Friday Reviews: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen KingOn Writing

Stephen King

Near the end of the 1990’s, Stephen King decided to write a book about writing. Reluctant to be one of those writers who talks out his ass about what he does, King opted to keep the book short. That did not make it any easier. He put the book aside for a while and came back to it in 1999, during which the fateful encounter with a Dodge minivan nearly killed him.

It was this book King returned to when he was finally able to sit at his computer once more, and the results of that accident make up a major portion of the last third of this book. The first third is… Well, it’s not quite an autobiography, but it does show the evolution of a writer. He traces his origins growing up with his older (and admittedly smarter) brother and their single mom. It wasn’t an easy life, but Mrs. King, abandoned by her husband when King was just a toddler, imbued her boys with a strong Yankee work ethic and her mischievous sense of humor. That allowed King to edit the school newspaper, work as a sports reporter in high school for a local paper, and to work his way through college, where he met the future Tabitha King.

The middle section King devotes to the writer’s toolbox: Vocabulary, grammar, dialog, description, and theme (among others). He extols the virtues of The Elements of Style, of Elmore Leonard’s rule to “omit needless words,” of reading constantly and writing constantly. Writing, he says, is not easy, but it’s possible if you want to do the work.

The most important lesson he imparts is one I’ve seen too many writers I’ve known personally fail to understand: Art is a support system for life, not the other way around. There are a few really successful writers I’ve known over the years who did not heed that advice, and they’re absolutely miserable for it. The ones who do heed that advice may or may not be happy, but the craft is not destroying them inside

End Of The Trail

Little Miami Bike TrailA week and a half ago, I reached a park in Yellow Springs, Ohio while riding the Little Miami Bike Trail. This is the furthest I’ve gone in my annual trek up the trail.

It’s also the first year where I was able to connect all the sections from Newport, KY, across from downtown Cincinnati, to the trail proper. Because of an old fishing lane on the Beechmont Levee and a connection between the trail around Lunken Airport and a nearby park, I was able to ride from Lunken up State Route 32 to the southern end of the trail and about eight miles into it.

This was the first year I went past the Xenia Trail Hub. Xenia is a former railroad town between Dayton and Cincinnati famous more for a 1974 tornado outbreak than anything else. But Xenia is a decent sized city serving as a bedroom community for Dayton, a quiet little city. The trail gets interesting as it goes into Yellow Springs, a college town suburb of Dayton. It goes past Antioch College – literally across the street from it – and into downtown Yellow Springs where there are a bunch of bars setup to accommodate bicyclists. The trailhead in Yellow Springs is a park at the end of a spur that cuts through a cornfield.

I had a harder time of it this year. Part of it is that I was more out of shape than I was last year. Also, I think the battered Huffy, which I picked up at a thrift shop for $50 a few years ago, is not really well-suited for what threaten to become century rides in the coming years. I sense a graduation present on my horizon: A new bike. Maybe not brand new, but better suited for a more serious cyclist.


A Year Of Senior Moments

Three Stooges Graduated


Tonight, I begin 7 weeks of Purchasing, an accelerated course in corporate buying and inventory management. It’s one of two accelerated courses I’m taking this semester. There’s a third class, Regional Theater, that gives me a single fine arts credit. I show up for a class in September, one in December, and have three date nights at the theater in between.

Because the other two classes don’t overlap, this will be an easy semester for me. It’s the beginning of my final year of college. In the spring, I’ll receive the bachelors degree I should have gotten back when Reagan was packing his things.

Nita is also finishing her degree in web design. So by this time next year, we’ll both be college graduates. It’s weird going to school in middle age at a time when most people are thinking more about retirement. In some ways, I was when I started this journey. I realized that, in my old job, I had reached the upper limit of my earning potential for my field. I also was starting to see fewer and fewer years where I could earn a living. I needed to have a more lucrative and more valuable skillset if I had any hope of not having to beg AJ to let his mother and I to live with him in exchange for our Social Security checks. (Will that even be around then?)

It’s paid off already. The company I work for now pays me 13% more than Medishack did. Just what I learned in the last two months can eventually earn me even bigger increases if I choose to go elsewhere. Even with student loans coming due soon, it should fund my writing habit quite nicely.

But for me, the payoff is even bigger. The program I enrolled in couples my technical associates with a business bachelors. And friends and neighbors, the business degree is something I never realized I needed. It’s made me aware of marketing, of finance, or running a small business, which is what writing – independent or traditional – is. I understand the businesses I work for now, and I understand what I need to make my writing profitable.

And besides, this is something I put off. I messed up my financial aid out of high school. I dropped out in the nineties for reasons I’m not even sure about anymore. So this last time, which started in 2009, had to be it. I was 42 when I started a remedial algebra class.

I’ve thought about getting a masters. I may revisit the idea since it would permit me to teach classes at some of the local colleges. But six years is enough for someone my age. I have other things I want to do. Like writing. Holland Bay would have been finished years ago if I had not gone back to school. There were other reasons, but focusing on my education really did take away a lot of the momentum I had in 2008. Now, that all that time spent studying will open up again soon. I may revisit the idea. I did tell a few people that, if it meant a title with a huge salary, I’d get the degree someone paid for. In that case, it would have to be worth it to me and to an employer. If writing were successful enough, I’d probably find a program to allow me to teach. But for the foreseeable future, I’m done with college come this spring. It’s off the bucket list and paying dividends as it is.

Friday Reviews: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes

It may be the most influential novel ever written. The tale of the mad Spaniard and his naive squire shows up in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Blackadder to Doctor Who and every buddy cop movie you’ve ever seen.

Retired gentleman Alonso Quixana has a love of books about chivalry, so much so that he digs out his grandfather’s suit of armor, fashions a crude visor for its helmet, and recruits local farmer Sancho Panza as his squire. He’s no longer Alonso Quixana. He is Don Quixote, soon dubbed the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. Quixote sees not what’s actually before him but anything that his mind can spin into an adventure worthy of a knight-errant. Think of those famous windmills he tilted at. Quixote’s antics wreak havoc on some, amuse others, and frequently result in insult or injury to Sancho, convinced that Quixote will conquer a land and make him governor of an island. By Part II, a history of his “adventures” has been published, and Quixote is treated, sometimes as a punchline to elaborate pranks, as a celebrity. All the while, his village priest, barber, and a local scholar scheme to lure Quixote back home to cure him of his madness.

The book is, first and foremost, a parody of the books about knights-errant popular in the early 1600’s. This was best paralleled in the Red Diamond novels, where a cab driver obsessed with PI fiction goes off the deep end and believes he’s the titular private eye and that all the fictional PI’s from Spenser to Kinsey Millhonne to even the Continental Op are his friends.

But Quixote and Sancho form an dual archetype that echoes throughout modern literature. Mark Twain cited him as an influence on Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. With the roles slightly changed, Quixote and Panza become Sherlock Holmes (intelligent, but neurotic as hell) and Watson (long suffering and the voice of reason). Carried further, Doctor Who features the mad (and whimsical) Doctor, whose madness is somewhat deliberate, with various companions playing ever-changing versions of Sancho (though usually much better looking.) That’s right. Sarah Jane Smith is based on a portly, middle-aged Spanish guy who rides a donkey.

What’s truly unusual is the prose. It’s rather straight forward and spare for a novel written in the early 1600’s. The only truly wordy parts are when Quixote opens his mouth. His overwrought speeches, which alternately amuse and infuriate the other characters, are an orgy of semicolons and run-ons.

But if Shakespeare is the most important dramatist in history, Cervantes has cemented himself as the most important novelist in modern history.


Less Talk. More Content.

jehovasThere’s an annoying trend of late that’s been exacerbated by the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Waaaay too many writers are burning up Facebook and Twitter time trying to justify why they are self-publishing. Or they’re decrying “the death of the novel.” (Always a trad published author, and too frequently a literary one.)

Lovely. Either someone spent money on you, or you’re doing it all yourself. Guess what.

I don’t care. The last thing I need are hoards of authors pounding on my door Saturday morning asking if I’ve accepted Kindle/The Big Five/whatever as my personal publishing lord and savior.

“Hey, yeah, can you give me a minute? I want to talk to the fascinating gentlemen behind you with the copies of Watchtower. Thanks.”

Want to get my attention?

What are you selling? No, I don’t care if Macmillan dropped $20K on you to put it in Barnes & Noble, nor do I care if you’re a plucky indie writer. You are desirous of me spending my money and probably 4-6 hours of my time on your work. OK. What’s in it for me? This is a business. What’s in it for me, the consumer? Tell me what you’re selling. Moreover, tell me what it was you spent months writing. Why’s that got you so stoked you pumped out 90,000 words of it? Enlighten me. Excite me.

And try not to mention Amazon in any context except, “Hey, look, they’re selling it for 40% off today.”

Car companies have gone out of business trying to tell us to buy cars because they’re made in America (or wherever you live.) Rover and Jaguar are owned by an Indian company. Chrysler is owned by Fiat. Half of GM has ceased to exist. So did “Buy British” or “Buy American” work for them? The Jetta in my driveway says no. Why? The car is solid, cheap on gas, and comfy as hell, a poor man’s Audi. Likewise, I really don’t care if your three-book deal is contingent upon me buying what you’re selling or that you haven’t sold more than 5 self-pubbed books this month. I have limited time and a tall TBR stack to squeeze books in. Your case will be made on what you wrote, not how you published it.

Remember, it’s the content, stupid.

Nick’s Not Going To Die. Here’s Why.

At the end of June, I announced I was going to kill off Nick Kepler unless I sold 50 copies of Second Hand Goods. The idea comes from an old National Lampoon cover that said “Buy this magazine, or we’ll kill this dog.”

Aside from no copies of Second Hand Goods selling, the most common reaction was, “Why would you kill him off?”

The answer: I was sick of the character. I attempted to revive the multi-book story arc I originally planned for him only to find I didn’t like the story very much anymore. Nick was supposed to help find out why his high school friend’s husband killed himself. It involved an old amusement park (a premise I still want to revisit), and, of course, Nick ends up sleeping with his client. Nick is always sleeping with at least one or two women in his books. I’ve always worked on the idea that, while a female character does not have to pass the Bechdel Test, it should be obvious that she could. Hard to do when storylines have mixed casts and your POV protags tend to be male. Impossible when your POV protag is male, and he gets naked with at least two of the major female characters. I looked at Holland Bay, where Detective Jessica Branson’s first scene has her looking in a mirror and calling herself a stupid slut (and bemoaning a wicked hangover). By the middle of the book, she refers to one of the major antagonists as her “Great White Whale,” barely manages to call out her male coworkers with something more than “Hey, you!” and is probably the one character the homicidal drug lord needs to fear most. (I have a lot of characters, protags and antags, hunting him like a whale.)

Then I looked at the science fiction novel. It’s an ensemble piece. There’s one protag who dominates one storyline, and another who, while not necessarily leading her part of the cast, is the voice of reason. Like Holland Bay, this one has big casts and a complex story (and unlike Holland Bay, a straightforward plot: Invaders come, renegades take advantage, explosions go all explodey.) Nick did not seem like a good use of my creative time.

So why did I want to kill him? He wasn’t earning. Oh, people look at Northcoast Shakedown and, occasionally, Bad Religion. But for all Nick’s personal struggles, those books are bigger stories, particularly Bad Religion. People seem to like Road Rules more. Road Rules has a bigger cast (despite it’s brevity) and usually leaves readers laughing. (The worst feedback I ever had was that it got too sarcastic. Hey, it’s a child of its author. Sarcasm is one of my best skills!) Again, Nick just didn’t do it for me anymore.

So I revisited Gypsy’s Kiss, about to go into revision. I didn’t like the original, so I pulled it back, changed the story up a little, and gave it a less cheesy ending. I’m also going to move the time up to 2005 (the current version starts a couple of months after Northcoast in 2002.) It’s still the end of Nick, but only as a PI. I won’t tell you how just yet. You’ll have to buy it when it comes out.

But I learned that killing a character out of spite is really just spiting the reader. Writers get enough flack for killing off characters when it serves the story. Which is the only reason anything should happen in a story.

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky
Under the Empyrean Sky

Chuck Wendig

Game developer and science fiction writer Chuck Wendig introduces us to the world of the Heartland and the Empyrean. The Heartland looks suspiciously like the rural Midwest, only its overgrown with a bizarre mutant form of corn that’s been spliced with, among other things, kudzu. Poisonous to eat, those living on the ground, that is, the Heartland, nonetheless have to tend as a fuel source for the Empyrean, a ruling class that lives on flotillas in the sky.

Cael McAvoy is a scavenger, making his living scarfing stray spare parts for Ace Notes, because dollars aren’t company dole, dontcha know. Cael and his friends are 17, which means they are to be Obligated to a chosen bride. Cael wants to be with Gwennie, his second mate on his land boat and his lover. It’s not to be, however, as she is Obligated to Boyland Barnes, Jr., the mayor’s son and Cael’s rival. No one is happy about the Obligation ceremony or the postponed Lottery, in which one lucky family will be plucked from the dirt and misery of the Heartland to live in the sky in the Empyrean.

So it is with Cael McAvoy’s world, and he, his family, and his crew search for a way to bring the system down.

In many ways, Under an Empyrean Sky and the world it spawns is the perfect mythos for the 2010’s. It’s an exaggeration of the current mentality where a chosen few keep the rest of humanity down. Dirt farms raising toxic crops instead of poorly paying jobs. The rich living in ships in the sky instead of simply skyscrapers. The whole game rigged so no one gets above their station. Whether you believe this is reality or not, Wendig has woven it into a Menckenesque dystopia.

The book is quickly written, and I do wish Wendig had taken more time to draw us into his new world. On the other hand, he is quite stingy on some of the details, which works to great effect. We never see life on the flotilla. We don’t really know much about why the corn exists. And we don’t know how this nightmare version of the world we once knew came about. By the end, Cael and Gwennie are thrown into hopeless situations that nonetheless promise to bite their oppressors in the ass when the time comes. So the hook is there. And Wendig is capable of reeling us in.


A few things about language I want to get off my chest.

  • You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Dropping it is just piss-poor grammar.
  • Why is it “everywhere,” but it’s never “alright”? Does not make sense.
  • Did you know the correct usage of “nauseous” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever? If you say “nauseous,” people think “nauseated.”
  • Until someone explains to me why we have singular “you” (and don’t give me that nonsense about formal vs. familiar falling out of favor. That happened before Washington was sticking Lincoln logs in his mouth.), people just need to accept singular “they.” However, I think we can all agree the royal “we” needs to die a fast but agonizing death.
  • Kindly smack in the mouth the next person who says “most unique.” It’s a binary concept. Either it’s unique or it’s not. It can’t be more or less unique.
  • I don’t care what dictionary writers say, the word “literally” means that you’re not exaggerating.
  • Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” (despite the line about Oxford commas) is still better than Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” But then Weird Al’s still going after 35 years. Robin’s 15 minutes is almost up.

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

The title of today’s blog post comes from the inimitable Chuck Wendig, who has had it up to here with the whole Amazon-Hachette thing. The last straw was a long, rambling, barely coherent email sent to Amazon KDP authors (myself included, even though I took The Compleat Winter out of the program a couple months ago) asking for independent authors’ support of Amazon in their struggle against Hachette.

As I said, I got the email. I mostly skimmed it. In fact, Gmail treated it as spam. I had to double-check it.

Here’s the deal. First off, Amazon is not the only place on Teh Intrawebs to buy books. Not even close. It’s just the biggest and the most user friendly. I say this as I’m about to use an Amazon gift card to order John Scalzi’s latest, Lock In. But I can go to Barnes & Noble either online or wait until my scifi writers group meets next weekend. Or Indiepub. Or Powell’s. Or hey, lookie here. There’s a Books-a-Million ten minutes from my office and a Joseph-Beth’s nearby where I frequently have met John Scalzi in person.So the idea that Amazon is cutting Hachette out of the loop is complete and utter bullshit.

Some say that I should boycott Amazon to support Hachette authors. First off, see above. If you haven’t figured that one out yet, please stop trying to prove your intellectual cred. You clearly have none. Second, you would be asking me, as an independent writer, to cut off my nose despite my face. I’m fond of my nose. My wife is fond of my nose. My nose stays. You’re just not that important, and anyway, see above. If I really want that Hachette book, I’ll get my hands on it. Amazon is not that omnipotent.


Amazon is not all. It is not omnipotent. It’s just freaking huge. No need to bow and worship it. So when the email came through, my attitude was “Really? You’re going to tell someone what price they can sell their product?” Even Walmart has to face the possibility that a supplier will simply tell them “Screw you.” They frequently do. It even happens to Starbucks, a much more responsible big company (healthcare for part-timers, fair trade coffee, college tuition for employees). So why does Amazon feel they are a victim if Walmart and Starbucks (and I suspect a dozen other huge ass retailers) just shrug this off? They want a monopoly? Hello, Mr. Bezos. I’d like to direct your attention to the half-dozen or so biographies of President Benjamin Harrison listed on your fine web site. Ben signed a law that says you can’t do that. Go ask BP North America (formerly Standard Oil). Go ask IBM. Go ask AT&T. Ask Microsoft. And yes, two of those companies got their corporate asses kicked by Republicans, one of them Ronald Reagan. So, no, Adam Smith did not say you could bogart the market artificially.

But why hammer on indie writers? We don’t care. We have no horse in this race. If Hachette never sells another book on Amazon… Well, goodie. More room for me. If Hachette boycotts Amazon, hey, guess what? Walmart sells books. Apple sells ebooks. And guess who wins if this scenario happens? Independent bookstores, who would love a new way to compete. It’s likely they will eventually own the print book market in the near future, particularly if Barnes & Noble fails to emerge from their current downward spiral.

So as a reader, this really does nothing for me. Amazon is not the only place I get my books. As a writer… Well, if the agent I’m courting gets me a deal with Hachette, well…  Eons ago, I signed at a handful of Barnes & Noble stores. I can always link to them and go to their stores. No biggie.

Here’s the real deal: Amazon is TimeWarner. Or Comcast. Or Dish. Or DirecTV. They’re a conduit into my house for literary crack. Hachette is Disney. Or NBCUniversal. Or CBS. Or whoever owns your local TV station. This is the battle between who supplies your TV and who supplies your favorite programming to them. At the end of the day, both sides are evil simply for allowing this to happen.

Only it’s hard to bypass your cable/satellite/fiber op provider. I can buy books just about anywhere.

Here’s an original thought. Try not screwing over your authors or your customers, because really, we don’t give a damn about you. We just don’t. Capitalism functions on buyers coming to the market to obtain goods. Amazon, Hachette, you’re in the market’s way, you filthy communists you.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys.