Just a Bit of Fun

While walking in San Diego last weekend, we saw this gold Bentley parked on India Street. A white-haired Italian gentleman was sitting on the front porch of the yellow house in the photo. My wife introduced herself, and he said his name was Nick. When she asked him if he owned the car, he responded, “Anything gold must be mine.”

Later, we Googled the car and found an interesting story about Nick Pecoraro, who came to this country from Sicily in 1947 to make a better life for himself. Now, he is a famous fixture in the community, where he is sometimes referred to as “The Mayor of Little Italy,” or “The Godfather.”

We saw him again the next day. I commented that the police had not towed his car away yet, and he said, “I made them an offer they can’t refuse.”

An Interview with James M. McCracken, President of the Northwest Independent Writers Association

—How did you get started writing?

I guess you could say I was intimidated into writing. I’ll explain.

During a high school basketball game, I sat in the bleachers drawing a picture. The older sister of a schoolmate sat down beside me and asked me what I was drawing. I showed her and she wanted to know the story behind the picture. I told her there wasn’t a story. It’s just a picture. She said there had to be a story otherwise I couldn’t draw it. So, to get her to leave me alone, I made up a story and told her. She said, write it down. The next time I come to visit my brother, I want to read it. I said I would but had no intention of actually doing it.

A month later, I heard she was back and looking for me! I stayed in the dorm and didn’t leave until I heard she was gone. As I walked out of the building a van stopped in front of me. It was HER. She motioned me over and asked to see the story. I told her I hadn’t finished it yet. She said I had a month and she’d be back. She was bigger and stronger than me and a bit intimidating.

Once she left, I bought a ream of typing paper and 450 pages later, I still wasn’t finished with the story. I had figured out the ending and couldn’t finish it. My schoolmate’s sister never did read the story, but I was hooked.

I continued to write shorter stories but never let anyone read them because I was afraid they would think the story was dumb.

I love disaster movies and in 1975 I wrote a story about a 747 that crashed into the ocean and managed to stay intact, but sank. The story followed the typical disaster storyline – survivors trying to escape. I tucked it away with the rest of my stories and forgot about it.

Two years later, in 1977, I was walking past the bulletin board and noticed the movie ads. My jaw dropped when I saw the ad for Airport ’77. I thought if someone else could come up with the same premise as me, maybe my stories aren’t so dumb after all.

So, I began to take my writing more seriously. But I still wouldn’t let anyone read any.

—Tell us a bit about your craft. How do you begin a new book? 

I am what some people have described as a pantster, I don’t use an outline.

Most of my stories start out as a dream. When I wake up, I begin writing down the dream. Depending on the story, in order to keep the characters straight, I search the internet for pictures of people and use the pictures to keep my descriptions consistent.

I research the details in the story as they come up.

I try not to think too far in advance because I know myself and once I figure out the ending, it becomes more difficult if not impossible for me to finish. So, I am sometimes as surprised by the ending as you, the reader, are.  

—What would you most like your readers to take away from your writing?

Many of my stories deal with family and life, I would want people to take away that in life there is no such thing as “happily ever after.”  Life is a complex timeline filled with moments, some good, some not-so-great, some we cause by the choices we make and some that are unexpected. It’s those moments that collectively shape us into the people we are.     

—Can you give us a sneak peek at your latest work-in-progress?

I’m currently working on a new series tentatively titled, In My Mother’s House. It’s a soap opera inspired by a true-life family. The series covers eight years in the lives of the Holts beginning with an unexpected death and ending when the last of the Holt children moves out of her parents’ house.

The synopsis:

Life is finally starting to turn around for
Robert and Abigail Holt and their seven children.
Robert is working a steady job.
Abigail’s business is thriving.
The family is settling into their new home.
The future is looking bright.
Then one phone call sends them on a roller coaster ride
no one could have predicted. . .
or did he?

MURDER – HEARTBREAK – HOPE – JOY – LOVE – DREAMS

—Thank you so much for you time, Jamie. And for my readers, here’s the link to his website, where you can check out all of his books and more! James M. McCracken

Book Review: West of Sin by Wesley Lewis

Not long after I started reading this book, I found myself wondering if it should come with a warning, something like, “Caution: reading this novel may cause unacceptable spikes in heart rate and blood pressure. Taking a valium or a good strong drink beforehand is recommended.” By midway through, I felt as though I were careening down a twisty, narrow mountain road with no guardrails and no brakes!

I loved the quote attributed to Robin Williams at the beginning: “[Las Vegas] may not be the end of the world per se, but you can certainly see it from there.”

Realtor Jennifer Williams is having the worst day of her life. At a real estate convention in Las Vegas, she is hoping to deepen a budding relationship with her recently divorced boss. Alas, it is not to be. In a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she walks in on a robbery-in-progress at a convenience mart, and her life is forever changed. All hell breaks loose—again and again and again!

To call this simply “a thriller,” as noted in the subtitle, is like calling the Indie 500 “just another car race.” This is a page-turning, breathlessly-paced, action-packed tour de force of a debut novel. Lewis shows a mastery of dialogue, humor, character development, suspense, and plot twists that we might expect from a seasoned author who has already written a dozen novels. I can’t begin to imagine how he will follow up with his next book, but I can imagine his making a big splash in the literary world and, hopefully, beyond. (Amazon Prime Video, are you listening?) As a Texas Hold ’em player on the Vegas strip might say, Lewis’s book is “the nuts.”

Book Review: Raven’s Heart by Shawna Reppert

It is such a delight to be back in alternative Portland with the third book of the Ravensblood series. I find it compelling to get drawn into an urban fantasy set along streets I’ve walked down and places I’ve been. It’s that added layer of realism that lends such believability to a story of incantations, artifacts and magic.

The players are back: Raven, still working on his redemption by consulting for the Guardians, the police force combatting magical crime; his lover Cassandra, still cautious in light of his previous betrayal; the dark mage William, now wielding only a shadow of his former strength after the cataclysmic battle in the last book. But William has scoured the ancient archives and libraries and has discovered the whereabouts of long-forgotten artifacts of death magic which will restore his power and lay the city and the world at his feet.

As always in this series, the characterization is rich and textured, the emotional tone, complex and engaging, the action sequences, stunning and cinematic. I especially liked the ending, which is as wholly satisfying as the narrative that builds up to it. Ms. Reppert weaves her story like casting a spell, capturing the reader in her own brand of magic. And I will never be able to look at Vista House in the Columbia Gorge the same way again. For me, it will remain forever the setting for the climax of a novel which will haunt me for a long time to come. Here’s a link: Raven’s Heart

Another Shameless Self-Promotion

Writing books is fun; promoting them is not. I continue to experiment with marketing strategies. This week, on April 20 and 21, Seal of Secrets will be free and each of the three other books in the Driftwood Mysteries series will be only $0.99. I guess it’s a little like fishing: I cast my line out, using the freebie for bait, and hope to get a bite on the discounted books. My goals are modest, namely, to get more reviews and to earn enough to pay for the promotions. (Of course, the immodest goal is for just that right person to pick up one of my books. You know, the guy with the connections at Netflix and/or Amazon Prime, who says, “Hey, I can make a screenplay out of this!”) Anyway, that’s my version of buying a lottery ticket— the chances of hitting it are considerably less than being struck by lightning on the way to pick up my mail, but so what.

That being said, although the freebie will end after those two days, I’ll continue to discount the others through May 4. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Dungeness and Dragons, which has gotten such good professional reviews and that nifty little gold medallion from indieB.R.A.G.

Meanwhile, work on the short stories is continuing. One has actually morphed into a novelette, about four times longer than the others.

Well, dear friends, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Mybook.to/Driftwood

An Update and Some Teasers

I am happy to report that Dungeness and Dragons has just been awarded an indieBRAG Medallion, a special recognition by the indie Book Readers Appreciation Group. Here’s the cover with the medallion on it:

I’m hoping that every little bit helps with marketing!

Meanwhile, I continue to work on my next volume of short stories. Here are a few beginnings:

Gargoyle

Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” couldn’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground. At 13-years-of-age, Gary already knew this. A veteran of six different schools across Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, he knew names could be exquisite torture. The heir of a severe cleft lip and palate, and victim of a botched surgery, he had a face that bullies said could stop a clock. Gary Gargoyle they called him behind his back, always just loud enough for him to overhear.

A Better Mousetrap

You know you’re old when having a successful bowel movement after your first cup of coffee is reason to clap your hands and call up a 60s rock playlist on your sound system. So, I sat there, hands wrapped around my second mug, a stupid grin on my face, listening to Grace Slick’s defiant “Somebody to Love.”

Coffee

No, zombies don’t eat brains, but we’re particularly fond of coffee. Doctors say that something in the coffee slows down the demyelination of the nerve bundles responsible for the symptoms. I don’t understand anything about that. I only know that I crave the stuff.

Rain

“God’s tears,” Jeremy thought, as he sat at his desk watching the gray rain sweep across the empty lot behind the old white house and finally tap against the window in front of him. He looked at the Roman collar he had plucked from his black shirt and laid on the desk next to the letter he had just penned. What he was about to do could not be undone once set it in motion.

Widowmaker               

Before our house fell into the ocean, I used to enjoy watching my mother dance in the kitchen with her sisters every Friday evening. Because her sisters didn’t want her to backslide and get sick again, Aunts May and June would come over after work, each bringing a bottle of wine, “to start the weekend right.”

The Arborist

“Tree is telling stories again,” he said, his open palm resting on the gnarled bark of the enormous white oak in our front yard. He spoke in his characteristic monotone, his short blonde hair framing his ever-serious face. Upset that the tree would have to come down, my 11-year-old son Dax was spending most of his free time sitting under its branches, “listening” to what it had to say. It made me regret once again that I had made the comment aloud a month ago when we learned of the tree’s sickness. “Boy, if this old tree could talk, imagine the stories it would tell.”

I hope the Muse keeps moving! Target time for publishing is mid- to late summer. I’ll give you plenty of advance notice.

Hello, Again!

What can I say? I just don’t post much. I’ve all but weaned myself off Facebook–it began to feel like a black hole to me, sucking up time that I felt could be better spent elsewhere.

On a positive note, Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer for Midwest Book Review, has just published her review of Dungeness and Dragons on her website, and it’s in the February edition of MBR. Here’s the link to it on her site: D&D Review

I’m feeling blessed right now–our electric power came back on yesterday at 4:00 P.M. after being out for six days due to an ice storm. Fortunately, our gas fireplace kept us warm, and no trees fell on our house. Of course, prayers go out to all those people in Texas who have it far worse than we did.

Although I haven’t been able to write this week, I hope to get back to it next week. I have drafts of several new stories for the upcoming volume, which is tentatively entitled, Before Our House Fell Into the Ocean. At this rate, publication probably won’t be until sometime this summer. In a future post, I’ll include some excerpts from the work in progress.

Stay well, dear friends.

The Last Update of 2020

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

                                           —The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats

I don’t know if there is a more perfect poem for 2020. If you haven’t read it in a while, I recommend a re-read. It’s easily available on the Internet and it’s truly riveting.

My intent here is simply to bring families and friends up-to-date on what’s happening in my little corner of the world. Although many good things have happened in my life, I’m almost embarrassed to mention them in the light of all the losses others have suffered. The fires that ravaged the Santiam Canyon left families without homes and sometimes without loved ones. The pandemic has touched the lives of everyone, taking a terrible toll in grief and loss of life. And, of course, politics have been so destructive of anyone’s peace of mind.

That said, my family has been blessed and I am very thankful. My writing has taken a different turn. I spent a lot of time this year doing free promotions, which resulted in more sales than I’ve ever had before, as well as many more reviews and ratings on Amazon. In addition, for the first time I solicited “professional reviews”—those done by experts in the field who work for a fee and never guarantee that the review will be positive. I’ve submitted my latest novel, Dungeness and Dragons, which I published in April, to Kirkus Reviews and US Review of Books. I’ve used one-sentence excerpts from them for “Editorial Reviews” on the book’s Amazon page. Click on those names if you’d like to read the full reviews.

The other news is that my narration of my short story, Eye of Newt, finally got released as an audiobook this week. It’s a hoot to go to the book’s page on Amazon, click the “Sample,” and listen to my own voice! The book is a little less than an hour long, and I have to admit, it was a pretty torturous process doing it. I have way more respect for audiobook producers now!  Will I try to tackle a full-length novel, which would probably be ten times the work I put into this little project? Maybe it’s a tiny bit like the woman who has just given birth saying “Never again!” and then she forgets the pain and has another child. We’ll see. If you’d like to check out that sample I mentioned, clicking on the title will take you there.

Finally, I’ve begun work on another volume of short stories, which I hope to publish in the spring—a little “cleansing of the palate” before I dive into the next Driftwood Mystery. Whitehorse has to do something about Volkov!

So that’s the news for now. I sincerely wish you all the blessings of this holiday season, and health for the New Year.

Progress Report and Movie Review: Tenet

My apologies to friends and family. I haven’t posted anything on my website in many weeks. Lots of excuses, of course!

Anyway, here’s what I’m about. I haven’t done much writing recently. I have a new short story, “The Sword,” which will be published in November in the Northwest Independent Writers Association’s anthology, Escape. I’ve started another but I’m bogged down at the moment.

Most of my energy has been channeled into learning how to do my own audiobooks, and it’s a very steep learning curve! I’ve taken an online course (many times!) and I’m in the process of doing my short story, “Eye of Newt.” I’m sure you know that’s the second of the Driftwood Mysteries, epilogue to Seal of Secrets and prologue to Woman in the Waves. I decided to start small to learn the ropes before launching into a full novel. That was a good decision. Although the book is only an hour long, the editing takes many times that. I’m sure as narrators get more experience, the editing comes more easily, but I spent three hours doing five minutes of the book! Yikes! And after all that, it didn’t pass muster. (There’s a plug-in for the Audacity software called “ACX check” that analyzes the material and determines if it meets ACX criteria (ACX is the Amazon company that publishes audiobooks). The big culprit was “noise floor too loud”—geek-speak for too much background noise. What to do?

You must understand, my recording studio is my wife’s closet. Besides being surrounded by her noise-dampening clothes, I hung towels over her shoe rack and blankets over the door behind me. But I hadn’t taken into account the ceiling. Since necessity is the mother of a lot of nonsense, I suspended a mattress pad over my head. (Good thing I’m not claustrophobic!) That, along with an update to my editing instructions, solved the problem. My next version passed the test. But was it of the quality that devotees of audiobooks expect in their purchases? I sent an excerpt to two people who listen to a lot of audiobooks, and both said the quality was good, but that most narrators try to make subtle distinctions between the speaking voices of different characters. Oh, well, I thought. Not gonna  happen now. Until I realized I had made a critical mistake in the very first sentence!

OK. In for a penny, in for a pound. It takes me fifteen minutes to set up my sound studio, whether I’m doing a retake of a single sentence or redoing the whole book. So back into the closet. I redid the story, trying to achieve some differentiation between the characters. The recording now sits in my computer, awaiting the time I build up enough nerve to tackle the editing again. Stay tuned.

Next, I took a calculated risk and went to the theater yesterday. Recalling my movie-going before the pandemic, in my little town the theaters were often empty for an early weekday matinee ,and I’d get a private showing. Yesterday, there was one other person in the theater, so I thought it was probably safer than grocery shopping at Safeway.

Is Tenet worth the hype? Is it any good? Absolutely. Is it as good as Inception? Well, Inception sets an awfully high bar. It’s probably not that good, but it’s a worthy entrant into the Christopher Nolan canon, and well worth your time. I’ll give you the pros and the cons, cons first.

The Regal Cinema where I saw the film set the bass at earthquake level—I thought my seat might come unmoored from the floor. Should we start considering a class action hearing loss lawsuit against them? Sheesh! Secondly, Nolan is becoming the king of muffled dialogue. At first I thought it was my old-man ears, but I saw comments from others on the internet. Dialogue lost in background noise, poorly articulated by actors. WTF, Christopher! You can do anything on film. Why can’t you let us understand what your characters are saying? Finally, and this is only a minor quibble, there is no character development. The main character doesn’t even have a name—he’s simply The Protagonist. But hey, we don’t go to Christopher Nolan movies for in-depth characterization. We’re there for mind-boggling concepts and plot, and eye-popping special effects. On that score, Tenet delivers in spades.

The pros—what an idea! And I won’t give away any spoilers here. It’s a wildly inventive concept splashed across riveting action sequences that will likely blow your mind, or at least trip a few circuit-breakers. And the deeper you get into it, the more convoluted it becomes (in a good way!). I think I actually understood about 85% of it on a first viewing, which is pretty good for me. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t grasp the real significance of the title until I read about it afterwards. I should have figured that out. Speaking of which—see the movie cold, then read about it afterwards online. The pure nerdiness of the film is enough to blow anyone’s mind. (Ever hear of a Sator Square before? I hadn’t, but it’s woven into the fabric of the film.)

So Christopher Nolan has done it again—created a thinking person’s blockbuster that will leave you talking about it for days afterward. For me, entertainment that engages your mind as well as your emotions is what it’s all about. Yes, you have to work for it, and yes, you’ll have to see it more than once, but I’m onboard. Highly recommended.

My Two Cents

“Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Strange days indeed.”

–John Lennon

 

At 3:00 A.M. this morning, I couldn’t shut my brain off. I got thinking about all the money and energy being spent in taking down the offensive monuments that litter our country. I had seen a news feature earlier this week about how Italy has come to terms with its checkered past. It hasn’t demolished the Coliseum, where thousands of innocents were slaughtered, or the monuments to the Roman emperors who bathed the country in blood. It hasn’t bulldozed the plazas and buildings and statues that celebrate Il Duce, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Instead, Italians try to understand their history. I found myself wondering, “What if we had hired the most renown writers in the world—Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners—and had them write plaques to adorn every monument, explaining its context and what we can learn from it?

The truth is, if we try to erase our past—to repress it—the chances are good it will emerge subconsciously and taint the body politic. We are a nation steeped in blood, from the genocide of the indigenous peoples who were here before us, to the centuries of racism ever since. I believe we must accept the darkness within us—not deny it—in order to keep it at bay. Camus tried to tell us decades ago that we are all “culpable murderers.” Each of us is capable of unspeakable crime, but by acknowledging that fact, we can keep ourselves in check. As Kirk famously pointed out in a classic episode of Star Trek, we can decide “I will not kill today.”

It is a daunting task, recognizing the urge to destroy that dwells inside us. We watch toddlers playing with blocks, and we see immediately that they love knocking blocks over even more than they love to build with them. That same inclination has been evident in protests that turn violent (and self-defeating) under the pressure of “mob rule” and anarchy. There is a part of us that likes to destroy, to break things and burn things down, and we must remain vigilant to keep it restrained. There is also that urge to obey a “strong man,” to surrender our ethical and moral decision-making to someone who appears to be forcefully in charge. Hitler persuaded German soldiers to kill six million people. Stalin killed twelve million. Those of us who believe such atrocities are no longer possible in our “enlightened age,” mistake human nature for something it is not, and do so at their peril.

Every political system, every country, every religion, every philosophy is flawed because it has been designed by flawed human beings. This doesn’t mean we must despair. Rather, we must be attentive, forever mindful, forever alert. We must stay on point, on guard, against the personal darkness that would do terrible harm to advance an arrogant self-interest. Yes, we must pass humane laws. Yes, we must pursue equality for everyone in every possible way. But our pursuit of “political correctness” will not save us from the demons within. We cannot “defund the police” because we need them to protect us from ourselves.

I am reminded of the concluding pages of Camus’ insightful book, The Rebel. He says, “We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn.”