Thursday, July 31, 2014

Looking for A Book(Novel)?

The walls of our house are lined with books. Together, Bethany and I probably have something in the neighbourhood of fifteen hundred or so, give or take. And yet, on any given day, I'll walk by the shelves, including the one that we use to hold current library books, and complain about not having anything to read. Sound familiar? 

So what I thought I do is ask you, the blessed and brilliant people who read this blog (see what I did there) for your help. I thought we could help one another find a few surprises this summer. (nothing better than being pleasantly surprised by an awesome novel) This is your chance to promote an authour or novel that you love, or perhaps one more people should know about. And for my fellow independent writer friends, this is a chance to shamelessly promote your own work. Do it!

Two Kinds of Novels

The publishing industry breaks down novels in different categories, but we usually refer to two. Literary books are perceived to be elite, with prose as important a factor as story. Genre books, your thrillers and romances and detective novels, are more interested in story, and the quality of the writing is usually considered to be less than one you find in a literary novel. 

Yeah, well, I hate those categories. They're boring and elitist, so I break novels down this way. 

You have the one written as a KNOCKOUT punch, the one that will change how you perceive the world altogether, the one you'll remember where you were when you read it. You'll never read it again, because it has done its job. 

And then there are your VACATION SPOTS, the novels you visit over and over, the ones that give you safe place to go when your life starts to go off the rails or you're just having a bad day. (This can be a series, too, or a particular author) Some books can cross between the two, The Catcher and The Rye comes to mind, but that seems to be relegated to children's literature. (Go ahead, prove me wrong in the comments!)

Here's my request: list three of your favourite Knockout Books, three of your favourite Vacation Spots, and three Other Favourites. (For my independent friends, this is where you pump your own material. Don't be shy!) Obviously, this is not a whole list, I’ve read numerous Knockout Books in my life, these are just the ones that came to mind.

I'll list mine, and just throw yours in the comments section. Happy hunting, fellow readers!

My Knockout Books      
1.    Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
2.    I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
3.    The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My Vacation Spots

1.    Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series (I have gone vacationing there a lot over the years. Especially the first one in the series.)
2.    Robert B. Parker’s detective novels, including Spencer and Jesse Stone (I have such an affinity for Parker’s series, that I still go to them quite a bit. Love all his characters.)
3.    Mike Lupica’s sports novels (If you haven’t read these, they’re all quite entertaining. A hilarious look at the bawdy side of professional sports.)

Other Favourites

1.    Second Blood by Stephen Burns (Coming in September, see shameless self-promotion
2.    A Boy in A Leafs Camp by Scott Young (Written in 1968, a kids sports book that I still love)
3.    Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader (Written in 1980, a very cool (and thick) novel about a man, half-Japanese and half-Caucasian, who trains to be a ninja. Fun.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Training Tip: For Writers and Other Laptop Warriors

Yup. Tom Cruise in 1984. Just because.
Who would have thought thirty years ago that most of us would end up with jobs staring at tiny little screens all day. And if wasn't part of our job, it'd be part of our past time. (Know anyone under fifty who doesn't spend at least an hour a day on the computer?) It's been fascinating to watch AMC's, Halt and Catch Fire, if only to see this process play out as a narrative, watch these people from the eighties dream about what we have now.

And hey, on so many levels, it's pretty great. We can contact our friends and family more easily, we can access a world of information, including the latest sports or entertainment news (or whatever you're into). We can share funny kitten videos with each other. Bomb our news feed or twitter with too cute family pics, and let everyone know that our life is not only THE COOLEST, but that we have proof!

Yeah, yeah. There are a few issues. Neurologists have suggested that the technology has changed the way we process information, our attention spans have shrunk to the size of -- "SQUIRREL!" -- ten second bits of flashing colours (Sooo pretty!) and despite the access to information, we're actually getting dumber as a society. There's also the issue of segmenting information so that any moron can find backing from somewhere on the internet legitimizing their bigotry or racism or sexism or any other -ism. And oh yeah, hate and trolls and stupidity by the bushel. (Really, if you read the comments on any article, you'll regret. I count this as a major thorn in the side of living a Kind Life. Comments expose you to the lowest humanity has to offer. DON'T DO IT!)

But still, the games are SO much better now. And Facebook. And live sports anywhere! And writers publishing their own books and actually making a profit. Did I mention the games? All of this is great, but whether you're a writer or a techie or a businessman, keyboards create a few physical issues.


Most people slump forward when they're working on a computer. They do this without thought, the shoulders roll forward and rotate internally, creating a hunched back. This creates tension in our necks, particularly our Trapezius muscle. (That's the muscle that connects your neck and shoulder, the one that gives body builders a "bull" neck.)

Every muscle can be stretched, but our traps are particularly hard to get. Here's the easiest way to loosen them.


1) Get a baseball or tennis ball (A medicine ball works the best if you have one), and find a bare wall.

2) Hold the tennis ball against the back of your shoulder and lean against the wall, squeezing it into place. Roll the ball by moving your back until you find the most painful spot.

3) Use your body weight to lean into the ball. Yes, it will hurt. The more it hurts, the more your traps have locked up. The muscles have "knotted," and the only thing that will release them is direct pressure. (This works like a self sports massage)

4) Hold it for 60 seconds (or as long as you can) and switch to the other side.

As a trainer, most of my clients were/are Laptop Warriors (lawyers, business people, etc...). This was a helpful exercise for them. Believe me, there's nothing like back pain when our traps seize up. Just remember, when you're on the computer, keep your shoulders down and your chest out. Good posture will help keep you working.

Okay. Now that your neck feels better...

Writers, get back to the desk! You got work to do.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why I Married (Her)

My beautiful, kind girl.
We were hanging out on the stoop when I pulled out my phone. It was cool, fall evening, and we'd been dating for six weeks. The street was quiet. My housemates were inside, and she flashed me a curious look when she saw the phone.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, now that we're dating, I should delete these other numbers."

As a single guy over the past two years, I'd collected more than a few numbers from women, though nearly all of them had gone uncalled. As a "playboy," or serial dater, I was notoriously bad. I seemed to have the ability to coax women to give me their phone number, but absolutely no ability whatsoever to "close the deal." Not that they (or I)would have been interested anyway. My friends had found me, more than once, listening to an available single woman telling me her "story" and providing counsel and encouragement. In other words, I was a dating moron.

Bethany did not know this, however, and she frowned as I not only deleted the numbers, but happily provided details on each of the women. (What I remembered, anyway.) I thought it was funny. She did not. What she didn't know was that while many of the women I'd met were pretty or smart or both, I was looking for more. I was looking for someone like her. Pretty was important. So was intelligence. But she had something else, something more, and when she agreed to marry me seven months later, I was overjoyed. (Yup. Seven months. Doesn't take long when the most amazing girl ever says she loves you!)

A Kind Life

Bethany came home yesterday and told me that she'd met someone at the grocery store. A developmentally disabled woman had randomly approached her.

"Excuse me, do you know where the Feta cheese is?"

"Um, sure. It's right over here," Bethany said.

The woman stared at the different packages, and my wife patiently explained the differences between them.

"Do you know how they make feta cheese?"

"No. I don't."

"Why is it so expensive?" the woman asked.

"Well, what are you trying to make?" Bethany said.


"You know, you can use mozzarella cheese. It's not as expensive and tastes just as good on pizza," Bethany said.

"Can you show me where it is?"


She led the woman across the grocery store, and showed her where they kept the mozzarella. She explained the different kinds near it, and when she'd finished, the woman smiled at her.

"Thank you!"

She took the cheese and bounced happily away.

When Bethany told me this story, I couldn't help but shake my head. You could argue that it wasn't that big a deal, what she'd done. But it was. I'd spent most of my life working with special needs kids, and any time I heard grace filled encounters like that, I always felt a particular happiness. It wasn't surprising, though. She, too, had worked with special needs children, and that inherent kindness was part of her makeup. Probably the most important part.


As much as we need our partners and spouses to be physically attractive (and smart), there's nothing quite like kindness. I hear horror stories all the time about men and women who act in a manner that is so unkind, its almost unfathomable. My friends tell me stories about horribly selfish individuals, of both sexes, and their frustrations with dating.

My advice? While you have to be attracted to someone (That HAS to happen. If you don't think your partner is attractive, your relationship will fail. Period.), stop looking for peripherals that don't matter. (money, family, etc....) What are they like? Are they kind, or do they have a capacity for cruelty?

I can tell you this much, if you end up with someone who isn't kind, you'll never have the life you hoped for. Cruelty and selfishness have a way of invading every little happiness. But kindness? Kindness works the other way. Kindness is the ointment that soothes all ills, and over time becomes the underlying song to every moment of joy you will ever experience.

I got lucky. I didn't deserve to meet someone like Bethany, let alone marry her. Every day we're together, I'm reminded of what it means to be with someone who consistently puts others above herself. And the simple truth is this: the only thing better than a Kind Life... is sharing it with someone who see things the same way.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Building Fences

There's a towering old maple in our backyard that looks like it might be sixty or seventy years old. I love to sit under it during the summer. Love the way its long branches swish in the breeze. In a world of concrete and brick and florescent lighting, it always reminds me that the world is not closed, that nature exists, even in suburban towns. Unfortunately, our fences reflect the opposite. They look like something from the eighties, green wire and steel poles that look more like sentries on duty than a part of the landscape. A backyard isn't quite the same when the only thing that separates you from your neighbour is some plastic green wire. I've been thinking about adding some wooden lattice to those fences, but seeing as how they're expensive and we're still just renting, it probably won't happen. For now, I have to hope my neighbours aren't outside if I want some privacy.

My wife and I moved to Richmond Hill (about forty minutes north of Toronto) last year, and we liked this house from the outset. It's an old neighbourhood, and I imagine our duplex was built shortly after the Second World War. Many of the people who live here rent (a duplex this close to Toronto now sells for $650K), and it's an open, friendly blue-collar street. We met our neighbours within days, and were invited for beers and barbecues throughout the summer. As opposed to life in our previous place, a twenty-six floor high rise, we were part of a community. I've always felt that this is the way things were supposed to be, this sharing of our life. (If only because it's very difficult to live a Kind Life when the people around you won't speak to you, or think it odd that you want to talk to them.)


By the end of the first month, I had visions of Shane Claibourne's Irresistible Revolution. (Claibourne is a Christian social activist who moved in with a bunch of friends in one of the poorer communities in Philadelphia. The book is inspiring.) I'd heard sermons about helping people and doing it with your daily living and how we needed to be more than just a bunch of religious know-it-alls most of my life. So, I jumped in with both feet. We both did.

A year has passed, and my perspective has changed. Oh, I still believe in a Kind Life. Still believe that we need to, in the words of my missionary father-in-law, "be present," with our neighbours, I also better understand why people (who can afford it) build massive homes with huge plots of land so no one will bother them. A year of living IN, as you might say, and I'm less inclined to judge them. Fact is, if you're going to try a Kind Life in a neighbourhood like ours, you have to be ready for the shit storms that inevitably follow. Because they WILL follow.


In the past month, I've walked past a neighbour telling her teenage daughter to "shut the f*ck up, you stupid, f*cking moron," had to walk over to another neighbour who'd just been thoroughly beaten by her boyfriend and subsequently smashed the front window, and then waited with her while the taxi came, listened to a screaming fight one street over, where the only word you could consistently understand was "f*ck." There are days we can't open the window in our bedroom because the neighbours behind us smoke so much weed our entire house smells like a dead skunk.

And then, of course, there's the noise. Some days, I'm pretty sure I'm back in my hometown and its 1985 and the guy next door is blaring his ghetto blaster to make sure everyone else gets to hear another Steve Miller song. (Middle aged white guys and classic rock stations. Nothing has changed.) The houses are all duplexes, and the people here don't seem to care who might be listening, because they're going to scream at the top of their lungs, EVEN WHEN THEY'RE HAPPY.

It's the arguing that drags you down though. Good grief, sometimes you just feel like screaming back at them. YOU KNOW THAT YOUR YELLING DOESN'T WORK, RIGHT? IF IT DID, YOU WOULDN'T BE YELLING ALL THE TIME! You begin to feel like you're under siege, and your home doesn't feel like a home so much as a few thin walls and that crappy fence separating you from total chaos.

More than once recently, it's crossed my mind that a Kind Life isn't worth it. That Shane Claibourne is full of it. That a one acre lot in the country would look damn fine right now, if only for a few moments of freaking peace. And quiet. Oh blessed Saviour, how we LOVE it when things are quiet. (And by quiet, I don't mean silence, though that would be amazing. I mean the absence of yelling, fighting, and blaring music.)


But then, there are these moments. The other side of our duplex is occupied by two single moms. As a rule, I cut their lawn as well as ours. I'm not sure how it started, but this spring I noticed their lawn was pretty long, so why not. It's not a big deal, and it only takes an extra thirty minutes. But when I'm done, the world looks a little different. I don't mean that in a overly dramatic sense, I just mean that for a while, the earth feels a lot more firm beneath my feet. And then there are other moments. Like figuring out where a stray cat can spend the night with the person across the street, or Bethany driving around the neighbourhood for thirty minutes after a finding a lost puppy and experiencing the gratitude of an owner who clearly loved the little guy. (He'd slipped out the door and taken off.) Or having your neighbour's little girl run up to you and give you a hug. ("Hi Steve!") Or spending time in conversation with younger friends on the street, listening to their struggles and offering some advice and encouragement. We never had those moments in the high rise.

Nothing about the Kind Life is easy. It's not. (And it isn't condescending either. Just because Bethany and I try to "be present" doesn't make us one whit better or different than the people around us. They've helped us, too.) And it can't be done in the abstract. Life is a grubby and often nasty mess, and humans are prone to stupidity and cruelty as often as they're prone to kindness and laughter. But is it worth it? You bet it is.

Despite my frustrations, despite our frustrations, my hope is that you stick it out. (Please. I need someone to vent to.) There'll be days when you're fairly certain that if you hear Stairway to Heaven one more time you're going to tear your eyeballs out, but hang in there. Think about the moments that matter, the ones that light you up in a way nothing else does and give purpose to our rambling and often incoherent existence. There's nothing wrong with building a fence or two, so long as we don't start putting up walls. Trust me, you'll miss all the good stuff.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Encouragement for Aspiring Writers

I discovered On Writing by Stephen King shortly after it was released about sixteen years ago. I'd never liked his novels, because I hated his genre. (I'd discover later he wrote many great stories, like the ones behind the movies Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me) But I'll never forget he advice he gave in the beginning of the book. If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write a thousand words a day, and I needed to be reading and writing, in some form, 4-6 hours a day. If I wasn't willing to do that, I would never become a writer. Writers write, and writers read.

I took the advice to heart, and for the past twenty years or so, I've pretty much kept to that schedule, the only exception being the two years after my first(and only) literary agent abruptly stopped calling me back or contacting me. The devastation of that rejection took a long time to recede. But, as King said, writers write. And I was a writer. By that time I'd worked as a youth worker for a number of years, as well as a plethora of low paying jobs like telemarketing, door-to-door sales, and retail. At the time, it didn't matter, because I was a writer first, even if I was only getting paid for a few articles here and there.

As the years wore on, I remained as steadfast as ever, and kept to the schedule. But I started to get more finicky. (Consistent rejection will do that.) I even finished an entire book, and refused to send out a SINGLE QUERY. Not one. Finally, in 2008, I started Second Blood, an epic fantasy. Many of the books I'd written in the past were thrillers, but when it was done well, nothing beat a comfy chair and a good medieval yarn. I'd begun to doubt the literary gods would ever see fit to give me another magical phone call from the Captains of the Industry, so I figured I might as well write the type of book I loved to read.

The first two years were exciting. I could feel it coming together. With help from my writing friends, I felt satisfied with my work and sent it away. I'd spent a full month crafting the query letter, knowing that I only had a 0.4% chance of being asked for pages. I waited anxiously. Within a few days, the emails began to come, and every time I opened one that held "RE: QUERY, Second Blood" in the subject line, my stomach did a little dance. Some agencies wrote me back, some didn't bother, but they were all form rejections. Not a single personal note. (A sign of interest)

Even accepting my bias, I'd thought my book to be as well written as many I'd read on the market, so I kept trying, revising and editing until my fingers could hardly form a fist and my eyes were blurry from the strain of the monitor. Every year I sent out new queries. Every year I wrote a new synopsis. Every year I received a resounding NO from the Captains of the Industry (Really, it was probably a college student working as an assistant editor with one eye on her phone. Unsolicited queries are slush piles.)

for five years this pattern continued, and during that time I never considered publishing the book myself. "Vanity" publishing was for people unwilling to walk the hard paths, the ones who weren't good enough. it never occurred to me that luck and knowing people in the industry mattered as much or more than talent. My arrogance rested on my naivete.

(I'm not always a pompous jackass,
 but when I am, I prefer Dos Equis)


I came across Wool, by Hugh Howey, and everything changed, even as the industry began to shift. Self-
published books were no longer the field of vain lawyers writing yet another self-important memoir. The discrepancy between what the publishers charged and royalties paid to writers (about 1$ for a 15$ trade) was shifting the playing field. So were e-readers. Amazon tapped into the market first, and soon writers were uploading their stories, and charging customers a fraction of the price they'd have paid in the bookstore. And the writers were finally (let all gods be praised) making money, even though the books themselves were being sold for a fraction of the price.

This past January I started to seriously considering publishing my work myself. It'd long been known that most writers had to market their own work anyway, even through a traditional publisher. I investigated for months, reading different sites, combing for information.

And as of now, it would be insane for me to consider pursuing a traditional publisher. In the next few months, I'll publish Second Blood Part I. And while I'm hard at work finishing the edit to Part III, I've also started two other novels, both urban fantasies. Knowing that I am not going to have to scale a wall to get my work out has changed everything. I'm turned forty a couple of years ago, and in the traditional route, that's a bit old to think about having a writing career. But now? Well now, I have to write. And read. And write some more. The work is going out, and I need to be ready.

These days, I've upped my words ante to 3000 a day. Plus this blog. Plus the social media activity. It's a lot, but for the first time in many years I'm excited about the process again. I'm excited about sharing my work. And I'm excited that I might be able to provide a little more for my family. Be encouraged my friends, Stephen King was right.

Writers write.

Writers read.

And now, writers publish.


NOTE: For my writing friends, self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey has a great blog. Here's his post on his advice to young writers. And JAKonrath has a great blog as well.