Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Information overload…

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Maybe I’m just getting old, but every day it seems to be more difficult to process the information I look for and find. I seem to be drowning in it. I try to be selective, but the selection takes time too. Some days the selection process takes more time than processing the information I’ve received.

Information is now mined by corporations who sell what they’ve mined to other corporations. The latter are probably in the same boat I’m in. Will Corporate America come to a grinding halt when it has so much information that it can’t process it? Will I?

Some computer gurus discuss a tipping point when computer networks become sentient and human beings become superfluous. (The Terminator movies are built on this premise.) I don’t think that will happen. When information overload maxes out, computers will be turned off, AIs, robots, and androids will crazy, and civilization will end. We’ll probably return to a hunter-gather society. The only information we’ll need then is what to hunt and what to gather.

We’re already networking computers to solve problems of great complexity. But will we reach the point that the solutions to these problems are just as complex and human beings can’t begin to understand them? I can imagine a worldwide network going crazy because it has solved a complex and important problem but the solution is so complex that only another worldwide network can understand it!



Thursday, July 20th, 2017

When you get to be my age—old but young-at-heart—you start wondering if you had to do it all over again, what different choices would you make. Life is about choices, of course—choices covering an entire spectrum, from small to big. You might have some regrets too. That’s only human.

I don’t regret the choices I’ve made in my personal life. Given the same circumstances, I’d make the same ones. I wouldn’t have minded if some of them had turned out differently—I’d like to decrease the bad experiences and amplify the good ones—but I generally wouldn’t change the choices I made that led to these experiences.

I started publishing my fiction 10+ years ago (the first edition of my second novel, Full Medical, was published in 2006). At an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m a practical person, though, so I made the choice to become a scientist, figuring that being a successful writer was too much like winning the lottery. It is, no matter what some authors or writing gurus say. Don’t give up on your day-job just yet. I think Dean Koontz’s wife gave him a year or so to achieve success. That’s unheard of nowadays, unless you win the lottery like Hugh Howey, J. K. Rowling, or Mark Weir. Writing good fiction is a necessary condition; there are no sufficient ones.

Science might not seem like a career that forms a basis for writing success (except maybe for sci-fi—many successful sci-fi writers are ex-scientists). One can wonder what careers are best for that. A love of languages has always accompanied my love for writing. I have a modest ability with languages. Given other circumstances, I might have become a linguist. That seems to be a fulfilling career for putting food on the table while you write stories and wait for some modicum of success. Probably not as lucrative as hard science and technology, though, which everyone calls STEM nowadays. While a journalism degree is probably better than an MFA (the former produces more understanding of and exposure to the human condition), the study of languages is undeniably related to what a writer does all the time: putting ideas into words and choosing the right words and logic to do so.

Of course, any writing career does this, even writing verses for Hallmark. But the study of languages goes far beyond writing skills. Understanding the linguistic history and structure of languages, especially one as dynamic as English, offers the future and present writer an incredible base for the logical choices s/he must make in her or his writing.

I don’t own many print books now. Although I have enough to keep bookshelves sagging, I generally find ebooks more practical—they’re easy to read, very accessible, and don’t take up any physical space beyond my Kindle. But there’s one print book on my reference shelf that I greatly value, David Crystal’s The Stories of English. Even if you ignore current dialects and regional variations, English is a complicated amalgam of many bits and pieces that has seen a dynamic and rapid development. The Spanish reader can still read Cervantes; we struggle with Shakespeare. And these men were almost contemporaries (Shakespeare died one day after Cervantes).


Endangered species: short fiction…

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

When I start a story, it can become a novel, novella, or short story. I don’t force it. O’Henry was a master of the short story and said a lot in a few words. Nothing wrong with that!

Unfortunately short stories and novellas don’t sell well. Magazines and literary journals were the chief publishers of short fiction. They’re languishing if not disappearing. Short story collections have a hard time acquiring readers and reviewers too. Agents and publishers shun short fiction.

With all this going on, many authors try to force a short story into a novel. It’s not uncommon that a short story or novella becomes a full novel, of course. The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan, one of my thrillers, started life as a short story and grew into a novel, and I’m trying to finish a YA sci-fi novel The Secret Urns that expands on a short story.

When I started in this business 10+ years ago, I began submitting short stories along with my novels. The one that’s the basis for that future YA novel even won a contest. And many of the Chen and Castilblanco cases never became novels! But editors of magazines rejected my short stories. Agents and editors were rejecting my novels too. Both of these groups are prejudiced against “new authors,” i.e. writers they’ve never heard about. But the first group seemed cliquish and followers of fads too.

I love short fiction, though. I love to read it, and, by a perusal of the “Steve’s Shorts” category of my blog and short story collections (some of them are PDFs free for the asking), readers know that I love to write it too. There’s something about writing entertaining and pithy short fiction. Plot, characterization, settings, dialogue, and themes still play an important role, but short fiction is often like a rogue wave or tsunami in a vast ocean of extended novels.

Short fiction is lot like poetry. The latter often says a lot in a few words; so does short fiction. I’m not much good at writing poetry as readers of The Collector know—it contains an early poem of mine, but I passed the blame onto Detective Castilblanco.

There’s little to motivate authors to write short fiction these days—not from readers who determine the market, nor from editors and publishers who avoid it because of that market pressure. However, writers should still write short fiction. Doing so teaches the art of minimal verbosity. I’ve seen too many novels that are bloated and fat because of their verbosity—J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are prime examples, but there are many others. Authors should lean to be minimalist writers. Verbosity is NOT a virtue; it’s a negative. An economy of expression is a positive. A few bon mots that express a world of meaning in a few short paragraphs can produce a wonder to behold. Coming directly to the point without fat verbiage should be the requisite for every fiction story, but writing short fiction gives authors that skill. If a reader loves lots of excessive and erudite words, s/he should read a dictionary; otherwise, short fiction can provide hours of pleasure as well as any novel.


Rembrandt’s Angel. To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. Published by Penmore Press, this novel is available in ebook format at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, and Apple, and in print through Amazon, B&N, or your local bookstore (if they don’t have it, ask them to order it). Great summer reading!

In libris libertas…

Mr. T’s birthday…

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s birthday. In keeping with the environmental theme of my posts this week, I should be lauding this icon of the environmental and naturalist movement. I won’t do that, so let me explain why.

I don’t like to speak ill about the dead, but I lived in Concord for a few years and the Boston area for many more. An observant person living in that area couldn’t help but notice that Mr. T was a nut who would be institutionalized today if we had any quality mental hospitals left (most of them now are little more than what Salieri experienced in the movie Amadeus).

Mr. T and the rest of the transcendentalists would debate God and Nature drinking rum in Concord’s taverns while their families almost died from cold and hunger (that experience enshrined in the Fruitlands Museum, northwest of Concord, MA. I’m not sure those transcendental tipplers solved any of the world’s problems, but they certainly didn’t solve their families’. (In their defense, those hot toddies can be comforting during those Boston-area winters, which is why apres-ski activities are so popular throughout New England.)

In Walden Woods, haven for conservationists (and Don Henley and the Eagles), Mr. T lived in a one-room log cabin. He needed a fire to keep warm when he wasn’t throwing down rum in Concord center, so he built them, and, on one occasion, almost burned down those woods around the lake (which they still call a pond, but just try walking around it—I did, several times). I’m not sure Henley’s Walden Woods Project would be so successful if Mr. T had succeeded in doing so. But icons are icons, so maybe the Eagles’ front man would have forgiven Mr. T.

Since I’m a reviewer as well as a writer, let me review Mr. T’s famous book. It’s a dreary little tome. The bet I can say about it? It’s the short cure for insomnia! If you need a long cure, read War and Peace. I don’t know what genre label I should give his “masterpiece” either. Maybe the folks at B&N have it shelved under cookbooks (setting fire to Walden Woods) or colonial tippling. OK, maybe I’d shelve it under historical nonsense.

In many ways, Mr. T showed what NOT to do in regards to conservation activism. It’s no wonder that I can’t understand why conservationists treat him as their patron saint. I guess I’ll just have to accept him reluctantly as a meaningless icon like everyone else. We need a few right now. Poor Gaia needs all the help she can get, especially in this political climate where Mr. Trump and his cronies are on the attack. We need a hero, a symbol for the conservation movement. I’d opt for John Muir (unfortunately he was a fan of Mr. T) or Ansel Adams, who was both a photographer and environmentalist, or maybe even the A-Team’s Mr. T, over Thoreau.

But happy birthday, Henry David. I’m sure the rum is better wherever you are now.


There’s a big book Summer/Winter Smashwords site-wide promo from July 1 – 31. You have be a member to receive the email catalog. Join Smashwords—it’s free, and it provides a large universe of reading entertainment. Almost all my ebooks are on sale with price reductions from 25 – 50 %. That includes the first six books in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series.” Load your e-reader up for summer (northern hemisphere) or winter (southern hemisphere).

In libris libertas…


Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

What’s this? An op-ed about op-eds? In general, my posts on Tuesdays are op-eds. They’re short articles expressing my opinions about current events and their implications in our lives. My inspiration was a pithy little book by Kurt Vonnegut titled A Man without a Country containing biting and entertaining sarcasm, its articles about some absurdities in our American lives.

Op-eds tend to rub people the wrong way if they don’t keep an open mind. Even if the writer presents views the reader doesn’t agree with, though, s/he can often learn something by reading them. At the very least, the disagreeing reader will reinforce her or his own opinions.

When I constructed this website (OK, web gurus at Monkey C Media constructed it—I can program in FORTRAN and C++, but not HTML—but I supervised and was in charge of content). The nice lady who runs Monkey C Media, Jeniffer Thompson, insisted I needed a blog—Google’s bots must be fed content to keep them happy. I’m not sure that’s still true, but, at the time, her arguments made sense. But what could I write?

Even back then (10+ years ago), there were book blogs galore—sites containing posts about books, writing, and the publishing business. I wanted something different. Vonnegut’s little book came to mind.

So, here I am still writing articles that comment about current events where I feel my opinions need to be read, mostly because I’m an independent and free thinker (most authors are) who says things that might not be considered politically correct. You think Saudi Arabia is a friend of the West—think again! Do you think progressivism or conservatism have no place in political discourse?—think again, because they both do. Do you think social democrats are commies?—think again! Do you think Wall Street bankers and “financial gurus” should be allowed to set the rules for controlling financial institutions?—think again!

I know my opinions aren’t liked by some people. Some readers read my op-ed articles and say, “I’ll never buy one of that SOB’s books!” While the reader is entitled to feel that way—after all, my books also have themes that make people uncomfortable interwoven through the plots—but readers should learn to look for the story in the author’s writing. Otherwise, they might miss some very good ones.

Let me list some authors whose opinions I find disagreeable: James Hogan, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, and Orson Scott Card. You might not have read any of their books, but they’ve all written some great, entertaining stories. If you take the attitude that you won’t read an author because s/he has opinions contrary to yours, you’ll be missing some great stories.

To take it out of the context of America’s genre fiction, what would the free world have missed if Garcia Marquez hadn’t been read because a shortsighted American government wouldn’t allow him to enter this country because he was a Marxist? The creator of magical realism has wonderful stories. Sure there are interwoven themes, notably criticism of power-hungry and despotic caudillos and regimes of Latin America, many of their corrupt governments supported by the U.S., from Bautista (Cuba) to Pinochet (Chile) and beyond.

Storytelling ability trumps an author’s personal views (I hate to use the verb “trump” now, but it works here). I don’t put myself in the class of the writing superstars I’ve named above. Far from it. But if you don’t read my stories because of my op-ed articles, I feel sorry for you. And you should read them, and others. They might contain something that leaves you saying, “Gee, I never thought about that in that way!” And, if you want a plain-vanilla book blog, you’ll find plenty online. Mine is unique.

God bless op-ed!


Rembrandt’s Angel. To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. Published by Penmore Press, this novel is available in ebook format at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, and Apple, and in print through Amazon, B&N, or your local bookstore (if they don’t have it, ask them to order it). Great summer reading!

And so it goes…

Moving on…

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

My publisher Penmore Press and I are still in the throes of PR and marketing for my new book, Rembrandt’s Angel. Like all my books, this will an ongoing effort for years to come. Traditionally or indie published, or any of the combinations in between, this is the average writer’s task now. While most publishers can do a lot to help, it’s increasingly on the author to promote her or his book. Only King and other superstars of the writing world get the VIP treatment—paid trailers on TV, full-page ads in the NY Times, and so forth.

That’s the way of the current writing world. PR and marketing represent the worst part of the job because many writers, myself included, don’t do it well or with much enthusiasm. We’d rather be writing! But, like correcting papers if you’re a teacher, practicing scales and arpeggios if you’re a pianist, or debugging code if you’re a programmer, there are things about the writing life that aren’t nearly as fun as writing.

Editing is another onerous task. It’s usually shorter than the PR and marketing one, though. You don’t have to keep doing it. In fact, you don’t have to do it at all, right? Wrong! Sure, you can hire an editor if you’re indie, and your publisher will pay for one if you’re going the traditional route. But you should always have a clean manuscript for your beta-readers, queries to agents, and editors. You need one to even get your foot in the door with any traditional publisher.

I do these tasks because they’re necessary to have fun writing and entertaining people with what I write. The teacher grades papers to have fun teaching and enjoying the rewards of seeing that look of comprehension among her or his students. The pianist does her or his exercises and warmups to enjoy playing a fine piece of classical music (or jazz, or a Billy Joel song). And the programmer delights in seeing her or his graphics playing on the screen after all that debugging. Some do it all over and over again and move on to the next lesson, piano piece, and code challenge. In my case, the next book.

That’s a long segue to discussing my next writing projects. First up is a post-apocalyptic thriller that’s finished except for the editing (copy editing in my case—I content edit as I go). I hope to send the edited manuscript soon to my beta-readers. I’m also working on a new YA sci-fi novel that greatly expands on an early short story, “Marcello and Me,” found in the speculative fiction collection Pasodobles in a Quantum Stringscape; that story won a prize in one of the few contests I’ve entered (it was free, of course—money spent on entering contests only makes the organizers rich and is better spent on PR and marketing, if spent wisely). I’ve temporarily shelved that, but I’ll eventually get back to it. (I’m also preparing a Pasodobles, Volume Two.)

I’d like to turn the “Mary Jo Melendez Mysteries” into a trilogy. I had a good start on that before Rembrandt’s Angel approached publication and the corresponding PR and marketing began to take more of my time. The project least developed is a sequel to Soldiers of God—I want to explore the character of the priest a wee bit more. I’ll get back to you on both of these.


Writers’ quirks…

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Some writers eschew semicolons. Others split infinitives, use dangling participles, or mix past and present tenses in one sentence. Some will use a comma before “and” ending in series—the Oxford comma—while others adamantly refuse to do so. Some writers are strict followers of the rules about point of view (POV); others mangle them.

Following rules is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for having a successful fiction book. Telling a good story isn’t a sufficient one, but it’s absolutely necessary. Any reader might raise her or his eyebrows when a critic says, “This novel is great because the author followed all the rules.” (I’ve only seen that opinion expressed by some high school English teachers.) Good fiction writers tell good stories. They might follow all the rules; they might not. They might not be successful writers—that depends on an increasingly fickle market—but no reader will finish a book if it doesn’t seem like a good story.

I’m currently rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s a very good story, and it shared the first Hugo. Maybe Herbert improved as he wrote the other books in the series, but his handling of POV in Dune is abysmal. He jumps from one character’s POV to another’s within paragraphs. Somehow it works, though, and he spins a great futuristic yarn (and it’s a bit current too, as the main character, Paul, struggles to avoid creating a movement that could become a jihad).

Some authors carefully research the names of their characters. Joe Smith, if not an alias, sounds American or English; it hardly sounds Greek or Hispanic. Herbert went to great lengths to create Arabic-sounding names (the ancestors of the Fremen of the story were Sunnis), but one secondary character is called Duncan Idaho. (I smiled at that because it immediately called to mind Indiana Jones). Paul Atreides is the messianic protagonist, and his last name sounds Greek. The Arabic-sounding names were probably suggested by the desert environment on the planet Arrakis where most of the action takes place. There’s no consistency with the names, though, but Herbert doesn’t care—he just tells a great sci-fi story.

Given two writers, each one will have different quirks. Do they make a difference? Not much if the story is good. Sensitivity to quirks is all correlated to the experiences of the reader. When I first read Dune in my first year of college, I didn’t even notice the quirks. Now I notice, but I don’t care. This sci-fi novel is a classic for that reason.

I know some authors will disagree with me. But they should always follow this guideline: just tell the story in your own voice, no one else’s. If you break a few rules along the way, who cares? (Well, maybe high school English teachers!)


Rembrandt’s Angel. To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. Published by Penmore Press, this novel is available in ebook format at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, and Apple, and in print through Amazon, B&N, or your local bookstore (if they don’t have it, ask them to order it). Great summer reading!

In libris libertas…

Book piracy…

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

Book piracy is a major problem that’s frustrating and discouraging for authors and publishers alike. It’s also a crime. Both pirated ebooks and print books are sold on illegal websites and illegally in many foreign countries. Almost every author is affected by this. Smashwords thinks this is no problem. Paulo Coelho thinks this is no problem. I do. So do many others.

Ebooks are just computer files and can be easily hacked—almost any software can be hacked! While DRM (Digital Rights Management) shouldn’t even be needed for ebooks, it exists. But it can be hacked, so scofflaws do that for illegal enterprises that sell stolen ebooks. Print books shouldn’t be copied and sold illegally, but they are, especially outside of the U.S.

You think U.S. readers aren’t involved in piracy? Dream on! While the average reader will pay to have his own copy of a book (if s/he doesn’t borrow it from a library), a significant number gleefully get off on reading something for free. I’m not speaking about book promos that offer books for free (you can have as much glee you want by participating in a free promo, but I wish authors wouldn’t) or take advantage of sales (I recently bought an ebook version of Dune for $1.99 on sale, just to have it on my Kindle). I’m speaking about readers who get their reading material illegally at whatever price, effectively supporting the pirates.

Here are the main types of book piracy: (1) Criminals who hack authors’ ebooks and illegally copy print versions. .mobi files (Kindles) and .epub files are the most common ebook formats. The first, if purchased on Amazon, have DRM; the second uses Adobe’s software. Both can be hacked. PDFs, so prevalent on the web, can be hacked. The worst case scenario is when the hacker provides material to someone else who puts their name on a book and sells it as their own. (2) Readers who download illegal ebook copies from an illegal website or purchase illegal print versions. They provide the market that criminals exploit, but these readers are willing recipients of stolen merchandise, so they’re just as guilty. (3) Readers who pass copies around to friends and family. We all do it, especially with print versions. One can argue that a purchased print version can have ownership reassigned, just like a car or some other physical object, but ebooks are software, so by purchasing one, you, the user, only have a license. DRM even tries to limit the usage to one device—not a single user, but a single device, which is a flaw that makes it less useful than the usual software license with its built-in protections. And while print books have a legitimate used book market, ebooks really don’t. But when you pass copies around to friends and family, you are pirating. Every time your Uncle Ned shares an ebook file or hands you a print book he’s already read, you’re both being book pirates. Bottom line: buy your own legal version. Otherwise, you’re committing piracy.


Dialects and regionalisms…

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

By the time I became fluent in Spanish and could even dream in that language, I was able to appreciate some of the different ways of speaking it. Every Hispanic country in Latin America speaks it differently. In fact, in Colombia, where I lived a good many years, regional variations occur too. In Spain, the regional variations are even more marked (creating the so-called “nations of Spain”—fortunately for me, Colombia speaks primarily Castillian Spanish instead of Galician or Catalan).

Before I mastered Spanish, I had a nodding acquaintance with other foreign languages. On trips to Montreal and Quebec, I was struck by the difference between the French spoken there and Parisian French, which differs from what’s spoken in the rest of the country). Moscow’s Russian is different than St. Petersburg’s Russian. Many Americans and British have experienced their regional variations—Brooklyn English differs from Dallas’ English, and there are also variations even in London.

I write my novels in English. While I’m fluent in Spanish, I wouldn’t even attempt to write a novel in that language. But when there are Latino characters in my novel, I might mix some Spanish into their dialogue to make it more authentic (being careful to add “meaning X,” where X is a loose translation, if I think the average reader might not know the meaning).

All of the above is segue to one problem I had writing Rembrandt’s Angel, my new novel published by Penmore Press. To quote George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Did I dare use variations characteristic of British English? You see, a large part of the book takes place in Great Britain. The main character Esther Brookstone is an English woman schooled in a public school (what Americans would call a private school!). Her Jaguar uses petrol, and she keeps her driving gloves in the cubby.


Bookstores and cameos…

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock loved to appear in his own movies. (I don’t remember him in any of those old and wonderful TV shows, though.) Other directors have done the same. Sometimes it’s a brief appearance by a famous actor in a movie. These appearances are called cameos. A real person from outside the story is playing a role inside it.

The same can be done in fiction books. I think the first time I put a cameo in one of my own books was with Prince Harry in The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan. I don’t know if all the royals making an appearance in Aristocrats and Assassins qualify as cameos. They didn’t ask to be there, and I was careful to make them look good for legal reasons. I expect Clancy treated Prince Charles well in Clear and Present Danger for the same reason.

Scott Dyson, one of my beta-readers as well as an up-and-coming author, picked up on the Prince Harry appearance in Golden Years. I didn’t really mention him by name, you see—only a British helicopter pilot with red hair stationed in Afghanistan. Scott catches things like that. That’s why he’s a great beta-reader (he’s a better author).

Inserting myself into a story could be interpreted as an ego trip, but I do it only for fun. On at least two occasions, I became Moore the bookstore owner—in Silicon Slummin’…and Just Gettin’ By and in Rembrandt’s Angel, my new novel that’s just been released.

The fun I had with these two cameos stems from the following: I love books, I especially love bookstores filled with new and used book, and I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore like that. When I was growing up, there were few bookstores—I’d buy my books at a dime store, cigar store, or stationary store, unless I made the trek to the local junior college’s bookstore (that’s a two-year community college for easterners). Most people didn’t buy books, in fact (myself included for lack of funds); they borrowed them from the public library.