A New Year, A New Book

A new project to get my year off to a good start.

2013 was the first year since 1991 that I did not publish a new book.

There are several of reasons for this, none of which I want to get into here. That would make interesting fodder for a future blog post. Don’t worry; I won’t leave you hanging for long.

But it isn’t as if I haven’t been writing — I have been. In addition to this blog, which I’ve tended to quite faithfully since I started it in October 2003, I’ve been working on another book project since late 2012, when I found myself with an outrageous personal story to tell. Unfortunately, I’ve had to put that project aside; I hope to finish it when I know the ending.

Papillon HelicopterToday, however, I started work on the book I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so. Tentatively titled Flying the Canyon: My Season as a Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour Pilot, this book will share my experiences from one of the most interesting summers of my life.

Here, I’ll let the book’s draft introduction tell you more:

In the summer of 2004, I realized one of my dreams: I became a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon.

I was 42 when I got the job and I worked with a bunch of young people — mostly men — some of whom were young enough to be my kids. I met the challenges of working in a sometimes difficult but usually breathtakingly beautiful flying environment, dealing with the personalities of co-workers and management, and trying to please passengers from all over the world. The work was rewarding, frustrating, and enlightening. The flying experience was something I think every helicopter pilot should have.

I also had a very odd experience on one of my flights — an experience that would leave the lingering scar of PTSD on me for many years to come.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work, but by the end of the summer, the novelty had worn off. Friction inside the company made the job less pleasant than it had been. I realized that I was a square peg in a round hole. My real work as a freelance writer was being neglected and my editors were beginning to lose their patience. I was sad to leave, but it was time.

This book is the story of my season at the Grand Canyon. It begins before the beginning by sharing the stories of when I decided I wanted to learn how to fly and the things that I did to gain the skills I’d need to be a tour pilot. It then goes on to tell about my experiences as a pilot at the Canyon — including the unusual occurrence on June 10, 2004 — and my direct interactions with fellow pilots, management, and passengers. Finally, it shares how my feelings about being a Canyon tour pilot changed as the summer came to a close and the events that affected my decision to leave.

Because I’d blogged many of my experiences soon after they happened, much of what I share in these pages is rich with details. But rather than just restate my blog posts, I’ve filled in the gaps between them with the behind-the-scenes stories that I couldn’t make public at the time.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon? Here’s what it was like for me.

As I write, I’ll be pulling a lot of my blog posts about those days offline, probably for good. In a way, my blog has acted as a temporary archive for these stories. Once the book is complete and published, the book will be the permanent archive. I hope to do this with much of the contents of my blog.

Captain MariaToday, I churned out over 4,000 words, completing the introduction (which I just shared here), a Prologue, and Chapter 1, which briefly covers my experiences learning to fly and getting my commercial pilot rating. My goal is to have the entire book finished by month-end — a goal I know I can reach if I can stay focused on my work. (With little else do do this winter, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to find time!)

I’ve toyed with the idea of shopping it around to a mainstream publishing house but will likely self-publish under the Flying M Productions “Real-Life Flying” imprint. The book will be available in print and as an ebook in Kindle, Nook, and iBooks formats. I had quite a bit of success with one of my three self-publishing projects back in 2012, so I’m pretty confident I’ll meet or beat that success with this book.

Of course, since I need to work on the book each morning, that might cut into my blogging time. So expect to see fewer posts here over the next month or so as I write, edit, lay out, and publish this book. More information on where to buy it will be available before month-end.

Comments? You know where to put them!

Twitter and Writing

Some thoughts on a New Yorker essay.

Twitter LogoI read an interesting essay on the New Yorker magazine’s website yesterday: “The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing.” It was one of those pieces that, as you read it, you realize that you and the author are sharing the same thoughts about something that you thought you were alone in thinking. As I read through the piece, I found myself wanting to highlight different passages of it — the parts of it where the author put into words what I’d been thinking or feeling for a long time.

So I figured I’d blog a little about it to store those thoughts here.

For example, the author of the piece, Thomas Beller, writes:

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line.

And that’s the challenge of Twitter. Sharing a complete thought in 140 characters. I wrote about that back in October 2010 (was it really that long ago?) in my blog post titled “How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer.” After all, anyone can write a string of tweets to tell a story. But how many people can convey that story in just 140 characters? How many people can be interesting, funny, provocative, witty, sarcastic, ironic, or insightful?

Yes, it’s true: I do tweet photos of some of my meals. (Don’t we all?) But occasionally I get more serious. Occasionally I dig deeper and come up with something witty or profound, something that other people find worthy of retweeting or, better yet, favoriting.

(Ever wonder how the word favorite became a verb? I did, too. Then I asked all-knowing Google and it pointed me to this article that explains it. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twitter is involved. But once again, I digress.)

And sometimes — just sometimes — I can paint a visual picture with those 140 characters that’s as clear as a glacial stream on a spring day.

Two more passages touch upon why and how I use Twitter:

Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?

And:

I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it “talking it out?” Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea.

And that’s how I use Twitter: as a sort of running list of my thoughts and the things going on in my life. (That might explain why I’ve tweeted more than 44,000 times since I joined Twitter back in 2007. I think a lot and keep pretty busy.) It’s easy to whip out my phone or iPad and tweet something that’s on my mind — or to save a picture of what’s in front of me in a place where it’ll be forever (or at least a long time). It is an offloading of information so I don’t have to remember things.

Mr Beller wonders whether articulating a thought in public freezes it in place somehow. It does. It freezes it in the Twitter archive, which I can download for my account and search at any time. (How do you think it was so easy for me to come up with the tweets you see here? Imagine that archive in the hands of a paranoid and delusional stalker!) That makes it possible for me to go back in time, to see what I was thinking and doing on a specific date since my first tweet in March 2007.

I can’t think of any easier way to make life notes. Stray thoughts can be captured before they drift away, to be pondered at my leisure. And sometimes — just sometimes — they become the seeds for blog posts or conversations with friends.

Twitter was introduced as a “microblogging” service and that’s exactly how I use it. I assume other writers do the same.

But is tweeting the same as publishing? I don’t think so. It’s more like standing on a soapbox in a crowded park, making random remarks. Some folks who know you’re there and find you interesting might be there to listen. But otherwise, your words go mostly unheard. You can argue that the same can be said for publishing, but publishing seems to be a more legitimate form of communication. Or maybe that’s just old-fashioned thinking on my part.

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends. But these ephemera—notes, journals, drafts—are all composed in a kind of psychic antechamber whose main feature is a sense of aloneness. They are the literary equivalent of muttering to yourself in a state of melancholy, or of dancing in front of the mirror with music blasting when you are alone in your room. Both of these are best done when no one is home.

I’ve never found it difficult to write; there is no anxiety for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have false starts and wander down to dead ends. Or, more often than I’d like to admit, write crap.

There is an aloneness to all writing, including Twitter. And yes, tweets are like talking to yourself, but with the very real possibility that (in my case) 1600+ people are listening and may respond. No one is home here except me — I’ve been alone for a long time, even when I supposedly wasn’t.

Almost everybody who is a writer these days gets, at some point, a lecture on the necessity of being “on” Twitter and Facebook. It’s a tool of selling and career building. It is, for writers of all ages and stages, not so much required reading as required writing.

I also got this lecture from one of my publishers. I didn’t need to be sold on Twitter — I took to that like a bird takes to the sky. It was Facebook that I avoided for as long as I could. So long, in fact, that I lost a contract because I wasn’t involved enough in social media. Imagine that! An early adopter of Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets not being involved enough in social media.

Twitter gives writers the ability to put ourselves out there for the world to see. Does it help my writing career? Perhaps — to a point. It certainly helps attract blog readers and give me a steady stream of intelligent people to communicate with.

After five years and more than 44,000 tweets, I know one thing for certain: Twitter has become a part of my writing life.

On Heavy-Handed Writing

When the author’s voice is so loud it distracts you from the story.

One of the things that I think clearly identifies a good author is his voice. Simply said, when I read fiction, I expect to be drawn into the story, with each word, sentence, paragraph, and page feeding my imagination with clear and smooth descriptions of the characters, settings, actions, and dialog.

Seems pretty simple, huh? Unfortunately, not all authors are able to pull this off. Some try so hard to paint scenes or describe action that their heavy-handed writing prevents readers from getting into the story. Instead, the reader hears the author’s voice, often shouting for attention about how clever he is.

The Silent SeaThe best way to illustrate this is with a passage from a “Clive Cussler” book I just finished. Let me present two versions of the opening paragraph and offer a critique before I explain why I put Mr. Cussler’s name in quotes.

A Bad Start

I bought the Kindle edition of this book from Amazon after reading a synopsis written by an acquaintance. The book had the elements I like in a good fiction read: a mystery, action, suspense. And the fact that it was (apparently) written by an author I knew didn’t hurt things either. I was eager to pick up a book that would keep my mind off the other crap going on in my life so I bought it without first reading a sample. I somewhat regret that.

The truth of the matter is, if I’d read the first paragraph of the book before buying it, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bows met the rocky beach. It hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, its tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When the retriever reached land, it shook itself so that drops flew like diamond chips in the crisp air, and then it looked back at the skiff. The dog barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach that took startled flight. Feeling its companions were coming much too slowly, the purebred tore off into a copse of nearby trees, her bark diminishing until it was swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

This is just one example of the heavy-handed writing I found in this book. The author is trying to show off, trying too hard to show what a great writer he is. All he succeeds in doing, however, is calling out his voice to the reader, who has to stumble over his awkward sentences to get the visual the author intends.

Want some specifics? How about these?

  • Using the word bows instead of bow to refer to the front end of a boat. While this is technically okay (either word works), bow is more commonly used. (I honestly thought it was a typo until I looked it up.)
  • Putting a tail on a “blur.”
  • Referring to a dog as “it” and then clearly indicating its gender later with “her.”
  • Identifying the thoughts of a dog.
  • Using five different words to describe the same character: blur, it, retriever, dog, purebred. (Purebred was over the top for me; it’s a snobbish way to refer to a dog.)
  • Overall awkward sentence construction for several sentences. I was especially bothered by all the geographic facts jammed into the last sentence.

I also had a problem with a dog swimming with its tail straight up, but I resolved that by looking at photos of a retriever in water; one in particular seemed to illustrate what the author had written. Still, it bothered me enough to want to look it up. Most dog breeds known for swimming skills use their tail as a rudder in the water.

I started wondering how the author could have presented the same information without his voice shouting out to be heard. As an exercise, I rewrote the paragraph:

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bow met the rocky beach. The retriever hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, her tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When she stepped onto the beach she shook herself, sending drops like diamond chips flying through the crisp air. She looked back at her companions in the skiff, then barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach, startling them into flight. Impatient, she tore off into a small grove of trees nearby, the sound of her barking soon swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

I identified the blur as a retriever right away so she (not it) could logically have a tail. I liked the visual of the diamond chips, but not the construction of that sentence, so I changed it. Copse reminds me of corpse so I used the more common small grove; I also took the adjective nearby out of the middle of the noun phrase and put it at the end. I couldn’t do much with the geography lesson without moving it to another paragraph, so I left it.

I don’t know…is it better? Or just more to my taste?

My point is this: a well-written sentence/paragraph/page/book should not make a reader want to rewrite it to remove distractions.

By or With?

And that brings me to the author, Clive Cussler. The reality is that Mr. Cussler did not write this book. It was written by Jack Du Brul. On the cover (see above), the word with is used instead of by. Mr. Cussler’s name is in huge letters — indeed, as large as the book title’s — and Mr. Du Brul’s name is added in tiny letters, almost as an afterthought.

This, in my opinion, is misleading.

Unfortunately, this is very common. An author writes a few bestsellers, perhaps with a series character. For whatever reason, the author stops writing. But because the author has a huge following, his name has a ton of value to the publisher. The publisher either actively searches for a writer willing to publish additional titles under that author’s name or simply considers proposals by authors to do so. The result: the famous author’s books continue being published, but they’re written by someone else.

Clive Cussler is not the first author to do this. Tom Clancy has done it. So has Robert Ludlum. And I’m sure there are dozens of other bestselling authors who are allowing their names to appear on books written by others.

As if readers can’t tell the difference.

You can argue that a reader can clearly see who the author of a book is by simply looking at the cover. After all, the real author’s name does appear there. But when a “name brand” author’s name appears on a book cover, I expect to get a book that would meet the level of quality of that author. I don’t think Clive Cussler would have written an opening paragraph like the one I quoted here. And I don’t think the book would be full of other examples of loud author voice as this one was. So I don’t think his name should appear on the cover at all.

About this Book

What’s interesting about this book is that although it had plenty of examples of awkward author voice, there were plenty of times when the author’s voice faded into the background and the story just came out. Almost as if there was another author involved — maybe Mr. Cussler after all? — or a very good editor. Or maybe the author just couldn’t keep up his screaming throughout the book.

Overall, the book was readable, even for a picky reader like me. I could overlook the writing problems because of the interesting plot twists. And although the plot itself was outrageously unbelievable at times, I was able to overlook that, too. In the end, it gave me just the kind of distraction that I needed.

If I had to rate it, I’d give it 3 (out of 5) stars. Worth reading, but get it from the library.