When nine years old, I wrote a novel. What am I hearing? Clapping? Please keep down the applause. It really was a humble endeavor.
I was home sick. Not sure why. Too many years have passed. Could not have been the flu with all its symptoms – vomiting, wooziness, an unbearable headache. I’d never have been able to sit on the couch and write the science fiction tale on the pages of my Mom’s notepad. My guess? A bad cold. Lots of coughing and sneezing, maybe a minor headache. But not sapping enough to keep me from writing my first book.
The pages of Mom’s notepads usually became grocery lists, letters to Ohio relatives, sickness excuses for me, and new recipes. On a school day in 1961 some of the pages of one notepad became Alien from Planet Z.
Folks reading this may think the title of the notepad novel sounds familiar. Remember the 1950s movie Man from Planet X? Maybe the film’s synopsis will prod a memory to consciousness: “To study a rogue planet heading for a near-miss with Earth, Professor Elliot sets up an observatory on a remote Scottish Island. Accompanying him are his daughter and Dr. Mears, a former student with a shady past. Soon after the arrival of a reporter, a ship from Planet X just happens to land near the observatory. Is the alien visitor benevolent? What are Mears’ real motives for trying to communicate with it?”
More than fifty years later I’m coming clean: I plagiarized. Yep, I regurgitated the plot of Man from Planet X. I’m not proud of it, but I’d only been on this Earth for nine rotations of the sun. I assure you that nowadays I always strive to be original, although a character may occasionally turn out to be stereotyped.
I read the story to Mom. I don’t recall what she said, but Mom must have encouraged me or I wouldn’t have become the prolific reader and then writer that I am today. I hung out in school libraries, gobbling up science fiction novels about trips to the moon and biographies of baseball players like Babe Ruth and Mel Ott. Not until eighth grade did I take another stab at a novel, this one about an alien invasion. Not plagiarism, just a tired theme.
The second time I didn’t share any of the chapters with anyone. I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin about my writing. To sum up my thoughts back in junior high, “Lord help me, someone might think I’m a terrible writer.” It was the same in high school when I wrote a tale about the English Civil War. Skin too thin to weather criticism.
At about the same time I was writing about a young boy joining Cromwell’s New Model Army, I decided I wanted to become a newspaper journalist. Enrolling at Ohio University, I took the required courses and graduated in 1974 with a journalism degree. Over the twenty years as a reporter, I wrote thousands of news and sports stories, features and columns. My skin thickened. I’ve come to appreciate criticism, not retreat from it. I want to know if something is lousy; I also want to know how to fix it.
After I finished The Emperor’s Mistress, I searched for a competent online writers’ workshop where I could get the chapters critiqued. In 2003 I began using the Online Writers Workshop of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Reviews remind me of my days making cold calls. Ninety-nine result in no new business, but that last one becomes a winner. For me, that last one is Michael Keyton from Newport, United Kingdom.
Keyton is a wordsmith. While he’ll give me his opinion on setting, character development, show/tell, info-dumps and POV, he does something else that helps me immeasurably. He tells me when a paragraph is clunky. Not just tells me… suggests ways to improve it. Sometimes I stick with my words, but I’m not shallow skinned anymore… often I’ll choose one of his suggestions. Or build on it and deviate slightly.
I’ve been reading and reviewing Keyton’s chapters for his novels for nearly ten years. The strength of his novels is the way he paints words onto pages. The language is very poetic. Yet the passages of description rarely get in the way of the narrative flow. After reading one of Keyton’s science fiction/horror tales, you’ll close the book with a cornucopia of imagery still firing off neurons in your brain. That’s why I consider him a wordsmith, and why I eagerly await his suggestions for making paragraphs stronger.
A few years back I was one of the reviewers for Keyton’s novel Clay Cross, a private eye tale done in the pulp fiction genre popular in the 1950s. Nowadays the covers for novels about cynical, hardboiled detectives are popular collector items. The plot seduced me – like a fem fatale seducing a detective – and I found myself often in reader mode, editing forgotten. I loved the setting… Louisiana. From the moment James Finn runs down the priestess daughter of a voodoo-practicing houngan in a bayou, Clay Cross takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of plot twists that lead to a revelation – Finn has been trapped in the persona of comic book-style detective Clay Cross; Finn’s cultured wife, a fem fatale named Sheri Lamour. Anything can and will ensue when voodoo runs amuck.
I won’t say anymore; don’t want to give away too much of the plot. That’s because Keyton has decided to indie-publish Clay Cross. It went live in April. In Record of a Baffled Spirit, Keyton’s blog, he says he first imagined a character named Clay Cross when he came across piles of cheap paperbacks in a Woolworth’s in Newport, Wales. The paperbacks mostly featured Richard S. Prather’s detective, Shell Scott. Shell Scott led to Keyton’s creation, Clay Cross. Woolworth’s is long gone, but Clay Cross is very much alive in the pages of Keyton’s newly published novel.
I’ll offer up a link in case Clay Cross has intrigued you.