Monday, November 20, 2017

BILL'S BLOG by Bill McCauley

This past November ninth Judy and I did what we've been doing for decades now: celebrating my birthday by visiting my son Marc and his wife Stella who live just outside Seattle, and getting together with some of our writers for a meal who also live in the area. This led into a spirited discussion about writing with William (Bill) McCauley, a very gifted writer and world traveler whose fiction we'd published three times to excellent reviews—Need (the Seattle Times review said  "his evocation of place is masterful and provides a level of engagement reminiscent of Hawthorne or Melville"), The Turning Over, his second novel, set in Sierra Leone, involved Western aid workers and native workers and won high praise in Library Journal,and his short story collection Adulteries, Hot Tubs, and Such Like Matters—set in Suburban America—was hailed in Booklist as "biting and insightful stories about well-to-do middle-agers, bored with their lives, who engage in empty shenanigans." Obviously my admiration for Bill is immense. And to pass those twelve  hours of travel I  brought along the world-famed Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. So much for my introduction  to Bill's Blog. Needless to say it was a novel I abhorred.   —Marty Shepard

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When Marty and I were talking about books a few days ago he told me he'd recently read a Henning Mankell novel and was disappointed. He asked me if I'd read any of Mankell's books. I said I'd read only one and I came away from it feeling betrayed by the reviewer blurbs. Reading the book was akin to what I feel when I have unwisely devoured some fast-food treat like a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. It may fill my belly, but it will not satisfy me. This is because there is nothing new in it. Everyone knows what to expect from a Big Mac and fries. In an analogous way the Mankell book filled my time and gave me no satisfaction at all. Having read the blurbs, I anticipated an enjoyable read and ended up annoyed with myself for not cutting my losses at page 25 and tossing the book into the Goodwill bin.  

I make no judgement about the worth of the Mankell book. A book is worth what the reader thinks it's worth. Obviously, my opinion on Mankell's writing is out of sync with many thousands of his loyal readers. I didn't like it because it did not meet my standard for a good readable book.  

We all have standards, though we don't often express them, and when we do we don't express them well. What are yours? Can you generalize your standards in a sentence? I can. I keep it simple; it is the same standard I use to evaluate art. For me the quality of a book starts and ends with the question of whether it offers me the discovery of something new (Merriam-Webster: "to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time"). Perhaps this is another way of saying it must be interesting.

From my perspective, the topic of a book or its genre are not of first importance. The next book that captures my admiration might be a novel, or a collection of short stories, or book of poems, or an anthropological book on human origins, or a book on cosmology, or a military history, or a book on any number of other topics, in any number of genres. What I don't want is to give my time to any book that says something in a way that I've seen many times, that is didactic, that is careless or ugly in its use of language, or is populated by two-dimensional cliché expressions and characters. I want originality in material and in manner of presentation. I believe that when the writer strives for originality she necessarily discovers and offers discoveries to readers; and in not being original, the writer forecloses the possibility of discovering and offering discoveries to readers.

"Discovery" is a very general term. In that sense I mean discovery has many aspects. Often, I find one aspect of discovery in a book but not other aspects that I value. When that happens, I am nonetheless likely to finish it because the value of the one ongoing experience of discovery is enough for me to enjoy the book. For example, I recently read This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach. I heartily recommend it, though the writer's underlying politics are too conservative for me, the intellectual setting is outdated (it was written in the early 60s), it is loaded with mid-20th Century racial clichés, and the writing is often in mediocre military-history style. Nonetheless, I liked it very much and think it a worthwhile read, because it brilliantly characterizes the difficulties of fighting a war of movement (a modern war) in mountainous North Korea. This is new information for a lot of people and should be thoroughly understood by those advocating a war against North Korea. The insights (discoveries) provided by the author were original and clearly developed. The book is a tidy history of the Korean War.

Another example of a book in which readers are likely to find rich veins of discovery is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I read this year. Whereas the Fehrenbach book offered me one aspect of significant discovery (why fighting a land war in North Korea is a bad idea), Pale Fire offers many aspects of discovery. In this it exemplifies the genius of Nabokov. I've read several of his books and in none have I found any single weakness. In his books, discoveries abound, on every page from first to last. Plot? No one is more original. Humor? I experienced numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Poetic language? So subtle and lush I stopped and reread sentences and paragraphs to re-experience the thrill of the first reading. Originality? He seems never to repeat himself in any book or from book to book, and never to use any character as a template for others. His characters are as original and as alive as Shakespeare's. Dialogue? Always in character, never unfitting or unlikely, and always leading the reader into yet another discovery.

Poems and short stories are typically built around a single discovery. O. Henry made a living on this. John Updike is known for the one-line "zingers," each a revelation (discovery) for the reader, with which he ends his short stories. Ditto John Cheever. A poem without discovery for the reader is reduced to an exercise in word play.

In the most felicitous case, as the writer composes he is discovering. While I cannot say how other writers work I can say that I never end up with the words and thoughts I put down first. Never. I throw away far more pages of stuff than end up in a manuscript. It is in the act of writing that I discover what I want to say; it is in the act of developing characters that I discover who the characters are. When I follow that motif of composition – exploring by writing and making changes until I cannot find another change that makes an improvement – I continuously feel an aesthetic lift that accompanies discovery, because I am writing stuff that says more than the words alone express. The writer hopes the reader makes his or her own discoveries. The most enduring literature consistently involves the reader in this way. To the extent this happens, the writer is successful.

For many years I've believed this. It is what sustains me when I am defeated by my cliché characters or a plot line that embarrasses me and defeats every attempted change.

This brings me full circle to Mankell's book. I discovered nothing in it that wasn't on the surface of the words, which is simple word play.

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I am curious to hear from you about which popular writers you believe are incredibly overrated, and the reasons you would put forward for your dismissals of them. The media is always concerned with Best-Seller lists, and contrarian that I sometimes am, I'd like to see a listing of other unworthy Best-Sellers for another blog. My email address is

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


My grandparents all came from Russia. Some had religious ties, others were atheists, but all were pacifists. When it came down to my father and mother’s affiliations and those of their generation, all were agnostic at best and none of their children (my cousins, or anyone in our extended family) had any religious education at all, for which I am eternally grateful, since it’s enabled me to avoid tribalism, be it nationalism, racial, or religious.

My favorite book is not fiction which we largely publish, Nor even memoirs It is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of  La-tzu’s the Tao Te Ching—81 short poetic statements about the Way things are. The front flap talks about at the basic predicament of being alive; about wisdom in action and imparts a balance and perspective that leads to a serene and generous spirit. I read it repeatedly in my 30’s and have gone back to again. 

It is the most widely read translated book in world literature after the Bible. Yet few of my friends and contemporaries have ever read it, But if there were one book I would recommend to one and all to read, it wouldn’t be a anything from one of the mega publishers or smaller ones like us, but this engrossing and timeless work.

So what spurred me to write this blog now? Coming across an article written 12 years ago called Zen Judaism. And it was funny. And we can all enjoy something that can foster laughter.

                                    *        *       *


* If there is no self,

   whose arthritis is this? 

* Be here now. 

   Be someplace else later. 

   Is that so complicated? 

* Drink tea and nourish life. 

   With the first sip... joy. 

   With the second... satisfaction. 

   With the third, peace. 

   With the fourth, a danish. 

* Wherever you go, there you are. 

   Your luggage is another story. 

* Accept misfortune as a blessing. 

   Do not wish for perfect health 

   or a life without problems. 

   What would you talk about? 

* The journey of a thousand miles 

    begins with a single "oy." 

* There is no escaping karma. 

    In a previous life, you never called, 

    you never wrote, you never visited. 

    And whose fault was that? 

* Zen is not easy. 

   It takes effort to attain nothingness. 

   And then what do you have? 


* The Tao does not speak. 

   The Tao does not blame. 

   The Tao does not take sides. 

   The Tao demands nothing of others. 

   The Tao is not Jewish. 

* Breathe in. Breathe out. 

   Breathe in. Breathe out. 

   Forget this and attaining Enlightenment 

   will be the least of your problems. 

* Let your mind be as a floating cloud. 

   Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. 

   And sit up straight. You'll never meet the 

   Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

* Be patient and achieve all things. 

   Be impatient and achieve all things faster. 

* To Find the Buddha, look within. 

   Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. 

   Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.

   Each blossom has ten thousand petals. 

   You might want to see a specialist. 

* To practice Zen and the art of Jewish 

   motorcycle maintenance, do the following: 

   get rid of the motorcycle. 

   What were you thinking? 

* Be aware of your body. 

   Be aware of your perceptions. 

   Keep in mind that not every physical 

   sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness. 

* The Torah says,"Love thy neighbor as

   thyself." The Buddha says there is no "self." 

   So, maybe you are off the hook. 

* The Buddha taught that one should practice

   loving kindness to all sentient beings. Still, 

   would it kill you to find a nice sentient being 

   who happens to be Jewish? 

* Though only your skin, sinews, and bones

   remain, though your blood and flesh 

   dry up and wither away, 

   yet shall you meditate and not stir until 

   you have attained full Enlightenment.  

   But, first, a little nosh.

                                     *        *       *

I encourage you to share this blog with others who may enjoy it. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (, and follow The Permanent Press on Facebook and Twitter for updates on all our titles!  


Wednesday, August 16, 2017


        Howard Owen is surely the best known and widely read author in Richmond and also well known throughout the state of Virginia. His 16th novel, (and fourth Willie Black Mystery), The Devil’s Triangle debuted last month. Another achievement is that he has never had a bad review.

        His 17th mystery, Annie’s Bones, will be published by us in April, 2018.

        This is the story of his journey.

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By Howard Owen

        My professional/public life has tended to run in 20-year cycles.
        In my early 20s, I became a sports writer because the idea of getting paid to go to ballgames and write about them seemed to me to be a pleasant way to spend my adult life. Maybe I wouldn’t change the world, but, like a diligent physician, I would do no harm.

        Then, just before I turned 40, I started my first novel, because I had managed to get promoted away from using the main talent I thought I brought to journalism: writing.  I needed to write. That first novel, Littlejohn, was bought by The Permanent Press after a dozen large publishers had turned it down. Martin and Judith Shepard’s judgment was rewarded when the book got great reviews and word-of-mouth support from independent booksellers, and Random House purchased it from them/me and republished it the next year. 

        That made writing novels in my free time (I was still working as a newspaper editor) easier, because I was fairly confident someone would publish my work. Over the next 20 years, I wrote nine literary novels, some for The Permanent Press, some for Harper Collins and Random House.

        Then about the time I turned 60, still working as a newspaper editor, another fork in the road appeared, and, like Yogi Berra advised, I took it.

        A friend, Tom De Haven, an outstanding novelist who teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, asked me to write a detective noir short story for a collection that would become Richmond Noir, one of a series of noir collections published by Akashic Books.

        I had never written a mystery anything. I didn’t even read that many mysteries, but I’m always game to write something that people might read, so I gave it a try. That short story, “The Thirteenth Floor,” was the birth of Willie Black, a night police reporter for the Richmond daily newspaper who drinks too much, smokes too much and marries too much, a man with a good heart and bad habits.

        I knew right away that Willie’s first-person voice was something I could use in a novel or two. Even before Richmond Noir came out, I was working on the first Willie Black mystery. That first one, Oregon Hill, won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for best crime literature in the U.S. and Canada. The fifth one, Grace, is a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best Fiction Adult Mystery. The sixth one, The Devil’s Triangle, with a starred Publishers Weekly review, came out in July. I’m polishing the seventh one now. The first six have all been published by The Permanent Press as will, I’m hoping, the seventh.

        What have I learned? Basically, writing is writing. I found that the things that carried me in literary fiction—a good plot, intriguing characters, quality writing—worked just as well in mysteries. And when I needed professional advice (What kind of gun should the bad guy use? What’s it like at an execution? What’s the procedure between the arrest and the trial?), there was always an expert, either in person or online, who could tell me what I needed to know. 

        The important thing is simply to have a good story and write it well. Genre doesn’t matter. The bonus, with mysteries, is that you have a protagonist and a setting already. If you have a likeable, compelling protagonist, you can use him or her over and over. And the setting doesn’t usually change. All you need is another story, and the world is full of stories. 

        With literary fiction, I had to invent a new world every time out. With the mysteries, I always have Willie (he’s 10 years younger than me, so I can ride him for years to come), and I always have Richmond, a city with a history, with a wealth of nooks and crannies that you don’t find in most cities. 

        The down side, if there is one, is that the characters have to stay real and fresh. Willie can’t be fully redeemed, although he tries to be good. There’s not much of a market for Detective Blanc. 

        So, I’m seven novels into that third phase right now.
Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Can’t wait to see what 80 brings.

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        We urge you to pass Howard’s blog on to others and to also to post your remarks on this cockeyed pessimist website and also on Howard’s site The Willie Black series and his other books can be ordered on Amazon or on our website, We encourage you to leave your comments on this page, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Monday, July 3, 2017


Besides being a publisher I’m still a licensed physician who—decades ago—had a practice in psychiatry. And it’s occurred to me that nobody has raised the possibility that our 71-year-old president is showing symptoms of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But if you go online, you will see that Donald Trump is increasingly displaying every symptom of this disease.
Up until now many people have witnessed Trump’s sensitivity to criticism, outbursts of anger, dissimulation and illogical changes of policy both domestically and internationally. In the past he’s shown these traits which have turned many Americans against him, but at this point it seems more likely we’ve missed the boat here, and that his growing intemperance is likely a result of an incurable and rapidly advancing illness.

For instance, people who suffer from dementia display “sundowners syndrome”—where their symptoms increase during the night, which is when Donald Trump sends out his most incendiary messages. Other common symptoms of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s is agitation, usually resulting from fear, confusion, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed from trying to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense. Spelling and word choice errors are likely to be affected and continuously increase in Trump’s tweets. Unprovoked mood swings are still another sign of dementia—going from calm to rage for no apparent reason.

If so we, as a nation, are at even greater risk if our president is suffering from this incurable disease. I would hope that there is a Praetorian guard surrounding the President, far less delusional, who might prevent Trump from pressing the nuclear button. But who is to say?

I know that Donald Trump will never release his tax returns. But will he or his more rational staff allow the President to be examined by reputable physicians whose specialty is dementia? One thing is certain: it will require many individuals and organizations to demand such an examination be done.

My hope is that you will not only comment on this blog but pass it on to others as well—including your elected lawmakers be they Republicans or Democrats, and to media sources including radio, magazines, and newspapers large and small alike. And please comment on this Cockeyed Pessimist blog, tell us what you are doing, and send out your own blogs as well.

Urgency is called for on this one.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017


I’ve been a great admirer of Eleanor Lerman as a writer, poet, blogger and brave soul who has overcome serious illness without complaint, and who can turn adversity into lyrical memoir, such as this current blog. There is incredible honesty in her work and it’s been a privilege to have published her and count her as a good friend. I think you will be equally impressed by this piece.  —Martin Shepard
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Monsters and Memory
by Eleanor Lerman

In 1970, when I was eighteen, I answered a want ad in the Village Voice that said, “Person needed to sweep up in harpsichord workshop.” I figured I could do that job; after all, I had grand ideas about being a writer and scorned the alternate path of going to college or getting a “real” job which, at that time, would have meant putting on a demure dress and typing letters in an insurance office. (Well, that’s how I pictured a girl’s life in those years and what my typing course in high school had prepared me for.) So, I took the A train from my parents’ house in Far Rockaway to the Village, got off at Sheridan Square, walked down to 161 Charles Street near the Hudson River and—not that I knew it then—found the place that would change my life forever.             

That day, Michael Zuckermann hired me to work at Zuckermann Harpsichords and also gave me the keys to a tiny apartment upstairs so I became not only his employee but also his neighbor and eventually, his friend. Yes, I swept the floors but I also made harpsichord kit parts. I drilled pin boards, spun wire into coils, affixed tongues into the plastic jacks that help pluck the harpsichords’ strings. By the time I was nineteen I was managing the place so Michael could be free to pursue his real passion: making movies that starred his girlfriend, Rosalie, running naked down Charles Street at night as a tape-recorded recitation of “She Sells Sea Shells” played in the background. The reason for this eludes me now, but I’m sure it all made sense at the time.

Michael once told me that he hired me because I had a soulful look, which meant I had achieved exactly the look I was going for: long hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, rags and glitter. Sort of half Cher, half Egyptian tomb painting. What better qualifications could anyone have for working in a harpsichord kit factory at that time, in those years, in that place?

So, Charles Street and Charles Lane behind it, along with the harpsichord workshop and all the people I met through that place—including a movie producer who lived in a carriage house on the Lane along with art historian wife—shaped who I was and who I am. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but I know it now. I was an angry, resentful, unsophisticated and uneducated kid with a dead mother and a fractured family so I didn’t know how to really relate to any of the people I met, but I did know how to watch them from somewhere deep inside myself. The people whose circle parted just a little to let me in—movie stars, Great American Writers, once-famous musicians suddenly and famously down-and-out, comedians on the rise, but mostly the writers, all men, all extraordinarily talented—filled me with jealousy (I wanted to be them), with rage (I hated the idea that I believed I couldn’t be them, though they were all extremely kind and encouraging to me), and even, once in a while, inspiration (what the hell, if some of these acting-out-all-the-time and raging-drunk types could write books, then why not me, too?). Anyway. When I was 36, I moved away from the Village and all things Zuckermann. There were a lot of reasons, including the fact that I thought I was failing as a writer (I had published two books of poetry but couldn’t find anyone to buy a novel I’d written) and so it was time to give up and try to live a normal life. That didn’t work out because I am not a normal person—at least, not the demure dress and typing kind of person who I thought I was sentencing myself to become by leaving the Village, moving to Queens, and getting a more conventional job. So, years got lost, bad decisions got made, etc., etc. Lots of time passed. Lots.

But actually, all that is prelude to what I really want to write about here, so let’s start by my saying that now, as it turns out, I am not quite the failure I thought I was. I am still not where I want to be as a writer but, at the age of 65, I have finally learned a few things about how to do my job better, be more discerning about the angels and oddities walking through the front door. And one of the things I’ve learned about my job is that different people who do the same thing do it differently. Some people who write stories start with developing their characters, some start by working out the plot, some just begin with a particular sentence and follow where it leads them. For me, stories start with a place. In my last novel, The Stargazer’s Embassy, Greenwich Village was an important setting for a good part of what happens. In a book I’ve just begun working on, the story began to reveal itself to me when I was riding on the Long Island Railroad and through the window, glimpsed a winding, lonely looking street that seemed to lead off to nowhere. I was on the train because, after a sudden and near-fatal illness, I was in the process of recovery, which involved traveling to a physical therapy facility some distance from the small Long Island beach town where I live. So, day after day, on the train, that deserted street with a fence on the corner and an empty lot lined by tall cattails, began to exercise a kind of pull on me. It was autumn; the sky was gray and mackerel-striped. The wind pushed around the clouds above the street and blew sand across the weedy lot. In my mind, that glimpse of scenery became a place called Satellite Street and it became mine.

So, back home, sitting on my purple couch, in my imagination I began to walk down Satellite Street and what I found there was a woman with short-term memory problems and her friend, falling into dementia, who can only remember experiences from long ago. There are a lot of things I intend for these women to do, but one important task is to make a brief visit to the Village because I want them to help me say good-bye one last and final time.

Maybe it’s because as we—as I—get older, the longing for people and places in the past grows stronger, as if by going back to those years we could cast off all the bad choices, the disasters, the illnesses and grief that came to visit afterwards. But for me, I know that I have to find another way to live and to write that is not constantly referencing the past. My life was pretty scary for a while but it’s much better now, and I have to find a way to work from that better place.

In my new story, a woman named Mara develops a mild obsession with the movie Godzilla—the old one, from 1956, with Raymond Burr. Mara thinks, at first, that her obsession stems from an affinity she feels with Godzilla’s atomic rage: she’s been very sick (who can she represent here, hmmm?), she’s lost her job, is living on Satellite Street in a middle-of-nowhere area surrounded by marshy inlets and highways to better places. She’s also very angry about the turn her life has taken and so she’d like to stomp out a few cities herself, smash up some skyscrapers and blast away an army of puny soldiers with her radioactive breath. But what she’s going to find out is something quite different: that while it takes a monster’s strength to survive this life, it also may require a monster’s heart—full of wandering atoms and stardust and ancient memories about human creation—to stomp on into the future. Wounded, maybe, but still breathing fire.

So, on I go. On we go. I recently received an email from someone I’ve never met, telling me that he’s a friend of Wallace Zuckermann, the original owner of Zuckermann Harpsichords and the older brother of my boss/friend Michael Zuckermann. Michael passed away many years ago but Wallace, who I didn’t know well, and whose real name, apparently, is Wolfgang, is an elderly fellow now, living in Paris in near poverty. (I know, that sounds like a novel all by itself.) The person who wrote to me is trying to get some folks together to find a way to chronicle Wolfgang/Wallace’s life (he was born in Germany, became an American soldier, created the harpsichord kit business and wrote a volume of bizarre, erotic fairytales which he once sent me and I am now trying to find among my books) and I told him I would help, if I can. Such an odd time to receive a communique from my Zuckermann-addled past but maybe it’s just the right time, as well.  Maybe it will help me say good-bye in my story, knowing that the girl with the kohl-rimmed eyes still gets to live a little longer, roam around her old haunts for a while longer and then go to sleep. Like Godzilla, she can drowse under the sea until roused again to stalk a new world. Angry. Happy enough. Certainly strong enough. Finally free.

Eleanor Lerman is the author of Radiomen (The Permanent Press, 2015) and The Stargazer’s Embassy, which will be published by Mayapple Press in July.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

MAKING IT HAPPEN by Kathleen Novak

Kathleen Novak has written two novels for The Permanent  Press The first, Do Not Find Me (February 2016) received wonderful reviews and excellent sales. Her second, Rare Birds will be published near the end of June.

Living in Minnesota, we’ve asked her to describe how she approaches marketing and this is well worth reading. Every author we publish has written an interesting book, but success depends on having a solid marketing plan, and Kathleen’s approach is a very successful one. What follows is her blog, MAKING IT HAPPEN.

∗             ∗            ∗

A bag of tricks is it?
            And a game smoothies play?
If you’re good with a deck of cards or rolling the bones – that helps?
If you can tell jokes and be a chum
and make an impression – that helps?
            from Honey and Salt by Carl Sandberg

I quote one of my favorite poems to begin the discussion on promoting our books. It does often seem like a game smoothies play. And I’ll say that after a year of doing readings and book clubs that telling a joke and being a chum do help. Everyone wants to laugh, even at a literary reading. Maybe especially at a literary reading!

I believe that those of us who publish a book in today’s environment need to face the reality of promoting our own work. To make something happen we have to augment what the publisher does and take action on our own behalf. That’s where “the bag of tricks” comes in. I’ve gathered ideas and advice, observed other authors and added my own discipline to the mix. I make a plan, give myself deadlines and keep adding to the plan as events evolve.  The following list is not the be-all. But it helped me on my debut novel, Do Not Find Me, and I am now doing all this again for my second novel, Rare Birds.

Here’s what I suggest:

    1.   Schedule a book launch party and invite everyone you know or think you know. Have something to eat and drink and sell your books.
         2.   Use TPP’s preview copies where they will help you the most. Send them out with a personalized letter to local publications, media outlets, large and important bookstores, even library systems in your area.
         3.   Put up an engaging website. I recommend photos or graphics, excerpts, links, etc.
         4.   Volunteer to do book clubs.
         5.   Ask friends, family and other colleagues to host readings – salons, as one of my friends calls them – either in their homes or at their neighborhood library.
         6.   Use social media to announce events and keep people interested. (I had the idea to pull in music clips and quotes too, but chickened out on the first novel. Maybe I’ll be more bold this time around.)
         7.    Go to an inexpensive printer and make business cards with your book’s cover on one side and your contact info/web address on the other. I hand these out generously.
         8.    Let regional book store owners know you’re interested in doing readings.

Much of this does not come easily for me. I love to write. I want to be in my corner with papers strewn about, not asking book store owners to maybe, if you don’t mind, please carry my book. I bombed on at least half of my outreach. But then I scored on the other half. Some stores carried the book, newspapers reviewed the book; based on the reviews, I got contacted by organizations and did events. I was a state book award finalist. I feel like my efforts worked.

Luck is also an element, of course. That’s where “rolling the bones” comes in. But by doing all the above, we can certainly deal ourselves into the game. What helps make something happen? To quote Sandberg, they all help.

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Information about Kathleen and her two books can be found on her website,, and her books can be ordered on Amazon or on our website, We encourage you to leave your comments on this page, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter! Happy reading (and writing)!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


I hate so-called rules of writing, even though I gobble them up like hot hors d’oeuvres off a silver platter. Hemingway’s, Vonnegut’s, Elmore Leonard’s, Stephen King’s, E.B. White’s, Anne Lamott’s – I’ve read them all. If I had to recommend one, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is a joy. I never found myself quibbling with her advice, which is not only compelling in substance, but loaded with charm and wise humor. I feel Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is also essential, though I just can’t abide the prohibition against starting a sentence with “however." Nevertheless, they provide wise counsel, delivered both in form and content.  

Everyone raves about Stephen King’s On Writing, but it’s really just a memoir masquerading as an instruction manual. I can offer an abridged version: Be Born With Hypergraphia by Stephen King.  

Marty Shepard and I share a deep regard for Elmore Leonard, but his rule against starting a book with weather is ridiculous. I set one of my novels in the beach town of Southampton during the winter. How long should I wait to tell the reader that it’s snowing outside Jackie Swaitkowski’s window? I also think the word “suddenly” is very useful if used sparingly. As with “all hell breaks loose." After Leonard condemned this expression, you hardly ever read it. So go ahead, if called for. The competition has been suppressed.

Vonnegut heaped derision on the semicolon, saying “they are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” On the other hand, Dr. Lewis Thomas, a brilliant essayist sadly overlooked these days, wrote “with a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.”

Most of what Hemingway reportedly wrote about writing was written by someone else. So much so that a book just came out titled, Hemingway Didn’t Say That. I still think his imitators are worth paying attention to, since the misattributions are useful (check out my prior Cockeyed Pessimist blog post.)

I’ve listened to hours of writing instruction over decades, leading me to believe most of it is a double-edged sword. It can help you avoid doing dumb things, but if you slavishly adhere to the prescriptions, you’re likely to choke off your creativity, your own special take on the pursuit. However, being a frequent imitator myself, I naturally made up my own ten rules of writing. Though I prefer to call them guidelines. Mostly to be ignored, since at the end of the day, the only rule is there are no rules.  

1. Never write drunk. Like a conversation in a bar, it all seems so brilliant at the time. You’ll regret it in the morning  
2. Write when you feel like hell. You’d be amazed at what you can create with a fuzzy head. You can always throw it out the next day (see above).
3. Ignore advice. It’s worthless.  
4. Listen to good advice. It’s priceless.  
5. Know the difference.
6. Get a comfortable chair. You’ll be spending a lot of time in it.  
7. Be filled with uncertainty, free-floating anxiety and existential fear. If you don’t know what this means, ask a successful writer.
8. Kill your beloveds. Cut when you have to, no matter how painful. Better you than some whip-smart editor half your age.  
9. Write for yourself.  If you care what other people think, you’ll write what nobody cares about.
10. Read. You’re not the first person to do this. You can learn from the ones who figured it out, even if they had no idea what they were doing at the time.  

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This is the third bi-monthly blog Chris has been posting, sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His 15th, Tango Down, comes out in November. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly or Martin Shepard at

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


I’d already spent about thirty years in ad agencies writing copy before my first novel was published. I’m often asked if copywriting benefited my fiction, and I always say yes, in every way possible. This is particularly true as it relates to dialogue.  

And even more true for writing mysteries and thrillers, inhabited as they usually are by tough guys, crack pots and regular joes. It’s hard to convince your reader of gritty realism when your characters talk like 19th century elocutionists.  

Writing to a fixed increment of time is another important discipline copywriters have to master. A TV commercial (we call them spots) is usually thirty seconds. Radio usually sixty. Of the two forms, I think radio is the best exercise for fiction writers. TV spots are little movies, fictions for sure, but as in the big movie business, the visual elements often dominate. In radio, words matter, and like a book, there’re usually no visual aids. Radio, like fiction, relies on manipulating the theatre of the mind, using language to engage and seduce the audience into buying an artificial reality. Unlike fiction, however, you need to tell your whole message in sixty seconds, or less. This teaches you how to prune, condense and telegraph your story, which almost always makes for a more energetic mystery or thriller.  

We’re taught in advertising to keep our copy conversational, to write the way people speak. Which is usually in sentence fragments. Sometimes only one word. Honestly.  

Grammatically iffy. But highly readable.  

Speech is far more economical than written exposition. Even the most voluble blowhard will tend to drop unnecessary verbiage, frequently skipping things like pronouns to get right to the action verbs.

“Watcha’ doing there, Joe?”
“Catchin’ fish. You?”

This example also points to another reality of spoken English. We often drop the ‘g’s’ off gerunds and other ‘ing’ words. Even the well-educated and erudite will do this, only more sparingly (e.g. Barack Obama). Also, we nearly always use contractions whenever available. Few things will mess up conversational speech more than using “do not” or “cannot” when “don’t” or “can’t” will do.  

(Just don’t overdo it. Informality can’t sound ignorant.)

There’s a place for monologue in advertising and fiction, but when two or more people are speaking, there’s little in the way of long dissertation. Rather, they tend to pass phrases back and forth like a pair of tennis players. Especially in great crime fiction (e.g. Elmore Leonard).

When writing radio and TV commercials, you’re not only drafting copy, you’re casting potential talent, framing out the type of people you’ll need to fulfill the spot’s objectives. So you need to literally hear your characters’ voices in your head. Which leads to seeing them in your mind’s eye. And placing them in a context – eating breakfast, driving a car, leaping off a cliff into a pool of water.  

And before you know it, you have a novel on your hands.

Published by permission of  Now Write! Mysteries.  

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th , Tango Down will be published in November. This is the second in a series of bi-weekly posts concerning the art of writing that should appeal to both published and unpublished writers alike. We welcome your comments on this site, and we hope you share this post everywhere and with everyone you can. You can also reach us by email at or at

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


Somebody once said — I used to think it was Ernest Hemingway, but now I'm not sure — "Writers are people who write."

This was the sort of seemingly moronic minimalism that got the big guy in a lot of trouble. The political climate within the arts and academia in recent decades has been hostile to Hemingway's legacy, especially since he's rightly perceived to be a tad misogynistic.

That Ezra Pound was an out-and-out Nazi sympathizer —  as were Charles Lindberg and Joseph Kennedy, father of Jack — and F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce all had wives who were actually committed to mental hospitals, with barely a whiff of censure, I guess is beside the point.  Though it does raise questions of intellectual honesty.  But I think no writer of the modern period was more able to summarize gigantic truths, especially when writing or talking about the writer's life.

Part of the problem with the quote above is it usually leaves out the next sentence, which was, paraphrased, "People who aren't writers are those who only talk about writing." This gets at the main reason why most people who have both the talent and aspiration to write betray their potential. They don't write enough.

There are a few reasons why they don't write enough, though the most common is fear that what they write won't be any good. Worse, it will incite derision, ridicule or disinterest. So, they are inhibited from starting the actual act of composing thoughts on paper (these days, monitors.) They console themselves by spending a lot of time and energy thinking about writing, under the rationale that they are simply formulating the big ideas in their heads, which will, once properly constructed, fall effortlessly through their fingers and onto the page. This is a fallacy, of course. For a couple reasons.

Writing is, in great part, a type of thinking. It takes inchoate feelings and inarticulate thoughts and expresses them in a transferable form. Words make thoughts and feelings concrete, but also, the very act of forming structure inspires thought. Sometimes, there really is no idea until the words start to form.

Ergo, the only way to know if you really have a thought worth communicating is to put it into words. You have to actually write it down.

The other reason is more practical. You have to practice the trade. You can no more become a good writer by thinking about writing than you can become John Coltrane by imagining yourself playing the sax. Professional writers are obsessed by things like sentence structure, word count, punctuation, literary voice, style consistency and concentration. Just like world famous woodworkers are obsessed with things like router bits, bench dogs, chip out and finishing oils. You can't write a book or make a Chippendale highboy thinking only about the grand vision. They're both products of millions of little visions manifest in little acts of craft.

And it really doesn't matter what form you're writing in. Your heart may be committed to poetry, but your brain gets almost the same benefit from writing billboards. To extend the music analogy, a familiarity with Bach gives a jazz musician a killer advantage. It's the practice that counts, and the knowledge and experience that comes from practicing within a variety of formats and protocols.

Hemingway also said that "Writing is rewriting." This is also a simple statement pregnant with complex meaning. Many failed writers who write too little do so because they think they're supposed to hone and perfectly render every little piece of description or exposition as it's written. Very bad approach. Much better to disgorge everything you can onto the page, to get yourself into a chatty monologue with your presumed reader, and just let it go wherever it's going to go.

The next day, it might be all for naught. The work might be unsalvageable. But probably, there is something there. Now, with an objectivity developed over time, you start to rewrite. You lop off big chunks of unworkable babble — often the first things you wrote down — and start to shape the words into something more elegantly and originally expressed — or, just as important — something persuasively, clearly expressed.

None of this is possible if you aren't writing. You've got to pile up your own mother lode in order to refine the gems.

Hemingway, that wordy guy, also said that he strove to write something that "was true."

True, in the sense that it was as close to real as humanly possible. Honest to his mind, and not contrived. But also true in the sense of a picture hanging true on the wall. In the sense of your aim being true. Even, balanced, harmonious, artfully composed. He believed that both definitions of the word true were mutually generative. Honesty encourages symmetry and vice versa.

To quote the last line in The Sun Also Rises, "isn't it pretty to think so."

Originally from How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You In Their Own Words

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th, Tango Down will be published in November. He’s had multiple sub-rights sales for all of his titles, has won several awards (including the Nero Award) and is also co-publisher at The Permanent Press.
This is the first of two postings he has addressed to writers that should sharpen the skills of many who would like to be published and already published writers interested in polishing their craft. We urge all of you to send this blog to everyone you know, and we welcome your comments. You can also reach us by email at or at Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


How would I describe Tom LeClair’s latest blog? As part of an important democratic movement to rid ourselves of an illiterate President (he has said he doesn’t read books), a con-artist, a man with a thin skin, a compulsive liar, ill-tempered, and in the service of fellow millionaires and billionaires.   

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 in which he described how this blood-sucking vampire was finally eliminated by driving a sword through the fiend’s heart while he slept in his coffin during the day. This is not a plan of action I would recommend today, though Donald poses a far greater threat to us than Dracula. It’s easy to acknowledge he had been a great television showman in the Barnum and Bailey tradition, and it seems to me the only civilized way to rid ourselves of him is by verbally pricking him countless times—like letting the hot air out of a Thanksgiving Day float.

And so I take particular pleasure in publishing Tom LeClair’s contribution to exposing this dreadful creature whose ratings are now the lowest in American history—down to 37% after three months in office.


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by Tom LeClair
In which the author interviews himself

From a novel about Lincoln and his law partner to essays about Donald Trump and his literary opponents—that’s quite a jump.

Not really.  William “Billy” Herndon of Lincoln’s Billy was a highly literary man who spent 20 years of his life trying to publish unsavory truths about Saint Abraham. The “research” for Harpooning Donald Trump: A Novelist’s Essays was much easier, and I didn’t have to invent anything because Trump and his politics and his crooked friends are unsavory through and through. The challenge was finding new ways to understand and discuss Trump. My decades as a literature professor helped me out with that—from Homer’s Iliad to Coover’s The Public Burning, Pope’s The Dunciad and Melville’s Moby-Dick. But the book would never have been written if I hadn’t spent most of November and December holding signs in front of Trump Tower.

You’ve said you went every day. Why?

I’m a writer. The only things I could write after Trump’s election were my protest signs. From the very first one, RAGE TRUMPS HATE, which played off the usual ones I was seeing, I suppose I was seeking some creative outlet for my anger and disgust. The protest became a kind of contest: my imagination in writing signs versus Trump’s ignorance, his hateful clichés and dog whistles. So I tried to write inventive signs that responded to his actions, particularly his appointments of people like Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Betsy DeVos for Education. Of course, I was going to lose because Trump has what my Jesuit teachers called “invincible ignorance.” After more than a month of displaying signs, I started to write the essays in the book.

What did you hope to achieve as a solitary protester on the street?

During November and December, there was a series of mass protests, usually on weekends. I wanted to be in front of Trump Tower on weekdays and weekends to demonstrate with my modest example that Trump’s election was not normal politics, that this fact needed to be expressed day in and day out to the thousands of people who passed by the Tower. If I was sufficiently enraged to stand in the cold for six hours, I hoped my example would inspire citizens to stay angry, refuse to normalize the demagogue, resist in whatever way they could. My purposes changed some as I understood my demographic. Many of the passersby were foreign tourists. I wanted them to know that Trump and his Tower did not represent America or, at least, the best of America. The Tower was Babel, a construct of pride and greed. Out on the street, I hoped to use the social media that helped Trump get elected against him. I invited people to take photos of my signs and post them on Facebook and Instagram—and thus extend the protest of a solitary enraged old man.

Do you think you were successful?

Maybe the N.S.A. could answer that with some kind of universal image scanning for my signs. They did get me interviewed by television networks, radio stations, and print journalists—almost all of them from outside the United States. Japanese national TV interviewed me twice, even showed the covers of a couple of my books including Lincoln’s Billy. It’s possible my spoken words reached more people than my written words ever did. That’s kind of discouraging for a writer, but I’m still happy to be speaking with you about the written words in this book, which wouldn’t exist without the experience of protesting on the street.

So how is this book of essays different?

I rarely had long conversations with people on Fifth Avenue. The essays give me a chance to explain why I was protesting and how to understand Trump the man and phenomenon in more profound ways than daily news reports give us. Probably the central essay in Harpooning is the one entitled “Donald Trump Won’t Read This” where I apply the insights of the anthropologist Walter Ong to Trump. In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong contrasts the cognitive processes of preliterate humans and those of literate humans. Literacy created what we now call “thinking”—linguistic precision and logical analysis. Before literacy, cognition was through story-telling and bombastic display. Trump admits that he does not read. He therefore does not “think” as literate persons do. He reacts, he blurts and blusters, he uses the oral language of a third-grader, he lies as if his words disappeared into thin air. You can see him as the insult-obsessed Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, a poem about pre-literate warriors that was composed before writing. In this essay, I contrast Trump’s mind and language with the discourse of President Obama, who continued to be a reader despite the pressures of the White House.

Why do you feel this essay about literacy is “central”?

A working title of the collection was “Literature Against Trump.” Literature is literacy on steroids, the highest achievement of literacy. By its very nature, literature offers an alternative to the vacant mind and vapid expression of Trump. But not just an alternative. Literature can also be a weapon, a harpoon as my title has it. Since Trump’s election, journalists have written about the value of dystopian novels such as 1984.  My interests are in what that harpooner Captain Ahab calls “the little lower layer”—literary works that provide psychological, historical, even anthropological insights that help us understand and, perhaps, undermine the demagogue. Historians and other scholars can place Trump in appropriate cultural contexts. Literature is a weapon because it elicits emotional responses. You might call it “demi-goguery,” half demagogic, half rigorous thought.

Do you think of yourself as Ahab?

No, because Melville “harpoons” the monomaniac Ahab at the end of Moby-Dick. I know this is not a popular recommendation, but try reading Moby-Dick as a political novel, and you will have a new understanding of and fear of Ahab’s—and Trump’s—aggressive narcissism that now threatens our ship of state. For a more recent and remarkably prescient novel read Robert Coover’s The Public Burning to learn how demagogues use the scapegoating sacrifice of “un-American” others to satisfy the masses. My argument is encapsulated in my epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” If you step back a bit from the daily news cycle, if you see Trump through the eyes and words of profound imaginative writers I think you will understand his ignorance and his threat in new and deep and useful ways. Not just understand but feel.

You’ve published six novels. Why don’t you write a harpooning novel?

Homer, Melville, Coover, and other recent writers I mention in the book—they are tough acts to follow for an old man. But I have written a tale about Uncle Sam and Donald Trump, two angry old white men, as an appendix to the essays. It’s a small sequel of sorts to Coover’s magical realism novel that describes an unusual way in which Uncle Sam “incarnates” the power of the presidency in each new office-holder.  One reader called my fiction a “scabrous satire.” That’s fairly accurate. Consider this a “trigger warning.” Or is it a solicitation?

Have you taken some heat for this fiction?

Yes, but some readers don’t see that it’s ultimately somewhat sympathetic to Trump. While writing the essays, I wasn’t able to understand how he became the enraged person he turned into as an adult, so I invented a plausible cause. Trump tells Uncle Sam of a childhood “wound” that explains—for Sam—Trump’s treatment of women, but Sam misses the larger effects of the wound—Trump’s fragile ego and his need to assert his power in ways both sexual and not. If Trump weren’t such a danger to the Republic and its citizens, I’d feel sorry for him because he is pretty obviously acting out obsessions and compulsions over which he has little control, the reason he is so often depicted as a child.

Are you still protesting at Trump Tower?

I took some time off to write the essays, but now I’ll be back a few days a week signing and selling my books, completing the loop from displaying signs to offering extended semiotic commentary on the target of those first signs. I think of the book as everything I couldn’t fit on pieces of cardboard. I’m looking forward to being back, interacting with citizens and tourists, hoping that one day Donald will come down and engage this Ancient Mariner. One of the many cops around the Tower asked me what I’d do if Trump showed up. I told the cop I’d say, “I don’t talk with liars,” and I’d turn my back on him, just as one of my signs says: TURN YOUR BACK ON TRUMP. The weather should be warmer now than when I began, but I still hope Trump will do something so stupid that he will have to resign and I can go back to writing.

So you’re still outraged?  What outrages you the most?

As a former professor, I think I’m most outraged by his willful and smug ignorance. He’s every teacher’s recalcitrant dunce. I believe this ignorance is the root of his amorality, his treatment of women, his lying, his fraudulence. Trump’s ignorance is his harpoon, and he holds it dear. In the realm of policy, I’m most outraged by his environmental policies and appointees, the three men—polluting Pruitt, Exxon Rex, and numb-nuts Perry—that I call the “Fossil Fools.” Some of the damage Trump’s other policies will do may be repaired in four years, but his effect on the air and water will be difficult to repair. The British poet Alexander Pope wrote an epic satire called The Dunciad in which he called his time “the Age of Lead.” I fear that under Trump and his climate-denying dunces we will become the United States of Flint. Harpooning Donald Trump is dedicated to my two granddaughters. I’m enraged on their behalf, on behalf of a future polluted literally and figuratively by the First Fool and his family of greedheads.

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I ASK ALL OF YOU to send this blog on to everyone you know, both here and abroad. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (, or reach Tom LeClair by email (  Let us all spread the word in every way we can, given the perilous days ahead.