Last week I had the painful heart wrenching experience of burying my brother. As the writer in the family it fell on me to write the eulogy. My brother was much older than me so I didn’t know a lot about his earlier life and he was too humble and modest to boast of his accomplishments or his good works. But as I pieced together information from my mother, my older siblings and his numerous friends and colleagues, I realized all he did was too much to fit into a one page eulogy.
As I wrote the heading with his name and his birth date followed by his earthly departure separated by a dash, one of my sisters commented sadly that it all came down to the dash. With tears welling in my eyes I realized she was right. All we have is that dash between the time we are born and the time we die. That dash could be 58 years like my brother, or 95 like Nelson Mandela, or 5, but we only have that dash.
We can use our dash for our own gain accomplishing things to be used to satisfy our own selfish desires. Or we can use our dash to better the life of others and build memories that will last beyond the grave. My brother filled his dash to capacity with selfless deeds, acts of kindness, leadership, and community service as his friends, colleagues and past students attested in the many tributes during the funeral. Nelson Mandela filled his dash with great works fighting for freedom, justice, equality and peace. I hope to use my dash to inspire and better the lives of everyone I come in contact with, whether online or in person.
We only have this dash. What will you do with your dash?
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Here I am, wrapping up the second draft of my novel, and I can’t resolve a key detail. It all started last year as I began penning book four of my Henry Grave mystery series. I had the plot worked out. The arc was arced. The characters were down, and the murder was resolved. Only one problem remained. I had given the cruise ship a clever name, and it was my plan to end the story by revealing who the ship was named after. But I can’t for the life of me figure it out.
Here’s a sneak preview - the first two paragraphs of Aleutian Grave:
I met Brice Laird about twenty years ago, shortly after he killed his first wife, not after he killed his second wife as he remembers it. So when I heard about the murdered girl on the cruise ship, and I saw Brice’s name on the passenger list, I put two and two together and figured I had already solved the case. As it turns out, I was wrong.
A twenty-four year-old cabaret dancer by the name of Rose LaFontaine was stabbed to death onboard the arctic cruise ship Nikolai Gorodish. 292 passengers midway through their Bering Sea voyage had all been notified. Security was tightened, counseling provided, free liquor poured, and one top-notch investigator brought in – me.
So who can help me out here? I need a snappy spine-tingling, toe-curling, humorous, poignant, clever, or otherwise interesting answer to this question: who is Nikolai Gorodish?
Any and all help will be appreciated. I’m hoping to wrap the book over the winter break. Thanks for reading!
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Recently, someone wrote a review of one of my books, and from the words they used in the review, one would have thought it deserved five-stars. But instead they gave it less. I often wonder how some reviewers decide how many stars to give a book. If the book sucked, don't give it five-stars, and if you loved the book, don't give it one. It only seems fair. But it's not. And believe me, I appreciate all reviews, one-star (and I have had some) to five-stars. My skin is pretty thick by now. All I ask is that descriptions match the number of stars assigned. That's all.
And so, I have written five reviews as examples of how the meaning of the words used, should match the number of stars assigned. IJS - here we go:
This book sucked on so many levels. Nothing here would make me pickup another book written by this author. These characters were wack. There was no connecting storyline between the characters and not enough interesting dialogue. I would not recommend this book to anyone.
This story was lukewarm. It started out okay but I couldn't finish it because it didn't hold my attention. I will say that I liked this one character, but he had no backbone. The author did more showing than telling. Good premise, terrible execution.
I heard good things about this book, but I was disappointed. It did have its moments, like a couple of LOL scenes and some jaw dropping chapter endings, so for that, I give it three stars. But it flopped toward the end and left me hanging.
I really enjoyed this book, couldn't stop reading it. These folks were a trip. I felt sorry for this one chick who was being controlled, but at times I wanted to reach inside the pages and choke her. This writer does have skills, but he didn't fully develop the characters. I hope he does better with the sequel.
Now this story here, this story here . . . was everything! I dreamed about these fools, and snuck to read it at work. I reread some sentences again and again because they were like poetry. And the twists and turns were shocking! This was one helluva story. I just bought two more books by this gifted author. Bravo!
Have you ever received a review that you thought didn't match the stars assigned? Par for the course, I know. Just wondering!
Write on! Review on!
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I took a group of students from the college where I teach to England a few years ago for a study-abroad program. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon for the theater there and to see the sights.
Shakespeare is buried in the local church. He’s never been moved to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner because he left a curse on his grave forbidding people to move him. The gravestone is at the front of the church just beyond the altar rail, and at a funny angle, so to see it clearly and well, you have to kneel at the altar rail, kneel to the great poet and playwright.
There’s something sacrilegious here, not that it stopped me from looking at the famous grave and then buying a rubbing of it. But kneeling before a man because he had talent seemed wrong, and that’s not all that was wrong with it either. For me, it symbolized the way that some people come to reading, it’s the way that a lot of my colleagues teach reading. Everything was very quiet, very somber, very boring, and we must kneel before these unquestioned gods of literature.
That’s not who Shakespeare was though, and it’s not the way that writing should be approached. I spend so much of my time as a college creative writing professor trying to convince students that they can and should be a part of the greater literary world. I spend so much time showing them that it’s not a distant thing for people who have some kind of mystical genius. That’s one of the effects of making them read long dead poets who don’t use the same kind of language as they do. They’re left intimidated and confused.
And then I and they knelt before Shakespeare.
How to undo that kind of lesson? It’s not easy, but it takes trips to poetry readings with people who are reading modern poetry. Not inaccessible black-turtled-necked poets smoking their cigarettes and speaking vaguely of Baudelaire, but people reading about love and loss and all kinds of things.
And then it took a trip to the Globe Theater, where the students were groundlings. Where real actors interacted with them and knocked into them and performed their parts.
That’s when my students started to love Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare and poetry and books in general aren’t meant to be read in the silence of a church. They’re meant to be a vital part of life that makes all the rest of your life meaningful and even tolerable.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
"Print on demand (POD) is a printing technology and business process in which new copies of a book (or other document) are not printed until an order has been received, which means books can be printed one at a time."
I don't hold Wikipedia out as the greatest source for a definition, but this pretty much meshes with my understanding of the concept of POD, that there is no stock, someone orders a book, they print it and send it to you. It gives a sort of personal feel to the whole book buying experience, this book was created just for me.
So, how can a book that is being printed just for me be "Temporarily out of stock"? It turns out that Temporarily Out of Stock means that Amazon is waiting for Ingram to send them more books. It also means that Ingram is waiting for Amazon to order more books before they send any. The impasse is broken only if a customer orders a book. Most customers will not order an item listed as Temporarily Out of Stock so this situation could potentially last forever.
This is a problem that I spent way too much time battling last week. I had a request for 20 copies of Adventure at Brimstone Hill. They were being ordered for a specific purpose and I only had four or five days in which to deliver them. No problem, right? Amazon two-day shipping to the rescue, right? Not this time. The book was listed as temporarily out of stock. I made the order anyway and contacted Amazon about it.
"Please contact Ingram Book Group directly about your title's availability on Amazon.com."
I contacted Ingram and they shifted the blame back to Amazon. I made several phone calls at the end of which my head was spinning from being shoved back and forth. I tried not to scream "It's Christmas, my books MUST be in stock!"
Ingram put through the order but it did not arrive on time, so I cancelled. As a result, the book's status changed from "Temporarily Out of Stock" to "19 in Stock, More on the way" and now it finally says "In Stock".
The experience was frustrating, to say the least, and it is not over as other books have the same issue but now I know the trick, make an order and then cancel it after Ingram prints but before Amazon ships them. Sounds tricky, I know, but hopefully it will work.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
|Pigeon Point Tobago, setting of a scene in Cafe au Lait|
who can bring a location, time and social context so vividly to life that I feel I've not just read about a place but actually spent time there. What is setting precisely? It's the overall atmosphere (place, time, society) and the particular physical setting of each scene.
|Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami, from Give Me the Night|
The settings in my books are usually places I know intimately, such as the Caribbean and South Florida, or that I've imagined intimately, such as the post-apocalyptic barren permafrost wastes in my speculative short story, Bird. Whether the scene is a placid
|Arctic tundra, similar to the landscape in Bird|
How important is setting to your writing? Do you labor over it, or is it a mere backdrop to that all-important element--the plot?
Sunday, November 17, 2013
I have to admit that I have a fascination with the lazy sociopath. I think anyone who has read The Sociopath Next Door also is. These are people who have figured out that what they really want out of life is to get by doing as little as humanly possible, and they will tell any lie, commit any crime as long as it get them to that goal. When they have accomplished that goal, they will hurt you just to hurt you.
So many writers understand this kind of evil so well. When these characters are done well, they give us a clear insight into the kind of selfish thought process that produces petty evil. For grand evil, you have to read fantasy -- I mean Stalin and Hitler levels of brutality.
I don’t like evil characters who know they’re evil and keep going anyway because they’re turned on by it. That might be realistic, and it might not be, but that character is too easy to hate and adds no complexity to the story. And so many great writers have captured that self-serving impulse that allows them to ignore the fact that they’re doing bad things.
Here’s a list of some of the best.
Lawrence Block’s Keller from the Hitman series has such a low-key charm that we forget that what he’s doing -- killing people for money -- is a really terrible thing to do. But Keller doesn’t see it that way. He has techniques that allow him to stop thinking about his crimes, and as he does, we do too. And anyway, the people he’s killing all seem bad. And just as we’re settling in comfortably with the logic of his crimes, just as we are all right with his bad because he’s not so bad, Keller kills a nice couple just living their lives so their heir can get the insurance, or he kills a completely innocent woman because he’s been hired by her husband. And we realize that Keller’s just in it for a little bit of money, and that we too have been bamboozled by his logic. A brilliant character.
I think I am the only person in the world who believes that Jack Ryan from Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce is Leonard’s best. What I like about it is the way Jack is portrayed. He sees himself as a kind of lovable loser who is just stealing from rich, evil people anyway. Once again, we kind of agree, but he’s conning people, he’s hurting people, and he’s stealing from people just for the “bounce,” the thrill of it. It’s a great way to explore the pettiness that goes into petty theft.
James Cain understood the petty evil of selfishness about as well as anyone. The Postman Always Rings Twice is possibly the best look at this face of evil that anyone has ever done. All the characters are focused on themselves. They are all sociopathic. It is a revelation about how poisonous that kind of self-centeredness can be. It is interesting too that Cain never makes evil fun or alluring, at least not to me. He paints it with all the pointless pain and humiliation as these kinds of people bring to themselves and those around them.
What is memorable about Sue Grafton’s novels isn’t the petty evil surrounding her, but the beauty of Kinsey Milhone’s life. Her small circle of friends is wonderful, and we all want to return to that place again and again. Her friends are her refuge, but that refuge is such a relief because Kinsey is surrounded outside of it by people who will commit unspeakable acts for a little bit of gain. They hurt others for a little money or just because hurting people is fun. Grafton captures this idea so very well. My favorite? I’m not sure. To me these are all equally strong, and I’ve read most many times.
My favorite moment of dumb, stupid evil however is the pointless selfishness of Terry Lennox in the Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye. There is seemingly no good sense to what Lennox does. He puts Philip Marlowe in the worst possible situation just because it’s easier for him. He’ll do anything he can to avoid a little work, and sometimes, he seems to hurt people for sport. Chandler captures people well here and in all of his work.
What these writers are telling us, as so many great writers do, is that this kind of petty evil is everywhere. The author of The Sociopath Next Door makes the claim that one out of every twenty-five people is sociopathic after all. They are telling us we are likely to run into this brand of evil over and over, and the way to push our way through it is to maintain our own sense of moral courage. They are saying rising above all of that is the way to be heroic in this world.
I guess that’s one of the big reasons I love this genre so much.