Critique group meetings in the age of the Corona Virus
March 20 2020 - Normally my critique group meets on Monday nights. During these meetings, we all sit around a table, take turns reading our latest chapters, and giving each other the benefit of our combined wisdom. Or at least as much of it as they can stand. The whole process takes two hours.
But because of Corona Virus caution, last Monday we tried to have a tele-meeting of the critique group using Google Hangout.
At first it was a fiasco because of choppy sound, people with non-working microphones, problems logging in, vacuum cleaner noises over the audio channel, and so forth, and so on. After about an hour and a half, just as the whole sorry experiment was about to collapse into an unmitigated disaster, the system finally seemed to be working.
Since Anneliese promoted the Google Hangout idea, Kay suggested she read first. Unfortunately Anneliese's laptop was so overtaxed with running her Google Hangout client, she couldn't open her computer files.
Then Kay turned to Mim to read. But her microphone wasn't working. So no one could hear her. And I was using my wife's computer to access Google Hangout and would have had to disconnect my bluetooth audio streamer and reconnect it to my own computer's screen reader to email my chapters to someone besides Mim. Who couldn't read them for me because her microphone wasn't working.
Did I say the system seemed to be working? This is relatively speaking.
At last Rob read his ten page chapter, got our critiques, and that left us with six minutes. So Judith passed on trying to read anything. And we'll try again next Monday. Hopefully with all the technical and procedural glitches resolved beforehand.
My Top Three Summer Reading Picks
July 15 2018 - Over the past few months I've read several middle grade novels. Here are the three which stood out for me. I recommend them as great summer reading for kids and kids at heart.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
Any kid who builds his own working rocket and names his dog Carl Sagan has got to have the right stuff. And Alex will need it all as he tries to travel on his own, except for Carl Sagan, to an out of state rocketry event where he plans to launch his rocket carrying a iPad with his oral journal.
Along the way, Alex makes new friends, and discovers secrets, both painful and joyful, about his family.
The Last Gargoyle by Paul Durham
After Penhallo's two best friends are killed, he is the last Grotesque (please don't call him a gargoyle) in Boston. As Penhallo tries to solve his friends' murders and protect the residents of his building, he is aided by a mysterious girl who not only sees him for what he really is, but seems to know more about Penhallo than he knows about himself. But can he trust her? Or is she in league with the deadly evil that threatens all of Boston?
This is a great read, filled with mystery, danger, magic and heroism.
The Queen's Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler
Owen is going to die. At least that is the most likely outcome when his father makes a deadly political choice and earns the disfavor of the king.
Now Owen is a hostage in the king's court with enemies, both young and old on every side. His only friend seems to be a mysterious woman who lives secretly in the castle and travels through its hidden passages. But how trustworthy is someone who admits to being a skilled poisoner in the service of the exiled queen?
Trustworthy or not, Owen has nowhere else to turn if he is going to save his family. And himself.
This is an exciting read that keeps you rooting for Owen as he threads his way through the traps and pitfalls of his new life at the King's court.
Echo: A Fabulous Story
November 11 2017 - Every once in a while I encounter a novel which rises so far above the rest of the pack, I want to put it into a class by itself.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan falls right into this category. On its face, it is a well told tale. Or should I say tales. There are actually four stories in one. All of them tied to each other often in ways that are delightfully unexpected.
In the beginning we are introduced to Otto, a boy lost in the woods, who encounters three magical sisters fifty years before the war to end all wars. Later we meet Frederich Schmidt, a musically talented, but disfigured boy in pre-WW II Germany. Next we encounter the two orphans, Mike and Frankie Flannery, whose only escape from mistreatment in a depression era orphanage is Mike's musical genius. And lastly we meet Ivy Lopez, whose father uproots her and her mother to save the farm of a Japanese-American family who are relocated into an internment camp during WWII.
Each of these stories alone is a little gem of bravery, family, and courage.
Taken together, with the common threads of music, and a semi magical harmonica in the mix, and you have something far greater than the individual tales.
What makes the Scholastic Audio version of this book even more memorable is the musical interludes recorded in and among the narration. Never obtrusive, always spot on appropriate to the text, they add a dimension to the story which elevates it to something just short of a performance.
And let me assure you, the music does not get in the way of the story. Not at all.
Do yourself an enormous favor, and bump it to the top of your reading list.
You Can't Make This Stuff Up!
October 20 2017 - I just finished my novel Reentry late in September. Reentry is a middle grade novel about a group of kids and their adventures aboard the new International Space Station.
My manuscript had gone through multiple revisions, edits, and was finally in good enough shape to start sending out queries to agents.
Or so I thought when I began the process of vetting my agent list, putting together query packages and sending them off starting on October 10th.
Everything was going fine. I was sure some lucky agent out there would love the plot, the ensemble cast of international students, and my main character, a geeky, socially awkward kid named Harvey Weinstein.
Yes. I know. I should have vetted the name more thoroughly. At the very least I should have paid more attention to the news.
Well, I didn't. So a huge bunch of queries went out with my main character's name sticking out like a cow pie on a wedding cake.
In a panic, I immediately changed his name to Calvin Steinbaum. Not that this had any effect on the queries I'd already sent.
A few days later I faced my critique group, and after their laughter had died down to a low roar, I showed them the name change. My critique group didn't think much of this name. Really, Calvin doesn't have nearly the same geek factor as Harvey.
In the end I kept his first name Harvey, but changed the last name to Leventhal. So if there are any Harvey Leventhals out there, please behave yourselves.
Why Can't Money Buy Happiness?
September 22 2017 - We hear this platitude all the time: Money can't buy happiness. We all nod smugly, agree with various amounts of insincerity, and go on acquiring as much of the green stuff as we can. Because even if money can't buy happiness, it can buy an awful lot of freedom from worry, stress and discomfort.
But apparently freedom from worry, stress and discomfort is not enough to provide happiness. not unless all the stories of wealthy, unhappy people are complete fiction. There must be something more. What is it.
All throughout your life you probably had moments of happiness. These were most likely very brief. But I bet they are there. Get a good grade in an algebra test when you were thirteen, and bingo, you were happy all afternoon. Solve the Sunday paper cryptogram, and you were happy for maybe five minutes. Land your first real job, and you were probably happy for the whole week.
So what do all these events have in common? Simple, these are moments when you achieved some sort of goal, preferably one you set yourself.
Now admittedly, not all happiness is created equal. I'm not saying that solving a newspaper puzzle is equivalent to getting a job. Of course they're not. They don't have to be. But they do offer some measure of happiness. They do provide a gain in your life beyond the mild complacency that for the moment nothing is going horribly wrong.
A small happiness is like a potato chip. It may not be as satisfying as consuming the gourmet feast of an Olympic gold medal, but chips are a lot easier to get, and nobody eats just one.
So what is the difference between happy and unhappy people? Unhappy people either don't set goals, or they set such big, vague, or unobtainable goals that there is no way they can achieve them without huge amounts of unrewarded effort. Happy people have set themselves goals with nearer payoffs. they let themselves recognize small successes, not just the big ones.
Both people might have the same eventual goal. But a happy person will have broken down the long term goal into shorter term steps, and enjoy the rewards of intermediate success along the way. An unhappy person will only see the long term goal, never recognize short term successes, and remain unhappy.
That old chestnut, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, is just as true for a journey towards happiness. Celebrate each step, and eventually you'll reach your thousand miles. Focus only on the long distance ahead of you, and all you'll think about during the trip is your sore feet.
Stories Are Like Fractals, I Think
August 21 2017 - Not so long ago fractals became a mainstream buzzword. It was fractal this and fractal that, and fractals to and fro.
But what are fractals? The best definition I can find is that a fractal represents the mathematical similarity of related natural objects of different size. In other words, a grain of sand is like a pebble is like a rock is like a boulder is like a mountain. But with math.
If you examine these objects with a variety of microscopes, telescopes, and even your naked eye, you will see that this is quite true. Keen and even lackluster observers of nature will be quick to point out that this concept is true for plants, animals and even subatomic and large scale structures in nature. Compare an atom to a solar system for example, with a stop in between for planets and moons.
But what does this have to do with stories? Patience. I'm getting there.
As I learned more about the writing craft, I was soon exposed to the concept of the story arc. This is simply a catch phrase for the idea that a character is presented with a challenge, and over the course of a story, deals with it and is changed.
My aha moment came when I realized the same thing can happen within a chapter. Or within a paragraph. Or even within a sentence.
Does this mean that stories are part of the natural order of the universe? Could be. But let's leave that question for philosophers.
Does it mean the concept could work in the other direction? Sure it does. Just look at Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Or even Heinlein's future history timeline with characters moving in and out of each other's novels. Or Ed McBain's 87th precinct novels.
But the best example I've seen of this concept is The Thirty Nine clues, a series of young adult adventure novels written by a variety of authors, all following the adventures of a brother and sister as they seek to discover thirty nine clues to a secret formula which will save their family, and possibly the world.
Every so often I get these aha moments, when some idea that I vaguely heard about before, suddenly clicks into place and becomes something I really understand. Or hope I do.
Wake of the Perdido Star is one Great Rip Roaring Adventure.
July 27 2017 - This fast paced historical novel by Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan takes us to the early eighteen hundreds United States where we meet seventeen year old Jack O'Reilly. Jack, the son of an Irish father and a Cuban mother, witnesses the murder of his parents when he accompanies them to Cuba to reclaim his mother's inheritance.
Barely surviving the murderous assault with his own life, Jack escapes to stow away on the Perdido Star, and begins a seafaring adventure filled with villains, storms, shipwreck, piracy, and some truly marvelous descriptions of nineteenth century deep sea diving technology.
Jack's search for revenge is the driving force in his year and a half long voyage. But his growing maturity and wisdom is the saving grace of this often violent, but always fascinating page turner of a yarn.
What first caught my attention about this book was one of the authors, Gene Hackman. Yes, that Gene Hackman, the Academy nominated actor from The French Connection.
But what kept me reading was the spot on description of the people and their times, plus the fascinating descriptions of how early eighteen hundreds seamen performed underwater salvage, exploration, and even warfare.
This story is one I'll definitely remember.
Why I Write
I always wanted to write. But like thousands who say that, I didn't do anything about it. Not until 2011.What happened in 2011