Resolve to be a good literary citizen in 2018

Need a worthwhile resolution for the New Year? Here’s one: Kick your literary citizenship game up a notch. Some tips:


  1. Support your local library. Oh, sure, a writer would probably rather that you buy her book, but libraries are important community institutions. They encourage literacy, and in the long run that’s a good thing for all of us. Plus, libraries buy books for their shelves. If you find that your library doesn’t have a book you want to read, ask them about it. They may be able to acquire it so other readers will also have access to it.
  2. Buy books. Whether or not the library has the book you want, you may be inspired enough that you want to own it. By all means, buy it! When possible, buy it from an independent bookseller or—even better—directly from the publisher. We all know that Amazon has low prices and fast delivery on just about anything, and some small presses depend on Amazon for distribution, the literary world would be better off if Amazon didn’t put everyone else out of business. If your local store doesn’t have a particular title you want and you aren’t in a hurry, let them order it for you. Or, with small presses, check out their website and buy direct. Have too many books already? Buy and then pass them along to friends or family!
  3. Spread the word. If you like a book, there are lots of ways to share your feelings about it with others. Tell your friends. Tell your book club. (Some authors may be available to visit your book club discussion in person or by Skype.) Someone like James Patterson and other writers who sell a gazillion copies of every book may not care, but it is extremely helpful for emerging writers if readers post reviews on and/or Goodreads (or similar social media sites). These reviews don’t need to be long—a sentence or two is often enough—but the number of ratings can be helpful. Formal reviews are a bigger step and can be harder to publish, but that’s worth pursuing, too, even if you only post your reaction on your own blog.
  4. Attend readings. I have frequently given a reading to which only one or two people showed up. I’ve organized readings by other people that had the same result, despite expending effort to publicize. Even other writers I know who could have come did not, for some reason. It’s disheartening when it happens, but it happens often. Go to readings if you hear about them. You don’t have to buy the book, although that’s nice, too. If an author is just doing a signing instead of a reading, stop by and say hello. It’s not an imposition, believe me.
  5. Write a fan letter. No, really. I’ve occasionally received emails or Facebook messages from readers who tell me how much they enjoyed one of my books. Maybe that does nothing for the aforementioned James Patterson, but it’s still a thrill to me. It’s encouraging, to say the least. We write in isolation. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the work is being read.

There’s nothing particularly new about these tips for being a good literary citizen, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded now and then.

2017: My Year in Review

I’m mostly a forward-looking person—possibly this is a function of having a lousy memory—but as 2017 comes to a close I am motivated to look back for a moment at what I’ve accomplished this year. Turns out it was a busier year than I realized.


  1. Book Contract Signed. A book I finished a few years ago found a home. I was thrilled to sign a contract with Braddock Avenue Books for the publication of my novel The Shaman of Turtle Valley. Publication date is still over a year away—March of 2019—but that means the coming year will see exciting developments like final edits, cover design, and marketing plans. Definitely the No. 1 news for this year.
  2. Health and Fitness. On August 2, I woke up, got on the scale, and saw a number that disgusted me. I decided that day that I would finally do something about it. That day, I went to my gym (where I’d been mostly absent for months), hired a personal trainer, and changed my diet radically. Since that day, I’ve made the exercise into a habit, mainstreamed my nutrition choices (no sugar!), and I’ve lost over 60 pounds. Now that I’m at a good weight, my blood pressure (which was at borderline hypertension levels) is back to normal. I feel great. I recently had a physical, complete with blood work, had my eyes checked and got new glasses, and had my regular teeth cleaning too. Keeping the weight off is my new challenge.
  3. Non-profit Boards. I’ve been a super-fan of the American Shakespeare Center for as long as I’ve lived in Staunton, VA. (The Blackfriars Playhouse opened the same year I moved year, 2001.) This year, I was invited to join the Board of Trustees, which I was excited and honored to do in November. (I’m also on the Board of Trustees of the Frontier Culture Museum, and between the two organizations I should be kept pretty busy on the volunteer front.)
  4. Politics. Although I’ve never stood for elective office, I’ve been involved in the local Democratic Party Committee for many years. I’ve finally stepped down as an officer of the committee—after several terms as Vice Chair—but because of my involvement there I was named to the county Electoral Board as one of two Democrats. This was my third year on that Board and it was a busy one because we purchased new voting equipment this year and had to administer two elections: a primary in June and the general election in November. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important and rewarding. I’ve agreed to serve a second three-year term. Now more than ever, ensuring the integrity of our elections needs to be a priority.
  5. Reading. I finished reading 80 books this year. I wrote about my year in reading here. A few clunkers, but I read some really wonderful stuff and exceeded my goal (I aimed pretty low) by 60%. I thought it would be harder this year because I was no longer judging the Library of Virginia Fiction Award (after a three-year stint on the judging panel), but as it turned out that just meant I had more say in what books I read so I did a lot of reading for fun.
  6. Writing. In addition to the book that is now under contract, I’ve got another finished novel for which I’m looking for a publisher. (I had an agent but now I don’t, which is a long story worthy of its own post.) But my new writing efforts this year have gone toward a draft of a new novel, one that is pretty ambitious. It still needs lots of work, but I made good progress this year, including a productive three-week research trip to Southeast Asia. Also, toward the end of the year, I realized had enough stories to form the bulk of a new collection, so I’ve spent some time writing some additional stories to fill that book out. And I had an idea for a series of essays that might be a book and I’ve made some tentative steps toward getting that started. Somehow I’ll have to manage my writing goals for the coming year if I’m going to finish anything.
  7. Editing. My publisher at Press 53 gave the green light this year for a Volume 3 of the Everywhere Stories anthology series. In October we opened submissions and I’ve been reading them over the last few weeks. By the end of March, I should have filled the book and will start getting the manuscript in shape for the publisher. Pub date sometime in the fall.

I think that’s it for the big stuff. I also went to AWP in March, moderated some panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book, was on a panel for a James River Writers event, gave a reading and was on a panel at a Queens University of Charlotte MFA Alumni event, continued to facilitate our local writers’ group open mic series as well as a book club that has become popular, etc.

And now it’s time to turn my attention toward the new year. Bring it, 2018!

2017: My Year in Books

I am surrounded by books. There are bookshelves everywhere in my house–my office, my bedroom, the guestroom, the library (natch!), and the hallway between the library and the guestroom. Not to mention the books that are currently on the floor, displaced by other books and probably on their way out of the house. And also not to mention the 22 boxes of literary magazines I am attempting to get rid of (reluctantly, because many are unread) and the boxes of books in my foyer that will soon be donated. Oh, and the books on the credenza behind me and the ones on my desk. And the ones on the table next to my reading chair. You get the idea.

This is all quite normal, as I am in the business of writing books, so I feel it is part of my job to also read them. And I do my best. In 2017, I have read 80 books. (I keep track on Goodreads and also use their “reading challenge” tool to add some incentive to the reading process, I guess.) Goodreads also creates a handy “My Year in Books” page, so if the picture I’ve posted is a little hard to make out, you can get a closeup of the list here. I know some writers who read far more, but many who read far less. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t read in their genre while writing a book, which has a certain logic to it if one wants to avoid undue influences, but when am I not writing a book?

Anyway, I read some books I truly enjoyed this year. The best in the novel category is probably Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Among story collections–although this is arguably also a novel–is Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I read two Ann Patchett books this year, The Magician’s Assistant and Commonwealth. I thoroughly enjoyed them both but had complaints about their narrative structures. There were many others I liked a lot: Dodgers by Bill Beverly, Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth PolinerThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, and A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline.  Let’s call that my Top Ten Fiction List.

I read a lot of non-fiction, too. My favorite there is The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell. Others I liked very much were White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, The End of the World as we Know it by Robert Goolrick, and Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven.

I also read poetry, which you can see scattered around my reading list, but I don’t think I read any that really stood out this year, except maybe Copia by Erika Meitner. I also liked Cadaver, Speak by Marianne Boruch.

So that was my reading year. I’ve already begun reading a few books I’ll finish in early January, and I’m enjoying them so far, getting my 2018 reading year off to a great start.


Get Back to Work!

As noted in my previous post, I returned on Friday from a month-long residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It was a wonderful month. Not only was it inspiring to be around other artists, it was also fantastic to have the time and space to write. As many people commented during my time there, it is a “magical” place and I always get a lot of work done when I’m there. But every residency must come to an end, and I drove home in the snow on Friday afternoon. And then I took the weekend off to read, unpack, do laundry, see a play at the American Shakespeare Center, organize my office, and clean the house (a work in progress). I didn’t even think about my book.

And this morning I took care of a medical matter (bloodwork related to my recent annual physical), then went to my gym for a great workout and stopped by the bank. All necessary stuff.

But now it’s time to get back to the work. Despite my worries about the book I’m working on–can I do it? doesn’t it suck?–it’s time to get back to it. So I’m sitting in a coffee shop with some other writers and I’m stepping back into the writing. Self-doubt is natural, but it’s also paralyzing, and I’m determined to overcome it!

End of Residency Blues

My residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts was scheduled to end today, a full month after it began.  As wonderful as the month had been, though, two days ago I was feeling pretty down. The residency was coming to an end, I wasn’t feeling good about the book I’m working on, and to top it off, snow was in the forecast for the weekend, promising to complicate travel.

Over the course of my weeks at VCCA, I’d met some wonderful artists–writers, visual artists, and composers–and it was going to be very hard to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes! And, although most days I chugged along on my book, I’d gotten to the point in the manuscript where I felt I didn’t know what I was doing. Had I just been wasting my time? Should I be working on a different project? Should I give up writing and go back to practicing law?

On Friday morning, I could feel the mood come over me. The book was awful. I’d soon have to retreat into my solitary life at home. Plus: the snow. At lunch, I don’t think I said a word. There wasn’t much I could or wanted to eat (self-imposed dietary restrictions), and I left the fellows kitchen where we eat feeling very low. For an even-keeled guy, which I usually am, this was disturbing.

Given my mood, I didn’t think I’d get much work done, so instead, I changed into workout gear and headed to the gym. One of the unique things about VCCA is its association with Sweet Briar College, which means fellows can use the gym, the pool, the library, and other facilities. I used the workout to contemplate my options, although when another fellow came into the gym I realized I still had not decided what to do. But on the way back to my studio, I made the decision. I would leave immediately.

By the time I had packed up and loaded the car, the snow had started. I had planned to just leave a note saying goodbye to everyone (coward!), but as I was dropping that off in the residence building I ran into some of the folks I’d spent a lot of time with, so got to say a quick goodbye in person. That was a good thing. On the drive home, I second-guessed my decision. The snow wouldn’t be that bad, I’d miss another day of pleasant conversation at breakfast and dinner, I’d get control of the writing during the time that was left to me (basically just Saturday, at that point).

Friday night at home was miserable. Of course, if I’d still been at the residency, I’d have been alone in my studio, probably, so my isolation wasn’t any different than if I hadn’t left. I just felt more alone. On Saturday, I began the chore of unpacking and also catching up on bookkeeping, bills, opening mail, etc. It was a gray, snowy day–we ended up with only about an inch here–and my mood was sour still. Late in the afternoon, when the snow had stopped, I headed to my own gym and got some exercise. That made me feel somewhat better. In the evening, I did some reading. But I felt very drowsy, so I went to bed absurdly early.

This morning, I feel great. Maybe I was just tired after a month of hard work and daily social interactions. Or maybe it’s because the sun is shining. If I were still at the residency, I’d be having breakfast with my comrades or beginning the task of packing up, anxious to be on the road. The roads are probably just fine, so my worries about travel were likely for nothing, but as I’ve noted, that was only part of my decision to leave. Today I am engaged in housecleaning. Later, I’ll go into town, or read, or do some non-writing work that I am committed to.

My outlook today is much, much better. I even think the book I’m working on might be worth the effort, so I’ll get back to that on Monday. And I’m looking forward to my next visit to VCCA or another residency elsewhere.


Free Contest! (plus other contests)

Free contest? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Not when we’re talking about Press 53/Prime Number Magazine’s 53-word story contest. It happens monthly based on a prompt. It’s free to enter. Check it out here: 53-word Story contest.

Then there’s the Flash Fiction contest, which isn’t quite free. ($7 to enter, $251 prize.) That one is also monthly. Check out the rules here: Flash Fiction Contest.

Press 53 also has a big contest, the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, which awards a prize of $1500 (advance on royalties) for a short story collection. This one is annual, deadline December 31: Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.