Beginnings and Endings

You might inscribe the title of your novel a couple dozen times before it sticks. You might make it longer, shorter, TBD, Working Title, WIP, B.S., Nada, Whatever… whatever. And revert after all that to the original working title. Or not. But “The End”… this is a thing you only write once on a manuscript. Today was that day for me. What a relief!


I’m going to stop awhile and enjoy the feeling. Read a little, write some reviews. Soon enough I’ll begin the deflating process of finding an agent or publisher. If it goes anything like past searches, the process will take even longer than the 18 months that went into the MS. And though this is a polished draft, it could fall yet again under the axe of another heavy edit.

For now, I can say:

The End


One week to go before the deadline to submit your novel-length manuscript to the 2015 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. Get it done!


The goal’s had me burning the midnight oil the past couple months, forcing me to put off a lot of other substantive posts. Among the big items I’d hoped to reflect on recently but couldn’t:

  • “Free range parenting” (For starters, change the name. That’s for starters).
  • Rolling Stone’s rape story retraction. (Sabrina Rubin Erdely had previously been reprimanded by disgraced journalist Stephen Glass? The Stephen Glass best known for fabulating wild, wonderful stories for The New Republic?).
  • Tons of book reviews (Apologies fellow writers).

Once the May 1 deadline passes, I’ll pick up the reviews again. Noteworthy in my stack of reading is Steve Himmer’s 2012 The Second Most Dangerous Job in America (setting the stage to review his 2015 release: Fram); Does Harry Dream of Electric Sheep by John Altson; and Jonathan Miller’s On Your Own. I also have a novel by Tamim Sadikali, Dear Infidel, which is long past due for a few words of praise.

Taking the time to post this announcement can mean only one thing, though: I’m in striking distance of the deadline with my current work in progress. The wind’s been at my back these last few months and the world spinning beneath my feet with inspiration. The family… they’ve been patient.

This novel’s ready, pulsing with desire for human contact. Just one thing bothers me. After a year-and-a-half stewing on the topic, six months of dedicated writing according to outline, and week after week of revising and polishing, I still can’t come up with a nice, pithy title that captures the essence. Three words would do it!

Dust off your manuscripts and submit to Leapfrog Press. Good luck.

In Which I “Interview” Jon Stewart

Good morning, Jon. Thank you for being here this morning.

Thank you for having me.

I didn’t know you also did morning programs.

Actually, I think I just stayed up too late. What time is it?

jon stewart_rect

Let’s get right to it, shall we? After 17 years of attacking the schmucks in the media and in government, there are still so many schmucks in the media and in government. That must feel pretty discouraging.

You don’t know the half of it.

I mean, how’s it feel to wake up every morning, having spent the previous day stropping your razor against the neck of stupidity, only to find that the damn thing just won’t die? That the stupidity just won’t go away? That it just gets bigger, dumber, louder than ever… How’s that feel?

You’re talking about Fox News?

Pretty much. Of course, there are others.

CNN? All of Congress?


It feels lousy. The shouters are still out there. The thoughtlessness. The crudity. I could go on. And, so yeah, after 17 years, waking up every morning to find the media and political landscape is still so completely rotten, that doesn’t feel too nice. I mean, look at how we’ve started the year. You’ve got Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly caught grandstanding instead of reporting. You’ve got intoxicated Secret Service supervisors driving cars into their own White House ‘suspicious package’ investigation. You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got this latest congressional scandal with Aaron Schock–the narcissist!

Well, but isn’t his resignation a good news story?

A very good news story. Good reporting by the Washington Post and the AP outed this guy for his horrible taste in decor and for fraudulently billing his constituents to drive around town in his constituent-paid Chevy Tahoe. I have to admit, that’s pretty awesome. They’ve removed a cancer at a very early age.

The youngest ever to resign! How proud! You see, the media still has a role to play in our Republic.

Yeah, but for every story like that, there’s another story like CNN’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of Selma. They droned on and on about their drones. Their coverage was coverage of coverage. For a news organization that calls itself the first draft of history, they aren’t very good at history.


Tell me, how do you know if your program’s been worth doing all these years?

Continued stupidity notwithstanding?

Continued stupidity notwithstanding.

It’s when I see clips of my show on Eric Wemple’s blog, or catch a comment here and there from fans. You know what they tell me? They say the show’s given voice to their rebuttals, a sort of daily rebuttal.


Ok, you got me there. I could have done more, been a little more diligent over the years. But what did you expect of the guy who made his living by basically televising the role of the class clown?

I didn’t expect much, to be honest. But you pulled it of, Jon. You pulled it off every time.

Thank you. So it’s all about the rebuttal. That, I think, helped so many people to feel like they weren’t alone in their disgust and contempt for what they’ve seen the media and the politicians do. In exposing media manipulation, in sharing our vulnerability to political abuses, in articulating our disgust, I think I’ve allowed a lot of people to sleep better at night so they could wake up with a fresh start to their day.

You vented their spleen.

(Pause). Yeah. I guess. I guess I’m just some kind of medieval surgeon with a rusty scalpel and a sense of how to keep the humors in balance.

I didn’t mean literally, Jon. I didn’t mean that you went in and cut people up. But, honestly, you really cut us up. You cut us all up to pieces. It was great. Thank you.

You’re welcome.

You know what, this was fun. I’ve delayed putting it up here since you announced your impending departure because I feel like there’s so much more to say.

There is. There certainly is more to be done.

So maybe I’ll have you back some time.

jon stewart_daily_show_16x9_992

Any time, Ben. Any time.

Crime Fiction: The Cost of Doing Business

Jonathan Ashley crams a lot into The Cost of Doing Business, from ghetto shootouts with Tec-9s to sociological laments about middle class norms. It’s got elements of the tough-talking hood narrative, and the book is entertaining in places, but ultimately much of the action is muddled by drawn out sentences and the narrator’s distracted observations.


What Ashley does well is provide an inside look at the criminal underworld between Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. We get everything from the street-level hood to the big drug capo, from the accidental user-turned-dealer to the strung-out junkie, from the dirty shakedown patrolman to the PD Captain who takes orders from crime bosses rather than the chief of police.

He casts much of his tale on the border between urban decay and seedy gentrification. His part of Louisville is “The best of New York City Bohemia packed into a two mile strip… the tattoo parlors, the coffee shops, and record stores… ethnic joints and five star restaurants…” All this set beside the “Undesirable neighborhoods… where black and white children in hand-me-down underclothes block the middle of the street playing with hula hoops and deflated soccer balls, avoiding whatever horrors their parents perpetuate in the shotgun shacks on either side of the blacktop.”

In this environment narrator Jon Catlett and his manager-cum-buddy Paul pass the time selling used books and hosting yuppies to live music. Here he sets the opening scene, an accidental homicide that sends Catlett’s world crashing down around him.

Full Review

Lang Speaks

Just stumbled upon Stuart Beaton‘s podcast featuring my old buddy Preston Lang. The conversation between the two is thoughtful and funny, a mirror of Lang’s writing. If you like noir, pick up The Blind Rooster; if you like crime fiction, it’s The Carrier, both released last year.

As for this podcast: Do we really need a 90,000-word book about Lionel Ritchie? Mr. Lang, what have you got up your sleeve?

Reading Preston Lang’s The Blind Rooster (Crime Wave Press) feels a lot like people-watching at the laundromat. The major figures resemble coin-op types, people resigned to the vague indignity of paying to have their underwear tumble around in a public washer. And don’t take your eyes off them for a moment—they’d just as soon pinch a quarter from your pocket as take your favorite pair of jeans from a hot dryer. (Full review)

Preston Lang’s discreetly funny debut crime novel The Carrier (280 Steps) is an amoral story about semi-decent, semi-depraved, mostly-human people who eat and argue and screw genuinely enough as they pursue their proverbial pot of gold in parts unknown of the U.S.A. Some get what they got coming, some get less, others more, but always around the corner is another day and another twist of the knot and who knows if it’s money, drugs, gold, or death that awaits (Full review).

What strikes me most in Lang’s work is the casualness of his narrative voice, an understated tenor, a manner of delivery that allows him to present the utterly random alongside the marginally droll alongside the plainly silly alongside the brazenly vile, all without ever changing pitch. There’s no shrill emotion or overbearing melodrama or manic activity. His narratives move fluidly from one moment to the next, and between the minds of his characters, each of them vying for first place as the least remarkable person in all of crime fiction.

Foggy Bottom

From DC’s skyline to it’s underground rail system, one has to wonder how the capital of our great Republic has come to symbolize so much decay and brokenness. Escalator outages pervade Metro, clogging the human flow. Congress teases us with shuttering the Department of Homeland Security, even in the face of recent threats. These perversions and abuses gave me reason to revisit this discard from my current WIP, a reflection on the great federal furlough of 2013.


Oscar Keye rode backwards on the train. Behind him, in the direction towards which he moved, all of Washington lay deep in a fog. His eyes returned to the sign: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. And there, on the stained carpet at his feet, the black bag with no obvious owner.

The shaking railcar slowed, stopped. The usual commuter panic ensued: doors opened; passengers squeezed out; passengers pushed their way in. Crammed like cattle, Keye thought, even during the shutdown. The doors closed and the train started off.

Keye rode backwards contemplating the threat of an ownerless black bag at his feet, an unfunded position at work, and a mortgage he might not be able to pay at home. He glanced at the Washington Express on his neighbor’s lap.




Distracted by the bag, Keye couldn’t get past the headlines. He submitted to the shake and roar until they reached his stop at Foggy Bottom. A barely audible recording announced, “Passengers are reminded that safety and security are everyone’s responsibility. Please report unattended bags or suspicious behavior to Metro Transit Authorities by calling…”

The doors opened before Keye heard the number. He disembarked, clutching the plastic bag that contained his lunch. Ahead of him the human mass backed up on itself. Commuters bumped him from behind as he slowed to a crawl.

I see something suspicious, Keye thought. All around him, people staring at telephones, plodding forward without seeing where they went, risking a tumble on the escalator.

Which, it turned out, wasn’t working.


Why Criticize Williams But Not O’Reilly?

O’Reilly is not a journalist. He’s not worth my time. My criticism of Brian Williams, by contrast, was a necessary purge. I’d liked his work and trusted it, so felt betrayed, let down, disappointed.


As far as O’Reilly is concerned, the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it best:

Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments.

Of course Fox News isn’t worried about a “loss of credibility”. Credibility is not their aspiration.

And O’Reilly, a channel for the anger of his median-72-year-old audience: Not worth my time. (ok, this was 30 minutes well spent).

“Writer’s Block”: You Don’t Have It

I’ve been known to comment on various blogs: “I’ve never had writer’s block. I have no shortage of things to write about or the desire to write them. If I’m not writing, I’m chewing on it.”

Ok. In January I blew through 20 chapters of a first draft. Four weeks and done, rough edges and all. February wasn’t so kind. I hit the wall at chapter 12, a nut that took 10 days to crack. I couldn’t deliver background on a lesser character. Frustrating, because I could easily write what I wanted to write. But it was information my narrator couldn’t have known.

I faced options: cut the material; drop the character; change the narrative position; re-write, re-write, re-write. It sucked. It was basically 10 days of 100 words here, 100 words there, a bleed on the train, a grueling transcription by night, one step forward, two steps back. It was hard. It was hard work.

Writing isn’t easy. Writing is hard work. It’s mental and it’s physical. Do yourself a favor: don’t belittle the craft by referring to tough moments in craven terms. If you’re really writing — not just not-writing-while-wishing-you-were-a-writer-and-calling-it-writer’s-block — try thinking like an athlete.

You’re the fighter on the ropes. The Ironman in Kona’s crosswinds. The Mavericks surfer getting pummeled ’til your lungs split.

Writer’s block? You’re fighting off blows, pedaling against resistance, climbing to the surface because the next wave’s coming and you need air. Don’t kid yourself. Writing is hard. It can be physical, just as endurance sports are mental. You might achieve some kind of glory, if only in your mind. But there are going to be grueling days and nights and weeks when your production hits a wall.

That’s not writer’s block. That’s writing.

Banned Reading

Did you know that Popular Online Vendor X bans “distasteful content” from honest reviews of the very books they’d be happy to sell you? That’s right: reviews of books full of obscenities sold on their site won’t be posted if those reviews contain the same profane, immoral, or distasteful content as the product they want you to buy.

I tried for two weeks to post my review of Robert Bruce Cormack’s hilarious (and not at all distasteful) You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) only to have it rejected time and again. Finally last night, after five attempts, I found the magic formula. Boy did I have to censor the shit out of it.


First, I took out references to pot brownies and weed-smoking security guards. Next, I removed all the “stiffies” (also known as boners, woodies, chubbies, hard ons, etc). Finally, on the advice of industry insiders, I removed a reference to Zack Galifianakus, Catch-22, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Why these last? Because I’d learned that (REDACTED) might consider their inclusion to be a promotion of other products, including celebrities, and I was done taking chances.

I shouldn’t complain too much. (REDACTED) has a good track record of accepting my returns without question. And they did publish my review, despite a barb directed at them. They even allowed a promotional link to my blog. But I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth after swallowing certain words that a dumbass like me enjoys using when writing about certain intelligent, funny, colorful books.

One thought, though, for the robot censors at (REDACTED): you might catch the easy shit like “Show me some titty-action”, but you’ll never tell the difference between sarcasm and your asshole. Nor will you understand the hypocrisy of blocking my best reviews while peddling material like this (which is a f*ckin’ hoot, by the way):


(REDACTED) reserves the right to remove reviews that include:

  • Obscene or distasteful content (Bye-bye, mynah repeating “Gimme some titty action!”)
  • Profanity or spiteful remarks (So long, “shitcanned”)
  • Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct (Sayonara, pot brownies and weed-smoking security guard)
  • Promotional content such as Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (so, really?, no references to an actor who might play the role of a protagonist, or similar type of book?)

Posted to (REDACTED)–self-censorship in red

Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is a picaro’s tale with brilliant dialogue miscues straight out of (a satire about bombardiers during World War Two) and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from (another hilarious picaresque set in New Orleans with a protagonist named Ignatius J. Reilly). Cormack’s story centers on Sam’s reintegration into a world that’s passed him by during 30 years writing advertising copy and which, to his understandable dismay, requires that he coach his live-in son-in-law on (his bedside manner) while simultaneously wanting to (teach him a lesson) about (breaking one of the ten commandments).

Original–the funny shit’s in blue

With little more plot than that Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is a picaro’s tale with dialogue miscues straight out of Catch-22 and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from A Confederacy of Dunces. Cormack’s story centers on Sam’s reintegration into a world that’s passed him by during 30 years writing advertising copy and which, to his understandable dismay, requires that he coach his live-in son-in-law on working up a stiffy while simultaneously wanting to choke him dead for coveting another man’s wife.

Full Review (uncensored!)

Peace Corps Writer Awards 2014

Vote for your favorite Peace Corps Book of 2014. People in the Peace Corps community know well the agency’s three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans


Support the writers who support Peace Corps’ Third Goal–read their books. Peace Corps Writers has opened nominations for its 2014 Awards in all categories:

The Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award

The Maria Thomas Fiction Award

The Award for Best Poetry Book

The Award for Best Travel Book

The Award for Best Children’s Book

The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Memoir Award

The Award for Best Photography Book

Editors Special Awards