Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.
It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.
But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.
Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.
Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.
This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.
There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.
The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.
Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.
For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.
One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.
Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)
But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.
“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.
There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.
I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.
So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.
Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.
One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.
It’s different for everyone. Here’s a baker’s dozen writers giving their idea of what writing is. But first, a bonus quote – from me. Writing is a persistent itch. Every morning you have to sit down and scratch it.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann
“Let’s face it, writing is hell.” William Styron
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E.L. Doctorow
“In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” Denise Levertov
“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” John Edgar Wideman
“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” Stephen Greenblatt
“I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” Anne Tyler
“I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” Michael Cunningham
“Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” Anthony Powell
“Writing is … that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” Pico Iyer
“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.” Iris Murdoch
“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
When Captain Kirk or Captain Picard says the mission of the Enterprise is “to boldly go” where no one has gone before, is it just me, or does everyone else stop for just a second and say, “Split infinitive!”?
Not to get too complicated, “to go” is an infinitive, a verb phrase common in many languages. In English, it’s the verb, the action word, if you will, and a form of the verb to be. And in English, one of the “rules” is that you don’t split the infinitive, you treat it as a single unit.
So “to boldly go” is a split infinitive. But what are the alternatives?
The late pundit and language maven James Kilpatrick once used the Star Trek mantra as an example of why the rules sometimes need to be ignored. (Or if you prefer, why the rules need to be sometimes ignored.) Because language is more than just a collection of words and rules about how to line them up to make sense. There’s a rhythm, a music to a well-written sentence.
And to say, “To seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly to go where no one has gone before …” just doesn’t have the swing. “To go boldly” is better, but it still doesn’t the same zest, the same dynamic rhythm, the (dare I say?) poetry, that the line carries when it “breaks the rules.”
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about it. Not anything profound. Just a reminder to myself to not become fixated on form, and to remember, as the old jazz man used to sing, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
News for my friends on Goodreads: Starting Thursday you have a chance to win a signed copy of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” For the next three weeks Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of four copies of my young-adult adventure pirate adventure novel.
As you no doubt know, Goodreads is an online community of more than 20 millions book lovers designed “to help people find and share books they love… [and] to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” It’s sort of like Facebook without cat videos, pictures of your dinner, and all that.
If you’re interested and haven’t signed up or just want to check it, you can go to Goodreads.com. And signing up is easy and free. If you’re any kind of a reader, you really want to be a member.
One of the things they have at Goodreads is giveaways. With three clicks, Goodreads members can sign up to win books offered by authors. The winners are randomly chosen by Goodreads, so I’ll have nothing to do with choosing.
From Nov. 18 to Dec. 8, you can enter to win one of four autographed copies of “Chrissie.” When it goes online I’ll post the link.
Here are just a few of the comments readers have given the book.
Just finished reading this book. It’s a great read for young and old! … Good job. John Baur! Looking forward to the sequel! – David Garrett
If you like a good book I would like to recommend Chrissy Warren Pirate Hunter … Great reading all the way through. – Sharon Denardo
This is a very compelling story, moving at a great pace. I hope there is a sequel in the works, because the story leaves you wanting more, in a good way. While I am technically not a young adult, I think they will enjoy this, too. – D. Van Middlesworth
Just finished Chrissie Warren! Wow what a journey! I laughed, I cried, and I can’t say I could enjoy anything more. This has to be among the top in my favorite pirate books. I’m so glad this amazing piece of literature found its was onto my bookshelf! – Janine Myers
Sure, for you – for most people in the northern hemisphere – that’s old news. Summer for most people, at least as a state of mind, ends on Labor Day. For me, it’s a different holiday – International Talk Like a Pirate Day, every Sept, 19.
I’m not very productive in the summer. I’m just not. (Obviously, the includes blogging.) And the two and a half weeks between Labor Day and Talk Like a Pirate Day I’m even busier. As of the two guys who started the holiday and then took the idea way too far, the buildup is a little like I imagine mid-December would be in Santa’s workshop. Not just getting my own schedule together but dealing with our newsletter – The Poopdeck – and the website and interviews, it all gets a little hectic. It’s slowed down some these days, the holiday has taken on a life of its own. It’s reached critical mass and doesn’t need Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket. It’s reached critical mass. Ten years ago we would do more than 80 interviews in a 36 hour period, radio stations all around the world, starting in Australia and New Zealand and following sunrise around the globe. This year we did a handful, and that’s fine. If something happens to me or Mark, the holiday will go on without us.
I’ll talk a little more about this year’s holiday in a later post this week. (No, seriously, this week.) For now, I’m thinking over what I’ve got to get onto.
I’ve got to keep pushing on. I’ve got three projects lined up in a row, that I’d like to have cleaned up and ready to go in the next year. One that’ll be finished in ten days, one to complete by Dec. 1, and then one to have finished by summer.
It’s all a question of being organized, making a schedule and sticking to it. So far, I’ve got the “making a schedule” part. Now for the “sticking to it” part.
What a great trip! Two weeks on the road pirating, geeking out at roadside history, seeing friends and family and making new friends and family, and of course – selling books.
We had a blast!
And all in the company of my best friend, my wife Tori. Even on long stretches of road, late at night in odd places, we amused ourselves and just had a good time together. I always knew I made the right decision when I went up the stairs in 1988.
I’ve written about some of the things we encountered, including two posts (here and here) about what I’ve learned handling some of the book sales events. So this will be more a scattered collection of events, a last look back on some times on the road, before I get back to work moving forward.
Highlight of the whole trip was the three and a half days we got with our daughter Millie. Millie lives in New York, and though we talk to her on the phone almost weekly and trade texts with her often, we hadn’t seen her in two years. That’s way too long.
We picked her up in Baltimore and headed back down the road toward Knoxville. She had brought her ukulele with her and it was great listening to her. We also met up with the granddaughter of an old friend, someone Millie had shared time with growing up, so it was a bonus.
Can’t thank enough our friends Robyn and Daniel for their hospitality. They live in Knoxville, a one-day drive from our home in New Orleans, which was the perfect staging point for our jaunt into the mid-Atlantic states. So we spent a day with them on the way out and several (including two with Millie) on the way back. They have a lovely home they’re performing miracles with. It was a relaxing way to end the trip, sitting out on the patio watching birds take turn in the bird bath, watching scores of fireflies at night.
Talk about hospitality! Spending three days in Hampton with the pirates of the Blackbeard Festival was nothing but fun, a great honor. Constable Heartless, Damon, Mr. Willis, Hope, Rattanne, Greg of the Motley Tunes, all of Blackbeard’s Crew, of course – they were excellent hosts – and the crew of the Vigilant (real life lifesavers, as it turned out) and the Loose Cannon Company and so many more.
Hampton’s Blackbeard Pirate Festival is one of the big ones in the U.S. It’s not just a community festival with a little pirate panache thrown in. It’s got some of that, of course. But the crews are serious about both pirate re-enacting and about having a good time, especially after the fireworks, when the festival is over for the day and the pirate camps come to life.
Singing, stories, more than a little drinking. Good times.
If you’ve been thinking “Maybe I’d like to go to a pirate festival” put this one on your list.
Had a great day in Frostburg, Maryland, with me niece Jenny and her husband Brian. They showed us all the sites of Frostburg, which takes most of a day and you actually have to leave Frostburg for most of it. But they’re such a great couple, it was a really nice day. But two things:
– We left Virginia Tuesday morning and the temperature was upper 80s. We got to the aptly named Frostburg that night, elevation just over 2,000 feet, and it was 52! We had not thought to bring a single long sleeved shirt! First item of business was stopping at a thrift store and getting some flannel, Don’t think it topped 62 the entire time we were there.
– Why is that whole northwestern corner of the state even IN Maryland? It has nothing in common with the rest of the state, the locals no doubt spend all their time complaining about how state government never pays any attention to them. I’m sure everyone involved would be much happier if the area were part of West Virginia, or possibly Pennsylvania. It’d be a no-lose situation.
Met with a lot of folks in front of my table full of books and I always enjoy talking with them. Some had never heard in International Talk Like a Pirate Day, others were surprised to be meeting one of the two people who started the ersatz holiday.
My two favorite were both young girls, about 14 or so, who showed up separately at the Knoxville Barnes & Noble. They both were shy, but with much coaxing from their mothers, they each allowed as how they wanted to be authors, to write stories. They asked for tips.
I didn’t give them tips, they didn’t need them. They got a pep talk, instead. Go for it. Finish what you start. You can’t fix it if you don’t write it down. Write for fun, there’s nothing like the feeling when you create characters that are as real to you as anyone you know, and put them to work telling the story you see in your head. Create great characters and then abuse them – get them in trouble, make the trouble worse, then get them out of it.
They both got copies of “Chrissie,” and I pointed out my email address on the copyright page. I want to hear from them, I told them. I want to know what they thought of the book, and how their writing is going. Because writers stick together.
AND MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP
A lot of miles. From start to finish we traveled 3,572 miles, passing through nine states and just glancing off the side of the District of Columbia (getting snared in the Beltway travel at rush hour, easily the worst traffic of the trip.) Big disappointment – getting out of Baltimore we took the wrong exit and missed passing through the corner of Delaware. The route we took was actually shorter, but how many times do you get the chance to say, “Hi. We’re in Delaware?” (Wayne’s World” reference.) Not many. It’s one of those places where, if you don’t have a good reason to go there, you’re almost certainly never going to. And we just missed by maybe ten miles. Chances like that don’t come around that often.
And we stayed at a wide variety of lodgings – a very wide variety. Most of them were pretty standard motels, nothing special. Three stand out, each for very different reasons.
In Frostburg, Maryland, we stayed at Failinger’s Hotel Gunter. Let me just say, if life ever takes you to Frostburg, Hotel Gunter is a MUST. It was built in 1897, has this beautiful lobby with a sweeping staircase. The whole place kind of went to the dogs and was falling down, when the Failinger family bought it in the 1980s and remodeled They found all kinds of “stuff,” and I mean every kind of stuff you could imagine – and put it on
display from the basement to the fourth floor. It’s not curated, it’s just sort of there, mostly behind plexiglas. A bunch of pictures of Shirley Temple on one wall, next to a display about the Titanic. Old kitchen implements, including two cast iron stoves, a roomful of old clothes, and my favorite – the taxidermy display. Couple of dozen stuffed game animals, wild turkeys and owls and foxes and rabbits and all kinds of critters. My favorite (by far) was the dead fox carrying a dead squirrel in its mouth. Something sort of meta about that. And then, stuck in a corner as if it were almost embarrassed to be there, a stuffed toy polar bear.
Oh, and we stayed in the “Roy Clark Room.” The country music and “Hee Haw” star had stayed in the room back in 1990, and there was a picture and plaque at the door to prove it.
Hotel Gunter is such a wonderfully interesting place, bordering on the weird. The staff was friendly and proud of the place, but it was odd, like a cross between a doll house and the Hotel Overlook in “The Shining.” It was quaint and cozy and comfortable, but it would not have been a surprise to turn a corner and see a spooky pair of young twins chanting, “Come play with us.”
The Ramada in Tuscaloosa on the way home was a different story. I don’t know I’ve ever been to a motel where the staff was friendlier – it must be that Alabama thing; people in Alabama, as a group, are just the friendliest people I’ve ever met – but the hotel was in the midst of a total renovation. Our room had already been redone and was quite nice, but almost everywhere else in the building seemed to be under construction. Still, the pool was very nice, and since we’d only stopped to get off the road because we’d gotten a late start the morning before and it was starting to storm, that seemed like a huge perk.
Then there was that place in Frackville, Pennsylvania. Yes, I said Frackville. We’d finished the Wilkes-Barre signing and decided to hit the road and drive towards Baltimore until we were too tired to drive anymore that night. We should have decided to rest one stop earlier, or else soldiered on. Everything about the Frackville Econo-Lodge was dodgy, except the parts that were downright skeezy. Kind of room that reminds you of an episode of “The X-Files” or “Criminal Minds.” Still, there was a bed and a shower, it was cheap, and we were tired. It wasn’t until the next morning that we noticed that nasty stain, which we hoped and prayed was rust, running down the side of the bed’s box springs.
Anyway, we got to Baltimore in plenty of time, so I guess a motel room you don’t want to stay in – let alone sleep in – has its benefits.
GEEKING OUT AT HISTORY
I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but we are both history geeks. It’s hard for us to drive by a historical marker without stopping to read it. And what a gold mine. Basically, if it happened in American history, some vital part of it probably happened in Virginia. And Maryland and Pennsylvania are right behind. (Not so much Delaware.)
The highlight on that side was Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in what became the U.S. When I was a kid, about 13 or 14, we went to Jamestown as part of a vacation – except it turns out we didn’t. “Jamestown Settlement” is a recreation based on historical records, and it’s a good, educational attraction. But it’s not Jamestown. It was built a couple of miles from where the colony actually was. Until 1994 everyone assumed the land where the colonists settled had washed away a couple of hundred years ago.
Then a very smart archaeologist looked at the clues, looked at the terrain and said, “Wait a minute? Why are we looking there? It ought to be over here.” Turned out he was right. The actual Jamestown site is now a working archaeological dig and we got to tour it, watching college interns painstakingly lift layers of dirt from a trench and sift it for clues. We got to stand in the exact spot where Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and look at the artifacts – tools, toys, weapons and more – that tell the story of life in the settlement in the very earliest days of our country. Wow.
We also learned the story of “Jane” – real name and identity known but to god – a 14-year-old girl who died and was cannibalized during the “time of the great starving.” It’s a sad story and a fascinating bit of scientific/historical detective work. Tori will be using it in her sixth-grade science classes from now on. She teaches kids who are the same age Jane was when she died and was eaten. If that doesn’t get their attention and focus them on science, I don’t know what will.
Other historical stops included Harpers Ferry (where John Brown lit the fuse for the Civil War,) Yorktown, a drive-by of Williamsburg-ing (you can’t do Williamsburg in less than a day, it can’t be done. Maybe next time) and a couple of Civil War battlefields. Missed Antietam and Gettysburg, and kept groaning as we drove by Sharpsburg, Cold Harbor, Manassas, Chancellorsville and so many other names redolent with our country’s past.
And there was so much more. I didn’t even mention seeing a bear at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, or some great meals.
NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP
After we drove Millie to the airport Tuesday, Tori and I looked at each other and said, “Home? … Home.” We had planned to finish out the week on the road, attending a pirate concert by our friends Tom Mason and Blue Buccaneer in Nashville. It would have been a great cap to the trip. But we were tired. I looked at a picture of myself from the second day of the trip, and glanced in the mirror, and I was not the same guy. At some point you want to be surrounded by your own stuff, sleep in your own bed, use your own shower. The time had come.
Besides, we still had Max and Kate at home, and even though they kept telling us on the phone that everything was fine, that they had plenty of food still, that there were no problems and they’d been cleaning the house, we wanted to get back to them. A parent worries. And besides. We like them.
So we had one more lovely day with Robyn and Daniel and headed south.
Now it’s time to get to work. Because there’s two more road trips to plan this year, plus two more book projects to finish and receipts to organize and lots more business to take care of.
But not without saying again, what a great trip that was. We had a blast!
I entered Baltimore’s Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in full buccaneer gear last Friday. A three-year-old looked at me and said one of the things no pirate wants to hear.
“Are you Santa?”
Well, sure, I was wearing my scarlet shirt and my big boots, and my hair and whiskers have gotten a tad – what’s the word I want to describe the color of my hair? Ultrablonde! – that’s it, my hair is ultrablonde. And yes, my waist these days is, shall we say, more than ample – but I’m working on it! But still, didn’t want to hear that.
I growled at him. “Does Santa carry a pirate sword? Does Santa wear a pirate hat? I’m a pirate!”
He laughed and said, “Yo ho underpants!”
Because of course, to a three-year-old boy, underpants is far and away THE funniest word in the language. And that was an important reminder for me, because he was hardly the last kid his age I would see that day.
I had booked the appearance about two months earlier. Red Canoe is a really nice neighborhood institution. I really loved the place, the ambience, the neighborhood, everything about it. It was great. But in retrospect I have to say it probably wasn’t the right venue for me. I knew the store was oriented towards kids books, but I thought a reading of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” would not be inappropriate. Thankfully I had made alternative plans. Because as discussions went back and forth by the owner and myself, I realized this would be a kids gathering, not a teen or young adult. And even then, the audience was a lot younger than I had expected. And fortunately, I had alternate material.
First and foremost, I was going to have to switch books. “Chrissie” is a great book and something that kids as young as 11 or so can really enjoy, and kids as young as 8 would enjoy hearing a short scene read aloud. But it’s way beyond a three year old. Cap’n Slappy and I had put together a whimsical ABC book called “A Li’l’ Pirate’s ABSeas.” We have always proudly said it’s not the book for perfect parents to buy for their perfect children. It’s a book the perfect children should get from their drunken bastard uncles so the kids won’t grow up to be insufferable little prigs. And even better, in our book, “U” is for “Underwear.” So that was obvious.
And I have a stock of material that is adaptable, so I felt pretty confident.
But kids that age have the attention spans of fruit flies. Ever try to keep a three-year-old focused for five minutes? I had a deck full of kids, the oldest of whom was probably four and the average age younger than three. And I worked them for more than an hour, by keeping these simple rules in mind:
The first of course, is “underpants.” I was a pirate so I didn’t feel the need to be perfect and polite. In a pinch, I could always get a laugh just by shouting “Yo Ho Underpants!”
Keep things moving and mix it up. I started with a song. Shifted to a bit of pirate schtick. Another song. A bit of reading from “ABSeas.” Another bit of schtick. A little sleight of hand. Another song.
There’s no way to keep that many kids focused for that long – But I could always play to their parents. Each was accompanied by at least a mother or father, some by both. I could and did play to them, and they in turn made sure their kids got the joke.
And I kept in mind why I was there. To sell books. So we spent more time on reading “ABSeas” than any other single thing. And I saved the best for last.
As I was winding up after an hour and 15 minutes, I gathered all the kids and told them I was going to teach them the single most important pirate phrase, a phrase they had to learn by heart and repeat over and over. That phrase was:
“Mommy, I want the pirate book. Buy me the pirate book mommy!”
They repeated it several times under my coaching. And we sold some books.
Another thing that paid off was that in the weeks preceding the event I had posted several reminders of my schedule on social media, and invited pirates and fans from the area to show up. I really wanted to meet them, because that’s always fun. And a couple did show up, and it was a joy meeting them and talking about how they celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day and incorporate pirattitude in their lives. And god bless ’em! They, too, bought some books, including several copies of “Chrissie.”