Save Yourself from Toxic Novels

We all know that literature can rot your mind. Or was that candy corn? Regardless, many people don’t know that books are literally dangerous, particularly new releases. Here I examine my new novel, Aftershock, for cholera, plague, St. Vitus Dance and other conditions. All in the name of keeping you safe.

Books as Butterflies: Aftershock Takes Wing


A couple of summers ago, my galpal Alice planted many milkweed plants in our flower beds and yard. Milkweed, besides having some lovely flowers, is a nesting site of sorts for monarch butterflies. Those fluttering lovelies lay their eggs on the flowers, eggs that produce some seriously striped caterpillars, who then devour the leaves like pizza from the heavens.

Nature, that big show-off, then insists that those caterpillars pupate: they manage to form themselves into a chrysalis, a stylish little pouch like the one above, which was hanging from our water valve fixture. If you look closely, you can see the faint outlines of the butterfly-to-be’s wings. Nature, also host to many outrages, sacrificed that chrysalis to some other hungry creature, but we have another in a more protected spot, who is much further along, the wings darkly defined.

We’ve been checking in on it many times a day, because pupas are supposed to hatch into mighty monarchs in a couple of weeks—and this dude is due.

What Strained Metaphor Is He Going to Use to Talk About His Book?

Glad you asked. The way we’ve been anxiously awaiting the emergence of the butterfly is akin to what I’ve done with a book of mine I’ve been messing with for years. Its chrysalis period has been longer than our monarchial one, but hey, time compresses and dilates, as you know. The important part is that the book is about to take wing.

I set up my new novel, Aftershock, for pre-order on Amazon. You can see its handsome cover above. I’m giving the first 10 blog readers who request a PDF copy of the book a chance to read it for free. All I ask of you is to consider reviewing the book on Amazon on or not long after the day of its release, which is March 10. You won’t be able to post a review until official publication.

No obligation to write a favorable review (or any review at all), of course, but if you do write one, please note therein that you were given an advance copy, so that no Amazonian shoots me with an arrow for being deceptive about my promotion.

Write to me at bentguy@charter.net if you’re interested. I will nag you once the day before publication about the review, but you are welcome to ignore me. Alice does it all the time.

Oh, and if you were wondering what the monarch larva look like before they spin their chrysalis, check it out:

Handsome devil, eh? Books as butterflies—what a concept.

Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

Writers: Draw Yourself Out of Your Corners

Harold doesn’t quite have Eve’s charms

When I was a little kid, one of the first books that grabbed my imagination was Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. That was just the first in a series of Harold books: Harold later gets to go to the North Pole, into a fairy tale, and on other adventures. The scheme was—and still is, for Harold lives on in my imagination—this: Harold uses his purple crayon to draw objects on the canvas of his life, and they become real.

Thus the post image above, where Harold has drawn himself a bounteous apple tree, but then, worried about someone swiping the apples, he draws a fierce dragon to guard it. But the dragon is a little too fierce, and Harold retreats backward, his dragging crayon accidentally drawing the line of the sea—oops! But luckily, he draws a boat to ride on its waves. And the boat ride leads to …

The books fascinated me as a kid, and still do, because of the freshness of imagination and the openness to possibility. There is a kind of “the world is new again because I draw it new every day” feeling in Harold’s work that is an invitation to snap up the window shade of your imagination, rather than clamp it down. Harold isn’t much for preconceptions or expectations. Or perhaps he’s an alternate definition of “preconception”: he hasn’t conceived—and thus fixed—his mind’s mooring, so it goes places that are unmoored, and exciting ones at that.

Writers Move Through Associative Worlds (and Words)

This is exactly what a writer does (or what a writer experiences—many times it seems there’s less a “doer” than the process of something being done). Most writers are very associative: a single word can magnetize other words in the vicinity; a single image can make for a flip book of cascading images. And if writers just have some glorified form of ADD, I don’t want any medication.

Harold’s purple prosody is also a drawing of the creative process, which can seem as random—and often as productive—as the wandering noodling of his crayon. What the source of creativity is, or what sparks it remains an elusive thing, though scientists have their clipboards ever at the ready for assessing brain-wave readouts and chemicals in spit.

The Beauties of the Brain

The brain is a splendid thing (even if mine commands me to watch bad TV now and then). Sometimes it’s very far off in its assessments, such as when you see a wiggling towel on the road when you’re driving, and your mind paints it into a wounded coyote. Processing error that is, but it’s a creative error, and just having a malleable landscape for creative error is a writer’s boon.

There’s a loveliness in daydreaming, in flipping through the cards of your imagination, putting them in odd combinations, and letting them fall into colorful mosaics on the floor, into patterns or combinations that are there born for the first time.

There’s beauty in the impractical, in things that can’t be immediately applied to solve a problem or that have an immediate return. Beauty in reverie, where the wool that’s gathered might turn into a short story, a paragraph in an essay, or just threads discarded, perhaps taken up again months later.

What this post is really saying is that letting your mind meander is a fine thing for a writer. Harold showed me that you can paint yourself into a corner, but you can crayon the corner over and turn it into a trampoline. Writers, keep meandering. But don’t forget to do the dishes occasionally as well.

Joel D Canfield: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Keyboard

I can’t speak for the past, but at this moment, Joel wasn’t doing anything illegal with his mouth

Let’s throw open the stage (I hope he’s dressed) to Joel D Canfield, an author pal of mine who has just released his second novel in his Phil Brennan mystery series, A Still Small Voice. Joel has multiple books in multiple series, but the real multiplications are for you: he’s giving them away for free.

That’s a good bingo right there, but the kicker is that his books are good. I’ve read a number of them, and helped out with some editing on more than a few, and they are chockablock full of intrigue, whimsy, deception, suspense and high-nutrient storytelling. Grab a few and settle back (or jump up tensely when the story turns)—you’re in capable writerly hands.

Here I’ve asked Joel a few questions about his trade and where he’s going with his work:

You have written and published many business books, but in the last few years, you’ve turned your writing toward fiction. What steered that change? Did you always write stories, but are giving them their full due now?

I’ve always been a storyteller but until a few years ago never wrote any of them down. My narcissistic streak loved the attention I got from spinning a good yarn so I listened to good storytellers and stole their best ideas. When my wife’s social media business took off, I took on the household chores and stopped worrying so much about making money, which is possible with a business book, but a right challenge for fiction authors. In fact, I’ve recently started giving away every one of my novels to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, and reduced the prices at Amazon as low as they’ll allow.

You used to call your novels something like “Raymond Chandler cozies,” though I think you amended that a little. How would you describe the genre and general flavor of your fictional work?

I like putting morally rigid people in ambiguous situations, forcing the best bad choice. I used to call them Chandleresque cozies. But they’re not cozies, which carry certain implications about happiness and light. I love noir, revere Chandler and Hammett, but my books aren’t quite as dark. Like Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and other books, mine are more about people and their struggles than about a puzzle to solve. They’re as much literary fiction as they are mystery. Since calling them “literary fiction” would be like announcing that my restaurant “serves food” I’m sticking with “mystery” as the short answer.

From your research, you are probably more familiar with story structure, story beats, character arcs and the like than many writers.  What do you look for in an editor to help with the underpinnings of a story (or provide with story mechanics)?

I don’t think it’s hard to find an editor who knows a good sentence. Harder to find one who knows a good story. I’m far more concerned about developmental editing, feedback on whether I’ve composed a ripping yarn, or just a ball thereof. Just as important is working with someone who respects my style, balancing what a reader wants to read with what I need to write.

You have several mystery series going, with distinct settings and characters. Will there be more of all? Have you considered specifically pushing the existing characters harder, challenging their stable pictures of themselves or anything on a structured, outlined level? Or do you think ahead more in broad strokes?

After an artistic crisis at the end of 2015 I spent the first 9 months of 2016 deciding whether or not to continue writing. The answer was yes, which launched a heavy rewrite of A Still, Small Voice. It also launched three months of introspection which included the kind of inner-demon-wrestling authors love to foist on their characters. I’m not all the way through, but far enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Having spit into the abyss when it stared back, I’m ready to ratchet up the turmoil and put each of my characters through an appropriate level of pain. They’ll thank me later.

Scotch or Bourbon? (Or for you, should I ask, Pancakes or Waffles?)

Irish. Particularly fond of Wolfhound. And waffles, please, topped with morally unambiguous toppings: butter and real maple syrup.

I can’t let Joel have the last word here, can I? The Bentley answer to that last question would be Waffles à la Wolfhound, with liberal dollops of whisky (or even whiskey) and syrup. Mmmm…

Writers: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Perhaps everyone would be  in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey...

Perhaps everyone would be in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey…

Out in the old Airstream office again, starting to work on an essay. “Starting to work” means looking out of the windows for a spell, straightening a counter that’s already ruler-straight, peeking at Twitter—but with eyes wide open, so that a peek becomes a stare—and on and on.

If you’re an at-home working writer, and one for whom discipline is a comrade who sometimes leaves early for lunch, you might shy from the tyranny of the page, and look for like cronies to complain to. But it’s been years since I’ve had office mates that could tolerate hearing my sighs about bad sentence structure over the cubicle walls. Sometimes my cat comes out to the trailer to discuss subject-verb agreements, but most of the time, it’s just me.

A great privilege it is to be able to work from home, and a greater gift to be able to work with words, the dizzying whirligigs that they are. Writers need to sequester their minds in order to stew, consciously or not, over their word soups, but sometimes the kitchen seems a little quiet. The habitual patter of your mind can be a little wearing, especially when it flies off center, and you start thinking things like “Tom, when you tilt your head just so, you look a lot like Madeleine Albright.”

When the Idea Salon Is an Asylum

But when you realize that the errant voices in your head are, shockingly, less crazy than the ones on the Internet, you know that going out in that uncivil commons is no way to relax and exchange ideas in the idea salon, finger sandwiches at the ready. I have a standing policy to not read the comments pages of many postings, because their curdled sourness doesn’t offer companionship to any but the crazed.

Even more crazed than me.

But thankfully there are a few spots on the InterTubes that can offer solace—and even fine writing advice, so you can coddle yourself into thinking you are working, sort of. One of the best is WriterUnboxed, with its daily postings on craft, marketing, personal writing foibles, the publishing industry and much more, written by a splendid range of seasoned experts, newbies and specialists. Equally as helpful as the sound writing advice is the collective community of peers and writing chums, who share comments in the sandbox that are insightful and warm, but without too much mush. (Mush causes mold.)

For writers like me, living in their hollow, echoing wooden heads, a place like WriterUnboxed is a godsend. Now and then, they even let me write something there.

Combat the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer: Collaborate

Another way a writer, who might be out in his ’66 Airstream with screaming orange plaid upholstery for eight hours a day, might reach out and still get some writing done is by collaborating with another writer. Rick Wilson and I have been working on a novel together, based on this short story, for a couple of years, and the final chapter is just a whimsy of words away from being done.

Working with Rick has been delightful, and in the many moments when I’ve staggered in the process and lost my oxygen, he’s opened the valves on new tanks of enthusiasm. And since Rick’s a dentist, I’m going to ask for nitrous for the home stretch. I’ll post more about the book in blogs to come.

Lastly, when a writer is feeling low or lonely, there are the works of other authors to lift and educate. Books are great companions too, and have been through my life. I just finished the delightful and hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I shock myself by never having read a Toni Morrison work before, so Jazz is next.

Books themselves are quiet company, even if the upholstery is too loud.

Tropical Breezes Are Best Accompanied by a Foot Fetish

SunriseWalk small

Bit of an infrequent blogger of late, and longer days yet since I’ve read one of my stories aloud here. I know how much my audience has been waiting for a story set on a tropical island. With the main character having a foot fetish. Make that both feet. Done.