Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fanfare for the Common Man, Courtesy of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and We Have a Winner

First, the fanfare:

After eliminating the names of those players who already have a copy of the book, I have scientifically (using bits of torn paper with names scribbled on them and a large piece of pottery) chosen a random winner from the remaining entrants. And the winner of a brand new copy of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café , by William Hammett is:


Simply send an email to lisa.eudaemonia at gmail with your mailing address and a copy of the book will be there before the weekend!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Conversation With William Hammett

William Hammett is a poet, novelist and ghostwriter. I met Billy through his blog, Chapter and Verse. I connected so strongly with his flash fiction and poetry that I ordered his latest novel, John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café and I was blown away.

I asked him if he’d be willing to participate in a Q&A for Eudaemonia and he generously agreed to indulge my questions.

I shamelessly lifted the following information on Billy’s background and work from his ghostwriting site.

“Through the years, I have built a rapport with various agents and editors at major publishers and firms while submitting my work. These generous people at Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and McIntosh & Otis, to name a few, helped me shape my work into publishable form. Subsequently, I published Rimsky Rises (young adult novel) and Salamander Illusions (literary fiction) with Word Wrangler Publishing. I also published The Erotic Manifesto (an indictment of America's selling of sex in the marketplace) with Word Wrangler, which sold the rights to Seven Rivers Press after two years although Word Wrangler still sells it. I have written several middle readers and children's picture books. Additionally, I have authored mainstream fiction and two horror novels, the first of which was a finalist for the Anubis Award for horror fiction.

My latest novel, published in September of 2007, is John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café. It is sci-fi/fantasy, although readers who like literary and mainstream fiction will also enjoy the book. It is a "rock-and-roll Field of Dreams," with John Lennon alive and unaware of his assassination.

I have an MA in English and thirty graduate hours in education. I taught writing for twenty years at colleges and universities and have given numerous seminars on getting published, selecting agents, and submitting manuscripts. Before publishing books under my own name, I wrote newspaper columns, edited company newsletters, did technical writing, and wrote short stories.

I have always been interested in verse and have published poetry in American Poets & Poetry, Pegasus, Poem, Black Buzzard Review, The Lyric, Tight, Creative Juices, Twilight Ending, Angelflesh, Lynx, Parnassus Literary Journal, Offerings, and many others.

I have worked with many clients during the last eight years to help them produce their own manuscripts. I have worked with corporations, celebrities, sportsmen, housewives, ministers, social workers, engineers, artists, politicians - in other words, people from all walks of life. I have written nonfiction on numerous subjects for my clients, and fiction representing several different genres: mainstream, literary, horror, romance, adventure, science fiction, historical fiction, humor/satire, and more.”

LISA: Your work definitely reminds me of Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut and maybe even Douglas Adams. Have you always written magical realism?

BILLY: I have been heavily influenced by the work of Robbins and Vonnegut. I love Robbins' eccentric style, full of attitude and word play. With Vonnegut, now deceased, I love the way he would make outrageous plots sound believable, mastering the "willing suspension of disbelief." As for magical realism, John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe is the only novel where I've fished those waters, injecting fiction into historical events. It still uses a quirky style, but it's the first time I tried it. It's a rock and roll Field of Dreams. Instead of bringing Shoeless Joe back, I brought back Lennon.

LISA: Based on your descriptions in John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe I'd think you were a native New Yorker. Have you spent much time in New York?

BILLY: I'm a native of New Orleans and still live in the vicinity, but I have traveled to New York to see friends and relatives many times in the past few years. I've spent enough time there to get past the "touristy" aspect of the city, although I haven't ever lived there. Also, it should be said that much of what the country sees about New Orleans in movies is a mindset, part mythical, that has been perpetuated over the years. While it is indeed a special place, residents get up and go to work as in any other city. Yes, we have Mardi Gras, good food, and the French Quarter (only one Dixieland jazz club in the entire Quarter), but the image of constant partying is incorrect, which will be mildly heretical to natives who might read this. The only accent we have, by the way, is a Brooklyn accent in the suburbs, such as the 9th ward. There was a mass emigration from Brooklyn to Louisiana in the early part of the twentieth century. So I don't look at authors as southern writers vs. "others." That's heretical too, but I'm an iconoclast by nature. I love my hometown, but Hollywood never gets it right. It’s a complex, multicultural environment (not as much after Katrina) that can’t be pigeonholed.

LISA: Both of your novels have female main characters and they're very convincing. Did they evolve naturally from the story, or was writing from the female point of view an intentional choice.

BILLY: My best friends have always been females. Males have been in the minority. I'm not sure why. With the Lennon novel, it seemed more natural to have a female fan interact with the pop icon.

LISA: You managed to touch on some significant historical events in the book, without ever making us aware that you were doing it. We start out early in 2007 and you reference the Iraq War, Homeland Security and Bush, but I don't think you ever bring up the events of 9/11. Since Lennon was very much a part of New York City, did you consider "telling" him about September 11th?

BILLY: No. I mention the Iraq War for all of two lines, and part of novel deals with the FBI, which was always chasing Lennon in the 70s, feeling that he might be a security risk. I thought that if he somehow "returned," the FBI would be more paranoid than ever. But I didn't want to mention 9/11 or delve deeply into current events since this is a work of fantasy that attempts to deal with the mystical more than politics.

LISA: Are you a poet first and a novelist second, or do you find the two forms complementary?

BILLY: I've never favored one over the other. I do find that writing poetry, with its tight, demanding syntax, keeps my brain sharper for prose and therefore contributes to varied sentence structures.

LISA: Tell me a little about ghostwriting. I find it fascinating and I imagine it as the kind of enterprise where someone -- perhaps a wealthy person -- wants to write a memoir, but they need some help in doing so. Is this a typical scenario, or am I way off base?

BILLY: I do work for celebrities sometimes, but unfortunately most of my clients aren't wealthy. Most people who query me want me to write their memoirs, but I turn them down. Memoirs don't sell unless one has been in the limelight (with some exceptions). Some of my clients make it into traditional publishing, getting contracts with major New York houses, while others get contracts with independent publishers. But there are no guarantees. Many don't get published at all or turn to POD. The marketplace is tougher than ever. The hardest part is walking into B&N and seeing my work making big bucks for other people, but I have to work for a flat fee and not a percentage of royalties since not every book "earns out" and makes money. But it's better than a nine to five job!

LISA: What are the kinds of ghostwriting projects that you’re excited about working on?

BILLY: I like intelligent nonfiction that has something important to say. I like to write about metaphysics, or the intersection of quantum mechanics and spirituality. In a larger sense, I’m interested in working with clients who are intelligent and mature and know the realities of the literary marketplace. Most clients have unrealistic expectations for their books.

LISA: What is the worst writing advice that you yourself have been given and what's the worst advice that you see other people listening to?

BILLY: To heavily outline. If a character has any vitality, you can't restrain him or her. As local bestselling novelist Walker Percy used to say, "I can't tell my characters what to do. They have to tell me." My outlines are mere skeletons, with plot resolutions nothing more than distant stars on the horizon. I trust that the story will tell me how to get there. (This is more heresy, but it's the way I work.)

LISA: You taught writing for over twenty years and I absolutely love your list of Twenty Things You're Not Likely to Find in a Book About Writing” . What are the biggest novice fiction writer mistakes?

BILLY: Listening to the advice of others. I don't think writing can be taught per se. I always regarded myself as a mentor, nothing more. As Stephen King says in On Writing, the best way to practice the craft is to read a lot and write a lot. I grew up with a book in my hand from age seven on. Students no longer read from what I can see. They don't learn syntax or plotting. I'm not saying you can't learn from others or pick up ideas, but I think as soon as one sits down and starts asking, "What do I do?" and begins to obsess, the battle is already lost. I believe in Ray Bradbury's advice in Zen in the Art of Writing. Relax and have fun. Let the plot and characters grow organically.

LISA: I keep reading that there are more people writing than reading. There are more print and online literary magazines than one can count, yet most of them don’t last a year, and you can’t swing a dead cat without running into an MFA graduate. The typical published writer still needs a day job and yet more people than ever seem to be writing. Do you have any theories as to why? Do you think the reasons people are motivated to write have changed?

BILLY: Blogs, message boards, and websites have enabled people to acquire limited audiences. Some online writing is quite good, while much is deplorable and shows an ignorance of the basics of grammar, usage, and style. On balance, it’s healthy. After all, Sister Mary Henrietta was hoping all those years ago to make us literate. And yet, as you point out, more people write than read. Many of my potential clients see the golden ring, the movie deal, the reviews in the New York Times. They think that if a book is written, it will surely be published. I place the blame on poor educational systems. Today’s college curriculum is easier than the high school curriculum when I was growing up. Students graduate, unable to write a coherent essay. They don’t know the cause of WW I and can’t point to New Zealand on the map. Worse yet, they are not challenged by teachers. They never learn to think. This is a generalization, but ever since Sputnik was launched in 1957, language arts went out the window. All we ever hear about is “science and math” from politicians (who know zip about education), although Obama seems to be stressing the arts. Without teaching the arts, we are breeding a generation that is culturally poor. But computer technology to the rescue! It’s fun to write—to journal (an odious verb)—but are we really interested in reading about Bambi’s sexual escapades on prom night? I also think it’s related to the above problems in society. People have a need to reveal their thoughts. Much of blogging, I think, is unconscious therapy. People are looking for validation. Regardless, self-expression is good and there are many good writers out there who wouldn’t be published otherwise. Getting ideas down in any form is better than letting them fester within. I just wish people had a more solid educational background. Consider the soldiers in WW II. With only a high school education, they sent letters home that were eloquent and beautifully written—almost poetic--as evidenced by Ken Burns documentary, THE WAR.

LISA: You've published both of your novels with small presses. Was that a conscious choice, or was it difficult to sell your style of magical realism into the New York publishing houses?

BILLY: Again, I wouldn't say that my work is magical realism (except for one novel), just very quirky. I've had agents, but even though they say they like quirky, it's meat and potatoes prose that sells. The literary marketplace is now downsized and very limited in what it will take a chance on. It's also a bit schizophrenic. It says it wants new, fresh styles with energetic language, but the very agents and editors who ask for something radically different will say, "this is too quirky." Go figure. I stopped expecting logic from publishers and agents a long time ago. Most of the good ones I've worked with urged me to go to small presses with work written under my own name. I haven't given up on the major houses though. Besides, according to Publishers Weekly, the average fiction title only sells 7000 copies nationwide. There's not a lot of promotional money going into fiction these days, so most titles sink to the midlist and die. Sometimes you have to play AAA ball a long time before being called up to the majors.

LISA: What are the benefits and disadvantages of working with small presses?

BILLY: It might be slightly easier to get published, although small presses still get thousands of submissions just like major publishers. The downside is that they don't have large print runs and have limited distribution. But it's better to have your work "out there" than sitting in the bottom drawer of the desk. I've come very close to publication with major houses, and my ghostwriting clients have enjoyed much success because they have the proverbial connections. But I’ll get there myself sooner or later.

LISA: What does no one ever ask that you'd like to talk about?

BILLY: Raising children. We nurture and protect them with Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Disney, and kindergarten lessons about being honest and fair. (I love the book All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.) By fifth grade, we abandon the self-contained classroom, hand kids a high school schedule, and give them 4 hours of homework a night. They never finish growing up, never learn the magic I mentioned above. Bullies aren’t punished, and all the lessons about being true and honest go out the window. School becomes a game of survival. Discipline is lacking, and the accountability we stress in the early grades is never really learned. At home, kids watch Reality TV and spend hours text messaging and IMing. Only God knows where they go on the Internet, although I’m not encouraged by some of the bizarre MySpace pages I’ve seen. Most parents I’ve spoken with have never looked at their kids online sites. Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I think we need some nuns with hard rulers again.

LISA: Some people (I’m one of them) believe most writers have an issue or a theme in their lives that repeatedly manifests itself in their art. Do you agree with this, and if you do, what themes do you think recur in your work?

BILLY: I agree with you. Most writers, regardless of plot, are operating from a philosophical underpinning of some kind. My books have dealt with the mindlessness of modern man and the absurdity of contemporary life. We’ve forsaken magic—the holy, the divine, the sacred—but I’m not talking religious dogma. Any society that sells Girls Gone Wild videos is in real trouble. We’re obsessed with Britney and Paris while our own children are allowed to stay out all night because they have cell phones to “check in.” This is the age of casual hook-ups, political lies, corporate greed, global warming, genocide, and perpetual face-lifts. As novelist Walker Percy said, we have the spiritual flu. We don’t know who we are anymore. We follow trends without thinking. Plus we don’t believe in Santa Claus. A bad sign. If there’s one thing I want to leave readers with, it’s hope. There’s a fatalism in the air that things are too far gone. I want people to believe that there’s immense power in a single thought. If we talk to the universe, it will talk back if we bother to listen.

LISA: What advice would you give to the aspiring novelist?

BILLY: Take out a piece of paper and write about something that makes you mad. Don’t worry about anything but getting your ideas onto paper or the PC. When you’re finished, you can go back and play with it all you want. As Bradbury said, “Shoot a character out of a cannon.

* * *

Thank you Billy for taking the time to chat with me.

To win a copy of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, leave a comment with your thoughts about one or more of the Q&A topics. I'll randomly draw a winner sometime this weekend, so don't forget to check back!

Note: I apologize for the wacky fonts in this post. Blogger had it in for me today and after messing around for an hour, I decided to post this "as is".

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Summertime and I'm Feeling Lazy

As you've probably gathered from my last several posts, this blogger has been a little lazy and lax about posting. I wish I could say my laziness was limited to blogging, but the truth is I've been slacking off on just about everything but reading a good book under the apple tree, puttering in the yard and hanging out. Instead of feeling guilty about it, which is what I normally do if I'm not going a million miles an hour at all times, I've decided to just enjoy it while it lasts and do what I feel like doing it, when I feel like it.

I will contradict myself a little to say that I got some writing done this weekend and with a little help from my friends, I may have worked through some issues I've been having that have been giving me problems with The Foundling Wheel. I've been struggling with the direction of the story for weeks, struggling with how to structure the time shifts, and struggling with some of the early choices I made that appeared to limit things going forward.

This weeks epiphany has been that whether you plot and outline up front or take off with no direction, the pound of flesh is due eventually. I suspect that a more seasoned writer could handle a complete seat of the pants approach a little more easily than I've done it. Most of you have heard this a dozen times already, but I'll recap anyway. When I started the Dickens Challenge in December and decided to commit to drafting a chapter a week, I began without a plot, a premise or much of anything but the inspiration for an event. That got me through eleven chapters and about a hundred pages. At that point, there were things I'd done early on that I wished I hadn't and I had no idea how to move forward and end the story. I've since gotten most of this figured out and thanks to some great feedback and advice from my beautiful friend Kristin, I was excited and happy when I was writing today.

Vesper tagged me for this meme last week and although this is probably more information about me than anybody would ever want to know, it does give me something to post about that doesn't require any research or heavy thought and I'm into that the last couple of weeks. So here goes.

What were you doing 10 years ago?

Ten years ago I was thirty-six, getting ready to turn thirty-seven and I was living in Colorado Springs in the first house I owned (I'm on number four now). I was married to my former husband and my stepson was living with us and getting ready to start his senior year in high school. I had a civil service job and I worked about ten miles east of Colorado Springs at Schriever Air Force Base. I think my job title was commercial communications manager. We had a little sixteen foot fish and ski boat with an outboard motor. Back then on most weekends we went camping and boating and we dragged the boat out on a lot of weeknights too. Back then I started and kept journals every now and then, but I wasn’t doing much writing at all.

Five things on your to-do list for today

These are really five things for tomorrow’s to-do list. It’s a work day, so that will keep me busy until sometime between five and six. I’ll be optimistic and add a few other things I’ll probably manage to do:

1. Get Scott to help me take down the oversized painting in the living room so we can put something else up

2. Call the sprinkler repair man to replace a couple of bad heads in the back yard

3. Send Larissa a check for the beautiful necklace I just ordered from her at Unravelled

4. Keep working on Chapter 12 of The Foundling Wheel

5. Email Lighthouse Writers Workshop with my workshop choices for the retreat next month (woohoo)

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

Who among us hasn’t spent lots of time having this fantasy? Of course I’d make sure that all of my and Scott’s loved ones were set up with whatever they needed to be happy and secure for the rest of their lives. For the younger ones, this would be more along the lines of taking care of college and setting them up to find their own way in the world. I wouldn’t arbitrarily toss money at anybody under forty because I don’t think they recognize the value of it yet and I don’t think having an endless supply of cash is necessarily a good gift unless you’re old enough to use it wisely.

Since a billionaire has more money than she can possibly use or spend, figuring out philanthropic ways to spend it effectively would be important. I’d like to contribute to or start organizations that would help abused and neglected animals and children, to provide medical care to those who can’t afford it, to provide the opportunity for college and job training for people who can’t afford it, which would include single mothers and the homeless. So many worthy causes!

I’d love to award grants to writers and painters so that they could take the time to write or paint full time. I’d maybe want to create one or two retreat locations that artists and writers could use to do their things. I’d love to own two or three places to live so I could go there anytime . The houses would be nice, but reasonably sized and green and I’d create a program so that when we’re not living in the houses, writers could act as caretakers and earn a small income so they could write and not have to work.

Candidate locations for the houses would be places like northern California, Martha’s Vinyard or Nantucket, Mexico and probably someplace here in Colorado.

Needless to say, I would primarily spend my time writing and hanging out with Scott and enjoying life. Billions would be somewhat wasted on me because there isn’t anything in particular that I want that you need to be wealthy to have. As long as I could travel, write and have someplace comfortable to come home to with Scott, I’d be very happy.

I liked Bernita’s idea. I’d give each of you $100,000 (you being the people who comment on this post of course).

At least once or twice a week I'd like to head out and find ways to anonymously slip strangers cash, pay for their groceries or meals or just do surprise cool things like that.

What are three of your bad habits?

1. Occasional morning crankiness

2. Procrastination about work and writing

3. Outright laziness when it comes to exercise

What are some snacks you enjoy?

1. Kettle chips, especially salt and vinegar or salt and ground black pepper

2. Milk Duds

3. Fresh fruit

What were the last five books you read?

I’ll write more on these when I do my “Books I Read in June 2008” post, but the last five I finished were:

1. The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy, which was a great recommendation from Tim Hallinan.

2. Rose’s Garden, by Carrie Brown, which was a great recommendation and gift from the lovely and talented Jennifer Duncan.

3. The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey. This one is a brand new release and Margot Livesey’s essay in The Eleventh Draft motivated me to read her. She is wonderful.

4. Simon Says, by Kathryn Eastburn. I read this one because it’s the tragic true account of a triple murder that was planned and carried out by four Colorado Springs teenagers. My interest in juveniles serving long or life sentences led me to this one.

5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was one I reluctantly read after so many people had recommended it. I say reluctantly because I admit I am a total ass and since so many people loved it I figured it couldn’t possibly be anything I’d like. I was wrong. I consumed this fairly long book over the weekend and was captivated the entire time. Maybe I need to finally break down and read Water for Elephants too.

What are five jobs you have had?

These all go back a very long way, but they are the five most unconventional jobs I’ve had.

1. Vacuum cleaner salesman for Kirby

2. Factory worker in a metal stamping plant

3. Short order cook in a bowling alley

4. Bank teller

5. Cashier in a mom and pop grocery store

What are five places where you have lived?

1. Massachusetts

2. New Hampshire

3. Connecticut

4. New Jersey

5. England

6. California

7. Germany

8. Colorado

I know that’s more than five, but it only took eight to list all states and countries. I did attend a total of 13 different schools by the time I graduated from high school – and I went back and forth between some of them more than once.

I always have mixed emotions about tagging people since I’m never sure who has already done which meme and who likes doing them and who doesn’t. I’m going to try something different and tag five male bloggers. I think we (women bloggers) assume they don’t want to do these, but I suspect that’s not always the case. So gentlemen, you’re tagged if you feel like doing this and if you don’t feel like it, that’s totally cool.

Steve Wylder

Steve Malley

Charles Gramlich

Tim Hallinan

Billy Hammett

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Green Porno

If you thought you'd already seen Isabella Rosellini's strangest role when you watched Blue Velvet, think again.

Green Porno is a Sundance Channel series of short films on -- insect reproduction. Check it out here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Best Live Band That Ever Was

Seriously, I'll quit the music postings now, but I had to close with this video of Baba O'Riley and the original lineup of The Who. This song was practically the anthem for a whole generation -- or it was for the segment of it that I was a part of. I was trying to find a song that captured the essence of what that last couple of years of high school was like for me and this is it. It's not necessarily that I played "Who's Next" any more often than the dozens of other albums that provided the soundtrack for that period of time, but if I had to choose one track, this would be it for me.

If you had to pick one song to characterize your high school years, what would it be?

Alice Cooper -- School's Out

Denis, I decided you were right about Alice Cooper, but I had to go with School's Out. I do agree with you that I'm Eighteen is an awesome song, but it was such a guy song that I never quite connected to it the way I did with School's Out.

But thanks for sending me off to YouTube to lose another two hours watching Alice Cooper videos...

I have always loved his sense of humor and I always especially loved this lyric in School's Out:

We've got no class
And we've got no principles
And we've got no innocence
We can't even think of a word that rhymes

Alice Cooper turned 60 in February, but I guess we're all getting older. Despite his age, he looks pretty much exactly the same way now that he did in 1971. He never was a pretty man.

I told Scott today that rather than thinking of myself as getting older, I prefer to think of myself as "vintage".

Scott said he's now considering himself to be "heirloom".

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Ramones -- I Wanna Be Sedated

I'm just full of the nostalgia today. Heard this classic from 1978 on the way to an appointment today.

Ah youth.

Somehow, I'm thinking if my love of Twin Peaks put me on the fringe...

All these YouTube videos and discussions about TV shows may appear to have no relevance to writing, but I think they do. The shows and movies we watched, the music we listened to and the books we read all shaped our ideas, attitudes and opinions, which therefore, heavily influence what we write about. I think the exploration is critical.

Up soon: How I came to the conclusion that Larry David is one of the most brilliant storytellers of our time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Good Coffee and Cherry Pie

It was April of 1990 and after a lot of build up from ABC, I sat rapt in front of the television to watch the two hour pilot episode of Twin Peaks. It was the coolest television series I'd ever seen. The first season was amazing. Unfortunately, the identity of Laura Palmer's killer was revealed, David Lynch and the network had issues, the second season floundered and the series was canceled.

But now, thanks to the magic of Amazon one-click, I've got the entire series back. I didn't need more distractions and I will undoubtedly be staying up much too late for the next few nights watching, but I don't care. I loved these characters and this series.

Scott, on the other hand, didn't like Twin Peaks, so I'll be watching solo.

How about you? Twin Peaks fan or no?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

You're On Earth -- There's No Cure for That

I don’t have a formal education in literature, so I tend to make mental notes about cultural references I find in books, films and magazines. Frankly, the majority of what I know about post-modern literature and film I’ve learned after watching Woody Allen movies and Jeopardy.

I'm not intimidated by people who are comfortable discussing these things and I don't feel incomplete for not knowing them. I have no problem admitting my ignorance about a wide variety of subjects. I suppose I just don’t like the idea of feeling like I'm on the outside of an inside joke when it should be a fairly simple matter to learn enough about nearly anything to follow along.

A few months ago I purchased a collection of Samuel Beckett’s plays on film. I’m sure I’ve seen bits and pieces of his first, and most famous play, Waiting for Godot on PBS or somewhere. Two guys are waiting. It's all about the waiting.

Over the course of several weeks, I watched the Beckett plays on DVD and my ears have become attuned to anything I read or hear about Beckett, but I have to say, I don’t quite get him. I gave each play my undivided attention, paid close attention to the dialogue, the timing and the sets and came away from each with only an abstract sense of what it was about and generally a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

Endgame was Beckett’s second play and the essence of the story was almost the exact opposite of Waiting for Godot. There are four characters in a house they appear to be trapped in, they may be the last people on earth and three of the four don’t have any way of leaving. The fourth is the caretaker, and the tension and expectation through the course of the play is that he’s going to leave. In the end, the viewer is left to decide what happens. This was one of the longer plays on the DVD series and I admit, it kept my attention and my mental wheels were spinning the entire time I watched. I remember most of it in a fairly detailed way. It made an impression. There is something here.

Actors and film directors speak with great reverence about Samuel Beckett, but I am still scratching my head and wondering what it’s all about.

I know many of you who visit here have studied literature or theater and if you can help me to understand what it is that makes Samuel Beckett so influential and iconic, please share your thoughts.

Here’s part of a scene that comes toward the end of the play, Endgame. The dialogue is very carefully written and carefully delivered and as I understand it, if you see this play (or any other Beckett play) performed, you will not see any, or much variation from one production to the next. Each word is said exactly as originally written.

I’m just not quite getting it…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happy Birthday Stephen Parrish

"There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents ... and only one for birthday presents, you know."
- Lewis Carroll

Today is blogging friend Stephen Parrish's birthday. "Today" is a relative term, as Stephen lives in Germany. Novelist, husband, father and a generous friend to many, he always takes time to celebrate the successes of his friends. Today I wish him many happy returns and a wonderful year.

If you haven't visited Stephen before, this post will give you some idea of who he is, and so will this one.

Stop by and wish him a happy birthday!

Happy Birthday Stephen!

Cantaloupe Island

Some days, it's enough with all the words already!

Cantaloupe Island at the Blue Note with Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Ever Changing Method to My Ever Deepening Madness

Steve Malley, friend of the blog from down under – is New Zealand considered down under? – has an expression he often uses after writing a post about craft, and it’s “take what you like and leave the rest”. If you haven’t checked out Steve’s blog, he’s got some very helpful stuff on writing.

I happen to think it’s an excellent piece of advice and I regularly do just that.

Recently, the good people from the ACME Corporation where I work paid for books and testing services from Gallup so that people like me (Anvil, bird seed and Dynamite salesmen) could identify our top strengths. I’m actually pretty cynical about business personality profiling, especially when the test identifies a person's top five repeatable characteristics and defines them all as strengths. Frankly, I don't think our top characteristics are always strengths in all circumstances.

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to try and interpret my results in a way that might help me to become a better writer, or at least explain my scatter shot methods of trying to nail down a process.

These are the test results I received:

“As you may know, the Clifton StrengthsFinder measures the presence of talent in 34 categories called "themes." These themes were determined by The Gallup Organization as those that most consistently predict outstanding performance. The greater the presence of a theme of talent within a person, the more likely that person is to spontaneously exhibit those talents in day-to-day behaviors.

Focusing on naturally powerful talents helps people use them as the foundation of strengths and enjoy personal, academic, and career success through consistent, near-perfect performance.

How well do you think these themes describe me?


Your Achiever theme helps explain your drive. Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by “every day” you mean every single day—workdays, weekends, vacations. No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied. You have an internal fire burning inside you. It pushes you to do more, to achieve more. After each accomplishment is reached, the fire dwindles for a moment, but very soon it rekindles itself, forcing you toward the next accomplishment. Your relentless need for achievement might not be logical. It might not even be focused. But it will always be with you. As an Achiever you must learn to live with this whisper of discontent. It does have its benefits. It brings you the energy you need to work long hours without burning out. It is the jolt you can always count on to get you started on new tasks, new challenges. It is the power supply that causes you to set the pace and define the levels of productivity for your work group. It is the theme that keeps you moving.


You like to think. You like mental activity. You like exercising the “muscles” of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions. This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person’s feelings. The exact focus will depend on your other strengths. On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus. The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.


Relator describes your attitude toward your relationships. In simple terms, the Relator theme pulls you toward people you already know. You do not necessarily shy away from meeting new people—in fact, you may have other themes that cause you to enjoy the thrill of turning strangers into friends—but you do derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around your close friends. You are comfortable with intimacy. Once the initial connection has been made, you deliberately encourage a deepening of the relationship. You want to understand their feelings, their goals, their fears, and their dreams; and you want them to understand yours. You know that this kind of closeness implies a certain amount of risk—you might be taken advantage of—but you are willing to accept that risk. For you a relationship has value only if it is genuine. And the only way to know that is to entrust yourself to the other person. The more you share with each other, the more you risk together. The more you risk together, the more each of you proves your caring is genuine. These are your steps toward real friendship, and you take them willingly.


You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences—yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.”


Excellence, not average, is your measure. Taking something from below average to slightly above average takes a great deal of effort and in your opinion is not very rewarding. Transforming something strong into something superb takes just as much effort but is much more thrilling. Strengths, whether yours or someone else’s, fascinate you. Like a diver after pearls, you search them out, watching for the telltale signs of a strength. A glimpse of untutored excellence, rapid learning, a skill mastered without recourse to steps—all these are clues that a strength may be in play. And having found a strength, you feel compelled to nurture it, refine it, and stretch it toward excellence. You polish the pearl until it shines. This natural sorting of strengths means that others see you as discriminating. You choose to spend time with people who appreciate your particular strengths. Likewise, you are attracted to others who seem to have found and cultivated their own strengths. You tend to avoid those who want to fix you and make you well rounded. You don’t want to spend your life bemoaning what you lack. Rather, you want to capitalize on the gifts with which you are blessed. It’s more fun. It’s more productive. And, counterintuitively, it is more demanding.”

Naturally, I’ll take “Achiever”. Who wouldn’t? I’ll happily choose to believe it’s an indication that I’ll persevere and write a book. I think the one to be careful of is the one labeled “Intellection” – which I suspect is not a real word and is most likely a cleverly disguised term for procrastination and navel gazing. Or maybe it's a predisposition toward making myself crazy by over thinking and having a difficult time focusing – but I digress – See!? “Relator” I can buy, even though I also doubt it’s validity as a real word. I prefer to interact with people I have a connection with, even when many of them are my invisible online writing friends. I doubt it has much relevance to writing though. “Learner” is a definite yes. I am passionate about learning and I always have been, and at the moment, my passion is all about learning how to write a novel. And finally, “Maximizer” (also a fake word) I hope will reflect an inclination to rewrite, revise, shape and polish until I’ve written the absolute best novel that I can, no matter how long it takes.

In all fairness, I am superstitious and would be inclined to do the same analysis of an astrological chart if I could interpret it to mean that I’m supposed to be a novelist. But I will take what seems to fit and beware of the scatterbrained “intellection” characteristic and go with it.

So where am I with The Foundling Wheel now?

I think I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but I want to share what I’m doing and how I arrived here because I’m in the process of doing something I don’t hear too many people talk about, but I’m sure some of you do this or have done it.

To review, the first 11 Chapters, which came to 28,584 words in a format that is somewhere between a rough and early first draft were written completely by the proverbial seat of my pants. An incident that happened when I was in Germany back in the mid-1980’s gave me an idea that I started to build around. I didn’t let the idea percolate longer than a week and I didn’t have an outline or an idea of where the story would go or how it would end.

Then I didn’t quite know what would happen and I tried a variety of techniques I’d read about in order to brainstorm ideas. I jotted down ideas for scenes, subplots, themes and ends. I used index cards, white boards, easel paper. I thought about what I had and I came up with some new subplots, secondary characters and a fairly good idea of how the story ends. I was also able to define my premise. I realize a whole lot of people believe that these are all things that a writer should do before starting to write, but just as many believe that these are things that reveal themselves through the process of writing. I think they are revealing themselves.

I started to write the next chapter three times and each time I started in a different place. The third time I think I found a good place to begin – Chapter 12 really marks the start of Part II of a traditional three part structure.

But the longer I worked on this chapter, the longer it got. When I was writing under the weekly constraint to complete one chapter, each with a specific purpose and function I was able to keep each chapter as a discrete 2,000 – 3,000 word unit. This chapter would not end! I got to somewhere just shy of 6,000 words and realized I needed something else to guide and shape where I was going.

To get back to my original thought -- or Steve Malley's -- about taking what you like, or what works and leaving the rest is that there are a whole lot of ideas and techniques out there. What works for some people doesn't for others and what might work in one circumstance might not in another. The trick is to recognize that there is a way to approach every problem and not to get stuck when one method doesn't work and also not to get distracted by too many options. If you can't climb over the wall, dig under it. If that doesn't work, go around and if that doesn't work, blow it up. There's always a way.

So I'm writing what I think of as a working synopsis. Whether I read about this somewhere or I’d tried everything else and this was the last obvious thing to try in order to provide myself the direction I needed to explain to myself what happens in this story from beginning to end, I don’t know, but I finally consulted the books. Ah, my pretty pretty books. What’s interesting is that of all the books on craft that I have, nearly all references to synopses are to the type used for submission to an agent or editor, but finally I did find two books that reference “the working synopsis”. Hooray! Validation that even if this is not a tool that all novelists use, it’s one that some do.

There’s no real structure to this working synopsis, other than a present tense explanation of what happens from the beginning to the end. I think that by the time I’m done with it, I’ll have about 10-12 double spaced pages I can work from. It doesn’t break down into scenes or go into any detail, it just follows the significant action, and introduces characters and time lines.

So there it is. That’s what I’ve been doing.

I believe that if I had not chosen to move between three different points in time, I might have been able to continue writing a linear story in the way that I’d started, but it’s gotten too complicated for me to keep in my head and the scene cards just aren’t giving me the continuity I seem to need.

Since I haven’t ever heard anybody talk about doing one of these, I suspect most people don’t do them, but I’m very interested in hearing from those of you who do or even those of you who do something similar.

So how about it? Working synopsis? Anyone?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Time After Time

For every pitfall I think I’ve successfully sidestepped when it comes to shaping and structuring a novel, I encounter new and unexpected challenges. I consider this a good sign because at least I’ve gotten better at recognizing them as they materialize, which was not always the case. Someday, maybe I’ll figure these things out before I even start, but – baby steps.

My WIP started out in the present time, shifted to an earlier point in time and my initial intention was to bring the story back to the present time for resolution. I then realized I would need to also include a third period of time and I would have to shift between periods a fair amount.

It was serendipity that a week ago I happened to read America America, by Ethan Canin. It begins in the present day and alternates between the present and roughly 1971 and then to another past time period around 1975. Ethan Canin managed to shift between the time periods seamlessly. He didn’t even wait for new chapters in order to do it. There are chapters that have scenes in them from two and sometimes three time periods, but it works.

Up until now I’ve been writing my WIP in the order in which a reader would read it. I’ve been shifting between the past and present at the points where it seems to make sense to me now. I’ve heard that another author who wrote a book with multiple time lines actually wrote the storyline for each time period and then meshed them together afterward. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, since it allows each time period to retain its own pacing and the characters can retain the voices appropriate to the time. This also makes sense in that it would allow a more objective view of each time period in order to decide what to keep, cut and where to shift from one time period to the next. It seems a little radical, but I’m thinking about giving it a try. Writing the story as I have been, in the order that I think I’ll end up with feels more natural, but something tells me it may not allow for as much creativity.

I’d like to find some more novels to read that use multiple time lines. Thanks to my out of control book buying habit, I think I have at least two. I think (but am not certain) that Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje uses multiple time lines and I know People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks has them.

So, my friends, I am looking for any reading recommendations you may have for books that alternate between different time periods. Chances are I may have one or two more on my TBR stack already.

I’m also looking for thoughts and ideas on the approach to writing this kind of structure.

Has anyone structured a story like this?

I suspect many people would recommend keeping time periods in their own separate chapters – although Ethan Canin managed to shift within chapters – yes, I know. I’m no Ethan Canin and just because he managed to do it does not mean that I can.

Or can I?

Thoughts and ideas?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Books I Read in May 2008

The God File, by Frank Turner Hollon was a recommendation on a Friday Forgotten Books post at Brian Lindenmuth’s blog. Gabriel Black is 22 years into a life prison term for murder. Out of a twisted sense of honor, he took responsibility for shooting his lover’s husband, even though she pulled the trigger. In the bleak world in which he lives, he struggles with despair, loneliness, violence and hopelessness. He turns to the prison library to seek evidence of some kind of cosmic justice and finds a story about a man with a wife, children and a successful career who beats what was diagnosed as terminal cancer. The man believes his triumph over death proves the existence of God. Gabriel believes that a much more objective test for the existence of God would be to find evidence of Him in the hopeless world of prison. He begins to collect bits and pieces of evidence in the form of letters received, letters written but never sent, notes discovered and snippets of conversation and he keeps them in his God file. The story is dark but thoughtful and the prose is simple and precise, all the way to the inevitable ending. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on suicide:

“I found a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly written by a Frenchman named Jean-Dominique Bauby. The man was healthy, married with children, and had a good job. One day, out of the blue, he had some type of stroke in his brain stem. The man literally woke up a few weeks later in the hospital completely paralyzed. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t even swallow. His only form of communication was blinking letters and having someone transcribe his words.

I couldn’t help comparing his prison with mine. We both lost our freedom and human independence. Neither of us deserved our condition, although I brought mine on myself and he was just struck down seemingly at random. Our walls are different, but walls just the same.”

Note: We watched the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other night and it was excellent.

If you visited me last week and watched the funniest YouTube video on book promotion of all time, you’ve gotten an introduction to Dennis Cass. I read Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain after reading a comment he left at Editorial Ass last month. After reading his blog, I was curious enough about the book to give it a read. It's primarily a memoir with a fair amount of educational information about neuroscience woven throughout. The biggest question I had as I was reading was, how did he ever pitch this? It’s a very unusual format, but it works.

When Dennis was nineteen, his stepfather suffered a psychotic break. Fifteen years later, after Dennis had married and become a successful writer, he decided to immerse himself in the science of the brain to try to understand what had happened to his stepfather. His research included subjecting himself to a number of medical and psychological tests, which became pretty weird pretty fast. Reading his thoughts about his own brain and about the tests and what they meant was like being right there in his head with him. If you’ve watched the video, you know that Dennis is very funny and very smart. His story is both of those things, but it’s also very poignant and there are parts that are heartbreaking. My total enjoyment of this book was magnified even more because he is simply a wonderful writer.

“Later, when I talked to Sue Carter about my experiences as a new father, she called a newborn baby ‘an endocrine manipulation.’ (This was not entirely out of character. In her paper ‘The Neurobiology of Love’ she describes physical closeness as ‘the maintenance of proximity or voluntary contact with an attachment object.’) While this sounded a tad clinical, I also understood what she meant. Even if I hadn’t been studying the brain, there was a distinctly chemical feeling to the flood of love I felt for this boy.

I could see where the idea for Jesus came from. James Leckman, in his paper ‘Early Parental Preoccupations and Behaviors and their Possible Relationship to the Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,’ notes that 73 percent of mothers and 66 percent of fathers say that at three months their child is ‘perfect.’ There was that moment in the hospital when I looked at Owen and thought, He’s the son of God. There was no way to look at him and not feel that he had been sent to this Earth by a supreme being to right the world. This was what Joseph and Mary had experienced; no one had bothered to tell them this was how most new parents felt.

This feeling of the perfection of the universe extended to Liz as well. I had never felt more love for her, or more of a sense that we were meant to be together and start a family. But the joy soon manifested itself in unsettling ways, too. During those first days in the hospital it was very important that everyone agreed that my son was cute. And not only did they have to agree that he was cute, but in my newfound effort to be scientific about my life, they had to agree that their high appraisal of his beauty was an ‘objective measure.’

‘Cutest baby in the room,’ said the pediatrician who was on rounds.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘But, really. You’re a doctor. Don’t’ you think he’s the cutest? I mean, objectively?’

‘Cutest baby in the room,’ he said.”

Thanks to The Early Reviewer Program at LibraryThing, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader's edition of America America, by Ethan Canin. The book will be on sale June 24th.

Corey Sifter is the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York and the story opens with the funeral of a former US Senator. The story alternates between the present and the period around 1971 when Nixon was in office and the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War.

At sixteen, Corey is hired to work on the grounds of the elegant Metarey estate. Liam Metarey is the son of a Scottish immigrant, who came to America and made his fortune in mining, steel and logging. The town of Saline, New York was built by the Metarey empire and practically every working class family, including Corey’s respects and looks up to Liam Metarey. Liam Metarey, his wife, two daughters and his son like Corey and invite him to family activities. He begins to spend most of his time with the Metareys. Liam Metarey becomes a benefactor to Corey and pays for him to attend an expensive preparatory school. Later, Metarey funds most of Corey's college tuition.

As Corey becomes more educated and sophisticated, he grows away from his working class parents. They want the best for him, so they support his choices, despite their unspoken pain at losing him. Not long after starting preparatory school, Corey begins working for Liam Metarey every weekend. Metarey has taken on the role of campaign manager for Senator Henry Bonwiller’s bid for the Presidency in the 1972 election. Bonwiller is a liberal Democrat that the local townspeople consider to be “the best friend a working man’s ever had.”

Corey is exposed to, but isn’t quite savvy enough to understand the machinations of old school politics and back room deal making. Metarey involves Corey peripherally in the cover up of a scandal, although Corey isn’t able to piece the entire story together until many years later.

The primaries get interesting after Senator Edmund Muskie weeps on national television, and it looks as if Senator Bonwiller has a good chance to secure the nomination and the Presidency. The descriptions of power struggle between all of the Democratic candidates in this story and the hints at pre-Watergate subterfuge from the Nixon campaign made me think about what's happened since.

“The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR’s party, which was beginning in Henry Bonwiller’s time, didn’t come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.”

The story climaxes when a number of individual plot threads and tragedies converge and in the present day, Corey is able to see the truth of what happened through his own journalistic lens and gain clarity and perspective on his relationships with his children and his parents.

“It doesn’t take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I’ve long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I’ve grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go – in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I’ve watched our own girls move away now, too – first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands – as I’ve watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we’ve always tried to do for them, even if it’s not always what we’ve succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we’ve fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I’m certain from my own childhood that of course I don’t.”

Ethan Canin is a masterful narrative stylist. Once I started reading, I tore through the book, unable to put it down. Since I finished, I find myself still thinking about it. Themes of loyalty and love, power and morality, and fathers and children all contribute to a satisfying, well written story.

Once again, I credit Head Butler and Jesse Kornbluth’s spot on recommendations for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield is a best selling author and screenwriter and best known for The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book is short and it’s simple, but it’s powerful and the forward, by Robert McKee provides a good prelude:

“To begin Book One, Pressfield labels the enemy of creativity Resistance, his all-encompassing term for what Freud called the Death Wish – that destructive force inside human nature that rises whenever we consider a tough, long-term course of action that might do for us or others something that’s actually good. He then presents a rogue’s gallery of the many manifestations of Resistance. You will recognize each and every one, for this force lives within us all – self-sabotage, self-deception, self-corruption. We writers know it as ‘block’, a paralysis whose symptoms can bring on appalling behavior.”

This book is pithy, but revelatory and timely. I needed the kick in the ass this book gave me.

The book ends on a note that I hadn't considered, but it’s well worth pondering:

“It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

How about that?

I didn't read nearly as much in May as I did in April, but I'm moving forward on The Foundling Wheel again and I'm pretty happy about that. In fact, I can't seem to stop writing. I'm overwriting at this point and I know I'm overwriting, but as long as it's coming easily, I don't mind if it will help me find the rest of the story and get to the end. If I have to cut out 90% of what's coming now, it won't bother me at all.

This phenomenon is new to me. Has it ever happened to any of you?

How about reading? What good books have you read lately?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf