Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal ( The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, ( and Visit the author's website:

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Writer Reading: The Wonders of Artists at Work or, Whose Crazy, Who's Not?

I took this picture of a sign on a limo in Washington D.C. two weeks ago.

We're all a little nuts and some of us a very nuts. Take Marina Abramovic for example. I read an article about her in The New Yorker (March 8, 2010). She's a "performance" artist; that is, she can't draw, she can't sing, she can't dance, she can't act, she can't even juggle. But she can get on a stage, in front of a live audience, and "perform" by doing wonderfully odd and masochistic stunts. Like screaming until she loses her voice, or brushing her hair until her scalp bleeds, or living naked in an see-through box and performing all bodily functions unabashedly (or maybe she is abashed and that's the point), or locking lips with a lover and sharing breaths until they faint. And it all seems to work for her, at least on a financial level; she's rich and famous because of it. I guess her point is that all these things are pretty much representative of what we do to ourselves everyday. It's all about life. Yours, mine, hers, and most of us can't sing, dance, draw, act, or juggle either. She's one of us.

There is much pain involved in Ms. Abramovic's art but the performance art standard for pain was set pretty high back in the 60's when a Buddist monk in Viet Nam set himself ablaze to protest the government's treatment of Buddists. You might remember those pictures. Marina stops short of self-immolation, but if we knew she were going to start a personal blaze, would we buy tickets? Is the audience as guilty as the artist? We are voyeurs watching her and she is a voyeur watching us watching her. How much pleasure are we getting from her pain? How much pleasure is she getting from her pain or ours? Or is Ms. Abramovic simply as crazy as a loon?

Writer's are artists, too, and we must learn to stop just short of self-immolation and step into that burning circle on the very edge of maddness if only for a moment. We, as artists, need to go where other's don't dare to go because it's too close to the truth about our universal and very, very, very scary wackiness. If you don't get close to the fire, you're just an imitator or worse--a fraud, a snake oil salesman.

The point is to go very close and come back and tell about what you saw and heard over there on the other side of maddness; hold it up like a mirror so we see ourselves. When we humans realize the extent and depth of our irrationality, maybe we can begin to improve our behavior. So, what ever her personal agony, hats off to Marina Abramovic. Maybe we should call her the Mirror Lady.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This Writer is Home Again: Flowers in the Yard, Birds on the Feeder; Hare Brained Ideas?

So, yesterday I clicked the heels of my walking shoes together three times and, zoooom! I was out of the Imperial City and back in the Kansas of the East, the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

You know, I really think we found the last sane place on the east coast when we happened upon this small corner of America. Driving down Rt. 50 from D.C. the pressure of too many people in too small a place gradually eases until, when you cross the Bay Bridge and enter the Delmarva region, things really open up. Houses become fewer and fewer, fields begin to stretch out all around you toward a wooded horizon, and the press of traffic melts away. Then, after you get through Cambridge, Maryland, the real rural Eastern Shore starts. Its rural-ness expands to nothing but farms and forest, wilderness and water, shining bay and backwater villages whose streets are lined with Victorian homes murmuring of times past.

The farms, the homes, the slow, slow pace, and above all, the the water that surrounds hard upon both sides--ocean a few miles to the east, Bay a few miles to the west--suit this writer down to his most visceral instincts; I can work here, I can live here.

I guess you can tell it feels good to be back home after two weeks in Washington D.C. I love the city and I can add that to the above listed charms of the Eastern Shore; I can be where the sidewalks start in four hours, anytime I need an urban fix--international restaurants, plays, art galleries, museums, sirens, Whole Food Markets, rare book stores, demonstrators, wandering congresspeople.

Like this piece of sculpture pictured here. It's called "Thinking on a Rock" by the artist Barry Flanagan (1997) and its in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art. I like it maybe because of the irony of a hare brained thinker, which I feel like often enough while I'm trying to write. I like it maybe because this guy Flanagan visualized it, had the courage to go a head and make it, and then someone actually paid a lot of money for it. I like it maybe because the Gallery took it as a donation from an art collector and thought enough of it to put it on major public display in a beautiful garden in the capital of our nation. I like it because it's interesting to wonder what an Eastern Shore farm family or Chesapeake Bay waterman thinks of it the first time he lays eyes on it.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the jonquils that greeted us in our yard when we got home from the Big City. I love it all, big bronze rabbits and pretty yellow flowers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Head Cold in Washington, D.C.; Re-Editing a Novel; Sirens at the Window

Will Work Hard for a Better Life

These young women joined thousands coming
from all over the U.S. to demonstrate for immigration

March 20
Things are howling in this small city. There's a fairly constand parade of human crises going on just outside the safe and comfy domain of this hotel. Ambulances wake us in the night, fire trucks shriek and blast at all hours, the honking impatience of rush-hour traffic echos off the streets and off the high rise walls around me.

The National Mall was thick with demonstrators who think
imigration laws needs changing.

Nonetheless, it is spring, my head cold--which has kept me in bed all week--is fading away to a dry cough, and I hope to finish up the re-edit of Book I, The Face in Amber today. My publisher gave me a great opportunity to make some changes to the first novel in the The Eye of the Stallion trilology (maybe it will go beyond trilogy now that the publisher asked), but it was not comfortable sitting up in bed, the inviting sounds of things happening just outside, and working with a pounding head and an aching body.

22 March: Head cold is gone. Yesterday was Terry's B'day and we celebrated with a champagne and jazz brunch and a D.C. city walkabout. Went to the waterfront, found the marina, and got info where to go/what to do if we ever bring our boat up here on a cruise. Also found a pretty amazing seafood market right under the 14th Street Bridge. Then we walked all the way back to the hotel, mingling with thousands of demonstrators protesting current immigration laws. When we got back to the hotel and turned on the TV, we saw them on Fox News who said they were there protesting the health care bill. Lovely.

23 March: Today we decamp from this hotel and drive across the Potomac to another in Ballston where Terry has another two days of meetings. I'm going to get to go to the Pentagon for the first time to meet with a would-be financial advisor. Wednesday, home, home home and this weekend hope to get Seawind back in the water and back to her slip on Onancock Creek. Progress being made on all fronts.

A seafood market under the 14th Street Bridge

Monday, March 15, 2010

Okay, Go Ahead! Self-Publish and See What Happens

"As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move. . . similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle."- Honore de Balzac

I'm sitting up in bed in this nice hotel in Washington D.C., in my jammies, drinking hotel coffee, eating Zone bars, watching politics on TV (multi-tasking, yes), and drooping badly under the slog of a bad head cold. You needed to know that, right? But let's again think about self-publishing.

Yesterday I held forth the opinion that self-publishing is the "kiss of death" for would-be ligitimately published writers, but I didn't explain why, so here goes: First, when you go public with your writing you want it to be the best it can be because the first things people read are going to leave a lasting impression. If you write a book and you haven't taken the time to master the craft of writing and you've sent the manuscript out to fifty publishers and they all reject it but your mother or your spouse says it's a "wonderful book, dear," it probaby isn't. It's important to remember that if you are a very good writer--and you need to be a very good writer--a publisher will eventually pick you up. They really are not plotting you.

And there's the key so let me stress the point: You need to be a very good writer to get published by a real publisher. How does one become a very good writer? The first and obvious answer is you become a very good writer by writing and writing, and writing and writing and writing. The rest of the answer is that you get to be a very good writer by sending your stuff out to magazines and publishers and putting up with rejection. You get to be a very good writer by re-writing the rejected stuff or putting it on the shelf and starting over. You get to be very good writer by going to writers' workshops and sharing your writing and listening to constructive criticism and dealing constructively with that criticism instead of becoming angry. You don't become a very good writer by quitting on receiving your first rejection slip and then paying someone to publish the rejected manuscript for you--i.e. self-publishing.

But let's say based on your mother's and spouse's opinion, you decide that all publishers are jerks and there is a plot against you (I have a self-publishing friend who really believes this) and the only way to get your wonderful, potentially best-selling book published is to do it yourself. And looking around, by golly, you see all sorts of organizations out there who agree with you. They, too, think it's a wonderful book (though they probably didn't bother to read it and how could they? They get thousands of manuscripts every month from people just like you) and they will publish it for you if you'll just hand over some cash. You do this, and out from the sausage grinder of the self-publishing industry comes--so exciting!--your book. You tell all your friends on FaceBook and Twitter that your book has just been published and they assume it was published by, say, Avon or Hyperion, and you don't bother to tell them that you paid to have it published.

Of course, anyone in the publishing industry will know that you self-published. When you send a manuscript in to a publisher you always include a resume that lists what have you written and who published it. So, later, when you try submit a manuscript to a ligitimate publisher and you list on your writing credits just self-publishing houses, you take a chance of not having your manuscript even looked at seriously. It's better to have no listed publications than to list self-published credits because, unless the book took off and became a best seller on it's own, self-publishing is meaningless.

So then Mr. Know-It-All, you might ask, when is it a good idea to self-publish? Here are a couple of scenerios: You have written a book of family memoirs intended just for relatives or you have written a history of your home town or county and your target audience is purely local. Obviously a big time publisher is not going to be interested, but you have written something important for local consumption and you want to have it printed and bound and available "on demand." Now is the time to look into self-publishing because it only has to be good-enough writing and any money you spend can be recouped by selling locally. I recommend this route without hesitation. And who knows, maybe your manuscript is that one in a million that will draw the attention of big publishers and.....but, let's not go there.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More Thoughts on the Perils of Self Publishing: Frankie Say "Relax, Don't Do It."

A signing at a book store (that's me on the left): Even if one is ligitimately published, selling your books can be as painful as selling snake oil.

"Just write. If you have to make a choice, if you say, 'Oh well, I'm going to put the writing away until my children are grown,' then you don't really want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you do your writing. . . if you don't do it, you probably don't want to be a writer, you just want to have written and be famous -- which is very different."- Jane Yolen

I got a comment from a reader of this blog out in Ohio (thanks much "Seriously Though" and thanks, Claudia) when I vented about self-publishing. I said self-publishing is the kiss of death for those of us who take writing seriously and I'd like to do some more thinking aloud about that now.

I'm a member of a local writers' group and most of them are people who are just starting the dream of becoming a "published" writer. At our last meeting, they asked me what I thought about self-publishing and I tried to take it kind of easy because there are self-published writers in our group and they were all sitting around the table waiting for words of wisdom from this litgitimately published writer.

The bottom line is this and it's hard to be gentle about it: Anyone can self-publish. An illiterate can self-publish, a three-year old can self-publish if his mother is willing to take the time to go to and click on the right places. You don't have to have any writing skills at all to self-publish and my jaundiced opinion about self-publishing is based on this fact. If you really want to be a writer--a good writer--you have to pay your dues, you have to learn the craft, you have to suffer the agony of rejection and most of all, you have to write, write, write and never, ever quit.

Writing is a skill like, say, building houses. You don't one day decide to advertise yourself as house builder if you've never built one before. No one in their right mind would hire you to build a house for them if they knew you didn't know the difference between a joist and a window jam. And so it is with writing. Ligitimate publishers are flooded with manuscripts--some handwritten on yellow legal pads!--by people who have no idea what they're doing and that's the reason for this huge boom in self-publishing. It would be impossible for me to call myself a writer and to tell other people that I'm a writer and that I have a book out if it was self-published. It's meaningless and embarrassing.

Yeah, yeah, I know-- there are exceptions but those exceptions prove the rule. Case in point is that famous series of books about a boy and his dragon. The author was just a teenager when he wrote the first book and, as his good fortune would have it, he met someone in the publishing biz who was willing to read it, loved it, and pushed it. It was picked up by a big publishing house, became a best seller, and suddenly this kid was wallowing in fame and cash. It was like winning the lottery and anyone who knows anything about statistics and probablity will understand how vanishingly small his chances were of doing what he did.

But, of course, the person unfamiliar with statistics and probabilty thinks, That could be me! Why not! And out comes the yellow legal pad (now days its a word processor) and the scribbling begins. There are hundreds of advertisements out there for self-publishing firms who are willing to take your money and get your book published! In fact, if you look at the advertisements on the margins of this blog, you'll see lots of them (I have nothing to do with what get advertised here. That's done by computers somewhere in the murky bowels of the great Google machine).

Okay, that was not all that gentle. I'm sorry. In my next blog, I'm going to think about when it is appropriate to self-publish. Meanwhile, I'm back in Washington D.C. for ten days and it's spring and I'm going to walk and explore and think about this brave new world of writing and publishing and yes, self-publishing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Comtemplating Violence in My Writing, Living on the Edge: Driving a Prius

Here's the almost-final cover for the next book in my fantasy trilogy, due out momentarily. As you can see, it pictures a sword-wielding young woman engulfed in flames. Hmm. And the back cover blurb is a short excerpt from a pretty violent scene in the book wherein my hero, Sonoria, must fight a vast army of warriors in the dark while surrounded by fire and hundreds of mirrors.

And, while this is happening, my publisher is re-issuing the first book in the trilogy, The Face in Amber, with a new cover. This is allowing me to make some changes to the text and I'm now re-editing the entire manuscript. While the book has received pretty good reviews from readers (see Eye of the Stallion), friends have told me (wife) that the Prologue is a turn off because of the violence. I have actually heard her tell potential readers to not give up on the book because of the Prologue. When I told my publisher my concerns about it and that I was thinking of dropping it she said, "Excellent."

So, I guess that settles it: the Prologue in Book I goes and we'll either start with a new, shorter and and more invite-the-reader-in beginning, or I'll just start with Chapter I. But this whole thing begs the question of how much violence and what sort of violence is appropriate and when does it become gratuitous. As a former educator whose still-young students follow my writing, should I have kept things toned down? I admit that some of the violence in these books is pretty graphic but it is not gratuitous and is in line with what kids are witnessing in movies and some children's literature (look at the Brothers Grimm and their classic tales).
And as far as living on the edge, I'm driving our 2009 Prius on a major road trip, leaving this morning. I'm going to Norfolk to meet Terry at the airport and then out to Lynchburg in the Blue Ridge Mountains to get my new guitar (Martin D-21 Special Edition) and then on up to D.C. where I'll spend ten days writing and hanging out in the city while Terry goes to meetings. The key word here is PRIUS and everyone knows what the issues are here. While my model is not on the recall list, there have apparently been acceleration problems with with at least two models not on that list. My fingers are crossed.

So, the Prius not withstanding, my next entry here will be from the nation's capitol and I'm looking forward to being back there with great anticipation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Death-Time Test of Fame: Hollywood vrs. Literature

Man toils, and strives, and wastes his little life to claim--

At last the transient glory of a splendid name,
And have, perchance, in marble mockery a bust,
Poised on a pedestal, above his sleeping dust.
                                               Andrew Downing

Fame or infamy, either one is preferable to being forgotten.

                                                Christopher Paolini

Lying in a featherbed will bring you no fame, nor staying beneath the quilt, and he who uses up his life without achieving fame leaves no more vestige of himself on Earth than smoke in the air or foam upon the water.

                                           DANTE ALIGHIERI, The Divine Comedy


Like untold millions of us around this fat, round world, I watched the Oscars last night. Or I tried to. I got as far at the very first award, the Best Supporting Actor won by that Austrian guy who playing the Jew-hunting Nazi in Inglorius Basterds to such fine effect.  Speaking of pathos, he was pretty amazing in the part. He got us all riled up, got us thinking that that stuff really happens and how can humans do that to other humans? Where do such monsters come from? In fact, there really are monsters like him now--lots of them. Got us thinking that he's a lesson lost in the learning.
But that was as far as I got before my brain fuzzed out on the hour of pre-Oscar razzle dazzle. All the stars in all their sartorial extravagance being vetted and critiqued by all the fame pundits got to me and I went to bed before whats-her-name became the first woman to receive an Oscar for directing. All that fame failed to keep my interest piqued and my eyelids open.
Writerly fame grows from different soil than movie star fame. It is possible to win an Oscar and not be a brilliant actor. It can happen if you have a brilliant director and a brilliant script. But you'll never find a brilliant book written by a non-brilliant writer. By definition, it simply can't happen.
Death will sort it all out, I suppose. I would like to be around to see if Hollywood fame stands the death-time test as well as literary fame has. Will, 500 years from now, Meryl Streep be up there with Shakespear? Can any move star be as formidable and as eternal a force as a great writer? I speculate that the answer to that is this: There is something profound and profoundly permanant about great writing. So far, in its short history, nothing comparable has emerged from the lively art of movie making.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Writer as Reader: Munch on Great Short Stories for Optimal Literary Health

Logging on today, I saw headlines that touted certain foods as daily "must eats" for optimal health and longevity. Things like leafy greens and nuts apparently keep the bad stuff at bay so maybe you can live to be 100. Who knows, maybe 110 though why you'd want to is beyond me. And before I logged on, as I ate my breakfast (bacon, an egg, high-fiber french toast, real New England maple syrup), I read a wonderfully written short story and it made me feel much healthier and energetic as a writer. I'm ready to get at my craft with great enthusiasm.

I couldn't fail to miss the connection. If I eat well, I'll feel better. If I read well, I'll writer better. I found the literary vitamins in "Child Care," a short story by Lorrie Moore in the July 09 issue of The New Yorker. Ms. Moore has a wonderful subtle sophistication and a dandy way with turning a phrase. Little gems jump out at you and I love that. Here she is describing the protagonist in the story, a college-aged woman: "I had always felt hidden as a hull in a berry, as secret and as fetal as the curled fortune in a cookie."

The story is full of those fine little observations delivered via similies, metaphors--all the stuff that can make for good writing. It made me feel happy to be a writer and it made me want to get the day's scribbling started. It picked up my pulse and made me look out the window over my breakfast and over the cat sleeping in the other chair and out over the back yard to where the snow is suddenly gone. It made me sigh. And it caused a few very clear short story ideas to germinate in my sometimes fuzzy little brain so I added them to the list of other ideas, a list I keep close at hand.

So now I'm going to sign off of this blog and get to work. I admit to being bogged down in the middle of the novel I'm working on. The re-write is being difficult. But now, armed with a galloping, literary-stimulated heart rate, I'm ready to slap some sense into the manuscript. More later.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Writer Needs Spring Just As He Once Needed Winter

~ The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself. ~ Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway, of course, was projecting a bit when he expressed the sentiment quoted above. He himself was one of the very people he was talking about, someone who was ever so good at limiting happiness, his own and that of others.  I, too, value the company of people who are as good as spring itself and, in fact, as I've gotten older, I've made it a policy to limit my relationships to people who put no limits on happiness, mine or theirs.
In this photo, I'm with my brother in Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, a place famous for having hosted the legendary and largely mythical Hemingway happiness for many years and I, too, was very happy to be there on a summer day enjoying a cold beer with someone who makes me happy.
On the other hand, people who limit happiness with a perpetual winter of their own discontent are as neccesary to a writer as they are unavoidable. Like most of us who are on the dark side of middle age, I've known my share of them. The trick is, you see, to use their cold and muddy personalities to increase your ability to engender pathos in your art--to arouse the readers ability to feel your imaginitive pain--as Hemingway did so well. So, a writer needs the winter just as he needs the spring. But now, after a few months of meteorolgical discontent, I'm ready to crawl up and out of the mud, shake off the dirty ice, and celebrate the happiness of blossoms and things warm and green and I have just three weeks to go.