Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Readers wanted: Beta testing art makes me twitchy but…

I’m reasonably certain that Ernest Hemingway didn’t seek out a lot of advice on his manuscripts before he sold them for publication. He would be appalled at modern strategies of writers seeking out reader reaction before publication.

Steve Jobs would mock the idea of beta testing a book. Don’t ask buyers what they want, he said. Tell them what they want. Beta test? Please.

Yet, it’s a thing. It happens all the time. Blogging books have become popular. Serialized chapters on digital platforms allow readers to interact with the author during the writer process.

Crowdsourcing books? Why not? In this modern age of writing, anything goes. And lord knows I’m no Hemingway or Jobs.

Still, it makes me nervous. The idea of sharing my work before it is published makes me downright twitchy.

But… I’m going to do it. I’m putting out a “help wanted” sign in my window. “Readers Wanted.”

I just finished my new novel. I can’t tell if it’s brilliant or awful. I honestly have no idea. That’s where the readers come in. They get to tell me which it is. Thumbs up or down.

I doubt it’s in between.

The job sucks. There is no pay. The better you do the job, the more likely I’ll not want to hear it. It’s safe to say I lack both objectivity and openness to ideas, even when I am in desperate need of both. It’s a no-win situation. If a reader tells me it’s brilliant, I know I’ll think they are blowing smoke up my ass. If they tell me it’s awful, I’ll snicker and mock their inability to grasp the art. Those that have great ideas for changes will likely be dismissed. Those that offer few changes will be chided for their lack of commitment to the project.

Great job, right?

Hey, I’m being honest. I’m in full-fledged diva mode. I love these characters. I have spent all my waking hours with them for a long time now. I teared up reading my own ending. And now that I’ve finished, I’m wallowing in depression.

Also, I already know everything that’s wrong with the book. It’s too long. It’s too ambitious. It’s too similar to others and too different to be published. It’s a lame attempt at literary and a poor attempt at suspense. It defies categories and preaches too much and reeks of sentimentality and gets way too fucking deep on matters people don’t care about. It’s everything and nothing and…

But I fucking love it.

So yeah, I want to make it great. I want to get feedback. I need to know how readers experience it. I need a beta test, so I better understand how real people react to these real people I created on a page.  Hemingway would hate it, and I think I will too, but I’ll admit it. I need the help. Who would do such a thankless job?

I have no idea. Nevertheless,

“Readers wanted. Inquire within.”


An Empty Nest weekend 30 years in the making

I was young when I became a parent. Barely an adult myself. For the last thirty years, kids–first mine, then my friends’, then my niece and nephew came along– have dotted our social landscape.

So it was a bit surprising when I considered that a recent weekend with my brother and sister-in-law and The Bride was the first time we ever did anything simply as couples.

We kept an easy, fun agenda. We shopped a bit, drank coffee, ate well. We wandered around Ketchum, Idaho and Sun Valley, a beautiful place in Idaho where Dr. Rev and his wife chose as a vacation getaway. We hunted down Ernest Hemingway’s memorial and graveyard and considered both his literary genuis and failure to evolve into a different season of life as an older, more frail man.

It was a different kind of getaway, one the four of us haven’t experienced before, but I suspect, something we’ll do again.

I’ve never really understood why so many fear Empty Nest. Things change. I miss my kids every day. But, life has its moments in every season. This one seems to be worth checking out.

Top 12 Books: A list that connects to lifelong memories

I love lists.

I can keep myself preoccupied for hours thinking about my favorite baseball players, my favorite foods, my favorite movie lines or just about favorite anything.

I also love to-do lists. I have them everywhere. I’m often making lists.

I thought about this recently when I stumbled across one such list I wrote down several years ago. It’s my favorite book list.

I hesitate to make this public because my list reveals an utter lack of fraudulent literacy. I don’t often go for “the classics.” I read Moby Dick and often challenge anyone else who says they did because it was one of the worst, longest, dreariest books I had ever read. Few of the great books, modern or classic, make my list for the simple reason I am often bored reading them, which says far more about me than it does about the great authors of the past.

For an editor and writer, my list makes plain that I lack sophistication in my choices. But, I’ll get out myself.  My list honestly makes no sense. It represents books that for whatever reason, touched me.

Here it is, for all its simplicity:

Just missed: The Last Night at Twisted River by John Irving (every book he writes is brilliant) and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Every book by Robert Parker in his Spenser series. And Blue Like Jazz, a forerunner to my unpublished spiritual memoir I didn’t know existed when I wrote it.

12. Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. One of the funniest books I ever read. And yet it had sneaky relevance tucked into the chicanery, a bit of “what if” quality about the son of God that helped me grow spiritually, believe it or not.John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better

11. East of Eden, By John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better. It lives up to the hype. Radical for its time, sparse in its prose and deeply insightful. Timshel: One of the best passages I’ve ever read, powerful wisdom in literary form.

10. Lonesome Dove, By Larry McMurtry. I only picked this up because I had nothing else to read. I couldn’t believe a “western” had been so critically acclaimed. Then I read it. All 900-something pages in one weekend. It was brilliant.

9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Compelling storytelling that made an entire culture approachable, lovely and dreadful. The ending fell off just a bit. I don’t know, but I suspect it was somewhat autobiographical about his move to the Bay Area and close to his heart, which is often the kiss of death for a novelist. But the rest of the book is so good, it weathered the lack of focus.

8. The Top of the Hill, by Irvin Shaw. I read this when I was probably seven years old. Maybe 10. I re-read it many times in the years to come. I didn’t know it at the time, but this early foray into “adult popular fiction” connected with an unconscious part of me that deeply identified with the flawed protagonist. It still amazes me how this book captured my childhood attention and held it for so long.

7. To Kill A Mockingbird, By Harper Lee. The highest standard of writing in the voice of a child and yet capturing vital issues every adult should know. Atticus Finch is a great literary character.

6. The Bridge of Madison County, by Robert James Waller. I am a hopeless romantic. But I don’t read romance stories. This had a rare combination of compelling romance with a fascinating story. Yes, it’s sappy and emotive and overly sentimental. But the writing is crisp, and the book was rejected by every agent who looked at it. It remains the forerunner to the possibility of self-publishing.

5. Middlesex,  by Jeffrey Eugenides. One of the best-written books I have ever read, a rare combination of great writing, fascinating characters and compelling story. Usually, one of the three is missing (often the last). This had them all.

4. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. I think Hemingway’s legend does not match his actual work. For example, most people talk about his “sparse prose” and “active voice.” Yet he is a master of the run-on sentence, which is what makes that prose so compelling. Without that, sparse prose becomes– like so many who try to emulate him — too simplistic, almost a “see Dick run,” cadence that is a snore. This book is a masterpiece in both. When the shark first hits his fish, I’ve never felt such physical dread reading a story.

3. The River Why, by David James Duncan. This is another book that couldn’t get past agents, probably because it was too wordy and wandering, nothing like the boilerplate that publishers demand from first-time authors. But the Sierra Club published it, and a gem resulted. Funny, lovely, important and mystical, it remains one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

2. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven. I almost can’t describe this incredible book my mother first read to my brother and me when we took a summer vacation driving through the national parks. Craven was in her 60s when the short little story of a priest in a remote village became an unlikely best seller. It’s beautiful, but also, a spiritual signpost I return to often.

And my favorite book from this list:

1. The Shadow of the Wind, By Carlos Zafon. When I found this book it came in a dark time of rehab when nothing was very beautiful in my life. The beauty of his prose and the story filled me with a lightness no book had ever done before or since. It’s translated from Spanish and still beautiful, so I can only image how incredible it is in the author’s native language.

Share your favorites in the comment section below. Like all my lists, they can be revised often. In this case, I hope they do, because discovering a new Top 12 book is a gift I look forward to every time I enter a bookstore.

Is The Sopranos the best television ending ever?

Nothing like a little sibling rivalry to pass a sunny winter day…

I love distractions. Like all people who make their livings punching words into a keyboard, I have to act like my time is so valuable and my train of thought can never be stalled once it leaves the station. But that’s phooey and nobody knows it better than The Bride. Unfortunately she is very respectful about not bothering me, which kind of blows, because as I said, I love distractions.

The other day I literally dropped everything when a simple email from my brother came into my mailbox. He had just read the bride’s Oscar preview blog and noticed her reporting on my rant about The Sopranos ending and my general hatred of it.

So my brother, who still after all these years enjoys tweaking my tail (what’s an older brother for?) wrote:

“The Sopranos ending was the greatest of all time. Yeah, I hated it at first, too.  But now. genius.”

And it was on like Donkey Kong!

I wrote back:

” OK. We are having this debate. I promise… No name calling ( I think I had recently called him a “degenerate and inveterate sycophantic [my favorite definition is #3: A fawning parasite] shill for the Q-word-that-shall-not-be-named left-wing lobby” over a little family spat we were having about the over-hyped merits of Quinoa). You go first. I’m all ears… I’ll confess… I have the confidence of Goliath right now and all the indignation as I stare incredulously across the field of battle… ‘What am I? A dog?’ 

We are doing this.”

Happily he took the bait. Distraction engaged! My day suddenly brightened.

His response:

“Okay.  First, a little pre-seminar reading…” sending me to a fellow Wordpress blogger’s page. After spending a lot of time reading, I was convinced this writer is on David Chase’s payroll and is very, very astute about screenwriting. I think my work improved significantly just reading this blog, and I’m not kidding. He’s still wrong about the ending, as I’ll explain later, but a tip of the cap is in order.

I said my brother could go first so I read the blog. That was a HUGE distraction, but like I said, I loved it. I responded thusly:

“OK. I actually read all that… (Great lesson on screenwriting which is very timely… Thank you). Go on.”

Brother: “That.  That’s my answer.  Tony is dead and you got to feel it. “

Me (rubbing hands together with a slobbering grin on my face):

Ok, well done.

So let’s go back to your original comment: “The Sopranos ending was the greatest of all time.”

Would you then state it is better than this:

“Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

I bring this up not because I vote for this as the greatest ever, but because it is a similar ending… a death being forecast but not shown. My point is this: Nobody had to debate that the bells would soon toll for Robert Jordan.

Whereas in the lengthy argument you had me read, one line is most telling, and therefore perfectly sums up why this ending was a cop-out and not artistically brilliant. The writer says, “nobody but David Chase really knows, but…”

And there it is. If any writer doesn’t give the ending she may as well stamp “to be continued…” at the end, and NOBODY has ever seen those words pop up and say, “Wow, genius. Wonderful!” It just doesn’t happen and didn’t in the immediate aftermath of The Sopranos ending. It was only later the whole cult of personality around David Chase sprung up claiming how brilliant it was. You yourself said, “Yeah, I hated it too at first, but now… genius.” Only because it’s been explained to you. An ending should explain itself.

You also say, “Tony is dead. You gotta feel it.” But we didn’t feel it at all. We felt pissed because we didn’t know. That was the ending… ‘to be continued…”

Are there any doubts about these endings:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Those are genius.

It’s like David Chase’s game with the world, pretension and hubris that in my mind is beneath the brilliance of his writing. Yes, I always thought Tony died and I think the scene by scene break down suggests it as well. The POV switches are wonderful script-writing.

But you can’t know and therefore it doesn’t end. A story must… must… end. As a writer I owe it to those who give me their time to journey on my story to end it and let my ending be judged as clearly as the rest of my story. We wouldn’t dream of a story without a beginning, but in the name of art we claim we can do so with the ending and, as the author, be the only one who really knows what that ending is?

Lest I’m being unfair comparing a TV show to literature, (perhaps you meant greatest TV ending of all time…) I submit the following:

Entertainment Weekly ranked The Sopranos only #10, below #9 Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If anyone thinks the ending is worse than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is immediately banished from all greatest ever discussion.

Is it really better than M*A*S*H?  That ending rocked with rocks spelling out the word, “Goodbye.” Brilliant. We FELT that.

Or even Friends where, “after ten years of coffee-house meetings, on-and-off romances, and memories both hilarious and heartwarming, the series wrapped up with fans feeling a sense of closure. Ross and Rachel were in it for good, Monica and Chandler had twins, Phoebe was happily married to Mike, and Joey had a new chick and a duck. With new sets of goals all around, the characters seemed ready to move on with their lives, but the same can’t be said for us. Much like Monica’s purple-walled apartment in the final scene, we will always be a little empty without our Friends.”

Those purple walls in that empty apartment signified an ending. The story goes on, but it’s not as interesting so the telling stops.

SO… I see why David Chase didn’t let Tony hear the shot. I’m glad it ends on his POV, which is brilliant. But he absolutely owed an ending to those who gave to him their time to journey on his story, meaning he had to show a glimpse, something that made it so he alone wasn’t the only one who knew the ending.

I felt this way about one of our favorites: Robert Parker. He had a responsibility to end the Spenser story. He should have written a final book, put it in his will and released it upon his death. But instead he allowed his widow to draft another writer to keep the character alive, and therefore the profits coming in, much to the disservice of us, his loyal readers. At some point, the story has to end. Thank GOD J.K. Rowling figured this out.

And here’s my biggest complaint. WHY? Why did Chase end it as he did?

Because he was a sell-out. If you recall the actors themselves were talking often about a movie. Sex and the City had made millions spilling over into movies. It seemed certain The Sopranos would as well, and when James Gandolfini and Chase teamed up on his autobiographical movie they both still were entertaining the idea of a Sopranos movie.

He couldn’t end it because if down the road the money was too good to pass up, he could sneak back into that black and bring Tony back to life.

And that my brother is why that ending sucks.”

All good debates (and this is a great one) allow time for a rebuttal. Gentleman that I am I gave my defeated brother his, to wit:

Two thoughts:
1) Greatest TV ending.  No way am I comparing it to Ernest.  MASH makes me think twice. But Sopranos changed TV and that ending just cemented it. 
2) Yeah. I like it.  I like that he messed with us and pulled us in. I think it made us feel the way Tony and his family would feel. He knew that his life could only end “one of two ways” and so did we.  But then, it happens.  Bam. Pride goeth….even for the all-knowing viewer. 
Okay, 3rd thing.  David Chase is probably a tool and would have sold out in the end.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had messed it up by doing so.  But…Gandolfini dies. Even David Chase can’t outrun death. Bam. Black. Only God is all-knowing.  
Yeah. I like it.”

As for those scoring at home… Is there any debate who wins this debate?

I liken it to Mitt over Obama round one. It was that clear a victory for me (as much as I hate to even consider comparing me to Mitt… and because my brother is wicked smart, he too will soon bounce back and throttle me in one of these distraction debates. I won’t go near him on way more topics than I will…)

But, gentleman that I am, I’ll let you decide. Hit the comment button and vote for a winner. Please do offer your own commentary. It’s a great debate, cost me at least three hours of work (happily, I might add) and will continue to be debated for a long, long time, despite what I think is the definitive answer that should settle it for all time (mine). Besides, we both celebrate the art that was The Soprano, and the actor James Gandolfini, RIP. He was a true Effin Artist, man… as is David Chase, despite his total sell-out ending.

Your turn!

007 a new 12-step symbol? Dubunking the myth

So it’s official: James Bond was a drunk. As the immortal Louie of Casablanca said, “I’m shocked… shocked!”

Not really. Any drunk can spot another drunk, and Bond, well he’s the poster child right? That’s why we idolize him still. Wine, women and adventure. Our Walter Middy’s run amok with such fantasies. But that’s why this humorous new study is actually quite important. It challenges the myth. When it comes to drinking, the myths nearly always win out.

The myths haunted me in rehab. I was a month into a six-month inpatient program and still trying to figure out how I could finagle drinking and sobriety at the same time. Only when I did a thorough study of core beliefs, things that went back to the deepest memories of my childhood did I realize that my thinking prized those like James Bond and Ernest Hemingway and men’s men who drank and wrote and loved women and lived hard. I finally put this belief in a statement: “People who don’t drink are weak.”

If I was going to get sober and stay sober, I had to take a wrecking ball to that core belief. It was perhaps the most difficult step in a long journey that now peeks ahead to my four-and-a-half year sobriety mark. Back then, I never, ever, dreamed I’d speak of such things let alone celebrate them.

One of the ways I got out the wrecking ball was to actually document my drinking, just like they did for ole James Bond here.


I did an exercise where I worked out my alcohol budget for a random month prior to rehab. I did the best I could to document my spending patterns. Inexpensive wine for every night of the week. Hard alcohol for night caps. Long Island Iced Teas and Margaritas for company. Happy Hours at least twice a week. Expensive wines for my collection and again, for company. Beer for football and sports bars. Vodka for heavy stress, which was often. Scotch and cognac for those times I wanted to feel like my shit didn’t stink.I learned James Bond had nothing on me.

Seriously, 13 drinks a night, that’s why they discovered about 007? No problem. I used to tell people all the time my mantra: “I don’t drink any more than one drink an hour, just like the guidelines say…. Not to exceed 24 drinks in any one-day period, of course.”

I figured out my wife and I could have driven a his and hers Mercedes for what we spent on booze each month. You do that shit in rehab. You count. Because its rude to count before you hit rehab.

Whoever did this study… well, I’d guess that guy or gal’s been to rehab. We count in there.

The myths of drinking sustain the drinker. “I can handle it.” “It’s fun, not harmful.” “I only take the edge off.” “I don’t drink that much.” “All my friends drink.” “If I drink too much, and I only say IF, then I’m a functioning alcoholic, because I don’t have any problems related to it.” And even more subtly and powerfully, “When I drink, I’m like James Bond.” No drunk says that one out loud, but we think it.

For me I had to recognize that I disdained those who didn’t drink. If they were Jesus Freaks who condemned drinking, they were just scared of life to me. Worse, I hated drunks. If they couldn’t handle their booze, they were the epitome of weak. I believed this so deeply it took days and days of drilling down to even admit it, much less own it.

Eventually, the walls of my myth came down. I discovered people in recovery were among the most strong and heroic and real folks I’d met. The weakest of the bunch was me, someone propped up a lie and myth and image that was killing him and ruining his life. Slowly, I changed my core belief. It now says, “When I drink I am weak. When I don’t drink I am me.”

I’d much rather be me than James Bond. As this study says, Bond likely died from alcohol-related illness in his fifties. I’m in my forties and I’ve never been healthier. I’m going to outlive James Bond (God willing)… and my life is far more fuller because of it.

EffinArtists.com was born in rehab. It’s a celebration of a wide-angled life, one full of pursuits and hobbies and interests, all things I lost when my telephoto life centered on drinking. If James Bond means anything to me, it’s a guy who needs to start the 12th step and nothing more.

I joke a lot on on this site, but this I’m deadly serious. If you read this and connect with any of it, the True EffinArtist who writes across the sky may just have led you here. I’m not going to try to baptize you, or change you, or scare you. I just want to listen. Contact me. Go to EffinArtists.com and click to our contact page. Drop me a quick note. I’ll get in touch. I’ll listen. I walk with you.

And if you are hesitating at all, know this. You are doing me a favor. The 12th step in AA tells me the surest way I stay sober is to be of service to others… “to carry out this message to others…” So help me stay sober. Drop me a line.