Will write for food

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker

  • I tried writing for money and it didn’t work out.”
  • My parents’ greatest sorrow–other than the fact I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth–was that my grades in English classes were always lower than my grades in my other classes. They knew I was running from destiny before I did.
  • On my first visit to the radiation department to talk about upcoming cancer treatments, the doctor asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was an author, he asked how many of my books had been published. When I said, “All of them,” he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, but we do have a financial assistance program for the indigent.”
  • I once set up a card table downtown with a poster that said, “Will write for food.” A cop brought me a tomato and mayo sandwich and said, “Okay, ace, write something.” I took out a scrap of paper and wrote, “Mama don’t allow no tomato sandwiches ’round here.” “Buddy,” he said, “you’re no James Patterson.” “Story of my life,” I said.
  • When people look at me funny during a conversation, my wife explains that I’m a writer. That usually shuts them up.
  • On the plus side, when people know I’m a writer of fiction, they think I’m just making stuff up whenever I insult them with one wisecrack or another. This has given me a lot of latitude for saying just about anything to anyone.
  • Most English teachers can sense fear; mine always sensed flippancy. They discovered sooner or later that I thought high school and college English departments were doing their best to train people to hate reading and writing.
  • I was once thrown out of a college English class for challenging the professor’s negative views about journalism. He said journalism was hack writing. I said many of the world’s greatest authors began as journalists. He stipulated that but said they were in the minority, and that most journalists couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. When I said, “you probably can’t either,” he told me to get out. My father, who was dean of that university’s school of journalism, went over and had a talk with him, ensuring that I was back in the class the next day. Afterwards, I kept out of trouble (mostly) and ended up getting a B in the course.
  • Writing is like drugs. I’ve spent large amounts of time looking for a 12-step program to help me quit. So far, no luck on that.
  • People keep saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. I usually ask if anyone is still using swords these days. When they look at me funny, my wife says, “he’s a writer.”
  • If you decide to write for food, pick something you like. There’s no point in working all day for a tomato sandwich. much less humous. Go for a steak or a plate of oysters or wine that costs $500 per bottle. Otherwise, you’re not only selling yourself short, but you’re eating stuff that doesn’t taste good.



About ready to re-release an out-of-print book

When I left my previous publisher to become part of Thomas-Jacob Publishing (T-J) in Florida, many of my titles went out of print. I have self-published some of them because I didn’t want to dump a box of titles on T-J. Some of those I have self-published have come out under new names. Some, like The Sun Singer (self-published) and Sarabande (T-J) kept their original titles.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been converting a PDF copy of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire into a DOCX copy of the newly titled Special Investigative Reporter.  The formatting has been tedious since the conversion, using Acrobat, produced a Word file with weird spaces and strange formatting in it.

I think the 2009 novel is still valid inasmuch as it hits on the growing tendency for news sites to mix opinion with facts or, in some cases, to present opinion instead of facts. So, I hope the novel will still be considered relevant by today’s readers.

As a journalism school graduate and former college journalism instructor, I become somewhat irate when an interviewer asks a guest a question and then proceeds to interrupt him/her by doing most of the talking. I can cite examples, but it’s probably safer not to do that. I don’t see that as journalism or even fairly presented opinion.

I grew up in a journalism environment. My father was a journalism textbook author, the dean of a college school of journalism, and active in a variety of press institutes. What I liked best in those days was hearing the stories of veteran journalists either at our house or the journalism school. They captured my imagination. So, I went to journalism school at the University of Colorado and Syracuse University as well as a summer journalism institute at Indiana University.

That means, there’s a lot of info available for a satirical newspaper reporter novel. I’m not sure my late father would approve because Special Investigative Reporter is a bit risque and presumes that many old-style reporters rank too much. My uncle, who was a reporter, might have liked booze a little too much–to my father’s chagrin. So do I, actually.

So, in spite of the tedious process of fixing the PDF-to-DOCX conversion of the novel’s file, I’ve had fun re-visiting a book that originally came out in 2009. I’ll let you know when the new edition come out. I hope you like it.




When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Interviewers, especially those who aren’t very creative, inevitably ask emerging writers that question. I don’t think readers care.

Since I don’t like the question, my flip answer is, “When I got too old for the gigolo business.”

My wife and I have seen so many 1940s movies where the characters, when asked why they did something stupid, said, “Well, there was a war on,” that that has become our standard rationale for just about everything.

My father, Laurence, teaching journalism at Florida State University – (State Archives of Florida/Kerce)

I guess that’s my real excuse. Those were desperate times and people did desperate things, blew their savings in a poker game, married somebody in Vegas whom they’d known for twenty minutes, wrote the words “once upon a time” on a scrap of paper grabbed from the clutches of an ill wind on a dark street corner.

Truthfully, I could say that both of my parents were teachers and writers and that they passed the curse down to me. I’m sure a sophisticated DNA test would prove that. They both read a lot of books, and passed that mixed blessing down to me. It’s mixed because it leads to a house full of books.

My folks, who didn’t know anything about the gigolo business or the fact that my life’s work started because there was a war on, were a bit pushy about my writing. When I called home, Mother asked, “Have you been keeping up with your writing?” before she asked how I was or if this was just another call for bail money.

Maybe she knew my distrust of straight answers made me unsuitable for other careers such as the ministry, police work, or counseling. Years before the movie “Fargo” was released, she worried that I’d throw my principles into a wood chipper and become a used car salesman.

She had good reason to worry: I made my worst grades in school in English classes. That never went over well when report cards came out. “My teachers hate me because they think I think I know more than they do.” Mother acknowledged that I might, but said, “I think those teachers are like dogs. They can smell fear.”

She was right about that.

My teachers also smelled lack of interest. I told them I was already fluent in English and shouldn’t have to take it.

Chances are, I have a negative attitude about all this.



End of an Era – The last ‘Newsweek’ Print Issue

newsweekThe final cover of the print edition of “Newsweek” was revealed in an article in “The Huffington Post.”

Even though I haven’t read “Newsweek” in over ten years, I’m sad to see it go, just as I was also sad to see many of the other weekly and monthly print magazines I grew up with go out of business over the years. With the loss of these magazines, the public (and writers) lost a lot of outlets for short stories, features, commentary, viewpoint and the longer-form journalism that wouldn’t fit in the daily newspaper.

Founded in 1933, “Newsweek” seemed destined to trail behind “Time Magazine” in circulation. However, I found it more accessible than “Time” during the days before it began going down hill. As a subscriber, the first indication of coming hard times was the size of the magazine. It began getting thinner and thinner as pages were cut even though the subscription price increased.

I mourn the death of magazines because they presented in-depth stories most newspapers didn’t have the time or space to cover. Our Internet world is too full of hype, instant-experts, short-attention-span articles, articles filled with opinions and commentary, and all the other rush-to-judgement “facts” and “notions” the social media are famous for. Online “news,” to the extent that it can be called news, has lost most of the traditions of solid, professional reporting.

Blurring Facts and Opinions

Another reason I stopped reading “Newsweek” was due to its blurring of the lines between good journalism and bad journalism. Good reporters never tell you what they feel about a story, much less include ideas/views that aren’t attributed to a reputable source. True, news magazines did present analysis, but “Newsweek” often took that as license to write “news stories” in which the facts and opinions were mixed up into the kind of story I didn’t even expect my college journalism students to be writing once we got a ways into the semester.

newsweekfirstI got so ticked off at “Newsweek” on one occasion, I tore out several of the major news stories and went through them with a red pen marking every opinion and every unattributed fact. I sent it to them with an “F” on top and asked which journalism schools the reporters flunked out of before they were hired by the magazine. I never heard back, of course. Now, what “Newsweek” did has become so prevalent that many news consumers don’t even realized they’re often reading the reporter’s notion about the news rather than the news. When I mentioned the lack of straight news in a Facebook status update recently, one friend said “I know what you mean. That’s why I always rely on XYZ,” whereupon she mentioned one of the most biased news personalities in the business.

So, I lament the loss of “Newsweek’s” print edition along with everything else that used to be considered standard, solid journalism before the “happy news” and it’s foul cousin, “My uninformed view is just as valid as the expert’s informed view” kind of reporting took over.

Now, if you want facts, you’ve got to look farther and farther to find them. Rest in peace, “Newsweek.”


What do you expect from a book review?

A recent article in The Guardian, YA novel readers clash with publishing establishment, focuses on a recent book review flame war that raged across GoodReads and Twitter about reader reviews and author and agent responses. In the court of public opinion—which can be both a slippery slope and a bumpy ride—authors, publishers and agents risk a great deal by responding directly to negative reviews that have been published by readers on blogs, Amazon, GoodReads and other sites.

Regardless of subject matter, the consensus across the Internet seems to be that all opinions are equal. In one sense, this is true. Under our guarantees of freedom of speech and press, each of us has the right to say what we think about anything. When it comes down to basics, we all matter.

The confusion—and book reviewing is not the only place where this happens—is that when we say all opinions are equal, we then lose the distinction between the viewpoints of professionals and nonprofessionals. When you go to a doctor and get his opinion about your health, you expect his or her viewpoint to have more credibility than the mechanic at the local auto dealership. Same goes for almost any field we can name: except reviewing (as the term is used on GoodReads and Amazon).

Suddenly, many people are maintaining that anyone can say what they want about a book and label it a review, and then equate his or her best-intentioned assessment of a a book with that of a professional book reviewer who knows the genre, the subject matter, and the writing profession.

When my friends tell me they think I’ll like a certain book, they do that because they know the kinds of books I read and the subjects I care about. This counts for a lot. When they make such suggestions, the last thing I worry about is whether they’re an English professor or an expert in the themes and subjects in the novel. But, when it comes to a real review, I expect credentials and facts as well as opinions.

Opinions vs. Reviews

One of the hardest things to get across in an introductory journalism class is the best-practices standard that newspaper and magazine editorials are not only supposed to have verifiable facts in them, but are expected (by readers) to have been written by somebody with the credentials for offering an opinion in a publication.

If I get along with my auto mechanic and if we have similar views, I’ll probably enjoy hearing his impressions about the latest political debates or a book about one of the candidates. While some people claim friends talking to friends are an example of “preaching to the choir,” most of us value sharing our views with those we interact with day to day.

When something is put into writing and called an “editorial,” we expect (or traditionally have expected) something more. Basically, we expect an informed opinion. Perhaps it comes from a veteran journalist whose opinion is based on having covered hundreds of stories; or perhaps it comes from a long-time political analyst, corporate president, or teacher who has studied the field for years. His or her credentials, when coupled with verifiable facts in the editorial or editorial column, give weight to their opinions or analyses.

Book Revews are Journalism

Traditionally, book, movie, theater and other reviews have been considered journalism. As such, they are expected to meet the same standards as any other newspaper, magazine or broadcast media opinion piece. Some of the uproar behind the article in The Telegraph comes from the fact that the Internet now gives all of us a means of publication whether it’s a book we uploaded via Lulu or CreateSpace, a blog such as mine, or a review posted on Amazon or GoodReads. Those expressing their opinions about books have a right, I believe, to say their opinions matter.

I question whether those opinions should really be called reviews. Perhaps we need another terminology here that somehow distinguishes between the honest-to-goodness “man of the street” opinion about a book and the opinion written by somebody with many years of reviewing, journalistic training, or experience and education in the field the book is about. Perhaps Amazon, GoodReads and other sites should stop calling reader opinions “reviews.” While they are valid within the scope of the sites’ invitations to “speak our piece” about a book, a fair number of these “reviews” aren’t real reviews.

Perhaps we should call them Reader Commentaries or Reader Responses or Reader Dialogues. This way, we honor the readers and their opinions without discounting the work of professional reviewers whose work is supported by credentials, long-time experience with the book’s genre or subject matter, and a broad-based knowledge of the art/science/business of writing and publishing.

Most of Us Appreciate Reader Reviews

As a reader and a writer, I appreciate the reader opinions I find on Amazon, GoodReads and blogs. Talking about books on line is a good thing: it shows me that people are reading and that what they read has an impact on them. I do wish some of those opinions could be stated with a bit more care. It’s one thing to tell your best friend in private that author XYZ doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground. It’s another thing to pick up a book you thought was a page turner, discover it’s literary fiction, and then go on a rant about it because it wasn’t (and wasn’t intended to be) your cup of tea. That’s not a review.

When the opinion is called “a review,” authors as well as readers should be getting something better than either a mean-spirited tantrum or a gushy splash of unwarranted praise.