Missye K. Clarke Asks Herself . . .WTH Was She Thinking?!?

A hearty Standing O for those of us surviving another upcoming season of damn-it-to-hell DST. We earned it! Should somebody important happen to be reading this, I implore you: PLEASE put a fork in that spring-ahead/fall-back mess, it’s far long past its expiration date. My love for REM sleep and said dreams thank you. For those living in Hawaii and Arizona who don’t have to tolerate this foolishness, damn you for being irritatingly lucky to be off that pointless hook :).

It was during NaNo 2011 when I drafted my 2nd Casebook, tentatively titled KINGZ of CASPIAN COUNTY–and (w)here the WTF was I thinking part of this post–comes to pass. Having had so much fun writing my 1st book, I decided to tackle a tougher challenge: A plot within a plot.

Well, it sounded so good in my head!

In conversations with myself while on decent dog walks as my family and I lived in Gettysburg at the time, I had it worked pitch perfect. Dozens of read-throughs–and since out of Gettysburg–a decade later, I found and fixed plot-holes, minimized adverbs, changed the past to present tense. Cut many slice-of-life bits, turned questions to statements where it made logical sense, and more or less trimmed fat on a microscopic level short of hiring a dev editor to walk-through this book with me (which I’d’ve happily paid for the task, but for the price tag short of a first-run remodeled DeLorean on a mint condition asking price. Yeahhhhuhhhh . . . no 😏🤫🤫😏.) Still, I trust and know the story is strong from the onset. made stronger when bits of inspiration dropped in when least expected. But here’s a few gems of an Herculean task I learned while on this ride that grounded me, and might help you in your novel stage, too.

Trust The Process

If you’ve a great cast, they’re not gonna mind a complicated plot. Nor will you or your readers. Sometimes the rules have to be busted wide open to rock your 🌈imagination🌈–insert SpongeBob’s use of the word here–to get you from Point A to Point B. You’re playing God in your writing world–so go batshit crazy. But even He can’t go outside His boundaries of the elements; like every breathing being needs C, O, I, H, H2O, and glucose to survive–for those of you in #RioLinda, C, O, I, H, and H2O is carbon, oxygen, iron, hydrogen, and water–stick with the writing rules. Just know when to play fast and loose with and within the rules. And while on this subject: toss that pile of crap about being established first to do this. Said who? The established authors, I’ll guess. Another topic–ahem, pet peeve post–for another time.

G’head, Get Messy! You KNOW You Want To!

First drafts are supposed to be a disheveled playroom, anyways, so write-play with abandon and kick your critics, haters, and doomsdayers to the curb. You’re dreaming out loud on paper. You’re God in this world. The actual God made the platypus, right? A mammal giving birth to its own in egg-form like birds do, but it’s got webbed feet and a bill like a duck? C’mon, now! So don’t hold back. You can always fix that disheveled playroom later. Or keep it and let your imagination pick up from where it’d left off in that room when you re-read your efforts, tweaking here and there. Most of us forget we’re dreaming out loud on paper, tucking the absurd in the crevices where everything makes sense to be pulled out later to logically tie everything wildly imaginative together.

Which brings us to . . .

Wow . . . Don’t You Clean Up Nice

There’s a big difference between a disheveled playroom of a story (which can be tidied) and a dumpster fire one (which can’t be), and it’s more than just how you see it. If not only your instincts are telling you the project is insalvageable, but so are beta readers, your editor, or an average Joe listening to you read it aloud, or if you’re just not feelin’ it anymore, just chuck it. And don’t think twice doing so. Again, you’re dreaming on paper, so you can toss that dream and find a fresh one. Your readers or characters won’t know or care much about your behind-the-scenes work. Your characters might even thank you for putting them in something more harrowing, unthinkable, frightening, or adventurous than your previous try. Whichever the case, you got this :).

But IF the story works, be merciless what weighing-down elements stay on the cutting room floor and keep them there. Stay consistent, as aforementioned. Have a realistic transition phase. No deux ex machinas. Foreshadow decently. Blend the least likely things to happen; truth’s stranger than fiction, right? So make it apply TO that fictional world and defend it to the end. Most importantly, don’t feel you have to justify or explain yourself on the impossible. Wanna know why? The impossible happens in the 3D world all the time, so why not have it happen in yours? Because it’s your world, your imagination, your prerogative, and your damn rules. Because you said so. That’s why. You already know this, but it’s always nice to have a reminder of such periodically.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

This doesn’t make you a failure as a writer. You’re only a failure as one if you don’t ask. Simple, right?

Yes and no.

Even if outlandish, the author giving said advice is one you’d love to give a good punch in the puss for challenging your non-writing-related views–yeah, I know, you’re looking at me, and I don’t mind, really :)–take it. Try it out. See what happens. You might love it. You might hate it. But let it stand on its own merit, not for what her kooky beliefs are aside from it. You don’t know if it won’t fit because she’s not on board with your NWR worldview; her input might’ve been that puzzle piece needed, or that one way to clear the creative roadblock of your project stymieing you for the longest time to finally move on from.

But you’re secretly saying: Well, damn. If she’s right about this, is she right about that other thing I think is bullshit?

Nah. Broken clocks are always gonna stay broken clocks :).

Listen To Your Instincts, Always

So what say you? What’s your mess of a story at first that cleaned up nice? Did you have a plot within a plot that had elements in it bringing both together? Was it a struggle getting it there–or did you throw the MS away for something simpler?

I’m still working on KINGZ, elated for the light at the end of this decade-old tunnel. I’m happy to report one of the truly impossible events that happened in the 3D world does in this book. Not only does my MC/narrator survives this, I wrote this event not knowing a similar event happened to a skyscraper window-washing team. But I’m even happier to to report my third Casebook is a straight mystery of cat-and-mouse trying to outwit one another (think Tom & Jerry meets Spy v. Spy). Listening to podcasts of true crime stories and why villains do what they do is a big help in forming this mystery for a more realistic, believable villain.

Happy Valentine’s Day a week early!

Author’s Note–

Deepest apologies for this post going live prematurely. I forgot this was my day to update, believing next week was my day. I also weathered a wicked sickle cell trait bout recently, adding to the forgetfulness. For those posting comments to this, I thank you all and appreciate you more than words can properly express.

Missye K. Clarke’s Interview of PI-to-Be: Jay Vincent Pedregon

The heavens must love me–well, He does as He does all mankind, but that’s not this post :). Today’s update happens to coincide with the birthday of the Pedregon triumvirate of the McGuinness/Pedregon sleuthing crew. So without further ado, and a possible takeaway on spotlighting one of your cast to learn their world views, backstories, moral compasses, etc., here’s my spin on a fantastic writing tool you can tweak to move your stories along their tracks to The End. Oh, P.S.: Sorry if the following is all the way in bold type–I couldn’t get rid of one in a paragraph, so they were all reformatted. Technology. Gotta love it.

Take it away, Jay Vincent Pedregon!

**~~** **~~** **~~** **~~** **~~**

Thanks for a neat birthday gift, Missye. Hi, ladies! Cool to be here! I’m Jacob Vincent Pedregon–so says what my mom and dad listed on my birth cert. I go by Pedregon or J.V. from my wingdudes. My mom (Ingrid Pedregon) and dad (Angel Pedregon) call me Jay Vincent. My sister Andrea—whom I’ve affectionately called Hamdrea the Flute-Tooting Warthog until Ma and Dad made me quit it—calls me Jerk Vincent or Jay-Jay the Jet Lame in retaliation. It’s surprisingly funny, but I guess I deserve it. But I don’t stop thinking  of her Hamdrea label; she’s cursed with the getting-fat-looking-at-carbs genes from our mom’s side. My grandmother, Nana Grace, also calls me Jay Vincent, and my girl, a gorgeous private eye named Valerie Curtis, calls me Vincent–like that artist dude who did IrisesThat’s partly how I got my name; Ma and Nana go apesh*t over van Gogh’s works. And since my best friend Casper plays acoustic, it’s pretty kickass hearing him do Don McLean’s “Starry Night (Vincent)” sometimes. I didn’t even know my name had a song until C told me about it. 

Any details you care to share about your grandfather?
Timothy Black Elk Pedregon was full Lakota. He and Nana Grace were married in the early 1950s. He’d flown fighters in the Korean Conflict, but I don’t know much of who he’d been past that. He stroked out when I was five in the late 1990s. The two strong memories I have: he air-tossed me every night before I went to bed, and I helped him put together a WWI Sopwith “Camel” for Dad. To this day I still love the smell of model airplane glue, and Dad still has the bi-plane.

So yeah . . . I’m that Pedregon of the McGuinness/Pedregon Casebooks, but I’m not related to stock car racing guys Tony and Cruz of the same surname. It’s fun playing detective like Sherlock Holmes and Quincy and, okay, yeah, Scooby-Doo. But if I’ve one thing constructive to say about my place in these books, I’d love for Missye to get us in more trouble and for me be more than a pretty doorstop; I’m attaining my PI license, not the cousins. Still, Casper’s pretty swell helping me analyze motives, and Logan’s always-thinking-outside-the-norm in motives I’d be perspective-limited in a one-man operation. They’re more impactful than I first figured and really appreciate; doesn’t the Bible say with many advisors victory’s assured in the Old Testament someplace? I think it does. Anyways, overall, I think she’s doing a cracker-jack job with the plots and stories, considering us asshats she’s working with. I’m a little ticked the McGuinness dudes get top billing, but from an alphabetical standpoint, it makes sense. And it does sound nicer than the other way around. I’ll get into that a bit more—I’m a super-jealous guy, and it’s getting me into a sh*tload of trouble.

Life before the series . . . what’d you do?
Before she and I met in another story that ended up D.O.A. from her computer crash, I’d been homeschooled since I could remember. I had my first-ever public sewer—sorry, charter school—experience in junior year where JERSEY DOGS takes place. I love all things genetics: genomes, telomeres, RNA, DNA, chromosomes, genetic mutations, twin sets of DNA, or chimeras, mitochondrial, you name it. Nana Grace crafted these super-cool scavenger hunts to help me figure out the complexities of genetics, and got me into reading medical mysteries solving not-so-gruesome crimes with that unique blueprint every mammal has (go, Michael Crichton!). Animals, though, are different, but the same, too. Isn’t God cool how He did that?

Yeah, He is. Any friends before Casper and Logan?
Childhood acquaintances more like–none stuck around long enough to get to know me. People moved, got divorced, got feelin’ some kinda way over a stupid misunderstanding they wouldn’t talk out, family members died, homeschooling co-op groups broke up, blah, blah. When my sister was born—she’s three years younger—I grew really close to her and was crazy protective of her. I still am. Ma and Nana called me another dad to her, which I guess made my biologic father Angel Pedregon okay with it–to a point.

What else do you love aside from sleuthing?
I love dancing, flying, the colors of autumn, my friends, and family, minestrone, chocolate or blueberry milk, and B/W photography. I’m saving for a great film-loading camera to take shots for contests and for obvious private investigating surveillance. I love animals, too. I think in another life I’d’ve been a veterinarian, but in this life, I don’t have the patience or the headspace to learn the different systems animals have to treat them effectively. Cat systems aren’t like dog systems, and even then, domestic felines’ systems aren’t like the big feline ones. I also love learning. That’s one thing Missye and I have in common: we think learning new stuff is kickass. What we do with that knowledge depends on the need.

I also dig anything paranormal as does she. Remember that closing warehouse scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? The scene from that same warehouse in Indiana Jones 4? Oh, man, THAT (Hands up if you want a look in those boxes, too!)! Angels, demons, ghosts, zero-gravity, flumes to other dimensions, the space-time continuum, clairaudients, clairsentients, clairvoyents, mediums, healers, shamans, EVPs, you name it. That sh*t is DOPE! Thank you, Rod Serling, for making The Twilight Zone a freakin’ THING!

But you HAVE to dislike something of yourself . . . right? Everybody does.
Why’d you go gettin’ me all emo for? (**sobering**) . . . Gimme a minute . . .

(**voice breaking slightly**) Don’t hate me, okay? I’ve a jealously streak to where it might border psychotic. I guess my good intentions, insecurities, and over-protectiveness for my sister and of my current girlfriend gets that about me out of hand. Having friends like Casper and Logan dig into my heart did me a world of good—I don’t like showing my emotions or my softer side. Or letting somebody know or see how much I like them, love them, hate them. Anyways . . . I’m in counseling now for behavior I shouldn’t’ve committed. Turns out, Missye witnessed her mother being abused when she was a very young girl, and she was powerless to stop it. Casebook 4’s gonna explore all facets of domestic violence more than from a guy to a gal. That’s what I did–DV from this guy to my girl. I hate myself for that and regret that act every day since.

Whew–that’s intense. Let’s go a little lighter–it’s your birthday, after all. 
Yeah, let’s do **grin**. So far, with the DV (domestic violence) mystery she’s got us in, we’re something like Archer or that Who Framed Roger Rabbit situation. I read the Gary K. Wolf book with most of the same cast. Movie’s nothing  at ALL like the book, but both are good in their own right. Anyways, you gotta wait and see how that Casebook turns out. But the mystery itself involves art and insurance fraud; the theme addressing domestic violence. It’s a pretty good blend of story, theme, and plot that push how Casper, Logan, and I interact with one another, and how our friendships moves from there. As the expression goes, though: it’ll get worse before things get better. Being friends in your teens is a helluva lot easier than keeping that friendship in adulthood. Maybe it’s because you know more than you should when you’re grown.

The weirdest thing that’s happened to you was–
Other than hearing a tiger cub’s thoughts through the iridium dust in my eyeglass frames, and landing upside down in a thick maple from an ambush attack I and Casper were in, I was almost constricted to death by a black mamba. Yep–gulp!–one of those that grow some 30 feet big, or where you see in news reports some poor dude in India getting swallowed whole by. I took some busted ribs, bruised kidneys, bruised intestines, a bruised liver, and lost my gallbladder when it ruptured in my sleep. I honestly don’t remember anything of the incident but going to sleep the night before and having trouble breathing in my sleep. I got the story firsthand from the guys and medical staff of the attack and after. Trust and believe, my mother had a pluperfect fit when she found out what happened. She’s still pissed I’m not a rent-a-cop in a toy and game store someplace. I told her there’s no action in that; who’d want to knock off a toy and game joint? I also told my parents, Nana Grace, Andrea, and my author I’m not scared to die—I can’t wait  to get on the other side, to be honest. But the ladies don’t see it that way. I suppose I’ll always be Ma’s, Missye’s, and my Nana’s firstborn baby bear. Dad says parents should never have to bury their children, that these things should be the other way around in a perfect world, but he also says when and if I have kids, I’ll understand his, Nana”s, and Ma’s points of view. If it happens, I suppose I will.

I heard through the pipeline you and Missye have a love-hate thing going on. Why? If so, what do you argue about?
(**laughing as he wipes under his eyes**) When she said I’d be dealing with heavy sh*t about domestic violence and I’d be the one dishing it, I. Was. PISSED!!!! I refused to talk to her for the longest time, to tell the truth. Then she did two things: She threatened to fire me by killing my character off. But when she went to the 2017 CrimeCon event in Indianapolis, I got my Golden Ticket, hey! All things crime! Animals to technology in solving crimes, cold case files and forensics everything!! Missye loves forensics too, turns out. She and the McGuinness dudes watched me make a complete, glorious, whole ass of myself that weekend (which the guys gave me sh*t for, but I hardly gave a damn). Her research aside, I let my guard down and let Missye get to know me. She’ll get to another CrimeCon event, her first mystery cruise, and her first Sleuthfest when budgets permit, and I cannot freakin’ wait!! But still . . . I’m pretty private. I don’t mean to be; it just is. I guess we’re both getting okay with knowing one another’s boundaries there.

You mentioned you’re not scared of death or dying.
Nope, not at all. 

Have you seen the other side? Heard first person reports about it? I guess what I’m asking is–why aren’t you afraid of death or dying?
What for? We all of us gotta go some time. Everything dies. Energy doesn’t. I haven’t personally seen anything on the other side, but I heard my wingdudes have. I haven’t told them this, but I overheard Missye say Logan’s had a positive NDE and Casper’s had a negative NDE (near-death experience). Both guys haven’t spelled out to me their experiences, and even my author’s had two of her own (both good, from what I understand). I’m patient–they’ll get around to telling me eventually. But on the whole, I truly believe there’s life after life. So, no . . . I’m not scared to go. 

Level with me–you have to be frightened of something.
Although my mom’s an oncology nurse and my dad’s head IT for a satellite cell phone company, they work odd hours and overtime to make ends meet–as you might’ve guessed, NYC’s not cheap. So during homeschool, Nana Grace taught my sister and me to seize our days–Carpe Diem. Fears are true phantoms; you make them bigger than they really are. That’s what I did. Save for one.

For the longest time, my biggest fear was I thought my author had been playing favorites. Not because I didn’t get top billing on the Casebooks; I explained that already. Missye, Logan, and C–that’s what I sometimes call Casper–they’re tight, man. Finish each other’s sentences, tight. Gab-twenty-six-nine, tight. I never wanted to tell them and her this, but I was seriously butthurt and feeling left out because of their closeness. I always knew Missye was reaching out to me, Casper, too, and she really pushed me, did everything she could think of to make me feel included. She even explained how complex love is, its different types, that one of our characters isn’t important over another, or one lords over the other. Didja ever hear of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma?

No. Explain that to me.
It means the closer we want to get, we’re too scared to because we’re gonna hurt each other in the process. Hedgehogs are cousins to porcupines, and in trying to mate, they’ll hurt one another in the process. So psychologists took that real event occurring in the animal kingdom and applied it to actual human relationships. To a degree, she, Casper, and I are hurting souls trying not to hurt one another . . . but as we’re all bruised, we’ll still hurt one another while trying to heal ourselves. Weird, right?

So I kept resisting because I really was scared she’d say anything to cover her lying to me. She got really pissed at this inference, and reached the point of know return: get my act together or else. I had to come around to realize I was wrong and let myself trust her; I knewshe trusted me, and to a big degree, believed in me. She wouldn’t’ve given me hell if I didn’t matter to her, or given me a girlfriend for the same reasons. C . . . not so much, since he and I’d had issues I’ll let the books explain (some were my fault, others were his), but he and I eventually come around. I guess I always knew my time was running out making this work with my author and the guys–hellooo, she’s an impatient Gemini!–which meant I had to come to terms with a lot of my own sh*t I didn’t want to face. And with her recently reminding me it was I who’d friendzoned her early in our relationship so her heart could accept another she’d forgotten about—a personal matter I won’t divulge further details–I’m doing what I can to fix it. I hope she thinks I’m doing a good job.

So does this make you happy?
Yeah–**sighing contentedly**–it does. Knowing now my author genuinely cares, no BScares like my Nana Grace and my parents do, like the guys, Rocket Dog, and Andrea do, and like my girlfriend does, is pretty freakin’ awesome.

What else makes you smile?
Cool Ranch Doritos, a frosty half dozen longnecks of Dream Weaver, and a big, thick, fat-ringed marbled porterhouse. And a long, unbothered sleep.

If you could rewrite any parts of your story, what would they be and why?
That I wouldn’t have put my hands on my current girlfriend in the first place. I wasn’t raised in a home with that violence, despite Dad loving MMA cage fights. Or that I obsessed so much on this off-limits female during the spring semester of my junior year at Sam Adams Freedom Academy, because the girl said I have gorgeous green eyes, her mother almost took out a restraining order on me. Dad found out. He adamantly assured the girl’s family I’d leave her alone if the order wasn’t filed, since he told her family his mother, Nana Grace, was beginning brain cancer treatments, and I was stressed by that (a slightly tiny fib, but he had to say something to keep Nana and Ma from finding out I’d been an asshole). When we got home and after Ma, Nana, and my sister went to bed, Dad lit me up good–and I wasn’t spanked since I was ten. In retro, that began my DV issues with my current lady, and I didn’t see the signs then like I do now in group and one-on-one counseling. Although this and many DV cases have a genesis, it’s still no excuse to give into that and behave badly.

Of your fellow series’ cast members, who pushes on your nerves most–and why?
That’s easy–Casper. It’s not that he bugs me per se. Remember how I said I’m a nut for anything paranormal? Casper admits he’s a naked paranormal atheist. So how come he gets to have some paranormal abilities in this series don’t have but want, but he  has and doesn’t want? That was another reason I was so pissed with Missye—this was her doing.

Or so I thought.

Authors get to play God. Painters, sculptors, musicians do, too. Musicians bend music in ways that make sense we get goosebumps from when we hear the finished piece. Painters blend colors you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. A sculptor creates a bird from a piece of heated wood so beautifully, it could be a real bird frozen in time.

But God has to decide what’s best for those who need what they need, when they need it. Those who don’t can be magnanimous to help those who have what they do be sound in it. Missye thought it best I didn’t have this gift, but that I reach out to Casper to help him understand what he’s dealing with—and maybe why—but we’ll figure that out together, I expect. He’s scared to have it, but when I let myself trust Casper, he’ll relax some to know I care enough to help. So as you can see this goes full circle, much like God’s circle of life does.

Now which cast member would you trade places with?
(**shaking my head**) Would you believe . . . Casper?!? I know, right? I can’t sing a note, play a note, don’t have his eventual paranormal gifts he’s scared of .. . . but I’d love to know life behind his new-sidewalk grey eyes if I could. Maybe, at the end of the day, our fears and insecurities are the same, our dreams and what pisses us off are the same. Crazy AF, huh?

Tell us a little nip about your author. Where can readers find her website/blog?
I’m happy to see it’s this platform. And when funds permit, her website’ll be something cool; she’s still working on the name. I’m also hearing she’s a character in another mystery series one of my wingdudes is in; she’d kill me if I told you who, since he couldn’t keep his yap shut getting some hang time with her. His cousin’s thrilled for that McG, and if I’m being honest–so am I.

Why didn’t she ask me to participate in that series, you might be wondering? I didn’t want to. And we’re both good with that :-).

What’s next for Jay Vincent Pedregon?
Having a damn blast with my two best friends, eventually marrying my girlfriend, and being a surrogate uncle to twin girls. I’ll be a best man in one wedding—the other’s an elopement, but I’m not supposed to know, and I won’t blab which of the McGs who’ll do this, but I think it’s pretty slick. And she’s gonna FREAK in a good way at the idea!

Ultimately, I’m having fun getting to know my author, excited for the adventures she’ll put me in, and enjoying life. On the near horizon, I won’t look forward saying goodbye to Nana Grace. But when it’s my time, I’ll see Nana Grace and Timothy Black Elk again. When my author’s time comes, maybe she, me, and my wingdudes can have adventures ours alone that won’t  make it into a book!

**~~** **~~** **~~** **~~** **~~**

Happy Birthday Jay Vincent! I couldn’t be more proud of you! Many, many more joyous returns!

Never Send Your MS to a Former Erotica-Only House!

I’ve been an oft-willing guinea pig for different adventures, events, experiences, and foods. I’ve sampled shark (gross!), swallowed two uncooked eggs for the Dare portion of the game (thank you, seltzer and Pepto for averting an unwanted revisit to keep from answering a question truthfully!), been arrested and jailed on self-defense protecting my unborn child (that jail stay I gave Casper his first lockup experience in JERSEY DOGS); lived two years in Gettysburg–yes, it’s one of the most active paranormal activity places in the U.S.–and enjoyed many adventures I’ll share over time. The journey I’m semi-proud to say: before I indie-published in 2018, it visited a house previously accepting smut. As it’d opened its doors to other genres, I was that guinea-pig-experiment-gone-spectacularly-wrong. I took my MS back, but not without a hell of a fight.

I can laugh about that episode five years hence come mid-2020. But during and the unreal months after, t’weren’t at all pretty. I almost tossed being a full-time writer, thinking I’d been a colossal flop in this business. How could I not’ve thought that: 60 rejections before said house. Some form. Some ghost. One, a polite “Gee, thanks for thinking of us, Missye, but your novel’s dialogue is a tad overwhelming.” (#WaitWhat? 🤔🤨) I mean, a Pyrrhic victory‘s not all that it’s cracked up to be, that’s for sure. I found the house in the black. And broadening its reach past the typical Girls! Girls! Girls! fare, enter naive, giddy me. Gave JERSEY‘s partial (first 13 chapters) according to the Submittable directions, and I moved on.

Three days later, an email arrives they loved the offering, and could I send the full. Sure I do. And I again forgot about it.

A week in, I’m speaking with Ms. Publisher herself as I walk home from work. After the 90 minute conversation, in which I asked every question I could think of, remembered to ask, and asked on the fly, I make the long-awaited announcement to my family: I HAVE A BOOK CONTRACT!!!!!

Finally!

I’ve arrived! Better than a journalism byline! Better than a hot scoop!

I. Am. IN!!!!

And to make that moment sweeter, another small house saw JERSEY‘s potential, loved it, but I let this publisher know I’d had another offer arrive at the same time.

Talk about adrenaline-fueled elation, wow. It was summer vacation, a fantastic kiss from my crush, Christmas morning, sleepaway camp, flying a hang-glider, the birth of my kids, and going on my first-ever crazy rollercoaster ride at the same time. To quote my son, I was like our cattle dog when everyone was home. Yeah, well, in my birthday month, too? Hell YEAH I was!

Instinct, although happy for me, began its objectionable tin cup banging against my conscience. That’s a sound you can’t ignore long.

I’m assigned the first of three editors, joined the then Yahoo list group, only to learn within two weeks of getting to work, a family member died in a car accident. We didn’t know it at the time it’d happened that it’d happened, as my husband had lost his phone. When we received word, I needed to be his support. The house gave me as much time I needed, which was sweet of them. During this, I’d filled out my cover art form details, and what did I want my web page on their site to read for my e-book purchase portal.

The first editor, clearly used to shaping XXX-rated MSs, didn’t know shorts of longer works–album song titles, book chapters, news and magazine articles, etc.–used quotation marks like dialogue. She incorrectly put every song in JERSEY in italics, which is strictly for longer works (books, albums, periodicals, etc.), and the van Gogh pantings references in quotes. Not only did I re-do her work, she declared she hated the McGuinness/Pedregon crew. After a quasi-heated exchange–I’m proud I kept my side civil, but can I help it if my pointing out the obvious and my editorial prowess excelled hers by time and experience?–she complained about me to the managing editor.

The cover art form submission? Returned to me, according to my notes and what they’d “put” together. “Cobbled” or “scrounged” would be more accurate to describe that effort I hated on sight.

Sigh. The honeymoon was clearly over.

Toldja so, Instincts chimed in.

Oh, shut up, I snapped back.

Editor #2, Ms. Managing Editor assigned me to–a single mom to a young teen, a FT double-major, working FT, and shaping five other books with mine. Tactfully, I queried how could she manage my MS with all on her plate, but she insisted she had it covered. Fortunately, I didn’t hold my breath.

That one fizzled over ellipses. Can you imagine? I listed what the Chicago Manual of Style said to do on this punctuation mark. She noted Ms. Publisher doesn’t want my brand of ellipses (dot-space-dot-space-dot) over hers. (dot-dot-dot). CMoS is my brand of ellipses now? Guess first thing Monday I’d better bug the University of Chicago’s Press for royalties I’m long due for. **smirk**

Managing Editor tells me, four months after signing, I’d be edited by Ms. Publisher–the Great and Powerful Oz–herself. By now, my instincts were ponding its tin cup on my emotional walls so hard they shot off sparks, so I wasn’t scared. Pissed, more like, but that comes later.

Ms. Great/Powerful asked why did I argue with Editor #1, so I told her. What was wrong with Editor #2, she wondered. Nothing, I explained–I just felt it unfair to me, my book, and her being a single mom, to be part of her obviously impossible workload. Ellipses issue aside, I had to bow out in good conscience.

This wouldn’t last, either. This issue was pettier: semi-colons. You know, these things? —->;<—-. That. Ms. Publisher called them ancient, the trend at the time were em-dashes. I’ve two questions, I said: what’s wrong with the semi-colon?

We need to follow the trend, she answered.

I thought we authors shouldn’t chase trends. Conferences, workshops, writing references preached that until they’re blue in the face, I countered. What’s different now?

No reply.

Then she declared Mitchell’s use of them in Gone With the Wind old-fashioned when I cited the Pulitzer Prize winning book–which sold copies in pace of The Holy Bible at one point, but that holds no bearing on this story :)–was loaded with them. Correctly used, too. Its Oscar-winning movie was eight decades old before James Cameron’s Titanic broke the record. Isn’t that saying something, I asked.

Ancient, was her curt, single reply.

After more tussling over word choices, fonts, and transit specifics of the NYC setting where the book is, that conversation in late January 2016 wasn’t as pleasant as the call six months prior. I felt out of sorts and emotionally and creatively handcuffed, albeit proud I defended myself and my work. Yet I was contracted, and scared green I’d lose creative control on a book I slaved to shape for a decade-plus. What could I do?

Sleep. That was in my control. Maybe what Einstein theorized about problems seemingly without a solution when awake would be solved in a sleep-dream state.

That theory better come through.

5:30am, Groundhog Day Eve, I’m bolted awake, but my instincts are sound asleep. This wasn’t working out, so I found an out without needing to hire an attorney I couldn’t afford to break my agreement: Argue my way out.

I got to work. Ms. Publisher insisted e-book platforms all used a universal format (true), so all chapters in mine would be centered. With it out now in indie pubbed status–and using Reedsy for drafting, Vellum for formatting and uploading–I asked could it be formatted in right-side heading justified. No, Ms. Publisher said. But other books in print and e-books did this; I sent three samples across three genres as proof. Why couldn’t this house do the same?

No answer. I went to sleep that night feeling tingly, like I’d done something heinously wrong.

Groundhog Day, 2016, 2pm, EST, this email awaited me–

“Dear Legal Name At the Time,
Regretfully, your contract has been rescinded. I find your argumentative nature and stances unconducive for my establishment. Attached please find 3c and 7a of the contract breeched by you, which is basis for our relationship to end.
I wish you the very best in your future publishing endeavors.
Sincerely,
Ms. Publisher, Acme Publishing.”

That Pyrrhic victory delivered a punch I won’t soon forget.

I might’ve been free, but not long after, I felt SO lost. Was fighting for my first book’s life worth that much a hit?

Was she right–do I argue too much?

Isn’t it worth being a little imprisoned for the name-on-spine glory so many authors are after, that so many have achieved?

To be fair, I didn’t read and re-read the agreement’s fine print–I was too giddy for the acceptance to see or care what I was in for. So for that, I take responsibility. Even so . . . many questions ran through my mind if I did the right thing, but one bulldozed through-did I argue too much to make it in this business?–I still wrestle with today.

I drifted. I mourned. I cried. I just said the hell with it all, the world didn’t need my voice among the billions clamoring for the few eyes to find their stuff, love their stuff. I hated myself, hated writing, hated everything on which this industry stands for, is built on, hated nobody stood up for me then–and sometimes now. Even an author in my corner while shaping my first book, within the month of the contract dissolution, succumbed to complications relating to a car accident several years back. Already on the emotional and creative precipice before receiving this news, I fell in the abyss. My uncle gone in 2007 who encouraged me in my teens to keep writing. Losing the deal. Then her passing weeks later.

What. Was. The. Point?

I stayed at the chasm’s bottom and waited to creatively die.

An email for book covers came to my inbox, and curiosity drove me to the site despite my deep funk. Covers I perused were just silly. Laughable. Ghastly. ColorForms-Ain’t-Fun pictures suited for first-grader billboards than books. Hilarious in a bad way. Macabre. Ridiculous. Hideous. Head-scratchers. Psychotic. Boring. Or just plain dumb.

Then one appeared that made my heart jump and pump harder. Not to make a comparison, but it fits: it felt like when Elizabeth, while bearing John the Baptist when she heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s child leapt in her womb knowing his cousin Jesus was there with him. That’s how special this cover was–and still is.

The one showed a loner who seemed to know how I felt. How Logan, Casper, and Jay Vincent felt at some point in their series’ lives. Unsure. Scared. Alone. Vulnerable. Misunderstood. Mislabeled. Humbled. Proud. Scrappy. Untamed. Strong. A warrior.

Eventually, should I get a house to make this story a 2nd edition, the cover I have in mind will be very different. It’ll be, I hope, one I love as much as I do this one.

I snapped it up . . . and slowly got back to work.

Had I stayed with the house, I’d be six months out from either renegotiating terms or leaving altogether. In hindsight, I’m glad I ended the relationship, but I could’ve been more thoughtful and professional in my exit.

Just because a house expands from erotica doesn’t mean your MS(s) will fit, may fit, should fit, or the publisher will treat you with professionalism or fairly. Going through this experience showed I’m stronger than I thought, that if I don’t defend my work, who else will, and I need more refining before being traditionally published, if ever I am. It’s a good lesson. Finding my place for my baby is very much like dating–I need to grow and evolve, and kiss a few bushelfuls of toads before that prince(ess) comes along for the potential HEA. I’m still argumentative in general–my husband Pete and I had a spirited debate recently, now since resolved–but I’m more discerning which hills I’ll die on for my work or any topic. The house-to-be need to love my offerings as I do, see what I do, but be open to guide me and let me have my lead as I’m open-minded for theirs.

While the patience kills me softly in waiting, I’ll stay busy crafting shorts, haikus, flash, and of course, my two series’ books. A hefty imagination’s a great cure-all for all peeves IRT (that’s shorthand for “in real time” for those of you in #RioLinda! 🙂 ) . . . so it’s time to get back to work.

A Potential $1,500 Edit, Justified

Now, don’t go bug-eyed about the price tag in this post’s title. Before I share my story, here’s the lowdown–that’s the 411, the skinny, or the scoop for those of you in Rio Linda–of what edits and editors are and what they do–and what they aren’t and what they won’t do.

A developmental edit is a deep content edit. This is the most thorough of the edits throughout your story, and where your editor will find plot holes, inconsistency, what’s working and not, and so on. This is also the most pricey–you’re paying for time, insight, and expertise. Choose this editor wisely, since you’ll have a working, professional relationship with this individual who specializes in this style of editing. What this means for your budget: a DNA sample, your firstborn’s genome, a fraction of your home equity loan, a portion of royalties . . . I’m (slightly) kidding, but the price tag for this is $$$$ to $$$$$.

copy edit is a step above proofreading, but just under developmental editing. It’s another way to say line editing, more or less. These people work to make sure you’re consistent in weather scenes, word choice and what it means either in character or author intention; character names–your MC Steve in Chapter 2 isn’t Jude in Chapter 6–or if you’re in Monday midnight DST in a chapter, that same chapter’s not a snowy Wednesday afternoon EST by its end (unless explained); accents are consistent, etc. It’s also more a consistency in verb tense/1st POV or 3rd POV and other overlooked nits not caught by you or the dev editor than anything else. A dev editor can do light copy editing if he picks it up from time to time, but it’s not a must–especially at the rate you’re paying for the job! Budget for this: $$ to $$$.

Proofreading, or also known as a proofer, ONLY checks for irregularities in punctuation, facts, spelling, times, dates, places, and otherwise flags too many mistakes left in or left out. Some would debate grammar should be checked also, but depending on what some in your cast are doing in dialects, location and the like, that really comes more to a developmental editor choice, a copy editor knowing this about your MS–and, of course, you, Ms. Author :). This edit takes the least time, and thus, the least strain on your writer budget ($ to $$).

What Editing & Edits Are NOT
• Copy edits aren’t developmental edits. Proofing isn’t a copy edit. They blend, yes, BUT,  since both take a chunk of time vs. a little time, that’s why they’re divided as such. Think of it like this: More time = more money.
• Inexpensive, so budget accordingly.
• Your personal cheerleading section–that’s more for writing coaches, crit groups, and writing buddies, if you have them and find them. Get them, if you ned this, too, which I cannot recommend enough. And find the right crowd for this, too . . . but another topic for another post :).
• Aren’t yessing you to death or a doomdayer, “you suck, quit writing this minute!” inputter, either (to be fair, they may think it, which is their prerogative, but you won’t know it).
• Aren’t a taskmaster.
• Will insist you stick with his or her changes to your work.
• Will do beyond what’s paid for or past deadline without an additional charge.
• Aren’t your psychiatrist (yes, Virginia, there’s an app for that–so use it).
• Won’t change your writing voice (conversational, bossy, dark, light-hearted, preachy, etc.), style (staccato or run-on sentences, cold, flat, boring, clinical, etc.), but rather, they may, and should, offer constructive criticism and alternatives.
• Aren’t mind-readers, so communicate your specific needs, results expected, timeframe turnaround, feedback explained, etc.
• And for the love of everything holy, get one suited for YOUR personality type, please! You’ll save so much aggravation and heartache for it in the long run.
• Ultimately, you and the editor are in a working professional relationship, so keep it that way.

“Okay, Missye, You’re Just Bats! Convince Me Why That Price Tag’s Justified!”
Thank you. Be happy to.

After she blew a virtual gasket why I thought a $1,500 dev edit for my specific MS is reasonable, my writer friend pouted and still disagrees, but sees the logic. The argument I gave her, I’ll share with you.

• My 2nd mystery is a plot-within-a-plot, includes an ASTORIA FOXE ONE Casebook #3 sneak peek, a ToC, dedication, acknowledgements, and another large cast, so I’m looking for another set of eyes for overall content, continuity, clarity, cohesiveness, consistency, logical time flow, pacing, what’s too much or too little, etc. That, unfortunately, ain’t gonna come without some financial sacrifice.

• The last time I’d paid a hefty edit tag was on JERSEY DOGS (42 dead and alive member cast, ToC, dedication, acknowledgements, story, and a four chapter Casebook #2 sneak), and I worked with an editor formerly with Scholastic and Penguin Putnam. This price of admission alone I’d shell more for, and some of his previously edited books hit the NYT’s, Amazon’s, and WSJ’s bestsellers lists. This aside, he went above and beyond my expectations: he was sweet, answered all my silly and serious Qs, was thorough, fast turnaround, encouraging, insightful, and did things for my book–cast in order of appearance, questioned sentence murkiness, asked what I meant here/there, and included a solid summary–a nice touch I didn’t ask for or expect. Annnnnd,, dude had been schooled under Sol Stein a few years before the iconic editor’s passing, so that’s definitely saying something. He resided in L.A. at the time of JERSEY’s edit–still may, as of this post, and not cheap in CoL–so his asking rate reflected such.

• Time isn’t replaceable when money is; I’m paying for said time and expertise.

• I’d rather have keen eyes and keener expertise in an edit, and pay that rate for said experience, than brag how cheap this edit was, only for my work and his reflects said edits. It’s disgusting, I’m sad to say, how often writers in free and paid writing listservs, gloat and preen how little they paid for an editing service. Sadder still: there’s absolutely talking NO sense to them how lowbrow, high-minded, and just triflin’ this comes across. Yet if you point this out to the sweetly delusional dreamer in the name of vocational-shaming–yes, kids, that’s a thing, now—you’re the baddie. Okay, then. #SorryNotSorry #NotMyCircusNotMyPonies #CarryingOn :).

• The editor should only edit for a living. This is far different than knowing how to edit when you’re also writing and not writing. While both talents really are two different hats at the same time, they’re also symbiotically intrinsic. I’m proud to say I’m taking a nit comb to Casebook #2 and deleting some of the hefty, but I’m also doing it to deflate some of that dev edit price tag.

• Going in with JERSEY, I knew I’d author a meaty mystery series. That reading time takes dough. As many charge either by the page, word, or a flat rate, there’s no getting around paying more for a bigger output. I’m really working to cut content, but it ain’t easy :).

• Some editing services I won’t pay a dime to due to their inflexibility on receiving payments–most of us don’t have deep pockets, most of us like having lights on, and a key to turn into a lock that’s not a vehicle to call home. Although one came highly recommended for my needs, she wasn’t willing to work with a tight budget, so I politely declined. There’s too much competition around to happily move on more than okay to work with my needs, budget, and timeframe, and I’ll stand by my convictions steadfast. Many writers really don’t think this financial angle through, especially if they’re being supported by ones other than themselves, and sadly go with the first one squealing over their MS, sure, let me help you polish this for that Midas price tag. The peripherals making money from the authors who aren’t yet making enough to cover this, likely know this, but won’t tell them that. Lowdown dirty shame, that is.

• I’ve edit-skimped before: from the proverbial free/need to earn stripes tale of woe to the “it came with the house” deal, regardless of house. Don’t edit-skimp. Ever. Akin to wearing pre-owned day-of-the-week undies even laundered in the hottest water and strongest lye soap available, I felt emotionally and creatively tarnished and second-rate, as that time left me disheartened, frustrated, angry, and outright head-scratching if this person and I read the same damn book. A free or low-cost edit simply isn’t worth the emotional roller-coaster–you may genuinely never know if they truly enjoyed the work, or were they blowing smoke saying they did (You can always run a polygraph if you’re unsure, but if you have the money for such services, use that dough for a professional edit, okay? You’re welcome :). ). Listen, if you believe in your writing efforts, you and it took the bumps and lumps needed to grow as an author and storyteller, then be serious enough to make sure a service is professional enough for their eyes–and your dough!–to have your final draft put its best foot forward. If you don’t sell yourself short on other big important things in life, your MS shouldn’t be treated any less when edit time arrives.

So it boils down to where and how your dough goes, not so much that you’re spending it, regardless. Research like hell, go with your gut voice, DON’T second-guess that voice or yourself, ask scads of questions, and in general, be bold to be informed. It takes time to earn that coin, so no way will I spend it on stupid-awful edits I’ll horribly regret later; it’s enough I’m still scolding myself on a pre-owned Jeep Laredo purchase lasting a whole eight months before its mid-June end. And as my man’s funding my writing life for the better part of the entire time he’s known and been with me, durn tootin’ I’ll make sure our money and time is spent discriminantly. Ultimately, with God expecting me to be a good and prudent stewardess in all I do with the time, talent, and funds He’s granted me, it’s the least I should do. And I’ve been blessed–as of this post, I’ve an editor on retainer willing to work with my budget for my Casebooks! Squeee! But should this post mean you as it does me, you’re justified. Your book is destined to be even better than you’d imagined through another set of careful, caring eyes as yours are.

Back to NaNo, already in progress. Wishing you all a lovely, safe, blessed, and joyful Thanksgiving!

17 Hours by Missye K. Clarke

Late Saturday night, 4 February, 1991.

Sam had himself a time at a sweet jam in Upper Harlem. Talk at the party flowed: plans to rock out Disney World in the spring, because he, Charlie, Marie, and several other family members hadn’t yet been. Sam Junior was doing well in school. He had job security. He’d be a grandpop later that year. The drinks were maybe a touch better than the present company, but on the whole, Sam felt, life was good.

Too bad it all would soon end.

Sam left the Lenox Avenue apartment roughly 1:30am back to Queens and to bed. Mornings come faster when you’ve been partying, and he wasn’t the exception.

The station was quiet when he fed his $2.25 token fare in the Queens-bound turnstile. Distant laughter echoed in the labyrinthine station, and he cut the token booth a glance. The clerk behind the bullet-proofed glass gave a small nod in acknowledgement before returning to his Daily News.

More laughter carried through the chilly station, part of a monstrously complex network New York City Transit is. Although the best method getting around the Big Apple, a cab in that same distance to his Flushing, Queens residence was twenty times the transit fare, and he prided himself on being an unapologetic cheapskate.

He took a seat on the Queens-bound A train platform, sighs. Minutes skidded past. Nice party. Work’s been brutal. I need to do that more oft–

“You got money?” a voice asked over the hard thunder of an approaching train.

Sam looked up. Several teens in dark clothes semi-circle him. “No.”

“That watch says different, man,” a second teen said.

“So?”

The train still barreled in, but slowed as regulations dictated.

The teens rushed the man. No time to think, Sam pulled out a .9. Several against one wasn’t a fair fight, but in a fight, is anyone ever worried about fair?

Shouts, confusion, havoc. Cursing, punches thrown, shots fired. So much chaos for a small number in a tussle on a cold, lonely platform in the young Sunday morning. From a motorman’s viewpoint, powerless he couldn’t stop his run in time seeing a panicked human’s eyes while trying to climb back to the platform, and to safety, he’d find work not so conscience-bruising. No more would he play another part in a senseless end.

A teen involved with the scuffle–to his mother, he was still her firstborn bear cub, doing her proud he was college-bound–felt remorse he found himself in a fight he wanted nothing to do with.

Maybe his fellow thugs, eager to get high on a generous stash of rolls, blunts, and bowls, saw the event as a way to power up an otherwise witch’s tit-cold early Sunday morning. Their weed dude was late, they had to pass time some kind of way. And hey, a pulse of adrenaline kept them warmer a hell of a lot better than sitting in a boring Con Ed heated apartment devoid of weed would do.

Whichever the case, or the thoughts, those affected might see sunrise hours later. One man on a literal collision course with fate wouldn’t. Nor would he see the mid-year arrival of his first grandchild.

NYPD caught two perps, those outcomes unknown. But being underage, those boys’ criminal records are sealed, if not expunged altogether. The rest of that crew, if any to account so, or would cop to, fled into the ubiquitous shadows of the Manhattan night, maybe hit or missed by bullets, bur definitely gone like cold smoke. Bear Cub, the college-bound, might’ve been among the runners. Conceivably, he kept his mama’s promise and made good in school and then some: he shielded his bear cub child from the life he’d lived, knowing Bear Cub Sr. altered another family’s lives he’d never meet. Perchance this was the bear cub’s way to atone–God sees all but waits. He’d let Bear Cub tell that family his regrets in the next life.

* * *

Early Sunday evening, 5 February, 1991.

“Missye, I gotta talk–” my husband Pete told me as I had my key in the lock of our front door.

“One side, one side, let a rabbit through,” I demanded, feeling like an overfilled water balloon after finding no bathrooms between traveling home from a friend’s memorial for her husband.

Pete side-stepped my mad dash. I let my backpack purse hit the worn carpet outside the loo, not caring if something broke, got wet, or crumbled within the bag. When you’re the start of second trimester pregnant and your remaining wisdom teeth are floating, all bets are off.

I dropped on the seat, let ‘er rip. The release felt needed-laugh good, needed-cry good, or a solid right hook to a boss’s egotistical nose needing a get-back-in-line alignment, good. “Okay, babe . . . now talk to me,” I said.

Expression more solemn than when he’d told me his dog died four years before, Pete said sotto voce, “Honey . . . it’s about Reggie.”

“What about him?” I asked while tidying up.

“I really don’t know how to say this . . . but he’s dead.”

“Not funny, Pete.” I cut my husband a steeled look. “I saw him three days ago, and I just came from a service. Stop bullshitting me.”

Peter shook his head no. “I’m serious. He’s been killed. Charles just told me.”

Like 9/11 a decade and seven months later, shock hit me first. Still semi-dressed, I demanded our cordless phone, dialed my favorite uncle. From his flat tone on the fourth ring, my old normal imploded. So had his. (To this day that old normal’s still imploded with my favorite uncle gone, too. I fucking hate cancer.)

Sam–Reginald Samuel Briggs, and my birth father–was the man under six of eleven train cars headed to Queens those seventeen hours before. As of this post, NYPD has no leads or clues, the case among thousands of homicides in that agency’s cold files. The account of his death, based on scant details offered at the time, permitted me creative license fragmenting together his last moments alive.

Do I know the festering, nagging why behind this crime? No. Do I want to know that why? Again, no. Am I macabre enough to conjecture that night’s events to see how close I’ve come to being right? I have–it’s in the soul’s design to crave answers to things unknown. To a degree, it’s been fun giving this case closer scrutiny NYPD didn’t do–and beats crying to the final verses of Mike + the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” yet again :). But with the key players of this story unable to be found, recently or long dead, and an agency bent on leaving its shortcomings under lock and key, forensic speculation’s all I have.

Although crafting fiction sates my inner Nosy Nancy–I love bamboozling anyone who reads my stuff, if ever they do!–this event, bookending the still-murky motives of the AZ move a decade prior, my wild imagination and inner sense of stark right and wrong, have an outlet. What I can’t do alone in the clearly broken justice system I can do fictionally. I don’t know how purposeful it’ll gift mankind to convince them to do better in solving cold cases, but if it’s a pinpoint of hopeful, philosophical light at the end of a scary-dark tunnel for somebody else worse off than I, justice is served. But I’m forever changed by this. For the better, I’d like to think so, but that’s open for debate and perception.

Or maybe I’m in deep need for good trick-or-treat candy unloaded on me while I ensure good mostly triumphs in my mysteries. Make the haul anything citrus, cherry, watermelon, and sour apple in Jolly Ranchers®, Tootsie Rolls®, and Starburst®, please, and thanks. Kindly hold the bag of rocks–those are Charlie’s. Brown’s, that is.

👻🎃 Happy Halloween! 🎃👻

 

Missye K. Clarke’s Nekkid Take on Titles

Don’t blame me for the face-palming, audibly groaning, or eye-rolling reactions y’all sometimes give me in the titles I conjure for this medium, or for the ones you might’ve seen in my first novel’s ToC. I squarely finger-point my peculiar, odd, and downright Is she fkn CRAZY?!? headline-drafting from two sources: Balls-to-the-wall deadlines–much like last month’s post when I couldn’t think of ONE damn thing to write not already said! Okay, diamonds are created from carbon via pressure and time, but c’mon now, that sh*t’s not even CLOSE to being cute! 🙂

The second: The New York Post.

Wayback Machine set to 1985. Back to the Future is a monster hit in theaters, Born in the U.S.A. made Springsteen “Boss,” and the media couldn’t get enough of their darlings in Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I was 19, back in my City That Never Sleeps, a shiny-new high-school grad. Despite my mother’s illness inevitably terminal, I was ready-set-go to take on the world. No kids, no beau, no bills. Nobody to answer to or to tell me no. Zero responsibilities, looking for work, and kickin’ off a year from anything academic.

I totally had my sh*t together.

(Suuuure I did. But I didn’t know that, then. Didn’t much care, either.)

Heading to Queens on the #44 for something to do or another, I’m giggling uncontrollably at a tabloid headline, but I had to pull myself together long enough to read the article. What was it that made me drop my 35 cents for, made the bus driver look at me as if I were on his ride stark nekkid? Bold as lightning, brave as a poltergeist during a church service, front page, dead center on the Post:

NUT SCREWS & BOLTS

No way I could help cracking up. C’mon! Everybody knows that toolbox reference, so it naturally resonated with anyone to HAVE to read the piece. And the New York Post is notorious for its pithy, off-color, oft-tasteless headlines. But in a crowded news town like the Big Apple is, unless it’s a heavy news day–a celeb death, war declared, a murder one case of notoriety, or an only-in-New-York story even Podunk, Kansas will get in their newsfeeds–a catchy headline moves units and pays the paper staff.

Did you expect anything less from such a rag founded by one of the most colorful, controversial men in history, Alexander Hamilton? Of course not.

The story the twisted banner refers to is this: An inpatient (the NUT) to a since-shuttered Queens, New York sanitarium, after a vicious rape of two female nurses (SCREWS), and beating the holy hell of two male orderlies one of the women screamed for help for, the inpatient made his grand escape through a cut fence after bashing an unguarded doctor’s window (& BOLTS). The escapee was captured after a three day-run and transferred to a more secured nuthouse–Bellevue–after a decently long Rikers visit before his arraignment.

One of the reasons the headline stuck with me, apart from its ignoble, seamy story inspiring it–it went there. As authors, we have to. Nor should we second-guess having to. Elmore Leonard himself said if we’re not writing dangerously–genre-depending, naturally, but even then, you can still push that envelope more than you do–what’s the point? If you’re gonna go there, DO IT! Stand behind it! The Post did with the Creedmore inpatient story, and has unapologetically gone there with their headlines since.

Another banner doing the same was where the Post had a blown-up oval shot of Hamilton with a lone tear running down his face. This was to indicate their reporters, editors, and copy-staff were on strike, and subsequently, the paper would be shuttered permanently, or in the lesser extreme, not print for a time. No words were needed for Page One, as further details could be found inside. This was in the mid 1990s.

Having been horrid at this angle of my writing career prior, I’ve since made it a mission to contrive slick, envelope-pushing, instigating titles. Not all my headlines are in-your-face takin’ it there, though. A sweet one I did for an online site for my Hunter College/CUNY years was in tribute to my being a lifelong fan of PEANUTS® creator, Charles M. Schulz. But it didn’t happen without a heap of sweat. Full of hubris, I thought, “Hey, I’m a writer! I can drum up anything good! Girl, you GOT this!”

I had a week to create a Page Two feature, but came up empty on several tries, all having to be approved by my journalism prof. Time ticked.

Plucked more ideas. All were dandelion weeds of nothing.

Even dug in the discarded garbage ideas at home for something. Zilch.

Time ticked on.

And ticked more.

Desperation, first a sink drip, soon torrented in.

Asked for a deadline extension. Professor said no.

Stress levels shot me from rocket boosters to mushroom clouds. A third of my semester grade depended on this sh*t!

Cried to my husband for assistance. His answer? “You got this, babe, you always do.”

Typical man–might as well suggest I swim the English Channel in cinderblock boots. G-R-R-R!!! 

Five days before deadline. Panic hit ionospheric levels.

In February 2000, Charles Schulz passed, four days before my feature was due. Two days before, Tom Landry did, too. As a touch morbid as it was, the story clicked in place in my mind like the 1K piece puzzle you finally know where each section goes without eyestrain and a neck crick. Being a PEANUTS lover since I’m seven and owning a Snoopy lunchbox does that.

Quick interview emails to three comic strip artists whom Schulz inspired to see their work for the dailies like he’d done–they were the creators of Marmaduke, Beetle Bailey, and B.C.,–and to United Features Syndicate for a one-time use of five of the PEANUTS® cast, “You Were An Ace, Charlie Brown!” came to pass. From Schulz’s doodles while in the Army during World War 2 to his enrolling in The Art Institute when returning stateside, this put him on the lane to becoming a handful of cartoonists drafting memorable characters like Ziggy, Popeye, Betty Boop, Garfield, and Rocky & Bullwinkle.

The prof loved the article, loved more I made deadline with twelve hours to spare. I pushed hard for an A plus, but he wouldn’t give it. No matter. The piece’s ending, “Way to go, Chuck. You finally kicked that e-Lucy-ive football through the uprights, after all” rounded out the title, and A plus enough for me.

So how do you craft titles? Here’s a few tips I’ve stumbled over in drafting mine during my writing career.

GO BOLD

If the words you happen to string together make you laugh, smile, pissed, gasp, have you go, “Wait, what?” or you’re left speechless, breathless, or perceived thoughtless, GOOD! You’re not only doing your job, but this pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you have the title before the scene, chapter, or story completed, of course you’ll fit it accordingly. If the scene, chapter, or story needs a banner, dig into the work’s theme, point, or subtext for your word choice. Sometimes the work comes first, sometimes the title does. Whichever lands first, don’t be scared, worried, or second-guess your going there. You’ll be glad you did.

MAKE IT PUNNY

You read right. Play on words is a form of satire a lost art nowadays with some walking among us more sensitive to words and the delivery than my albino skin is to too much sun. Like the hideous crime story the Post told in an otherwise hilarious way, sometimes serious topics need a funny, punny, or wry banner title to drive its point home. In Chapter 3 of JERSEY DOGS’s, “Logan and I Hold A Civil Conversation,” anger a rolling boil before exploding, narrator Casper’s in a vicious fight scene with cousin Logan. After, and as physical fights do once adrenaline’s expelled, Casper barely holds it together emotionally, realizing his new normal leading to the fight was literally a gut-punch.

BEG, BORROW, AND STEAL TITLE IDEAS MERCILESSLY

I yanked title subtext ideas from Xanth fantasy author Piers Anthony, J.K. Rowling’s chapter titles in the Harry Potter series–“Wormtail, Mooney, Padfoot, and Prongs” especially stands out and is a personal favorite–Rick Riordan’s chapter titles in the Percy Jackson books, and E.B. White’s endearing banners in Charlotte’s Web. Appreciating another author’s use of context and subtext in the banners’ content, this forced me to know my chapters’ work, drive, and theme more than I figured, so I had to plumb further. While working on Casebook #1 in 2013, an author in a critique group felt another chapter should be added to stronger bridge JERSEY’s middle. In literally two hours, I banged out what’s now “A Little Rusk Nikk’d Us.” After a few tweaks, most in the group, including the one suggesting this, found the addition gave a layer of complexity to the story, and enriched the McG’s soulful element and the danger bearing down on them even more than I’d hoped. (For the record, you CAN pop out a slice of whichever your writing project is in a skin of time and nail it on the first go. It happens more often than you think. A post I’ll expound on for October’s update, so don’t lift it. I know where y’all live :). )

Don’t get me wrong–if you, dear Author/Reader prefer your chapters in a more traditional format–numbered, dated, time-stamped, or named for alternating POVs–as it fits your story or tastes, do you. One fantastic YA read, LIFELINE by Abbey Lee Nash, used the 28 days Eli Ross needed to tell his story while in rehab after almost dying from an overdose. This was a fresh take on an old chapter heading spin, but it worked for the story, and made it flow near seamlessly.

Like the saying goes, we all can’t be NFL players. If word titles aren’t your thing, whichever your reasons, please don’t try it. Creating a book project’s peripherals–a synopsis, a blurb, a tagline, jacket copy, etc.–is irksome enough. Don’t saddle yourself with something not in your talent, energy, or heart’s wheelhouse to do, and appreciate those who can. On the other hand, you don’t know what you’re capable of until you try. Give it a spin–you may be surprised.

I just realized: Although I’m tight with titles, I suck doing synopses. Talk about a sliver of sick irony.

Good grief. Guess that’s my e-Lucy-ive football through the writing life uprights.

How Mysteries Found Me . . . and Elude Me

Ever since I was a fourth grade nothing–and despite my disdain in book report writing during grammar school–my goal was to break into news reporting. Specifically, feature writing, soft-news reporting, or 1st POV investigative journalism. Thank the current events segment of school lessons, two National Geographic and Time magazine issues, and falling asleep to the opening 10 O’Clock news segments–after the announcer’s ask if parents knew where their children were?–of the usual Middle Eastern countries fighting. I’d be amiss if I didn’t give a nod of gratitude to the inimitable Paul Harvey for enriching my love of journalism until his still-missed narrative on said news. The dream became reality in features reporting for two college newsrags, an online site when the Interwebs was young, a stint with a New Orleans Pennysaver, a church tabloid, and scattered articles in First Draft, and in a Brooklyn, a Queens, and a small-town Texas outlets. But even with present-day current events growing scarier, stranger, and noticeably darker with each passing hour as news outlets are also noticeably more crowded and pointy-elbow competitive, I still follow them steadfast.

Much as I love words and what REM sleep-dreams surprise me with, it never occurred I’d write one book, let alone be earlobes-deep into projects spanning three separate series, this platform, newsletter-planning, and shoehorning in working flash fiction pieces and haikus. The universe and the Designer behind it had adventures in mind not involving conventional journalism. As one not believing in coincidences, I’m body-surfing this space-time wave unapologetically.

My now-deceased mother devoured anything medicine-related for a career in nursing, but my joyous arrival detoured those plans. My being born with albinism likely pushed her into the genetics end of biology of medicine, from the sneaks I saw of her Queensborough College class notes, and with her help during high school biology and organic chemistry, I aced the classes; to this day, I still remember most of the components. On her days off from working as a phlebotomist lab tech since early childhood, she watched every medical or crime mystery on TV. Perry Mason. Quincy, M.D. Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Mysteries. Hart to Hart. Ironside. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I Spy. The Saint. Mannix. Barnaby Jones. Kojak. Nero Wolff. More often than not, she cracked the case before the show’s penultimate commercial block. She also read Sidney Sheldon, Michael Crichton–The Andromeda Strain stands out alongside Robin Cook’s Coma and another title with “Ophelia” in it, but I’m unsure which this is–Jackie Collins, and back copies of Ellery Queen. She’d offer these when I read everything in our area library or at home, but I did so lacklusterly (yes, I made up a word! 🙂 )–no kids were in it. Leastwise, no cute guys I could imagine as my book boyfriends. Sherlock Holmes was easier to listen to than to read, but even then, that story captured me as long as a rainbow lasts; ADHD much? Same with Nancy Drews (what WAS it with every 👏🏻 story 👏🏻ending 👏🏻 with 👏🏻 an 👏🏻 ice 👏🏻 cream 👏🏻 sundae 👏🏻 celebration?!? Who can even eat that much ice cream–NOT looking at you, Joey Chestnut! 🙂 Yikes!). The Hardy Boys were more fun than Nancy, as were a handful of classic Scooby-Doo episodes, but not for lack of trying. Aside from the aforementioned, there wasn’t much for kids to believably play in, and case-crack, good whodunnits. Sci-fi, sure. Judy Blume, Richard Peck, Heidi, Charlotte’s Web, Peter and the Wolf, Beverly Cleary, and Paula Danziger ruled the kid-lit scene as Harry Potter, Wimpy Kid, The Dork Diaries, and the Percy Jackson reads do today, but the After-School Specials in book form tackled fitting in, boy-meets-girl, boy-loves-girl, boy-loses-girl or boy-claims-girl-again, bravery and honesty in friendships, humility, and standing up for oneself Cleary handled. Danziger and Blume took on heavier topics like divorce, drugs, puberty, sexuality, dysfunctional families, or weight struggles. So who’d believe a kid crime-fighter or a pint-sized spy in the same playing field genre as Sherlock, Nero, Bond, or Mike Hammer, let alone one grown-ups would take seriously? Heck, even teenagers Frank, Joe, and Nancy were grown-up technically, but they probably still did kid-stuff like ball games, pillow fights, sock-hops, and pajama parties offstage!

Aghast and disgusted with American journalism’s willful descent into madness during college, post graduation and zero job prospects, I pondered what I’d next write, where I’d next go. Diary-keeping–meh. Blogging wasn’t a thing. I loved emailing, but didn’t know a soul I couldn’t easily talk to in person or on the phone. And most family members had passed away or weren’t on speaking terms with me to engage in letter-writing. My imagination? Then, like now, is too friggin’ big to contain in a short story if I tried. Still reading though–Harry Potter, in this case–while cleaning my kids’ bedroom one afternoon, a teenage boy on his bed in his messy room, looseleaf open on his knees as he dozed, flashed to mind like C.S. Lewis’s lit lamppost in a snowstorm-shrouded forest popped in his. This fully formed Wyoming high school sophomore, oldest of three siblings and sans girlfriend, was Jay Vincent. Upon hearing stock car racers Tony and Cruz Pedregon’s surnames later that evening, I stole this to tag as J.V.’s. Add in Keenan Alexander, the name Keenan influenced by the Wayans brothers on a youngish FOX network, and Casper McGuinness from another false-start novel, I had my central cast in need of a story. A few turns of the imaginative Phillips head, Keenan became Casper’s street-smart, smart-ass, and lady-killer cousin Logan.

2005 was pivotal for news and personal events. New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer made headlines in regular trysts with a prostitute and for it, shamed out of office. Not long after, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey lost his post for hiring a PI to track his gay boyfriend’s affair at taxpayers’ expense. Iconic comedian Richard Pryor, and R & B artists Luther Vandross and Rick “Superfreak” James died, but Pryor made ink with his birth allegations the result of a hooker-john union. In that year, I happened into a long-forgotten neighbor around the corner from my then-residence who remembered my being a non-conformist curiosity preschooler, and a ball of near nonstop energy. A ten minute exchange of hellos and are you so-and-so’s daughter turned into a year of visits, teas, desserts and hushed conversations I deserved to know, including confirmations behind our 1980 cross-country move, how my maternal grandmother had been an alleycat, and my dad’s acidic bigotry to Caucasians were explained.

Even with my questions and suspicions acknowledged, a deeper why thickened the current events and history soup I mentally and emotionally digested: What if two high school kids learn they’re sons of prostitutes, set to be slain to keep them from discovering why they are? From that, I the composer to sleuth-to-be Jay Vincent Pedregon and cousins Casper and Logan McGuinness, the players of the music in pouring out my heart in anger, shock, astonishment, rage, and sadness in my experiences-backstory-explained on paper, mixed with current events in the novel’s plot, found a story home. In the storm and its cleansing, JERSEY DOGS was born.

Was that to shamelessly plug my inaugural mystery? Nope. It’s to illustrate why I’m an author in the first place, and how my ancestry’s sordid and unapologetic past drop-kicked me here. My mother’s love for this genre, and learning she used to write before her vocation in peripheral medicine? Partly. But it’s broader and more intense than having messy creative fun in streaking watercolors to blend word forms, characters, scenes, plots, and settings. If I’m gonna be ugly-crying honest with myself and with you, I need to be constantly okay with my father’s homicide in 1991, that I may never uncover why that now Pluto-cold case ever happened, or that his putrid ethnic views might’ve factored in his death. I’m also good with not knowing my mother’s deepest fears in having daughters with albinism, or her fright behind her uprooting my 14yo self and its bustling, never-sleepy Metropolis life to a podunk northern Arizona town with one traffic light and one post office. Forensically, though, albeit fictionally, my curiosity Qs and As are a little more sated with each story crafted, crime solved or gotten away with, and growth steps my characters take. That, too, is okay. If there isn’t enough time to read all the books I’d like to, then in a world where the 5Ws and an H are often plain, aspects of how my author life came to pass is a sweet enough mystery for me.