Yes, you can blog a book

June 29, 2012 – Both fiction and nonfiction writers know that writing a book isn’t the most difficult part of the process; it’s finding a publisher when you’re done writing.

With the advent of digital publishing (eBooks) and print on demand technology (self-publishing), it’s become easier to do it yourself, but if you’re a writer with sights set on the traditional route (agent and publisher), especially in the present economy, it can be a long journey – if it even happens at all.

Nonfiction writer Nina Amir understood those odds and turned them to her favor with her “How to Blog a Book” theory. She created as a way to show writers that they can blog books, both fiction and nonfiction, although the site focuses on the latter since Nina’s expertise lies in writing, editing and publishing nonfiction books.

Nina, who recently signed a contract with Writer’s Digest Publishing to turn her blog about blogging a book into an actual book, believes the blog helped her land the deal.

“I did have to submit a book proposal,” she says. “I was not ‘found’ by an acquisition editor, but the work I did blogging my book helped. The fact that Writer’s Digest Books felt that publishing a book about how to blog a book was a worthy endeavor proves that point, as well.”

It is an interesting concept, and I can see how it would work well for nonfiction. Her advice is easy to follow. “Write a post a day and a book a year,” she writes. “Of course, the point is to blog your book. Start at the beginning of your book and proceed from there until you reach the end. A post a day for a year … or less … should do it.”

Nina adds that “if you don’t want to blog a book, then blog on one topic every day for a year. Then mine your blog for content. You’ll surely have enough for a book by the end of a year if not before.”

As a fiction writer, I’ve blogged several short stories and excerpts from novels, but it is an interesting idea to blog an entire book chapter by chapter, and ask for feedback from your reading audience.

Either way, whether you write fiction or nonfiction, once you’ve finished on the blog, you’ll have an interesting tool to market to potential agents and publishers, and maybe the added boost of a built in audience.

Nina’s blog is filled with tips for writers who want give it the old college try. Check it out at

Finding inspiration in nature and other writers

June 27, 2012 – A writer taking a class at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center is nearly the equivalent of an artist taking painting lessons from Picasso himself.

No, it’s not Ms. Buck who instructs us, but her spirit and inspiration haunt the beautiful grounds of sixty acre estate in Bucks County, Pa., where she lived for the last 40 years of her life. It’s also in the grand portrait of her (right) that hangs above the stone fireplace and watches over all of us in the workshop room on the fourth Saturday of each month.

Buck wrote more than two dozen books, short stories and articles during her career as a writer, although she may be more notably known as a great humanitarian. She spent many of her younger adult years in China taking on human rights issues, which greatly inspired her most famous novel, “The Good Earth”, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize in Literature.

This particular class, “Write a Novel in a Year”, meets each month for a year, so it’s perfectly suited to the estate and experiencing it during all four seasons. Spring and summer are particularly beautiful as you can see below, but I’m looking forward to fall when the colors deepen and change from green to bold yellows, oranges,and reds.

The old barn, which has been converted to workshop space for the various writing classes available through the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center
Entrance to the main house
The gift shop and museum
Close up of the gift shop

Movie review: Moonrise Kingdom

June 25, 2012 – It’s a beautiful thing when a Wes Anderson film comes a theater near you.

Not only will the talented writer/director entertain you with a creative and original story and an amazing soundtrack, but you’ll also get a break from the Hollywood mundane and the producers who’d rather bank on remakes and sequels that are fair less entertaining.

Anderson rounded up some of his usual cast of actors for his latest “Moonrise Kingdom”, the comedy-drama love story about two unique 12 year olds who fall in love and run off together. Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are back, along with a talented group of first timers, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand. But it’s the kids who really steal this show, led by the wonderful Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who both made their film debuts in the movie.

It’s summer 1965 as the film opens, on a little Island somewhere in New England. As Sam and Suzy set off on their camping adventure, an epic storm is brewing and an all-out manhunt is orchestrated to find them.

A word of precaution: Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is not for the closed-minded. Unfortunately, some viewers have panned it as “child pornography”, which is utterly ridiculous, just because of a scene on a beach that has the actors swimming in their very modest underwear, and briefly discussing French kissing.

It also didn’t appeal to the senior citizen crowd I shared it with at a recent Saturday matinée. Besides myself and a few other younger folks, the blue-haired female brigade comprised most of the theater. I’m not sure what they were expecting to see, or if they viewed any previews before buying a ticket, but several commented that it was “the worst movie they ever saw.” At least they said it with a smile.

They failed to see the refreshing storyline and dialogue that isn’t like any other movie I’ve seen. It may not have been the best movie choice for them, but saying it’s the worst is too harsh. Anderson’s characters are definitely out there, just like they are in most of his films (think the “Royal Tenenbaums”, “Rushmore” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, to name a few). Still, as offbeat as these characters seem, they are perfectly believable too. That is something extremely difficult to pull off. Too bad those cute little old ladies couldn’t see that.

For them, the good news is that there will always be another unimaginative film on the horizon to please their seasoned palates. As for me, I’m thrilled that Wes Anderson makes movies like this. Thankfully, critics and other viewers seem to agree. Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes show that 94% of the critics liked “Moonrise Kingdom”, and 92% of the viewing audience felt the same.

There is hope for creativity, after all.

The trials and tribulations of the 2012 Phillies and their fans

June 22, 2012 – The Philadelphia Phillies are the talk of the town.

That may not seem unusual considering they opened a new ball park in 2004, which has been a big hit with fans, they’ve made it to the playoffs for five consecutive years, winning it all in 2008, and they have a pitching rotation that most clubs can only wish for.

This year, the chatter is just as loud as it was last season when they won over 100 games, but the tone is different. The Phillies sit in last place in the National League East, where they have been for most of the season with a record below .500. Fans watched their decline, which was more like riding on a monstrous roller coaster rather than the gradual slope we expected with our aging and very well paid team.

Overheard in a deli the other day: “They don’t even print stories about the Phillies in the paper these days,” said one man trying to enjoy his ham and cheese on rye. (He was referring to the Metro, and not the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News).

“That’s because they’re awful,” said the cashier. “I don’t even watch them anymore.”

“I check on a score once in a while, but I can’t watch,” said another deli patron. “They’re definitely snake bitten.”

Conversations like this are common in the City of Brotherly Love. To be fair, the Phillies have plenty of players on the disabled list, including three of their stars, but that doesn’t excuse losing too many games to sloppy play or leaving an unbelievable number of men on third base with less than two outs, when a simple fly ball to the outfield would score a run. If this team doesn’t change things soon, two major events could occur that will surely signal the end of a great run: the Phillies could become sellers at the trade deadline, instead of adding a key piece for the playoffs as they have done over the last several years, and their sellout streak, which began on July 7, 2009 and currently stands at 238 games, could come to an end.

The boys in the red pinstripes have played some terrible baseball this year, especially at home where the crowds come out to support them in huge numbers. It’s too early to give up on the season, even though passing four teams in the standings is a huge challenge. Still, it’s often said that baseball is a game of inches, and those inches could turn to the Phillies’ favor just as easily as they turned against them. And the second wild card slot – something I said I despised in the beginning of the season – may benefit them. The five teams in our division will play each other frequently in the second half, and beat up on each other, which could make those other four teams easier to catch – as long as the Phillies win. With Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay due back by the end of July, fans are hopeful that the team can put together a successful August and September run.

Until then, I need a sign, a good luck charm, or any indication that the Phillies can turn things around. Or at least a reason to blame. Baseball is the most superstitious of sports, so it’s not a strange request. Could it be the curse of Ed Wade, for example? Things started to turn around for the team dramatically when they fired him as General Manager and hired Pat Gillick, and then Ruben Amaro, Jr. Is it simply a coincidence that they start to slide again the season they hire Wade back as a scout?

Or perhaps it’s the curse of Billy Penn. Legend has it that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that Philadelphia would approve no building higher than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. That ended in 1987 when One Liberty Place was built, thereby cursing all Philly’s sports teams. Currently, the Comcast Building is the tallest in Philadelphia, but a statue of William Penn was placed on top of it in 2007, the curse was broken, and the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. Is Billy still there or did they take him down?

These are not crazy questions.

I’ve had some theories of my own, which unfortunately have let me down, but I still try. In 2003, for example, I rationalized that the team went to the World Series in 1983 and 1993, so perhaps they were on the 10-year plan. When they failed that year, my head hung low.

Last year, I came up with another theory. Since the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 and in 2008, I noticed a pattern and believed they would win in any combination of years where the last two digits were opposite when reversed – 80 and 08. I figured 2011 was a sure thing since the last two digits can be reversed to be opposite, yet still turn out the same. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Too bad it didn’t work.

This year, I’m stumped. If anyone out there has a juicy, creative theory that I can cling to for the next few months, please share.

Whatever gets you through the night, right?

Made from the best stuff on earth

June 20, 2012 – Seems like the folks in London are consumed with a lot more than simply preparing for the upcoming Olympic Games these days.

After years of research, scientists at Leatherhead Food Research in the British city have put together not just a healthy meal; it’s the healthiest meal ever, made from the best stuff on earth, and no, it doesn’t include a Snapple.

Instead, these super foods include salmon terrine, a smoked salmon served with fresh herbs and olive oil, a mixed leaf salad drizzled with olive oil, chicken casserole with lentils and mixed vegetables, and a high-fiber multigrain roll.

Since there’s always room for dessert, the healthiest diners can treat themselves to yogurt-based blancmange, which is similar to vanilla pudding and topped with walnuts and sugar-free caramel sauce.

The healthiest meal ever is a pretty hefty claim, but the scientists have backed it with plenty of proof. Salmon is packed with Omega 3, which is good for the arteries, heart and brain, olive oil is good for maintaining normal blood cholesterol levels, the folates found in high fiber bread can help boost the brain, and the chicken with lentils and mixed vegetables is full of protein and other nutritious elements. Finally, yogurt is good for digestion, the teeth and blood glucose control.

If you snack between meals, don’t worry, there are a few treats you can consume to take the edge off cravings. A handful of walnuts are the healthiest alternative, according to the scientists, along with a cup of hot coco or sugarless gum sweetened with Xylitol, a sugar alcohol sweetener found in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables.

Plus, the healthiest way to wash it all down is with pure spring water.

If that sounds like a complicated meal to prepare, don’t panic. A simple rule of thumb is to eat foods in their freshest most natural state, which means much of the processed food on the store shelves are not going to make the cut. Instead, opt for the perimeters of the supermarket where the fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and yogurt can be found.

Bon Appetit!

Movie review: Bernie

June 18, 2012 – It may be unorthodox to call a movie about a real life murder delightful and charming, but there really is no other way to describe “Bernie”, the film that tells the story of Bernie Tiede, who was sentenced to life in prison after admitting he murdered Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow, played on screen by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.

The strangeness of Texas and its colorful cast of characters have been portrayed on the big screen numerous times, but this film is the cream of the crop. Written and directed by Texas native Richard Linklater, of “Dazed and Confused” fame, along with Skip Hollandsworth, the editor of the “Texas Monthly” who wrote an article about the actual murder that was a basis for the script, the story provides an interesting slice of Americana, Texas style. Half of “Bernie” plays out like a traditional movie, while the other half seems like a documentary, as if the viewer is watching an odd version of a “48 Hours” or “20/20”mystery.

In reality and on screen, Nugent was an unpopular widow who growled at people. By the way people in town talked about her you’d think she kicked puppies and was responsible for everything evil in the world. On the other hand, Bernie was a much-loved resident who worked at the local funeral home, sang in the church choir, befriended everyone in town and basically made the sun shine and the stars twinkle in the little hamlet of Carthage in East Texas. Even after Bernie admitted to killing her, the locals stood by him and begged the law go easy. As one resident says, “He only shot her four times. It’s not like he shot her five times or anything like that.”

The actual town’s folk are split on how they feel about the film; some say they hope it’s good for drawing tourists to their small part of the world, while others feel it’s not right to make a comedy about the murder of an 81 year-old woman.

Again, as shocking as that seems, the characters are written with warmth and come across enchanting on screen. While there are reports from some of the town’s people who lived through the actual 1996 murder and its aftermath that there are Hollywood inaccuracies, Nugent’s nephew says the film is an accurate portrayal of what really happened.

Black and MacLaine seem familiar with these roles; they’ve both played similar characters before and have done quite well with them. Enter Matthew McConaughey, who plays the district attorney and the only other person in town out to make Bernie pay for his crime. McConaughey is good enough in the role, but his is a role that anyone can play, and that’s something you definitely can’t say about the other two lead roles.

I will admit this film isn’t anything like I expected, but I liked it … a lot. It won’t appeal to everyone; just like the sleepy little town and its residents, there are some who will find this peculiar story entertaining and fun, and there are others who will believe it’s just plain wrong.

However, based on the originality of the script and in-depth performances, I can honestly say “Bernie” is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.

Keep your nose clean, it’s Father’s Day

June 15, 2012 – This Sunday, we celebrate Father’s Day and honor all of the men who do right by their families every day.

Real dads (and moms) know firsthand that being a parent is a difficult, but rewarding job. Running a corporation or operating on a human brain, for example, pale in comparison to being fully responsible for the outcome of a human being during the first 18 years of his or her life, and in some cases maybe more. Those of you without offspring, laugh if you will; it’s something only people who’ve raised children responsibly can understand.

While it’s true that moms usually get their due respect – and their share of the blame at the psychiatrist’s office in later years – dads can be sometimes overlooked in the child rearing process. We’re not the “Wait until your father gets home” generation anymore, but the role of a dad is every bit as important. Dads are the wise owls, ready to bestow their wisdom and advice about navigating through the harsh reality of life, while moms coddle and coo, arms open wide with compassion, forgiveness and love. All of this is stereotypical, of course; growing up in my home the roles were often interchangeable.

I can’t pinpoint the wisest advice I ever got from my dad, but I remember the phrases he used most often in my childhood, and I catch myself sounding like him whenever I say something like “this simply mystifies me” or “this is what you call your boring game.” I refer to them as dadisms. His favorite and most widely used dadism had to do with keeping one’s nose clean. “Are we going to the shore this summer, dad?” “If you keep your nose clean.” “Can I go to the movies later?” “If you keep your nose clean.” You get the picture. The origins of the phrase, which date back to 1887, obviously mean to keep out of any kind of trouble. To a kid like me who took things literally, all sorts of images would run through my head when he said those words, from scrubbing my nose with a toothbrush (I thought it would fit nicely)  and soap, to thinking about how I could turn my head upside down when I took a shower. I survived my childhood with a relatively clean nose thanks to that particular dadism.

Happy Father’s Day, dad, and to every other man who has the honor to be called dad.

A bit of what I believe: a top ten list

June 13, 2012 –

1. Hearing the right song can make (or break) your day. It’s really special if you hear the song accidentally, like on the radio when you share the experience with others who may be listening.

2. Everything happens for a reason. Yes, I’m one of those people.

3. People come into your life and leave it for a reason. This may be an extension of the point above, but it’s best to separate things and people, don’t you think?

4. Smoking is disgusting. I know because its harmed people I love, it makes your clothes smell awful, and I used to smoke.

5. Happiness, like a positive attitude, is a state of mind. Smile. Not only will you feel better, but everyone around you will, too.

6. Everyone is entitled to believe what they wish, and we need to respect that. How boring (and unproductive) would this world be if we all thought the same way?

7. Sometimes it’s who you know, not what you know. I don’t like it, but it’s true. The good news is sometimes it gets to be your turn to know the right people.

8. The Phillies aren’t out of the pennant race yet. They’re doing a fine job of burying themselves deeper each day, but they have always been a second half team, and…

9. Miracles do happen. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see at least one every day.

10. People who litter should be punished severely. What makes any one think it’s OK to throw trash from a car window is beyond me. And that includes cigarettes, you butt head!

Television review: Mad Men’s late inning save

June 11, 2012 – A few weeks ago, I logged in a minor complaint about Mad Men, wondering if the writers jumped the shark this season, and challenging them to “wow” me with the three episodes still to come.

Seems like they saved the best for last, and heard me loud and clear. Those final three episodes not only left me breathless, they could have been the entire season on their own. They’ve also provided for future redemption, should they need it for upcoming seasons.

The next episode had all of the great drama we’ve become accustomed to as fans of the show. It began with a bang heard around the office as Don snapped at Peggy over what he assumed was her desire to work on the Jaguar account. He angrily threw money in her face, demeaning her very being, but our girl took it in stride without shedding a tear. It ended with a bigger bang, when Peggy informs Don that she accepted a job with a competitor, and Don offering to increase her salary, which she proudly turns down. Peggy held back the tears (I did too) as he turns her offer of a professional handshake into a kiss on the hand instead. Finally, Peggy walks out of the office and gets on the elevator with a smile. Think about the possibilities of Peggy going head to head with Don for the next big account.

In between all of that satisfying drama, the slimy Pete Campbell approaches Joan on a “sure way” to get the Jaguar account, and tries to convince her to sleep with one of the decision makers. Joan acts repulsed, but accepts as long as  she receives a partnership stake in the company. Meanwhile, Don tries to talk her out of doing business that way, and believes he’s succeeds. Little did he know that the dirty deed was already done, and he learns that first hand when Joan walks into the partnership meeting the next day. The priceless looks on their faces is what great drama is all about.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep me satisfied, in the next episode all eyes are on Lane as his embezzling scheme catches up with him. I almost hoped he’d get away with it, but what kind of drama would it offer if he had? Ironically, Don, the man who’s assumed another man’s identity and who’s broken his marriage vows more times than I can count, fires Lane because he says he can’t trust him any more. But Don has a heart, and offers to keep Lane’s secret if he quits on his own. When Lane told Don he felt light-headed, and Don told Lane that’s actually the feeling of relief — and he should know first hand — I jumped off the sofa. Kudos to the writers for an extremely well written scene.

More irony ensues when Lane, who can’t admit to his wife what he’s done, tries to kill himself in his new Jaguar that she just bought for him. However, the car won’t start, and suddenly all of the clues they’ve been dropping in previous weeks about problems with the Jaguar’s engine come to fruition. So, the ever resourceful Lane hangs himself in his office instead, making a loud statement to Don and the rest of the gang.

While I love the office drama, and enjoy when the storylines focus on business, I also love the character of Sally Draper, who steals every scene she is in. Sally is growing up, maybe too fast now that she’s hanging out with Megan’s friends. What grownup doesn’t realize it’s wrong to discuss your sex life in front of an impressionable child? But Sally doesn’t like Glen that way, she says. Kudos to the writers for making Sally a woman that day — she’s more mature than her mother after all – and kudos to Betty, who gave the child exactly what she needed for once.

And they were just a few of the minor points leading to the season finale, which was the weakest of the three. This episode had more sub stories than we’re used to dealing with on Mad Men. First, we discover that Lane’s death has a major impact on Don, and his isn’t the only suicide on his mind. His brother Adam, who also hung himself after Don tried to pay him off to leave town in an earlier season, has been haunting him and his aching tooth. Joan is looking for space to so the office can match up with the business that’s flying in, Peggy is finally going on a business trip, and has her hands in a big cigarette account (didn’t you love the scene between her and Don when they met at the movie?), Megan approaches Don about giving her career a little boost, and her mother and Roger met up for some more play time, after she completely berates her daughter. But it was slimy Pete, who got punched a lot this season, who shone in perhaps the most bizarre story line of all. Are we to believe that his lovely Beth — and didn’t you just love the way he fondled her scarf on the train– has affairs with many men, and each time she does her husband just has her memory erased so she doesn’t remember them? Very odd. And then the final scene told a story all on its own. Don walks off the set, which reminded me of something straight from an Alfred Hitchcock mystery, and into a bar where a woman asks if he’s there alone. Don is alone in every sense of the word, but the writers left us hanging whether he will maintain his faithful ways, or take a step back to the playboy he was before he met and married Megan. Only time will tell.

So long, Mad Men. It was one fine season, after all. Don’t make me wait too long for season six to begin.

On celebrating the big milestones and other things

Mom with her twin brother Jimmy, age 6

June 8, 2012 – My mother celebrated her 80th birthday this week.

That’s quite a remarkable accomplishment considering she’s the first in her family to reach that milestone, and she’s been in and out of the hospital over the past year with one thing after another. Damn cigarettes. Smoking was the biggest cause of her problems, for sure.

Thanks to the help of some wonderful doctors, nurses and rehab specialists, she’s back to her normal self, she’s quit smoking and people often call her a miracle. We’ll celebrate the miracle and all of her accomplishments on Sunday with family and friends at what promises to be the gala event of the season.

Life’s milestones provide an opportunity for us to pause and look back on the defining moments of our lives. They also give us cause to celebrate. Here’s a brief interview with my mother to commemorate this grand occasion.

Jane: Do you think it’s ever okay to lie?
Mom: It’s always better to tell the truth, but I think it’s okay to lie a little to spare someone’s feelings.

Jane: How important do you think it is to look good?
Mom: Very.

Jane: Is there any experience that you have not had that you regret not having?
Mom: As a kid I always wanted to try ice skating, but we didn’t have the money.

Jane: What is your all-time favorite song?
Mom: How Important Can it Be by Joni James

Jane: What is your all-time favorite movie?
 Mom: I suppose it would be Gone With the Wind

Jane: If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?
Mom: Share it with my family. I know you expect me to say something about casinos, but I honestly don’t think I would be that much fun to gamble anymore if I had a lot of money.

Jane: As a kid, what was your prized possession?
Mom: I had a pickle pin I wore every day. I loved it.

Jane: And as an adult?
Mom: My claddagh ring. It came from Ireland. Of course, I don’t have it anymore. I gave it to Carly (granddaughter) because she used to love wearing it when she was a little girl.

Jane: What did you get in trouble for when you were a kid?
Mom: I was a good kid who did what I was told to do. But I do remember one time I got in trouble for drinking the last bit of milk that my sister Mary was saving for her strawberries.

Jane: What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
Mom: I remember my English teacher reading my book report out loud, and saying that it really wasn’t well written, it just offered a different slant on the story. That embarrassed me.

Jane: What is the thing you wanted most that you haven’t gotten?
Mom: I have everything I want. When I was a kid, though, I always wanted new clothes. We were poor and as the youngest, I only wore hand me downs. My sister Elizabeth bought me a sweater with a reindeer on it once and I was so happy that it was new. Unfortunately, it made me breakout and I couldn’t wear it.

Jane: What advice do you have to offer to the younger generation?
Mom: Don’t smoke!