blogging, book promotion, Stories

Writing DaysZ 6

The TV news team is telling me that one presidential candidate sold state department favors and the other plans internment camps for immigrants. Neither assertion is true, of course. They’re just straw man arguments. But a vigorous debate follows in which both candidates are trashed as though the assertions were true. Straw Men. They’re everywhere, like alien bug-eyed-monsters, grabbing our attention. Which is what straw men do, grab attention. “Straw man n. 2. An argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated. – American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition.” It’s the first step of spin.

Bob vs the Aliens
To read Writing DaysZ 1-5, go to

Debatable Arguments

+++They found the railroad handcar under an overhang behind the waystation. Bob and Piper grunted frantically, trying to inch it to the tracks before helicopter gunships could roar overhead. Old Spice rummaged through a wooden chest, tossing out items apparently deemed useless.
+++Piper dodged a wrench. “Spice!”
+++“Give us a hand,” Bob said urgently, quietly, “They’re coming!”
+++“No they’re not. The helicopter noise has stopped. Oh-” He held up an oil can. “Look!”
+++“So they landed in the town. In a few minutes, they’ll be airborne again and headed here.”
+++Spice began squirting oil on everything about the handcar that looked like it might move. “It’s Never Too Late to Prepare for an Emergency!” He smiled at them. “That’s my family motto.”
+++Bob repeated the phrase and squinted at Spice, “That’s the dumbest motto-.” The handcar lurched, screeched and began rolling. The three of them manhandled it onto the tracks and Bob and Piper pumped the seesaw handles while Spice squirted oil on every part that moved. Ahead, Bob saw a heavier stand of trees that promised shelter. Behind, he heard a helicopter lift off in the distance. The car gained speed to about twenty-five or thirty miles an hour and became easy to pump. But it was hardly escape velocity. He felt trapped in a slow-motion video. Trees blocked their view just as the helicopter approached the station behind them. “Keep going! They’ll overfly the track after they don’t find us at the station.” To ease the tension, he told Piper, “Spice was a doofus back home. Weren’t you, Spice?”
+++Spice looked up from something he was fiddling with. “Doofus?”
+++“An incompetent person,” Bob winked at Piper, “Foolish or stupid.”
+++She winked back. “Ignore him, Spice. You don’t have to talk about your family.”
+++Spice sputtered and stood. “That was not my fault! Really,” he implored. “It was the genetic alteration that I underwent for the Earth Mission. I was just trying to let her down easy.”
+++“Who, Spice?” Piper soothed. “Who were you trying to let down easy?”
+++“My fiancé,” he told her in a somber voice. “She deserved to know that my new body found her repulsive. So, I sent her a message. I followed all of the appropriate protocols for use of the family communicator, too. It is expected that the recipients of a personal message from my family will know who wrote it without a signature.”
+++Bob chuckled. “You sent her a message?”
+++“I chose my words carefully.”
+++“Oh, Spice! Is that’s how she found out you were breaking up with her?” Piper shook her head in dismay. “You texted her?”
+++“I wish.” The Alien slumped. “I accidently sent the message to the wrong person. But my fiancé, at least, knew who wrote it when she read it in the news.”
+++“Oh, Spice! Who did you send it to?”
+++“My father’s mistress. She was, how do you say it? Pissed at him.”
+++In the silence that followed, Bob rolled his eyes heavenward to see a helicopter flying in whisper mode arcing over the trees at the railcar. He grabbed the ray gun from his pocket and held it pointed skyward against his mouth and licked it frantically as ropes dropped around them and they were rushed by armed men dressed in black bulky outfits making loud, guttural, sounds. Abruptly, the helicopter veered away, trailing behind it one man still clinging to a rope.
+++“Where are you going?” asked one of the three men who had made it onto the railcar.
+++The answer came over his harness speaker. “Going for a beer. That was a roadhouse we passed back there. Coming?”
+++“Hell yeah man. We’re in.” The men jumped and rolled smartly to a standing stop behind the railcar. As the helicopter landed to pick them up, they turned and waved goodbye with their guns.
+++Bob looked at the ray gun but it was already fading away in his hand. “Wow,” he breathed.
+++“See.” Spice beamed at him, “I told you it would make attackers stop bothering us.”
+++“I just wished it had a trigger. Firing a ray gun by licking the red spot is stupid, Spice. I was too stressed to remember where the spot was. I had to lick the gun all over!” He made a face and spit.
+++“Don’t be trigger-happy, Bob.” Piper smiled at him like she was proud of him. “You saved us.” That made him happy. They spent the day taking turns, one keeping lookout while two pumped the handcar. No more helicopters came at them and although easy enough, the pumping was eventually exhausting as none of them were used to prolonged physical exertion. At dusk they were happy to see the lights of a small town.
+++“That’s New Haven,” Spice said. It’s not on any of your maps yet. But it popped up last week on our planet survey as a fast growing town. We can find accommodations there for the night.”
+++The lights in the town resolved into campfires, cars and people; adults, children and dogs, even some livestock. Where the rails crossed over a small stream, they were waved to a stop by men with fishing poles. “Hold on there,” one called in a pleasant but firm voice. He helped them to stop the handcar before it rolled onto the trestle.
+++“Thanks, friends.” The man held out his hand. “That contraption would make such a racket going over the bridge, the fish might stop biting. I’m Andy.”
+++Piper hopped down and shook his hand. “Glad you were able to help us stop in time, Andy. I’m Piper. We would like to spend the night here.” She turned and introduced Spice, who landed beside her, and Bob, who stayed on the cart. “Spice here is an Alien and Bob back there,” she pointed with her thumb, “Is Bob.”
+++“I see,” the man glanced at Bob before warmly shaking Spice’s hand. “Welcome! It is a pleasure to have you with us.”
+++“I thought all you Aliens left,” one of the fishermen said.
+++“That’s Skeeter.” Andy waved the man over. “Skeeter’s our Sheriff and resident greeter. Say,” he grinned at them, “You’re just in time for the debate. Let Skeeter get you a bite to eat and settled in.”
+++After some eating, greeting and refreshing, they watched older kids pile wood on one of the campfires to turn it into a communal bonfire. Early fall chilled the air. Overhead, star swarms lit a clear night sky. People gathered, some climbing up onto a vehicle. “Declared debaters,” Andy informed them, helping them climb up with him onto a flatbed truck. He raised his hands for attention. “The subject of tonight’s debate is, ‘What Happened?’”
+++“Is that an Alien?” a woman asked.
+++“Yes, and by the rules of New Haven, he is accepted like everyone else.”
+++The woman sounded agreeable, “Well, OKAY I guess.” To the chuckling of others, she added, “We accepted my ex-husband.”
+++“Back to the point,” Andy acted as the debate moderator, “What happened?”
+++“Well,” a thick looking man began, “I know we accept him and all and I do, but.” He paused and looked around. “You all know the collapse began when the Aliens arrived.” Bob loosely estimated maybe a couple hundred people watched the man point out Spice. “I’d like to hear what he has to say about that.”
+++With tense eyes turning on him, Spice seemed to shrink. He whispered into Bob’s ear, “Correlation is not cause and effect.”
+++“Excuse me,” Piper stepped forward. “We are Piper and Bob, Alien Companions. Due to the subtleties of the English language, and given the importance of clear communication in tonight’s debate, the Alien has asked us to translate for him. Allow me to introduce Old Spice, Earth Mission Commander of the Aliens.”
+++Spice genuflected as best a spherical being could, holding the pose longer than expected. Only when the crowd went silent did he rise to his full three-foot height, somehow making it all seem majestic. The thick man gave him back a short bow.
+++“What did he say, Bob?” Piper prompted.
+++“The Alien says their timing was unfortunate and unrelated to the circumstances on Earth when they landed.”
+++“Use his name, Bob!” To the amusement of the crowd, Piper kicked him. “Damn, man! Try to make him sound human.” They laughed at her. “Well, people, we need answers, not scapegoats. What do you really think happened?”
+++“You can’t fool me!” a man screamed.
+++“Ignore the screamer,” Andy told Bob, “He’s crazy. He’s not screaming at us. Herb screams only at himself.”
+++“Take your hands off that!” the screamer demanded.
+++Bob winked at Piper, “He’s talking to himself.”
+++“We already know what happened.” A young man spoke from the roof of his SUV. “My family lives in this car because the rich stole everything away from us. Away from all of us! The top one percent sucked up all of the oil with their planes and their helicopters and their yachts and moved their companies overseas and we’re left with no jobs and no homes and cars with no gas to live in.”
+++“Counter?” asked Andy. “Who wants to argue differently?”
+++“Scapegoating,” said Spice.
+++“What’s that mean?” the young man retorted.
+++“The word is from a Yom Kippur ritual,” Bob explained. “The high priest would symbolically lay the sins of the people on a goat’s head.”
+++“So?” the man huffed. “I know what I’m talking about. I listen to public radio.”
+++Stepping in smoothly, Piper said, “Spice is saying that blaming a group is no answer.”
+++“Scapegoating a group is just a way of setting up a straw man argument,” Bob elaborated. “Meaning, anyone in the group can be attacked for supposedly sharing the groups’ alleged sins. It’s a way of saying, ‘Politicians are greedy liars and can’t be trusted. That lets you attack anyone who is a politician.”
+++“Exactly!” The thick man nodded and smiled. “It was the Koch brothers!” He rotated slowly, nodding to the crowd, arms extended with palms up to bring them to his understanding. “They’re greedy billionaires. You can’t trust ’em! And we all know they are lying Republicans.”
+++“That’s plain crazy talk!” shouted a woman. “What about that billionaire George Soros? FOX News already exposed him as a Democrat. You gotta be crazy to trust a man who’s both, in the top one percent and a Democrat.”
+++“Stop that!” Herb screamed. “You can’t pee here.” That caused a slight commotion as people next to Herb drew back.
+++Spice seemed confused. “Scarcity drove up the price of oil,” he told Piper and Bob, “And you people kept buying it anyway. Now, not enough is left to power your needs. It was all very human and predictable. Why the blame?”
+++Bob shook his head, “Bad arguments, they’re everywhere. Let’s get out of here.” On the way out, they passed a sign someone had posted next to the fire, “Debate Tonight, Beware of Trolls.” In the distance, Herb screamed, “Time’s up!”

Yesterday was “National No Texting Day.” In what bubble in whose mind did that make sense? Makes me wonder how many people texted the info to their friends yesterday. That’s the thing about mind bubbles. They hold ideas that make sense when you think about them but burst when exposed to the real world.

Mind Bubbles
 … to be continued
(Follow Writing DaysZ to read Bob Vs The Aliens as it is being written. To read Writing DaysZ 1-5, go to

About Writers, blogging

Get Off Y’re Butts and Write!

Writing is not just about recording thoughts. Writing begins with experiences to think about. Here is an example from WWII Sgt. Walter Bernstein, an ordinary man writing about freedom fighters in a Yugoslav village. From YANK Magazine, 1946:

+++Two friends whom the staff had thought were dead showed up. They had been in a concentration camp for three years, and finally escaped and made their way to the Partisans. One of them is a man of 27 and the other is 35, but they look much older. The younger man talked between mouthfuls of food. He ate deliberately, almost shyly, arranging the food carefully with his fork before raising it to his mouth, then chewing it with great thoroughness. The younger man had also been in the notorious Ustachi camp at Jasenovac in Croatia. This is the camp that is known for burning men alive; it’s record is 1,500 in one night.
+++Supper consists of a plateful of string beans with pieces of Vienna sausage. There is also a large can of chowchow (mixed pickles in mustard sauce). The Partisans need chowchow like they need a hole in the head, but they regard it as simply some peculiar American dish and eat it. After supper everyone sits around and sings. The songs come naturally; they are beautiful songs, simple and immediate. There is one song about their rifles, and a song about one of their national heroes killed in battle, and one addressed to Marshall Tito by the girls in which they ask “When will you send the boys home?” and Tito answers “It is not yet time, it is not yet time.”

Thank you Sgt. Bernstein. I hope you survived the war.

Here is another from a well known author, then Pvt. Irwin Shaw, aboard a train in Egypt. Also from Yank Magazine.

+++The train for Palestine pulled out of Cairo station slowly, to the accompaniment of wailing shrieks from the platform peddlers selling lemonade, cold coffee, pornographic literature, grapes, old copies of Life and flat Arab bread.
+++The train was long and crowded, and it had seen better days. It had been standing in the wild Egyptian sun all morning and part of the afternoon, and it had a very interesting smell.
+++It carried Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, Palestinians, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians, Americans, French, Senussi, Bantus, Senegalese; it carried Egyptian civilians, Arab civilians, Palestinian civilians; it carried generals, colonels, lieutenants, sergeants and privates – and it carried bugs. The generals and lieutenants it carried first class. The sergeants it carried second class. The privates it carried third class. The bugs it carried all classes.

I like these paragraphs written during a war fought 70 years ago. The images stick with me. And I could never have written them. Because I cannot share what I have never experienced.

So, in the hope of starting a discussion, do you think you actually have to get out and experience life in order to write well?

book promotion

Many a slip…


Not a lot can go wrong if you have a publisher, can it? Obviously, the promotion effort is on you, but that’s to be expected. If you’re lucky, the publisher will do their bit – after all, it’s in their interest too to let the world know you’re launching a book. At the very least, you’ll discuss with them what sort of promotion campaign to run – when, where, for how long and so forth.

But there’s many a slip etc. Your publisher could go bankrupt – that’s happened to me before. Or else go silent – that’s happened to me now. We’d planned the release of Perfume Island for 20th September, but as the date drew nearer and I had no news, nor any answer to my emails, I somewhat reluctantly called a halt to the whole operation. Then I finally got a response apologising for the absence.

This post is not a gripe. I’m not complaining or denouncing or accusing. On the contrary, although this has thrown me off kilter, I’ve been happy with our relationship up to now, and the ending has been amicable and fair. But obviously, I can’t pretend it never happened. After all, a few people were aware that Perfume Island was due out shortly, and some were poised to write a review, so I needed to clarify the situation in order to be able to move on.

Move on where? Self-publishing. It’s the only option I have. I could hunt for an agent or publisher but none will ever accept the second book in a series if they don’t already have the first. Besides which, the book is ready for release now, not in some distant, uncertain future.

In terms of promotion, the strategy remains the same, more or less. When you have a series, the central plank of your strategy is to offer the first book free, or heavily discounted, using it as a ‘reader magnet’ to draw people on to the second. So what we’d planned was a two-week promotion, offering One Green Bottle free, starting a month before the launch of Perfume Island. That way, people would have time to read OGB, love it (or not) and hop over to Amazon to buy Perfume Island (or not). Cunning, eh? But when the time arrived, I saw that the price on OGB hadn’t changed. Clearly, there was a problem.

The cause of the problem? KDP Select. Now, I did know that OGB had been enrolled in KDP Select at the outset, but I thought it was just for the first 90 days. So I’d assumed that it could now be offered free for a full two weeks, rather than just for 5 days, as stipulated by KDP Select. I repeat – I blame no one here, or at least, the blame can be shared. I should have made sure the book was no longer with KDP Select, rather than just assume so. A misunderstanding, shall we say.

As I see it, KDP Select can be useful, but probably not at the beginning. Fantasy author Suzanne Rogerson has a slightly different take on the matter, which she details in two helpful posts (one and two). My view is that once you have an established readership, fine, but until then, you need the flexibility to make your first book free for as long as you like. Permafree, if you’re up for it. Which is what I intend to do.

As soon as I saw what had happened, I started a novella, prequel to OGB. It’s now turned into a hybrid – part novella, part explanation of the writing of OGB. I’m aiming for a November release, with Perfume Island to follow shortly after.

Phew! As if writing itself wasn’t hard enough, getting it out there and (maybe, conceivably) noticed can be harrowing! Still, the initial dismay having passed, I’m now feeling more serene. I’m not saying that one day, I won’t have another crack at the traditional route, but for the moment, I’m savouring the truth of what everyone says about self-publishing – however much of a struggle, you’re in control of the process.

writing technique

The Monstrous and the Metaphorical

Last time we met like this, I was talking about genre and my own discomfort with trying to pigeonhole my own work. So, how do I classify my books? Faced with the dreaded dropdown dilemma, what genre do I choose?

Given the choice, I usually opt for the term paranormal. It’s a fairly nonspecific label, but it signals that some non-real stuff is going to happen. Flying carpets, magical orbs, sentient specks of intelligent stardust, pocket universes—stuff like that. In every other way, the narrative is going to be realistic and mostly follow the rules of the conventional universe, but bits and pieces of other realities are going to invade our normal space. Hence, paranormal.

What I’m really talking about here is a literary device that is often used in the genres of fantasy, magical realism, horror, and science fiction. Call it metaphor made flesh.

This is not a new idea. When Gregor Samsa—lost in a drab life and a nothing job, unappreciated by his parents and his employer—wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant bug, he is the literal embodiment of a “I’m a worthless insect” metaphor. What is so unsettling about this story is not the transformation itself, which is handled as a matter of fact, but rather the way it impacts on the characters, including Gregor. The reality that unfolds after his metamorphosis isn’t that different from the one that went before.  Sure, he has been grossly transformed in physical terms, but the emotional relationship between the players really hasn’t changed very much. His humanity had already been compromised long before his transformation.


Horror stories, in particular monster stories, use this device all the time. Werewolves are literally the “beast within.” Mr. Hyde is the “dark side” that we all carry inside us and can never be rid of.  Frankenstein’s creature is the outcast and unwanted child who, nevertheless, we are still responsible for. Metaphorical monsters are open to interpretation, of course. Do zombies symbolize the ravening hordes, dehumanized by consumerism and modern society? Do vampires represent the unleashed power of repressed female sexuality? That’s pretty much up to the author (and the reader) but the device is the same nonetheless.


Into every generation, a metaphor is born.

To draw on a less hallowed example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer made extensive use of the “literalization of metaphor” device, particularly during the early seasons: my mother is a witch (episode: Witch); teenagers are animals (The Pack); being ignored is as bad as being invisible (Out of Mind, Out of Sight); sleep with a boy, and he’ll turn into a unfeeling monster (Surprise and Innocence.) The technique was also applied in broader strokes. The whole first season can be seen as a literalization of a “high school is hell” metaphor. Dawn (in season five) is an adolescent girl who feels as if she doesn’t belong in this world (and what teenager hasn’t felt that way?) and, in Dawn’s case, it is literally true.

Consider one more example, then I’ll get to the point. JK Rowling, whose books draw exhaustively on conventional monster metaphors, also creates a beautiful example of her own: the horcrux, a literalization of the metaphor that taking another human life dehumanizes you by tearing your soul apart.

All right then, so what’s so special about all of this? Writers use metaphors and symbols all the time. But when a metaphor or a symbol becomes a real thing, it allows us to experience it in new and often startling ways. It acquires a new weight. We can hold it up, view it from different angles. My book Flight of the Wren sprung from a whimsical idea: what if flying carpets were a real thing? Not in ancient Persia or Alexandria, but here and now. And what if a teenage girl had one? A flying carpet can certainly symbolize flight itself, which we associate with freedom, with adventure, with power (it’s no coincidence that so many superheroes can fly), but flight is a word of several meanings. To take flight is to lift off the ground into the air, but  it is also to escape, to run away.

Being naturally contrary, I subverted my heroine’s expectations about the whole flying thing. The carpet brings freedom in only the most superficial sense. Far from giving her the escape she thought she craved, it makes her part of a flock, ties her to other people she cares about. It makes her responsible to others. Flying grounds her in a community she never even knew she wanted.

And that is pretty much what I mean by viewing the metaphor from a different angle. On the surface, the flying carpet is just a ditzy gimmick, but the metaphor allowed me to write about human connection, about family, about love and loss, which is what the book is really about.

So what about you? Anyone out there want to share your own examples of metaphors made flesh, either in your own book or some favored work? I’m all ears (and let’s hope that metaphor is never made flesh.*)

*  “I’m all ears,” I suppose, is really an example of metonymy, but I think we can let it slide.

book reviews, reading

How The Other Half Reads.

Stolen off Slate, abridged because it’s so long. I’ve slashed way down, close to half. It’s still 1300+ words.


If my snatch is illegal, somebody tell me and I’ll report it in my own words or delete it. Find it on in the Slate Book Review. The original title: In Praise of Reader Reviews.

By Laura Miller

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Amazon reviews. Every author has a war story about absurd one-star reviews written by dolts. But here’s my semi-shameful secret: I like reader reviews. I often make a point of seeking them out. You can find reviews on Amazon and (even more commonly) on Goodreads that are as considered, thorough, and well-written as anything that used to appear in your local newspaper. But actually I don’t care much about those reviews. I go to reader reviews to see how the other half reads.

Crucially, the internet has made it simply impossible for me to kid myself that there’s a widely shared agreement on what constitutes good writing or a good book. This, I realize, will be viewed as the violation of a sacred trust by some of my fellow critics, who see our role as that of knights defending the citadel of Literature from barbarian hordes waving Fifty Shades of Grey.  Not only do I think the citadel can take care of itself, but I always want to know what the barbarians are so worked up about. Besides, some of them are not actually barbarians at all, just tired, overworked women who have finally found a bit of recreational reading that hits the spot.

I’m especially intrigued by reader reviews written by people unfamiliar with the vocabulary of literary criticism. They aim to describe experiences that most of us recognize but that can be hard to articulate, and they have to make up the language for it as they go along. Sometimes they acquit themselves pretty well, as in the following review, of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, posted by one Jesse Messerli:

To me it seemed like the author had a few ideas for completely unrelated stories, and because none of them were really that good on their own, he decided to combine them all and try to connect them in some way in order to reveal something about the nature of man. After reading the previous reviews I kept expecting it to get better. I kept waiting for some magical revelation that would make it all worth it. I felt as if I was trudging through piles of garbage in hopes of finding the treasure at the end. However once I got halfway through I find that there is no treasure, but I have to turn around and trudge back out of all the garbage and see if there is treasure back at the start. When I finished that I realized that there is no gold nugget hiding anywhere, just miles of trash.

Few professional critics could get away with such a passionately querulous outburst, not to mention that comparison to trudging through piles of garbage—it’s so over the top—and yet isn’t that exactly how reading a frustrating book feels? While I enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas myself, my heart goes out to Messerli. I’ve been there, pal.

In perusing reader reviews over the years, I’ve noticed two words cropping up approvingly again and again, words that rarely appear in professional reviews: “fast” and “flow.” These, I’ve concluded, refer to much the same quality, something that violently disgusts my most discriminating literary friends: cliché. A “fast read” is a book that “flows,” in prose that calls no attention to itself by virtue of being utterly familiar. You can swallow it in huge gulps and finish in a few hours, if you’re not too picky. Eventually, I’d discover C.S. Lewis’ astute explanation of the appeal of clichés for readers who consume books solely for their diverting plots. They like this kind of writing, he writes,

…  because it is immediately recognizable. “My blood ran cold” is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

The story flowed effortlessly and keep [sic] the interest going,” wrote Martha Silcox of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a book whose hackneyed prose makes me grind my teeth. Fiction that flows never calls upon its readers to slow down and contemplate or admire any of its parts. It also doesn’t feature narrative gaps that oblige the reader to puzzle out what’s going on.

I’ve learned to accept that a good number of the books I adore are in some part simply unintelligible to many readers.

The lament that “nothing happens” in a novel often means that the main character or characters don’t drive the novel’s action or events; things happen, but they happen to the characters rather than being caused by them. People want to read about characters they like and identify with, which often means characters who take charge of their destinies instead of passively moping around being “whiny” (another common complaint). What literary critics seem to most prize–beautiful sentences–barely seems to count at all. Reader reviews will occasionally praise an author’s style, but so many of them describe The Da Vinci Code as “well-written” that to me the phrase has come to seem meaningless.

Reader reviewers often take critics to task for praising a “bad book” simply because all of their peers do. Often they seem to believe that critics have conspired to sell the public a bill of goods on hopelessly pretentious writers with nothing of interest to say—or at least to overinflate the work of their own impenetrable darlings. But reader reviews also offer lovely instances of serendipity, when some naïf encounters the work of a much-touted modern master with no notion of the author’s renown.

One of my favorite reader reviews ever is for Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell, published in 1980. Literary insiders are aware that Birdwell is a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, the revered postmodern novelist, who apparently wrote this manifestly fictional “memoir” solely for money. Every reviewer comes to a new DeLillo novel knowing that he’s thought to be a genius, and once an author’s reputation is that exalted, I’ll level with you: It can indeed affect your response to the book. But had no inkling of this in 1998, when he wrote on Amazons’ Amazon page:

A friend of mine found this book in hc for 75 cents in k-mart when i was around 13. she got it for me because i was a huge ny rangers fan & wanted to play hockey. the book turned out to have little to do with hockey, but was truly different & funny in a seinfeld kind of way. there are certain moments & phrases from it that i will never forget. i lent it to one friend who loved it as much as i did, and then another who was not impressed and eventually lost it. i have never ever seen another copy, and it appears that she never published anything else. cleo birdwell, where are you???

I sometimes think that may be the most honest rave Don DeLillo has ever gotten.

So I’ll never denounce the abundant proliferation of reader reviews, not even the ones that lambast my own book. One-star reviews testify to a loss of faith, and they wouldn’t get written if that faith didn’t keep rising up in the first place. Each review represents an instance of someone taking a chance, opening the covers of a book and allowing an author’s words into her head with the hope that something magical might result. And I just can’t see anything bad about that.


book reviews

Conversation with a Troll

Internet Trolls attempt to stifle dissent. It’s endemic. Let a known author disagree with anything they believe and they come after him like Daleks at Dr. Who screaming, “Exterminate!” Their hatred is blind. They even lash out at anyone who dares write a favorable review of the book.
The following is commentary I received on an Amazon review I wrote of The Kingdom Of Speech, in which Tom Wolfe cites field evidence suggesting that evolutionists and linguists are wrong about the origin of speech. ]

In the review, I say, “It is a rare quality of great writers that they give their reader understandings they never had before and cannot explain without reciting from the book.”

Conversation with a Troll Named Anonymous

Anonymous says:
“they give their reader understandings they never had before”
The correct word is “misunderstandings” of course.

[ ]

Of course Jerry Coyne is a professor emeritus of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago.

GD Deckard says:
o-pin-ion n. 1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.
– The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition

Anonymous says:
A silly person:
“A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.”
Hilarious. Evolution – supported by overwhelming scientific evidence built up over the last 150+ years.
Science doesn’t get any better than that.

GD Deckard says:
In The Kingdom Of Speech, Tom Wolfe does not reject the generally accepted theory of evolution.

Anonymous says:
“Tom Wolfe does not reject the generally accepted theory of evolution.”
HOWEVER, he claims that humans are “special” and not like “other animals”. That’s just silly.
From the Amazon blurb: “The maestro storyteller and reporter provocatively argues that what we think we know about speech and human evolution is wrong.”
Does that properly reflect the nonsense in this book?

GD Deckard says:
I dunno, I suspect most people believe they are special compared to other animals. Given the extraordinary difference between our discussion here and any communication between animals (none ever built an Internet,) I’m not inclined to disagree with them.

True, I’d be hard pressed to argue Tom Wolfe’s assertion that human language is not the result of evolution, but rather is an artifact, what I’d call a technology (in the McLuhan sense.) But lacking the body of hard empirical science that lands spacecraft on comets to the contrary, why not? What specific evidence contradicts that assertion?

Anonymous says:
“I suspect most people believe they are special compared to other animals.”
Of course they think that. Most people are religious. So what?
“extraordinary difference”
Hilariously irrelevant of course. The point is that our capabilities have evolved as humans have evolved over the last few hundreds of thousands of years.
“True, I’d be hard pressed to argue Tom Wolfe’s assertion that human language is not the result of evolution”
In other words, HALF of his book is nonsense???
“What specific evidence contradicts that assertion?”
Hilarious. Did you read Jerry Coyne’s skewering of this nonsense? If that is correct, there is no point in trying to read this book.

GD Deckard says:
So, you really cannot cite empirical evidence to refute Tom Wolfe’s assertion that human language is not the result of biological evolution any more than is the bow & arrow? Then both sides of this debate remain open. Great 🙂 I love a spirited debate.
Thank you for taking the time to let me know what you think.

Anonymous says:
“assertion that human language is not the result of biological evolution”
Are you aware that there is a “not” in that assertion? That makes it simply a silly assertion that is laughed at and then ignored.
“I love a spirited debate.”
There is no debate. Humans are animals and evolved the intelligence and capability of speech. End of discussion.
Coyne: “Somewhere on his mission to tear down the famous, elevate the neglected outsider and hit the exclamation-point key as often as possible, Wolfe has forgotten how to think.”

GD Deckard says:
ROFL! Closed minded arguments aside, please do post here if you ever come across empirical evidence.

I couldn’t have characterized the Troll’s argument better myself. “There is no debate,” Anonymous says, “End of discussion.”

blogging, book promotion

Styles of Promotion.

In terms of promotion, what works?

In the marketing groups (there are many) on Facebook, there’s so much schmaltz: “Amid the burning chaos that has become his life, Saro finds a solace he never expected, eyes filled with understanding and a smile that steals his heart even though he’s only begun to trust.”

Your eyes start to glaze over.

Here’s a restrained pitch: “Discover a love so deep it defies a 40-year family feud.” One short sentence, and there’s a cover, with no tits and no muscles, amazing! I guess that works if you’re known. Another Gage! He’s great! I’ll read anything he writes. 40-year feud. Sounds fascinating!

One guy is offering – for five dollars – to post your book on his personal book promotion group:

I will promote your EBook by posting your ad on my HUGE Social Media Network. You get massive exposure! This Facebook group has 114,000+ members and adds almost 1,000 new members per day!!! All of these members WILL SEE YOUR ADVERTISEMENT.”

114,000 members? (Hard – damn hard – to buy.) Most of whatever number probably inactive, like on any site. No thanks.


Most of the marketing groups are closed groups, you have to ask to join, but permission to join comes almost immediately. I doubt that they turn anyone away except (maybe) folks pushing extra nasty porn.

I’ve seen thoughtful entreats, but way more gush. I’ve come to the conclusion that it makes no real difference. Nobody pays much attention to any of it. (FYI: I’m my own guinea pig.)

I’ve asked a dozen promotional geniuses (Ladies! You’re not going to believe how hot this is!) how their various styles of tout are doing (I asked nice, I swear) and have had no replies.

Jim Meirose is one I followed up on. He sounds like he’s arrived, like he’s successful. (He is, with shorts. I don’t think he’s got his novels off the ground yet. His novels on Amazon are down in the million-plus with the rest of us.)

He has a long list of credits for stories published in some well-known magazines. I read one of his shorties and liked a whole lot about it. I will definitely read more of him. I found him by accident. He happens to be married to a cousin I’ve been out of contact with for decades. I recently joined FB. Long lost relatives are coming out of the woodwork.

Facebook is useful. I’ve gotten some good advice on there. (Nothing astonishing, that I didn’t know or couldn’t have figured out.)


Tim Flanagan in the group Marketing for Authors says:

Hi Mimi – I’ve just had a look at the writercoop website. I like the idea – authors should always support other authors. Have all the authors got their own independent mailing lists and websites and social media pages? If not – that’s the first thing you should ALL have, separate to the coop website. If you have each got your own platforms you should have all that information on the coop website.

I notice a few of the authors have their own websites but they’re not particularly engaging or visually interesting from a reader’s POV. You should also be cross promoting each other on your own platforms. Use each other’s mailing lists. Add links to each other’s books in the back of each others books. Put a box set together -one book from each author.

Your greatest strength is in cross promoting between each other. Alternatively, improve your coop website so that it appeals to readers rather than just explaining who you are. Set up a mailing list for the coop as a whole. Give away a small starter library featuring a short story from each writer in exchange for a reader giving you their email – build a coop following that each writer can tap into.

Separately, have a short story on amazon for promotional purposes only – each other can use their 5 free days every couple of weeks so there is more exposure for that author, but also the others in the coop. There’s lots you can do but it depends how serious you all are as individual writers, as well as a cooperative. Message me if you want more information.”

Crap! That’s a job of work there. But we have to implement at least some of these suggestions if we want to flourish. I have my hands full with my own site, but as I learn, I’ll pass it on.


Here’s a piece off Scribophile:

I’ve just discovered that there’s a thing called debut author classes (class as in class of 2017, not as in lesson). Basically, all the debut authors with books coming out in a certain year (and usually from the same genre/age group) form a group where they help promote each other. They also have a blog that showcases all of their members, their books, and blog posts. Members have to contribute blog posts, read and review a certain number of their peers’ ARCs, promote their peers, and do a bunch of other stuff. I’m following some of the members on Twitter, and seeing all the camaraderie and conversations and shoutouts and shameless promotion of other people’s books is really cool. Unfortunately, you have to be traditionally published to join. Is there anything like this for indies? Not a typical book blog, the focus not to promote a *book*, it should be book-themed entertainment to subtly hawk your wares.

(Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?)


Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 12.58.01 PM.png

I like this, clear, lots going on, front and center links.

I think our best immediate move is to punch up the layout of our site, have a prominent list of previous features, the front page presenting a lead article and a roster of additional titles and links.

Here’s a screen shot of a site that caught my eye. This will be a lot of work to set up. But it may be easy to maintain.

We have great content, for a certain audience. (Not for the Ladies-this-book-is-hot-hot-hot crowd. Thank God.) But we must boost our visibility, and our vitality.

Can we get our articles accepted on other sites, with links to us? Everybody is hungry for striking content, and we certainly have it.


book promotion, book reviews

How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career

I hate the dropdown list.

If you’ve ever tried to enlist your book at a book-marketing website or even just self-publish it on Amazon, you’ve seen the dropdown list:

Please select a genre for your book:

  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Paranormal
  • Literary
  • Young Adult

Of course, many of the lists are more diverse, giving you everything from Urban Fantasy to Paranormal Romance, but you know what? That doesn’t make any difference, because no matter how specific the genre, it still doesn’t fit my books. In fact, making the choices more specific only makes the problem worse. The smaller the pigeon-hole, the worse the fit.


There are two golden rules of selling stuff:

1. know what you are selling


2. know who you are selling to.

They are the twin maxims of marketing. Write something people want, and then go out and find them. Know thy audience! Then target them. I’ve given almost no thought to who my books are for. It’s not that I’m not interested. I want people to like my books, of course, but I have no control over that.  I haven’t gone to a single bookstore, online or otherwise, trying to find other books that are similar to mine so I can tap into a ready-made audience.

I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to go and find that audience.

It’s one of the many things I’ve done wrong. I don’t target my audience. I don’t write high-concept. My books don’t sit comfortably in any particular genre. I can’t even identify an appropriate age group. I classified Spark as Young Adult, but in all the comments by reviewers at Amazon, what was the single most common observation?

The book isn’t really YA:

“…definitely different from your typical young adult novel.”

“I’m not sure it can be classified as Young Adult.”

“I am trying to think of the best genre to which this book belongs.”

“what separates this book from other YA or science fiction-type of books is the attention to detail and language.”

“…not typical of YA books in general.”

“…may be a little misclassified as a YA novel.”

Here’s the thing, though: while everybody mentioned it, nobody called it a bad thing. In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.

So while a marketing consultant might leap on my genre dysphoria as the fatal flaw that is preventing the book from catapulting to a wider audience, I don’t think most readers really care all that much. And sure, there are plenty of people out there who only read cozy mysteries or high fantasy or YA dystopian, but those people probably aren’t going to be in my audience anyway. We’ll never be more than just friends.

And if I’m going to be totally honest about it, I like genre bending. I enjoy books that are hard to classify, that defy convention, that live in the spaces between categories. I like reading them. I like writing them. So maybe it isn’t a problem at all.

Except for those damned dropdown lists.

reading, writing technique

The Kingdom of Speech

31 August 2016  The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe’s new book that came out yesterday, is must reading for any writer who ever wondered about their most important tool.

It’s easy reading. So easy, in fact, that you can easily suffer its scholarly detail and deep insights into evolution and linguistics and even forgive the historically accurate but unflattering portraits of those who created modern “truths.”

You may never have asked yourself, seriously, why is the North American Apache cosmogony exactly like the big bang theory (I certainly never had) but once you “get it,” you’re now ready to spend some quality time with Darwin’s dog to learn why celebrated linguists like Noam Chomsky wrongly believed recursion sentences (like this one) prove language evolved naturally within humans.

It is a rare quality of great writers that they give their reader understandings they never had before and cannot explain without reciting from the book. So I’ll contain my excitement and merely recommend that you, as a writer, experience The Kingdom of Speech for yourself.

One thing I can say is that I will never again look at words the same way.