Friday, November 30, 2012

Goodbye, Kurt Vonnegut

My friend Jay Black gave me a copy of We Are What We Pretend to Be: First and Last Words by the late Kurt Vonnegut.  The book was released just last month, but Jay is such a Vonnegut fan that he read it immediately.

The volume contains an unpublished early (if not necessarily the first) short novella by Vonnegut, and the uncompleted book he was working on at the time of his death in 2007.

No one has much to say about the novella.  It's workmanlike.  There are some clunky turns of phrase.  It stretches credulity at several places.  The Vonnegut magic wasn't there yet.  The consensus seems to be that it went unpublished because the work's antagonist is a foolish General, a veteran of the First World War, who thinks he can command his family and run his farm the same way he ordered his troops about.  He even thinks he can bully his horses into submission!  Since this was written in the late 1940s or early 1950s, magazines weren't in the market for anything that poked fun at the military.  And it's an inconvenient length: too long for most magazines which published short stories.

The controversial work is the unfinished novel (which is listed in the book as a novella).  It is called If God Were Alive Today, and its protagonist is a stand-up comic named Gil Berman.

And here is the problem: Vonnegut writes comedy material for Gil Berman.  The material is supposed to be both thought-provoking and funny.  It sometimes succeeds at the former, but rarely at the latter.

Which is to say: it's not funny.  Not for stand-up comedy, which is designed to elicit an out-loud laugh from an audience approximately every fifteen seconds.

Oh, an extraordinarily charismatic performer might be able to deliver this material.  And it might get a few laughs.  But the character of Berman is already independently wealthy AND a genius.  For him to be charismatic as well would beggar belief.

Now, my friend Jay Black happens to be a stand-up comic.  One of the best comics in the business, in fact.  He and I met in through the comedy business.  And when someone, even someone as august as Kurt Vonnegut, writes stand-up comedy, Jay and I have a very high standard.

And Kurt Vonnegut didn't meet our standard this time.  Too bad.

By the way, if you happen to be in South New Jersey on Saturday 15 December, Jay Black will be performing at the Marlton Comedy Cabaret He's worth seeing.  He can even make you forget about Kurt Vonnegut, at least for awhile.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Engaging the Senses

Two of my writing mentors - Jonathan Maberry and Kelly Simmons - have reminded me that long-form fiction should include examples of all five senses being engaged.  It's not enough for the characters in a novel to see, to hear, and to touch.  They should (at least once) smell and taste.

In fact, Maberry does a final edit of his novels in which he makes sure there are instances in which characters (or at least the protagonist) smells and tastes something.

At present, I'm turning an old, unsold screenplay I wrote into a YA novel.  (That's Young Adult.)  I'm trying to add smells and tastes as I go along.

It's not as easy as it sounds.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Fun Night at the Bookstore

We had a great time tonight at the Chester County Book and Music Company, where the Main Line Writers Group held a reading.  Let me express my thanks to:

The Chester Count Book and Music Company, for allowing us to hold an event which earned them no money.

Gary Zenker, for acting as MC, and Bernie the timekeeper, who made sure no one went over.

The 21 people in our audience who showed up on a very cold night!

And to all the participants!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bookstore Reading Tomorrow, Wed 28 Nov


There will be a reading on Wednesday 28 November - tomorrow night - at the Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, PA, USA.

The readers will be members of the Main Line Writers Group.  We will start at 7 pm and end (we hope) around 8 pm.  Each writer will get a maximum of ten minutes to read.  In addition to myself, the scheduled readers include:

  • ALIZA GREENBLATT, a local author whose work will appear in the 2013 anthology "Main Line Voices."
  • JASON POLLOCK, an actor and stand-up comic.  He is best known as "Bigfoot" in Judah ("30 Rock") Friedlander's How to Beat Up Anybody.
  • JULIA SCOTTI, a writer stand-up comic who was a finalist in the 2012 national "Ladies of Laughter Comedy Competition."
  • NICOLE VALENTINE, who just received her MFA in Creative Writing.  She is on the board of the online community FIGMENT, and has a story in the anthology "Chester County Fiction."

The Chester County Book and Music Company is located at 975 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA 19380.  It is in the West Goshen Center at the intersection of Route 202 and Paoli Pike, so it is easy to find.  Sadly, this bookstore has announced that it will close in the near future.  The loss of this enormous independent bookstore will be a great loss to the Philadelphia area.  And, since it will be closing, this may be our final event here.

This event is free and open to the public.  The bookstore does request that you call them to say you plan to attend, so that they can put the appropriate number of chairs out.  Their number is (610) 696-1661.

Hope to see some of you at the reading!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Waiting for Snow

Here in the Philadelphia area, we never know how much snow we'll get over the course of the winter.  Some years it's a lot.  Sometimes we don't get any at all.

Right now, we're waiting for our first appreciable snowfall of the season.  The forecast is for up to three inches by tomorrow.

When you don't live in a terrain of constant snow, its imminence is powerful.  There is an exquisite anticipation in waiting for snow.

You remember being a child: hoping that there will be enough snowfall to cause school to be canceled.

You remember walking in a snowfall at night: the astonishing quiet of it, the way the snowflakes only become visible as they enter the cone of a streetlamp.

You remember playing in the snow.  Personally, I never understood the appeal of sleds - they looked unnecessarily complex to me.  I always preferred the simplicity of a toboggan.

Of course, the year I asked for - and received - a toboggan for Christmas, it never snowed that year.

But that's winter in Philadelphia for you.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Brief Political Obsevation

The zombie series "The Walking Dead" is on tonight.

I've heard that Democrats feel that it is necessary to impose laws because individuals are basically dangerous - evil, even.

Republicans, on the other hand, believe that individuals are basically good.  Thus, they want to keep laws to a minimum.

In "The Walking Dead," the remaining humans are just as dangerous to each other as the zombies.

So, does that mean that "The Walking Dead" is a Democratic show?  With a Democratic world view?

Just asking.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tomorrow: Writers Coffeehouse Meeting in Willow Grove

Sometimes it seems like I go from one writer's event to another, leaving me barely enough time to do any actual writing.

That's to be expected when one is on a book tour or at a writing convention, but not in daily life.

Nevertheless, I have another writing event tomorrow, Sunday 25 November, from noon to three pm.  It's free and open to everyone, so stop by if you're interested.

(Once again - for those of you reading this in Croatia - this event is in Pennsylvania, USA.  Just in case you have a "Willow Grove" in Croatia.)

Here's the information:

Join us for a FREE 3-hour networking and discussion about writing and publishing at the Writers Coffeehouse hosted by THE LIARS CLUB 

Location: Barnes & Noble Willow Grove (102 Park Avenue, Willow Grove, PA 19090)
Time: Coffeehouse Sunday, November 25, 2012, noon to 3pm
The Writers Coffeehouse is open to everyone.
ABOUT THE COFFEEHOUSE: It's a bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing…with coffee. No agenda…just chat about the latest trends in the industry, about the craft of writing, about markets, about pitching and selling, about conquering frustration and defeating writers block, and about all of the good things that come from the community of writers. No previous publishing experience necessary…the Writers Coffeehouse attracts everyone from absolute beginner to award-winners and bestsellers. We're all writers. The Coffeehouse is a regular event which meets on the last Sunday of every month from noon to 3pm. Grab a cup of coffee and join us in the meeting room in the left rear corner of the store (next to the music section).
NOTE: There will be NO Coffeehouse in December.
For more information, drop me a line at
And join our free Message Board online at
A group of professional writers from the Philadelphia area who give talks, workshops, signings and events in support of bookstores, libraries, literacy and the love of books. The Liars Club lineup includes Jonathan Maberry (New York Times bestseller and multiple Bram Stoker Award winning author and Marvel Comics writer); Gregory Frost (best-selling fantasy author); Solomon Jones (Daily News columnist and crime novelist); Jon McGoran (author of forensics thrillers for Penguin as D H Dublin); Kelly Simmons (women's contemporary fiction author); Ed Pettit (book reviewer and renowned expert on Edgar Allen Poe); Dennis Tafoya (celebrated crime and thriller writer); Don Lafferty (publicist, social media guru, and magazine feature writer), Marie Lamba (literary agent and author of Young Adult novels); Merry Jones (mystery novelist and humorist), Keith Strunk (actor, playwright, historian and children's storyteller), Keith DeCandido (author of dozens of science fiction, fantasy and media tie-in novels), Stephen Susco (Hollywood screenwriter and director), and our newest member -- novelist Chuck Wendig.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Authors at Chester County Book & Music Co

My plans for the evening have changed, so I'm free to put in an appearance at the "Authors Say Thank You to Chester County Book & Music Company" event, tonight from 6 pm to 9 pm.

The Chester County Book & Music Company is one of the largest independent bookstores east of the Mississippi.  After 30 years, rising rent and declining sales have led the owner to announce its closing.  Author Kathye Fetsko Petrie has arranged this author get-together to thank the bookstore for all they've done for local authors.

Authors scheduled to show up include:

Jan Mulligan
Jessica Dimuzio and her Papilion/canine co-author Johnny Angel

If you're nearby, come out and meet us!  The bookstore is located at 975 Paoli Pike in the West Goshen Center, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 19380 USA.  The bookstore's phone is (610) 696-1661.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

To all citizens of the USA who are celebrating today's holiday, I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

To the rest of the world: my apologies that the economy of the USA was virtually shut down today.  If that that costs you money, I apologize.  But if this really is the Asian Century, soon you will have to deal with economic shutdowns on both Diwali AND the Chinese Spring Festival.  So it's going to get worse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Weaponization of Social Media

I read an interesting article on about the high tech aspects of the 8 day Israeli-Gaza conflict.

Of course, there are the drones and the Iron Dome antimissile system.  But the real innovation is the militarization of social media.  This is the first war in which Twitter was used.  The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson tweeted, both to the public and to the enemy.  Look at this threatening tweet from the IDF to Hamas:.

This use of Twitter has some worried.  Futurist Jamais Cascio worries that social media is being used as an enabler of political violence
"Twitter and similar media had the potential to serve a role similar to the radio stations used to drive the 1990s Rwandan genocide," Cascio recently wrote.
Another term for it would be the "weaponization of social media."  These are interesting times we live in.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brandywine Valley Writers Group Meeting

Great session tonight with New Media Guru DON LAFFERTY at the Brandywine Valley Writers Group meeting in West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA.

What did you miss?  Well, you can download some of Don's information on Social Media Starters for Authors here.

But you won't get to ask Don questions on a download.  So I suggest you come see him when he speaks to the Main Line Writers Group in 2013.  It's definitely worthwhile.

Main Line Writers Coffeehouse

The Liars Club of Philadelphia - a group of professional authors - has been sponsoring free meetings for writers for several years.  Currently, they meet on the last Sunday of each month at the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble.

That meeting has been getting larger and larger over the past few years.  Lately, it's been drawing as many as 70 people - too many to comfortably fit in the room.  So the Liars Club has branched out, offering meetings in Center City Philadelphia; Claymont, Delaware; and Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

I attended the Rosemont meeting this past Sunday.  This group - known as the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse - had two meetings in the upstairs room of a coffee bar which they quickly outgrew.  So they started meeting in  a much larger space in Rosemont.

The first meeting of the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse in this new location drew around 20 people.  But this Sunday's meeting had only 7 people!

Mind you, it wasn't a bad meeting.  It was rather like sitting with some friends in a bar.  There were THREE members of the Liars Club there to run the meeting: Gregory Frost, Merry Jones, and Kelly Simmons.  All professional writers.

Again, I'd happily spend two hours in a bar with any or all of these writers.  That's not the point.

But, with the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse drawing just 7 people, it's not going to serve its purpose of reducing congestion at the main meeting in the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble.

(And since I've been an officer in several writers groups, I should clarify - I am not a member of the Liars Club of Philadelphia, nor do I have any official job in their meetings.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

My Story "Potemkin" to Be Published

Good news!  One of my newer short stories, "Potemkin," has been accepted for publication in The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine!

The publication date hasn't been announced, but I will be sure to mention it in my blog.

My thanks to the members of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group and the Main Line Writers Group, who critiqued an earlier version of "Potemkin."  And to the Chester County Book and Music Company, which allowed me to read it at an authors' event there!  (We are going to miss this place terribly when it closes down!)

Few stories are perfect when they come out of our printers.  We need critique groups, listeners and editors to catch our missteps.

And a big THANK YOU to the audience members who laughed in all the right places!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Art of Nonfiction by John McPhee

If I live to be one hundred, the Paris Review is never, ever going to interview me about "The Art of Nonfiction."
Fortunately, Paris Review DID interview the inestimable John McPhee about it.  Should I mention that, while I've greatly enjoyed his writing, I've never met Princeton's John McPhee on any of my trips to that University?

Now that I think of it, it doesn't matter.  I could've been bribed to recommend this interview, and it would STILL be worth you while.

Friday, November 16, 2012


The Philadelphia Marathon is this weekend.  So, naturally, tonight's Philadelphia traffic jams are the worst in recent memory.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I write a lot of short stories.  Some of them work, some don't.

Some time ago I started a short story about an injured man who was led to safety by a pig.  (It was set in Texas, of course.)

But it wasn't working.  Too much of the story was just a lost man with an injured ankle hobbling along after a pig in a storm.  That part of the story wasn't really interesting.

So I put the story away and forgot about it.

The other day, I was listening to a radio interview with neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.  He was plugging his new book, titled Hallucinations.

Sacks noted how people in extreme peril sometimes hear a voice giving them advice.  Sacks himself once experienced this.

And it hit me: THAT was how I could make the long trudge interesting!  The PIG would TALK!

(Or, more precisely, the injured narrator would assume the voice came from the pig.  I love what writers call "unreliable narrators.")

So I brought up the story, and made the pig talk, telling the injured man to keep moving.  Since the narrator is a good ol' boy from Texas, he imagines the pig talking like an educated Yankee.  (He says, "the damn pig sounded like Thurston Howell III from 'Gilligan's Island.'")

As far as I can tell, it works.  I'll find out once I bring it to one of my critique groups.  Thanks, Oliver Sacks!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading from My Work on Wed 28 Nov

There will be a reading on Wednesday 28 November - two weeks from tonight - at the Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, PA, USA.

The readers will be members of the Main Line Writers Group.  We will start at 7 pm and end (we hope) around 8 pm.  Each writer will get a maximum of ten minutes to read.

The Chester County Book and Music Company is located at 975 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA 19380.  It is in the West Goshen Center at the intersection of Route 202 and Paoli Pike, so it is easy to find

Sadly, this bookstore has announced that it will close in the near future.  The loss of this enormous independent bookstore will be a great loss to the Philadelphia area.  And, since it will be closing, this may be our final event here.

This event is free and open to the public.  The bookstore does request that you call them to say you plan to attend, so that they can put the appropriate number of chairs out.  Their number is (610) 696-1661. 

Hope to see some of you at the reading!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Main Line Writers Group Meeting Tomorrow

The Main Line Writers Group will meet tomorrow, Wednesday 14 November 2012, at 7 pm.  The group usually meets on the third Wednesday of each month, but this month will meet a week early due to Thanksgiving.

The group will meet at Michael's Restaurant at 130 Town Center Road in King of Prussia, PA.

This month's meeting is called "Tools for Writers," and will feature a show-and-tell of items, techniques, and computer programs or websites that help the members write. 
 Most of our meetings have either a guest lecturer or feature a critique session, so this is a departure for us.  We will find out how successful it is.

If you're in the area, feel free to stop by!  Many of us arrive at 6 pm to eat dinner before the meeting.  Please note that Michael's Restaurant allows us the use of the room only as long as each attendee spends at least $10 apiece.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Defending Plagiarism

And now for something completely different: The New Yorker ran a contest asking its readers to suggest what a dog would tweet.  (If, of course, dogs COULD tweet.)

The winner they picked submitted an answer that was uncomfortably close to the caption of an old Gary Larson cartoon.  (Of course, ALL Gary Larson cartoons are old - he retired his strip "The Far Side" in 1995.)

Defending its decision, The New Yorker declined to disqualify its winner because of the number of times the word in question was repeated.

Sorry, it's still plagiarism.  Repeating the word doesn't make it different, unless it's in a foreign language incomprehensible to the reader, and the joke is how often the word is repeated.

Somehow, this reminds me of that episode of "Seinfeld" in which Elaine gets a cartoon accepted by The New Yorker, only to discover that she stole the caption from a "Ziggy" cartoon.

And, if you want a much more clever answer to the "What would dogs tweet?" question, go see Philadelphia stand-up comic John Kensil perform.

OK?  OK?  OK?  OK?  OK?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day, Or, Why You Don't Want Me Navigating the Ship

I can't get through a Veterans Day without wondering how my life would've been different if I had lasted in the military long enough to be considered a veteran.

Not long after I graduated from High School, I was accepted as a midshipman at Kings Point, which is officially known as the United States Merchant Marine Academy.  It's run much like the other military academies: West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs and New London (that's the Coast Guard Academy).  Sorry, the Marines don't have their own military academy.

I went into Kings Point's version of boot camp shortly after the Fourth of July.  I left in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, after the grades for the first academic quarter came out.

By then, it was obvious that I would have made a terrible officer.  (Graduates are commissioned as a Lieutenant in either the Naval or Marine Reserve.)  Back then, Kings Point offered only two academic tracks: Deck Officer or Engineering.

I am heavily dyslexic with numbers and directions, have ADD, and am afflicted with multiple sleep disorders.  I couldn't sleep (except in class), couldn't concentrate, and have difficulty telling left from right.

The ONLY way I could follow directional orders when marching was to cross my forefinger over my middle finger.  When I did, I could feel the writer's callus on my right middle finger.  THAT was on my right!  "Right face?" Turn towards that finger!

We marched in parades every Wednesday and Sunday.  To this day I hate parades.

On the basis of my dyslexia alone, I should've been excluded from being a deck officer - a job that is heavily involved with navigation.  Yes, that was me: a navigator who didn't know port from starboard!  Being a dyslexic engineer wasn't much safer.

Oddly, one of the classes I flunked was English.  But I've always been a procrastinator, and it was made worse by sleep deprivation.  The Kings Point English Department had a strict policy on turning in papers late.  My exasperated professor returned a paper I wrote on "King Lear" with this note:
This is the best paper I've received from a student all year.  But, because it's late, I have to grade it 'F.'
I wasn't surprised.  I knew the department's policy, and already knew I was good at English.  The other midshipmen asked me to proof their papers before they turned them in.

(By the way, dyslexia, ADD and sleep disorders are medical conditions.  But I've always considered my procrastination a moral failing - the sort of thing that one cures by reading Marcus Aurelius or Zig Ziglar.  They didn't help; procrastination is something I still struggle with, day after day.)

Once the grades for our first academic quarter came out, it was obvious that this wasn't going to work out.  I was allowed (encouraged?) to resign my commission.

But at least I tried a military career.  If I hadn't, I'd still be wondering.

Happy Veterans Day!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jesus in Starbucks

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops.  And I see my share of odd things in them.

For example, at a shop in a college town, I know I'm liable to see all sorts of fraternity/sorority rush weirdness.  Not long ago, I witnessed three college girls hopping over each other while saying "ribbit" while a fourth filmed them.

But today is one for the books.

I'm having a bad day with my knee.  I'm limping; I'm in pain; I'm using a cane.

I'm in a Starbucks in a Philadelphia suburb.  You often hear customers speaking Hebrew in here.  It's that kind of neighborhood - a suburb built by Jews in the 1950s, back when they were restricted from buying houses in other suburbs.

So the last thing I expected to encounter in here was a faith healer.

I'd just limped over to my table and fired up my computer when a young woman approached me.  Blond, fairly attractive.  She asked if she could sit down.  I said "sure."

Then she went into a speech about how Jesus spoke to her and told her to heal that man.  She asked where the pain was, then she asked if she could lay hands upon it and pray!

Despite being an atheist, I had two reasons for letting her do so:

1)  I'm a writer.  If you don't do odd things, what are you going to write about?

2)  Hey, I'm a guy.  If an attractive young woman wants to put her hands on my thighs, I have no objection.

So she did.  Having grown up Catholic, I'm disappointed by impromptu prayers in English.  I'd be more impressed if she prayed in Latin (or Hebrew, for that matter).  But she sounded sincere, and that's worth something.

When she was done, she asked me to stand and try my knee out.  I did.  No change.  She wasn't daunted - maybe it was God's will that me knee be healed later.  I wonder if she thought that Jesus was going to restore my knee to its youthful flexibility, or that God would install a titanium knee replacement.

I didn't ask her that, though.  I just gave her my favorite salutation from Hamlet:
Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.

She didn't understand.  Apparently her Jesus doesn't put a premium on a classical education.  I told her it was from Hamlet, and that she should look it up.

Just another day in Starbucklandia.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part Three

I've been blogging about the powerful short story collection "Knockemstiff" by
Donald Ray Pollock.

As I mentioned, this is an amazing compilation, but it's crafted only in the darkest hues of human behavior.  Many of the stories involve children, and I can't recall a single parent that you'd call admirable.  Generally, the fathers are drunk and abusive, and the mothers are beaten into submission by their husbands.  Even single mothers don't get to be admirable: the single mother in the story "Giganthomachy" seems to be inciting her only son to have sex with her (although it hasn't happened by the end of the story).  I don't even have a name for her psychopathology.

All the stories take place, wholly or partially, in or near the rural Ohio town of Knockemstiff.  The author has generously included a hand-drawn map.  There are 37 houses, bridges, stores and other landmarks drawn on the map.

For no good reason, I wondered if I could correlate the perversions, abuses, and bad behavior in the collection with the 37 images on the map.  In other words, are there 37 perversions in these 18 stories?  And, if so, could I match them up with the 37 locations on the map? (Gay-bashing at Todd's Fish Camp!  Incest at the Dynamite Hole!)

The answer: not even close.  By my count, I went past 37 before I got halfway through the book.

In the second story alone, there is: incest between underage children, homelessness, blasphemy of a sort I'd never imagined, a peeping Tom, severely disturbed war veterans, trapping a man and killing him via poisonous snakes, rape and child murder!  Oh, and a man mimes a sexual encounter by holding a dead copperhead to his face and kissing it.  All this in a 10 page story!  (One of the best stories in the collection, by the way.)

So "Knockemstiff" is not for the faint of heart.  But it is a hell of a collection.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part Two

To continue:  I was absolutely gobsmacked by the first few stores in Donald Ray Pollock's collection "Knockemstiff."  The first story, "Real Life," opens like this:

My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.  It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

Pow!  Now THAT is a great pair of opening lines.  They not only make you want to read the story, they make you want to read everything Donald Ray Pollock has written!

And, if you're a writer like me, it makes you want to give up writing.  Why bother?  Donald Ray Pollock has already done it better than you ever will.

The next story is great, too.  But if the characters are anti-social in the first story, those in the second story are absolutely depraved.  If they were real-life characters instead of fictional, a psychiatry student could write his or her dissertation on them.


It keeps going on.  In every story, almost every character is on drugs or abuses alcohol or engaged in criminal acts or perverted - or a combination of the above.   Only outsiders have any money.  Everyone in the town of Knockemstiff is barely getting by or homeless.

Eventually, you realize that Pollock is painting with a limited palette.  There's no joy in Knockemstiff.  The closest to pleasure these characters experience is sex or the oblivion of drugs.  It's like a genre without a name.  Call it Literary Noir.  (Most of the stories originally appeared in small literary journals, like Sou'wester or Third Coast or the Berkeley Fiction Review.)

And that realization is what got me out of my funk.  Yes, Donald Ray Pollock is an amazing writer.  Maybe I'll never be as good as he is.  But he doesn't write humor, or travel, or about people who aren't one step away from destitution.  I do.  There's room for both of us in this world.

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part One

The big election is over, and once again pundits claimed that the road to victory went though the state of Ohio.

Now, I've been to Ohio many times.  I know people from Ohio.  But lately, my view of Ohio is colored by a collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock The collection is called "Knockemstiff," which is the actual name of a rural town in Ohio.

To my fellow writers: did you ever read something so good, so powerful, so well-written, that you wanted to give up writing?  That's how I felt when I read the first two stories in "Knockemstiff."

I won't give it all away, but bad things happen in "Knockemstiff."  Very bad things.

And if these stories are truly representative of Ohio, and our election hinges on Ohio...well, all I can say is, we're in trouble.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night!

I had planned a post on writing that I hoped would be of interest.  But let's face it: it's the night of a presidential election in the US of A.  There's nothing I can post that is of more interest than that.  Even if you aren't a citizen, the US President has an effect on the entire world, for better or worse.

So go follow the election results as they unfold, state-by-state.  And if you come up with a new drinking game - like, downing a shot every time someone says the word "bipartisan" - let me know!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Guy Fawkes Day

Tonight, the 5th of November, is known as Guy Fawkes Day in England, which commemorates the failure of the gunpowder plot.  An English King suggested that the anniversary of his deliverance should be celebrated with bonfires and fireworks.  Over time, however, Guy Fawkes (the best-known conspirator of the gunpowder plot) became a folk hero in his own right.

Whatever its origins, the night of Guy Fawkes is celebrated throughout the UK.  One of the most memorable aspects of the holiday are the poems, or ditties.  One of the oldest, from 1742, is this one:
Don't you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made'em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.
And even though it's close to freezing outside, I'd rather be outside tonight by a bonfire, enjoying a good British beer, than inside and watching the Philadelphia Eagles lose once again on tv.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Two Out of Twenty

Well, Hurricane Sandy hasn't stopped every editor from working.  I got two rejections this past week.

But October was a very productive month for me.  I sent out six short stories to twenty different markets last month.  So I have eighteen more chances from October - which doesn't include what I'll send out this month.

Nevertheless, every rejection hurts.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We've Had Better Weeks...

It's a grey, depressing day to end a relentlessly depressing week.

Aside from some relatives in Florida and friends in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Houston, everyone I care about lives in the East Coast area hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Even a niece going to college in West Virginia, far from the coast, had to deal with a heavy, wet snowfall.

So let me turn to one of my favorite contemporary authors to depress us some more:
All this had to be accepted.  Living did not mean one joy piled upon another.
It was merely the hope for less pain...
- Lorrie Moore, "Referential," published in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker

Now, Lorrie Moore isn't a hopelessly depressing author.  On the contrary, many of her stories are very funny.  But she doesn't seem to do the literary showmanship she once did - putting in weird phrasings or constructions that take the reader out of the moment.  For example, in the collection "Self Help," the narrator, a woman, notes that her boyfriend is "stirring the spaghetti sauce but not you."  This construction is called a syllepsis or zeugma, and involves using a verb with multiple meanings to incorrectly modify two words.  I love those sorts of things, but they do tend to make the reader stop to figure them out.

But Lorrie Moore's "Referential" has no such grammatical leaps.  It's marvelously well done, but I defy you to read it an not be depressed.

Which makes it perfect for this day, and this week.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Modest Proposal

Mayor Bloomberg has just canceled the New York Marathon, which was scheduled for this Saturday.  It seemed inappropriate to hold it when so many New Yorkers are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

How about this" Instead of canceling it, we make those marathoners run on treadmills, hooked up to generators?  Get the lights back on, if only for a few hours!

The winner will be the first contestant to generate enough electricity to DVR all the episodes of "The Walking Dead!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Best Laugh Today, Provided by Joe Queenan

It's been a grim week.  Even though, except for some short power outages, I personally escaped Hurricane Sandy, plenty of my friends have not.  Some are still without power, and several have probably lost their vacation homes at the New Jersey shore.

So I was surprised to hear myself laughing at the NPR radio show "All Things Considered" today.  They were interviewing the notoriously sardonic writer and critic Joe Queenan.  A self-described "well-paid bastard," Queenan was plugging his new tome One for the Books.

Queenan is a big, grey-haired, Irish Catholic from Philadelphia.  As he says, "I look like a cop."  He doesn't look like an author, or even someone who belongs in a bookstore.  And he's become used to being dismissed by the typical bookstore clerk - what he calls "the irony boys."

Now, I've never been to Paris.  But I always wanted to visit the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which was James Joyce's home bookstore during his years in Paris.  Queenan's description* of his visit there made me laugh:
When I was in Paris and I was 20, I used to go to Shakespeare and Company.  You always hear about what a great place that was.  They were horrible to me! 
Most of the people who'd go in there were poorly shod.  They looked like they hadn't eaten in a long time - they looked like they were at death's doorstep.  So you knew that they'd gone to Phillips Exeter!  You knew they'd gone to Andover!

No doubt it made me laugh because I'd been similarly dissed by haughty store clerks.

Anyway, if you'd like to listen to his interview, go here.  And here is Joe Queenan's list of must-read books:

Darwin - Marx - Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, by Jacques Barzun
A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Emma, Persuasion or Lady Susan, by Jane Austen
Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
The Iliad, by Homer
Source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2012, NPR
* This was my transcription of Queenan's interview. It's probably not 100% accurate.