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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Anatomy of a Book Signing

I rarely do book signings. For a couple of reasons.

One, 99% of my books are downloaded by readers all over the world. Aside from Christmas, I rarely sell more than a dozen paperbacks in a month.

Two, I'm not that big a deal. I have great rapport with readers through social media and email lists, but not the fervor that would compel someone to stand in line. I've worked author events in Charleston, in particular Yallfest, and watched fans stand in lines that stretched around the block to meet James Dashner. I'm not sure they all knew who he was, but it didn't matter.

Three, and probably most importantly, nobody asks me to do them. (See reason two for an explanation.)

Recently, Summerville did an event. Summerville is a small town outside of Charleston. It's where I live. Initially, I wasn't interested. We've all seen the sad author at a table of books with no one around. Passerbys avert their attention lest he start a conversation about his merch. I've been that guy.

Before writing fiction, I was primarily a technical writer that published in trade magazines and eventually two textbooks on landscape design. I was giving a talk at a conference on the topic. The attendance was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The event organizers asked if I would like to sign textbooks after my talk. They were being nice and I didn't want to look like a tool.

I sat next to a guy that was evidently a PBS personality in the gardening world. I wasn't familiar, but every person at the event was. They lined up, they laughed, they swooned. Every once in a while, they'd look to their left at the sad man with his landscape design books. I felt bad for putting them through that. It went on for an hour.

So of course when Four Green Fields asked if I'd like to participate in the local event, I said sure, why not. They've been kind to me, carrying my books in their storefront for the last several years. And, quite frankly, it sounded like a challenge I was up for.

My wife came with me, and that helped. I wasn't the sad lonely man and his books. I was the man with an attractive woman and his books.

We set up inside the store. As I was putting away the boxes, I caught my head on the corner of a glass shelf. Had the edge not been beveled, I'm certain it would've lobotomized me. Instead, I had a Harry Potter gash. So much for marketing.

This event is all over the downtown area. If you haven't been to it, downtown Summerville is like a movie set with very quaint brick roads and small storefronts. People walk down the street, stop in art galleries and restaurants. I was one of thirty-three authors scattered across the area. I guarantee you not one customer knew who I was.

But here's the thing. I didn't care if I sold a book. And that made all the difference.

Customers wandered through the store. As they rounded the corner and saw me, I imagined a shiver of discomfort possess them. To be honest, I didn't imagine it. It was happening for real. I said hi, they said hi and that was it.

Here's where things changed. We started conversations that had nothing to do with books. And this exchange, this interaction led to a connection that happened spontaneously. One person said she didn't like my kind of books, the science fiction kind. I said I don't blame her, fiction is subjective. I wasn't crazy about Harry Potter and clearly I was in the minority.

I sold 13 books. Quite frankly, that was shocking. But the best part of the night was this, I had fun. And that's what all this writing business is about.

The best part was a young man named Chris. He came through the store photographing the event. We started talking and I got him laughing. He didn't like digital books. He liked ones he could feel. He said his favorite science fiction book was probably Ender's Game. If he was interested, I said, he could come back at the end of this event and I'd hook him up with a free book. My wife went to the truck to grab The Discovery of Socket Greeny.

Chris came back when it was over. I signed the book and gave it to him. Maybe he'll like it, maybe not. It doesn't matter.

That made the whole event worth it.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Writerly Update

For those that follow me, thought I'd take a moment to update you. Doesn't seem like much has happened in my writerly world since the release of Bricks and Halfskin Boxed.

So here's the deal-o.

Humbug: The Unwinding of Ebenezer Scrooge

I missed my annual addition to the Claus series last holiday because, well, no reason. Just got behind and it didn't happen. Not this year. Humbug will be released November 2016. The rough draft is currently finished and still fairly rough. It's marinating in silence right now so I can come back for round two with fresh eyes. I will be courting advanced readers in October. We still have the whole summer to waste so I'll be putting the word out at a much later time.

In the meantime, this is the cover-in-progress:

Claus, Foreverland and Halfskin come to audio

All the Claus audiobooks were narrated by James Killavey. It occurred to me much too late that all we needed to do was upload the files to offer the CLAUS BOXED SET. What's that mean to the listener? You get all three books for one measly coupon.

HALFSKIN BOXED SET got way behind schedule. But it's out, yes! David Dietz, the narrator on Halfskin and Clay, put his pipes on Bricks (the third book in the trilogy) and wrapped all those up in one tidy boxed set download.

In the meantime, I put my voice on FOREVERLAND BOXED SET. I enjoyed reading SOCKET GREENY SAGA last year. I didn't plan on doing Foreverland, but a different narrator did each book in the trilogy so I couldn't package that. Six weeks in my studio (aka closet) and I wrapped the project. The timing of release was almost the exact day of Halfskin Boxed.

The Maze

I'll be submitting a short story to another Chronicles anthology. These anthologies have had some of the best of the best indie authors, so it's been an honor to contribute. My first run was in the Alt History 101 Chronicles with the short story 108 Stitches.

The next will be the Gamer Chronicles. I finished a short story called The Maze. After sending it through a beta read gauntlet, I blew up half the story and turned out something more exciting. The Gamer Chronicles will release in September.

More importantly, this short story gave rise to the next trilogy.

Maze, the trilogy

I hadn't thought about the tie-in until a few beta readers made suggestions that turned on the light. I've been toying with how to merge the Halfskin and Foreverland story arcs. Once the light went on, I sat down with a pad of paper. I know I've hit the target when I get this excited. I've churned 5000+ words in two days and already have the next several chapters outlined. The characters just stepped front and center. Don't know where they're taking the story, but we're off to a strong start.

Drayton is still asleep.

I promised fans of Drayton I would add another installment. Alas, he just won't come alive. I've made some attempts but his story is just dormant. Pressing too much never goes in a good direction. He's not dead, but he's still asleep. I will prod his bones after the first Maze novel.

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

This is Kooper

Kooper is a boxer.

He's 9 years old. About a year ago, he suffered his first seizure. You never forget witnessing a beloved pet go rigid and piss the floor. Neither does he.

We tried a number of things to keep them from coming back. Nothing was perfect. Phenobarbital seemed to settle him down but eventually they came back, and this time in clusters -- several of them in a row. Our previous dog, a collie named Samu, suffered from seizures and went into a cluster and never came out of it. We thought it was happening to Kooper. In fact, the vet gave us an emergency dose of phenobarb to inject up his bottom should another cluster hit. Hitting a puckered butthole during a seizure is like throwing darts in a hurricane.

Did I mention this is the best dog ever?

Eventually the right balance of phenobarbital and gabapentin worked. It's been several months since he last went through the ringer.

Problems remained.

Kooper began dragging his back legs after the first seizure. It wasn't anything alarming, just occasionally noticed his nails dragging the concrete on long walks. As the seizures continued, the lethargy increased, his paws occasionally knuckling over. He began scuffing the fur off the top of his back paws and his nails were wearing down to bloody nubs.

We bought him booties, but the dragging got so bad that he wore holes through them. We duct taped the holes before every walk. This only worked for so long. The progression of symptoms seemed to hit a fast track and soon he was crumpling to the ground. His walks rapidly shortened from around the block to the end of the driveway. By the time we stopped, he could barely hold himself up to pee. Instead, he assumed an odd kickstand sort of stance to relieve himself.

All in a matter of months.

It seemed to be a condition called degenerative myelopathy, a genetic disorder in the boxer breed.

The question becomes... well, you know what it becomes. But he wasn't in pain. He had an appetite, wagged his tail when he saw us, barked at the front door and whined when we took our other dog for a walk. He spent all day in bed, venturing outside a couple times with assistance to drop a number one or two before returning to bed. What old dog doesn't do this?

We can't put him down.

It's not time for that, not yet. He still has some years in him, just needs a little helps living them. So we found some.

Excellent music performed by Madeline Walsh 

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Great Expectations (The Last Part)

We received a wedding invitation early 2016.

Michael was getting married in the spring. It would be in New York City where he now lived. He grew up in Oklahoma, spent most of his life there. Once he graduated high school, he moved to NYC. He has lived in the city ever since.

The invitation was flattering. But of course, all sorts of thoughts followed. Is this just a kindly gesture? Would it be inappropriate to go? Or weird? This went on for weeks. Heather, however, really wanted to be there, so after a short correspondence, she booked a flight.

Initially, I wasn't able to go. But, as luck would have it, plans unexpectedly changed at the last minute. We flew out on a Saturday morning. 

We'd never been to New York. It was a little intimidating. The unknown usually is. All we knew about New York is what we'd seen on television. In my experience, if your preparation for a new situation involves movies, you're effed. Fortunately, we knew someone besides Michael that lived there.

We didn't know much about his fiance. We wanted to know more so we did what most people would do. We stalked Facebook. Five minutes later and we were about to click off when I noticed a line in italics. 1 mutual friend. 

Remember the secret family password weirdness? Here it comes again.

Five minutes ago we didn't know Michael's fiance and now we have a mutual friend? Naturally, you'd think it was Michael but we're not linked on Facebook. The one mutual friend was someone that had lived in New York City for the past 26 years. His name is Jamie.

And we went to high school with him.

Heather and I grew up in a small town tucked between Illinois cornfields. Heather and Jamie were friends through middle school until he moved away. His career took him to New York City in his mid-twenties and he'd lived there ever since. And he knew Michael's fiance. He moved there 26 years ago. When Michael was born. 

Six degree of Kevin Bacon can't touch this.

Heather and Jamie.

We arrived before noon on Saturday and spent the afternoon with Jamie on the Lower East Side. It kept us occupied. We were out of our element, in a new city, not sure what the evening would bring. Would they be happy to see us? Nervous? Is this weird? Now we weren't so sure.

We asked the hotel what was the best way to catch a cab. He said walk outside and raise your arm. Was it really that easy? Yeah. Yeah, it was. Turns out, cabs really are everywhere. We arrived at the venue, early evening. The sun was hours from setting, the spring air cool and crisp.

Had it really been 26 years? Is this really how the story ends--the crises that began so long ago, when we were young and lost and scared, a distant memory? Will we wake up on the floor and realize it was all just a dream? Because these things don't end this way.

There aren't happy endings like this.

We followed the eclectic crowd up an iron staircase and for a moment, we were all alone. It was 26 years earlier, just a couple of nervous kids in a really big world, unsure which way to turn, what was around the corner. But in the next moment, we saw Cathy. Tears. Hugs.

It was real again.

We caught up with Wayne and Cathy, and a now grown-up and married Kelsie; we met extended family, recalled the day we met at the Italian Village. They were from the Midwest so it didn't take long to speak the same language. Had it really been 26 years? 

The ceremony took place on the rooftop. Wayne and Cathy ushered Michael out. As dusk drew near, they took their vows in a short ceremony among friends and family. It would be another hour before we met Michael.

The reception took place downstairs. We found a table in the corner. It was small and convenient, one where we could stand up and hold our drinks. An inconspicuous place. It wasn't until later that we realized it was perfect. The family graciously invited us to the table but we declined. From our little corner, we watched an extravagant New York crowd mix with Midwesterners--a clash of style and values, interests and eras. But a crowd united in love.

The reunion with Michael was what you would imagine. Outstanding. Grateful.

Perched in our corner, we watched the night unfold. We were not removed, not distant or antisocial. We spent time with all the family and friends. It was the perfect balance of being there.
The fathers gave touching speeches. And when cake was cut and, one by one, friends toasted the newlyweds, Heather and I made our exit. We thanked them for being the family anyone would wish for. They had exceeded all our hopes. The script of this moment was surreal and oddly perfect.

The night was relatively young, but we'd done everything we'd come to do in New York. We ate a slice of pizza in a very small hotel room and fell asleep.

Heather, Micheal, and Cathy

So why tell this story?

The world needs to hear it is a tad presumptuous. The world doesn't need anything. And this certainly isn't the end of anything. But for some reason, it certainly felt like it. Twenty-six years ago, we would not have been so bold as to write a tale like this.

But I'm a storyteller. I like a good ending. And this certainly felt worthy.

Even if it is true.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 9)

Why tell this story?

Here it is 26 years later. Looking back, crises doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it turned out quite storybook. So it would be easy to romanticize, to gloss over the bumps and bruises, the crying, the stress, the anguish and uncertainty--for us and those close to us, our families and friends. Time, though, works its magic, it smooths out the rough edges, takes the stink off a bad deal.

They say forgetting is a blessing, an survival mechanism that eases our suffering. A brain wash that dulls the pain. Case in point, when Heather got a tattoo several years back, she insisted it hurt worse than childbirth. I was there for both of those events. The baby hurt worse.

Trust me.

So why tell this story? I'm reminded of a cancer survivor that spoke about all the life lessons that were inherent in her struggle, the leaps and bounds of spiritual growth, how it renewed relationships and let the sun shine again. When asked if she was glad she got cancer, her response was curt.

Oh hell no.

We were once invited to tell our story to a youth group. It was a few years after Michael was born. By that time, the dust had settled and we were in a better place. Our presentation was upbeat and positive. Michael was a beautiful baby in a great family and we unwittingly made it sound too easy, too wonderful, too... Look what we did with an unplanned pregnancy, we made a beautiful flower, turned lemons into lemonade, ain't life grand?

Some of the parents wanted to see more remorse and less hey no problem if you get pregnant, there's always adoption. And I totally get that. In a lot of ways, we were lucky--lucky Cathy and Wayne were solid, lucky to have each other, lucky to have supportive parents. Maybe our message needed to be, perhaps, a little less rosy.

But we were happy. Happy for Michael, for Wayne and Cathy.

When we were older, we addressed adoptive parents about our experience, in particular the open adoption aspect. Some parents are wary, and that of course makes sense. Our experience provides a glimpse of what it can be, how healing can take place for everyone involved. Adoption is sometimes referred to as the third option. That's last place. It's frightening. Scary as hell. Will there be regret? Will something go wrong? There's a lot of unknowns, and that scares the shit out of us. So yeah, I get that. Completely valid fears, all of them. Like I said, we had some luck fall our way.

So why tell this story? Because it's about what's possible. Because it wasn't until recently--26 years after Michael's birth--that was a felt sense of closure. I don't think we realized we'd reached that juncture until after it happened.

You'd think a sense of closure would've occurred with all the birthday correspondence, or when Michael sent the email with our secret password. Or when we reunited downtown. Turns out, it happened a few weeks ago.

In New York City.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 8)

Heather had a Bachelor's degree in Administration of Justice. She did want most people do with their college degree. Something else.

She became a social worker.

She started out in drug and alcohol counseling at a halfway house in Champaign-Urbana. A few years later, she would work for Catholic Social Services, the very same agency that introduced us to open adoption. While her job titles varied, she would end up working as an adoption case worker for the next twenty-some years.

She worked with the adoptive parents, helping them assemble portfolios, arranging meetings with potential birthmothers and handling the paperwork. Most importantly, she counselled them through waiting periods as well as the grieving process whenever an adoption didn't go as planned.

The past fifteen years, she worked closely with birthmothers. Her experiences varied greatly. Sometimes she spent six or eight months with the birthmother, taking them to doctor's appointments, providing them with necessities, counselling them through difficult emotions before and after delivery. Other times, she received a call from a hospital and arrived to meet the birthmother a day after delivery. Sometimes the adoption went well.

Other times, it did not.

She didn't always share her experience with those she worked with. It all depended on whether it would be helpful or not. For birthmothers, it often was. Heather had been through the crises and survived. She knew the importance of counselling and support. She also realized how lucky she was to have had both.

Many birthmothers had neither.

Some were alone. Sometimes they lacked basic necessities or emotional coping skills or had aggressive birthfathers that wanted them to keep the child or aunts or grandparents or parents that weren't about let them give away their baby. One thing she always made clear.

Adoption was loving.

It wasn't about getting rid of a problem or shucking responsibility. In fact, for us it was the opposite. We made an adoption plan because we loved Michael. He needed a family that was ready for him, parents that were loving and stable and supportive. Our intuition was right on the money. Wayne and Cathy were great parents, and Kelsie a wonderful sister.

Heather and I married two years after Michael was born. Crises will make you grow up in a hurry. Our relationship had grown stronger. However, my dark years of depression were still upon me. It would be a few more years before I found my footing through counselling and meditation. 

Ben and Maddi were born in Illinois. In 1998, four months after Maddi was born, we moved to Charleston, SC where I began teaching college. Heather stayed at home with the kids but resumed working as an adoption case worker on a part-time basis. I was born in Charleston, IL and thought it was coincidental that we would raise a family in Charleston, SC. As coincidences go, it was nothing compared to what happened in 2008.

That was when Michael came to visit.

To tell that story, I need to tell this one first. There was a news story about a family that had a secret word. I don't remember what the word was or even what it meant. We just knew we needed to have one.

So one night at dinner, we decided our secret word would be hammer. (Full disclosure: the secret isn't really hammer.) And hammer meant I love you. I don't remember if Heather was on board at first. Our kids' have my sense of humor. We were sort of goofing on the whole secret word thing. Not sort of. We were goofing on it.

But then it stuck.

We wrote little notes signed hammer, texts with hammer, waved goodbye saying hammer. It really became our weird secret word. In fact, it became a password for the longest time. Many of our accounts were assigned hammer88. The number had no significance. It was just tacked on when passwords required a letters and numbers.


In 2008, Heather received an email from Michael. He was eighteen years old. We had received annual updates from Cathy and Wayne, saw him grow up through the years. Heather would send birthday cards every year. But now he was graduating high school. 

And he wanted to visit.

Angst. Elation. Apprehension. Everything was in the room when the email arrived. He was going on a road trip with two friends. We would meet them in Charleston. Times and dates and places were arranged, but that's not the odd part of this story. Sure, eighteen years separating us is not a common event. And why tell the whole story about secret words and hammers and passwords? It was Michael's email. His username.


His username contained our secret family word. Not only that, it had the number. The number.


How is this possible? It's not. It's just not.

But there we were looking at it. It was there. It happened. You might assume I'm spinning a yarn, adding spice to story that's not really in need of it. The odds of that word and number are... they're impossible. We've shared our silly inside joke with very few people, certain not something that would go in a birthday card or texted with directions. Definitely not something for a birthday card.

Micheal didn't have an explanation. He didn't seem to really know why he used that word and number.

None of this felt real anymore. Like some sort of surreal Matrix movie moment, an impossibility that suggested this was a dream. It was all dream. Too perfect.

But we didn't wake up. We met Michael in Charleston. The reunion was stunning. Heather and Michael recognized each other from a block away. They tearfully embraced as tourists passed in horse-drawn carriages.

They had no idea she'd waited 18 years for this moment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 7)

It was June in Illinois.

The weather was fair and clear. Heather and I sat beneath the hickory oak with a three-day old infant. We were not hesitant. We were not ready to be parents. Not when this crisis began. Not now. Perhaps because we had made our decision so early, we had progressed through the pregnancy with his parents in mind and never wavered.

Wayne and Cathy met us beneath the oak tree. We introduced them to their son. We visited for a short while, they signed papers, and then they were back on the road.

Journey complete.

The recovery was certainly not seamless.

Despite our steady commitment, there was a period of emotional recovery that, at times, was difficult. But never regret. It was sad for many reasons. And happy as well. We made it through an unplanned pregnancy. I finished college. Our relationship was as strong as ever. And Michael had an older sister and loving parents.

I returned to work at the college research station. In the fall, I started graduate school at the University of Illinois. Heather stayed in Carbondale to finish her undergraduate. We would travel on the weekends to stay at one place or the other. But before that would happen, we would meet Wayne and Cathy one more time. It was at the hospital.

Blood was drawn.

It was an option, but paternity needed to be determined. If there were any health issues, it would be imperative to know the father's history. I gave a sample. Steve met us to provide a sample, too. And Michael, still an infant, had blood drawn from his foot. It took a few days for the results.

I was not the father.

I could say it didn't matter. To a large degree, it didn't. Michael was with his family. Heather and I made sure of that. What did it matter if I was his biological father or not? But it was impossible not to feel some sadness. Crisis is such.

The years passed and we kept in touch with Wayne and Cathy through letters. Cathy sent photos. Heather sent birthday cards. She finished college and moved in with me while she did an internship at a halfway house and I continued graduate school. In 1992, we got married. That same year, we arranged to meet with Wayne and Cathy.

The greatest fear of open adoption is the unknown.

It's the adoption tragedies that make the news, the disasters that get made into movies. In reality, they are often very cordial. For us, the correspondence helped us process the transition. Our top priority was always Michael. To see that happen, to witness his growth allowed us to grow with him. We eventually became the adults that we knew we would be, adults that just weren't there when he would need them.

Michael was two years old when we saw him. We spent a few hours with the family, got to see him play, got to hold him. Got to say goodbye. That closure made all the difference.

Two years later, we started a family. Ben was born. When his head crowned, I cried just as hard. Four years after that, there was Maddi and, despite my conviction that I'd been there, done that, I bawled a third time. We read books, rolled on the floor, took them for walks and blew out birthday candles.

And every June, Heather would send a birthday card to Michael. She would get pictures back and we watched him grow up.

Eighteen years after giving birth, we would meet him again.