Tag Archives: books

In the wake of the mayhem

13 Oct

Let me get this out of the way first: This is not a post about gun control.

Okay, now we can move on.

As I write this, the Mass Shooting Tracker has logged 373 mass shootings in America this year. Check here to see the current number. The tracker defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more people, including the shooter, are shot. Simple as that. The FBI defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more random victims are killed, not counting the shooter. In either definition, families are left in a world of hurt. Yet, the volume of mass shootings has caused many of us to become inured to stories of them.

That’s what my new novel, Come up a Cloud, is about. “Come up a Cloud” is an old expression that means it looks like rain. It can portend menace, or it can indicate hope. In Come up a Cloud, I cloudcover_fbimagine how a mass shooting in a small town affects its residents. Because the killer shot himself, where will the families of the victims direct their hurt and anger?  Will they seek revenge against someone else? Or can they forgive?

And what about the parents of the killer? How can they properly mourn? How can they forgive themselves and their son?

Here’s the prologue:

The bald tires whined on the bucket-of-bolts truck as it rattled past Sandstrum’s Machine Shop on Route 4. Out of the corner of his eye, the farmer behind the wheel glimpsed a plump figure in camouflage pants loitering near the back corner of the corrugated tin building. The old man would have assumed it was one of the machinists taking a smoke break, except the person wore an odd headpiece. It looked like a Viking helmet, like the ones you saw at Minnesota football games. The other odd thing: The Viking held a rifle canted downward. The gun looked like one of those fancy Bushmasters, which copied M-16s like the one the farmer had carried in the jungle.

The farmer rummaged his brain for any hunting season starting in early August. Squirrel season wouldn’t kick off for a few more weeks, not that a flimsy law stopped anyone who craved pan-fried rodent. He’d heard Bushmaster made a .22, which wasn’t much more than a peashooter dressed up like a serious piece of work. Anything more powerful would rip a squirrel to thunder. And wearing desert camo to hunt squirrels? That was even less necessary than an assault rifle, unless squirrels had gotten a lot smarter than they used to be.

The farmer decided the hunter was one of Sandstrum’s friends, a city fool who had come up to pretend-hunt. That didn’t explain the helmet, but lots of things city people did were hard to explain. He headed down the road to Snoots for a lunch of ham sandwich and PBR. He would give the camoed figure no more thought until he heard the sirens thirty minutes later.

The novel is not a basket of warm and fuzzies. Still, it is not without hope, and I hope you will find it worthwhile.

You can buy the book here.

Better yet, support your local independent book seller. Here’s mine.

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From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

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I’m slightly less stupid than a year ago

10 Jan

Reason #1: I know I should not be my own editor

I published my first novel, The Savior of Turk (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!) a little more than a year ago. I don’t know if I’m any smarter, but I was dumber then than I am now.Turk_Print_Cover

An adage, which I just made up, goes that even John Steinbeck needed an editor. Everyone, no matter how good they are at writing, requires a good editor to keep them on the right path. However, I was so sure of myself when I wrote The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!that I thought I could get by without a professional putting the thing under a microscope.

No matter how good a writer I may think I am, I need someone who can look at my work objectively. This person is not my dear wife, Michele.  I find it a good idea to have Michele read my work because she takes the better or worse thing seriously and has willed herself to be my biggest fan. If she doesn’t like something I’ve written—and, believe me, there have been such occasions—it confirms I have written junk. If, however, Michele praises my work, it doesn’t prove anything, except that Michele is a supportive spouse.  Michele said she really liked the manuscript for The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!). This proved that our marriage was on reasonably solid footing, but it did not confirm anything about the book’s quality, other than it was at least slightly better than something a baboon could produce.

Professional editors do more than look at a manuscript objectively. They also see the big picture. After Michele read the manuscript, I asked two friends with extensive writing experience to take a look.  Glenn Kleier, whose novel The Knowledge of Good and Evil is available for $7.99 while digital copies last! also read the manuscript. All three gave me favorable feedback and good suggestions. However, none of them could be expected to go through the manuscript as an editor, who would evaluate the story arc, character development, dialogue and all that. That’s what a professional editor does. And they don’t care if they hurt my feelings like my wife or friends theoretically might. An editor is paid to help the writer craft the best possible story.

Since The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!) was published, I have revised it twice, primarily re-proofing, shortening and eliminating some sections that I decided added little to the story. I know the book was always good, but now it’s even better. It could have been that way all along if I had gotten an editor to look at it. Next time, I will, you know, because I’m not the idiot I was twelve months ago.

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Next Post: Reason #2 I’m slightly less stupid than a year ago

I have nothing to say, but that won’t stop me from saying it.

2 Nov

The great Greek-Persian philosopher Demothechakakhan (known as Chaka to his buds) once said that a person could write on a cartload of papyrus and still not say shite. (Bear with me, I’ve been watching Scottish TV lately.) He didn’t say those exact words, but the sentiment is accurate. Chaka’s idea is valid, and he would have made a decent blogger.

This is not Demothechakakhan, but it could be.

The prevailing wisdom regarding novelists today, particularly indie/self-published writers, is that they must  have a blog. And they must blog at least once a week. The idea, if I understand it correctly, is to allow readers and potential readers to get to  know the writer in a way that was not feasible pre-social media. (Even if there were such an avenue back in the day, it’s hard to imagine someone like Norman Mailer blogging weekly. But whatever.)

Writers always have something to say.That’s why we write. The problem, in my case anyway, is most of my energy goes to saying it in my books. Therefore, when it comes that time of the week when I feel I need to post something, I don’t always have anything in mind.

Subsequently, to meet this self-assigned obligation, I’m in danger of writing about some of the more mundane aspects of my life. For example,  my decision to wear blue pants today instead of gray.  I was a little lazy in choosing coordinating colors, so I wondered if I could get away with mixing blue with brown. That reminded me of Mikhail Gorbachev, former head honcho of the Soviet Union, when he paid a visit to America in the early nineties. He wore a navy suit with shoes the color of a chestnut horse. I wondered if that was an acceptable shoe color with a navy suit in Russia. I would have gone with oxblood shoes, but what did I know? The more I thought about it, however, the more I decided the navy/chestnut combo worked. Still, I would never write about that in a blog. I have standards.

I could also write about how it may be time to replace my can of shaving cream, and how it’s hard to know when the can  is about empty. Even when it feels light, there could be a good two weeks worth of shaving left. On the other hand, you can tell when your stick of deodorant is nearly used up. Maybe someone could create a way to have shaving cream work like a stick of deodorant so you would know exactly when you’re running out. I keep worrying I’ll be surprised one morning soon, running out of shaving gel before I can complete the task. Then I remember that I go without shaving once or twice a week anyway,  much to the chagrin of my wife, so why worry about it?

The point is, it would be silly to write about that stuff to meet a fake obligation to fill this space with five hundred words each week.  I promise I will never do that.

P.S. If you’re interested in books that don’t simply fill space, I can help you here, here and here.

A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.

Spotlight and Interview at the Avid Reader

26 Sep

An excerpt of an interview on The Avid Reader blog...

The Avid Reader: If you could travel back in time here on earth to any place or time. Where would you go and why?

Ron D  Smith: I would like to go back and hang out with Abe Lincoln in the White House, but there’s a catch. I can go all day without electricity, but I like indoor plumbing. Did they have that in the White House when Lincoln was there? If not, that would be a deal breaker.

And it gets even better. Please check it out.

The Night Budda Got Deep in It

Kitties and Bodice Rippers

7 Jul

The blog world is filled with serious readers who love to write about books, and 95% of them have pictures of their cats on their site. Fifty percent of those have pictures of their dead cats. RIP Butterball 1999-2011. These bloggers are serious about their craft, and I’m thankful for the ones who take time to consider my work. But as a guy who doesn’t write about vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic America, bodice ripping, or vampires screwing bodice-ripping werewolves in post-apocalyptic America, the list of bloggers interested in reading my books is a bit small. My first novel was centered around a porn store in a small town. My second novel is about a kid who inadvertently becomes an oxycontin delivery boy in a small town in Kentucky. There’s no vampire or bodice in either story. I thought about putting a picture of a Russian blue cat on my next book cover to generate more blogging interest, but that didn’t seem right.