David Kubicek

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New Interview

Smashwords has just posted a new interview with me. Check it out here: https://www.smashwords.com/interview/DavidKubicek

Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

A Friend of the Family Blog Tour Ends: And the Winners are . . .

At Midnight April 20 – in whatever time zone you’re in; I won’t be anal about it – my virtual book tour for A Friend of the Family ended. It was a fun three weeks, but it was also lots of work, so I’m ready to move on to other things.

Today I conducted the final bit of business for my blog tour, awarding two $25 Amazon gift cards. One card went to J.A. Beard, whose Unnecessary Musings blog received six comments, the most of any blog stop. When deciding on a winner I included my own comments, which consisted of thanking my host and responding to any comments posted by readers, hosts, etc. This wasn’t an unfair advantage; if I took my comments out of the mix, J.A. Beard still would have won.

To award the other card I put the names of everyone who left a comment on the tour into a bowl. I didn’t put in my own name, of course. If a commenter left more than one comment I put his/her name in for each comment he/she left. I thought this was fair for two reasons:

  • I believe the people who left two or more comments should have improved odds, as if they had bought more than one lottery ticket
  • It increased the pool because even with the duplicate names, there were only 17 chances to win

I wrote each name on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in a bowl. I held the bowl above my head, and my son Sean drew a name. The winner was Louise Wise. Louise is the owner of Wise Words, a stop on my blog tour. She also left two comments – the most comments any one person left was four, so in this case the greater odds weren’t that great of an advantage.

The good thing about doing a virtual blog tour is that the interviews  and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until time itself comes to an end.

Okay, maybe I’m being  melodramatic. The interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until (and if) someone takes them down. So if you missed any of the stops, here is the schedule.

Now I’m taking a break from my novel work long enough to write a short story. We’ll talk again soon.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Book Tour Schedule

The virtual book tour for my short novel A Friend of the Family kicks off on March 29 and runs through April 20. Here’s the schedule:

March 29 – Meet & Greet at VBT Cafe’ Blog
March 30 – Interview & Excerpt at BooK ReviewS
March 31 – Interview at Unnecessary Musings
April 2 – Guest Blogging at Mass Musings
April 4 – Interview Immortality and Beyond
April 6 – Interview at Writing Innovations E-zine
April 10 – Interview at Reviews & Interviews
April 12 – Guest Blogging at Beauty in Ruins
April 16 – Guest Blogging at Wise Words
April 16 – Interview at BlogTalkRadio

April 18 – Interview & Excerpt by Louise James
April 20 – Review at Ereading on the Cheap
Visit the blog stops on those days and leave comments. There will be e-book (for Kindle) giveaways, and everyone who leaves a comment will be entered into a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card.
See you around the blogosphere.

Dear Morality Police, Let Us Choose What We Read

Payment processing giant PayPal recently gave Indie publisher Smashwords an ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape, and incest or have your PayPal account deactivated.

In an email to Smashwords authors, CEO Mark Coker said “PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

PayPal didn’t mention any names, but these “banks and credit card associations” are most likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

This is a major assault on free speech. It is an attempt by financial institutions to censor an author’s writing without due process (i.e. – going to court). Basically, the morality police are deciding what they don’t like and refusing to allow others the opportunity to choose to read it. And with the clout the financial companies have authors and publishers – especially Indie Publishers – find themselves between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

One thing you must realize is that books with adult themes or adult material usually are labeled as such so the reader can make a decision whether to read it or not. It’s unlikely that material readers find objectionable will be sprung on them without notice.

If a reader doesn’t want to read erotica, it’s best to stay out of the Erotica section. If a reader doesn’t want to read a book examining pedophilia, the cover copy for Lolita should send up red flags.

In fact, almost every classic novel you can think of, at one time or another,  has been challenged or censored.

What I ask is that the readers – not the credit card companies and banks, not citizens groups with names like The Moral Majority – be allowed to choose what they read and, just as importantly, what they don’t read.

For more information on this topic be sure to read: Legal Censorship: PayPal Makes a Habit of Deciding What Users Can Read and a letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship, and a follow-up letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Surges onto Two Amazon Top 100 Lists

A Friend of the FamilyI extend my  heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped make yesterday’s launch of my short novel A Friend of the Family a success. Your downloads propelled it a long way up the top 100 most downloaded books in two of Amazon’s categories.

On the Science Fiction list A Friend of the Family peaked at #26 and on the Literary Fiction list it peaked at #21.

For those of you who aren’t into the digital book thing, never fear. The paperback is in process and will be available by mid-March.

Thank you again for participating in yesterday’s event. Enjoy the story!

Author Interview

In Human FormUp Close and Personal with David Kubicek, Author of In Human Form

Author interview on Patti Roberts’ Blog: http://paradox-theangelsarehere.blogspot.com/2011/10/up-close-personal-with-david-kubicek.html

Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

Self-Publishing: The Pros and Cons

In the past couple of weeks two newsworthy events have occurred in the self-publishing universe. The first was when, as I reported in an earlier blog, thriller writer Barry Eisler walked away from  a $500,000 advance to self-publish his next novel. The second was when self-published bestselling author Amanda Hocking signed a $2 million four-book deal with St. Martins.

The Hocking deal inspired the post “Advice for Amanda Hocking From Authors and Agents” on book editor Alan Rinzler’s Blog. As the title implies, Rinzler asked several authors and agents to put in their two-cents-worth about whether the deal would help Hocking achieve her main goal, which she said was to concentrate on writing rather than split her time between writing and publishing duties.

I won’t summarize the post here. It is a good one, and I recommend that you read it, especially if you’ve flirted with the idea of self-publishing. But I will make a few comments about some of the pros and cons that were mentioned.

  • The success of any book, whether you publish it yourself or through a traditional publisher, requires that you commit a great deal of your time to promote it. While it is true that publishers may pay for things like book tours, it is also true that not every book will have a hefty promotion budget – or even a small one. That depends on decisions made in the board room. But if an author tells his or her publisher, “I want to concentrate on writing; you handle the promotion,” that author’s book will probably be put on the list for a skimpy promotion budget – if it gets one at all – and may even make the publisher less likely to release future titles from the author.
  • With self-publishing you control the look of your book – the cover art, the cover copy, the book design, etc. But if you’re comfortable leaving those duties to others, traditional publishers generally do fine design work.
  • Traditional publishers have the weight to get their authors wider distribution than if they self-published. To some extent this may be true, especially with printed books; however, services like Smashwords publish books in a variety of digital formats for a variety of digital reading devices. You can buy Smashwords books from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Sony, and Apple. You can even buy them in PDF to read on your computer. That’s a lot of distribution. Plus, any book that has an ISBN number (which Smashwords provides) can be special-ordered, in case you create demand for your book in areas where it isn’t available (this isn’t a problem for e-books).The Moaning Rocks and other stories
  • Self-publishing is faster, which is good if you’re impatient. Most traditionally-published books take at least a year – and may take up to two years – to appear in print. A book published through Smashwords will populate its distribution channels in a matter of weeks.

It may seem as if I’m jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon. That’s not entirely true. Like Amanda Hocking, I would take a traditional publishing deal if it felt right for me; however, also like Hocking, I would not give away the rights to books I had already published, and I would retain the right to self-publishing other books.

It may also seem as if I’m promoting Smashwords. To some extent that may be true. My book, The Moaning Rocks and other stories, is being published by Smashwords because I investigated the company and liked what I saw (and so far I’ve been pleased with my experience). My novel In Human Form will follow shortly. Smashwords is also up-front with writers; they say that although some of their books have sold lots of copies (Amanda Hocking’s among them), some authors haven’t sold a single book. It all comes down to how well the author can promote his or her work and how good of a writer he or she is.

But that’s true of traditional publishing as well.

Learning To Swim: A Review

Learning to Swim: A NovelLearning to Swim: A Novel by Sara J. Henry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Learning to Swim begins when freelance writer Troy Chance sees a child plummet from the deck of a passing ferry into Lake Champlain. Instinctively, she dives in and saves him, then begins the long swim back to shore.

The child, who speaks only French, tells Troy his name is Paul. Other than that she manages only to get sketchy information from him. He tells her he was kidnapped and held in a room somewhere, and that the kidnappers shot his mother.

Troy becomes attached to Paul and, instead of going to the police right away, uses her internet researching skills to do some preliminary investigating of her own. She wants to find out to her satisfaction that the boy will be safe if she turns him over to the authorities and he’s returned home. She wants to make sure the father wasn’t involved in his abduction.

Her investigation leads her into deeper involvement with Paul and his father and puts her under suspicion of a local detective who thinks she had something to do with Paul’s initial disappearance.

After an attempt on Troy’s life, she really hits the investigation trail, determined to find the two men who kidnapped Paul. But what she stumbles into is a twist that I never saw coming.

Learning to Swim is Sara J. Henry’s debut novel. It is a relationship story as well as a mystery, and on both levels it succeeds very well. I highly recommend it.

Visit Sara J. Henry’s blog at Sara in Vermont.

View all my reviews

Self-Publishing: Is it for You?

For perhaps as long as publishing has existed self-publishing has been stigmatized. The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” often are used interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. We’ll get to that shortly. For now, here are a few writers, established writers, who have self-published some of their own work:

  • Willa Cather, author of such novels as My Antonia and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, paid to publish her first book.
  • Early in his career, L. Frank Baum – author of  the Wizard of Oz books – self-published pamphlets on chicken farming.
  • Stephen King published the first installment of his novel The Plant on his Website (http://www.stephenking.com) on July 24, 2000 and the second installment a few weeks later.
  • Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed a publishing company which published a variety of books, some of which were his own.
  • Bestselling author Pat Conroy spent thousands of dollars to print and promote his first book, The Boo.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, paid to publish his first book.
  • Mark Twain grew tired of the “foolishness” of his publishers, so he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – often called the father of the modern short story and the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” and many others – self-published some of his works.
  • Richard Paul Evans self-published 8,000 copies of The Christmas Box, which he later sold to Simon & Schuster for a $4.2 million advance (including the rights to a prequel). Evans even wrote a book about his incredible journey, The Christmas Box Miracle.
  • In 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of  The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year, publisher Frederick Warne, who had initially rejected the book, published a commercial edition with color illustrations. Since then, the book has sold more than 40 million copies.
  • Henry David Thoreau self-published Walden in 1854.
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White self-published the writer’s Bible, The Elements of Style.
  • Other famous poets, authors, and playwrights who published some of their own works include:  T.S. Eliot, Lord ByronThomas Hardy, Louis L’Amour, Walt Whitman, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), Stephen Crane, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.

This list just scratches the surface.

The Pelican in the Desert

The Pelican in the Desert: And Other Stories of the Family Farm, edited by David Kubicek

I have, technically, published some of my own work. In 1988 I established Kubicek & Associates to publish an anthology of farm stories I had collected. The book contained one story I had written, about 3,50o words, and 13 stories by other writers. I thought publishing was cool, so I went on to publish three books by other writers and, in 1989, an anthology of horror stories which also contained one of my own stories (again, about 3,500 words) as well as 19 stories by other writers (including a classic story by Henry Kuttner, originally published in 1939).

October Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Mason

October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, edited by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

Self-published books differ from vanity published books by being of a higher quality. They achieve that higher quality by going through a similar process as a traditionally published book. A vanity book, on the other hand, is a book that the author considers to be good enough to publish and pays to have it published – there are no checks and balances, no feedback from other reliable sources, and minimal – if any – revision or copy-editing.

Many years ago during my brief stint in publishing, a copy of a self-published novel came across my desk. The author was selling the thing door-to-door with the goal of making enough sales to impress a major publisher, who would then buy the rights and turn it into a bestseller. In the first place, he would have had to sell lots and lots of copies – we’re talking tens of thousands – to impress a major publisher. Second, the writing was horrid. It was the kind of manuscript the garbage collector would reject. That novel was an example of a vanity-published book;  the author thought his book was good, but others didn’t share his opinion.
Not everyone will like your book or your writing. This is true of every writer, including the likes of Stephen King; but whether you like King or not, he does know how to write and he does know how to tell a story that touches the readers’ emotions.
Here are some guidelines that will keep you from falling into the vanity publishing sludge heap, only a few, but they are important:
  • Make sure your work is well written and that others besides yourself like it. Give the manuscript to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback (don’t give it to friends or family members who will choke back their revulsion and tell you what you want to hear). Soon I will be self-publishing a collection of my short stories – some of them have been published previously, but others haven’t. My wife, Cheryl, is reading the manuscript. So far, she’s found two stories that “don’t do anything” for her. Those stories were immediately deleted, deep-sixed, sent to Mr. Recycle Bin.
  • The book must look and feel professional. It must have an attractive cover, well-written and provocative cover copy, and a bar code (if it is a physical book rather than an ebook), etc. You get the picture.
  • A blurb from a reviewer, author, or expert in your field – while not be essential – may lend credibility to your book and help it sell.
Today with inexpensive publishing services like iUniverse  and free services like those offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble it is much  easier  to self-publish and sell a book than it used to be.
A self-published book is not the stigma it once was. A well-written book that looks profession will be able to hold its own with all of the traditionally published books that are released each year. Keep in mind that you must market your book (if no one hears about it, no one can buy it), and keep your expectations realistic – although you may sell some copies, possibly even a good number of copies, it’s highly unlikely that your self-published book will shoot immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or even come within rock-throwing distance of that list. Although such things have happened, the authors invested much blood, sweat, and tears to get there.

Huckleberry Finn Censorship

Poor Mark Twain. He can’t catch a break.

When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, censors banned it because it portrayed the slave Jim as a human being. Today, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth books in Alabama have joined forces to publish a combined cleansed

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

version of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The new edition will replace the N-word (which, by Gribben’s count, appears 219 times in Huck Finn and 4 times in Tom Sawyer) with the word “slave.”

In the first place, I don’t see how “slave” is an improvement over the N-word. Slavery was not a good thing. It was one of the most shameful conditions ever condoned by this government or any government. So one would think that if the N-word was offensive to school children, “slave” would cause its own share of nightmares.

In the second place, to rewrite Twain is to rewrite history, as the Soviet Union used to do. The N-word was commonly used in Twain’s day. If Twain had meant “slave,” he would have used “slave” instead of the N-word. Remember, it was Twain who said: “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

In the third place, the N-word is a teachable moment. It is an opportunity for teachers to talk a little about the time in which the novel was written and why the N-word, although commonly used then, is offensive today.

We can’t escape our history by denying it. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a literary masterpiece. It should be taught as it was written or not taught at all.

Curtis Brown Writing Course: Not Enough Bang for the Buck

Curtis Brown UK will launch a writing course next year, which the agency touts as “the first and only new writing school to be run by a literary agency.” The course – which will run from May 5 to July 21, 2011 – is designed to help “15 talented writers to produce distinctive, compelling novels.”

Although the agency doesn’t guarantee representation of the student’s completed work, it does guarantee that “every student’s work will be read by a Curtis Brown book agent and every student will receive a detailed critique on their work at the end of the course.”

The price of the course is 1,600 Pounds (approximately $2,533 American).

Although it could be argued that because prospective students must apply and be accepted into the program it is not unlike applying to a college and then paying tuition. My problem with this is that writing a novel is not like taking Geology 101. Writing a good novel comes from practice, lots and lots of practice.

It’s unlikely that a person with little or no writing experience could win one of the coveted 15 spots, and a person who can write well enough to be accepted into the program probably is quite far along the road to becoming a successful novelist. I’m sure this course will impart valuable information, but I’m not sure the students will get enough bang for their bucks.

With all of the resources available on the Web and all of the books about writing (Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook are the best I’ve seen) and the writing groups where members give one another honest feedback,  serious writers probably could learn as much as they would if they spend 1,600 Pounds ($2,533 American) to take this course.

Many agents, probably most agents, will give aspiring writers guidelines for revising their novels – if the agents think the novels promising, and salable – and they will do this for free. An agent asked me for revisions on one of my novels. I made the requested revisions, and she offered representation (she couldn’t sell the novel, but that’s another story).

The point I want to leave you with is: develop your craft, built a network, and – unless you are independently wealthy – think long and hard before you put up the price of a halfway decent used car for a writing course.

Banned Books Week 2010 Begins Sept. 25; Plan to Celebrate

Banned Books Week 2010 begins Saturday Sept. 25 and runs through the following Saturday, Oct. 2. I encourage every reader and writer – every citizen, in fact – to celebrate because it gets to the heart of what the First Amendment is all about. To find local events, do a Google search for Banned Books Week in your area, like the events being planned by Indigo Bridge Books in my hometown.

According to BannedBooksWeek.org, “Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities . . . They object to profanity and slang, and they protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups – or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore contemporary issues and controversies to classic and beloved works of American literature.”

Click here to see a map of book bans and challenges in the US from 2007 to 2009.

To be clear about the terminology, “challenged” means that a book has been objected to, but when it goes before the school board or whoever is charged with considering the matter, it is not removed from the shelves. A “banned” book is one that has been challenged, and the powers-that-be have taken it upon themselves to decide that people should not be allowed to read it and have stripped it unceremoniously from whatever shelves said powers-that-be over have jurisdiction over.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that every work of literature – titles that you would instantly recognize – has been challenged or banned by some powers-that-be somewhere at some time for the sole reason that it’s impossible to please everyone.

Some books have been challenged for the silliest reasons. The Harry Potter series is repeatedly challenged because it supposedly  indoctrinates its readers in black magic. There are villains, to be sure, and these particular villains can do some seriously nasty things to their enemies. But the main characters are good people, and they celebrate Christmas, by God. But instead of fighting with their fists or guns as in western sagas, they use magic. It’s a fantasy, for crying out loud. The author, J.K. Rowling, has said she doesn’t know of a single ready who has said, “Oooo, I want to be a witch when I grow up!” (Although, I must admit, being able to point a wand and turn someone into a toad is somewhat appealing; I have a list.)

I’ll climb down of my soapbox now and mention that I’ve had a couple brushes with those who wish to make the world safe and bland by limiting our knowledge and oA Need to Kill, by Mark Pettitur imaginations. Can’t have us using our imaginations; that would be BAD. (Okay, so maybe my pant leg got caught on a nail protruding from my soapbox; I’ll pull it free and jump down now.)

One brush I had with the keepers of morality was A Need To Kill, by Mark Pettit, a true crime book about child killer John Joubert who terrorized Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s. I didn’t write this book, but I did some fairly heavy editing on it. A local group thought some of the descriptions were too graphic and tried to have it removed from the shelves of ShopKo. I don’t know if they every succeeded. I thought it was kind of cool that a book I’d been involved with was being challenged, and I never followed up on it. Challenging books may be a bad thing, but having a book challenged can be a guilty pleasure for its writer; it’s like earning a merit badge, like having arrived, because he or she is in the company of giants (not real ones, lest some group should challenge this blog post; when I say giants, I mean writers of literary stature).

The other book that ran into some difficulty was October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, a collection of horror stories by various authOctober Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Masonors, which Jeff Mason and I edited. I don’t know if it was formally challenged or banned anywhere, but there were a few indicators that some people were displeased with it:

  • A local radio station was excited to do an interview – until they actually read the book, and then we never heard from them.
  • One lady returned the two copies she’d bought, along with a letter admonishing me for the colorful language used in some of the stories and expressing her hope that the next book we published would be more wholesome.
  • One of my former co-workers was convinced that I was possessed by the devil.

Anyway, find some Banned Book Week events in your area and celebrate. For more information about BBW, check out the American Library Association’s Website.

Structuring Your Novel: Lessons from Screenwriting

About fifteen years ago I decided to write a screenplay, mainly because I’d never written one before, and it was a new challenge. I immediately set about learning everything I could about writing screenplays. Over the next few years I wrote three screenplays and one teleplay, for The X-Files (I wrote it  for the America’s Best contest; I wrote it for the challenge and never expected to get it produced ).

None of the screenplays has yet been produced (although I’m currently in contract negotiations for one of them), but they’ve been read by a variety of producers including the NBC story department, Amblin Entertainment, and George Romero (producer of Night of the Living Dead)–Romero wasn’t able to use the screenplay in question, but he passed it on to New Line Cinema. Two of them were quarter finalists in the America’s Best contest (one of those was my X-Files script).

One thing I took away from my brief stint in screenwriting was a better knowledge of how to structure my novels. It’s called the three-act structure. Most published novelists probably use the three-act structure, but at that time–even though I’d written two novels, both unpublished–I hadn’t been aware of it. I simply tried to write novels like the ones I liked to read. I realized that my novels would have been a lot sharper had I known about the three-act structure when I wrote them.

To structure your novel in three acts, draw a line and divide it into fourths. The first 1/4th is the first act, the second 2/4ths is the second act, and the final 1/4th is the third act.

In the first act introduce the characters and set up the story. In the second act develop the story as your protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. In the third act the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion (or, if you prefer, the hero’s showdown with the villain).

The crucial turning points (there are others, but these are the biggies) are at the end of the first act and at the end of the second. Each turning point commits your protagonist to an unavoidable course of action.

For example, in the film Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is ready to leave the office when she’s called in to interrogate a Russian spy who insinuates that she also is Russian Spy. This is the first turning point. Instead of going home, Salt must escape the building and evade her pursuers while she tries to find the truth; her life has been changed, and she is committed to this course of action.  The second turning point is when Salt discovers that there is another mole in the CIA and is thrust into a final confrontation with him/her. (Since this is a current movie, I’m doing my best to be vague, and even fudge on some of the details, so as not to spoil the film for any of you who haven’t seen it).

The protagonist winning or losing comes at the climax, after which is the resolution. The resolution ties up loose ends, but make it as brief as you can. If you end the story with the climax, the reader feels like Wylie Coyote–falling off a cliff and smacking face-first into the ground, with an anvil falling on top of him. The resolution should give the reader some breathing time.

I won’t tell you the resolution of Salt; that would give too much away. An example of a resolution that is so long it becomes anticlimactic is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The novel is a great read; however, the book goes on for 40 pages beyond the end of the story. Unless you’re a history or a symbology geek, you could stop reading after they catch the bad guy (and they always do in Dan Brown novels, so I”m not giving anything away) and you wouldn’t miss any important story elements.

The second act can be tricky. You’ll notice that it consumes roughly one-half the length of the story. This is where–to put it in the simplest terms–the protagonist strives to reach his goal, but he runs into obstacles, then he has to try something else and have another go at it. Until the second turning point where something happens or something is revealed that pits him in a final battle with the antagonist/villain.

The best way for you to learn this basic structure is to apply it whenever you read a novel or see a movie. Ask yourself when the protagonist’s situation has radically changed, and you’ll have your first and second turning points. Also, watch how writers ease their readers out of their stories after the climax. Dan Brown, I love you, Dude, but don’t use The Lost Symbol as an example of how a story should end.

Should Writers Use Swear Words in Fiction?

Identity Crisis, by Debbi Mack: A Review

Identity CrisisIdentity Crisis by Debbi Mack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Identity Crisis follows former public defender Sam (Stephanie Anne) McRae as she works to clear her client of a murder charge which turns out to be anything but simple. The clues lead her into a case involving identity theft, ties to the mob, a fire in a school lab, and revenge.

Sam’s practice doesn’t make a lot of money. She shares an office building–and a receptionist–with an accountant, her car is an old beater that barely runs, she lives in a small apartment and has trouble paying her bills.

I got the impression that her lack of income has to do with her devotion to her clients, who aren’t necessarily corporate climbers. This makes her the kind of heroine we like to root for.

Not only is this a good mystery, but Mack–an attorney herself–is a good writer. Without slowing the story she makes her setting (Maryland during a hot sticky summer) come alive. She uses a few well-chosen words to give substance to the scenes and to the locale. She even puts in details about the accents of people from different parts of the state.

All in all, this is a good read. I highly recommend it.

For more information visit Debbi Mack’s Website.

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A Man Called Outlaw, by K.M. Weiland: A Review

A Man Called OutlawA Man Called Outlaw by K.M. Weiland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t say too much about the plot of A Man Called Outlaw. To do so might give away too much information, and I hate giving spoilers.

This novel tells two stories, thirty years apart, and switches back and forth between them–a few chapters in 1887, then a few chapters in 1858-9, then back to 1887 again. In the end the story-lines merge, and loose ends are tied up.

I hope that’s not giving away too much. But it’s obvious from the beginning that there are two stories going on. I even guessed the big secret long before the ending, but that didn’t lessen the suspense. I was still eager to see how the story played out.

The author does a good job of maintaining suspense, and despite what I thought I knew, it kept me riveted until the end. In addition to the “greedy rancher trying to force the smaller ranchers off their land” plot, the 1887 protagonist, Shane Lassiter, is struggling with his own ethical and moral dilemma. Both problems are resolved in the novel’s explosive conclusion.

Have I given too much away? I’ll shut up now. This is a great read and a good addition to every western afficianado’s library.

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Images From A Writing Retreat

From July 16 to 18 I participated in the Nebraska Writers Guild’s annual retreat, Write Across Nebraska (WAN). This year a retreat was held in three locations: Valentine, Grand Island, and Schuyler. I was one of 20 who attended the Schuyler retreat (or the Eastern WAN), which is in the northeastern part of the state, about 68 miles from Lincoln.

The retreat was held at the Saint Benedict Center, a non-profit retreat and conference center, which was established by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory. It is primarily used for religious retreats but other groups are welcome.  The mission, which was established in 1934, is built into the side of a hill across the road.

The Center–which is about four miles north of Schuyler–resembles Lincoln’s Southeast Community college but with religious imagery and stained glass windows. There is a lake with a fountain and a statue of St. Benedict in it, benches and tables outside, and a walking path around the lake. Meals were served buffet-style in the cafeteria from 7:30-8:15 a.m., 12:15-1:00 p.m., and 6:15-7:00 p.m., although there was a refreshment area where guests could get coffee and other drinks all day.

There was little to distract us from our writing–no TV or telephones in the rooms, and because of the Center’s location in the hills wireless phone reception was almost impossible from inside the building (although some fellow writers reported being able to make calls from outside). I managed to send a few text messages from my room but that was it.

We didn’t write all weekend. Saturday morning Sally Walker, President of the Guild, and Connie Crow, the Guild’s Secretary, each led a class. I think most of us attended. I’ve been writing for a while (no, I won’t tell you how long, but if you’re motivated you could figure it out by looking at the bibliography on my Website) but I always learn something new from every class I attend, and last weekend was no exception.

Saturday night we had a reading. Everyone who wanted to could read from his or her work-in-progress. Readings ranged from poetry, to memoir, to song lyrics, to fiction. All of it showcased the wide range of talent in the Nebraska Writers Guild. I read approximately the first 750 words of my young adult dystopian novel, working title: Beyond the Wall. It was the first time I read from that novel anywhere.

The rest of the time we spent writing. I wrote 2,310 words more on Beyond the Wall, which actually was toward the lower end of production; some writers wrote several thousand words. But I have an excuse. I wrote in longhand (well, actually I printed because I wanted to be able to read it later), and I don’t write my first drafts at white heat; I am constantly rewriting and revising as I go.

Checkout time was 10:00 a.m. Sunday, but we had the conference room (where we held the classes and the readings) all day. So after we checked out, some of us congregated in the common room for a little final writing.

In all, the retreat was a relaxing and productive experience. If you have an opportunity I encourage you to attend one.

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A Date You Can’t Refuse, by Harley Jane Kozak: A Review

A Date You Can't RefuseA Date You Can’t Refuse by Harley Jane Kozak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Date You Can’t Refuse is the fourth installment of Harley Jane Kozak’s mysteries involving Wollie Shelley, who is described on the back cover copy as a “serial dater,” presumably because she often ends up dating Mr. Wrong.

Writing is a second career for Kozak, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her first career is in acting. Born Susan Jane Kozak she took her stage name from the motorcycle and began her career on a soap opera and eventually appeared in such A-list movies as Arachnophobia and Parenthood.

Wollie Shelley is a greeting card artist. She’s a good artist but not financially successful. To complicate matters, her brother – who is mentally ill and in a halfway house – has been threatened with eviction.

Reluctantly, Wollie (short for Wollstonecraft, after Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th Century feminist) accepts an undercover assignment from F.B.I. agent Bennett Graham. She is to be a Social Coach for a company called MediaRex. In exchange, Graham promises to make sure her brother is allowed to remain in the halfway house.

A “Social Coach,” as it turns out, is a combination of chauffeur and etiquette coach. Her pupils are visitors from Eastern Europe who must be introduced to American customs. The F.B.I. thinks something nefarious is going on. Wollie’s job is to plant three bugs, each in a specific area of the house, and to report on anything out-of-the-ordinary that might be said or done at the compound.

The story makes many twists and turns on its suspenseful path to a surprise ending. Wollie is endearing as the narrator, revealing much about herself. She doesn’t have the makeup to be a spy – she must even be coached by her friends Joey and Fredreeq on how to lie – but she is committed to taking care of her brother.

The quirky characters whom Wollie coaches provide much of the humor. There is Zbiggo, the burley over-sexed boxer who spends much of his time unconscious and a good portion of the rest of his time getting into trouble. And Felix, who wrote a book called Jesus Made Me Skinny, and is in this country for an operation to remove the folds of skin left hanging on his body when the fat melted away.

Other mysteries in the Wollie Shelley series are Dating Dead Men, Dating is Murder, and Dead Ex. A Date You Can’t Refuse is an excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

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Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

What the Movies Would be like Without Writers

It has been said–or at least implied–that on Hollywood’s ladder of respect, the screenwriter is one rung below the janitor who cleans the studio. This short video, to paraphrase the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, will give writers a rare gift, a chance to see what the movies would be like without them.

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work

There are two schools of thought about how writers write:

  • Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are  consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
  • Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.

I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.

When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.

When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.

I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.

As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.

I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.

The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:

  • If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
  • Be patient.

How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.

The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.

This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer  to try to develop.

I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).

If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.

Poll: Do You Write by Longhand or Computer?

Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trade paperback edition of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, hit bookstores on October 5, 2009, and within a week had climbed to number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. By October 23 it had peaked at number 13. Since then it has remained in the top 30, ranging up and down from the mid teens to the high 20s (as I write this on the first day of summer 2010, it is #27).

An unusual achievement for a first novel, but Hotel is an unusual novel. It is about the relationship between Henry Lee, who is Chinese, and Keiko Okabe, who is Japanese. The story begins in 1986 when Seattle’s Panama Hotel is preparing to re-open after having been closed for more than forty years. The personal belongings of many Japanese families are found in the basement–apparently stashed there when the families are relocated to internment camps during WWII. Henry gets permission to go through the treasures, searching for anything that might have belonged to the Okabe family, but in particular for a recording by a local jazz artist that he and Keiko had shared when they were 12 years old. Although Henry married (his wife has recently died) and had a son, the memory of his first love has always haunted him because they were separated when she and her family were sent to a camp. To complicate matters, Henry’s father despises the Japanese because they are the enemies of China. He makes Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button so that he won’t be mistaken for the enemy.

This is a love story, but it is also about subtle forms of racism. Henry is not accepted by other Chinese kids because he attends a Caucasian school. Keiko is sent to an internment camp although she is third generation American and doesn’t even speak Japanese. The story shifts deftly between 1986 and the 1940s. Ford’s research and writing style make the war years and his characters come alive. Especially poignant is Ford’s depiction of the death of a community after its residents are rounded up and shipped out. An excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

Ford himself is of Chinese descent. His great grandfather, Min Chung, who immigrated to the U.S. around 1865, changed his name to the more western-sounding William Ford. Jamie Ford’s second novel is scheduled for release in early 2011. For more information, visit Jamie’s Website.

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When You Should be Paid for Your Writing, and When it’s okay Not to be Paid

In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in a nearly three and a half minute segment–laced with, as Spock said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, many “colorful metaphors”–writer Harlan Ellison rants that writers must be paid for everything they write. Everything.

In general, I agree with him. People–sometimes even editors, who should know better–undervalue writers. Isn’t there an old joke in Hollywood that when it comes to power and respect the screenwriter is one step below the janitor who cleans up the studio?

Back in the days when I was doing writing-for-hire work, a fellow wanted me to write his book, for which he magnanimously offered to pay me $100. To write the whole book. That’s one of the reasons I no longer seek writing-for-hire jobs.

Ellison scoffs at the idea of giving away his writing for publicity; publicity, he says, will not do him as much good as cold, hard cash. He’s probably right. Ellison has been writing for more than fifty years and has a respectable track record across several genres, including television. So the publicity value of working for free is negligible, but the cash would buy some groceries.

But for writers at certain stages in their careers, giving away freebies may be helpful. These stages include:

  • Beginners who are trying to become noticed.
  • Writers who are known locally or regionally and are trying to broaden their appeal.
  • Writers who are trying to create platforms, to brand themselves, to become known as an experts of particular subjects.
  • Writers who already have platforms but want to promote their expertise in other areas.

All of the above can be done most effectively on the Web where writers can create their own Websites and blogs, can be guest writers on other blogs, and can comment on blog posts they read. This is a seriously cool time to be a writer; creating a platform is much quicker and easier than before the advent of the Internet. The networking possibilities are virtually limitless.

As I wrote in an earlier post, one of the Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career is marketing. When I write for my blog or other blogs or post articles at other sites around the Web, I’m working in the marketing/PR area; the free work I do will eventually pay off in a growing audience for my work.  Writing is an art, and I would write even if I never made a dime, but when I move on to the production step, I’m writing fiction and nonfiction for which I eventually expect to be paid.

For another perspective on being paid for your writing see the blog of novelist Allison Winn Scotch.

Review of Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is hilarious. The Backstory: Justin Halpern started a Twitter account (of the same title) where he tweeted humorous quotes from his father. He didn’t tweet quotes frequently, but before he knew it he had over 1 million followers and was getting calls from agents. One result was this book, which quickly shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The Dad in the title has a potty mouth (one reason I recommend it for adults), but he is an educated man, a doctor who spent his career in research. At the end of each chapter is a list of quotes on various subjects. Each chapter tells a story about a different experience Justin had growing up and what he learned from his dad in the process.

View all my reviews >>

Day Jobs of Famous Writers Before They Were Famous

Most writers have been faced with the challenge of making a living while waiting for that big break. Day jobs I’ve held included dishwasher, custodian, film processing lab technician, copy-editor, advertising copywriter, publisher, and print shop stripper (it’s nothing dirty; I “stripped” negatives into paper frames which were used to “burn” offset printing plates–with today’s direct-to-plate technology, printers may not even need strippers anymore).

Here’s a look at jobs held by a few famous writers before they were famous. Some of them eventually were able to write full-time, others never sold enough books and had to keep their day jobs, and others like Scott Turow (who continues to practice law) and John Grisham (who remains interested in politics and considered running for U.S. Senator from Virginia in 2006) maintain their non-writing career interests.

  • Dashiel Hammet: The author of hard-boiled detective stories and novels started out as a private detective. His first case?  To track down a thief who had stolen a Ferris Wheel.
  • John Grisham: Author of such legal thrillers as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, is an attorney who, from 1983 to 1990, served as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
  • Jack London: The author of White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea Wolf had a variety of experiences, including oyster pirate, gold prospector, and rail-riding hobo .
  • Langston Hughes: One of the first African American authors who was able to support himself by writing, he was, according to legend, discovered by poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a  busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hughes had dropped his poems beside Lindsay’s plate. In his poetry reading Lindsay included several of Hughes’s poems, which resulted in journalists clamoring to interview the “busboy poet.”
  • William Carlos Williams: The poet and fiction writer was an excellent pediatrician and general practitioner, although he worked harder at his writing than he did at medicine.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: The American poet, philosopher, and essayist assisted his brother William in a school for young women they ran out of their mother’s house.  He later was a minister and lecturer.
  • Henry David Thoreau: He began as Emerson’s handyman, moved on to selling vegetables, returned to the family pencil business, was a tutor and a teacher.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables was a weighter and a gauger at the Boston Custom House, which housed government offices for processing paperwork for the import and export of goods. Later he was Surveyor for the districts  of Salem and Beverly as well as Inspector of Revenue for the Port of Salem. He also wrote a campaign biography of his friend, Franklin Pierce, in which he left out some key information, such as Pierce’s drinking.  On his election, Pierce rewarded Hawthorne with the position of United States consul in Liverpool.
  • Dan Brown: Before striking gold with Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol , he was a high school English teacher.
  • Zane Grey: Early 20th century author of such popular novels as Riders of the Purple Sage, he would eventually publish nearly 90 books and sell more than 50 million copies worldwide. After years of rejection, he sold his first book at age 40 and was able to give up his day job as a dentist, a job that he hated.
  • J. K. Rowling: After her daughter was born and she separated from her husband, the author of the Harry Potter series left her job in Portugal, where she taught English as a second language, and returned to school to study for her postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) so she could teach in Scotland. She completed her first novel while on welfare.
  • Mary Higgins Clark: After graduating from high school, she was secretary to the head of the creative department in the internal advertising division of Remington-Rand, a business machines manufacturer. She took evening classes in advertising and promotion and was promoted to writing catalog copy–future novelist Joseph Heller was a coworker. She also modeled for company brochures with aspiring actress Grace Kelly. Her thirst for adventure led her to become a stewardess for Pan American Airlines where she was on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron curtain cut off east from west.
  • Harlan Ellison: The man who would later distinguish himself as a preeminent speculative fiction and mystery writer held many jobs before he was 20 years old, including tuna fisherman, itinerant crop-picker, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, department store floorwalker, and door-to-door brush salesman.
  • Scott Turow: The author of such best selling novels as Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors, still practices law as a partner of the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, although on most of his cases he works pro bono.
  • Nicholas Sparks: After graduating from college the author of such best sellers as The Notebook, Dear John, and The Last Song tried to find work in the publishing industry and applied to law school but had no luck in either area. So he embarked on other careers, including real estate appraisal, waiting tables, selling dental products by phone, and starting a manufacturing business.

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Unitarian minister and scholar Dr. Wesley Hromatko, who inspired me to look into the day jobs of some famous authors.

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall

In this video, mystery writer Parnell Hall takes a humorous look at many authors’ worst nightmare: showing up at their book signing, but nobody comes. Diehard writers–and country music fans–can’t help but chuckle.

Visit Parnell Hall’s Website.

One Writer’s Process for Writing a Novel

I’m at the end of what, to me, is the most annoying part of the writing process: planning the story.

When I started writing, I wrote short stories, tons of them. My process of writing a short story is much like Ray Bradbury’s. Bradbury said: “My stories run up and bite me on the leg–I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.”

A novel is a different beast. It is generally 50,000 to 100,000 words. Most of us couldn’t write one of them in an afternoon. Not even the prolific writer Isaac Asimov managed that. The story tension must be maintained throughout. There are usually many characters that must be kept straight and a few subplots that must interact in just the right ways.

Unlike a short story, which grabs my leg and hangs on until I write it down, a novel to me is more like hit and run. Then I have to catch it and wrestle it to the ground and try to tame it. At first, I have fun thinking of the possibilities. But as I get down to specifics the irritation sets in.

This is the period during which passersby accuse me of sitting around doing nothing or even sleeping. Well, sometimes I am sleeping, but sleeping is the best time to work on your story. It really is. You prime the pump, so to speak, by thinking hard about your story, then you drift off to sleep and let your subconscious do the work. You’d be surprised what kinds of revelations pop into your mind the next time you’re working on your story–while you’re awake, I mean.

Sometimes during the planning process I get a lot figured out. Sometimes not. That’s when I get impatient and start writing. I’ve never been good at just starting to write and letting the story flow–unless I have a solid idea of what the story’s about. If I don’t have the characters and their purpose in the story well delineated, if I don’t have a solid conflict, if I don’t have some idea of where I’m going, I usually wind up with hundreds of pages of junk.

When I wrote my second novel (which, alas, still is unpublished) it took me six months to get it started. I wrote, then threw away what I had written and started over. I did this several times. I’m not alone in using this method. Mark Twain wrote 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn, then tossed it and began again.

NOTE: I don’t mention my first novel simply because it was so bad that the garbage collector refused to touch it–he suggested I call the hazardous waste people.

I’ve been working on my current novel, a young adult dystopian story, for weeks (all right, months), and I still haven’t quite got it figured out. I have, however, just written a clear, concise paragraph in which my heroine states precisely what she wants and the major obstacle standing in her way of reaching her goal.

The paragraph has a character, a setting, a conflict, and a nemesis–although we don’t know from reading the paragraph that one of the other characters mentioned is the nemesis. That’s a surprise I’m saving for later.

Although I usually see a short story in its entirety and follow a familiar path to a foreseen conclusion, I usually begin my longer works without knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Sometimes I know how they will end, but sometimes I don’t. This is one of those times.

A famous sculptor, I forget who, said that he sees his finished work in a block of stone. He just chips away everything that isn’t part of his final sculpture. I look at writing the same way: the story is there, the writer just has to reveal it.

I’m ready to start the next phase, the less annoying phase, and start expanding on the paragraph. I’m ready to start revealing my story. I have a heroine and a nemesis, a setting, and a conflict. I want to find out what’s going to happen to these characters. My typing fingers are itching.

That’s a sketch of my writing process. What is your process?

Favorite Quotes, Part I

Once upon a time there lived a king who hungered to know all the wisdom in the universe. He assembled a group of the wisest men in the kingdom and sent them out on a mission to discover this wisdom and write it down. The wise men went out and after many years returned with five huge volumes packed from cover to cover with wisdom.

The king stared in horror at the five volumes and said, ” That’s too long!”

The wise men worked for several more years and returned with one volume, but the king thought that was still too long. So they condensed it to one chapter, then to one paragraph, and finally to one sentence.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

“That’s it!” the king cried. “That’s the wisdom of the universe.”

The sentence read: “There ain’t no free lunch.”

I don’t know the origin of that story, but I first heard it several years ago from Zig Ziglar. He used it to illustrate the principle that to get something out of life you must work for it–the universe will only reward you if you are willing to make an effort.

I like quotes like this. They are short and to the point, and the good ones hold nuggets of truth; some of the truths are profound discoveries, others are whimsical or satirical observations about life.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

  • “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ~ Sylvia Plath
  • “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision” ~Helen Keller
  • “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Why should writing be the only profession that gives a special name to difficulty of working.” ~ Philip Pullman
  • “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” ~ Mark Twain
  • “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison
  • “You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer.”- Isaac Asimov
  • “Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.” – Robert A. Heinlein
  • “Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat.” – Robert A. Heinlein

    Mark Twain

    Mark Twain

  • “Some critics will write ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer’ – which is right after being a natural heart surgeon.” – Maya Angelou
  • ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” -Mark Twain
  • “People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do” ~Lewis Cass
  • “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” – Mark Twain
  • “People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.” – Earl Nightingale
  • “Whatever the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve.” ~ W. Clement Stone
  • “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” ~ Mark Twain
  • “Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist, but in the ability to start over.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “You fail only if you stop writing.” – Ray Bradbury

    Ernest Hemingway

    Ernest Hemingway

  • “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” – Ernest Hemingway
  • “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.” ~ Lou Holtz
  • “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” ~ Milton Berle
  • “A year from now you may wish you had started today.” – Karen Lamb
  • “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” ~Mark Twain

I’ve got lots more favorites. Maybe I’ll do a Favorite Quotes part II someday.

What are some of your favorite quotes?

Why You Need An Agent

Do you really need a literary agent to sell your novel?

Probably not; however, you should have one. The reason is simple–writers write. If writers also try to sell their work and handle the business deals, they have less time to write.

There are several reasons you should stick to writing and let the agents handle the sales and business deals:

  • Selling a manuscript is a specialized skill. You would have to  do extensive research on the types of fiction publishers are buying and which editors are reading which categories of fiction. And you’d have to keep up-to-date–editors move around, and their needs change.
  • Agents have made contacts in the publishing industry–doing the research and keeping up-to-date is their job.
  • Agents can often get your work read more quickly than you can if you submit it yourself; the editor may not know you, but he knows the agent and trusts her judgment, so he’s more likely to put your novel on the front burner.
  • Agents sometimes can set up an auction situation where several publishers bid on a manuscript; this would be difficult, if not impossible, for an unknown writer to do himself.
  • Agents know the ins and outs of contracts. They try to get their clients the best deals they can and hold on to subsidiary rights (film, TV, foreign, etc.)–the inexperienced author might inadvertently sign away some of these rights to the publisher. Being able to navigate contracts is more important than ever now that  eBooks are at the center of a controversy about what royalties should be paid, how earnings should be reported, and the rights that will be retained by the author or sold to the publisher.
  • Agents interpret the royalty statements, which can be a pain if you’re not familiar with publishers’ accounting procedures.

It’s not as difficult to get an agent as you might think. Do the following two things, and you should be able to find one :

  • Write a good novel, one that people will want to read.
  • Write a good query letter, one that will inspire the agent to ask for a partial or the complete manuscript.

To write a good novel, there is no substitute for practice, lots of practice. An excellent guide to writing a novel that people will want to read is literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Those books not only have good information on how to write a novel that people will want to read, but they also offer some insight into what agents and publishers look for in a manuscript.

To write a good query letter, here are a few things to remember:

  • Keep your letter to one page.
  • Try to make a connection with the agent. Keep it brief, like “I met you at such and such conference.” If you haven’t met or corresponded with the agent, do some research about her to see if there is something you can work in, such as a similarity between your novel and another she has represented. But don’t try to force a connection; if you don’t have one it’s better not to say anything. Say something like, “I’ve just completed an 85,000-word literary novel entitled [you novel’s title].”
  • The next paragraph should be your “hook,” a one-line summary of your novel’s conflict, what makes it unique. Then write a few sentences expanding on the hook. Include the main characters and the setting.
  • Next write a short paragraph about you. Keep it short. If you’ve had fiction published, mention it. If you have some special knowledge or experience that is relevant to your novel, put that down. If you’re a beginner with no published works or special experience, leave this part out. It won’t hurt you. The agent probably will have decided to ask for a partial on the basis of your hook and description. If he has decided not to ask for a partial, he probably won’t finish reading the query.
  • End by asking the agent if she would like to see the complete manuscript, and thank her for taking the time to read your letter. Very important. Don’t leave that last part out, the thanking her part. The agent will then ask for a partial, the complete manuscript, or will pass on your novel.

It’s okay to send queries to several agents simultaneously. Most agents expect this, but if you receive an offer of representation it is common courtesy to inform the other agents to whom you have submitted.

It’s as important to craft your query letter as carefully as you crafted your novel. The query is your main sales tool; too many writers spend most of their time an energy writing their novels, then dash off a slipshod query and expect agents to be trampling one another to get their hands on what is surely to be a hot best seller.

I’ve only sketched in the process finding an agent. For for information in much more depth, check out Guide To Literary Agents and Pub Rants. Not only do those two Websites tell you how to do it, they give you samples of queries that worked. Also, do some Web surfing yourself. You’ll find more information on writing queries than you’ll need.

Happy writing!

Rejections of Famous Authors Before they were Famous

I heard a speaker at a writing conference remark recently that many talented writers remain unpublished while the works of many marginal or bad writers find their way into print. Writers who keep sending their work out will eventually be published.

Among the rejection slips I’ve  received, my favorite was from a science fiction anthology: a full-page drawing of a dragon dabbing at his eyes with a kleenex as its tears flowed down.  It was much funnier than these meager words can describe. I once showed it to a friend, also a science fiction writer, who didn’t find it quite as amusing. It’s a matter of attitude; I couldn’t do anything about the rejection, and it was a change of pace from the usual, uninspired  form letter.

If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of an expanding  file of rejections, perhaps this list of the receptions of some famous authors and their work will help.

  • Crash by J.G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  • Dr. Seuss: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway: “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
  • The San Francisco Examiner, rejecting Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  • Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” Sixteen publishers rejected the novel. When it finally saw print it sold more than 25 million copies.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback.” The novel eventually sold to Avon Books and racked up sales of more than 7.25 million copies.
  • Tony Hillerman, best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels was advised by publishers to “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ … I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'”
  • Although Emily Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime, an early rejection advised her: “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • So many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter published it herself.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • One publisher to another  on John le  Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: “You’re welcome to le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: “We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless … we don’t think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves.”
  • The Deer Park by Norman Mailer: “This will set publishing back 25 years.”
  • Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

And my favorite:

  • Sanctuary by William Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

Fiction editing is a subjective process. There will always be editors who think your writing is crap, but there are also editors who will be enthusiastic about it. You just have to find them. And the only way to find them is to keep sending out your work.

Censorship: The Dumbing Down of Society

What do the following books have in common?

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Give up?

They are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned and challenged classics. There are a few dead giveaways on that list, but others probably will surprise you (Winnie-The-Pooh? What’s that all about?). The puny sampling above does not do the list justice. Hemingway and Faulkner are on it (several times), Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and Stephen King. The list reads as a virtual Who’s Who of literature.

Once, in an indirect way, I had a brush with censorship. A Need To Kill (Ballantine, 1990) by Mark Pettit, published in hardcover in 1990 by Media Publishing, was the story of convicted child-killer John Joubert, who had terrorized the Omaha bedroom community of Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s.

Media had contracted with Pettit, a reporter for an Omaha TV station and the only journalist at that time to have  interviewed Joubert in prison, to write the book. When the chapters started coming in, publisher Jerry Kromberg thought they were a bit skimpy. Pettit was used to writing 30- to 60-second news reports giving just the facts. So Kromberg asked me to beef up the chapters so they could get a decent-sized book out of it. The hardcover first printing of the resulting book sold out in a few days, and Ballantine snapped up the mass market paperback rights.

A group of local folks weren’t too happy with the book. They petitioned  ShopKo to remove it from their shelves. I don’t know if ShopKo removed it. I saw a newspaper article detailing the effort, then I heard nothing, and I didn’t go to ShopKo to see if A Need To Kill was still on the shelves.

I don’t know the specific charges against A Need To Kill, but I can guess–graphic violence and some sexual content–and I’m not putting A Need To Kill on the same level as any of the books on the  ALA’s banned and challenged list.

My point is some group, somewhere is going to have a problem with almost anything that is published. One reason the Harry Potter books were challenged is that they “encourage” witchcraft. Really? The main characters have a well-defined moral compass, and they celebrate Christmas. They just happen to be able to do magic (which would be kind of cool), which they try to use responsibly. This is fiction. It exercises the imagination, stimulates brain cells, and. I hope, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s (although the verdict is still out on that last point).

One reason often used to challenge Huckleberry Finn is the frequent use of the “N” word and the depiction of  African-Americans as slaves. Huckleberry Finn was set in the 1840s when the “N” word was in common use, and African-Americans were slaves. The novel is true of our society at that time. Oh, and one other thing, Huck is not a racist; during their trip down the river, as he comes to know Jim as a human being, he rethinks commonly held ideas about the races that he’d once taken for granted.  This was a progressive position for the time when Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885.

I admit that some parents might not want their children to read certain things until they are old enough to understand them. That is the parents’ right, but it is also their responsibility to monitor books their children are reading (or TV shows they are watching or games they are playing or Websites they are visiting).

But I have a problem when others decide  my son or me or any other adult should be allowed to read. And to remove certain books from library and bookstore shelves is to make them less available for those of us who prefer to decide for ourselves.

Censorship eats away at our civilization, dumbing down our society and stifling our imagination. It has plagued our world ever since human beings first began to make chicken scratches on stone tablets (obviously I have no data for this, but I can imagine one cave dude shattering a stone tablet on another cave dude’s head because he didn’t like the fellow’s story of The Hunt). The Nazi book burnings scared the crap out of a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who visualized what our future would become if books were outlawed. The result was Bradbury’s 1953 short novel Fahrenheit 451, which to me is the ultimate condemnation of censorship.

There is, however, an upside for authors who have their books banned: readers want to  know why, so the authors often will experience a boost in sales.

I’ve rambled on for more than 800 words. Now it’s your turn. What do you think about censorship: for it, against it, don’t care?

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