The Blurb

The Problem With God

Book Two of The Claddagh Trilogy

What if dying is the easy part? Father Zimmerman knows all about Life, and Death, and God, and Salvation. He’s seen it all, lived and fought through wars and worse. Now, as a Jesuit priest teaching “The Problem of God” course to Georgetown undergrads, he’s used to being the one asking the tough questions. And grading the answers. But Life is so much more complicated than he imagined. So is Death.

When the woman with no name falls from a bridge, Zimmerman has the fleeting impression that he’s witnessing an angel falling to Earth.

He’s wrong about that, too.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00025]

Critic/Critique v. Reader/Review

~first posted 20 Jan 13

We are readers, and we all have opinions. There are books that we love so much that we must tell everyone about them. I remember loving a book so much I actually watched my wife reading it–I wanted to see her expression as she read. She made me stop after the first thirty seconds. (N.B.: I am not referring to that rather bleak time in our marriage when I had my wife read my first novel.) There are other books that disappoint us or genuinely irritate us as readers. There are those books that earn my ultimate and most cutting criticism: I couldn’t finish it. It is impossible to be a serious reader without having serious opinions about what we read.Minolta DSC

In the world of books, we are taught that not everyone’s opinion is equal. There are professional critics, individuals whose opinions are better than ours. For instance, I enjoy reading the NY Times book section every week. I enjoy it, despite the fact that frequently I don’t really understand what the critic is talking about, often to the point where I can’t even tell if he liked the book he’s reviewing. Always, however, the reviewer has some special knowledge or insight that he brings to bear in evaluating the book, some personal relationship with the material or deeply meaningful literary reference. It’s always something way beyond us ordinary mortals, and I always feel that I’m learning something important. What I don’t learn from these reviews, however, is what I want to read next.

When I buy a book based upon its prominence on the first page of the NYT book section or a particularly glowing review, I’d say I end up being happy with the book about one time in twenty. And that’s when I understood the review and thought the reviewer was a making a good (understandable) case for reading the book. They loved it, I hated it. We just don’t think alike.

Something different happens when a reader reviews a book. When my wife, or one of my children, or a coworker, tells me about a book, they are telling me their opinion of the book as something worth reading for the same reason that I read books: Is it entertaining? This is almost never the criterion that critics use to evaluate the worth of the book, but is the one judgement that is all important. Sometimes another reader will tell me about a book that he thinks is important, or meaningful in some way–but it is always well written and entertaining, or else he wouldn’t have read it and he wouldn’t be recommending that I read it. It is that level of opinion that leads me to my next great book.

Not all reader reviews are equal, of course. Great books get reviews such as the one in my last satirical blog post, which makes good authors crazy. Readers are more inclined to read the one star review than any of the five star reviews, no matter how many more of the five star reviews there may be. Maybe the guy has a really big family or something. (Plural marriages are a known method for writers to get lots of positive reviews. Amazon is currently cracking down severely on this practice.) These reviews are no less meaningful, however. A well written reader review tells us as much about the reviewer as it does the book; if the reviewer sounds like a whack-job, or admits to never having read the book, or admits to being a fan of Fifty Shades, I know that the reviewer and I differ in what we consider good. On the other hand, if I read a review on Goodreads by a fellow reader that has a bookshelf full of books that I like as well, I value that opinion, and I just might buy that book.

It is that level of opinion, the reader review, that will hopefully one day become the new gatekeeper to a book’s success. We are not there yet. Currently, the best and most important new fiction can simply disappear without a sound, because the gatekeeper authorities–the publishing houses, the major professional critics, the big book awards, all the major media outlets that tell us about the next great read–still are told what is worthy by a literary industrial complex which has existed for half a century. Perhaps not for too much longer, however. Keep reading, and tell people what you think.  Write reviews.  It’s the next great thing in publishing.

* “DONT READ THIS”

~first posted 9 Jan 13

This blog post sucks.inconceivable I cannot believe that I almost was willing to spend my hard earned money buying this crap right up until I realized that it was free. BUT I’M STILL PISSSED OFF because I spent a lot of my very valuable time reading this because I’m a very slow reader, but don’t think that makes me dumb because it doesn’t! I just take my time so that I can think about stuff but this blog post is just so stupid I should never have even started reading it but it looked interesting and the title was really cool but it really isn’t so don’t you start reading it too, especially if you’re like me and you just have to read everything until the end even though you know you’re just wasting your time but you can’t stop, not because I’m compulsive or anything but because I just keep hoping that the joker will have something really good to say but he NEVER DOES! So don’t read this. Read Fifty Shades instead because I think that was the best thing ever written since the Twilight series. Really. IMHO.  “Angry Face Emoticon”

You, Too Can Be a Writer!

~first posted 21 Dec 12

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that writing is not all that difficult. I know, that sounds wrong. We are all avid readers, we live in awe of the great books we have read over the years. As individuals and as a society, we pay great respect to our authors. They are constantly on Fresh Air, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Sixty Minutes–hell, they’re everywhere. It’s like they’re superstars, even though most are not all that photogenic and many mumble a lot. But we love them, one and all.IMG_0641

We love them, even though what they do isn’t all that difficult. I presume that they are caught up in the whole cult of the mysterious, creative artist thing we have in this country (though not to the degree they have it in France, say, or Sedona). I can assure you, however, that what you do for a living every day is much more difficult, and I say that without being completely certain what it is that you do. It’s easier, believe me. I bet that at your job, you don’t get to show up whenever you like, take a nap whenever you like (writers call this story development), grab a snack whenever you like. You probably can’t perform your job half-drunk or recovering from a bender (admittedly, I’m making some assumptions here; like you’re not a NY State Supreme Court justice). But the writing part, I hear you protesting, the writing is hard. Actually, it isn’t. If the writer can’t think of the right word, they have all kinds of reference books he can consult to help find it. If you write something really awful, they let you go back and rewrite it as many times as you need to–kind of like going to Yale. Hell, you don’t even have to be a really good speller–chances are they’re going to hire somebody to fix all that stuff anyway. I have to tell you, writing really isn’t all that hard. Certainly a lot easier than trying to get a half-trained surgical resident through the removal of a tumor from some patient’s liver without cutting open something that’ll make a big mess. I know, I’ve done both and believe me, the surgery thing is way harder. And you have to stand through the whole thing.

No, the writing thing is pretty easy. Even the hardest part–the part where you come up with the idea–is pretty straightforward. You’ve done it, I’m sure. You’ve had great ideas for a novel. You’re living with a schnook that’s more of a character than you find in most novels. You may have even lived through one or two things that would make a great story. You’ve told people about it, but mostly while you were pretty drunk at a bar that was so loud that she wasn’t really listening but just nodding and smiling to be nice. You could write a book.

But you haven’t. You should you know. It’s not that hard.

Eventual Rejection

I’ll be the first to admit that I take rejection badly.  This trait is fine for a surgeon (general anesthesia is a great way to avoid rejection), but is a problem for any new, aspiring, delusional writer, such as myself.  So, today I received the following terse, fairly standard email of rejection:

Thank you for your interest; unfortunately this falls outside of my area of expertise. I wish you all the best finding the right agent and publisher for your work

.-Chris P*__________

I should note that this reply arrived exactly one year after my query submission.Minolta DSC

So, I replied thusly:

Dear Chris:

Thank you for the courtesy of your reply to my query from one year ago.  Congratulations on your recovery from the deep coma that prevented you from replying in a more timely, professional manner. During your  absence, and due to a lack of any evidence during the past year that you or your company actually functions as a literary agency, I and my friends at the DEA have been forced to conclude that the financial transactions masquerading as the activities of a valid agent actually represent a probable money laundering enterprise for a Colombian drug cartel.  You may anticipate further inquiries in this matter.

Again, thank you for taking such a lengthy and appreciative interest in my work.  I’m sorry that I have been forced, in your absence, to pursue another path.  I wish you luck in your future endeavors as a “literary agent.”

Sincerely,

Evan Geller

Which, of course, is yet another reason that I’m not “traditionally published.”

“Discoverability”: An Indie Author’s Publishing Parable

~first posted 23 Feb 13

[In the manner of those times when you showed up to the lecture that everyone else had cut, and the prof spent the whole class complaining to you about the poor attendance and then was so ticked off he refused to give the lecture…]

You’re not reading this, because you don’t know who I am. You’ve never heard of me, or this blog. Yet here I stand, knee-deep in snow in the Amazonian wildlands, the wind howling about me, as I toil at chopping down this huge tree, a mighty oak of a tree; a damn fine tree, if I do say so myself. And then, finally, suddenly, the tree falls…

…without a sound.IMG_1110

The tree lies there, silent and still, as I stand above it, victorious and proud, sweating, with heavy axe shouldered, my boot atop its fallen trunk. Breathing heavily–falling trees alone in the woods is hard, under appreciated work–I take stock of the magnificence of the work I’ve just accomplished, somewhat chagrined that there isn’t a crowd of appreciative well-wishers gathering about to clap and congratulate me on having accomplished the dropping of such a big and important tree. Why is that, I wonder.

So I wait for a bit; but no, it seems that no one is coming. Or noticed. In the distance, I can see quite a few people milling about other, lesser fallen trees. I really don’t get it, those are like saplings compared to this sucker here. Those folks don’t even seem to know what they’re missing, as if they really don’t know much about trees at all…

“Excuse me,” I hear a small, plaintive voice say. I reluctantly tear my gaze from the other, more appreciated trees, and look down to see a very cute little bunny caught by a branch of my fallen tree. “Excuse me,” he repeats politely, “but I seem to be caught here by your fallen tree. I’m sorry to be a bother, but I never even heard the thing falling, otherwise I certainly would have avoided your tree altogether. Might I trouble you for a little help?’

He is so cute and well spoken! “What is your name, little bunny?” I ask, kneeling next to him. I scratch his head between his pink bunny ears, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate this much.

“Is that important?” he asks, a bit annoyed after the head scratching episode. “I mean, just to move the tree a couple of inches and let me on my way? Are we to exchange insurance information as well? Can I expect a card on Easter?”

“Well, I was just trying to be nice, is all.” He is so fluffy, I’m sorry my tree has trapped his paw. I feel bad.

“Nice? Nice would be watching out not to drop a tree on any innocent soul that happens to be passing by. Or at least calling out something before doing so; saying, oh, I don’t know, something like ‘Tim-ber’ or ‘yet another self-important freelancer tediously dropping a tree randomly in your vicinity.’ Something like that would be nice.” I look wounded. “Reed. The name’s Reed.”

“Reed? Reed Rabbit? Is your middle initial ‘R’?”

“No. And my last name isn’t Rabbit, either, it will shock you to learn, I’m sure. As I myself would be, if your last name isn’t ‘Pathetic Dumbshit.’ ”

“Oh. Sorry. Listen, since you’re here anyway, would you like to discuss the critical importance of my tree? Or why this is the most significant tree felled in our lifetime?”

“No.” I see the fluffy bunny struggling to free himself.

“Well, if I free you, can I at least ask you to nibble a bit of the bark here? You know, just take a little bit to get the taste of how marvelous this tree is? Since you’re here already? Just a taste?”

“I think not.” Reed struggles mightily at the entrapped paw, somewhat panicked now. He looks up at me, obviously concerned that I’ve made no move to release him. “Listen,” he says with a slight twang of desperation, “how about you release me and I’ll mention to everyone I meet here in Amazonia just how decent a chap you are? How about that?”

“Oh, so you will try my tree then?”

“No.”

“But then how–”

“Does that really matter? I’ll be on my way, you’ll be happy here with your twisted little bramble bush. I mean, look at this. It looks like a prop from ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.’ Just lift the thing for a second. It’s the decent thing to do.”

I realize that the fluffy little fellow is right, though he seems a rather heartless little bunny. I stoop to lift the tree. “Maybe you could stop by my house here in the woods sometime, try my blog soup.”

“To be honest, I’d rather gnaw off my own paw.”

Why Fat People Make the Best Editors (With Apologies to Erin Morgenstern)

~first posted 3 Mar 13

Now before you start, I’m not talking about nonfiction editors, okay? And not copy editors, either. So don’t send all those nasty emails. (Who am I kidding, right? You and I are the only ones who read this blog. And you never write. Why don’t you write?) When it comes to copy editors, especially, go ahead and hire the skinniest, bony nosed bespectacled one-eyed fella you can find; he’ll do a great job moving those commas inside the quotations, every time. Not like he’s going out clubbing this coming Saturday night, anyway. No, I’m talking about the kind of person that you entrust with your story. When it comes to your real, live story editor, go obese or take that manuscript home. Avoid asceticism; err on the side of jovial gluttony. Ascetics are mean. You want the editor that hands back your manuscript with “Cherry Garcia” stains all over it, saying “That was great, I just made a few suggestions…”Minolta DSC

We all know the drill. Any author who desires “acceptance” must submit to professional editorial oversight. You must! Even if you’re self-published (which we all lovingly refer to now as “indie”). Especially if you’re self-published indie. If you can at least say, with a straight face, “I spent my hard earned money, which I will never in a thousand years recoup from the sale of this dog, to hire a professional editor and I incorporated all her suggestions in this fine, final product. It is the minimal price of admission, though it still just gets you staring at the door, being held back by the big bouncer of anonymity, but you’re so much closer to really getting in (sticking with the clubbing metaphor here). And if you’re lucky enough to actually be under contract, you will submit to editorial oversight/improvement/mercantile optimization/product placement; whatever is asked of you. It’s in the contract, brother. Right there, and there, and again here on page nine hundred twenty-two. So if you have to submit, let it be to a comfortably endowed, built for comfort/not speed, kind of editor. I, for one, quake at sharp tongued criticism of every adjective or descriptive nuance as “not moving the plot forward.” I like the fat, I love the fat. Even when said fat drags the plot a little backwards like a reluctant rump. I write like I cook–with lard, not dried out and burnt to a crisp. I don’t “kill my darlings,” I love my occasional authorial shining nuggets. Everyone says to get rid of the little parts you really love; but I won’t do it. It’s what makes the writing fun. I love the slight poetic excess, the unique turn of phrase, the ironic juxtaposition–even when something much pithier will do. I hate pithy. Except Hemingway. I’m not Hemingway, and, now that I mention it, either is anyone else. And Hemingway was a very sad man.

Of course, this attitude is one of the many reasons that you haven’t bought my book. A true story: I almost had a real live, professional agent, almost. Maybe. She is one of the best in the business, and I was in earnest discussion with her about my new book. She was interested. She was impressed that a good friend in the business that she respected had read my manuscript and strongly recommended that she consider taking me on. We enjoyed repartee, verbal and electronic. This until the fateful day when, in the course of discussing the work, I mentioned that it was 185,000 words. Anguished wailing ensued. The budding courtship was pinched off–unless and until I got a professional editor to excise at least 60k of dead stuff. But, I insisted, there is no dead stuff, it’s all great, all vital tissue. It is a great read, don’t you think? I ask her. She really can’t say, since she admits at this point that she hasn’t had the opportunity to read the thing, or even have her unpaid intern read the thing, and now that she realizes how long it is, she’s sending it back, because it’s soooo long. Wait, I protest, how can you say it’s too long if you haven’t even read it? Because, she says, I can’t sell it at that length.

And that, dear reader, is how it works. Almost-agent of mine wasn’t being mean, or unartistic, or unappreciative of my hard work–she was stating a fact of life in the literary industrial complex. Why should she take this on if I’m not willing to do the work to make it into something that she can actually sell for me/us? Answer: She shouldn’t. And she didn’t. I decided that I would prefer the book I love to sell in the dozens (how prophetic of me, eh?) than to retire on the fat movie royalties guaranteed if I’d only just play the game. But wait, you say,  professional editors make books better. Yes and no. Any professional editor with sense would improve my book, but anyone getting paid to cut 30% off is mangling my masterpiece. I won’t have it, not to my child, no way. I love my ‘non plot-driving scenes,’ my lacy descriptive prose, my ‘realistic-to-the-point-of excess-verbosity’ dialogue. I will not have it sliced off down to the sinew, even if done by a master surgeon. No doubt, I would be forced to give up the little literary techniques that I think I invented, that I love to employ. Like, when I use the exact same line of dialogue twice, spoken by different characters but with a completely different meaning, to draw a meaningful connection between remote areas of the book. Who else does that, I ask you? And other, equally cool stuff. It’s why I write stories, not technical manuals about how to tear down and rebuild your Ducati.

A completely speculative example may be illustrative. I loved the book The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. It was, in so many ways, fantastic. I must admit, however, that I read the final act with an aching heart. The depth of feeling in the writing seemed to grow shallower as I fought the crashing waves of the last third to the climatic shore of conclusion. Only my opinion, now, and please keep in mind that I truly love the book as a whole; it is one of my favorite books and I’ve been reading a good deal longer than Morgenstern has been alive, an amazing statistic. But I got the sense, and still have it on rereading, that somebody at Doubleday Publishing, Inc. lured her unsuspecting manuscript into one of their basement ‘repair’ chambers and, with Erin protesting loudly against her contractual restraints, the smoothly running but rather luxurious manuscript was put up on the rack and had a significant amount of ‘excessive oil’ and ‘overstuffed upholstery’ editorially removed. By professionals, of course, who hardly left a mark. But the result in the third and final act was a thinning of the magic that Morgenstern had deeply ladled into the previous two acts. (Note that I am employing ‘magic’ here to represent the magic of Erin’s writing, not her writing about magic, and that ‘thinning’ is here used in an alternate meaning that contrasts to the overweight metaphor that began this blog. Just riffing here, reader.)

I could well be wrong. I have never met Erin Morgenstern, heard her speak, or exchanged even the most cursory of missives. I’m sure she loves her editors and sends them quirky gifts at unexpected moments. It’s entirely possible that she may not have even had the most minute manicure of her glorious opus at their hands. This is complete speculative bullshit on my part, based upon what I think, having read her book and a bit of her other fine writing. She is an undeniable talent and, no doubt, will forever be a literary force to be reckoned with. I think, though, that she might have been editorially sandbagged on her first outing. No doubt, the movie rights will lead to a fantastically rich adaptation that will have painfully little in common with the best parts of her book, but hopefully will net her a huge amount on the back end for life. Congratulations and well deserved. For this next one, though Erin, get yourself a comfortably plump editor. You deserve it.

Setting

~first posted 17 Nov 12

Most of the time I’m not entirely sure where I am. I mean, who really is, most of the time? It’s hard enough just to keep track of what I’m doing and why. Usually, even the why is pretty murky. But the where is just kind of taken for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll pull into my driveway and look up in shock at my house, wondering how in hell I got here. And wondering if I stopped at any of the traffic lights between where I was and where I am now.

Is this a problem? Not really. How often does what I’m doing depend on where I’m doing it? Not very often. Oh, occasionally I’ll find myself at the top of a windswept mountain or completely lost in the woods, but not very often. Usually, my surroundings are pretty pedestrian. The house is unremarkable, unless I step barefoot in a puddle of dog vomit. Suddenly, my setting becomes important. My environment has just started to drive my action. Before I stepped in the dog vomit, I was planning on sitting down in front of Meet the Press with a cup of black coffee and a copy of the NY Times. Now, events are dictated differently. Shouldn’t have given Bob Barker all that left over pizza. Remorse. Concern. The pressure-packed search for a roll of paper towels.

Sorry, Dad.  Bad anchovy.

Sorry, Dad. Bad anchovy.

Usually, though, you don’t want to know much about where I’m sitting. You want to know what I’m doing. Perhaps, you’re interested in how I’m feeling, or why I’m doing what I’m doing or why I”m feeling the way I’m feeling. Do you care about the color of the sunset outside my window? Does the hue of my Hawaiian shirt affect your understanding of my mood? I think not. And all the time I spend in deeply nuanced description of setting, ambiance, or weather; whether poetic or pedestrian, is time spent sifting through detritus in an effort to get back to what’s important.

Let me paint the walls if I wish. Most of the time, I’m not even sure there are walls. Roof stays up anyway.