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Friday, November 11, 2016

Insanity, Figment of Imagination, or Actual Presence of God

In late 2014, I finished writing one novel and was trying to decide what my next novel should be about. I’ve worried about global warming since reading Roger Revelle’s comments in the 1970s. (Revelle was the professor who taught Al Gore about climate change.) I was thinking that all of us really need to do something about it and the one thing I could do was attempt to write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of climate change. I would do my best to repair the world, which is an English translation of the Hebrew biblical phrase Tikkun Olam.
Fast forward to Thursday, November 4th, 2016. Every working day at lunchtime I write my climate change novel on my laptop propped between my belly and the steering wheel. There can be no Internet in the parking garage deep underneath my job’s building. There are no distractions. It is absolute privacy: the best environment for writing. The chapter I wrote on November 4th concerned father and son characters who hate each other. The scene as I had written it ended with the father saying, “Why do you have to be so God-damned right all the time, so damned smart?”
Then I noticed another line on the screen. It was two words: “they hug.” I did not remember writing those words. That was not how I viewed the scene. I did not know why those words were there or how they got there. But then I thought to myself that this is exactly what the scene needs. I needed to rewrite the chapter so at the end of it the father and son hug each other: each one sobbing. It will be one of the strongest scenes in the book. It will be the culmination of their relationship so far and the start of their relationship going forward.
Suddenly, my whole body started to tingle. It was not from emotions. It was physical. There was something in the car with me, just over my right shoulder. I turned, but there was nothing there. My first thought was to open the car door and start running. I needed to run as fast as I could possibly go, as far away as I could get. And I knew I had to go to an ocean. The safest place would be a boat in the middle of the biggest ocean I could find. —This is all true. That is what I thought.
Then just as suddenly as it appeared, the tingling, the presence in the car, was gone. I sat there trying to breathe. I was again safe. And I thought, “Jonah.” That was how Jonah must have felt when God came to him and asked him to go to Nineveh. I had always wondered, as a kid, why Jonah ran. How could he not have known it was impossible to get away from an all-powerful God? But that was exactly what I had wanted to do. There was something in my car that was far too powerful for me to be next to. I had known I needed to get away, before that power stopped my heart from beating. If that being had stayed any longer in the car with me, I would have died.
Of course, over the next few days this was all I thought about. I didn’t think I was crazy. I am not religious enough, egotistical enough, or stupid enough to believe God would come into my car and put words on my computer screen. So, I decided that it must have been a figment of my imagination. I must have typed those words. What had happened was the result of my having read the story of Jonah during Yom Kippur services, and I had recalled the scene from the movie, “Oh God,” in which God makes it rain inside George Burns’s car. But it felt so real. For the rest of my life, I’ll have doubts that it might actually have happened.
I would like to add a comment that this novel is coming along far, far, better than I could possibly have imagined when I started it. I never thought I had the talent to write something as good as the novel I am currently writing.
I hope I am being funny when I say, “Hey God, if you are helping me out here, well, then, thank you.”

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Conceit Behind MOURNING DOVE, the Novel I Am Currently Writing

Lincoln said to Harriett Beecher Stowe, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Climate change may destroy civilization in my son's lifetime. I am trying my hardest to write the novel that will start the war against global broiling.

The odds are extremely high that I'll fail at it, but I won't fail. To write a novel takes incredible hubris. All novelists must believe what they have to say is so important and will be done so well that the world will want to read it. For this novel, I additionally have to overcome the lies that climate change is a hoax, harmless, or disputed and that doing anything to fix it is wasted effort that will cost the country jobs. Goethe said, "Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain." Forgive my mixed metaphor, but I'm tilting against that windmill (perhaps building them). To beat this billion dollar brainwashing, my novel has to be impossible to put down, grab at the heartstrings like no other novel before it, and be incredibly persuasive without the readers realizing they've been persuaded. In other words, it has to be one of the greatest novels ever written. It will be. I have that chutzpah. I have that talent. I know that this novel will have an impact in saving the world. And, so far, as I finish each chapter, I find myself saying, "I can't believe I've written something this great. I'll never be able to write as amazing a chapter ever again in my life." And then I finish the next chapter and say the same thing. I am currently on chapter nine and each chapter has been that way. Knowing that the goal of this novel is to do something incredibly important has "raised my game" considerably. As of now, I'm this book's only reader. But I'm convinced of its power to achieve what I am trying achieve. Someday, you will be as well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Query for Mourning Dove

MOURNING DOVE is not complete. I have a chapter-by-chapter outline, character studies, and eight written chapters done, as I write these words. The query letter I will use for the novel, obviously, will not be used until MOURNING DOVE is finished. However, I am curious what folks have to say about it. So, here it is:

MOURNING DOVE will be 80,000 words. Its genre is Post-Apocalyptic Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi).

Jen Darlington’s family is isolated on top of a mountain in Northwest Alaska. Jen has never seen another human being other than her family: her mother, her father, his parents, and her two brothers. Jen's mother, Karana, works hard to be her closest friend. Jen adores her mother, a physician, whom she calls, “Mom."

As the novel opens, Jen is in the command bunker, with her grandfather. A flash snowstorm begins coating the ground only minutes before liftoff. Outside, Jen’s older brother, Fred, stares straight up, watching the flight, as he takes a step backward into the strong wind. His foot slips and he starts to fall. He is on a narrow mountain path, overlooking a steep drop. Jen’s mother notices and dives to catch him before he can go over the cliff. But as she grabs him, they continue sliding and go over the edge together. Jen's father shouts in horror and helplessness outside in the storm. In the bunker, Jen screams, “Mommie!” Her grandfather hugs her as they watch her mother and brother die.

In her grief over the next few days, Jen remembers her mother’s voice giving her a most-important task once their last few rockets are launched. Her mother said it was up to the two of them, the two healthy women, to make certain that their family succeeds in reaching the remnant of human civilization in Antarctica. Now it is her heartfelt mission to see that she and her family make that trip and survive. That was her mother’s last command to Jen.

Ballantine Books published my novella "Oceans Away" in Stellar Short Novels. My op-eds appeared throughout the country under the name Paula Hawkins, U.S. Senator from Florida. I was her ghost. I narrowly escaped a Masters in creative writing and I carry scars and bruises from years in The Vicious Circle writer’s workshop. My day job is Beltway bandit wordslinger.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Self-Portrait Pencil Sketch

Inspired by the Picasso self portraits on this blog, I decided to create my own self portrait. I think it shows how I see myself, shortly after the death of my father.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


FIRETHORNS IN IVY DREAMS has multiple points of view, with Robert the protagonist and Dan the antagonist.

Conservative U.S. Senator Robert Smith laughs at LBJ’s question, “What the hell’s the Presidency for?” Robert has only one cause: winning the next election. Otherwise, he never becomes President.

Dan Kenyon fights for his dream. He claws out of an American slum into Harvard and then the FBI to combat inner-city drug crime. But management shuts down his strongest cases and the judicial process strangles others. Dollars from the most successful criminals infest the FBI and courts. Unless he appoints himself judge, jury, and executioner, he is hogtied.

Robert and his fundraiser, Tamar Minella, witness assassinations of their richest donors. The perpetrator leaves notes for Robert. They urge him to tackle the political corruption that shields drug overlords, and they show that each billionaire killed was a hidden overlord. At Harvard, Robert battled Dan for top scholastic honors and in the boxing arena. Robert is certain the messages are from Dan.

Dan is lead investigator for the murders. He interrogates Tamar, an Orthodox Jewess. Romancing her soon rivals his passion for protecting his people from crime. Distracted, he misses an important detail and the wrong person dies in an explosion. The reverberations tear open cracks in the path to The White House.

My op-eds appeared throughout the country under the name Paula Hawkins, U.S. Senator from Florida. I was her ghost. Ballantine Books published my novella "Oceans Away" in Stellar Short Novels. I narrowly escaped a Masters in creative writing and I carry scars and bruises from years in The Vicious Circle writer’s workshop. My day job is Beltway bandit wordslinger.

Please forgive me, but I cut and chopped and sliced and FIRETHORNS IN IVY DREAMS is still 135,000 words. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal plays inspired its creation. Baldacci’s Will Robie novels are comparables.

Thank you for your time and consideration. (twitter)

If you are an agent who would like to see a full or partial submission of FIRETHORNS IN IVY DREAMS, please send an email to the address shown above.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Novel Query Letters Should Lie

You wrote a great novel. You had its beginning and its query checked out on AbsoluteWrite and other forums. You studied Query Shark. But all agents reject you and your novel will never sell.


It is lost in the query-letter slush pile. Slush is muddy, melting, dirty snow, with some pieces of ice and some pebbles. Agents negotiate contracts of clients who have proven they can make the agents money. Agents edit works of proven writers to make them more salable. Agents hunt for markets worldwide. They help to sell their writers' published books. They socialize with writers to acquire new content, and they socialize with publishers to market and sell content. No agent has much time for, nor enjoys, rummaging through piles of query slush.

Reading slush is a smelly, disgusting task. Millions think they can write and they send their work to agents and publishers with great hopes. But in nearly all cases, it is hard to keep down one’s breakfast after reading more than a few words from the slush pile. Most slush is terrible. After years of reading slush and finding very little of value, most agents know it is a waste of time. They look for reasons to reject each query quickly, so they can discard as much slush as they can in as short a time as possible.

“But my work is great and will stand out and be noticed, won’t it?”

NO! IT WON’T! No matter how great your novel is, it will not get read, with one exception. The greatest piece of writing has to be your query letter. A diamond query letter looks just like a piece of ice amid the slush. A gold query letter is tarnished by the smelly stuff around it. The query must be stunningly brilliant and not let go. It has to be untarnishable gold with a very sharp titanium hook.

Unfortunately, query letters for great novels are rarely great. Writers of great novels are proud of their novels and try to be true to their novels. That is a big mistake. Query letters should lie! If your novel has a fascinating, convoluted plot that has the reader bawling like a baby at page 300, your query letter must get the reader bawling at sentence three. To do that, you must lie. Throw away the fascinating convolution. “A” should cause “Z.” “A” should not cause “B” and then “B” cause “C” etc. The query must be powerful immediately. The only thing that matters is getting an agent to read your novel. Truth does not matter.

For example, your novel is a legal thriller in which the protagonist is the deciding Supreme Court justice for a case in which a woman is not guilty of attempted murder because she used poisons covered by international treaty, and the case was originally tried in a state court (Bond v. United States, used here as an example). That is what you write in your query, right? WRONG! Your query should say that the novel is about a sterile wife who poisons her best friend for having an affair with and getting pregnant from the sterile woman’s husband. Forget the Supreme Court Justice. (She would be the fourth character mentioned, and that’s too many.) The query might state that the case goes to the Supreme Court, but it should imply that the wife is the protagonist. Under the limitation of a paragraph or two in a query, she is the interesting character. The only thing that counts is that the agent reads the novel. Being truthful will make sure your novel is not read.

“But won’t agents eventually notice?”

Even if they do, they won’t care. If your query is so good that it persuades an agent to ask to see the full novel, your book is probably good enough that it will be obvious that your talent will bring the agent money. Chances are the agent won’t remember your dishonesty, but even if so, your honesty or dishonesty does not affect the agent’s pocket. Your writing ability does. That’s what matters. The agent might ask you about the inconsistencies, but will still offer to represent you.

“Should you lie about word count?”

Damn right, you should! Your novel might be the best thing ever written, but it will not be read if you tell agents it is over 135,000 words. Remember that agents are looking for a reason to reject your query and move on to the next one. A high word count is the number one reason for a rejection. The agent you persuade to read your book will not care after reading the 150,000th word that the novel is too big if it is a great book. Again, you must use any means to make sure agents read your novel. Think “by hook or by crook.”

“So, having a well-crafted, lying query letter will get my novel sold?”

That depends on your novel. The whole supposition here is that you have a great novel. If you do not have a great novel, it will be rejected no matter how golden and titanium your query is. The point is that a great novel will not even be read unless accompanied by an even greater query letter. But query letters for great novels usually are not good because the authors try to remain true to their novels.

Your ultimate goal is to sell your great novel. If concern about dishonesty keeps you from achieving your dreams, then you are not being true to yourself. Shakespeare says “To thine own self be true.” If lying in a query letter helps you be true to yourself. Then lie, lie, and lie, and sell your great novel.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Query Rejected from the Most Brilliant Man Who Ever Lived

Suleiman the Magnificent was looking for someone to devise weapons to help him win his battles. Leonardo Da Vinci responded with a query. In it, he described submarines he would build that would defeat the best sea vessels of the day. He showed designs for tanks that would be invincible. He also presented drawings of conventional weapons that would be far better than anything else in existence. He ended his query with the words, “And I happen to paint better than any other man alive.” Suleiman never responded.

Da Vinci’s intelligence is incomparable, but no one can deny that Suleiman also was a brilliant man. He conquered much of the Middle East, most of North Africa, Belgrade, Rhodes, and a large part of Hungary. He was a distinguished poet and goldsmith; he became a great patron of culture, overseeing the "Golden" age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary, and architectural development. He also was well educated and spoke five languages.

It is mind boggling to think what Da Vinci could have done if he had Suleiman’s wealth and power behind him. What would Suleiman have done with Da Vinci's brains guiding his own? Why would someone the world knows as “the Magnificent” reject the smartest man to ever walk the Earth?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Literary Agent Gatsby

I asked an old, famous writer if I needed an agent for a novella of mine. He said, “Hand me your manuscript and I will give it to the best young agent in the business.” That agent, whom I will call Literary Agent Gatsby, gave my novella to Ballantine Books, which published it. I found myself with a nice advance for a very young, first-time author, and it all happened within a few short weeks.

Agent Gatsby had one rule for all of his authors: never phone him before one o’clock in the afternoon. He claimed that he sold his writers’ works by socializing in the evenings. For at least eight nights a week, he went to parties, threw parties, went to dinner, or just went drinking with individuals who would either provide him with the best writing of the day or who would publish that writing in the best markets for the most money. I went with my agent to two parties, and attended one party that he threw. His gala was in an incredible two-floor, ocean-facing suite of the Miami Beach Fontainebleau hotel. I will always remember him with a beautiful writer under one arm and a beautiful editor under the other arm, as he chatted amiably with one of the most important men in the publishing industry. Like The Great Gatsby, my agent was wealthy, powerful, and mysterious.

One day, Agent Gatsby called me. It was, of course, well into the afternoon. What he said was that a few weeks earlier he had arranged a multi-million dollar deal for one of his clients. Now he was “pruning his stable of authors,” and I was one who would be pruned away. He referred me to another agent, and she was happy to take me as a writer. But she was young, with very few contacts among publishers. She worked from nine to five. One could not call her after business hours, because she was home with her family. She never sold anything I wrote.

It is now quite a few years later. I spoke to Agent Gatsby’s wife recently. She told me that his mind is gone. He is burnt out. I am looking for another agent. I cannot go back to Mrs. Nine-To-Five. I am hoping to find someone similar to the young man my famous writer recommended. Unfortunately, it is an impossible task. I’ve asked every old, famous writer I know, but there’s nothing they can do. There will never be another literary agent like Agent Gatsby.


Just kidding folks. It's mostly all true, but any reputable agent who wants me, I'm yours.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Good Is Literature?

My graduate English class called “The Rise of the Novel” was discussing plot lines, and I mentioned the plot of a science fiction novel. The professor was in his seventies, fat, and gray, and known for his brilliance. Without even looking at me, he said, “What good is science fiction?” My immediate response was, “What good is any literature?” He cocked his head, paced back and forth, faced me directly, and said, “You know, you’re right.”

The question breaks down to: Is all literature just escape, like cotton candy? It’s fun, it tastes good, but does it provide nourishment? Here are my thoughts.

Hamlet’s  plot can be summarized as: uncle kills father and marries mother; son decides not to kill himself over it but to avenge his father. Where is the value in that? Arguably, Hamlet is the greatest piece of literature ever written. Where is the value? Is it in the view of Hamlet’s mind, Shakespeare’s mind, in making such a decision? Yes. Is it in the phrases such as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and “to thine own self be true,” that the play added to our language and that now help us to communicate? Yes. Is it in the commonality of experience that all of us who are familiar with Hamlet have something in common to discuss? Yes. And is it a fun three hours? Yes, it also is an escape.

So how about science fiction? Is it just like cotton candy: empty calories? Some science fiction, certainly, is empty, but look at the best. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Brin’s Startide Rising, or Niven’s Ringworld are filled with ideas: prediction through future history, uplift, and massive planetary engineering. That’s food for thought. All three also are interesting stories that delve deep into the minds of their characters, they add to our language (phrases like “uplift” and “future history”), they provide commonality among science fiction readers, and they are great to escape into. So they are, indeed, nourishing.

Is there less value in science fiction than in other literature? No. Just as there is some science fiction that has little of value, there are some plays, even Shakespeare plays (IMHO, Titus Andronicus) that have little of value. It all depends on the particular work. It is generally agreed that George R. R. Martin’s best work is his vampire novel, Fevre Dream. The subject matter or genre is irrelevant.

Some literature provides more nourishment than others, but nearly all literature provides food for the mind, food for the soul, and fun food, as well. Enjoy it. It’s good for you.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Has More Value To Society, The Arts or the Sciences?

As an undergraduate, I was a science major and expected to become a scientist. But then I sold a novella to a major publishing company. It was a tough decision whether to continue to a doctorate in science, or to study writing and be a writer. I always wanted to contribute something to humanity, and until then I thought science (and technology and medicine resulting from it) was of more value. Perhaps in self-justification for making the decision I did, I decided that the arts add pleasure to life, and increase humanity's understanding of humanity. So perhaps the arts is of equal, or maybe even greater value. But I've continued to ponder the thought ever since my undergraduate years. Is Beethoven's work, or Rembrandt's, of any less worth than Newton's, or Edison's? What value does music or painting add to society? Is Hamlet any more or less of an achievement than the theory of relativity? I don't know. Does anyone know? Can anyone know? That's why I am posing the question. What has more value, the arts or the sciences?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Searching for Wonder in a Literary Career

Growing up, I cherished free weekend mornings when I could be in bed with a book on my knees and my head propped up with pillows. In those days, the books were magical, with such things as a wardrobe door to Narnia, a jungle with Mowgli, musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf the wizard, the real lives of Houdini and Einstein, and three laws of robotics. My bed, comforter, and pillows were like clouds I floated upon and that gave me warmth and comfort. Who needed cotton candy? This was better.
Most writers and literary agents, no doubt, had similar “who needs cotton candy?” reading experiences when they were children. The memories of such pleasure propelled them into their literary careers. Agents not only hope to find such sense of wonder again, they also dream of developing and helping to publish such gifts to the world, so that others may share that joy.
After settling into their careers, though, they find their eyes blurring over run-on sentences, boring beginnings, endless weak adjectives, plots that go nowhere, and characters with no character. This happens in book after book after book. Here and there, agents find books that may not be wonderful but that they can sell. Being an agent may not be a great living, but it’s a living. It may become a satisfying career, but it still is painful that one cannot recapture the enchantment. This comes through in rejection letters agents write. It carries forward to inflame the existing fears of authors who doubt we can create the wonder we experienced as youths with our own “who needs cotton candy?” reading experiences.
Agents and writers all ask ourselves the question, “Is it me, or is it the book?” Did our youthful naiveté allow us to be thrilled by writing that had major flaws that we just did not know enough to notice? Or did we really read great books as children and today find very few that are so great? It probably is a little of both.
Our hopes and dreams fade with time as we create families, buy homes, and burden ourselves with mortgages. We do our jobs. But agents, especially, always keep the dream alive. The next manuscript may be magical. It may bring back the ecstasy we experienced in reading as children. It’s a pipedream. We know it won’t occur again. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result. It just doesn’t happen. But it might, right?
If it’s a delusion, let’s keep deluding ourselves. It helps to drive us onward.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Real Assassin

I was very saddened this week to hear about the death of a professional assassin I knew very well. Novelists such as Vince Flynn, Stephen Hunter, David Baldacci, and others write about assassins who are supermen; who know everything there is to know about guns, have tremendous aim, and incredible reflexes. Flynn's Mitch Rapp and Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger are very much alike. Baldacci, who is, by far, the best writer of the three, has assassins who are a bit more nuanced. But even his characters, like the others, have a certain invincibility, along with extreme confidence, pride, and fake humility that doesn't quite ring true.

Abe Fridling, who died at the age of 95 last week, was the real assassin. I used to see him every Saturday in synagogue. When I was a young man I would sit next to my father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, on the left side of the synagogue's second row. Mr. Fridling, I always called him Mr. Fridling, sat on the right side of the same row.  I used to see him swinging his legs back and forth because they did not touch the floor. He was that short, barely over five feet tall. Sometimes during breaks from praying, he and my father-in-law would speak to each other in Yiddish, a language I do not understand. But when my father-in-law passed away, Mr. Fridling came and sat next to me, and he began to tell me stories of his life during World War II and the years following it.

During the war, Mr. Fridling, who was born in Poland, fled to the woods and joined with others to become a partisan guerrilla resistance fighter. The partisans defended Jewish towns and villages against Nazi soldiers, and conducted raids against German military forces. Some partisan groups even built communities in the woods made up of Jewish civilians who escaped the Germans. After fighting as a partisan for much of the war, Mr. Fridling eventually joined up with the Russian army. One of the biggest regrets of his life was that he was shot in the chest three weeks before the war ended so he could not march into Berlin with the Russians. 

It was in the years immediately after the war that Mr. Fridling became a paid assassin. It was his job to eliminate Nazi soldiers who had survived the war and had returned to normal lives after murdering hundreds of Jews. I asked him who paid him to do it, and he would not tell me, but he said that if he did, I would recognize the names.

Mr. Fridling told me of his getting into the back seat of an Cadillac in Germany shortly after the war. Inside was a doctor and Mr. Fridling pointed a gun at him. The doctor said, "You're not going to kill me. I'm too useful to the Jews now, treating the sick in displaced persons camps."

Mr Fridling replied, "That could never make up for all the women and children you murdered. Get out of the car."

The doctor left the car and started running. Mr. Fridling shot him in the back and killed him. That was just one of many assassinations. I once asked him how many people he killed, and he replied that he could not count that high.

During the war, Mr. Fridling heard that his brother and his family had been murdered by Polish Nazi sympathizers. He went to the home of the person he thought had killed his brother, and found only the suspect's mother. He put a gun to her mouth, got her to admit that it was her son, and she told him where to find him. Mr. Fridling said he shot her through the mouth and killed her. Then he found the man who killed his brother, put a gun into his mouth and got him to confess and say who his accomplices were. Then Mr. Fridling shot him, found the accomplices, and killed them as well. Covered with blood, Mr. Fridling came back to his partisans, went to where they stored the camp's food, and began making himself lunch. The commander of the partisans came in and expressed amazement that Mr. Fridling could do what he had done and still be interested in food, before even cleaning himself up. Mr. Fridling told that commander, "I was hungry." Those are the sort of stories Mr. Fridling told me about himself, all of them true, I have no doubt.

There is one Mr. Fridling story that I read about in the paper and I asked him to tell me what really happened. After the war, he came to America and started a chicken farm in New Jersey. Eventually he sold part of farm, keeping much of the land, and moved to Washington, DC, where he bought a liquor store. One day, in his store, two robbers came in with guns. One of them put a gun to Mr. Fridling's head and told him to open the cash register. Mr. Fridling said, "Hitler couldn't kill me and you're not going to kill me either." He proceeded to grab the gun out of the robber's hand and shot him. He then held the gun on the second robber and called the police. When the police came, they asked him where he got the gun and if he had a license for it. He said that it was the robber's gun. He'd had enough of guns in the war and did not believe in owning guns. But he did tell me that, years before, he had grabbed a gun out of the hand of a German general who had captured him, shot the general and other Nazis with him, and escaped, so grabbing a gun pointed at him was not a new experience.

How did Mr. Fridling's personality differ from those of the fictional assassins? Those all seem to be the strong and silent types, who never would talk about their killings. Mr. Fridling loved to talk about it. But Mr. Fridling left all that behind him and became a family man. He raised three sons and a daughter. One of his sons won a MacArthur Fellowship ("the genius award") as a brilliant physicist. But Mr. Fridling did have that pride. One day I told him that my father-in-law described World War II as "when I walked to Germany." (My father-in-law was marched there from Czechoslovakia at the point of a gun, digging trenches for Nazi soldiers.) Mr. Fridling's responded, in a gruff voice, "No one would ever make me walk to Germany." After hearing his stories and knowing him well, I can believe it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How can you be happy when Prince Andrei Nikolaevich is dying?

Tolstoy once came down into his living room from the office he wrote in, saw his family laughing, and said, "How can you be happy when Prince Andrei Nikolaevich is dying upstairs?" When you truly experience that feeling concerning your own characters, you are a writer.

Post-novel depression's intense pain tortures the most talented writers because the developing, changing, coming-to-life characters are no longer alive and growing. They are the writer's children during the writing process. When the novel is done and the writing stops, they become unchanging memories. It's like your own children have died, and all you have left is their memories.

David Brin says that writing is the ultimate sadomasochistic experience. A writer succeeds when the readers can't stop reading, giving up food, sleep, and sex, because they can't put the book down. The greatest compliment I ever received was when an MIT student complained that my novel gave him a bad grade on an exam. With the best novels, readers are in bondage to the novelist. The aim of the writer is to create characters as vivid as one's best friend, parents, or even spouse, so that the reader worries terribly about what is going to happen next to that character. The readers are enthralled, with "thrall" being another word for "slave." But the one most enslaved by the writing is the writer himself, as Tolstoy was with Andrei Bolkonsky. Tolstoy destroyed my vision, because I read War and Peace in one weekend.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Books Recommended For My Son


I’m not going to give you a list of what most people consider great literature, because much of it is not fun to read (although I’ve read far more of it than most people have) and it’s somewhat out of touch with today’s world. That includes Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Joyce, Hardy, James, Melville, Cervantes, and others. But there are a few classic novels that I will include on this list. Mostly, I’m recommending books that, as a 26-year-old, well-educated young man, you will enjoy and not find too highbrow or two lowbrow. As you will see, I tend to like historical fiction, but there’s a scattering of everything. What all these books have in common is that they are a pleasure to read. So here’s my list:
1.      Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Pé-rez–Reverte, a contemporary Spanish writer. This is the first of several novels, set in 17th century Spain, in which the main character, Alatriste, is an ex-military swordsman who now takes odd jobs. They’re well written, but they’re fun, educational, and enjoyable to read. Pé-rez–Reverte also does some serious literature, but those works of his can get boring. The Alatriste books don’t.
2.      The Religion, by Tim Willocks, a contemporary British writer. This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I would have put it as number one, instead of two, except for the fact that it is incredibly bloody. It deals with a battle in 1565 between the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent and Knights of Saint John the Baptist over the island of Malta. Mama read it after I raved about how great a book this is even though I warned her about how bloody it is. She agrees it is a great book.
3.      Trustee From The Toolroom, by Neville Shute, a British writer from the mid-20th century. This is the best of Shute’s books, although On The Beach is his most famous and the one that became a movie. That one is depressing; this one is fun and a good read. It is not historical fiction. It was written in 1960 and it is set in about 1960.
4.      Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. It’s a classic, but it’s a very enjoyable book. If you’ve read it already, read The Three Musketeers by Dumas.
5.      Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This is usually considered science fiction, but it doesn’t read like science fiction. It is about an unintelligent person who is given medication that gradually makes him smart and then he gradually goes back to being not smart. This may sound depressing, but it’s a great book. Algernon, by the way, is a mouse.
6.      The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. This is the only novel by Hemingway that I like, and I like it a lot. Yes, it’s about an old fisherman, but it’s about struggling to survive, and struggling for honor. It’s the last thing Hemingway ever published while he was alive, and it is what earned him his Nobel Prize in literature.
7.      The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin. The author is sort of a Russian Agatha Christie. His Erast Fandorin character solves crimes in the 1870s or so. Most of his books are about as good as Christie’s, but this one is much better than the rest. This one is set in a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and it centers around a woman and several men she’s involved with, including Fandorin, as well as a general and a master spy. This is another book that I told Mama about and she loved it.
8.      Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Yes, I know you think Dickens is wordy and overdone, but this is by far the best of Dickens. It’s about the French revolution and it’s very educational, but also very interesting and you’ll enjoy it.
9.      Enemy at the Gates by William Craig. This became a movie (a very good movie), but I read it long before the movie, and I loved it. It’s essentially about a dual between a German sniper and a Russian sniper at the battle of Stalingrad, but it’s well written and good to read.
10.  The Camel Club by David Baldacci. Most of Baldacci’s books are formulaic, meaning that they are formula thrillers with very similar plots and not great writing. But what makes this book special is the camaraderie he creates between social misfits who come together to help each other out of some serious problems. It makes this a fun book to read. Baldacci very kindly tried to help me get an agent so I’ve read a lot of his books. Other than the Camel Club books, and there are about 3 or 4, the other very good book he wrote is The Forgotten, which is based on a true story. Incidentally, he is a lawyer and some of his books are law-related.
11.  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. This became a great movie starring Humphrey Bogart, but Hammett was known for his style of writing, giving his characters personality through his use of language. His plots also are powerful, and he’s fun to read.
12.  Tourist Season by Carl Hiassen. This book is very funny, but it is also a good serious novel that I enjoyed reading. It had murder-mystery qualities to it but also got into conservation, Florida Indians, and a bunch of other Florida things. All his books are about Florida. Hiassen is a Florida newspaper columnist. He grew up reading Hardy Boys books. He also writes young adult novels.
13.  The Firm by John Grisham, the major writer of legal thrillers today. The Firm is not his best book, but it is his second book and the one that made him famous. I read it years ago. His best book is his first book, A Time To Kill, but I didn’t list it first because it has a very brutal beginning, so I thought you might have misgivings about it. For me, though, I liked it a lot better than any of his other books and most people agree with me.
14.  Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. Before Grisham, Turow was the major writer of legal thrillers. With the exception of Grisham’s A Time To Kill, Turow’s novels are probably better than Grisham’s. They’re fun. They’re interesting, but you may enjoy them or hate them more than I do because of your legal training. 
15.  Startide Rising by David Brin. Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist including my favorite science fiction novel. Unlike Flowers for Algernon this is true science fiction. At the heart of it there’s a love affair between two dolphins uplifted by man to have intelligence. They are in a space ship fleeing others trying to kill them for discovering secrets as to who the first intelligent beings in the galaxy really were. It’s a great book. It’s a fun read. And David Brin is another famous novelist (one of three) who was very nice to me.

I know I’m forgetting a lot of other novels I really liked. But this list will keep you busy for a while. 

Your father

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Envying the Ghosts of Oakwood Cemetery

Every night, I walk through the Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church on my way to the Metrorail station.

I finished a novel last summer and it is now winter and I am having trouble selling it.

It is frequently pitch black as I walk through the cemetery. Many of the dead were buried over two hundred years ago. I talk to the ghosts. I envy them. They don't face false expectations of a "great" novel that is going nowhere. They haven't created children, brilliant, kind, loving children characters who will never live in readers' minds.

Koheleth says that those who have never been born are the luckiest. That should have been me. The pain of having written a novel, no longer touching my characters and watching them change, making them grow, is too intense.

The cemetery is peaceful. Those under the ground don't feel such pain. Can I kill myself and join them? No. I have obligations to my son, my wife, and my religion. It would be unfair to them. But why can't I have a quick heart attack? Then my wife and son would get my insurance, and face no stigma. There must be people in this cemetery who died that way. Why can't I? And soon?

Thirty-four years ago, finishing the novella that I sold fairly quickly after completing it put me into the worst depression of my life, until my mother's death. My creative writing professor, my college's writer-in-residence, said that post-novel-depression is very common and very painful. He was right. That depression lasted for about four months.

This time around, with a much bigger novel that I put twelve years of my life into, it is much worse. It has been more than half a year since I finished it, and I am just as depressed as ever. This might be even worse than losing my mother.

So, my poor ghosts, you have more life in you than my characters do. At least I can read your names on your grave stones. You have less pain than I have. So, maybe I will join you soon. I hope so.

I no longer work near Oakwood Cemetery. My attitude is now much improved, but post-novel-depression is every bit as hard as I describe it here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Depressing Trends

I sold a novella thirty-seven years ago. I hope to sell a novel this year.
The large gap in my views of the fiction marketing industry has given me a
perspective into publishing trends that is worth sharing.

In the mid-seventies, genre fiction was looked at with disdain. Before
Quentin Tarantino, "pulp fiction" refered to the poorest and worst of
literature: dime novels. Romance, science fiction, and mystery all was
considered pulp. As such, agents and publishers preferred not to touch genre
fiction. It did not pay well; it was hard to sell.

At that time, literary fiction and commercial fiction was in demand. In
terms of word count, "the longer the better" was the advice to young

Another major change since then concerns publishers, agents, and query
letters. An unpublished writer was encouraged to submit a novel (or "three
chapters and an outline") to a publishing company, not to an agent. The
submission was accompanied by a cover letter. For fiction, a query letter
without at least three chapters was unheard of. The publisher would employ
"slush-pile" readers to pore through the unsolicited manuscripts. Agents
were for second novels, or for first novels a publisher wished to acquire.

Then, the big hurdle for a beginning writer of fiction was to get a
publisher interested. Today the big hurdle is acquiring an agent.
Agents now serve as slush-pile readers and initial editors.
To me, this is a very negative trend, and it has hurt the
quality of American literature. The initial reader, when I was young, was a
publisher's paid employee who was looking for good fiction. Today, the
initial reader is an agent who is trying to make a profit as quickly as

A novel that takes time to develop character, plot, and thought-provoking
thematic ideas takes more effort and time to sell on an agent's part than
short genre fiction that has an already determined market. Combined
with generations of readers raised watching TV serial dramas
that have very little theme and plots resolved in less than an hour, this has
resulted in the decay of quality literature. Thirty-four years ago there
were far more novels with characters and plots people will remember for the
rest of their lives and far fewer romances, police procedurals, and vampire
novels that are forgotten days after they are read.

I know of at least two novelists who started their careers writing formula
genre novels and are now writing larger quality literature. That seems like
the way to do it, because today it is far easier to sell a first novel that
is short and fits into a popular genre than it is to sell something truly
memorable. I find this rather sad.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Short Story: Sorry Officer; I'm In Love

My next novel will include at least one powerful love story. So I wrote this mostly to test my abilities to reproduce strong feelings of love from a male perspective. So, to anyone reading these words, I would appreciate if you comment, letting me know if you think it works, and what you think of it. Thanks.

Sorry Officer; Im In Love

I finished homework at my favorite nook in the school's main library and walked toward the steps to head home, taking my time, browsing at books on the shelves as I went. But the fourth floor I was on had a balcony overlooking the library's entrance lobby, where I spotted Rachel checking out books. From the moment I saw her I sprinted toward the steps. Once there, I ran down them three at a time, as fast as I could possibly go.

I had to catch her before she left the library. I couldn't lose her. It was already six weeks into the semester, and I had been dreaming every day what I would say to her if I saw her. On the last day of classes the previous spring, she had dumped me.

"I don't think we should see each other any more; with summer and all," she had said.

"I, I don't understand. I'll be less than an hour away."

"I know, and I know you don't want me to say you're a nice guy, Shawn, but you are. I like you. You know that. It's just that, well, I have a life at home. And an hour apart, that's still a long-distance relationship. It just won't work. Please be understanding. Don't make this any more painful than it is."

"And we both know I'm not the type to make things painful," I said.

"Of course you're not. Thank you. Don't be bitter." And she gave me a kiss on the cheek and went running off. That was the last time I saw her until now.

Many times over the summer I considered calling her, but I never did. I tried to keep my pride. And in my head I often thought of what I'd do if I saw her on campus. In one scenario, I would very pointedly ignore her. In another, I would speak to her but be cold and distant.

But now, as I watched her pick up the books she had checked out and move toward the door, my only thoughts were that I didn't want her to see me breathing hard. I smoothed out my hair with my fingers. I made sure my shirt was properly tucked into my pants. I tried to breath normally. And I walked over to her.

"Rachel," was all I could say.

She turned to face me, with a smile. "Oh, hi Shawn. I didn't notice you. How are you? How have you been?"

I had a feeling of deja vu. She was exactly as I remembered, but even more special: the joy in her eyes, the way she tilted her head, the upward curve of her lips, and, most enchanting, her voice. She had personality in each word, every sentence with a unique inflection. She was more adorable than the most angelic four-year-old, with the wisdom of a brilliant college girl. But there were no other college girls like her; the kindness that came through in everything she said; the shine and bounce in her short black hair, the graceful way she stood, the perfection of her slim, white hands; it all was unique and it made her far, far more attractive than any other woman I had ever seen. I thought that all guys must find her as alluring as I did. I wondered how girls saw her. Most women liked Audrey Hepburn, but what Audrey Hepburn had, Rachel had a thousand times better. No other girl was as appealing, from top to bottom, as she was. No one else possibly could be. My insides were flittering, as if I were filled with butterflies.

She wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, but the first thing friends who met her said to me about her was that she was pretty. We had met through a computer dating system that the entire campus had participated in. I had been given a list of fifteen names and phone numbers and Rachel's name had been number one. Among twenty-nine thousand students, she was the one girl that best matched the responses I had put into the computer. I had spoken with her on the phone but hadn't seen her before. We had arranged to meet outside Talliaferro Hall, where she would be leaving a class. Other girls came out before she did. With each one, I thought to myself, "Ooh, I hope it's not that girl; I think she's ugly," or "that girl's pretty but dresses as if she's from the Flintstones." But when she came out, the words in my head were, "I hope it's her; she's very cute." She was slightly above average in height, with a round face and a perfect nose, and nice, kind-looking eyes; a good looking girl, far better than average. And she was dressed in a nice, blue and green sweater and designer jeans. I was glad when she came over to me, my computer date.

We sat together talking on a bench outside Talliaferro for what seemed like minutes but was really hours. The computer was right: we enjoyed the same movies, we had similar tastes in food; we laughed at the same jokes, and we both loved kids and dogs. We were perfect for each other. From that warm late-fall day until the last day of classes in the spring, I dreamed of her every night but couldn't wait to get up and be with her during the day. It was the happiest time of my life.

Now, in the library, I responded to her question with, "I've been Okay. I was looking forward to us running into each other. I thought it would be long before this." I hoped I didn't sound too eager.

"Well, here I am."

She said it with enthusiasm. It gave me hope.

We chatted just outside the library for about ten minutes. I asked about her summer and she told me how her parents treated her to Lasik surgery for her birthday.

I joked, "So no more fishing your contacts out of the drain."

"No, I guess not. You were brilliant figuring out how to do that. I was so grateful."

"I remember how grateful. That turned out to be a wonderful day."

"It did," she said, with a shy smile. Her cheeks reddened. At the thrill of seeing her blush, the butterflies inside of me stopped beating for a moment, and then started again more fluttery than ever.

And we talked about movies we'd seen over the summer. She said, "But of course it wasn't as much fun as seeing the Gene Wilder - Richard Pryor film in a black neighborhood. That was amazing how we laughed at one set of jokes and they laughed at another. That was a great date."

"Yeah, that was fun."

Our few minutes by the library was just as wonderful as our conversations from the previous spring. Just seeing her and being with her made me feel as if I were floating on cotton candy.

But then she said, "Oh no. I forgot the time. I'm going to be late for my class."

She hesitated for just a second, enough time for me to ask, "Can we see each other again?"

"I'd like that."

In the midst of pure elation, it occurred to me that it was Thursday and I had a date with Liz-Anne on Friday night. I would split up with her then, something I'd been considering for several weeks.

I said, "How about Saturday night. I'll make sure it's something special."

As she walked off, she said, "Sounds great. Call me tonight and tell me about it. Same phone number as last year. Thanks."

"I'll call you. It's great seeing you again."

"Bye." It was the world's most adorable Bye. She started jogging to her class, and I enjoyed watching her; she was very sexy.

I found myself on the Beltway driving. I had no idea how I had gotten there. All my thoughts were on Rachel, replaying every second of our meeting at the library. I decided I would get up very early the next day and stand in line at the Kennedy Center for special reserved student tickets. They had a play going to Broadway that was based on a comic strip. It would be magical. Every second being with Rachel was magical. And I would be with her again. I started to cry, thinking what a joy it would be talk to her on the phone that night, to see her, and to touch her on Saturday. I began to sob. I could no longer drive. I pulled over to the side of the Beltway and just let myself sob with pure joy.

But then I thought what I would do if a policeman stopped and knocked on my car window. I would say, "Sorry, Officer, I'm in love."

Novel-Writing Methodology: Chapter Checklist

Long before I started writing my novel, I created an outline of chapters, with a synopsis of each chapter. That was the first version of this spreadsheet. As I wrote the novel, I modified the spreadsheet to match the actual novel. Occasionally, I added fields for issues I wanted to make sure not to forget. Those fields became my checklist for each chapter. So for the second draft of the novel, I read each chapter and compared it to my checklist. So, here is the checklist. (Of course, in the real version I used, I had a lot of text written in each blank square, and the checklist was very large, much too big for a blog.)

Title...... ... ... ...
Synopsis... ... ... ... ...
What makes the chapter?... ... ... ... ...
Purposes... ... ... ... ...
Poignant... ... ... ... ...
Relevant... ... ... ... ...
(actions & characters?)
... ... ... ... ...
Pageturner?... ... ... ... ...
(strong, consistent?)
... ... ... ... ...
Faults... ... ... ... ...
Humor... ... ... ... ...
(Readers feel there?)
... ... ... ... ...
(appropriate to character, season?)
... ... ... ... ...
(smell, color, etc.)
... ... ... ... ...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Novel-Writing Methodology

This was written to help keep myself on track to write the best novel possible. I decided that the most important thing I could do was constantly work at holding the reader's interest. As I wrote the novel, I created a spreadsheet, which I am now using as a check-off list to make sure I am covering all the points listed below and more for every chapter. I will post a version of my spreadsheet sometime soon. I am working on the novel's second draft. I will submit it for publication after I finish my third draft.

The reader has to desire something. What? Perhaps all of the following. Every sentence of the book has to be presenting the reader with at least one of these things and probably several. I also need to keep in mind how it advances the plot.
1. Questions
The book must have unanswered questions that the reader is very anxious to have an answer for. That is what makes a "whodunit" fun to read.
2. Goals
Do primary characters have defined goals? Reader must share characters' passion for reaching the goal, which must be attainable. Climax of each character's story line is reaching the goal.
3. Excitement
Will character whom reader cares about die in next paragraph? Will character's dreams be dashed in next paragraph? Will plans currently running carry to fruition? Will plans character doesn't know about, but reader does, hit character in the head?
4. Urgency
Is reader asking, "Why doesn't X happen now?" The reader must feel that unless X happens now, something bad will happen.
5. Passion
Is character whom reader cares about passionate about something or things? Does reader identify with those passion(s)? Are passions being fulfilled?
6. Romance
Readers want to feel "in-love." There are thousands of things, usually a person is unaware of, that makes up romance. Does the reader have the "feeling?"
7. Poignancy
Do events pull at heartstrings?
8. Humor
Does the general tenor of the writing keep a smile on the reader's face? Are events humorous? Are at least some characters funny.
9. Cleverness
Do readers think, "Hey that's neat, a clever idea?"
Is environment awe inspiring, or giving sense of wonder? Sitting on a Saturn V at takeoff.
Are there little lost puppies, either real or as part of characters?
Is the world less mundane than the reader's world, and yet complete, with enough details to make the reader want to escape to it?
Are readers learning things they didn't know?
Does the world feel solid. It should be a setting that the reader sees in his mind as being a real world, as well as being an enjoyable world to be in. The reader should feel as if he is walking on the grass, eating the foods, etc.
15.HumanDepth: are true human emotions, or complex personalities being explored?
Does reader feel author is trying to say something important (without being preachy)? Are major issues being examined.

To achieve most of the above, the readers have to have characters they care about, either loving them or hating them. To do so, characters first and foremost need at least one distinguishing character trait (and maybe a maximum of three).

Beyond that, they also need the following:
1. LikabilityCharacters cannot be bland: people readers don't care about. Readers have to find them attractive. A character's attractive because it is accomplishing reader's dreams, it is overcoming handicaps, it is funny, it thinks in a lively way, it deals well with a situation readers wonder about, it is nice to children and puppies, it is smarter than the average bear, it comes from an odd background or is doing odd work or hobbies. What are the character's interests?
2. IdentityCan readers tell who each character is by its speech, mannerisms, humor, intensity, intelligence, vanity, humility, kindness, sternness, morals, passions, the way others look at it, leadership, sensitivity, childishness, way of thinking, etc.
3. CharacterForceful, serving, exacting, or entertaining? Loud or quiet? Colorful or dull? Thinker or doer? Quick or slow? Smart or dumb? Physical or mental? Nice or mean? Happy or depressed? Masochist or Sadist? Oblivious or observant? Manipulator or manipulated? Likes kids and dogs? Nice to retarded? Nice to beggers? Curiosity priority.
4. BelievabilityAre characters people you might meet in the street?
5. AppearanceWhat's the character look like, sound like, smell like, and feel like (baby skin or lizard skin?) Posture.
6. FamilySpouse, kids, mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles, pets, etc.
7. Clothes /
How character dresses? What car? What type of house? Favorite toys.
8. ResumeWhat jobs? When? What skills? How long per job? Reasons for leaving? Mentors? Favorite jobs / bosses and why?
9. Hobbies /
Games character likes to play. Sports teams. Favorite music. Favorite colors. Breakfast cereal. Foods character can't stand. Food character loves. Favorite books. Favorite TV shows.
10.ReligionWhich one? How does the character feel about it? Prejudices against others? What rituals are participated in? Desire for religion in children?
11.BackgroundDoes reader feel he knows the character? What was the character doing on his 12th birthday? What scars does the character have and how did they happen? What recurring pains? What medications taken? How many pairs of shoes are in the closet? Is the closet neat or messy? Is the character punctual or always late? Does character listen to talk radio? What political parties? Has the character ever called a Congressman? In elementary school, was character a bully? get picked on? or defend kids from bullies? What animal identified with? How spouse was met? Other old and new relationships? How did the character start dating in school. Did the character enjoy junior high and high school? What racist or other types of persecution did the character experience, either against the character or in the character's presense and what was the character's reaction. When was the character born and what season does the character like best. Which parent the character's spouse's personality most resembles? Level of testosterone, PMS, feminine sensitivity, feminine intuition? Morning or evening person?

A plot essentially is the question, "What happens?" Plots have to deal with something, usually striving for or against something. Typical plots involve "man vs. man," "man vs. self," or "man vs. nature." Examples, respectively, are "Batman vs. Joker," "To be or not to be," or "Locked in a room with a ticking bomb."

Three to seven subplots are necessary (more might be confusing, unless done extremely well), each of which should have the following:
1. BeginningSomething must happen to make clear to readers (not necessarily characters) what the goal is. The reader must have an idea on what achieving the goal means. The goal may be to survive till tomorrow, it may be to get the girl, to decide not to kill yourself, etc.
2. MiddleReader must feel that progress is being made at achieving the goal. There should probably be subgoals. There should be new obstacles. But some obstacles should be in the reader's mind at the beginning and the solving of them is the middle for the plot.
3. ClimaxThe point at which the most major goal or goals are achieved is the climax.
4. EndWhen all loose ends have been neatly tied up.

A book is considered merely escape unless it has some theme. Whether the author is trying to get a message across or just explore some heavy concepts (to be, killing your king, or not to be), all throughout the novel must be an intellectual idea, with every word of the novel leading to that idea.

The language should not get in the way, but should be beautiful for those who look for it. Original, but unobtrusive, similes and metaphors are important. Language should be visual, but simple; e.g., Hemingway's "The horse smelled water." Keep sentences short, active voice, with powerful verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. And yet sentences should not be too short or boring in style. Style can also lend humor or lighten the tone of the novel. If the language or images are heavy, the novel is heavier.