Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead Air Nightmare

I had a dream last night. I do not dream about the characters from books I’ve written. I don’t dream about magazine layout, arranging vegetables, or working in an auction house, though I’ve had those experiences. I rarely dream about the 29 years I spent working for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Like most people, I sometimes dream about being unprepared for class. Mostly, though, when I have a nightmare, it is about radio.
Working in radio did not create mind monsters that haunt my sleep. It did mark me forever in its unique way, though.
I was a rock and roll(ish) DJ from 1967 through 1976. After that I spent a few years playing country music at night, while I went to school during the day. I got in on the tag end of the days when DJs cued up commercials on reel-to-reel tape—except for those we read live, of course. I was replaced by a computer at one station in 1976, long before most people gave that a thought.
The radio business is full of “personalities,” not all of them on the air. But it is not the often slightly daft people who make me sweat at night. It is the concept of dead air.
During my radio days, at least, those of us who were on air obsessed about something most people don’t even notice. Dead air is any fraction of a second or longer in which that needle that indicates sounds is going out over the airwaves ceases to jump. Today, it’s usually a string of LEDs that indicates the station is still breathing.
It was the greatest sin to let that needle rest. You always had to have music, news, a commercial, or your voice making it bounce. I think we imagined that listeners were out there with their fingers on the dial ready to find another station the minute they detected a second of silence.
And, thus to my dreams. They all start out with me in the control room on a new job. I’m on the air and nothing is going right. I don’t recognize any of the record titles, there is no system in place to give me a clue about what to play next, the commercials are all about five seconds long, and I can’t remember the call letters of the station. The entire dream consists of me trying to find something else to play next. Something to keep that needle jumping. Usually, someone will come into the studio to witness my ineptitude, which just makes it that more difficult to find the next record. Polka!? Why am I playing polka?
Okay, maybe it doesn’t measure up to falling off a cliff or being trapped in a barrel full of spiders (or snakes, your choice). Nevertheless, the dead air nightmare is my most persistent dream, visiting me several times a year though the last time I cued up a record or tape was nearly 30 years ago.
I wonder if big time radio announcers have those dreams. I guess I could ask Jack Sunday. He could ask Charlie Tuna.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Delivery (not) Guaranteed

Today I was talking with a friend who is a ranger at Idaho’s Farragut State Park. The park was a huge naval training station during WWII. The only remaining building from those days is the brig. During some recent renovation in the building, they found a letter secreted away in the walls that had never been delivered. It had been written by some young man who was in the brig for some reason and apparently felt the need to hide it. The letter was addressed to his sweetheart in Tennessee, and included an envelope and stamp.

This is the sort of thing that makes a writer’s brain start cranking. We want to fill in the details. What was he in for? Why did he hide the letter? Why didn’t he retrieve it before he got out? Did he get out, or did something fiendish happen to him? What happened to her?
Nearly 70 years later we get to eavesdrop on his personal correspondence. He meant for someone--someone special--to read the letter. She never did.
I think this story may unsettle writers more than others, because we are constantly hiding something in the walls, hoping that eventually someone will read what we wrote. Inevitably, there will be that last attempt at writing; that last unfinished manuscript.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Right and wrong. Black and white. North and south.

These opposites--literally polar opposites in the case of the latter--are fodder for novelists. Writers frequently explore the areas between those opposites. Maybe we should call them, in the case of black and white, especially, “gray” areas.

Melville, famously, turned convention on its head in Moby Dick by making white an evil. I, less famously, did something of the the same thing in my Wizards Trilogy. At first, it was clear that the evil wizard was black. My editor at the time was very uncomfortable with that because she thought I was reinforcing racial stereotypes. Even when I pointed out that later in the book we would learn that the wizard was not a black man, but one who painted himself black, the topic made her queasy. Even later, we learn that the white wizard is not so good after all, and that she also paints herself white, I don’t think my editor was completely appeased. Both were actually pink, and neither the black nor white wizard was all good or bad. Still, the way we think about those two terms is so culturally hard wired that it was difficult for her to get around it. It was probably difficult for some readers, too, which was the point I was trying to make.
I’m currently reading Drunk Tank Pink, by Adam Altar. Among other things, it explores our cultural, biological and psychological reactions to things that would not logically make a difference. The pink color of the title physically weakens people exposed to it. People named Ken are more likely to support relief efforts for hurricanes named Katrina because their names share that initial letter. Job applicants named Bob are more likely to be selected than applicants name Trayvon, even when their resumes are identical.
And which way is up? North, of course. We even expect rivers to flow from north to south, rather than the other way around. This is reinforced in the United States by that big sucking drain, the Mississippi.
In my current draft, up and down make only the slightest difference to anjels, until one of them discovers the ability to fall. It is at times like that, when our world views are challenged, that things really get interesting.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


That was the word count when I typed the last period of the first draft of Blood of Anjels, today. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll go back, add some scenes and read it through a couple of times before releasing the final draft to editors and readers. I’m guessing it will be about 75,000 words in finished form.
The word count, as I’ve said before, is only important in terms of classification. It will be a short novel, not a novella. The important thing is that I use just enough words to tell the story, no more and no less.
I am pleased and surprised with the ending. It came together faster than I had envisioned. Some readers will think it ends abruptly, because the pace of the final scene is rapid, right up to the last few paragraphs. It will frustrate some readers because not everything is spelled out. Others will find it opaque.
I can hardly wait for those conversations.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Magical Thinking

I hate magical thinking. I love to think magically.

It comes as a surprise to people that there is not a shred of magic in my Wizards Trilogy. True, most of the characters think their world runs on magic. Characters often get it wrong. We all do.

All of us come into this world naïve. We know not a single thing. Lasa, my heroine in Blood of Anjels, is exactly like us in that way. And, just like us, she proceeds to learn about her world, first through her senses, and later through the teachings of others.

Both methods of education are suspect. Our senses often fool us: Look, that oar bends when it goes into the water! Those who try to teach us can lead us even further astray, often because they’ve been taught to believe something patently ridiculous themselves.

As a result, we all grow up believing some things that we later find out are not true. It turns out that bent oar is a trick of refracted light. And the Easter Bunny isn’t the benevolent deliverer of eggs we thought he was.
Life is full of such misapprehensions. So are my books. Of course, as the god of the novel, I may be getting some things wrong, too, even when I am teaching my characters the errors of their ways.

Lasa is a believer because what else could she be? She is an integral part of the myth of anjels. When her own experiences make her start to question her beliefs, it is the beginning of her transcendence. She might have been happier if she could continue believing, and that is her tragedy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Creeping up to the Edge

When you are nearing the end of a book that you are particularly enjoying, do you tend to slow down, take it in smaller bites, savor it? That’s where I am right now with Blood of Anjels. The only difference is, I’m writing it, not reading it.
I could probably finish up the first draft in a day or two. Even so, I might linger for a few days, putting off the end.
There is much work to do after I finish the first draft. I need to go back and add three or four short sections that will help build up to later sections I have already written. Then, I’ll need to read the whole thing through to do some tightening before turning it over to an editor.
Still, in many ways, the words I write in the next few days will complete the book. I’m looking forward to it, but feeling a little melancholy about it at the same time. It has become a friend that I will miss having around.
Would you like to have the book around for a while? I’m looking for a handful of readers who would be interested in reading through an early draft of the novel and sharing their opinions with me. If you would like to be one of those readers, contact me at rickjust@rickjust.com.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Crappy Used Diary and Other Stories of the Future

One of the persistent themes of this blog is, Where do story ideas come from? The answer in its most pedestrian form is, they come from the same place ideas for what to fix for dinner come from. They are a collision of memories and events of the day that when mangled and tangled together form something new and shiny. Or, they come from dreams.

I’ve written before about that half-asleep, half-awake territory I think we all wander. We set our minds free, mostly, though there might be a loose agenda involved.

This morning, sometime shy of five a.m., I came out of that dreamland with a book title in my head. It is not the title of the book I’m currently writing, rather the next book I will write or the one after that. Maybe not one at all, but one I will certainly add to the list of possibilities.

The book title is The Crappy Used Diary. I don’t know a lot about the book, other than the situation. A teen or preteen girl receives an antique diary from her father for her birthday. The first few pages have been filled in, one day at a time, by someone a century ago. It is a lovely diary with fine paper that beckons the fingertips. To her, though, it is a crappy used diary.

This book wants badly to be written. Maybe, to be written badly. I’ll try to avoid the latter.

I will finish Blood of Anjels (the title I have settled on), first. I may spend a little time buffing up Keeping Private Idaho for Kindle release, and I may go back to another book called Dog Run that stopped me dead about halfway through a few months back.

Or, I may dip into the idea well and work on other books I plan to write, and which I have spent anywhere from minutes to years thinking about. I don’t always start with a title. Even when I do, the title might change when I get further into the book. Here are some teaser titles from the idea well:

The Autobiography of gGod
The Invisible Friend
Cooper’s Laundry
Dead Air

Of those, the most likely to eventually become novels are Cooper’s Laundry and Dead Air. It’s not too late for requests.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Chapter One

Yesterday, I asked you to share with me your thoughts about what was going on in the watercolor of the old-fashioned typewriter I posted. Those who responded in one of the five venues where the blog feeds ran were all--drum roll please--absolutely correct.

No, this wasn’t one of those middle school events where everyone with a pulse gets a trophy. It was just a little example of how an image, written or illustrated, will say different things to different people. We are all products of our experiences. They shape us uniquely.

If Stephen King is correct that writing is telepathy, then it is imperfectly so. With my writing, and my art, I try to take something from my mind and put it into yours. If we are sympatico, then I have succeeded. But, what if we’re not? Does that mean that I have failed? Does it mean you have failed?

No more so than we do in everyday communication. If an idea is transmitted imperfectly, well, we should be used to that. It happens every time we pick up a pen or part our lips to speak.

I am not a fan of spicy food, so I sometimes mention to my lovely wife that something she has prepared--while undeniably wonderful--is a tad too hot for me. She always takes umbrage at this, invariably telling me there is nothing in the food that would make it “hot.” Do you see the futility of this continuing conversation? Her idea of “hot” and my idea are simply not the same.

Now, expand that difference in understanding by 100,000 words, each of which we have our own meaning for, and it is really a miracle that we often enjoy the same books.

When I write, my success is not the perfect understanding of my readers. It is in the enjoyment they get from the way I have made the words work. If they come away from the book with some small, new insight, so much the better.

Oh, and who came closest to what I was aiming for with that illustration? Probably Jessica Moyer. I’ve never met Jessica, but she has been a loyal reader for years.

But, as I said, everyone else had the right answer, too. Their right answer.

By the way, the watercolor is titled “Chapter One.”

Friday, April 5, 2013


Stephen King says that writing is telepathy. What he means is that I can describe an object, a scene or a person, you can read that, and the image has been transmitted into your mind without my saying anything.

It’s not a perfect metaphor nor is the transmission of thought perfect. It is useful, though. I am trying to get something that lives in my head into your head. The same is true for all art and, for that matter, all forms of communication.

I just finished a little water color I’m going to attach to this blog. What does it say to you? I did title it, but what does it say without a title? Describing the picture doesn’t count. Tell me, if you’ll play along, what is happening in the picture?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Trickster

Coyote has fascinated me for many years. He is the trickster of Native American mythology. I am most familiar with his antics in the Nez Perce tradition.

Coyote was the central character in my first novel, Keeping Private Idaho, though all these years later I fear that reference was a bit too oblique. I’ll probably revise it a bit for the Kindle version, which I hope to bring out this year shortly after publishing the Anjels book.

In the Coyote stories he can be about anything he chooses to be, which makes him a multi-dimensional character. Yet, he’s true to his trickster nature and that is usually his downfall. Coyote tales explain the world. We learn from his mistakes.

I wrote the following when friends started falling one by one to dementia. It is just the sort of thing that would make Coyote dance.

I Forget

The Trickster no more plays his pranks on badger and on toad.
Today his tools are snapped synapses and binary code.
He nibbles on our memories or steals them complete.
He rearranges furniture as part of his deceit.
He shuffles through our credit cards and hides our Prius keys.
He strips the names from faces, lets the words loose in the breeze.
Coyote was never funnier than Alzheimer’s disease.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Reading and Writing

Writing is a product of the life we live, so it should surprise no one that some of what we read spills over into what we write. I’m not talking about plagiarism, here, just a flash of image or the beginning of a thought from a book read to a book written. For that reason, I thought it might be of some interest to update you on what I’m currently reading.

I finished Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver a couple of weeks ago. I posted earlier that it had gotten me thinking about butterflies and the role they might play in my book. Since then I have read The Driving Lesson by Ben Rehder, a competently written, though predictable young adult novel. I also read about half of Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson. I was listening to that one, and finally found my mind wandering elsewhere to the point that I just gave up on it. That teacher who told you that if you start a book, you must finish it? Maybe that’s true, if you’re in second grade.

I’m just about finished with the latest C.J. Box book, Breaking Point. I’m listening to that one, and also to Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes. The Box book is a typical Joe Pickett novel, which means a fun read. I’m only about an hour into Don Quixote. I find that what was probably hilarious in 1605 has lost a little verve 500+ years later. It’s a story we know so well--or think we do--that it is almost too much trouble to read it.

Finally, I’m rereading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft on Kindle. It’s about 3/4 autobiography, with some practical writing tips tossed in. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in either King or writing.

Will anything from those book leak into what I’m working on? If it does, even I probably won’t know it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

What do Dogs Have to do With it?

Today, while doing mental research, it occurred to me that my dogs are helping me write this book in a couple of ways.

First, the mental research itself--that time between being fully awake and drifting off to sleep--is arguably enhanced by the imagination of dogs. When I settle down for an after-lunch nap I close my eyes and start to think about the book, usually starting with where I left off and what will come next. My dogs--I have what, 40 of them? Okay, four--settle around me. Most days they leave me alone for 15 or 20 minutes and I eventually drift off. Today, they imagined Mongol hordes attacking about every three minutes. It turned out to be kids going by on skateboards outside, a distant siren or a squirrel running across the roof. Once again, we were safe from Genghis.

But, the frequent interruptions meant I had to regroup my mind, go back to the story and--probably not--drift off to sleep. The dogs were prolonging my mental research time. My reptilian brain wants to bite them for it. Higher brain powers win out, and so they live.

Dogs also contribute to my health, which contributes to my writing. Sure, we go for walks and they throw Frisbees for me. Or something. But they also seem especially concerned that I not sit at the keyboard in one position for a length of time that might result in an embolism. The white schnauzer is particularly adept at this, coming to remind me with his persistent paws about every 45 minutes. Good boy. If I am successful in ignoring his relentless pestering, the Irish wolfhound/Australian shepherd cross will begin whining in tones of increasing pitch until I leap from my chair and go spend three or four minutes with them in the backyard.

And they say writing a solitary pursuit.