Overhead:  That concept they lay on you at the auto dealership when you wonder why it costs $70 per hour to fix your car.

Overhead:  A life concept I too often ignore.

mechanic bill

I digress today from writing about writing per se to talk about the real-world business of writing. Specifically, is this new age better? Or just different?

Surely, we have resources we never had before. Google maps, Wikipedia, thousands … nay millions … of specialized websites. I said in the last post that I was able to scope out and define a little town in Austria right from my comfortable chair in Minnesota.

Wonderful, but …

  • Arriving home from a trip abroad, my good old HP printer doesn’t print. Turns out Apple’s latest update of its OS is probably the problem. That cost three hours and led to a new printer.
  • WordPress.com explains that my podcast hasn’t passed through to iTunes, depriving it of 80% of its listeners. Nobody knows quite why. I’m looking into a separate website. Several hours squandered there.
  • Audible/ACX, the Amazon audiobook service, hasn’t responded after having told me there’s “electrical noise” in my audition file. Serializing the first novel as a podcast is on hold.


I don’t know about you, but I realize I should allow for all this overhead when I set my expectations about what this wonderful world of technology promises.

Fiction and reality

I have just returned from a trip to reality.

In my second novel, a main character is drugged and pushed off a Danube river boat. She ends up in a little town at the eastern edge of Austria called Hainburg an der Donau.

With my Internet resources, I was able to see a Google World view of the town, locate the hospital in it, observe the uniform of Austrian policemen, calculate the actual speed of the boat after it left Vienna for a trip to Budapest, view a plan of a boat similar to my fictional one. I knew the depth and temperature of water in late June, and I knew that a single screw (propeller) would most likely not drag an unconscious person through its blades. More than enough information to write a credible story, right?

A little over a week ago, my wife and I had dinner in VGruner Veltlinerienna with several friends from my former business life. Over a very nice glass Grüner Veitliner, I allowed as how I planned to ride the train to Hainburg the next day. Chuckles. Well, I said, part of my novel takes place … Outright laughter. “In Hainburg?” they asked, with the same inflection a Manhattanite would use to describe central North Dakota.

I mentioned that I had written ahead to the Tourist Bureau there (not-so-stifled laughter) and received a long German reply to my request to visit the police station. The Tourist Bureau had summed it up in four English words: “It is not possible.”

My friends Werner and Tina took pity on us and drove us to Hainburg the next day.

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg hospital

Hainburg hospital

The town was substantial, but definitely in the sticks, at least to my sophisticated city-dwelling friends. The hospital was far more substantial than I expected, and its design would not have allowed the story line as I had written it. The police department, the one which was “not possible” to see, produced a constable very like my fictional one and an interior design that made what I had written plausible.

I will make some revisions, but fiction is fiction. The lovely little town Hainburg an Der Donau with be portrayed, umm, a little inaccurately.

Genre, quantification and precision

I was just trying to remember how to forward my land line. I went to the Xfinity website. Before I found the answer, though, I was presented with a survey about how my experience was. Which got me to thinking …

It seems more and more of our experience is being quantified, presumably to make various commercial activities easier for merchants and service providers. The power of virtually infinite computer power and the Internet have helped us make a giant leap in the way we slice, dice and parse our lives.

There is some evidence that this preference for classification is hard-wired … a survival skill. And that Babylonian who marked out the first pictographic writing probably worked for the then-equivalent of Amazon. Certainly Aristotle carried the notion of divisions and subdivisions of practically everything forward.

Which brings me back to genre. It’s a conundrum for a beginning writer: to get through the genresvery narrow eye of the needle that leads to a published work, you need to know your genre and state it in the first line or two of a query to an agent or a publisher. Trouble is, “genre” is a pretty vague notion, the more so because published authors routinely ignore it.

Not too long ago, as my weekly writers’ group worked through my first novel, Fatal Score, one of the members said, “This novel is a bit literary for a thriller.”

“A bit literary” made me think of Amazon’s review questions. Amazon is now asking a series of classifying questions that would warm the cockles of Aristotle’s heart when one reviews a book. (Example: How would you describe the plot of this book? Predictable/Some Twists/Full of Surprises). Maybe we should go to a more precise, numerical score for genres. Perhaps a ‘literary-ness’ dimension. (This would of course be a vertical scale with Literary on top and Commercial on the bottom.) Then a complexity dimension (much like the fog index) with board books at one end and a modern philosophy text at the other. There could be many others.

I can just see the first line of the query:

Fatal Score (88,900 words; 8.4 action/6.7 character/5.1 tension/6.4 litfic/7.4 complexity) is a thriller about big data, the brutal reality of future medical care, and an ordinary guy who makes an extraordinary discovery.






New Orleans Purgatorio: A Short Story Podcast

Here’s a Podcast of my short story, New Orleans Purgatorio,   which was shortlisted for the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom short story prize.

New Orleans Eveningpodcast copy222

Why a podcast?  Well, my writer friends know that the market for fiction is changing faster than a 2016 politician’s promise (sorry!).  This is, frankly, an experiment in advance of a larger commitment to produce my first novel in audio form.

Hope you enjoy!

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!



Writing a Solitary Endeavor?

I grew up with the notion that the novelist was a solitary sort,writer cigarette tucked away in a drafty garret, composing literature for yes, a decade or more.  Then, through a process never very clearly explained, this solitary creature would be FOUND.  A great editor would become friendly; publication would follow. And another iteration of the Great American Novel would be visited upon an adoring public.

Right …

The other day, I was looking for an article on podcasting.  I found the article, but it was slow to load, waiting for <<pop>> a window exhorting me to publish NOW.  For a mere $4,000, I could have that great editor…and publicity…and reviews.  NOW.  I closed the window.

DInner was near, and I was to be the cook.  What temperature to use for roasting vegetables?  Sure enough, Google provided several options.  And the first one said…hmmm, loading slowly…<pop> Publish your work NOW.  Different unusually discriminating small publisher.  For only …

Maybe that garret was a better way.


New Titles from Writing Group Authors

Two writing group friends have new books out:

John Harrigan, former foreign service officer and professor has an historic thriller, Crosshairs on Castro.  What if, in the confusion that surrounded the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the government decided to assassinate Castro?Crosshairs

John weaves this plot around meticulously researched details from the historical record.  Edge-of-the-chair exciting!  See more of John’s writing at his website.


Jacy Sutton’s Available to Chat is a new take on a very old subject:  Love, lust, and the interesting in-between.  The first line of the blurb is, “People tell Olivia that her online beau may actually help her fading marriage.”  We know how that turns out, right?  Well, no, we don’t.  It’s complicated, interesting, full of great conversations and convolutions.  See more at Jacy’s website.

There’s another coming soon from Karla Jorissen that pits a couple of smart women against a cadre of bad and semi-bad guys.  I’ll let you know …


Creativity and the art of zoning out

There are many prescriptions for creativity. Enough that it’s clear that nobody has come up with a formula that works for everyone. Meditating hasn’t worked for me, because I need my mind to be active. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be distracted by the flow of information and irritation that is everyday life.

For me, the solution is race walking. Yup, that hip-wiggling form of locomotion that looksRace walk great on a young woman and somewhere between odd and hysterically funny when an older, overweight guy does it. (This I know from experience.) The important part for me is that the magic of repetitive movement quiets my mind but allows the cognitive flywheel to spin uninterrupted.

I discovered this when I had my knee scoped a couple of years ago. No race walking for several months. My second novel, which I was rewriting at the time, became mired in bad writing and incomprehensible plot twists. I exercised on the elliptical machine, to be sure; but the gym’s constant noise and intrusive TV monitors blunted my thought process. When I got to the point that race walking was okay again, the novel started sorting itself out.

For me, good writing requires mental solitude, and exercise provides that freedom.