Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Thanks to the gentle persistence of my dear friend Michelle Hauck, I actually produced a new blog post. You'll find it here (on a blog that actually gets updated and read, unlike this cobweb-choked corner of the internet).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Next Big Thing - Week 23

I was tagged by just-agented, soon-to-be-superstar Jennie Bates Bozic. You can visit her blog here.

1- What is the working title of your book? Black Sea

2- Where did the idea come from for the book? Reading about the theory of the 'shadow' biosphere. Also, I wanted to create a more rollicking, less cerebral adventure than my last manuscript. Yeah, about that...

3- What genre does your book fall under? Sci-fi thriller. Think Crichton/Rollins. Except with a bonus helping of epistemology!

4- Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I'm intentionally sparse with physical descriptions of my characters, so while I may have some ideas, I'm not about to share them.

5- What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? No fair! I haven't worked on my hook yet. Here's a stab at it: For microbiologist John Ruiz, discovering why seventy-nine scientists have vanished from a research vessel adrift in the Caribbean Sea may unlock the clues he needs to at last prove his discredited theories -- or it may just unleash a killer better left undiscovered.

6- Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Agency represented. DO YOU HEAR THAT AGENCIES?

7- How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 40 days. Lent is my 'NaNoWriMo'. Amazing how complete asceticism can focus the mind.

8- What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Amazonia.

9- Who or What inspired you to write this book? Panic? I had planned to write an historical thriller based on a true story, but after spending two months researching and plotting, I realized I didn't really have a handle on my main character (meaning I didn't actually like him very much), so I shelved that idea. Somehow Black Sea popped into my head.

10- What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? The opening sequence takes place in Antarctica, which is a fascinating otherworldly place, and for which I spent hundreds of hours in research. Also, the grounding in real science will inform and delight the curious reader.

Tagged for next week (Week 24) are some of my talented writer friends. Check out their blogs next Wednesday, November 14th, when it's their turn to post answers to these same questions about their own works-in-progress!

Super crit-partner and wrangler of rabbits Michelle Hauck.

The ever-unstoppable force of nature Joey Francisco

This one's cheating, because it's a horizontal link, but you should check out Moonshade anyway.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Good First Chapters Hide Their 'Tells'

In poker, a ‘tell’ is a change in your opponent’s demeanor that gives a signal to what is held in his hand. It’s important as a writer to realize we also have tells. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in some of the first chapters of the manuscripts I’ve been critiquing lately, and it made me realize something fundamental about starting a novel: every novel must begin as two stories.

When we sit down to put the first indent on the first page of chapter one, there’s a desire to get to the meat of our tale: the instigating event, the bizarre coincidence, the arrival of the mysterious stranger. We want to draw our readers into the amazing journey we’ve planned for them, and so it’s easy to focus singularly on setting the stage to get there. Often what gets left by the wayside is something that should be equally compelling, and that’s our main character’s other day, the one they were supposed to have, before this author jerk butted in and ruined everything with the alien invasion or the visit from the vampire hippy cousin.

Often, I’ll read characters who don’t really have any other plans, other than to be swept to another planet. The ‘tell’ is that the author didn’t bother to make any for them, because the author knew from word one that there wouldn’t be pep rally at 2:15 in the quad. So what was the point of giving them dreams, aspirations, appointments that they would never be able to make? But really, our main character’s other day, the prosaic boring ordinary one, should be just as compelling as the one they get thrust into. It’s this very day that distinguishes a fully-developed and compelling character from a passive, flaccid, acted-upon one. In our excitement to dazzle with whiz-bang plot complications rather than day-to-day minutia, we hobble the person hefting the weight of our story: the protagonist.

So what would YOUR protagonist be doing if the world hadn’t ended at 10:11 a.m.? Do you know?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 Remembrance - Christina Donovan Flannery

I can't imagine 2996 people. I can't see their faces, can't know their lives. But I can see one person, remember her. I wrote this six years ago, for a blog project that remembered each and every victim of 9/11.

Christina Donovan Flannery started as a name I drew at random. Now she's real to me, and it hurts that she was stolen from this world and the people that loved her. Every year on 9/11, I read her story again, and I pray for her family.


We live lives of magic and wizardry. We spend our days consumed with concerns that generations before would find strange and unreal. We worry about getting a clear cell phone signal, or traffic tie ups, we obsess over interest rates and the price of a precious oily yellow-green liquid that you can’t drink, can’t wash with, can’t use to cook. The hardships we confront on a daily basis are those of a pampered, spoiled people, with the attendant majesty and pique of a pea disturbing the royal slumber.

Yet this is the great gift that our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers toiled and sweated and died to give us. This moment where we have the freedom to be petty or preoccupied or profound. Where the only worry we have about eating is which of a hundred thousand boxes we will choose at the market.

It is easy for us to forget the soil below, which we cover in buildings and concrete and plantings and parking structures, and yet, there it is–- still. Hidden, obscured, forgotten, but eternally beneath. If it is bedrock, it supports everything we wish to do. If it is sandy or soft or undercut by hidden water, despite our elaborate plans and aspirations cracks will form in even the most ambitious and well-designed of our edifices.

So we wake up on a September morning, and watch evil remind us in no uncertain terms that though it can be covered, graded, trenched and forgotten, it will not be denied.

* * *

Christina Donovan Flannery worked on the 104th floor of Tower Two, at Sandler O’Neill and Partners. She was 26, newly married, and a fixed income sales associate for the firm, where she had worked for two years.

As usual, she spent the morning riding the subway into work with her husband, Brian. At the moment, they lived in Middle Village, Queens. But the contracts for the home they were purchasing-– their first-– were with their attorney. They would be signing soon. “We talked about it non- stop,” her husband said.

It was a dream address: 10 Cranberry Lane in Plainsville, on Long Island. A three bedroom split-level ranch. There would finally be enough room for their beloved dog Tye, an Akita German shepherd, to romp around. He was their “kid for now”, but they were looking forward to starting a family soon.

The move to the Long Island home, just around the corner from her in-laws, would be the first move out of Middle Village for Christina. Born August 10, 1975, the daughter of William and Catherine Donovan, she grew up with brother Billy and sister Kathleen. She attended Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Elementary School and Christ the King High School, where she was a star basketball and softball player.

“Everyone who knew Christina, loved Christina. Her smile and laughter [were] contagious,” said her brother. “She loved children, she loved family, she loved life.”

Even more than career, marriage had always been a dream for Christina. Her best friend Nicole Lagnese recalled how crashing weddings was a favorite hobby. “We used to drive around from church to church on Saturdays to see how other people had done it and get ideas for our own.”

Still, it was probably not the first thing on her mind when she went to Jones Beach on a first date with Brian Flannery, whom she had met on the trading floor of HSBC Bank USA. But just a few years later, in July 2000, she would be standing in the same spot as the sun was setting, when he asked her to marry him.

“She got joy out of helping others and seeing them happy,” her husband said. “Making other people happy was her happiness.”

The June wedding in 2001 was followed by a honeymoon in Hawaii.

By September, the couple had settled into the happy routine of commuting into work together. They split up each day near the end of their commute, when he went to his office in midtown– she to lower Manhattan and her job on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

After the first jet plunged into Tower One, Christina spoke to her husband Brian twice more by phone.

And then came 9:02:59 a.m., Sept 11, 2001.

United Airlines Flight 175 struck Tower Two.

* * *

“I don’t have my sister anymore, don’t have anyone to talk to. I talked to her about things I wouldn’t talk to my husband about.” Kathleen Fontana, Sister.

“We all miss Christina terribly, each one in a different way. I miss the phone calls and talks on the front stairs of the house the most.” Bill Donovan, brother.

“The world will never be the same without you. Your caring heart and your tender smile will forever be missed.” Rick Taiano, old friend

“If you had a down day, you’d just talk to her for five minutes, and she’d pick you up. Everybody who knew her just felt the same way.” William Donovan, Father.

“She made you believe anything was possible. She wasn’t afraid to dream because she made dreams come true.” Brian Flannery, Husband.

[If you knew Christina, and would like to add or correct anything in this remembrance, please leave a comment. My apologies if I have gotten anything wrong. Published reports vary on certain details and dates, including Ms. Flannery’s birth date and the spelling of Kathleen Fontana/ Fontona.]

Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: The Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot



Will Shortz’s job, as the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, is to ensure that his readers are provided an intriguing list of clues for every entry, across and down. He draws little boxes in a grid, arranges every letter just so. And then publishes the most challenging one of the week in the Thursday edition of the Times.

Writing crosswords is hardly a task that will result in compliments from the reader, for Shortz can expect only three possible outcomes:

If he screws it up, the readers will say:

1. This crossword is too easy. It’s stupid. –OR-
2. This crossword is impossible. It’s stupid.

Tragically for Shortz and his contributors, when done properly, the reader’s reaction is not thanks or appreciation, but rather,

3. I am so damned good at crosswords!

After having finished Sophie Perinot’s The Sister Queens, I can confidently assert:

I am so damned good at reading historical fiction.

Every book is puzzle, and the author’s job is to provide the clues, the boxes, the letters. Then let the reader experience the joy of filling it in. It’s a sign of the sophistication of Perinot’s approach that she understands this relationship between author and reader, and leads just far enough — before demurely retreating and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

There’s a moment early in the story when Marguerite is pricked by her sister Eleanor, who is pinning a broach to her (a gift from Marguerite’s intended, Louis IX). Marguerite resolves not to mention the small wound to the family surrounding her, as she is the only one privy to the flash in her sister Eleanor’s eyes, and knows it was done intentionally.

I can’t express how masterfully Perinot has captured the relationship that drives this novel in that one moment. She has set the stage in action, in deed. And I, the reader, have discovered it like a pearl in an oyster, careless to the fact that Perinot was diving under moonlight the night before to set the mollusk exactly where I would find it, and between gnarled shells, carefully inserted a cultured pearl of rare beauty.

This is not an author lecturing the reader. How many lesser writers have I read (some with millions of books sold) who would have ham-handed a sentence into the book, something along the lines of: “Eleanor had always been envious of her older sister.”? After all, it seems like such an innocuous thing to say – and true! – and surely, as an author, one longs for the comfort of knowing that the reader won’t fail to understand the relationship that you are trying so desperately to convey through words.

But there’s a courage to writing well. A trust. I liken it to those moments when one of my toddling children is doing something particularly cringe-inducing — balancing an overfull glass of milk over carpeting, slamming the car door with fingers particularly close to the strike, scurrying up some playground equipment designed for children far more dexterous than their wavering balance. As a good parent, I have to let my children try — and sometimes fail — because it is only down the road of risk that maturity comes.

And The Sister Queens is a work of obvious artistic maturity. I can only hope that Perinot has crafted this tale with the punctilious precision of New York Times crossword. If she merely intuited it, because of a natural aptitude for understanding character, action, voice, I’m afraid I’m so envious that I’ll have to hunt her down with intentions as black as Blanche (‘the dragon’, Louis IX’s overbearing mother), and frankly, I don’t care to be the subject of an interstate manhunt, nor spoil my chance to read Perinot’s next book.

This maturity informs another aspect of the book that I found deftly handled. In transporting me back to the 13th century, Perinot allows modern sensibilities to fall away, and lets the truth of the time drive her sisters’ attitudes and ambitions. She doesn’t condescend to them by forcing an anachronistic desire to be the ‘equal’ of any king, these aren’t post-2000 Disney princesses. She inserts no speeches hinting at nascent feminism. Perinot finds her connection in a way that is human — not political — treating the protagonists with respect for who they were. Perinot honors her characters by celebrating them in a way I suspect the real sisters of Savoy would have understood.

There are of course nits in a work as sprawling as The Sister Queens. I wish Perinot’s notes on the historicity of the novel had come as introduction instead of afterword; as I read, I think I could have more thoroughly fallen into her authorial arms if I had trusted more the boundaries of fact and fiction. As it was, a little bird perched on my shoulder, occasionally asking, Wait a minute? How much of this is actually real?

At times, too, Perinot loses narrative focus, and her story drifts until she can reach a historical guidepost that allows her to pick up a new conflict. These episodes are probably unavoidable in a work tied to actual lives; they were never serious enough that I put the book down. Her decision to write in first person left me sometimes longing for the greater descriptive freedom that comes with third; I would have like to have seen in more detail some of the grand courts, churches and battles; hardly possible in the intimate style of narrative she chose. A titillating encounter seems to be parachuted in every seventy pages or so with the regularity of a monthly visitor (as to whether this is due to the sensibilities of the author, or the intended market, I suspect the latter). Last, this book screams ‘targeted toward women’, and as a paunchy, middle-aged man, I sometimes had that excruciating discomfort that can only be experienced by being the only male at a baby shower. The cover art didn’t inspire me to read this in public view.

But these hardly rise to a level that impacted my enjoyment of the novel. All in all, a fascinating, enjoyable read. I don’t think I can offer any higher compliment than the following three words, having now turned the last page on Marguerite and Eleanor, The Sister Queens:

I miss them.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Praise of Gin

Tasting notes from Drinkopolis...

What would drinking be without that pinnacle of clear liquors, gin?

Whenever I'm asked 'Why gin?' by some amateur imbiber, I always recall that piquant bon mot of Oscar Wilde's: "Fuck you, that's why!" Recherche, no? (Or perhaps this isn't attributable to Wilde, I sometimes lose track of my sources)

Gin is vodka for adults, the backbone of such irreplaceable drinks as the Casino, the Twentieth Century, the Blue Moon, and of course, the Martini.

Let's peek inside my bar, Drinkopolis, and sample some of the gins therein:

I'll begin with some of the more accessible ones, and work towards the stronger and more serious.

New Amsterdam - I had a coupon, okay? This is the vodka of gins, a great place to start for those who "don't like gin." Sweet, citrusy, with very restrained juniper.

Hendrick's - Despite the labeling which flatters you as a unusually daring drinker (and yes, I WAS flattered, and forced to buy though I KNEW I was being manipulated), this is a soft-flavored gin with many interesting expressions, the nose being heavy with rose and less so with its advertised cucumber.

Magellan - Flavored with iris, this gin is blue (not just the bottle, like the otherwise clear Bombay Sapphire), and makes an outstanding Gin & Tonic for those afternoons when you're not in the mood for heavy juniper.

Hayman's Old Tom - This is a gin not in the London dry style, but the Old Tom style, which is a sweeter, softer gin style that predates the harder edge of the London gins.

Boodles - I mix a lot with Boodles, a good, well-rounded gin that is content to take the backseat to whatever cocktail it graces. It makes an outstanding Vesper.

Plymouth - Ah, Plymouth. I believe this is the only remaining 'Plymouth-style' gin, and it is wonderful. I took the advice of Ted Haigh and made a Pink Gin with this (gin, 5 dashes Angostura, shaken and strained straight up) and oh! Who would imagine basically straight gin could be a cocktail of depth and complexity? Mmmmmm....

Gordon's - Cheap, plentiful, and surprisingly good for a gin you find on the bottom shelf. Just enough complexity to be 'good enough' for anything you want to mix it in.

Brokers - 94 proof, and there's a little bowler hat on the bottle. The high alcohol content makes this gin aggressive and straightforward. Quite good in gin & tonics, and makes a very smooth Blue Moon.

Bombay - This may be my favorite gin. Bold, with strong botanicals, perhaps a little rough around the edges, and it says GIN loud and clear while you're drinking. My favorite with Martinis.

Bombay Sapphire - Also very good, a much smoother, complex version of the regular Bombay.

Tanqueray - This is the classic, juniper heavy choice for gin & tonics. I always order Tanqueray at restaurants, because it has enough flavor-strength to fight the overdiluted exertions of the modern bartender.

Tanqueray Malacca - Alas, it only exists as an empty bottle now. This was a short-lived Old Tom-like expression of Tanqueray, which I discovered had been discontinued after foolishly drinking my last jigger in some long-forgotten cocktail. Oh, if I had only known! I would have treated that pour measure with more reverence.

Beefeater - Big, bold, harsh, like Bombay only more so. Good for when you're in the mood for gin, and only gin. I like it in Martinis, Twentieth Centuries, and Collins drinks.

Anchor Genevive - HOLY HELL WHAT THE FUCK IS IN MY GLASS? This is a stomachache in a bottle, a necrotic malignancy spoken of in tones usually reserved for Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. Genever is the original expression of primordial gin, the drinking of which probably gave the Dutch the bugfuck crazy idea that they could run an empire that would span the earth. A crude, petroleum-tainted distillate, conjuring aromas hinting of Sterno and gas pump and service station restroom. I'll freely admit, I'm not man enough for this potable, and even writing about it here is stirring a churning vat of nausea deep in my gullet. Let's never speak of it again.

That's all the gins I can recall, from my nest here at the writing desk. I'll have to work my way to Drinkopolis and see if I've missed any.

Any gin of your own that you think I should try?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Don't Blink by James Patterson

It's not often a book changes the way you think about writing.

I read a post on AgencyQueryConnect about Patterson's belief that writing one book a year was insufficient in today's fast-paced marketplace, and that he wrote one book a month. Huh? Wha?

One month of writing on a new project, and I'm just getting through my zero-draft, a piece of fiction which can only be understood in terms of a military training course, where a mocked-up city is assaulted by practicing warriors, but all the obstacles are plywood facades. I don't cook up any really good supporting characters, any really mind-bending ideas, until at least month three.

So I had to read a Patterson book. I had to know.

Don't Blink is an absolute revelation!

It was around page 250 that this book changed my life. I couldn't understand before then. No way, no context. No truth. Now my eyes are open.

People who watch Bridezillas and SpikeTV need something to read while they poop!

And every chapter here is somewhere between tinkle-length and the span of a satisfying bowel movement. (Although if you're approaching your impending evacuation with a wet compress for your forehead and at minimum seventy-five pages of Joyce's Ulysses, this is NOT the book for you.)

All hail King Patterson, the Henry Ford of fiction, he of 200+ million books served, the number that changes every time you drive past the sign (hell, the dust jacket said 180+ million, the blurb at the end 200+). I see now: this is the McDonald's of prose. It's no surprise that he would have franchised the brand (in this case, I suspect, 90% to 'co-writer' Howard Rougham).

The story is predictable, because what's promised is an experience that matches the photograph on the menu board. That's the whole idea. So everything is easy, safe, and reiterated frequently enough that you can refresh your memory as to what point in the plot you had gotten to that last time you locked the bathroom door. There is no subtlety allowed, and any writing error that might create a subtle moment is quickly corrected by the authors intrusion to explicitly explain the subtle thing that just happened. (At a funeral for a murdered man: "I was hoping that this was all just a dream. But no, it was a real as real gets, and it was also heartwrenchingly sad." A FUNERAL? HEARTWRENCHINGLY SAD? HOW CAN THIS BE?)

The authors' observations are assiduously non-original. New ideas would get in the way of easy reading. So instead, they offer retreads of others' creativity:

"playing Hollywood Hamlet... Rehab or not rehab? That is the question."

"A bathroom... a bathroom... my kingdom for a bathroom."

"Say it ain't so, Dwayne."

"Cue Paul McCartney and the Beatles: I'm not half the man I used to be."

Ummmm... Those are other people's thoughts, guys.

One character is described as looking just like Niles Crane from Frazier. Another like a slimmed-down version of Boris Yeltsin. Why create a character? Just pick one from TV. Your readers will feel more comfortable that way.

This is Reading for Dummies, the images and ideas carefully counted out like Chicken McNuggets in cardboard clamshells. I get the feeling that Patterson read through Rougham's synopsis, gave him the green light to write, and then mentioned: "now, if you have any great ideas that come up while you're writing this, Howard, that might make this an even better book, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DON'T USE THEM! SAVE THEM FOR THE NEXT ONE! WE'VE GOT A QUOTA HERE, BROTHER!"

After all, you only get six nuggets of chicken in a six piece meal.