Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Review of The Kite Runner

The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the top 10 books I have ever read. I almost cried. That says a lot. I thoroughly enjoyed the book despite how haunting and depressing it got. It was perhaps these depths of humanity and crisis that led the book to such heights of joy and comfort. I have read few books that have had as many poignant moments (although A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS comes close). Khaled Hosseini is the Dickens of our age. His writing is sparse but leaves an indelible mark on our souls. His writing is awe-inspiring in its ability to capture the mundane and the magnificent in the same breath.

Beyond the ethnic struggles, the obvious "ripped from the headlines" feel of this tale, lies at its heart a story of family, of devotion and betrayal, of love and sacrifice, of sin and redemption. Hosseini is a master at wrapping these core themes within layers of scene and character, action and everyday moments to create a beautiful tapestry of life. I highly recommend this book to every human being. If you read it and do not feel moved, you may not be human afterall.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Summer Reading

For over thirty years now I have committed to read more during the summer. I try not to fall into the habit of reading too much "fluff" reading--mass paperbacks, westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.  I will pick one or two really "meaty" books, maybe a classic, and sprinkle in the fluff as fillers and buffers. I even find myself reading two or three books at a time (a non-fiction book or my Bible at work for lunch break, a classic or mainstream fiction in the bedroom to read before bed and one in the bathroom for lighter reading).

This summer has been no different. I am still reading, and I have no desire to stop. Maybe this year I will get to the fifty book ceiling that I set for myself each year. It has helped to read some shorter non-fiction books. I am grateful for my wife and her suggestions. Do you set a reading goal? What kind of summer reading do you enjoy?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Agent Courtney Writing Prompt #5

Shirley hadn't worked a crossword puzzle in over five years. It wasn't because she didn't want to. Her mother, Lizbeth, had instilled in her a love for the New York Times crosswords from the time she was twelve. Solving the puzzle together over coffee and scones was one of her favorite memories of her mother.

The Times sat on the table, lonely. Shirley sipped her coffee. It was getting cold. As cold as the winter outside. From thirty stories up, the snowflakes looked like the ones in the globe her aunt had given her for Christmas one year. It had broken when she threw it at Jack. Jerk, she thought.  He just didn't understand the changes that had occurred. Didn't understand and didn't care. The divorce was over four years ago, now. She pushed thoughts of him from her mind.

Shirley stared at the newspaper. She didn't want to open it up. She didn't want the disappointment, another horrific responsibility. But she couldn't run from it. She had discovered this truth the hard way. At first, she had cancelled her subscription. It still came. Then, she tried bundling them up and dumping them in the recycling over thirty blocks away. They showed up on her doorstep, the twine still in place. Frustrated, she then tried to burn them, thinking that the worst case scenario would be that it would help heat her six hundred square foot apartment. Within hours, a new one would be at her doorstep. Her last attempt was to use them to line Biscuit's litter box. Her cat refused to use it anymore. That had been the last straw.

No matter. For the past five years, the crossword puzzle in the Times had been her life. Not doing it, understand. Deciphering it. Reading it like tea leaves to discover her destiny, her responsibility. Her only respite was on weekends. Saturday and Sunday, for some reason, she was allowed to live her life normally. Whatever that meant.

She sighed. She wasn't prepared to do this again today. Her apartment was in shambles. The duty of her curse had led her to become a hermit. The meager income she received from her alimony and the trickle of money from her mother's trust fund were all that she had to live.  She hugged herself closely, and petted Biscuit as she made her way onto her lap to steal the crumbs from the almond and honey scone.

Having had enough of self-pity and reflection, Shirley reached for the paper. It was inevitable, inexorable. She couldn't resist, so why try? Resigned, she flipped to the social section and discarded the rest on the floor near the table. Biscuit jumped down and retreated to the dingy, unmade bed. It was time for Shirley to face her responsibilities, even if she didn't understand why.

As she turned to the crossword section, so familiar and drawing such mixed emotions, she read it.  There in the morning crossword, plain as anything, was the phrase "ROGER PETERSON HAS TWO WEEKS TO LIVE." She took a bite of her scone.

Biscuit let out a lonesome mewl. She knew Shirley had to leave now. Two weeks was a long time. Plenty of time. More time than she had Thursday when Vivian Mahoney had had four hours to live. It was just lucky that the subway entrance was only two blocks from her apartment. But, the burning question was who was Roger Peterson? And how exactly was Shirley supposed to keep him alive? And, perhaps, more importantly, why?

For two of these three questions answers would be revealed as she researched and found poor Roger. But, for the past five years she had never discovered why. Shirley picked up the crossword and carefully ripped it from the newspaper. She put it in the front of her trousers. She poured some food in Biscuit's bowl, lifted the lid on the toilet, turned on the electric heater, grabbed her coat, her purse, and her keys, and then left the apartment, headed to the closest library.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Writing Prompts

Agent Courtney Miller-Callahan offered to provide a writing prompt on her blog for her followers to respond on thier blogs. I thought it was a good idea. Especially since it has been a month since I have blogged. I guess I was caught in the undertow of life as I know it. I am ready to be rejuvenated, renewed. I can do it through writing. I know this about me.

But today I wanted to say a word about writing prompts. I have been studying the craft of writing for almost thirty years now. In the last decade or so, writing prompts have become the rage. We writers dread the infamous "writer's block." Writing prompts are a tool meant to beat those "block" moments into pulp by inspiring thought, forcing creativity, and artificially providing a canvas for imagination.

Often writing prompts become an exercise in behavioral management. The process works like an antique pump. Our creativity needs priming. By offering a prompt, it inspires (or tasks, would be a better word)us to produce words: a story, a scene, some description, some dialogue, or an essay. We are story-tellers at heart. If our well is running dry, the thought goes, perhaps some forceful priming will coax some water to flow.

The problem comes when the prompt becomes the drug. If we begin to rely so heavily on the priming that story-telling does not come naturally, we are in danger of damaging our "muse" permanently. If we become too dependent on writing prompts, an artificiality can embue our writing. A prompt dependency can steal time from our schedule. Prompt-dependency can become our Facebook, our Twitter, our scrap-booking maniacal cousin, our Bunko-twice-a-week girlfriend, our fantasy football fanatical co-worker, our blogroll: another distraction that doesn't lead to productive writing.

Note that I didn't say that writing prompts are bad in and of themselves. They can be a productive way to give us that boost to punch on through to more productivity. Prompts can even inspire productive writing. I have used characters, dialogue and scenes from my writing prompt exercises in my manuscripts. This isn't always true, but it happens. It is like a writing journal: if you look past the stream-of-consciousness, self-centered, self-concerned, crud we write when we are struggling, you can find a nugget of good writing.

So, in the end, just be judicious about your prompt usage. Be careful purchasing those writing prompt collections that encourage a writing prompt once a day. I have seen these sold as calanders, as novelty books, and as workshops. I half expect their advertising to say, "Please buy this book so we can help you do endless busy work that helps none whatsoever to produce any meaningful or publishable writing. But you will be so satisfied that you are writing SOMETHING, that you will think you can publish these unconnected, meaningless writing tasks as a collection." Yeah, right after you sell your Twitter post collection, right?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Borrowed Life

Connecting with a story is sometimes like slipping into a warm robe and slippers. You wonder why you took so long to pamper yourself. You start planning to remain as long as you can stave off the guilt of the "real world." The people, emotions, settings of our stories are borrowed, yet often they are more comforting than the world from which we have leased them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Trouble With Typos

I spoke with my sister at length last night. She had read my short story and had enjoyed it. She was quick to quip, "And I found a typo." I immediately chimed in "Nah, I went over that story with a fine-tooth comb." Typos bother me, see? Especially in my own work.

It was late,so I vowed that this morning I would take the time to re-read it and see what she was talking about. I fired up the desktop and before I delved into it, I decided to check my blog roll to read some agent blogs. I was stunned to see that Nathan Bransford had a short post about typos!

After leaving a comment, I opened up my short story with a renewed spirit. And I didn't find one typo. No, I found three, not counting some comma usage errors. I can't say I was very happy. I will now upload the newly edited story and hope that I will never have to do that again. Something tells me that I will.

The good news in all this? It reminded me that God isn't finished with me. I will never have all my typos fixed. I will always have a comma splice, a split infinitive, a run-on sentence or a subject-verb disagreement. I am thankful that He is patient and kind with me enough to continue his devine copy-editing of my life. Someday I will be ready to be published, both in this world and in the next.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rolling Stone Must Be Stoned

In 2003,Rolling Stone published its "Immortals: Top 100 Artists" list. I can't say that I had a terrible reaction to the list in its entirety. My biggest beef is probably with those who were left off the list. My secondary beef is that the order (specifically of the top 15) was perplexing to say the least.

To start, several artists were excluded from the list and several were more than just head scratchers. Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, BB King, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Metallica, RUSH, Phil Collins, REM, Queen, Pat Benatar, Heart,Frank Sinatra, and Van Halen were NOT ON THE LIST! Alright, before I start making suggestions about who should have been removed from the list to make room for these heavy hitters, I must first discuss my philosophy.

Inclusion on the list of "Immortals" should include artists who changed the face of rock, who impacted it in ways more significant than mere albums sold. Popularity is only one guage of rock immortality. Prolific artists who published astounding numbers of songs, who wrote their own music, who produced their own albums, who toured extensively, who had a long career all should be considered in higher regard than an artist whose career was a flash in the pan.

With that said, I can certainly understand where Rolling Stone came up with including Little Richard in the top 10. I don't agree, but they did apply the philosophy of longevity, production and impact. However, how can they possibly disclude Van Halen when they entered Guns N' Roses? How can they justify Nine Inch Nails over Pink Floyd? Or Metallica, even?

I couldn't help but notice that male artists dominated the list. I also couldn't help but notice the discrepency between rock, soul, blues and the bands that specialize in a harder brand of rock. I can understand the tip of the hat to those artists who blended other forms of music into rock or were sentimental choices: Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddly, Nirvana, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, or George Clinton. But, that sort of inclusion can sometimes be taken too far.

Much of the controversy around the list centers on the order of the list. I will agree that some of the placements were strange. I also realize much bias and taste is involved in these choices. I could re-order the list and in the process dump artists in favor of those I have listed above. But,so could every American. We are left with the impression that Rolling Stone Magazine is big fans of rap, huge followers of mediocre bands from the 70's, and are opposed to British bands (except the Beatles, of course), hard rock and common sense.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chalk It Up To Operator Error

Well, I experienced my first rejection letter today for Dark Mountain Mean. The funny thing is, it is my own fault. I queried two agents late Tuesday night (ok, it was actually Wednesday morning). I queried Jennifer Jackson at Maass Agency and Daniel Lazar at Writer's House. As I had their letters up, I went over them with my wife, I listened to some Pandora, checked out some writing blogs, etc. One of the blogs I had left comments on was Steve Laube's blog. He had responded directly to me and my wife and I had been discussing him.

I sent the letters off after my wife helped me edit them for clarity and consiceness. So, today I received a letter from Mr. Barr, the assistant for Daniel Lazar saying that Mr. Lazar felt that my project was not a good fit for their list. As I looked, I noted that I had actually queried "Dear Mr. Laube" which was just a disaster! I am sure even if my project were a "fit" for their agency, I would have been rejected. Heck, I would reject me!

The good news is that I have learned a valuable lesson. I am glad there are literally dozens of more agents to whom I can query. And perhaps this was a good thing. Maybe God has another agent out there that is a better fit. I am still excited. I got my first rejection! That is still something.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Value of Time

As I dug up some of my short stories and dusted them off this week, I discovered a unique lesson.  Time changes perspective.  What once had been an interesting story seems now to be a self-important and overly introspective narrative.  What once had seemed to be a unique and intriguing premise is now over-done and cliche.  And, no matter how often you update or change which word processor you use, it is important to print out every piece you write.

When we write, it is a journey that many times reflects where we are in our lives.  I know that is true with me. One of my earliest stories, "Forest Conversation," was originally written when I was a sophomore in high school.  I had edited it several times over a decade or more. Once, I took a one-day writing seminar taught by a local editor from a magazine based in Oklahoma City.  I submitted the story and received some group critique and some helpful advice.   I molded it some more.

Now, I read it again for the first time in over five years...I don't like the story anymore.  It is stale, too self-involved, whiny even.  I have decided to change it again.  Its metamorphosis will include another character.  It is a first-person narrative and I will keep that point of view, but I want to make it more of a father-son story.  That was its spirit, anyway.  Its theme is closely related to the habits and activities that we pass on to our family.

The same was true of several other stories I dug up.  I saw raw potential.  I recognized my voice, my pacing, my unique way of wording things.  I liked most of what I saw.  But things had changed.  I have changed.  I am older, hopefully wiser and I have a different perspective.  My understanding of the way to tell a tale, to spin a yarn has broadened, become more sophisticated and informed.  This, naturally, impacts the writing. 

I understand that this process cannot be drawn out indefinitely.  At some point I have to publish these creations.  At some point I have to submit my babies. But for the meantime, this lesson reminds me that I am unfinished.  I am constantly growing in my abilities and my understanding.  God is constantly working on me.  I am so glad God is a patient God.  I am a patient author as well, but just like me, my writing has a judgement day.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Well, task number one down.  So far, as of 7:34 pm central standard time, twenty seven good folks have downloaded my first self-published short story, "Sweet Tea."  Of course, I am elated.  I am looking forward to putting three more stories up soon. 

Also, I am anticipating some feedback (ratings and reviews) for the story.  The key to getting Smashwords to work for me is to get more people interested in my writing.  As far as that goes, I don't know what there is NOT to like.  Of course, I am biased. 

I plan on submitting different types of stories with different themes.  I will prepare a post about them as soon as I have them published.

With the task of getting the first story on Smashwords, the next task will be to get the other three stories ready for print.  That means, I have to find them first.  Oh, I have two of them completely written, but I cannot seem to find them.  Not on my hard drive, not on any thumb drives I have scrounged up so far, and I am having a problem finding my writing file that has the hard copies. 

Alas, I anticipate locating them tonight and beginning the process of editing, re-typing them, formatting them and getting them up on Smashwords.  One is a crime/comedy, one is a literary nostalgia piece and the other is western.  Like I said, I just need to clean them up a bit, dust them off and get them ready. 

Also in the works: I have begun re-reading my next manuscript to get myself in the framework of the story again.  I had put it down for almost two years and haven't worked on it.  Strange though, I have found myself thinking about the characters, the plot and the circumstances surrounding the events in the novel almost constantly.  Things keep cropping up to remind me that I still have a story to finish there.  It is a good story and I can't wait for it all to unfold. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Short Story Published on Smashwords

WEEK ONE--Continued
My first short story "Sweet Tea (or the Revenge of Barnard)" is now available for FREE on Smashwords at .  I will eventually put the link up on my sidebar under Smashwords Publications.  I intend to only publish my short stories here.  It is available now for Apple users via Stanza and online.  I haven't checked Kindle yet.  Soon, it will also be on Amazon and available to Sony readers.
The idea is to develop a platform of readers interested in my work via publishing free short stories on Smashwords, Amazon, and the other e-book platforms.  Please tell your friends.  It is easy to download them from by following my link above.  Just pass it on to your friends.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the process of publishing my short story was getting an ISBN number.  That just made it feel so real.  The least satisfying part was designing the cover.  It seemed silly to me to even have a cover.  I think I am going to standardize my covers by coming up with a representative graphic (probably an infinite symbol) for all my novels with the title in the same font.  I will design it on Adobe Illustrator and turn it into a JPEG image.  I designed the current one on Paint.  Pretty simple and pathetic, really.  But, it's a short story.

I am distributing my query letter for Dark Mountain Mean to friends and family to get some feedback.  So far, the feedback has been encouraging.  I will make some small changes and begin the process this weekend.

I will continue to update this blog twice a week.  That is my plan for now.  If you have downloaded my short story, please leave a review and leave a comment here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Finding An Agent

So I finally finished the rough draft for Dark Mountain Mean.  I am now working on my query letters and am searching for agents.  I am looking for an agent to represent me, not necessarily my manuscript.  This manuscript is just the first one I have completed.  As an author, I am more than the sum of one manuscript.  This will be important as I search for an agent that fits my skill set.

I want to chronicle my journey from rough draft through querying, waiting on responses from agents to beginning a new manuscript. Actually, the process of working on the next project(s) has already begun in my head.  I have over 30,000 words written already and a chapter outline for another novel.  I also have about 12,000 words written (mostly junk--it was an aborted NaNoWriMo project) of another germination of an idea for an epic fantasy novel.  I also have another great idea that I want to expand on for another fantasy world for which I am excited to start writing a synopsis, character biographies, and a chapter outline.  It feels like a trilogy, several hundreds of thousand words.

And then there is five years' worth of research I did for a historical novel I want to write about Aaron Burr and Blennerhasset Island in West Virginia.  Oh, and about a half-dozen short stories that I want to self-publish to develop a platform and a readership.  So much work to do, so little time (and discipline, evidently).

And while we are on the subject of time, let me just say, I want to spend more time here on this blog.  And that is why I am going to use this as a place to chronicle my journey.  I am starting here, the end of my third edit of my first complete manuscript, Dark Mountain Mean.

 Week One:
 Discovered I wasn't finished editing.  When I found that some agents were requesting the first 5 to 10 pages (one wanted 50!) of my novel, I panicked.  I re-read the first 50 pages and removed about 50 words, clarified two passages and found one glaring typo (EGADS! I thought I had gotten them all!). 

I found four agencies that fit my personality.  Among the many books I have read about the craft of writing over the last thirty years (I've been doing this too long) I have read two books that were written by agents.  These books have helped me tremendously in my writing journey.  I had even used one for a writing curriculum for my teenager we homeschooled.  Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Blockbuster Novel are very different, despite being similarly named, but both were excellent and I can highly recommend them.  Working with Maas or Zuckerman as agents would be incredible.

I read the agent bios, looked at their client lists, viewed their recent sales and checked out their submission guidelines.  It struck me how different agents require different indicators of value.  The one clear similarity was the query letter.  I am doing my best to craft a letter that sparks interest in my story.  I am trying to be as creative within the formula for the query as possible. 

One image I am keeping in my mind is that scene from A River Runs Through It where Paul and Norman's father is teaching Norman how to write.  Norman brings him his assignment and dad marks it up and says, "Half as long."  He repeats the exercise three times.  It is fun and challenging to treat three paragraphs with so much attention. 

One final observation:  I noted that some agencies had more than one agent that might work.  I tried my best to determine which agent would work best.  In one instance I struggled with the idea that it might be better to query first the agent that was "actively seeking new clients" rather than the hoary-headed principle with which I felt an affinity.  Time will tell if my decision was a good one.