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By Milton Toby

What’s an aspiring writer to do when an established author with a history of successful books to her credit says that a manuscript needs work—lots and lots of work—and probably is not publishable?

Don Bruns faced that question a few years ago when he was the successful bidder for a critique session from noted mystery writer Sue Grafton.  She read the manuscript and then sent Bruns a detailed, eight-page critique identifying serious problems with the characters, the plot, the structure of the novel, with just about everything in the book.  Grafton thought Bruns had potential as a writer and she suggested that he might want to just throw away the manuscript he had submitted for the critique and start over using her suggestions as a roadmap.

“It was devastating,” Bruns recalled.  He told his wife that he might as well give up trying to get published.  When Grafton telephoned Bruns a few days later she told him that she wanted to get his attention with her harsh critique.  “I said that she had my attention, but that she could have done it a little nicer,” Bruns said. “But I took her advice and wrote another book.”  Grafton liked that one enough to help Bruns find a publisher. When Jamaica Blue was hit the bookstores it appeared with Grafton’s enthusiastic blurb on the back cover: “Don Bruns has staked out his turf. Sex, drugs, rock and roll and murder. What more could you want?”

Since then, Bruns had turned out one, sometimes two, books a year.  Jamaica Blue was the first of five books in the author’s ongoing “Caribbean Mystery” series.  The most recent entry in his “Stuff” series, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, is scheduled for release from Oceanview Publishing in December.  The Small Stuff protagonists, James Lessor and Skip Moore, are “a couple of clueless 24-year-olds in Miami trying to start a company with a big box truck” Bruns said.  When those plans do not pan out James and Skip get their private investigator licenses and More or Less Investigations is born.  One of their first clients is an itinerate carnival with rattletrap rides that are killing people.  James and Skip are hired to find out if someone is sabotaging the rides and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is off and running.

“It’s a very lighthearted look at kids coming out into the real world,” Bruns explained.  “All my books have a lot of humor, a lot of character, and a genuine sense of place.  I do my research and when you get into one of my books, you feel like you are really there.”

Balancing murder, mayhem, and humor is tricky business.  Are the books mysteries that happen to be funny, or funny books that happen to be mysteries?

“It’s a mix,” Bruns said.  “I was on the road as a stand-up comedian for six years, but when I started writing I learned that you can’t just put together a string of jokes and have it be funny.  You need plot, tension, a climax.  You need to write the book and find the humor in the interactions between the characters.  You have to know your characters and you have to let the readers get to know your characters, too.”

Bruns also is an accomplished musician and song writer.  He put himself through school playing with a rock band and he has a CD called Last Flight Out.  When I caught up with him he was on his way to the Miami Book Fair to promote Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and to perform with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a loosely organized band composed of well-known authors like Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen King.  Writing and music complement each other, Bruns said.

“Writing books and writing songs have a lot in common,” he explained. “They both use many of the same skills.  All the songs on the CD are stories.  When you think about it, any song with lyrics is a just a story.  It’s hard to compress a good story into a three-minute song, but a good song can be fleshed out into a good book.”

Bruns was going to stay in Florida for a while after the Book Fair to do research for his next book.  Writing, performing, networking like mad, South Florida in November—nice work if you can get it.

Milton C. Toby