Got a taste for writing thrillers? Then today's post should get the juices simmering and the ink flowing!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fiction Writers MUST Be Preachers

Wait a minute! Let me read that Blog Title again. Does it really say that fiction writers must be preachers?! Waz Up With Dat?? Isn't preaching one of the fundamental "no-nos" for fiction writers.  It says so--right there in every basic fiction writing book, so it's got to be so.

OK everyone--raise your hands: WHO WANTS TO PLAY LET'S BREAK A WRITING RULE!?

Let's start with why this a writing rule in the first place. You'll see a lot of reasons given, but seldom, if ever, the real one. Writers should preach because they're lousy preachers. That's what it really comes down to--writers don't know jacksomethingorother about preaching. BTW, neither do a lot of preachers. (A CYA moment of self-preservation here: my wife, who is a minister, is obviously not one of them.)

Preaching is nothing more than a means of trying to arrive at some sort of truth that has relevance for everyday life. It may be centered around a holy scripture but need not be, despite the common perception. That's its substance: every thing else falls into the realm of accidents. (Time to dig out Thomas Aquinas--or to get hold of him if you have nothing to dig out.)

What are some of these accidents (read--things that are non-essential)? Oh, I don't know, maybe: long-windedness (my wife had a homiletics professor at Yale, one of the greatest in the world, who would give any sermon lasting longer than five-minutes an "F"), pounding a topic to death, boring examples, lack of meaningful applications, way too much back story, infatuation with your own words . . . you get the picture. Some of these same things make fiction boring.

The trick is to make the message--the truth--almost invisible, to show it rather than to tell it (and tell it, and tell it, and tell . . .) and to make it engrossing so that people can and will relate to it. Fiction writers are skilled in the techniques needed to pull off this trick and good preachers know that. 

Witness the fine book by Alyce M. McKenzie,  Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons, published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press. McKenzie (officially "The Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church," so I'll use McKenzie) believes that ministers could learn a lot about preaching from fiction writers and, to this end, offers a guidebook drawing upon  such luminaries as Isabelle Allende, Frederick Buechner, Julia Cameron, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Melanie Rae Thon.

I've read the book (stole it fr . . . oops, borrowed it from my wife) and found that it has some solid advice for novelists as well. (If you want to sample McKenzie's wares and other tidbits from her creative mind, swing over to her blog Knack for Noticing at

Unfortunately, right now, this is a one-way street. There's no guidebook for novelists to learn from preachers, with examples from, say, Niebuhr, King, Coffin . . . I'm not going to continue since there are so many Ministers, Rabbis, Priests, Imams that could be used. You need not be religious to glean lessons from these women and men, although if a spiritual insight or two creeps into the old cerebellum what's to hurt? That's right: they can not only offer some pointers on such things as structure and "grab factor," but demonstrate that there are man subtle ways to convey meaningful messages. And fiction writers need to pay more attention to meaningful messages no matter what their genre, messages such as good, evil, love, hate, forgiveness, revenge.

Yes, I know--these are a key component of all fiction, but there needs to be a shift: more often then not, these are accidental and they need to become substantial (go back to Thomas).

No, there's no guidebook as yet that tackles this directly. There is, however, a provocative work by a writer that provides some penetrating focus on what constitutes the essential preaching core of fiction. It's beautiful, brilliant, aggravating, challenging and, sadly, little read these days or, sadly still, often dismissed at the hands of the technicians.  It's the late John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, still very much in print by Basic Books 39 years after it's writing. Gardner argues for the privilege of being a writer and the responsibility he or she has to the intentionality of truth. It belongs on the bookshelf--and in the mind--of every fiction writer. For right now, it's arguably the best bridge to how preaching can and should be incorporated into writing.

And now this sermon is ended. Go thee forth and preach the word, the word written in truth.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Soccer's The Write Stuff

Damn Wall Street Journal!

No, it's not it's political leanings (I also damn The New York Times on a regular basis, and I used to work for "The Good Grey Lady"). No, it's not its owner. No it's not its price.

It was a book review by John Heilpern, published earlier this month, on Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game, edited by Ted Ricards and part of the wonderful Popular Culture and Philosophy series that Open Court publishes. Heilpern wrote a great piece--actually he had me at the opening sentence when he conjured up the classic Monty Python  soccer game between Germany and Greece (Socrates as the Greek team's captain ranks right up there with Socrates--or So-crates--in Bill &Ted's Excellent Adventure!).

 Anyway, forget that I had to buy the book--that goes without saying. No, what really gets me is that I knew the World Cup was coming (there was four years notice).  I knew that great enthusiasm over the World Cup was coming up. I knew that everybody in the world would be trying to capitalize on the World Cup. I knew that writers would be among those trying to capitalize on the World Cup (can you say Franklin Foer's update of his fine How Soccer Explains The World, one of the better examples?). And I knew that once again I'd be a day (four years) late and (many) a dollar short.

And the real shame of it is I could have written a non-fiction book that would have sold thousands upon thousands of copies--maybe millions--of copies. Forget my novels-in-progress--THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and THE HOUDINI KILLER. Novels? I don't need no stinkin' novels! Not considering the money I would have been raking in. Want proof, beyond the (sad) fact that non-fiction outsells fiction.  I don't need to show you no stinkin' proof, but I will.

My book would be directed at the writing market. Writing books are (fools?) gold. Would-Be Writers (every third person in any room and grow) buy any writing book that comes out in hopes that it contains a clue to The Philosopher's Stone. Established writers (secretly) buy any writing book that comes out just in case it contains a clue to The Philosophers Stone, which would then allow some Would-Be Writer to dislodge them from the Pantheon. That's a load of writers, so I think you get the picture.

I'd give the book a real catchy title like, How Soccer Explains Writing (Sorry, Franklin) or ---- My Soccer Book On Writing Says or Soccer Soccer Bang Bang Write Write or maybe Change Your Soccer Style, Change Your Book. Catchy is the key.

Then I'd explain the connections between soccer and writing. Want a "for instance"? OK, for instance:
  • you've finished your manuscript and  you put it (or at least a few chapters) out there in the world (the ball is on the soccer field)
  • where agents kick it around (the manuscript circulates among agents)
  • and sometimes the ball gets close enough to the goal for a good shot thanks to a midfielder (perhaps some one puts in a good word for you),
  • but your work is returned with suggestions (defenders kick it away),
  • which you make and send back (you're the striker now),
  • however the goalkeeper saves the shot (rejection, despite a brilliant effort),
  • so you keep trying (your work gets kicked around some more)
  • until you finally score (an agent takes you on)
  • or you get so exhausted you take yourself out of the game (quitting)
  • getting some rest and gathering strength so you can go back on the field (rising above it all)
  • and start all over again (dogged determination).
This, of course, is a very short and simplified abstract from the many brilliant ideas that the book would have contained (obviously you can easily substitute "editor" for "agent"), but I don't want to disclose too much. After all, there'll be another World Cup in four years and this time I intend to be ready.

Therefore I'm alerting my editor, Jim Frenkel, and my agents, June Clark and Peter Rubie: a slight change in plans, starting right now. We're heading in a new direction so stick that in your vuvuzela and blow it because I have only one thing to say:


Friday, June 18, 2010

Eat Your Words

Today's Recipe for Writing:

Krispies Marshmallow Squares a.k.a. Rice Krispies Treats. (I would add another "s" to Krispies, but there's that damn copyright thing!)

Why make this? Because it's comfort food and comfort food is diverting and fun. The writing equivalent of comfort food is the comfort book, also called the easy read--great for beaches, lakes, ski lodges, hammocks, fireplaces, air or train travel, ends of long and hard days--basically anytime people need something diverting and/or fun. Why write this? For money, of course, idiot!

But there's lots of comfort foods.  Why Krispies? Because they take no time to prepare, go down easily, have little substantial nutritional value and are portable. Like comfort books--no time to write, easy on the eyes and brain, have little lasting literary value and are portable. And both impart just the right amount of delicious guilt after being over-consumed, which they always are.

Yeah, but peanuts and potato chips take zero preparation, have little or no nutritional value, are portable and lead to over-indulgence and guilt. True, but preparing food--even simple fool-proof food--takes work (ever try to tear open a package of marshmallows?) and shows love and dedication, things that even faux cooks like to brag about. Writers--even faux writers--also want to brag about the work they've put in (even try to tear open a printer cartridge bag?), their love of calling and their dedication to craft.

Also, with peanuts and potato chips the most you can hope for is "crunch." But Krispies? Krispies give you, at the very minimum,  snap, crackle and pop. For writers snap, crackle and pop are fantastic active words that leap off the page. Snap, crackle and pop are words that show rather than tell (all pause here to genuflect before one of the holy icons of the literary faith). Even when everthing else in the book is soggy, these small, simple words keep shouting and carry the day.

Now that you've got the basic idea, you're ready.  Here's the official Krispies recipe, modified for writers.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes (Varies from less than a minute to 24 hours)

Total Time: 30 minutes (See above)

Servings: 12 (God, I hope not unless you're planning on using the royalty checks to fund a starvation diet.  If you only get 12 servings you're doing something very wrong!)


3 tablespoons butter or margarine (A dollop of plot.)

1 package (10 oz., about 40) regular marshmallows (Characters having no substance along with assorted fluff in the form of overblown or vapid description.)

- or -

4 cups miniature marshmallows (Even less character substance and more fluff.)

6 cups Rice Krispies® (Snap, crackle, pop and whatever other words you want to add that don't exceed two syllables. For example: rip,ravish, kill, club, stab, pummel--for advanced readers--kiss, fondle, arouse, run, seduce, trick, scream, blackmail, google, twitter . . .)


1. In large saucepan melt butter over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. (Make sure you spread your plot so it coats the entire book. Add the characters and fluff and stir until no longer ultra-gooey, although tacky is acceptible.)

2. Add KELLOGG'S RICE KRISPIES cereal. Stir until well coated. (Tip: use "the," "and," "he," "she," "a" and "an" and a lot of "said" as convenient binders)
3. Using buttered spatula or wax paper evenly press mixture into 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan coated with cooking spray. Cool. Cut into 2-inch squares. Best if served the same day. (Lay the mixture on thick into a book, prepped so that nothing sticks with the reader, and cut into small and digestible chapters. Best if consumed within a day)

That's it! Pretty simply, huh? And consistent. People want comfort food and comfort books to be consistent. However, that doesn't mean you can't add a few of your own ingredients to give that special touch.Crushed cookies, bananas, decorative candy, sizzling sex, gratuitous violence, a detonated nuclear device. This is especially true when you consider the preferences of your eaters/readers (writers call this "genre.") Just don't overdo it.

People generally don't take Julia Childs to the swimming pool.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Latin Write

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres it ain't, but it may be the perfect tonic for those who loved/hated/never took Latin or who think (depending on your age bracket) Latin means Ricky Ricardo disgustedly uttering "Loo-cee," Charo bursting out (that may not be the most decorous image) with an over-the-top Castilian "Coochie Coochie" or J.Lo belting out "Qué Hiciste."

Today's delightful discovery is X-TREME LATIN, a new book by Henry Beard (or, to be more precise, Henricus Barbatus, which, when misspelled and misdeclined, still appears to have no relationship to the delightful Caribbean getaway.

Subtitled "All The Latin You Need To Know For Surviving The 21st Century," the slim, but fully-packed, published by Gotham Books, certainly supports the claim that this particular language was "undead" and "undying" long before vampires and their ilk came into vogue. (Actually, I don't think those are vampires in Vogue, merely ghastly over-under-weight models who look that way.)

I first became acquainted with shall we say "contemporary Latin" when Victor Bers wrote an inscription in my high school yearbook that included the word irrumator. (I'm not about to tell you, but if you're that curious, I would suggest you read Catullus, Poem 10 in particular). Victor went on to become a distinguished classicist at Yale, where he still teaches. I went on, like so many writers, to have a fascination with words in any and all languages. (Thought I was going somewhere else, didn’t you? Hey, parallelism has its limits. Oh, and BTW, if you have Dr. Bers for a class, I would strongly advise you fight the urge to address him as Professor Irrumator.)

Yet it’s been a while since I’ve given Latin a lot of thought. Well, I take that back. In my novel-in-progress, The Zodiac Deception, I do use some (or rather one of my characters—a German priest—uses some. However, Beard/Barbatus’s book has made me think that it’s time to drag out the dog-eared copy of Wheelock.

For example, take The Hangover, an obscure movie that came out last year about four guys at a bachelor party in Vegas. Now if the writers had given one of the four a line like “Crapulentus sum!” —“I’m wasted”—or “Vomiturus sum!"—“I’m going to hurl!”—the flick might have been a box office blow out.

Or the next time your computer gives you a hard time, shout out “Si denuo congeles, confestum ibis in fossam purgamentorum”—“If you freeze one more time, you’re going straight to the landfill.” You’ll sound so damn educated. (There are actually better computer-directed threats in the book, but this is the only one you can safely translate in the presence of children and Shaker elders.)

And there’s so much more: things to say when you want to break up with someone, small talk during a colonoscopy, road rage (imagine—someone flips you the bird or Gagas you, as we say in New York) and you roll down the window and shout at the top of your lungs: “Ubi didicisti gubernare curram? In fuga ab Hunnis?”—“Where did you learn to drive, fleeing from Huns?” Besides the astonished look you’ll get, they won't know how to respond!

The book even contains some great Romulus and Remus jokes, including:

ROMULUS: Quem ob rem pullus viam Appiam transivit?—Why did the sacred chicken cross the Appian Way?

REMUS: Nescio. Eum evisceremus ut, extane ostensura sint illius infausti facti causam, comperiamus!—I do not know. Let us cut it open and see if the entrails provide an explanation for this inauspicious behavior!

I know, I know—you’ve heard this hoary chestnut a thousand times, but it’s still a toga slapper!

Anyway, I’m going to get re-acquainted with an old (and I mean very old) friend and I would suggest my brothers and sisters in the writing trade (and other trades as well) do likewise. Or, make a new friend. Remember—you can’t have too many friends.

Until the next post:

Morde citharam meam!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Re: Joyce

Better late than never!

Happy Bloom's Day to one and all.

Celebrate with a taste of Powers while reflecting on the following:

Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . .

Mark Twain and My Blog

The reports of my blog's death have been greatly exaggerated!

Moribund maybe, but dead? Sorry!

Now it's back--with a vengence.

So what's happened since last I wrote?

Here's the big news: TOR/Forge, part of Macmillan, has bought two of my novels: THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and its prequel THE HOUDINI KILLER. The contracts have been signed, the ink has dried and the money has been deposited. Now somebody said I actually have to write the books. If I had known that's the way publishing works. . . . Fortunately Jim Frenkel's my editor and he's one of the best there is, so I have this sneaky suspicion they'll get done and done well.

Next: I'll be overhauling this blog. Besides my travails as a novelist, and assorted other me-related news (hey, it's my damn blog) it'll have my ruminations on writing.  Wait, wait--don't groan yet.  I'm determined not to rehash the same old common wisdom, at least not without putting a spin on them, which some might see as heretical. Let the discussions/arguments begin. I'll also be making the blog more visitor-friendly, whatever the hell that means.

Then: I'll be pointing to other things--books, blogs, articles, breakfast cereals--that merit looking into. Just my opinion, of course but see "it's my damn blog" above.

And, oh, yes, for those of you have come to this blog hoping I might address "other matters," (and you know who you are)  let me simply say don't believe everything you read (you'd be surprised how much disguised fiction is out there) and add, so you're not totally disappointed, in my own time and in my own way.

Until tomorrow . . . .