Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Last Stitch

My mom did this!

Amazing needlework, seven and a half years in the making. Click the image to see the video.

 The Last Stitch

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Steve Martin nails it

"The conscious mind is the editor, and the subconscious mind is the writer." -- STEVE MARTIN

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Grateful to #Allah for the accumulated genius that fits on a small desk

My tutors, consulted daily now: Victor Hugo, Jacob Bronowski, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Stan Lee, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison, A.S, Byatt, and William Shakespeare.

What a blessing, this convocation of masters! How do you suppose one could go about calculating the good ideas per square inch now occupying my little desk?


Filled with possibility and purpose and awe. Another masterpiece from Ken Burns.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On to Turgenev

Having finished the unabridged, expansive, unruly, and endlessly rewarding NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, I move on to my next audiobook, Turgenev's FATHERS AND SONS.

Hemingway was big on this novel, and after listening to the first two chapters I can already sense the influence. I've been looking forward to this for quite a while.

Here's the link to the free, high-quality audiobook I'm listening to. Not every Librivox recording has an adequate reader, but this one does and NICKLEBY did, for which I am grateful.

I take these audiobooks in on long walks.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Shakespeare Rips Off Shakespeare: Richard II and King Lear

Recently, I was watching The Hollow Crown -- that's the superb BBC miniseries adaptation of Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V -- when this strangely familiar exchange played out between a noble father and his son. Mom jumps in for one line, but it's the father and son we're interested in. Keep an eye on the bits in italics.

What seal is that, that hangs without thy bosom?
Yea, look'st thou pale? let me see the writing.

My lord, 'tis nothing.

No matter, then, who see it;
I will be satisfied; let me see the writing.

I do beseech your grace to pardon me:
It is a matter of small consequence,
Which for some reasons I would not have seen.

Which for some reasons, sir, I mean to see.
I fear, I fear,--

What should you fear?
'Tis nothing but some bond, that he is enter'd into
For gay apparel 'gainst the triumph day.

Bound to himself! what doth he with a bond
That he is bound to? Wife, thou art a fool.
Boy, let me see the writing.

I do beseech you, pardon me; I may not show it.

I will be satisfied; let me see it, I say.

The scholars tell us this play, Richard II, was written before 1595, during a phase of Shakespeare's career now known as the Period of Early Mastery. A later phase of his career comes between about 1601 and 1606, the so-called Dark or Tragic Period. One of the great tragedies from this later period, of course, is King Lear. Take a look at the strikingly similar passage below from that play, also between a father and son. The italics mark direct parallels with the scene from the earlier play.

What paper were you reading?

Nothing, my lord.

No? What needed, then, that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket? the quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let's see: come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

I beseech you, sir, pardon me: it is a letter from my brother, that I have not all o'er-read; and for so much as I have perused, I find it not fit for your o'er-looking.

Give me the letter, sir.

I shall offend, either to detain or give it. The contents, as in part I understand them, are to blame.

Let's see, let's see.

I can't imagine I'm the first person to have noticed this, but it's worth pointing out regardless. The bits I've italicized from the first scene, along with the whole idea of the exchange, seem to have served as writing prompts for Shakespeare in King Lear. Translation: He recycled his own stuff, assuming no one would ever notice. What's exciting for me is that the second passage is so much more sophisticated than the first. Edmund wants his father to notice the letter and make him hand it over; the word "nothing" is an important thematic touchstone in King Lear; unlike the earlier play, King Lear alternates between verse and prose for effect, and here shifts into prose for a sense of intimacy that contrasts with the earlier, formal verse of the play's first scene. Shakespeare learned a lot in the years between these two passages.

There are dozens of these self-plagiarisms -- I call them echo scenes -- in Shakespeare. As the mood strikes me, I'll post more.

Friday, November 21, 2014

SPIDERS: The New (Kind of) Fiona Apple Album on #Spotify


Click here, or on the photo above, to listen to SPIDERS -- the new (kind of) Fiona Apple album on Spotify.

Okay, okay. It's not really new. It's a playlist comprising all the Fiona singles and one-offs I could find that didn't show up on an album. I left out two painful collaborations with a moribund Johnny Cash that didn't do anything to respect his memory.

I share SPIDERS here because the playlist demands repeat listening. Ten superlative, glove-fitting covers show up like new best friends, and most of them don't sound at all like covers. I guess this magnetic collection's lack of new material makes this a concept album: Songs Fiona Didn't Write, but That Sound Like She Did.

It all hangs together, thanks to some classic, fortuitous Fiona themes that show up across the selections: fearlessness, imagination, innocence, yearning. (Compare Shawn Colvin's equally powerful COVER GIRL, which pulls a similar trick.)

I think of SPIDERS as a vinyl album with two sides. It's got everything: gentle rockabilly, smoldering blues, childlike wonder, spiritual yearning, torch songs, even a superb, unlikely country duo with the comedian Margaret Cho. Folks, there is not a weak track anywhere. Songwriters are listed in parentheses below.

Spiders are not scary unless you make them scary. I always think of bravery when I think of Fiona Apple.


Everyday (Buddy Holly)
Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman)
I'm in the Middle of a Riddle (Anton Karas)
I Walk a Little Faster (Cy Coleman, Caroline Leigh)
Pure Imagination (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley -- yes, it's the song from WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)


Frosty the Snowman (Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson. Just in time for the holidays!)
So Sleepy (The Gummy Bears)
Please Send Me Someone to Love (Percy Mayfield)
Hey Big Dog (Margaret Cho and Patty Griffin)
Across the Universe (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Victor Hugo On the Art of Digression

I thought I must have posted something explicitly citing this superb Adam Thirwell article on Victor Hugo's use of digression, a technique engineered right into the DNA of his masterwork LES MISERABLES. It turns out I didn't. So here it is.

An excerpt from Thirwell:

The subject of one of the longest novels in European literature is - what else? - the infinite.

That is why its tempo is so explicit with slowness, syncopated with digression. But in this novel there is no such thing as a digression. Everything is relevant - since the subject of this book, quite literally, is everything: "This book is a tragedy in which infinity plays the lead," writes Hugo. "Man plays a supporting role."

"When the subject is not lost sight of, there is no digression," Hugo wrote later on. But how can the subject of the novel ever be lost sight of, if the lead character is infinity? In that case, nothing will ever be a digression.

Yes, the length of this novel is important. Its quantity is its quality. It represents an answer to a central artistic question, which was not an answer the tradition of the novel has ever quite believed in since. This is one reason why Hugo's novel is so strange, and so valuable.

And another relevant quote:

"For all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world." -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky


David Brooks, in a brilliant New York Times column that may or may not be accessible when you read this, writes:

"I’ve been thinking about moments of agency … because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.

"Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them."

"So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction."

Agency is the degree to which we are cause in the matter of our own life. At any given moment, we are either the product of our obstacles or our aspirations, of our drama or of our possibility. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Terrible Threat

"The terrible threat against life is not death, nor pain, nor any variation of the disasters that we obsessively try to protect ourselves against with our social systems and personal stratagems. 

"The terrible threat is that we might die earlier than we really do die, before death has become a natural necessity. The real horror lies in just such a premature death. A death after which we go on living for many years." -- Viteszlav Gardovsky, Czech philosopher and martyr. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Word counts for FREED

11/1: 1603
11/2: 1614
11/3: 1149
11/4: 1104
11/5: 1146
11/6: 1011
11/7: 1007
11/8: 706
11/9: 1010
11/10: 1190
11/11: 1022
11/12: 1068
11/13: 1155
11/14: 1110
11/15: 1030
11/16: 1000
11/17: 0
11/18: 830
11/19: 892
11/20: 1034
11/21: 1164
11/22: 5444
11/23: 1111
11/24: 1131
11/25: 531
11/26: 1001
11/27: 556
11/28: 0
11/29: 574
11/30: 1034
12/1: 390
12/2: 805
12/3: 772
12/4: 303
12/5: 339
12/6: 1470
12/7: 840
12/8: 516
12/9: 528
12/10: 510
12/11: 0
12/12: 325

Work on this novel started in February of 2014, but I only started tracking it here in November, which was my own personal mini-Nanowrimo: 33,000+ words. I had thought I was getting it ready for ABNA, but cooler heads prevailed. It will be ready when it is ready.

Here are completed chapters one, two and three of the novel.

I will keep the totals up-to-date here as I go forward, inshaAllah.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Publishing #literaryfiction in installments: pro or con?

I've had lots of people ask where they can buy a copy of JIHADI; A LOVE STORY. As of now, the answer is, alas, "Nowhere," because my agent is shopping it around to editors at publishing houses whose decision timelines are best measured in geological epochs. The opening chapter is here, though.

Frustrated with this state of affairs, I considered publishing my second novel FREED in installments. I was talked out of this by people who argued that it was impossible, or at least absurdly difficult, to market literary fiction on the installment plan.

Then my cat Paprika suggested: "Why not ask people?"

So I'm asking you. Here are the opening chapters of FREED. If you want to buy Chapters Four through Six on Kindle, for ninety-nine cents, drop Paprika a line here,    If I get enough people willing to subscribe, maybe I'll go for it. Please put the word "Paprika" in the subject line.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Nativists Are Restless

And another election looms, this time with the proto-fascists and racists and xenophobes and haters seemingly better funded and more organized than ever.

I worry about this country sometimes.

Most of the time.

I suppose I will end up holding my nose and voting Democratic. Again.

But I am getting damned tired of holding my nose.

The Top Ten #Cats in Children's Literature

The list may be found here.

Paprika did not make it. I had to remind her that I don't write children's books, and that the orange tabby in FREED, while based on her, is not named Paprika. (She's named Cat.)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Charles Dickens, pissed off

Why I love Dickens and Shakespeare and Hugo: If something was really important to any one of them, it by God went into the manuscript. Plot or no plot.

Below the photo, you will find a delicious rant that Charles Dickens saw fit to crowbar into his great novel NICHOLAS NICKLEBY for no plausible reason -- beyond his own fury at the relentless piracy of his work in an era when English law did not protect an author's copyright. NICKLEBY, printed in installments, had been the subject of unauthorized stage adaptations hastily assembled by hack writers, even before Dickens had written the last chapter. In this passage, the real author takes his revenge.

My kind of book. My kind of writer. Dickens wants to talk about the loathsome parasites who steal his stuff. Shakespeare wants to talk about the competition his troupe is getting from rival companies of children actors. Hugo wants to talk about the battle of Waterloo. Deal with it.

Take that, Richard Turpin.

(This material is now in the public domain. If it weren't, I would pay Mr. Dickens the royalty due him.)

    'When I dramatise a book, sir,' said the literary gentleman, 'THAT'S fame. For its author.'

    'Oh, indeed!' rejoined Nicholas.

    'That's fame, sir,' said the literary gentleman.

    'So Richard Turpin, Tom King, and Jerry Abershaw have handed down to fame the names of those on whom they committed their most impudent robberies?' said Nicholas.

    'I don't know anything about that, sir,' answered the literary gentleman.

    'Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,' observed Nicholas.

    'Meaning Bill, sir?' said the literary gentleman. 'So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was--and very well he adapted too-- considering.'

    'I was about to say,' rejoined Nicholas, 'that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him--'

    'You're quite right, sir,' interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. 'Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.'

    'Shot beyond him, I mean,' resumed Nicholas, 'in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot--all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man's pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men's brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.'

    'Men must live, sir,' said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders.

    'That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,' replied Nicholas; 'but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.'

    The conversation threatened to take a somewhat angry tone when it had arrived thus far, but Mrs Crummles opportunely interposed to prevent its leading to any violent outbreak, by making some inquiries of the literary gentleman relative to the plots of the six new pieces which he had written by contract to introduce the African Knife-swallower in his various unrivalled performances. This speedily engaged him in an animated conversation with that lady, in the interest of which, all recollection of his recent discussion with Nicholas very quickly evaporated.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap Label

Back in the day, you bought this soap-- and presumably you still can -- in health food stores. You can also buy it here.

The soap is the best in the world. The labels, the creation of Emmanuel Bronner, son of victims of the Holocaust, make more sense than they at first seem to.

You didn't look at this as another consumer product. At first, you weren't even intending to buy it. But you picked it up and thought, "What the ...?" And kept reading. Hoping FREED has a similar magnetism.


November is crunch time for FREED

Next month, I will be targeting 1500 words a day, six days a week, on my work in progress FREED. (My typical daily word count is about 500 now.)

If you are a writer looking for solidarity on the creative front during November, keep an eye on this blog. I will be posting my daily word count totals here. You can leave your own totals in the comment box if you want.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

An Undivided Heart

This play of mine, about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, is set in Massachusetts in the early '90s. It was workshopped at the National Playwrights Conference in 1994.

"All good things to those who wait" department: I got a call from a theater last week. It's looking like AN UNDIVIDED HEART will be produced in 2015. Stay tuned for details.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Six Spiritual Principles for Fiction Writers

Spirituality in everyday practice -- dying, for instance, or writing, or anything else of importance  -- is (I dare to propose) not about dogma or ritual. It is, I think, all about being present without equivocation or precondition.

These spiritually guided caregiving guidelines, created to support those remarkable people like +Lorree Ratto who have deep experience in easing the passage of the terminally ill, are not mine. I stumbled across them online. Reading them made me think of the wisdom that accompanies all practical spirituality. They also made me think of my sister Cassandra (below) and the great gift my aunt +Martha Kaufeldt gave her before she passed. Finally, the spiritual caregiving guidelines left me wondering how the same principles might be adapted to, say, writing fiction.

The list of Six Spiritual Fiction Writing Principles below came out pretty much by itself, so I guess they're mine. I happen to be writing about Cassandra these days, an intriguing synchronicity.


1. Take care of yourself before you try to take care of the writing.

2. Focus on posing questions, not providing answers.

3. Write to be in the moment of the character, and you will be present in your moment.

4, Express your feelings appropriately in the real world (with "I" messages, not "you" messages). Do that with the people you love, especially during hard times, and it will be easier for you to notice how your characters feel like expressing their feelings. Let them.

5. Assume there is meaning in every experience. Seek that meaning out, side by side with your characters.

6. Understand that nothing is going wrong. Landmark Forum advises people to "Let go of the interpretation that there is something wrong." This means (among other things) writing authentically without prejudging your characters or their motives. What they want is what they want. Let them want that. What happens to them is what happens to them. Let that happen.

A life lesson from Neil Young

If someone brings you down, you did that to yourself.

The part worth listening to over and over starts at 0:31 and ends at 1:32. All the other stuff in this 1969 between-songs riff seems a little airier, but that much is solid ground, and I encourage myself and others to step firmly upon it. Click the photo if you dare.

Life lesson from Neil Young starts at 0:31, ends at 1:32

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Mamet Rule: David Mamet's Memo to the Writers of "The Unit"

Note: I never saw this show, which has apparently been cancelled since Mamet's blistering call to arms to the writing team. I guess I'm glad it ran into trouble, because otherwise he would not have had to write this superb distillation of writing principles. I haven't changed anything in this memo other than taking it out of its irritating ALL CAPS mode. I don't own it. It seems to have entered the public domain. Let me know if I'm wrong about that and I'll take this down.

The Mamet Rule, as I condense it from the inspired rant below, runs as follows:

In order for a scene to be dramatic, the main character in it must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene, and the attempt to get this need met must lead, at the end of the scene, to failure. 

To the writers of THE UNIT


As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.

Our friends the penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information -- and, so, at times, it seems to us.

But note:the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn't, i wouldn't. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question:what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
1) who wants what?
2) what happens if her don't get it?
3) why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.

There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene dramatic after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.

This means all the "little" expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.
If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we're all going to be back in the breadline.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure - this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that "information?"

And I respond "figure it out" any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say "make it clearer", and "I want to know more about him".

When you've made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, "but, jim, if we don't assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame"

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.

And I respond figure it out.

How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading "Bob and sue Discuss..." is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another "as you know", that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.

Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in bel air and hire someone to live there for you.
Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing -*literally*. 

What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.

If you pretend the characters cant speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.

If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition,indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium - telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.

I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself "Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is "no" write it again or throw it out. If you've got any questions, call me up.

Love, Dave Mamet

Santa Monica 19 octo 05

(It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

McKellan's KING LEAR via Trevor Nunn and the coming apocalypse

Re-watched, on DVD, Ian McKellan's magnificent 2007 performance of KING LEAR last night, and I have a feeling I will be watching it yet again and again as FREED moves forward. LEAR is one foundation-stone of the second novel FREED. Another is Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

The production (YouTube excerpt below) is directed by Trevor Nunn, and is, from all I can tell, a faithful video capture of this London performance, which I did not see. The review of that London show seems to be discussing essentially the same event, and references a "universe deprived of divine sanctions in which barbarism is rampant." Sounds like Gaza in the early twenty-first century to me.

McKellan rather looks like my Papa in this performance, another whiff of synchronicity. (Family members, note the resemblance in the screen grab below.) If this role can be performed any better than Sir Ian performs it, I for one do not see how.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Advice on #Writing from Ernest Hemingway

Q. Do you know what's going to happen when you write a story?

A. Almost never. I start to make it up and have happen what would have to happen as it goes along.


Q. How much should you write a day?

A. The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it .... Always stop while you are going good and don't think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. If you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.


(To F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a 1929 letter:) You just have to GO ON when it is worst and most helpless. There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Papa Hemingway to the rescue

The great Hemingway short story BIG TWO-HEARTED RIVER can, thank God, be found here.

Or click the photo.

Click this photo to read Hemingway's masterpiece BIG TWO-HEARTED RIVER

Hemingway does something extraordinary in these pages, something extreme, something that's easy to miss, something that amounted to a major breakthrough in modern fiction, something difficult, something that most writers I come across either don't know how to do or have no particular interest in doing. I tried to do this thing in a scene in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. I couldn't do it all the way through, as Hemingway does it here. It may only be possible to do this particular thing in a short story. It's hard to imagine a novel doing it successfully, from beginning to end, at the level Hemingway does it here. Maybe there's a novel out there that does it that I just haven't come across. If you find one, drop me a line.

Papa (the word is full of eerie resonances for me) does something in this story that no one else, as near as I can make out, has done anywhere near as well, including Ernest Hemingway. In that way, the story is kind of like Arthur Miller's play DEATH OF A SALESMAN . It's true that Miller never wrote anything to top it, but it's equally true that no one else has done anything to top it.

The technical/aesthetic accomplishment I'm talking about -- which I'm not identifying directly here, because people who like surprises may wish to be surprised by it -- is described in this Wikipedia article. If you like spoilers, or you just have no patience, go ahead and click the second link first. That's fine.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reviews of JIHADI: A LOVE STORY -- "Modern American classic"

These include ABNA competition reader reviews of which I took screen shots before the Powers That Be whisked my excerpt and its 4.7/5.0 average into the memory hole. Orenda Books publishes the ebook on December 24 and the physical book in February.

The PW review of the ABNA draft, which you can read more about here, called JIHADI: A LOVE STORY "smart and searing." (Note that PW reviewed every ABNA quarterfinalist's manuscript.)

Other reviews include:

(She later wrote, after receiving and tearing through the whole manuscript:)

(and back to ABNA:)

Then there's this from dear friends and patient beta readers:

Below is from +Richard Gibney :

And one more review, this one from beta-reader +Adella Wright,  who has read a startling number of early drafts, as well as the final draft:

You can order the book here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for #Writing Fiction

Note: It's been over a year now that I've been attempting to follow all ten of these rules. I believe I've now internalized seven of the ten. Here is the scoop on the three I continue to flout.

There was just no way to write JIHADI: A LOVE STORY without a prologue (Rule #2), though I didn't call it that. (There is no prologue in FREED, my second novel.) 

I still fall prey to a "suddenly" (Rule #6) every now and then and forget to edit it out -- guilty as charged.  

I do use big, fat paragraphs (Rule #10), and some readers do whine about that. I justify this state of affairs by a) interspersing the big, fat paragraphs with smaller paragraphs whenever I can, and b) reminding myself that Nabokov breaks this rule on what seems like every other page spread, and dammit, Beavis, following a master prose stylist's example once in a while can't be all that terrible a thing to do. By the way. People say the same thing about long sentences. Supposedly, no one reads long sentences. That's hooey. In fact. If you vary them with shorter sentences. What you find is that. Long sentences rock. Because. They pull intelligent readers in. And. Keep you, the writer, from sounding like an idiot. Who can only communicate. In tiny fragments. Of meaning. Comma. Someone who can't be bothered. To create sentences. That stand up. To prolonged examination. Much less the sustained scrutiny. Of a second pass. Which is what I want my best sentences. Like my best paragraphs. To attract.

So I guess I disagree with Elmore Leonard there.

I should say, though, that the guiding principle of skipping the dull stuff in Rule #10 is sound, and I have read plenty of published prose that ought to have followed it.

This blog post is first and foremost a reminder to myself: Follow the damn rules. After that, it's a tribute to Elmore Leonard. His list of rules for writers of fiction is the best of its kind, I think. Hemingway has some marvelous advice for fiction writers, too, but it's extracted by others from his writings and interviews, and it's not in a concise 1-10 format.

I have placed special typographical emphasis on Leonard's advice concerning adverbs. Deal with it.

-- YT


1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled," "gasped," "cautioned," "lied." I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

Vladimir Nabokov breaks Elmore Leonard's tenth rule for writing good fiction. Now I don't feel so bad.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Four Agreements

I didn't think this up, but it's so powerful and relevant each and every day that I wish I had.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Consult this during next interview you watch about #Gaza

It will predict, in the correct order, what lies come out of the mouth of the Israeli spokesperson.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The War on Children #gazaunderattack #bds

The average age of a human being in Gaza is seventeen.

Of the 1.7 million people who live there, roughly 250,000 are children under the age of ten. (Source: Jon Snow.)

Make no mistake. This is a war on kids.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


A movie near and dear to my heart. One of the reasons I kept pushing with JIHADI: A LOVE STORY was the hope that Terry Gilliam, the director of this film, would read the novel.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Israel and Palestine: An Animated Introduction

In just a few minutes, this little cartoon from Jewish Voice for Peace lays out the facts of the matter. 

A second superpower has now emerged in the region. Watch the animation to identify it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Toni Morrison on #rapeculture

This quote kept rattling around my brain as I worked on my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. The book (finished now, and making the editorial rounds via my agent) concerns itself with, among other things, the culture of rape that has emerged in the US military.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I changed the URL of the blog ...

... to on account of because Yusuf is what people call me and what I like to be called. I do realize this will mess up ("negatively impact," according to Blogger) many if not all of the current comments on the posts. 

I can only pray that I won't, as a result of this fateful step, be banned from forthcoming international curling competitions.

American #Muslims -- Your Tax Dollars at Work

Salaam. Among the tidbits uncovered by Edward Snowden, this little news item: The FBI's casual, and apparently pervasive, Islamophobia, as exemplified in Exhibit A, below. Yes, we paid for this.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Harry S. Truman

About five years ago, I put a lot of work into the Wikipedia article on Harry S. Truman, my favorite US president. The article has been substantially expanded and referenced since then by others, and it now stands as a featured article on the site. (That's what the gold star in the upper-right-hand corner means.)

The current article is, I think, both a valuable resource for anyone interested in Truman's legacy, and a testimony to the enduring value and relevance of the collaborative Wikipedia project.

I made reference to Truman in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, now making an international tour of elite slush piles.

 Wikipedia article on Harry S. Truman

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy birthday to the greatest nation on earth! 

This is a good day to remember the heavy price our nation's forefathers paid for signing that sheet of parchment. (Text below via; video below from the fine miniseries JOHN ADAMS, based on David McCullough's superb book.)

Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

For the record, here's a portrait of the men who pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" for liberty many years ago.

Fifty-six men from each of the original 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Nine of the signers were immigrants, two were brothers and two were cousins. One was an orphan. The average age of a signer was 45. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate at 70. The youngest was Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina at 27.

Eighteen of the signers were merchants or businessmen, 14 were farmers, and four were doctors. Twenty-two were lawyers -- although William Hooper of North Carolina was "disbarred" when he spoke out against the king -- and nine were judges. Stephen Hopkins had been governor of Rhode Island. Forty-two signers had served in their colonial legislatures.

John Witherspoon of New Jersey was the only active clergyman to attend. (Indeed, he wore his pontificals to the sessions.) Almost all were Protestants. Charles Carroll of Maryland was the lone Roman Catholic.

Seven of the signers were educated at Harvard, four at Yale, four at William & Mary, and three at Princeton. Witherspoon was the president of Princeton, and George Wythe was a professor at William & Mary. His students included Declaration scribe Thomas Jefferson.

Seventeen signers fought in the American Revolution. Thomas Nelson was a colonel in the Second Virginia Regiment and then commanded Virginia military forces at the Battle of Yorktown. William Whipple served with the New Hampshire militia and was a commanding officer in the decisive Saratoga campaign. Oliver Wolcott led the Connecticut regiments sent for the defense of New York and commanded a brigade of militia that took part in the defeat of General Burgoyne. Caesar Rodney was a major general in the Delaware militia; John Hancock held the same rank in the Massachusetts militia.

The British captured five signers during the war. Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, and Arthur Middleton were captured at the Battle of Charleston in 1780. George Walton was wounded and captured at the Battle of Savannah. Richard Stockton of New Jersey never recovered from his incarceration at the hands of British Loyalists. He died in 1781.

Thomas McKean of Delaware wrote John Adams that he was "hunted like a fox by the enemy - compelled to remove my family five times in a few months." Abraham Clark of New Jersey had two of his sons captured by the British during the war.

Eleven signers had their homes and property destroyed. Francis Lewis's New York home was razed and his wife taken prisoner. John Hart's farm and mills were destroyed when the British invaded New Jersey, and he died while fleeing capture. Carter Braxton and Nelson, both of Virginia, lent large sums of their personal fortunes to support the war effort but were never repaid.

Fifteen of the signers participated in their states' constitutional conventions, and six - Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Franklin, George Clymer, James Wilson, and George Reed - signed the U.S. Constitution.

After the Revolution, 13 signers went on to become governors. Eighteen served in their state legislatures. Sixteen became state and federal judges. Seven became members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Six became U.S. senators. James Wilson and Samuel Chase became Supreme Court justices. Jefferson, Adams, and Elbridge Gerry each became vice president. Adams and Jefferson later became president.

Five signers played major roles in the establishment of colleges and universities: Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania; Jefferson and the University of Virginia; Benjamin Rush and Dickinson College; Lewis Morris and New York University; and George Walton and the University of Georgia.

Adams, Jefferson, and Carroll were the longest surviving signers. Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was the last signer to die in 1832 at the age of 95.

Sources: Robert Lincoln, Lives of the Presidents of the United States, with Biographical Notices of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Brattleboro Typographical Company, 1839); John and Katherine Bakeless, Signers of the Declaration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969); Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two things to bear in mind about #Gaza | #Palestine

1. Gaza is now under assault on the dubious pretext that its entire imprisoned population is collectively responsible for the deaths of three kids living illegally in the West Bank.

2. On average, one Palestinian child has been killed by the IDF every three days for the past thirteen years. (Source.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Great site for FREE classic audiobooks -- I found Nicholas Nickleby waiting for me there

I was up to about chapter fifteen in this beloved hardcover when it occurred to me that I might be able to spend more time with the text if I had it as an audiobook on my iPhone. (I love to listen to good books during my walks.)

A Google search yielded a FREE chapter by chapter performance, quite good. It's from

Turns out they have many, many classic audiobooks (my favorites) available for free (also my favorite). It's a volunteer arrangement: If you want to submit your own reading of a favorite book that's in the public domain, you can. What a find!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The pulsing tweetstream weighs in on JIHADI: A LOVE STORY

+Safie Maken Finlay, whose taste in reading material is beyond reproach, took part in a fascinating exchange on Twitter yesterday. 

No, I did not put her up to this. Thank you, Safie! 

Safie beta-read the most recent cut of the JIHADI: A LOVE STORY manuscript, which is currently making an international tour of elite slush piles. Visit Safie's site here. Check out her book THE GALIAN SPEAR here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Follow #JIHADI: A LOVE STORY on Facebook.

Here's the link. 

The book has not been published yet. It hits editors this week. "Like" the novel on Facebook and you'll get all the latest updates.

I got a spiffy review from Publishers Weekly as part of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition:

Follow JIHADI; A LOVE STORY on Facebook.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Preparation for #Ramadan

Reminding myself first and foremost, I pass along this potent hadith:

Rasulallah (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) said: “Fasting is not (abstaining) from eating and drinking only, but also from vain speech and foul language. If one of you is being cursed or annoyed, he should say: ‘I am fasting, I am fasting.” (Ibn Khuzaimah, Ibn Hibban)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

#Ramadan perspective check

If you're in the United States, and you're a Muslim, you're looking at a Ramadan fasting day that is placed quite close to the longest day of the year. That means a long fast: Muslims do not eat or drink during the daylight hours in the month of Ramadan.

But if you're tempted to start complaining about those 15-hour fast days ... consider the alternative. Suppose you lived in Sweden?

Saturday, June 14, 2014


The ABNA seminfinal list is out, and JIHADI: A LOVE STORY did not make the cut from 500 to 25. Congratulations to all those who advanced, and thank you to everyone who left a review! We move on now to the next phase, submission of the manuscript to editors. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

By the Numbers

6: Years in on my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. Current draft complete February 2014.

2: Number of times I made this novel the focus of my National Novel Writing Month efforts. (2012 and 2013. The second time was illegal. Sssh.)

400,000: Total words generated along the way (approximate)

116,508: Current word count

21: Number of beta readers who reviewed and critiqued all or part of the manuscript.

10,000: Number of initial competitors the novel faced in 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

499: Number of competitors the novel faces right now.

5: Days left until the judges announce the next cut, which will bring the field from 500 down to 25.

88: Number of reviews left on Amazon's US site, as of today, for the brief JIHADI: A LOVE STORY excerpt that is available here.

4.7: Average number of stars, out of five, the excerpt has received from these reviews.

43: Number of faces appearing in the on-line puzzle I created for the novel, each face representing a figure directly or indirectly referenced in the text.

0: Number of direct references in the novel, or its puzzle, to George W. Bush.

1: Number of shadowy characters in the novel referred to as "the Commander in Chief."