Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dystopia is scary enough without politics

A couple of weeks back, I finally got around to turning a birthday gift card into books. I came home with Fleishman Is In Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman; and Lights Out In Lincolnwood, by Geoff Rodkey. All three were table finds, books that caught my eye enough to pick up and read the back and maybe test drive the first few pages. The first two I'd heard of before. Lights Out was new to me. Turns out it was new to everyone, as it was only released earlier this month.

Having slowed to a crawl on the book I was reading (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), I was open to starting something new. Lights Out leapt to the top of the pile and sucked me right in. The premise, a suburban family of four--dad, mom, two high schoolers--is going about their day in typical suburban fashion, when suddenly the power goes out. All the way out. Not just electricity, but cars, trains, airplanes. Everything stops in its place and/or falls from the sky.

Dan Altman, the dad, has to walk eight miles home from where his commuter train into NYC stopped. Chloe and Max drift away from school once their teachers realize the lights aren't about to flick back on. And Jen, the mom, hits the vodka, which is pretty much what she would have been doing anyway.

Over the course of four days, their upscale New Jersey suburb descends into chaos, as water service is cut to all homes. The Altmans survive on peanut butter and tuna fish, and the cookouts staged by their next-door neighbors, the Stankovics, who they don't actually like. Chloe falls in love, Max searches for a nicotine substitute, Jen drinks herself into oblivion, and Dan wonders why the newly formed town militia won't recruit him.

It's a fun and fast read (even at 529 pages long), but it also sort of scared the hell out of me. I can see too many of my neighbors wanting to sign on for that militia. The cosplay soldiers who could finally feel free to roam the streets with their assault rifles and pretend to be the good guys. Rodkey notes that when he started writing the book he never imagined a pandemic and a disputed election would bring his dystopia so close to real life. But here we are, and the thought of having to line up for rations doled out by heavily armed jackwagons has me wondering how many cans of soup I can stack in my basement.

I don't tend to include politics in my fiction writing. For one, I spend way too much time thinking about stuff like that in real life. A novel should be a place to escape it. In fact, one of my first considerations these days when I contemplate a new story is when to set it. Because if you want to even pretend to be realistic, you almost have to avoid 2019-21. Maybe anything since 2016. I don't want to divide my characters up into Trump fans and sensible folk. I'd rather they populate a world in which he never came to power. Just because I can't live there anymore doesn't mean they shouldn't get the chance.

Lights Out In Lincolnwood never brings up any politician or cult leader by name. We might all be able to guess who Eddie Stankovic voted for, but Rodkey leaves that bit out. Dystopia is frightening enough without it.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Cyber dogs and time traveling dinosaurs

If you put a string in my son's back and programmed it to dictate his speech, the first three slots would be filled with lines about farts. (He's 11.) The fourth would be some variation on "school sucks." He does well, but he'd rather be doing something else, probably involving his Nintendo Switch, shooting street hockey balls out in the driveway, or watching YouTube. Or farting. Or farting while doing any of those other things.

We have a routine where I ask him about school, he provides almost nothing in response, then informs me school is over for the day and he doesn't want to talk about it. I've learned to ask the subtlest leading questions when he relaxes this rigid policy, and occasionally draw him out long enough for him to accidentally admit that not everything about school sucks. Sometimes it's even fun.

And then there are the days when he volunteers it without me even prodding a little. Like he did earlier this week about the story he was writing. And boy howdy did he spill the deets. (I'm informed no one says "deets." Minus 2 cred points.) It was fiction writing, and he was allowed to go nuts. And nuts he went.

Let's start with the title. The Time Traveling Dinosaur. I'm liking it already.

It opens in the year 20712, with a human (I think), named Septus, who lives in a holo-house with his cyber dog, Dramkos. There is a giant futuristic war taking place, and something has caused a photo booth to hurtle to the earth (I assume it's earth, not totally sure on that part). The photo booth turns out to be a time machine, which takes Septus and Dramkos to 2012, before glitching them to 1,000,000 B.C., where they encounter a hungry dinosaur. And fight pirates.

Never fear, everyone turns out friends in the end, though there is a bit of tension on the way.

He cranked out over 1,000 words on this time traveling tale in a single day. That part actually makes me a bit jealous. I don't have a lot of thousand-word days, and I've been at this a lot longer than he has.

He pounded out another story last spring, toward the end of last school year, about a planet where all the animals had super powers, and all the dogs in the neighborhood had to battle a particularly annoying squirrel. He was quite talkative about that one as well, which also warmed me cockles.

His stories remind me of some I wrote when I was a kid. I remember a series about a circus flea named George who was also some kind of secret agent. I'm thinking he might have been tight with James Bond, though I could be a little fuzzy on that part. There may be one or two of those that have survived time; I'll have to dig to see if I can confirm whether he had Double-0 status. There were also a couple about E.T. and Mr. T fighting intruders from another galaxy. Those were written on summer vacation while visiting my dad in Rochester, during the days when the local tourism board was pumping out ads featuring an alien named IRBIR, which was an acronym for I'd Rather Be In Rochester. My stories, not coincidentally, featured beings named IRBSE and IRNBH, which stood for I'd Rather Be Somewhere Else and I'd Rather Not Be Here, respectively. I wasn't much older than my son is now when I wrote those masterpieces.

My son's long-term plan is to write cartoons or comics. And he's actually pretty good at drawing, so he has a leg up on my stick-figure what-is-that ability. With his imagination, he's got some genuine raw materials to work with. Though it's not my place to suggest it. He's very much a kid who has to come up with the idea himself for it to be a good one. I can encourage, though, when he shares his stories and drawings with me.

At least until he outsells me. Because then he'll gloat. And even for a proud dad, that might get old in a hurry.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A belated goodbye

In the years before I released my first novel, I began reviewing books for Baseball America with an eye toward expanding my contact network. I interviewed a number of authors and stayed in touch with some of them afterward. Several were kind enough to provide back-cover quotes for The Greatest Show on Dirt when it was released in 2012.

Jeff Gillenkirk, who turned out to be a Rochester, NY, native who had relocated to California, became something of a regular correspondent over the years. Every so often we would exchange a flurry of emails discussing our latest projects, writing in general, baseball, politics, or family life. He had twenty years on me and enough wisdom to share that there were mentor-mentee aspects to our friendship. He provided feedback on Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed, and wasn't shy about telling me he didn't care much for my protagonist, C.J. Neubauer. Jeff called him a sociopath. I softened C.J. up a bit after that. He wasn't meant to be especially likeable, but he wasn't meant to be a sociopath, either.

We met up a couple of times for dinner when he returned to Rochester to visit family, hitting Hose 22 in Charlotte twice, once successfully, once less so. On his last visit we found out the hard way that Hose 22 doesn't serve dinner on Monday evenings. Or at least didn't back then. Which turns out to have been 2016. We went instead to a somewhat louder restaurant nearby, but still had a nice meal and even better conversation.

It doesn't seem possible it was five years ago. If you had asked me before last night I would have sworn it was three, maybe two. In my mind we would have done it again last summer if not for Covid-related travel restrictions. In my faulty memory we exchanged email only last year.

Now that I've finally hit the stage on the new book where I am about to reach out to my feedback crew, Jeff was solidly atop the list. In fact, I was considering asking if he'd be willing to tackle the job of editing it. Has he edited a novel before, I wondered. So I looked him up on LinkedIn. Nothing. And then I Googled him.

And the second hit was an obituary. A lovely story of a passionate and caring man who was involved in so many interesting projects, who passed away of a heart attack.

In November 2016.

We didn't exchange emails last year, or the year before. The last string I came across was from the month before he died. We talked about the baseball playoffs and the state of publishing. He attached two articles about publishing trends that he thought I would enjoy. And in my mind we've had other exchanges just like that over the past few years.

I've moved so many times over the years that I have friends in far-flung locations, clustered around the places I once called home. Friends who are there when I reach out, via email, text, or Twitter--or on the rarest occasions by phone. There have been catch-up visits here and there, where the friendship picks right back up where it last left off, as if it had only been months since we last saw each other instead of years. Distance and time doesn't impact these relationships.

Until they do. Until so much time has gone by that it's almost more of shock to learn that a friend has been gone for four and a half years than it is to find out that he's gone. I had no idea I should miss Jeff until I came across that obituary last night. He's been gone all this time, but he was never gone to me until now.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The namesake club expands by one

I'm closing in on a milestone that has been a long time coming. I'm a chapter and a half away from completing the first draft of my sixth novel. Wrapping up a first draft leaves me a long, long way from the finish line, but it's a major step. There will be second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts before this thing sees the light of day, but none of them would be possible without a first.

I'm a re-writer. Over the years, I've come to realize I enjoy the subsequent iterations more than the first, so getting the initial round out of the way is a big deal to me. I started working on this book in early July.

Of 2019.

That was six months before the world even heard of COVID-19, to put that in some perspective. It's been a slog. But I'm finally to the point when I can at least envision my next book hitting Amazon.

Or maybe it already has.

I was crawling through my Twitter timeline tonight when I came across a review by Larry Hoffer, who was kind enough to review Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed way back in 2015, of a new novel called The Flip Side. By James Bailey.

Wait, that's me. Isn't it?


Okay, I don't have the most unusual name on the planet. I'm no John Smith (that would be my neighbor), but I'm a heck of a lot closer than, say, Gary Shteyngart. According to the U.S. Census, Bailey is the 66th most common last name in the United States. Per the U.S. Social Security Administration, James is currently the sixth most popular name for a male baby in this country. That has ranged from No. 1 to No. 19 over the past 100 years, including a stretch of more than 60 years in the top 5.

James Baileys may not be quite a dime a dozen, but we're somewhere on that discount rack near the front of the Name Stop store.

This newcomer--and his bio says this is his first novel, and it was published just 10 days ago--is only one of many in the club to publish in a variety of genres. We've written fiction and non-fiction, memoirs, sci-fi, even chemistry textbooks. And if you want to expand the club to welcome Bailey James, well, we've also got some steamy-looking romance on tap.

So, welcome to the gang, Mr. Bailey. And seeing as your book is currently higher in the sales rankings, how about sharing a few readers with the rest of us?


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Capturing souls on paper, Cuphead style

Like most boys on this planet, my son spends a goodly chunk of his time with some sort of game controller in his hands. When he's not playing something on the PlayStation or Nintendo Switch or iPad, he's generally watching a YouTube video or a TV show about other people playing video games. He's had his love affairs with Fortnite, Roblox, Disney Crossy Road, and Mario Kart. He tends to go all in, get it out of his system, and then move on to the next.

His passion this summer turned to Cuphead, which for those who have never seen it, was created with the look and feel of a 1930s-era cartoon. There's quite a back story to it all, which I will confess I didn't really understand until a quick visit to Wikipedia. Cuphead and his brother Mugman have to fight a series of bosses to reclaim the contracts for their souls that they had previously entered with the devil. Beat all the bosses, then beat the devil, and Cuphead wins his own soul back.

I've oversimplified it quite a bit, but it's deep stuff for a 10-year-old. Not that you need to understand all that soul-selling to play the game. You just have to shoot and move and avoid getting hit. Which he's much more adept at than I am. I don't play many video games with him, because I suck, and the controllers hurt my fingers. (I'm old.)

The game features quite a jazz soundtrack, which he is similarly obsessed with. His current playlist on his iPad is composed exclusively of Cuphead tracks. If you didn't know any better, you would think they were all original to the 1930s, but they were recorded for the game. The music and artwork have received quite a bit of praise, and the game itself has won a bunch of awards (h/t again, Wikipedia). 


He picked up another hobby this summer, which I'm not ashamed to say he's also much better at than I am. He's started drawing. It began with some of his favorite Disney characters. He would draw the outlines in black pen, then color them in. He's got rows of them taped up on his bedroom wall, and they're all pretty darned good.

He recently began combining his two pastimes, drawing characters from the Cuphead game. But he had a rule, he would only draw a boss after he defeated it in the game. So as his Cuphead won soul contracts from the devil's runaway debtors, my son would draw them. One by one, he committed them to paper, until the entire cast had been captured, including the devil.


Based on the games that have come and gone before it, I know his fascination with Cuphead will wane. I only hope he sticks with the drawing, because I think he's got a talent for it. And I'm not just saying that as someone who never advanced beyond stick figures. I'm also saying it as a proud dad.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Sometimes no review IS the review

Reviews are the ultimate chicken/egg for authors. We need sales to get reviews, but we need reviews to get sales. Lack of reviews, or more precisely, lack of positive reviews, can kill a book launch.

Take The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo for example. Maybe I suck at marketing (a non-zero possibility), but I just couldn't get that one off the ground. The reception when I submitted it to places like Net Galley was crickets. Whereas Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed resonated there. In fact, the thoughtful reviews Sorry got there (not all four- and five-star, but detailed and informative) really helped it find its audience. No coincidence it's my best-selling book. And I can't move First World Problems--or Dispatches from a Tourist Trap, its sequel--to save my life. There will someday be a third book to finish off the trilogy, but it's hard to prioritize that project when it seems destined to die in its crib.

I am a very regular (read daily) consumer of Carolyn Hax's advice column in the Washington Post, and have been for years. Friday, during her weekly live Q&A chat, someone wrote and asked for advice on how to deal with an author acquaintance who had asked for a review of a book they didn't care for.

Q: Honesty in Reviews?

Here's one I don't think you've tackled before. I know at least 4 people who have published books on Amazon. All have asked me to please leave a review. Three of the books were fairly good (one was really great), but one was really hard to slog through. Three would have benefited from being trimmed to half their length. I have navigated through real-life situations by finding something honest and positive to say about most situations ("What do you think of this dress?" etc.) and I can do that with written reviews. But what do I do about star ratings and remain honest? They're pretty black and white. If I can't lie (and I won't, because then reviews are worthless), should I decline to leave a review at all? So far I've just put it off, but I'll be asked again. Is there any way I can decline that's not hurtful?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Instant Classic: Limped Mail Order Bride and Her Dejected Cowboy

I subscribe to a couple of ebook bargain emails, chiefly because I have from time to time runs specials on my own books, though I also snag the odd $1.99 read when one strikes me. The list I read most regularly is Book Gorilla. Like most such services, it allows you to specify which genres you're interested in. I selected Baseball and Literary Fiction when I signed up.

Many days there will be a handful of classics sprinkled throughout the list I receive. Today, for example, it included Dune, Gone with the Wind, and Limped Mail Order Bride And Her Dejected Cowboy (A Western Historical Romance Book), by Florence Linnington. A stone cold bargain at only $0.99.

Not familiar with Limped Mail Order Bride And Her Dejected Cowboy? Oh, you will be soon. This one has instant classic stamped all over it. Here's the tempting pitch on Amazon:

There is nothing wrong for a mail order bride to desire children. But what happens when her husband is unable…
At 26 years old, a limped Cora Duke wants to stop being a burden on her family. She decides to marry herself off to a stranger, by means of becoming a mail order bride.
Cowboy Derek Masters is a man of solitude. A man running from a troubled past and seeking to build a family at his ranch.
When a beautiful and confused Cora sweeps into his life, however, old wounds resurface, especially on the touchy topic of childbearing.
Despite their growing affection for each other, a combination of insecurities, haunted pasts and natural dangers of the west threaten to push Derek and Cora apart.
Derek and Cora struggle to cling to what they have as they realize that they are as different as two people can be.
In the end, they must ask the question: does true love really conquers all?
And, can they finally have children?

So much good, useful words, for so little of the money. And so many questions.

Let's start with the most obvious one. "Limped"? As an adjective? I must need an updated Merriam-Webster's, because it's missing from mine. It does have "gimpy," though perhaps that wasn't the vibe they were going for.

Is Florence Linnington a human, or was this an AI generated novel? I mean, hats off if you can program a computer to write a book that's even half plausible written in something close to standard English, which is about what was accomplished here.

If Florence Linnington is human, is she a composite human? Because she has (they have?) been very, very busy. She has released five of these books in 2020. Each title as enticing as the one before:


  • Mail Order Bride's Baby And Her One-Arm Indian
  • Pregnant Mail Order Bride And Her Brave Sheriff
  • Half-Deaf Mail Order Bride And Her Heartfelt Pastor
  • Big Beautiful Mail Order Bride And Her Lost Man

[Note: No, I did not make those titles up. Those are real Kindle books currently for sale on Amazon.]

And that's just this year. Amazon offers 25 such titles, all cranked out since 2017. Prolific doesn't feel quite strong enough.

I know for me coming up with a title is almost as hard as writing the book. It's got to be doubly so for Florence, considering the formulaic nature of these novels. They seem to just write themselves. Change a few names, an ailment here, a job title there, and, voila, a new book is born.

In the spirit of goodwill, I've come up with some titles for future releases, which should fit right in with the rest of the catalog:


  • Left-Handed Mail Order Bride and the Color-Blind Rustler
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome Mail Order Bride and the Cross-Eyed Camp Chef
  • Necrophiliac Mail Order Bride and the Bowlegged Undertaker

That last one sounds like a perfect romantic pairing, and might be an ideal way to end the series. Or segue into a new one involving mail order brides and the afterlife.

Thank me later, Florence. I'll take 10 percent.