I have done very little of note this weekend. Last night, I spent the night with a friend and former co-worker I hadn’t seen in a while. His wife was out of town and, since mine had to be up extra early this morning for a Girl Scout trip, we spent a glorious evening bitching about work, talking about guns, and partaking of gratuitous quantities of our drinks of choice (his–Miller Lite, mine–Maker’s Mark). A grand, testosterone-laden night, if I do say so.

Still, as it always does, writing fought its way back into my conscious mind on the drive home and I came up with a decent idea for a short story. I got home and have spent a couple of hours researching online about Civil War cemeteries. That got me to thinking that, although I’ve been to nearby Shiloh National Battlefield a few times since I moved back to Tennessee, I’ve never posted pictures on here.

So, rather than bore you with details of my story (most of which I haven’t worked out yet), I’ll put up a few of my favorite shots of the Shiloh Battlefield Park:

Here’s one of the flag in the middle of the National Cemetery:

Here’s a tombstone in the same cemetery (I love the flower):

A shot of the business end of a cannon:

Nice shot of one of the monuments (this is the background on my laptop right now):

The Confederate monument, with a defeated Victory flanked by Death and Night:

A row of cannon’s facing the famous “Hornet’s Nest”:

The top of the Tennessee monument:

One of the five located Confederate trenches where the defeated dead were buried as many as seven deep:

View from the inside of the reconstructed Shiloh Church, from whence the battle took its name:

Cannon in shade:

A shot of a tourist wrestling the local wildlife (actually, my son Nic and his stuffed bear):

Ravine where Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston died after being shot in the leg. Johnston is the highest ranking military officer ever killed on U.S. soil:

The “Bloody Pond” where many soldiers and horses came to die during the battle. So many died here, legends say, that the waters ran red with their blood. (No, that’s not blood on there in the picture–it’s red clay from beneath the pond stirred up during recent rains.):

Gates to the National Cemetery (for my illiterate readers):

Here’s a shot of the cemetery itself:

So, there you are. It’s odd that such a peaceful place–Shiloh even means “place of peace” in Hebrew–could have been the site of nearly 34,000 brutal deaths over less than two days. I did like the park so much I included it a couple of times in Dead and Dying and, as I mentioned before, will likely do so again. A place with such an emotional and bloody history really speaks to the creative mind.

First, the old. I am off for the next four days, so I plan on launching a full query assault on the agenting world over the next few days. They query letter is where I want it and I think it’s time for me to put it out there and hope for the best. The one thing I haven’t completely nailed down is the title, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something before I start my flurry of emails.

Now, the new. I have officially begun the rough draft of my new contemporary fantasy set in Nashville called Wielder of the Soul. In this novel, a modern-day knight employed by the Catholic church hunts and slays demons infesting Nashville, Tennessee. He is very good at his job, but when he saves a young woman from a grizzly death, his life takes a dangerous turn and everything he owns, including his own soul, is put in jeopardy.

I’ve started this one a bit different than I have my other novels, opening with big action scene rather than starting with character and moving into action from there. I wanted something that would reach out and immediately grab the attention of someone reading and I think I’ve hit it on the head with this one. Hopefully, the rest of the novel will go just as well as the beginning has and I can have this draft finished by the end of July or so.

So, here’s the progress on my Nashville-based contemporary fantasy, including a soul-wielding Knight, his rather incompetent guardian angel, an amnesiac love interest, a giant Catholic priest, and loads and loads of creatures from Hell:

I’ve been extraordinarily busy lately with things like t-ball, parties, and interviews for a promotion at work (so much for that “problem with authority”) and haven’t had the time or the energy to really post much on here.

Today is no different.

So, to have something on here to appease my guilty conscience, I’m posting the first chapter of my most recent manuscript submission, Dead and Dying. For those of you curious as to what my writing looks like, here you go. It’s not a very long chapter, but it does set the mood.

Dead and Dying

Chapter One

The vampire moved in on a Thursday. At least, Paul thought it was Thursday, though he supposed it could have been a few days prior. He knew the house behind his had been abandoned on Monday when he had wandered the dust-choked rooms in search of a lost hammer. He had not found the missing tool, or any members of the undead.

No, Thursday seemed the most likely day. It was on that morning, just before daybreak, that he first saw the eyes.

He rose from sleep for what seemed like the hundredth time that night at around five o’clock. Even without his cancerous prostate, he still suffered from what the advertising industry called “frequent urges.” After relieving himself in a weak dribble, he elected to stay up and allow June a few hours of sleep without his constant comings and goings. He made coffee and, taking his cup to the screened back porch, sat down to watch the onset of a new day.

Paul Phelps looked forward to dawn each day and rarely missed one. Despite the cancer spreading through his body, he considered each new day a sign of hope, of renewal. Each time he saw the sun rise over the woods to the east, he counted one more victory against the disease that he knew would win its war with him.

He sat on the porch in his favorite wicker chair, thinking of nothing in particular, staring off toward the shabby house nearly thirty yards from his own back door. He was not looking at the house—it had been abandoned for years and now stood as unwanted and cast off as a cocoon after the butterfly has emerged. Shutters hung at odd angles to the broken windows they adorned, paint peeled in leprous patches from the aluminum siding, and the overhang above the back door leaned away from the house as though ashamed to be associated with it. Still, Paul had seen the house for years and took no notice of it except when he encountered a passing fancy to fix it up and rent it out or tear it down to expand his garden. He had purchased the property two years before, right before a trip to the doctor had changed his life and put all his dreams for it on hold.

Looking through the steam rising from his decaf, his eyes focused on far away things, he stared at the two points of red light for some time before realizing they were there, shining out from a shattered window pane. He lowered the cup, thinking the steam might be playing tricks on his eyes. The red lights had remained and, he thought, had moved slightly.

An animal, he thought, recognizing finally the glare of light off retina. Raccoon. Opossum, maybe. Or a cat. Lord knows how many damn cats are around here. He leaned back into the wicker, surprised that he had concerned himself enough to lean forward, but the eyes gave him a feeling of unease that he could not ascribe to a four-legged pest. He sipped his coffee, trying to look in other directions—at the brightening sky, at the cheerful décor on the porch, at his own gnarled hands—but found himself drawn to the two red lights in the window of the abandoned house. He stared for some time, leaning forward again, trying to peer through the darkness.

After several minutes, Paul prepared to give up and return inside to start breakfast when lights from a car approaching from the road across from his house shone through the window. The red lights disappeared at once, replaced by a ghostly white visage. He could tell little detail in the momentary glare before the face was lost again to the dark, though he thought the figure was male with high cheekbones and shadowed, deep set eyes. The car turned, directing its headlights elsewhere and when Paul’s eyes adjusted, he no longer saw anyone at the window or even the red points of light.

His thoughts went first to a squatter. Some transient passing through with nowhere else to go. That led him to thoughts of criminal behavior and as he stood to go back inside his house, he wondered if the man hiding a few feet from where he and his wife slept was some fugitive, hoping to avoid detection. He returned to the kitchen, careful to lock the door behind him, and picked up the phone to call the police, held the receiver in his hand for a while, then decided to put it back down. As a dying man, Paul tended toward optimism when he could afford it. The man is probably a harmless transient, he thought. I’ll let him be.

“If he isn’t out by Saturday,” he said to himself, removing the bacon and a carton of eggs from the refrigerator, “I’ll go over and run him off.”

On Health:

Boss: How’s your heart problem today?
Me: It’s fine.
Boss: I thought it would get better with you not working so much with me.
Me: No, you’re the pain in my ass, not the pain in my chest.

On Interviewing:

Boss: I hate interviewing.
Me: I can tell. You suck at them.

More on Interviewing:

Boss: I really liked that last applicant.
Me: I can see why. Most people fall asleep listening to your life story.

On Inventory Management:

Boss: We have way too much inventory.
Me: Maybe you should talk to the idiot that ordered all of it.
Boss: I’m the one who ordered it.
Me: Exactly.

On Being from Memphis:

Boss: I grew up in the ‘hood.
Me: Great, why don’t you go back there?

On Smoking:

Boss: It’s my right to smoke.
Me: It’s my right to work in a moron-free environment and you’re still here.

On Boy Scouts:

Boss: I have a Leader’s meeting tonight.
Me: Take good notes. Maybe you’ll learn something.

Now, before you think I’m too harsh on this man, let me ask you this: What kind of man would proudly put up a framed picture of himself with, of all people, Tonya Harding in his office.

And they say I have a problem with authority . . .

No one has yet asked me that age-old questions asked of authors since the beginning of fiction. You know the one, the question every author dreads because there is no real answer to it. The queried author has a few options when the question comes up, like to deflect it with something witty or to spout some psychobabble that, though more accurate, would be far less interesting. So far, as I said, no one has asked me this question of questions, so I’ll ask it myself:

Where do I get my ideas?

And my answer–the lake. I don’t think this particular body of water has a name, nor does it need one. Naming a thing makes it too easy to locate and that’s not what we’re after. What it does have is a wide stretch of murky water and, beneath that becalmed surface, the stories swim around waiting to be caught and hauled in like fish. They’re not easy to find, those stories, but they are out there for someone with enough luck to find them and enough talent to fish them out. Like fish, you can’t really see the ideas until they break the surface, flipping into the air with scales shining against the sunlight, and even then they may never turn into anything other than “the one that got away” without the right combination of determination and skill to bring them in. Most writers, accomplished or not, have experienced that snapped line or fumbling hand, that wonderful idea that never found its way to completion. I have a few like that, still swimming along in the lake, waiting for me or another writer to pull them out and make them stories.

The lake is crowded. Authors of every ability and success level skim across its surface, rod and reel in hand. The biggest names, the Kings and Rowlings and Meyers of the world, fish there, too, and they know from experience where the big fish are and how to catch them. Many of the writers who want to be like them, who want to write like them, bring their canoes and john boats alongside those of their literary heroes, only to find them gone to new, isolated coves where the story population is not as depleted. Still, these copycats cast their lines, hoping for that one story the big guys missed, that one tale that will equalize them and create their own following. Mostly, these authors find disappointment instead of those keeper ideas that would allow them to build their own reputations, nothing to mount above the mantle and say “That’s the one that made me”. The closest these writers get are the rubber-coated fish that, while looking similar the real thing, turn ridiculous when they turn their animatronic heads and sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or something of the like.

Others of us sit back and watch from afar what the big authors are doing–how they cast their lines, how they reel in their catches, how they judge their fishing sites, and attempt to do the same on our own. Sometimes, though rarely, this pans out and the writer finds himself the sole occupant of a story-rich patch of water, a treasure trove of idea that pays dividends because the writer was brave enough, or foolish enough, to branch off in another direction and leave the heavy hitters behind. Sometimes, the writer casts his baited hook out over and over again, never finding so much as a nibble, but too stubborn to accept that no stories, no keepers, lie beneath the range of his cast.

Regardless of how crowded the lake is, there are always more fish/more stories out there. I know that I’m fishing in this lake, have seen the evidence in the ideas other successful writers have turned out. As I said in an earlier post (don’t ask me to find it and link to it because I’m running short on time), I’ve recently had several of my own ideas show up in the work of other writers that, even as coincidental as they are, are both exciting and frustrating. They tell me that I’m on the right track, fishing in the right waters, and it’s only a matter of time before I find that big idea swimming around in the dark waters. Then, it’s just a matter of hauling it in.

Normally, I would put a Topical Tuesday post in here, but I’m feeling generally meh on most topics today and meh is not a fit state in which to discuss such things. Therefore, in light of my recent light blogging activity, I will now commence updating my imaginary readers on my various projects:

Cursed Blessings. The manuscript is ready to go, but the query is still being tweaked. It’s taken me a bit of time to get back into the swing of things after my weeks of scoring Governor’s Scholars applications, but I hope to have the letter nailed down this week so I can start sending it out as early as this weekend. I’m on the fourth draft now and I think I might actually go with two different letters, depending on which agent I’m querying. The one advantage of being, as yet, unrepresented is that I have no specific deadline on when something has to be done. This is liberating in that I can make sure I have both my query letter and my manuscript as strong as I can make them before I start submitting, but on the flip side, I work well under pressure and the only pressure I have right now is what I put on myself. Thankfully, that’s quite a bit.

Wielder of the Soul. I have started the first draft of this new urban fantasy novel and I’m about ready to get to working on it in earnest. I’ve had a lot of things going on lately that are starting to fall off my schedule and, as things get back to relative normalcy, I’ll throw myself into this story set in Nashville. At some point, I’ll have to go back to Nashville, wander around downtown, take some pictures, and gather some details for that extra verisimilitude, but for now I can just run with the idea screaming to get out of my head and onto my hard drive.

“The Luckiest Man on Earth”. After lounging around on my hard drive for a few months, I’ve decided to try to put this short story to work and have submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Hopefully, I’ll hear something in a month or so. Even more hopefully, it will be a good something.

“The Visible Man”. Same as above, but sent to a different periodical. Same hopes, too. I like both these stories and, though I am not bursting with short story ideas, I think these two are good enough to find a home somewhere.

Dead and Dying. Officially retired, although I do have one full request still out. I might submit it to an agent or two as I research agents for CB. What do I have to lose? It would make quite a story if that one request pans out to an offer of representation, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Breath-holding is a very bad thing for an author to do.

I considered trying to write some short stories in between CB and WotS, but I just didn’t come up with anything strong enough to write this time. Usually, I have my best ideas for shorts while I’m working hot and heavy on a novel. By the time I have the occasion to write them, however, the ideas no longer shine and I lose that sense that it needs to be written down.

That about covers it. Perhaps by next Tuesday something will have sufficiently pissed me off enough to write about it in the return of Topical Tuesday.

The other day at the wonderful BookEnds blog, authors and perspective authors were given the opportunity to rail against everything they don’t like about the traditional write, query, and wait submission process that has become standard in the publishing industry. I applaud the agents at BookEnds for opening up this particular Pandora’s box, particularly considering how much vitriol and frustration is out there. For many wannabe authors, agents rank somewhere between food poisoning and double amputation on the list of things they want to deal with, but as gatekeepers to that mystical realm of publication they are a necessary element of any writer’s quest to print.

I did not participate in the blog commentary the other day, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about it. I’ll address the most common complaints that authors have and-don’t be shocked–I’m not always on the side of the authors.

1. No response means no. As human beings, much less as writers, our minds demand closure. If I send a query for a novel I have spent months, even years, creating and polishing, I do believe that an agent can spare a few moments to even send a form rejection saying that they don’t like it. I do realize how busy agents are, really I do. I understand that reading queries is basically a pro bono activity, providing little to no return on investment. I further understand that the advent of equeries and the ease of submissions has created an explosion in the number of people with books to sell. I get all of that. Still, it is no more than professional courtesy than to let an author know where the agent stands on his or her work, for good or ill. This is a cost of doing business, the rough equivalent of prospecting for gold or drilling wells in hopes of oil. If an agent is truly so overwhelmed by queries that the mere thought of reading them makes him or her wince, then what Colleen Lindsay has done–stopped taking them until further notice–makes a world of sense. Perhaps agents should move to a format like some magazines follow, allowing submissions only during certain times of year. That would allow them to manage that time more effectively while ensuring that they are not overwhelmed. Yes, this may mean that good authors and good books are missed, but it would also afford the agent a more positive mindset when it came to reading the culmination of so many hours of work from the author.

On a personal note, I have had a full out to an agent since last May, have sent three follow up emails since October, all of which have garnered no response. Am I mad? Hardly. I recently received a rejection for the same manuscript, also out since May, telling me that she was on the fence and even had others in her circle read it to give her some additional insight. That’s fine by me, encouraging even, but I would love a quick email letting me know about said fence-sitting.

2. Not updating submission guidelines. Every agent should be responsible for keeping his or her submission guidelines updated in a few select locations where the agents are contacted direction for feedback, particularly an agency or agent website. Agents should not, however, be responsible for updating sites they have no direct contact with. That duty falls to the administrators of those particular sites and any author with a complaint over them not updating should leave the agent alone. Most agents I follow in the blogosphere give their readers advance notice on any change in guidelines and I believe that most will allow a certain amount of leeway for those not up to the minute on the specifics.

3. Making fun of query letters. If I do something stupid in a query and an agent want to make fun of me, then I deserve it. Agents have a thankless, frustrating job that requires them to be talent scouts, writing instructors, business professors, sales people, marketing whizzes, editors, psychologists, and creative sounding boards, among others. It’s no different from any other job–people look for humor where they can find it. Do you think doctors don’t make fun of their patients while they’re unconscious on the operating table? Do you think lawyers don’t ridicule their clients? I work in retail and if I couldn’t have a little fun at the expense of my customers, I’d go crazy. If you have a serious problem with how agents discuss authors on their blogs, then stop reading them and go coach little league baseball where everyone gets a trophy and everyone’s a winner. Let me know when you are ready to come back to the real world.

4. Spending too much time watching television or on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I admit to being divided on this one. On the one hand, authors like me who gave up television and the like to write the book now being ignored in some agent’s inbox, have a hard time relating to someone not wishing to make that kind of sacrifice. On the other, I want any agent I’m submitting to have balance in his or her life. If an agent wants to watch television or read a book for pleasure, I’m all for it. I don’t expect agent’s to make the kind of sacrifices I have. I have a day job and I don’t work it more than I have to; it would be wrong for me to expect my agent to do the same. Obviously, my novel is a lot more important to me than it is to you and my job is remembering that.

5. You can’t judge a book by its query.. Perhaps this is true. I’m sure there are wonderful books out there that never saw publication because they query wasn’t strong enough. However, until someone comes up with a better way of selecting books, we’re stuck with the query letter. I find it odd how often the same person will complain about how long it takes to hear back from an agent while also complaining about how agents should read the manuscript before making a judgment call. We can’t have it both ways.

6. Agents don’t take email queries. If an agent wants prospective clients to actually print something out and spend a few cents to mail it as a sign of their dedication, then so bet it. If an author wants an agent enough, he or she will do what it takes, even if that means taking a trip to the post office. Email makes the query process almost too easy, so I can understand adding another test for the fledgling writer. We must remember that the agents are not there for our convenience, nor are they obligated to bend their practices to our will. Besides, you never hear agents who don’t accept equeries complain about how overwhelmed they are.

Is the traditional submission process flawed? Absolutely. But until someone comes up with something better, we are stuck with it. I am never going to change the system by complaining about it; the voice of one unpublished writer doesn’t travel very far. I won’t say that I do not get frustrated by the odds stacked against me, but I know the only answer, the only thing I have any control over, is to write better. A better book and a better query are the only means I have of influencing my chances of finding representation. If I don’t like they way things are, I can always try something else.

I have as much reason to be negative about the novel submission process as anyone else, but I also have confidence that I’ll break through at some point. That, the certainty that I am good enough, keeps me from giving up.