Thursday, February 1, 2018

Middle Class - 1959

While writing Leaving Juneau County I spent a lot of time thinking about how life was different in 1959 compared to today. Human nature was pretty much the same – people laughed, loved, got angry, worried about stuff, and generally hoped for a bright future. They may have carried a greater sense of personal responsibility, whereas today we expect “Society” to provide for so many of our needs. But in most ways people were much like we are now.

One curious difference however, is what it meant to be “middle class.” The average home in 1959 was 1200 square feet with one bathroom. Today’s average is 2300 square feet with 2½ baths. A 1959 automobile was a primitive piece of machinery compared to the performance, comfort, reliability, and safety of today’s new car. Today’s middle class person flies around the country, or even internationally, on vacation and for business, whereas flying was rare and limited to the upper class in 1959. Eighty-six percent of households were privileged to have a television in 1959. Today, we not only have TVs in multiple rooms, but portable electronic devices that entertain us wherever we go.

Some of these advances have been due to the lower cost of technology. For example, in 1959, a 21” RCA table-top color TV sold for $495. That’s $4,222 in today’s equivalent! Yet a 50” RCA high-definition, flat screen, smart TV can now be had for just $249. And while air fare from L.A. to New York cost $168 each way in 1959 ($1,436 adjusted for inflation), round-trip fares can now be found as low as $296.

But we’re also willing to spend more extravagantly for what we want. In Leaving Juneau County, Betty purchases bleacher seats at the World Series for $2.00 apiece – the real price for those seats. (Grandstand seats were $7.00.) Adjusted for inflation one would expect to buy those same tickets today for $17 or $60. However, the average ticket price for a seat to the 2017 World Series this past year at Dodger Stadium was $3,164! The average price of a new 1959 automobile was $2200 (about $18,766 in 2018 dollars). Yet today, the average new car sales price is $33,560. And while the average home price was $12,400 in 1959 ($105,772 adjusted for inflation), today the average home price is $188,900.

Where are we finding the money for this more expensive lifestyle? Household income has grown – in large part due to the addition of a second wage earner. Average household income in 1959 came in at $5016 (or $42,786 today), But today’s average household income has grown to almost $60,000.

At least as it pertains to the “stuff” with which we surround ourselves, life probably was simpler back then. Nonetheless, “human spirit” remains pretty much unchanged. And since Leaving Juneau County is all about human spirit, today’s readers will see much of themselves in the story of middle class high school kids from 1959.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

"Indie" Publishing

One decision today’s author must confront is whether to pursue publication through the traditional route with a major book company, or to strike out into the frontier of book sales independently. Once upon a time, a first-time novelist, like 19th century Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) or even 20th century J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) had no choice. They needed to capture the attention of an editor at a prominent book company or their story would never appear on the pages of a book in some enthralled reader’s hands. It’s impossible to know how many incredible stories from would-be novelists never saw the light of day. But today, authors have a choice.
The traditional path remains alive. But it is long and arduous, with limited odds for success. The aspiring author first creates an extensive story proposal and accompanying marketing plan, and submits that to a number of literary agents who represent that style of book. After several months of rejections, and several submissions to a new batch of agents, one might accept the proposal. Contracts are drawn, and that agent begins to shop around for a book company to publish the novel. Months pass. At this point, many stories never find a home. A few get picked up by a book company editor and a publishing contract is drafted. The author receives an advance payment, based upon expected sales. Then, the editor directs the author to begin re-writes of the story to fit what the editor believes will sell the best. Often, wholesale changes are made to the story at the direction of the editor. Finally, a year or so later, the book is ready and the presses roll out thousands of copies. For the next few months, the book company’s publicity department assists the author in developing a promotional campaign. But if sales don’t immediately spike, marketing resources are quickly withdrawn and the book is rapidly discounted. Many traditionally published novels only see an initial production run, and then end up in the budget pile at bookstores. A few enjoy popular success and the author ends up on Oprah.
The other path open to today’s author is independent (“Indie”) publishing. The author writes, re-writes, and edits his or her story to be the best possible, often using trusted readers to offer input on the draft manuscript. Then a publication company is hired to assist the author in getting the manuscript typeset in print-ready format (and Kindle/Smashwords formats), obtaining an ISBN number, sourcing a reliable “print-on-demand” print company, and getting the book placed in wholesale distributors as well as online retail outlets. Finally, when all is ready, the fate of the book is back in the hands of its creator. The number of people who ultimately read the book will be determined by the ability of the author to attract interest, and the reaction of those who read the story. Some, like E.L.James’ 50 Shades of Grey manage to break through and become best sellers. Others never sell more than a few dozen copies.
I chose to go the “Indie” route with Leaving Juneau County, partly because I’m far too independent-minded to survive the traditional process. But more importantly, I believe the story is just too darned good to be hacked apart by some New York editor who has never set foot in a small Wisconsin town. If you are touched by the story, I hope you will help me get the word out and refer the novel to your friends.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Dialog Tags

Dialog tags? I know. Sounds like nasty little growths you get on your tongue when you talk too much. But in fiction writing they can suck the flavor out of an otherwise juicy story. Consider the following exchange…
   “Did you really do it with him right here in this room?” asked John angrily.
   “Well what did you expect? You’re always gone.” replied Martha defiantly.
   “Hey man, I’m sorry,” said Fred fearfully.
   “Sorry?” yelled John in a mounting rage.
   “Not as sorry as you’re gonna be!”
   “Oh John, please let him go,” cried Martha desperately.
   “Dude, we were once friends,” pleaded Fred.

All the “he said/she said” bogs the story down. Better if the writer can show the emotional context with action-oriented narrative...
     John gripped his hand on Martha’s shoulder and shoved her backward onto the occupied bed. “Did you really do it with him right here in this room?”
     She reached over, grabbed his valise from the floor and shook it at him. “Well, what did you expect? You’re always gone.”
     Fred tried to slink out of the bed. “Hey man, I’m sorry.” He grabbed his clothes and bolted for the door.
     “Sorry?” John stepped back and slammed the door shut. “Not as sorry as you’re gonna be!”
     Martha leapt out of the bed and fell to John’s feet. “Oh John, please let him go.”
     Fred cowered, waiting for the blow of John’s fist.
     “Dude, we were once friends.”

Get the picture? Notwithstanding the overly melodramatic example, the second exchange places you in the room with the characters. Not once was it necessary to write “he said.” As a first-time novelist I hadn’t thought much about dialog tags until my publisher sent me a short article on the subject. I then looked back upon my own manuscript with a good dose of “OMG!!” So the past two weeks I’ve been exorcising those little devils. But I also used the time to restructure a few sections of the story, add some drama here and there, and hack out some sections that were just too dull. The rework pushed everything back a couple weeks, but I’m happier with the result. And that means you will be too.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


People frequently say, “life was simpler then,” when referring to an earlier generation. And while that may be true in regards to the complexity of modern technology and the bombardment of information we endure today, the variety of challenges faced by a young person coming of age has always seemed daunting at the time.

I decided to write my first fiction novel about the essence of those challenges. I wanted a story devoid of magical wizardry, one without bloody, dragon-reinforced battles for the throne, without serial murderers or scary clowns, without cars exploding as they careened over a cliff, and without a zombie apocalypse. What could possibly be left? How about a year in the life of a high school senior and his closest friends from Mauston, Wisconsin? How about setting that story in the 1958-1959 school year? “Seriously?” you ask. “Certainly shape-shifting aliens must infiltrate the population, or some cosmic hole to an alternate dimension must factor in somehow, right?” Nope. But life can be pretty interesting without any of those imaginary fantasies.

Leaving Juneau County follows Jack Barton, a country boy, and his three “townie” friends over the course of their senior year in high school as their lives are transformed from the predictable and comfortable world they once knew, to the unpredictable frontier of adulthood. Inseparable since they were kids, the four friends confront the reality that their futures will head off in four separate directions. So they commit to filling their final year together with as much fun as they can pack in, but also end up facing conflicts, hormones, bad dudes, governmental intrusion, and tragedy along the way.

Considerable research went into creating the backdrop for the story. The Mauston Library has an incredible local archives center containing everything from news clippings, to court records, to high school yearbooks, to flyers and advertising from the past. My wife and I spent two full days gathering documentation from that resource. We also had the opportunity to meet and talk with a number of people who attended high school in Mauston during the late 1950s. Their insights were invaluable in painting an accurate portrayal of teenage life in that time and place. And of course, with the aid of today’s internet information access, I was able to research broader events of the day. The end result is fictional characters and story in a truly authentic setting. I look forward to sharing this story with you, and anticipate its release in early 2018.

If you choose to follow my Facebook page I will keep you apprised of the remaining steps that will get the book in your hands as easily as possible.