Literary racketeering

As a follow-on to my post about the furor over American Dirt, there is something creepy about the sins tradpub imagines itself to have committed, and the self-effacing ways it elects to be cleansed of guilt. Read this, courtesy of Publishers Weekly:

"Roberto, David, and I came to New York on a restorative and reparative mission," Gurba said in her statement at the press conference. "We came not only to extend an olive branch to Flatiron. We came to offer our assistance in restoring the dignity of all parties harmed. We offered Flatiron a chance to wipe away the dirt."

In a statement sent to PW Wednesday evening, Gurba added: "Overall, the meeting went well. You could smell the discomfort of some folks in the room and that was important: meaningful change is typically accompanied by 'growing pains' and B.O. I was also able to express to [Macmillan executives] that while this experience has undoubtedly been difficult for them, having my life repeatedly threatened for engaging in literary criticism has not been fun."

This goes well beyond a shakedown. Gurba describes the meeting in messianic language. She arrived on a "mission" to ritually "wipe away the dirt." But not before she laid into them, condemning them for their supposed crimes. In one hand she held their guilt, which she offered freely. In the other she held absolution, which came at a cost.

(Note how Gurba justifies the executives' pain by citing the threats she has received, as if the executives are somehow responsible for the blowback against her race-based critiques. When your life is repeatedly threatened, I suspect you're doing more than just writing book reviews.)

The cost of absolution won't be limited to the reparations Macmillan promised the apostles of #DignidadLiteraria. Ostensibly every publisher's task is to sell books. That mission is now subverted by the new task of enforcing racial quotas in their workforce and book content. As a result, Macmillan's market share will decline. Remember, if what Gurba et al. are asking for sold books, Macmillan would have beeing doing it already.

Here's another publisher who kow-towed to a racially motivated mob:

Last season, we published a memoir by a white author writing about falling in love with China, and a Chinese man. The cover featured the author wearing a qipao. Despite all I’d experienced, I didn’t see the cultural appropriation. I thought she had a “pass” because she was married to a Chinese man, because this was her lived experience. But book influencers on Instagram squarely took us to task. We read their posts, listened to their objections, and changed the cover. The dialogue with our critics was not comfortable, but the outcome was satisfactory—for us and for them.

One side lobbing accusations at another isn't "dialogue." In the social media age, it's racketeering. Dialogue is something that happens between equals, not between those who wield the power to libel and their prospective victims.

The cover depicted the content of the book, a woman assimilating to her new country, and was entirely appropriate. The only satisfactory outcome in this case was for the mob to stick their objections where the sun don't shine, and for the publisher to leverage their outrage into free marketing.

Perhaps you think I'm being too crass about this. Let me know in the comments below. I'll respond as soon as I can.

My latest book, Seeds of Calamity, is now available at Barnes & Noble. You're welcome to read the first 4 chapters for free; if they pique your interest, get yourself a copy. I appreciate the support!

For a free digital copy of my debut book, Tendrils to the Moon, sign up for the mailing list on the right side of the blog page. Or, if you're viewing this on the mobile site, click here.

On the American Dirt frenzy

So Jeanine Cummins wrote a book called American Dirt about a Mexican woman and her son fleeing a drug cartel and making a run at the U.S. border, and literary critics of a certain bent are panning it—not because it's bad, although it might be—but because Cummins appropriated a culture that doesn't "belong" to her.

Appropriation is when you speak from another person's POV or temporarily adopt their traits as your own. In short, it's what writers do. You create a character; you build the setting around them; you give them traits, some of them personal, others cultural; and you drop them in a conflict that allows them to overcome and grow. It's a benign practice, and it's been done for hundreds if not thousands of years. It's especially common in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction. Whether you're writing for an elf, a Klingon, or a Roman soldier, you're trying to show the reader something he hasn't seen, hopefully something magical.

The key word here is "try." Sometimes it's done well, like in a book I'm reading now, a Japanese historical fantasy by David V. Stewart called Muramasa. Sometimes it's not done well, like in a technothriller called Arctic Rising. The former succeeded because the Japanese characters fit the setting and the story DVS wanted to tell. The latter failed because the author, Tobias Buckell, was clearly using his Nigerian lesbian hero to check diversity boxes and further his sociopolitical agenda.

I don't know and don't really care if Cummins succeeded in portraying an authentic Mexican woman. What bothers me is other people telling her she can't because she's white. Mexican immigrant culture isn't "hers," so she should leave the story for someone else to tell. It's amazing this cretinous tripe still gets peddled in 2020 America after decades of mainstreaming racial egalitarianism through every cultural institution. If a Latino had written this book, seriously, what publisher wouldn't want to publish it?

Esmeralda Bermudez is at the forefront of the backlash. Check our her Twitter feed. She's particularly aggrieved there's not enough diversity in publishing. (Maybe the problem is there's not enough diversity among readers.) Conveniently you never hear what percentage of representation diversity activists want. Setting a hard quota would preface an eventual end to the grievance, thus an end to the movement. But the movement mustn't end. It's not about diversity. It's about leveraging racial grievance to exercise an insatiable will to power.

Book publicists put on a full-court press for American Dirt: securing Oprah's endorsement, printing blurbs from Stephen King and John Grisham, etc. I went to Costco last Friday and there must have been a hundred hardbacks for sale. Now, the publisher has canceled the rest of the book tour and replaced it with a shorter series of Maoist struggle sessions where Cummins will have to engage with critics telling her she can't write what she wants because of her skin color. There's a word for that: racism.

With that out of the way, I think Cummins is partly to blame for this. Whatever catharsis of racial attention she hoped to achieve with the subject matter will not come up pass. In fact, she's made it worse. Her appeasing attitude and willing acknowledgement of her "privilege" is all grifters need to delegitimize her success. As soon as you admit you profited unfairly from a supposedly racist system, you have no defense against that success being taken from you.

Courting this ugliness won't save tradpub. It will accelerate its ruin. Meanwhile, independent creators are putting out great books. They have one aim above all: entertainment.

You can judge for yourself whether I've done that in my own writing by taking a look at the first 4 chapters of Seeds of Calamity. If it piques your interest, get yourself a copy at Amazon. I appreciate the support!

For a free digital copy of my debut book, Tendrils to the Moon, sign up for the mailing list on the right side of the blog page. Or, if you're viewing this on the mobile site, click here.

And as always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply as soon as I can.

Judging a book by its cover

When you read a book, you make an economic decision about how to spend your time and money. Life is too short to waste on a book that may disappoint, so before the decision to read and/or buy, a book goes through your filter, which is informed by taste, experience, word of mouth, etc.

The cover is part of this evaluation. The cover conveys information about the book's genre, style, characters, and story. If the cover looks unprofessional, or if the copy on the back doesn't grab you, it's wise and necessary to give the book a pass and look for something more appealing to you.

This isn't "judging a book by its cover," as the oft-misused aphorism goes; that implies a book sucks because the cover sucks. You've simply chosen not to read it, just like you choose what movies to see, or what to eat, or what to wear, or who to ask out on a date. Discernment is an elemental part of life. If you don't filter books this way, you'll find yourself reading a lot of books you don't like.

Only someone who's read a book can judge it. That's why it's important to have an appealing cover, to get through readers' filters so they can be in a position to judge it, good or ill.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply as soon as I can.


I designed the cover art of Seeds of Calamity in Inkscape. Does it pass your filter? If so, I invite you to read the first 4 chapters or get yourself a copy at Amazon.

For a free digital copy of my debut book, Tendrils to the Moon, sign up for the mailing list on the right side of the blog page. Or, if you're viewing the mobile site, click here.

A pedantic children's book review

I used to think children's books aren't serious art, but once I started reading books to my daughters I realized my mistake. There are good children's books and bad children's books. It doesn't take less effort to entertain a 3 year-old for 2 minutes as it takes to entertain a 30 year-old for 12 hours.

One of the best children's books I've read is Locomotive by Brian Floca. It's a sensory journey across the Old West via steam engine. It flows like poetry. The descriptions are accurate and fun. The artwork is detailed, immersive, and gorgeous. Best of all, Locomotive fires up the imagination of complex machinery and exploring new frontiers, worlds of technology and wonder.

But that's not good enough for some people.



Imagine being so "woke" that you find fault in children's books for not gutting the target audience's curiosity and sense of wonder. Misery loves company, I suppose, and the best way to make a person miserable is to teach them early.

There are too many people in the literary world who think like this, and I've come to accept the naiveté of ignoring clear ideological splits in the book market. I do not write for this kind of person. I want to take my readers on adventures, not jade their thinking with droll pedantry.

You can judge for yourself whether I've succeeded by reading the first 4 chapters of Seeds of Calamity for free. If it piques your interest, get yourself a copy at Amazon. I appreciate the support!

For a free digital copy of my debut book, Tendrils to the Moon, sign up for the mailing list on the right side of the blog page. Or, if you're viewing this on the mobile site, click here.

And as always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply as soon as I can.

On 3rd person limited

This is a continuation of a previous post on my writing goals for my newest book, Seeds of Calamity. One of those goals was to limit the POV to Felton, the protagonist. This was to simplify the storytelling and tell a compelling growth arc for a single character from start to finish. Aside from the prologue, which is told from a secondary character's POV, I succeeded. Along the way, I learned a few things about writing.

Limited perspective has mystery and surprises built in. Much of the tension is in not knowing what will happen next, or not knowing what is really happening beneath the surface of the other characters' actions. In my first book, Tendrils to the Moon, the tension came from the reader knowing more than the hero did. In Seeds, it comes from the reader knowing only as much as Felton.

A small effect of this was my decision to not title Seeds's chapters. I did this for Tendrils's 12 sprawling chapters, and it made sense in the context of that story, where process and detail were featured as much as the plot and characters. The chapter titles I used back then gave a sense of progress as well as foreboding. With Seeds, chapter titles would have taken away the story's unpredictability.

This style demanded more from me as a writer. I had to stage scenes "off screen" without the benefit of showing them, so they had to flow by a logic that I didn't entirely have control of. I was tempted to explain things long after they happened, and there wasn't a lot of room to work with in the moment.

Whereas I could get away with more telling in Felton's POV, I had to find more direct ways to show the other main characters' growth and conflicts. I was forced to be efficient in their presentation, for too much information would have muddied those characters to the point that they wouldn't be identifiable.

It was fun writing minor characters who served their purpose after a couple of chapters—or one scene, as they case may be. It feels true to life. I liked adding dashes and quirks that I didn't feel pressured to sustain over the whole book.

Finally, the limited perspective imposed plotting discipline on me. I didn't have the option of cutting to another POV when a scene ran its course. I had to either advance the plot or cut to a new scene that did. The result was a dense, meaty plot and no real second act doldrums to speak of.

To see what I mean, read the first 4 chapters of Seeds of Calamity for free. If it piques your interest, get yourself a copy at Amazon. I appreciate the support!

For a free digital copy of my debut book, Tendrils to the Moon, sign up for the mailing list on the right side of the blog page. Or, if you're viewing this on the mobile site, click here.

And as always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply as soon as I can.

Yes, write every day

I've seen some caterwauling on Twitter from writers who are pushing back against the common advice to write every day. Below is an example of that pushback. I'll leave the attribution off:

There are a wealth of valid reasons not to write every day. Writing is a muscle you have to work, yes; but too many people are made to feel failures against unrealistic standards.

The use of passive voice here is telling. No honest giver of advice is so Pharisaical as to claim failure to follow his advice will result in absolute failure. Anyone who "is made" to feel a failure is putting that onus on himself.

If you can't take advice without putting more pressure on yourself than you can stand, and you suffer for it to the point that you resent the advice, you may have bigger problems than an inability to write every day. Or, if a particular piece of advice doesn't help, maybe that advice wasn't meant for you; feel free, then, to ignore it.

Every writer wants to be better. One way to accomplish that is to establish a daily routine. That means writing even when you don't feel like it. It also means not getting so hung up on mediocre plotting or subpar prose that you paralyze the rest of the creative process. Move on and fix the mistakes later. That's what writing every day amounts to.

I was 40,000 words into my draft of Tendrils to the Moon when my brother-in-law got married. I didn't write at all that weekend. Am I a failure because of that? No. Life happens. I still finished the book, albeit a month late and 33,000 words over budget.

Writing a book is like running a marathon. It takes discipline. There are times during the process where you don't think you'll finish. Failure is only guaranteed when you stop trying. I'm convinced most writers fail not because they lack talent, but because they get discouraged and stop trying.

Suffering is how you know you're growing. If a goal doesn't require at least a little bit of suffering, you're not growing to reach it.

Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments. I'll reply as soon as I can. I invite you to read the first 4 chapters of my new sci-fi book, Seeds of Calamity, for free. If it piques your interest, get yourself a copy at Amazon. I appreciate the support!

The brilliance of Heat

Heat is my favorite movie. Its taut, visceral, character-driven narrative is something I've always wanted to capture in my writing.

There's a scene towards the end of the movie in which master thief Neil, played by Robert DeNiro, and his girlfriend are driving to the airport to flee the country. En route, he receives a phone call from his handler notifying him of the whereabouts of a fellow thief who double-crossed him. After he hangs up the phone, the camera lingers on his face, and you can tell he's thinking, choosing between an act of wrath and vengeance, and getting away clean.

Earlier in the movie, Neil, feeling heat from the police, asks his crew whether they want to go through with one last heist. Michael, played by Tom Sizemore, rationalizes his desire to go through with it, even though for him the reward probably isn't worth the risk since he's financially secure. Neil tells him so, and Michael's true colors show. He says, "For me, the action is the juice. I'm in."

Both scenes are so beautifully straightforward and understated in their gravity. The characters make their choices, their fates in their hands. Forget the perfectly choreographed heists and the best urban gunfight ever put to film. What really propels Heat into the stratosphere is its characters.

The movie has a dense, linear plot that works in the movie's margins, usually in the background, offscreen, and at the ends of scenes. The focus of every scene, rather, is on the characters, and there are a lot of them. Their goals, conflicts, and vulnerabilities are richly exposed. We see them cope with their lives, good guys and bad guys alike.


DeNiro and Al Pacino obviously do much of the heavy lifting, but everyone has a moment to shine. They're not complicated people, but they have depth and the script shows that in a direct, sophisticated way that I haven't seen done so well in any other movie. The brevity of these scenes is key, as drawing them out would have bogged them down in clichés and melodrama.

The rubric of a post-industrial Los Angeles provides the backdrop for these broken people scrabbling for meaning in their lives. These people are flesh and blood products of their environment, yet they are not robbed of agency. Their choices, as explained above, carry mortal weight. And often they lead to suffering, which is a poignant commentary on life.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply to you as soon as I can. I invite you to read the first 4 chapters of my new sci-fi book, Seeds of Calamity, for free. If it piques your interest, get yourself a copy at Amazon. I appreciate the support!