Alephs, Pumpkins and What It Was: My Year in Reading

So, what did I read in 2012 that was any good?

I started the year with What It Was by George Pelecanos. It was the first book by this DC writer that I’ve ever read. And it was also the first book I ever read on an iPad, an experience I found to be surprisingly pleasant. What it Was is a muscular, brutal novel with a strong plot that captures Washington after the 1968 riots. In my review of this crime novel, I said that:

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.

I then devoured the first three books of A Game of Thrones. Starting off a skeptic, I was soon enraptured by the violent, amoral world of Westeros. But by the end of the third massive tome, I had fallen out of love – when is this thing going to end? Arrgh, why does George R. R. Martin keep killing off main characters? For those familiar with the endless tale, it was the traumatic events of the “Red Wedding” that made me stop reading.

The death of Harry Crews in March reminded me of what a good author he was – I reread Body, his crazy disturbing look at female bodybuilding. Crews loved Florida and freaks.

A more genteel book is The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett. This Kindle single is one of the most practical guides to writing I have ever read. And her novel State of Wonder was one of the best books I read all year. It’s a great examination of scientific ethics in the Amazonian rainforest.

Another great story about an author is Hemingway’s Boat. Filled with colorful tales of Papa in Cuba, it’s a damning portrait of a genius in decline.

In the category of “I can’t believe I’m reading this”: The Rock Star’s Daughter. It’s a young-adult page turner that was free on Kindle. This really was the year of the e-book for me.

I had plans to review each chapter of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. He’s an ideal author for people pursuing alternative career paths. But I got stuck on chapter three – follow your passion… maybe. In this chapter, Guillebeau said to look for things that you love to do that you can also get paid for. The stories are inspiring but he understates the difficulty of discovering this sweet spot of passion and money.

This idea of discovering what you’re best at is explored in The Pumpkin Plan, a very nuts-and-bolts book for small businesses. The message: only do what you’re best at. Nothing else.

In the category of philosophical, “what should I do with my life?” books I would also place The Winner Stands Alone and Aleph, a pair of somewhat cruel novels by Paulo Coelho. They fail to capture the magic of The Alchemist, lacking the hopeful spirit of his first book. Which is disappointing, because The Alchemist is required reading for anyone who wants to be an artist.

Another disappointment was Swamplandia – it started out so strongly but then got bogged down in a literal and metaphorical swamp. Parts of the book are brilliant and hilarious. The editor in me wanted to cut a hundred pages out of this book. There so much potential in this story of Florida swamp eccentrics.

Fortunately, I have friends who write books! Angry filmmaker Kelley Baker produced a gem of a book on no-budget filmmaking while Jon Gann contributed a great guide to film festivals. Get both books for filmmakers on your Xmas list.

And of course I published my second novel, Don’t Mess Up My Block. This parody of self-help books made it to the second round of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

That’s my reading list for 2012! Hope you find something that you can enjoy!

Murder in Ocean Hall – The Reviews!

cover of Murder in Ocean HallI’ve received some very nice reviews of Murder in Ocean Hall. This murder-mystery set in DC seems to have struck a chord with appreciative readers. Here’s a selection of reviews from Amazon:

Joe Flood is a find! One can only hope that this is the beginning of a series. As others have noted, DC is a character in the book, and Flood has his detective consider the changes that the passing years have brought to the city. The inimitable Marion Barry is a character, as of course he should be. The other characters, both central and peripheral are quite rounded–and watching them evolve along with the unfolding of the mystery is a pleasure.

How could you write a book about DC and not include Marion Barry? And I’ve thought about making my book part of a series, but Murder in Ocean Hall literally contains everything I know about Washington.

Back to the reviews:

The time spent reading “Murder in Ocean Hall” is time well spent. I feel disinclined to share what the story is all about. Ostensibly it’s a murder mystery, but that doesn’t explain the half of it. Having hinted that there are numerous fish-to-fry in this story, suffice to say that the important characters are exceedingly well developed…

I tried to make my characters interesting, well-rounded people with their own stories to tell. I come from a background in literary fiction so I wanted to write a genre book that felt like a traditional novel. Which is perhaps why one Amazon reviewer called it “flowery and long-winded,” complaining that:

It was an OK read, but very descriptive in a lot of parts.

Guilty as charged! My version of Washington is the real city, not merely a flimsy backdrop for some far-fetched conspiracy tale.

More typical of the response to the book was this review:

Read this book if you think you’ve been to Washington, DC. The author will take you behind the scenes of places you’ve been and tell you how they function then give you insights into people in power and how they fail to function.

That’s a pretty good summary. Murder in Ocean Hall is about Washington beyond the monuments. In addition to an entertaining murder-mystery, the novel demonstrates how the city fails its residents – and the country at large.

The $100 Startup – Chapter Three: Follow Your Passion… Maybe


Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

I’m a writer. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and even several novels. Writing and (more recently) photography are my passions. I’ve followed my muse, as much as I could afford to.

But make a living at my passions? I had the dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter until I actually visited LA. And I’d love a book deal but the publishing world is in disarray these days. And the dream of being a professional photographer is undermined by countless photographers (including, at times, me) willing to work for free.

Besides, I really do like working on web sites. I love the immediacy and creativity of web publishing.

The idea that there must be some way to combine my writing, photography and web skills into some sort of coherent business is why I bought The $100 Startup.

In chapter three, Guillebeau addresses the artist within all of us, the countless people who have wanted to turn their hobbies into money-making operations.

The key is to find the overlap between your passion and the what people will pay for. He puts it in this somewhat clunky formula:

(Passion + skill) -> (problem + marketplace) = opportunity.

The best example comes from Guillebeau’s own life. I first started reading his blog during his quest to visit every country in the world. Did he get paid for this? No. He gets paid through related services, like his books and guides. As Guillebeau expains:

…you don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby or something indirectly related to it.

Another example is Benny Lewis. He loved learning new languages and discovered that total immersion was key to picking up a new tongue. He learned seven languages in just two years. Pushed by his friends, he developed Speak from Day One (check out the insane video).

But how do you determine what the market will pay for? A tough question, but Guillebeau offers a checklist. You need a hobby that you’re passionate about. And have other people asked you for help with this hobby? Are they willing to pay for your expertise? These questions will be explored in greater detail in chapter six.

Remember, too, the admonition from chapter two that business success comes from helping people. So, how do you use your skills in a way that helps people?

art jamzThis chapter has a lot of relevance for artists and other creative types. Not everyone wants to turn their art into a business, however. It’s one thing to take photos that you enjoy; quite another to try to sell them at a farmer’s market. Guillebeau underestimates the difficulties people may have in exposing their art to the cruelties of the marketplace.

If you decide to turn your passion into a business, choose wisely and have a thick skin.

Local Examples

I have a couple of inspiring examples of my own, people I know in Washington who have turned their passion into businesses.

  • Jon Gann created the DC Shorts Film Festival, with a desire to put on a show. Now in its ninth year, it was named as “one of 25 festivals worth an entry fee” by Moviemaker Magazine. Jon created DC Shorts because he believed that filmmakers deserved to be treated better.
  • Everyone loves stories about ex-lawyers doing something other than law, like Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, a local web site covering the arts.
  • Julianne Brienza has the occasionally impossible task of running the Capital Fringe Festival every year. This Montanan has successfully brought oddball theater to serious Washington.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with all of these people and they’re all awesome.


Artists are at war with themselves. Creating art is making something imperfect, that’s not going to match the perfect vision in your head. On Writer’s Block is an excellent little book on overcoming this hurdle as is Do The Work.

Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow. Sounds like flippant advice in these dour economic times but the book’s message is that what you’re passionate about, you will do better than anyone else.

A nice companion to this chapter would be The Art of Possibility. It’s a beautiful little book about envisioning your future.

The Getaway Car: Practical Writing Advice from Ann Patchett

A work in progress

Ann Patchett provides practical advice on writing in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

I’ve written four books, numerous short stories and several screenplays. The questions I get most about writing are the practical ones. What do you write with? Where do you write? How do you find time to write?

Answers to these questions are supplied by novelist Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. It’s like a FAQ for aspiring writers.

Writing is a Habit

Do you need to get an MFA in Creative Writing? Not if it means going into debt, according the prudent Patchett.

Should you turn your desk away from the window, to avoid distractions? “Desk positioning does not a real writer make,” according to the author.

Are you really a writer? Spend one hour a day for thirty days writing to find out. Sit down and do the work. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

She also believes that writer’s block is a myth. If you were stumped by a complicated math problem, do you have math block? No, you’re still working on the problem, even if you have no evident progress.

Writing is Craft

Patchett also punctures the idea that “everyone has a great novel in them.” Would you say that everyone has a five-minute mile in them? Writing is a craft that must be learned.

Her description of plot is the best I’ve ever read:

The plot of a novel should be like walking down a busy city street: First there are all the other people around you, the dog walkers and the skateboarders, the couples fighting, the construction guys swearing and shouting, the pretty girl on teetering heels who causes those construction guys to turn around for a split second of silence. There are drivers hitting the brakes, diving birds slicing between buildings, and the suddenly ominous clouds banking to the west. All manner of action and movement is rushing towards you and away. But that isn’t enough. You should also have the storefronts at street level and the twenty stories of apartments full of people and their babies and their dreams. Below the street, there should be infrastructure: water, sewer, electricity. Maybe there’s a subway down there as well, and it’s full of people.

This rang true with me. A novel can’t be just about one thing. All your characters, even the most minor ones, are heading somewhere, pursuing their own destinies. They exist in a dynamic world and, if it’s a good novel, are worthy of stories of their own.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life is a Kindle Single. It’s a slim volume but at $2.99 is a bargain for anyone seeking answers on the craft of writing and the realities of the writing life.

Chat with Me on May 12 About Murder In Ocean Hall

Join me on May 12 at 3 PM for an online chat about my novel Murder in Ocean Hall. My mystery about the murder of the world’s most famous ocean explorer is the first book club selection of the Independent Author Index. This new site is a place where “readers meet authors” and is a good example of how communities are forming online to discuss books.

Looking forward to answering questions on May 12!

Borrow My Books and Keep Me in Beer Money

DC Brau

There’s a reason why Amazon is such a titan in the e-book world – it delivers income to writers. It does so seamlessly, easily and without authors having to do anything. You don’t have to hound publishers for checks or wait for the results of some sort of mysterious accounting process.

Amazon posts sales results weekly. For me, it’s just beer money, as I watch my two novels sell in dribs and drabs. Still, it’s something. My work is getting out there and I’m making some cash, even if it’s not going to get me more than a six-pack or two.

And the company constantly innovates, like with their Amazon Prime program. Among other benefits, you can borrow select e-books for free. And authors get a share of a pool of money set aside for the program. In March, it was $600,000!

Each time one of my Kindle titles got borrowed last month, I received $2.18, according to the Amazon press release. That’s a nice royalty, considering one of my novels is 99 cents and the other is $2.99.

So if you’re an Amazon Prime member, borrow my books please! You don’t need a Kindle either. There are Kindle apps for the iPad, iPhone, Mac and PC.

Murder in Ocean Hall is a great read if you like mysteries set in DC. A reviewer wrote that it will take you behind the scenes of the city and show you how things work – or don’t work. It’s a mystery novel written by someone who actually lives in Washington and knows the neighborhoods beyond the monuments.

Looking for something fast and fun? Then check out Don’t Mess Up My Block, a satire of the self-help biz. Follow the adventures of Laurent Christ as he pursues success across an American landscape littered with greedy consultants, social media frauds and incompetent bureaucrats.

Check them out! And remember, borrowing my books will keep me in beer, an essential element of my creative process 😉

Harry Crews: Write the Truth

Harry Crews is one of those authors I wish I read more of.

His New York Times obituary describes his books as being filled with freakish, swaggering, outsized personalities. Born poor, and raised rough, he’s the type of writer that you rarely see these days, with a voice that hasn’t been sanded down by MFA programs or the need to be politically correct.

“Repellent” is another word used in the obituary, which is certainly true. His novels aren’t for the faint of heart, as they are filled with gory misfortune and sexual misadventure.

I read Body by Crews. It’s a twisted book about a female bodybuilder that brutally satirizes the South. He handles issues of race, sexuality and the American pursuit of success with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Seeing him violently deconstruct the hand-wringing concerns of today is liberating, making you want to be more honest in your life and writing.

As Crews said about writing:

If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.

Books That Are Too Long: Swamplandia!

My favorite books are short ones.

The Great Gatsby is a slim 180 pages. That’s all it takes for Fitzgerald to recreate the Roaring 20s and give us the quintessential American striver.

Ernest Hemingway is a master of economy, using just 251 pages to tell the tragedy of The Sun Also Rises.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is another brilliant little book from the interwar period. It traces the fall of the British aristocracy in just 264 pages.

And my own novels are short ones, clocking in at under 300 pages.

Yet, most contemporary books sprawl unfettered, as if editors have just given up on their duties. Authors ramble, they discourse, narratives go off into tangents and down weird little cul-de-sacs.

For example, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It clocks in at a wearying 416 pages.

The novel starts off incredibly strong, giving us the colorful portrait of the Bigtree family, famed alligator wrestlers of the Everglades. Being from Florida myself, I’ve felt that the comic potential of the state has been underutilized. From exiles plotting revolution to greedy condo flippers, if any state could produce The Great American Novel, it’s this one.

The collapse of the Bigtree family mirrors what’s going on in “mainland” society. Their struggles are shared by many in more prosaic circumstances – they lose it all and the family falls apart.

The section of the novel where the Bigtrees adapt to normal life is fascinating. I loved Russell’s depiction of The World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland. It’s like a Disney World created by sadists.

But then the book rambles, in an endless journey through the swamp as 12-year-old Ava Bigtree goes in search of her older sister. Lush descriptions of flora and fauna are piled one upon another, creating a mangrove thicket of prose that nearly stops the reader cold.

It’s one of those books where you find yourself peeking ahead a few pages. When is the story getting back to the World of Darkness?

The odyssey in the Everglades takes so long that the ending feels rushed, unresolved, leaving dramatic threads hanging.

Swamplandia! is a good hundred pages too long.

Despite growing up reading books, even I turn away from novels that resemble doorstops. Reamde is a book that I desperately want to read. Yet, at more than a thousand pages, I don’t even want to start it. The novel represents too much of a time commitment in our distracted age.

It’s ironic. The Internet and our ever-present electronic devices have collapsed attention spans. Yet, our books keep getting longer and longer.

Our lives are crowded with information. In order to break through the electronic din, a novel has to be concise and powerful, a book that looks more like The Great Gatsby than Swamplandia!

Free Kindle Books – All Weekend Long

In honor of my Irish heritage, you can get Kindle versions of both of my books for free all this weekend.

Don’t Mess Up My Block is my newest novel. It’s a funny parody of self-help books that examines the American faith in gurus and easy solutions.

Murder in Ocean Hall is my first book. It’s a mystery and is ideal for anyone who wants to learn about Washington beyond the monuments.

And you don’t even need a Kindle to read them for free. You can also read them for free using the Kindle app on the iPad, iPhone or computer.

Don't Mess Up My Block Advances to Second Round of ABNA

My new book, Don’t Mess Up My Block, has advanced to the Second Round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA).

ABNA brings together talented writers, reviewers, and publishing experts to find and develop new voices in fiction. The 2012 international contest will award two grand prizes: one for General Fiction and one for Young Adult Fiction. Each winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance.

Finalists will be announced in May with grand prize winners selected in June.

Don’t Mess Up My Block is a novel that satirizes self-help books like Who Moved My Cheese and The Secret. It follows the adventures of an ambitious consultant as he goes from disaster to disaster, believing that success is a matter of just following the right catchphrase.

Read the first chapter and then buy it for yourself!