Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Girls!

I will never write anything as lovely as you, Cathleen and Shannon.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Antarctic Winds

I have begun reading The Entire Earth and Sky by Leslie Carol Roberts, which I received for Christmas. Though I'm only a couple dozen pages in, I already am thrilled at what it is showing me. Of course, I have selfish reasons: I'm in the midst of writing my Antarctic novel. And I suppose it helps that winter has descended upon us and given me a nasty cold to boot. But Roberts includes the tasty human details that I am looking for to make Antarctica seem real to readers.

While I might edit things a little differently than her editors did, her voice is there, and that is essential (as it is in any book – fiction or non-fiction.) Indeed, I might even reach out to Ms. Roberts to see if I can learn more from her about Antarctica, though I'll wait until after I've finished her book.

In the meantime, I will listen to the winter wind, feel grateful for my heavy coat, my scarf, hat, and gloves, and imagine my characters in their fictional Antarctica, perhaps catching the music of Icestock at New Years. I wonder if there's live streaming... Will wonders never cease?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

2009: Predictions for the Year in Reading

Soon we will turn the page on 2008. To my mind, not a bad year over all, though I know of many people who don't have the same affection for 2008. I have much to be thankful for: a good year at work, though I can do more; the joy of impending fatherhood; I got my novel in shape to be seen by agents. And I read a lot of books.

I'm not quite prepared to go over what I read that most impressed me. (After all, who really cares what someone else has read, unless they can say well why someone else should read it?) But I think I can offer a few thoughts about what I and other hardcore readers will be reading in 2009.

I expect to see lots of Dress for Success and job-search books on the trains this coming year. I don't know whether ye olde What Color Is Your Parachute is still a go-to help book in this Internet, "information era" age, but there's probably something of that ilk that'll be flying off the shelves -- at least at the library, since no one has any money any more.

Other books of choice will be along the lines of "How to do more with less." As someone who grew up with Depression-era parents, I feel well indoctrinated about that sort of lifestyle. I've always been frugal, and with my kids on the way, I'm sure that'll continue.

I suspect that there'll be a renewed interest in stories of the 1970s, because that's the era that will be most similar to what we're embarking on. The Great Depression, with its breadlines and Hoovervilles just doesn't seem quite as likely as the '70s lunchbox, baby-sitting relatives, PBJ sandwiches, TV dinners, and other forms of parsimony. I wonder if That '70s Show will stage a revival...

But I'm a fiction writer. What's in it for me? I honestly don't know. I suspect that fiction could become slightly less popular than it already is — and it's already fairly unpopular. So read up America! Fiction, nonfiction, whatever you enjoy. And keep or gain employment. Keep this country literate and great!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Different Reading

And so this is Christmas, for old and for young. Another year over. A new year just begun. And so happy Christmas, I hope you have fun.

In the background, as you may have guessed, is John Lennon's And So This Is Christmas, a song from the CD that my wife bought me for Christmas. (Yes, Virginia, there are CDs.) Another reason for celebrating this Christmas is because I have finally reinstalled the Internet to the computer, which is now part of the makeshift office/nursery. We have set up the house in preparation not exactly for the Christ child, but for the two little girls who are coming to join us.

When? That's not exactly for us to know, just yet. Suffice it to say, it could be any day now. It could be today. It could be almost three weeks from now. But it won't be any longer than that. Alas, these children will be born within a Bush presidency, but at least they will never truly know it.

But unto us shall be born quite soon two children, who shall know love and joy and music and words — such beautiful words have not yet been spoken.

This morning, as I sat at Christmas mass (during the boring priest's homily) I read the readings that I'd missed because I was late. And in one was a line I'd not remembered; I think it was from the Old Testament. It was about a city not forsaken. I've forgotten much of what was said already (it was 7:30 mass and I was tired), but I suspect that line was not talking about my children. Yet, that's how I took it.

I intend to not say much about my children on this blog. It is too unprivate. Too exposed. Those who I wish to share thoughts with of that nature know where to find me. But on this Christmas day, when all things are possible — even peace on earth — I can't help myself.

These children provide me with a modicum of hope. I long to meet them, to share with them, to feed and nourish them as they will nourish me. I long to feel their hair, to smell their skin, to clean and pamper them. (And Pamper them ... or whatever brand name we end up with.) They find me unforsaken. Brimming with hope. Happy.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May peace be upon you.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Return of the Hot Red-Headed Vampire

Thank God for Christopher Moore. After trudging through the slow but worthwhile history about Benjamin Franklin's work as ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, I needed something light. So I picked up a copy of Moore's You Suck. I'm more than 200 pages in and so happy that I returned to the humorous worlds of Chris Moore's creation.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, I whole-heartedly recommend you start with Practical Demonkeeping, which is his debut novel. Then go for Bloodsucking Fiends, which introduces the red-headed vampire Jody and her boyfriend (and minion) C. Thomas Flood. They're the happy couple in You Suck, which begins where Fiends ends: with Jody biting Tommy.

Moore also tends to give his characters cameo appearances in other novels. For example, the demon Catch from Practical Demonkeeping, unexpectedly appears in Lamb, which is the gospel according to Biff, Jesus's best friend.

Though not every book is a complete winner, I suspect I'd read anything he produced. And he has a new one coming out in February.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Ben Franklin and the Slow-Moving Book

I should know better. For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading A Great Improvisation, which is a history about Benjamin Franklin's work as ambassador to France during the American Revolution, written by Stacy Schiff. I have always admired Franklin, though my real understanding of his work is based on childhood schoolbooks and movies.

The book is well written and obviously well researched. But God, is it slow! Of course, I began it while I was still working on my NaNo novel, which meant I read it mostly while on the morning portion of my commute. Still, nonfiction — especially densely packed nonfiction — tends to only go at about a 20-page per morning pace, whereas I usually knock out about twice as much for a novel.

But these types of books also allow for a better sense of what a character looks like, and that's nice every once in a while (though I very much enjoy imagining what a person looks like). And a history can inspire other ideas — screenplays, for example, other histories, even plays. I only have a hundred pages left of the 400-plus, and while I probably won't finish it this weekend, I should have it back on a shelf before next week is relegated to history.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

National Novel Continuation Month

November is almost over; just about six hours to go here on the East Coast. And with the end of November arrives the close of National Novel Writing Month. Though I have topped 15,000 words, it is not physically possible for me to get to 50,000 today unless I were to steal words from other documents and paste them into my work in progress. That's not going to happen. I respect myself and my fellow writers too much to do that.

But that doesn't mean I'll stop writing what I have begun. I'm still getting to know the characters in my new novel, Blood Falls. They're interesting and I'm sure there's a lot more complexity to them than has been shown so far. But that's what you learn when you first meet people. I know something about my main character's family, how her parents died, the awful disease her sister has, the brother who seems about as deep as the condensation on a bottle of beer. I met people I didn't know about, like the niece of my main character, who strikes me as smart and precocious and potentially uplifting as this family's story progresses.

I've also gotten to know a couple fellow writers better. For that I am most thankful. I feel like I've been welcomed into a community of writers and I've already learned a lot from them; I suspect that more will come. I hope I've helped at least as many people as have helped me.

But tomorrow, despite the board meeting I must attend and the mountains of work I must tend to, begins National Novel Continuation Month(s). Most likely, it'll extend into the new year. It may also overlap with the beginning of Local Life-Interrupted-by-Babies Lifetime, but I'm ok with that too. Because they will be a big part of my writing life for years to come. Indeed, I expect them to garnish a huge chunk of my salary over the next 20-25 years.

So, off I go to live the life of yet another aspiring novelist -- albeit, one with a novel to show for it and another on the way and dozens of workable ideas to pursue after that. I'll probably reach about 16,000 words on this year's Nano. I strongly suspect I'll start something else next year, but this year's word count may end up as a high-water mark for a while, unless I start fictionalizing what my kids do. Lord knows what tomorrow brings.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is There Any Such Thing as Bad Sex?

Proving that there can be an award for anything, the British Literary Review has bestowed its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Prize on the venerable John Updike. While he may have created a famous character named Rabbit, it seems his characters in general have not quite shown the same joie de vivre as a warren of horny bunnies.

Updike was honored for a lifetime of crude, tasteless, or ridiculous sex scenes. Although he's never won the annual award, he apparently has been on the short list (ouch!) four times. "Good sex or bad sex, he has kept us entertained for many years," the Review's editors said in a statement.

As someone whose written sex scenes have been both wince-inducing and enjoyed, I feel I can say that I'd rather not be known as a writer of bad fictional sex. However, I'd prefer that to being known for bad real sex.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Putting Things Right

Life has been very busy lately, and not merely because I'm still struggling to write daily on a new novel. I've got major projects to finish before the end of the year and a freelance piece I intend to finish tonight and miles to go before I sleep...

While procrastinating about 10 minutes ago (before this arguably more valuable procrastination), I read a review of Stephen King's new collection of short stories, Just After Sunset. At the same time, I found another writer's MySpace page and she had cool background music, which has put me into a mellow mood (cue the single malt!).

So I read the review and took it in. And you know what? This guy is right: Stephen King's power as a writer is his honesty. I mean, anyone who knows how to write knows that King's work isn't a stellar example of art — and King knows how to write. Get it? Stephen King is an honorable craftsman, and I enjoy his work — even those that are pedestrian, like Dreamcatcher. He wrote to pay the bills, to get his wife a birthday gift, to feed his alcoholic needs while those terrors enlivened his early writing. He kept writing because it's all he really knew to do. I respect that. Even the drinking part. (The coke habit I can do without, thank you.) He kept writing because it's what he was meant to do. And he believed. Amen.

Read the review on your time. I'm going to put my time in to finish this profile. Because I need the money, and I've done the interview, and it's interesting. And I'm the only one who can write it right now the way it's supposed to be done. So be it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brief Update on Nano WriMo 2008

For those who might care, I've not been able to write often here. I have a couple posts in the hopper, but I'm trying to write a new novel this month as part of National Novel Writing Month, and I just don't get much time to write anything else.

As you can see by the cool little widget on top of the sidebar, I've written more than 7000 words. If that sounds like a lot, I thank you. It's not. I'm way behind pace. And these 75 words or so don't count.

If you're a fellow Nano, feel free to visit me. I'm elephantguy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dracula in the 21st Century

Lately, I've been reading Dracula — the original by Bram Stoker, not some comic book version. I'd never read it before and I must admit I was surprised. I had expected that there was more going on than a simple scary story. People often talk about the sexual (and even homosexual) innuendo and movies embellish the vanity, but a reader can really sink his teeth into the allusions to class distinctions and religious differences that Stoker included.

But even the structure of the novel is unique. He told his story through telegrams and journals — a product of his time that, like a vampire, can survive forever if properly fed. Most (well, a lot if not most) of my reading the past couple of years has been devoted to contemporary literature, and I'm not much of a consumer of experimental literature. (A collection of short stories that I bought at the Brooklyn Book Festival was about inanimate objects. Sorry, I can't relate to that. I'll never get that dollar back.)

But a well crafted story that demonstrates an interesting use of structure can be captivating. I've got an idea that I won't go into here for a 21st century horror story. I haven't figured out yet how it would sell (not whether it would sell...how). Bram Stoker lives!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One for the History Books

All right! You don't have to be a math whiz to see the blue ink on the wall. With Ohio now declared for Sen. Barack Obama, Pennsylvania unsurprisingly going Democratic, and Florida looking ready to go Democratic too, it's time to stick a fork in Sen. John McCain's campaign. It's done.

There's a party in Grant Park in Chicago, and I think there will be celebration throughout much of the United States. Barack Obama is on the verge of history!

President-Elect Obama will have a lot of work ahead of him, and there remains much to learn about the House and Senate races as the night goes on, but short of an unspeakable catastrophe, he has accomplished what many African-Americans never thought possible in their lifetimes.

This may sound silly to some, but I'm proud of America. We're still a nation with deep racial divisions, but at least it can be said now that we have elected a black man president. There's never been a black prime minister of England or a black president of France. Don't even think about Germany in this equation. I don't know for certain, but I'd be shocked if there's been an Aboriginal PM of Australia.

This truly is history. I'm proud to have witnessed it and to be part of this historic vote.

NaNo Site Problems, So What Else Is New

I'd forgotten how much of a pain in the butt it can be to access the National Novel Writing Month Web site during November. Honestly, the only thing I want to do there is update my word count, but I can't get into the site.

I don't know if it's because there's so much activity or because they have so little bandwidth available... all I know is it's a hassle.

This year, I'm far ahead of my pace from last year, though I haven't maintained the pace I need to reach my goal. Basically, I'm a little farther than two days in using the average of 1666 words per day; today is November 4th, so I need to catch up. This month is too busy to let things get behind.

Hope everyone out there participating is able to write regularly. If I can borrow from the old joke about voting (on this Election Day), Write early, write often.

Funny, it's more appropriate this way.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

T-Minus 24 Hours to NaNo...

In 24 hours it begins: National Novel Writing Month, 2008. I'm geared up. I've been mentally playing out scenes, wondering what types characteristics make up the people in this story, much of which will take place in Antarctica. What are her siblings like? Where is she when she hears about her parents' tragic death?...

I attended a kick-off event tonight. I chatted with a woman who's planning to write an office murder mystery. It sounds like a lot of fun, actually. I wondered who I might want to kill in my office. What would be my motivation? Money? Anger? Trying to get ahead? Trying to frame someone else? Maybe in 2009, I'll write something with a murder or two in it. I'll kill a couple characters in my new novel, but it's not quite the same.

So, to all you fellow NaNos, I bid you good luck. And if you must kill, make sure you do it on paper first.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Haruki Murakami, Cal, and Obsessive Lonely Men

Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite short story writers (and an accomplished novelist), recently received the inaugural Berkeley Japan Prize — that's Berkeley as in University of California at... (a.k.a. 'Cal' for those who wonder if people wearing a Cal hat are actually named Cal.)

I don't read enough of his work, but wherever I find something about him, I enjoy learning about a man who is either a natural writer or the most unlikely writer you'd ever meet. To my mind, that obvious contradiction is an example of why he's so interesting a writer. For example, he decided while attending a baseball game that he was going to become a writer. No training. According to the Cal press release: "When asked about the revelation that led him to writing at age 29, the author described watching his favorite baseball team, the Yakult Swallows, in 1978. An American player on the team, Dave Hilton, hit a double, and as Murakami cryptically explained it, 'On that sunny day drinking beer, I just knew I could write.' Soon thereafter he submitted his first short novel, Hear the Wind Sing, to a publisher, and saw it win the Gunzou Literature Prize for promising young writers in 1979."

I wasn't aware that his nonfiction book Underground was based on interviews with people who survived the 1995 Sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway system. The victims — mostly commuting workers — told boring stories, he said. But, he added, “if you try hard to listen, to like them, to love them, then their stories become interesting. Everyone has his own story.”

I couldn't agree more.

My boring/interesting story is this: In 1994, I attempted to become a teacher of English in Japan through the YMCA. I was working in a Y at the time and a colleague who knew I was unsatisfied with my job encouraged me to try the teaching program in Japan. He was Japanese and said he thought I would fit in well there, unlike many Americans (I'm not entirely sure I understand why, but I took it as a compliment.) I studied and prepared and I thought I did well in my interview. For reasons I've forgotten now, I'd felt that I would probably end up in an area near Kobe. But I never made it to another round of interviews. The number of available spots was severely cut back (I'd been among 32 people interviewed for 16 spots, but then the number was cut to either eight or four, I don't recall which now.) I left the job and, as fate would have it, ended up meeting the woman who is now my wife. Kobe, Japan, experienced a devastating earthquake. And I was left that classic writer's question: What if?

It was more than ten years before I read Haruki Murakami again. Perhaps none of this is related.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

There's a Word for People Like That

One of the things I love about newspapers (and their websites) is that there's always something interesting to read, regardless of where it's placed. For example, I went into the science section of today's New York Times looking to see what might be new in that fascinating world. What did I find there? News on the science of words.

Interesting stuff, indeed! While I don't know whether I'd go through the difficult rigamarole to analyze what my characters say in a novel or how they say it, perhaps it would be time well spent. It could offer a level of characterization that readers and teachers study for years. I remember English classes in college when we'd ponder what the author intended in various scenes. Sometimes I thought such analysis was daft, but now that I've completed a novel and begun imagining new characters for my next one, I realize that an author does — and should — consider things like how a reader may interpret a character.

I didn't realize, for instance, that men tend to use more articles (a, the) than women, who are more likely to use pronouns (I, she, they). For the novel I'm imagining now (I won't start writing till November, when National Novel Writing Month begins), the protagonist is a woman in her 30s who works as a research scientist in Antarctica. Now that I've read the Times article, I may ponder even more about how she thinks and speaks. Perhaps her mannerisms alter slightly as change occurs in her life. Or maybe she's so frozen in her mannerisms that she can't break out.

This is one of the many reasons why I love writing!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Don't You Wish You Were on This List?

Forbes magazine recently released its list of the top ten "best paid" authors. The names of at least the top four or five probably won’t surprise you, especially the woman who topped the list, J.K. Rowling. She earned around $300 million and she'll presumably take in even more as the follow-up Harry Potter movies are released.

I don't know about you, but to me it's kinda nice to not see Dan Brown's name in there. But he's young and no doubt there'll eventually be another in the Robert Langdon series of thrillers.

Of course, most authors don’t earn anywhere near these types of paydays — in a lifetime, much less for a year. Still, it’s nice to dream.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

This Was Surprising

There's less than a day left in my poll on the Elephant's Bookshelf, and I must say I'm a bit surprised. Not by the "record" number of responses — seven in my second-ever poll on a blog that is lucky to get 50-60 visitors per day — but rather that the answer I threw in almost as a joke has received three of those votes.

I love math. I even started off college as a math major (tried to do the whole Renaissance man thing, but it never quite impressed the girls as much as I'd hoped). But on a blog that's basically about reading and writing, I didn't expect to see so much interest there.

Perhaps it's the Danica McKellar influence.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blog of Note: Emerging Writers

Earlier today I received the latest item from the Emerging Writers Network. It's a fairly long but interesting (at least I thought so) set of interviews with small press publishers. I'll admit that I've been looking for an agent lately rather than a publisher, so I am fairly uninformed about all of these people. But like I said, it's interesting. Why?

Because the interviews offer insight into how small publishers think about their projects — and from what I can tell, these are projects for the most part; I don't think these publishers expect to make oodles of money out of this work. They simply believe in literature in its many forms.

The interviews also provided names of other new and relatively unknown writers who deserve to be read and judged on their merits. Give EWN a look and consider learning more about the writers.

The Truth About Fiction

I ran across a nice little Q&A in the Washington Post. It's an interview with Professor Bonnie Libby, who teaches literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

I don't know Professor Libby, and I don't know if she and I would agree on everything, but that's quite all right. I found this quote interesting:

"[W]e talk about the constant allure of sin, and that too often vice (especially our own) does not disgust us. Good literature should illuminate this human tendency and make us care to correct it. Certainly, literature often depicts the baser aspects of human nature; otherwise it wouldn't be true. But many times, we Christians get hung up on the obvious vices like profanity or sexual immorality, while dismissing more prevalent and pernicious moral evils like pride, superiority and envy."

As someone who has written a novel that includes a healthy dose of sin and vice as well as profanity and sexual immorality, I say: Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Let Me Sleep on It

Now here's an idea other writers may find appealing. Struggling to come up with the key idea that moves the story? Sleep on it.

This is not exactly a new idea. And in some ways it should seem obvious. Get some sleep and you'll look at a problem with a clearer perspective.

But it can be difficult, sometimes, to accept such wisdom — especially when a deadline is looming or you know that you've procrastinated enough already to deserve to sleep. (Actually, procrastinating writers probably should not spend another hour in the schnazzy looking nap-pod. They'll never get out.) I'm yawning; it's 10:30. I should probably go to bed now. Or at least let my mind shut down for a while and tackle such difficult tasks as cleaning the litter box or take the garbage out for tomorrow's pick up. ... ok, did the garbage.

I was a little surprised the article, which includes a description of famous dream-inspired discoveries, didn't include Friedrich August KekulĂ©'s dream of a snake that was biting its own tail — which led him to envision the ring-structure of benzene. Of course, that tale could be so oft used already as to seem unnecessary to repeat. But I enjoyed reading about Elias Howe's dream; that was new to me.

Inspiration comes from anywhere and happens all the time. A fresh mind can make the connections between seemingly disparate concepts. This is how innovation works.

Anyway, my point is writing is a supremely cerebral activity, regardless of how important it is to simply keep doing it in order to accomplish anything. And even if you keep writing, as Anne Lamott called them, "Shitty first drafts." So if you're struggling with a character or a scene, you can do a few things: keep writing, sleep on it and see what you come up with later, or write something else and let your subconscious mind work out the problems on its own. It'll tell you the answer eventually. You just need to be ready for it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thanks for Voting!

Thanks to those who voted in the first poll on the Elephant's Bookshelf. Looks like those who come here are probably readers or enjoyably sarcastic (yeah, as if I can extrapolate anything from four votes, but I do appreciate them all).

As you might expect, the polls will be related to books, reading, and writing. If you have any that you'd like to suggest, feel free by emailing me at elephantsbookshelf@gmail.com or by posting a comment here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let the Wild Rumpus Start

Any fan of Maurice Sendak, best known for the wonderful and beautiful children's book Where the Wild Things Are, should take a few moments to read about the author and illustrator in a recent New York Times article.

I must admit, I had no idea about who he was, so the entire piece was interesting to me. It never occurred to me that he was gay, nor that he was a curmudgeon; this latter point actually intrigues me considering the character of Max in the story. But his attitude toward himself — one of self-doubt and of middling significance — I suspect is fairly typical of writers and artists. We often feel that we are not contributing anything of value to the world we hope to beautify and make better.

In Sendak's case, he created one of the greatest, most beloved stories about childhood and imagination ever conceived.

And it's still hot.

Rage on, Mr. Sendak. Do not go gentle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Zone of Insolvency by Ron Mattocks

This review, which I wrote, appeared previously on a different Web site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly. If you want me to view it without publishing your name, I'll gladly do that. I keep no list of readers, so I won't sell it anywhere.

If you're a current nonprofit board member and there's a horror section in your nonprofit library, you'll want to add Ron Mattocks' Zone of Insolvency to it.

That's because Mattocks makes a convincing case that as many as a third of the nation's tax-exempt organizations are operating in a "zone of insolvency" — a financial state somewhere between solvency and total insolvency — and that it's just a matter of time before another nonprofit financial scandal emerges. According to Mattocks, who has more than thirty years' experience developing the financial strength of nonprofits, organizations operating in a zone of insolvency typically experience some combination of challenges, including dwindling cash reserves, increasing debt, an aging product mix and deferred maintenance, and recurring cash flow problems. Unfortunately, once an organization has entered the zone, there are only three ways out: a financial turnaround, merger, or dissolution.

To bolster his case, Mattocks provides summaries of some of the most notable nonprofit financial scandals of the past seventeen years, including William Aramony's misdeeds at the United Way of America and the Ponzi scheme that was the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy. But he also presents several success stories involving organizations that were able to turn things around — including the United Way of America.

His examples don't just involve financial scandals. Indeed, he offers several examples of organizations whose boards determined that, in the face of a changed or changing environment, the best course of action was to dissolve the organization while it was still providing important services. The National Alliance of Business, for instance, ceased operations in 2003 when its president and board determined that its mission had been accomplished. "The market had changed, new issues had emerged, and new organizations had risen to the challenge," Mattocks writes. "Funding sources had changed, and the organization experienced some net losses." Against that backdrop, the CEO helped convince the organization's stakeholders that its task was complete, to celebrate the organization's success, and to close its doors. Mattocks even provides a case study of Women in Community Service, which he headed for the final five months of its existence. Like NAB, WICS had decades of success to celebrate, but in the end it was unable to raise enough funds to continue operating and put itself out of business.

One lesson any board member should take from the book is that, when an organization is operating in a zone of insolvency, the decisions made by its executive director and board assume a different level of importance. As Mattocks puts it, a board's legal responsibilities expand when an organization is teetering between solvency and insolvency. In fact, in such situations boards need to become more engaged with management issues, and that usually increases the stress between a chief executive and his or her board (a relationship that can be strained even in the best of times). Less obvious, however, is how the zone of insolvency can alter the relationship between organization and donor. If, for example, an organization operating in the zone is offered a major gift with significant restrictions, it needs to make its financial situation crystal clear right up front — or risk violating the donor's legal rights.

To guard against that, Mattocks offers the following advice: "When governing in the zone of insolvency, a board should have special legal counsel to assure that no action benefits one party of interest while disadvantaging others." It's also absolutely critical, he writes, for key members of the board to have adequate directors and officers insurance when governing a financially distressed organization.

Like any good horror story, Zone of Insolvency argues that, in the end, organizations can overcome adversity and return themselves to a strong financial footing. Yes, some organizations will stumble and fail. But in the end, strong, well-managed organizations will survive, and that's how it should be.

So before you start banging out that resignation letter or say no to an invitation to join a nonprofit board, read Mattocks' book. As they say in the movies, forewarned is forearmed — and will keep you from getting hurt.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How I'll Spend My Summer Staycation

Summer is coming to a fast close and I'm getting antsy. I've not taken any time for myself, and time for myself soon will become a commodity I have less of. My wife and I have kids on the way: two, our first. I won't go into much detail about them on this blog because this is not the place for it, but I am certain these little ones will change almost everything in my life.

As a quick aside, I'll say this: over the Labor Day weekend, I got a terrible case of poison oak. I thought I'd been careful, wearing jeans, keeping my gloves on whenever I pulled at anything as I cleared away a backyard full of brush, but it was warm. So I wore short sleeves.

Dealing with the scrapes and welts and yellow fluid were bad enough, but the itch was miserable. I tried Benadryl gel, which helped but was insufficient. I pinked my arms up with Calamine lotion, but it's not always convenient in a work environment. And then there was a funeral. Nothing is ever quite right when a funeral is involved.

After the torrential rain and wind of the past weekend, we finally made our way back home, and I treated my itch with more care. For the most part, I'm back in shape. Yet there is still a dull aching itch I need to scratch.

I'm taking next week off — my summer staycation — and I already have a full list of things I want to accomplish. It's a list I'll never fully complete and which will leave me frustrated at least till January, when my new list of resolutions kicks in. But a key point on that list is to scratch at my itch. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The novel is ready. I have begun to write flawed queries that will not see an envelope, but by the end of next week, the first will be off on its way. I've always needed to write, and I've found excuses not to; I suspect I'm like a lot of "aspiring novelists" in that regard. But I have a novel and I have a need — I don't mean the money, though with hungry pooping progeny on the way, that's not to be dismissed either; I simply don't expect much money to come of it. One must be realistic.

But if I have anything to give these children, it's to teach them that the world is full of potential. They could become many things, and some of their dreams will crumble like fallen eggs, but there will be aspirations that stay with them their entire life. Like writing has for me. I need to show them that it's not only good to pursue one's dreams, it's crucial for life itself. It's the only way to live comfortably when an itch just won't go away.

I've begun writing every day again.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Yes, Virginia, You Need An Agent

For those of you who miss my posts, sorry to have been quiet for the past week or so. The delay between posts may continue this week as well, but I came across this blog post at the Editorial Ass and was quite impressed. Unagented writers should give it a read — and while you're at it, many of the comments are worth reading, too.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

Just in time for the long holiday weekend, there's a nice little piece in the Washington Post about one's favorite gift books. I've actually never thought about such a qualification before, so I'll need some time before I include my own favorite gift books.

One that I know will be there, however, is John Irving's The World According to Garp. If you read my other recent post about favorite books, you know that I hold that tale dear to my heart. But how I first discovered the book is a different story. I don't know if I'd seen the movie or not. But a high school friend and I exchanged items: she got my tape of Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma, and I took home Garp. I don't think it was meant to be a permanent exchange (though I eventually bought the Umma Gumma CD to replace what had been passed along), so I read the book right away despite having the usual array of high school classes.

I loved the characters, and I eventually rented the VHS (way back in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, there were things called video tapes, kids...) of the movie and fell in love with that too.

Anyway, I'll need to think about favorite gift books. But while I do, I invite you all to share your favorites. You don't need to share five; any number will do. Just say what it is and, if you'd like, why you love it. Or email it to elephantsbookshelf@gmail.com if you'd prefer to stay anonymous online.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vote for Your Favorite Books!

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is looking for a few good readers.

Specifically, they're asking readers to vote for their favorite page-turners, in anticipation of the Decatur book festival. From what I can tell, they don't care whether you live in Atlanta or Atlantis, so if you love books and have an opinion, I think you should feel free to let them know what you think are the best.

Personally, I think they'll have a lot of readers from their local area voting too, since the AJC used to have a highly regarded literary section and the city has traditionally been among the most literate in the country. (Props to you, Atlanta! And this from a Mets fan.)

And if you'd care to share your favorites here on the Elephant's Bookshelf, I'd love to know what you're reading. You'll find mine below very soon.

[Added later in day]
Ok, here's my list of favorites, though I honestly have too many favorites to limit to just five. These are the five that come most quickly to mind.

1) The World According to Garp – John Irving
2) The Lord of the Rings trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien
3) To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
4) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
5) Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

Other books I would keep on the proverbial desert island:
Cat's Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
Franny & Zooey – J.D. Salinger
The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly
The Lust of the Eyes – Matt Sinclair
Practical Demonkeeping – Christopher Moore

{Yes, I tucked my own unpublished novel in there. Why not? It's my island!}

Friday, August 15, 2008

Save the Local Bookstore

In his regular column for the Century Foundation, Peter Osnos provides commentary about several different topics as the foundation's senior fellow for media. Recently, he opined on a fire that devastated a bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, on Martha's Vineyard called the Bunch of Grapes. Let me rephrase that, he wasn't giving his opinion on the fire, he was lamenting the loss of yet another beloved bookstore — and offering his thoughts on ways to upgrade stores and avoid further losses.

While the Bunch of Grapes will likely be rebuilt, bookstores — even the megastores like Borders — are particularly vulnerable to the whims of the marketplace. Osnos has conducted a study of bookstores and offered his strategies. In a nutshell, it comes down to this: Customer service. People like it, and they expect it.

As Osnos explains, booksellers in stores tend to wait until the book is actually in hand before they accept cash or credit cards. So, if a book is out of stock, the store is out of luck. "Customers should never leave the store, having asked for something, without buying it, unless, of course, it can’t be found anywhere," he writes. But people willingly click their code into the Amazon Website and wait for their books to arrive.

Taking that one step further, Osnos recommends that each bookstore upgrade their Website so people can buy things online.

Good advice. So too, his final paragraph: "What these ideas have in common is the notion of a bookstore as less a repository of goods on hand than a showroom of what’s possible. The cozy familiarity of a good bookstore and the role these stores play as community assets are cherished by readers. Updated concepts of service and supply will reinforce those facts rather than diminish them. And in the meantime, for those great booksellers who cannot overcome their troubles, we will mourn your passing."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Dark and Stormy Contest

This is always a funny story that causes me to wince. If you've not heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, check out their Website. They have a good sense of humor.

For those who don't know already, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote what is widely regarded as the WORST opening sentence to a novel in the English language. It's not simply bad that it starts "It was a dark and stormy night," but the opening pales in comparsion to what follows:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Anyway, this year's "honorees" for the worst opening sentence of includes this wondershot: "Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.' "

I wonder if the Washington writer who won also submitted his purple prose to the bad sex writing contest. If you go there, wear protection.

I realize these people are purposely writing this poorly, but it still makes me ill.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Danica McKellar Offers a Swift Kick in the Math

Danica McKellar is at it again, with a new book on math for girls called Kiss My Math. This time, the actress and math major helps girls cope with pre-algebra.

I suspect McKellar's pleased to have seen that girls are closing the gap with boys when it comes to math, but she's also smart enough to know that it's not enough for girls to be as good at math as boys. They both need to be able to apply this knowledge to their futures. Math and science are crucial to American success in the future. Say what you will about kids today or how "my kids are doing fine." We need to encourage all kids to do their best in math and science, because even the most basic jobs these days tend to incorporate technological skills.

Pre-algebra is necessary, as is geometry, algebra, statistics, and even a healthy dose of trigonometry won't kill kids. Personally, I loved calculus. But we can't expect everything to change right away.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What the Kids Are Reading Now

This past weekend, the New York Times touched on a subject that I've thought about frequently: what and how are people reading in the 21st century. Like any informed American, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, reading and researching things for work and for my personal hobbies (such as reading and writing) and for topics related to family life in general. So I'm certainly not averse to people reading online.

Indeed, I applaud it; at least people are reading. And I believe that people are not afraid of writing for themselves. The explosion of blogs and social networking sites and twittering tidbits of foolishness at all hours of the day are strong anecdotal evidence that people are writing more now than they ever have.

I also know from experience that some kids are more likely than others to read books. Back when I was driving kids from schools to a YMCA for an afterschool program, there was one kid in particular (I think he was in first grade when I met him) who'd graduated from picture books to those in which only an occasional sketch was included (think Charlotte's Web or the original Winnie the Pooh books). He even remarked to a friend about how adults read books without pictures as though the concept was incredible.

Still, I can't help but see a healthy dose of pomposity in the views of those in the article who believe children can't learn without reading great books. Of course, they need first to be literate; it's a crucial life skill on par with the ability to communicate (note, I didn't say speak. Moreover, even the most affected by autism are able to communicate as long as we are willing and able to learn how to do so with them.)

I read often — great books, mediocre books, magazine articles, Web sites, academic studies — so I realize I'm not quite the average reader. But there are things I've not even thought of as readable areas that the kids described in this article devour.

Fanfiction.net, for example, is a site I've heard of but that's about it. It doesn't look familiar, so I'm not sure I've ever examined it before. But the girl in the article reads reams of Web pages there, eschewing television. Say what you will about the value of "great books," but I believe a kid who is that devoted to reading now is more likely to both read and possibly write as an adult. Good for Nadia!

Deeper in the article, there's a reference to a 2006 study that found, among other things, that the only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which is directly related to higher grades — especially in English. The key value of reading book-novels, academics argue, is that it allows readers to mentally chew over the ideas proffered in the works. Indeed that's true, and when people have read books in common, this spurs conversation and further reflection, which embeds the ideas deeper into a child's or adult's brain. This is where the Web is perfect!

So, if I can suggest anything in this post, it would be to encourage everyone to read — novels and short stories, works of nonfiction, newspapers, Web sites, the NYT article from which this post is inspired — and then talk about these things with other people. Reading fosters intelligent discussion. Conversation builds community. Strong community bonds can instill more democratic governance. There's a slogan in the waiting: Literacy Builds Democracy. I think both Republicans and Democrats can support that.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro: BFFs

I had no idea that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro were friends. According to a story that appeared in la Prensa Latina, the two have been friends for fifty years, and he met him before his revolution.

I don't know an awful lot about the writer — or Castro for that matter — so, while it sounds like a surprising relationship, perhaps it fits perfectly with their personalities.

What I do know about "Gabo" is that he's a brilliant writer with a love of the magical.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Emailing the Elephant

I've been trying to figure out how to allow subscriptions to my blogs, and finally Blogger has added that capability. So if you enjoy reading my thoughts on writing and reading, please sign up using the clickable subscription button on the right hand side.

I've also set up an email box for those who want to reach me but don't want to post a comment on the blog. So, feel free to email me at elephantsbookshelf@gmail.com and I promise to get back to you ASAP.

Edgar Sawtelle and the Millions of Would-Be Novelists

Now, this is good news. It seems the reading world is going ga-ga for David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which I've not yet read.

The Boston Globe said that the book "is proving that readers can still fall hard for an old-fashioned literary epic by someone they've never heard of." Personally, I think anyone who took a college-level literature course understands that already, but we are talking about the general American public and I'm just happy to hear that they're still reading.

I love that this guy's book took a decade to complete. I can relate. I came upon the original idea for my novel in 1995. I penned scores of pages of notes before I wrote the book's first few dozen pages, but it wasn't until after 9/11 that I realized how quickly time and life could be erased. (Indeed, that idea became an important theme within the novel.) If I were to sell this novel by the end of the year, it'd probably be nearly a decade between the time I actually started to write it and its eventual publication date. And that's a best-case scenario.

This comment in the Globe is also telling:
One thing is clear: No one is buying this book because it's similar to something else they've read recently.

Having spent many hours now on Agent Query and other sites, I know there are thousands of people out there with novels, memoirs, works of nonfiction, short stories all hoping to get published. Probably millions more have ideas that they believe would make a great book. Many of the writers even seem capable of stringing sentences together in interesting ways, so I believe the possibilities for wonderful literature are endless.

One of my challenges is getting a sense of what other books might be similar to mine. In other words, who is my potential audience? I've read lots of items about how you compare novels, and I suppose if I knew of a book that was exactly like mine, then mine would be superfluous at best. I've even asked my readers who my style reminded them of; what other writer did they think of when they read my book...

I believe that ultimately this is the agent and publisher's problem to resolve, but from what I've read, they like to have a good idea before they even review a book by an unknown quantity like me.

For all I know, perhaps my competition is David Wroblewski. At least now I'll be able to read his work and find out.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Midnight's Children Arise From Slumber

This was a bit of a surprise to me. Salman Rushdie, best known as the writer who had a death sentence placed on his head by Islamic leaders, was honored once again for writing the book considered the best of the Man Booker Prize winners. It's not for his Satanic Verses, which was the one that pissed off the imams, but rather for Midnight's Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981.

I've read Satanic Verses and have another of his books in a stack, but I've not read Midnight's Children. What surprises me is not that this book has won so many prizes but that the Emory University press release (Rushdie is a writer-in-residence there) can't do simple math. It notes that "at least half of the voters are under the age of 35, therefore not yet born when Rushdie wrote the novel." I'm sorry, it's been a while since the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, but not quite that long; 1981 is only 27 years ago. You'd think that, since the Booker Prize has only been around for 40 years, such math would have been easier.

Regardless, my congratulations to Salman Rushdie. I think I'll need to read your book

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It's Good to Be Back

I know I said that I'd be reading my own work — and I did, for a couple days on the train. I should have continued with my work, because it's clearly better than what I've been reading lately. Well, I enjoyed the Christopher Moore book, so I shouldn't lump it in with the others.

I completely hated one nonfiction book that I'd read with the intention of reviewing. It should never have been published, at least not in the appalling condition in which I found it. I won't review it. And I struggled to finish another book, Cooperstown, which was tangentially about baseball. Perhaps I needed to see the problems that arise out of bad structural choices in a novel.

But this morning I began something new on the train, Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts. I'm only in the first story, "Buttonboy," and already I'm enjoying it more than anything I've read in the past two weeks — including my book, including Chris Moore. Earlier this year, I read Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, which I found entertaining and enjoyable.

While Hill is the son of writers (Stephen and Tabitha King), he hasn't relied on his father's fame to get noticed. He's done quite well for himself already, and I expect he'll provide many enjoyable works of fiction in the future. While he may never write Pulitzer Prize winning literature, if nothing else, he's provided me with a welcome respite from poor and mediocre writing.

Thanks, Joe.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chris Moore Can Wait

At long last, I've printed out the latest iteration of my novel. Although I started reading Christopher Moore's Island of the Sequined Love Nun on Friday, I'm going to have to put that on hold for a little bit, as I want to reread my book again. I probably won't send any queries out this month, despite my initial plans to start by June 30, because I want to make sure that there's no stupid errors in there. The close of the month — indeed, the first half of the year — is fast coming upon us. But the deadline is self-directed. I will send queries when I've finished my homework.

Just as important is that I've not been able to adequately research agents and agencies. This takes time, and it's time well spent. I could write queries now — I'll probably map out some templates soon — but I want the queries to sing to an audience that will understand and appreciate the tune.

But this should be the most important quest of my life; I need to be prepared. When Shackleton was putting together a crew for his ship's trek to Antarctica, he placed an ad in the paper, saying in part: "Men needed for dangerous quest. ... Survival in doubt, but if successful, fame will follow." I'm almost certain I've got the quote wrong, but its spirit is accurate. The point is, I must prepare myself. I've got a product to sell and future products being planned: I need partners.

On another note, I've noticed some other good Web sites of young and/or aspiring novelists, and I may want to develop something for myself along those lines. But that's hardly of immediate importance. I like having this blog and my other site, and it's not always easy to keep these up to date with the constant crush of life in general.

So my reading returns to Hoboken. Then I'll venture back to the island of the sequined love nun!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review: The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier

This review, which I wrote, appeared previously on a different Web site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly. If you want me to view it without publishing your name, I'll gladly do that. I keep no list of readers, so I won't sell it anywhere.

During an International Women's Day event at the United Nations in 2007, former UN undersecretary general for communications and public information Shashi Tharoor told the audience that the way to change the world could be summed up in two words: "Educate girls."

The beauty of Tharoor's advice is that it is easily articulated. And no doubt it would go a long way toward solving many of the most persistent problems in the world today if it were widely adopted. But as former World Bank economist Paul Collier explains in his new book The Bottom Billion, the plight of the world's most impoverished people is not simply a matter of education. Indeed, while Collier shares Tharoor's enthusiasm for educating girls, he is far more concerned about the rate of development in the world's poorest nations.

In the book, Collier argues that the challenge for mankind going forward is painfully stark. "By 2050," he writes, "the development gulf will no longer be between a rich billion in the most developed countries and five billion in the developing countries; rather, it will be between the trapped billion and the rest of mankind."

Why? After noting that the situation has changed dramatically over the last four decades, Collier explains that the countries whose populations make up the bottom billion are distinctive not only in their poverty but in their inability to develop economically. According to Collier, the decline of the countries where the world's poorest people live is not just relative; it is absolute. "Many of these countries are not just falling behind," he writes, "they are falling apart."

Collier doesn't subscribe to the idea that poverty is cultural or intractable — if either were the case, he notes, India and China would not be rising economic powers. Instead, he and his team of international researchers examine the traps — lack of natural resources, corruption and bad governance, proximity to bad neighbors — that ensnare poor countries in destructive cycles of conflict and violence. And should a poor country somehow manage to escape those traps, it faces the additional challenge of trying to compete in a global economy that is not as welcoming to new entrants as it was during the 1980s.

Indeed, Collier's attempts to strike a hopeful note often ring hollow, and his analysis throughout the book is tinged with pessimism. Like other economists, he notes that international aid has been largely ineffective in resolving the problems of poor countries. And while he concedes that rock stars and celebrities have helped to bring needed attention to the plight of the bottom billion, he is dismissive of most celebrities' grasp of the complex economic and political realities that undermine poor countries' development prospects.

What is needed, Collier explains, is a range of policy instruments that encourage countries to take steps toward change, including policies that enable African countries to export their goods and place them on a "productivity escalator." Yet, many of the tools traditionally used to help the world's poor are rendered ineffective by bureaucratic inertia and/or infighting. "Our support for change can be decisive," Collier writes. "But we will need not just a more intelligent approach to aid but complementary actions using instruments that have not conventionally been part of the development armory: trade policies, security strategies, changes in our laws, and new international charters."

Not even democratic elections offer much hope. Somewhat surprisingly, Collier's team of researchers found that elections neither help nor hinder a country's development prospects. Instead, they seem to shift the risks that continually loom as a threat to those prospects. "In the year before an election, the risk of renewed conflict goes sharply down [while] in the year after an election the risk goes sharply up," he writes. "Elections may be desirable for all sorts of reasons," he adds, "but they do not seem to make the society safer."

So, too, the role of nongovernmental organizations. In the book, Collier relates a story about Christian Aid, a respected British charity, which launched an anti-free-trade ad campaign in which a capitalist was portrayed as a pig sitting atop a peasant. No fan of Marx, Collier writes that the message was "grotesquely" wrong and that "Trade policy is the area of economics least well understood by the NGO world."

In fact, of all the tools employed to address the problem of conflict traps in poor countries, Collier is most skeptical of trade, especially when applied to post-conflict situations. In such situations, he argues, key basic services should be delivered by an independent service authority, which would enable donor governments to coordinate their response without overloading a weak post-conflict government. Even then, however, the key to success is identifying exceptional homegrown leadership that is able to foster reconciliation while avoiding the trap of corruption.

In the end, Collier takes politicians on both the right and left to task for tolerating the plight of the world's bottom billion as long they have. "If nothing is done about [it]," he warns, "this group will gradually diverge from the rest of the world economy...forming a ghetto of misery and discontent."
And that would be a disaster for all of us.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Novelist

As a runner, a writer, and a fan of Haruki Murakami, I was pleased to find an essay he wrote for The New Yorker. I've only read a smattering of Murakami's work -- The Elephant Vanishes and perhaps a couple stray stories from other collections. One of the things I like about his characters is that they come across as people I can relate to despite my being an American; Murakami is Japanese. I don't know if that means the image of the average middle-class, suburban male is universal or that I naturally gravitate to such characters. Not every personality trait needs to be over analyzed.

But even in this essay, I find myself rooting for the guy, as though Murakami is one of his own invented characters (though, aren't we all...).

As a casual Murakami reader, I wasn't aware of his personal history. For example, I didn't know he just kind of fell into writing one day, literally at the moment a baseball player hit a shot down the line. (Again, something I can relate to.) I had no idea that he used to run a jazz club, nor that he became a runner. He describes himself as a natural runner, despite not really being much of an athlete. It came relatively easy to him, though he had to give up smoking and build his endurance; he's since completed several marathons.

One of the points he made that struck a particular chord was his observation that, when he was running a bar, his goal was that 10 percent of a night's customers should be or become regulars -- an approach he took to his writing as well. Such a simple model, yet probably a difficult goal to attain. Do stock investors expect a 10 percent return? I don't know. Maybe that's why I'm not much of an investor.

I hope I can generate that type of return -- and not feel guilty or like failure for the 90 percent of readers who think I'm full of crap. I think Murakami's model provides the proper perspective to writing, and to running.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Off to Antarctica ... or Maybe San Francisco

I've completed the fourth or fifth draft of my first novel. (The reason for the seeming uncertainty is that while writing it the first time, I recognized that -- after 100,000 words -- I'd not only failed to tell a story worth reading, I wasn't close to completing it, so I made major changes. Does that constitute a first draft?)

Actually I finished this latest iteration about a week ago, but who's counting? In addition, I've been researching agents for several weeks and will ready myself for the first attempts to secure representation. I expect to mail a query letter to at least one agency by the end of June.

To be honest, I'm both excited and nervous. A friend of the family is the son of a novelist who has many novels to her credit. While there's no guarantee of anything, I think there's a chance that she'll read my novel; perhaps she'll recommend an agent who might be receptive to my work, perhaps she'll offer a critique to make it better and more marketable; she might simply say, "Nice try, but I doubt you'll sell it." She may not read it at all.

I know another author, Joan Winfield Currie, who's gone the self-publishing route. Earlier today, while helping to man a booth at the Bonnie Brae Highland Games, I finished up my profile of her for the Clan Currie Society. What won't be in the article is the good advice she's given me about how to market my novel. I've been fortunate in my years as a journalist to have met and befriended many people who've been generous with the knowledge they've gained about publishing. I'm grateful to them all.

So, what's next? Well, I've had two novels on my mind for a while. Actually, one for many years, which takes place in part down in Antarctica. I've had that one ruminating for so long, it's probably started to ferment. I'd like to get to know the characters that live in that book more intimately.

The other novel is probably more fun, however. It's a story in the fashion of Christopher Moore, who is simply fun to read and a master of creating wonderful silliness, which is something I appreciate. I actually started this novel (set in San Francisco since that's where Chris Moore lives) during the 2007 National Novel Writing Month competition. But it's a different direction than my first novel and the Antarctica tale is more along those lines. Both will eventually be written.

So, I'm not quite sure where my mental exercising will go next: Antarctica or San Francisco. But either way, I'm off on a new adventure.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Princes of Ireland, by Edward Rutherford

When I was in college, I studied for a semester in Dublin, Ireland, at Trinity College in a program run by the poet Thomas Kinsella. It was a good program in which I had classes taught by some prominent Irish scholars such as Seamus Deane (who I considered one of the most brilliant teachers I'd ever had), Proinsias Mac Cana, Liam de Paor, and, of course, Kinsella.

From them and others I learned a great deal about the development of Ireland from the pre-Celtic era through the Troubles that were quite in force while I was there. [As a side note, during a long trek across the country in the spring, our leaders -- Kinsella and de Paor -- debated whether to head into the North. A day before we were to head up, there'd been an explosion on one of the railways. Understandably and correctly, they decided not to send a group of American students in a bus marked 'Eirebus' into the North. We were disappointed, but I have no doubt it was the right decision.]

All that is meant as preface to describe the book I'm currently reading: The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherford. It's historical fiction and the characters I've met so far (I'm about 270 pages into it; the book covers 770 pages) are all interesting and fairly well drawn. In short, I'm enjoying it and I'm happy I'm reading it. The history is good and appears accurate to my recollection. I'm happy to mentally pronounce words I've not seen in many years once again: Uishnech, Ath Cliath, Cuchullain.

Indeed, I'm enjoying the book. But there are times when I feel Rutherford could have used a better editor -- and it's distracting. Too many times he leaves a reader having to guess which person a pronoun refers to. Sentences jump from perspective to perspective within a paragraph. And the sentence structure is so plain as to be almost sleep-inducing. Thank God the characters are engaging, especially in the opening tale of Dierdre and Connall.

Theirs is a love story set in the pre-Christian fifth century. Christianity is a little-known religion of the British slaves that wealthy families own. Connal, the nephew of the High King, is torn between the life of a warrior and that of a druid. But everything changes after he meets Dierdre, the green-eyed daughter of Fergus, chief of Dubh Linn ('black pool' in Old Irish, pronounced Duv Lin). The lovers' escape from the High King and his wife -- who had threatened to kill Dierdre -- coincides with bad harvests. And in the pagan era, that's a political minefield for the king that requires a sacrifice.

All the ingredients are there for a wonderful tale, and it doesn't disappoint. In looking at a 2004 review of the book in the New York Times, I certainly recognize the same book. Indeed, comments like "sprawling" and "easy to read" are entirely accurate. My gripes may be more a matter of my literary snobbery coming to the fore, once again.

My criticisms are not meant to discourage anyone from reading this engaging group of stories. Anyone with a love of Ireland would find it fascinating, whether you studied there or not. I just wish the book had been tightened up a little.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Confessions of a Beer Guy

Though I've not been partaking of the grain much this holiday weekend, I'm an unabashed beer guy. I've got the gut to prove it (I've paid good money for this, so I'm not going to be ashamed of it — though I wouldn't mind being in better shape). While I have no problem with the occasional glass of wine — usually white when I have it — I'm unable to fully appreciate the nuance and subtlety of a fine wine; I simply don't have that training.

So when I saw a press release discussing a book on the differences between beer and wine, I knew I had to comment on it.

The book is called Grape vs. Grain: A Historical, Technological, and Social Comparison of Wine and Beer, and it's written by an academic of sorts -- Charles Bamforth, head of the brewing program at the University of California, Davis, but I get the impression that his book is at least worth picking up for a look see, even if you don't buy it.

The 224-page book includes social commentary on beer and wine, and comparisons of their histories, production techniques, types and styles, healthfulness, and future outlooks.

This Memorial Day Weekend, I think I'll be more likely to do my own personal experimenting with beer than read about other people's social commentary about it.

Here's my social commentary: Crack open a cold one and have a wonderful Memorial Day!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I'm Almost Ready to Start Procrastinating...

Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm a fan of John Irving. Earlier this week, I began rereading one of my favorite books, The World According to Garp, which I haven't read in at least fifteen years (though I've seen the movie several times since then). Understandably, I recall the movie better than the book. But this is one of those rare situations where I enjoy both -- perhaps equally.

So I had to laugh when I found this article in Slate. Apparently, the online publication is doing an homage to procrastination. As any fan of Garp knows, his first novel was called Procrastination. (And I'd completely forgotten that it was a highly symbollic piece set in Vienna and based on the time Garp lived there with his mother.) Again, this is T.S. Garp I'm talking about -- the character -- rather than Irving, whose first novel was Setting Free the Bears. To be honest, the Slate article is fairly boring. Even skimming it was tedious. But if you're looking for relatively unknown writers who've written about writer's block and procrastination (and who isn't!), then it's worth giving it a look see.

But I'd recommend you first pick up your copy of Garp and remember that life is wonderful, albeit occasionally odd, and the only justification for putting off that great American novel you're writing is to gather a bit more experience from which to write. Be careful with the baby sitter.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Was It Good for You Too?

Don't let the image scare you, I won't allow this blog to get too graphic. But the Los Angeles Times reported recently that there's a possible trend in literature: kinky sex. I can't say that I've noticed such a trend in the contemporary novels I've been reading. Sex, sure, but nothing too kinky.

While I'm no prude, I don't feel a need to read about gratuitous sex in the books I read. But if a character's development is directly related to sexual experience, then I think it's certainly appropriate.

Sounds obvious, perhaps, but this is something that is not always easy to determine. One thing that the selected readers of my novel commented on was the vivid details of a sex scene. One of my primary characters loses her virginity, and I may have offered a bit more detail than some (though not all) of my readers would have preferred. My argument was that the girl's experience was important to her development and to the story; she was a teenage girl somewhat obsessed with the idea of sex. She would remember every detail. That's all well and good, my readers said, but we can imagine much without seeing everything.

I think they're right, and I've toned down the sex scene to a great degree. It's still quite apparent what's going on, but I leave more to the imagination.

In the LA Times article, however, the amount of erotica that is involved would clearly alienate some readers. Personally, I want to develop an audience. As a first-time novelist, I'm not sure freaking out some readers is worth the bad word-of-mouth it engenders. Finding the balance between developing readers and developing an authentic voice may be one of the most difficult tasks for any writer.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Would You, Could You With a Book?

First off, I want to call attention to something that I'm somewhat proud of: This is my 100th post on this blog. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I realize; some big blogs may reach 100 posts or more per day. But The Elephant's Bookshelf is a labor of love and found time. I love to read and to write, and I want to share my thoughts on writing with others. So, I'm happy to reach a random milestone.

Personal backslapping over.

Today, I happened upon this piece in the Washington Post. Apparently, Harry Potter isn't the biggest thing (PDF) since bread with the crusts cut off in the world of children's reading. While J.K. Rowling's justifiably popular series is still a huge best seller, Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest of the Hogwarts contingent still can't hold a wand to the creatures of Dr. Seuss's imagination.

Also ahead of the Potter books was Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, proving that the list wasn't dominated merely by books most read by small children. Further emphasizing that point, the S.E. Hinton stories were also up among the top 10.

Weep not for the wizards and witches. The Potter books will stand the test of time. But it's nice to know that children still love to explore worlds of imagination that don't cause their thumbs to develop carpal tunnel syndrom.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alice Munro and the Know-It-All

I've been in a reading slowdown. I won't call it a slump; slumps are for aging first basemen. I know exactly what has caused my slowdown: slow moving or long books.

And I've been enjoying every turtle-paced moment of it.

Right around the beginning of April, I began reading Alice Munro's collection of stories Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Each of these stories is exquisitely paced and developed; every character has depth and meaning. I could read it again three times and discover new traits in everyone at each passing. This Munro dame knows how to scribble. A book like that should not be consumed with a deadline in mind (Must read a book a week. Must read a book a weeek...) No, if I were to teach a course on writing, I'd want to invest lots of time in the works of Munro exploring how she animates these characters so well.

Perhaps it's because it was the last story, but "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is especially memorable, and I say that not to be ironic; it involves a woman who becomes demented. (I don't think they specifically say it's Alzheimer's disease, but it sounds like it.) And "Floating Bridge" provides some fairly obvious symbolism, but remains a poignant story of a woman dealing with cancer.

Once I completed that book, I dove into A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All, and have been pleasantly suprised. This is essentially a memoir by a journalist who fears he's begun to lose the mental sharpness he had when he was younger, so he decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His quest, he claims, is to become the "smartest" person on earth. Of course, within the first twenty-five pages there begins the inevitable discussion of the difference between knowledge and intelligence. Indeed, it is a theme that continues throughout the book.

That was one of the most surprising aspects of this book, actually: there are themes. It is as much a description of a middle-aged man who desperately wants to become a father and to pass along a legacy of a love for knowledge -- which he received from his father -- as it is a recitation of what he's learned. And the book is quite amusing at times. I've had several instances where I've chuckled loudly on the train. You don't get too many of those moments with Alice Munro.

I expect I'll finish The Know-It-All this week, and I've not decided what's next. I may return to John Connelly or pick up something else. I have a Peter Carey novel waiting to be cracked. But Munro and Jacobs have reminded me why I love reading in the first place: Books take me away from the mundane and can make me laugh. I don't need an iPod.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Celebrate World Book Day

Got a book? Good. I hope you're reading regularly. To a certain extent, it doesn't really matter what you're reading, as long as you read. Because not everyone can.

Today is World Book Day. [Author's note: Apparently I'm wrong; World Book Day was on March 6 -- though I've seen it posted as 4/23 also. Regardless, I'd forgotten about it until after seeing a Google blog link and writing about it. But I still believe in the importance of writing.] Unlike some Hallmark Holidays, World Book Day can actually do something more valuable than sell cards. It's designed to promote literacy. The Google blog page that I linked to above contains a link to its Literacy Project, where it promotes a few smaller projects.

That's all well and good. For those who can already read, however, I want to say, "Keep reading." It's good for you. Allow your mind to expand in ways that illicit drugs never will touch. Develop your imagination.

How's this as a way to promote literacy: literacy leads to exploration, exploration leads to imagination. Imagination leads to having a mind that can comprehend wondrous pleasures. ... Literacy leads to better sex. QED.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Good Tool for Writers

Over the past few months, I've begun connecting to some of those Web 2.0-style social networking sites for writers. If you don't count the NaNoWriMo, which I joined last November, the first I joined is Writers Cafe, (Feel free to visit: I'm the ElephantGuy). The site had a bit of a disaster when some adminstrator accidentally wiped out just about everyone's writing, which upset a lot of the members. Fortunately for me, I hadn't been too active there and only lost one item.

Today, after poking around in the latest issue of Writers' Digest, I learned about a site called Agent Query. My first impression is this is the type of site I'd been hoping to find for a while now. While my hope is to connect with agents, I get the impression that the caliber of writers in this community is stronger than what I've seen at Writers Cafe (though it's possible I haven't dug deep enough there.)

Already, I've found one agency that sounds fitting for what I'm looking to accomplish. If anyone out there has any experience (good or bad) with either of those sites or if you want to recommend something else, I'm open to them. I'm ready.