Conn River
Conn River

I’ve often referenced After the Second Wave, an in-progress collection of post-apocalyptic short stories. The project is moving along, albeit slowly with a writing coach and editor. Progress is slow because my original versions of these stories weren’t very good. The feedback process, combined with a full workload and family, takes time.

I’m not only getting feedback on the individual stories. Not only am I getting feedback on the individual stories, but I am also being challenged to consider how the collection should present as an overall piece. I’ve thought of it as a bunch of stories held together by a common world and common characters, with callbacks and references. But there should be more; the collection needs a through-line. There is a loose through-line as a function of the genre. Any post-apocalyptic story is about our modern world and how we’re destroying it, the true nature of man when confronted with a new world, overcoming hardships, etc.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell is my guiding light on this project. In his first novel, he assembled a collection of seemingly independent stories interrelated by characters and the world. The stories hang together loosely on first read; each subsequent read reveals tighter and tighter cause and effect. Any reference to an event or character outside of the current story is invariably a callback or reference. But I can’t find a through-line. The last two stories directly reference the Iraq war and an almost global nuclear war controlled by an out-of-control AI (developed by a character from a previous story, of course).

There are a cluster of themes within Ghostwritten; stories about love and isolation and overcoming. And I need to consider the same; readers need a sense of an arc. The initial stories could focus on the shock of a new word, causing pain and suffering. Then, the middle stories reflect change to the new world. The final set could offer a glimpse into successfully, or unsuccessfully, overcoming obstacles and finding a better way.

It’s helpful to consider through lines after most of the stories have first drafts. Much the same way, applying the classic story structures is more effective after the first draft. Starting with a story structure first or set of themes would hinder the natural progression and feel forced (more on this in a future post). Now is the time for me to see the through-line.

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Point Beach Inlet
Point Beach Inlet

In a previous post I mentioned a Netflix documentary on Tom Wolfe , an author I’d heard of but never read. Shortly after watching the doc, I was in B&N and The Bonfire of the Vanities was on display. I knew little about Bonfire other than a Tom Hank’s movie based on the book and it was set in the 1980s.

I enjoyed the first third of the book. It’s always fun to read about rich bankers doing rich banker things, like living in extravagant Park Avenue apartments, attending exclusive parties, wearing $1200 (1980’s money) shoes. Sherman McCoy, the protagonist, is a bonds guy who considers himself a Master of the Universe, a term Wolfe either created or popularized. We also meet a struggling assistant DA, a failed reporter, politically minded preachers and DAs, wives and girlfriends, and cops. It’s a fun introduction, save long-winded.

Once the main plot gets rolling, though, Bonfire becomes a slog. Scenes go on forever; I lost count of how many times I thought “I get it, let’s move on,” From a style standpoint, reading Sherman’s internal dialogue was brutal; literally pages of him just repeating he was worried. I had to skip the long paragraphs… luckily the worried thoughts were italicized and easy to pick out.

The other major flaw the lack of anyone to root for. Not one character, certainly not the selfish, cheating, MOTU Sherman, the scheming political DA’s or clergy, the perpetually drunk and lucky reporter, the socialite wives only concerned with status and becoming skeletally thin, nor the cops and defense lawyers who exist in a corrupted and broken system. Assumedly this is the point; all these groups are self-motivated and grind on each other to everyone’s detriment. But as a reader, I’m not interested.

Overall, I was disappointed in Bonfire, especially after a strong start. Wolfe was talented but needed a stronger editor to reign in the rambling inner dialogues and never-ending scenes. I’d like to read his feature articles from Vogue or GQ as a comparative as the constraints of a magazine could help him.

Re-discovering Bookstores

Smoky Yosemite
Smoky Yosemite

On this site, I’ve discussed how to find new reads, my pile of unread books and libraries. But not bookstores.

Most of my purchases (for everything) are on Amazon for price, convenience, and selection. When I get a recommendation, nothing is easier than ordering on Amazon. But there is a discovery problem. Sure, Amazon recommends books based on purchase and browsing history. But these recommendations are simplistic and favor popular titles. New books have to prove themselves before I invest the time and energy; the millions of titles from the last few hundred years deserve equal consideration.

Which brings me to bookstores. Touching books, the smell of coffee and binding, racks full of speciality magazines. Whenever I travel, I stop at local, independent stores. Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, was a religious experience. Locally, I was limited to an old-school Barnes and Noble. Spending time in that store wasn’t appealing; it was loud and focused as much on selling toys and trinkets as books.

But our local BN left their classic building last year and took a smaller space. And the redesign is great. Very book centric. This is part of a trend from BN.

This re-thinking of BN works. I enjoy picking up a coffee and wandering through the stacks. The layout is much airier and inviting.

It’s not perfect. They desperately need a used-book section. And the new store still dedicates too much shelf space to crappy celebrity cookbooks and current events titles with flashy titles. But these are small things.

On my most recent visit, I experienced the magic of the in-person bookstore. I needed a new read so I wandered the fiction section. And one name jumped out: Tom Wolfe. The day before, I watched a short documentary on Netflix called Radical Wolfe. I didn’t know (before the movie) he wrote The Right Stuff or Bonfire of the Vanities. And there it was, a gold-covered copy of Bonfire smiling up at me, eye-level. This wouldn’t have happened via Amazon (yes, cookies and tracking, but I am so jaded by any sort of ads online I ignore the recs).

The new BN format is a welcome change. I’ll still order from Amazon for quick, definitive purchases, but I’m in BN at least monthly now.

Book Review: Slow Horses

Slow Horses
Slow Horses

I watched Slow Horses when it was first released on Apple TV+. It quickly became one of my favorite streaming series. Great cast, interesting characters, and English spy craft. The series is based on Nick Herron’s series Slough House (rhymes with cow).

I heard his books described as a modern Le Carre so I avoided them… I find Le Carre slow. I could never become invested in the story or the characters. Oddly, though, I liked many of the movies or series based on Le Carre novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Spy, and A Most Wanted Man. I tried Slough House and read along while re-watching.

Each 6-episode season is based on one book; the first season is Slow Horses. I’d read to a point, then catch up with the series. I’d never done this before; usually I’ll watch the movie or series after finishing the book.

The first 4 episodes are almost beat-by-beat from the novel. It was fun hearing the exact lines taken from the book, especially from Lamb (SH is an ensemble, but Gary Oldman as Lamb is the star). The minor changes jump out, like Ho (the techie) not wearing glasses or living in a different house. And makes me wonder why they made these slight changes.

The series drifts from the book over the last two episodes; the plot around the kidnappers is very different. They add time with the kidnappers and the victim.

This is my main criticism of the book (lesser, as Herron only spends a few pages with the kidnappers) and series; the “bad guys” aren’t interesting. The genuine conflict in SH is between the members of Slough House themselves (who treat each other delightfully horribly), Jackson Lamb vs his own team, and Slough House vs the main MI5. Any time spent away from the central characters appears an un-necessary distraction. And the main kidnapper/bad guy in the series is cartoonishly evil and unrealistic.

The show runners for the series could have handled the kidnapping in the abstract by using news reports, intel, and keeping the camera with the main characters. It felt like they didn’t trust the viewer enough.

Other aspects of reading while watching were interesting. Namely, as a reader, I didn’t have to conjure pictures of locations (the notable Slough House or the starkly contrasted MI5), how the characters looker or spoke, or even the general vibe. I would have come up with a slightly different take on River Cartwright… I would have had him more serious, while Jack Lowden plays him with a lighter touch.

Slow Horses is a good read, far better than any Le Carre I’ve ever attempted. I want to read and rewatch with the other two novels, and contrast the experience to reading one that hasn’t been turned into a season. Herron’s writing is a perfect combination of smart, literature-esque, strong characters but with a strong plot that moves. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Everybody Behaves Badly


Readers of the blog know I am a Hemingway fan. I read The Sun Also Rises during my junior year in high school along with The Great Gatsby and Huck Finn. The Sun Also Rises was the rare book I loved upon first reading and have re-read it four or five times since high school.

Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume is the story behind The Sun Also Rises. This book was featured on One True Sentence podcast in 2020 and went into my Amazon wishlist. And there it sat until Ryan Holiday included it on his November 2023 book list. Seemed like the universe was trying to tell me something, so I picked it up… although I was still wary.

I read a similar book, The Undoing Project, which provides the backstory to the writing and authors behind Thinking Fast and Slow. Everybody Behaves Badly is a much better, more interesting read and highly recommended.

Blume tells the story of Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s, from his background as an unknown writer who schmoozed his way into the (already) famous literary scene in Paris. Here we meet so many of the people Hemingway would use as characters in The Sun Also Rises, from Robert Cohn to Lady Brett Ashley. We get enough of Hemingway’s background to understand who he was, but not an exhaustive biography.

More importantly, we get an account of Hemingway’s’ trips to Pamplona and the bullfights, especially the trip in 1924 with Harold Loeb (portrayed as Robert Cohn), Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett Ashley), Pat Guthrie (Mike Campbell) and Donald Stewart (Bill Gorton). The Sun Also Rises is a retelling of this trip, with the characters and events only slightly altered. One of the great revelations of Everybody Behaves Badly was how close to a straight travel story The Sun Also Rises, a beat by beat retelling of events.

This covers about 2/3 of the book. The final third describes life for Hemingway during and immediately after the publishing of The Sun Also Rises, which made him an internationally famous author (his goal). The epilogue details the lives of the characters/real friends (that word is doing a lot of work here) after the publishing. Amazing to see how much their inclusion in The Sun Also Rises affected their lives for the worse.

I tried to co-read The Sun Also Rises with Behaves… I’d read along while learning about the circumstances around the writing. A shocking thing happened, though… while I truly enjoyed Everybody Behaves Badly, The Sun Also Rises read very slow, especially to start. I’m not taking The Sun Also Rises out of my pantheon of favorite/best books… I wonder if I was just in a rush to get to the bullfights, and also to start other fiction novels stacking up on my to-read pile (an unread David Mitchell and two William Goldman books). But I couldn’t finish it… felt like Jake Barnes spent seventy pages aimlessly drinking in Paris (at the bars and restaurants Hemingway frequented, of course).

Behaves is a fun and easy read. Blume shows us where and how The Sun Also Rises events, places and characters originated. The Sun Also Rises is still one of the best novels of all time, although my journey over the last few years (reading a ton of short stories, including most of Hemingway’s) tilts me toward his short stories instead of his novels… a complete 180 as per my thoughts a few years ago.

Reading and Writing

Gaelic Sign
Gaelic Sign

Is reading part of the writing process? I wouldn’t write if not for my lifelong love of books and reading. I have more than a dozen books on writing, from the technical to the philosophical and countless works of fiction. But how useful is reading?

Consensus is writers must read. Stephen King, in On Writing, wrote at length about how critical reading is for a writer.

“I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read… Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” (On Writing, p 145)

Neil Gamain, in his Masterclass, said to write genre fiction, you must be intimate with said fiction (to understand, deliver and/or subvert expectations).

The flip side is time spent reading is not time spent writing. You know, actually doing the work. But it seems like progress. I can read a book on the craft, the technical aspects of constructing stories, author’s biographies… and it feels like I’m learning. I can picture taking the advice and turning out better work. Same with great fiction. Reading exceptional writing allows me to analyze the story and the writing style, sparking fantasies of doing the same.

I’ve noticed this same behavior with people trying to start a workout habit. Buying new sneakers and other workout gear, watching a video about nutrition, signing up for a gym membership all feel productive. But it’s not doing the work. And, sadly for me, neither is reading about writing. In triathlon, there’s an idea called the law of specificity… sure, cross training is great and helpful. If you want to swim better, you need to swim more. Probably a lot more. I feel the same about writing.

Of course, there is a place for books on writing and consuming literature. It’s useful, necessary, and spending time with art is worthwhile. There must be a balance, however. And the balance must favor the work.

Book Review: Holly

Holly Cover
Holly Cover

When I was younger, Stephen King was the biggest author in the world. Bookstores in my local mall (B.Dalton and Waldenbooks) prominently displayed his new hardcovers. They turned his books into movies. Guy was the “king” of horror.

I never liked horror, though, so I didn’t read or watch any of King’s stories. It wasn’t until I was an adult my wife made me watch The Shining, which I really enjoyed (as well as the book). When I read On Writing (the best book on writing?) I truly became a fan. So when my writing coach suggested I read Holly, I was game.

I enjoyed Holly. Holly is a mystery, sort of… we know who the bad guys are very early. The story is watching Holly, our protagonist, figure everything out. It’s a good page turner. It’s easy to root for Holly and her team of good guys and even easier to hate the bad guys… they are seriously evil and deranged.

Reading Holly, a few things stood out to me. One, King made this an immediately post-COVID lockdown story. Masks, shots, people sick and dying. Covid is a character in the story. It’s an odd choice because it already made it feel dated. An example is people, upon meeting for the first time, discuss whether they are vaccinated. Most of the “bad” people in the story aren’t, while our heroes are. Same with mask wearing, Covid deniers, etc. It’s an interesting choice; on the one hand, it marks a specific period in history. But reading it now, only a year or two later, it feels very dated. And while I agree with the “good guys” on vaccines and masks, making all the bad guys on the denier side comes off heavy-handed.

The other issue is the editing. I remember reading another super-popular author when I was a kid, Tom Clancy. His first bestseller, The Hunt for Red October, was a tight thriller with just enough military tech to make it interesting. His second, Red Storm Rising, was an unnecessarily long and almost unreadable. I distinctly remember my father, who read the book before I did, telling me it was a shame when authors got too big and could ignore their editors. I feel the same way about King’s writing. Characters have the same thoughts or experiences multiple times… I constantly said yes, I know this already. It’s unfortunate because the writing is excellent, and we’re invested in the characters and plot. The “Writers Edition” of The Stand was perhaps the worst example. In fairness, SK, in the intro to the extended version of the book, says the same… but it was laborious to read.

As fun as it is to criticize one of the most successful authors of all time, Holly a good read. Great, memorable characters, tension, and we really feel like we have a good sense of the location where most of the story takes place.

Immersive Experience?

Smokey Yosemite Valley
Smokey Yosemite Valley

Since embarking on this circuitous and bumpy writing path, I’ve tried to read quality writing. Doubled down on Hemingway, read the Russian Masters (Dostoevsky, Gogol, Nabokov), Morrison, etc.

Books aren’t the only writing I consume. I’ve watched shows I’ve heard Koppelman call out as examples of good writing, like The Crown. I found it hard to care about English Royalty and stopped after two seasons. But I gave it another chance on Koppelman’s recommendation. The writing, acting and dialogue are top-notch. Makes it hard to watch lesser shows on Netflix that feel like they put them together over a weekend. I still don’t care about the Royals, but I care about the characters in The Crown.

Similar story with The Bear. It was a critical darling when released. I watched the first two episodes… and couldn’t watch anymore. They did such a great job of creating a tense kitchen that I felt like I was on edge… and I had to stop watching. I don’t want to feel tense when watching at night before bed. Similar to the Crown, I recently gave it another chance and watched two episodes on a weekend afternoon. And got hooked. They do family conversation (talking over each other) better than anyone else. I just watched the infamous episode 6 of season 2, which was referred to as one of the best single episodes of TV ever.

If watching good writing (defined by realistic, relatable characters, interesting story arcs, thinking about the show when it’s over) immerses one in helpful content, does bad writing do the opposite? Do my skills get worse each time I watch a Jason Statham movie (I hope not, JS movies are a guilty pleasure).

Same with bad writing. And I don’t mean this website, but the cavalcade of sites geared toward SEO, and the rambling, say-nothing sentences and taking five paragraphs to say what only requires one. Does reading such low-quality stuff rot the brain? Probably not, although unconsciously it may give an excuse to write worser sentences (:))

Is it possible to only read and watch quality stuff? Not practically, but reducing the consumption of low-quality free writing online could be helpful. I’ve made this change already with my reading of books; the Russian masters, best short stories of the century, etc. And when I pick up a non-capital-“L”-literature book, the difference jumps off the page.


Clickety Desk
Clickety Desk

When I started this blog, I featured pictures of my writing setup. iPad, French Press, mug, glass of water. And my mis-en-place traveled; during the pandemic, we’d take quick trips to Upstate New York in rented Airbnb’s and I’d write each morning. Recent travel with less-than-ideal setup’s in hotel rooms brought my mis-en-place to mind.

I upgraded to an iPad Pro. Bigger screen, nicer view. I don’t notice the better colors or pixels while writing (black words on a white background) but the increased size makes an enormous difference. I can see 20-30% more text on the page. The biggest upgrade with the Pro is the keyboard. Flat, amazing keys, real keyboard feel, no delay or syncing issues, satisfying key stroke sound. Clickety-clack! A massive improvement over the third-party keyboards I used on the previous iPad mini, although I don’t know if the quality of what I type is better.

The coffee system was also upgraded. I love a carafe of French Press in the morning (from Fair Mountain Roasters and ground fresh each morning). One of my pet peeves is cleaning the French Press; getting the grounds out of the bottom of the carafe, etc. About 1.5 years ago I funded Capra Press. Their hook is the removable carafe bottom. The carafe, though delayed, has been life-changing. I purchased it solely for the removable bottom, but the press system and filters create a smoother, tastier cup of coffee (the filtered coffee doesn’t mix with the grinds while resting). And cleaning takes only a few seconds. The Capra press and my trusty mug round out my writing station.

Other items come include books I’m using for inspiration. At the advice of my writing coach, “Room” by Emma Donahue is within arm’s reach. I copied passages from her to work on my child-point-of-view story.

I don’t want to be too precious about my setup. Best to be flexible. A craftsperson needs to know and love their tools.

Set in Setting

Reflecting Lake, Yosemite
Reflecting Lake, Yosemite

Where does setting come from? Sometimes it writes itself; a space opera has to be set in an imaginary galactic cruiser, or a period piece in glorious Victorian mansions. But what about stories without a prescriptive setting, like a love story between two twenty-something’s in modern times? A Brooklyn apartment, or the suburbs of Atlanta?

When I’m creating stories, the setting “just sorta” appears. In Unfair Advantage, I wanted a location with restaurants and wealth. West Palm Beach immediately sprung to mind. I visit WPB twice a year with friends. We walked downtown WPB often and enjoyed many local restaurants. So The Blind Monk, Buccan and the running path next to the Inter-coastal were natural settings. And they were easy to write as I’ve spent a lot of time in each of these spots.

Another (unfinished) story, Crystal Grove, takes place in my current neighborhood, but with my “old” house. I started Crystal Grove during quarantine; using my immediate surroundings to tell a story of a possessed grove of trees literally “popped” into my head. My decision to use an old house is less obvious; it may have been because my children were very young in that house. Crystal Grove featured two young children.

Another example is the library from my childhood hometown. I needed a place for a post-apocalyptic, charismatic leader to use as a base of operations. It jumped to mind. Same with a shoreline town; I pictured Bay Head NJ, close to where my parents once lived.

I wonder how other authors arrive at their settings. So much of the writing process, from characters to conflict to plot resolution, is a struggle. But setting presents itself quickly.