Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's All Gonna Get Better

It’s been a helluva year for writers, or as Mickey Spillane might put it, “as tough as a Times Square babe with one hand on your wallet and the other hailing a taxi.” But we can trust that the New Year will be better.

I hope that marketers will stop naming products and companies with exclamation points (Yahoo!) or lower case aberrations (eBay), or changing their name for no good reason (Wal-Mart to Walmart).

…That new words will continue to be coined, like locavore (buying locally grown food), Obamamaniac (self-explanatory), fang-banging (sex with a vampire), and shovel-ready (infrastructure projects ready to spend stimulus money). My favorite: googlegänger, for the person always looking up his/her name. And who knew the distorted letters I puzzle through to respond to a blog is called a captcha? (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). But I still don’t know what you mean when “you get the jones for a pizza.”

…That writers will kill needless adjectives and adverbs that allow them to be lazy. (And that young wannabes will learn what adjectives and adverbs are!)

…That young people and the intellectually challenged will stop signing off with lol and consign smiley faces to the archeological midden heap of bad communication. I’m tempted to exclaim, “WTF!” and hit the delete button.

…That reporters everywhere will remember to spell minuscule, that media is plural, and that the Smithsonian is an Institution.

…That elected officials not proclaim ordnances (subject to a statue of limitations), and that Congressional reconciliation does not mean head banging. Are they aware that election results is an anagram for lies—let’s recount?

Peace and good health to you and yours. May 2011 be a prosperous year in all ways. May your editors be benevolent and your proofreaders aware that a living language is not prescriptive.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Those Chores That Interfere

Why should I bitch because I ran ragged today through Costco, Bed Bath and Target? (“It’s good to be an aAmerican!”) No, all the chores are done, the present is almost made for our 3-year-old grandson, the larder is full, and the bank account still solvent. Least of my worries should be my writing.

I had an idea recently about metaphors because people kept telling me, “Jesus, where do you get those images?” (Well, really, it was one image--‘Her breasts were like two supermarket chickens reincarnated into flying eagles, threatening to escape her skimpy red tank top.’ It made me think that imagery is key to much of my writing being memorable. The reflection led to a 600-word piece for Flash Fiction Chronicles, up Dec. 13, at In the process, I mention similes, synecdoche, zeugma, and chiasmus. Tell that to your 5th grade English teacher!

And, did I mention why I have that benevolent smile on my face as the holidays approach? “Joined at the Heart” was published by Gumshoe Review in its December 2010 issue, at This was Gumshoe’s first venture into fiction. I have been peddling this story—satire that is near and dear to my heart—since 2005. Thank you, Gayle Surrette, editor of Gumshoe, for taking a chance on this piece of fiction. I remind people that a cynic is just an idealist with experience.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Burning Party; Bring Your Own Matches

Something on NPR reminded me that this is the date Joseph Goebbels stood in the Reichplatz helping to burn 20,000 books. At the same time, our Sunday paper headlined the fact that book banning is accelerating.

It’s Fahrenheit 451 all over again. Parents Against Bad Books in Schools ( has a list if you’ve got the matches. The organization states, “Bad is not for us to determine. Bad is what you determine is bad.” Ergo, every reader should bring his/her own criteria to the bonfire. There is no quality except that which you determine.

They recommend starting with Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Continue with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Capote’s In Cold Blood, Doctorow,s Ragtime, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and that perennial hazard to mental health, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Oh, I can’t go on! No, wait, I can. Happily, we still celebrate Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

Banned Books Week is endorsed by no less an organization than the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

Can’t happen in your town? Go to and click on what’s happening in your neck of the woods. Down the road from us in Vineland, NJ, Bill Aquado and Richard Newirth's Paint Me Like I Am had its pages literally torn out by the principal of Landis Intermediate School. The pages contained Jayson Tirado's poem 'Diary of an Abusive Stepfather' and were ripped out after one parent raised concerns over the age-appropriateness of the poem's content.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Update on Writing and the World As I See It

If the past week is any indication, all’s write—er, right in my world. I had an e-mail from Gumshoe magazine editor Gayle Surrette that she was sorry to have held onto “Joined at the Heart” overlong. “The length of time is due to the waffling. I figure if we’ve waffled this long that it sticks in yur head and we should go with it.” Love it! Sticky stories are my favorite too.

A story that had been universally rejected—often with a snort—got a thorough reading by Don Webb at Bewildering Stories. He pointed out some problems in my craftsmanship, and I heartily agreed that I had lapsed. I also took this as a conditional acceptance, upon rewrite, since he noted, “Fish Stories and the Mermaid” was “one of your most interesting” stories.

Thank you, Don and Gayle.

And while watching mindless commercials on TV, I’ve also penned 30-word book reviews that have been appearing in our Asbury Park Press. Capsule reviews of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were printed over the past few weeks.

And five other stories are out looking for a home. Some of them, I’m sure, will find lodging.

Monday, November 15, 2010

‘Crash Blossoms’ Are…Well, Blossoming

Ever scratch your head over a news headline and wonder what the heck the writer meant?

Take the classic picked up from Japan Today: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.” Dan Bloom, writing in an online language forum, suggested these mix-ups might be termed “crash blossoms.”

Usually, the confusion comes from the reader mistaking a noun for a verb, or vice versa. Years ago, The Guardian wrote: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.” Does that make you think of the islands littered with breakfast? Or an AOL head, “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts.” Or (perhaps apocryphal), “MacArthur Flies Back to Front.”

The other day the Dayton Daily News stated, “Man Shot in Chest, Leg Knocks on Door for Help.” It must have been a coronary-inducing situation when the door was opened to find a leg knocking. But no, that’s not what the writer meant.

Tight writing is the holy grail of news writers. (“McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.”) But we writers all need to peer from under the green eyeshade to make sure we’re not writing, “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

When Someone’s Got Your Number….

I was very happy to sell a quickly written 851-word tongue-in-cheek mystery, submitted to Big Pulp exclusively and for the first time. “Misunderstood Identity” will be online in March 2011.

The thesis is simple: Life is a mystery, but that doesn’t mean a guy has to put up with someone stealing his identity. Imagine a case of identity fraud, not theft. When a complete stranger is wooing women and leaving them languishing in hotel bedrooms across the country. Then they start calling you and leaving you love letters and lipsticking your car. What’s a poor mystery writer to do? Well, I’ll leave that until you read it in a few months.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

‘Paying the Devil’ a Prize-Winner

I was extremely happy to learn that a 4,400-word short story I wrote, “Paying the Devil” was awarded 6th place in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. The story had been out so long that I thought it had been forgotten.

To the economics of the thing, after paying federal and state taxes and deducting the submission fee, I will have broken even when I get the prize money.

I thanked Editor Jessica Strawser because the story was personally meaningful to me and not simply an intellectual exercise. Ficton is rarely “intellectual” or simply an “exercise.” “Paying the Devil” let me get a lot of thoughts off my chest. In particular, this exchange:

Alison called again at exactly nine o’clock in the morning—ten a.m. in Montclair. She was observing the proprieties of never calling before nine. “Well, have you talked?” she demanded.

“Good Lord, I’m making my first cup of coffee. Your daughter isn’t even awake yet.” I grabbed a cigarette, lit it and snapped the Zippo shut.

“Dad, please do not tell me you are smoking in the house, polluting my daughter with second-hand smoke. Do you have any sense of what you’re doing to people’s lives with your drinking and smoking?”

“And my liberal politics? Alison, you are a maternalistic altruist. You’ve been one all your life. Just get off your high horse.” I’d been waiting three years to tell her this.

“Materna…? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” I said, exhaling loudly, “you care only about some aspect of another person’s behavior—some characteristic that irritates you. Then you frame it as a danger to the world. That everyone should stop smoking, and wear helmets and seat belts, and get annual colonoscopies, and….”

“You are putting my daughter’s health at risk!”

“She’s running away from you, Alison—not me.” I always felt tense and defensive talking with Alison. Fathers shouldn’t be made to feel like ignoramuses by their children. “You’re like the authorities that make laws to help you cross a street safely. Then they won’t let go of your hand when you get to the other side. You don’t allow for a certain amount of risk taking. Well, I’m a risk taker. Get used to it.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where Do Those Stories Come From?

There are a number of ways to keep writing when an original thought won’t come. One is to dig into the slush pile of rejects and see what’s salvageable. Another is to throw Serious out the window and invite Humor into your bed. Three is to read the paper and see what craziness is out in the world knocking on your door.

This has worked for me in the past week. First, I was overjoyed to be notified Pif magazine would publish “Play Date” in its October issue. I had worked long and hard on this 6,000-word, serious examination of loneliness and terrorism and a few other themes. Read it at I hope you enjoy it because it vindicates me as a serious writer.

I also tripped over a piece I’d written some months ago about archeologists discovering the world’s oldest shoe. (Thank you, New York Times for this gem.) This subject could only be handled humorously, and it was, becoming “The World’s Oldest Shrew—er, Shoe” A little rewrite and off it went to The Short Humour Site in the U.K. ( As I mentioned on Facebook, I wonder what the sketch would have looked like if it had been the world’s oldest underpants.

Finally, the exercise in writing college admissions essays came to fruition when I took a subject my granddaughter was given by Temple University. But that’s not worth quoting, or linking to, or explaining. While funny, it could tip my darling grandchild the wrong way—getting her rejected before she gets her foot in the door of a university. Don't read the last post, below. And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Toughest Assignment: College App Essay

College app essays are TOUGH. Tried my hand at one as a writing exercise yesterday, on my granddaughter's behalf. It would guarantee her application never saw the light of day. First part goes like this....

Reunion with classmates, garrulous friends, geekie book wonks and nondescript hallway passersby equated to anticipation. Anticipation felt by the one-time Rutgers student formerly known as M--, class of '15. It was both a gleeful countdown to a birthday party and furtive calendar glances at an approaching dentist appointment. The year clicked over to 2025, then marched downward to June, zeroing in on an appointment with her return to New Brunswick. It was Au recherche du temps perdus with no petities madeleines.

Was there no way to stop the clock, tear up the calendar and hold back the moon?

The M-- who showed up at the meet-and-greet was nonplussed. The room exuded an eerie, surreal quality, like being in Chicago and finding House comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00. The air was scented with cocktail franks and cheese plate hors d’oeuvres, the hum of chatter and buzzing conversations were akin to the sound of a dentist’s drill. What had she been thinking?!

“So you’re M--,” a man said, squinting at her name tag. Or was he staring at her breasts? Half a container of gel made his hair glisten like nose hairs after a sneeze.

“Formerly M--,” she said. “I’m incognito, masquerading as an alumnus.”

“Alumna,” he corrected her. “I remember you from…oh, who was that professor who kept looking at the clock, waiting to get out for some mysterious appointment? Our class in history, archeology. One of those old things.”

“And you’re…” She squinted too. “Frank. Let’s be frank, Frank. What are you doing now that you’re not throwing water balloons?”

He flinched. Just a bit, a tightening around the eyes, as if he had bitten into a jalapeño pepper and didn’t want to cry. “Real estate. I do condos. Make ‘em, sell ‘em. Land is the only thing they’re not making any more of.”

“Never end your sentences with a preposition, Frank. But enough about you, what about me?” Frank was growing on her like he was a colony of E. coli and she was room-temperature hamburger.

Drop me a line if you want the rest of this exercise in academic futiliy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

People As Distinctive as Parking Meters

At last I know what ails me. It’s prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces. Faces just don’t register in my mind, or with about 2 percent of the population. I’ve been called stuck up and standoffish, but really, I’ll sometimes pass right by close friends without recognizing them. It’s partly why I have to call my wife when we’re in the supermarket and ask what aisle she’s in.

Prosopagnosa sufferers recognize their problem and ask people to wear a carnation (figuratively). It’s not a disaster, like Capgras Syndrome, when you believe your spouse or sibling is an imposter. Those people totally disbelieve there’s anything wrong with themselves.

Years ago, I worked for Western Electric in Kearny, New Jersey. This vast, 19th century factory had more than 10,000 employees. My job, among other tasks, was to interview employees heading into retirement and sum up their expectations in 50 words of copy for the employee newspaper I edited. I found that after talking with one – any one – I might pass him in the hall two hours later and totally fail to recognize him. They wore gray suits. White socks. Brown shoes. Had short hair. They all seemed to be department chiefs, a kind of limbo classification whose work took over when their dreams were cut short. All seemed uniformly gray-skinned. All said they were going to spend the next month at the Jersey shore, and then putter around their gardens in Toms River.

My problem was that unless I associated each person with a mnemonic clue – a scar here, a missing finger there, a VFW pin in the lapel – I couldn’t recognize him in passing two hours later. (The women were different. Though all of a class, their curves and hairstyles made them individuals.)

Apart from my prosopagnosia, another horrifying realization soon hit me. In six months, I was also writing their obituaries. My job was to chronicle both departures. These people not only looked alike, they subscribed to the same short destinies.

There’s a story in here somewhere.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Packing for the Big Trip

With all the new adults trekking off the college for the first time, I thought it’d be interesting to show you what my School Shopping List looked like in 1957. I was going off to Grinnell College (Iowa), and ready to say goodbye to the parents at Grand Central Station before beginning a 1,200-mile cross-country journey. Alone.

All summer long, personalized mailings from Wanamaker’s, Macy’s and Gimbels advised the class of ’61 that every boy needed at least one dark suit and one sport jacket, so my parents dutifully drove me into New York City to shop. The houndstooth jacket came from a discounter on 23rd Street (down the street from Dad’s office and adjacent to the shop selling “Horehair petticoats”) and was hideous. The suit was a Macy’s blue serge.

Also needed was a sturdy cardboard mailing box so dirty laundry could be mailed back to New Jersey for Mom to wash. (That exchange lasted six weeks before I went to a Laundromat and discovered “whites” and “colors” should be separated.) Grinnell, for its part, advised freshman to talk with their prospective roomies so everyone in a threesome at Smith Hall didn’t arrive with a giant 32 watt stereo. And, I was reminded, males were required to wear coats and ties for evening meals.

Into the footlocker (which I still have) went my Olympic portable typewriter, desk lamp and a leather notebook with my initials in gold (the latter was Mom's gift). The brown Samsonite suitcase was filled with T shirts (white, no ads or logos), dress shirts (button down), and khaki (with belts in the back). My education began in sartorial splendor, lasted a semester, and then the bluejeans took over. But I always remembered: separate colors from whites when doing the wash.

Monday, August 16, 2010

More to Jersey Wines Than You Think

New Jersey wines are the Rodney Dangerfield of oenology. They get no respect. Sometimes, that’s a deserved reputation, but there are surprises. Part of the reputation comes from a historical invisibility born out of post-Prohibition politics. For years, the state allowed only one wintery for each million residents. In 1981, the laws were relaxed as consumer palates became more sophisticated.

And, I didn’t know till I studied up, wine-making in New Jersey was begun at Renault Winery in 1864. Renault, in Egg Harbor/Galloway Twsp., is still going strong, winning many medals in the New Jersey State and the Finger Lakes International competitions.

This has all come together in an article I've written by the same title as this blog. It was just published by an area newspaper, The Association Reporter and will be coming out in another adult-community publication, River Pointe. Write me if you’re interested in seeing the entire story.

No kidding. Kevin Atticks, writing in The New York Times, stated, “If you go into a wine shop and blindly grab a California wine, your chances of getting something mildly unpleasant are greater than if you pick up a wine from New Jersey.”

Saturday, August 7, 2010

There’s Hope for the Next Generation

Judging the 19 entries in the local Summer Writing Contest was not only entertaining but educational as five members of the writing group I moderate went through the entries.

A surprisingly high level of achievement appeared as we tried to measure each entry against four criteria:
Characterization: Are the characters well-rounded, developed?
Plotting: Did the author begin, develop and end the story capably?
Concept: Are there new ideas, strong imagination, or high levels of insight?
Writing Ability: Does author show a good command of language?

My matrix—judging each criterion from a “1” (needs work) to a “4” (excellent)—revealed remarkable ability. Not one entry scored lower than a 10. In fact, four entries scored 15s, and three scored 14s—testimony either to the scholastic abilities or personal interests in writing of these young people.

Writing is the art form that most precisely allows a person to express his or her feelings and response to the world. Secondly, people write in order to truly communicate, to reach out in the hopes that another person will say, “Yes! I understand completely what you’re trying to say or how you interpret the world.” To have 9- to 12-year old writing at this high caliber is a joyous experience.

Of course, there were entries that seemed to be right out of a comic book or video game. These are kids! But others believed in magic. One—our first place choice—showed expression and communication in an outstanding way. It was an epistolary piece telling his absentee father that the boy would be a success in spite of the missing dad.

I wish I could’ve written like that when I was in grade school. My hat’s off to these kids. I'm looking forward to meeting them at the ice-cream-and-awards program next week.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Playing Catch-up with a Published Piece

As Uncle Wiggily used to say, “Now, where were we, boys and girls.” Summer is moving too fast for me to keep up. Anyway, I was relieved when Over My Dead Body! Published “Chain of Events” at

My notes show that I queried the editor in early summer last year. She told me to shoot the story over to OMDB, which I did July 1, 2009. Then I waited. And waited. I queried the status, and she explained there’d been an illness, personal problems. Then, finally, an e-mail asking whether I’d received the contract and check.

“Nooo,” I replied. “Hmmm,” she said figuratively; there’d been problems with the mail. “Perhaps it’s your name,” I offered. “Homeland Security thinks you’re a terrorist organization.” “Would you mind if I mailed it from my home, with my personal address?” “Nooo,” I answered. And even before she got my mail and I cashed the check, the story was up.

Uncle Wiggly’s advice is to have patience, children. And if you don’t know who Howard Garis’s Uncle Wiggily is, go look him up. You’ll be tested on this.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not All Lawyers Are Like This

New York is more than the colossus on the Hudson River. It occupies its own universe, overwhelmed by hubris and unimpressed by authority. Nowhere is it more evidenced than by lawyers. Well, if not in fact, then legend.

And I contributed to their legendary hubris by writing “Day of Moving Hell,” published July 19 by Every Day Fiction, It dissects the relationships that try one’s soul—even my own at times. Enjoy.

Oh, and regarding estoppels. Watch what you promise someone. I had this point of law checked by a practicing lawyer.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Brit Fighting for Seccession?

My article on Henry Morton Stanley, "An Improbable 'Indiana Jones,' is now up at Military History Online ( The Civil War is writ large in terms of battles, strategy and politics, but its human dimension often is made clear by the events of a single man like Stanley. This struck me most about Stanley (not his real name), not an American either, who went on to become one of the leading 19th century explorers. Aren't accidental heroes the stuff of drama in any age?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Summertine, and the Livin' Is Easy

I usually write, rewrite and polish a blog until it feels right, but now myPC has crashed with all my documents, memos, pix and notes. So, let's wing it on my netbook because the summer is rolling on.

News notes: Every Day Fiction will publish "The Day of Moving Hell" on July 19. This story (link to come) was generated by hearing about a legal "estoppel." A young lawyer friend hipped me to this take on verbal contracts and I applied it to an ambulance chaser who hates hippies and artists when one gets the better of him.

Bewildering Stories will publish "Angel in My Coffee Cup" on Aug. 2. This flash piece started eight or nine months ago as a prompt on Wordtrip's "Fast Fiction Friday" challenge. Normally, I'm skeptical of inspirational stories as being as charged with false emotion as nostalgia is. They're set to play on our hardwired emotions in the way that producers of Lassie movies jerked our strings to make us laugh and cry. But, I hope you enjoy "Angel" as much as I liked writing it. If you did, ask to read my serious, literary antecedent story about Gramps and the kid that I'm still shopping around to editors.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kicking Out the Words

A good week and it’s not over yet. Bewildering Stories accepted “Angel in My Coffee Cup” after a rewrite—and I didn’t even follow my advice about narrative hooks. (Hamlet wasn’t talking about angels when he said, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The phrase kept going through my head as my granddaughter, Morgan, sat across from me at breakfast.) Maybe my magic realism got to their flash fiction editor.

I sent my “Henry Morton Stanley at Shiloh” article off to Military History Online, but no word back. Yeah, I guess I could polish it some more, but let’s see what happens.

The Asbury Park Press invites reader book reviews. Last Sunday, they picked up mine for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. (“…Unmasks the sanctimonious Swedish society and the murderous tendencies buried in mystery. And what a superb heroine the tattooed, dyslexic hacker Lisabeth Sander is!”)

There’s still a wealth of material for my Holling Clancy Holling blog (at and I finished off the Web site for our writing group at the Manchester public library (

I think I could be at Antarctica or Armpit, Ohio. as long as the party continues in my head.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Grab the Reader in 30 Words

News writing is excellent training. I took journalism classes when I was 19 or 20, then really learned to write on the Hinsdale (Illinois) Doings. I had to get the who, what, where, when and why down in the 30-word “lede” (spelled that way so’s not to confuse it with Linotype “lead.”). Tough job. Try it.

Then news writing leaped back a hundred years. The soft and fuzzy lede would begin something like, “It was an idyllic day in June when nine-year-old Tabitha and her perky terrier, Mikey, romped down the sidewalk. Unbeknownst to them, Charles Meriwether left the bar inebriated and got into his buggy. The Gods must have cried in anguish as Meriwether’s buggy approached the corner where little Tabitha….” Well, you get the drift.

Now we’re back to requiring a narrative hook—the first handful of words that will capture the reader at his screen, make him click through to another Web site, and continue reading. Tough job. I began looking at leads from the RSS feeds that pour into my mailbox each morning. What I found is a picture of how short our attention span is—and how readers can be manipulated to click on links. Read more of how to “Hook Your Readers” at

Oh, Tabitha? Along about the 10th paragraph you learn she'll be okay. But the dog is dead.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

The score in 1675 was Indians-1, English-0. My article on America's most devastating war was just reprinted in American Museum Magazine, at I had four ancestors in the conflict; some lived to tell about it.

The story originally ran in Military History Online and was perhaps my first foray into early American History since I had never heard of King Philip’s War. This was followed by pieces on the first shots fired in the Civil War—at Barrancas, Fla., not Fort Sumter; Nieuw Amsterdam’s notorious Gov. Willem Kieft who slaughtered area tribes people; and Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia a hundred years before the American Revolution.

Why can’t history be made more interesting to school kids? I would have been fascinated, but it took me half a century to come around and learn the hard way.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The New Yorker Suffering Alzheimer’s?

It had to happen, that one of the New Yorker’s fabled proofreaders missed a diacritical mark. If you don’t know it, this magazine is the last hold-out for spelling co-op with an umlaut, but no hyphen. Coöp. And, actors who rôle play.

So I nearly coughed up my lunch when I read [Apr. 26, p. 20] “Obama’s terminally naive 'engagement' has achieved nothing but the loss or 15 months.” NO! It’s naïve with an umlaut—those two little German dots on a French word that changes the pronunciation.

But, the New Yorker can’t claim to have misplaced its pocketbook full of punctuation following an afternoon of sherry tippling, because in the next column we see Richard Perle, “the Reagan Administration’s über-hawk.” For a moment, I thought I saw the sun setting on the tidal flats of American civilization, but it really was a lapse caused by age. Don’t we all forget where we put our accent marks now and then?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Away in a Manger, Darkly

People who identify taboos should realize they wouldn't be so popular if, well, if they weren't labeled. I guess the Bible had a thing or two to say about bestiality. Not that I think it's high in popularity--sort of like a book ranking 10,000 on Amazon. But it's funny. Sex of any kind is funny to begin with, but here's another take on the subject at The Short Humour Site. Snicker and click at

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hook Your Readers

Advertising copywriters insist that a good poster capture the attention of a commuter dashing to catch the 8:05 train. That’s a tough chore—almost as tough as grabbing a reader in the first 30 words of your short story.

The grabber is called a narrative hook, an intriguing opener that makes the story impossible to put down.

I’ve been scrutinizing the openers from flash fiction sites that depend on a feed into your mailbox and a click-through to their site. These teasers must make you hit their link or they’ve failed. Check these out from Everyday Weirdness (

• “Faith Stands Guard” by Deborah A. Blood: “Holy shit, Faith,” Todd cried, hopping awkwardly to avoid the small terrier. “Do you have to lay there?” He continued toward the kitchen, shouting over his shoulder, “I’m gonna end up stepping on your dog!”...
• “A Note on Spiderlings” by Brenda Stokes: Not all spiders eat their young. Take this from one who knows. I love my spiderlings. All hundreds. I ’d never dream of eating them. It’s barbaric! But sometimes, exceptions must be made....
• “Scuttle” by Milo J Fowler: True Story: I never thought buying a gallon of milk would prove to be fatal. He came at us like the Marshmallow Man, pasty but hairy and flushed and sweaty, gargling and huffing, staring straight through us as he staggered, both arms flailing out...
• “Service” by M.E. Ray: The second person that showed up was carrying a shotgun. He had two Labs with him and looked like he’d been hunting. He made eye contact from the far side of the smoking crater and we both looked down at the cooling metallic teardrop embedded below...

Or these, from Short Story Library (

• “Wild Weather” by David McVey: There are two ways that I could tell this story. I could start at the beginning and keep going until the story ends. That, of course, is how it happened. But it’s not how I experienced it nor how I remember it. In particular, it’s not how I remember Kathy and she, after all, is the...
• “I Will Not Eat Cookies” by Amy Corbin: Recently, I gave all my size 4 clothing to Goodwill. This was very hard to do. I’d been holding on to those things for 10 years. I told myself I was not giving up on being size 4. It was just that these clothes were no longer in style, and when I got down to...

On of my favorite story feeds comes from Big Jewel ( This week’s lead features “New Old Wives Tales” by Whitney Collins: If someone dies on Good Friday, they go directly to heaven. If someone dies on Fat Tuesday, they probably had diabetes. If your nose itches, a fool is about to kiss you. If your crotch itches, blame Derek. Be sure to wait an hour after eating before dumpster diving. If you carry an acorn in your pocket, good [...]

C’mon, tell me that most of these leads make you want to shut out the world and read on.
Our reading culture is changing because of multi-purposing distractions. The TV is going, the iPod is playing MP3 downloads, the cell phone is dinging new text messages, you’re trying to Facebook a comment on your netbook—all simultaneously—and some presumptuous writer wants your attention? Get serious!

Darrin Miller states in, “Writing that all too important hook…has to be done in this business in order to make it…. People are busy, too busy to waste their time reading a bad book or short. We have to make them want to read and not stop reading until it’s over and this has to be done at the beginning. All the greats have done it.

“Stephen King's It would have been impossible to put down. ‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it did ever end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’

“Or H. P. Lovecraft’s, Thing On the Doorstep. ‘It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.’
“And Dean Koontz, who is a master of the craft and of writing that single line, which would effortlessly snag his readers. The opener from Strangers, ‘Domimick Corvaisis went to sleep under a light wool blanket and a crisp white sheet, sprawled alone in the bed, but he woke elsewhere—in the darkness at the back of the large foyer closet, behind concealing coats and jackets.’”

When you feel your story is finished, go back and isolate the lead. Will it tease, intrigue, horrify, invite or cause the reader’s blood pressure to rise? Good. Now make sure the story’s last paragraph—even the last line—is just as memorable.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sharpening Conventional Tools

Neophytes often begin with genre fiction as being easy stuff to get into. And this is where I stumble when I critique their work. Their characters are overdrawn, descriptions distract from plot flow, story lines get bogged down in irrelevancies, and memoir fogs the exposition.

I was hauled back to the basics of conventional writing by James Wood, professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, reviewing books in the New Yorker. Key here is his word convention: what today’s reader expects.

Stephen Crane could write in, “The Little Regiment,” in 1896, “And yet the spirit of this little city, its quaint individuality, poised in the air about the ruins, defying the guns, the sweeping volleys; holding in contempt those avaricious blazes which attacked many dwellings. The hard earthen sidewalks proclaimed the games that had been played there during long lazy days.” And so on. No reader today would patiently suffer an omniscient author describing an anthropomorphic little city.

Old fashioned? Yes. Now what are the new fashions we expect when approaching a story? Conventions are akin to entering a strange building and knowing where the facilities are located. Entering a dark house, we want to know the stairs will have handrails and there will be light switches next to the doors.

Here are a few of the amenities—Wood’s “basic grammar”—we look for:

Sweep and Focus. Wood sees “cinematic sweep followed by the selection of small, telling details” at the core of realist fiction. It’s the vernacular in which mainstream stories are written—the very language readers anticipate, beginning with the establishing location shot. (I stepped from the air-conditioned bus into another world. Humid air made me recoil as I dropped my bag and stared at the shimmering white courthouse, the blank-faced stores, the dusty asphalt of an empty street.)1

A Mix of Detail. These are the small, crystal-clear items that define a person in a few words. (Sam’s money needed to be leashed to keep it from running into a bar or bookstore. I figured I’d hit the middle class when I could afford to kill cockroaches with Raid spray instead of a hammer. Sam would need to borrow the hammer.)2

Specifics, Not Generalities. Where did Crane get off using a word like “quaint,” and what “games” were played there? Readers want details. (Evenings started with us sitting on a stoop drinking Rheingold. Then someone would suggest going over to Second Avenue to get a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring. Saturdays, there were demonstrations and anti-war protests, but no one wanted to get involved. It was too hot and depersonalizing to carry a placard. Our Tar Beach was the rooftop on East Sixth Street. Always there was the sound of drums echoing down the street.)3

Characterization through Minutiae. Flash fiction’s word limitations require the most concise way of drawing a character. Done once—and well—you may not need to revisit your character’s description. (Sarah didn’t open up much. She kept her emotions tightly packaged like a souvenir piece of wedding cake, full of memories but totally indigestible.)4

Padding. A little filler helps a story the way bread extends a good meatloaf. Padding doesn’t move the story ahead as much as it lets the reader catch a breath and—hopefully—empathize with a character. (What made me feel so fine was the danger that I was Pinocchio and somebody would turn me into a donkey for running away to the circus. I don’t think Pinocchio ever had a girl hanging onto his arm, though. The warm sweat of her hand made the forbidden pleasure feel specially good.)5

Memories. Recollection and reflection offer depth to a plot, a protagonist or a situation. It’s also a way to bring in a back story. (They had been solicitous after David Marshall Sullivan’s coronary embolism. They regretted that by dying unexpectedly he hadn’t lived up to his contract, but they didn’t hold that against her when she was severed. They said it was just a corporate reorganization. Their severance package was generous when they fired her, but her own regrets had more to do with losing David than their employer.)6

Lyrical Phrasing. A touch of poesy ratchets the story up a notch over pedestrian writing. Call it a blossom dropped on a sidewalk; it heightens the beauty. (The trail of her footsteps in the sand back to L.A. would imitate those just-born turtles flailing their way to the sea to drink up a new life.)7

Writing instructors demand a “story arc,” from the introductory “narrative hook.” through increasing suspense, and on to a “blackest moment” before the story is resolved. This is satisfying to the reader, even if it’s predictable. At its clumsiest (and especially in movies), it requires the hero to duke it out mano a mano with the enemy, the alien, or the undead until the nemesis is properly dispatched and the screen fades to black. In flash, the resolution needs to take place in a final paragraph or even the concluding sentence. (Humans would probably call our love incest, but there’s no comparable feeling among androids.)8

Your challenge then, at least until your experimental or literary masterpiece is created, is to fulfill these conventions in the most inventive and entertaining manner. Grammar, sweep, detail, specifics, characterization, padding, memory and lyricism all function in greater or lesser amounts as the tools to build a short story. Sidestep or ignore them and the reader won’t recognize the “reality” of your story.

All parenthetical examples are from published stories I’ve written.
1. “Gothic Revival,” Big Pulp
2. “Sarah, My Donna and Child,” Cruising the Green of Second Avenue
3. “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge,” Wild Child Publishing
4. “The Ghost on the IND Line,” Cruising the Green of Second Avenue
5. “Louise from the Bar,” Paradigm Journal
6. “Cable Window,” Bewildering Stories
7. “Last Year’s Icon,” Every Day Fiction
8. “Who Dares Call It Murder?” OG Opinion Guy

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two Stories Aired, Recognized

Two nice bits of news greeted me this morning.

Big Pulp has published “Girl Talk,” a bit of scathing humor, at Dishing the dirt can be so devastating, working like a slow-acting poison. But isn’t it entertaining to watch the victim writhe?

And, Bewildering Stories has chosen “Gothic Revival” for inclusion in its quarterly “Editor’s Choices,” issues 366-376, at Who says literary allusion has to be scholarly and tedious?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I’m Only Going to Tell You Once

In the 30-plus years I was a corporate mouthpiece and wordsmith, senior managers sidled up to ask if I had any tips for writing. Their memos and plans had all the verve of congealed mac and cheese. This was the crib sheet that I pulled from my desk drawer for them. The suggestions apply also to flash fiction.

1. Use short words and, when you edit your writing, cut, cut, cut! See what makes this piece stand out: “Our world’s well served by his last book, The Old Man and the Sea. He said words should be like small, bright stones, seen in the sand through a clear stream. You know it’s tough to find the ones that are lean, have strength, stand up, shout out and sing loud. At last, each best, true, sole verb or noun takes its place. On a good day, we might write just a page, two or three, then call them done.” Notice each word has just one syllable? It’s not that word choices are overwhelming, but that we move too fast to complete the assignment.

2. Decide what result you want to achieve, what message the reader should take away. Each word, each thought must support this end result. Kill the rhetoric that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with your message.

3. Substitute Anglo-Saxon words when you can. Use “strength” instead of “fortitude,” “start” instead of “commence.” Greek and Latin derivatives are soft and mushy. Why say “apprise” or “inform” when “tell” says the same thing in half the syllables?

4. Avoid clichés, as in this real-life example: “Opening night at the Cirque de Soleil was a strictly A-list affair, with a veritable Who’s Who gathered under the big top for a mind-boggling performance.” Neo-clichés also lurk in memos and meetings: think outside the box, paradigm shift, core competencies, strategic initiative, impact (usually as a verb). Tired words and phrases grow like nits into lice.

5. Don’t worry about the fine points of grammar. Sir Winston Churchill said about dangling participles, “They are an outrage up with which I shall not put.” The same is true about split infinitives. Capt. Kirk always wanted “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Who’s going to argue with the Captain? Grammatical rigor mortis can make you sound stuffy.

6. As the Microsoft grammar checker on your toolbar demands, choose the active voice over the passive. How easy it is to say, “The policy was reviewed before implementation,” instead of “The manager reviewed the policy before….” It’s amazing to think how much work gets done by itself!
7. Avoid adjectives. They’re a lazy way to bring an idea to life. Instead of writing about a “lonely office after everyone has gone home,” go for the image with something like, “The loudest noise was the cleaning woman’s vacuum cleaner at the far end of the hallway.”

8. Prosaic writing dulls the mind. Rewrite sentences, such as “The performance was so exciting that the audience was stunned when it was over,” with imagery. Substitute “There was a minute of stunned silence before the applause broke out.” Undistinguished writing is the stuff of TV news reporters.

9. Lazy verbiage that searches for the dramatic will always hijack your story. Here’s an example that came from one of Mitt Romney’s highly paid Bain & Co. consultants: “When you join the Corporation, you also become a member of a very special and very unique team. It’s a worldwide team of over 50,000 men and women whose diverse mix of experience, energy and expertise makes us a true force to be reckoned with in the global marketplace. (And more blah blah blah.) Wow! Mind-numbingly vapid!

10. Computer spell checking won’t do your work for you. Spelling must be absolutely correct. If a person can’t spell the difference between burro and burrow, it’s fair to say he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mystery and Humor

“Epitaph with Flowers” is a crackling good mystery that's now up at Big Pulp--love, death, lost treasure and betrayal. All in various shades of noir. Print it out for reading on the run, while waiting for the bus or during that bathroom break at the office. At

Now, we all know there’s only a single letter separating “ironic” from “iconic.” You decide which is which, between the mystery above and the humor below.

If it’s not pollution making us irritable, it’s the alternative to fossil-fuel energy. Who’d ever believe freedom from the oil cartel would invite the dreaded “Wind Turbine Syndrome?” "Blowing in the Wind" is new satire at

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tsunami Changes in Book Selling

There was a 6-column-inch blurb in Sunday's Times that Seattle-based Amazon on Christmas Day sold more e-books for its Kindle than paper-based books.

Interesting factoid, but more startling was the next sentence that Laredo, Texas (pop. 250,000) closed its last bookstore. (Laredo's population is only slightly smaller than that of Newark, NJ, one of the poorer urban areas.) I checked my online Yellow Pages, though, and actually came up with eight Laredo bookstores, three of which were Christian and one Spanish-language. Two recognizable names were Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton. That left two that appeared to be independent bookstores.

What's the takeaway?
> A lot of people got Kindles for Christmas. (My Seattle-based friend has 4,600 books on his e-reader, most which he admits he'll never read.)
> Texans read less than Newarkers, where there are 84 listings for bookstores. Newark's median household income is $26,913. Laredo's median HH income is $23,832, but has a lower cost of living index.
> There's a sea change coming in the way--and whether--we read books. (Does Steve Jobs know something about e-books that led to the iPad?)
> Laredo's population is 97.1% Latino, but unemployment is just 6%. (Are Hispanics working too hard to read?)
> Bookstores are an endangered enterprise.

I think all of these assumptions are correct.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hey, Mr. Postman….

I love to get mail. Well, not direct mail solicitations, but queries from people who’ve read what I’ve written. Some reflections on what it means for a writer to hear back from readers has been posted at Flash Fiction Chronicles (

My quote from Catcher in the Rye—Holden Caulfield on wishing he could simply call up writers he admired and have a chat—was entirely coincidental with J.D. Salinger’s death. My article was written two weeks ago. But I wish I could call him up and tell him what his writing meant to me when I was a confused teenager.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger R.I.P.

Yesterday was not a perfect day for bananafish. Jerome David Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye and other books, died, on Wednesday at age 91, of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire, according to a family statement provided today. His first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," was published by The New Yorker in 1948. His last was published 16 years later after he retired to reclusiveness in New Hampshire. His output was small for a writer given so much acclaim: Nine Stories (1953), a collection of a novella and a short story, Franny and Zooey (1961), and a collection of two novellas, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). His last published work, a novella entitled Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965.

Salinger was an evergreen writer whose books are still assigned to high schools. One 16-year-old recently told me she hated Catcher and thought Holden Caulfield a wuss. I said, well, he defined my life as a 17-year-old kid. He also defined a certain writing style for me, as well as the purpose of writing when he had Caulfield say, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The New, NEW New York Times?

The front page of Sunday's Times made me choke on my bacon and eggs. There, under the head "Foot on Bomb, Marine Defies a Taliban Trap," I read the quote, 'Goddamn, Matty, Man,' said Cpl. Joshua Villegas, allowing his eyes to roam over the intact Marine after the patrol backed away away from the dud. 'Lucky son of a bitch.'"

Is this the first time the good gray Times wrote "goddamn" and "son of a bitch"? On page one, column 7? I'm used to the New Yorker sprinkling its copy with "fucks," but the national paper of record--a family paper--is getting it on! Going with the times, so to speak. I expect tomorrow's paper will have Pres. Obama stating, "Screw the banks, I'm really pissed off now!" And Speaker Nancy Pelosi fuming, "Those shits are wrecking my legacy."

Ah, well, if little kids now use good Anglo-Saxon epithets, can the rest of journalism be far behind in trying to sell papers to the illiterates?

Now in a New Anthology of Short Stories

Ever watch your future melting away, moments before the reprieve comes? That may not be the end though.

“Death in the Afternoon” has been selected for inclusion in Every Day Fiction’s new anthology. So nice, too, when readers say things like, "Good story, nice twist, great images." When readers are happy, I'm happy. There's more information at Then curl up and enjoy some of today's top flash fiction writers.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Keep Your Philtrum Dry

I’m often inclined to pitch a story as seen through the eyes of children, schizos and other-worldly personalities. It allows me to describe impressions of these innocents, while you, dear reader, know the truth. (Don’t you?)

I got a question from my 3-year-old grandson today asking what the indentation below the nose and over the lip was called. A quick Google check revealed it’s a philtrum. Who knew? I wrote back to his Mom to tell him tonight, “Your philtrum should look like your Mom's or Dad's because the shape is inherited.

“I like to watch and see if people's earlobes—the dingle dangle—is separated or is tucked up next to their jaw. This is also inherited, so if you marry a woman whose ears don't dangle then your baby boy or girl might not have a dangle ear and you can't sing ‘Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro, can you tie them in a knot, can you tie them in a bow...?’

“Also, if you put your finger at the end of your nose, you'll find a little separation under the skin. Go on, wiggle it. I don't know what this is called, but I think everyone has one. If you don't, then maybe you're an alien from Mars!! Write and let me know!”

Now, all I have to do is put together a thousand words about a boy with no philtrum, no dangling earlobes and no thingy under the tip of his nose.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On a Roll Again

My New England genes told me I’d be despondent after overindulging in wine, pâté, cookies, more wine, eggnog. January is an anticlimactic come-down. I need Viagra for the soul.

But relief came with publication this week of “Gothic Revival,” vindication for my falling asleep during American Lit 101. I did my homework for this! The story began as a half-hour exercise in “Two weeks as a redneck librarian” and continued into seeing beauty in the grotesque and the grotesque in beauty. Read it in Bewildering Stories, at

Also this week, Every Day Fiction had a press party blowout in Vancouver for its anthology containing “Death in the Afternoon,” a flash fiction piece published there on Oct. 18. (Tag: Ever watch your future melting away, moments before the reprieve comes? That may not be the end.) You can buy a copy—please do—shortly

Big Pulp e-mailed me just before the holidays that they’re buying “Epitaph with Flowers,” a murder/love story that Mouth Full of Bullets accepted just before closing down. That’s good to look forward to.

And finally, Flash Fiction Chronicles posted my commentary on “Tackling the Trash,” a question of what to do with the stories that once written become orphaned, stillborn, rejected or subjected to euthanasia. (See

Eensy little wins also included our Ocean County Library branch asking if our writing group would judge a kids’ writing contest, I opted into doing our church newsletter, and Judy’s cookbook was brought up to date. I think it’s going to be a good year.