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:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I'm in Oz. No, Really, I'm in Oz.

Chicago skyline from Chicago River: a truly magnificent "smelly onion"

“Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.”

                                                                                Frank Lloyd Wright

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.”
                                                                              Henry Louis Mencken

"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."
    Edgar Rice Burroughs, Chicago native, on deciding to become a writer

I used to worship at the alter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan books got me swinging on backyard vines and wrestling with imaginary gorillas before I was eight years old. Edgar was born in Chicago and he would probably be considered the least of the famous writers produced by this city, writers that include Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Saul Bellow.
So, her I am, too, a writer wallowing in one of the world's great cities, trying hard not to feel like a golly-whiz bumpkin just off the farm amidst this grand skyline. But, golly whiz, one does get a crick in the neck the first few days here from looking up--up, up, up, up, and all around. It does stagger the faculties, this Oz of glass and steel that seem to emerge directly from the blue water of ocean-lake Michigan.
So, I figured, this fascination with the improbable constructions of man (and a woman architect, too) will pass. Give it time. Take your rubber-neck pictures, wander the streets gawking, take the Chicago River architecture tour (the poor docent was going hoarse trying to tell us everything as the boat steamed along). After a day or two, you'll be like Saul Bellow want to go and die in Vermont.
It's now day three and I'm about to finish this blog entry and head out again. Maybe today as I cross Michigan Ave. to the Art Institute of Chicago for another few hours of enthusiastic shuffling and staring, shuffling and staring, I'll be able to stifle the thus-far irrepressible urge to look up. Tomorrow I'll be able be like travel writer Paul Theroux and be hard and cynical and grumpy and write about the actual writers who came from this town. Or maybe about the food, or the wonderful, conversation-stopping rattle and roar of the elevated railway, or the lovely young women dressed so fetchingly in their summer-in-the-city minimals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Multitasking Can Ruin Your Writing: Frankie say Relax, Don't Do It

What distractions plagued Shakespeare while he penned Hamlet?

Multitasking allows you to screw up several things at once.

                                                                     Internet wisdom

Every morning, at my own choosing, I enter a multitasking hell scape.

To wit: I get up, make a cup of coffee, grab a breakfast bar, head into my cave, sit back in my recliner, and get the day going. It isn't hard to multitask eating, drinking coffee, and reading/writing; my mistake is turning on the television.

See, I'm a news junkie; I can't help myself. Those are my friends up there on that 47-inch, High Def, flat screen and they need me as much as I need them. I've been visiting with them for years and for some reason the political prattle they stuff into my brain satisfies an insatiable hunger to know everything and know it now.

And it's not helpful that while Morning Joe and his cronies are chuckling and yelling, accusing and revealing, that across the bottom of the screen runs a continuous stream of yet more information about politics, entertainment, the economy, and sports. And I have a new camera I use on these blogs that I'm trying to figure out this morning and still follow Twitter protocol and what was that first, all-important line of the story I was going to start? Oh, and my editor--what about her? She's had the manuscript for my new novel for two weeks and I haven't heart a thing. Is that the cat crying in the kitchen?

So here I go: My pulse begins to race as my overheating brain follows my twitching, blinking eyes as they dart back and forth, up and down, among the irresistible choices. A bigger-than-life pretty woman towers over me imploring, the stock market took a hit yesterday (Damn, I should have moved those funds.), some drunk, jackass t.v. star killed himself in a traffic accident, all the while, my laptop--on my lap-- beckons with its own images and news that I just can't afford to miss......

Long ago when I was a college student studying human cognition and linguistics and psychology and stuff like that, I was taught that our brains cannot--simply cannot--focus on more than one task at a time. You have one consciousness, one awareness, one you, and that you is very jealous of its grip on your attention.

So, when you multitask, you are in fact forcing your conscious self to flit, with more less efficiency, among the many siren choices. Some of us are good at it, I guess. We can focus, however briefly, on one stimulus, process it, assess it, store in in our long-term retrieval memory banks, and then move ever so quickly on to the next, do the same, move on again. Let's call it flash processing.

But even the best of us, those of us with great flash processing gifts, suffer the consequences of TMI coming at us too fast. Picture Shakespeare, on the other hand, hard at work on Hamlet. What distractions did he have to deal with? A rooster crowing in the court yard? A bucket of slops being poured onto the street from a second floor window? A cockroach nibbling at his breakfast cheese? A bothersome louse picking at his scalp? Minor stuff, I think, compared to the modern misery of this screeching, pounding, flickering digital age. No wonder he produced the most wonderful literature, and with a quill pen and a pot of ink at that.

So, summoning all my resources and having given the pundits their due, I gratefully, guiltily, hit the off button on the remote. I feed the insistent cat, get a third cup of coffee, retrieve my second breakfast bar from between the arm of the recliner and the seat cushion, and settle in to--write this blog.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Blogs, Bloogs, Bleegs: How to Avoid Chatty, Hasty, Illiterate Blogging Babble

....I think "blog-like" is a disparaging term. I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It's something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all. It's a chatty account of things that have happened to that particular person.

                                                                                        Writer Paul Theroux

Whew, it seems poor, famously cranky Mr. Theroux got upset when an interviewer said his latest book The Tao of Travel, seemed "blog-like." His book is, of course, anything but hasty and illiterate. All his books are well-considered acts and he has become justly famous (and rich) because of his carefully constructed, thoughtful prose. As a fellow traveler and a fellow writer, he is one of my favorite reads. Paul Theroux is the real deal. Read his many published works and weep, ye struggling scribblers.

And his criticism of blogs and blogging is spot on, too. Just scan through a couple. In fact, I'll do that now. Here is a snippet from a blog by a hopeful writer named Lucy Ann:

It has been a while since I've actually written something. I have done lots of planning, lots of rewriting, but not a lot of the 'creating' recently. So that's something I am trying to get my head back into. I think Matti and Dorcas are my main priorities right now, though I do need to write a new short story too. I have a lot of work to do, but I'm trying not to let that feeling of being under pressure and needing to rush consume me again. Trying to take it one piece at a time.

Yes, this is chatty, hasty babbling from a young mother who is, sadly, too preoccupied by her children to get any real writing done. That's the purpose, the goal of her blog--to chat about her writing, but we readers of blogs really don't care about her. Not yet. Of course, if we had found this babbling in an old yellowed journal in some musty attic in England and discovered it belonged to, say, George Eliot, we wouldn't be so eager to dismiss it.

Here is another snippet from another blog chosen at random:

Finishing The Ale Boy’s Feast was a moment of disappointment, not for the fact that I didn’t like the ending, quite the contrary. I enjoyed the ending, and loved the balance of both mystery and resolution. But it was a disappointment that the story has come to its end, in a sense. The story obviously, goes on. But our reading of it has reached its end....

This is blatantly babbly. The writer perhaps should have spend a little more time tightening it up his review of this book and trying to dig a little deeper into things so the reader could learn something, maybe enjoy some pithy or humorous insight into reading and/or writing. A little more thought, perhaps? A lot more thought, actually.

And here, just the next click away on the next blog, I found this by a blogger who describes herself as an atheist, lefty, mother, and someone who writes about whatever comes into her mind:

I was thinking about the things (memories/tastes) that a person can give you in life, some of them are small and some of them are large. Some of it good and some of it not so much.

Someone important in my early life died recently and I have a sort of collage in my head of what he meant to me. The trivial and upbeat of which I will be sharing.

A minor interest in keeping coldwater fish, a repulsion from eating fish (or indeed any seafood ever), a love of the 'World's Strongest Man' and the music of Johnny Cash.

 And finally a rainbow. On the evening I drove away from the hospital there was this fantastic, vivid, perfect semi-circular rainbow. The best I've ever seen. I drove away wondering if it was the last time I'd see him and if I'd always now think about him in connection to rainbows. I don't know whether the latter is true, but the former was, it was the last time.

So, I guess Mr. Theroux annoyance was justified. If this random sampling of blogs is any indication of the state of the blogosphere, to have one's new book compared to it would be enough to make a serious writer of prose turn purple and maybe get up and kick something, perhaps the interviewer: "You man now leave. This interview is over and don't let the door...."

As for this blogger, and that would be me, who is also a writer of novels and short stories, I hope I am holding my own somewhere up above the chattering, babbling, illiterate class. I do this by:

1. Spending time on my blogs, sometimes hours. I write, re-write, reconsider, re-write, consider yet again, and re-write.

2. I publish the blog because knowing it is out there traveling around the world makes me anxious about it's quality and that makes me reconsider what I wrote yet again.

3. I think about it for the next day or two, sometimes dream about it, sometimes waking up with a start: "Good grief, what the hell was I thinking." Or maybe, and better, a brilliant epiphany: "Ha! That's wonderful. Why didn't I think of that sooner?"

4. Armed with such nocturnal insight, I get up, log on, log in, re-write.

5. I feel free to return to the last blog, or any previous blog written during the past six years, any time at all, and revising, re-writing, or even deleting stuff that suddenly seems silly, shallow, blabbing, illiterate, or shallow.

In the end, then, we can show the great Mr. Theroux that blogging can be literate, thoughtful, well written,or dare I say, even profound. We need only take our time and think and write and think and re-write and think again and re-write again and yet again and again until the babbling and chatter is transformed into something worth reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Being a Writer is Being Like the Buddha and/or Donald Trump

Anyone who goes into travel writing in order to become rich or famous or feted is courting disappointment; anyone in search of huge inner wealth (and challenge and stimulation) should be richly rewarded. Pico Iyer, travel writer, novelist

I think Pico Iyer is probably richer than you and I. He says he doesn't travel anymore, spends lots of time in meditation, and doesn't care about having lots of cash, so it might be piling up around him. He is certainly more famous. And he's a writer. So what gives, Pico, with the advise do to something else if you want to be either rich or famous? Why do some people who have become rich and famous at something tell the rest of us not to think we'll get rich and famous doing what they are doing?

I'm considering writers as travelers and travelers as writers, as interchangeable persons here, from a philosophical viewpoint, though Iyer is specifically referring to people who write about traveling. And in that context, I think the point of Mr. Iyer's advise, as I understand he has, as do I, an affection for Buddhism, is why the hell would you want to be rich or famous anyway? Maybe his point is that to be rich is to be spoiled and to be famous is to lose the precious invisibility that is the writer/traveler's entre into the real world. To be rich and famous is to miss the purpose of life, which is to attain true understanding; that is to say, enlightenment.

So Iyer says to write out of love. It is the inner wealth that is important. I can understand that. Most writers make precious little money by way of their scribbling and equal amounts of fame. But if you are passionate about writing, and dedicated to it, and devoted, and love doing it very much, you are living the life you should be living regardless of your financial gains or ego rewards.

I embrace this philosophy. It's such a comfort, so reasonable and rational an approach. Still, I'm afraid I can't deny that at the first smell of possible financial gain and the announcement that the literary prize was mine and mine alone, not his, not hers, ha! how the blood is fired, how the heart smashes itself against the ribs, how the body swoons, and the skin erupts in goose bumps and the call to Mother is made immediately.

So, the lovely truth about writing seems to be this: If we write and write and write and fail to become rich and famous, we were still writing and so we were building up great inner wealth and were actually successful. If we write and write and write and indeed become famous and commensurately rich, we will have accomplished both material gains and inner riches. You can take them to the bank and then take the rest of the day off. I think I'll go and do that now.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Question: Should Budding Writers Start by Writing Genre Fiction?

Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.
                                                                                                  Kurt Vonnegut

Thinking I was a person who could provide an answer, a college-age creative writing student asked me this question: Should I try writing genre fiction to break into publishing?

After many years of rejections, my first published fiction was a short story in a small, "literary" magazine, and we know how difficult it is to impress those snooty, dressed-in-black, literary editors. When you get an acceptance letter from the Prague Review that says, "We love your work," you can dance around the kitchen and pour yourself a small dram of an expensive beverage. When you win an international short story competition in Paris, you can dance all around the whole damned house, make the cats and your wife think you're bonkers, and refill your glass several times. I did this, oh yes indeed.

So, I was already a published "literary" writer when I went the "genre" route in getting my first three novels published by a "traditional" publisher--that is, not a vanity press or another self-publishing deal like CreateSpace. I still don't know if it has opened any doors for me in the market place of "literary" fiction. This because I spent the last six years writing those "fantasy" books and have just now finished an adventure novel aimed at the YA market.

So, should we consider that time spent writing genre fiction wasted? Let's think about it: I got lots and lots of practice in scribbling prose with the freedom to experiment with plot lines and character development and prose style because I felt writing less "serious" fiction allowed me the latitude to do that. I had a wonderful time, I grew as a writer, and, of course, yes, I got published, legitimately.

The real lesson here, I think, is that word, "wonderful." I had a wonderful time writing and I tried to write as well as I could. I tried to grow as a writer, to expand and deepen my skills. Even though we might think of genre fiction as plot driven rather than character driven--that is, the development of multi-dimensional, fully-realized characters is less important in genre writing--I had a grand time developing memorable characters who in turn drove the plot, albeit along fantasy genre lines.

This has been done before and I was keeping good company. Take Kurt Vonnegut, for example. He's the alleged science fiction writer who really wrote good fiction, and who gave us such classics as Slaughter House Five and Cat's Cradle. Good stuff, yep, but was it genre or was it literary? Does it break the barrier between genres?

This from TOR.COM, May 11, 2011:

And what about the writing itself? Surely that’s all that’s needed to settle the matter. If enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels have science fiction in them, then Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. Right? Slaughterhouse-Five contains time travel and aliens. The Sirens of Titan features a Martian invasion made up of humans, mind control, and a robot alien. Cat’s Cradle depicts a fictional substance known as ice-9, which has incredibly destructive capabilities. Galapagos tells the story of how human beings eventually evolve into a furry kind of quasi-aquatic creature. However, there’s science fiction and then there’s science fiction. Muppets in Space may have a space ship in it, but no one is super concerned about what genre it belongs in. The test ought to be that if the science fiction elements are removed and the story ceases to function, it’s probably science fiction. With Vonnegut, this works for nearly all of his books except, oddly, for the most famous novel.

Bottom line with Vonnegut seems to be that well-written prose and fully realized characters are essential to "literary" literary fiction whether it's science fiction or romance or mystery. Trash is trash is trash is trash while good writing requires no apologies.

And so,after mulling it over here on the page, my answer to my young questioner seems to be, "Yes, it is easier to break into writing--that is get that first story or novel published--by aiming it at a certain genre market, but will a "literary" publisher take you more seriously if you are a published writer of "genre" fiction? Unless you are among the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, I think not.

 Best to practice the stuff you want to ultimately write, whether it be "genre" or literary, but write, for crying out loud--write, write, write, write, write. Rather than immediately going the self-publishing route (any idiot can do that), take the time to learn to weave words into good prose and great characters. Man up, as they say, and take the pain of rejection. When you're good enough to get published by publishers who get to select from thousands of manuscripts a year, you're good enough to call yourself a published writer. Not before.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Music of Language: A Writer Needs to Understand the Innate Human Joy in Prosody

"It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception." (When asked about his theory of relativity) - Albert Einstein

"Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art." - Charlie "YardBird" Parker

"There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another." -Frank Zappa

I'm a former speech-language pathologist who dealt with children who had great difficulty learning the subtleties of language, something most of us do effortlessly by the time we are four years old. In my practice, I quickly realized that it was the music of language many of them were missing, that sense. That is, the feel for the rhythms and intonations--the prosody--of speech on which the real intent, the meaning of the strings of words is carried.

What is true for spoken language is true for the written word. The world's great literature is a great song that carries on the rhythms of its syllables the profound emotional messages of the ages. We writers need to remember that.

One of my favorite stories is The Bear, by William Faulkner. In the opening pages of this great, long short story--or novella--Faulkner sets a magical beat of words that carries the narrative forward into haunted emotional territory. You can feel the rawness of the air, smell the woodsmoke, taste the whisky, hear the horses hooves on the earth as the men's voices quietly penetrate the silence of the deep forest. Most of all, these mental pictures wrapped in the music of the writing set the stage for the eventual appearance of the bear itself, the huge, forbidding, wild spirit of the wilderness. It's great and wonderful stuff.

So, I was not surprised to read this from NPR's Blog of the Nation:

Science now all but confirms what many suspected for decades — humans are hard-wired, to some degree, to respond to music. In recent years, new technology and research provided scientific evidence that music affects our brains and moods. Studies suggest that someday music may even help patients heal from Parkinson's or stroke. In her new book, [The Power of Music], Elena Mannes tackles many questions about the science of music: How do different sounds affect different groups of people? What parts of the brain are activated by music? What role can music play in therapy and health care?

Of course, we all knew that and the lesson for us scribblers is that we are really singers, songsters whose message is best communicated by rhythms that touch that "hard-wired" human capacity to respond to the music of our sentences.