Posted in Writing

How Do You Get There From Here?

Practice makes perfect.

Whatever you choose to call it—aphorism, adage, maxim, idiom, cliché—that saying is largely accepted as truth. But it’s not particularly true. I will certainly concede that practice will make you better at what you are trying to do, but to say it will get you to perfection assumes that you know what to do to achieve perfection.

A quick example might better demonstrate what I mean. Right now, I have achieved a certain level of skill as a writer. Let’s call that level, X. So I write. And I keep writing. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I could, and the story I produce is, oh maybe, X-2. Some days I’m really on my game and I might produce a story that as good as X+2. But most of the time, the stories I write are an X. If I continue to practice, practice, practice, at some point in the future I’ll be a better writer—maybe X+1. But as a writer, my goal is to be a much better writer…let’s call that level Y.

Is practice enough to get me there? I could explain and equivocate, but the answer is, NO. Because at some point you need to acquire the knowledge to know what your weaknesses are AND the knowledge to fix them.

So think back to your childhood. I’ll use the example of learning to throw a football. When I was three or four years old, I started watching football with my dad. When I wanted to learn to play, he bought me a shiny, blue Nerf football. So how did I start? I walked outside and gave a mighty heave. The ball probably flew a foot or so. Now, if I’d relied solely on practice to get better, I’m sure I would have discovered how to hold the ball—eventually. I might even have been able to get some distance on a throw. But I never would have been any good. But that’s not what happened. After that first toss left me frustrated, my father picked up the football and started to show me the basics.

That is to say… he taught me.

While practice is the most fundamental tool we have to get better, it will only get us so far. We have to work to improve our skills by learning. We must learn what we do right, what we do wrong, what we do inconsistently. But more importantly we must learn what other people do, whether it works for them, whether we think it will work for us.

I won’t even try to count the ways to do this. There are classes, workshops, books, magazines, websites, critique groups (where there are writers better than you), forums discussion groups, honest friends…

I need to decide what I will do this year to get closer to Y.

What about you? What are your plans, in the next year, to get better at your craft?

Posted in Writing

Rekindling the Classics

I’ll start this off with a little perspective: I have a Kindle Paperwhite. I like it. I do not love it. I am neither an e-reader hater, or e-reader fanboy. I use my Kindle three or four times each week–about as often as I pick up a paper book. If I had to pick my favorite features of the Kindle, I would choose 1) I no longer have to guess which of seven books I will be in the mood to read at lunch, or in the mechanic’s waiting room; and 2) I no longer have to suffer through the damage that my suitcase or backpack does to my paperbacks.

I’ve had my Kindle for about two years now. And I’ll admit I purchased it with trepidation. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to like it. I like real books. I do not consider it an inconvenience that books take up half of one room of my house. I love that I have shelves full enough to browse for something to read. But still I took a chance.

Two years later, I am only a partial convert. My Kindle has it’s place. While it will never rival the luxurious, tactile sensation of reading a real book, it far surpasses paper books in convenience.

But I have found one area, where real books cannot hold a candle to my e-reader…

Classic Literature.

If some part of your soul just recoiled in horror at the juxtaposition of reading Dickens on an electronic screen, I completely understand. If your viscera trembles in anger at the mere notion, I sympathize. But, please hear me out.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a respectable collection of the classic works. I have at least half of Shakespeare’s plays, a large selection of European-Romantics–Dumas, Hugo, Cervantes–the philosophies, epics, and plays by the Greeks, and quite a few more.

The classics are easy to accumulate. Not only, because some very simple research will give you a good idea of the quality of the book–but also because they’re cheap. If you can bypass the faux-leatherbound editions and those editions heavily-annotated by scholars, they are notably cheaper than modern publications.

But on the e-reader they are even cheaper. Often free.

I don’t even go looking for them. But anytime I hear someone quote a classic…maybe one I’ve read and enjoyed–or maybe one I’ve always meant to read–a quick peek on Amazon usually turns up a free Kindle version. There are also many versions that charge a buck or two–sometimes these are worthless, only adding a different cover, but often these versions have been properly formatted for the Kindle, with chapters and such.

In the last two years I have loaded up my Kindle with many classics that I never got around to reading: Moby Dick, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and many others that I’ve loved and now can carry around more easily.

In fact I have far more free content on my Kindle than paid content.

Who would have guessed an e-reader would help me go old school?

Posted in Writing

How You Say It

Not long ago I got into one of those discussions that can happen when bookish friends are at the bar and have been waiting too long for a table. “What was the first book you can remember reading where you immediately wanted more?”

Like any question that leads to a great debate, one that is chock-full of ambiguity. Does it mean what book made me want more of the author’s work?…More of that series?…Or does it really try to find out what book started to turn me into a reader?

So I thought back to the books I read as a kid. I discounted the books that we usually think of as children’s books, simply because they are a different reading experience than novels or short stories. And while I know it wasn’t the first book I read, I kept coming back to one title. I remember when I finished it, I just had to tell someone how great it was. My Papa was the other sci-fi lover in the family so that’s whose ear I bent (in my mind it was five minutes, but now that I have kids I know it was probably more like a day). And I remember being beside myself when I found out there were more books in the series.

The book was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 30 years (or so) later, the book still holds up to repeat reading, and stands as one of my favorites. And as I look back over a reading life that has spanned about 35 years, that book seems to be a remarkable standard-bearer for the type of books I love the most.

If I stand at my bookshelf, it’s easy to see the books I read the most. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is heavily-creased, dog-eared, faded and generally looks like it’s gone a few rounds with a hyper puppy (a fitting analogy if you’ve read the book). Red Thunder, by John Varley, though not much more than a pulp sci-fi novel, is probably the most heavily highlighted and annotated book I own. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, has been forced on so many of my friends that I’m on my fourth copy. Lamb, by Christopher Moore… I could go on and on…

But it’s been only recently, that I realized not only how much these books are emblematic of the books I love to read the most, but they are also harbingers of the kind of writing I aspire to, even if I don’t always realize it.

What ties these books together is not just a genre–sure I love sci-fi, but there are hundreds of great sci-fi books that I’ve devoured and never picked up again. It’s also true that all of these are wildly funny (although with Red Thunder I would say that while the story is humorless, the characters bring a great wit to the events), and that’s a sure way to my heart. But if I had to pick a single thing that brings them all together it’s dialogue–I could pull back a bit and call it “Voice” just as easily, since several of these have a delightful first person narration that speaks directly to the reader.

Why? Every book I’ve ever read has dialogue. So what is it about the dialogue in these books that makes them so gripping to me?

It took me a long time to be able to answer that question. In most of these books the dialogue isn’t particularly poetic, or lovely. Nor are the characters’ words particularly insightful.

No, what makes these books such fine examples of gripping dialogue is that the author uses the dialogue not only as a means to tell the story, but also as a tool for character building. But perhaps most important of all, the characters nearly never say what you think they will.

Reading good dialogue is like watching an intricate fencing match. Each participant has their own agenda–maybe one is trying to get a straight answer, while the other is teasing with tiny revelations like a prose dance-of-the-seven-veils. In great dialogue, there is offense and defense, lunges and ripostes, jabs and parries. When dialogue is good, a section of dialogue will never wind up where you thought it would.

To me this is not only the hallmark of great writing, but also of a great storyteller. And will always get me coming back for more.

Posted in Featured, My Books, Writing

Deck the Halls: Festive Tales of Fear and Cheer


Deck the Halls traverses the joy and jeopardy of the festive season, from Yule to Mōdraniht, Summer Solstice to Years’ End. The stories journey through consternations and celebrations, past, present and future, which might be or never were.

Along the way you’ll meet troll hunters, consumer dissidents, corset-bound adventurers, a joint-toking spirit, big-hearted gangbangers, an outcast hybrid spaceship, petrol-toting politicians, mythical swingers and a boy who unwittingly controls the weather.

Heart-warming and horrifying, the collection is a merry measure of cross-genre, short fiction subverting traditional notions of the holiday season.

My own story, “title,” was inspired by the lyric “see the blazing yule before us.” And I used that inspiration for a mild send-up of Dickens.

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Posted in Anti-Resolutions, General Silliness, Writing

My 2013 Anti-Resolutions

2013Written based on the Today’s Author Write Now! prompt on January 1, 2013, in which we are asked to creatively list ten things we will not do in the coming year.

Today’s Author is a new blog designed to help get you off the couch and back to writing.

The rules are simple:

  • List ten things you resolve NOT to do in the upcoming year.
  • Be as creative as possible.

To get this thing rolling, here are…

My 2013 New Year’s Anti-Resolutions

  1. I will NOT introduce myself to potential employers as prisoner 24601.
  2. I will NOT attempt to organize the Squirrels around my apartment into a guerilla force to intimidate the woodpeckers around the next building–no matter how cute they would look in fatigues.
  3. I will NOT try to capitalize off the newly-confirmed existence of the Higgs-Boson particle claiming that I coined the term God Particle.
  4. I will NOT attend climate change conferences in an attempt to promote my idea to fight the coming flood by creating a new continent entirely out of kitchen sponges.
  5. I will NOT make lunches in the cafeteria more interesting by pretending I am following orders from my Kindle.
  6. I will not greet new people I meet by asking them their name, quest and favorite color.
  7. I will NOT fill my fountain pen with dark red blood and insist that whenever I enter into agreement we each sign the contract in blood.
  8. I will NOT lobby the new Governor to make Cthulhu’s birthday a state holiday.
  9. I will NOT force my cats to wear the little tin foil hats I made for them, so that the government can’t read their thoughts.
  10. I will NOT retaliate against the constant thumping caused by the two small girls upstairs, by practicing with my drum kit, which is directly beneath their beds, at 2 am–no matter how much I really want to.
Posted in Writing

Why We Can’t Stop

The longer I write–and the more I fight against writing–I wonder if we’re all just masochists. I’ve tried hobby after hobby over the years, and none of them inspire the levels of stress, angst and dissatisfaction that writing does.

Archery, a hobby that seems to revolve around tinkering with dozens of individual pieces of equipment just to get a 1/4″ improvement on a grouping of arrows–a hobby that seems like it’s purpose-built to drive people to frustration–is more relaxing than writing. At least, that’s true when you’re up against a block.

So why do we do it? The most basic–and somewhat true–answer is that when it works, when you clear the barriers and can slam down 2,000 words without realizing that 2 hours have passed, it feels glorious. But that’s not the real answer for many of us. Especially when the frustrating sessions outweigh the productive ones.

So why?

Ben Dolnick, a writer and occasional contributor the NY Times, recently did a piece for NPR about the retirement of Philip Roth, a noted and long-time author. In the piece, Dolnick explains why he doubts that Roth will stay retired.

“There are plenty of times in a typical writing day when retirement seems, even to someone much younger than 80, like the sweetest imaginable relief…. But fiction emanates from an organ every bit as mysterious, and as much beyond conscious control, as the liver. The actual work of being a writer – the generation of plots and characters, the resolving of tangled chapter transitions – goes on while you sleep or shower or walk the dog. You might as well announce your retirement from metabolizing sugar.”
–Ben Dolnick

Yes. That’s it. I write because… well, because I can’t not write.

And that’s why we’ve created Today’s Author–for those of us who can’t not write.

Here’s the link to the full article.



Posted in Anti-Resolutions, General Silliness, Writing

My 2012 Anti-Resolutions

It’s time get the new year off to a creative start—and make some resolutions you’ll actually keep in the process.

The rules are simple:

  • List ten things you resolve NOT to do in the upcoming year.
  • Be as creative as possible.

To get this thing rolling, here are…

My 2012 New Year’s Anti-Resolutions

  1. I will NOT lobby Congress to change the national motto to “Riiiiiicolaaaaaaa.”
  2. I will NOT convince my kids that the DVDs I bought them are in the new FOOD-Ray format, which converts their TV into Taste-O-Vision.
  3. I will NOT introduce leitmotif into my home, by composing original themes for each cat and humming their assigned theme whenever they enter the room.
  4. I will NOT use my impending 40th birthday to begin my crusade to start the new tradition of Birthday Pie.
  5. I will NOT use my new status as an ordained minister of the FSM, to hang around the pasta bar and blessing the plates of strangers.
  6. I will NOT start a movement encouraging use of the upcoming “end of the world” as a way to clear up personal debt.
  7. I will NOT alter the kids birth certificates to list Gonzo the Great as their father so as to make them believe they are a new breed of Muppet hybrid.
  8. I will NOT attempt to convince the Pipe & Drum Band to add Harmonicas as an accompanying instrument.
  9. I will NOT, when it’s time to renew my phone contract, insist that they allow me purchase the secret intra-cranial smartphone that’s talked about in the “secret memo.”
  10. I will NOT start an email hoax insisting that the baking mixes for Yellow Cake, actually contain uranium.
Posted in Featured, My Books, Writing


“Eighty-Nine” is the third offering from Literary Mix Tapes (a quarterly crowd-sourced short fiction anthology inspired by music), and the second one I’m a part of.

Twenty-Six original stories inspired by Twenty-Six different songs, all released in 1989. It was the year the Berlin Wall came down and Voyager went up. In San Francisco and Newcastle the ground shook, in Chernobyl it melted. Tiananmen Square rocked the world and Tank Man imprinted on the international consciousness. These Twenty-Six stories reinvent what it was like to live in a world moving from one decade to the next.

My own story, “Shrödinger’s Cat,” was inspired by the Eurythmics “Don’t Ask Me Why.” 1989 gave us the scientific hoax of Cold Fusion, as well as the beginning of the computer virus era, and these form the backdrop for what my editor described as a cyberpunk-noir must read. And that girl on the front cover…that’s Amiga…one of my main characters.

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Posted in Featured, My Books, Writing

If I Had It To Do Over Again

The Setup

Jodi Cleghorn, my pesky beloved editor, on her own blog, posed a question for me to answer.

Two years ago, she and Paul Anderson, two fellow bloggers at Write Anything, asked me if I’d like to write a story for an anthology they’d dreamed up. “It’s called Chinese Whisperings. Did you ever play that game when you were a kid? In America, I think it’s called telephone. (OK, I’ll admit that’s probably not a direct quote. I probably still have the email but I didn’t want to spend the time looking for it.) Two years later that, story has been done, plus another in the series, the eBook has been out for over a year, I’ve published another story through working friendship collaboration (with two more on the way), and Chinese Whispering is about to publish it’s first two volumes in paperback.

In case you decided to skip that paragraph…it’s been a busy two years.

The First Chinese Whisperings books was written a little bit like a camp-song sung in the round. Each author had to take their main character from the cast of secondary characters in the prior story. And now that Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book is about to come out in paperback (Oct 11, 2011, in case you were wondering), my frenetic energetic friend from across the world has put this question to me: What would I do if I had a second chance at my story? Is there another character that I whose story I would have chosen to tell?

The Response

Short Answer

No. (I could make it shorter, but I liked including the period.)

Long Answer

As I was waiting my turn to write my story (sixth out of ten) I was able to read the stories before mine as they were turned in. I remember while reading Jason Coggins’ Something Mean in the Dream Scene, wanting very badly to be the next author in line, because a story came to me almost fully formed about one of the characters. But having just reread that story I can’t for the life of remember who that character was…or what the story was.

Then when I read Tina Hunter’s Innocence I drew a blank. I didn’t want to write the story of any of those characters. But Jodi reminded me that I’m always like that at the beginning of a project. And she was right. After about ten rereads the the secondary characters of that story were all already too involved in the events of the book. I needed to look at the background characters. When I finally did choose the story it came out quickly, if erratically.

But looking back at the book as a whole, I can’t think of a character I would have rather picked up on than Simon.

Although I have to admit I was a little bummed that Jasmine Gallant didn’t tell Verity’s story. But it’s hard to hold a grudge when she did such a great job with Dash.

This will all make so much more sense to you if you’ve read the book. Don’t have a copy? Never fear. It’ll be out in paperback in less than a month.

I’d originally tagged Annie Evett as the next to answer the question, but it seems she, as well as most of the other female writers are busy. So to keep things going I’ll tag Rob Diaz.