The Stories that I’ll Publish Once I’m Dead.

look_at_the_birdieI am just about finished with Look at the Birdie, a collection of short stories written by Kurt Vonnegut. It is the second collection of short stories published posthumously by the great author (or rather, by his estate). And, in all honesty, the stories published between its covers are the ones that were written for magazines early in his career but were rejected for one reason or another.

I’m a fan of the book all the same. I am biased though. The Vonnegut estate could probably release one of his old notebooks wherein he tracked his bowel movements and I’d be happy to read it. But all of that aside, Look at the Birdie got me thinking about the short stories that I have written. Specifically, the short stories that have been rejected thus far.

In addition to the handful of unfinished novels languishing on my hard drive, I have a handful of short stories that have yet to be published. I think they are all right, but I recognize that I haven’t exactly hit the pinnacle of my writing abilities or career. At that time, they may well be published on the basis that they are associated with my name (though more likely not). But I am encouraged by the fact that Kurt Vonnegut, award-winning, best-selling, genius that he was had at least two books worth of previously unpublished (likely rejected) stories.

Even successful writers don’t see success with every submission. That isn’t a reason to quit writing. Rather it means that they are the writers who kept writing in spite of their rejections and learned enough about the craft by doing so that their later works were successful.

I’m going to keep writing. Not everything that I write will get published in my lifetime. But if I stick with it, there’s still a chance that those stories will get published after I die, and then my daughters and the publisher will benefit from them. And that sounds just fine to me.

I am a Disciple of Kurt Vonnegut and Jesus

Modern Christianity could learn a lot from Kurt Vonnegut. This is a bit ironic because Vonnegut was a Humanist who at the best of time might have been Agnostic. But the morals in his novels might as well have been included in the Biblical canon.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kurt Vonnegut, in addition to being a Humanist, he survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a prisoner of war in World War 2 and then became a bestselling novelist.

9780385334143I am currently re-reading his book, Mother Night, and I wanted to share some thoughts. It doesn’t take long for Vonnegut to tell you what a book is going to be about. Often, he gives his own spoilers in the Introduction. But you don’t read his books to find out “whodunnit”, you read them because he was a brilliant writer who understood the human condition and he cast light on “the least of these” in the most humanizing ways possible.

Mother Night is a first-person portrayal of American Nazi war criminal, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who is on trial for his crimes against humanity in Israel. Campbell claims early on that he was acting as a secret agent on behalf of the Allies while at the same time actively working in propaganda for Nazi Germany. The book is Campbell’s memoir as he awaits the verdict of his trial.

This is from the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book:

Before seeing what sort of a book I was going to have here, I wrote the dedication–“To Mata Hari.” She whored in the interest of espionage, and so did I.
Now that I’ve seen some of the book, I would prefer to dedicate it to someone less exotic, less fantastic, more contemporary–less a creature of silent film.
I would prefer to dedicate it to one familiar person, male or female, widely known to have done evil while saying to himself, “A very good me, the real me, a me made in heaven, is hidden deep inside.”
I can think of many examples, could rattle them off after the fashion of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. But there is no single name to which I might aptly dedicate this book–unless it would be my own.
Let me honor myself in that fashion, then:
This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of this times.

I love that line, “a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly”. I also completely understand the concept of someone doing evil while assuring themselves that they are good deep down inside.

Now, contrary to popular belief, Humanists don’t believe that people are inherently good. Rather, they believe that humanity is capable to both good and evil. Christianity differs here in that they say that humanity is inclined toward evil and goodness can only be accomplished with divine help.

In the preface to the book, Vonnegut writes:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Christianity would disagree and say that there are plenty of people who pretend to be good, but are quite evil inside. And while that is true, Christians also shouldn’t be worrying about the evil inside of other people. God is the only one with the authority and knowledge to judge accurately in these cases. Besides, I don’t think Vonnegut is writing with these people in mind.

Mother Night is more of a warning to people who do evil in the name of good, not the other way around. And there are probably a lot of Christians out there who are willing to treat people in less-than-loving ways because they are sinners. But does the Bible really tell us to be mean or treat people badly because they are sinners? Doesn’t it tell us that we should do good to those who hurt us? Doesn’t it say that we should love as Christ, a guy who hung out with prostitutes and turncoats, loved?

Anyway, I know that there are some areas that Humanism gets wrong, and I’m more than prepared to admit that Vonnegut wasn’t a saint, but there is this to say for him that can’t be said of the Modern Church: He loved people without judging them.

I only hope I can do the same.

5 Links Worth Following

Fellow lovers of words,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted some links to other cool places on the internet, and for that I apologize. There are many wonderful things out there, and I was selfishly trying to keep you here on my blog and on my blog alone. But I’ve realized the error of my ways and I’m excited to send you out to some of the places that I’ve been. If it isn’t too selfish to ask, I would love your thoughts on the pages linked below. So visit them, then come back here and share. And as always, thanks for reading.

shapes_of_storiesThe Shapes of Stories by Kurt Vonnegut | Writers Write

I just recently added the Writers Write blog to my list of noteworthy places, and I am glad that I found them. If you use Facebook, their pages is constantly updated with fun prompts, thoughts on writing, and author birthdays and facts. For word nerds like me, this site is pure bliss.

silver_blade_clichesGrand List of Fantasy Clichés | Silver Blade Magazine

I stumbled across this page while seeking a publisher for some of my flash fiction, and it is too good not to share. For anyone who reads or writes in the fantasy genre, you will appreciate this list of overused fantasy tropes. Enjoy!

flash_fiction_contestFlash Fiction Writing Contest | Literacy Center of West Michigan

I was referred to this contest by writing friend and Guild member, Cynthia Beach. If you have an interest in flash fiction, please consider this contest. The grand prize is $150 and submissions are being accepted May 15 – June 30. There is an entrance fee of $15.

flying_pigImagine a Flying Pig: How Words Take Shape in the Brain | NPR

This is an interesting article about how words and language affect the way our brain works. Scientists used to think that we had a separate module in our brains that made language possible, given that human language is so much more developed than any other creature. But what scientists actually found was quite shocking.

writingWords | Radiolab

The NPR Article above reminded me of a podcast from Radiolab, so I went back and listened. It was great all over again. If you are fascinated by words, you won’t be disappointed by this podcast!

I am a polymath’s roommate.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Self-Portrait_-_WGA12798Today is Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. If he were alive today, he would have 561 candles on his birthday cake, but he’d probably be too decrepit to eat it. After all, 561 is pretty old.

Da Vinci was a polymath. If that sounds like something terrible, you (like me) probably don’t care for mathematics, but being a polymath has little relation to addition or subtraction. Rather, to be a polymath is to be gifted at a number of things. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, an inventor, a musician, a sculptor, an architect, and a ton of other things. He was a thinker and a tinker.

He reminds me of one of my roommates from college, Adam Haroff. Adam is a thinker and a tinker as well. He’s a musician, a painter, a woodworker, a computer programmer, a sound technician, and more. But most important to me, he is a friend.

Though it has been years since we shared a room, we’ve stayed close. In college, our friendship was epic. We enjoyed similar things and spurred each other on to achieve great things.

Well, Adam did the achieving part. I like to think that I helped inspire him. But the truth is that I am not a polymath. I am a basic guy with basic interests and rudimentary skills in a few specific areas. And that’s okay.

Probably the best thing that I learned from being roommates to a gifted thinker and tinker was that I can still be great, even if I am not the best.

An author that I like once said that one of the biggest shames of globalization was that people who were good at something stopped doing it because they were not the best. And so, I’ve learned to love my singing even though I am not Elvis or the Beatles. I have learned to love my writing even though I am not Kurt Vonnegut or J. R. R. Tolkien.

Being constantly around someone who is better than you in astonishing ways can either cause you to give up, or challenge you to become better. Which will you do?

Look at a million paintings

My wife and I recently rented Les Miserables. We had seen the stage version (thanks to DeAnne’s company Christmas party) and wanted to see how the film stacked up. It was good. We were both surprised by Hugh Jackman’s performance and both disappointed by Russel Crowe’s, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

While we were at the video store, my wife suggested that we grab something new for our oldest daughter to enjoy. The place where we rent videos from has free kids movies, so it was a good way to show her something new without breaking the bank. After some discussion a while back, my wife and I decided to allow our oldest a half hour of video time each week. This way, she can be exposed to new things without totally melting her brain.

The video that we grabbed for her was the animated “classic”, Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. I hadn’t seen it before, but I knew that my daughter loves the book version, so we thought it a safe choice. After all, I was familiar with the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with its catchy songs and half hour length; this had to be as good, right?

Wrong.

It was terrible. The plot was only semi-related to the original story. The songs were just awful. It was a half hour that none of us will ever get back. But here’s the thing. My daughter didn’t care how bad it was. She watched it all the same. And she might even have enjoyed it.

How is that possible? How could she not know how bad it really was?

Well, for one thing, she’s two. She likes anything on a computer or television screen that moves. And for another, she has so few things to compare it against to know how good it was.

As we were watching the travesty that was The Cat in the Hat, I was reminded of a passage in a book by my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut. The following is from Bluebeard.

Circe Berman has just asked me how to tell a good painting from a bad one.

I said that the best answer I had ever heard to that question, although imperfect, came from a painter named Syd Solomon […]

“How can you tell a good painting from a bad one? […] All you have to do my dear,” he said, “is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.”

It’s true! It’s true!

What’s great about this passage is that it applies to all areas of art, not just paintings. The more books, music, art, films, food, whatever we consume, the better equipped we are to tell the good from the bad.

This also answers how some books can become bestsellers when the writing is so honestly terrible. It is because the people who are reading it are not typical book readers. They don’t know it’s bad!

Anyway, if you are ever tempted to watch The Cat in the Hat, don’t waste your time. But if you want to ignore my advice, feel free.

Are there any things that you liked at first, but after expanding your repitoire, you realized were actually pretty bad?

I am a wizard (also, a book snob).

First, the wizard part.

wizard_browsLook at these eyebrows and tell me that they don’t look like wizard eyebrows. I wake up to these crazy things every morning. I like to think that they give me character.

Speaking of wizards, I am reminded of the first time that I read the Harry Potter series. DeAnne and I had been dating for maybe a month when she asked if I had ever read Harry Potter. I told her that I had not, that I had no interest in doing so. I was reading books by Kurt Vonnegut, J. R. R. Tolkien, and high-brow (not eyebrow) stuff like that.

“Oh,” said DeAnne. “I’ve read them all multiple times. I really enjoy them.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I think you’d like them if you gave them a chance.”

“Well,” I said, thinking how pretty she was and how stupid I would be if I made her stop liking me because I was unwilling to read the books that she enjoyed simply because I thought that they were below me, “okay.”

And so I read them. And I loved them. And I had to admit to DeAnne that she was right and that I was wrong (the first of many times).

You see, I am a book snob. If a book is popular, I have a tendency to believe that it is probably popular for bad reasons. Either it is poorly-written but pulls at some teenage emotional need (ahem, Twilight), or the media has created a frenzy (ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey), or I simply think it is below me. But there are times when my reflex to discount certain successes in the book world leads me astray. Such was the case with Harry Potter.

I am so glad that my wife introduced me to the world of Hogwarts if for no other reason than it started me on the path of recovery for my book-snobbish ways. (Though I am still not going to read Twilight.)

Why Write Flash Fiction?

jot_eblast2In a couple of weeks, I’ll be speaking at Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference on the topic of flash fiction. If you haven’t heard the term before, flash fiction is simply very short stories. Think anywhere between two (2) and five hundred (500) words.

Flash fiction isn’t new, and short stories have always had a following. In fact, many well-known authors of acclaimed novels got their start in writing short stories for magazines. My favorite example for this transition is Kurt Vonnegut, author of classics like Slaughterhouse-Five and Timequake. But as time has replaced the short stories in magazines by ads and articles on how to improve your sex life, readership of short stories has become almost niche.

Now take the population that reads this niche and shrink it considerably. The folks that are left are the ones writing flash fiction. Now shrink that number considerably and you’ll be left with the ones actually getting their flash fiction published.

So if flash fiction is a niche within a niche and there are so few people publishing it, why write it?

Here’s why:

  • You will learn the value of the right word. If your goal is to make a book as thick as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you can afford to be wasteful with words, adding in superfluous languages, ten names for the same character, and description as wordy as a dictionary. But when you are limiting your number of words, you can’t afford such extravagances; you need the right word, not a bunch of the wrong ones that mean the same thing.
  • You will learn to kill your darlings. By limiting your word count, you will have to make the tough decisions about what is necessary to the plot and what needs to go.
  • You will get to know your story more intimately. If you are writing a novel-length story, consider writing one of your scenes as a story within itself. What are the important elements of the scene? What descriptions can you use to bring your characters into the right light? These things will become evident when you force yourself to abide by a truncated word count.
  • Media consumers are becoming accustomed to briefness. Tweets that are 140 characters long. YouTube clips under 3 minutes long. Attention spans are shortening by the second. If we stay on this course, novel lengths will eventually shorten to flash fiction lengths anyway. Why not stay ahead of the curve?

By distilling your characters, plots, and settings, you are making each element richer. Flash fiction will help you become a better writer whether you use it as a writing exercise or as your main artistic form.

Please join me at Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference as we will look at some tips for writing flash fiction.

The Importance of Re-reading

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
C.S. Lewis

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”
C.S. Lewis

I love the library. I love that there are places filled with books that are free for the taking. I love browsing shelves, discovering books and authors that I might never have tried had I had to pay for the book.

“But Josh,” says Johnny Everyman, “you work at a bookstore. Your job depends on people buying books, not getting them for free from the library.”

Hear me. Libraries are like drug dealers giving true book lovers the first hit for free. Addicts like me will come back, money in hand, ready to pay what it takes for the next high.

And here’s the thing. When I read a free book from the library, if I really love the book, I will want to own the book. I will put that book on my wish list until I have the money to go out and buy it. I don’t just want to read it once. I want to re-read it, again and again.

Sure, reading a book for the first time is exciting. You don’t know what is going to happen. Your impressions of the characters are visceral, the plot twists leave your mind reeling, the mystery of whodunnit keeps you up much too late. But what if the book isn’t good? The excitement is replaced by the feeling of being cheated, of having your time wasted.

With a good book that you are re-reading, sure you know the characters, but now they are old friends that have a sweetness all their own. Sure, you know the plot and you know how the book is going to end, but it is the journey of getting to the end that is the fun part. Besides, you are going to notice things with each reading that you will have missed the first, second, and third times. You will discover aspects of the characters that you somehow missed, favorite scenes will take on new life with each reading. And best of all, you don’t have to worry that the book is going to be a waste of your time, because it has already passed the test.

DSC00965For me, re-reading is the best part of any book experience. There are so many books that I have re-read over the years, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to name a few. All of these (and more) are great books and deserve another trip through.

I believe that C.S. Lewis had something with his rule about reading an old favorite between each new book, if for no other reason than to refresh your mental palette and remind yourself what good reading tastes like.

What books do you re-read regularly?

Birthday Gift Report 2012

I had a wonderful 30th birthday.

I took the day off to spend with my family. We got to sleep in (and with a one-month old, this was a miracle in itself). We went out to a wonderful lunch at On The Border. I had my best day ever on my blog (104, just saying). And I got a pile of wonderful gifts, courtesy of my wife and my extended family.

Let me offer a disclaimer to the rest of this post. The best part of my birthday was being able to spend it with family. The gifts are all wonderful, but mean less than a toot to me in comparison to that. I just don’t want anyone thinking that I’m being braggy about my new stuff or that my priorities are messed up.

Okay, now you can look at my awesome gifts.

Here’s the rundown.

On Writing by Stephen King – Many writer’s have talked about how influential this book has been on their lives as writers. I look forward to finding out what all the fuss is about.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin – The second in the Song of Ice and Fire series following A Game of Thrones. By the way, the book discussion for A Game of Thrones is happening this Thursday. Drop me a note if you are planning on coming and haven’t told me yet.

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut – I didn’t even know that this book existed, and Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. While Mortals Sleep is a collection of his previously unpublished short fiction. I’m only about 80 pages in so far, but I have no idea why this was not published until now. I’ll do a full book review later though.

Cuisenart Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Coffee Mill – If you are going to get a coffee grinder, a burr grinder is the way to go. It is the best way to have uniformly ground coffee beans for use in making any kind of coffee.

Black Crema Coffee Press by Bodum – This is an 8-cup french press to go with my coffee grinder. I’ve been spending too much time and money by going out for coffee when I could be staying at home for writing nights. This is the perfect way to fuel my caffeine-driven writing fests.

Meijer Organics Whole Bean Coffee – To use in the grinder and the french press. Pure Arabica beans means a smoother, less acidic cup of joe. Good stuff.

Homestead Cobs-a-Twirl Squirrel Feeder – My wife knows how every year I put a squirrel feeder on my birthday list and every year I don’t get one. Well, I didn’t put it on my list this year, but this is the year that I got it. I have it installed already, but so far, the squirrels seem wary of it. Anyway, I can’t wait to watch them figure out how to get the corn from the feeder. The box says it is fun for squirrels, but I am inclined to believe that the only one getting any fun out of this contraption is me.

Biggby Gift Card – For those nights when I want to go out for my very favorite coffee drink, Biggby’s Frozen Mint Mocha. Oh man, they are good.

On The Border Gift Card (not pictured) – Already used it and took advantage of the fact that I am on the OTB email list and get special deals for my birthday. My wife and I got free queso and a free dessert and the gift card covered the rest of our meal.

I could not have asked for a nicer birthday, nor a nicer set of gifts. I can’t wait to read all of my new books and report to you my thoughts. Thanks again to all of you who wished me a happy birthday on here or on my Facebook page. All of your wishes came true.

When Bad Things Happen to Characters (and then Keep on Happening)

So, I finished A Game of Thrones. I’m not bragging. I was just caught up in it.

But I met up with my friend Bob the other night to do some writing and we spent a few minutes talking about the book (he joined my book club – see here). Bob is having a tough time getting into it. Admittedly, it is an 800 page book with a huge cast of characters and Bob has little to no time to read, but the same things are true of me and I had no trouble getting hooked on A Game of Thrones.

So what is the difference?

The difference, I think, is that Bob is a modern knight who believes in chivalry and noble fights. And I like the evil characters almost as much as the good ones.

Bob told me that there was only one or two characters that he really liked and that he was sure that if he keeps reading, within three chapters or so something horrible would happen to them. He isn’t wrong.

Authors cause terrible things to happen to their characters all the time. They do it to increase tension in the plots. They do it to show the mettle of their characters. They do it in order to make the resolution all the sweeter because the stakes were as high as they could be. They do it for shock value.

I was relatively young when I first read 1984 by George Orwell. *Spoiler Alert* Big Brother wins. When I read the ending for the first time, I had to read it again just to make sure that I didn’t miss something. This was completely unlike any of the fairy-tales or sitcoms that I was used to, where everything works out in the end. At the realization that not all stories had to have happy endings, my worldview changed and with it my reading preferences.

I went on to devour the works of Kurt Vonnegut. A friend passed me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 because he didn’t like it. I drank it down like an alcoholic drinks down a bitter ale. Dystopian books took prominence on my bookshelves. They became a part of who I am.

In a way, I’m glad that Bob isn’t having an easy time reading A Game of Thrones because it means that the world isn’t full of jaded folk like me. The world needs more people like him.