First Dual Giveaway Day

Today, April 29, my novel, The Library of Lost Books and my short story, The Truck Stop, are both free in the Amazon Kindle store. Grab them while you can.

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As always, please consider leaving a review in return for the free download.


Also, wanted to give a shout-out to new readers from around the globe. “A Writer Begins” is slowly starting to go global, and I’ve got readers from every continent now except Antarctica. I gave a nod to Vietnam earlier and I want to give a list of new countries as they pop up in my blog stats. Here are new countries from the past 30 days, with the view count per country.

  • Iraq, 7 views.
  • Norway, 7 views.
  • Vietnam, 6 views.
  • New Zealand, 2 views.
  • Spain, 2 views.
  • Republic of Korea, 1 view.
  • Brazil, 1 view.
  • South Africa, 1 view.
  • Czech Republic, 1 view.
  • Sweden, 1 view.
  • Pakistan, 1 view.
  • France, 1 view.

Welcome to all new readers! For those interested, most of my hits come from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. I intend to update this list with new countries from time to time. There are still lots of countries that haven’t made it on the stats board yet and I’m looking forward to seeing it more filled in. (India and China, where are you???)

All for now,

DJ


Had to get a George Jones vid in here. Thanks for the voice, George.

Live at the Opry.

Past Masters: Qishti-Marduk

[This is the first post in a new series on Past Masters of world literature.]

This series of blog posts will focus on Past Masters of literature. In it, I hope to highlight my favorite writers and analyze their writing technique.

This series differs from my Rare B Sides series in that Rare B Sides covers individual works (a novel, play or story), whereas Past Masters will cover an individual author’s entire body of work, along with a bit about their life and times. It’s entirely possible that I will feature an author’s Rare B Side before following it up with a Past Masters post covering their work as a whole.

Got it? OK, let’s roll.


With a start of a new series, it’s fitting to start at the beginning. In this case, I’m tackling one of the earliest writers recorded, Qishti-Marduk. Qishti was the scribe, if not exactly author, of the Cyrus Cylinder.

Cyrus-Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder (to steal from Wikipedia, see quotes below) is “an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script” in the name of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. The cylinder is significant because it records the history of early Persia and may “be evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity.”

For those who want more, Neil MacGregor does a great job of describing the cylinder and its history in this video.

The object, and the writing, lives on.

I was able to catch the cylinder at an exhibit at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C. They had the cylinder, a few other ancient Persian artifacts and Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (a biography of the Persian king by Xenophon).

As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder who actually inscribed the darn thing. I assumed it couldn’t have been Cyrus. Bosses are usually too busy to deal with the details. And in a side display case I found it: Qishti-Marduk. We know, because he(?) signed the last line of the cylinder:

45. […a secure throne and an enduring rei]gn, [and may I …… in] your heart forever.

a. [Written and check]ed [from a…]; (this) tablet (is) of
b. Qishti-Marduk, son of […].

That really made me smile. Here’s this scribe, writing away, trying to please his boss/publisher (don’t we all?), making these little incisions line after line in wet clay, making sure they were all perfect. And at the end, he takes the liberty to put in his own name, knowing it will travel along with Cyrus’s down the ages.

The guy even did his own proofreading, making him the original Indie author.

Anyway, with all this attention on the mighty Cyrus, I thought I would write this post to honor his scribe, whom everybody has seemed to overlook.

As for the writing itself, Qishti does one interesting thing despite the restrictions of this highly stylized art form. He starts off the narrative in third person (from the perspective of the god, Marduk).

[When … Mar]duk, king of the whole of heaven and earth, the ……. who, in his …, lays waste his…….

[………………………………………………………………] broad? in intelligence, …… who inspects (?) the wor]ld quarters (regions)

[……………………………………………………..…]his [first]born (=Belshazzar), a low person, was put in charge of his country,

but [……………………………………………………………………….] he set [a (…) counter]feit over them.

To replace the corrupt King Belzhazzar, Marduk searches the face of the Earth for one just king. Finally, he finds Cyrus and calls “him by name” to be a king of kings, an emperor of many peoples, a shahanshah (شاه‎).  It’s a new kind of leadership, a man anointed to govern not just his own tribe, but many tribes and peoples. Suddenly, the narrative switches to first person, but this time it’s from Cyrus’s perspective.

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world…

It’s a nice touch and one that intimately, seamlessly links the human and divine natures of ancient kingship through the switch from 3rd person to 1st person narrative. I also feel it has a writer’s—not a King’s—touch. Of course, the boss would have to endorse it, but it’s nice to see the idea made it through the rough draft to the final proof. 

The exhibit ends in DC soon, see it if you can. If not, the cylinder is headed to Texas, New York and California before it heads back to Britain. The tour dates are here.


Johnny Cash did a great song about the wicked King Belzhazzar, adversary of Cyrus. Apparently, it was the first song he sang at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee when he was looking for his first big break. Enjoy.

 

Gospel on the TV

Works in Progress–Breaking through the Iron Ring

[This is part of a new series on my works in progress.]

Sometimes it seems the whole point—the raison d’être—of the publishing industry is to reject new writers. I often imagine an office full of editors receiving new manuscripts, scanning the contact information (just in case it’s an established author) and then filling in the template rejection letter, hitting send and breaking for lunch.

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Of course, I’m never worked in publishing and I have no idea how this all goes down. I base this solely on the one relevant piece of data I have: My record submitting pieces to magazines. I’m 0 for 9: Nine submittals, seven rejections, two responses pending.

Title of Work

Rejections Received

Pending Submittals

The Hatchlings

5

1

Wonders of the Invisible World

2

0

The Man Who  Ran from God

0

1

Total

7

2

I equate getting published the first time as the equivalent of breaking through the Iron Ring, one of the defensive fortifications from the past (Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, The Maginot Line, Bilbao’s Iron Ring). For what I’m sure are sensible reasons, it seems that NO ONE wants to give an unpublished writer a break. Some of these may include the sheer volume of submissions, the need to pay/compensate staff readers, the benefits of staying with a proven winner. A new writer, like myself, can try and try again and meet nothing but a stiff wall of resistance.

But just like the Iron Rings of the past, the publishing industry’s model is looking worn and outdated. Instead of the traditional frontal assault, there’s a new back entrance that no one anticipated: e-publishing.

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As a writer, it would be very nice (very nice, indeed) to have the third party recognition and the increased readership that publishing via a magazine or publisher brings. But e-books are changing the equation for writers, too. Think about it. Should I delay a piece and submit and resubmit and resubmit it while my Amazon Kindle publishing updates languish? (It’s been almost a year since I published my last book). And should I wait, while other e-publishing Indie writers keep pumping out new novels every few months? Or should I just go ahead and get something out there and build readership myself? Each day a completed manuscript languishes in a drawer or publisher’s inbox is another day my forward momentum stalls for no good reason.

So, should I self-publish or continue to submit pieces? For me, the answer is clear: both.

That’s right, both. As soon as I get my next rejection of my historical novella I’m going to put it on Kindle for all of you. It’s called “The Man Who Ran from God.” I will fill in the details as we get closer to the publishing date. As for the next rejection of my sci-fi horror story (“The Hatchlings”), I plan to resubmit it (if rejected by who it’s with now) to two more magazines where I think it has a good chance. If not, expect it on Kindle soon. I can’t wait forever to keep building my readership.

But I promise to keep taking it to the Iron Ring with new pieces. One day, I’m going to break through.


Well, that’s enough of that.

In other “works in progress,” I finished a first draft of my horror story which I wrote about in detail earlier. I will do the reveal on the title once I have a tight, proofed manuscript in hand. For now, let’s call it “GoY.” I will edit the draft this weekend and hope to have a final manuscript soon. 

I also finally posted the pic of the birdhouse for the same post, “Measure Twice, Cut Once.” It’s a flawed masterpiece. Actually, let’s drop the “masterpiece” bit and just call the birdhouse “flawed.”

Before I sign off, I want to mention two things. Both really encouraged me to keep going and were a gift from fans. One is an unknown blog reader from Vietnam. This person logged on, read my blog and visited five pages. It’s always great to see someone from a country half a world away discover my stuff. Second, thanks to Jake Needham for following me on Twitter.  He’s an established writer with several books under his belt and it’s always humbling to get followed by someone like that.

So, thank you Vietnam reader and thank you, Jake. It’s fans like you that keep me going.

Until next time,

Darius

The Craft: What New Writers Should Read

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]


Every writer starts as a reader. You read something good, then something great and one day you think to yourself, “Maybe I can do this?”

For me the gateway, that first great work, was The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I was in high school, sophomore year and I got hold of the junior/senior reading list. The list had Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and the Possessed on the list, but it was The Brothers Karamazov that really grabbed my eye.

It was the first book to grab me and never let go. It was especially the famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” that blew me away. I can’t say that was the moment I decided to be a writer (that came a bit later), but there was something special, I would even say, sacramental, about that moment. I can’t recall ever being so moved by a work of art—a book, song, painting or game—it literally changed  me and my worldview. It was a huge step down the writer’s path.

Of course, a lot has happened since then. I’ve been to Russia to visit the old master’s grave at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

I’ve even become a writer myself. And my estimation of Fyodor has changed. Chekhov is my favorite Russian writer right now with Gogol a close second.

As an emerging writer, my reading habits have changed too. I tend to read things like author’s letters and biographies that I never used to read. Whenever I get discouraged I dip into one of them and I’m reminded that my plight is not unique. That writers through the ages have all suffered from the same maladies: getting  published, not having enough money, the constant distractions, the sudden dry spells. Even trolls are not exclusively an Internet-era phenomena. Ever since critics have been around some of them just can’t stop at criticizing the work, but can’t help but get in a few jabs at the person behind the work too. Sad to say, it’s always been part of the gig.

So, for those writers just starting out, here’s what I recommend reading to keep you motivated, focused and learning.

1. The Paris Review interviews with authors.

If you read nothing else on this list, read the Paris Review interviews. I found these by chance during a visit to a used bookstore (they can be found in book form as well). I thumbed through the first volume and ended up walking out with the rest at a reduced price.

They were so valuable to read because they showed me that while all writers are similar, they have quite different habits. What works for one writer won’t work for the next. For example, Hemingway wrote standing up. If I had to do that, my writing would be total crap. But, hey, it worked for Ernest.

The PR interviewers asked lots of great personal questions about the author’s schedule and work habits. This is great because it drives home the point that you just have to find what works for you and stick with it. Some writers had to write in the morning, some had to at night. Some had to write in quiet and solitude, some had to write at a café or bar. Some liked to write detailed outlines of the plot before starting, some liked to just get a basic scene (E.M. Forster) and then build a whole novel from it.

The bottom line: find what works for you and stick with it.

2. Your favorite author’s first work.

Sure, you’ve read Moby Dick, but have you read Typee?

Selection bias distorts lots of things. For a writer, one of the most pernicious is reading authors’ best works only or predominantly. You think Melville, and you think Moby Dick. You think Shakespeare, and there’s Hamlet. You think Cormac McCarthy, there’s Blood Meridian.

But what about Typee? Or The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Or, God forbid, The Orchard Keeper????

The point is: if you’re a starting writer it’s HIGHLY unlikely you’ll produce a Moby Dick, Hamlet or Blood Meridian on your first time out. Melville didn’t, McCarthy didn’t, Shakespeare didn’t. And they all had/have loads of talent. So don’t compare yourself to those works. Rather, start reading your favorite writers’ first works and you’ll start to see they were just humans and that their writing has flaws.

This is exactly what I did with my hero, Dostoyevsky. I read Poor Folk. And guess what? Even as a Dostoyevsky Diehard, I had to admit it was just “OK.” Reading that book got me to thinking seriously for the first time, “Hey, maybe somebody like me could write.”

3. Your favorite author’s letters.

In turns out in the olden days, some twenty years ago, there were no blogs. Heck, there was hardly an Internet. The next best thing, the blogs of their day, were personal letters. They were revelatory, personal and mercifully short. They’re still a great way to get insight into the inner thoughts of writers.

That’s why I’ve recently starting reading author’s letters. Again, pick your favorite writers and try to track down their collected letters. Two great collections from my favorites are selections from Chekhov’s letters and Steinbeck’s letters.

It’s very soothing to see these greats as they grapple with serious setbacks and revel in little victories. Take Steinbeck on self-doubt:

I have been filled with a curious cloying despair. I haven’t heard a word from any of my manuscripts for over three months. It is nerve-wracking. I would welcome rejections far more than this appalling silence.

My new novel slumbers. I doubt myself. This is a very critical time…

– To George Albee, spring 1931.

As a writer, you’re never alone. There is a great community past and present that faced the same problems you face every day. But somehow they persisted and overcame. The letters they left us are a great reminder of that.


Alright, that’s my reading advice. It should give you quite a bit of homework to do. Good luck and we’ll see you again soon. Until then…

Keep reading, keep writing,

DJ

My Weird Western Story Is Free Today

My short story, The Truck Stop, is free today (April 7) in the Kindle store.

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It’s somewhere between a Weird Western, a ghost story and just a story.

Please download and check it out. (Don’t’ forget you can download to your PC if you don’t have a Kindle with the Kindle app).

If you do read, please leave a quick review on Amazon or Goodreads. I’d appreciate it.

DJ

The Craft: ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]


A couple of years back I visited my friend, D—, in Wisconsin. He was showing me around his new house in the suburbs and eventually we made it to his garage where he had a woodshop with work benches, drills, saws, wood, the whole setup.

D— is a writer, too. So, we were talking about the Craft (of writing) and he told me how much I could learn about writing from woodworking. So, I shot back with a question. 

DARIUS J.:Like what?

D: Like…For example, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’

DARIUS: What’s that?

D: Well, you have to make sure your measurements are right before you make the cut. Double-check it, then make the cut. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of wood.

We talked about how writing a piece, especially a longer piece, is kind of like building a house. You need to have an architecture, you have to measure things carefully, decide what goes in and what should come out.

That example struck home this past weekend during my writing day. I banged out 2,200 words on a tight, well-crafted short story and I want to share what I got it right. In no particular order this is it:

1. I gave my subconscious time to work.

The original seed of this idea came from a listing for a new anthology on Duotrope. Some Australian pub was looking for a science fiction story set in the world of 1,001 Arabian nights, kind of like Scheherazade-Punk. I thought that was the coolest idea. I wanted to send something in, but no good ideas came up. That is, until now.

Somehow my recent readings on medieval Islamic history and philosophy finally gelled into a unique idea. The idea came from various sources: These included the 1,001 nights, Zoroastrian customs, a history of the Hashashin group and Medieval Arabic philosophy.

File:Arabic aristotle.jpg

But I didn’t slap something together just to get into the anthology. I waited for a solid idea and that was a good move. 

2. When the idea finally gelled, I made it top priority.

Usually, I don’t like to abandon or postpone the writing of a story once I’ve started it. But in this case, I broke protocol.

I stopped writing another short story, already at 1,600 words, to write this new one. It was such a great idea, I knew I had to get it down while it was still hot and fresh. And I didn’t let my subconscious make a bigger deal out of this switch than it was.

The 1,600 word piece is still there and I will return to it soon. No need to dwell on the past.

3. I stayed disciplined on my dedicated writing day.

I have a dedicated time and place for writing fiction. For me, it’s Sunday afternoon at a café I like downtown. Every Sunday, I’m there writing or twiddling my fingers if the writing just isn’t coming. Cell phone is off, I’m not reading, not talking to other patrons. I’m writing or doing nothing sitting in a corner.

But this day wasn’t my normal writing day. You see, because of Easter festivities I had to switch my writing day from Sunday to Saturday. The old Darius would have let this small change distract and inhibit him from writing. But not this time. I started a bit cold, having done nothing but a quick, dirty pre-write. But after 15 minutes, the writing started to flow and I was off.

I also missed my usual gym time that weekend, but it was worth it to pull off the start of this piece.

4. I took the time to do an organized prewrite.

I also had the knowledge and discipline not to dive right in. Instead, I took a few minutes before opening a new Word Document, the dreaded White Blank Page, and I wrote my usual pre-write document.

Very briefly, this is something I call a CSP+K. That stands for:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Knowledge

It’s a template that I fill out with most stories I write. I list the characters, the overall setting, the plot, the plot dynamo (more on this later) and what I know about this topic or story. This covers the basics for starting to write. The knowledge category is quite important, though I didn’t include it in earlier versions of the template. It gets back to the old adage: “write what you know.” If you don’t know something about the topic, you will generally find it hard to write about it. If I feel there is a knowledge gap, I either decide against writing the story or write a list of things to research/experience to make up the gap.

So, getting back to the short story…I wrote a basic CSP+K for it. I found that just 10-15 minutes spent on that exercise helped me figure out more clearly what the plot was, what the characters motives were and how it all hung together.

This, in turn, meant that I could write the story without stopping (and thinking about the logical structure) and the words would just flow. If done properly, a good prewrite isn’t constraining, but liberating. It helps the work move along more quickly.

5. I let world-building take a back seat to character and plot.

I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about how to make my fiction more about showing than telling. To suck people into a new world. It’s not easy.

While musing about this, I saw this post on Twitter a few weeks ago:

That nailed it for me. Sometimes I let my descriptions of a world or character run wild. This time I was very parsimonious with the descriptions. I just gave readers a quick snapshot of new scenes and new people and let the action and dialogue do the rest. Including just the pertinent details fleshes out the world but doesn’t bog the narrative down in excessive detail.

6. I built tension brick by brick, sentence by sentence.

This piece is genre fiction, so a riveting plot is essential. A great way to ensure that is to steal one of George Lucas’s key ideas on plotting. I wasn’t able to track down the exact quote, but Lucas is known for being a fan of 1930s matinees. In fact, Indiana Jones is his homage to the matinee movies he saw on TV. They all rely on one simple device: Put your characters in a dicey situation, make it more and more dangerous. Then, provide the solution.

A great illustration is the trash compactor scene from Star Wars.

Building the tension…It can get messy.

Luke, Han, Leia and Chewy get away from the storm troopers, but fall in the compactor. The compactor has a monster and it grabs Luke and pulls him under. He escapes and the monster leaves. But just then, the trash compactor starts compacting and they are in even bigger trouble.

A crucial element in my story is a ancient structure with three levels. As the two main characters work their way down the building, the tension goes up. It’s that simple. I saw from the start that this was a lovely device for moving the plot along and stuck with it. 

7. I wrote what I wanted.

I’ve made the mistake of trying to imitate others in the past, but this time I wrote something that I wanted to write. That made the process so much freer, truer and better. In the end no one knows how to write a piece that is more “Jonesian” like I do.


So, what was the outcome of my woodworking adventure in Wisconsin? A crappy looking birdhouse.

Birdhouse 1

You can’t tell from the photo, but its roof is all wonky. Thank God I’m a better writer than woodworker. I should finish the story this weekend and here’s hoping it comes out better than the birdhouse. I’ll keep you posted.