Gone With the Wind: Part One

Posted by on Sep 23, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The more I read, and the more I write, the more I’m convinced that good writing transcends genre. A well-paced work of non-fiction can clip along as well as any Vince Flynn thriller just as a beautifully crafted novel can transport readers to a world as vivid as any historical tale of David McCullough’s. In much the same way, good story telling should transcend the editorial peculiarities of a give age. And yet it’s hard to read a Russian masterpiece like War and Peace or a universally acclaimed novel like Moby Dick and not think of Elmore Leonard’s admonishment to “try [and] leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” So it was with some trepidation that I cracked the spine of Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale, Gone With the Wind, in June 2014 to see what the fuss was all about. Surely a novel that had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1937) and had sold more than 30 million copies since its publication has something going for it. My aim that week was to understand what made the novel work. Commentary on her one-and-only novel undoubtably runs deeper and wider than my personal reading and writing experiences. Like all readers, though, I know what I like. As with many writers, I know what seems to work in effective story telling. I’ve spent a lifetime, it seems, hearing references to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, but I had never read GW2 and had never seen the movie. So with a near virginal approach to this masterwork, I dove in this past summer. What follows are my daily impressions as I read the novel. Here’s what happened:   GW2 Day One: Successful stories have captivating first pages and gripping opening chapters. Reportedly, after ten years writing the novel Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell spent an additional six months massaging the words of her initial scene. She ultimately settled on the stark and prophetic first line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…” So far, she has delivered on that promise. As the opening scene unfolds in the lazy April afternoon of the antebellum south,  Mitchell reinforces the charm of Scarlett even as she shows her petulant side. Layers of Scarlett’s personality are painted on with a combination of bold actions and rich backstory. In lesser hands, such detail could be ripe for skimming. But Mitchell stretches and kneads the story as if she were preparing taffy, as each pull of prose exposes a layer that is too sweet to miss. The first one hundred pages pulled me along not just with character consistency but also with peach-sweet prose. Even the minor characters receive attention, such as a “snarly-haired woman, sickly and washed-out of appearance, the mother of a brood of sullen and rabbity-looking children.” Even now, standing just ankle-deep in the story, GW2 demonstrates developed characters and readable prose that had exceeded my expectations. With bedtime fast approaching, Rhett Butler has entered the story. The plot thickens, but as Scarlett herself has said, I’ll have to think about that tomorrow.   GW2 Day Two: Two-hundred fifty pages into Gone With the Wind, I get the sense that this story demands to be told. Great stories seem to have that universal...

read more

The Road to Publication

Posted by on May 10, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

There was a time in my childhood when my tongue was saddled with a speech impediment. Not an irreparable delay nor a lifelong concern, but a lip-twisting malady that likely made adults smile as my ‘R’s and ‘W’s came out with similar sounds. For a boy whose middle named started with a ‘W’ and whose last name started with a ‘R’, it did not seem like a funny condition. My dad, whose own double-‘R’d name also gave him fits as a child, later told me that he had endured the same problem growing up. “There was a time as an emcee of an elementary school program,” he once said, “when I started the event by saying, ‘ “Pawents and fwiends, we gweet you.’ ” He turned the once-embarrassing story into a humorous yarn since his southern speech is now smooth as buttermilk. For most of my adult life, I’ve also moved passed the temporary speech delay. Still, both the long ‘I’s of a muted southern accent and the misplaced ‘W’s of yesteryear tend to creep back into my speech when I’m tired or excited. Such was the situation I found myself in this past month, when (both tired and excited) I answered a question at a local book signing. Several friends and family members came to support Blood Money, wishing me well and buying some books. When one colleague asked about the road to publication, I found myself excitedly responding that, “this had been a busy writing week in the Wussell house.” The delivery notwithstanding, there is truth in those words. For the past year, my road to publication has been long and winding but rarely busy. A publication path more backroads than Autoban, which suits me just fine. One year ago this week, I pulled out of the gravel driveway of my rough drafts, steering past the potholes and weeds of abandoned manuscripts, and onto a road paved by my publisher. I knew from the signed contract that this road would lead to three books published in two years, but the road that spooled out in front of me appeared only wide enough for one book at a time. For most of the last year, the one-book road has kept me busy enough. Since one manuscript was already polished and ready for the fast-lane, I had left it in the garage while I worked on the other two novels. As soon as Blood Money was readied for release and placed on cruise control, I turned my attention to the jalopy draft that would become the final installment in the Mackie McKay series. For the first three months of this year, I had re-imagined, then re-typed, the once-faltering manuscript. I adjusted plot points and re-blocked scenes. I erased some characters and exhumed others. Perhaps the most fun, though, was considering what Mackie would have been doing twenty years ago in a world without internet and smart phones. All of that took place at a Sunday afternoon pace. The last week of April, however, the peaceful road became crowded again. With a generous invitation for a signing at Books-A-Million, Blood Money drove a lap of recognition during an afternoon event. I also pulled from the garage the polished Command and Control for a test-drive and raffled off two advanced reader...

read more

Pitchers and Catchers

Posted by on Feb 15, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Major League Baseball pre-season kicked off on Valentine’s Day as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. It’s an annual ritual as important to baseball fans in February as the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil’s fickle shadow. My brother and I participated in this ritual many years ago. He was a seasoned college student and the time; I was an upstart high schooler. Both of us took off in his white, ’88 GMC Jimmy to hit the dusty stadiums of Florida’s spring league. We saw the Dodgers. The Reds. The Cardinals. And our adopted hometown favorite, the Braves. We come from a long line of baseball fans, so it has always seemed natural for me to root for the Braves. To be sure, my love of the game did not spring from any inherent baseball skills I possess. I was more likely to throw a tantrum as a toddler than throw a ball. But that didn’t stop me from collecting the cards and scouring the box scores as a kid. My siblings and I would spend endless summer days in small town Georgia at my grandparents house, and baseball became part of the daily rhythm there. My grandfather followed Skip Caray’s crackled radio broadcasts under the covered carport at his house. Even when TBS began televising almost all Braves games, my granddad continued to prefer listening to games on the radio. We knew where to find him after the first pitch, and he welcomed us to come and go at our leisure. I’m sure my rookie season as a fan must have found me with bare feet swinging from a wicker rocking chair, listening along side him. As I got older, I soon learned to ask about Bob Honer’s injury-plagued wrists; to complain about “Bedrock” Bedrosian’s pitching brilliance after leaving the Braves; and to wonder if our man, Dale Murphy, would ever make it to the World Series. Even though I never excelled at playing catch, I learned to toss statistics with my family, and then my friends, in baseball’s unique language. So when my brother and I showed up for spring training that year, it was like we were coming home. We watched meaningless games in near-empty stadiums surrounded by snowbirds. We bought baseballs and autograph pens, collecting signatures from minor leaguers hoping to make a name for themselves. We treasured those players not for what they had done but for what they might do. For for the fact that they were playing a game we loved to watch. Reflecting back now, I think we sought signatures as a tacit acknowledgment that regardless of their skill or the ultimate outcome of their careers, we simply appreciated their participation in a pastime we enjoyed. This past week, I had the honor of stepping onto a similar field of dreams. To hear my parents tell it, I’ve always loved to read. Apparently I would sit on the carpeted steps of our home and read after school. Sometimes I read for homework. Other times I read for pleasure. Often times I read at the exclusion of more pressing tasks. My mom later told me that my chores would be neglected and my dogs might not be fed if I were in a particularly compelling part of a book. That decadent reading...

read more

In the Beginning

Posted by on Feb 7, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Like many novels, I suppose, Blood Money began as an affair of the heart. Unlike most, though, the roots of the Mackie McKay series are anchored in academia.   When I was young boy of six, still enamored with Star Wars and Legos, my father dedicated a book to my siblings and me entitled Coronary Artery Disease: Recognition and Management. Even as the text of the thick green book remained largely inscrutable, the idea of being an author’s son enchanted me. Often during my formative years, I would remove the tome from the shelf and simple hold it, feeling the weighty importance  of bound words. Only later would I appreciate the process of producing such a work.   Twenty five years later, in the early-morning hours of infancy, I abandoned the hope of more sleep and began to write. I was no more prepared for the disciplines of authorship than those of parenting, but I pressed forward anyway. I soon realized that my muse would meet me after diaper changes and often stay until sunrise. At the quiet kitchen table in our Cincinnati home, disparate chapters accumulated. By the time our second child was born, I had completed what I thought must be the next great American novel.   Enter the heart again.   An author and cardiology colleague of my father’s helped me interpret the meaning of a first draft and the importance of revision. Sending me to meet with a team of seasoned scribes in Santa Barbara, I learned how to polish that first manuscript and where to search for the next novel within me. My wife indulged my fictional fantasies, quite certain that the words “author” or “re-write” were never even whispered during our courtship.   Like so many affairs of the heart, this one is only possible because of the patience and persistence of those who’ve shared this journey with me.   And it all began at home.   Thanks, Dad. This one’s for...

read more

Farewell to the Odd Couple

Posted by on Jan 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

My wife lost her first love this past weekend. She inherited him as a nuptial cast-off from a young couple pining for a fresh start. By the time I came into the picture five years later, this guy was a constant presence in her house. Sharing her bed. Sleeping on her sofa. Eating her food. My questioning glances during the early days of our courtship remained unnoticed. Soon his presence became part of the package. I learned to tolerate his car sickness. To dodge him when I walked into the house. To drop a few well-timed chucks of cheese to quiet his complaints. I viewed my reluctant kindness toward him as an investment in her. Two years later, we brought another man into our house. This one was lanky and lean, a vibrant picture of youth. These two guys could not have been more different, but they complimented each other like a living yin-yang. The veteran would quietly leave the room when the rookie burst in. But he didn’t leave for long. They became our surrogate children, teaching us what it meant to set boundaries in the context of hospitality, helping us to practice parenting’s twin-paradox of loving discipline. When our own kids came along, these two guys accepted them like the family members they were. They tolerated the ear pulling and piggy-back rides. They wore dress-up clothes and silly hats as if it were part of their job description. By then, the old man had lost his cheese weight and was frail enough to be carried by a toddler. The rookie never truly mellowed, but would gum his side of the knot in a game of tug-of-war. These two also forced uncomfortable conversations with our kids. They introduced topics from basic anatomy to carnal physiology. We turned our embarrassed heads when the old man sat on the sofa and licked himself with leg-quivering abandon. We redirected the kids’s attention when the young guy began sniffing and prodding places previously labeled as private. As the family grew, my wife and I lost our ability to multi-task. Despite our periodic negligence and intermittent irritation, neither man wavered in his loyalty. They stuck by us through four kids, three houses, two miscarriages, and one new city. They stayed up late to watch us feed the babies. They sat at the foot of the bed when the kids cried. They greeted our sadness by forcing wet noses into our laps. They never had to be asked more than once to go outside and play. In more ways than we could have imagined, this odd couple became a team, united by body hair and bowel gas. Both guys learned to accept their role as supporting cast in our growing family. They shared a joint water bowl without complaint when we squeezed them into the same space. They respected the physical barriers and baby gates when we tried to reclaim corners of the house. As they aged, each developed a gift for incontinence, then willingly slept outside as a consequence. When the old man died last weekend, our sadness was not from surprise. He had suffered a freak climbing accident that left his right leg paralyzed. Over a plate of doughnuts that morning, we celebrated a life well lived. But his friend couldn’t celebrate....

read more


Posted by on Jan 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

There’s only so much creativity we want in our physicians, right? After all, shouldn’t one stick to  generally accepted rules when writing prescriptions? We don’t sign our name where the date should be and we don’t leave the dosing up to our patients. We employ checklists in the operating room and reminders in the clinic so that even the slightest swerve toward negligence can be quickly corrected. Early in my training, with the starch still stiffening my white coat, I collected thick stacks of notecards to remind me of all the right ways to practice medicine. And practice I did. During the first year of my medical apprenticeship, I quietly hid the creativity of my liberal arts education. Ignoring the advice of my English teachers, I liberally plagiarized the chart notes of my mentors, creating an eerie similarity between infant and elderly patients as I learned the proper way to record my findings. “Fat feet” translated into “lower extremity edema” while “crusty scabs” became “eczematous lesions.” My transformation from a history major to a history taker clipped along, and by Christmas, I could report the narrative of a hospitalized patient as fluently as I could retell childhood stories. Soon my terse prescriptions and taught presentations mimicked my mentors. I completed my intern year as a well-trained clerk, able to track down labs in the most remote corner of the hospital. I knew I must be ready for the next step of becoming a doctor. What I did not know, or at least did not appreciate, was that with experience came responsibility. With responsibility came decision making. And when charged with making those decisions, I stumbled, wilting under the white-hot expectations of those who called me their doctor. I knew my medical facts when the road was wide and the questions were clear. Complaints of chest pain meant heart attacks. Broken ribs. Sometimes hear burn. But how could I tell when complaints of chest pain meant pneumonia. Or kidney infections. Or cancer. While my vocabulary couldn’t articulate the answer then, I now know that those are the medical situations that cry out for creativity. Not in the process. Those fundamentals don’t change. But creativity in the problem solving. Creativity in the consideration. Creativity in the communication. We all do this. Approaching familiar situations in new ways is the essence of creativity. It allows us to weigh what works in our mind against the nagging unmet expectations of what doesn’t fit. It allows us to tackle a challenge from a new direction. To think of the same things differently. We do this as readers. In those delicious hours of solitude when a protagonist grabs us by the hand and tugs us through the pages of a novel, we take a creative journey. We ache when he makes a bad decision. We yearn for her not to knock on the darkened door. “I would not have done that!” you shout in your head, but read on to discover the consequences of those choices. That’s creativity. We do this as writers. In front of the late-night glow of the screen, we agonize over the fate of our characters, trying to find new ways to express universal themes. We put them in impossible situations and then elegantly release them from certain harm. That’s creativity....

read more

A 2013 Reader’s Guide for Writers

Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

In his delightful book My Reading Life, Pat Conroy explains with velvet prose how good reading undergirds good writing. His well-supported argument is that effective writers are first avid readers. Conroy’s personal goal of consuming two-hundred pages a day seems straight from Mount Olympus, and accomplishing that daily feat is an act of almost mythologic proportions. Near the end of his trekker’s guide for writers, though, he explains that, “reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for a novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.” I find myself strolling through the meadows at the foot of this mountain, burning to get better but reading less frequently than I wish. Still, with the help of a monthly book club and the periodic recommendations of friends, I have completed twenty-nine books this past year. Some are high-carb fuel for the road, inspiring me to be a better writer. Others are the sugar-sweetened equivalent of an afternoon snack, quickly consumed but lacking in sustenance. One wasn’t even worth a second bite. But that’s how reading is for me, trail mix for the writing road that feeds my next writing project. Below is a sample from my 2013 menu, categorized not by what I enjoyed but what I learned. The Most Fitting End to a Story: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger On an uncommonly cold day this fall, best described in Alabama as “football weather,” I stumbled across Salinger’s book in the local library. Impulsively checking it out and then reading it again for the first time since high school, I soon recalled why this sixty-year-old book still speaks to readers today. Of all the bold characters I read about this year, few had the naked honesty of Holden Caulfield. For me, Salinger found the perfect way to end the tale of this audacious character when we learn that throughout the book, Holden was retelling his story from the comfort of a mental ward. The Most Consistent Point of View: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride I’m sure I’m near the back of the line of those waiting to praise this National Book Award winning novel, but what I learned most from it was the consistency of creating a witty character with a rich backstory. McBride’s protagonist, Onion, is as fresh at the end of the novel as he is with his first introduction, and the humor remains. The Characters Most Likely to Move into the Basement of My Mind and Never Leave: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green Love in a cancer kids support group comes to life through the first-person perspective of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old with metastatic thyroid cancer and an oxygen tube in her nose. It seems difficult for most writers to present someone with the yin-yang of haunting honesty and self-effacing humor, but Green builds her character through the shenanigans of her boyfriend, Augustus Waters. After reading it, the novel left me walking around for days with their conversations continuing like music in my head. The Most Sphincter-TIghtening Tension: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand Not since The Hot Zone have I read a non-fiction work that rivals any novel in bringing the triple-threat of character, plot, and pacing. The author retells the true story of...

read more

Two Months and Counting

Posted by on Dec 21, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Two months and counting before Blood Money will be published. The road to publication of this book, though, began over five years ago. On a warm Santa Barbara afternoon in June 2008, my writing mentor held up a bound copy of a soon-to-be-published novel  “You want one of these,” she told me. “It’s an ARC.” That term didn’t mean much to me at the time, but if my mentor said an ARC was what I needed, then it was my job to find out how to get it. Only later did I realize that an ARC—an Advanced Reader Copy—represented one of the last stops on the road to publication. Not the end of the road, though. I had attended conferences to improve my writing. I spent my early mornings back at home practicing that craft, revising each draft, and writing some more. Sometimes on this road, the novel in my mind butted up against an embankment of real words on a page. When that happened, I left the manuscript on the side of the road for a few months. Afterwards, I came back to the book with eyes fresh, seeing the flaws hidden there all along. In 2008, I thought the ARC represented the destination. In 2013, Blood Money has taught me that the ARC is just one more stop in this writer’s journey. Last month, the ARC of Blood Money arrived at my house to the jubilant fanfare of my kids. The cover of “Daddy’s book” perfectly captured in an image what I could hardly articulate in a query. I basked in the book’s glow for a few day before sitting down to read it, quickly realizing I had more miles to go on this road. For the last month, I’ve re-read the book. Suffered the tyranny of typos. Smoothed unpaved sentences. Erased obvious errors. Each read-through brings me closer to a goal I had five years ago when the idea first bubbled up from my subconscious of a tainted blood substitute and a dead body. Now, as I finish my final edit of the ARC, I’ve noticed other distant vistas from this initial mountain top. So the journey continues. To the book release. The marketing. The next book idea. Then, to the next...

read more

Hubris and Humility

Posted by on Dec 1, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

My wife is a seasoned pediatrician. Through a decade of private practice and parenting, she has honed a skill set in primary care that is as impressive as it is nuanced. In many ways, she is a cartographer of kids, able to read the topography of toddlers and the fault lines of adolescents with equal skill. But like any professional ten years into a dedicated career, the visible skills spring from nurtured talent. Many providers-in-training, though, cannot appreciate the terrain at the beginning of their journey. Last week, a student approached her about a shadowing opportunity. This young professional, still lacking a year of formal education, wanted to invest one hundred and twenty hours in my wife’s office learning to practice pediatrics. Fifteen days of a dedicated rotation to the clinical care of kids, learning to track their progress and map the road ahead. When my wife asked about the student’s expectations, the trainee’s confident response exposed either a lack of self awareness or an under-appreciation of the complexities of the field. “I think I’ll shadow you for the first few days. You know, to learn the ropes,” responded the student. “After that, I’ll just see patients independently. I’m really good with kids.” Clowns are good with kids, too. To be fair, a decade pursuing any endeavor tends to level the peaks of unearned confidence and the valleys of insecurity. In 2003, I began to write my first novel after reading a book that I interpreted to be a hardbound copy of inelegant writing describing two-dimensional characters suffocating under a limp plot. I can write better than this, I thought. I really like books. My path seemed simple enough: I would re-read a favorite novel to see how good writing is done. I got this, I thought, so I embarked on a ninety-day first draft. With minimal preparation, I pecked out a hundred-thousand words of under-researched prose, uninteresting characters, and an unimaginative plot. What’s worse, at the end of my three-month sprint, I thought I had created a book for the ages. I mailed out thirty-seven queries to agents and editors. A universal chorus of literary rejection sang an unambiguous tune to me that year. Whatever writing talent I may have had was not enough. Whatever enjoyment I may have had reading books could not supplant the need for practice. So I read more. I wrote more. And my writing grew. I still read plenty. I still write often. In fact, learning how to write well has given me a backstage pass to appreciate the nuances of well constructed books. I enjoy seeing how an author expertly introduces a character and makes me not only root for her but also wonder about her days after the book’s conclusion, as John Green does in The Fault of Our Stars. I smile at the elegance of compelling plots, as Lee Child has done every time since Killing Floor. I am haunted by perfect endings that hand out gut-wrenching justice, as Ann Patchett did in State of Wonder. Reading is not just entertainment. It is education. It is also the humility that counters hubris. I got this? Not even...

read more

Remembering Kennedy, Considering Character

Posted by on Nov 23, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Young clinicians are taught that most of what is needed to make an accurate diagnosis is obtained in the history. That assumes, of course, that the novice scribe knows not only what to ask but also what to do with that information. With so much historical significance packed into this past week, I took the opportunity to expand my own history taking skills, asking a question at the end of each office visit: do you remember where you were when you found out that President Kennedy was shot? For those old enough to remember, the question elicited a pause, then a story: One man, at his office in Chicago. learned about JFK’s death from Walter Cronkite’s television announcement His wife heard the news on the radio while waiting in the carpool line to pick up their kindergartener A young Navy officer on night watch in peace-time Guam also received the news on the radio, hearing it in the early morning hours of the Pacific. He soon found himself waking his fellow sailors to tell them the news. A fifth grade boy in rural Georgia heard about the shooting from his teacher. His class spent the rest of the day crowded around the school’s only television set All of my patients-turned-historical-sources recalled the palpable sense of loss in Kennedy’s death. Not one had trouble remembering what they felt and where they were when the news came through. Neither did they have trouble reeling me in to emotions of fifty years ago. Their stories were natural. Unforced. And they flowed easily, as all good stories do. Why, then, is it so hard to replicate natural emotions in fictional characters? After completing my first book-length manuscript in 2004, I solicited representation from any number of literary agents. While all of them ultimately passed on the work, some took the time to provide feedback. One agent’s written assessment simply stated the book “does have a surface readability and some tension too, but I just didn’t get involved with the characters.” At the time, no amount of manuscript massage could revive the work, which led me to shelve that book and begin again. Fast forward nine years. This past summer, I spent two months re-editing and re-polishing the manuscript for Blood Money. My publisher, an early champion of the Mackie McKay series, continued to press me with typed comments about my main character’s soul. What was Mackie feeling? How did events affect him? Show his reactions to the situation. The more I read (and re-read) the text I had written, the more I saw areas to fix. I soon noticed a man who needed to not just swim above the turbulent waters of the plot, but also a man who needed to wade through the emotional eddies of his situation. For me, the process of revision was a process to understand the character’s history. Understanding how ordinary people react in extraordinary circumstances gives clinicians a chance to better understand their patients. It also allows writers to better know their characters. Perhaps the understanding, then, springs from a basic tenet of humanity: it is not so much in asking the right questions of history but in paying attention to the...

read more