Sunday, June 26, 2011


Note: I posted this essay six months ago, when I first started this blog. I doubt if many people saw it, because as far as I know very few people were following my blog. I repost it now to draw attention to the creative writing class I’ll be teaching next month through Humboldt State University Extended Education. For  information about that class, see

Why do we tell stories based on our experiences? Because that’s what we know, of course. And the more we remember about our past, the more we understand ourselves. Where do the stories of our lives come from? Historical records, old letters, diaries, and journals? Old photographs? An attic full of souvenirs? Memories, both happy and sad? All of the above, perhaps, but also the legends and lore passed down through generations. And don’t forget family gossip, which may not always be true but is always important.

Why should we write these stories down? First of all, for the fun of it. It’s a thrill to craft a good story. But also, we do it as a gift: to the future, to our children, to our friends, maybe even to a larger audience of people who want to know what life during our lifetime was like, as experienced first-hand. Writing life stories is a chance to be generous and self-indulgent at the same time.

Here  are a few tips to make the stories you write interesting, entertaining, and important.

1. Let the reader know what was going on in the world when the story happened. That way the reader will have some historical reference to latch onto. “In the summer of 1969, when a new generation gathered at Woodstock and a human being planted his foot on the moon for the first time, I realized that there would be no limits to what I could do with my life...”

2. Tell your reader how old you were, or where you were in your social development, so the reader can identify similar rites of passage in her or his own life. “My high school senior prom was a disaster, but breaking up with that person was probably the luckiest...”

3. And where were you in your spiritual development? Not a matter of world history or age, but of some change in your world view. “I leaned a lot from my time in the Vietnam war. The bad news is what I learned about war. The good news is what I learned about friendship...."

4. Write of change. Change is what happens in every good story.

5. Write of choices. Choices are often what bring those changes about.

6. Write of consequence. By that I mean write of things that matter. Get into the part of the story that people care about: love, joy, grief, regret, reward. Celebrate the light, but don’t be afraid of the dark.

7. Be kind. Yes, you can write about people who mistreated you, but treat them as people, not as cartoon characters.

8. Tell the truth, even if you have to lie to do it. Nobody can remember every tiny detail of what happened, but out of every story grows a message of choice and change, and that message must be honest. From your heart.

9. Write a story that’s fun to read. Give it a strong beginning, make it build with suspense to a satisfying climax, and leave your reader with the pleasure of having been entertained.

10. Have fun with your writing.

Enough said. Lesson ten is not optional.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


I finished Charles Baxter’s new book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (Pantheon, 400 pp.) more than a week ago, but I have been haunted by the stories ever since, and I know they will linger for a long time. As a fan who has read most of Baxter’s books, I am ready to say he is one of the best fiction writers we’ve got. His novels are skillful, persuasive, engrossing, and populated by believable, remarkable characters; vivid settings (especially when they take place in the Midwest); and plots full of consequence and twisted by surprise. Baxter writes with humor, even when he writes of sorrow (both qualities abound in The Feast of Love and Shadow Play), and he can write with riveting, frightening darkness (as in Saul and Patsy and The Soul Thief).

His novels are wonderful. His short stories are perhaps even better. As a matter of fact, Shadow Play and The Feast of Love both seem built of separate but interlocking stories, and parts of Saul and Patsy appeared in print as stories before the novel was published. Short stories aren’t easy to write, although Charles Baxter’s stories are so readable that they seem effortlessly made. He knows what he’s doing and if he does this without effort then he’s a magician. I expect he’s not a magician but a conscientious craftsman who succeeds because of hard work, pleasure, and grace. Who cares? The reward is in the reading.

This new collection is a big box of treasures. Since it includes a number of previously published stories, I’ve read some of them before. I enjoyed them again, just as much. I also enjoyed being in the company of intriguing, compelling, and upsetting new stories of new people in trouble. Yes, Charles Baxter writes about people in trouble. Isn’t that the duty of fiction writers? He also writes about people in the process of, and at the moment of, change.

The stories in Gryphon are full of oddballs, whom Baxter treats with respect and compassion. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to like them all, but we can see they’re as real as they are strange. There are drifters and grifters, loonies and loners, broken-hearted lovers, and losers of all ages. Homeless young waifs, demented old cranks, men in analysis, spendthrifts down on their luck, alcoholic academics, alcoholic rich retirees, and a super-rich recluse who has two sex partners and a fabulous art collection, and who loves chopping wood. There’s a next-door neighbor who’s an ex-con, a murderer, an addict, and a mooch—and he has a space ship in his basement. Many of these oddballs are harmless, and some are lovable, but a few of them are downright scary. In fact one of them is “Mr. Scary,” and he’s a twelve-year-old kid who sees his world as populated by zombies and replicants. In the title story, “Gryphon,” the center of attention is a charismatic substitute teacher who dispenses wacky wisdom and false information—that George Washington had Egyptian blood, that six times eleven is sometimes sixty-eight—and does tarot readings for the children and delivers their message straight, even when they forecast death.

The plots of these stories are as gripping as the characters. I won’t tell you any of the plots in detail, but be prepared to drive out onto a frozen lake, where another car has already fallen through the ice and sunk to the bottom. You’ll also join the citizens as they come out to watch a flood carry jetsam through their town. You’ll try to convince the proper authorities that someone is planning to blow a building (which building?) apart. Discover a pistol-packing teenager in the zoo, where she has just spent the night.

Endings are a challenge for a short story writer, especially one who aims for realism. It’s difficult to wrap up a story with a neat bow and call it finished, because real life isn’t lived in discrete episodes. Perhaps one reason Charles Baxter’s plots are so successful is that his stories often close with a door left open, with the consequences up for grabs. In one story an aimless young woman has fallen in love with a charming young man. The two are fast becoming a couple when the love affair is interrupted. The young man’s former lover makes contact with the young woman, takes her to lunch, and warns her that the charming young man is violent, an abuser. Who is our young heroine to believe? The ending is there, but it hasn’t happened yet. The ending of another story, the last one in the book, is: “Krumholz did not intend to budge: he would sit there, with his audience in front of him, elaborating this story of suffering and terror for as long as he pleased. He had just gotten started.”

Is it any wonder these stories are so haunting?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What's Become of Self-Publishing?

When I first became a publisher, back in 1974, it was a hobby. I was essentially a self-publisher (or just about; I also published poetry chapbooks and other experimentalia by friends), I followed the instructions laid out in Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, and considered myself part of the avant garde that had been around since Gutenberg. I was up to my elbows in Letraslet, Rubylith, and rubber cement. My budget for a book was $100, and the print run was usually about 50 copies. My press was called No Dead Lines, and I meant it.

Well, I’ve changed a lot in the past 37 years, and so has book publishing in general, and so, especially, has the noble institution of self-publishing. Some of us older publishers scratch our heads in wonder or our chins in dismay, but technology is here to stay (ephemeral though it may be), and it’s important to check in from time to time to stay current with the vocabulary.

The term "self-publishing" can be defined in several different ways. Once upon a time it meant doing all the work oneself, from editing to typesetting to printing to marketing, promotion, and distribution. Of course most people didn't do the actual work, but hired professionals or used outside vendors. But the self-publisher paid all the bills and kept all the profits from sales. I've done that. I seldom made back my expenses, but I wasn't trying to sell a great many copies. This is an honorable method, but it's a lot of work and the return is low. Few reviews, few sales, at least for a book of creative literature. If you decide to work this way, you might consider working with a book packaging (production) company, such as Gorham Printing:, which offers a variety of services, from editing to design to printing.

Another form of self-publishing is working with a copublishing company (otherwise known as a subsidy publisher). The author pays a publishing company to bring the book out. The results are as good as the company you work with. Some are honest, have high production standards, and make an earnest effort to market and distribute. Others just take the money and turn out a poor product and do nothing to sell books. If you go that route, beware and make sure you’re not asked to pay a bundle only to be delivered a garageful of books. By the way, part of my business is a copublishing imprint, Fithian Press, which you can check out at: We’re choosy about what we publish, and we’re proud of our product and our marketing efforts, but it's still an expensive proposition and writers would be wise to consider and exhaust other options first, especially if they dream of profit and fame. 

Yet another form of self-publishing is the print-on-demand, or publish-on-demand method. You arrange with a POD company to publish your book, and they make the book available to customers one copy at a time. This is a less expensive means of self-publishing, but there are often pitfalls. See my article about POD at: There are lots of competing companies in this field. The leader of the pack is iUniverse, and they have a good reputation. Also consider CreateSpace, a POD division of

Another way to self-publish is the up-and-coming, brave new world of ebooks. Nowadays it's relatively easy and relatively cheap to publish a book online, via Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, and lots of other electronic retailers. They don't make books you can hold in your hand, but by golly they sell (e)books. Some authors are seeing sales they never would have gotten through conventional print publishing. I have a few books published this way. See my author page: or my amazon author page: If you go this route, I suggest you hire a professional to format your manuscript and design a good cover. I use Eric Larson of Studio E Books, and I recommend him highly:

I now find myself in the fortunate position of being published by a small publisher who does a combination of POD and ebook publishing. I have a mystery titled BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR coming out this fall from Oak Tree Press, and that's the way they work. It won't cost me any money, and I hope they'll make a nice-looking book and I hope it will sell. Actually, this isn't self-publishing, but it has some things in common with self-publishing, particularly the element of promotion and marketing. Oak Tree Press will do what they do (and I don’t yet know how much that will entail), but they and I expect me to do a lot of self-promotion. Note: this paragraph is a not-so-subtle exercise in doing just that!

And that’s true no matter what variety of self-publishing you choose: however you self-publish (in fact however you publish or are published), your sales and your reviews will rely on your working hard to promote your book. That's what I'm learning, and learning fast. I have begun a blog:, I've signed up for Facebook, and I'm getting ready to do a lot of horn-blowing that doesn't come easily to me. Authors have to do that, and publishers have to do that, and when the author is also the publisher, it’s no time to be shy.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Because I have a new book coming out in the fall, and because my publisher is valiant but small, I have been encouraged (that word includes the word "urged") by folks in the know to get involved with Facebook.

Self-promotion does not come easy to me, but I know I must. After all, I write to be read. Another problem is that I'm not a particularly social person; that is to say I don't run with a pack. And the third problem is that I've always been one or more steps behind in adapting to and adopting new technologies. I resisted push-button phones, call waiting, answering machines, fax, email, the Internet, blogging…until, one by one, they all wormed into my life and became necessary. What did I do without them?

Now it's Facebook. I have in the past preached against it. Why do we need "friends"? Why do we need another interruption in our daily life? Another addiction? Who cares about small talk? And all the other unnecessary prejudices against what may be a useful and enjoyable tool?

So yes, I've signed up, as of a couple of days ago. I kept getting this information, from the Lord on High, by email: so-and-so wants to be my friend. Some of these people I never heard of. Some I'm quite fond of. So why not?

Trouble is, I have no idea what I'm doing. Innovations these days don't come with instruction manuals. It seems they're invented for people who already know how to use them. (Yes, I'm an old fogie. Gimme a break, I'll turn 70 this year.) I picked a few friends to adopt just to try this machinery out, and I have no idea if I'm communicating properly. Apparently Facebook doesn't accept my email address as valid, even if they use it to send me urgent messages about friends who want to befriend me.

I know I'll get used to this, and I know I'll come to like it. Or at least learn to use it well. I had the same time trying to learn how to use Word. Now I can use Word well, except for things I don't know how to do but can do perfectly well without.

Anyway, please wish me luck.