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.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

German? A Funny Language? Make me laugh.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Review reminded me of my fascination with the German ability to form long compound words that are impossible to express in English.

Is there any synonym for Schadenfreude, the joy we feel at seeing someone else’s pain? Or Zeitgeist and Doppelgänger?

The Times suggests Dornschőenschlaf (dorn-hoos-sh’yen-shlaf) meaning to pretend you’re asleep to avoid having sex. Fetenlauschangriff, for tuning in and out of numerous conversations at a cocktail party. And Tantalusqualerlősung, for the relief that comes from slaking your thirst with the first martini (or drink of your choice).

I confess that I run across these neologisms and then try to find a way to sneak them into a story. Bildschirmbräune refers to screen suntan, for the pasty faces of computer geeks. That appeared in “Who Dares Call It Murder.” (Odd how I remember our bathing nude on the beaches of St. Martin, when Schiller laughed and pointed. “Bildschirmbräune,” he said. “Screen suntan,” referring to the hours you spent on computers, because your unblemished skin remained pale while I — more advanced — colored like a potted lobster.)

And in my as-yet-unpublished novel, Gerde the dental hygienist is made to say to her lover, “We have a word — Vergangenheitsbewaltigun. It means ‘coming to terms with your past.’ Have you come to terms?”

Now, if I can only find a way to shoehorn Verfremdungseffekt . A wonderful word meaning distancing oneself from a suspended disbelief.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

If We’re All Heroes, Then Who’s Left?

Every dead soldier is a hero, according to news reporters. A helicopter crashes, a truck blows up, school bus careens over a cliff. “Heroic” and "tragic" are adjectives that have lost their meanings against the press of a deadline.

More disgraceful are the Army’s PR stunts, dressing up a Dad being rotated (alive) from Afghanistan to show up at his child’s (a) ballgame as the catcher (b) school play as a clown or (c) party as Santa Claus. The mask is ripped off, the child screams “Daddy” and rushes tearfully toward the hero parent.

These tricks have simultaneously reduced the meaning of heroism — acting willfully in disregard to personal danger—and masked the horror and tedium of military action. It's a tragedy.

My skin crawls at the manipulation these Army public relations practitioners resort to. It’s almost as bad as the Lassie movies I saw as a child. Invariably, the child says something like, “Lassie, I’ve fallen down the well and the water’s rising. Run and tell Dad to bring a rope.” These are two handkerchief moments.

Similarly, the news media — predictably — sees every drunken teenager who drives into a tree at 3:00 a.m. as a “tragedy. Isn’t it just possible that the youngster acted stupidly, as many young people do with great regularity? (I prefer to believe they should be given Darwin Awards for removing their DNA from the collective gene pool, thereby strengthening our future generations.) Sentimentality in the face of stupidity is lazy thinking.

In response to affected writing, cynicism grows like e. Coli on poultry left on a porch in Texas. It’s not easy to restate a situation to avoid triteness, to break through the platitudes of supermarket tabloid writing and reject the mundane, banal and trite responses to the world around us. The cynicism rises in our gorge because we all have a hardwired response to tragedy, nostalgia and sentimentality. That’s how scriptwriters made Lassie a star. They put the dog through tricks to pull our heartstrings, and the audience responded like puppets.

Stop the next time you see or hear bad writing — or change channels or put down the magazine or paper. Insist on inventing unexpected and serendipitous results as you go along. Take an independent direction, Robert Frost’s “road less taken.” It’s a chaotic and muddled process. A rocky road. But it leads to clearer thinking.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Passport to the Past

Historical novels are an enchanting genre that leads readers into the dark corridors of the past. We walk unseen next to characters — some we’ve heard of and some fictional — who are explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands. Politicians are exposed, the self-righteous are quashed, and the meek inherit the earth before everyone goes home for the day.

As much as I enjoy sitting down with a new historical novel (or an old one by William Safire or Gore Vidal), I find one hand on the book and my other hand crossing fingers in skepticism. This doubt, which has led to cynicism, began with Killing Lincoln, written by Fox TV anchor and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly and wordsmith Martin Dugard. (O’Reilly and Dugard published the formulaic Killing Kennedy soon afterwards. They’ve now given the “portable history treatment” to Jesus.)

They unroll the drama leading up to John Wilkes Booth’s infamous act while unveiling a band of amateur conspirators. In fact, history classes tend to skip over the widespread rabid hatred of Lincoln and the motley group that conspired to murder the President. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of such things.

But how true is their fictionalized treatment? A seven-page index offers no sources, nor does the prologue, but the authors fill the work with interior thoughts and imaginary conversations the way an éclair is puffed up with cream filling: light and airy, but not nutritionally good.

This is a non-fiction adventure set against a historical backdrop. Dare we imagine the gaunt President walking alone through the cheering throngs, heedless to the warnings that he might be assassinated? Do we gasp seeing General Grant show up at the Appomattox peace table with muddy boots to remind the impeccably dressed General Lee how Grant was upbraided for sloppiness during the Mexican War? Do we titter to hear the conversation between Lincoln and his wife in the closed carriage en route to Ford’s Theatre?

Readers should gasp at having paid for populist literary drama, in which the past and the present exist contemporaneous with each other. It’s branded as “history” that really isn’t history, drawing-room drama that could be played out today in a soap opera or on a cable channel.

Theirs is less a “bad” book than thin gruel after wading through work by Drew Gilpin Faust and Bruce Catton. We’ve embraced the narrative tricks of snappy writing, short sections and quick cutting worthy of “breaking news” on CNN. What the readers have lost is a certain Truth.

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland calls this new literary genre Translit: “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.” The contemporary reader is tossed into the past without having to leave the present. It’s almost as if, Coupland says, one “can travel back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb.”

William Safire tackled an extremely difficult subject in Scandalmonger, an account of charges against Alexander Hamilton brought by Thomas Jefferson published in 2000. Safire was kind enough to write in the foreword, “The reader of historical fiction wonders: ‘What’s true and what’s not?’ As docudramas blur the line between fact and fiction, the reader is entitled to know what is history and what is twister.” Much appreciated, Mr. Safire. All your characters were real people, the dialogue was based on contemporary letters, diaries, news accounts, and court transcripts. And thank you for an extensive bibliography and indexed epilogue.

Andrew Miller’s Pure ventures into pre-revolutionary France. The book has been hailed for its narrative style and freedom from pastiche. But still, there was the question by The New York Times Book Reviewer that “Some stories are too wonderful — too filled with wonders — to be set in the present. They can’t really be called historical fiction because they don’t serve history so much as plunder it to invent what might have been.”

Readers should plead with writers to tell as much of the “truth” as they can. James Wood wrote in The New Yorker (May 21, 2012), reviewing HHhH by Laurent Binet, that “invented facts — invented characters, for that matter — have no place in historical fiction, and weaken it both aesthetically and morally.” Binet himself writes, “Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.” This, Wood stated, would abolish most historical fiction. Yet, Binet has managed to write a historical novel not quite full of invented details that certainly uses invention. His fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyze those moments where guesswork and invention replace fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel.

At the end, this is what concerns me. There is a speculative fiction genre called “alternative history.” This, I suspect, is what we are often given in lieu of the real thing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Reviewers: “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me!”

One negative review does not go unpunished. Back in January of this year I downloaded a copy of Rejection: A Lou Drake Mystery written by Thomas Matthews. The several reviews posted at Amazon uniformly gave it five stars. I was frankly underwhelmed, gave it one star, failed to understand why all the other reviews were five starred, and went on with my life. Take a look, at

Soon, an e-mail popped up from someone named Stacy Matthews. “As an editor I would beg to differ and so many New Yorkers have come forward and said there was nothing wrong with the way the setting was staged. The structure was classic contemporary fiction. Take at look at Patterson, Kellerman, Reich and other thriller and suspense writers. [non sequitur, Stacy.] Beside two small typos this book was well crafted, well characterized and devoid of the clichés you claim. One question... you seemed well versed on the content. If you hated it so much why finished reading it? There must have something here that held your interest.”

My negative review had resulted in a literary “fatwa” Argumentum ad hominem. Was this a dutiful wife, daughter or sister pumping the book?

A second irritated reviewer said of my critique, “Wow, I don't agree with a single thing you wrote. I got this as a freebie, wasn't expecting much, and ended up thoroughly enjoying the book.

A third irked reader chimed in, “So by your argument we should also avoid any of the Scott Turow books set in the fictitious Kindle County? Please...”

I replied, thoughtlessly thinking this was a literary discussion, “My concerns were for a lack of accuracy and sloppy writing and editing." By then, Thomas Matthews personally sent me an e-mail apologizing for the errors and typographical oversights. But his wife (sister, daughter?) came back with “Wouldn't listen to this guy. The book is great.” and a few days later, “Christopher Reich, Lee Childs, Marry [sp] Higgins Clark and Lisa Genova all may disagree with you. 5 stars across the board. Can all these best selling authors be so stupid they wouldn't know good writing if they saw it? Just saying, you know?” My criticism, I think, was giving her sleepless nights.

Then, as though Jesus Himself came back to crit the Bible, Jerry Shapiro wrote, “You sound like someone expecting to read your morning newspaper. This was a novel. A fictional story. This wasn't an English exam. I doubt you'd have praise for a hack writer like Mark Twain. No, I'm guessing you're a pompous wannabe. Get a life. BTW... I AM the Jerry Shapiro in the novel!”

What have I learned? (a) the Amazon star system is manipulated by friends and family. (b) If you post a review for a very poor book, as I once did for Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit, the lap dogs will yip and yap at your heels for months! And (c) Any form of literary discussion and criticism of small-time authors is being held hostage to the rush for sales, ranking and fame.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Service in the Field of Dreams

Curt Harnack, 1927-2013

Let me say a few words in praise of a great writer and 1949 Grinnell College grad Curtis Harnack who died a few days ago at the age of 86.  I finished Harnack’s The Attic, a Memoir a while back and was deeply impressed for two reasons.  It brought back memories of my years in Iowa and it’s a well-written appreciation of the heritage that forms a person’s character.

The Iowa experience may be, as English Professor Sheldon Zitner told us back in ’60, “soft cultural primitivism”—simply nostalgia for the good old days.  Those days may not have been very good or even very old, but being at Grinnell was an academic oasis not unlike that portrayed by Herman Hesse’s fictional Magister Ludi.  Today, my life is relieved by the Internet and confounded by computer viruses, made safer by medical breakthroughs but scared into insensibility by TV commercials for spurious pharmaceuticals.  I wonder at times if I’m really ready to go into the 21st century, or whether I could go back to a softer time when the big decision meant deciding between an order of corn chowder or a pork loin sandwich.

Classmates from the ’60s would ask if I’d read Harnack, who went on to take a Master’s at Columbia, teach English at Grinnell (1952-56), and become executive director of Yaddo, the writeing colony at Saratoga Springs.  I hadn’t.  A former classmate mentioned him again last year, so I finally bought The Attic.  I’m not a great fan of memoirs, although I’ve written some. (“Tenting Tonight on the Chautauqua Circuit” appeared in The Copperfield Review, Jan. 2005, ).  The Attic, however, successfully defines and then fulfills its mission: “One writes a memoir,” Harnack writes, “to discover what recollection of a time or particular event might reveal, seeking to make the personal into something universal to which unknown readers might relate.”

The book’s form introduces the reader to his hometown and farm through the journalistic device of closing up his family’s homestead.  It devolves somewhat lengthily into an examination of relatives he grew up with—including a genealogical table—but this offers perspective from many different points of view.

There’s a third reason for my appreciating the book and author.  Harnack is the solid and memorable writer I wish I could be.  Describing “The Glorious Fourth,” he writes, “Once upon a time we citizens felt impelled to demonstrate with Fourth-of-July hoopla that America had been strong enough to make a country for itself, and the smallest popping ladyfinger suggested the shots fired at Lexington and Concord.  Now [after World War II] nobody in the world needed to be told.”

I wish I’d said that.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Flash Is Faster, or Is That a Fiction?

Author Jim Harrington asked, “Is a fast read a fast write? Isn't that what writers like about flash?" The question resolves as to whether it’s faster and easier to write a story in fewer than 1,000 words instead of a longer, more developed short story. I opt for a hearty yea. Others say no, it’s harder and slower to write succinctly when every word counts.

Start, of course, from the premise that in flash you’re only going to sketch out a character, location, time period. You must eliminate all the “decoration” and description that embellishes a short story. Can you do it?

I believe flash is easier because I’ve written short pieces for the past half dozen years. And, I come at it from a journalism background and newspaper experience. A newsie is expected to sit down (at a battered Royal, if necessary) and bang out a 30-word lede that tells the reads all the who, what, when, here and why he/she needs. (The “how” comes a few paragraphs later.)

For years, I also dedicated 30 minutes a week to a chatroom on called Flash Fiction Friday. A given phrase challenged any and all to write a story — long as you wanted, but taking only 30 minutes to write. Bam! Then, I’d edit it, spell check, and post it.

Going back to Wordtrip today, I was surprised to find I’d drafted 35 stories, some of them running just over 1,000 words. (You can see the original drafts at the site and my contributions as “Timberline.”) Of those 35, 30 have been published. Roughly half came in at under a thousand words.

Are they good stories? Yes. Are they literature for all times? No, often they’re genre pieces with a revelation (punch line) conclusion. Come to think of it, they’re the kind of fiction O. Henry wrote with his eye on a deadline. But you tell me. Here are the links to four of the pieces:

> “Abandoned” was published by Every Day Fiction Sept. 3, 2012 at 

>“The Coral in Belize Is Dying” was published by Bewildering Stories Nov. 12, 2012, at

>“Queen at the End of the Bar” was published by Gumshoe Review on Sept. 1, 2011, at

>“Million Dollar Find” was published by r.kv.r.y. quarterly June 30, 2011, at

Try the 30-minute writing exercise.  At worst, you have a crappy piece of fiction.  At best, you're learned to cut through the clutter and get to the essentials of telling a story. Story prompts for fast fiction. Calisthenics for the brain.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Doing a Solve Is Key to Writing

Might've said, "You writers are always upset about someething."

One of the epiphanies I discovered was the reveal in building my crime story to its climax.  "No," screams the grammaraian in me.  "It's the revelation in the last paragraph!"

I do try to concentrate on my characters' dialogue.  Sometimes, the PI will want to do a "solve" on the crime, instead of finding a solution.  It's like those Hollywood scripters, asking to do a lunch and a meet.

The reveal, lunch and meet — all nouns demanding a verb — are a writing/speaking function that grates on the nerves when used in real life.  They’re called nominalizations and, God help us, they’re becoming mainstream dialogue.  Nominalization is a word that’s been switched from verb into noun.  But it reads well.  It’s a “solve” to the need to sound hip.  Now, we’re stuck with these conversion formations when sequestration becomes the “sequester” on the evening news.

A friend and fellow writer says she hates "This is key."  It's one in her repertoire of writing pet peeves.  "They make me want to scream ‘one more edit!’”

Can we agree to drop the "reveals" in our flash fiction, or do a sequestration?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Were You There?

You remember matchbooks.  Those ubiquitous lighters on which detectives found scribbled clues.  The keepsake of the place where your boss gave you a promotion.  The joint where this babe kissed you for the first time, and then became your wife.

Matchbooks have disappeared.  At the Hoya resort hotel in Taitung, Taiwan, last month I asked for one and the confused clerk handed me a souvenir notebook as a consolation.  At Moriarty’s pub in Philadelphia last week, the waitress said, “I’ll give you a light, but we don’t have matches.  Or swizzle sticks.” 

Matchbooks have gone the way of celluloid mirrors (1900s), plastic telephone dialers women used to keep from breaking a fingernail (1950s), and metal lunchboxes your kids used in fights on the school bus (1960s).  We all have Bic lighters now, or have quit smoking.

Matchbooks and matchboxes are the ephemera of memories.  The Equinox in Manchester, Vt., is where Ethan Allen held staff meetings a few centuries ago.  The Kitcho on West 46th in New York was a weekly hangout for sushi when I was directing communications at Dun & Bradstreet.  The St. Regis on Fifth and 55th St. was a marvelous place to sip a martini, but don’t ask for some simple cheese and crackers for dessert.  The Hôtel Royal in Evian, France, is the place I told the roadie for my meetings to sit down and simply watch the passersby.  The Waldorf’s Bull and Bear is where my wife and I repaired for drinks before a show or after I was stuck working late.  London’s Inter-Continental brings back memories of strolling through Hyde Park.  And on and on they go.

And so the years pass.  Time is the rip tide in the Hellgate, pushing on my seventy-odd birthdays.  Surging forward and backward, dragging me onto the rocks and then washing me back with the new currents.  Why hold on to these things?  Memories. 

Realists will tell you memories are like trying to describe your first kiss with the red-headed eighth grade girl in the movie theater.  It’s not the real thing.  It’s a memory, and you can’t trust that any more than you could trust your first girlfriend.  But the truth is that the memories may be better than reality.

Monday, March 18, 2013

We're Swimming in a Digital Sea

My apologies for being away so long.  It’s unconscionable, I know, but in the meantime I’ve published four stories, a novelette of 12,000 words and several reviews.  Two more acceptances came this week and the new writing continues.

In fact, writing “in a vacuum” is on my mind.  There’s a feeling in writing camps and among other frustrated scriveners that the Web interrupts their creative juices.  Could I write in a digital vacuum?  No, never!  I can’t any longer imagine a world without Facebook, the Internet, my iPhone and Wi-Fi.  I’m not a cut-and-paste writer, but there are sources that need to be looked up, facts to be checked, names and places to be verified.

I just completed a 3,000-word story in two days this week.  It started when I stumbled across a person named Cameo.  Great metaphorical name.  What’s a cameo?  Had to look it up for the tension between black and white, smooth and rough. 

Then Sheryl Sandberg (Leaning Forward) intruded with the insight that likability and success are correlated for men, but inversely affect women.  Okay.  Good tension for a woman entering my fictional affair with a professional acquaintance.

The other main character is named Batman, like my 9th grade classmate in Pasadena.  Is there really such a name?  Yes, it’s Anglo-Saxon from Derbyshire and comes from bat, or boat.  Thank you 

I was troubled over my blah ending when my star-crossed lovers agree to see each other at the next year’s conference.  Image of a library book being returned to the lover?  Nah.  Then it came to me: the phrase signifying epiphany: “I once was lost and now am found.”  Yes!  Biblical?  No, it’s a lyric from “Amazing Grace.”  Thank you, Google.  All this research while banging out copy.

So, pooh on Yaddo and other writers’ retreats that have no Wi-Fi, little or no Internet access, that all but ban telephones.  I’m wired!  Junot Diaz wonders how many novels he will not have written because of his digital linkage.  How about you?