Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Smell-o-vision Novel?

The aroma of imagination can sometimes smell like Hawaiian sweet bread and cranberry stuffing, Thanksgiving turkey, and homemade apple pie. Today was a blissful day as I prepped my recipes for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. It wasn’t just blissful because I was avoiding the papers stacked up by my desk that needed to be graded, but it was blissful because I’m pondering a new book. What better way to brood and mull than while thinly slicing and layering apples into a perfect Thanksgiving pie?

Creation is a process that can feel so wonderful. Today, I watched my recipes move from idea to plan to finished, and I could tell by the way my husband’s head kept turning toward the kitchen that my final products were successful. Why can’t writing be like that?

A hunger pushes us to begin, but a recipe card for the novel you want to write just doesn’t exist. It’s a bit unfair really. Or maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s so gloriously adventurous, so wild, so emancipating, so bohemian… Or maybe that’s just me hyperbolizing to make myself feel better.

This journey that we take to write and to publish is not an easy one. I occasionally have the passing notion to give it up, to wonder about my own sanity to attempt such travails. The self-doubt always passes though. The craving for words always starts once again.

So as I sit waiting on literary agents to profess my brilliance or give me a chance, the new novel brews and bubbles. My summer’s adventures of Hungarian restaurant owners feeding us “house specials” of lamb, chicken, and pork with a side of whiskey at 10 a.m.; of wading through knee-high grasses to reach ancient castles; of torrential thunderstorms that didn’t hold us back – we, the ever-determined tourists; of bolting at full speed through train stations surrounded by every language but our own; and all of our other ventures all discover their purpose now.

Either way, I wish my computer would occasionally emit majestic fragrances of apple pie and Thanksgiving turkey. That way, I’d know that this next idea or that project I’ve been working on for years has the hope of being absolutely delicious.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

And the Characters Take Over...

Isn’t it weird how characters can take control of a project, and you as the writer are suddenly just a tool in process of creation, like a brush in an artist’s hand? This has happened to me many times through the years, but most recently on a revision of my thriller manuscript. There were a few tweaks I planned on making, but as I reviewed my pages, strengthening and tightening my prose, my characters unexpectedly began to flirt.

Maybe sitting untouched and lonely in a computer file for months without any attention led them to personal explorations when I wasn’t looking; maybe they just needed time to grow on each other. A major age gap was abruptly forgotten, as the dialogue dripping from my female lead’s tongue was not that of her age. She had been younger this whole time, and I had pigeon-holed her else-ware. The poor woman was probably screaming at me to ID her this whole time, like a girl on the brink of her 30th birthday buying beer.

But now I know. My characters corrected me. Ages now accurate, love interest defined, they flirted and playfully bantered across my pages, creating a sexiness my manuscript had lacked. What fun!

As an update, I finished my edits today. What version of my novel this is I couldn’t tell you, easily past draft five. Looking back, it seems so odd that I felt proud of my “finished” book in the spring of 2008. It was an accomplishment, but now it’s finally ready. I think… I hope…

Writing: what a beautifully schizophrenic, maniacal process.

Has this ever happened to you?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

For the cold, cozy, curl-up-on-the-couch days ahead...

Now I will sadly admit that a hectic year hasn’t allowed me to read many 2010 book releases. I’m still catching up on 2008 and 2009, as well as working on the biggest release of 2012 (a writer can dream, right?).

But for those of us always adding to our reading list of books we just have to read, I thought the following lists were pretty interesting:

Cold breezes have begun along with those wet nights that make you want to just stay home and curl up on the couch, a cup of tea, and a cozy blanket. Winter is coming soon. After the holiday madness that ensues every year, there are those months of cold, of tucking away from the world with a good book.

I know it’s only November, and I suppose those slow winter days are still far in the future, but after a year of busy, the idea of me, my couch, and some of the above titles just sounds a bit glorious, doesn’t it?

And just in case you, like me, have those aspirations to be on these lists in a few years, check out James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Manuscript Contest:

Happy reading and writing everyone!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why do we write?

(My opening remarks for the 2010 James River Writers Conference:

When I find myself thinking about this conference, and why so many of us are here, I find myself asking why is it that we write? Answering this question is simultaneously simple and impossible, personal and universal.

We write because words make us simultaneously giggle and blubber; we write because we have tiny beings called characters in our heads pounding their miniature fists against our brains as they beg to have their voices heard; we write because when we find words that work well together, we want to marry them on a riverbank on a sunny June afternoon; we write because if we didn’t, we would be pathological liars; we write because we have an odd habit of twisting words like licorice, tweaking, cajoling, poeticizing, intensifying, and making simple sentence structures shine like new; we write because the muse is calling; we write because a book we read in 3rd or 6th or 11th grade revolutionized the existence of literature in the world; we write because we want to be bestsellers; we write because the world needs to know what we have to say; we write because we have to.

Now, maybe you’re one who’s here because when you find yourself in the midst of accomplished authors, you have a desire to pick their brains like monkeys searching for nits of lice. Maybe you’re here because with Scarlett O’Hara as your witness, you will never be rejected again, or perhaps you do not want to go gentle into that good write, Curiouser and Curiouser, indeed, I know, but again, I’d like to welcome you to the 8th annual James River Writers Conference.


Now here's my question for you: why do you write?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Voice of Apple

Move over, iPod, iPhone, and iUniverse. What’s the talk of Apple this weekend? It’s all about writing, voice, and emails.

Have you ever been in a creative writing class and been assigned to write in the style of Falkner? Of Hemingway? Of Austen? Of Dr. Seuss? It’s a great exercise for experimentation and breaking out of your normal writing habits. Now think Steve Jobs. What would his voice be like? Brief, perfunctory, and prosaic is my guess – not that this takes away from the man’s brilliance in other areas.

The story of the weekend is this: emails were sent from Steve Jobs’ email to an unhappy iPhone customer. The electronic messages went back and forth a few times, were brought to the attention of Boy Genius Report and eventually MacDailyNews, and suddenly were the iTopic of the iBlogosphere. Now, whether or not true correspondence existed between Steve Jobs and the occasional customer, happy or disgruntled, I would still argue that the personal attention wins Apple some points. Steve Jobs is apparently known to take time for occasional emails like this – brownie points, Steve Jobs, for remembering the power of the personalized written word! – however, not surprisingly, this weekend’s report shows the emails with the Richmond, Virginia customer were not really coming from Steve Jobs.

What does this really mean? Not much in the large scheme of things, in my opinion. We shouldn’t be shocked that a man like Steve Jobs doesn’t take the time to answer every email just like we shouldn’t be stunned that Hollywood stars and D.C. politicians have ghostwriters for their memoirs.

The impact of this story to the writers among us is larger, though. Our skill is necessary. The ability to transform voice, be it in character dialogue or marketing materials, is a talent that can be appreciated, a talent that is needed in the creative and the business world, and a skill that if honed can allow the novel-not-yet-sold authors among us a pay-day and extra practice.

Happy writing, everyone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

La Fin: When to Stop Scribbling

There is that moment when the final sentence has been typed, where the writer sits back and basks in the glory of accomplishment. The seemingly impossible has been achieved. Where others have failed, you have succeeded. The project that gave you sleepless nights, that made you feel schizophrenic when your characters spoke to you, that sometimes produced a drug-like state where words trickled off your finger tips onto the keyboard like you were a tool in the process rather than the creator – that project, your novel, is done. But is it really?

“Finished” is such a fickle word for the literarily inclined. Just because that last line is written doesn’t mean that the project is anywhere close to ready. For someone in that purgatory between finishing the last page and editing the manuscript to a point where an agent pounces hungrily upon it, this poster (, with proceeds going to 826 National (, made me really happy and made me ponder.

To me, there are many levels of finished. There is first-rough-draft finished. There is adding-character-profundity-and-vigor finished; typing-up-loose-plot-points finished; conclusion-of-grammar-and-spelling-check finished; line-by-line-poetic-brilliance finished, (the last I strive for and pray to achieve).

As a writer, when is it time to call the manuscript done, or is it ever time? To all the writers out there, what would you say?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sophistication or Bibliomania?

In a time where sophistication wasn’t measured by the size of one’s flat-screen television or the apps on a smart-phone, the library was where one proved one’s merit. In my travels, the library of the Festetics Castle in Keszthely, Hungary mesmerized me and put my own personal library to shame.

This library, as you can see from our video, is two stories high, with volumes across genres, across languages, and from across time. The detailed, dark woodwork and marble floors lend grandeur to the words protected on these bookcases. My only complaint was that these dusty manuscripts weren’t accessible to the literary tourist, but I could understand the desire for preservation.

My favorite room had a hidden door covertly concealed within the shelves. This was a library overflowing with stories, and surely not all of these tales were those written upon pages.

In 2010, those among us who treasure and build our collections of tomes might just be considered hoarders. There’s even a psychological disorder for those addicted to collecting books: bibliomania. But there’s something about the collection of books that can never be matched by a “library” on a Kindle. There’s something nostalgic and magnificent, something we as writers understand more than anyone else.

Am I alone in my ardor?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Travelling Scribe

Summer is nearly upon us, and though we may not be in school anymore, the siren’s call of the summer vacation pulls at us like a memory of the students we once were.

When we travel, we as writers had a different perspective than most. We are students of humanity, explorers of cultures with a magnifying glass and an archeologist’s brush, and eavesdroppers of the world’s tongues. Writers don’t just go on vacation. We go in search – in search of what exactly may differ between us, but adventure, romance, character, scene, perspective, and mystic are all editing tools of the travelling scribe. Our familiar worlds and words are left behind.

In Barcelona, I once sat at a corner café as a leathery skinned old man pulled a thin leash behind him attached to a wooden dog. The carved creature on its stick legs bounced across every divot in the cobbled street, and perhaps it was this energy that kept the old man talking to the wooden pet. What drove this man mad – be it the ghost of a dead dog or the tragedies of his past – was surely heartbreaking. I haven’t yet entered this man or this moment into a work of fiction, but it has stuck in my memory for years, waiting for the opportune story to strike.

Hiking north on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut, once I encountered a grizzly backpacker with his lips parted and dry headed in the opposite direction. He asked how far behind us was a stream. Confused, we explained how the last water source was five miles back and watched his reaction of sheer dehydrated desperation. According to our maps, a riverbed was two miles ahead of us; however, the drought of 2003 had dried it up. There had been no water during the last thirteen miles of his southbound trek. Imagine his mindset, his fear, his challenge. Imagine his glory at taking gulps from our water bottles.

Why do I tell you my stories today? I’m off again, capturing a new adventure, new details, new voices, new plots, new tastes for my tongue, and new accents in my ears. I also say this, of course, because my weekly blog is going on vacation as well.

I’ll be back soon. Happy writing and good luck with your pursuits of publication!

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Twain in the Times

Our cars may not fly, but with every passing year technology does make our world more and more like the world of the Jetsons. Little Elroy reads his books on screen, and we all have handheld gadgets that facilitate our daily affairs.

Yet technology has recently allowed us a glimpse into the intriguing literary past. Anyone who has ever written a high school paper, shaped a brilliant manuscript, or simply shook his or her head at the language of certain television advertisements understands. Whittling words is a skill and an art. Mark Twain above so many others understood this, and now we can see a bit more from his standpoint.

Last week, the New York Times published notes from the personal library of Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens himself. These were not his forgotten stories or unfinished outlines. These were his critiques of published writing that were not up to snuff – to steal an idiom from his century.

Who were the targets of his brutal critiques? Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson were, among others.

“The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction,” Twain wrote in Lew Wallace’s 1906 autobiography, Wallace, of course, also being the author of Ben Hur.

Sometimes blunt, often brutal, and always sincere, the man the world knows as Mark Twain had a thought or two about what makes writing great. These books were examined and released in photos via the New York Times in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of his death on April 21st.

A man of critical tastes but honorable intentions, Twain once wrote in The Prince and The Pauper, “When I am king, they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.” Twain certainly didn’t starve minds in his day, and due to this latest release, our want of worthy words has been satiated again.

For more:

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Ethereal Short Story

As great writing migrates to electronic devices, the short attention span of contemporary audiences seems to be the last hurdle for a beautifully crafted book. Suddenly, for the first time in a century, the oft forgotten short story is primed for a come-back. Ether Books saw the need and released an app for the iPhone this week.

The short story emerged with the arrival of the magazines and periodicals created to quench the new literary thirst of a larger literate middle class in the nineteenth century. Hawthorne, Balzac, and Turgenev’s fictitious wordplay won the readership of the public. Poe and Chekhov followed, as did others, yet as the twentieth century matured, so did the length of the popular story.

While in the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 for a single short story in the Saturday Evening Post, today, few publishers will acknowledge the writer and his short story collection, no matter how pleasant the prose. Literary journals have their readership, but this is a miniscule fraction of the reading public.

Yet in this age of immediate gratification and sound-byte attention spans, the short story may newly have rekindled audiences. Ether Books may be starting a new electronic reading trend. Short stories may be on the brink of revival. Starting with an exhibition at the London Book Fair today, the lusciousness of letters may have a new life. I’m hoping so.

Check it out for yourself:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Aldiko: the first e-book reader app to win me over

I’m imagining a reluctant reader, tackling his school summer reading list. At a page break, he hits the menu button and clicks on “Show Progress.” He’s only 6.88% percent through the novel and at this juncture only 7.69% of the way through this chapter. He might groan painfully at this point, but I sit back in wonder at tools unimaginable in a traditional book. I didn’t think I would be intrigued by an e-book reader app on a smart phone, but Aldiko on the Android Operating System (OS) is very well done.

With options to alter font and font size, brightness, as well as a ‘day/night’ setting, which switches the black print on a white background to white print on a black background for better night-time reading, I easily could tap my finger on the screen to turn the page. I could bookmark my stopping point, as well as any pages along the way that I wanted to return to later. If I wanted to search the entire book for a word or phrase, Aldiko could tell me every page, highlighting the specific sentence, where that wording occurred.

Okay, yes, we all know technology is wonderful. It’s revolutionizing the world and making publishing houses rethink their business models. It’s changing the way we read, write, and process the world around us. But I’m old fashioned. I love writing with ink, not just on keyboards. I love curling up with a paperback novel, as if snuggling comfortably with a lover. All of that said, free downloads of literary classics, of books from Smashwords, of books commonly found on high school reading lists, and of public domain titles hooked me. I’m in a place where I would still rather buy a hard-back then purchase an e-book for a Kindle, Sony Reader, or any other similar device, but it’s funny how free can win me over.

Aldiko also plays to the bibliophiles of us with their wood-paneled background, with leather and clothbound tomes on the shelves. How old-fashioned, we might say. How stylish and smart.

I’m still not breaking down to say e-books are completely winning me over – I’m not convinced they ever will – however, Aldiko does a great job and has gained me as a user.

What's your reaction to the e-book revolution?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Vooks (no, this isn't a typo)

As children, we may have fought the transition to reading books without pictures. Thanks to the vook, that childhood joy has returned.

To quote, “A vook is a new innovation in reading that blends a well-written book, high-quality video and the power of the Internet into a single, complete story.” Imagine video trailers for books, documentary-esque footnotes within the pages, interviews with the author, and social media connections with other readers. As I type this, I feel like I’m channeling H. G. Wells, but this is no futuristic world. The release of the iPad has only furthered the possibilities for this new publishing medium.

I’ll admit my hesitancy. What about the loss of imagination here? Haven’t we all read a book and then seen the movie, realizing that the director’s vision of a character looked nothing like the image in our own heads? Should we let the videos dictate this detail for us? That takes away the glory of reading a book in my opinion, letting the world of film take over the beauty and simplicity of the written word.

However, imagine the new readers that may be pulled in with this multi-media glory. Imagine the total package of story, history, creation, and connection. If books are too old and dusty for some who crave more, vooks could bridge the gap creating larger reading audiences.

So while admitting my wavering, I’m still in favor of this swing. I think when I have my chance at the vook, though, my characters will all appear in silhouette to keep their faces in the imagination of the reader.

We all know people who are starting to speak up – no longer in a whisper – saying that they really love reading on their Kindle. Will the vook be the next revolution? The world is changing my word weaving friends, and it is in our best interest to keep up with it.

I wanted to end with some examples of video book trailers done really well. Not all were created for the vook, but they get the idea across:

(Nonfiction) Dean King’s Unbound:

(YA) Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall:

(Thriller) Katherine Neville’s The Fire:

If you know of others, please comment and add them. What do you think? Is the world ready for the vook?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Google and Bookswim Aren't Enough

Netflix will send movies to your door, so that you can avoid that pesky drive across town to the video rental store. With the appearance of Bookswim, that same convenience can be delivered in book form. Who wants to peruse shelves full of imagination and possibility at a local library, search out hidden mysteries, or mess with the Dewey Decimal system anyway? (Speak up now, bibliophiles!)

Perhaps I am a voice in the minority here in the twenty-first century, but I love libraries. I have since I was a child and my mother took my brother and me to find our summer reading list books. Posters of Winner the Pooh and The Cat and the Hat pulled me into a world of wonder that I still feel every time I walk in those familiar doors.

But here we are in 2010, and Bookswim isn’t nearly our only issue. State budgets are in crisis, and hard decisions need to be made. Libraries, with their dusty, relaxed, modest ways, are becoming easy targets of elimination.

The cozy, intriguing aspects of libraries are important, true, but the loss of that facet is not the worst problem at hand. Students are no longer learning to sift through research, to peruse others’ ideas, to evaluate, to analyze, to make up their own minds. Why not? I’ll give you a one word answer. Google. I am a huge fan of Google, myself. I fully admit this. However, if internet search engines become society’s only research tool, superficial knowledge and amateur scholars will be the norm.

Losing local libraries means losing a valuable resource for bookworms and lovers of the written word, but we aren’t the ones who will stop reading. Literacy, curiosity, and analysis skills of future generations will be the casualties.

For that reason, while Bookswim has its appeal, I will stay true to my local library. You should all do the same.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Falling into Wonderland again

This week, my husband and I went to see the latest Alice in Wonderland, and through its quirks, Tim Burton’s darkness, and its twists of the original story, I can say without a hesitation that Lewis Carroll would have been pleased with the result. The Wonderland story isn’t one that should be told with a straight face and a solemn disposition.

For a writer who created a brave heroine in an age where the only female protagonists were princesses, Charles Dodgson, who we all know by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, was a man beyond his era. What else could you expect from a man who claimed the hobbies of a mathematician, a philosopher, and a writer? So many critics have deemed his writings ‘nonsense,’ but contrariwise (to quote Tweedle-Dee – or perhaps Tweedle-Dum, who can keep them straight?) I hold he was one of the more brilliant writers of his age.

Tim Burton’s latest project is definitely an interesting take on the well-loved tale. Its oddness, which sometimes crosses into silliness and at other times the grotesque, may repel some audiences. Yet Machiavellian questions are raised, as are queries of fate, of obligation, as well as the classic riddle, “how is a raven like a writing desk?” None are directly answered, though the audience definitely can come up with their own ideas by the end of the film.

I believe audiences should always take the opportunity to chase the white rabbit whenever they can.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Revealing History

It was great meeting so many of you at the Chesterfield County Library Writers Workshop. I had a few people ask if I could post the major notes of my session, so I added the major highlights here:

Research: How do you find it?

Always keep an eye out, because history surrounds us, from historic markers on the sides of roads to ‘history’ tabs on businesses’ or organizations’ websites. Outside of general awareness, here are some ideas:

1. Museums, Societies, Non-profits, and Clubs

We often don’t realize how many organizations exist that specialize in our research areas, and moreover, how willing so many people are to help with a project.

The museums themselves are full of information. I highly encouraging visiting as you begin your research, but their archives and staff can also hold secrets.

Richmond area:

-Virginia Historic Society (

-Richmond History Center (

-Wilton House Museum (

-Museum of the Confederacy (

-John Marshall House (

-Virginia Holocaust Museum (

-Edgar Allan Poe Museum (

-Virginia Aviation Museum (

Washington, D.C. area:

-Smithsonian Institution ( – covering 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo

-International Spy Museum (

-National Museum of Crime and Punishment (

-National Museum of Women in the Arts (

-National Postal Museum (

-Cold War Museum (

-Library of Congress (

-National Building Museum (

This is by no means a full list of the historical institutions in these cities; however it’s a good start.

2. Online resources

When so many of us are curious, we turn to Google and Wikipedia. Both have their merits, of course, but there are certain resources that can save you the time of slogging through that website made by a 4th grader in Wisconsin, and that blog of unknown reliability. Museum archives are great places to start. Here are some other recommendations:

- Virginia Genealogical Society ( - Organized in 1960 to foster interest in genealogical, biographical, and historical research

-WWW Virtual Library: History Center Catalog - ( – A premier meta-site for all history across regions, cultures, and time.

- ( – This site audience is K-12 teachers, but is a great guide to reputable websites for anyone beginning their research.

-Bedford/St. Martin’s History Site ( – Created by a reputable textbook company, this site is comprehensive.

3. Resources at Colleges and Universities

We live in an area with many college and universities. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of this proximity. University libraries have special collections and archives as well as access to great amounts of materials for the use of their researching faculty and students. Even if you are not a member of that school’s community, you can join with a non-affiliate registration or as a community borrower.

Also realize that the faculty of these institutions are a large base of experts on a large variety of topics. I would encourage you to examine course listings within departments to see professors' specializations. If you find someone who could be helpful, don’t hesistate to send an email. In the worst case scenario, you will not get a response; however, nine times out of ten these local experts will be excited to help someone fascinated by their area of expertise.

4. Resources at Other Libraries

Be it the Chesterfield County Library ( or the Library of Virginia (, our local libraries of full of resources, databases, research tools, and perhaps most significantly, hard working librarians who are wonderful guides to the research process.

From microfiche films of newspapers or magazines that have not yet been digitized to programs and events held weekly, libraries are wonderful launching points for research.

Especially do not forget the digital collections and research possibilities on the Library of Virginia website, including their guides and archives.

Researching: What should you look for?

1. Think about your research focus, and then broaden it.

For example if you’re researching the Dooleys and Maymont, you don’t just want to think about the historic figures. You’ll also want to think about politics in Richmond; the architecture of Virginia, of Italy, and of Japan; the social implications of not having children; issues in Richmond/Virginia/the United States at that time; Victorian thought processes, etc…

No matter how you will be using your research, having the surrounding details can only help.

2. Follow Tangents

Sometimes the most exciting research finds come from wandering away from your research focus. If something on the side interests you, follow that lead and see where it takes you.

3. Definitions/Explanations

Remember all of the pieces that go into quality research. Knowing how that car works may be just as important as knowing that it existed at a certain time. Also, you want to make sure your terminology is correct.

4. Use primary sources when ever possible.

Other people’s second hand or third hand accounts can be fine, but you’ll be able to feel the history if you’re looking at diary entries, personal correspondence, or other types of primary evidence.

5. Validity of sources

You want to fact-check yourself as you go. Seeing something once doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. Find multiple sources that agree on key facts before you accept them and more forward.


Feel free to email me if you have any questions or need a guide for your own research. I’m happy to help.

Happy writing and researching, everyone!


Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Noir Movement

Last Thursday night, I licked my literary fingertips at the release of Richmond Noir at the New York Deli in Carytown. While a novelist has hundreds of pages to enthrall and intrigue readers, the short story writer has the unique challenge of crafting every sentence into something exquisite. When those superbly shaped lines were about our city of Richmond, the statues on Monument Avenue, the ghosts of Hollywood Cemetery, the shadows of Shockoe Bottom, and I all eavesdropped in.

In 2004, Brooklyn Noir was the first collection of beautifully startling short stories released, by local authors, on local settings. In fact two of its short stories, “When All This Was Bay Ridge" by Tim McLoughlin and "Case Closed" by Lou Manfredo, were selected for the Best American Short Stories collection of 2005.

The literary world took notice, and soon many cities followed Brooklyn’s lead. Chicago Noir, Baltimore Noir, Detroit Noir, Las Vegas Noir, New Orleans Noir, and so many others rose from the mystique of each city’s streets. The collections have crossed oceans and seas, including Dublin Noir, Paris Noir, and Havana Noir. For the full list of cities published and soon-to-be-published, click here:

Last Thursday night, the words draped the New York Deli with silence, as heads tilted to the side and clinking pint glasses hushed themselves in respect. The literary traditions of a city are usually immortalized through its past, but the Noir series exemplifies the literary greatness still present in the present.

I highly encourage you, no matter where you live, to check it out.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Another Level of Hell, Dante?

It’s a question for the teachers of the ages: how do we captivate, enthrall, and intrigue our students with books written centuries ago? Do we sneak in Shakespeare through graphic novels ( Do we tell the Iliad – or a version of it – via Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom? Or how about this new idea, do we introduce Dante’s nine circles of Hell as video game levels to beat?

Electronic Arts (EA), the video game maker of Madden NFL among others, has recently released Dante’s Inferno, based on Dante Alighieri’s first book of The Divine Comedy. To quote the game’s website, players can “battle through the 9 circles of Hell facing fierce and hideous monsters, [their] own sins, and a dark past of unforgivable war crimes.” What writer of the early 1300s could have seen this coming?

While I support the idea of bringing great literature to new fan-bases, I cannot help but fear poor Dante rolling in his grave. When his allegory of Christian afterlife shaped by the viewpoint of the medieval world, largely considered one of the greatest works of world literature, is reduced to the adventure plot for some fourteen year old maniacally pressing buttons and splattering digital blood, I’m saddened. If that fourteen year old is intrigued enough to pick up the book, I’d argue otherwise, but I’m not convinced this is the goal of EA.

Exciting stories should be shared. I don’t blame EA for that. I would have no issue with video game versions of Joyce’s Ulysses (don’t get lost in this sentence!) or Kafka’s Metamorphosis (survive as a bug!) as long as they don’t become synonymous with simply thrillers of another age. There’s so much substance that would be lost if they were thought of in this way; but I suppose being thought of at all is a start.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ferdinand Magellan, Percy Harrison Fawcett, and Me

In centuries past, when the urge struck, great explorers would set off into the darkness. Taking on the depths of the jungles and the choppy waters of the oceans, these adventurers had an addiction to discovery that no fear of death could hinder. I’m starting a new novel, and the feeing that has come over me echoes the anticipation of a sailor staring out to sea.

I know the title, the premise, and one character of my new story. The rest is yet to be discovered, but it’s out there. I can feel it’s presence like Fawcett felt the ghost of the lost city of Z.

But how will the expedition go? Do we believe Winston Churchill, who said, “Writing a book is an adventure: it begins as an amusement, then it becomes a mistress, then a master, and finally a tyrant.”

Perhaps the labor of writing holds the root of Shakespeare’s phrase “love’s labors lost,” but perhaps also Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” You may argue that these lines have nothing to do with writing, but I’d say they do.

This time, my adventure begins by examining my travel-mates. As I said, I have a solo character, ready to embark on this journey, but the trip will be a lonely one with just Juliska.

This week, she will find her companions. Huzzah and Tally Ho! The adventure begins once again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revolutionaries and Castles: Seeking my History

One of the most amazing aspects of human culture is the preservation of our history, not just in remembering our wars and our heroes, but also in the remembrance of our ancestors. The stories of my family were perhaps the first inspiration my young mind found to practice my ability to write and preserve an amazing tale.

In my home growing up, we set extra places at the table every Christmas for those family members no longer with us. I knew a bit of the stories – the war, the death, the terror, the immigration across an ocean, across a language, into a different way of life, this American life that is all I’ve ever known – but they were just that to me, stories. I couldn’t and still cannot grasp the magnitude of what my mother’s parents went through.

On the other side of my family, I know so much less. I know the arrival dates of two Czechoslovakian Spisak families at Ellis Island, and I’m fairly confident my ancestors were among them, though sadly any more specifics than that are lost to me.

I talk a lot on these blogs of the ever-changing world we live in, of social media, of Kindles and Sony e-readers, and of publishing trends; however there is something so substantial lost when all we focus on is the present. Ironically in these modern times, the Internet provides us with peeks at our past, even for those of us who are naively guessing.

This morning online, I read histories of the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations and the fight for Ukrainian Independence that my maternal family spent their lives pursuing. I read the names I’d heard in family stories and saw their young pictures, all posted online for the world and their long lost family members to see.

This afternoon, I stumbled across sites in Czechoslovakian seeking out English translations, hunting out any lost family history that may be out there waiting for me. I discovered the Spiš region of Slovakia, with its towns of Spišská Kapitula and Spišská Nová Ves. There is a 12th century Spiš castle. Is this where the fiction writer in me takes over and creates my own Spisak family history?

As writers, we can change the world; we can also preserve it for generations to come.

Consider this a writing exercise. Write down your history, your parents’, your grandparents’, and as far back as you can trace it. Maybe you’ll get a great story out of it. Worst case scenario, your children’s children will thank you.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Postings from the Pope

We as writers are learning to embrace new technologies, realizing to find and hold our audiences, we need to keep them updated, to intrigue, to captivate, to amaze. Yet we as writers are not the only ones seeking a larger audience. Here is where Pope Benedict XV enters the scene – or shall we say blogosphere?

Pope Benedict XV proclaimed in late January, “I renew the invitation to make astute use of the unique possibilities offered by modern communications. May the Lord make all of you enthusiastic heralds of the Gospel in the new ‘agorà’ which the current media are opening up."

One of Benedict’s advisors, Cardinale Crescenzio Sepe, now has his own Facebook page. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, now podcasts. Young priests are being encouraged to embrace social media before they leave divinity school.

Words only have power when they are heard or read. The Pope realizes that if no one is listening, the Church will ultimately fall. This same idea that holds true for religious texts and quandaries holds true for your own inspiration. I’m not comparing creative writing to religious epiphany or understanding here; however, the pages hiding in our notebooks and computer files need to take form. Be it in a book or in a blog, your readers cannot ponder the significance or your words until you put them out there.

So I send out a call to follow Pope Benedict XV’s revelation – not in its messages of Catholicism (unless this is your belief), but in its brilliance of twenty-first century insight.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Inspiration on Ice

I'm not talking about triple axels or salchows here, (or any other figure skating terminology that I learned how to spell for the sake of this sentence). I'm talking about travel and how travel can inspire. St. Augustine once said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I whole-heartedly agree and argue further that new locations allow you to transform the pages of your own writing. This past weekend, I had a new muse: The Hotel de Glace in Quebec, Canada.

The snow can be so fine in Canada that the flakes look like glitter, sprinkled by some second grade angel with an art project in the sky. When you stand outside in negative nine degree weather, the chill hits not like a slap in the face but rather like a fog. The sensation of cold wraps around you, stripping your sense of feeling. Inside a structure made entirely of ice, though, there is surprising comfort. Staying the night in such a place brings fears of frostbite and (admittedly for over-reacting me) death, but waking up in the morning, triumph and my negative twenty degree sleeping bag reinforced this new inspired vitality. I know that in my head, there is a character yet to be written that will feel this pain and glory.

The Hotel de Glace was such an amazing piece of artistry. Ice sculptors carved every wall, every piece of furniture, and every chandelier. The magnificent detail motivated me to create a work of art of my own.

A new short story is coming from our weekend adventure, a story tinged blue from the cold and draped in Nordic furs.

Have you ever had your travels inspire your writing?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pigs – I mean Tweets – in Space!

Once, our ancestors drew on cave walls. They carved their thoughts into clay, onto turtle shells, into rock. The Egyptians gave us the first paper and ink. Guttenberg gave us the printing press. With the ease of our daily communication, we often forget those forced to labor before us.

When we write, our own imprint is made on history. 2010, they will say, was the time of word processors and blogs, of text messaging and Facebook. They will read in their history ebooks, that January 22, 2010 was the date that the first Tweet was sent from space.

It’s true. Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer wrote to earthlings back home:

“Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station -- the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s”

Aside from my first instinctive gut reactions to the fact that history is being written in emoticons and three letter words abbreviated to one, how amazing is that? We live in a world that isn’t easily impressed, I know. It takes Tiger Woods (and his car) being attacked by golf clubs to turn our heads. It takes not just the Gosselin’s eight kids or Kate’s bad hairdo, but also their messy divorce to captivate the public’s attention.

But just ponder for a moment the ability to communicate with one another, across a room, outside the globe, passed on through time. Maybe I should just turn back on American Idol to find a new fascination, but for this moment, I’m amazed and have an itch to send a text message to Mars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Odyssey

Odysseus faced the Scylla and Charybdis. Gulliver handled the Lilliputians. Benjamin Herson and Jeff Deck confronted the erroneous employ of the English language. The great blind poet couldn’t have written it better… or could he?

I just learned of their book, “The Great Typo Hunt,” which is set to be released in August. Herson and Deck road-tripped, finding 437 typos on billboards, landmarks, and various signs across the country. In fact, they corrected 236 cases of improper punctuation, spelling and syntax, earning federal vandalism charges. All of the evidence proving their crimes was easily gathered in photos from their own blog.

Personally, I wondered about their choices. When a Las Vegas show dubs itself the “Greartest Show on Earth,” was it in need of correction or just avoiding trademark infringement with Ringling Brothers, figuring the people seeing that sign on The Strip would already be three sheets to the wind and not notice?

Did they dash into grocery stores, changing every “Ten Items or Less” check-out sign to “Ten Items or Fewer”? (Richmond will miss you, Ukrop’s, and your proper word usage.)

Did they scribble away at unnecessary quotation marks that made signs somehow suspicious? (My favorite is an oddly creepy billboard for a church in North Carolina that’s been up for years: We “love” all people.)

Intrigued by this story, I wanted to know more. After a quick Google search, I discovered that Herson and Deck aren’t alone on their quest. In Boston, there’s the Grammar Vandal (; there’s an active presence by ‘GrammarCops’ on Twitter, linking to a blog with over 18,000 visitors (; these perfectionists are patrolling all over the place. And for some perhaps crazy reason, that makes me happy

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'm too sexy for your paperback?

We’ve all seen it happening. The sleek, beautiful technology makes everything older than six months hideously dated and as similar to an old maid as the eight-track tape – once so desirable, but not quite special enough to hold onto for life. The iPods are flirtatious. The netbooks are alluring, and if you listen closely to the new flat panel, touch-screen monitors, you’ll hear the sirens’ song. But is this the future of books too?

I couldn’t help but laugh at the headline: Tablet OS ‘has a good bit of sexy to it’ ( I understand the appeal. Yes, sex sells, but does it sell books? When I think of the appeal of reading books, I think of curling up in a cozy chair with a blanket pulled over me, with steaming cup of tea on the coffee table, and a cat purring lazily on my lap. I don’t have a cat and rarely drink tea, but that’s the image that pops into my mind all the same. Right Said Fred isn’t there.

This exact discord is what is holding back the Tablets, Kindles, Sony Readers, and all the others. Book-lovers don’t think sex appeal when they choose their next novel. I’m sorry Fabio, but it’s true. Only when the advertisers figure out that sexy really doesn’t sell in this case, when they can show that these e-readers can equal what has been known and loved for centuries, then, they will find their market.

Admittedly, there are some who are intrigued by the allure of the e-book, but so many others are disgusted by the idea of electronic texts. However, Sony seems to be starting to figure it out. Their reader store ( looks like a polished library’s site rather than something to make a techie drool. They’ve even come out with leather covers to encase their Readers. I’m intrigued. I’ll admit it. Those leather covers hit a nerve, but I’m not willing to give up my hardbacks or paperbacks just yet.

Does the sexy e-book call to you? Or are you calmly content with your old-fashioned novel?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Decade in Books

I stumbled across this recap of books 2000-2009 (, and it got me thinking about my own list. I’m not qualified to discuss all literature and the movements that followed in the past decade, but there have been a lot of books that made me love the capabilities of language and stories in one way or another. My list of favorites isn’t academic or researched. I haven’t spent months debating the following results, but a rather thoughtful hour was spent examining the possibilities:

2000 – Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Language that drips with wit and beauty, popularly and critically acclaimed, who knew non-fiction could be so captivating? To be honest, I didn’t until stumbling upon this one.

2001 – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Life of Pi could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life,” and I whole-heartedly agreed.

2002 – Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. The voices of the characters are so startling different, yet so telling of truths and history. My own family’s Ukrainian background and stories of World War II perhaps brought this book closer to me, but it touches chords of reality and language that any novelist can admire.

2003 – Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Timely and astonishingly powerful, Hosseini takes his readers to an unknown world and fills that world with tumultuous emotions and transforming lives.

2004 – James Lee Burke’s In the Moon of Red Ponies. When a mass market fiction writer also attains the critical success of being considered a ‘literary writer,’ some people raise eyebrows in suspicion. This fourth book in the Billy Bob Holland series was not only a compelling story; it was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Writers also can take heart in the fact that Burke was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years before The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986) – also nominated for a Pulitzer – was published.

2005 – Steve Berry’s The Third Secret. In the words of the New York Times, “The links to religion in The Da Vinci Code and [Dan Brown's] previous, Angels and Demons, pale beside those in The Third Secret.” In a world hungry for intelligent, international thrillers, Berry succeeds masterfully.

2006 – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. This novel is a demonstration of the power of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). While surely editing ensued outside of the bounds of November, the majority of this book was written in a month’s time. Impressive, motivating, and awesome.

2007 – J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 2007 marked the completion of the seven-book series that entranced children into reading hundreds of pages and that peaked the imaginations of adults who remembered the power of children’s literature. Rowling can’t be ignored.

2008 – Paulo Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone. Coelho has been one of my favorite authors since my first reading of The Alchemist. Yet while this novel is the Brazilian writer’s first thriller, it still retains the beautiful writing, the examination of the human essence, and the social commentary which seeps into his work.

2009 – Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. 2009’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is woven from short stories. The New Yorker wrote, “Strout animates the ordinary with astonishing force. . . .” Isn’t that what we all attempt to achieve as writers? Kudos to Strout for giving us further inspiration.

The more I debated and researched the above, the more I realized how many books really are on my reading list. Perhaps I’ll add on that as another resolution in 2010: find more time to read! What a torture that would be (note the sarcasm here).

Now, this is only what I’ve been reading. I know I’ve left off so many great works. What do you think? What would you rate as the top books or authors of the past decade?