October 31, 2014

Rereading a book I wrote four years ago, and a bear

Something drew me to open up the first chapter of Semper and reread it this morning. Having just completed writing the trilogy (which is discounted/free this week), I thought it would be fun to revisit the chapter that began the story.

Did I stay true to the original characters as I first introduced them? Did the first chapter, written four years ago, properly set up the full story of the trilogy?

I think so, if I can be my own judge. In fact, I did better than I expected.

In that first chapter, Dane at one point thinks to himself,

I do not want to be the one that brings home the epidemic that destroys all of civilization.
I didn't realize it at the time, but that one sentence holds a tremendous amount of both foreshadowing and irony.

Also, that first chapter ends with a question that is never explicitly answered but which is the perfect first question in a discussion guide for the series.

Maybe it's just that I was looking for connections as I read. Or maybe those connections were already in my subconscious, even before I'd detailed the quarter million words in the story. Or maybe it's just luck or coincidence. In any case, it's satisfying.

FREDA will be free on Kindle November 1 through 5. The first two books, Semper and Forsada, are just 99 cents to celebrate completion of the trilogy.

And here is a picture of a bear I took, not far from the actual physical location where that first chapter occurs.

October 28, 2014

"I had grand plans."

That was a primary point in my sister's keynote speech at Boston's ALS walk this past Saturday. Cathy was diagnosed with ALS only a few months ago, just weeks after retiring from a demanding and very successful career. The last time we saw each other, about two months before the diagnosis, she told me she had grand plans for the next chapters in her life; although she was still figuring out the specifics, "helping others" figured prominently in her ideas. Those plans have changed.

The last time I saw my sister, I saw no hint of ALS. Nothing to make me think anything like this could be coming. We talked about her pending knee surgery and retirement, our kids' college tours, plans for a long future filled with activity. Those plans have changed.

This past weekend I joined scores of others to support Cathy in the ALS Walk in Boston (we flew in from California Thursday night). Family I hadn't seen in decades were there. The morning was glorious, clear and warm after a week of terrible wind and torrential rain (so I'm told), and the location was beautiful. Cathy was honored with the keynote speech in part because in the couple of months since she was diagnosed, she assembled a huge team for the walk and became the Boston walk's top fundraiser.

My family and I also participated the previous weekend in our local walk in Northern California, which was much smaller but eye-opening. I've walked in several fundraisers for ACS, LLS, AHA, etc., but the ALS walk had a different feel. It wasn't until I started writing this blog post that I realized what the subtle difference was. Other walks are all organized around the survivors. This walk was entirely about finding a cure.

It's strange and difficult to return to normal everyday life after two weekends like the past two. I know my sister and thousands of others who are diagnosed with ALS every year don't even have that option, so I'm going to try to take advantage of the time I have. I don't know exactly what that means yet. There are things I want to achieve. There are places I want to see. There are people I love who I want to spend more time with. And I don't want to be so busy that I miss the countless moments of beauty around me all the time.

Photos from the two walks are posted below.

WALNUT CREEK, CA - October 19, 2014

With some Wells Fargo colleagues

Pretty long stream of people along the canal trail.

BOSTON, MA - October 25, 2014

The setting near Dorchester Heights along Old Harbor was gorgeous.

Boston financial district in the background.

Sis & me

Giving the keynote address to 1,500 walkers

The paparazzi taking family photos

October 18, 2014

Free and discounted books. What could be better?

I've just published Freda, the third book in my New Eden series. Early comments suggest this book might be the best of the three, which is gratifying for sure.

To celebrate this launch, I've discounted the first two in the series to just 99 cents for the next couple of weeks, and Freda itself will be free for Kindle November 1 through November 5. Here's how to get the books during this time:

All three are available on Amazon at the discounted price.

Semper and Forsada are also available on other platforms. The price is $2.99, but you can use the coupon codes below to get them for 99 cents through November 5. These coupons work at Smashwords, but I'm not sure they work at places like Barnes & Noble, the iTunes store, or Powell's.
  • SEMPER - use coupon code AW86A for 99c price
  • FORSADA - use coupon code NE63V for 99c price
  • FREDA - email me if you want a format other than Kindle. We can work something out.
I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please let me know. A rating and/or review on Goodreads always makes my day.

September 22, 2014

My new book has a print version and a cover

A trilogy is not an easy thing to create. This one took nearly five years, from first inkling of an idea to the proof copy of the third book in my hands. And that was after a good ten years writing novels that probably won't ever get published, publishing short stories, winning (and judging) flash fiction contests, writing a sports column, and a half decade working at a writers conference. So just getting to Sunset draws us to the lake took years, I guess. Then, nearly five more years to get to this point.

Two books published (not including this one). The third on the verge.

Below is the cover, another beautiful rendition by Wendy Russ. You can read the back cover copy if you click on the image and load it up big.

The book will be available in early October. If you want to be notified the day it's out, go and join my email list.

Let me know what you think in the comments, or on Twitter at @dudleypj.

July 9, 2014

Trilogy end game, and a huge THANK YOU to all you readers

In late 2009 I began the first plotting of the story that would become Semper, which I finished in mid 2011 and published in 2012. I followed it up with Forsada, published in 2013. Now, 18 months later, I am gathering feedback from beta readers for the final book in the trilogy, which I hope to launch in September.

All told, I will have worked on this trilogy for just under four years. Other than raising my children, I can't think of any other project that's taken me longer. (My wife, I am sure, could think of many around the house, but she's not writing this post.) The three published books will total over a quarter million words.

I found that writing a book is relatively easy, after you've done it four or five times. Writing a sequel, however, is hard. And writing the third and final book in a trilogy is very, very hard.

I know that many people have done this. They've even managed it, as I have, with a demanding full time job, a couple of kids, a home to maintain, and volunteer obligations. It's not like I am any Alison Levine or something (though I have been to Nepal). But I personally consider completing a trilogy a major accomplishment. I even think the books are pretty good.

Turns out a number of other people also think the books are pretty good. Recently both Semper and Forsada have received several new 4-star and 5-star ratings on Goodreads. At this moment, Semper enjoys 62 ratings averaging 4.15

Semper: rated highly on July 9, 2014
and Forsada has 20 ratings averaging 4.60.
Forsada: more stars but fewer ratings on July 9, 2014
My beta readers have given me some very useful feedback on the third book before final revisions, but generally they've liked it a lot. Here are a few of the comments that have come back in the last two weeks from these critiques:
"I thought it was another great read and a very good sequel to the other two books in the series. I particularly like the storytelling and the pace of the book towards the second half which really seemed to find its groove, flowed well, and kept the pace moving (that kept me on the edge of my seat). Really nice!"
-- R. S.
"I think it is a great 3rd installment. A few unexpected twists (in a good way)."
-- J. D.
"Overall, it was a satisfying end. There were some really beautiful moments, very clear visuals. The ending... was very nicely done."
-- J. H.
"Other than [the comments I gave] I thought that it was one of the best books I have ever read."
-- S. D.
It's stuff like this that propels an author through the grueling commitment of writing, revising, and publishing a book... or three.

So, a huge THANK YOU to everyone who's given my work a little of your very precious time, and a double THANK YOU to everyone who's taken the extra time to give me your thoughts. (Yes, even the guy who gave Semper a one-star rating and told me, "Peter, sorry, but I just couldn't get into this story." Seriously, thank you.

And finally, some ducklings.

June 28, 2014

Serenaded in special ways, or how I got the name "Birthday Guy"

My dad and stepmom always call and sing "happy birthday" to us on our special days. This year they were a day late for me--they called Friday--but it didn't matter since they would only be singing to my voicemail anyway.

Over the years I've had some very special birthday songs. Nothing so unique or quite as special as this, but there are three that come especially to mind.

The car that needed new tires.
The tree fell shortly after the
new tires were installed.
About fifteen years ago when our first son was only a toddler, my car desperately needed new tires. I mean, those tires were balder than I am now. So we went to Concord and, while we waited for the installation, we ate brunch at a nearby Denny's. The manager, a middle aged guy with an impressive comb-over as I recall, was so genuinely excited that he gathered the entire morning staff to sing a new birthday song he'd just trained them on. He told one busboy to start them off; the poor kid looked utterly befuddled and mumbled, in no particular key or melody, "Um... zippidy, zippidy... um..."
The manager leapt in, took charge, and led his somewhat reluctant staff in a chorus of, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay, my oh my it's your birthday."

I haven't been back to that Denny's since. Or, come to think of it, any Denny's.

Three years ago, my birthday fell on the day we drove the Boy Scout troop up to scout camp. According to tradition, the troop stopped for breakfast in Stockton (America's Foreclosure Capital) at Burger King. Somewhere along the way, one of the boys found out it was my birthday and bought me a slice of BK's apple pie. The whole troop (about 30 boys and a half dozen adults) sang "ha
ppy birthday" to me right there at 8 a.m. in Burger King in Stockton. Try to contain your jealousy.

This year on my birthday, I was in Palm Springs for work. One of the programs I run at my day job utilizes Desert Arc, a nonprofit that employs developmentally disabled adults, for order fulfillment. It's a terrific organization, and we were on site for business when dear friend and colleague Melissa disappeared for a bit and returned with two huge sheet cakes. One said Thank you Desert Arc for the work they do, and the other said Happy Birthday Peter. We brought these in to the 60 or so Desert Arc clients who were working on our program. And, for a few minutes, I was the recipient of the most enthusiastic, emphatic, and raucous chorus of "happy birthday" you've ever heard.

And I made a couple of new friends, most notably "Robin," who said she's going to call me Birthday Guy from now on.

March 6, 2014

the six keys to a breakthrough business blog post

I don't read a lot of business blogs. Business blogs are like cable TV: content gets created solely to fill empty bandwidth. This results in posts like Being on time can be improve punctuality or Lunch is your employees' most important midday meal.

(Note to self: Write those posts.)

Unlike cable TV, however, business blogs occasionally feature some incredibly insightful and thought-provoking ideas. Most of these ideas drown pointlessly in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and passive voice. (Too many businesspeople learned communication in business school.)

Most of you know that I write novels. With writing, I've put in my 10,000 hours and then some. Surprisingly, that doesn't diminish the respect I get in my day job, where I run some of the biggest and most complex workplace giving and corporate volunteer programs in the country.

Being #1 five years in a row puts a guy in demand. Thus, as co-chair of the advisory council for the Charities @Work conference, I've written a few blog posts about employee engagement and what the millennial generation are looking for. I was a little surprised when these posts got picked up by more than one CSR news feed, and each link was tweeted or retweeted to over 60,000 Twitter users.

What drove that response? I think it was these six things:

1. Be interesting

Don't talk yourself into thinking your topic is interesting if it really isn't. Has it been done a hundred times before? Does it just rephrase something that's already commonly understood? Then for the love of all that is Strunk and White (see item #3 below), don't post it.

Your idea probably is not revolutionary. Revolutionary ideas are as rare as a Tea Party candidate on the Berkeley City Council. But every good idea has a twist; grab that and twist it harder. If you want to get people's attention and make them think different, go against conventional wisdom. If possible, refute conventional wisdom. Tell the reader they're wrong about something. Then tell them why.

2. Be accountable

Don't hide behind weak writing
and buzzwords. (I took this photo
in Nepal, by the way.)
Corporate-speak was invented so cowards could hide in a cloud of meaninglessness. Don't be a coward. Own your words. Write in first person. Saying "I" a lot in your blog posts does two things: First, it makes you mean what you say. Second, it tells the reader you mean what you say.

Use active voice. If you don't know what active voice is, read this excerpt by Stephen King, then read the book it came from.

Eliminate jargon and buzzwords if at all possible. You can use jargon and buzzwords as convenient shorthand for well accepted concepts (like "employee engagement"), but like cliches they carry no weight. They're like the coworker who comes to lunch with the group but always seems to leave his wallet at the office. What a drag.

3. Be brief

Omit needless words.

4. Use data wisely

Remember back in #1 when you told the reader he was all wrong? Then you had to tell him why? Data is your answer.

Strip down data to its simplest form and display it in a way the reader can understand in a glance. In my intro I mentioned my workplace giving campaign has been #1 in the country five years in a row. Data, simplified and cited with a link. I could also present it as a graph (see the graph).

Make data understandable and clear.
Use bullet or numbered lists to present your most compelling points. People skim text, but they pay attention to lists, so use them wisely.

You can use your own data, as in my post on employee engagement where I cited research from my own programs, or other people's data. As long as it's real, true, and compelling, use it. Your own data is exclusive, and it tells the reader you not only know the topic but you research it in new and interesting ways. Using other people's data tells the reader you're an expert on the topic, up to date on current research. Always give proper credit if you use someone else's data, though, and get permission if you need it.

Finally, always be true to the data. Don't cherry-pick facts to make a point that isn't really provable. Then you're just lying to the reader, and that's morally and ethically wrong. If you don't have facts to back up what you're saying, you shouldn't say it. You probably shouldn't even believe it.

5. Focus
Don't throw everything into your
post. Focus on the job at hand.

I've found that someone with something really interesting to say often has a lot of interesting things to say. But no one will listen if they try to say it all at once. Writer's block hits me hardest when I'm trying to fit too much into a small space. Focus in on a single point and argue the hell out of it.

6. Be arrogant

There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance; what you're looking for is the voice of authority in your writing. Everything above supports this. If you're brief, write in first person, use active voice, stay focused, and back it all up with data, people will believe you, right? Maybe. But they want to know that you believe you. If you can't write a first draft full of arrogance, then you can't revise it to a final draft that sounds filled with confidence. If you can't write a first draft filled with arrogance, then perhaps you need to rethink your whole concept.

Do you have other tips for writing a good post for a business blog? I'd love to hear them in the comments... or you can join me at the Charities @Work conference in New York City April 3-4 to talk about this or my next blog post on the Charities @Work blog. Or tweet me at @dudleypj.

January 27, 2014

Do smart people make stupid parents?

Having kids changes everything. But does becoming a parent make people stupid, or is that caused by society on a bigger scale?

I'm referring, today, to this blog post by KQED which skims the surface of a serious epidemic facing today's middle class families: The overwhelming academic pressure that teens face these days.

For you non-parents, and you parents of younger kids that haven't yet hit high school, this is totally a thing.

Parents want the best for their kids. They want success for their kids. They know success comes from hard work, but it also comes from having opportunity. Opportunity comes from having a degree from a prestigious college. Everything good parents do comes from the well intentioned quest to give their kids the best opportunity for success.

So when we see things like this (from the UCLA admissions FAQ)

The average admitted applicant to UCLA for the Fall Quarter 2013 had a weighted GPA of 4.41, an unweighted GPA of 3.89, an SAT Reasoning Test score of 2055, an ACT Assessment composite score of 30, 21 semesters of honors/AP course work completed between 10th and 12th grades, and 53 semesters of college prep coursework overall.

That's the average admitted applicant. Average.

It's no wonder that parents go a little out of their minds when they see such statistics. It's no wonder they start pounding on their kids to study harder and do more homework and stop being children when they're still in fifth grade. Because by the time they're a freshman in high school, if they're not on a path to complete 21 semesters of honors/AP classes over the next four years, they might not get into that prestigious college.

Thus, they project a crushing fear of failure onto their kids. They don't stop to think about other options, only that a 4.40 weighted GPA might not be enough to get into UCLA these days. The kids pick up on this fear but don't have the maturity to self-regulate. They're just kids. And they're under this impression that their lives will be over if they get a B or don't score in the 90th percentile on the SAT.

I'm a reasonably smart guy. I graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree. Maybe that opened some doors that wouldn't have been open had I gone to a school with a less grand reputation. Then again, maybe not.

At work, in my neighborhood, at my kids' schools I'm surrounded by smart people. Many went to colleges I'd never even heard of before. Some went to "party schools." A few never went to college at all. Yet they have good jobs, nice homes, great kids, comfortable lives.

What goes wrong in a parent's brain that allows them to think 12 hours devoted to schoolwork every day is a good thing? That missing family dinners for studying will lead to a better life? What lets them torture their own kids with this crushing fear of a potential failure that, quite frankly, isn't even real? What makes them think they're competing against other kids, rather than against this mythical ideal?

Better to try to guide teenage kids into adulthood by letting them understand that finding the right fit is more important than squeezing into a prestigious torture chamber. We spend so much of our energy trying to be "the best" as defined by rankings and tests and brand recognition that we forget that we should be focusing instead on being the best "me" we each can be.

It's difficult as a parent to break away from the overwhelming social pressures. But ultimately our children's success and happiness will be best served by helping them learn how to create their own path that is the right path for them. Yet even some of the smartest people out there seem to turn stupid when it comes to their kids. Love them. Guide them. Coach them. Push them to be the best they can be.

But don't hold them to arbitrary measurements that don't fit them in the hopes that they will become something they're not. 

January 23, 2014

Be the first to review this item

The Bad Lie, my new kids book with a golf theme, is now available at Amazon. I haven't published the ebook yet (not sure if/when), but if you absolutely, positively must have an electronic copy for yourself, comment here or email me and let me know. I'm happy to send you a file, in the format you want.

All I ask in return is that you post an honest rating and review to the Amazon page or the Goodreads page. And, if you really like the book, tell others about it.

I'll send signed copies to a random selection of those who post a review to Amazon or Goodreads before February 1, 2014. Spread the word. Thanks!

Where to get it:

January 12, 2014

I'll have a new book out soon. You can get a free preview.

I have a new book coming out this week for kids in the 3rd to 6th grade range. It's about a kid who has to make some tough choices about friendship, honesty, and his future, all staged in a golf setting.

If you've read my other books, you know this new one is outside my usual audience, but it was fun to write. The idea popped up last spring when a colleague decried the dearth of good golf-themed books for kids. Yes, she really was upset by that. I did some research and had to agree. So I decided to write one.

I gag when I read sports stories that are all about the main character winning the game in the end to become the hero, and I'm bored with sports stories that focus too heavily on the sport itself. So when I sat down to come up with the right story, I thought about my own experience with golf.

I am not a golfer. I have hacked around in the past, and I still enjoy a round with friends from time to time. Years ago, a good friend who is a great golfer watched me hit a bucket of balls at the driving range. He finally shook his head and said, "You have a beautiful swing. I have no idea why you can't hit the ball straight."

So you can see why I had no interest in writing a story about the highly technical nuances of the sport. But golf is so much more than just the physical activity. Golf is a connection between friends, between family members, between the individual and nature. Golf is as much about the bonds we create while playing as it is about the competition. On the flip side, the game itself is one of personal skill, concentration, and integrity. It's a very introspective game, and it can also be a lonely game.

Those are the very human elements of golf that drew me into this story. Jay, the main character, is a very good golfer for an 11 year old, but he's got real-kid problems. Parents recently divorced, peer pressure, the general stresses of growing up. He's faced with tough decisions that test his character and his relationships with his parents and his friends. Golf is central to so many part of his life, and when he's faced with losing that, it means more than just some game.

The book is scheduled to be available January 16 (print only), but recent crazy weather may push that out to the following week. In the meantime, I'm making free e-copies available to anyone who promises to post an honest review to Amazon or Goodreads by the end of January. Simply email me with the subject The Bad Lie Preview and let me know what e-reader you have, and I'll send you the file.

UPDATE 1/13/2014: The weather has indeed caused a delay. The book, originally scheduled to be available January 16, will now be available on or after January 22nd.