you don't want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It's a start, you say to the room.
That's about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace--and because you know in your lying cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Great Advice to Writers

From Jeffrey Eugenides, one of the best articles on writing I've read in a long time. It was adapted from a speech he made to a group young, award-winning authors, but it's excellent advice for writers of any age--award-winners or not.

Here's one of my favorites of several great passages:

"When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention."

Read the entire article HERE.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Richards on Writing

Reading Keith Richards's LIFE and came across this, as true for fiction writing as for songwriting:

"And also the other thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You're constantly on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Farewell, My Gabster

For the past 12 years, I've had a writing companion here in the office each and every day. She's so dedicated that she even sleeps here. Slept.

I had many nicknames for her. Gabster. Gabbus. Pooch-face. Pain-in-the-butt. Her real name was Gabby.

I get up at an ungodly hour to write. Gabby usually got up with me, barking to be let out of the office and taken outside when she heard me in the kitchen making the morning coffee. After breakfast, she would sit at my feet, often on top of them, as I wrote. She made sure I didn't become completely glued to the chair by periodically making me take her outside. She was a most eager luncheon companion, especially as I prepared my sandwich and might accidentally let a sliver of ham or cheese fall to the floor.

Gabby was a strange little beagle. She loved people but did not like to be petted by them. She prefered to be close enough for some part of her body to touch, but petting... well, she tolerated it for a few seconds, then moved away, as if she could not understand this strange behavior. She liked walks only when my wife Joanne was one of the walkers. She had a chair in the family room all to herself, but whenever she had the opportunity she sneaked onto one of the couches. When ordered off, BAD GIRL, she simply hopped back onto her chair, arranged herself into a small circle of black and tan and white, and snoozed on as if nothing had happened outside of a ridiculously unreasonable human demand.

A month ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. Decisions had to be made. How much time? What were the options? What was to be gained? And, yes, what would be the costs? In the past, I agreed  readily to procedures and fees that a reasonable person would justifiably think excessive for a dog. But this time was different. It wasn't a matter of healing. It was an issue of prolonging. And so we decided to let Mother Nature have her way.

In the few weeks following the bad news, Gabby had her bad days, but most were pretty good. Our carpet took a beating, but we cleaned up silently and without remonstration. She seemed to recover a little after each bout with the beast inside, and so we kept hoping that the diagnosis was wrong or that Gabby was beating it. We knew, of course, that the prognosis was bleak. And Gabby was never much of a fighter. One of our family's favorite stories is of the day she took off after a gaggle of geese making their way across our back yard, only to turn tail the moment one of the goslings turned around.

This past Friday night I returned home from a two-day business trip. She raised her head to greet me, but her eyes were yellowed and filmy. She didn't wag her tail. She didn't even stand. And so yesterday, we gathered up her favorite cushion and took her to the vet for the final time. The last thing Gabby saw was Joanne's comforting, teary smile.

Yes, I cried, too. I cried the moment she left us.  I cried when we got home and she wasn't there to greet us, running and tail-wagging around the family in joy and immense relief that we had, after all, returned. And this morning, I cried (just a little bit... I'm not a complete pussy) when I made the morning coffee. And right now, at this moment, my feet are cold.

I had fully intended to keep this all to myself. After all, people lose their pets all the time. We know from the day we get the little buggers that there will come a day similar to the one my family experienced yesterday. Why write about this painful but common experience?

Hell if I know. My only excuse, perhaps, is that I'm a writer. And I feel compelled to acknowledge this little dog's spirit to a world larger than my own.

Gabby! Here!

Good girl.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Inspiration: What's On Your Desk?

Nazareth 1979                                                                                                           © James King
Several centuries ago I was in Israel and found myself sucked into a soccer game with these young Arab athletes. Afterward, they insisted I take their picture. The result is probably the best photo I've ever taken. I framed it and keep it and on my desk. I smile every time I look at it.

Some days, when I'm casting about for what I'd like to write next, I stare at this picture. I want to go back, find this street again, locate one of these kids, and find out what happened to him and each one of his friends. I've a feeling their stories are more compelling than any fiction I might write.

Until then, I use this picture and these kids to inspire me to try to capture in words the immediacy and the emotion of a moment, the way I did by chance and nearly not at all but for their loud and exuberant insistence that day in Nazareth.

What do you keep on your desk for inspiration?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Enforcing the BIC Rule of Writing

I'm a strong believer in the BIC (Butt-in-Chair) rule of writing.
So, apparently, is my writing companion.
If I move my chair away from my desk (and my writing), I'm going to hear about it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Love Those Book Clubs

It's hard to believe that two years have passed since BWLC hit the shelves. 

One of my favorite activities since publication: Meeting with book clubs. I've met in person, via Skype, on the phone, and even via Facebook Chat. 

If you belong to a book club (or two or three) and would like a copy of my book to consider for your club, let me know (and pass the word). Thanks to all for your support!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Irish Surprise

I wouldn't describe myself as superstitious, but sometimes something happens that causes me stand back and wonder: Is this a sign? a message from the gods?

When my daughter returned from a recent trip to Ireland, she brought me a nice bottle of fine Jameson whiskey, along with coasters bearing the King family crest. I was surprised that a book was part of the crest. I was also intrigued by the motto under the book, "Maireann a sgrioghtar." According the coasters' package, the words mean, "History cannot be destroyed."

Kinda boring. (Just the motto, Katie. I love the coasters!) So today, while struggling to complete a sentence and wondering, once again, what kind of nut case actually chooses to become a writer, I was staring at one of the coasters. I then Googled the King name and family motto. I found the same Irish words but with a different translation. This one read: "That which is written, lives."

I'm taking that one as a sign.

What are the signs that you are fated to do what you do?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

When Words Won't Work

I've had no special desire to visit the 911 Memorial. I didn't think anything could make as great an impact on me as what I saw at Ground Zero a few days after the attacks: the ash, the smoke still rising from the rubble, the smiling faces of loved ones posted on telephone poles, on trees, on gates. The smell.

But as often happens when visitors have on their itinerary a landmark you live near but rarely if ever visit, I went to the site yesterday.

I'm a word guy. But with this, I'm not even going to try.

Where the South Tower once stood.

Freedom Tower. Hurry up and finish it, please.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mulcho Man: Where One Writer Finds His Ideas

I love this cartoon because at almost every reading I've either attended or given, the author is invariably asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" The shower seems to be a popular idea incubator among writers.

My ideas, however, usually lurk outside. I've come to believe that they hide out there on purpose, as if to make me live up to a boast I made twenty-seven years ago when Joanne and I were considering purchasing the house we eventually did buy and have lived in ever since:  a cozy (realtor-speak for tiny) house on an acre of weedy grass, unruly bushes, and lots and lots of trees--which meant, every autumn, lots and lots of leaves.

"If we buy this place," Joanne said, "We'll need to hire someone to do all the yard work."

"No way," I said in my best Paul Bunyan. "It'll be good exercise for me."

I don't enjoy yard work--never did. But once I'm into it, my mind wanders to whatever writing project is underway. I start talking to the characters as I mow the lawn, eavesdrop on their conversations while I do the edging, play "what if" with plot lines while trimming the $&#(&***  forsythia.

 A few years ago, I came up with an idea for cutting back on the amount of lawn I'd need to cut. I created vast beds of mulch around the trees and various bushes and shrubs Joanne had planted. For some reason, she usually undertook these beautification projects while I was away on a business trip. Anyway, my brilliant labor-saving plan shaved a few minutes off the mowing, but added several days each year to increasingly (as I age) back-breaking task of distributing the mountain of mulch dumped in our driveway to their various spots on our cozy little acre.

Today I was chipping my way through a mountain of mulch when one of my major characters approached me. She'd been edited out of several scenes, and I had been considering getting rid of her entirely. She watched me shovel and sweat for awhile and then, just I was about to lug another full wheelbarrow up the hill in front of the house, said, "The story will be stronger without me."

This was not welcome news. We'd been together several years. But she was right. She knew it. I knew it. And as usually happens after an outdoors encounter with one of my characters, I was eager to get back in the house and back to the writing. I just wish that, in this case, that character had helped with the mulch before taking off.

So... where do you get your ideas?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Author Event: The Not-So-Secret Life of the American Teenager

I'm really looking forward to participating in this panel discussion at the New York Public Library on Tuesday, June 5, at 6 p.m. There will be free book bags filled with book swag (first come, first serve), and attendance is free. (Registration recommended, though. You can register here.) If you're in NYC for BookExpo America--or for any other reason, for that matter--please join us.

Here's the official description of the event:

The Not-So-Secret Life of the American Teenager: Bridging the Gap Between YA and Adult Fiction
On this panel, Penguin authors Laura Harrington (Alice Bliss) and James King (Bill Warrington's Last Chance) join forces with fellow YA authors Mari Mancusi (Blood Coven Vampire novels), Veronica Wolff (The Watcher series), and Emily McKay (The Farm) to draw comparisons between Adult literature and the growing YA market. How do these authors craft novels that both teens and adults enjoy? Whether their characters are parents reconnecting with their teenage children or teens battling high school bullies or vampires, each author offers readers a glimpse into teenage life-the milestones, the angst, the blissful moments-that both teens and parents can relate to. Moderated by Lev Grossman, author of the New York Times bestselling novels, The Magicians and The Magician King, these authors discuss books that appeal to readers of all ages. In celebration of "New York Book and Media Week", free goodie bags will be given to attendees while supplies last! This is a free event, there will also be goodie bags filled with free books and other fun "book swag" will be given to attendees on a first come, first serve basis.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Just When I Thought I Was Finished...

Let me tell you something you already know: It doesn't get any easier.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Deep in the Heart of Texas

A clip from one of the TV interviews during my recent visit to Amarillo.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Submitting a Novel: Proof That Time Stands Still

What do you call the period of time that spans the day you submit your novel to the moment you hear back--thumbs up or down--from an agent or editor?

Back in the day (pre-email), the time between mailing a query letter (or partial or full) and getting a response could be weeks... even months. I know this from years of calendar-watching experience. These days, however, thanks to email, you can get your rejection in minutes. This I also know from personal experience.

In either case, I believe that that period of time is known as "eternity."

It doesn't get any better after you've been published. In fact, there's the added pressure that accompanies a sophomore effort. As soon as you send off the manuscript you've obsessed over for two or three years, those inner demons start happily planting the fields of negativity and uncertainty that line your neural pathways:
  • "S/he hates it; that's why you haven't heard." 
  • "They're all gathered around your manuscript, pointing and laughing."
  • "Do you really think this is better than the first one?:
  • "That was your one shot, kid. This one is going to finally expose you as the fraud, the one-hit wanna-be writer."

The best advice I've received for handling this situation came on the day I learned Bill Warrington's Last Chance would be published. I learned it from Susan Petersen Kennedy, the president of Penguin Group. "Have you started on your next one?" she asked, soon after we'd met. I mumbled something about experimenting with a few different ideas. She shook her head. "No," she said. "You need to get started on the next one right away."

She was right, of course. I did. And a few weeks ago, I finished it. And I'm starting on the next one. Right here, smack dab in the middle of eternity.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye."
Jack Kerouac, ON THE ROAD
 For the past two-and-a-half years, I've been obsessed with the internal and external lives of the characters in my work-in-progress. I finally finished the story and sent it off to my agent. And so begins the waiting. And yes, Mr. Petty, the way-yay-ting is indeed the hardest part.

In the meantime, I've been fiddling around with some new story ideas. But what's surprised me is how much I've already let go of the characters that I've lived with 24/7 for a thousand days or so. Oh, I know I'll be spending plenty of quality time with them after my agent and editor read and (please, God, please) accept the manuscript. But in my mind, the characters are pretty much pacing the waiting room, bags packed. They're itching to escape the danger of yet another change to their appearance or motivation. They're tired of words being put in their mouths, of constantly being asked if their actions and reactions are realistic or "in character."  Some of the secondary characters are especially nervous, knowing that if it's decided they're not pulling their weight in pushing the story forward, they'll fall into the already over-crowded pit managed by that Charon of the keyboard, Delete.

I'm eager to make sure my beloved characters are in the best possible shape before sending them out into the world. But for quite awhile now, they've been the uninvited guests at the King house, occupying my thoughts in the early and late hours and, more often than not, during breakfast, lunch and dinner. They've dominated the conversations on "date nights" with my wife, and my children are becoming less and less tolerant of my grumpy battles with the main character. It's nearing time to say good-bye.

It will be nice for a while. A bit freeing, actually. But I know that soon things will start to get a little too quiet around here and it'll be time to meet some new friends. In fact, just this morning while shaving, I met an interesting character in a terrible predicament who needs a place to stay for a day or so. Or maybe a thousand.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Revision Update: How Novels Turn Into Short Stories

Well... not exactly. But you get the idea.

My first draft was up at about 110,000 words. Today I completed the fourth draft, and the word count is down to 93,743.

Not every one of those 16,000-or-so cuts hurt... but a lot of them did. Still, the story is a lot sharper and stronger as a result--which, of course, is much more important than word count.

Draft Four is now in the hands of my First Reader. Will there be a Fifth Draft?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Revision Update: Draft Three Complete

Big day today: I completed the third draft of my next novel. It's now in the hands of my first reader, my wife, Joanne. This is the first time she's read the entire story. Until today, she's only seen Chapter 1. My biggest challenge will be to resist hovering nearby while she reads.

And continuing with my strange fascination with the effect of my revisions on word count, as you can see from the graph below, the third draft claimed many of my darlings.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

More Revisions, More Mayhem

People have been asking how my novel's going. Here's a visual update of the third draft so far, based on word count:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Revisions: Killing My Not-So-Sexy Darlings

For no particularly good reason, I've been tracking my progress with the third draft of my work-in-progress by charting the effect of my revisions on word count.

When I started last month, the word count stood at 103,095 words, down about 5,000 from my second draft. I began the third draft by adding more than 2,000 words. This is not the direction most revisions are supposed to go. After all, there's an old saying that when you revise, you have to "kill your darlings"; in other words, eliminate anything that doesn't move the story forward, no matter how well written you think it is or how attached to it you might be.

When the word count peaked at 105,601 words, the killing began. Gradually, at first. Then I hit the 104k mark. At that point, I was up to Chapter Seven. This was the chapter I had been thinking of as the "Sex Chapter" for reasons you can probably guess. As the chart shows, it was there that I embarked upon a rather murderous rampage. Some of those scenes, which I thought were pretty good when I wrote the second draft, made me cringe when I read them in preparation for revision. Cutting pages that you may have spent days or weeks or even months writing isn't easy. But in this case, I took up the task gratefully. This wasn't killing darlings. This was mercy killing.

The trend continues. I'm now about halfway through the manuscript and the word count stands at just above 100,000. I know from my previous drafts that I still need to add another scene or two for continuity in later chapters, so the count may climb once again. But I also know that there are still plenty of not-so-sexy darlings in the remaining chapters. There will be blood.