Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Last Line

There has been much written about the importance of the first line of a novel. At some point I’ll probably add to that discussion, but today I want to spend a minute or two talking about the last line of a novel.

To me, a perfectly composed ending line is the--pun intended--bookend. I generally start working with some sense of the ending in mind. Midway through the novel it has coalesced in my mind to where I can nearly see it. Then, as happened to me yesterday on the way back from visiting with my dialogue coach, the actual ending comes to me.

It happened that way with Blood Anjels, the book I recently released. I knew the feeling I wanted to leave with the reader almost from the beginning. It wasn’t until the three perfect words came to me that I knew I had it. And, no, I’m not going to tell you those three perfect words. And, if you’re one of those people who reads the ending first, they will be meaningless to you. They are, in fact, words the character has spoken before, but in this context their meaning is multiplied and they hit you in the heart.

As it turns out, there are three perfect words that will end The Crappy Used Diary. In the case of the new novel, they will not have been spoken or written before, but their truth will have been evident for about halfway through the novel. The zinger here will be quite different from the one in Blood Anjels. I think both sentences will leave you with the same chill.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ender's Game

Should readers and moviegoers boycott works of art because they disagree with the political views of a writer? This question has come up most recently in regards to Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. The book is iconic in the science fiction canon. I’ve read it, and its sequels. I admire the writing of Orson Scott Card. Only within the past year or so, with the release of the Ender’s Game movie, have I learned how vehemently homophobic the man is. 

Card has many views I find abhorrent. So, should I no longer credit his work? Of course not. His work stands on its own. However, I will no longer purchase anything he writes, and I certainly won’t see the movie.

I would not take that stand if Card were a run-of-the-mill conservative. I can disagree with someone’s political views and still respect them. However, I can’t support someone who would like to see friends and relatives of mine become outlaws because they were born gay. I cherish those people for who they are. Being gay is integral to that.

The question can get complex, and the link I’ve included here cleverly addresses some of the those complexities. Enjoy.

Meanwhile, I won’t be seeing the movie. No doubt, there are readers out there who won’t read my books because of my views. Good for them.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Dear Diary

I’m pondering this because the book I’m currently writing is based on diary entries of two (sometimes three) girls. The entries are one hundred years apart, 1914 and 2014.

As I have mentioned previously I use a few methods to get the language right. I have a 15-year-old niece I am using as a dialogue coach for the contemporary girls. I also use Urban Dictionary for additional help, and I plan to hang out in coffee shops where that age group hangs out, so I can listen to their conversations. Call it creepy, if you like, but how else can I get it right?

For the 1914 girl I have a family diary from that period. Unfortunately, the journalist was a grandmother when she was writing. It helps me get a sense of the times, but I was still missing the vernacular of a 14-year-old girl in 1914.

I contacted TAG Historical Research and Consulting to see if they might know of any resources. Bingo! Elizabeth directed me to the Idaho State Historical Society Archives and to one diary in particular. The diarist was a teenage girl who lived in Boise at the right time.

I’ve learned much about what a teenager then would care about and the style of writing of one bright and engaging girl. I’m picking up some terrific tips from her. I need to use underlining for emphasis. The ampersand was a common shortcut. Spelling--at least the spelling of this girl--was spot on. They did use contractions. She used exclamation points, sometimes in multiples.

Reading this young girl’s diaries, her musings on ordinary life and something about her dreams, makes me melancholy. I feel a little like a voyeur. At the same time, I feel like I’m letting her live a little more than she did. A few of her thoughts and feelings will fly forward one hundred years, though she herself died at age 17.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Circle

I just finished reading The Circle, by Dave Eggers. It would like to be the new 1984. Things are moving too fast for that. By 2015 it will sound dated, maybe even quaint. His message that we’re allowing our privacy to slip away in the name of connectivity, is obvious, but no less important one. For me, the message is clouded by one extended metaphor that needn’t have been so sloppy.

One of the triumvirate that runs The Circle (think Facebook, Google, Apple and the Moonies merged and ravenous), has a fondness for fish of the deepwater kind. With his billions he builds a one person diving device that can take him to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The deepest spot in the trench--and the ocean--is nearly seven miles below the surface. On it’s maiden voyage, the diving vessel brings back an assortment of never-before-seen creatures.

Here’s where Eggers loses me. He makes no effort to tip his hat toward science. With 25 words he could have superficially described the care they took to keep creatures evolved to survive beneath more than six miles of ocean alive. Instead, he spends a couple of pages describing a transfer between one apparently open tank to another in which the deep sea creatures are dropped into the water in baggies so they could slowly acclimate to the temperature of the new tank.

All the critters had eyes, which would likely be superfluous at the bottom of the ocean. Yet, none of them were affected by the light streaming in from beyond the glass where people were watching.

To make his metaphor work--and I have to stop here and mention that I accidentally typed in “meataphor,” which is actually apt. To make his metaphor work, the shark he has captured is insatiable. It is also transparent, which lets us watch it eat then digest other critters. Plausible enough, but he has to push the metaphor. The process from fully functional turtle to little digested flakes drifting down to the sand from the waste chute of the shark takes about 60 seconds.

Writers have to give us some excuse for our willingness to suspend disbelief. Yes, we can accept that people might fall for the allure of a perfect company that gives them infinitely useful stuff in exchange for every nanoparticle of information about them. But if a writer also asks us to believe that you can just take a deep sea shark and plop it in the equivalent of a goldfish bowl, they risk losing our suspension of disbelief. We know they’re pulling that part out of their--let’s say, shark chute.

I enjoyed most of this cautionary tale. I would have enjoyed it more if the author had spent a little time making us believe the scientific plausibility of its central metaphor.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's just common sense!

Sigh. Writers are supposed to avoid using common phrases. That’s because falling back on them is lazy and lacks creativity. In the case of “It’s just common sense,” which also happens to be a tag line for current Cable One commercials, the phrase is particularly irritating to me, because it is also meaningless.

The phrase assumes there is some vast reservoir of common sense out there we can simply dip into with our little tin cups. I see no evidence of that. The Wisdom of Crowds tells us a random group of people can better guess the number of beans in a jar or the weight of an ox than an expert can. You just average the answers of everyone to get pretty darned close. That’s pooling of knowledge, though, not a measure of something that exists in a single person.

If common sense is really common, why do so many individuals seem to lack it? Ponder that while you read this sentence before I give you the answer. Ready? Because what you mean when you deplore someone’s lack of common sense is that they are acting in a way you would not act or thinking in a way you would not. Common sense is, in fact, YOUR sense, or at least the sense of the advocator of same.

Because there is no commonality of wisdom, some wise people decided that we would have a republic in the United States, not a pure democracy. Setting aside the impracticality of each of us voting on every issue, consider the implications. If the majority ruled, minorities of color, creed, or whim of nature would forever remain second class citizens, if they remained citizens at all.

Instead, we elect people who are intelligent enough to learn more about every issue and come to a considered decision for us. Yes, I just said that, though I am fully aware of the frequent failures of this in practice.

We wouldn’t need elected officials if there were such a thing as common sense, would we? Appealing as that seems at this moment in history, reverting to the biggest stick form of government would not serve us well.

That’s just common sense.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Little Lies

We all become more skeptical as the little lies of childhood are exposed for what they are: the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the dog that went to live on the farm up state. Many of us, though carry--now, let’s call them myths--into adulthood, perhaps to the end of our lives. We understand that flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by ungulates is patently ridiculous, yet see walking on water as proof of a special kind of magic.

Why do we tell the little lies, and why do we believe the big ones? I think the reason is the same. We want to maintain our innocence. We want to believe we can defeat the forces of nature--even death--despite all evidence to the contrary.

This need to keep awful truths from our children and ourselves has a persistence that can last a lifetime.

When I was eight or nine, Pop brought home an injured mourning dove. It had a broken wing courtesy, we surmised, of a collision with a powerline. I was  put in charge of the bird. I rigged a cage from a metal freezer basket and kept her in it at night. During the day, I would take her out and let her pal around with me, perched on my shoulder, as we explored the edges of the half-acre fish pond we had on our place.

I did not--do not--know how to distinguish a male from a female mourning dove. In my mind, this one was female, so soft and smooth. Searching for a name for her one day, I spotted a duck on the pond who happened to have a tiny, loose feather balanced on its head. To me, it looked like a crown. That lead to me calling the dove Princess.

I do not not how long I had Princess. My fuzzy memory would like to say weeks. The adult in me says it was a matter of days. One of those days she was gone from her cage when I went to get her.
My parents assured me she had escaped, and I was eager to believe it. How she could have worked her way out of a cage that did not even have a door, I could not say. How she got through two doors and up a flight of stairs to the world beyond was a great mystery. She was gone though, so there you have it.

Weeks later I saw her again. My heart thrilled when the mourning dove with the broken wing flapped along the ground in front of me. I chased it, nearly catching it several times. I probably followed it a quarter mile, cooing to the bird and trying not to scare her. Just when I thought she had settled under a sagebrush and waited for me to pick her up, she would stumble and flap and half-fly off again. At last, I lost her in the bushes.
I ran home to tell Mom of my sighting. She was thrilled to think the bird was all right, just as she and Pop had thought she might be.
I was disappointed that I hadn’t caught her, of course. Still, I felt good knowing she was out there.

It was years later that I found out mourning doves are known for their strategy of feigning a broken wing to lead predators away from a nest.

It was years later, still, when I finally got around to asking Mom what had really happened with the bird. Mom was 90; I was 55. She deflected the question.

So, here I am with that small spark of hope in my heart that there is a mourning dove still out there who remembers me fondly, in spite of the best evidence that death claims us all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sculpting Words

I’ve been asked a couple of times in recent writing workshops how many times I edit or rewrite my work. In those same settings, the subject of nanowrimo has come up. The two subjects are related.

Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, is an effort to encourage writers to pound out 1600 words, or so, every day, all month long. Writers are told not to worry about editing, just get the words down.

This idea reflects the common practice of writing scads more material than you’ll need, then going back to edit out the garbage.
My sense is that the majority of writers work this way.

I suppose you could liken this to a sculptor chipping away at the stone until only the sculpture is left.

I work from the other direction. My writing, for better or worse, starts with the same blank page as a watercolorist. I build it up layer by layer, correcting minor errors as I go along. When it comes time to look over the whole thing I find a pencil mark or two to erase, or a spot that calls for another brushstroke.

How often do I edit? Constantly. I will write a couple thousand words in a session, then go back at the end of the day and edit lightly. The next day, I’ll read through what I wrote the day before, making minor tweaks as needed, then start the next session. Every three or four days, I’ll go back ten thousand words are so and check everything for flow. Again, I’ll change a word or two and discover places where I left out a word.

When the draft is finished, I’ll go back through the whole thing once more, then set it aside. I let it sit for about six weeks, then go through it again. At that point, it’s usually ready for an editor.

I don’t slash and burn, because I don’t write a lot of burnable material. Call that hubris, if you like. It’s just the way I learned to write. I have a background in two disciplines that force writers to use their words sparingly to convey a message: copywriting for radio and poetry. The two are not equivalent, but each has a finite box. For radio, the box is 30 or 60 seconds. For poetry, it is the form you choose to use, if you are using a form. Even relatively unstructured poetry has its own discipline of metrics and economy.

Mine way is the right way. For me. If writing reams then slashing away the excess works for you, go for it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Google Me

Well, this is an interesting development. I was going to blog today about the trials and tribulations of having a last name that is also a very common English adjective. Then I Googled myself.

Admit it, you’ve done that. Everyone is curious about the digital tracks they’ve left across the cyber landscape. I haven’t done it in at least months, possibly years.

I’ve found it entertaining in the past to first Google William Shakespeare, another writer you may have heard of. You get more than 50,000 results. Most of them are probably in some way related to William Shakespeare.

Now, Google Rick Just. You get more than 407,000 results. Whoa! This Rick Just must be some kind of famous! Except that about 407,000 of those results are for pages where “Rick just emptied the garbage,” or the like.

That was to be the basis of my mini rant. People simply can’t find me, even if they are actually looking for me.

But strange Google magic has happened since last I looked. Seven of the top eight results are for the actual Rick Just who writes this blog. True, the third most relevant result offered is for a bus driver named Rick Just who is featured in a YouTube video. Still, there I am, right where I’m supposed to be.

The top result is my website, followed by my LinkedIn page, followed by the bus driver. Then we’ve got Facebook, a bio, images, my author page on Amazon, and a link to Wizard Chase.

I still can’t shake that Shakespeare dude, though. Result number nine is from the website Rap Genius, quoting lyrics by Rick Ross, which include a reference to the Bard. Back to school, Google, back to school.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cover Up

You can’t judge a book... Balderdash. You can. You do. 

Maybe it’s the cover blurb that sells you, or the title of the book, or the name of the author. Covers are the billboards of reader enticement. They have about two seconds to draw you in before you’re nothing but taillights.

I wonder if that old idiom began back when book covers were roughly the same; when book covers were just the cloth-wrapped boards that protected the pages between them. At one time the only thing that differentiated the Bible from Robinson Crusoe before you opened it up, was the title of the book.

We count on covers. They separate romance novels from cookbooks. Usually. They tell us how fabulously famous the author is, when her name is larger than the title. They help us make the first cut in selecting a book.

All of this is by way of introducing the new cover of what was, in 1996, my first novel, Keeping Private Idaho. The book has been out of print for a while, and I’ve never done an electronic version.
Now, the book is available, again, in trade paperback, and will be available as an ebook in just a few days. What pleases me most about bringing it back is the new cover, created by Ward Hooper.

If you live in the Northwest, you’ve seen Ward’s work everywhere. If you’re not familiar with him, please visit his website or Facebook page.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Three for the price of none

Three for the price of none! Today’s the day I’m offering three of my Kindle books for free on Amazon. The free books are Wizard Chase, the first book in the Wizards Trilogy; Idaho Snapshots, my book of short Idaho history vignettes; and my newest book, Blood Anjels. A word of warning: Blood Anjels may not be appropriate for some young adults. Like my Wizards Trilogy, the main characters are young people coming of age. Unlike in the Trilogy, they confront questions of gender and sexuality. This may upset and shock some conservative parents. One has to remember that the characters in Blood Anjels are not human and while their reproductive strategy has echoes of human sexuality, it is not the same.

Now are you interested?

Download the books today only to your Kindle for free by following the link below.

Friday, November 15, 2013

One Last Edit

I wrote yesterday about what I’ve learned from editors. It’s a long list. I should mention the need for them at various levels.

Most people understand the need for copy editing, sometimes called line editing. You need someone to tell you when you’ve left a word out, typed one twice, or forgotten that important comma.
You need a proofreader to compare earlier versions of a manuscript with corrected versions, to assure all the errors were actually corrected. They will catch typographical errors. Except when they don’t, which is why you need more than one set of eyes looking over your work.

You many want to work with an editor who understands plotting and story flow. Those are different skill sets, and not all editors have them.

Continuity is essential in a book. Do you use the same name for a character consistently? Is it always spelled the same? Is the timeline of the story linear (if it is supposed to be)? Is something missing?

This just skims the surface of what an editor can do. What I wanted to emphasize particularly today is the need for that one last edit.

You may think you’re through with editiors once your draft is perfect. Think again. There is the potential for introducing numerous errors at every step along the way to publication. If you are using  a traditional publishing house most of the final editing will be taken care of for you. You’ll probably receive galleys to go over one last time.

If you are printing a book yourself you need to have an editor look it over once you have loaded the copy into a desktop publishing program and have it looking the way you want it to look. Then, you’ll need to have someone check it over once it has been uploaded to a service such as Create Space.

If you’re using the same files to create a digital version of your book, you’ll need an editor to make sure the transfer from print format to digital worked the way you wanted it to. Many errors--particularly formatting errors--take place in that transfer. Finally, you’ll want someone to look at it once your files meet the specifications of your digital publisher. The process they use to turn your file into, say, a Kindle book, can introduce errors as well.

Meanwhile, don't forget that I'm giving away free Kindle copies of three of my books tomorrow on Amazon. Follow the link below to my author page on Saturday, then click on Blood Anjels, Idaho Snapshots or Wizard Chase.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Weakening Words

I sat on a panel of writers at an editing workshop last weekend. That got me thinking about what I’ve learned from editors over the years. Perhaps my most important lesson was to recognize and murder passive voice.

Recently, an editor pounded on me about my use of weakening words. I probably sin the most with the word “though.” Here’s an example from my book Wizard Chase:

I didn't like the plan, much. It was the best plan we had, though. It was the only plan.

That short paragraph is stronger, and one word shorter, without “though.”

I’ve taken to doing a word search for “though” in all my writing. I find that I can get along without it about 95% of the time. I sometimes leave it in when it’s not strictly needed, if it’s in conversation. Otherwise, I’m aggressive with the delete key.

There’s another weakening word that I’m pone to use in my writing. Stand by for irony. The word is “just.”
With apologies to Nike, here’s an example from the same book—the same chapter—where “just” is unnecessary and weakening:

“Let's just do it," said Valven.

The Internet has weakening word lists. Check them out. Do a word search on your own writing. Do you see words such as seemed, well, while? Can you get along without them?

Writing is the quintessential example of less is more.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Giveaway Day

Saturday is Giveaway Day! To celebrate the publication of my latest novel, Blood Anjels, three of my books will be free for Kindle users this Saturday. The free books are Blood Anjels, Wizard Chase and Idaho Snapshots. Just go to Amazon on Saturday, November 16 and search for any or all of the books. You’ll see that their price has been reduced to $0. Add them to your shopping cart, make the zero-dollar purchase, and they’ll be delivered free to your Kindle.

This is our little secret, right? Wrong. Please share this promotion with your friends who have Kindles.

Why? Giving Kindle books away always results in increased sales of my books. That’s because many of those who read the free book are kind enough to write a review, which encourages sales. Also, those who read a free book are more likely to purchase one of my other books.

Thanks for participating.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Readers are often surprised when they learn that fiction requires research. You’re just making up the story, right? How can you get anything wrong?

Let me give you a couple of examples from the novel I’m currently working on, The Crappy Used Diary.

One of the key characters is a 14-year-old girl whose parents are adamantly opposed to her wearing makeup. Their opposition is equally met by her obsession with the stuff. Strategies for obtaining this essential substance help to enrich the plot.

I know little about makeup, and even less about how one might go about a DIY project in which two teenagers attempt to create it. Hello, YouTube. Suffice to say that burnt almond, honey, and olive oil play their roles.

Further, I know only a smattering of teen speak. Urban Dictionary is helpful here. My teenage niece is crucial.

I have no one to teach me the vernacular of a teenage girl in 1914, so I am on the search for diaries of that period.

For this book, I also need to know what was going on day-to-day in 1914. Several timeline sites on the Internet help me there. I need to keep in mind that news did not travel so fast 100 years ago, so major events would not reach ranchers sometimes for days.

I might get away with some errors in the 1914 entries in the book. Most readers won’t do a lot of fact checking. If I mess up the contemporary chat I’m in big trouble. That’s the language of my readers.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Novel is Live

I started blogging about my novel, Blood Anjels, January 25, 2013. Those who have followed the blog from the beginning know about character and plotting decisions I've made along the way and they have helped me decide on cover copy and on the book cover itself.

Today's the day I officially move on to new projects, because today marks the release of the book on Kindle. The printed version will be available later this week.

You can read the first few pages and order the book through this link.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting Covered

Blood Anjels is nearly ready to go to press (and to publish as a Kindle book). If you’ve got two minutes, please help me by giving your opinion on two potential covers and on the back cover copy for the book. You’ll get a free Kindle copy as soon as it is published. Please feel free to forward the survey link to anyone else you think might be interested. Thanks.