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:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Learned About Writing Whilst in Chicago: The Penny Dreadfuls are Back in Style

Playing the Blues at Buddy Guy's Lounge: What does this great Chicago Blues musician have in common with a great writer?

I'm just back from Chicago where I was a writer/tourist. One doesn't mind being a writer in Chicago--or any place else for that matter--but one hates being a tourist because of the bad reputation tourists have for wearing funny clothes, and being sweaty, cheap, shallow, and ignorant.

Picture your classic thirty-something couple. They are wearing shorts and flowered shirts which, by 1:00 in the afternoon, they have sweated through. He is swinging his big camera around like a bazooka while their three children are dragging along and complaining loudly because their bellys are full of greasy fries and ketchup and they really need naps or to be in front of a television set.

Observed on the promenade along  Lake Shore Drive in Chicago last week:

Mother to her 4-year-old son: "David, stop doing that and come here. David, I'm going to count to three. David, one (long, hopeful pause), two (longer pause), three. "DAVID! STOPPING DOING THAT AND COME HERE!"

There was relief from the Great American Summer Vacationers, however. I found it in Legend, Chicago Blues great Buddy Guy's restaurant, lounge, and blues heaven. It happened to be right across the street from my hotel and you can go there for lunch and hear great blues or go there at night, eat dinner, and hear great blues. This is no dangerous dive, either. It's clean (very clean), well stocked, and well ordered. Cajun-style food is mostly served, and the patrons are respectful and serious about their music.

I don't carry a bazooka camera. I use a Nikon CoolPix that slides in and out of my pocket, no bigger than a fat credit card, and I got this picture of a musician playing great that night and that got me to wondering. How did he get so damned good?

The guitar was, quite literally, an extention of his body and so an extention of his mind, and so an extention of the very soul of his music. He never had to look down to find a chord. His fingers danced along the fret board jitter-bug fast, finding the precise place on the right string without any apparent effort. And he did this in perfect harmony with the guitarist who was playing next to him and in perfect rhythm with the drummer.

And that's what got me worried. Watching him got me thinking about something in the brave new world of fiction writing: Internet self publishing. Could this muscian have possibly decided to become a blues guitarist six months ago and get up and do what he was now doing? This wonderful muscial magic?

Of course not. What this guy was doing took years and years and years and years of persistent, daily, grinding hard work. And then before he was allowed get up on that stage, he had to audition before a very, very choosy, persnikkety, and judgemental expert in blues music that was not his mother.

My take on it is this: writing that is worth reading is just as difficult to produce as music that is worth listening to. But what is happening today in fiction writing is that people can--by the millions--publish whatever they write without having practiced and without having auditioned in front of anyone at all, even their mothers. is filled with such stuff and the selective reader must sort it all out by looking at the publisher before he buys. Published by CreateSpace? Be suspicious. Anyone can do that. 99-cent ebooks on Kindle? Buyer beware. The old Britsh Penny Dreadfuls are back.

So it worries me. If you would be a serious writer, you must be like a serious musician--pay your dues and learn to play. It takes many years to acquire the skills to make wonderful music with words. I suppose the great reading Internet public will sift through it all and in the end, the great writers will float to the top of that infinite slush pile. But until then, how are you to know that what you sent your 99 cents for is worth even a penny--and that's dreadful. 

Now that my rant is over, here are some fun and/or instructive quotes by writers who made wonderul music with words.

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster.
                                                         Isaac Asimov

The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.
                                                         Walter Bagehot

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence-an overwhelming determination to succeed.
                                                           Sophy Burnham

But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
                                                           Lord Byron

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.
                                                          Truman Capote

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
                                                          Truman Capote

Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

Write from the soul, not from some notion what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

The pen is the tongue of the mind.
                                                          Miguel de Cervantes

Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.
                                                          Winston Churchill

When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.
                          Cicero Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC - 43 BC)

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.
                                             Hart Crane, American Poet (1899-1932)

If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.
                                             John Dos Passos

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.          
                                            Annie Dillard

In good writing, words become one with things.
                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.
                                           William Faulkner

Writers aren't exactly people.... they're a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. (Translation from French)
                                           Gustave Flaubert

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.
                                           Benjamin Franklin

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
                                           Kahlil Gibran

To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.
                                           Allen Ginsberg

If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.

The unsaid, for me, exerts great power . . .
                                          Louise Gluck

Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.
                                         Anthony Hope Hawkins

Easy reading is damned hard writing.
                                        Nathaniel Hawthorne(1804-1864)

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man."
                                        Heidegger (from "Building Dwelling Thinking", 1951)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

I don't know much about creative writing programs. But they're not telling the truth if they don't teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.
                                       Doris Lessing

I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
                                       Gordon Lish

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