Michael Haskins

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Censorship - a thing of the future?

Censorship, it’s an interesting concept. If you believe in it, you agree to give another person, or group of people, the right to control what you know and can learn.

If you don’t believe in it, you should be frightened to death every time some yokel petitions a library board to ban a book. Take it off the shelves! And do what? Burn it?

Parents, you gotta love ‘em. We all have ‘em and they are always looking out for us. Like the West Virginia parents, whose 12th graders were in a college prep class, and found the college-bound students were reading Prince of Tides and Beach Music – both by Pat Conroy.

I read Prince of Tides, years ago, but never read Beach Music.

The parents were concerned about the language, sex, and violence in the books. I wonder when they last went to college. The world has shrunk and kids growing up today have aged a lot faster than we did in school. The women I went to college with didn’t look as mature as the high school girls I see in the mornings waiting for the school bus do! In some cases, I have no doubt that high school kids know more about sex than we did at their age and probably more than their parents do.

Censorship is for the home. Parents have the right to turn the radio, TV, and computer off. I wonder if they take advantage of that opportunity. Of course, they use them for babysitting, so they probably don’t. Today, parents expect schools to bring up their children and then when an instructor chooses a book, or subject matter they don’t like, or that frightens them, they raise holy hell!

If the instructor is good enough for the other duties, why not trust in his/her judgment, especially if parenting isn’t really their fulltime job, because of work. The instructor has a better idea of what books are required reading for college prep classes than working parents who probably can’t find time to read. I, sadly, know people who haven’t read a novel since leaving college.

Parents can’t have it both ways. They want to censor the school’s choice of curriculum, but probably don’t know what games their kids are playing on the computer or movies they attend and/or watch at home. Growing up, we had the Pilot, a Catholic newspaper that contained a list of movies and rated them. We assured our parents we were going to see an “accepted” movie, but found our way to one that was listed in the “condemned” column. In most cases, I often found myself confused because I couldn’t understand why the movie was condemned!

Or, of course, it can be the opposite and some parents suppress their kids curiosity with too much strictness and ban everything and probably Bambi, too.

I have said before, what makes America a great country is our right to walk into a public library and choose a book to read. We can read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Adolph Hitler’s Meim Kampf, and make up our own minds. Most of us go for something in between the two, because we’re brought up to be reasonable. But we have the choice to choose.

There are reason dictatorships burn books and it isn’t to keep the population safe from smut and lies; it’s to keep ideas away from its masses. Ideas mean thought and free thought has always been feared by tyrants. Have you re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently? I took a class from its writer, Ray Bradbury, and he said he wrote it on a rented typewriter in the basement of the library at UCLA! Go back and re-read it. It's worth the time.

If an idea is strong enough than opposing ideas will not sway its believers, but if it based on hyperbole then the idea of questioning it scares the leaders and the simplest way to keep the status quo is to put a halt to knowledge. When the quest for knowledge and questioning ideas and principles are outlawed, which is what censorship does, then civilization, as we know it, declines.

What was that old ‘60s adage: Always question authority. If authority fears questions, it should send a strong message to us that something is wrong!

Something else that should concern and scare us is that reading in general is declining. We, as writers and readers, should ask, why. What is happening? Newspapers have cut back on book review sections.

My novel, Chasin’ the Wind, comes out in March and I sent a press package to the Quincy Patriot Ledger, in Quincy, Massachusetts. A few months back the paper ran a small blurb that a locally born writer was publishing his first novel. My website got hundreds of hits and I received emails for people I went to school with. I sent an ARC to the editor recently and when I called to see if it arrived, she said the paper no longer did book reviews. I told her it involved someone who grew up in Quincy, went through the public schools, and still had family and friends in the area. After a long moment of silence, she replied “Yeah, but so.” When I was growing up in Quincy a local boy becoming a novelist would have been newsworthy. Today, it’s worth only a blurb. Now that’s scary.

As writers and readers, what can we do about declining readership? It is as important as fighting censorship, because it is a quiet victory for those who would ban books.

A good New Year’s Resolution might be to give a book to a friend and encourage them to read, or maybe read more ourselves. If you have any ideas on how to solve this problem, please pass them along. And, you know what else, call your local librarian, and say “thank you,” because libraries are also being threatened with closures throughout the country. But you’re probably aware of that.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Deadlines of today and yesterday

My self-designated deadline for finishing the sequel to “Chasin’ the Wind” was mid September. I didn’t meet it. My grandson came in from Germany for two weeks and I got to play tourist in Key West. Two weeks and we didn’t get to see and do everything Key West offers.

My background as a journalist helps with deadlines. Sometimes I had to deal with a two-hour deadline and there weren’t any excuses. I think I recall the editor in Key West at the time, Bernie Hunt, saying hospitalization would be an accepted excuse for missing deadline. Of course, that was before everyone had a laptop. I have a feeling today, Bernie would expect the story to sent in by email from the hospital.

Journalism has played a big part in my life. In Los Angeles, I was a member of the Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles and even did one term on its board of directors. That was during my freelance photojournalist phase of life. The LA Press Club, on Vermont Ave. at the time, had a great old bar and life was good. LA was a jumping news town (probably still is) with mixture of brutality and Hollywood glamour. A photographer could make a living listening and responding to the police scanner.

Years before that, in my high school days, I was the weekend office boy for the old Record-American/Sunday Advertiser in Boston. There were teletype machines clacking away constantly with news copy and blurry copies of photos available. Typesetters set type backward! I don’t suppose you can see that anywhere these days, but it was amazing. A lost art.

Everyone in composing wore a funny hat made from old copies of the paper and there was always someone with a half pint in the back pocket of their greasy overalls, incase of snakebite or other serious problems. And, there was the local bookie who kept better hours than the paper’s employees.

The paper is gone now, merged with the Herald-Traveler, and moved to the old South End. Back when I was working there, it was downtown at Winthrop Square. Down by where Steve McQueen arranged to have the bank robbed in the Thomas Crown Affair.

Old memories, good memories, certainly got me off the deadline topic. Back on course. After high school I received an editorial apprenticeship at the paper. I worked for the daily Record-American for a few months, then the Sunday Advertiser, then the weekly magazine that came out with the Advertiser and then in the photo department. I learned by doing and working with some great reporters and photographers.

And copy editors! The newsroom was a large open area with rows of desks. The teletype machines lined one wall, windows on the opposite (usually open all year because everyone smoked – cigars and pipes, as well as cigarettes – and there was no A/C), with the two managing editors’ cubicles in front.

At deadline, copy editors would walk to the back of the room, then walk down the aisle, and pull copy from reporters’ typewriters, as it was being written, in some cases. We wrote with one original and two carbon copies.

I remember the first time the paper hired a woman photographer, Judith Buck, and she used a 35mm camera. The old Rolies used, if I can recall, 126 b&w film and took something like six or 12 shots. Judy shot 36 frames per roll, had interchangeable lenses, and got the opportunity to choose the good photos from many bad, out of focus, poorly framed shots. She could stand on tables, chairs, stairways to shoot for an unusual angle. Soon, though, her photos were making the front page of the tabloid and the paper's centerfold.

By the time my apprenticeship moved me into the photo department, everyone had 35mm cameras.

To be continued . . .

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Declan Burke's "The Big O" is coming to America!

Personally, I believe it is a good thing that Ireland’s biggest export is no longer its citizens. It has taken more than 100 years for the exodus to stop. What is the world to do without the Irish to be its police officers, politicians, publicans, and rogues? Don’t panic, the Irish are falling back on one of their oldest talents and traditions, the written word.

What I’ve heard from one Irish writer and journalist, Declan Burke, is that his second book, The Big O, has been bought by Harcourt and will be available in America by the fall of ’09.

I am so sorry for you, because it is a long wait for a fantastic read, especially for mystery fans. I can say that, because I’ve read both Burke’s books. All right, you want to know what you’re missing; I’ll give you a little hint.

Think of the ironic humor of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels, and throw in the black humor of a Carl Hiaasen Florida-misadventure novel. Mix up the humorous, determined, demented heroes and anti-heroes of these two fantastic authors and (I’m not done yet!) toss in some hardboiled writing, a lot like Elmore Leonard’s, and you have Declan Burke’s writing. Think of it as an Irish Stew of writing.

Carl Hiaasen should not read The Big O, because, while laughing himself silly, he will be banging his head against the proverbial wall because someone else created the anti-hero Rossi; a character that makes you laugh and then scares the bejesus out of you after the lights go off.

If you accept the premise that Dortmunder is not a good guy, but he ain’t bad either, you will agree with me that Karen and Ray, from The Big O, while not two of the most law-abiding citizens of the world, they’re not bad, just a little desperate and determined. After all, Ray wants to go straight and stop kidnapping for a shylock and Karen is only a stickup artist to help make ends meet, temporally. And the divorce of Dr. Dolan’s and the involvement of the female detective, Doyle, only complicate Ray’s criminal life.

I don’t really want to do a review of the plot and so forth, but I do want to say you will enjoy this book, if you like the writers mentioned above.

Ireland (home of my great-grandparents), is producing some terrific mystery writers these days and many of their books, sadly, are unavailable in the States. Though, some of their books can be ordered online, via Amazon’s European site. You can go to Burke’s http://www.crimealwayspays.blogspot.com/, where you will find some great reviews and discover how to order his book. Check his list of Irish writers, too. You will discover some great writers. Their websites are linked on his blog and worth checking out, if you are a mystery fan. You can also order The Big O on the site, but only I can say, “I was the first to read it!” It is okay with me, if you claim second place.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Who Reads Today?

It occurred to me, while I was preparing to send ARCs of “Chasin’ the Wind” to newspapers and other media outlets for reviews, that I am not sure people read much anymore.

As an example, Monroe County, where I live, is considering closing one or two libraries in the Middle Keys. I’ve read in the newspaper that other libraries are closing too. I also read, or hear from friends, about bookstores that are closing. I read a feature, recently, that indicated many newspapers have downsized their book review sections or have completely done away with them. Why? Because advertising revenues in those sections are down.

So, who reads today? Teenagers seem to do everything on computers and that includes reading. One teen I know, 16-year-old Alex Fierro, got through middle school with good grades in reading, but he read stories on the computer and tested about them on the computer. His summer reading required finishing two books and it was something he held off doing until a week before school. Do you suppose he received any pleasure from the books?

I don’t know about you, but to me, books and newspapers were meant to be held. I have always taken care of my books. When Hurricane Georges, 1998, blew through the Keys, it took my floating home, and about 1,000 books (mostly first editions) with it. I had spent most of my life collecting them.

I remember loaning my sister a book and watching in horror as she opened it and bent the spine! I yelled, I screamed, probably cried, while she told me that the book stayed open better after she did that.

Hands were made for many things, holding a drink, chopsticks, a sailing sheet, but mostly for holding newspapers and books. Maybe sitting in your favorite chair, a cup of café con leche, and the morning paper. Do you remember when there were afternoon editions of newspapers?

Obviously, I read blogs online and find myself squinting to read many of them. Some things can be read online, like directions from MAPQUEST or a blog, but never a book review! Blogs are like essays that once filled magazine pages. They are short and usually present one opinion, maybe defending it or just presenting it.

But books, a couple of hundred pages long, need to be held. Hell, EQMM and AHMM need to be held and they’re small magazines filled with marvelous short stories! I don’t think I know anyone who enjoys reading and buys books, who can read them on the Internet. Lord knows, there are some very good webzines that are filled with short stories, but reading a story on one, is not the same as holding it in your hands.

I spent weekends haunting used bookstores when I lived in Southern California. In Key West, I am a frequent visitor to Key West Island Books; owner Marshall Smith and I have formed an unusual friendship. Book people tend to be friendly and Marshall and I often discuss books. Notice I said “discussed,” because we don’t always agree on what is good or bad. We are entitled to our opinions, because we read the books we argue about.

Are books and bookstores a thing of the past? Obviously, there is a market for books, but is it declining and on the way to extinction? Will my home library, that I continue to rebuild since 1998, fall into the hands of grandchildren who will bend the spine of the books or taken them to Goodwill for resale?

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How I lost my virginity this week

It has been a month since I last posted and, while there aren’t acceptable excuses for it, I do have reasons. First, my grandson, who I haven’t seen in almost 15 years visited from Germany and that allowed me to play tourist with him. Imagine a two-week vacation in Key West!

I survived that and then it was Fantasy Fest week! If you don’t know what Fantasy Fest is, check out
www.hogsbreath.com and click on ‘homemade bikini contest’ and watch the video, and that’s only one-tenth of what that week was like. Think Mardi Gras in the tropics.

So, for most of the month I haven’t worked on my sequel to Chasin’ the Wind, or done any blogging. I didn’t even do much reading and that, for me, is almost unheard of!

Anyone who has put pen to paper and then tried to sell it, knows the excitement of the envelope in the mail and then the agony of reading a rejection letter. If that made you give up, then you’re not a writer. If you went on, and continued writing, you are only an aspiring writer. But when you’ve sold something, when you open that envelope and there’s a contract in it, then you’re a writer! And when you get that first check, and make a copy to hangover your keyboard, you’re on your way!

But, alas, even at that point in our career we are still virgins as far as writing goes. Seeing a story we wrote in a magazine is a once-in-a-lifetime event and no matter how many times we see our byline in EQMM or AHMM, we cannot recapture that first time; but, in the world of the virgin, that is the equivalent of petting in the backseat!

So, you ask, how do you lose your writer virginity? I can tell you, because it happened to me yesterday. A large box of Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) arrived from the publisher (actually, I don’t care who they arrived from, just that they finally arrived!). I carefully cut the tape and nervously tossed aside the wrinkled up packing paper that sealed the space between the books and top of the box and there they were! There I was! My name, in larger than life letters, crossed the cover (never mind the book is the size of a trade paperback and an unedited proof to be sent out for reviews, it was the cover and my name and soon it would be a hardback) and something titillating ran through me and I realized that, finally, I am a writer and no longer a virgin!

I lived that moment for as long as I could, because I knew I would never experience that feeling again. No matter how many books are in my future, there’s only one first book, like there’s only one first short story sale, like there's only one first love.

I wish my twin daughters, Seanan and Chela, were closer, so I could have opened the box with them around and celebrated. Or, maybe my sister Patty Bolter, and we could have celebrated, but it wasn’t to be. I opened them alone and alone experienced a thrill of a lifetime. I’ll tell you something, all the rejections (and there were lots) were worth it, if this is what they led up to. I’ve worked hard to get this book published, just as I am working even harder on the sequel.

Of course, now the insecurity sets in! Someone at SleuthFest said writers were the most insecure people in the world. I believe him.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Criminal Brief''s Guest Blogger

James Lincoln Warren, the mastermind behind the ever popular "Criminal Brief Blog," and short story writer, asked me to be a guest blogger for Saturday, Sept. 29th. I was honored. This is one blog I check and read daily. There is a link to the right, so if you are not a reader of Criminal Brief check it out. The following is what I wrote.

My love affair with the short story began in high school English class. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories drove me to the library’s “books-for-sale” room. I even remember the book I bought, Hemingway’s “Men Without Women.” I soon followed it with “In Our Time.” Today, my home office shelves overflow with books, including many short story collections.
I believe the short story is the foundation of the writer’s craft. The discipline it takes to write one, to get setting, dialogue, and action to the barebones without losing the nucleus of the story is, as the publishing world once appreciated, the writers’ incubator.
I have read that the short story is considered close to its demise. The weekly and monthly magazines that flourished in the past have dwindled and the markets that once paid handsomely to publish new writers are almost extinct, unfortunately.
There is hope for us. Dell’s EQMM and AHMM monthly editions feature many of today’s most talented writers. The publications have risen to take the place of pulp fiction magazines of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, where Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Talmage Powell, Carroll John Daly, and others first appeared. Their stories thrilled readers of the Dime Detective, Dime Mystery, Detective Tales, Ten Detective Aces, and G-Men Detective.
It is obvious that short stories and crime fiction have always shared a bond with readers and it continues today.
Other positive signs of life for the modern short story include the many regional noir-themed books that have begun to appear and are edited and written by writers from as far away as Dublin and as close as Los Angeles and New York. These noir editions may have an unusual affect on the novelists who submitted stories; could they become closeted short story addicts? Will we see more short works form them? One can only imagine.
We know anthologies are not moneymakers, because publishers tell us. So why do these writers write, if not for the paycheck? Have they discovered the euphoria of taking a complicated plot and whittling it down to twenty or less pages without losing its essence? Have they experienced the satisfaction behind mastering the challenge to make a character stand by his or herself, without an entourage? It is something to think about.
Boston mystery writer Jeremiah Healy, a prolific short story writer and novelist, asked me once what I was doing, after I had finished the final draft of my novel.
“Writing a short story,” I said and he replied, “Atta boy!”
Years ago, Dennis Lynds told me at an MWA So.Cal social that if I could master the short story, I could write anything. Dennis’ writing talents go unchallenged.
You would think, in a society craving instant gratification in everything from food to medicine, the short story would satisfy the public’s thirst for innovative fiction. As long as publishers refuse to promote story collections like the noir series, Dennis Lehane’s “Coronado,” James Lee Burke’s “Jesus Out to Sea,” or Laurence Block’s “Enough Rope,” the public will remain cheated out of the opportunity to read writing at its best.
There will never be a shortage of writers to tackle the risk of the short story; those of us who love succinctness in storytelling, and want to prove our worth with pen and ink, will always write. It is our passion and, sometimes, our curse.
With the number of Internet magazines and blogs coming online today, our stories now reach enthusiastic audiences from around the world; the rumored demise of our art has retreated into the shadows – to wither and die, hopefully.
Writers write and the desire to be published is only one of the driving forces. Another, the one we find hard to explain, is that we must write. People understand a paycheck, but when we write early in the morning or late at night, when we cloister ourselves in front of the computer without a paycheck in sight, friends and family begin to wonder about our sanity.
Try telling them it’s a love affair with language and story . . . on the other hand, tell them you believe in Leprechauns or have a Muse and maybe they’ll leave you alone, so you can do what you love. It works for me, but, hey, Key West is my Muse, and most everyone here believes in what others find unbelievable.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sailing, a metaphor for writing

This past Saturday, Sept. 22, my friends Burt Hansen, Paul Clarin and Jim Linder, helped me move my 36-foot sailboat, Mustard Seed, to the boatyard on Stock Island. As the eagle flies, it’s about a five-mile trek; as the boat floats, it’s at least double that.

Burt and I have sailed for years. He and his wife, Nadja, have sailed all around the east coast delivering boats and he has worked at boat sales at various times in his life. He is a weathered sailor I always learn something from when we are out.

This was Paul’s first time on my boat; he has sailed the Caribbean and is well versed in the pleasures and difficulties of sailing. Paul is a motorcycle enthusiast. He claims you get more miles for your dollar on motorcycles, as compared to boats. For a weathered sailor to go for speed with motorcycles is confusing. Sailing is about anything but speed!

Jim Linder is a Navy man, who has his own sailboat docked (and I say this with jealousy) behind his house on a canal. Jim and his wife, Barbara, have sailed with me before. He is a diver and a handy guy to have around if you have trouble (which we didn’t – knock on wood).

Okay, you ask, where’s the metaphor?

I don’t do an outline of my whole novel. I know the beginning, maybe some of the middle, and what I want the ending to be. I may have some chapter sketches of things that can happen, twists, phony leads, and such; and I have notes on character traits. The rest is self-driven, as I write.

This trip to the boatyard (where I will get the boat surveyed by Reef Perkins so I can get insurance, and the bottom will be painted) began with us meeting at the city marina slip at 8 a.m. We left the slip at 8:45, about 15-minutes earlier than I expected. I had a beginning to this trip and was pretty sure I knew the ending.

This short trip to Stock Island was planned to get going by 9 a.m. and to arrive around 2 p.m. Like a novel or short story, that was the beginning and the end. Reaching the end, like getting to the boatyard in this case, is what writing and sailing is all about.

Once that fist chapter is written, the book takes on a life of its own. After Mustard Seed was out of her slip, weather played a big part in the trip. We had knowledge, ability and equipment to work with, but weather was the unknown. It was cloudy, with a 50-percent chance of rain, expected 2-to-5-foot seas inside the reef, and we had our foul-weather gear, just in case.

For the first time in a long time, we actually set sails in the seaplane basin, off Fleming Key, with an outgoing tide. It was good sailing along the Key, around it into Key West Harbor. Even with the boat bottom in need of cleaning and painting, we were doing an average of 6-knots, the hull speed of Mustard Seed.

The story, once the first few pages fall in place, maybe with a little editing and rewriting after they are initially written, will usually achieve a level where it begins writing itself, going along smoothly.

Murphy’s Law (and my character’s name in Mick Murphy, so this applies) says the longer you go along smoothly the closer you are to a serious bump! And Murphy’s Law applies to writing and sailing (and life).

I have ideas that I intended to use to help move my story along, only to find that somewhere within the previous pages, things had changed and the idea wouldn’t work. Suddenly, I realize I need to make a bad guy good, or vise versa. Or I cannot work a shooting or action at the location I wanted, the weather has changed and if that is the case, what I had planned has to change.

We were sailing out toward the ship channel marker, past Fort Zackary Taylor, following the coast of Key West; railing almost in the water, doing a little more than six-knots and then the wind changed direction! If we trimmed the sails to catch the wind we would be traveling too close to the coast, where it would soon be shallow. Mustard Seed’s keel draws almost six-feet, so I try to keep her in 10-foot-plus water.

We had to tack, so we could use the wind to move away from where we were trying to go, so we could turn around and sail back into that direction, from a better position. It is time consuming and slows you down. But it is necessary, if you want to sail and not switch to motorboats! Shame on you for even thinking that!

I will usually reread what I’ve written, before I begin writing the next day. Even if I have finished a chapter, before I begin a new chapter, I reread the last one. As the pages mount, of course, I do not read from the beginning, but I do go a chapter or two back. If I am writing everyday, I may only read the last chapter. While I am doing this, I am also editing and/or rewriting. It takes time, but everything is still fresh in my mind, like what I was thinking and trying to accomplish as I wrote the day before.

Yeah, it slows down my writing time, especially if it’s in the evening and I’ve spent all day at my fulltime job, and only have a few hours to write. But, to get where I’m going, like tacking Mustard Seed, it is necessary.

So slowing down to tack may not be what I wanted to do, but it was necessary to get where I was going and the boatyard crew was waiting.

So, can you see the many similarities between sailing and writing? There is nothing as exciting and exhilarating as full sails and the rail in the water and the quiet of carving your way through the seas; it’s a lot like sitting down at the keyboard and writing a chapter that goes along smoothly and feels right all along the way.

As they say when you're sailing, "Don't pee into the wind."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Memories of "On the Road"

There has been a lot of press recently on the release of the original scroll version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” manuscript.

You want to get depressed? I lost, in Hurricane George, 1998, a first edition of "On the Road." Yeah, it was beat up, but that’s because I’d read it so often and somehow kept it with me on my moves around the country. But that’s a whole other blog.

I was born after Kerouac began his journey with Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. The travels produced more books than "On the Road." I grew up on the fringes of the Beatnik generation. My interest in writing came from them. That is also the reason I was never into the hippie movement in the '60s. I didn’t want to drop out, I wanted to create, and I wanted to experience life, to live life, like the men and women who roamed the pages of "On the Road," "Big Sur," "Mexico City Blues," and so many others.

I have read the different newspaper accounts of the scroll edition, the NY Times, the LA Times, and a few others that have shown up on blogs. Years ago, I worked on a Boston newspaper, as a weekend copyboy, and know what a scroll really looks like, how heavy it is. I helped change out scrolls on wire service machines, back in those days. I also learned to write on a manual typewriter, where most of you have probably never used one – probably never seen one.

Before computers and the Internet, news stories came from wire services – AP, UPI, Reuters – via a machine that filled the newsroom with clatter 24/7. When you cut-and-paste today, you probably don’t know where the term came from. Back in the days before computers, when a reporter had to edit his/her copy he had to literally cut the copy and paste it together with the corrections.

What we do today, what I’ve done already on this copy, is not cut-and-paste. You know why? Because there’s no white glue to lick off my fingers. And there are no drops of spilled glue on the keyboard or desktop.

Today, I write a few pages, go have a café con leche and then come back and do a little rewrite. I enjoy the rewriting, probably because I did it years ago when cut-and-paste was necessary and it was work. Today, it is really enjoyable, especially if it makes what I am writing better. Ah, I think to myself, a breeze.

When Kerouac sat down to write “On the Road,” he loaded the scroll into his manual typewriter and began writing. Because it was, I am told, a stream of consciousness, his editing was probably limited to spelling (maybe).

I’ve spent too much time daydreaming, since reading the press on Kerouac. It was a whole different world then. While you may not think writing is easy today (and I agree, it ain’t) it was a lot more work in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Journalists certainly put a lot more thought into what they typed onto that sheet of paper, because if they got it wrong, it was a messy, time-consuming cut-and-paste project to fix it. Today, it’s a few keystrokes and, like magic (believe me) the correction/addition goes smoothly into place and there’s no mess.

Imagine, if you will, how much more Hemingway could’ve written with a laptop on the Pilar or in Africa or on the bar top at the Floridita. Or Michener or Faulkner . . . or Kerouac.

The scroll edition of “On the Road” will be read by a lot of people, young and old, but there will be a few of us withering Beats who will smile and remember our times and adventures; I will do that, but I will also think of the scroll as in unraveled on the floor and see Kerouac hitting the return bar on his typewriter, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. I will laugh at the scene of him standing on his head so fresh blood would move to his head and help him get rid of his hangover. I don’t know if it worked for him, but it only made me sicker!

If you want to know more about the Beats, go to my friend Mark Howell's new blog: http://www.abouthebeats.blogspot.com/.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Mother Teresa or truth is stranger fiction

Mother Teresa’s rough face, aged with lines, large brown eyes, and colored from outdoor living, stared from the front of TIME’s Sept. 3, 2007, issue. I half expected to read she had received sainthood from Rome, but large white letters screamed “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa” and small white print whispered “Newly published letters reveal a be loved icon’s 50-year crisis with faith.”

Last week, Bill Maher, host of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO, showed off the magazine and even kissed it, referring to Mother Teresa as one of his. Of course, he meant nonbeliever.

A new book is coming out, or maybe is already out, that reports Mother Teresa had concerns about her faith. It is proven, the reports indicate, in letters she had written during her life. Even with her questions about faith and God, the woman continued her mission of helping the poor. Of course, most of us have no idea of the class of poor Mother Teresa worked with.

I remember when she came to Tijuana, Mexico, one of my favorite cities. Poverty in Tijuana is hard to explain. It is even harder to witness. Slums in Tijuana would make the slums of NYC and Boston seem like luxury living. Wealth also is in surplus in Tijuana. Living side-by-side, they highlight the obserdity of life.

I bring this up, because people have asked me where I get my story ideas. It may seem like a simple question by those asking, but it really doesn’t have a simple answer. Sometimes ideas come out of the blue from a newspaper article or a news story on television. I write mysteries, so there is usually an iota of truth/fact in the story. Then I add “what if” to it and I am off and running.

An idea doesn’t have to give me a theme for a book. It can help me with character development, as the Mother Teresa story is going to do. In my novel, “Chasin’ the Wind,” and my EQMM short story, “Murder in Key West,” there is a Jesuit who sees and communicates with angels. I leave it up to the reader to believe Padre Thomas can do this or not. He is an Irish Jesuit whose missions have been in Central and South America, hence the “Padre” before his name.

Padre Thomas walked away from his mission in Guatemala and ended up in Key West, where my protagonist, Liam Michael “Mad Mick” Murphy meets him at Schooner Wharf Bar. Obviously, Padre Thomas is having a problem with faith, or he would have remained at his mission. He is still religious, donates his time at the Catholic soup kitchen and even helps counsel many of the men and women who come to the kitchen for a daily meal.

I guess that would be something like Mother Teresa’s continuing her work as she battled with her faith. I don’t know if I will read the book, but the story in TIME has given me some good background material I can include in Padre Thomas’ battle with faith. In my sequel, “Free Range Institution,” I have the Jesuit continue his battle with his faith and I end the book with him violating his beliefs, but there are strong circumstances behind it.

If I had chosen to write about Padre Thomas’ questions with faith without doing some background, it probably wouldn’t have come across properly – which I hope it does. Now, with the material from TIME I have more directions for him to go.

One of my research tools was, fortunately, a friend who came to me after his wife had read my short story and told me he was an ex-Jesuit. Imagine my surprise! He graciously met me after work one day and told me about his life and answered many of my questions. I had pretty much captured the spirit of the order in Padre Thomas, but the interview helped me increase his character in the sequel. I also learned a lot. Did you know the Jesuit order does not report to the pope? The head of the order is equal to the pope! I am still looking into this, because it was one of only a few things that caught me totally by surprise. I expect in the sequel to the sequel that information, along with what I’ve gleamed from Mother Teresa’s crisis with faith, will make its way into Padre Thomas’ character and may – no, probably will – affect my character’s actions and reactions in the second sequel.

So where do my story ideas come from? I guess you could say from real life, but I tone them down so they are believable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Writers need a bit of snake-oil-salesman's charm

Waiting for March ’08, when my book “Chasin’ the Wind” finally makes it into bookstores, has been frustrating. I turned in the final copy of the novel to the first editor in mid December. I would take it as personal if the publishers’ panel at SleuthFest, held in Miami in March, hadn’t discussed that it takes up 16 months from acceptance to publication.

After the New Year, I began working on a sequel, though I had no guarantee that the publisher would take it. Again, the publishers’ panel at SleuthFest talked about sales driving publishers’ desire for a sequel to a first novel. Sales! Not commitment to the author. Less we forget, publishing is a business and a dwindling business at that. Small publishers, God bless ‘em, are the best hopes for publishing a first novel.

The advance is small, but they will look at works from un-agented writers. Trying to get a reliable agent is a whole other blog and horror story! So there’s only a small advance and, most likely, no money to help in a book signing tour. The print runs are low, also. And a second printing is going to depend on (you guessed it!) the early sales.

My publisher, Five Star, does send out copies of the book to reviewers and that is a positive. A few good reviews will help sales and the early ones may even get on the back jacket of the book. A real good one from something like the New York Times Review of Books would probably make it on the cover! Of course, a NYT review would definitely help sales.

It is up to the writer to promote his/her book and make sales. May son-in-law, Paul Carpino, works in a business with a marketing department and he was able to get me a list of all the major US newspapers’ book editors and their addresses. Some were on the Five Star distribution list, but many weren’t. Five Star will give me up to 15 books to send for reviews. So, from the list I have to choose 15 publications to send copies of my book to. It’s one step toward sales.

LA writer Robert Crais reminded me that many of the bookstores I haunted when I lived in LA were still open, and he suggested I test the waters by approaching them. I did last June, when I visited LA, and received positive responses from Mysteries to Die For, in Thousand Oaks; the Mystery Bookstore, outside UCLA; Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, in the La Canada-Flintridge neighborhood; Dutton’s, in Brentwood; Book ‘Em, in South Pasadena, and Mystery & Imagination, in Glendale.

I will be touching base again, after the reviews come out, and send my press package of review clips, book cover art, my photo and blurbs form other writers. And a T-shirt with the book cover on the back and a little blurb on the front with my website address. I just hope I don’t send a large to someone that would fit nicely into a small!

Yeah, T-shirts are another way of promoting the book. I expect to give away many and, with a little luck, sell a few to help make up the costs. I am fortunate to have Bill Lane, from Fastlane Advertising (www.fastlaneadvertising.com), as a friend and he has helped me with suggestions on promo ideas and some great art.

T-shirts and postcards are not that expensive and if some of the T-shirts sell at the signings, they may pay for themselves. The postcard will go in my press package and, hopefully, the bookstores will leave them on the counter or put them in the bag with purchased books.

I thought about bookmarks, but then realized most of the stores already had bookmarks that promoted their store. I didn’t want to be in competition with them, so I am going with the postcards. Postcards are also bigger than bookmarks and may get a second look when it comes out of the bag and before it’s thrown away. Maybe it will be saved and stuck on the frig, as a reminder of a book to buy.

Another good promotional item is the local library. Monroe County has a library system that includes three or four branches between Key West and Key Largo. Speaking to reading groups and the Friends of the Library will help sell books and the writer. If only a handful of people show up, and even if none of ‘em buys a book, and if I give a good presentation, they will talk about my book and me to friends and eventually some of them will buy copies.

I talked to Tom Corcoran, who can fill a movie theater in Key West when he signs, about how he does so well on stage. Especially with his readings. He had a great suggestion. He told me to pick a few short paragraphs, maybe from different sections of the book, and read them. They don’t need dialogue, he said and that made me feel better. I’ve been to readings where the writer reads dialogue and takes on the roll of each speaker. I am not up to that quality.

Another point Tom talked about was making the piece read leave the reader wanting to know more. Don’t tell ‘em too much and leave them wanting what followed. Sounds like an old fashioned snake oil salesmen’s pitch, don’t it?

Now I need to sit down and worry, because writers are such an insecure bunch; most of us, anyway. I will keep working on the sequel, hoping to finish it by September and then get to work on a short story I’ve blocked out. Jerry Healy told me to keep writing after the novel is finished and the short story works best for me.

If you have any ideas on self promotion, let me hear them.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More story ideas or why I drink

If you read an earlier blog, you know my friend Art, one of the managers of the Hog’s Breath Saloon, has decided to write a novel. I think his words were something like, “If you can do it, so can I!” He's discovering it is not as easy as he thought.

“I read you recent blog,” Art said and bought me a Jameson on the rocks. “Insightful,” he nodded and smiled.

I knew there was more to come, so I waited and sipped my Jameson.

“Thank you, Art,” I finally said.

The Carter Brothers, Tim and Danny Carter, were setting up on stage and when they began to play I wanted to listen, so I needed Art to get to what concerned him about writing.

“How’s the novel coming?” I took a sip of whiskey, to keep from smiling too widely.

“I haven’t gotten to the writing, yet,” he mumbled.

“You’re plotting?” I said without looking at him. “Good way to go, for the first one. Get all your ducks in a row.”

“I’m looking for a fresh idea.” He still mumbled. He moved closer. “When you read the newspapers and magazines, what do you look for? I mean, to stimulate your ideas?”

I lit a cigar and turned in my barstool. “Something unusual. Maybe a little quirky.”

“How do you know if it’s unusual or quirky?” He lit a cigarette and sat down.

“Art, you’ve lived here too long,” I finally laughed. “If you find something in the paper that strikes you, a long-time resident of Key West, as unusual or quirky, you can bet your paycheck that the rest of the world will think so too.”

“Okay,” he sighed, and I knew he wanted more. “How do you incorporate it into your story?”

“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t,” I blew thick cigar smoke into the night. “Sometimes I cut it out and file it for a future date.”


“Because later I may remember it and that way I have it to reread.” The Carter Brothers were almost ready to do a sound check. “I don’t trust my memory. I clip newspapers and magazine stories, I take notes of things I hear and people I see.”

“Why?” he frowned.

“Because, if I hear an unusual phrase, I want to save it, to remember it, so I write it down. Or I run into a person with a trait I think a character could have, I write it down.”

“Can you give me an example?” He twisted in his seat.

I looked around the large outdoor bar. It was getting crowded, as show time approached. Across the bar a young women, dressed in black, with dyed black hair, black nail polish and a pierced nose, sat talking to a young guy who dressed like a yuppie. They were talking into each other’s face, but not touching.

“See the couple over there?” I nodded toward the couple. “She’s Gothic and he’s a yuppie, probably on vacation together. I see that and I wonder why? What do they have in common?”

“Sex?” Art suggests.

“That’s a good first guess, but how’d they get to the point of sex?”

Art studied the couple and smoked another cigarette. “They guy’s sister is married with kids and she was the baby sitter.” He spoke quickly and smiled when he’d finished.

“Good, Art. And maybe at home he’s ashamed to be seen with her, so they’ve escaped to Key West.”

“Yeah,” Art agreed. “And they want to make a life together here.”

“But, you’re forgetting something, Art.”


“This is a mystery novel, so there has to be some mystery. A murder or a robbery or both.”

“Maybe to get the money to move here they committed a robbery and someone was killed?”

“That’s workable,” I told him and finished my drink, hoping he’d buy me another before the band started.

“I think it could be a short story,” he said, as he removed a small notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. “I need to get this down,” he said and began writing in the notebook.

I ordered a fresh drink from Frank and when I turned around Art was walking away, muttering to himself. It might have been dialogue and he wanted to hear how it sounded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Where do your story ideas come from? Or, truth is stranger than fiction!

As a writer, I read newspapers and news magazines. It’s as mandatory as writing, as far as I’m concerned. I read to stimulate ideas. I don’t always spend time on the headlines, but look for the short pieces that carry unusual news. You never know when something strange might kick your imagination into gear. I can read a piece from Alaska and ask myself, “what if, in Key West . . .?”

I also watch TV news, both the Miami channels and CNN.

I watched, as most of the world did, in horror recently as the bridge in the Twin Cities collapsed. It was caught, wide angle, on a surveillance camera. It looked like something out of the new Bruce Willis Die Hard movie.

Of course, it wasn’t entertainment. It was death of innocent men and women and destruction. Today, days later, the disaster is still affecting the daily lives of the people that drove over that bridge to go to work, to go out for dinner, to go on a date, to go home from picking kids up at day care. It is unimaginable.

Or is it?

It was a very visual event, both during and afterward. Maybe, because of the visual affect I thought of the movies instead of a book. I’m sure I am not the only mystery writer who watched the TV footage and wondered what kind of story he/she could build around the tragedy. It’s what we do. I said a silent prayer for the victims and their families, but that was all I could do from Key West.

I don’t know if I will use the incident, but we do have a lot of bridges – one is seven-miles long – on the ride from Miami to Key West, so the possibility is there. In the newspapers, I’ve followed the reports about the condition of bridges throughout the United States.

An optimist might say it’s a good report because there are so few bridges in the same condition, or worse, than the one in Minneapolis; a pessimist might say it was a bad report, a warning of our failing infrastructure. I think most writers are, in their writing, pessimists because that’s where the mayhem comes from. Optimists don’t often commit mayhem; I don’t like to say never. But I think you get my point.

So, is truth stranger than fiction?

I have a family friend who lives in Orlando and doesn’t visit because of her phobia of driving over bridges in the Keys. I used to laugh at her phobia. I assumed that our bridges were safe because the government was looking out for our safety!

After the disaster in Minneapolis, I am beginning to wonder if government regulators and agencies do their jobs. Is the FAA really doing its job with the airlines? Traffic controllers? I'm having second thoughts.

Imagine a book that’s premise is the demise of America through the failure of its infrastructure. Where would you begin it? With the roads and bridges? The airlines? Communications? The legal system?

When I open the morning paper now, my hands shake because what I am seeing is the origins of a great thriller and you and I are characters in it. There’s a clown leading the nation, a Congress of inept (at best; corrupt, in a worse case) men and women who have not accomplished anything in almost eight years, even though the voting public told them to do something.

The list goes on and on. I’m sure you can add to it from your city or county. I guess another thing reading and searching through newspapers teaches is that truth is stranger than fiction, and less believable.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sometimes small packages hold big surprises!

I recently flew into smoggy LAX and was picked up by my niece, Alexis Bolter, and we met my sister Patty – Alexis’ mom – at a small café in Brentwood for lunch. My sister lives in Malibu, where the temperatures hovered around the mid 70s! I came prepared for summer and explained that 74-degrees was winter temps in Key West. I needed to borrow a sweatshirt to sit outside with them, in the evening.

After unpacking, I checked my e-mails at home. Of course, I am not there and I receive an e-mail from an editor saying he had attached an edited copy of my book and that I need to go through it and yeah or nay the corrections. Most of the editing had to do with punctuation after quotes. Let me simplify it, after a quote I used a comma when the words were spoken as the speaker did something while talking.

Example: “I think you should’ve shot him,” Norm tied his shoes and smiled. I thought that was correct, the editor doesn’t. Now, example: “I think you should’ve shot him.” Norm answered the phone. I thought that was right, and the editor agrees. So, now I have to print out the whole manuscript and reply by line, by page that I agree or do not.

There are a couple of other things. They question my spelling of “Durty.” The name of the bar is “Durty Harry’s,” so I have to explain why I spelled it that way. I am saving this project for when I get home.

Wednesday morning Patty drove me to South Pasadena and I visited Barry at Book ‘em, a mystery bookstore I used to haunt when I lived in the LA area.

I put together a small package with a copy of the March/April issue of EQMM with my short story in it, a list of blurbs from writers about my book, and a brief synopsis of the book, and a color photo of me. The idea for that is that if they were going to do a signing they could post the info and photo. I also included a sheet from the publisher giving the store a 40-percent discount on its order, if the books were for a signing.

Patty and I were joined by my friend Norm Cote and his wife, Annie, for lunch at Damon’s in Glendale. Norm and I go back a long way and it was nice getting to see him again. After lunch, I went to Book Fellows down the street from Damon’s and left my package, since Christine who owns the shop is only available on Sunday and Monday.

James Lincoln Warren, a SoCal member of Mystery Writers of America, met me Thursday at Mystery Books in Westwood, where he introduced me to the bookseller and I left my package. We had lunch and then James took me to Dutton’s in Brentwood, where I dropped off another package.

Dutton’s made the news recently, because the property owner has plans to teardown the building and go high-rise. Apparently, the store’s regular customers raised hell and the media has reported that the new building will house the bookstore. I went to a lot of signings in that old building and am glad it isn’t going away, but it will lose something – in my opinion – when it moves into a modern building.

Check out James' blog, Criminal Brief, a link is off to the right.

Friday, I had an interesting experience. While still in Key West, I received a report that a new neighborhood bookstore was opening in Flintridge, Ca. I e-mailed the store and asked about dropping by and received an e-mail back saying to come in. I met Sandy Willardson, the store’s event coordinator, and we discussed my book and website. The Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House has a nice mystery section and I look forward to signing there. In talking with Sandy, she mentioned she also does event coordination for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Vroman’s has two stores in Pasadena and has to be one of the oldest in the area. Of course, I said yes!

I think that's the whole purpose of this post. Never judge a bookstore by its size or location. I will gladly sign wherever I am asked, and in the case of the Flintridge Bookstore, it turned into an opportunity to sign at one of Pasadena's oldest and largest stores.

As soon as I can confirm a publication dates, it looks like I will have a few book signings in the LA area. If you are close by, I hope to see you there.

I am off to look at the edited version of my book. I need to print it first … oh well, I’ll tell you all about it, later.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Summer thoughts

I had wrist surgery for tendonitis the middle of June and enjoyed the company of my twin daughters, Seanan & Chela, along with Seanan’s husband Paul and Chela’s fiancé Bryan and Paul’s friend Guy, a NYC cop, and his wife Jodi, while I recouped.

I did spend a little time editing the sequel to “Chasin’ the Wind,” “Free Range Institution,” during this time, but typing a few thousand words was out of the question.

Before the surgery, I wanted to reach page 200 and I beat it by one!

I see Dr. Collins (no relation to Padre Thomas Collins in my books) on Monday morning to have the stitches removed and I expect he will release me with no restrictions. So it will be back to the gym (and after the time off, I need it!) and the keyboard. I hope to have the sequel to “Chasin’ the Wind” done before the end of summer, let it sit for a month and when my grandson Shane comes in October for a couple of week I will use my mornings to edit/rewrite.

Now I am on my way to visit my sister Patty and her family in Malibu, California. I am actually using the trip to visit some of the bookstores I haunted while I lived in Southern California and pitch my book, in hopes they will order it and welcome me back for a signings in March or April.

I am also looking forward to seeing my long-time friend Norm Cote and his wife Annie while I am in LA. Norm and I share a lot of history, most of it exciting and revolving around boxing in LA and bullfights in Tijuana, Mexico. My other good West Coast friend Rob Murdock will be out of town while I am there, so I will miss the opportunity to swap lies with him.

Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and please take a look at my website – www.michaelhaskins.net – if you haven’t already. I will get back to keeping the blog as up to date as possible after July 4th.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Do characters really take on a life of their own?

I bought a new computer and it arrived (kind of) mid week. Kind of, because the monitor didn’t arrive. After two days of phone calls to Dell they accepted that the two packages they sent did not include the monitor; the second package held the fancy speaker for the monitor, but not the monitor. I am not computer savvy; I am probably not savvy in anything, but by knowing that about myself, I usually avoid situations where savvy is important or necessary.

I don’t name my computer, like some writers I know do. To me the computer is basically a fancy typewriter that corrects my spelling and saves me a lot of trouble when it comes to editing. Transferring files from the old computer to the new one took all Saturday afternoon and early evening.

With nothing to do but deal with my frustration, I went to the Hog’s Breath to hear my Texas friend Clint Bullard sing. He’s at the Hog’s mid shift – 5-9 p.m. – through June 15th, so go to http://www.hogsbreath.com/ and catch him on the bar’s live video-cam.

I was sitting there, enjoying a good cigar and some Jameson on the rocks when Art, one of the managers, came over and says he doesn’t believe I don’t control what the characters I write about say and do. He got that from one of my blog posts that mentioned characters sometimes take on a life of their own.

“You’re like God, you have total control and can do what you want with them,” he said, and told Julie my drink was on him.

I love Art and Andy and Patrick and Lori – the other bar managers – when they do that.

With all the time I’ve spent in Key West bars – not to mention bars I’ve enjoyed in other cities I’ve lived in or traveled to – I would not presume to tell bar managers how to do their job. I say something like that to Art.

“Yeah, but I have a real job, you just write stories, so you don’t have bosses or rules to follow,” he replied with the innocence of one-year old.

I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to explain the reality of writing to him, because he wouldn’t have believed me. Deal with editors and agents and deadlines, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“Let me give you one cryptic example of how characters take on a life of their own,” I said instead, as I sipped from my iced Irish whiskey and let its flavor slide down.

“Why does it have to be cryptic?”

“Because I don’t wanna give away the story,” I had another sip. “If I do, you won’t be surprised when you read it.”

I relit my cigar, because of too much talking it had gone out. “Early on in the new book.”

“What’s this one called?” he interrupted.

“Free Range Institution,” I answer him.

Isn’t that the title of a Scott Kirby song?”

“Yes it is.”

“You’re stealing his song title?”

“Art, which topic do you want to discuss here, because the ice is melting and diluting my drink,” I chewed my cigar and blew smoke into the air.

“Go on,” he sat down, ready for a long story.

“Early on in the new book, there is a conversation about killing people . . .”

“Because you write murder mysteries,” he interrupted again.

“Yes, Art, because I write murder mysteries,” I agreed with him. “The topic is brought up between Mick Murphy, Padre Thomas . . .”

“The Jesuit, right?”

“Yes,” I sipped my Irish before it lost its taste. “And Mick’s friend Norm and Tita . . .”

“The spy and the girlfriend,” he smiled, proud of remembering my first book.

“Very good,” I chewed ice from my plastic cup. “You read the proofs.”

“Go on, I want to hear your explanation,” he rushed me.

“One of the characters mentions taking a life, for any reason has to have an affect on a person, even if that loss of life is justified . . .”

“Has to be Padre Thomas . . .”

“Art, I can’t tell you who,” I grumbled. “Let me finish.”

“Okay,” and he signaled Julie to refill my drink. Gotta love the guy!

“I wrote the conversation a few months ago, I am at least one-hundred pages more into the story when I begin to wonder about my ending. Someone has to kill the corrupt city commissioner . . .”

“Which commissioner is it?”

“It’s fiction, Art,” I tried to explain to him. “It’s not a real commissioner.”

“Yeah, but I bet I can figure out who it is when I read it.”

Everyone in Key West sees themselves or someone they know as characters in books by local writers. Just ask Tom Corcoran.

With a deep sigh and fresh drink, I went on. “I am thinking about the ending when the earlier conversation pops into my head and I think ‘what if so-and-so kills the commissioner to save Mick’s life,’ and pow, I have my ending. I have major conflict and surprise,” I puffed on the cigar and sipped the chilled Jameson, proud of myself. “That was not anywhere in my plans for the book,” I explained. “It came from a conversation I never thought would have anything to do with the ending.”

“That’s your argument?” he sounded disappointed.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, smoked and took a good swallow of my drink. “It happened without my doing it. The character popped out with something from earlier in the book. Something I never gave a thought to, until I looked for an ending.”

“You didn’t have an ending before you began?” his disappointment was growing.

“I knew how I wanted it to end, but not exactly,” I said. “I had my notes, but they're only guides that usually get lost as the pages mount up.”

“You aren’t going to be mad at me, if I write a mystery, are you?” he stood up. “I can just plot something out and write it. I wouldn’t let characters tell me what to do. That’s why it takes you so long to write a book.”

“I tell you what, I’ll trade places with you,” I suggested. “You write the book and I’ll take your shifts managing the bar.”

“No, I am not sure you could handle real work,” he began to walk away. “But thanks for the insight, it was a lot of help.”

As Art walked away I could almost see him formulating his future novel in his head. I smiled to myself and wondered if God ever had days like this.

I sipped my drink and listened to Clint sing a few of his original songs and thought maybe I should become a songwriter; it sure looked easy as he performed on the Hog's outdoor stage, people singing along and yelling for more. Hell, how many words in a song? I can write short stories and novels, how hard can it be to write a song?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Writing and drinking, it's only a myth

A friend said my recent blog sounded like I drank and wrote (she doesn’t mind the cigar). She suggested I straighten out the misconception.

She’s right. I do not drink alcohol at home and then write. I drink alcohol at home and go to sleep! My days of trying to out do Hemingway are gone, and I am surprised my liver is still hanging on. Not to say I don’t enjoy a good stout or Irish whiskey. Most Friday nights I meet friends at Finnegan’s Wake for a few pints and some of the best chicken wings on the island.

Or I may meet friends at the Hog’s Breath and sip a Jameson on the rocks and listen to songwriters performing their music live. Over the years I have made friends with many of the singer-songwriters who play at the Hog, so when they’re in town I stop by. They are writers too, poets even.

After three beers or two Irish whiskies I’m drinking bottled water. I have too much going for me to get involved in a DUI; or worse, cause an accident that seriously hurt someone else.

What I do, sometimes, when I am sitting at the bar, or under my stilt house, with a drink and cigar, is to let my mind wander without the pressure of a blank screen staring back at me. Enjoy the drink and cigar and let my unconscious mind work for me, while consciously I am relaxing and enjoying myself, listening to live music or something from my CD collection. Of course, when people come up and talk to me, as happens in bars, my unconscious mind shuts them out and continues on with its search for the solution to my problem, while I go on being sociable. Great, ain't it?

Let’s look at this weekend. It is raining today, so maybe I get a stout at Finnegan’s, since the Hog is an open bar and heavy rain will keep the musicians off the stage and clear out the outdoor section of the restaurant. We need rain in Florida; I only wish it would take a break for a few hours.

I will get home sometime between 8 – 9 p.m. (wild life I live!) and probably read. I have Elmore Leonard’s new book and his dialogue is to kill for. I just finished Robert Gregory Browne’s book, Kiss Her Goodbye. Wanna read some intense writing that moves so fast it leaves you breathless? Check out Rob’s book or go to his Anatomy of a Book Deal blog, check my link section.

I guess this is as good a time as any to mention that writing includes a lot of reading. I read blogs, newspapers and books galore! My home office has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase made of 2-inch-by-12-inch shelving. Heavy, but I guess it’s a complex leftover from my years in earthquake prone Southern California. I made my computer desk the same way.

The shelves are full of books I’ve read and then stacked on their sides are more books I need to read; a few histories, but mostly mystery novels. In 1998 I lost about 2,000 books, mostly signed first edition when my floating home floated away in Hurricane Georges! Looking at my bookshelves now I wonder why the sucker didn’t sink from the weight of my books.

So, to me, reading is as much a part of writing as the pounding of keyboard keys. You need to read the masters, old and true (Chandler, Hammett) as well as people like Leonard for his ability at dialogue or James Lee Burke who can make you smell and taste New Orleans; Michael Connelly, who makes you step over the dirt and grit of Los Angeles and Robert Crais, whose mixture of the Hollywood Hills and tortured souls, helps you see the dirty little angels who survive there.

These writers are so damn good, I sometime want to hang up my keyboard. Of course, I can’t. As a writer I need to write, even if that’s only in my mind while trying to workout a problem in moving my story forward. I don't believe never writing has ever been an option in my life.

Think of how lucky I am, I get to roam Paradise, have a few drinks and good cigars, listen to great live music, talk to characters you would probably have to be locked up in a mental health facility to find anywhere else, go sailing and then sit down and find the words to explain it all without an alcohol haze in stories formed in my imagination.

I may never catch up to my writing heroes, but I am enjoying the hell out of the chase.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Question: what is writing. Answer:

I was asked by a friend how I write when I write and for how long. A lot easier asked than answered. I have read of writers who work eight-to-10-hours a day, sometimes six-days a week, in front of the computer. Wow! If I did that, I could get a book done in three months. I am not sure how good it would be, not with my shortsighted thought process.

Like many writers, I have a job that pays the bills and then my real job, writing. So, at the end of the day I can be all juiced up and write for a few hours, or I can be exhausted and maybe read what I’ve written earlier and do a little editing.

I thought about this recently, like Memorial Day Weekend when I thought I really had a productivity rush. I wrote about 3,000 words between Saturday and Monday. And, that’s after editing it down the next day, before continuing.

First, you need to understand that writing is not sitting in front of computer and typing words onto the screen. There has to be some organization, planning, thought. Without those items all I’d get on the screen would be a mishmash of meaningless words, or maybe a few useless sentences.

So, I tried to explain to my friend that when I am sitting at the Hog’s Breath smoking a cigar and sipping a drink, I am writing in my head – sometimes. I maybe working on a solution to a problem I'm having moving a chapter forward.

Here’s an example from the book I am working on now, a sequel to “Chasin’ the Wind,” called “Free Range Institution.” I am near the end of the story and wanted to put a little action into the few chapters preceding the water chase, seaplane landing, and shootout.

It is early a.m. and most of the protagonist’s friends involved in solving the murder and keeping themselves from being victims are hiding out at a bread-and-breakfast inn in Key West. Three of them just shot up “Doctor-feel-good vitamins,” yeah amphetamines mixed with B12. They’ve been up all night and still have a long day ahead.

But, that’s another blog.

I want to take them to Harpoon Harry’s for an early breakfast, it just feels like what they should do, but the Colombians and local bad guys are looking for them. So I am thinking about it, smoking a cigar, and walking around. I think about dumping the chapter for something better. But what?

Harpoon Harry’s is on Caroline Street in Key West. It’s a small breakfast-lunch diner and the walls are glass doors that open onto the street. Service begins at 5:30 a.m. and it’s still an early dusky morning in the story, so I put them there. Something has to happen. You have to trust me on this, but because of who two of the people in the group are (one a friend of protagonist Mad Mick Murphy) there is one guy parked across the street for security.

By the time I am sipping my Jameson’s at the Hog I can almost see the action. I take out my little notebook and make notes to myself – I don’t trust my memory and keep it handy, along with a small tape recorder in the Jeep for when I am driving and can’t write things down. So what do I come up with?

If you like this let me know. The Colombians drive by, notice Murphy and just start shooting up like they’d do back home; Cocaine Cowboys, riddling Harpoon Harry’s with automatic gunfire! (I can see it happening) By the time they’ve made the turn onto Caroline Street the security guy has jumped into action, and shot up the car, causing it to crash. Now we’ve got Harpoon’s torn up, a car with some (maybe) dead Colombians and, for sure, someone’s gonna call the cops.

Hey, maybe one or two Colombians climb out of the car and there’s an additional shootout! Getting more action than I counted on.Not what the good guys wanted or what I planned on.

I hadn’t thought of that, but, the story takes on a life of its own and as a writer I have to move forward with it. Just because it’s been outlined or noted in my little blocked-out points I scribble on pads of yellow lined paper with ideas that go from common sense to way wild, doesn’t mean it’s gonna be that way. Kind of like life.

Writing is about killing and betrayal and it ain’t easy to do all that while sitting down at home in front of a blank screen – not for me anyway.When I drive around, sometimes as far as Florida City (three hours north), I often solve a problem I’ve had difficulty with in the novel or come up with some wild idea that helps improve my story. I have had these great solutions while driving and often long after a chapter has been written, so I have to go back to rewrite it. It always seems to work better.

So, to me, writing has a lot to do with thinking things through, discovering new twists and turns to what I thought I’d worked out and sometimes having to make a good guy bad or a bad guy good. It doesn't hurt to have a good cigar while doing this.

There are times I wonder who is writing the novel, me or the damn characters I’ve created.

Friday, May 11, 2007

SleuthFest - Saturday

Rain was predicted and the clouds promised it, but I was able to walk to the hotel before it came. In Key West, this type of sky often moved northeast and dumped its cargo in that direction, Marathon and points north. Hurricanes do that too. They head toward Key West, but something, the Gulf Stream or the wind shear pushes them away – usually, not always, as Wilma showed us what dangers were held in Cat 2 flooding.

9 a.m. and I have to make a choice. I enjoy Don Bruns books about music writer/critic Gideon Pike and his panel – Music in Mysteries – was scheduled at the same time as the Agent’s Panel. Since I don’t have an agent, I thought I might pick up some tips, so I took the agent panel.

What did I learn? Getting an agent took a lot of luck, some ingenuity and a little talent. The panel reinforced what I had learned on my own, with years of sending out queries and sample chapters. These days the replies are more personal than form letters, but they are still rejections. I have been told my writing is well done, but the agent didn’t feel he/she was right for the project. Then I send out more queries.

One interesting idea I did pick up was about exclusive rights agents ask writers for while deciding if they want to represent you, are often given under false pretenses by the writer. The agent wants months to get back, one said; while another said he asked for it, but didn’t really expect an anxious writer to sit and do nothing while he/she waited. Translation, send it out to as many agents as possible, promise them anything until you get the desired reply.

Another good point they made was that the first agent to accept you might not be the right agent for you. They talked a lot about what an agent does and what an agent doesn’t do. Some good points, too. Agents don’t get paid by the writer up front. They all agreed that writers should go to the web page of the Association of Author Representatives, read its guidelines for its members and use its membership list for contacting agents. It’s what I have done.

At 10 a.m., it was Violence in the Mystery, with J.A. Konrath, the self-promo guru whose Thursday program I attended and author of the Jack Daniels mystery series; J.M. Taylor, a military writer, and Linda Fairstein, the guest of honor for our luncheon and a former prosecutor in NY. She had to know about violence. She is also a bestselling author, with eight books in print. Violence is a setting in my novel; solving the violent crime is the impetus that moves the characters.

The 11 a.m. panel of my choice was The Mystery in Mysteries: Clues, Misdirection and Satisfying Endings. Panelists, Glynn Marsh Alam, author of the Luanne Fogarty mysteries; Twist Phelan (yes, that’s her real name), retired trial lawyer and author of the Pinnacle Peak mystery series, and Kate White, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and NY Times bestselling author of Bailey Weggins mystery series. The panelists added support to what I have been doing in my writing, so I walked away smiling.

Lunch with guest speaker, Linda Fairstein, and the always fun ‘author auction’ went from noon to 2 p.m. I sat with John Helfers and we talked shop, briefly, and watched from the top floor of the hotel as rain poured down on Miami Beach. I enjoyed Linda’s talk on her career as chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit in NYC. How she came up within the ranks of the NY County District Attorney’s Office at a time women were rarely allowed in court, was an eye opener. She still consults for the district attorney’s office.

The auction is always fun, as guest bid for numerous things, including a tour of the set of yesterday’s guest speaker René Balcer’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent set in NYC. That went for big bucks. Other guest bid for the rights to name a character in an author’s current work, or to be a character in a writer’s book.

It was 2:15 p.m. and I was in the Keeping Them Hooked: Pacing Your Novel, with Martha Powers, who is published by Oceanview Publishing and her book, Forget Me Not, will be out in 2008, and my old friend, military writer J.M. Taylor, who, I should mention, wrote Flash of Emerald and the thriller, Behind the Green Water. Nancy Cohen was the moderator.

The nice thing about this panel was it reinforced what I have done in my writing. That is, by the way, always a great feeling!

Getting It Done: Rewriters & Revisions, began at 3:15 p.m. Panelists were Randy Rawls, author of the ACE Dallas PI series; journalist and mystery writer Susan Sussman; Shawn Reilly, editor in chief of Hillard & Harris Publishers, and Kathryn Lilley, whose first novel, Dying to be Thin, is due out this year. Well, if you write and are abnormal like most writers, rewriting and revision is hell! We all agreed on that, but it is necessary, so live with it, make it enjoyable (somehow) because you gotta do it.

The afternoon session ended with Crime Fiction Sampler, with Twist Phelan (yeah, it's still her real name), Nancy Cohen and John Bond, who writes with Roy Cooke, has six books out, including his ’07, Home Poker Handbook. There are all kinds of mysteries out there.

Obviously, with four panels offered per hour, I missed some great discussions but heard people talking about them in the hallway. How could MWA Florida offer one panel per hour, so we could take them all in? It would have to be a week-long event and I doubt any of us could afford that. I was able to attend the panels I thought would benefit me and they did, even if all they did was reinforce what I have been doing. I think I walked away with a little more knowledge than when I arrived, so it was a good event.

The agent and editors cocktail party and raffle drawing was scheduled for 6 p.m.

Monday, May 7, 2007

SleuthFest: Poolside Friday evening

By 6 p.m. some SleuthFest participants were headed to South Beach for an evening of expensive drinks and food. Others, like me, stuck around the hotel pool bar and enjoyed the company of new and old friends. Drinks at the pool bar were expesive enough.

John Helfers, from Five Star/Tekno Books, joined me. He drank something with rum in it and I had a Guinness. Not exactly tropical, but it's my preferred beer.

I asked John some questions I had, after hearing the three publishers talk. Sadly, he agreed with what they had to say, especially when it came to the sale of books. Yes, he assured me, small publishers depend heavily on writers to sell their books. He listed what Five Star does, including where the book is sent for interviews. It was an impress list. However, (ain’t there always an however?) it is up to the author to get the word out to the bookstores. Some stores may stock the book because of a good review, but don’t count on it, he said.

Five Star does send out its brochure to bookstores, but new authors can be overlooked, he said.

John also writes SiFi mysteries and is working on deadline for his book. So, he had an understanding of my concerns, sort of.

Five Star would look at the sales of “Chasin’ the Wind” before deciding on my next book. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but at least it was an honest answer to my question.

John asked me if I had a marketing plan. I said, kinda. I hope to sell the book at a couple of bars in Key West. When you read "Chasin' the Win," you will see I tried to be faithful to the businesses in town, especially those along Duval Street. I did this because many of you are visitors to the island and I wanted it obvious that I was including the island as a character in the novel. I am also working on a booksigning tour of Florida and Southern California. I hope it works out. I expect the book will be sold at the Hog's Breath Saloon and, hopefully, on its website:www.hogsbreath.com.

John also said he was pretty sure my book would be out in early February '08. I guess that puts me out touring in March. I will remind you later about calling your local bookstore to ask them to carry the book and to invite the author in to sign it. Waiting is hell, but I am half through with the second Mad Mick Murphy Mystery in the series.

Christine Kling, whose current book, "Wreckers' Key," takes place in the Florida Keys, joined us at our table, as did Nancy Cohen, John M. Taylor, "Flash of Emerald," and a couple of other writers and fans. Please Google these writers and discover some very different authors.

John Helfers excused himself after one drink. He was on deadline, he reminded me. I stuck around for another Guinness and some shop talk.

What I had come away with, so far, is that writing "Chasin' the Wind" was the easy part, getting it published was difficult, getting copies into bookstores a lot more difficult and selling copies a real challenge.

I had more to learn on Saturday.

Friday, April 27, 2007

SleuthFest - Friday

If the Mystery Writers of America’s Florida Chapter’s SleuthFest has a downside it’s the choices the participants have to make. Friday morning, beginning at 9, there were four 50-minute-long panels discussing everything from plot, female sleuths, the perfect pitch and death scene investigations. And on the hour, for the rest of the three-day event, new panel topics were offered and participants had to make hard choices on which one to attend, until it was over at 5 p.m. The variety of the panels was amazing. They covered everything imaginable, from technical items to mysticism, noir vs. cozies, music in mysteries, and the list went on!
How do you choose one out of so many good panels?
The 10 a.m. panel wasn’t hard to choose, because John Helfers, from Tekno Books/Five Star was on the Goldilocks & the Three Publishers panel. I had not met John, officially, so I wanted to introduce myself.
Joining John on the panel were Robert Gussin, Ocean View, and Stephen Hull, Justin, Charles & Co., all small publishing businesses outside NYC. The small publishers offer a new writer a much better chance of getting in print than the NYC publishers do. Of course, the reason for this is they pay a lot less and, in many cases, print runs are smaller. They do, often it seems, give higher royalty payments to authors.
The small publishers, these panelists said, depend heavily on their authors to sell books. Where NYC publishers usually have money for promotion, the small publishers have little, if any. While this was discouraging news to many in the audience, it was something I had looked into and knew going in. I actually have already begun plans for touring to promote my book, “Chasin’ the Wind” early next year.
As the publishers said, getting into the chain bookstores is difficult, but not impossible. The independent bookstores, especially those focusing on mysteries, are not impossible to get signings at, but it takes work.
I spent many years as an MWA member in Southern California and in that time I haunted many mystery bookstores. When author Robert Crais was touring in South Florida, I met him at Murder on the Beach Bookstore, Delray Beach, and found out that many of the stores I went to were still in operation. They may have moved location, but they were in business. Since so many independent bookstores across the country are going out of business, this was good news. I will be visiting those stores, from Santa Barbara to Burbank in late June to remind the owners how much I spent in their stores.
I will have my press kit ready for my trip and, according to J.A. Konrath, the kit is important.
If you work in a bookstore in Southern California, or knows someone that does, e-mail me information and I will stop by when I’m there.
I never got to introduce myself to John, since I was the moderator at the 11 a.m. program, Knives, Guns & Other Fun Things. The guest speaker was Miami-Dade CSI crime lab expert John Mancini. As you have probably guessed, John had a good time poking fun at the TV CSI programs. He said he took the shows with a grain-of-salt and thought of them as entertainment, not fact. Though, he did admit, some on the CSI staff didn’t.
He presented a good and informative PowerPoint program on identifying weapons, including a variety of handguns and knives and various ammunitions. This was a must program for writers who like to make sure facts make it into their crime novels.
During the lunch break I finally caught up with John Helfers and we did get together afterward and for drinks at the pool after 5 p.m.
The special lunch guest speaker was René Balcer, Emmy Award winning writer/producer of “Law & Order,” as well as creator of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” He was an interesting speaker as he explained how the show is written and his being a stickler for facts.
John was listening to authors’ pitches after lunch, so we agreed to meet at the pool after 5 pm.
From 2:15 – 5:05 p.m., there were four panels, per hour and choosing which one to attend was difficult. I went to the PR Strategies for Selling Your Book,by NYC publicists Joannie and Nicholas Danieldies. (I am taking the spelling of names from the program, even though it is upsetting my spellchecker).
The information was good, but it all costs money and, according to the small publishers, they were not footing the bill. I can tell you firsthand, the advance from Five Star would not begin to cover the costs of PR.
My next two hours were filled with a two-part panel: Marketing Ideas: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Panelists changed for the second hour and my marketing plans for “Chasin’ the Wind” were supported, which made me feel good.
Coming next, drinks with the publisher!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

SleuthFest '07

Are you a mystery fan or a writer? Not that it matters, but there was a good mixture of both at the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America’s SleuthFest in Miami Beach.
As you probably know, I live in Key West and leaving the island by anything but boat is a traumatic experience. Really, it is. There’s a little less than 10-miles of four-lane road as you exit Key West on US1, that maybe you can drive 60 mph safely. After that most of the speed limit is 45-55 mph on a two-lane road.
My anxiety doesn’t set in until the Florida Turnpike entrance in Florida City. The speed limit is 60-65 mph on the Turnpike, but anyone that has driven it knows 80 mph is the norm, with a little slowing down in the construction areas; the area around the Miami International Airport is always under construction – I think there is a city or county ordinance requiring it.
From the Turnpike to I-95 I can not have the radio on and I must smoke a cigar to quiet my nerves. I am expecting some whacked-out Miamian to ram their speeding vehicle into my Jeep. When I-95 turned into I-195, I was on the causeway to Miami Beach, a whole other world of high-rises and expensive boutiques and restaurants.
My hotel was a 15-minute walk from the hotel hosting SleuthFest and the room was about half the cost. Hell, it cost $20 to park at either hotel, so I figured paying $40 a day was stupid, so I walked. The exercise was probably good for me (probably?).
I showed up Thursday because I wanted to attend the talk by author J.A. Konrath. Joe is an expert on self promotion and since “Chasin’ the Wind” is my first book, and I need to self promote it, I thought it would be a good idea. It was. Joe is knowledgeable and funny. I have figured out that if you want to be a writer, you need a good sense of humor or the job could break you!
Joe was packed full with advice, gimmicks and laughs. Google him, his site is full of advice and booklets that I copied and have enjoyed. After I told him some of the things I had planned for promoting my book, he said I was going in the right direction and tossed in a few ideas of his own.
I also wanted to take the Thursday short-story workshop by writer Elaine Viets, but, sadly, Elaine had a stroke a few days prior to the festival. The good news is, she is recouping and should be home soon.
Since the cover design for “Chasin’ the Wind” hadn't been delivered, my friend Bill Lane, from Fastlane Advertising in Key West, put together a business card with my photo from the book jacket, my name (dah!), the name of the book, publisher, and my website address. I left a lot of these on the various self promotion tables around the festival and people actually took some.
Joe is a big believer of giving things away on his website, so I checked with my publisher (more about him later on another post) and he said I could post my short story, “Murder in Key West,” on the site and suggested I also post a few chapters from “Chasin’ the Wind.”
“Murder in Key West” is currently on my site and will give you a brief look at some of the characters in my novel. My plan is that “Chasin’ the Wind” is the first in a series, “A Mad Mick Murphy Mystery.” The next book is half written and I hope to know if it will be accepted by Five Star by the end of summer.
The first of May, chapter one from “Chasin’ the Wind” will appear on my site and then for the next few months I will add another chapter per month. Obviously, the idea is to get you to read it and buy the book to see how it comes out.
I would like your feedback on the short story, so let me hear from you.
More on SleuthFest to come.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Coming early 2008

Chasin' the Wind from Five Star Publishing
An intriguing tale of mystery and deception from Key West to Cuba, and everything in between.From an exciting new author who's been there... Michael HaskinsChasin' the Wind is a timely and enthralling political novel that features plot twists indigenous only to Key West and Havana, and compelling characters to match. You don't need to leave the comfort of your home to feel the grit and heat. The tropical setting takes precedent, until the conflicts and consequences capture your attention.

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