JENNIFER YACOVISSI

Author of Up the Hill to Home

20 January 2017 – Toward Compassion

Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that to be true, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.

There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.

Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night. (Continue reading)

Eileen Haavik McIntire

EILEEN HAAVIK MCINTIRE

Author of Shadow and the Rock, The 90s Club and the Hidden Staircase, and The 90s Club and the Whispering Statue

1-17-2017: Novels and History’s Bloody Details

I have a friend who retains nothing from the way history is usually taught in classes, so she reads historical novels about the periods she wants to learn about. The novels make the history come alive for her so she can remember it.

I understand this. Many years ago, in planning a trip to Haiti. I tried reading nonfiction about Haitian history, but I simply couldn’t retain the salient facts. Then I read a lurid novel called The Black Sun by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott. In the novel, a young American from Boston travels to Haiti as the bloody revolution begins in 1791. The revolution ended in 1804 with the triumph of the black slaves. The major figures of that revolution, especially Henri Christophe, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, are vividly described in the book. Dessalines became the first leader of Haiti after the revolution. The novel described him as a brutal revengeful man and that was the way he ruled. This was confirmed in reading nonfiction about Haiti’s history, where it seemed every succeeding president was more brutal than the last.

We also read The Comedians by Graham Greene, a novel set in Haiti during the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a brutal dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. The novel was later made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Duvalier’s vicious security police were known as the “Tonton Macoute.”

We visited Haiti during Duvalier’s last year as “President for Life.” When we arrived at the Port Au (Continue reading)

Sally Whitney

SALLY WHITNEY

Author of the novel Surface and Shadowplus short stories appearing in journals and anthologies, including Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2017.

 

1/10/2017. BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Take a beautiful sea setting, add a few endearing but complex characters, top it off with serious moral dilemmas, and what do you get? The Light Between Oceans, an excellent debut novel by M.L. Stedman.

Set mostly at a lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Australia, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on the island, visited only once a season by two men who bring them supplies. This isolated existence suits Tom, who believes that if he can get far enough away from people and memories, time will heal the mental and emotional wounds he carries from fighting in World War I, especially the nightmares that remind him of the blood on his hands. He is a meticulous lighthouse keeper, always making sure the light goes on and off at the correct times and recording everything he should in the leather-bound log. (Continue reading)

Eileen Haavik McIntire

EILEEN HAAVIK MCINTIRE

Author of Shadow and the Rock, The 90s Club and the Hidden Staircase, and The 90s Club and the Whispering Statue

12/17/2016 – The Pen is Powerful

Happy Holidays! As I contemplate the dismal political scene in this country, I am reminded of a quote from a 19th century suffragette whose name I don’t remember: “Take up your pen and save the world.” Or as Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done.” She did that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that helped change this country.

In a google search of quotes on this subject, I found a column on Goodreads.com that features a number of quotes about taking up the pen. Most of them are banal or cynical, but here are a few that echo the quotes above. (Continue reading)

Janet Willen

JANET WILLEN

Author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery and Five Thousand Years of Slavery

books-secret-chord-pb-lr12/7/16 — The Secret Chord: A New Look at an Old Book

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks has everything — love, hate, jealousy, violence, intrigue, battles, and faith. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a retelling of the biblical story of David, though the word “retelling” doesn’t do justice to Brooks’s success in breathing new life into the three-thousand-year-old character many readers think they already know.

David is familiar to us as the man who killed the giant Goliath, united the people of Israel, played the harp, and wrote many of the Psalms. That’s about all I remembered of him when I opened the book. The novel so intrigued me that I’ve since reread the biblical accounts to see how they differ from Brooks’s. (Continue reading)

Terra Ziporyn

TERRA ZIPORYN

Author of The Bliss of SolitudeTime’s Fool, Do Not Go Gentle, and the new novel Permanent Makeup as well as many nonfiction works including The New Harvard Guide to Women’s HealthAlternative Medicine for Dummies, and Nameless Diseases.

12-04-16 IS HISTORICAL FICTION HISTORICAL?

andersonville

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

chesapeake

Chesapeake by James A. Michener

Listening to James Michener’s Chesapeake on recent driving trips, I’m finding myself increasingly uncomfortable. He’s cheating, I think. These characters – they are so vivid. He didn’t have to make them up from whole cloth. Doesn’t that make his life as a novelist considerably easier? Or his creative achievements less impressive? (Continue reading)

Ellen Prentiss Campbell

ELLEN PRENTISS CAMPBELL

Author of The Bowl with Gold Seams

12-1-2016: A COZY HOUSE FULL OF BOOKS

The holiday season finds me grateful for the profound reading experiences of childhood. Remember when reading a book was living the book? Certain books and authors left a mark on my reading, my writing, and my life. And for the reading of my childhood, I owe special gratitude to my great-aunt Mildred Campbell.

My grandfather’s baby sister Midge was small but mighty. She grew up on the family’s strawberry farm in Tennessee. Witty and determined, Mildred became a history professor at Vassar College. Her cozy house on College Avenue in Poughkeepsie was full of books─including a shelf for the Oxford English Dictionary. She loved books and words; talked a lot; read a lot; wrote a lot. (Continue reading)

JENNIFER YACOVISSI

Author of Up the Hill to Home

ellencampbell-headshots-003211-29-2016: Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell is our December 1 Guest Blogger

Since I had the double assignment to post at the end of November and also to invite a guest blogger for the beginning of December, I took the opportunity to make sure our readers enjoy a full introduction to the wit, charm, and wonderful writing of Ellen Prentiss Campbell, who joins us on 1 December as our guest blogger. In the spirit of the holiday season, Ellen shares her childhood memories of the powerful impact of the books selected for her by a very special relative.

Ellen’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams (Apprentice House Press, reviewed here on 11-20-2016), was inspired by the detainment of the Japanese Ambassador to Germany, his staff and their families, at the Bedford Springs Hotel in 1945. Her short story collection Contents Under Pressure (Broadkill River Press) was a 2015 National Book Award nominee. Her essays and reviews appear in The Fiction Writers Review, where she is a contributing editor, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. Ellen is also a practicing psychotherapist and lives with her husband in Washington D.C. and Manns Choice, Pennsylvania. You can find more from Ellen on her website, www.ellencampbell.net.

Peter Pollak

PETER POLLAK

Aulthor of The Expendable Man (2011); Making the Grade (2012); Last Stop on Desolation Ridge (2012); In the Game (2014); & House Divided (2015)

Chanukah Guilt by Ilene Schneider: A Review

Chanukah Guilt is the title of Rabbi Illene Schneider’s first cozy mystery. The heroine is a female rabbi whose persistence in seeking answers about the supposed suicide of a young woman leads to the discovery of a double murder.

The Chanukah connection is an artificial overlay to the story and other than being “cute” due to the fact that Guilt almost sounds like Gelt, the title has nothing to do with the story.

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JENNIFER YACOVISSI

Author of Up the Hill to Home

11/20/16 – Book Review: The Bowl with Gold Seams by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-4-38-46-pmI originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.

THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.

“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.

(Continue reading)

Eileen Haavik McIntire

EILEEN HAAVIK MCINTIRE

Author of Shadow and the Rock, The 90s Club and the Hidden Staircase, and The 90s Club and the Whispering Statue

11/17/2016 – Nonfiction – A Writer’s Ally for Nuance

Researching a novel can involve more than history books, archives, and the other usual resources for honing details of terrain, lifestyle, time. What about describing emotions, personality, and the intangible nuances?

The subject came to mind  in riding along with a police officer on patrol. I asked the officer what resources she found helpful and that led to a conversation about lying. One book she found very useful, the police officer said, was Spy the Lie by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero with Don Tennant. The authors are former CIA officers who use a methodology developed by Houston to detect spy-the-liedeception in the counterterrorism and criminal investigation realms. They show how these techniques can be applied in our daily lives.

And in our writing, I add. I’m not going to go into the details of the methodology here, except to say that it focuses on a cluster of both verbal and physical cues. Length of time in answering, asking for clarification or sidestepping the question instead of answering with a clear “yes” or “no” are all clues to deception. Truthful responses tend to be direct and spontaneous, but deceptive people can mimic that behavior in responding to questions. The authors suggest ignoring what seem to be truthful responses and focus on the ones that may be deceptive. (Continue reading)

Sally Whitney

SALLY WHITNEY

Author of the novel Surface and Shadowplus short stories appearing in journals and anthologies, including Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2017.

 

11/10/2016.  A MAN CALLED FREDRIK BACKMAN

Novels that pack a punch but still leave the reader feeling uplifteda-man-called-ove don’t come along very often. Too frequently, novels tend to depict the world we live in as dangerous and dreary or they’re filled with unflappable optimists and do-gooders. Swedish author Fredrik Backman walks the line between those two scenarios perfectly in his first two novels, A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I read A Man Called Ove first and loved its main character, a grouchy old man who’s set in his ways and seems to have no tolerance for anyone who can’t understand that his way is not just the right way; it’s the only way. (Continue reading)

Mark Willen

MARK WILLEN

Author of Hawke’s Point

11/7/16 — Ten Great American Political Novels for Trying Times

As the campaign season draws to a close, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. But what about fiction with a strong political theme? Can it help us understand and make sense of the world around us? You bet it can, and I’ve got just the list to prove it.

Whether you’re fed up with politics and need an escape or you just can’t get enough of it, here are ten American political novels worth considering before Inauguration Day. The choices are mine, and I’ll warn you that I’ve left out a few that might seem particularly partisan (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example), as well as the many great foreign political classics (1984, The Trial, War and Peace, to name just a few). Most have been made into movies, but trust me, the books are better. (Continue reading)

Deborah Furchtgott

DEBORAH FURCHTGOTT

Author of the blog, The Children’s Bookroom

fairyland10/1/16 — Fairy Tales for Every Age

As a children’s book blogger and mother to a toddler, I’m an equal-opportunity lover of books, from board books to novels, and I’ve learned to largely ignore age recommendations.  That’s how I found Catherynne M. Valente in the children’s book section rather than general fiction, and, trust me, she’s not an author to miss, no matter how you find her.

I first encountered Cat Valente’s books through her Fairyland series, novels which are listed for ages 10-14, according to the back cover. I’m 29 right now, by the way. I soon finished reading them all and delightedly reviewed them for my children’s books blog, The Children’s Bookroom, praising her for her ability to frame characters with such heart and personal growth, and to create a world so fantastical and yet so tangible. But I wanted more Valente books. I wondered what else someone with her capabilities would be able to do. Topsy-turvy adult that I am, I went from reading her children’s books to discovering her adult novels. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

How to Write Like Gabriel García Márquez

  1. In your next incarnation, be born in Colombia, or anywhere that the beliefs of a traditional culture clash with those of western rationalism.
  2. Work as a journalist. Learn the importance of close observation. Learn how everything has political causes and repercussions. Understand that however extravagantly unique an individual may seem to be, he is as typical of his society as an animal is of its herd.
  3. Steep yourself in great literature: the Greek tragedians, for their belief in the implacability of fate; the great North Americans, especially Faulkner and Hemingway, for their disciplined, tightly-controlled storytelling; and the modernist masters like Joyce and Woolf, for their streams-of-consciousness and lyricism.
  4. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about how to write fiction. Tell, don’t show. Write entire chapters in expository prose. Write practically entire books in expository prose, with a rare scene here and there. Become a master of sleight-of-hand, a conjurer: stuff your paragraphs full of sensory images to convince your readers that they’re reading dramatic scenes, even though they aren’t. Do away with paragraphs when you feel like it. (The Autumn of the Patriarch.) Mix absurdist comedy with utter horror and tragedy. Be vulgar. If you feel like it, do away with protagonists. Have multiple plots.
  5. Write about politics constantly but never, ever preach. Let the reader draw her own lessons.
  6. Accumulate a vast vocabulary. Don’t be afraid to use it. If the reader doesn’t understand a word, she can use a dictionary.
  7. Work your arse off. No distractions, no social media or social life while you’re in the throes of creation.
  8. Abandon your job. Go into debt, get your wife to support you. Just write and to hell with the rest.
  9. Live somewhere beautiful and inundated with history: Bogota, Cartagena de las Indias, Barcelona, Mexico City. Ideally it should be a city that is corrupt, unjust, absurd, one of those sad spots on the earth where people are forced to laugh constantly or else they would slit their throats.
  10. Speak a sonorous language with rich, rotund vowels, a formal language, such as Spanish (or Italian or Portuguese). Know that you are the heir not only of Cervantes, but of Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero.
  11. Have grandparents who raise you and tell you tales of the supernatural and the fantastic constantly, mixing elements from different worlds in a bouillabaisse of myth, religious belief, superstition, exaggeration, and fables.
  12. Grow up in a tiny town in which there is nothing to do but read (and when you’re an adolescent, visit the brothel.) Make it a town owned by an American corporation that exploits people mercilessly and has them massacred if they go on strike. Learn the power and viciousness of capitalism in your flesh.
  13. Grow a bandit’s moustache.
  14. Become an intimate friend of Fidel Castro.
  15. Have a fist-fight with a fellow Nobel Prize winner.
  16. Above all, tell the truth, however much it hurts. Tell your own people you are leaving your land because it’s a “shit country”. Spare no one and nothing.
  17. Be ambitious. Retell the history of your continent. Homer did it; why shouldn’t you?
  18. Mix philosophical musings with lowbrow scatological jokes.
  19. Avoid sentimentality at all times.
  20. Believe in the dignity of ordinary people…
  21. And in the greatest miracle on earth, the love of one human being for another.

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Peter Pollak

PETER POLLAK

Aulthor of The Expendable Man (2011); Making the Grade (2012); Last Stop on Desolation Ridge (2012); In the Game (2014); & House Divided (2015)

Short Story versus Novel Writing

I consider myself a novelist not a short-story writer. In fact, I’m not satisfied with any of the three-dozen shorts in various stages of development that occupy a directory on my harddrive. Writing short stories is very different than writing novels. Some people think it’s best to start out with shorts and then move on to novels. That may work for some, but to me it’s like thinking you would be good at bull-riding because you can ride a horse.

A novel is not just a long short story. Psychologically it requires a much greater commitment because it can take months or even years to complete a 90,000-word novel. Most short story writers don’t need help deciding when their story is ready for public consumption. Many novels are so complex that to offer one’s novel to the public without first having others read it is asking for trouble. In a short story, you might have half a dozen to a dozen characters, and are unlikely to spell a person’s name two different ways in the course of the story. Novels can have dozens of characters, which means it’s easy to misspell a character’s name not to mention having a Tony and Toni in the same story. Of course, names that are very similar is something to be avoided.

(Continue reading)

Gary Garth McCann

GARY GARTH MCCANN

Author of the novel The Man Who Asked To Be Killed and five stories, most recently “Incorrigible,” Erotic Review and “The Yearbook,” Mobius

amodestinheritancecover10/20/16   A MODEST INHERITANCE, BY CAROL BIRD, takes us to West Virginia in a tightly drawn, subtle mystery in which much is behind the scenes and the apparent monetary stakes aren’t as high as the spiritual and emotional ones. I enjoyed dropping into the life of every-woman protagonist Amanda as she drove home to Charleston and learned that her 100-year old grandmother had inexplicably changed her will one year before her death. As Amanda travels back and forth between her own home in Annapolis and her late grandmother’s hillside, historic Charleston house—under the new will about to become the house of someone outside of Amanda’s family—Amanda gradually realizes that the end of her grandmother’s life was not idyllic in every way, as many people would have her believe.

 

I was able to meet author Carol Bird and ask a few questions about A Modest Inheritance.  

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Eileen Haavik McIntire

EILEEN HAAVIK MCINTIRE

Author of Shadow and the Rock, The 90s Club and the Hidden Staircase, and The 90s Club and the Whispering Statue

10/17/2016 – The Writer as Pigeon

Naiveté, desperation, eagerness. What does that spell to you? To me it spells V-I-C-T-I-M. It can also spell W-R-I-T-E-R.

A writer eager to find a publisher, desperate for an agent, naive enough to sign any contract that seems to promise an agent and publication. And that’s just the dirt on top. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find all kinds of “opportunities” to promote, sell, distribute or otherwise handle a writer’s opus—for a fee.pexels-photo-27191-pigeon

I have been a writer all my professional life and a publisher for the last twenty plus years. I know how eagerly a writer wants to be published; I know the anguish of being rejected again and again by uncaring and by, obviously, ignorant agents who can’t seem to grasp my vision. And I have been naive enough to hand over thousands of dollars for publicists who did nothing, distributors who charged more in fees than my publishing company made in sales, cover designers who cost more than the going rates or who never heard of “work for hire.”

Contests, awards, marketing consultants, advertisers, unscrupulous agents and editors, even reviewers, all add to the pile of “writer-get-rich” snares out there. Writer Beware. (Continue reading)

Sally Whitney

SALLY WHITNEY

Author of the novel Surface and Shadowplus short stories appearing in journals and anthologies, including Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2017.

 

10/10/2016.  ALL IN THE FAMILY—THE PERFECT CAULDRON FOR CONFLICT

According to the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 24.8 percent of the-girl-who-stopped-swimmingU.S. murder victims were killed by family members. That’s a nearly a quarter of all murders. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that family violence (including assault, murder, robbery, and sex offenses) accounted for 11 percent of all reported and unreported violence between 1998 and 2002. Although we don’t have statistics for the flip side of family passions, anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the profound role family love and support can play during those times. And also how deep an emotional wound inflicted by a family member can go. Because family relationships are among the most highly charged of any relationships in human experience, families offer the ideal set of characters for a novel’s essential conflict.

In the past few months, I’ve read three good novels about different kinds of families and the ways they deal with tragedies, including murder. I recommend them all. (Continue reading)

Janet Willen

JANET WILLEN

Author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery and Five Thousand Years of Slavery

10/7/16 — You Should Look It Up

samuel_johnson_by_joshua_reynolds_2Kids hate dictionaries. That’s something I’ve discovered over fifteen years of tutoring elementary and middle school kids. If they come across a word they don’t know, they’d rather ignore it than go to the bookcase for a dictionary.

I couldn’t help thinking about that last month when I stopped by 17 Gough Square in London, the home of Samuel Johnson from 1748 to 1759, which is when he and a staff of six were hard at work compiling The Dictionary of the English Language [volume 1 and volume 2]. Visitors are welcome in most rooms, and all the exhibits give a taste of the Georgian life Johnson and his friends led. My favorite spot was the attic, where most of the dictionary work was done. You can sit where Johnson sat and thumb through facsimiles of the dictionary. (Continue reading)

Terra Ziporyn

TERRA ZIPORYN

Author of The Bliss of SolitudeTime’s Fool, Do Not Go Gentle, and the new novel Permanent Makeup as well as many nonfiction works including The New Harvard Guide to Women’s HealthAlternative Medicine for Dummies, and Nameless Diseases.

10-04-16 WHY JOIN A BOOK CLUB?

“You’re in a book club?” my friend asked incredulously. “Why would you join a book club?”Join a book club

I was a bit surprised to be asked this question by a friend who also happened to be a professor of comparative literature. We had known each other since college. We are both writers.  I had just told her that our next meeting would discuss Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a book she greatly admired. So why was it so odd to her that I was in a book club?

“I can’t imagine being in a book club,” she said. “That’s what I do for a living.” (Continue reading)

Peter Pollak

PETER POLLAK

Aulthor of The Expendable Man (2011); Making the Grade (2012); Last Stop on Desolation Ridge (2012); In the Game (2014); & House Divided (2015)

My Take on Plotting versus Pantsing

A common writers’ conference workshop topic is “Pantsing versus Plotting,” a reflection of the fact that many writers struggle with how to plot out their stories. If that’s you, perhaps my breaking down this issue will help you gain some insights into how to avoid some of the pitfalls of poor plotting.

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