Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Taming the Tension Among Teens

So what’s in any good novel? Some might suggest sex, violence and (fill in a third element here but not rock and roll) might be an interesting mixture of ingredients to stir up the pot of interest. Face it, even your most average of romance novels seem to slip in a dalliance or two to tickle the imagination.

My philosophy has always been that writers write for themselves. Much has been written about a writer understanding the audience he or she is writing for. There’s a lot of mis-information (for newbies) about emulating the best sellers and giving their audience what you think readers want in terms of characters, settings, etc. In the words of one ebullient philosopher, ‘That’s all hooey.’

I believe you write what you want to write about, what drives your interest, what gets you out of bed in the morning and plants you in front of your keyboard. You should write from the heart and hope there is an audience for your work. At least that’s been my guiding force for as long as I’ve been writing.

So imagine my surprise when it was suggested that my latest novel, ‘Follow the Cobbler’ might be a good candidate for adaptation as a YA, Young Adult Novel. Following the formula of my other works, ‘Cobbler’ has its fair share of sexual tension, violence and interesting sidelines. I try not to write for any specific audience, but kids! Seriously?

Yet there was a precedence here that had already been set. I was surprised to learn that a lot of women seem to like my western novels. I had foolishly decided who my audience was for westerns and totally missed an important segment of the reading public in the process. After my second book fair and talking to women, I realized I had better keep my mouth shut and not assume anything about reader’s interests.

‘Follow the Cobbler,’ is a suspense thriller that follows my protagonist Brian, and his fellow traveler Katherine, around the world in pursuit of an elusive character simply known as ‘the cobbler.’ They, in turn, are being pursued by hunter-assassins known only as ‘the druids’ (named after a religious sect from early Roman times in ancient Britannia.) The novel contains some scenes of romance, intrigue, sexual tension, violence and many references to ancient times. It would hardly seem to be the fare for younger minds. Vida, my editor thought differently.

I’ve been down that long arduous road called ‘being a teen ager’ before. Teen angst is nothing new to me but it’s certainly not a backroad I’d care to retrace at this stage in my life. So I was more than a little taken back when Vida suggested that ‘Cobbler’ might be a good YA novel if edited properly. And she knew just the people to do it. Imagine that, me writing for teens? Turns out the notion wasn’t that far-fetched. It just took a set of younger eyes to see it for me.

Amelie and Nedda are a couple of precocious twins with ‘fearless hearts and critical eyes’ (their mom’s own words) who were able to turn my 566-page juggernaut into a novel for the YA market. Other YA novels such as the Twilight series and The Hunger Games have proven immensely popular with teens and pre-teens. Upon reflection, I think there’s no reason why this newly revised version of ‘Cobbler’ might not do the same.

I trust Vida as well as my wife to give me honest, accurate feedback and editing and NOT CHANGE my style of writing. That is critical for a writer and his editor. I trusted Vida so I trusted her daughters.  It can be a precarious balancing act between changing the tone of the story and not to lose the trust intent of the story. There were some real challenges ahead for anyone wanting to edit that manuscript:

1.      There were scenes of sexual activities that were critical to the storyline.
2.      There were scenes of violence and fighting that added to the drama of the storyline.
3.      There were scenes of ancient history that were critical to the storyline.

So the real question was could Vida’s daughters change those scenes for a younger audience but not to the extent that they lost their core value as an information conduit. In other words:

1.      Keep the sexual tension without the sex.
2.      Keep the violence without the blood
3.      Keep the ancient fables without being boring for a teen-age mind.

The twins spent last winter editing my manuscript, designing a new book cover and changing the title from ‘Follow the Cobbler’ to ‘Chasing Ophelia.’ They had cart-blanch freedom to go as far or as easy as they wanted to in editing my work. My reasoning was simple. If they were Vida’s daughters, I was in good hands. I love the new book cover and title. Readers will very quickly grasp the significance of the cover and its background of Celtic symbols.

Now the real work begins. Vida has written a press release which we are actively sending out to local newspapers, magazines, tabloids and anywhere else we think might print it. We have beta readers reading the novel right now and giving us feedback on the YA marketplace

Of course, it was only fitting that my eldest granddaughter, Maya, be the first in the family to read ‘Ophelia.’ Her twin siblings are clamoring for their chance at the book, as are the Minnesota cousins. Their time will come with, I hope, with a lot of teens and pre-teens. This spring our local newspaper picked up the story of the girls. A nice tribute to Amelie and Nedda and the great job they did on creating my newest YA novel.

I have a 6:30 pm ‘Meet the Author’ presentation scheduled for October 18th at the Rosemount Library. It will be a fitting way to share the twin’s story of a job well done.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

10,000 New Readers Plus

Recently a report came out by the American Psychological Association about young people not reading the way past generations used to do. Many high schoolers are texting, scrolling and using social media instead of reading books and magazines. The article goes on to say that the reason for concern ‘is that the skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are quite different from glancing at a text message or status update.’

This fact interests me not only because I recently published my first Young Adult novel (Chasing Ophelia) but because Sharon and I have always pushed our own children and our five grandchildren to become readers and not just your average reader, but prodigious carnivores of the printed word.

Unfortunately, there are still kids in the world who don’t have access to books and other reading material. For them, a book in hand is a gift of wonderment and discovery, just as it should be. For the last several years, Sharon and the Apple Valley Rotary Club have answered that need with their own special Literacy Project.

Aside from this assault on reading by electronic devices, overall declining literacy rates continue to challenge educators, and frankly, anyone who cares about an educated society. I can attest to that fact. Growing up in a single parent household that never had a book in the house I find that fact sad and troubling.

Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t too surprised this summer when thousands of books made their way through our house on the way to better bookshelves. Sharon had initiated this book drive three years ago as part of the Apple Valley Rotary Literacy Project. The first year it was four thousand books collected and distributed. Last year, it was over six thousand books distributed. This year Sharon and the club will top out well over eighteen thousand books and still counting.

The book drive followed a three-R’s model: read, recycle, and reach. Sharon explained “We want families to read and enjoy the books that they have, and then when they are done with them or have moved on to a new reading level we want them to recycle the books by donating them to this project. By giving away their used books, these readers are reaching out to students who might not have any books at home.”

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep. Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in newspaper articles about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started my paper route in seventh grade. Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library. The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life. There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us. This is most certainly one of the reasons for my second career as a writer and playwright.

Ever the educator, Sharon said the ability to read, and to read critically, is one of the most important factors to a student’s success. Access to information is becoming easier (screen time) BUT the skills needed to critically evaluate it comes from reading.

In Dakota County alone, there are over 1600 ELL students who will use the books.  Jenny Leroux, E.L. Lead Teacher, spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

Jenny explained “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards. Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

She went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content. The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

Last year, the district initiated a new program that provided certain school buses with boxes of books. The idea is that a student can borrow a book on their way to or from school and return it as they exit the bus. The district will also hold on to thousands of books to distribute next summer at various district-sponsored camps and events.  This past summer they gave away over two thousand books at ‘Adventures in Learning’, a weeklong summer program for elementary-aged English Language Learners.

To bring the world of reading to these children and open up a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramped quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house. I’ve been there before. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus, and the young boys down the block.

I return to those worlds every chance I get. And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Death Be Not Alone

Talk about walking a tightrope. As a playwright, it’s imperative that I tell a good story. It must be open and honest and true. It has to be realistic as I’ve come to paint that life tapestry in my mind. But is my audience ready for such a truthful adaptation about their own final demise?
Statistically speaking, many folks in the audience are going to be faced with their own reality acted out up there on the stage. Some might become very upset. Others could feel pain and anguish because I’ve opened up old wounds once again.

All of this theatrical honesty could threaten to turn the audience against me. It might provoke some into anger and outrage at the audacity of sharing such a personal storyline. Here is reality staring them back in the face. How are they going to react? How will they take this honest portrayal of their parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, neighbors and, perhaps, themselves…as they are all about to die? That’s my dilemma and the challenge facing my newest play.

The play is called ‘The Last Sentinel’ and it joins my other plays that have tried to examine snippets of real life. The storyline is simple enough. Four old women in a nursing home are facing the end of their lives. That probably sounds a bit crass but it succinctly describes the premise of this play. It’s about death, dying, denial, and acceptance.

We‘re all going to face it. Or perhaps we’ve seen others face it recently. I’m talking about the death of people we know no matter if they’re close to us or not. Perhaps these are people we’ve known all of our lives or a part of it and now it’s time for them to go.

Everyone handles his or her own end of life differently. Some are in total denial until they take their last breath. Others gather family and friends around them for a final good-bye. I don’t think anyone really knows how they’re going to handle that situation until faced with it themselves.

So why would I want to write a play about old folks facing their demise and some not handling it well? For laughs, of course. And to explore a seldom discussed reality facing all of us.

I honestly can’t remember where the idea came from. This play was one of six story outlines that I vomited out (sorry but it does describe the sudden uncontrollable retching out of ideas from my brain) in one overly caffeinated afternoon when the ideas started flowing non-stop and I began typing away furiously to capture them before they slipped out of my collective consciousness.

I’ve been there at the end with my parents, Sharon’s parents, aunts, uncles, and assorted acquaintances. It’s hit home but it really hasn’t. I think when others my own age or closer to me start to pass then it will hit home a lot harder.

So I wanted to write an honest play about death and dying but also to get some chuckles in at the same time. I knew right from the start that my four old women would be a wonderful menagerie of quips, comments, complaints, statements and sometimes outrageous antidotes for reality. They would reflect many older folks I’ve known over the years.

So in the story, simply stated, the women make a pact to stick together and be there for one another until the end. It’s an agreement they struggle to keep. They nag at one another and yet show love and compassion at the same time. They argue about nothing and still shore up sagging feelings while doing so. They all face the inevitable in different ways and reveal to the audience their true colors. They are irritable, persnickety and remind all of us of people we know, knew or want to forget. But in the end, I hope they represent a realistic portrait of individuals facing that ultimate test in life.

‘The Last Sentinel’ is warm and engaging. It is outrageous and funny. But I hope mostly it is a celebration of the human spirit when it is needed the most. The play isn’t a melodrama or a tragedy or a maudlin check-off of someone’s life. Instead it is a rich tapestry of life recaptured, the power of friendship and self-actualization celebrating life. It will be engaging, truthful and a lot of laughs. What better way to remember someone’s final good-bye than with a smile on your face.

Oh, and the music will be pretty neat too.

August of 2019 is the date set for the premiere of ‘The Last Sentinel’ at the Steeple Center in Rosemount, Minnesota

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Growing Up Catholic

Growing up Catholic in Old Saint Paul was simply a part of who I was, and in some very strange way, who I still am today. The label isn’t there and never will be. Nor the accouterments of pomp and ceremony that some Catholics still cling to. I’ve graduated from that part of my life but am still grateful for the experience.

Memories cloaked around vestments of gold and silver are hard to erase. Seven-Thirty mass every morning before school began. Altar boy duties on Sunday at the Eleven O’clock mass.  Routine, mind-numbing religion class for the malleable mind. All of my teachers were draped in black; the nuns in grade school and the Christian Brothers in high school. Even in college, there would be an occasional religious figure at the head of the classroom. That was simply the way it was back in the fifties and sixties.

None of this is surprising when one considers my background growing up. My mother had a sixth grade education and yet was wise to the ways of the big city. Despite coming from a farming background, she somehow understood the value of an education and was thrilled that my sister and I were able to attend St. Louis Grade School, the ‘little French’ school downtown Saint Paul.

There was trauma and drama in our family that escaped me at four and five years of age. Our father left us destitute and then died after an absence of several years. There had been a divorce, an annulment of their marriage and a family left homeless for a period of time. That probably explains why my mother faithfully attended novena at St. Louis Church every Monday afternoon for the rest of her life. I assume it was payback to God for surviving that mess and it seemed to work.

We moved from a duplex then through a period of homelessness in the boiler room of an apartment building. Then we lived in another rundown apartment building until finally my mother built a real home in Highland Park with the help of her brother.

My sister and I graduated from streetcars with wicker seats to buses on our daily ride to downtown Saint Paul. It was a daily rush out the door, jammed into a crowded bus and ‘don’t you dare sit down if an old person was still standing.’ The evil eye from either my Mother or the cranky senior was enough to get me back on my feet again.

There would be the occasional foray to Woolworths for a nickel coke amid bins of (shocking) ladies underwear on sale. The Golden Rule had dime malts but who could afford that? On a rare occasion we might venture to the Riviera or Paramount Theater for an afternoon movie after school. The one spot I fondly remember treading through was Saint Paul Book and Stationary with its tables piled high with books and clerks who got very uncomfortable with kids handling their merchandise.

The religious propaganda I was fed at St. Louis Grade School and Cretin High School never challenged me to think for myself. It was a rote-routine of religious teachings and lessons that never challenged alternate facts or feelings. A few religious classes at St. Thomas College reversed that trend and got me thinking about fairness and justice for all. The drama of the Sixties certainly played a key role in my self-examination and questioning of all that I had been told and taught.

Working since Seventh Grade and growing up hungry (not in the literal sense) gave me the foundation for a successful career in television and writing. Those stern penguins in black force-fed me their religious principles and values. And it seemed to stick.

I went from Questioning Catholic to Cafeteria Catholic, and after the Neumann Center on the U of M campus, to a Christian in spirit with no discernable religious label to hang on to. Yet I am eternally grateful for the values and standards of the Catholic faith that I had been exposed to for sixteen years in Old Saint Paul. It was my Mother’s religion. It wasn’t mine. Yet I have held fast to those basic tenants of fairness and justice and equality for all.

No one has a corner on the God market, not the Catholics nor the Jews or any other faiths of our time. But the Catholic environment of my old community clothed me with an attitude of basic decency and acceptance of all kinds of people that remains to this day. I want to pass that legacy on to my grandchildren.

I can thank Old Saint Paul for that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Creative Process

For as long as I can remember, let’s say about seventy years, I’ve been curious about the whole creative process. At some point in my youth I became aware of the fact that someone, somewhere, somehow had written those wonderful pop songs that accompanied me on my paper route each morning and afternoon. Somebody peered into my soul and understood what I was feeling even if I didn’t know how they did it at the time.

How did they do that? Where did their inspiration come from? What motivated them to sit down and come up with all those wonderful lyrics, ideas, scenes, melodies, storylines and emotionally charged feelings that I was experiencing?

Me and the Gang -Photo Courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

It was a reflective period for me. At some subconscious level I was acquiring, accumulating, assessing and actuating bits and pieces of storylines that would all come bubbling up to the surface as I got older. Those thoughts began to morph into crudely-sketched comic books, scribbles of poetry, eight millimeter films and short stories all born and nurtured throughout  my younger years.

A career in television and video services became the clay that formed my writing foundation. Then at age thirty-something I wrote my first two novels. Fast-forward forty more years and a real career in writing slowly took shape.

Many folks my age proudly see themselves as seniors and they do so without apology. They’re getting older, past their prime but still keeping busy. It’s that golden period in their lives when they don’t have to fight 9-5 traffic, satisfy a grumpy boss and be so prim and proper all the time. Frankly, I’m too busy to notice or care about such trivial matters. I’m happily sailing my new career on the River De Nial and loving every minute of it. Yet it hasn’t come without some cautionary comments.

The question that has arisen is when is too much too much? Many of us were raised in an environment where we were told to focus and concentrate on one thing at a time. To get one task finished before starting a second one. We were told to pay attention to our parents, our teachers, our coaches and any other authoritarian figure in our lives. Do as they say, not as they (necessarily) do themselves.

As a writer, I’ve been cautioned not to be too scattered and to focus on one genre at a time. The idea is to build up a collection of stories that define me as a certain type of writer. Westerns, for example, might be my storyline of choice.

I’ve written four westerns thus far. I have a fifth treatment in the wings that is a civil war drama. There seems to be an audience for my western stories in Great Britain and Australia. I’m told that both India and Japan also have a small hard-core group of western readers.

So should I try to best Zane Grey or Louie L’Amour? More to my liking, do I want to be the next Will Henry or Clay Fisher or Larry McMurty? One of my newer novels is called ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ It’s a suspense thriller that was a lot of fun to write. I’d like to write more stories in that genre. Yet if I remain just a western writer, I can’t do that. And that is not who I am.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I have trouble concentrating on any one subject for any length of time. Call it attention deficit, unfocused or scattered, I just can’t hold my attention on anything for an extended period of time. The solution for me is multi-pronged approach that works on any number of different subjects for varying periods of time. And it works for me.

Here is a list of current projects of mine in various stages of development.
1.      Sending out press releases for my new YA novel ‘Chasing Ophelia.’
2.      Refining and fine-tuning my new play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure.’
3.      Promoting my new play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ for a December performance.
4.      Working on a second draft of my new play ‘PTV.’
5.      Trying to find a venue to perform my new play ‘The Last Sentinel.’
6.      Beginning to write one of two new novels: ‘Presidio Adieu’ or ‘The Trades.’
7.      Scheduling more writing workshops.
8.      Continuing to write my weekly blogs (usually with 3-5 in the cue at any one time.)
9.      Marketing myself as author and playwright.
10.  Marketing my plays and novels.

Since 2007 I‘ve focused (in bits and pieces) on multiple areas of writing and completed:

400 plus blogs
10 self-published novels
1 self-published investment guide
6 plays; three of which have been produced thus far
4 screenplays
Over 50 treatments in various stages of completion.

There is a rational for my seemingly scattered, shotgun approach to writing. Turns out it is the best way I can capture those fleeting moments of inspiration that seem to creep into my brain on a daily basis. It’s like mixing up a wild, scattered batch of ingredients and turning out a mildly entertaining piece of something after hours in the oven of my mind.

Writing a weekly blog has improved my writing. It had to. I work on the same pieces day after day until a deadline is reached and I have to post them on BlogSpot for publication later on.

My writing has covered a number of different genres. I let my interest carry me in many different directions and formats. My solution to eventually complete my work is to prioritize what to do,  pace myself and make sure every day is spent on writing.

Oh, and have a life at the same time. I’ve already won this game of life. Whether I write another word or not I am ahead of the game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Standing Outside of Myself

The cliché wrapped up as a question goes something like this:

How do you see yourself?

How do others see you?

How are you in reality?

Often times our version of reality doesn’t compute with other people’s reality about us. So goes the game of life. I thought I knew but they knew better. Or so they thought. Self-reflection isn’t a bad thing if it can be done with a solid grasp of past failures and accomplishments. Satisfaction with ‘today’ can open up the world of ‘before’ with all of its nooks and cranny’s and past stumbles revealed.

Along with being born Catholic comes a certain amount of Catholic guilt and fear of the sin of pride. My classmates and I were taught early on that feeling good about one self, if not a mortal sin, was certainly venal in nature. The idea was to think only of others, to the detriment of ourselves. ‘Sacrifice now’ we were told so we could reap our benefits in heaven. It was an ancient line handed down from the priests, nuns, teachers, parents and other figures of authority. Being German Catholic with rural ancestry certainly didn’t diminish but only enhanced that message to us young-ins.

Being raised in a single parent household, ours was not your typical home environment when the norm usually centered on the classic nuclear family. As a Catholic youngster the standard path to eternal life for me was being an altar boy in grade school, 12 years of Catholic education, Sunday services every Sunday and unquestioning allegiance to the Bishop and Rome.

Self-reflection was usually considered a bad thing. A kind of masturbation of the mind. Feeling good about oneself was the worst kind of sin, that of pride.

So when I began blogging several years ago I found myself reflecting back on my life as it stacked up to that point. Without the encroaching cloak of adult authority leaning over my shoulder I was able to look back, not in anger, but with curiosity at a life well lived thus far.

It was only recently that I realized there were two curriculum tracks at Cretin High School. Seriously, I was that clueless! There was the college bound track with its challenging academic courses and then the other track for those less inclined or qualified. Somehow, I was able to muddle through high school without guidance or help from anyone.

Getting into St. Thomas College proved I could succeed academically despite my grades in high school. A brief stint at the University of Minnesota proved I couldn’t succeed in that large factory of learning.

So now at 75 with many miles traveled and some accomplishments under my belt, I can step outside of myself and look back at my life… and not feel guilty in the process. My academic career was less than Steller but it worked for me. It gave me the insight and passion to believe that it was paramount that my kids and grandkids steel themselves with a solid educational background in order to succeed in this new ever-changing world.

They say maturity is wasted on youth. That’s probably true but I won’t apologize for my sometimes foolish, boorish, immature behavior growing up. I was young and stupid and yet somehow survived those lean, mean, not so innocent years without hurting anyone in the process.

A part of me wants to apologize to past girlfriends for any awkward situations I created between us. I realize now how very immature I was at the time. The intent was there. The manner taken could have been better. I guess I was searching. I’m not sure for what.

It’s a shame I’ve lost touch with so many old friends. Back then it was just the passage of time and other interests that drew us apart. Life moved on but I lost something very precious without even knowing it at the time. Luckily, some of them are still around if only by e-mail or the occasional coffee chat.

On another level, I’m grateful for the casual acquaintances with whom I’ve only spent slivers of time over time. Circumstances brought us together for a while and then pulled us apart as our lives moved on in different directions. But the moments and memories are still there etched in my brain.

Many curtains have opened for me at this later stage in my life. And before (sorry for the pun) my final curtain call, I want to look back once again on a life well lived with all of its hits and misses and reflect with a smile on how lucky I have been.