Independent Writing from an Independent Mind

Open discussion about writing and reading

Category Archives: book

When ya ain’t writin’ nothin’…

I have been very derelict in my writing for quite some time now. I have to wonder what is going on with me. So many projects in the air…

Joseph Clement Pereira at the Conrad Centennial Singapore Hotel

Author, music historian and music journalist Joseph Clement Pereira is a Singaporean gem, if not a little known national treasure. In his masterpiece, Legends of the Golden Venus, Joseph documented the history of Singaporean popular music in the 1960’s. Joseph plans to follow up this tome on the Singaporean music scene with another in the near future. Joseph has also been busy compiling CD collections of popular local Singaporean acts of years gone by so that this part of musical history with be available for posterity. He also has been the go to guy for big name interviews in Singapore of major international stars such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, B.B. King, former members of The Tubes, Procol Harem and others. Joseph also is an international “vinyl collector” who has a taste for old Vietnamese pop music, to which I can personally attest.

I have known and been friends with Joseph since 1994 when we met in Vietnam. He and I are great friends and have visited one another in four cities in three different countries. I think what we find mutually appreciative is that we have varied interests and love to share these interests through long, leisurely conversations.

Look soon for an interview I conducted with Joseph Pereirra about his writing and research!

By the way, if you are on Facebook why don’t you become a fan of Legends of the Golden Venus?

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So I made the list!

I just saw that I am on a list of books that someone read this year. That someone was actually someone I know: Mihnea Voicu Simandan

Even though I know Mihnea it still was a bit of a charge to unexpectedly see my book on his list – and to see that he rated it four stars out of five. The book that Mihnea read was my first publication, Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness: The Truth about the Vatican and the Birth of Islam. These unexpected plugs can definitely give you a charge. At least you know you are getting read and that people are mentioning you. Sometimes we all need a charge like this. Word of mouth publicity I have found to be the very best form of publicity simply because it is the most sincere. Mihnea himself is a writer so I also sincerely hope that mentioning him here will also help him to get a little more light shined on his work.

Another thing I liked about Mihnea’s list is that other authors who I know personally also made the list. Maclean J Storer’s Forward O Peasant was there as well as A.D. Thompson’s Diner Dharma, for which I even wrote a blurb that appears on the book. (If you are keeping score, Mihnea seemed to like my book better than Diner Dharma and not as much as Forward O Peasant. Where would we be without keeping score?)

Anyway, this kind of gives me a charge to go out and write some more this weekend.

WHITEWASH: A Southern Journey Through, Music, Mayhem & Murder by Frank Beacham

On the one hand I thoroughly enjoyed this book but on the other hand I kept feeling a bit of forced guilt on the behalf of the author. Frank Beacham was anything but a Southern apologist, which he shouldn’t be anyway, I felt the story was written to attach himself and distance himself at the same time.

That being said Frank Beacham has done a wonderful job at telling the stories. There were three stories covered in the book: The origin of the shag – the official dance of South Carolina, the Orangeburg police massacre of non-violent students at South Carolina State University in the late 1960’s and the tale of a bloody crackdown in Beacham’s hometown during the Great Depression which has repurcussions to this day. (The author discovered via friends that the aggression was started by none other than his own grandfather!)

The stories are interesting and compelling. I’m glad I read it.

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WHITEWASH: A Southern Journey Through Music, Mayhem & Murder by Frank Beacham

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Self Publishing a Masterpiece?

Mark Twain self published Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain self published Huckleberry Finn

So you haven’t gotten offered a publishing contract after the umpteenth try.  Maybe you haven’t even been able to score a good literary agent.  All that effort wasted and still you just know that you have something valuable to say.  You know in your heart that the world needs to know you, the world simply must know your work, and now you are nearly convinced that the only way that you can see this getting your masterpiece out is by you self publishing your work.

I got ya…  But you are at a severe disadvantage, you know?

First of all you won’t have the resources of a major publishing house to properly design your book cover and edit your material. You won’t have major distributors out there selling your books in book stores around the globe. You won’t have public relations companies, book marketing firms and ad agencies at your beck and call.  But I didn’t have to tell you that, did I?

So without all of these resources and help from where will this masterpiece spring on to the waiting public? The same places all masterpieces spring from. From your own brilliance and perseverance.

If you are looking for some special key I just want to let you know now that this post is not going to offer you any magic formula.  I want it to be a bit more of a pep talk.  I have been reviewing books for BookPleasures for some time now and have read a good many books by first time authors and otherwise unknown authors.  Personally some of the best books that I have read in the past few years have been self published or authors who have published with small publishing houses for whatever reason. So you can believe me when I tell you that when I have read a good book I do my best to make sure that the world knows this is a good book. That is why I have committed myself to reviewing these books.  I promote the authors in every way that I can.

Ernest Hemingway originally self published under the pen name "Peter Jackson"

Ernest Hemingway originally self published under the pen name "Peter Jackson"

You see 99.9999% of all famous authors, whether fiction or non-fiction started very, very small.  They were unknowns who got their fame through their persistent work. Their bodies of work had meaning and they endured. And nowadays we have advantages that the authors who published before didn’t have.  For instance we more tools and resources at our fingertips than ever before.  These resources allow anyone working alone can promote themselves to a broader audience.   We have social media, videos, websites, blogs.  It isn’t just the press releases, reviews and book signings anymore.  We have much more control over our own destinies than any other time in history.  The fact that you are reading this blog written by me is proof of that.

I am certain that some of the people who I have reviewed already will be discovered by more and more people because they use their creativity to find their audience.   A good example of one I expect to reach this summit is my friend (who I have posted about before) who goes by the nom de plume “Maclean J Storer“.   Word gets out.  In the old days we called this “word of mouth” but nowadays we bottle it and relable it as “viral marketing”.  A great example of the word getting out is that I have a German friend who read Maclean J Storer’s Forward O Peasant and he sent an e-mail to 300 of his friends and family telling them to find this book and read it.   And twice within the past month I have been asked by people where they can buy this same novel.  My friend is gaining a following slowly but surely.   And so will you if your work is good and you stick to it.  Almost every writer who gained a large following started small with immediate friends and family – but success in writing is almost never bagging the big one.  It is more like farming.

Just remember what Vince Lombardi used to say: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” It is not only true for sport but for everything in life. Write.  Publish.  Then get out there and promote yourself but most of all, stay at it!

Writing is Exploration

One thing I have learned as a writer, whether it is a book, article, web posting, blog or whatever it may be, is that writing in and of itself is an exploration of my mind.  This is not to say that I am actively looking into my mind as I write, although that might be fun to do some time, but what I find is that almost always in retrospect I have learned something new.

Many people would think that I am a very methodical writer.  I plan out what I want to write beforehand in most cases.  I do this for several reasons:

1)      I can easily keep the point that I start out with if I have already predetermined a structure;

2)      The planning helps me to write faster because I already know what I am going to write about; and

3)      Having the planned out or mapped out structure is one of the best defenses against writer’s block.

All that having been said, during the planning process I discover so much more about my subject when I am considering all the angles of the material.  Then I also notice that during the writing process itself, while I am banging away at the keyboard, my mind wonders throughout the subject matter and sometimes even crosses the borders into other subjects.  I normally finish my writing not only with a sense of accomplishment (for getting the words to paper) but also a small sense of enlightenment.

If you feel the same way whenever you do anything, whether it is writing a novel or pruning roses, then I say you are a lucky person.

Why it is good for authors to meet up…

I have been involved with an authors’ meet up for some time now.  It is a very off and on thing and as all groups go it has some falling outs with the members, mainly over structure of the group and what we are to do.  Personally, it is very hard for writers to put much structure into any such group unless they are all of the same genre, mindset and caliber.  Our group, the Bangkok Writers Guild, is a very informal group made up of mainly expatriates.  Some of us are very satisfied where we are in our status whereas others want to hit it big – have a blockbuster to make their name, so to speak.  Personally, I don’t feel the need to do this because the books that I have written are unique in their own right.  You won’t find many books debunking the Vatican Islam Conspiracy, nor will you find many books on bawdy Southern humor either.

That being said, if you plan to join such a group as ours I think you will find a great camaraderie with your fellow authors.  There is much to be learned from them and there is much to teach them as well.  For instance, unless you are in a major city full of authors and author wannabes, like New York City, per se, then your group will most likely be a rag tag group like ours.  But this is great!  We have writers in our group who are non-published, self-published, vanity published and traditionally published.  The whole gamut is run in our own membership.  So if one of us wants help with marketing, typesetting, illustrations, cover design, getting an agent, editing, finding a POD publisher, getting blurbs and book reviews – you name it – it is all right here in our group.  For an author there is no better master mind group than a group of other authors.  I have personally found a wealth of experience in our own people.

If you are not in a group already and you are serious about learning the business of being an author, whether you plan to self publish or land a contract with a publishing house, I recommend finding a group to build a nest in.  Participate in the discussions.  Learn what you can and impart your own knowledge as well.  And if there isn’t a group around you then try to put your best foot forward and start one yourself.  Use the leverage of others’ knowledge and experience to make you better at the business of writing.  Open your mind to it and you will see there’s lots of help out there for you.

I would love to hear from other writers’ experiences in writers’ groups. Do you have any experiences you would like to share?

Why I as an Author do Book Reviews

As many authors and readers already well know I have been a book reviewer for BookPleasures.com for a few years now and I also write reviews for many international publications.  Though my reviews have had thousands of readers around the world I still have had one or two people, including fellow authors, refer to my book reviewing as a “hobby” of mine.  But in fact I don’t and have never before considered my reviewing books as a pastime.  The reviews I produce are as much for my growth as a writer and author as they are to help the potential reader made an informed decision about a book.

Why do I say that?

Simply put I use the review process as my own exercise for improvement in the craft of authoring books.  And I recommend to any author who could commit the time and effort to get into reviewing as well.  Here’s a list of the four main reasons I am so into reviewing other authors’ books:

1) I grow technically as a writer – When I review another author’s work I am constantly learning from their style, the structure of their product as well as their editing and content.  I compare this to works that I have produced in the past and also see which ideas that might work on projects that I will undertake or are currently working on.

2) I grow as an author in the broader sense – There is so much to learn about the themes presented and how authors get their message across.  This is very important because you not only have to find a voice when you write but you must also have something to say in the first place, otherwise you are you are simply rehash and not interesting.  Then what’s the point of writing at all?  This is all about learning how other authors find their own message and deliver it in a way that is unique to their style and personality.

3)  I grow intellectually and personally – I learn the lessons of the books I am reviewing and internalize these lessons.  I look for the parallels in my life and seek the wisdom in the writing.  I want to know exactly the point, the raison d’être, the author had in writing the book and how the book can make its own change in the world.  I always try to pinpoint the connections I have found with my own life or the lessons I have learned and make these examples available to the book’s potential reader as well.  And these lessons aren’t only found in non-fiction books either.  Even fictional books that many would consider that are just for entertainment purposes have these lessons.

4) I promote the art of writing – There are so many books published out there annually, I have heard between 200,000 to 250,000 new titles every year, that it is incredibly difficult for the worthy books to be sorted and found in this huge pile.  This means that it is very hard for authors, especially new authors, to find their audience and be heard.  I consider it my duty as a reviewer to try to help the curious reader to know what they should expect from the books that I review and I try to make sure that deserving authors will find more of a readership through my efforts.

Though books are readily available in today’s world, many readers everywhere take that availability for granted.  But to someone who has written a book, we “know it don’t come easy,” to paraphrase Ringo Starr.  Authors spend a good part of their lives in researching their books, making business plans, outlining the scripts, doing the actual writing, editing, publishing, etc., and quite honestly much of the time it is a thankless job.  A well written, solid review is my way of saying thank you to all the other authors out there who have written the books that have made me what I am today.  This is why I would like other authors to consider writing reviews every now and then.

Where can authors post their reviews?  Of course, many places, but just a few:  Their local newspaper, a literary magazine, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Gather.com, their own blog, an online book club (Shelfari, GoodReads, WeRead, LibraryThing, etc.) or on some other form of social media such as Facebook, Gather.com, etc.

Honestly, if you are a writer doing a few reviews here and there is an excellent way to pay it forward.  Get the conversation started… Remember, what goes around comes around!

How many authors do you know who are characters in another author’s book?

I don’t know how many of you out there have not only written your own books but have been in a book by other authors as well.  Well, I have actually have been in other books by other authors, both fiction and non-fiction.  But in one of the new works that I have been churning away on I relate the humorous story of how an altercation that I had in Vietnam in 1994 turned into a scene in a Chrisopher G. Moore novel, Comfort Zone, which was released in 1995.  This story I am actually incorporating into an autobiographical humorous book.

How do you find yourself in another person’s book?  Actually, I guess simply by knowing the right people (authors) and I guess being in the right place at the right time.  Read between those lines:

Have an interesting story to tell.

I happen to know a few authors and have known them for a while.  This comes from the work that I have done, the travel that I have done, my interests and the places that I have lived.

I don’t know why this would be an aim of anyone in particular unless, of course, you get some kind of ego boost out of it.  I was just thinking about it today due to the fact that when I was writing the story about going with my friend, Stéphane Bulckaen, by cyclo to eat snails (or not to eat snails in my case) then having an altercation with the cyclo drivers.  It just so happened that after this event happened I went into the Q Bar in Saigon where the novelest Christopher G. Moore was having a drink.  Since I had met him before I relayed the story then some few years later a friend who read Moore’s book recognized me and this particular incident in his book.

I was not identified personally anywhere in the book and that is fine with me.  I think it is neat to be recognized in another author’s book by someone living in another country.  Now, let’s see if who can be the next reader to find me in another book!  Maybe you can get on Twitter and let me know!

Insanity and Fratricide: The String to be Snapped

I recently read about a tragic case of fratricide in Ohio in which the murderer, Larry Evans, Jr., killed his older brother, Brian Evans, a local policeman.  The family, and many in the town, have been in shock over this case.  I recently read and reviewed an excellent book by author Robert Paul Blumenstein, Snapping the String, that centered around a case of a man who’d been trapped in an institution for criminally insane.  I was a bit more than curious to see how Robert would view such a case so I asked him for a short interview.  Here is what he had to say…

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Robert Paul Blumenstein, author of Snapping the String


In Snapping the String your main character was confined, albeit unjustly, for years in an institution as criminally insane.  Larry Evans, Jr., the subject of this article, will also go to such an institution but at the end of the article hope is held out for Evans that he will be freed and not spend anything near a life sentence.  As I have come to learn Snapping the String is a loose metaphor for purgatory.  Would Evans’s sentence be comparable to purgatory and why?

You are correct to identify the “purgatory” metaphor in Snapping the String.  As far as Larry Evans, Jr. experiencing a similar type of purgatory, yes, he will experience that same effect.  Let me give you four examples of similar scenarios that have already passed through the Larry Evans, Jr. sentencing phase and you might see why I feel this way.  However, not all these cases received a “guilty by reason of insanity” verdict and didn’t even necessarily pursue that defense.

First, consider John W. Hinckley, Jr. with his botched attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.  In the public’s mind, there was very little doubt that Hinckley was mentally ill.  Unlike the Evans trial, no one cursed the defendant or screamed out for justice in the courtroom during Hinckley’s trial.  In fact, the public seemed quite satisfied overall with the outcome.  And recently, even more incredibly, we’ve seen some leniency demonstrated by Hinckley’s mental facility granting weekend visits to Hinckley’s wealthy family.  Imagine that, after shooting a president!

Consider Charles Manson, though he was not deemed insane, hasn’t society decided that he is just that?  Generally, the public breathes a collective sigh of relief every time he’s denied parole.  No one’s complaining about him remaining locked behind bars.

Third, let’s consider Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer.  He certainly played the “troubled” defendant card during his trial.  Yet, when he was sentenced, Yoko Ono asked that he not be sentenced to death.  Here we see sympathy exhibited by the victim’s family.  (Interestingly, it was unlikely that Chapman would have been given the death sentence regardless Yoko’s plea for mercy.)  Chapman is serving a twenty year to life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison.  He’s recently been denied parole after twenty-eight years behind bars.  He told the parole board that he’s sorry and “I’m a changed man.”  Is he trying to tell us that he’s now “well?”

My last example involves a late friend of mine.  He, his wife, and two young daughters were brutally murdered by a crack head.  Ricky Gray (the murderer) claimed he was abused as a child and was “high” at the time of the killings.  Therefore, he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.  The jury didn’t buy it.  He was sentenced to death for each slaying.  And more than likely this “insane” crack head will die as Virginia has executed more people than any other state in the union with Florida and Texas vying to unseat the Commonwealth from her venerable status.

All these cases have involved people who committed heinous criminal acts.  Hardly anyone would dispute the fact that each one of these criminals exhibited to the world that they were “crazy.”  That’s just public opinion, though.  What about the institution of mental health?  Do they do any better of a job determining that these killers are insane than public opinion?

Larry Evans, Jr. will experience a “pugatorious” wait while incarcerated in the secured forensic unit of Ohio’s mental hospital.  I have a feeling the public will make it a long stay.

This murder case is similar to the one in your book in that the victims were family and the judicial system sent the accused to a mental institution.  But that is where the similarities end.  In the Evans case there were witnesses and the defendant was obviously and admittedly guilty.  Evans’s defense attorneys were not public defenders, but were privately hired.  Do you feel that had your protagonist had this kind of representation that he would have fought and won his battle earlier or conversely if Evans would have had a public defender he would be standing trial rather than getting an insanity ruling?

Before I answer that, I want to say that there is a fundamental difference between the incarceration of Peyton Stephen Costello and Larry Evans, Jr.  Larry Evans may have in fact manipulated the system to escape facing the harshest sentence for his crimes whereas Peyton was manipulated by the system to receive a harsh sentence for something that he did not do.

Also, remember, Gary Dale, less than one-half of one percent of people charged for the crime of murder have received a “guilty by reason of insanity” verdict.  It’s little used with little success by defense attorneys.  Recently, a preacher’s wife in Texas murdered her five children and used that defense successfully.  I think she was a product of the media to show how she had been driven insane by her domestic circumstances.  The public bought it.  But what about the Smith woman in South Carolina who drowned her two children in an abandoned rock quarry and later copped the insanity plea?  The public didn’t buy it.  Ironically, a reporter uncovered the fact that the white woman had a black lover and wanted to get out of her then current domestic situation in order to be with her lover.  No, the public really didn’t buy that one!

And so, Peyton faced a similar situation.  He was a hippie, living in the year 1968, experimenting with LSD in a very conservative Richmond, Virginia.  My point in Snapping the String was that the public wouldn’t have bought Peyton spitting on the sidewalk.

Also, we see Catherine, Peyton’s sister, has already been convinced by the police that Peyton was guilty, and the mental institution convinced her that he was insane.  His situation was hopeless.  I was a hippie in 1968 living in Greenville, South Carolina.  I was considered insane just for getting up in the morning and pulling on a pair of bell bottom pants.  Can you imagine how the world would have viewed Peyton?  Sure, if Peyton would have renounced his peace symbol, cut his hair, and showed up in court with a team of competent lawyers, he might have been found innocent.  It really becomes the reason to leave him there in the institution.

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Robert Paul Blumenstein many years ago at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention

I know nothing about the competency of public defenders.  The example in Snapping the String is just a dramatic device.  A lot of them stay in the public defender’s office well after they are able to move into private practice.  The folks I’ve known are very dedicated to serving a disadvantaged population.

Can there be atonement for someone who is criminally insane?  Why or why not?  Is keeping these people away from the public enough?

That’s a tough question.  Punishment, in the American justice system, has never really been based on atonement, though recent attempts in the law at “restitution” try to establish this principle.  Punishment in America is based on vengeance.  I believe Chief Messer’s comment drives this point home.  Somehow, in his mind, Evans’ incarceration in the mental institution will be a holiday.  Perhaps Chief Messer ought to read Snapping the String.

I guess, Gary Dale, you’re really asking me if a person can be healed of being a criminal?  Under current methods of treatment, I’d say that is unlikely.  Keeping someone doped up and pacified is hardly atonement, much less healing.  Then, the inmate’s release is just as problematic.  How can you track that person to make sure he keeps it clean?  Perhaps one of my favorite films is A Clockwork Orange. It drives home the frustration of society’s attempt to rehabilitate the criminal.  I think Chief Messer should see this film after he finishes reading Snapping the String.

I think it is absurd to pass a law striking down the “guilty by reason of insanity” plea.  And as far as Messer saying that the victims and the victims’ families were dealt a double-whammy by this verdict solely based on this type of plea is also absurd.  Messer represents the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality.  This man would only be happy to see Evans squirming at the end of rope.

So, what’s the answer?  There really may not be one.  It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to see real reform in the criminal justice system.  This notion of treating a criminal as a “sick person” seems to be heading in the right direction, yet now, nothing is being held out that indicates that we will abate the problem of criminal rehabilitation during our lifetimes.  Even pedophiles that have been “chemically castrated” have been known to commit more sex offenses against children.

But for now, I favor keeping these people locked up, and in some cases, for good to protect us from them committing such injurious acts against society ever again.  So, Messer has that part of the principle right, it’s the “forget about them” part that doesn’t work.  What about the wrongfully accused?  What about Peyton Stephen Costello in Snapping the String? What if it had worked out that society did forget about him?  Peyton was innocent.  Here in Virginia Ronald Coleman was executed for rape and murder and exonerated posthumously.  An innocent man died at the hands of the state.  What about Ronald Coleman and his family?  Aren’t they victims, too?

It is interesting that the one of the advocates to stay the execution of John Wayne Gacy for the murder of 33 young boys and men was an agent for the FBI.  His reason?  By killing John Wayne Gacy, we lost our opportunity to study the psyche of a serial killer.