Relating to readers

Last evening, I was honored to meet with the Thomasville Literary Society, a local book club that had selected my book, A Case of Revenge, for their monthly title.

I enjoy talking with readers as much as I do writing. It is invigorating and inspiring, plus it keeps me on my toes. Over the weekend, I started thinking that it has been three years to the month since I published A Case of Revenge and I should probably refresh my memory. It would be embarrassing to not be able to discuss plot points or characters in my own book. For the first time, I re-read one of my books after the final version had been published.

Like many authors, I never go back and read my books. When I shared that with the group, that prompted several questions. First, “Is it hard to turn loose of a story and characters after I finish a book?” and second, “After having re-read it, would I change anything?”

My answer to the first question was easy. “Not at all,” I said. “By the time I’m finished, I’ve had enough of them and am ready to move on.”

The second question was tougher. “Yes,” I answered. “Of course there were things I’d change. The good part is that most of them were minor, like too many exclamation marks. When it came to the story, I said to myself, ‘that was actually a good story.’ I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the story.”

That was a good feeling and reinforces my belief that “It’s all about the story.” A good story is timeless and ages well. I’m glad to say that mine passed the test.

Harper Lee

I’m conflicted about Go Set a Watchman. It sets on my nightstand at home, as yet untouched. I still believe that Harper Lee, her sister, and her editor never wanted to publish it. They had ample opportunity to do so and chose not to, for reasons we will never completely understand.

Yet, the opportunity to read Harper Lee’s first book is too tempting. Some refer to it as a draft. I beg to differ. In 1957, she gave the manuscript of Watchman to her agent to shop with publishers. Granted, it may not have been print ready, but to me, that qualifies as a finished product in the mind of a writer, especially for fiction and a first-time author.

Lippincott bought it, and when they assigned it to editor Tay Hohoff, the journey began. Hohoff, who developed a close personal relationship with Lee, thought that it wasn’t ready for prime time. Working closely with her client and friend, she convinced the young Lee to reset the time period twenty years earlier, and shape it into a coming of age story. The rest, as they say, is history, and three years and many revisions later, To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

So, to me, Watchman is much more than the first draft of Mockingbird.  Certainly, it evolved into that beloved story, but it’s not unusual for a writer’s first story or stories to remain unpublished or serve as a springboard to subsequent works. I heard Michael Connelly, one of my favorite contemporary writers, speak earlier this year. When asked about his first book, he said, “My first three novels will never see the light of day.” His first published novel was actually his fourth book.

I look forward to curling up with a real book, not some electronic facsimile. And the fact that it was a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist’s first novel makes it even more exciting. I will read it with the utmost respect and gratitude for this glimpse into the world of a truly gifted writer. It will never diminish my appreciation for her talent and the incredible story of To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

Friends

I just returned from a few days in Southern California, where I had a chance to sit down with a long-time friend (as opposed to “old” friend!) who I hadn’t seen in too many years.

It was amazing how we picked up where we left off, as though it had only been weeks instead of years. I think that is the nature of a true friendship that has been forged through the years. Although we live on opposite coasts and travel in different circles these days, the bond was still present, strong as ever. We laughed, we cried, we shared, as only true friends can do.

We both remarked that although we know a lot of people, the number of friends is not very large. Those connections seem more precious at this stage in our lives, and we both walked away grateful for each other and the opportunity to spend a little time together.

We vowed to spend more time together, but even if we’re unable to do so, it’s still nice to know that your friends are always there for you.

Story Rules

Tuesday, I led a workshop titled When You Say Nothing At All, making the point that as writers, what we don’t say is sometimes more important that what we do. It’s easy to obsess with perfecting the prose when we should be worrying about the story we’re telling. Good prose can’t salvage a poor story, but a great story will hide a lot of sins in the writing.

Story comes first, all else will follow.

 

Fuel for the Fire

His face looked familiar, but I couldn’t place the name. He picked up my latest book, The Care Card, and I started to give him my ten-second pitch.

I was at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in Ft. Myers, FL, where I had a booth for the event. Three of my books are set in the city where I once lived and worked, so I have a genuine affinity for the area.

Holding on to my book, he said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I studied his smiling face, but still nothing clicked. “Your face is familiar, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”

“I’m Mike,” he said, pointing to The Medicine Game, my first book. “I bought your book last year, and I loved it. It was really good.” He handed me The Care Card, and said, “I want this one.”

I shook his hand, rang up the sale, and signed his book, thanking him for coming back this year and telling him how much I appreciated his kind words.

A great way to start the day, I thought, after he left and another person stepped up. I enjoy meeting and talking with readers and fans almost as much as I enjoy writing. The traffic was non-stop, busy, but energizing and rewarding.

Later that day, Mike came back and picked up The Pill Game. “I’ve walked around and looked at all the books here, and I still think yours are the best. I want to get this one, too.”

“Mike,” I said, as I asked if I could get a picture with him. “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

Birthday

This week, I celebrated another anniversary of my 40th birthday. At this point in the game, these occasions are a good opportunity to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. You are over the hump, with more years behind you than ahead.

I try not to spend too much time looking behind. There’s nothing I can do to change my decisions, good or bad, so all I can do is take away lessons and hopefully keep more marks in the good column than in the other. I’m fond of saying, “It is what it is.”

With a dwindling number of years ahead, I focus on what I’d like to do in the time remaining, my “bucket” list, if you will. I’m working on my fifth book, planning on releasing it by the end of the year. I love writing, and learn something new about the craft every day, and with every conversation I have with other writers. That’s one of the things that attracts me, is the idea that you never “get there.” It’s truly a journey, and you try to improve with each sentence, but never feel like it’s quite good enough.

Just like every writer, I dream of the big leagues. In my case, a New York Times Bestseller. I realize the odds are probably not much better than the lottery, but it’s still nice to ponder.

But the real reward is to have a stranger buy your novel, read it, and gush about how much they liked it and how they couldn’t put it down. That, my friends, is what drives me. And to those who do that, I say, “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”