Players in a Play, Warts and All

            My friends and I were talking the other day about habits – particularly how, as we get older, we have to temper the habits, especially the bad ones, we once had as younger folks.  The older we get, the less able we are to handle bad habits, the ones like smoking, drinking and cussing.  Our bad habits don’t get us in as much trouble these days as they used to because we simply can’t handle trouble the way we used to.  I think it’s a subtext of that thing called growing old gracefully.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

            But I reminded my friends of what Mark Twain once said about bad habits.  He said we shouldn’t abandon them too readily.  We should keep some in reserve for the day we really need to give up something.  He told the story of the woman who went to her doctor with an ailment.  He advised her to give up smoking.  Well, she didn’t smoke.  Drinking?  She never touched a drop.  Cussing?  She was appalled at the idea.  The doctor, unable to help, sent her home and she died soon thereafter.  She didn’t, you see, have anything to give up.  Twain never had that problem.  He smoked, drank and cussed.  He always had something in reserve.

            I thought about this business of habits when I was talking to a group of folks about my writing, about how I imagine characters and place them in a story.  I told the folks that in order for a story to begin for me, I have to imagine one person who absolutely intrigues me – a person with energy, quirks, foibles, warts, enough rough edges to make them truly interesting.  A person with some bad habits.

Once I know enough about that character to get started (never too much, because I want to discover things as we go along), then I can put them in a particular time and place, surround them with other characters, give them a compelling dilemma to deal with, and we’re off and running.  Then, my job is to be honest with the characters, present them warts and all.  To be, in other words, genuine.

Sometimes my characters infuriate me.  Often, they embarrass me.  I know from experience that they can have the same effect on my readers.  The central character in my novel Home Fires Burning is Jake Tibbetts, a crusty old southern editor who says his main purpose as a newspaper man is to “keep the community’s bowels in an uproar.”  He is a wonderfully maddening human being.  I once got a phone call from a reader who said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten hold of Jake Tibbetts at 3:00 this morning, I would have wrung his neck.”  There were times in the writing of the book I felt the same way.

As a writer, I’m vitally interested in the inner life of humanity – those things that go on deep in the heart and soul, often concealed from the rest of the world, but crucial to knowing who a person truly is.  As William Faulkner put it, the secrets of the human heart.  There are dark and light places in all of us, and as a storyteller, I want to explore all of those places through the lives of the people who populate my tales. 

One thing I promise you.  The people in my stories may make you cringe, make you cry, make you furious.  But they will never be dull.  They will always have something in reserve to give up.  Mark Twain got it right.

The Intersection of Art and Commerce

A fellow said to me the other day, “I’ve got a great idea for a book.  How do I get it published?”  Whoa dude, I replied – or words to that effect.  To get a book published, you first have to have a book.  Then, and only then, do you even think about publishing.  That is the point where art meets commerce.

I get a lot of questions about publishing from folks who know I’ve written some stuff and had it published.  My first question is always, “Have you written the book?”  Sometimes, they want me to write the book for them.  Well, I don’t do that.  But I’m happy to share what little wisdom I have about writing, along with lots of encouragement.

The best wisdom I can share is what a graduate school professor gave to me.  He said, “The way you write is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  There are lots of folks with good stories to tell, and many have a facility with words that would allow them to put the story on paper.  But only a few will apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are a several tough parts along the way.  The first is simply getting started – sitting down in a quiet place and facing a blank piece of paper that’s waiting for words.  Once you leap that hurdle, the next one is when you read what you’ve just written and say, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, maybe it is.  But the remedy is doing it again and making it better.  If you want it to be perfect the first time, you’re doomed.  What you do is get something down, and then re-write.  The getting it down is the toughest part.  The re-writing is where you begin to have fun.

But maybe the hardest part is the absolute requirement for stubborn, patient persistence.  Going to the work every possible day you can, carving out slices of time during which you absolutely refuse to be interrupted or distracted.  A good story, worked on daily, takes on a life of its own, a momentum.  And keeping that momentum is crucial through the long process of making a book.

Only when you’ve done all of that are you ready to think about publishing.  This is the intersection of art and commerce.  A writer is not complete without a reader.  We want as many folks as possible to enjoy and appreciate what we’ve done.  So we go through the tough process of finding a publisher, or publishing ourselves, and then reaching out to the widest possible audience.

The reaching out is hard work, too.  It’s hawking the merchandise, and that means using every possible means to let people know about the work and why they should pay their hard-earned money to obtain it.  Published writers today  know how crucial it is to use social media to get the word out, how important it is to go to places where readers gather, how necessary it is to work tirelessly and persistently in behalf of sales.  Crass commercialism?  You betcha.  Without the commerce part, the art part just lays there.

The good news about publishing is that today, anyone and everyone who produces a work can get published, thanks to the rise of the e-book: Amazon’s Kindle and the like.  Those folks are delighted to have you publish your work on their platforms, and I know from experience that it’s easy to do.  But just because it’s there doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy it and read it.  That’s the writer’s job.

I suppose any successful business is run by people who understand the intersection of art and commerce.  Just because you produce a good product or service doesn’t mean you’ll do well.  You have to do the grubby commercial part too.

We writers are no different.  Stop in the middle of an intersection and you’ll get run over.  You have to keep moving.


In Praise of Procrastination

In a recent article for The American Scholar magazine, the very fine novelist David Guterson recalled his first college creative writing class.  His teacher, Jack Brenner, gave the class a piece of advice that has stuck with Guterson during his distinguished career: JUST PLUNGE IN.  Don’t worry about whether you’re prepared for whatever writing project is on your front burner.  Don’t be afraid of writing badly, of failure.  Just plunge in.

I agree, and share that advice often with people who tell me they have a great idea for a book, a story, a movie, whatever.  Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and do the work.  Talkers talk, writers write.  My own college writing teacher had a similar piece of advice.  His term was, “Just blast it.”  Put something down, no matter how much you cringe when you read what you’ve written, and then go back and make it better.

However, there is also something to be said for procrastination, which flies in the face of what we’ve been told from infancy about getting along in life.  “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today,” our parents admonished.  In school, in work, in life, we face deadlines.  Sporting events have rigid time constraints.  The shot clock is ticking.  Golfers are penalized for slow play.  Pit stops are timed down to the last chaotic millisecond.  We are all in a race, and those who slow down are doomed.

But wait.  How about the story of the tortoise and the hare?  Who won that one?  The slow and steady guy, who just kept plodding along at his own sweet pace, smelling the roses and enjoying the scenery.  I like to think he paused periodically to just contemplate the journey.  He not only finished first, he no doubt lived a lot longer than the hare and enjoyed it more.

For me, writing is like that.  I work at the business, putting in my daily time, aiming for a reasonable output of words.  I admire those folks who can spend eight hours a day at their writing, but I’m not one of them.  When I’ve met my daily goal, I need to get up and go do something else, something unconnected with the work.  But if I’ve got a good yarn going, the characters and their story are always with me.  When I’m away from the actual writing, the story is marinating.  And often, at odd moments, something from the story speaks to me in a serendipitous way, something I can use the next time I sit down at the computer.  I call it creative procrastination.

Maybe the best piece of advice came from Fred Rodgers.  When our daughter Lee was small, she watched Mister Rodgers’ TV show every day.  One day when we were getting ready to go somewhere, we told Lee to hurry up.  She put her hands on her hips and said, “Mister Rodgers told me to take my time.”  I try to remember that.

We probably all need to rush less and marinate more.  No telling what we might discover along the way that we would have otherwise missed.  Like the tortoise.

It's Festival Time!

It’s Spring, and that means a raft of literary festivals, especially in the South.  At last count, I noted eleven in this part of the country.  Every state worth its name seems to have one – some as short as one day, some lasting several – in which writers and readers are brought together in joyous celebrations of the written word.

I’ll be involved in two during the month of April.

On Saturday, April 19, it’s the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.  It’s a day-long affair featuring author presentations, workshops, book signings, food, music, and schmoozing.  More than 50 authors, all with Alabama connections, will be there to share our work and enjoy the interaction with readers.  

Then Thursday – Saturday, April 24-26, it’s the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee, author of one of the two truly iconic books in American fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird (the other being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn).  The Symposium honors an outstanding author and literary scholar each year, and this year the awards go to two longtime friends and truly gifted writers – novelist and screenwriter Mark Childress and historian Wayne Flynt.

Writing, as I’ve said many times before, is lonely, painful work – an individual sport.  We scribblers spend hours, days, years behind closed doors battling demons, writers’ blocks, and infected paper cuts.  Then at some point we stagger out into the light of day clutching dog-eared stacks of paper and proclaim, “I just wrote THE END.”  At this point, as I tell aspiring writers, art meets commerce.  Writer meets reader.  To have a reader express an interest in what you’ve just toiled over so mightily is the payoff.  When organizers of a literary festival bring tons of readers together to express interest, that’s as good as it gets.

When writers gather, we talk shop: who’s written what, which agents are hot, who’s got the latest mega book deal; and we commiserate over the profound changes, for good and evil, that are taking place in the book business.  We swap tales over manuscripts rejected, e-books launched, the pleasures and perils of marketing.  The art/commerce thing.

But more importantly, we congratulate each other over having written, and we rejoice in the opportunity to look our readers in the eye and thank them for their encouragement and support.  It’s a love fest.

And for readers, it’s a chance to meet, see, hear, touch the poor souls who labored so long and hard to bring forth works of poetry, fiction, memoir, history – all of the written things that entertain, inform, educate, and even disturb.

If you love good writing and reading, seek out a literary festival near you and go.  You’ll find yourself among folks of like mind, you’ll have fun, and you’ll make a bunch of deserving writers mighty happy.

Ralph Keyes on "The Courage To Write"

My guest blogger today is Ralph Keyes, superbly-talented and prolific author, renaissance man, and good friend.  His fine book, The Courage to Write, has been an inspiration to me and countless other writers.  Ralph’s books are available on


Before publishing The Courage to Write I sensed that a fear of putting words on paper was common among aspiring writers.  I had no idea how common that fear is.  Nor did I realize that it wasn’t just neophytes who are anxious about writing, but anyone at all.  Only after Courage was published and I began to hear from other writers did it become clear how prevalent writing anxiety is.  “Each fear described is of acute familiarity to me,” wrote one.  “I’m not alone in my fears and silly writing habits!” added another. 

 On the verge of publishing his first book, a Canadian author wrote me, “For a long while I was (and am) dealing with the kind of issues you wrote of.  The writers I knew rarely discussed anxiety, or failure, or even fear. I thought we were supposed to strut around with this hard shell attitude, this blazing self-confidence, and I always wondered why I alone suffered these crippling anxieties and doubts.”

 After getting enough responses like this I finally concluded that the definition of a frightened writer is “whoever dares to put words on paper (or in pixels).”

 Why should writing be so scary?  I think it’s due primarily to a fear of being exposed. “Will readers see right through me?” is a question that plagues writers as they write.  “Naked” is a word they commonly use to describe how they feel when their work is about to be published.  One bestselling novelist compared that feeling to dancing nude on a table.  (She’d done both and found publishing novels far more frightening.)

 But there’s an upside to the nerves all writers experience.  Just as actors, athletes, and public speakers find that being on edge gives them an edge, anxiety can lend a powerful edginess to writing.  It also helps writers reach out to readers. 

 Everyone has an inner self that they’d rather others not know about.  We go to great lengths to hide that self, the one that is ambivalent about our mother, who betrayed a friend in high school, and who sometimes picks its nose no one’s looking.  Keeping this self hidden isn’t an option for writers, at least ones who are any good.  Because the secret self is usually the most interesting self.  His lair is where the richest nuggets of golden material can be found. 

 One reason memoirs are so popular these days – especially ones like The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes – is that their authors risked sharing their inner lives with readers.  Since readers too have hidden lives, they identify with that type of writing, and are grateful for the authors who dared to be so candid.  To the degree that an author can risk being candid, to that degree his or her writing will leap off the page, grab readers by the lapel, and say “This is something you’ve got to hear!”  Doing that is scary.  Terrifying even.  Yet it’s the best way to produce anything better than pablum.  That’s why I believe the most important line in The Courage to Write is “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing (anything of consequence that is).”

Ralph Keyes's new e-book, Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret, is available as a Kindle single on Amazon. 

Just Open A Vein And Bleed

I often quote my graduate school fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, who had a keen sense of the process by which stories get told.  One of the things Barry said that has stuck with me through my writing career: “What we do when we write fiction is fracture reality and put it back together as truth.”

Barry said that if you walk around all day with a recorder and capture everything that was said in your presence, what you get is mostly mundane and un-memorable.  But somewhere on that recording there is a little nugget of truth, something said that raises it above the trivial and goes to the heart of what it meant to be human that day.  A nugget of truth, that’s the thing.  For a writer, it’s the raw material of storytelling.

There is much about all our lives that is mundane and un-memorable.  But in every single life there are nuggets of truth that make up our essentials – the twists and turns of our existence, our joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, our most basic beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.  We are fascinating, intriguing, complex creatures, capable of all sorts of acts and ideas, much of which borders on the impossible.  As a writer, if I can’t find something sublime in all that stew of human existence to tell a story about – well, I should check to see if I still have a pulse.

For all of us – writers or not – our reality is made up of millions of pieces of humanity, and the older we are, the more millions there are.  We are the sum of everything we’ve done, every person we’ve met, every place we’ve been, everything we’ve read and heard, every thought we’ve had.  We are, in short, the sum of ourselves.  As writers, we use every shred of it we can get our hands on.  We create out of ourselves, and in that sense, everything we write is autobiographical. 

It can be a painful process.  When we write, whether we like it or not, we reveal ourselves.  There are parts of us in every character we imagine, warts and all.  I think that can be especially daunting for young writers just starting out.  When I visit with a group of high schoolers, listen to them talk about their work, read what they’ve shared on the page, I remember what it was like for me at that period when I was half-formed, vulnerable, wondering if what was going through my hormone-drenched body and mind was impossibly weird.  To reveal oneself through writing at any stage is an act of courage.  For the young, it’s especially so.

But it’s worth doing.  For writing to be worthwhile, it has to be honest.  And to be honest, it has to be worth the pain.  The great sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed."  Red Smith’s writing was honest and elegant, and only he truly knew how much it was wrenched from his gut.  Because it was, I’m sure he found the result profoundly satisfying.  For a writer, that’s just about the best payoff imaginable.

Barry Hannah and the Big Tricks

My fiction teacher in graduate school was the late novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah, who told his students in general right off the bat, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can encourage your writing.”

To me in particular he said, “When you learn the big tricks, you’ll be okay.”

“What are the big tricks?” I asked.

“You’ll figure them out as you go,” he said with a smile.

I think, after a good number of years of making up stuff and putting it on paper, I’ve figured out at least a couple of the big tricks:

  1. Be honest with your characters;

  2. Trust your readers.

Since all stories are about people, the way to make stories authentic is to tell about authentic people, and that means presenting them warts and all.  We human beings are a fascinating stew of good and evil, joy and sorrow, light and dark.  Even the best of us have some secrets of the soul we’d rather nobody else know about.  And even the nastiest, smelliest of us have some tiny redeeming quality.  Since the great privilege of the fiction writer is to plumb the depths of characters’ souls, what we find down there – the dark as well as the light – is what makes them real.  Sometimes my characters infuriate me; sometimes they embarrass me.  But always, they fascinate me with their spirit, their energy, their insistence on being human in every way.  My job is to be honest with them.  So if you read one of my stories and find characters who seem authentic, I’ve succeeded.

Then that other big trick, trusting the reader – first, to be able to deal with authentic characters honestly presented.  My characters may occasionally infuriate and embarrass you, as they do me, but I believe you can handle that.  I trust that you will find something in them, in their honest presentation, that rings true and possibly resonates in your own life, or the lives of people you know.

Then too, I have to trust that you will bring your own imagination to the work.  I don’t have to tell you everything, and in fact, the more I try to tell you, the more I get in the way of the story and the characters.  I need to tell you just enough to get your imagination engaged, and you will fill in the blanks and make the story much more than what I could offer.  It will become your story, and the characters will become your people.

My good friend Ralph Keyes, a wonderful writer and a wise and perceptive man, has written a book called The Courage To Write.  Every person who writes, or wants to write, should read it.  Ralph talks, in part, about this business of being honest.  I don’t know if Barry Hannah ever read Ralph’s book, but part of what he encouraged in my writing was this business of honesty.  It was the best thing he did for me.

By the way, Barry encouraged some pretty darn good writers in his many years of teaching, including Mark Childress and Donna Tartt.  He was generous and nurturing, and he knew what he was talking about.  In a way, Barry’s at our elbows every time we sit down to write.

In my next post, some thoughts about the writer’s imperative to be honest with himself.  Warts and all.  Stay tuned.

The World of "What If?"

Okay, I confess it: I lie for a living.

I make stuff up and write it down on paper and talk people into publishing and performing it.  When I write the stuff, it’s very real to me.  I see people moving about, hear what they say, even know what’s inside their minds and hearts and souls.  But it all takes place in a made-up world.  It’s all fiction.

But then, it’s not.  That fictional world I’ve imagined has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is me.  It begins in my version of reality – the sum of all the things I know.  It’s where imagination begins. 

Here’s an example:

When I finished college in 1965 I went to work as a TV news reporter in Montgomery, Alabama.  My beat was the state capitol, where George Wallace was the governor.  Wallace had run for President in 1964 and made some waves, winning a couple of Democratic primaries and causing a lot of heartburn for the party regulars.  He planned to run again in 1968, this time as a third-party candidate.  He had a strong power base in Alabama – a source of money, political talent, influence – but that would evaporate when his term as governor ended in 1966.  Wallace asked the legislature to change the state constitution to allow him to serve a second term, but they refused.  So George convinced his wife, Lurleen, to run in his stead.

It was understood from the beginning that Lurleen would simply be a stand-in for George, that he and his cronies would continue to hold the reins of power, make the decisions, chart the course.  Alabama’s voters had no problem with that, and given George’s enormous popularity, they had no problem with giving Lurleen an overwhelming victory.  She served gracefully but mostly benignly until she died of cancer less than two years into her term.

I tucked away the George and Lurleen Wallace story in my memory bank and went on to other pursuits – among them, fiction writing.  And then many years later, their story came bubbling back up.  A woman governor of a southern state whose husband is running for President.

But then came the point where the story became a work of fiction.  That’s when I asked, “What if?”

What if the story is set in the modern day: a presidential aspirant helps his wife get elected governor and intends (a la George Wallace) for her to be a benign stand-in.  But instead, she’s smart, feisty, independent, determined to chart her own course?  What if she has a political bloodline of her own, and with it, solid instincts.  And what if she finds allies who can help her navigate the treacherous shoals of male-dominated, good-old-boy politics?

So with that “What if?” a new story is born, eventually becoming a novel, The Governor’s Lady.

There’s a line in a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”  And that’s what a story is, a contradiction.  It’s real stuff, made-up.  It has to be grounded enough in reality to be authentic and believable to a reader, a solid point from which the reader is willing to take a leap of faith into the imagined world.  That imagined world is what transforms the reality into something new, and that world begins when the fiction writer asks, “What if?”

So yeah, I lie for a living.  But every good lie has to have a grain of truth in it.

Think about all that, and so will I, and I’ll have some more to say about it in my next post.

The Moment I Became A Storyteller

I’m back home today – Elba, Alabama, the neatest little town on earth – with my new book.  About four thousand people live here, and that’s about what it was when I was growing up in the 50’s.  It was, and I’m sure still is, a village that nurtured its young.  And it was a great place to learn to be a storyteller: a small stage on which the same people interacted with each other day after day.  If you were smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you could learn a lot about what makes human beings tick.  You could see people accommodating each other despite their differences.  And there were just enough oddballs of various stripes to make it intriguing.

As I drove into town, I remembered the exact moment when I became a storyteller.  It happened in the attic of my grandmother’s house, which is still standing.  The attic was a large room, added by my grandfather after Elba flooded in 1929 so his family would have a dry place to seek refuge if the river got out of its banks again.   When I was a kid, it was a sort of family dumping ground.


My father and three uncles were in World War Two, and one of them, Uncle Bancroft, was a fighter pilot.  He flew P-51’s out of England, supporting the Allied march across Europe.  Part of the rich family lore was the story of how Uncle Bancroft was shot down and lived to tell about it.  He was escorting bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire.  Somehow, he managed to nurse the plane back to the English Channel, where he bailed out and was rescued by a British ship.  As a youngster, I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard.

When Dad and the uncles came back from the war, they stored various items of their memorabilia in my grandmother’s attic, and in Uncle Bancroft’s footlocker, I found a parachute.  It had a silk canopy about four feet across, which I later learned was used for a flare.  But in my fevered 10-year-old imagination, I got the idea that this was the very parachute Uncle Bancroft had used when his plane got hit.  I could just see him there in the cockpit, getting the last bit of juice out of the smoking, dying engine, managing with great skill and courage to make it to the coast, throwing back the cockpit, climbing out on the wing, and leaping into space.  Dang!

Propelled by terminal foolishness, I tied that parachute to my skinny shoulders, climbed out on the attic roof, and got ready to emulate Uncle Bancroft’s death-defying leap.  It was at the moment my feet left the roof edge that it dawned on me I had done a very dumb thing, and that I should probably tell stories rather than act them out.  Luckily, I crash-landed in the nandina bush below with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.  There was no British ship to pick me up.

In the considerable years since, I have done any number of foolish things.  But mostly, I have written about other people doing foolish things.  It’s a lot safer.

The Seat Of The Pants

A nice visit today with Nicole Allshouse, host of “Talk of Alabama” on ABC 33/40 television in Birmingham.  She was kind enough to invite me on her show to talk about my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, and my signing at Alabama Booksmith.

Nicole was telling me that she is working on a book, but she finds it mighty difficult to find quality work time to make progress on her manuscript.  I could commiserate, because it’s a problem that afflicts every writer.  Unless we’re blessed with a patron saint who pays the bills and takes care of the mundane details of life, we are busy, distracted people.  Jobs and families take priority, there’s always more to do than there’s time to do it, and the days roll by without getting many words on paper.  Too often, we’re tempted to just put the project aside, vowing to get back to it in retirement.

I shared with Nicole the advice I got from the late Barry Hannah, who was my fiction teacher in graduate school.  “The way you write,” Barry said, “is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  Easy to say, hard to do.  But Barry was right, and I’ve found in my own experience that when I follow his advice, I get my work done.  What I told Nicole is that you have to carve out a time in the day – an hour, more if you can afford it -- that’s just yours, and warn the rest of the world to stay away.

The formula here is time + momentum.  And one is directly related to the other.  When I get a piece of writing going – characters in place, a dilemma for them to chew on – it’s important for me to visit them every day I possibly can.  The story builds up momentum, sort of like a football team scoring just before halftime, and at some point it reaches a critical mass.  After that, it has a life of its own, and it begins to tell itself.  The key thing then is to keep the momentum going.  And that takes the commitment of time.

Momentum is time’s best friend.  When a story has gotten up a head of steam, you’re eager to get to the work each day, and you don’t waste time getting up to speed.  That hour a day becomes a quality hour.  Good things happen.  Pages build up.  The locomotive is barreling down the track, and the writer’s holding on for dear life.  I know.  It happens to me over and over.

Writing is not easy.  Even when I have everything going for me, the words never go down right the first time.  I read and cringe and then rewrite.  If I expected the first effort to be perfect, I’d be easily discouraged and probably quit.  So it takes some stubborn persistence, too.

There are plenty of folks with the ability to write and a good story to tell – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, whatever.  Only a few actually do, and those are the ones who are willing to be fierce about some time of their own. 

If You Want To Be Published, You Will Be

            I sometimes lead writing workshops.  Folks who sign up are a diverse group – women and men, young and old and everything in between, folks from just about any walk of life you can imagine.  There’s one thing in common: they write and they passionately want to be published.


            I try to be honest with the folks in those workshops, and until fairly recently, I had to describe how difficult it is to get a book of any stripe into the hands of readers.  I warned them about unscrupulous agencies that will offer to read your manuscript for a hefty fee, then blithely tell you there’s not a market for it.  Companies that will promise to publish your book (for an even heftier fee) and market it (another big fee).  They ship you boxes of books, and that’s it.  Little or no marketing or promotion.  You’re on your own.  I had to tell them how difficult it is for a first-time author to find an agent, how hard it is to get an editor at a reputable publishing house to even look at your work.

In short, publishing these days is a daunting affair, and many good, worthy books never make it into print.  For a first-time writer (and even for some grizzled veterans like me) it can be a crushing experience.

            But now I can give my workshop friends some really good news.  I start the first session of a workshop by saying, “If you want to be published, you will be.”  Faces light up, the energy level in the room goes way up.

Final cover.jpg

The reason, of course, is the e-book: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple.  The traditional publishing houses have embraced it.  John F. Blair Publishers is making my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, available in both hardcover and e-book editions.

But the e-book phenomenon has given new life to literally millions of people who don’t – or can’t -- go through a traditional house.  They publish an e-book themselves – straight from computer file to internet.  It’s not hard to do, and other than some initial out-of-pocket expenses (cover art, copyright registration) it’s free.  Kindle, Nook, and the like welcome your work and walk you step-by-step through the process.  I put my first four novels on the internet last year and did the vast bulk of the work myself, with some great guidance from writer friends who had already done it.

The big challenge is those millions of other people self-publishing e-books.  Some of it is sheer junk, some so-so, some really good.  As a new author, you have to compete with all those other folks to find readers, and there’s no traditional publishing house putting its muscle behind marketing and promotion.

The first thing you have to do is make your work as good as it can possibly be, to separate it from the junk and so-so.  When readers find something they like, they tell other readers.  Then too, there are lots of resources out there – Websites such as Goodreads, how-to books on the internet – to give you marketing ideas.  People who’ve done it successfully are eager to share what they’ve learned.

By some accounts, half the fiction sold in America is now on e-books.  Fiction is easier because it’s usually just text.  Non-fiction and children’s books are harder because e-books don’t handle pictures, illustrations, charts and graphs very well.  But that’s improving.  We’re just at the beginning of the e-book wave.

I’ve heard writing described as a disease you can’t cure.  I like to think of it as a passion that’s both maddening and exhilarating.  For so many of us who scribble, the e-book makes it possible to show the world what our passion has produced.

Floating To Earth On Faith

My father was a paratrooper.

He served as an infantry officer in World War Two, and settled into a mostly quiet life as a father of four in a small Alabama town.  Then the Army summoned him again.  He was called back to active duty for the Korean Conflict, and that’s when the paratrooper business began.  He was a rugged guy, a former college football player, and for some reason he sought the more rugged side of Army life.  He joined the Rangers, and then the Special Forces.  He was a Green Beret who jumped out of airplanes.

I suspect my mother thought he was nuts – a guy with four young children at home who jumped out of airplanes.  It wasn’t until he was back from Korea that we learned that he and his comrades jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines in North Korea and did mischief.  It’s a good thing we didn’t know.  He stayed in the service for awhile after Korea and we lived on Army posts – Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning.  He kept on jumping out of airplanes.


Sometimes we watched.  Mother would load the four kids in the car and we would park next to a large field.  We’d hear the drone of the planes and then they would roar into view and people would start jumping out of them.  Suddenly the air was filled with parachutes, hundreds of them, all floating to earth.  It was an awesome sight, and as the oldest of the four kids, I thought it was fabulous.

It all came to an end when Dad’s unit got orders to go to Japan – a two-year peacetime deployment.  That’s when Mother put her foot down.  Enough foolishness.  Dad got out of the Army and we returned to small-town Alabama life.  If Dad missed it, he never said so.  But I suspect he did.

I’ve thought about those paratroopers often in my adult life.  I did an Army hitch, but never jumped out of an airplane.  But I’ve always wanted to.  It’s on my bucket list.

I’ve also thought about it in another way – how similar it is to writing.  When a guy jumps out of an airplane, he’s taking a leap of faith – trusting that his parachute will open and he will float to earth.  When I stare at a blank page and begin to tell a story, that’s also a leap of faith.  I have to believe that my characters will truly come to life and lead me through the roller-coaster ride of the tale.  I have to believe that somewhere in the future I will land safely and write “The End” and think I’ve done okay.

It’s taking that first leap of faith that’s the hardest part – flinging oneself out the door of the plane of imagination.  It takes a bit of a certain kind of courage, and maybe – like my Dad – a touch of madness.  There are so many people with a tale to tell and the aptitude with words to tell it.  But few ever do.  Taking the first step can be daunting, even terrifying.  My friend Ralph Keyes talked about this elegantly in his book The Courage to Write.  If you’re thinking about writing, you should read it.

This new book I have coming out in September, The Governor’s Lady, took me ten years to write.  It was a time when I was becoming a playwright – seven plays, two of them musicals, all produced and all published by Dramatic Publishing Company.  But the book was always there, and I always returned, trusting that I would land safely and write “The End.”  Eventually I did, and readers will decide if I did okay.

There’s an old joke among paratroopers.  A young trooper, about to make his first jump, goes to his sergeant and confesses he’s terrified.

“Nothing to it,” Sarge says.  “Your parachute is attached to the plane, and when you jump, the line pulls the chute out of its pack, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  In the very unlikely event the main chute doesn’t deploy, you pull the handle on your emergency chute, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  When you get down, there’s a truck waiting to bring you back to the barracks.”

Reassured by Sarge, the young trooper leaps out of the plane.  The main chute doesn’t open.  He reaches for the handle of the emergency, and it comes off in his hand.  As he plummets toward earth, he says, “Yeah, and I bet there ain’t no danged truck down there, either.”

I guess that’s the risk paratroopers and writers take when they make the leap of faith.  As one who’s leaped a few times, I can say the risk is worth it.

The Music of Writing

            My grandmother was a piano teacher.  Widowed in middle age with four children, she made her living by sharing her love for music with several generations of young folks, me included.  The popular book for beginners back then was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” which is about an apt a title for any book I can imagine.  Thousands of little fingers stumbled across the keys of her Story and Clark upright piano, and many became proficient, a few truly talented.  I fell somewhere just shy of the middle.

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            I wish I had stayed with those piano lessons longer, but at a point in junior high school I got a job and discovered girls, and left the lessons behind.  Still, there are things about my hours at the keyboard of that Story and Clark that have stayed with me.  I can read music, I understand harmony, I have a good feel for rhythm.  The basics.

            Music has always been an important part of my life.  I sang in the high school glee club and church choir.  I became a teenaged disc jockey and worked my way through college spinning records for stations in Tuscaloosa.  I came over time to an appreciation for just about any musical genre  you can imagine – rock, pop, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz.  I retained enough of those basics of composition to write the songs, music and lyrics, for two stage musicals.  I hear music in my head, and some of it is new stuff.  I know enough to put it in a lead sheet and then turn it over to my music professor friend, Dr. Bill Harbinson, who arranges it into what I call “real music.”


            Music informs my storytelling.  I figured out early on in my playwriting career – from studying the work of talented people like Rodgers and Hammerstein – that a song in a play should illuminate character, advance the plot, or (hopefully) both.  The songs should be an integral and seamless part of the story.

            Music and lyrics are woven into my novels.  In Old Dogs and Children, Dorsey Bascombe plays the trombone, and he tells his small daughter Bright that “a trombone is the sound of God breathing.”  In my new book, The Governor’s Lady, a bluegrass band “makes the air dance with their fiddles and guitars and banjos.”  And Pickett Lanier, later to become a governor and presidential candidate, writes and sings a song for his new wife Cooper:

            If I was a three-legged dog, two legs front and one leg rear,
            I’d rouse myself in the evening time, get my three old legs in gear;
            Leave my place in the cool, cool shade, drink my fill of Gatorade,
            And hippity-hop to you, my dear.

            It says a lot about Pickett, and not for the better, that he puts aside his guitar and turns to politics.

            Music has also given me a sense of the rhythm of a story, especially one played out over the length of a book.  To me, a good story has an ebb and flow to it.  It can’t go at break-neck speed all the time.  It needs moments to pause in the cool, cool shade and ponder.  Those are important moments to me in discovering who my characters are and why.

            So it started there on the bench of my grandmother’s Story and Clark upright as she patiently taught my little fingers to play.  Now, when I write, she’s always at my elbow.

Robert Inman’s previously-published novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, and Captain Saturday – are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo in e-book format.

Fun With Briggs & Stratton

I can tell it’s Spring by the sound of lawnmowers in my neighborhood.  It’s been cool and wet for the past couple of months where I live, but the weather has warmed and things are blooming and growing.  Especially grass.

The sound of a lawnmower in full throat takes me back to my boyhood.  My Dad would advance me enough money at the beginning of a summer to buy a lawnmower: 21-inch cut, Briggs & Stratton engine, and self-propelled – by me.  I would line up customers and spend the summer pushing that mower across expanses of bermuda grass.

Mowing Bermuda with a dinky mower in the hot, humid fullness of a South Alabama growing season is like trying to hack your way through dense jungle with a Swiss Army knife.  Many of my customers – the cheapskates – insisted on having their lawns mowed only every other week.  By the time I arrived, the bermuda would be three inches high or more.  For three months, I would propel that mower with my skinny teenaged body under blazing sun, praying for rain so I could go home, and dreading rain because it made the bermuda grow that much faster.

But I persevered.  By the end of the summer, I would have made enough money to repay Dad’s loan, with a little pocket change left over.  Being no dummy, I knew what Dad, that sly devil, was up to: keeping me occupied and out of trouble.  I suppose it worked.  I have no criminal record.

And then one Spring, I escaped.  Dad approached, loan money in hand.  “Au contraire,” I said, “I have a job at the radio station!”  I spent that glorious summer in air conditioned comfort, spinning records and dedicating mushy songs to my girlfriend.  It was powerful incentive for a career in broadcasting.

But my lawnmowing summers were not wasted.  In my novel Captain Saturday, teenaged Wilbur Baggett self-propels an under-powered lawnmower across expanses of North Carolina lawns, struggling against heat, humidity, vegetation and a sense of powerlessness.  Later, when grown-up Will Baggett, Raleigh’s most popular TV weatherman, loses his job, he falls back on his boyhood profession. 

Writing books of fiction is somewhat like mowing lawns.  You struggle against the elements – fear, self-doubt, failures of imagination, rejection --  and just keep applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair until you arrive exhausted at the far end of the thing and write “The End.”  In the process, you go time and time again to the well of your experiences, transforming them into something new.  It’s what my teacher Barry Hannah called “fracturing reality and putting it back together as truth.”

A good writer never throws away anything.  Even a wretched old lawnmower.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo e-readers.

My Bird Can Whip Your Bird

Spring: a time of awakening, blossoming beauty, rebirth, possibility…and combat. 

There’s the male cardinal who’s assaulting my house.  I came downstairs one morning to make coffee and heard him bashing himself against the breakfast room window.  “Good Lord,” I said to my good wife, “he’s trying to get into the house.  I wonder if he wants a cup?”  But a friend set me straight: it’s mating season, and the cardinal is fighting what he assumes to be a rival – in truth, just his own reflection in the glass.  This fellow is profoundly territorial, defending his turf, making sure he’s the sole beneficiary of his lady friend’s affections.  He’s been at it for more than a month.  So has the cardinal in the glass.  I give them both an “A” for  persistence.

Then there’s the aerial combat I witnessed – a flock of crows chasing a single hawk.  They came in across a valley, a dozen crows clustered around the hawk, slashing in to the attack.  The hawk was by far the biggest bird in the melee, but the crows made up for their lack of size with numbers and daring.  The hawk was clearly in flight, getting the worst of it.

It was easy to imagine what had happened.  The hawk had gone hunting, as hawks will do, and happened upon a nest.  “Ah, eggs for breakfast!  Make mine raw.”  The crows had risen to the defense, as crows will do.  It was nature at her purest and most basic -- both savage and beautiful. 

The writer in me has an attack of imagination.  There’s a bird bar and grill – beer on tap, a good band, a billiard table, a baseball game on the wide-screen TV.  There’s this male cardinal and a bunch of crows sitting around a table -- drinking,  smoking cigars, and telling war stories.  The cardinal is bragging about how he kicks his rival’s fanny daily.

“You have to do this every day?” asks one of the crows.

“Yeah, the guy just won’t give up.  But I tell ‘ya, he ain’t been near my nest.”

“Well, our hawk ain’t been back.  When we chase ‘em off, they stay chased off.  You need help with that cardinal?”

“Nah, I got it under control.”

The crows exchange knowing smiles, but they don’t tell the cardinal what’s what.  They just let him keep bragging and buying the beer. 


Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo e-readers. 

It's All About The Audience

        When I was starting out as a playwright a few years ago, I had the great good fortune to work with Kenneth Kay, then the creative artistic director at Blowing Rock Stage Company, a professional theatre in Blowing Rock, NC.  He mentored me through that first experience – the musical comedy “Crossroads” --  and premiered the work at his theatre.  I was already an established novelist and screenwriter, but had never attempted a work for the stage.  Ken’s great gem of wisdom: Remember, it’s all about the audience.

         As I wrote scenes and dialogue and songs, that one piece of advice guided me.  If the audience got it, I was successful.  If they didn’t, I failed.  So I wrote as if I were sitting in the audience: what do I see, hear and feel as I watch what’s transpiring on the stage?  Is it clear to me who these characters are, where they’ve been and where they’re going, and why they and their story matter?

       Ken also told me to trust the audience, to make a connection with their imaginations and give them a solid foundation from which to make the leap of faith into the story.  The audience is smart; they’ll go with you, and all you have to do is suggest.  If I’m writing a scene that takes place in a church, the only prop I need to ask for is a stained glass window, or a good representation of one.  “Okay,” the audience says, “we get it.  We’re in church.  Now we’re ready to see what’s going on here.”

       I thought about all this as I sat in the audience at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville, North Carolina Saturday night, watching a talented theatre company perform my play “Welcome to Mitford.”  The cast and crew were superb and the staging and direction were imaginative.  We in the audience knew where we were at each moment, and why we were there.  The theatre company took my modest words and made magic on stage and drew the audience into the story.

       I actually had two audiences in mind when I wrote “Welcome to Mitford.”  It’s an adaptation of the nine Mitford novels by Jan Karon – her masterful and intimate creation of a close-knit mountain community peopled by folks you can truly care about.  Jan’s Mitford books have sold 26 million copies worldwide, so there’s a vast audience out there who know and love the story.  My adaptation has to be true to Jan’s work and familiar to her legions of fans.  But there are also folks in the audience who aren’t familiar with the books, and the play has to work for them, too.  The play has been produced by theatres across the country and Canada since Dramatic Publishing Company published it, so its success would indicate that no matter what audiences bring to a performance, they get it.

        As I’ve continued my playwriting career over the years, I’ve realized how much Ken Kay’s advice applies to all of my storytelling – novels, movies, plays, essays, a blog.  It’s all about the audience.  If I write with my audiences in mind, and trust them, I’m likely to get it right.


A note for audiences: “Welcome To Mitford” will be performed by the Neuse Little Theatre in Smithfield, NC May 31 through June 8.


Robert Inman’s plays and musicalsCrossroads, Dairy Queen Days, The Christmas Bus, Welcome to Mitford, The Drama Club, A High Country Christmas, and The Christmas Bus: The Musical -- are published by Dramatic Publishing Company and available for licensing and production by theatres worldwide.

Delbert Earle and the Author

“You don’t work,” says my friend Delbert Earle, “you’re a writer.”

My friend Delbert Earle has always had a jaundiced view of this thing I do to make a living.  His idea of work is anything in which you lift, tote, fetch, hammer, dig, explode, or stand around a hole in the ground watching somebody else do one of those things.

“But writing is hard work,” I protest.  “I sometimes sweat profusely when I’m writing.  I have occasionally broken down in tears.  Have you ever had to use a jackhammer on writer’s block?”

“Have you ever shed blood in the course of your work?” he asks.

“Paper cuts,” I answer defensively.  “Paper cuts can be painful.”

“Have you ever filed for workmen’s compensation?”


"Well, then.”

So it was with some trepidation that I told my friend Delbert Earle about this new novel, which I’ve finished after years of sweat, tears, and paper cuts.  “I have even found someone to publish it,” I announced.  “In September.”

"What’s it called?” he asked.

The Governor’s Lady.”

“What’s it about?”

“A feisty woman.”

“Like your wife?”

“Feisty,” I repeated.

“Does she get some of the profits?”

“All of them.”

“Okay,” says Delbert Earle, “what happens next?”

“I shall go forth and ask people to buy it and read it.  It’s where art meets commerce.”

“Shameless hucksterism,” he says.

“Yea, verily,” I say.  “Where two or more are gathered…”

Maybe I bear some responsibility for Delbert Earle’s notion of what it takes to write.  He once asked me, “How do you write a book, anyway?”

I replied, “You stare out the window until you think up something, and then you write it down.  Then you stare out the window some more until you think up something else, and then you write that down.  You keep doing that over and over until you’ve thought up everything you can think up, and then you write THE END and send it off to your publisher.”

Did I oversimplify here?

At any rate, Delbert Earle is my very good friend, and despite his misgivings about my profession, he is pleased by my good news.  He promised to buy a book in September, and says he might even find it interesting to read, since we are both married to feisty women.  And he has decided what he will give me as a congratulatory gift: a box of band-aids.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.

The Art of Geometry


          I’ve never been a whiz at math.  I take after my father, who once said, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t.”  In my family, my mother kept the checkbook.  In junior high and high school, I was fortunate enough to have math teachers who, through patience and compassion, managed to teach me enough of the basics to get by.  In college, I took geology to avoid freshman algebra.  I know more about rocks than numbers, which isn’t much.

            So it was a surprise to me in high school that I discovered a love for geometry.  I might be a semi-klutz at equations, but I was good with shapes.  My teacher wasn’t surprised; geometry isn’t really math, she said, it’s logic.  It’s the way things fit together, the beauty of lines and angles in time and space.  Sure, there are numbers involved, but they are numbers you can see and feel, that you can push and pull and twist into fascinating objects.  The limits of geometry are imagination.

            When I began to think about how I do this storytelling thing I do, it occurred to me that part of it is geometry.  A story has lines and angles and shapes that exist in time and space – geometry as architecture. 

I start with a central character I believe in, and that’s the foundation.  I surround that person with other characters, some of which are actually places (a town, for instance, can be a character in my story).  I put the people in a particular time and place, give them a dilemma, and turn them loose to bump up against each other and make sparks.  Things begin to happen, to move in directions.  I’m building a house, with walls and doors and windows, floors and roofs, furniture and interior design, clothes in the closet and toys on the floor, all of the things that make the house a home where people live.

I don’t know how the whole thing will look when I start, or really even while I’m building.  I know a few things that might serve as signposts when I’ve reached a certain point.  But I have to be open to possibility and serendipity.  When I finish, there it is: a geometric shape, something like no other, fashioned out of my over-active imagination.  Each reader, looking at my geometry from a special and unique angle, will see something a little different.  Hopefully, all will see something artful – a memorable thing or two, and the geometry that helps it hang together.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo. 

The Art of Transparency

       When I was in graduate school eons ago, my fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, was kind enough to say my work showed some promise.  “When you learn the big tricks,” he said, “you’ll do okay.”

       “What are the big tricks?” I asked.

       “You have to learn those for yourself.”

       “How do you learn them?”

       “By doing the work.”

       I’ve done a good bit of the work since then, and I’ve learned a couple of big tricks.  The biggest, I’ve decided, is learning to trust my readers.  It sounds simple, but it’s not.

       I have to see a scene in my own mind before I can write about it – what the place looks like, who’s there, how they move about, how they interact, what they say.  The challenge is putting what I see on paper so you’ll see something similar when you read the words.  The more I try to describe, the more I inevitably burden the story with so much verbiage that it sinks of its own weight.  The words get in the way.  The big trick is deciding what not to say.

            There’s a sort of magic that transpires between writer and reader, an alchemy that occurs when two imaginations meet.  If I write a book and a thousand people read it, I’ve really written a thousand books, because each reader brings a unique and special consciousness to the process.  And that makes each reading experience special and unique.

            I constantly remind myself that I don’t have to do all the work, and the more I do, the more I’m likely to get in the way.  All I need is a few well-chosen words to set the reader’s imagination in motion.  If I write “cowboy,” you’ll provide your own image.  It won’t be the cowboy I see, but that’s fine.  Your cowboy is just as good as mine, probably better.  My job is to be transparent, to stay out of the way so you get right to the cowboy.  It’s the cowboy’s story, and I’m just there to be a conduit.  If you hear me, I’ve failed.

      Another of my grad school professors, the poet Tom Rabbitt, said there are three kinds of writing:

  • Art -- we know what that is when we see it.  The characters and their story leap off the page and grab us by the soul.        
  • Artsy -- words begin to get in the way, a sure sign the writer is becoming enamored of his own verbal virtuosity.        
  • Artsy-fartsy – this guy is screaming, Look Ma, see how clever I am!

     When I finish a manuscript, the first thing I do is go back and ruthlessly slash modifiers and florid excesses of description.  I may need them in the first draft to help me visualize, but in sober reflection, I realize that for my readers, they’re largely unnecessary and get in the way of the story.  I dang sure don’t want to leave any artsy-fartsy, and I want artsy held to a bare minimum.  If what results is something vaguely similar to art, I’m a happy guy.

     Next time: another big trick: geometry.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.