AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE McNEFF by Miko Johnston

 

mikemcneff

If you write mysteries – stories about crimes, their investigation and prosecution – and want your writing to be publication perfect, wouldn’t you love to know someone who could help you achieve that goal?  Then prepare to meet your next best friend, Mike McNeff.

Mike is a retired law enforcement officer and lawyer. He’s worked as a state trooper, a deputy sheriff and a city police officer; a prosecutor, police legal advisor, defense lawyer and a civil trial lawyer. He’s a firearms expert and certified instructor who volunteers as a teacher for a local gun club. He’s also a published author of three novels and in addition, has recently completed a certified course in editing from the University of Washington.

Mike’s the guy who’ll tell you the crook wouldn’t “snap a cartridge in his gun”, he’d “jack a round in the chamber”.  The proper methods of searching a crime scene. The sound a bullet makes when it hits the trunk of a car or passes within inches of your head. How a corpse would smell or appear depending on the environmental conditions and TOD. He knows this all firsthand.

As a qualified editor, he can tell when a scene moves the story forward or drags down the narrative. He also knows an m dash from an n dash, when to use ellipses, whether that number should be written out, and how many sentences comprise a complete paragraph (hint: it depends on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction – the answer will be at the end of the interview).

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a great guy and a good friend to all, especially writers.

 

Mike, could you begin by explaining the four types of editing that can be done?

There are actually five types. First there is acquisition editing, a review of a manuscript for possible acceptance by the publisher. There’s developmental editing, where the content and structure of a work is developed for publication. Then there’s a line editor, whose job is not to correct punctuation, but make certain that everything written properly develops and moves the story forward. Next is a copy editor and there are three stages: light, medium and heavy. Light is mainly going over the work for major mistakes in punctuation and grammar when the piece is well written and it doesn’t have to be delved into deeply. Medium is really going into the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure to make the piece as readable as possible. Heavy is medium copy editing mixed with line editing. The last is proof reading. The proofreader looks at every word, punctuation, spelling, formatting, looking for any mistakes in the final draft of the manuscript to make sure the copy is clean.

 

You’ve been outspoken about the need for writers to have certified editors review their manuscript before publication. Why? 

Editing is the most crucial thing a writer can have done to their work. I never knew there were five levels of editing before I was certified. To have a neighbor or your mother do the editing isn’t going to work. You need a trained editor who knows what it takes for a manuscript to be ready for publishing. It’s very important because you have to impress readers right out of the gate. A poorly edited work will make it very hard to recover your reputation as a writer.

 

You and I have shared our bafflement as to why so many writers resist allowing their work to be edited. Why do you think that is? 

Two reasons: One, “I can’t afford an editor”. When I hear that excuse I say, “You can’t afford not to have an editor.” Others don’t like having their work critically reviewed. You need to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a successful writer.

 

How can you change their minds?

You have to convince writers they need an editor, or else they’ll learn it through the cruel world of publishing. The market will eventually determine how good your book is, including the reviews you’ll get. Bad reviews hurt.

 

What advice would you give a writer seeking an editor?  

There are books like The Writers Market that offer writers resources. Online there’s the Northwest Editors Guild, the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and other groups like that (in your area). Go on Google and type in editors. It’s important to get editors who are familiar with your genre. Look at websites of different editors. And there’s word of mouth. Talk to other writers about their experiences.

 

What questions should writers ask before hiring someone? 

Find out how long they’ve been an editor. Have they any formal training, either a course or working as an intern for an editor. Ask for references, and then ask what books they’ve edited and take a look at them. Check reviews, but also read at least one or two chapters.

 

Let’s talk about your expertise in law enforcement. Does your earlier career give you an advantage when content editing mysteries, police procedurals and legal thrillers? 

I was a police officer for 29 years. I did what cops call a trifecta – state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired as a city police officer. I’ve been assigned to federal task forces, worked with FBI and U.S. Customs/Border Patrol, so I know how federal officers operate. I was a team supervisor with two SWAT teams and commanded one. Having worked almost every detail an officer can do and almost every type of crime with those investigations, I’m familiar with all the procedures officers have to follow to make a case right. It also helps that I was a prosecutor for five years.

 

What are the biggest mistakes mystery writers make in their manuscripts? 

They get too mired down in police detail.

That surprises me. I’d have thought the opposite – getting it totally wrong.

You want to show you have credible police knowledge, but don’t let reality get in the way of a good story. You see things on TV that cops cringe at but if you get into too much detail you slow the pace of the story, so you need balance. Good example: Law & Order. On every episode the suspect would be brought in with his or her lawyer for interrogation and the lawyer would let the client talk to the police. In real life that would never happen – it would be malpractice for the lawyer, but as a device to move story forward, it works.

 

What about self-published writers, regardless of their genre? 

You need a professional editor. Your English teacher is not an editor for the purpose of storytelling. You need someone who knows how to tell a story and what makes a story work.

 

It must drive you crazy when you read books or stories that get the law enforcement and legal facts wrong. What are some of the worst examples you’ve seen? 

Really egregious are stories that have cops arrest people without probable cause, kick in doors without a search warrant—things that would get a real cop in trouble and the case kicked out. Pushing to the limit is okay, but total breaks with the law don’t fly, unless the story has the offending cop punished. If the story has a cop who commits a felony and he or she doesn’t get punished, that drives me up a wall. It’s one of the reasons so many people have distrust for police officers. They think because it’s on TV or in a movie it must be true.

 

What sources (local agencies; websites) would you recommend to writers who do not have a cop or lawyer in their circle to prevent these inaccuracies? 

Lots of cops write books and pay attention to the legal aspects. Zack Fortier writes about working patrol and dealing with gangs. Another fine author, Bernard Schaffer, has several books out and is still active in law enforcement. Pick up books by those authors and you’ll get an idea. Also read my first novel, GOTU (pronounced GOT-U).

 

Lastly, what reference books should every writer have on their bookshelf? 

The one book I recommend for all writers is The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. Also Gregg’s Grammar Reference, and a good dictionary.

 

* * * * *

Hard Justice.McNeff

Mike McNeff is the author of the western Hard Justice and the Robin Marlette series of Black Ops; the third installment, Blood Wealth will be available soon. He’s currently writing a non-fiction book about four Vietnam vets who survived a horrific battle and its aftermath. For queries about manuscript editing, he can be reached at his website, mikemcneff.com.

 

Finally, as promised, how many sentences should be in a complete paragraph? In fiction, there is no rule. In non-fiction, a paragraph should have a minimum of three sentences.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

THE STORY OF YOU

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a writer. You create memorable characters that breathe with life, wonderful settings readers can vividly picture, riveting stories we follow from page to page. Perhaps you’re ignoring one riveting story that takes place in a wonderful setting, featuring a memorable character – you.

Have you ever thought about writing your own story? Many writers never consider memoir, assuming it would be of no interest to anyone – an ordinary life in an ordinary place. But thousands of people who felt that way became the subject of The Greatest Generation, and I doubt anyone would consider their stories dull.

Even if you assume you never did anything that remarkable, if you’re over fifty you’ve lived through remarkable times. The world you grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Stories set in the past entice younger readers who can’t picture a world without cellphones, social media and everything on demand. Older readers enjoy reminiscing about simpler times, when you had to get off the couch to change the TV channel. If you had a TV. If you still doubt the interest exists, consider the popularity of DNA tests for ancestry and genealogy research.

Memoirs generally focus on a theme or experience rather than a chronology of events. They differ from autobiography in that they involve memories, so memoirs don’t require the same standard for accuracy as autobiographies. Laura Kalpakian, author of The Memoir Club, says, “The memoir is not and should never be confused with the truth…alteration is inevitable. As a result, truth belongs to the teller.” Walter Zinsser, who wrote Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, adds the importance of “integrity of intention – how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us.” Once you have the pieces, they need to be assembled, what Zinsser calls “imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.”

To better understand the genre, I spoke with three authors who write memoirs. All are in their eighties. I met them in writing groups, but truly got to know them through their writing.

Gordon Labuhn’s book, My Gang, tells the story of a boy growing up in 1940’s Detroit. Gordon wore glasses, making him a target for bullies. To avoid getting beat up he formed a gang, albeit one that resembled the Little Rascals more than the Crips. The rest, as they say, is history – a history filled with hilarious misadventures, a little drama and a few tears.

That history continued when Gordon, deciding he needed to expand on his life story, wrote a sequel. “The writing of Whirlwind: The (Mis)adventures of a Man in Motion, was inspired by concern that My Gang as a standalone memoir would give a distorted view of my life after…my gang-days lifestyle.” Gordon, who brings joy and laughter to everyone he meets, filled his memoirs with his unique sense of humor.

Avis Rector grew up on Whidbey Island, Washington, in the farmhouse she and her husband still call home. Born in 1934, she’s too young to remember the Great Depression, but had heard many stories from her family about what life was like on the Island during that era. Those stories, combined with her memories, grew into her novel Pauline, which is loosely based on her family history. Although fictionalized, she’s enriched the book and its upcoming sequel with actual people, places and events, such as the Civilian Conservation Corp’s building of Deception Pass Bridge, an architectural masterpiece that for the first time linked the island with the mainland.

Her series began with a desire to write. “I had already written my autobiography for my three daughters. They wanted more stories about the family.” She took a creative writing class and wrote a piece based on a story her father had told her about a couple who became the featured characters in her novel. “When I reached 5000 words my instructor told me I had to (edit) it down to be a short story or turn it into a novel.” She credits her heroine Pauline as her inspiration. “She pushed me to invent situations, expand on the family stories by bringing in made-up characters.”

Barb Bland has always been athletic, creative, an animal lover, and intellectually curious. When I asked what inspired her to write her memoirs, she told me, “since I have no two-legged children, these stories are my ‘offspring’ and my only claim to immortality.” Barb left her home and family in the early sixties to study in France, where she became an au pair for a French family. “I was anticipating a return to France after having lived there fifty years earlier and wanted to remember and record ‘how it was,’ knowing that it had vastly changed.” This led to her work in progress, French Lessons, which chronicles her time abroad. Barb can write about the most ordinary incident and make it interesting, so you can imagine how fascinating her memoir will be when it’s completed.

Her first publication, Running Free, recounts her experience with a “throw-away” dog whom she rescued from a shelter. “I had a great dog, wanted to ‘keep him with me’ long after he passed from this world…(I) wanted to encourage others to attempt the ‘impossible’ and show them how I did it.” She donates the proceeds of the book to WAIF, the local animal shelter, one of the first minimal-kill shelters in North America.

Perhaps the most challenging issue with memoir is recalling incidents or experiences that would be unflattering or racist. Barb says she tries to observe political correctness “unless I’m using a direct quotation from one of my characters.” Gordon, a white man who lived in an interracial neighborhood during the tumultuous sixties, relates an incident with a black gang member with fairness and balance. One must be honest when dealing with these memories, but they can provide insight not only into how it was, but how it is now. “I don’t think one can write after-the-fact and still be ‘who she was at the time’,” said Barb. “As years pass, we realize past experiences in a different light.”

If this convinces you to write a memoir, Barb advises, “Above all, enjoy the writing process. Write to please yourself.” When you publish your story, consider all the places that might be interested in having a copy beyond your family and friends. Many libraries have local history collections, and historical societies or museums, schools, chambers of commerce, and even hospitals could be interested in adding your book to their collection or selling it in their gift shop. Did you have an unusual job or a career that overlapped a unique period of development or history? Does your story include the challenge of dealing with a physical or medical issue? A special child or animal? Any related organization with a website, newsletter, or annual conference/convention might consider carrying or at least advertising a book based on their mission statement.

Even if you’ve never written a book before, Gordon recommends beginning with your own story. “The memoir is ideal – you know the subject and creativity isn’t necessary…write for fun and if you become rich, share some green with me.”

On the other hand, Avis suggests a more creative approach. “Unless the author can be amusing, poke fun at one’s own self in their memoir, or has led an exemplarily interesting life, they would enjoy fictionalizing it.”

Two earlier posts, Dedication and Holiday Memories, are my first attempts at memoir, but may not be my last. One of Gordon’s comments really stuck with me. “Wouldn’t you like to have a book written by your great, great, great grandfather or grandmother? A book that tells what it was like and what he/she did at that time and location in history?” What a wonderful legacy to leave for your family, friends and community.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal in the Wind series as well as several short stories. Miko is currently working on the fourth Petal novel as well as a mystery set in a library. Contact her at: mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

PAY IT FORWARD by Miko Johnston

I’ve supported many worthy causes throughout my life. In addition to monetary donations to charities, I’ve baked elaborate pastries to be auctioned off at a scholarship dinner, left canned tuna, dried beans and boxes of pasta for my local food bank, and brought gently used clothing and household goods to thrift stores. However, this year I made a new donation – myself – to what I believe is a very worthy cause. I began a volunteer program for students at a local high school.

 

It began when a teacher who offers a creative writing class at the school contacted my writers group. Several of her students wanted to pursue writing, either as a passion or a career path. However, they needed guidance and she asked if we could help.

 

I took the helm and gathered several writers, all published authors with years of experience, to begin a mentor program. Students in the class send us pages to critique and we supply feedback, guidance, and (I hope) encouragement. We began the program with a class presentation, where each of the volunteers had seven minutes to discuss some aspect of writing. I will share my contribution with you:

 

 

 

Miko Johnston: THREE HABITS ALL WRITERS MUST DEVELOP

Writers may differ in how and what they write, but most will agree to that be successful, all writers must know some basic principles. Here are three key ones:

 

I           Develop the writing habit:

Write and keep writing. Too often, writers will get a few pages or a chapter written and then go back and tweak them, over and over, until they have it ‘right.’ Or they’ll stare at a blank page, waiting for inspiration. Resist the temptation. Keep going, even if it isn’t perfect, or brilliant. Even if it isn’t good. Things may change as you progress in the story, but you won’t know that until you have more, or all of it, written. It’s why many writers begin with a ‘vomit’ draft, where you get it all out now and clean it up later. Remember: it doesn’t matter what you start out with, only what you’ve got when you’re finished. That’s what rewriting is all about. Develop the writing habit and practice it regularly. Finish what you’ve started, then begin again.

 

 

II         Develop the grammar habit:

Master the rules of writing. Learn how to use grammar and punctuation, because once you do, you can consciously break the rules without it seeming like you don’t know what you’re doing. To learn how todo it right, get a dictionary, thesaurus, and style guide.Then pick a style, any style, and stick to it. There are many ‘right’ ways to write. You can debate over whether to write 2017 or twenty seventeen, if a comma is needed after the next-to-last word in a list, or whether next to last should be hyphenated. For example, the current trend is to leave out commas except when they’re needed to make the point clear (“Time to eat, Dad” vs. “Time to eat Dad”) or put a pause in a sentence. Which style you use matters less than whether you’re consistent about it.

 

 

III        Develop the fearless habit:

There’s a tendency to keep your work private. However, you won’t know how people will react to your work unless you have the courage to share it with them. Join a critique group or find like-minded writers to form your own group. Meet with people who’ll read your work and offer genuine critique, which is different from criticism. You will do the same with their writing. You’ll be amazed at how much you will learn from evaluating others’ work. If you’re reluctant or afraid to show your work to others, don’t be. You might think that having someone read your work and tell you it’s bad would be the worst thing to hear, and you’re right. However, it’s not because their comment is hurtful, but unhelpful. What’s bad about it? If someone can point out what isn’t working in your story, and how to fix it, that isn’t negative. As for useless comments like, “It stinks”, ignore them.

 

     ****                                       *******                                    ****

 

It’s been such a pleasure working with these students. They’re anxious to learn and receptive to our feedback. I can see marked improvement in their work already. We’re on summer hiatus now, but all of my volunteers are looking forward to resuming the program this fall. A few of the students have real potential. Perhaps in the future, after they’ve been published, some of them will pay it forward and help a new generation of young writers.

 

If any of you are interested in starting a mentorship program for young writers, there are many opportunities to help in your community. Check with your local public or private schools. Community organizations like the Boys And Girls Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and other youth groups might welcome your help as well. You’ll be amazed by how much you’ll learn through teaching others.

 

You’re welcome to contact me at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com for more information.

 

 

Miko Johnston first contemplated a career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a television and print journalist before deciding she preferred the more believable realm of fiction. She is the author of the A Petal in the Wind series as well as several short stories. Miko is currently working on the fourth Petal novel as well as a mystery set in a library. Contact her at: mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

YOU CAN’T EAT A BOOK, BUT…. By Miko Johnston

Spring has finally arrived. The season of renewal. Rebirth. Intensive house cleaning. Today I’m cleaning out the attic, a.k.a. my brain. Feel free to take what you want from the pile. 

I’ve been so impressed with my fellow WinRs. Jackie Houchin bravely entering the world of book publishing. Jill Amadeo sacrificing personal glory to ghostwrite someone else’s story. Gayle’s generosity in sharing her excellent writing tips. Linda’s encouraging words about writers’ groups. Then there’s Rosemary’s wonderful “Yak Shavings” and the heartfelt way she shares her life with readers. And Madeline’s musings on writing always inspire me.

In fact, Madeline’s recent post sparked an idea, which I promise I’ll get to eventually. I’m about to lose the cooking channel from my cable subscription, so I’ve been semi-binging on my favorite competition shows. I often hear contestants stress the importance of passion in cooking. To me, passion is fine, even helpful if you want to work in the food industry, but it doesn’t make the cut for the top three criteria of a good cook. I’ve known plenty of people who are passionate about cooking and aren’t very good at it, while others who have no passion for it are quite good.

In my opinion, the three most important qualities needed to be a good cook are:

1 – An understanding of the ingredients. Anyone can go into a store and buy food, whether an apple or a piece of fish. Knowing how to distinguish quality, and which variety will be best for its intended purpose, is the beginning of good cooking.

2 – A knowledge of cooking techniques. You can start with good ingredients, but they’ll be wasted if you don’t know what to do with them. Knowing how to use those ingredients, season and prepare them, is fundamental. This knowledge can often salvage less than pristine ingredients, like that fish you forgot about for a few days.

3 – (This may be the most important of all, although I never hear it mentioned.) You have to eat good food. Good food doesn’t necessarily mean haute cuisine or the latest “it” dish. It can be burgers, branzino, or blini. It’s food that’s prepared with skill and care, whether in a Michelin starred restaurant, the corner diner, or Grandma’s kitchen.

Which brings me back to Madeline’s post about reading books by great authors and learning from them. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I’ve frequently recommended re-reading the authors who’ve inspired you to write, writers whom you’d like to emulate. It bears a similarity to sitting down to a great meal in a restaurant, or watching a talented chef prepare a dish on TV. You learn from theirskill and care. Like cooking, writing requires the same three qualities: an understanding of the ‘ingredients’ that make a good story, a knowledge of the techniques of good writing, and most importantly, reading good books. Much like eating a fine meal inspires us to cook something wonderful, reading a superbly written book or re-reading one by an author we admire, to paraphrase Madeline, teaches, inspires, and rejuvenates us.

Yum.

 

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, including recently released Book III – The Great War .  Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

 

DEDICATION by Miko Johnston

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, including recently released Book III – The Great War .  Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

 

As I begin the fourth book in my Petal In The Wind series, the only thing I know for sure is the novel will be dedicated to my father, George.

He was born in a province of Germany in July 1919. Do the math – his mother gave birth to him about nine months after Armistice Day. Not a unique event in Germany, or any nation involved in World War I. Add eighteen years to that and you get a new generation of men ready to fight in 1937. Within a year German expansion had begun with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. World War II loomed. Being Jewish set my father on a very different path.

*      *      *

When you face something monumental, seemingly impossible to get through, you can do one of three things. You can retreat. You can plow through no matter the obstacles or odds. Or you can detour around it. When it came to difficult conversations, my father picked number three. Always.

 

He talked to people, including my brother and me, in a kind of code. When he couldn’t be direct or graphic about something, he’d use humor or quote American isms to elucidate. He’d occasionally fall back on a childhood joke or expression. We learned, over time, that he was what is called a Holocaust survivor, an unfortunate victim-label. To ensure we understood what happened, he spoke to us about that time in his life, but never about the worst of it in highly descriptive words. He kept that burden to himself.

 

My education on the subject began simply enough with a question that was dealt with in an equally simplified manner. When I asked at age three about the numbers tattooed on my father’s arm, he told me it was his phone number.  As a kindergartener, I asked him about an orange book, missing its dust jacket, shelved in our bookcase. It fascinated me with its odd-looking letters dancing along the spine – I thought it was Chinese. My father told me I could read the book when I was old enough to read the title.

 

Several years later I looked at the orange hardcover’s spine and suddenly the fancy font letters had transformed into English words. I brought the book to my father and said, “It’s called, The Tiger Beneath the Skin”. I began to read it that night.

 

Today I would describe the book as a selection of tales about Jewish experiences during Nazi occupation with a hint of paranormal, like a cross between an anthology of parables and episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. I recently saw a copy on Amazon, wearing a dust jacket, and learned for the first time that the book has a subtitle: “Stories and Parables about the Years of Death.” At the time I read it, some of the stories sent chills up my spine and some intrigued me. I’m sure many went over my head, which is why I can’t remember them all, but a few were unforgettable. The stories all had a peculiarly uplifting message, whether of the Nazi officer driven insane by his murder of a blind Rabbi, or the man who brought a sense of calmness and dignity to a trainload of Jews walking into the gas chamber.  Something of a selective chronical of events, the book gave me an inkling of what had happened. It also began my quest for knowledge about that period of history, and my father’s life.

 

My curiosity ripened by the time I’d reached my teens. I questioned my father about everything, and he answered my questions in his inimitable style. He had a knack for getting the information across in a way that wouldn’t lead to nightmares. Part of it was his own attitude. Despite everything he went through, he still maintained a positive look on life and could find humor in the darkest situations. He once hosted a reunion with fellow Auschwitz survivors. I heard the three of them laughing at one story. When the men left I asked my father what was so funny. He explained that one man, who’d been charged with filling “holes dug in the ground” with rocks, was so weak that he fell into the hole with the rock. Of course, he never said why the holes were dug, or what they contained.

 

I often gravitated to people who had survivor parents, thinking we’d have something in common, but we often didn’t. My friends’ parents always seemed more damaged than my father. They held onto that terror and sense of danger all their lives and passed that fear onto their children. My father’s biggest mishegas (craziness) was stockpiling non-perishable food in the house. That my father survived physically was remarkable, but that he survived mentally was absolutely miraculous.

 

*          *          *

 

I went to Berlin in September 2003 to visit the villa known as the Wannsee-Conference House, headquarters of the infamous SS during the Nazi era. It’s where my father had been kept in slave labor until the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when fifteen Nazi officials drew up a doctrine known as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.  The answer was total annihilation; all remaining Jews were to be sent to concentration camps, including my father. In 1992, the building became a memorial and educational site. My father had worked with the museum’s curator and Berlin’s mayor to create a permanent exhibit dedicated to slave labor during the Nazi era; his picture still hangs on the wall. Unfortunately, he never got to see it. He passed away six weeks before the exhibit opened in January 2003, so my husband and I went in his place.

 

We both found the museum very moving, especially the Final Solution exhibit, but I didn’t fully sense my father’s presence there due to his verbal detours. Oddly, it took a stop at a local hotel to bring me to tears. I stood in front of the building, staring at a large empty banquet room with a wooden floor and picture windows overlooking Lake Wannsee. One night, my ‘slave’ father had snuck out of the villa and went to this hotel when they held a dance. The SS guards in attendance, who knew who he was, sat and laughed as he danced with several clueless fräuleine. Standing there, I could vividly picture the story my father had told me forty years earlier, and wept.

 

The fourth book in my saga moves into the 1930s. I can’t help but think of my father and what he endured. He may be gone, but his story lives on and will continue to do so, thanks to what I’ve written and will continue to write. That is why the book will be dedicated to him.

 

THE METAMORPHOSIS OF WRITING by Miko Johnston

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series; Book III – The Great War has just been released and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

 

Happy New Year, everyone. A fresh year, a fresh beginning. Time to dig out that half-finished novel, or start a new one. There’s nothing better than curling up on a winter’s day and writing, which made me think….

Where do you write? For the past year my preferred spot has been a comfy chair in my bedroom, but I have a number of places that suit me, both at home and elsewhere. The reason is simple – I own a laptop computer. This has changed not only where I write, but how I write.

Like many of us in the craft, I began writing when I learned how to in first grade. I’d sharpen my yellow pencil and print words in my composition book – the ones with the black and white ‘marble’ cover – eventually switching to ballpoint pen and spiral bound notebook after I’d mastered cursive and good penmanship. That allowed me to write at home, the library, school cafeteria or a friend’s house, as long as I had a good light source. It worked well, except when story ideas erupted; I couldn’t write as fast as I thought.

I learned to type in high school and purchased a used manual typewriter when I began college. It sat on my desk, set near a window, with a swing arm desk lamp for writing at night. My typewritten work looked more professional, but the carbon copies were awful and my creative spurts still outpaced my typing. I hated making mistakes, a nightmare to fix until I discovered correction fluid in the eighties. However, typing forced me to think about my work since it was tedious to redo significant portions. I usually began with a hand-written copy and transcribed it to typing paper.

The electric typewriter worked much better; I could type faster, which allowed me to keep up with my thoughts. Mistakes were easier to correct, though major changes still required major retyping. Being electric it required a nearby outlet, and it wasn’t portable, so I had to resign myself to type at my desk. I sat with my back to the window for natural light and kept my desk lamp. Pad and pen filled in for other locations.

In the early nineties I worked in a windowless cubbyhole. That’s when I began to use my desktop computer at work for writing. The ability to not only make corrections, but to cut and paste, became a game changer for me. I could let my thoughts pour out, then go back and rearrange them, condense them, or flesh them out with ease. For the first time, I could write faster than I could think. I still had to work in one spot, but pen and pad filled in when I was away from work.

My first personal computer was ‘totable’, about seven pounds that could be moved and operate on battery power for a few hours. Suddenly I could work anywhere, with the portability of a pen and pad and the advantages of a word processor. Lighting wasn’t an issue; in fact, rather than sitting with my back to the window, I could now face it and have something other than a blank wall to stare at while waiting for inspiration to strike. Email allowed me to electronically transfer my work between home and office.

I currently write on a compact laptop that weighs about three pounds and has a battery life of at least six hours, longer if I turn off the wifi. It has its own black ‘jammies’, a padded slipover case to protect it when I travel. The portable computer fits in my larger purses, tote bags and suitcases. I can write anywhere. And I have. In just about every room in my house. On my deck. In hotel rooms, airport lounges, airplanes, boats, coffee shops and friends’ houses. I no longer have to plan out what I’m going to write before I commit it to the page – the ease of changing words, paragraphs and whole chapters means I can work freeform. Get my thoughts down and clean it up later. Of course, it’s also made it easier to constantly tinker with my pages, tweak a word, delete a comma, or cut that wonderful line that doesn’t serve the story.

Technology has changed the way I write in other ways as well. I presently do not have a desk. My handwriting, which used to be neat and easy to read, is neither without great concentration. I’m not as disciplined about organizing my thoughts as I was in the typewriter era, when changes or corrections required a major effort. I must always write a draft version of any notes or letters before committing my words to stationery. Then again, I’m also not obsessed with getting it ‘right’ on the first draft. Storing earlier drafts and critiques of my work in progress no longer requires multiple shelves of loose leaf binders and cartons filled with copies of printed pages covered with hard-to-read scribbled notes. I also love the idea of sending e-copies of my manuscripts to my publisher instead of mailing hard copies.

What about your writing journey? How has technology changed the way you write?

 

HOLIDAY MEMORIES by Miko Johnston

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series; Book III – The Great War has just been released and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

 

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I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of mostly Irish-Catholic and Jewish households like mine. Living in a community where part of the population celebrated Christmas and part didn’t made the holiday challenging for Jewish families. We may have been religious enough to keep a kosher home, observe the holidays and go to Temple, but we also watched television, listened to the radio, and read the same newspapers and magazines as everyone else. Therefore we couldn’t avoid Christmas, which in this country was beginning to be celebrated less like a religious holiday and more like a national day of celebration. Jesus never drank Coca Cola, but Santa Claus did. He apparently preferred the soft drink to his traditional beverage, milk.

I don’t recall when I first became conscious of Christmas. I knew my family didn’t celebrate the holiday. I figured that was one of the reasons we lived in our apartment. It had no fireplace to hang stockings, not a problem for Jewish tenants. I remember my mother taking me to see Santa at Macy’s Herald Square – yes, the one from the movie – shortly after I turned four. She didn’t prepare me at all for the visit, but as I waited on line, another parent instructed her child, “Don’t pull on Santa’s beard.” I clearly recall sitting on Santa’s lap and seeing tiny cross stitches on the beard along his cheeks. I felt very sorry for him. I thought his beard had been sewn onto his face.

When Santa asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” the question took me aback. I blurted, “I’m Jewish.” Without missing a beat, he asked, “What do you want for Hanukah?” I recited my wish list.

Jewish parents usually fell into one of two camps: surrender or compensate. The former would succumb to buying a Christmas tree, or the more guilt-inducing Hanukah bush. The latter would remind their kids that at Hanukah, you got eight presents, one for each night of the holiday. Granted, seven of them were usually practical things like socks, or small, inexpensive items, with the big finale – the toy or game – on day eight. But it sounded better than getting only one gift.

My parents were big babies. They lacked the patience to dole out presents one day at a time, which led to an innovative way to counter some of the draw of Christmas. It began in 1957, the year I turned six and my kid brother was old enough to comprehend the joy of receiving. That’s when we learned of the existence of an amazing magical being: The Hanukah Man.

The Hanukah Man would show up every year on the first night of Hanukah, bringing gifts to my brother and me. Hanukah usually began on a school day, so when we arrived home from class we were always thrilled to learn he’d stopped by earlier in the day. Naturally, my curiosity about him grew with each year, until I longed to see him, catch him in the act. Whenever Hanukah fell on a weekend, I would stay home and wait for him to show up. I’d wait and wait. Then my parents would suggest I go downstairs to wish a happy Hanukah to my aunt, uncle and cousins, who lived in the apartment below ours. I’d rush down, not wanting to miss the Hanukah Man’s arrival. But wouldn’t you know it? No matter how little or long I waited to leave, how quickly I dashed to my aunt and uncle’s apartment and back, I’d just miss him. Sometimes by only a minute! Still, how could I stay upset for long when my home was filled with presents?

Now came the fun part. The Hanukah Man never left packages in one spot. He would hide them throughout the apartment, in places we could reach without causing any damage to us or the furnishings. Wasn’t he thoughtful? But I still wanted to see him, although part of me feared that if I ever did, he would stop coming. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall asking my parents what he looked like. Instead I made up his appearance in my imagination. Average height, with brown hair, slender body and lots of agility. He dressed in ordinary clothes so no one would suspect who he really was. Brown corduroy pants, tattersall shirt and a camel cardigan, as I recall. No hat.

As soon as we knew he’d arrived, my brother and I would tear through the house, opening drawers, looking under the bed, crawling beneath tables and chairs, and poking through closets in our search for presents. The Hanukah Man never wrapped them, but that was okay. The surprise wasn’t in the opening, but in the finding. Then we’d compare our loot. One year, months after the holiday, I looked for something in a drawer and found a previously undiscovered gift. It even surprised my mother, who had apparently lost track of what the Hanukah Man had hidden.

I once mentioned the Hanukah Man to some kids in school. Their reaction made me feel embarrassed. I wouldn’t talk about him after that except in the safety of my family.

I never had children, nieces or nephews, so I couldn’t continue the tradition of The Hanukah Man, but he lives on in spirit. I married a grandpa, and when our grandchildren were young, interfamily relations became tricky for a while. My husband and I didn’t want to make their parents’ lives more difficult, so we told them we’d come to celebrate and exchange presents whenever it was convenient, which usually meant days after Christmas. By that time, the grandkids had received gifts from their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and two other sets of grandparents. But no one except Grandma Miriam would come over and hide their presents throughout the house, sending the three youngest to search high and low for every wrapped box and gift bag. They’d bring whatever they’d found back to the living room, and then open their gifts.

I don’t know if any of them will continue that tradition, but hopefully they will at least have some good memories. It brought me joy to share this tradition with them, not as the receiver, but in the way my parents enjoyed it. Which is why the Hanukah Man will always be special to me.