clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Data Point Easter Style

Easter Style?  Think Easter Beagle. In my case, Easter Foxhound.

Friday was Frog Day here - that's the day the frogs start making noise. The rest of the weekend has been a blur.

Here are some data points on publishers whose authors' works appear in this week's NYT Book Review.

Alfred A. Knopf. Middle C., William H. Gass. novel. [ You should read this.] p.1. reviewed by Cynthia Ozick.

Random House. Out of Order.,Sandra Day O'Connor. memoir. [ Not the book you'd expect]. p.8. reviewed by Adam Liptak.

Riverhead Books. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid. novel. p. 9.

Atlantic Monthly Press. Wash, Margaret Wrinkle. novel. [ White writer, black characters, slavery, sex. Get ready for the sound bites]. p. 10. reviewed by Major Jackson.

Alfred A. Knopf. Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart. historical novel. p.11. reviewed by Amy Wilentz.

Bloomsbury. The Walking, Leleh Khadivi. novel. p.12. reviewed by Mike Peed.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The Retrospective, A.B. Yehoshua. trans. Stuart Schoffman. novel. p.13. reviewed by Robert Pinsky.

Liveright Publishing Corp. Karl Marx, Jonathan Sperber. biography. p. 14. reviewed by Jonathan Freedland.

Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers. I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp, Richard Hell. autobiography. [ wash thoroughly after reading. Manhattan from this period can leave a stain]. p. 15. reviewed by Rachel Kushner.

Beacon Press. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rose Parks, Jeanne Theoharis. biolgraphy. p. 18. reviewed by Nell Irvin Painter.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, Alexander Stille. memior. p.19. reviewed by Louisa Thomas.

The New Press. Kids for Cash, William Ecenbarger. political/legal history. p. 21. reviewed by Abbe Smith.

Viking. The Injustice System, Clive Stafford Smith. political/ legal history. p. 21. reviewed by Abbe Smith.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zamba. novel. p. 22. reviewed by Adam Thirlwell.

Top 10 Fiction Hardback:

Emily Bestler / Atria.
Little, Brown & Co.
Tyndale House.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Body Count

At right is the newest release from Alyse Carlson whose last  lovely tale of woe (The Azalea Assault) brought death and danger to a garden party. It is a lovely cozy with a dashing ending worthy of Ludlum or Forsyth!

My favorite line from the earlier work?

Pulling out the weeds that didn't deserve to make their homes in her beautiful beds required a certain frame of mind, but she had just entered that zone. A little selective herbicide was exactly what she was in the mood to do.

I love that bit because it is all a-murder.

The Begonia Bribe promises even more homicidal mayhem. After all, this one involves the Little Miss Begonia Pageant!

I'll make you buy the book but the first chapter has an object lesson "the hook" in a series novel. Pretty impressive.

Links are here :

The publisher's blurb:

The Begonia Bribe:  2nd in the Garden Society Cozy Mystery series by Alyse Carlson (aka: Hart Johnson)  

Roanoke, Virginia, is home to some of the country’s most exquisite gardens, and it’s Camellia Harris’s job to promote them. But when a pint-sized beauty contest comes to town, someone decides to deliver a final judgment …

A beauty pageant for little girls—the Little Miss Begonia Pageant—has decided to hold their event in a Roanoke park. Camellia is called in to help deal with the botanical details, the cute contestants, and their catty mothers. She soon realizes that the drama onstage is nothing compared to the judges row. There’s jealousy, betrayal, and a love triangle involving local newsman—and known lothario—Telly Stevens. And a mysterious saboteur is trying to stop the pageant from happening at all.

But the drama turns deadly when Stevens is found dead, poisoned by some sort of plant. With a full flowerbed of potential suspects, Cam needs to dig through the evidence to uproot a killer with a deadly green thumb.

If you get a chance, visit the author's page on facebook here and tell her how smashing the cover looks. Just right for spring. ( now with added cat!).

Happy Easter. I'll see you next on the other side.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Printers Row

At left, a card which came in the mail commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row.

I love Chicago. I couldn't resist subscribing to the  dedicated literary supplement and news. I've enjoyed it. I have to admit that I've read little of the fiction it publishes however. I can get through the news and releases and reviews but I cannot manage to read the fiction because of the content distribution engine.

The thing comes to me electronically distributed  by Olive Software. [ I'm outside the print distribution radius]. This firm uses flash which means that the content isn't available on iOS devices. The Tribune Co. likewise has resisted releasing an iOS app in support. Thus, I cannot recommend this wonderful publication when its ease of use for so many of us is horribly impinged.

I love my nook app on the iPad. I love my New York Times and New Yorker on the iPad. I still read my Wall Street Journal in hard copy. I write on it frequently thus I like the newsprint edition.

In fact, I write in almost all of my books. Here's an example.

I know - horrible, right? This is an Alice Munro story that I was pulling apart to understand some of her internal structure. "Axis."

I do this to a great many of my books for various reasons. In the last week I've ripped into a good part of Trott's Wounds and Lacerations: Emergency Care and Closure, a volume of Dr. William Forgey's  Wilderness Medicine,  and Peter Ho Davies The Ugliest House in the World collection of short stories. I'm working now on Separate Kingdoms by Valerie Laken which also is a collection of short stories and which I m also cutting apart.

I don't know why I do it. I started in high school and have persisted until today.

Oh, and I settled on the main conflict for a novel I'm plotting. That felt good. It was a good day.

Now, I'm going to make some notes and go to bed early. I'm reading Stanislav Lem for pleasure and I am enjoying him greatly.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Data Points, Sunday Style

The front page of the NYT Book Review says Fresh Voices.

Here's the list getting a review this week.

St. Martin's Press. Damage Control, Amber Dermont. short-story collection. p.8.

Scribner. Fever, Beth Keane. novel. p.9.

Grove Press. I Want To Show You More, Jamie Quatro. short-story collection. p. 10.

Alfred A. Knopf. Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala. grief memoir. p. 11.

Riverhead Books. The Minature Wife and other stories. Manuel Gonzales. short-story collection. p. 12. [ notably reviewed by Aimee Bender].

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Frances and Bernard,  Carlene Bauer. novel. p. 13.

Spiegel & Grau. With or Without You, Domenica Ruta, memior. p. 14.

Europa Editions. Falling to Earth, Kate Southwood. novel. p.15.

Spiegel & Grau. Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang. memior. p. 16.

Scribner. Mumbai New York Scranton, Tamara Shopsin. memior. p. 17. [Forget the restaurant. You won't get in. It's for Rhino's only and your skin is too damn soft. ]

Simon & Schuster. Middle Men, stories, Jim Gavin. short-story. p. 18.

short mention ... in crime

Ballantine. Black Irish, Stephan Talty. thriller. p.19.

Minotaur. Rage Against the Dying, Becky Masterman. novel. p.19.

Mysterious Press / Grove / Atlantic. Bear Is Broken, Lachian Smith. novel. p. 19.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Donnybrook, Frank Bill. novel. p. 19.

Top 10 Fiction Hardcover this week :

Emily Bestler / Atria,
Little, Brown & Co.
Tyndale House,
Howard Books,
Wizards of the Coast.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Try It On

Tomorrow: data points. I'm away from my _NYT_ at the moment.

It fits like a glove. ( Image from outside my local feed mill).

I have short fingers and every glove I've ever owned could store a couple peanuts in the end of each finger with ease. Large square palms, short fingers. Bear paws.

I've always thought "fits like a glove" was a stupid thing to say.

I'm trying some things on. We all do.

I've joined a "mutual aid" group to provide some definitive help in seeing if the polish on some stories is working or not. It is a critique group focused on publication-ready work. Since half the business is in the  polish steps, that's a big leap forward for me. I'm trying it on.

I'm also in a social writing group. Last week, one of the regulars became upset. She left in tears.

It was a cocktail party moment when someone you vaguely know is having marital trouble. At a party, from over in the corner, one of the two will storm out. The other sometimes apologizes and slips out a minute later. Sometimes they slip out in silence. I'm always the guy at the other end of the room wondering if they ate all the crab dip before they left.

I never inquire about the "scene" because I'm not interested. Don't mistake proper behavior for restraint and good taste. Accidents happen.

On Tuesday night, I was across the table from the regular who left. She was upset at the moderator for no good reason I could see. It's a social group and I suspect she came in with some degree of emotional distress. Maybe she didn't like the prompt which was innocent for this group. You know the type of absolute trash writers will use in parlor games. This wasn't one of those times.

She didn't write to the prompt, as many did not, and she took umbrage at the suggestion by the moderator of some unspecified jesting penance that the non-participants would face.

Tears, protestation, exit. You read the preceding line in the time it took to transpire.

I've not considered the response to an ill fit in trying on this publication run. I'd be in the same boat I am now, I suspect. I'd be in the same outcome class as those who are invisible for not writing to the prompt.

Invisibility is a poor comfort. Better executed in the square for insubordination than to die anonymously in the mines.

I'd even take crucifixion. Maybe I should have an autobiography ready, in case. It's the season, after all:

Anonymous: An Autobiography
 a novel. 

That'd piss off the marketing department.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

In Praise of Analytics

AT left, Tom Perrotta's edit of The Best American Short Stories 2012.

In 2010, Mr. Perrotta's story "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face" was a "one city/one story"  work for the city of Boston. That's where I first read him. Authors writing in this century are hard for me to get through with only bedtime reading.

"Happy Chang" is also a great example of a 1st person POV with a sympathetic but flawed character.

I'm applying the analytic part of the brain to this fine collection of short stories for a review of the mechanics of the structure, characterization, and techniques of conveying emotional aspects of the inner and outer conflict.

Many of the folks I know in the "late to writing"  movement have successful careers elsewhere - often where the analytic part of the brain dominates. I am too slow in turning those techniques of analyzing literature back to current works to see what there is in the craft that I do not know.

Most of us have at least a couple undergraduate classes in fiction. We remember the techniques of slicing the principle mechanisms of a work into arguments for essays. We remember applying the basics of analytic thought to the contribution of various components.

What I personally did not do was look into a book or story from the writer's perspective. I answered questions of efficacy regarding some material point of interest to me rather than review the work for things that improved my writing. I analyzed as a reader and not a writer. (I analyzed to take a class that might have a girl in it, but that's another problem).

I'm applying my analytic brain to the stories in the above anthology. It's part of the applied education business I've neglected thus far this year.

What are you doing as craft development? I'd love to hear.

Friday, March 22, 2013

We Are Content Mules

Small soapbox tonight.

Writers are the content mules. What we contribute first to our own careers is content. Everything else is a distant fourth place.

New writers at any gathering invariably turn to bitching about "the industry" or "those agents" or "traditional publishers not giving you a chance" or the color "blue."

The answer to whatever slight you might suffer in the future is: write a better book.

It's the only thing under your control.

Oh, sure. Dan Brown. E.L. James. Insert Any Other Name Here. They are not you. Write well enough to draw the interest of the committee for the top award in your genre (or the Pulitzer, if all else fails) and problems fade quickly.

Now, run over to Elizabeth Spann Craig (here) for a better written version of this message. She's got a great take on the subject.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fortune, Fortune Cookie

Oddly, This was a fortune I received today as I was plotting a drastically different direction for a novel. I had departed from all my conventional and contrived comfort.

A wacky invention will lead to your success.

I didn't even order Chinese. It was an unclaimed cookie on the counter at the shop and I nabbed it.

I'm hardly the fellow who goes in for this sort of bullshit. I'm nearly a mad scientist, for Dog's sake. A serious sort of mad scientist.

It felt good, nonetheless. The plot direction I had sketched was certainly in the "wacky" realm. I'm not usually that sort of absurdist.

I do love Catch-22.

So, some good karma to share.

For $12, I have in my hand two new 8 GB flash drives (USB 2.0) from Amazon. I'm able to back-up my writing and my writing software onto these drives taking something less than five minutes. This is much more convenient than my cyclical household backup.

With two drives on the desk, there is good redundancy. With five minutes, there is good time management. I fire DBAs who loose data. There is no excuse for lost data, ever. If it is important enough to need, it is important to keep in serial volume backups.

Please, do yourself a favor and order a couple of these USB flash dongles and do daily whole-file backups off your hard drive. With two, even a fault on one is unlikely to leave you in a lurch. Cloud is cool - and I'm a huge (many TB) cloud data guy - but I make sure we do physical backups of our data which is under our positive control. You should as well.

Please. Before something happens and your hard drive dies, I beg you to back-up.

Here's a link to a 16 GB version for $10. (here). I love the cloud but for important things, I want them in my hand as well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Happy Tea Time of the Edit

At left, finally. I've been waiting for this issue of The Paris Review like an eight-year-old's birthday party. It's a civilization which I'm allowed to hear in tales but not allowed to visit, yet.

I wanted to share a little of the edit tonight. It isn't very important and it won't matter to most of you. It's as meaningful as the warm stones around a fireplace in the morning after the coals themselves have lost any light. You know there was a fire and there may be one again but in the end, it's just some warm rocks stacked inside the house, with you.

The original draft from a piece well into a story. The protagonist is in an office to review an inappropriate and self-endangering disclosure she's made out of turn: (a rough draft excerpt)

     "I'm not playing," she replied still looking at the books. "This is your game. Play it by yourself. I'm the bad student and you're the administrator. I'm supposed to feel remorse or fear or ashamed. Well - I don't. I don't feel anything. I'm here to learn so start teaching. Oh - and if you touch me, I'll have you killed."

She regretted that the moment it leapt from her lips and they made her small. It was her first ill-considered action of the week.


Right. Ghastly enough for a rough draft, isn't it? It's a bit of Steig Larsson after two bottles of vodka and a brain injury. I was pounding the text trying to find the story and that took a while. Horrendously uninteresting.

Here's a draft revision and then I'll speak to some of the choices, briefly.

( a first draft revision)


"I'm not playing," she replied. "I'm the bad student and you're the administrator. I'm supposed to feel ashamed or afraid. Well, I don't."

Kait shifted and squared herself. "I don't like being alone with you."

The words floated and made her small. Her head twisted but the neck tightened anyway. Her ears flushed. She hoped he'd see anger but she knew embarrassment, the cousin of shame.


I like the brevity (and after the rough draft who wouldn't?). I also like the way the language tells us more about the Kait than about her actions.

In the first version all we have the poorly constructed mock-tough of the amateur troublemaker.

In the second, we have a the honest-enough assessment of someone in a bureaucratic pinch of little meaning (permanent record and all) and the remorse which accompanies the unhelpful threat impulsively launched but pulled back in its execution so far as to be impotent.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

News, in three lines

I heard an interview with the curator of the book Novels in Three Lines driving home from a writer's group this evening.

A link to the book is here. It was published in 2007.

To that end, I have my Tuesday news in three lines.

Spring erupts unnoticed by some in the northern woods;
Though birds are in full song.
The snow is somewhat less today.
It nicely concealed too bright a processional from view.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Beginnings

My beginning is illustrated at left.

The waffle is mere a delivery mechanism for some exquisite blueberries from my berry patch. The payoff: blueberries with flavor.

If you come for breakfast I'd ask if you wanted a waffle, not if you wanted a bear-portion of delight. I would deceive you. I'd then stuff you blue. I put nutmeg and cinnamon in the waffles which compliment the berries nicely. It makes it all irresistible. It's what I do.

I'm working the edits now (as you well know) and so the beginning is getting its due excessive and obsessive attention. Oh, sure: lead sentence, hook, rapid transition. All the usual.

What I am really crafting is the blueberry business.

As in: hey, dead body. [yawn] Clever inspector on scene with the M.E. stand-in witty banter and the F.D. boys packing up the homeland toys they overbought with federal grants. [Hmmm, isn't there a yoga class in fifteen minutes at the gym?]  The victim died of blunt force trauma when the backyard chicken coup blew up in an Act of God? [ Pass the syrup, I'm going to try a bite].

I'm going to have to move pretty quick to transition from Act of God to murder. That's my second problem. The point is, an interesting character on the first page with a comfortable setting and comfortable premise and then BAM (sorry Lagasse). The plate appears and it isn't merely waffle. It's loads of blueberries that taste , well - summer morning blue.  It's a treat.

I'm working like a bear to pull this series of edits off because I'd love to show my old friend Andy Deckert that I made it out of the world of June-brown introspective depression to a rolling woodland meadow of color and sound and interest. Bloody landscape can do a lot to your writing. I love a good berry patch.

I love a fruit-delivery-mechanism waffle. Stay tuned for crepes. I'm working on the "starts."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Publishing Trends, Data Points

Continuation of the Publishing data points series from the Sunday NYT Book Review.

Ecco / HarperCollins. The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates. p.1. novel. [ "world's first postmodern Gothic novel"]. Reviewed by Stephen King. (yep).

Bloomsbury. The Magnificent Desolation, Thomas O'Malley. p.10. novel. [I don't have worlds to even attempt to snark this one. I'm even lost in the review]. reviewed by Stephen Harrigan.

Random House. Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss. p. 11. non-fiction. [ Why you haven't lost the freshman 20 in last 30 years]. reviewed by David Kamp.

The Penguin Press. The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp. p.12. grief memoir. [ 9 month old child diagnosed incurable and the following three years of response]. reviewed by Sarah Manguso. (probably lost a bet).

Harper. The End of the Point, Elizabeth Graver. p. 13. novel. [ Place as a character throughout a generational novel. Uses the phrase "military-industrial golfplex" ]. reviewed by Alida Becker.

New York Review of Books. Speedboat, Renata Adler. p. 14. novel. [ reissue]. reviewed by Jennifer Szalai.

New York Review of Books. Pitch Dark, Renata Alder. p.14. novel. [reissue].  reviewed by Jennifer Szalai.

G.P. Putnam's Sons. The Night Ranger, Alex Berenson. p.17. novel, thriller.[ Seventh of the John Wells character books]. reviewed by Adam LeBor.

Simon & Schuster. The Soundtrack of My Life, Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis. p. 20. memoir  [586 pages of gold records on the wall]. reviewed by Tom Carson.

Henry Holt & Company. A Possible Life,  Sebastian Faulks. p.21. novel - ostensibly. [ Three short stories bookended by novellas of temporally intertwined stories]. reviewed by Nancy Kline.

Viking. Here and Now, Paul Auster and J.M.Coetzee. p.22. literary letters. [ Collected correspondence from 2008 onward]. reviewed by Martin Riker.

Bloomsbury. Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann. p. 24. novel. [From the review, an example to new writers of why their manuscripts are rejected by editors - at least by Buckley, who is not an editor]. by Christopher Buckley.

Pegasus Books. Constance, The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. Franny Moyle. p.26. biography. [ The title says it all. The review says "flat-footed"]. reviewed by Caryn James.

Faber & Faber.  The Missing Ink, Philip Hensher. p.26. non-fiction. [ Handwriting and penmanship mostly without nuns]. reviewed by Abigail  Meisel.

No shorts.

Top Ten Hardback Best Sellers.

Emily Bestler / Atria,
Little, Brown,
Tor / Tom Doherty,
Random House.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fine Line

At left is an image from Ben FrantzDale of a tool suitable for ink or blood at your choosing.

I'm starting a big edit series tonight and I am working a printed double-space standard into a longhand draft of just those core bits that "worked" in the original story. I am removing all but the barest modifiers (contextual requirements only) and anything that is awkward/clumsy/ill fitting. I'm making notes about the elements that I want in these spots of the story but I am not bringing over the ones that failed.

I have tons of bits and slips of minor revision bits to incorporate into the hand draft.

Afterwards, I'll recast this hand draft by re-typing it into my editor of choice and beginning from there with this new effort as my "first draft."

I'm more worried about including garbage from the rough draft than I am about the amount of effort this longhand redraft requires.

I have a better feel of pacing, construction, characterization and quick dialogue longhand than I do when I am composing on the keyboard. I'm not sure why.

I'd be very interested in feedback from the readers : do you compose on the keyboard and edit in longhand in that draft , or do you compose longhand and type a revision into an editor ..or do you do it all electronically?

I'm just wondering if all the years of longhand in notebooks altered the way I perceive the works on the page?

E.H. worked a draft in pencil first (at least, at some time in his career) and this allowed him an automatic revision upon typing it out. I need to use pen for the contrast on the page but I think the same principle is at work somewhere in my brain: I need the full-draft recast early in the process.

I think about what I write for quite a bit after it is actually set down. The curse of recall and the regret of long distance voyaging.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fortress of Solitude

Today the mail brought my copy of The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination. 

As I am a sort of mad scientist, this is delightful. I'm only a "sort" now though I am a classically trained mad scientist.

You think in collage there is no use for space plasma physics and statistical thermodynamics and you'd be wrong.

I have two notes in my pocket today. One: a reminder saying "you are on your own" and two: a critical assessment of a story that wasn't working.

It came to me this morning on the way into the shop what was missing and why I didn't find the tale suitable: the lack of emotion of a character whose unfaithful wife creates suicide doesn't correctly reflect the fact that there is emotion present.

Conflicted? Certainly. Oh, perhaps no remorse for the loss of the useless bag of flesh whose brains now occupy the upper half of their library rather that her demise has caused so much inconvenience and trouble. Far more trouble than the balance of the value he placed on her as a companion.

If a character and his unfaithful wife agree to remain together following the embarrassing revelation of the extent of her betrayal, and immediately following this arrangement of almost a resignation to the loss of illusion, a shitload of work is brought on by a clumsy suicide it still invokes powerful emotion.

The protagonist has to deal with her family. He has to arrange some sort of memorial. He has to deal with the inconvenient police interrogation which is the subject of the story. He has her bodily fluids damaging valuable first-edition books (many inscribed) he inherited from his father. He has the effects of a 20 gauge shotgun discharged inside a room and the damage to a ceiling. He has most of her blood which has soaked through the wood floor past the sub-floor into the lower level of the house.

Now, if you have a roommate whom you tolerate and you find their suicide results in this sort of calamity, you will not be very happy about inheriting the consequences of this selfish decision.  If it is murder, you feel a degree of violation (murder staged in your house) and the resulting disappointment over time and treasure dealing with the consequence.

Those emotions are vastly different than if you lose someone you actually love under similar circumstances. However, they are still emotions. My story has too few.

I have low hopes for a writing group I have proposed. Everyone has different needs and a writing group with prepared feedback involves a great deal of work and ... Well. When has effort shared on a voluntary or self-imposed basis worked out well in your life? Everyone has a slacker brother in Miami.

Off to revel in the mad scientist tales. I have a draft mad scientist story (daughter of MS, actually) so I am anxious to see how this selection of writers address the theme.

I hope you all read something fascinating this weekend.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Title

The mail today was especially good. At left is the haul.

I admit to not finishing Swamplandia. I started it at a friend's cabin and was one-third of the way through before leaving. Thus, my own lovely copy.

Mrs. Bridge I have not read but should.

Maidenhair is by a surely Russian sot who is deeply on the outs with the new Putin government and if that isn't a recommendation  I don't know what is. It's published in translation by Open Letter Books which in itself is high praise and if you haven't been to their site, go there now (here). Buy a copy of A Thousand Morons while you are there.  With a title like that, what's not to love?

I'm full of trouble tonight because I have a new story to write (hey - aren't you in "edit" mode ?) and of course, I have a story to write because I decided to hang-up the content creation routine for a while.

Nothing like quitting a bottle to give a man a a powerful thirst. Writing is damn near drinking. When you are done with either you think you are ten foot tall and know precisely what is wrong with the world and why you personally are the solution.

I also have to send off the preliminary invites for a critique and publish-prep group. That whole business has devolved into a nasty pile of work roughly akin to plowing with a mule. No way around it.

I should have something witty to say here attributed to Hemingway but I haven't.

My point for the day is on titles. I'm increasingly attracted to titles that describe the true intent of stories and I think that is probably three blondes of wrong.

I have a story whose working title is "I Drown Brett Thompson." Now, in the story I don't have him drown but he's in the water having some trouble when it ends. A more appealing title for readers might be "A Swimming Lesson." Why don't I go with the more attractive working title? Am I trying to alienate an audience?

I'm tired of being deceived in media: movies, books, short story. I'm getting a little weary of it.  I'm willing to change anything for success in submission but for my working titles, I'm going straight-no-chaser.

"When I drink water, I drink water. When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey." (Maurice Walsh, "The Quiet Man").

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Happy, Lively, Vivacious

I've been in a buffalo wallow lately up to my knees in mud and grumbling about it. Nobody likes to read that shit.

I apologize.

Maybe it is the season. Maybe it is the apprehension which results when one becomes quite serious about their writing. Nevertheless, nobody likes the dial setting "curmudgeon."  Art Buckwald could pull it off with humor and grace. The mere grumbling I've managed is horrendous.

This is Douglas Adams week and at left is the cover of my DoDo case which protects my iPad from extinction. If you don't use a DoDo case, start. It turns the thing into a large moleskin which is about the most rewarding tactile iPad experience available.

I'm thinking of putting together a small group of writers for the purpose of edit review, critique, and the stress of putting your best foot forward before putting your best foot forward.

I know the pitfalls of critique groups. I've some experience avoiding the evils of "the nastiest thing to say" game. Nevertheless, it is time to do a better job at the finish. Polishing is a habit and a skill. If the stuff is just going into the "for later" file then half the work is not being done.

So, I am going to share my introductory proposal with you before sending it to my associates. There is no need to include for you the particulars of the group so perhaps just the introduction of the topic.

Feel free to offer advice. Many of you have participated in various working groups.


Penguins. I consider myself and my ilk penguins.

Instead of standing on ice in the dark we sit in hovels and laundry rooms but it is much the same. We squawk indistinguishably from our like voiced compatriots. We wear the uniform of the flightless, the unpublished in ignominy at the bottom of the world unnoticed and unread. If we are studied it is for the masochism of it all.

“Why do they do it?,” the scientist asks. “You’d think they’d go someplace else. Take up something less frustrating. Golf, maybe?”

Well, comrades. I've eaten about all the raw herring I can stand and could use a little more warmth. A nice tropical bestseller list would make a fine escape but even a vacation to an anthology or two would seem blissful. Oh, for the beach chair in the Sunday Review of Books.

It is a long winter in Anonymity. Perhaps it is time we pooled our efforts for escape.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Slow and Late

I'm going through the mechanics in my mind. I'm plotting a novel. [ Image at left courtesy of JD554 of wikicommons].

When I went to a writer's group tonight and we tried some writing prompt bits for fun, my stories were slow and late.

The good ideas came after we were done and my clever lines - those that might get laughs - were gone. It is a social group and surprisingly full of extroverts. The writers were home at their desks, writing.

My creativity was occupied elsewhere. My thoughts are with half-finished ideas.

My characters enter the page blind and feeble. They find their roles with hesitant fingers on braille formed from emotional scars.

I have answered my quandary from yesterday on a protagonist as transgressor. It came to me in the early morning hours.

In hell, only Satan can rule. If the fate of my damned leads to a wondrous paradise, then I must populate it with evil. Then this fictive world which smells of flowers will shortly have the characters wading in a tide of shit. Readers can accept that.

I know what to do with my protagonist. I know the tricks and bargains and tactics he will use. Previously, he was a man of curiosity and reason and an odd desire to embrace the muse Clio - the muse of history. Now, he is that most interesting of characters. I will let my readers see the world through his eyes.

I will let the reader enjoy his desires.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Left to my own devices...

I know. Hang my head in shame.

There was some leftover taco meat from the weekend and some tortillas and ... nachos. I made a plate of nachos for dinner. I'm so ashamed.

It was however damn tasty. Forbidden food, you know.

I'm unnaturally drawn to things that are bad. Too much opera in my youth? Seeing Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter? Tasting scotch old enough to vote before I was old enough to drive?

If it is bad for me, I want two. We will remove women from consideration in the preceding statement. Reason occasionally has to reassert itself.

This leads me to a problem I have that I didn't know I had until last night. I was tossing in bed thinking about too many things and ... I found a problem I didn't know I had.

I have a novel in mind where my protagonist's actions are indefensible in civil society.

My personal perspective on the human condition is different from yours, gentle reader. You'll have to indulge me when I say that having a protagonist engaging in morally reprehensible behavior didn't immediately register as something dangerous in my fiction.

Now, I have examples. However they are not quite the examples I need.

Jack Reacher kills people but these are bad guys, so it is fine.

Philip Marlow often works for the morally reprehensible, but he leaves them in a worse fate then he found them so that too is fine.

I am going to have to study the twist of "when good things happen to bad characters."

I believe this could be a lovely bit of career.  "We're the very best at being bad." - Bugsy Malone.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Publishing Trends: Data Points

Here I  continue our unofficial scorecard of publishers landing reviews in the Sunday _NYT Book Review_. I heard from several of friends last week who asked "what does this mean?"

I'll explain.

The books listed herein are likely to receive publicity money and marketing effort. The measure is simply "sales potential" as illustrated by the variety of genre represented. These books were interesting enough to be reviewed in this thin slice of all that was published recently.

"Interesting enough" means someone cared enough somewhere to campaign to have their review listed here. Someone. Probably not the author's mother.

Are you writing books which are sufficiently compelling for someone (other than Mom) to go to bat for them?  That's our lesson here.

These publishers listed have these books on their list where that drive for interest is sufficient to result in a review however the event came to pass: favors, professional consideration, merit, buzz, NY cocktail party chat, D.C. cocktail party chat, S.F. party chat of any kind, prior merit, awards, payola, or dumb luck. It happened and it means sales and probably further exposure.

I'd bet that these publishers offer larger advances than the house of  Bab's Happy Writing Place. I love Babs, but everybody has to eat. I like steak.

In the end, we as authors compete for attention and there is only so much to go around.

Let us see who is getting that attention today.


Alfred A. Knopf. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg (with Neil Scovell). p.1. non-fiction. [ self-help career advice]. Reviewed by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Yale University Press. The Great Agnostic, Susan Jacoby. p. 10. non-fiction. [ biography, social studies]. Reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Hogarth. The Dinner, Herman Koch (translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett). p. 11. novel. [ two couples, four dinner plates, a pair of sons and violence's aftermath]. Reviewed by Claire Messud.

St. Martin's Press. The Good House, Ann Leary. p. 13. novel. [small town intrigue]. Reviewed by J. Courtney Sullivan.

W.W. Norton & Company. P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, Sophie Ratcliffe, ed. p.14. biography. [ careful there, vicar]. Reviewed by Charles McGrath.

New Harvest / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The Blue Book, A.L. Kennedy. p.15. novel. [lives, intertwined]. Reviewed by Wendy Lesser.

St. Martin's Griffin. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell. p.17. novel. [Y.A. young love]. Reviewed by John Green.

Scholastic. Hold Fast, Blue Balliett. p.17. novel. [Crime with a juvenile protagonist-detective written as poetry concealed in prose]. Reviewed by Abby McGanney Nolan.

Simon and Schuster. Better Nate than Ever, Tim Federle. p.18. novel. [middle grade, as the title would suggest]. Reviewed by Bob Balaban.

Greenwillow Books. I Respect Sean Rosen, Jeff Baron. p.18. novel. [middle grade]. Reviewed by Bob Balaban.

Alfred A. Knopf. I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, Jeanine Basinger. p.19. non-fiction. [ from review: "codifying conventions of an unexamined genre."]. Reviewed by Judith Newman.

The Penguin Press. Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi. p.20. novel. [ life in America complicated by a homeland and exile]. Reviewed by Nell Freudenberger.

Alfred A. Knopf. Benediction, Kent Haruf. p. 22. novel. [ We're back in Holt, Colorado for more]. Reviewed by Paul Elie.

W.W. Norton & Company. Weird Life: <excessive title expansion here>, David Toomey. p. 23. non-fiction. [oddly, not a biographical survey of novelists but a tour of microbiology]. Reviewed by Richard Fortey.

Some Short Mentions (in Crime, no less).

Mysterious Press / Grove / Atlantic. The Boyfriend, Thomas Perry. p.21. novel. [crime]. Reviewed by Marilyn Stasio.

Crown. The Andalusian Friend, Alexander Soderberg. p.21. novel. [crime-thriller]. Reviewed by Marilyn Stasio.

Simon & Schuster. The Demonologist, Andrew Pyper. p.21. novel. [horror - psychological style. Don't take the kid on career day if your day gig is the supernatural]. Reviewed by Marilyn Stasio.

Top Ten of Hardback Fiction.

Little, Brown & Co.
Tor / Tom Doherty.
Random House.
Little, Brown & Co.
Morrow / HarperCollins.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Great Week, Now - Hibernation

It's been a great week. I've gotten some much needed feedback to help confirm the calibration adjustment to my Bullshit Meter.

I've composed two draft stories that I didn't anticipate writing. Finished another that has been dragging. Brought a fourth out of mothballs, did a quick edit draft and sent it off to a friend for a little review.

It was a good week vocationally as well.

I'm weary, fed, and headed to bed.

This one I'll have to mark on the calendar as a high point of the year so far. Hope yours was as good.

Read something wonderful this weekend.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Waiting at the Door

Date night fare from Sunday. Well, part of it. I also made tails poached in cream and chicken stock but those don't photograph as well.

I'm beginning to work some pieces up for submission. It's been a while since I've been in such a place.

I wrote something I'm quite happy with a couple weeks back. It was a break-though piece in a manner in which I haven't written in twenty years. I thought that sort of writing had left me.

You know the feeling of a piece of writing that has all those elements of yourself wrapped inside. It's those emotional bits that you don't dare think about for fear that they might actually leap back into your psyche and Dog knows we don't want that.

I sometimes get those feelings when I read what I think is an especially fine piece of writing by someone else. Now, I've got those feelings from a recent piece of my own - and not because I think it is good. No - I know the feelings are just because I'm sensitized to what is in the story and not because of merit or construction.

After years of sleepwalking, I am feeling a little of what it is to write about all those things that compel  action through emotion towards or away from something. That word - compel - has been missing from my writing for a long time.

Now that I feel it, I need to work on seeing that my reader feels it. I need to make sure it is not sensational emotional manipulation ( as I've read and despised in some authors) but something of value.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ISWG: Cold Drafts

Ah, it is insecure Wednesday. You can see the list of wonderfully insecure writers all writing about insecurity : here.

It seems like nearly everyday is insecure Wednesday when you're in the middle of a draft - which brings us to the bullshit.

Bullshit is a very special writing term. It comes to us from none other than Ernest Hemingway. He wrote in several letters about a facility required of writers to detect the bad decisions in their writing and correct them without impinging on the judgement of the writer's own talent. He called this facility a Bullshit Detector.

As writers, we often attribute this bullshit detector to the little critic on our shoulder who moans and bitches and winces and whines whenever we're actually writing. The following is the part of this post that remedies this insecure portion of your writing life:

Turn your Bullshit Detector to the "off" position when you write your rough draft.

That's right. The full upright and locked position. When you are first crafting your story, your bullshit detector is your worst enemy. It lights up and shines onto your page with the intensity of July sun. What you do not recognize when this happens is that the calibration dial is screwed-up. Your detector is out of alignment because you do not know where your story is taking you.

When you write your first draft, I want you to write to your very lowest of expectations. I want you to put the words on the page with only as much proper grammar and punctuation and legibility as it takes to show your train of thought. Wrong verb tense? Passive voice? Adverbs on the page like coupon day at a Chinese buffet? You are writing only for you and only for understanding when you pick this draft back up a month or two from now.  

Discipline will come for you with comfort. When you write your 100th first draft, you will naturally write closer to the form of your demonstrated mastery of the English language. It won't matter though because you will still show no one but yourself your first draft.

Go whole hog. Have your protagonist say "fuck" a lot. Lots of characters do it off the page. Lots of writers, too.

You are afraid when you write that first draft if your stuff is any good at all. When you are writing your way through fear, shame, embarrassment and pain, you do not have the luxury of contemplating a shifting POV or the inclusion of a gerund.

You are afraid of what you might say about yourself and your family and your oldest friends (not those whiny bitches you know on facebook who are so disappointed in the President, or the Bachelor, or Idol, or whatever the fuck your associates are out doing at recess while you remain in the laundry room writing. Alone.).

You are pouring the emotion of the story into the characters and their reactions. The prose is stilted and awkward. The dialogue is inexact and muddled. You are finding the story and under these circumstances you are just trying to survive getting it down on paper. Your bullshit detector is not calibrated to work under these conditions.

Fear and questioning makes you doubt and hesitate and seize and ... stop writing.  

Oh, that last one is the death of the story. You stop writing and you stop feeling and you stop getting those things onto the page that the story is really about but which you, Miss Precise, didn't include in your outline. 

You didn't even admit to yourself that the story was about the embarrassment of unrequited love. It's there though. It's on the page unless you stop. 

The story isn't about going shopping for a prom dress with your aunt. The story is about being in the first glances of love with Jimmy Mangrum and knowing he was taking your best friend Pam Watson to prom and wanting to tell her and wanting to tell Jimmy and not. doing. either. 

You leave the bullshit detector on when you write the first draft and the story becomes about an ugly taffeta dress. Who cares about an ugly dress?  Not Quite Right For Us. Tell the other story. Please.

The theory of successful writing? Make a mess. Clean it up. You are not saving any work at all by picking your way through that first draft with a weather eye on language and point of view and the active voice and in media res and ... Tell the story. It is a first draft. It has bullshit all over it. At least 30% of it will be completely unusable and maybe as much as 90%. 

What do you care how much is waste at this point? You are a writer. You work for weeks on things you never show anyone.

If I offered you right now a positive lock on the 2014 Pulitzer in fiction for one gallon of your sweat, you'd be at the gym on the treadmill in a rubber sweatsuit in five minutes. Effort is nothing. Ink is cheap. Heartbeats spent creating wonderful fiction that illustrate the human condition in your words do not count against your lifetime limit.

Write that first draft. Write it by dipping the quill itself in excrement if you have to, but write the story and write it all the way through. Put down six pages on a scene that will ultimately last two paragraphs. It's a rough draft. Show yourself how you feel about the events of the story when you put it down here. You have at least two full drafts to go before you show it to anyone, anyway. 

Need more? I got you. 

"Shitty First Drafts" from Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott. It's required reading in the text used by nearly every MFA program in the country. It's in the first chapter of the book Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft  by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

If you chase this topic through about a hundred memoirs of the writers you love, you'll see they all say something about "quieting the voices" in order to come to the germ of their story. That's pretty Jane Austin language for "turning off the bullshit detector." I'm a Hemingway type of guy. 

You have got to get that story out.  You have got to get it on the paper and I have a $20 bill in my pocket right now which says that after you write - really write - that first draft you'll agree you had no idea what the story was really about until you got that draft finished. 

You are making a diamond. It takes pressure and the heat of concentration and no one - not even you - has any idea what it will look like when you finally knock all the dirt off and reveal that tiny little stone of so much incredible beauty forged from pure emotion. 

You're going to turn that bullshit detector back on for your next drafts. You're going to cut and polish and present your new beauty in the best possible light so you can sell it for the most possible money and prestige. 

You'll need the intense light of the detector in those subsequent efforts. In the first draft, it is not your friend.

Oh, and for your really new writers, please for Dog's sake do not package that first draft through the spell-checker and send it off for someone to read. Please, I beg you. You will be so ashamed in a couple of years. Write the draft, put it on ice, turn the bullshit detector back on and in a month wave that baby over the page and watch it light up. 

Make a mess. Clean it up. Do that for the rest of your writing life. 

Now, you're right there with the best of them. Who needs a pipe and leather elbows on a sweater? I got the concession right over here...Visa and Amex accepted.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Accidental Demise

I'm killing people off. I've drowned them, accidentally shot two, not so accidentally shot another, boiled one alive (and the hippos were boiled in their tanks), hit one on the head, and gave one a heart attack.

One more and I get a set of steak knives.

I'm from a place where the nicest thing people say about you at the funeral is that "he was a hard worker." It sounds like a curse in my ears. I'm using it in a revision. I hope at your funeral people say something else. I'd rather hear "let's go get pizza" rather than "he was a hard worker." In fact, I've left a funeral to get pizza before. It was a treat.

A piece of pulp.

 I like a piece of throw-away dialogue. It's what you expect.

The door opened without a knock and the short man in the grey suit smiled as he stepped into the basement office. It was a new suit and it fit fine on the type of man to whom a suit was a badge. He'd never seen a high school guidance councilor on a Wednesday.

"So Artie, what do you want?," the larger man behind the desk asked.

It was piled with folders and the fellow was pecking figures into a beige computer. Invoices covered the minimal real estate: Happy Hollow Produce, Swenson's dairy, All-Star Meats.

"Bobby sent me," Artie said settling into a almond colored chair. Its arms had been bright chrome in the Carter administration. "He says you're to pay what you normally give him to me from now on."

"Bobby didn't say nothing like that to me."

"Well, he's not going to say much to you anymore."

"That right? Like that is it?"

"Yea. He had a bad accident. Hit his head on some bullets then crawled in the trunk of that Escalade and took a sauna. I think he fell asleep and it got too hot for him but that's just me."

"You're a pig, Schum."

"Five a week keeps you vertical."

His victim nodded. It was like that.

Artie got up to leave. The vinyl chair stretched a little at the release. One step got the hood to the door and he turned around slowly centered in the opening. He had a case of the theatrical.

"Pay your cut and everything goes fine for you. This is a bad neighborhood. The buildings are all full of them firebugs. Hard to get rid of 'em."

He said the words and watched his victim reach and scratch himself looking down at the desktop. He'd won. They were all sheep. They'd fall over for the shearing.

The last thing he heard was both barrels of the J.C.Higgins shotgun blow out the back of the desk.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Data Points

A new Sunday fixture will be looking at the Sunday NYT Review of Books and looking at which publishers enjoyed a full review.


We used to make baseball players in college learn all the minor league affiliations, managers, position coaches (for your position), and starters in the show as a part of professional education. No one wanted to draft a kid to the Hickory Crawdads if he didn't have any idea of what organization the 'Dads were affiliated. Nitwits don't do well in any industry.

Thus, for talking agents and publishers, it is worth nothing who is getting press. Know this: the Times seldom covers small presses. Of course, advances come better from the larger houses all things being equal.

It's important to know who publishes your genre, who the leaders in that genre are, and what books are similar to yours. So, a little payback for all the help I get.

Oh, the Times calls personal essay as personal essay. I suspect this might be called creative non-fiction by some. I'm going with the Times label until they convert.

=================== 3/3

Random House. _The Brutal Years_, Emily Bazelon. p1. non-fiction. [About bullying. One for the sheep.] reviewer Andrew Solomon.

Schocken Books.  _The Wanting_ , Michael Lavigne. p.9. novel.  [ yearning for homeland and fulfillment novel in Israel / Palestine in mid 1990's]  reviewer Ethan Bronner.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. _The Fun Parts_, Sam Lisyte. p. 11.  story collection. [" the line between hilarity and pathos..."] reviewer Ben Fountain.

Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Company. _Going to Tehran_, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, p12. non-fiction, political essay. [ reviewed as having a partisan stance ] reviewed by Laura Secor.

 Sarah Criehton Books / Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  _Shouting Won't Help_, Katherine Bouton.  p.13. memior. [adult onset hearing loss and societal exposure] reviewed by Seth S. Horowitz.

Twelve. _Schroder_, Amity Gaige. p.14. novel. [ literary fiction as a jailhouse confessional referenced in the vein of _Lolita_ and _The Postman Always Rings Twice_] reviewed by Jonathan Dee.

Free Press. _Portrait Inside My Head_, Phillip Lopate. p. 15. personal essays. reviewed by Morris Dickstein.

Free Press. _To Show and To Tell_, Phillip Lopate. p. 15.  personal essays. reviewed by Morris Dickstein.

The Penguin Press. _After the Music Stopped_, Alan S. Binder. p.16. non-fiction, finance. reviewed by  Matthew Bishop.

Alfed A. Knopf. _An Enlarged Heart_, Cynthia Zarin. p.17. personal essay. reviewed by Christopher B. Beha.

Little Brown and Company. _The Pretty One_, Lucinda Rosenfeld. p.18. novel. [ comic novel about three sisters struggling with type labels they held since childhood.]  reviewed by Emily Cooke.

Random House. _The Legend of Broken_, Caleb Carr. p.18. fantasy novel [ big ass book 734 pages with wizard, and the last good man of a land called broken ]. reviewed by Mike Peed.

Bonus section - publishers listed in order of top ten in general hardback fiction bestseller list:

Random House
Tor / Tom Doherty
Little, Brown & Company

The Swimming Lesson

The picture at left is of Dexter, MA. It's a mill pond taken by Andrew Rabbit.

I wrote a story yesterday that takes place at a pond. I hadn't intended to write it in its full rough draft. I got started with notes and unexpectedly wrote it to completion. I learned a great deal writing this story. I remembered reading August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn when I was done. I borrowed some cinematic lessons I learned from that book back in 1979.

My story involves a drowning and adolescent boys. It is about contemplative murder though and the pending demise of a swimmer is just the consequence of choices and not the result of physical action.

People forget that cruelty is one of the best formed social aptitudes in the young. This revelation is hardly new in literature but I am satisfied that my construction and presentation is sufficiently distinct. I suspect everyone has one of these stories in them. Maybe more.

The Swedish film Let the Right One In has a fabulous dramatization of these very sentiments as a climax , though with a very unexpected outcome.

In my story I avoid directly drowning one of the youths featured, but you know it is going to happen.

I enjoy more and more the tales where the violence takes place off the page - either before or immediately after the story in question. There is a degree of clinical separation from the violence in this fashion which I find appealing. I do not want describe the precise nature of a killing to my readers. I don't think they're earned that relief.

I believe having the event occur in the readers' minds under their own framework will create a more visceral experience.

I've not read enough King to know if he does this. I read a handful of his short stories in junior high.

It was a very sensible junior high. We'd had out first serial killer and rapist whose trial was in the local paper. The school board had real dangers to worry over. Literature and scary stories were not on the reactionary radar.

Of course, In Cold Blood was required reading in eight grade. We took our murders and rapes early in life. Mockingbird in freshmen lit.