Open Wounds

Reading

My Favorite Novels of 2013

The only book in order is my top choice for the year and one of my favorite of all time (I know its only been out a few months but I read it over two years ago and it rocked my world then and continues to so do or do so or doe-si-doe). The rest are arranged in the order that I thought of them.

wingerWinger, by Andrew Smith. This is a great book that perfectly captures the voice of adolescence. Ryan Dean’s voice is wonderful and authentic and did I mention there’s rugby in the book? Everyone should read this book. It is poetic and brutally powerful.

The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness (including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men). I’m cheating. This is three books but they really are one epic science fiction story that will make you cry and break your heart and keep you turning the pages right up until the end. This is how great sociological science fiction is written. And it happens to be a YA book. The gender politics (everyone can hear what men think but nobody can hear what women think) and the commentary on the nature of being human cuts through you right from the beginning. Then there’s the alien race and consciousness. Wow.

Railsea, by China Miéville. I have to say right from the start that this author is not everyone’s cup of tea and… I read another book by him that I liked and another that I couldn’t finish (rare for me). What does this mean? The language is difficult to get the hang of but once I did I really found this story of White Whale hunting and metaphor mapping to be a wonder. But the language… stay with it. I found it an original work of really great and unique science fiction.

11-22-6311/22/63, by Stephen King. Two friends recommended this to me. I held off until I was ready to travel to Seattle and had 5 hours on a plane facing me there and 5 hours back. So… I have to say this is vintage King writing historical fiction with a vengeance. I loved the main character and would have followed him anywhere after the first couple of pages. Early hook, King never let me go. Time travel, butterfly effect, the 1960s (I was born in 61) all used to good effect. I was sad to see this one end and I’ve recommended to everyone I know since. It’s a long novel and that is a very good thing.

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King. First know that I love a good western and I love the Dark Tower Series. Given that then you can understand why I loved this King coming of age again story. It is chilling and beautifully written.

outOut of my Mind, by Sharon Draper. The story of a disabled child stuck in a wheel chair, unable to speak or communicate yet incredibly smart and aware of what’s going on around her and nobody knows it. This story is so powerful. It’s told from inside the young girl’s head, how she sees and knows the world rather than  from the outside in and this makes the experience raw and challenging. I especially liked the ending and its realistic, no Disney fireworks conclusion.

The Dust of a Hundred Dogs, by A.S. King. Reality Boy was terrific too (so I’ll sneak in a quick recommendation as A.S. King rocks with all her books) but I have to tell you Dust of 100 dogs just rocked my boat. I’m a sucker for a western but I’m also a bigger sucker for a pirate story. And this is a love story also! This is told from the protagonist’s point of view from three unique angles (many dogs perspectives, a modern-day teenager, and a pirate from the days of swashbuckling). This is not a story for the squeamish (rape and pillaging abound) but man did it grab me. I saw the ending coming but felt so satisfied when it arrived that I didn’t care.

Calico Joe, by John Grisham. I know I know. John Grisham? Hey, what can I say. I really enjoyed this baseball book about father-son relationships. I can’t believe how fascinating this story was. My father-in-law hated this and I loved it. The insight into why players do what they do was terrific.

buddhaBuddha, by Osamu Tezuka (including Volumes 1-8, yes, you read that right, 1-8). I’m cheating but I’m not really cheating. It’s one long epic graphic novel in 8 volumes. And it’s the story of Buddha. And the covers were all designed by Chip Kidd. How can you go wrong? This is the Buddha story with a vengeance. It’s all manga from the grandfather of manga, filled with inside jokes about school in Japan, and part Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s also a deep book about religion, it’s uses and misuses and yes, about why we fear death and how we as human beings can come to terms with it. My son and I read these together. Take your time reading the story and enjoy the pen and ink on the full-page panels. The detail is incredible. This is an amazing lifetime achievement.

The Drowned Cities, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Even more brutal and disturbing than Ship Breaker – more violent if you can believe it. And so disturbing reading about children making war on children. This is total heart of darkness time. Keep one eye half closed as you read, but do read it and hope that Bacigalupi writes another story that takes us back to this world. Just… no more chopping off of fingers, please! Ouch.

Well, that it for 2013.

I’m looking forward to the reading list for 2014.

And my own work moves forward, slowly, but surely. If I can just keep at it I should have two books in to my agent this year. Fingers crossed. Nose to the grindstone.


10 – Part 1

With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.

godsmars

1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.

hobbit cover2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.

dandelion wine3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.

dark materials4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.

shade gold5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.


Chasing the Moldy Warpe

Product Details

Reading Railsea by China Miéville is like taking a course in world-building.

I loved this book. It is the kind of book that took me 50 pages to get hooked on but I was intrigued enough from the opening line to get there.

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

Spectacular opening line.

The reason it was challenging to get into was the same reason it was so fascinating. Miéville creates a world that is told to us by a narrator using a language similar to English but different enough from it that I stumbled through it until I caught its rhythm. I can truthfully say there are a number of things that I read that I truly still do not understand after finishing the book but I don’t care and it in no way took away from the beauty of the book for me. Actually I liked it even more.

Yes, it’s a dystopian world and I like them. Period.

Yes, it has to do with trains and trains are cool.

Yes, it has to do with Moby Dick and the searching for a philosophy or white whale. I liked Moby, even the whale parts.

And yes, the main character is not a superstar, gun and sword wielding hero. He’s pretty mundane, and every-boyish and that’s what makes him so wonderful.

Look at what Miéville does with point of view. It’s 3rd person omniscient through Sham (the bloodstained boy) Ap Soorap’s perspective through the half-way mark and then the narrator tells us it’s time to switch – as if he’s an actor talking to the audience and breaking the 3rd wall. Then the story splits into three stories until they all converge back into Sham. It’s an incredible narrative risk that works spectacularly.

So listen to his narrative. You don’t even need a context:

“No such animal’s crossed our paths,” she said. “Be assured I know now your vehicle’s name, & at the first sign of that beckoning metal in a sinuate mustelid eruchthonous presence, I shall take careful notes of locations. & I shall get you word. On my honour as a captain.”

And then there’s this one from captain Naphi about her “philosophy” the great moldy warpe Mocker-Jack:

“How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”.

He uses the symbol & instead of the word and, and then two-thirds into the book explains why he does.

From word choice, to the rhythm of the narrative, to the way characters speak, to the characters themselves. This world is built from top to bottom and bottom to top. Read it as a reader for pleasure. Read it as a writer for a course on world-building. Read it for the bloodstained boy and the moldy warpe.


Eat Sympathetic Gurus

May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.

Let me put this out there.

I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.

So I think she’s great.

But here’s the thing.

This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.

What am I saying?

I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too.  As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.

Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.

So Cyndi…  She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.

But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.

One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is  not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.

Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?


Breaking Bread not Heads

ASK THE PASSENGERS by AS King

I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.

But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.

I’ll get back to it. Hold on.

I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.

Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.


Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.

A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World's Greatest Game

But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)

What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?

Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.

It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.

Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…


Ciaphas Cain, Rob Petrie, and Unreliable Narrators

For The Emperor: A Ciaphas Cain Novel

What do Dick Van Dyke and Ciaphas Cain have in common?

Who the hell is Ciaphas Cain? Though it’s a terrific name, don’t you think?

And why oh why is there a brussel sprout on my shoulder?

Why do I read memoirs or biographies? Especially of actors? Mostly because of the story they tell of time and place. Dick Van Dyke was born about the same time as my character, Cid Wymann in Open Wounds, was born yet his life was so different. Dick Van Dyke  as he says, was in the right place at the right time to be chosen for some choice roles – from Rob Petrie to the chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins. When actors tell their own story I learn about their character from how they portray themselves, how they seem to want to be seen, what they leave in and what they leave out. For example, Van Dyke starts off saying he’s not writing a tell-all with lots of dirt to uncover then tells – in his first bit – how he found out when he was in high school that he was conceived out-of-wedlock. Memoirs are great for teaching me how to not only get inside someones head but how to shade a narrative so it presents (either knowingly or unknowingly) a certain face to the reader.

For the Emperor is a story set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a memoir translated through a narrator who has edited it and included footnotes and other accounts to balance out the memoirist point of view. The author has done a fascinating thing with Ciaphas Cain, the writer of the memoir – a Commissar (high-ranking Emperor’s man usually working with Imperial Guard units across the galaxy). Cain is an unreliable narrator. Here’s how he starts his narrative:

One of the first things you learn as a commissar is that people are never pleased to see you; something that’s no longer the case where I’m concerned, of course, now that my glorious and undeserved reputation precedes me wherever I go. A good rule of thumb in my younger days, but I’d never found myself staring down death in the eyes of the troopers I was supposed to be inspiring with loyalty to the Emperor before. In my early years as an occasionally loyal minion of his Glorious majesty, I’d faced, or to be more accurate, ran away screaming from, orks, necrons, tyranids, and a severely hacked off daemonhost, just to pick out some of the highlights of my ignominious career. But standing in the mess room, a heartbeat away from being ripped apart by mutinous Guardsmen, was a unique experience, and one that I have no wish to repeat.

And so we are introduced to a character who is heroic in spite of what he says, self-serving, caring, and always trying to surround himself with warm bodies in case the bullets start flying and he needs a shield to protect himself from them. It starts off with perspective, clear voice (amusing also), and action.

The narrator who finds and annotates Cain’s memoir is a colleague of his – only to what degree, we have to wait until the end of the story to find out. Short asides of secondary characters are inserted to fill in information about what is happening in other parts of the city Cain ends up in. They give us further views into Cain’s world, Cain, and the narrator. It leaves me with a fuller picture of what probably happened and keeps me smiling at the number of times Cain would like to (as in a Monty Python movie) run away, but ends up charging forward instead.

Finding new ways to tell a story is like stealing a golden chalice from Smaug’s treasure horde under the Lonely Mountain – satisfying in the dark and even more so in the light of day.

 


There Ain’t No Sanity-Clause

I’ve thought about this a lot.

There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.

I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).

But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.

Salt and pepper?

Artichokes?

Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.

Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.

Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.

The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.

Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.

The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.

For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.

So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.

I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.

Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.


Winger, Pizza, Jobs, and Helsreach Ants

As a writer I love to read and I read a little of everything with a lot of YA, some non-fiction (biographies too), and a graphic novel when I can find one that hits the sweet spot.

I’ve never done a top ten list before on books but there’s always a first. Here are my favorite books that I read this year (some are from prior to 2012 and some will come out in 2013) in no particular order except for the first one – which is hands-down my favorite and I even read it twice, once in 2011 and once two months ago.

  1. Winger, by Andrew Smith is the first and easily worth two readings. It hasn’t been published yet but is coming out in 2013. If you’re not already an Andrew Smith fan this book will make you look up all the rest of his work and start reading them one after the other. The main reason I loved this book was the voice of the narrator. He is 14 and Andrew really captured the voice of this boy perfectly. It is incredibly funny and sad for different reasons at different times. Did I mention the protagonist plays rugby? And that it is illustrated perfectly (the narrator draws so “his” drawings are included throughout). This is storytelling at its finest.
  2. The Maze Runner (trilogy and prequel – 4 books total), by James Dashner is rough reading. This is really four books but it all starts with The Maze Runner. My son read it first (might not have been such a good idea as he’s 10 but…) and when I finally got to the first book I had to read through them all. Do I have gripes about the storytelling? Yes. Was it one of the most compelling reads of the year? Yes. Is it good sci-fi? Yes again. Thought provoking? Brutal? Depressing and terrifying (especially the prequel)? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
  3. Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a Warhammer 40,000 novel about space marines called the black Templars. I know, I know. Space marines? Warhammer 40,000? Hey, the man can write and as far as these novels go this is a keeper. Hordes of orks (don’t ask) in a Waagh (don’t ask again) swoop down onto a planet that is protected by the black Templars and they fight the battle literally to the last marine. Absolutely fascinating novel of warfare in the 41st century with some interesting work on the writer’s part in bringing out multiple viewpoints. This book was just plain muscular fun.
  4. The Wind Through The Keyhole, by Stephen King is wonderful, vintage King. The Gunslinger series is my favorite of his works and this adds another notch to the belt of the tale. This is a haunting tale of Roland as a boy out on his first mission. I don’t read King too often any more but this one just sang.
  5. The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi is a challenging read. I bought it for my son because we both read his other great book Shipbreaker and this continued the tale of the bioengineered war beast Tool. How could you turn that down? Then I read it quickly to screen it before I allowed my son to read it and I’m glad I did. Wow. The violence depicted is absolutely brutal. Children doing horrendous violence to children during a time of total war. This is a great book, wonderfully written, visceral to the point of making me put the book down and cringe at least three times. It is also a book of great, harsh, truth. The scope of the story is small and the pace is quick. It is an exercise in focus. This guy is good.
  6. Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S.King is simply wonderful. It’s the first book I read by A.S. King and I immediately picked up Please Ignore Vera Dietz as soon as I was finished. Ms. King is another writer (like Andrew Smith) who nails the teenage voice (in her case both male and female in different books). Writing well, with a ring of authenticity from a young person’s perspective is a huge challenge and this story of a boy who has been bullied and his family just broke my heart. What I especially like are the realistic adult characters and how they give such great texture to Lucky’s story.
  7. Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King is the second King book I read and it was also a powerful tale of loss and coming of age. She’s got a new one out in hard cover called Ask The Passengers that is going on my to-read list for 2013…
  8. Passenger, by Andrew Smith is a follow-up to The Marbury Lens and is a hallucinogenic thrill ride that is deeply frightening and moving. This is a painful book to read, brutal, gory, with imagery that made me squirm. If you read Marbury then you owe it to yourself to read this as it makes the wonderful worlds created in Marbury expand into even larger more epic (does that even have meaning?) proportions. This book and Smith’s Winger are on two ends of the spectrum in style and content yet they both move from that same incredible strength of voice in their main characters. This book has already won a bunch of awards and I won’t be surprised if it wins more in 2013.
  9. Playing for Pizza, by John Grisham. Okay, okay. John Grisham? I’ve never read a book by him (nothing against him and I’ve seen his movies just never had the urge to read him) but my father-in-law recommended this book and it was a lot of fun so for its uniqueness it makes the list. This is a book about a football player from the NFL who ends up playing for beer and pizza in Italy. If you enjoy football stories (I do) and Italian food (I do) then you will enjoy this quick and smile inducing read. Something tells me this will be made into a movie…
  10. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson is an exhausting read but well worth the trouble. Steve Jobs was not a nice guy and it’s hard reading about your hero and seeing all his warts but if you can get past that it is really a fascinating story of Apple, the computer industry, and Steve Jobs all wrapped up in one. You will never look at Apple the same again (and you will probably still buy ’em or change to them if you have never tried Apple products before).

There you have it. The literary might of the year from my perspective (as limited as it is).


Wizard 101

It is summer.

We’re at my in-laws home in Rockaway recovering from yesterdays annual block party. My son is playing wizards 101 on his aunt’s PC. We only have Macs at home.

My son goes away to sleep-away camp in 7 days. He’ll be gone for two weeks. Can you hear my silent scream? It’s in Connecticut so only a couple of hours away. We’ve never been away from him for more than a day. Well, my wife hasn’t. I travel for work so I’ve been away, but I’ve always known he was with her. I’m having a hard time with it. I can’t imagine what it will be like when he goes to college. Thankfully he’s only 10.

Recently my wife asked my son if he wanted me to run a small writing workshop for him and two of his friends who also like to read and write. My son said no. It works that way sometimes. There are some things he doesn’t want me to teach him. He lets me read his work. That will have to be enough for now.

Sometimes, when we cross streets together and are talking (about a book he’s reading or a book he wants to write one day) we reach for each other’s hand and hold as we cross. Sometimes he doesn’t pull away and we walk that way for a block or so before our hands part ways again.

Now he’s going to sleep-away camp for two weeks. 7 days and counting.


Cimmerian

File:Weird Tales August 1928.jpgCimmerian is a word straight out of Greek mythology meaning mythical people who inhabited a land of darkness. Considering Robert E. Howard wrote about Conan of Cimmeria that has its own truth to it. I love the Conan stories.

If you’ve never read Howard’s Conan stories do so. They’re dark (figures), pulpy, and filled with ideas and thoughts of the first half of the 20th century. Howard defines pulp story for me. His life was a bit of a mess if you read about him but he knew how to tell a story and his character spawned a few hundred (thousand?) spin-offs and many credit him with beginning the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Me I just liked the old Frazetta posters of Conan. Look for the out of print versions of his stories that are collected, unabridged reprints of his originals from Weird Tales. If you want to write in a genre, read the genre. Hell, for that matter if you want to write, read everything, inside and outside of your genre and put some tools in your writer tool box.

Codswullop: British word for nonsense or untruth as in that was a bunch of codswallup. It’s not Greek but its what caught my eye today for “c” also. I have to put that in a book sometime. It might not be Cimmerian but it will make you say Crom.

All right. All right. I’m stretching today. Stretching.


Pissing Contest

I’ve got some things to say about panels.

I had good experiences last week at the Virginia Festival of Books but it doesn’t always go that way. I’ve also moderated and facilitated panels, workshops, interviews, small and large groups discussions and there’s a few things I think it would be helpful to have said about the experience right from the beginning about the challenges of moderating and participating as an author panelist.

Also, Meredith Cole, the moderator for one of my panels last week was just so good at moderating that I thought using her process as a frame would be useful for all to see.

How to run a panel of authors in 12 challenging, agonizing, jaw-breaking (only kidding) steps:

  1. Give the authors a theme and then try to make that the focus of the discussion. This will make the event different from the usual interview/author questions that come up over and over for authors and will keep them on their toes.
  2. As the moderator, come up with your questions ahead of time and send them to the authors a good week before the event. This will help steady author nerves and give them something constructive to obsess about other than what they will wear to the event.
  3. On the day of the event have all panelists meet half an hour before the event. This will do several things: 1) get introductions out-of-the-way, let everyone size each other up (like gunfighters) and get the authors talking (verbal calisthenics); 2) lets the moderator meet everyone and the authors meet the moderator; 3) helps steady nerves if they need to be steadied; 4) gives the moderator a chance to remind everyone how she will organize the questions, who she will go to first – those kinds of things (especially helpful if authors have not read the questions the moderator gave them ahead of time – hey… I’m a realist); and 5) it will get everyone at the event on time – hopefully – even those who are chronically late will have a 30 minute cushion.
  4. As the moderator, read the authors books so you can tailor the questions to the authors. And… it makes the author feel really good because someone else has read their book.
  5. As the moderator, if you introduce each panelist don’t read their intro from their website: but give just a few bits of information about each that spurs interest in the author but also lets the author still have something to say about himself.
  6. As the author, follow the guideline you are given when you are asked to introduce yourself. If the moderator says take only two minutes then only take two – otherwise you’ll piss everyone off something fierce. A four person panel for 60 minutes can’t have long intros. Even at five minutes each that’s 1/3rd of the time on intros. Short and specific is the way to go.
  7. As the moderator, if you want the authors to read from their book, tell them ahead of time so they can prepare and tell them how long they’ll have – and be firm about the time. Firm. Give them a number of pages (1-2 minutes a page depending on font size and speed of the reader) if you have to as a guide.
  8. As an author, if you are asked to read you should do the following: 1) choose a piece to read that stays within the time limit you’re given or you’ll piss your co-panelists off something fierce; 2) practice reading your piece out loud and with (as my son would say) fluency. Practice reading it through 3x and time yourself. Use tone of voice, body language (eye contact and facial expressions as needed) to give added meaning to your words (fluency). 3) choose something to read that reflects the theme, has sense of completeness in and of itself, and makes them want to go out and buy your book immediately creating a stampede to the cash register.
  9. As the moderator, make sure everyone gets equal time speaking to the audience. If someone dominates and they are not taken down the others will get pissed off something fierce.
  10. As an author, know when to finish and hand the mike over to your co-panelists or you’ll piss them off something fierce.
  11. Listen to what your co-panelists say and refer to what they say, when you can when you speak. For example, “I agree with what Elizabeth said about process and I’ll take it one step further…” It will feel like a conversation to the audience and your co-panelists will respond in kind because you did them a solid and actually listened to what they said.
  12. When you’re finished with the panel, thank your moderator for all the work they put into moderating (so they’ll do it the same way next time – called positive reinforcement – they made you look good so they deserve it) and your co-panelists because you never know when you’ll work together again and a panel is about synergy not independence – you make each other look good.

Let me know if you have any other rules to add. There’s always room for more structure. The one thing I run from as quickly as possible is the moderator who says to a group of authors, “Let’s just get there, mix it up, and see what happens.”

Run away.

Now.

As fast as you can.

Don’t look back…


Of Swords and Thunderstorms

I have circled this story again and again in my life.

I see it.

I try to write about it.

I fail.

I see it again.

John Carter comes out this Friday and I’m going to go see a morning or early matinee showing. I’m going to play hooky from my day job. I don’t know how I’m going to do this because I’m booked all day with meetings, but I will.

When I was 13 my best friend was hit by a train and lost his life. It was an accident but no one knows what happenned. No one – not even me. It is a mystery shrouded in a thunderstorm, black skies, and torrential rain.From that day on I picked up Edgar Rice Borroughs’ books from a local stationary store – Wientraubs – and started reading them. Before that moment I was a reader but not with the same intensity, the same desire to disappear that I had after my friend was killed. When I ran out of the titles that Wientraubs carried I went to Walden Books and BDalton. This was long before superstores had taken over the landscape. I read and read.

Reading didn’t bring my friend back, but over time it made the pain less. The first ERB I’d found was The Gods of Mars the second book in the John Carter series. At the time I didn’t know it was a series. All I saw was the incredible Frank Frazetta cover and knew I had to read it. It had been published originally in 1918 but this edition – from the 70’s – had Frazetta’s muscular artwork in line drawings all through the narrative.

The scene that captured my imagination – and captures it still – is the opening. John Carter raises his arms to the skies, looks up at the Red Planet and wishes for it to carry him across the cosmos.

And it does.

I’ve waited 37 years for a movie to come out telling this story and this Friday it appears in movie theaters near you and me.

I’ve got issues about John Carter. I circle around them, though not as much as I used to.

Issues make the writer.

They form the landscape of each of our own individual planets.

They fan the desire to help others transport to worlds they’ve never even dreamed of – even if the world is just like the one they exist in now.

Maybe I’ll see you there – in the darkness of the movie theatre.

If I do.

Bring popcorn.

No butter.


Symbiotic Stew

I travelled to Phili on Monday.

I took the day off from my job to teach a 1hr distance learning writing workshop to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at three Pennsylvania High Schools. There were about 40 kids in attendance at the three sites. I taught from the UPENN distance learning center, called MAGPI and it was a very cool thing to do. Each school shows up on a huge TV screen as a small 1 foot by 2 foot rectangle. I teach from the MAGPI studio – a small ten by ten space with three cameras, my laptop and Powerpoint, some notes, and a copy of my book to read from. The MAGPI folks don’t pay me for teaching and I cover my own traveling expenses,but I get to teach classes on writing to young writers and that makes it worth every penny.

Today I talked about first lines of novels and how they start the relationship between reader and writer. I’m into this relationship idea. Readers read and interpret and writers direct the interpretation through the words they write. I know this sounds very basic – like I should have gotten this before -but I didn’t. I just had it in my head that writers wrote and readers read – separate from each other. We’re not. We depend on each other, need each other. We’re symbiotes in a way.

The kids were great and I enjoyed speaking with them. They came up with first sentences for their own to-be-written novels that were terrific. I hope to see one in book form one day. It’s the second time I’ve done a workshop with the MAGPI folks and they’ve invited me back for a third workshop in the spring.

On my way home I stopped at a nearby public library and met Dan, their YA specialist. I gave him a copy of my book for the library. He had a big smile on his face when I gave it to him.

I love libraries.


A Good Friday Hang-out Dittie

It’s Friday. I love Fridays.

Today is an especially good Friday (no pun intended) because I’m meeting Andrew Smith this evening and hanging out with him.

I don’t really hang out much not being a real hang out kind of guy – but I thought I should say the words because they would make me sound cool. I got special dispensation from my family to have a hang-out night. I mean… it’s Andrew Smith.

So I’m going in to the city early and not working (really, I’m taking the day off). I’m going to have an hour or two of precious writing time before I meet Andrew. And I’m looking forward to it. This is after going to my son’s holiday show at school in which he will be singing with his class all kinds of christmas and holiday ditties. Now there’s a word, ditties, that doesn’t get used much these days. Maybe this post will help it make a come-back… probably not. And I’m really looking forward to hearing him sing. He’s been practicing a lot. Anyway it’s going to be a great Friday from beginning to end.

Oh yeah. I’m bringing my books to get signed too. Seriously. This chance won’t come around too often.

The Girl Next Door

Also I’m reading on Saturday in Manhattan in Gramercy.

Fellow WestSider Karen DelleCava (author of the YA debut novel A Closer Look) was invited to read at the NYC LearningSpring School Book Fair this Saturday and was kind enough to get me and another WestSider Selene Byrack-Castrovilla (author of Saved by the Music, The Girl Next Store, and Melt) invited too. All three of us will be reading from our novels and signing books this Saturday, December 10th, 247 East 20th Street NY, NY from 1-3pm. If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by.

A Closer Look



Espresso, Wool Jacket, and Bad Lighting

Espresso - my son in the background!

I read at Espresso 77 last night. My son sold books for me and gave out free mugs as gifts. Four friends, ten customers, and three employees listened in. I read the opening six pages of Open Wounds and the first five pages of the second part, The Bells of Hell – where Lefty is introduced to the reader and to Cid – the protagonist.

The shop turned off the music.

The customers looked up from their conversations and laptops, took out their earphones, put away their phones.

Just about everybody tuned in for twenty minutes. It’s hard not too in such a small space.

I stood by the register with my back to the milk and condiment cart. The owner’s art-work surrounded me on both walls.

I love this place.

Espresso 77

I wore my Espresso 77 t-shirt which says, “I love espresso,” on the front and Espresso 77 on the back. The writing is in white and red. The t-shirt is black. I wore my special, thick, writer-ly, wool coat. It doesn’t have elbow patches. It is slate black. And it is cool.

I may not be cool.

But my jacket is.

Espresso 77 Reading

My son sold three books – two to friends, and one to a customer who got into the reading and decided to give it a try.

It was just about perfect.

Earlier that day my son and I went to a local pool hall and played ping-pong – 30 pool tables, 5 ping-pong tables, 2 air hockey tables, and one foosball table. I introduced my son to foosball. He liked it – a lot.

If the sun had come out and it had rained diamonds it couldn’t have been a more perfect day.


Cold Nose and Fridays

Flyer at Espresso 77

My son asked me if I had a nickname when I was growing up. I told him yes. When I played rugby I was called Joe Nose, usually accompanied by,  “the Nose knows.” I broke my nose 9 times on the rugby pitch, so often that the last few times I had to push it back in place myself before it swelled and I had to go the doctor for rearrangement. Rugby players all have nicknames. I don’t know why. One guy we called IDK because whenever someone asked what his name was none of us knew. “I don’t know,” became IDK.

In Open Wounds Cid calls Winston Arnolf Leftingsham, his cousin from England who comes to get him from the orphanage he is stuck in for five years, “Lefty.” Winston has no left arm or leg (the leg is a wooden replacement) and is badly scarred on the inside and out from mustard gas fighting at Ypres in the First World War. Cid never calls him “Lefty” to his face because… that would be wrong. But the nickname sticks.

My son has had some nicknames so far, like Maximum Max, Maximo, and Maximillion, but nothing that has stuck yet like Lefty or The Nose or IDK. I hope he gets a good one. They’re good for character and myth building.

In case I forget later, I’ll be at Espresso 77 in my neighborhood on Sunday evening 7-8pm reading and talking about Open Wounds. If you’re in Jackson Heights, Queens, come on by and have a latte with me and talk books.

Espresso 77


The Honey Bee Latte

I’m doing a reading at my favorite coffee shop in Jackson Heights called Espresso 77. I have one of their mugs and a t-shirt at home. If they were a football team I’d be a fan. If they were a rugby team I’d play for them. As it is I’ll just have to settle for being a frequent customer.

Afzal and Julie are the owners and they are both wonderful people who’ve helped build community in our neighborhood through good coffee, food, and cool atmosphere. My wife and son and I hang out there a few times each week – and have done so since they opened up three years ago. I walk by it every day going to and from work.

I did an interview with the Queens Tribune on the bench outside the front door last summer. My son showed some of his artwork there thanks to Afzal (who is an artist also) and now I’ll get a chance to do a reading of Open Wounds.

If you’re in town and want to come by, it’s a small shop with Gimme coffee from Brooklyn (which is awesome if you like coffee) and well-trained baristas that make just about perfect cappuccinos and lattes every time. I’ll be drinking their seasonal Honey Bee Latte and reading/talking about Cid and Lefty and the Open Wounds gang for an hour. Most of the time I drink tea but once a day, late in the afternoon, when my energy is low and I’m on my way home from work…

There’s nothing quite like doing something this personal in your favorite neighborhood hangout.

Sunday Evening from 7pm-8pm.

Espresso 77.


Cambridge Library Author Trio

Going to Cambridge MA this week for two days. Cambridge public library will be hosting an Author Trio event this Wednesday the 16th that I’ll be a part of with the wonderful Amalie Howard (author of Bloodspell) and Leigh Fallon (author of The Carrier of the Mark). We’ll be reading and answering questions so I hope to see you there if you’re in the neighborhood.

I’ll also be visiting local indies in the Cambridge/Boston area and a fencing salle or two (Bay State Fencers on Thursday the 17th in the early evening from 5-7pm) before I head home late thursday evening.

OWS

Oh… and the pictures are of Occupy Wall Street Zuccotti Park. We went on Friday, Veteran’s day, and took a bunch of pics. I also gave their library a copy of Open Wounds to add to their reading list. I’ll be putting up pics of the demonstration all week.


Ms. Maddy’s 8th Grade Class

PS/MS 161 Thank You's!

They wrote me letters.

My friend Leslie handed me a stuffed white envelope filled with them. They run from quarter page to full-page, are written in black pen and blue, with some in pencil. Some say Dear Joseph and some say Dear Joe, some Mr. Lunievicz and some Joseph Lunievicz. They all thank me for coming to their class so I’ll only share a few over the next couple of posts. I hope you find them as fascinating and wonderful as I do.

Dear Joseph,

I really like the first chapter you wrote and with more understanding of the reason why you wrote this book I can say that I understand the haunted feeling you went through. I’ve known what you meant by vision it’s day dreaming of the haunted feeling. I want to know how you finished your book. I’ve only wrote so short of my small moment but I’ve only been speaking English for six year. I’m an Arabian girl. I want to make sure that one day I can be as creative as you are. And write abou the war in the Arabian war. Thank you. I hope I get to read your book some day.

Thank you:- K.

I told them about my vision of a 72-year-old Cid Wymann (protagonist of Open Wounds) on the roof of the Chelsea hotel dueling with sharps with a man whose face I couldn’t see – the idea which consciously began the Cid Wymann story. I am always amazed at what people hear when I talk – what sticks with them as important. I love this letter.

Dear Joseph Lunievicz,

Thank you so much for coming to our school! I had a lot of fun with the read aloud and fun facts of fencing. I am a writer as well, and finally I know how to actually publish a book! I get compositions notebooks and write many stories. My friends G. and J. are me “editors” and they write stories in notebooks as well. Thank you, so much for coming to our school and I hope you come again.

Your Truly, R.

PS I suck at spelling too.

Okay. So I told them all how bad at spelling I am and at least one student heard that and took heart that she could be a writer in spite of being spelling-challenged. She’s even got an editorial pack already in place. I can’t wait to read one of her stories.

Dear Joseph,

I thank you for coming to 161 and telling us a little about your life and your book “Open Wounds”. I’m going to read that when I’m done reading my “Vampire Prince” so I thank you for coming and may god Bless you.

Sincerely, I.

Honestly, I was not hurt to hear that a vampire prince came first. I wouldn’t expect students to put down what they’re reading and start my novel. They should at least finish the chapter. But seriously, who said boys don’t read?
From now on whenever I get down about the publishing business or about the writing process I’m going to take out the letters from Ms. Maddy’s 8th grade class… and smile.

Can I Revise That Question as an Answer?

Back to the fifth question from the CW Post LIU reading last month. I got a similar question last week from an 8th grade student at MS161 but I’ll tell you that one in another post because it’s more business oriented and I answered better.

I want to get published. How do I go about it?

She was a young woman with a big smile and she asked the question with an earnestness that broke my heart. “I’ve always known I want to be published,” she said. “Always.” She stood in front of me, nervous, smiling, smiling, smiling.

“That’s great,” I said, smiling back. We both stared at each other for a few moments.  It felt a lot longer to me so, uncomfortable I forged ahead. I’d just had a conversation with a young man before her who wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask me and I’d had to investigate by getting some clarity from him about his needs. “Do you want others to look at your work? Do you want to be published?” I asked these questions because I know not everyone who is a writer wants to be published and I want to be respectful of that. Anybody who writes in any context is flexing an important creative muscle and should be encouraged to continue. Some people write just for themselves. Some for their friends and family. I’d asked him because I wanted to find out what his writing needs were. This woman with the big smile knew what she wanted, very similarly to myself when I was her age. I wanted others to read my work. I wanted to be published.

But I needed more information to be able to answer and she seemed stuck. So I asked, “Do you have finished work – a novel, or short story, or poetry?”

“No.”

We stared at each other a little longer. I took a breath and nodded. “Then… you should finish your book, or short story, or poem and… send it out. That’s kind of how it works.”

She nodded and her smile (I didn’t think this was possible) got even bigger.

Then I realized what an idiot I was being.

“Okay,” I said. “I mean try not to stress over how to get published until you have something ready to publish. That’s what I really mean. You know what I mean?’ Yes, I know I was getting more eloquent as I went on. Right about now I wanted someone to get a hook out and take me off stage with a yank. Or a brick and hit me over the head with it. But there was no hook or brick and I went on anyway. “And when you’re ready you can go to The Writer’s Market and search out markets to send to, unless you already have them in mind for your work depending on what you’ve written.  But, as my grandfather used to say to me, ‘How you going to get something published if you don’t send it out?’ So if you are the kind of writer who wants to see their name in print then sooner or later you’re going to have to do some marketing and The Writer’s Market is as good a place as any to start.”

“Thank you,” she said and she walked away.

Fortunately there was one more person behind her on line so I had one more chance to redeem myself. I’ll tell you her question tomorrow.


7 Years Lost and Hard Labor Found

I went to Harlem today to visit a middle school’s eighth grade – PS/MS 161M, Don Pedro Albizu Campos School on 134th and Broadway. It’s right next to City College where I spent a year taking graduate classes in their creative writing masters program. I ran out of money after one year and never went back, but it was a good experience never-the-less. My friend Leslie set it up. She’s an Assistant Principal at the school and, after reading my book, accepted my offer to come in and talk about it with her eighth grade students.

The Library/Media Center was packed with 40 eighth graders, one teacher, and the Librarian/Media Center specialist. They had a smart board ready for me. I laid out my fencing weapons – a foil, a sabre, an épée, and a stage rapier, then talked for twenty minutes, read for twenty minutes and answered questions for ten.

Q&A can be tricky with eighth graders. There can be a lot of silence. These kids were great but I was worried at first as only one girl raised her hand. A boy and another girl seemed to raise their hands but then put them down. Perhaps it was peer pressure or maybe they were just stretching.

I called on the girl with her hand still assertively raised. Thank God she had a question. She opened a notebook she had with her, gazed down what seemed like a list of questions she had prepared, and asked the first of half a dozen that she would try to get to. I don’t remember what her first question was because right after I answered it five hands sprang into the air, then another few right after that. And the questions were good and they kept coming. Here’s a sampling of them:

  • How does publishing work? How do you get a book published?
  • Did your parents support you in trying to be a writer?
  • When did you know that you wanted to be a writer and what made you come to that decision?
  • What do you think it takes to be a writer?
  • Are you working on anything new?
  • Who was helpful to you along the way – like teachers or other people?
  • Have you met famous authors since your book was published?

But this was the best. It wasn’t one of their questions. It was their answer to a question that I asked them. “Which would you rather do, take seven years to write a novel or one month? How many say seven years?”

Almost half the room raised their hands. I was in a bit of shock. I didn’t think any would.

“How many say one month?”

The other half raised their hands.

“Of those who said seven years, why did you say that?”

The girl who asked the first question raised her hand. “Because if it takes seven years then when I hand it in, it will be perfect.” Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

“And why one month?”

A boy raised his hand. “If it takes only one month then I’m writing really well, really fast.” Brilliant again.

I left three books with them – one for each class teacher and one for the library. How could I not? And whoever said middle school years were the lost years?


How Lawrence Block Saved My Ass

A writer friend of mine and I were talking recently about her present writing project and, being interested in her project and wanting to help her out, I offered to read a sample chapter for her. She said yes,with a big smile and we were off and running. Before I left though I turned to her and asked, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“What do you mean,” she said, still smiling but straining a little.

“You can ask me for what you need when I read it and I want to make sure I help you out so… what do you need me to do, in addition to reading it?”

She looked at me for a long moment, then , smile disappearing, said, “I don’t know. I mean…what do you mean? I never thought about that.”

“I can critique , look for strengths, look for weakness, line edit, read and give overall impressions, look at narrative structure or character, read and tell you I love it, read and tell you to send it out immediately – does that help? I want to help but I want to help you the way you need help.”

The smile appeared again. “I never thought about it that way. Let me think what I need and I”ll let you know when I send the manuscript to you.”

“Excellent. I’m excited to read it.”

This was not the first time I”ve come up against this. In a writer’s group I was in once we allowed each other to ask for what we wanted in a critique – since critique means different things to different people. One new writer auditioning for the group said to me, “But what good is it if you don’t get feedback that tells you what needs to be improved?”

I said, “Sometimes you need just to hear yourself read a piece out loud or get an audience reaction (facial, verbal, energy, laughter, snickers). It all comes back to what you need. Not everybody needs a knife taken to their work.” He didn’t like this and decided not to be a part of the group – probably for the best.

A couple of years later I was working on a memoir of my time working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing HIV/AIDS work and it was very painful stuff to put down on paper. At a writer’s retreat I decided to read some of it out loud to the other writers. I asked for what I wanted before I read. I was used to doing this by then so I did. I just wanted to hear what it sounded like. It was too personal to be critiqued yet and I said so. When I was finished reading, one writer raised her hand to comment and when I called on her she started to take it apart. I stopped her in the middle of her fourth or fifth sentence and said, “I don’t want a critique. I’ll take a question about the material – ” and she interrupted me. “But you need to hear -” and that’s when Lawrence Block saved me. He said (yes, he was one of the writer’s at the retreat – the Lawrence Block of Matthew Scudder, best seller, fame), “Didn’t you hear what Joe said? He said he just wanted to read it out loud.”

There was scattered applause, like softly popping incendiaries. Then I took my seat back in the group and another writer took the reader’s chair.

Thank you, Larry.

Ask for what you need. You’re allowed.


KLAATU and Keynote at the Historical Society

Queens Historical SocietyReading at The Queens Historical Society on Thursday evening. We were supposed to start at 6:30 and it was 7pm and no one was there. Well… there were three people there but two worked there and one was a boyfriend of one of the women who worked there. The young man and I were talking about fencing so intently neither one of us had noticed that it was after 7pm and no one had shown up for the reading. Don’t get me started talking about fencing.
I let a sigh out and said, “No one’s coming this evening.”
The young man nodded, looking down.
“Shall I present to the three of you?”
A woman appeared at the front door.
All three of my audience members smiled at me. We had a fourth and someone not related in any way to the three who were already present.
I talked for a while about how I got the idea for Open Wounds, then read from it – answered questions for even longer – took a tour of the museum, and headed home. There were only four but they were totally present. I enjoyed myself immensely. Back when I used to perform improv with KLAATU we would perform in front of one or two people all the time. Sometimes we even just performed in front of ourselves. But as Greg Sullivan, our troupe leader always used to say, “You have to perform as if the audience is full and it’s your first time doing it.”
That’s exactly what I did.
I also used my iPad to present with using Keynote for the first time. It worked very well mechanically – very efficient and it looked great. What a cool presentation tool – even better than my Macbook Air…