Book Review: Nicholas Sparks’ “Every Breath” Shines, But Misses Opportunities

On October 16th, Nicholas Sparks released a momentous work as “Every Breath” became his 20th novel released to the masses. It was his 22nd work overall, including a memoir written with his brother Micah, and a non-fiction work co-authored with Billy Mills.

On October 24th, I finished reading my 20th Sparks novel and 21st Sparks work overall (I’m missing only Wokini, the non-fiction work that was actually Sparks’ first release). To say I’m an expert in the works of Nicholas Sparks would be boastful and untrue; however, since I’ve been reading Sparks for over 15 years, I can honestly tell you that while I enjoyed this book, it is certainly not the best we’ve seen from him.

Sparks tries something entirely different from any of his other novels: he bookends the story with a fictional character named…Nicholas Sparks, a writer who happens to come upon the story of Hope Anderson and Tru Walls, and decides he needs to write about it. The average reader who skips the “Acknowledgements” and “Author’s Note” sections will be fooled into believing this was based on a true story, but tucked right at the end, Sparks admits that it’s not.

Sparks is certainly not the first author to attempt this; however, this insertion doesn’t add to the story and the illusion of it being based on true events is whimsical, but also unnecessary. If anything, the attempt takes up valuable pages that could have been devoted to more details regarding Hope and Tru’s story — incidentally, the fictional Sparks says he initially wrote more regarding their story but decided not to include it; this reader wishes that he had.

The love story takes place over two separate time periods, spread 25 years apart. In 1990, two strangers happen to meet because they find themselves visiting neighboring cottages on Sunset Beach. While the harsh critic might say the neighbor angle weakens the power of their love, I prefer to believe that it alludes that love can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Almost immediately, Sparks shows the deep connection developing between the two characters, but also mixes that with the conflict (exes and the long distance, among others) that the reader should expect to rear its head later in the story. And while the initial connection is brief — the characters are only brought together initially for less than 5 days — Sparks again shows, as is a constant theme with his works, that love does not follow a clock, and that a spark between two souls can ignite very quickly.

But once the initial connection ends, the story loses momentum. Sparks struggles to fill in the 25-year gap by telling the reader what happened leading up to the 2016 present time, rather than showing. Time jumping can be an effective narrative as long as the reader is not left questioning what happened in between. I’d have preferred to see chapters devoted strictly to important moments between  time frames, rather than learning about them in a conversation between two characters.

The story does eventually regain its momentum, but it is halted once again too soon when the fictional Nicholas Sparks reappears to end the story. As I turned the last page of the story and began reading the Sparks perspective, I thought “Oh, it’s over already? Oh, okay,” secretly disappointed that there would no more pages dedicated to Hope and Tru. Without giving too much away, I certainly felt there was more to say, or more that could be said, rather than abruptly ending the story where it did.

Sparks certainly knows how to carry momentum from beginning to end. And while I prefer a love story that also adds an element of suspense ala Safe Haven, The Lucky One The Guardian, I enjoy a story that focuses purely on love as well, ala The Notebook, The Choice or Dear John.

Though Every Breath contains the elements Sparks fans have come to know and love, with the tenderness and sweetness only Sparks knows how to write, the story had a hard time holding momentum for me, a quality that is crucial for any reader. Bottom Line: A little more Author Sparks and a little less Fictional Sparks next time. 

Playing CEO: My Proposal to Save Struggling Barnes & Noble

After basically announcing that they were up for sale today, I have gathered that Barnes & Noble is struggling.
Hardly news, right? Under statement of the year, even. Profits are down, and it’s becoming harder and harder to compete with behemoths like Amazon and Wal-Mart. Hell, I don’t even think B&N even has a CEO right now. So things are bad. Not “split in half after hitting the iceberg” bad. More like “Oh shit, there’s an iceberg ahead; we need to start shoveling in the coal and turning the ship” bad.
If you’re a book lover like me, that’s the silver lining. Barnes & Noble is struggling, but there’s fight left in them. And changes can certainly right the ship.
What are those changes? I’m sure they have plans. But if they don’t — or if any potential buyers are reading this and need some advice — here are a few suggestions on staying afloat (OK, I’m done with the boat analogies).
1. Close out some stores. Obvious, right? Look, if you want to play ostrich and bury your head in the sand about it, go ahead. I’m upset about this too — the closest B&N to me is roughly 50 minutes away. Beyond that, 90 minutes. After that, over 2 hours. After that? I’m afraid to look. I don’t want these stores to close — I’m still pissed about the Borders that was 30 minutes away and closed — but to recapture profitability, Barnes will not be able to continue operating at its current level.
So they need to look at numbers. What stores are currently deep in the red? Also, they need to look at stores that are close to other stores to avoid a harsh impact on buying customers, as well as the potential to transfer employees and minimize job loss. If there are 600+ stores, pessimistically, I’d say 100 stores are closing. Optimistically, I’d say less than 25. It’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle. And while we’re looking at those numbers, let’s find trends. Why is Store A so much more profitable than Store CCC? What are they doing differently?
But if articles I read are true — and assuming they own the structures — closing stores could turn into leasing opportunities for up-and-coming businesses Warby Parker or Casper (Thank You Mr Bary).
Dying limbs get cut off trees. Sadly, the same is true of struggling retail chains. I hate it, but it’s business. And I’m not ready to see B&N die.
2. Reward Loyal Customers Like the Ice Cream Shops and Gas Stations. Chances are you bought ice cream this summer, or purchased a fountain drink or coffee at a gas station. Did the ice cream shop give you a punch card? Did the gas station scan the little card on your keychain?
Both kinds of places offer the same type of reward system: buy so many of our product and we’ll offer you one free. Barnes currently does typically run “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” sales, but it’s book dependent (only the ones on this table, only the ones with the sticker). What if you earned an 11th book after buying 10? What if it wasn’t limited to certain books, but instead any book, perhaps with a set dollar limit (most paperbacks run about 16.99; I understand if they’re unable to do this with brand new hardbacks)? Barnes currently runs a number of discounts, but could really do themselves a favor by raising the stakes.
Also, if you’ve ever noticed on your receipt, Barnes recommends titles to you based on purchases. But do they offer these books at a discounted rate personally for you for a number of days, say 20% off if you purchase within the next 30 days? Well, they should.
3. Let’s Get Interactive! As Bary notes in the article linked above, a number of B&N stores already offer book clubs, but not all of them, and only certain titles. The Barnes in Manassas, VA also offers Bingo nights. But I highly doubt all stores do. And why not?
I LOVE to read (Duh, right?), and I would LOVE to interact with others based on books. But I’m an extreme introvert, so finding or even starting a book club is not a venture I can, or am even willing, to try. And I certainly can’t be the only one who feels this way. But if there’s one at my local bookstore, I would definitely want to check it out. It’d be a great way for adults to interact. Or even a book club for teens/college students might help inspire friendships for kids like me who had a hard time making friends. And now that I have young children, I would be delighted to take them to a store reading for a children’s book where they’d get to see other kids and enjoy a fun night out.
And that’s the essence of point 3. To me, books are fun. Entertaining. So why shouldn’t bookstores be the same way, full of energy and entertainment opportunities? Again, I’m not knocking the ones that already do this: I’m just saying there are certainly opportunities to expand upon this. Which, again, leads back to my earlier statement: what are your successful stores currently doing that separates them from the pact? 
 
4. Create an App Worth Downloading. A quick search on my phone at the App Store shows me that Barnes and Noble currently has several apps, but none seemed particularly appealing. And why is that?
McDonald’s has daily deals on their app. Target has coupons on their app that you can download. Does Barnes and Noble have enticing deals on their app? Doesn’t look like it. And why not? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
  • Daily, or even Weekly deals. “Buy One, get one 25% off.” “Buy this book, 40% off this week only.” “Buy a book, and get a free coffee.”
  • Pathway to Awesome Deals. I’m picturing a Candy-Land-Style board with certain “benchmarks” you have to hit (eg: Benchmark 1: Buy a book, then you move to Benchmark 2, etc) and at the end of the path when you hit the final benchmark, you get some awesome reward! Games could be quarterly so customers would have three months to reach the end of the path Wouldn’t that be fun??
  • Piggybacking on the above point, what about a Scavenger Hunt? Create Weekly Clues that customers need to unlock (ie. What is the first word on Page 132 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?). Once customer’s correctly guess the clue, a barcode unlocks that has to be scanned by a B&N employee (thus ensuring customers have to come to the store to do it), and then the next clue is revealed. After so many clues unlock, another handsome reward is waiting our faithful players.
  • Trivia Games: Weekly Trivia Games (with book trivia, obviously) that with a passing score of say, 80% and above, a reward is offered (And yes, put a timer on the questions so cheaters can’t Google the answers).
See a pattern here? Rewards. Discounts. Fun. Just because you can’t necessarily beat a competitor’s prices, it doesn’t mean you can’t beat them. What can Barnes offer that Amazon doesn’t? Within that answer lies the key to success.
5. Reclaim Your Identity. Cut the Crap: Trivia Time! What is Barnes & Noble?
  • a) Bookstore
  • b) Toy Store
  • c) Store for DVDs and CDs
  • d) A Store for Useless Trinkets at the Register that No One Needs
  • e) All of the Above
If you answered E, you are right. But that’s where Barnes went wrong.
I’d love to see numbers on the profitability of answers B-D. Are these things selling? Is the inventory hurting or helping sales? Because frankly, if it’s not a book, it probably shouldn’t be there when you’re losing millions in a year. Got news for you, Barnes: you have a hard time beating the competition at book prices, you sure as hell ain’t going to beat ’em at toys.
The answer to the above question should be A. In order to survive, Barnes has to remember its roots and appeal to that customer base. Books are what made you. Books are what can save you. Not overpriced stuffed animals. Not Marvel figures that are $80. Not card games. Not DVDs that cost less at Target, Amazon, AND Wal Mart. Inventory is costly. Inventory that doesn’t sell is painfully costly. So let’s run those numbers and remember who we really are: a BOOK store.
6. If We Are Ever Profitable Enough to Open More Stores, Cut the Coffee: Barnes & Noble does good coffee business. I am aware of that. Sadly, it’s a longer line than the book registers most of the time. And books and coffee go so well together! (In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a pillow that says that, along with rain) But maintaining the price to run a bookstore and a coffee shop is not cheap. Take it from a guy that works for a utility company.
Coffee costs money to make. Product aside, it runs up your electric, water, and gas bill (it probably runs up your trash bill too). It also forces you into maintaining a larger space, and larger spaces are more expensive to cool and heat. Like Jon Snow said: Winter is Coming.
Right now, Barnes is struggling to stay alive, so the very idea of opening stores is ludicrous. But if we can get to that point — and with all the uncertainties in the world right now, I have to believe that we can — we do not need to open a coffee shop as well. Leave that to Starbucks. Besides, without running data, I can guarantee there is probably already a Starbucks within 10 miles of every Barnes in the US. They need to stick to what they know best:
BOOKS.
It just might be the key to their long term survival.

Ranking the 20 Books I’ve Read this Year

What a fantastic year of books.

I had a goal to read 20 books in 2018. However, with two kids under two, a full time job, a dog and cat, a wife I enjoy spending time with, a house that is in constant need of repair, and a yard that is in constant disarray due to a particularly harsh rainy summer, 20 books was a lofty goal for me. Yet here we are, mid-September, and I have finished my goal. 3. Freakin. Months. Early!
*Round of Applause*
It may be the only goal I accomplish this year, but I’m still counting that as successful, and I owe it all to the 19 authors (1 author I read twice) who wrote incredible books that kept me interested throughout. Some were better than others. Some were much much better than others, but I didn’t finish a book and say, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on this.” In fact, there are probably 10 books on this list that could have easily been the best book I read this year….if it weren’t for the other 9.
So yes, a fantastic year of books.
I’d like to share my personal ranking of the 20 with you now as all are certainly worth a read. So here we go.
20: An Unexpected Grace by Kristin Von Kreisler: love dogs and I love dog books (Dog’s Purpose, A Man of His Own) so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite meet my expectations, but that’s not completely the author’s fault. The book started dramatically enough, but kind of mellowed and just strolled along from there. Not enough rises and falls.
19: Two From the Heart by James Patterson: I enjoy Patterson’s “Women’s Murder Club” series, and I’ve enjoyed some of his romantic tales (Susanne’s Diary for Nicholas & Sam’s Letters to Jennifer, for example), but for the most part, his books are just not emotionally gripping enough. They move at a good pace, but emotionally, I am not all that drawn in, which is a problem for me.
18: The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand: This book is probably a Top 10 in a down year, but I read too many great books this year. I read this because I wanted a beach book, and I enjoyed the different perspectives. But I think the story just didn’t resound with me…but it could with others. Still a good book.
17: Caraval by Stephanie Garber: Garber does a wonderful job creating a magical world; sadly, though, it’s really hard to get me locked into a fantasy world. However, as this is a series, I am still intrigued to read Book 2, Legendary, which just released the end of May.
16: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: Again, a victim of circumstance. Nothing is particularly wrong with this book, but it just didn’t grab me as much as the ones above it.
15: Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: I was intrigued by the book’s premise, but it took so long to build suspense for me, as I was expecting more energy in the middle and just didn’t see it. Once the book picks up with the climax however, it flew and kept me glued to the page.
14: The Bear by Clare Cameron: Bear was recommended to me several years ago by someone who knew I enjoyed Room by Emma Donohue, and I finally picked it up cheap at a book sale this summer. Both books are told from a child’s perspective, and while I found the concept so unique and mesmerizing in Room, I had a harder time following it in Bear. And even though this book had a bear chase, Room had more suspense for me.
13: The Other Half by Sarah Rayner: I read a lot of books this year set in England, but I didn’t enjoy the “Brit Speak” as much as I did in this book. I tried incorporating it into real life, but people just looked at me strangely, so I had to stop.
12: Abundance of Katherines by John Green: I’ve read many of Green’s books over the past few years, but didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Paper Towns and Fault in Our Stars. Also, Green fell victim to the books above it this year.
11: Mistletoe Secret by Richard Paul Evans: Evans is certainly a Top 3 favorite author of mine all time, and even this book didn’t crack the Top 10 (though he sneaks in with another book later). A good Christmas read.
10: The Girl Before by JP Delaney: This book is a bona fide winner in other years, and it kept me reading with its suspense, but I wasn’t quite as hooked as a couple of books you’ll see in The Top 5.
9: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: I love a good romantic story, and this one didn’t disappoint. This probably moves up a few spots if not for some of my beefs with the main character….but the fact that Santopolo creates a character that I care enough to argue with? Makes her a great writer, and this a great book.
8: Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin: If Evans is a Top 3 author, Martin is a Top 5, and I’ve never not enjoyed any of his books. Romance, intrigue, suspense, morality. This book had it all. The ending might have dragged a little too long, if I had to give a con.
7: One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr: I loved going on the journey with Flora Banks, the girl with amnesia, as she chased after a boy who, of all things, she remembered.
6: The Forgotten Road by Richard Paul Evans: Evans narrowly misses the Top 5 with the second book in a series whose main character is a wealthy, arrogant jerk that suddenly finds a conscience. The reason I enjoy Evans and Martin so much is because they create characters who either a)have a moral compass or b)are trying to find a moral compass. Both authors are guided by their belief in Christ that shapes their written words. In a world of constant chaos, we need characters like that. At least I do.
5: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown: A book with a mystery that leaves you guessing until the end. I love books where you spend pages trying to solve the mystery, only to be left surprised with the ending, anyway.
4: Woman in The Window by AJ Finn: As above, it’s suspenseful with a mystery you are constantly trying to solve. An edge-of-your-seat book that I didn’t want to put down. If you enjoy Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn, you’ll enjoy AJ Finn. Sidenote: this is becoming a movie with a great cast of actors/actresses.
3: My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry: I love love love discovering new authors, and even more, love finding out that this isn’t the only book of theirs that’s currently released! Jane quickly became a new favorite author with just this book, creating characters you think about long after you’ve put the book down. Just the right blend of suspense and intrigue.
2: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris: How is this book not #1?? Even I can’t believe it, and I made the list. I’ve never read anything like this. The “catch” in this book is unlike anything I’d ever read before. It made my mouth drop open. Paris also writes openly and brilliantly about a character with Down Syndrome, who I couldn’t get enough of. I don’t want to give anything away, but you need to read this book. And the only reason it’s not #1 is because….
1: The Neighbors by Hannah Mary McKinnon: This book literally came out of nowhere. Seriously. I’m at Barnes & Noble looking up books on my list of books I want to read. I go to find my wife, who is looking at something on a shelf, and this book catches my eye with its intriguing cover and tagline. I pick it up, say “Hmm, this sounds good” and put it on a pile of books that, 30 minutes later, I have to decide which are keepers and which are save-for-laters. I was on the fence between two books, and this was one of them. Something told me to keep it…and it was the best decision of the year.
This book has…a romantic story. Suspense. Page-turning quality. Characters you love. Characters you want to scream at. Characters you just shake your head at. A mystery that you’re trying to solve from Page 1 to 320. (PS, I convinced my wife to read this right after I finished, and she figured out part of the mystery I didn’t, but missed the part that I figured out that I thought was obvious). And that sinking “Oh No” feeling you get in your stomach when you’re afraid of what’s going to happen? McKinnon takes you there…and then she drops multiple plot bombs on you in a matter of….ten pages. You’re trying to recover from the first, and there’s the second, then another. And another. At least five near the end. I couldn’t breathe by the time I finished. And I LOOOOVE that feeling! It is so hard for a book to make me do that. That and cry are the two things that a fantastic book should make you do, and McKinnon got me further than most authors who have tried (For the record, there’s less than 5 books that have ever made me cry). Yes, this book benefited from the fact that I had low expectations going in, but the writing quality blew the others out of the literary water (note: “Literary Water” is a dry pond because water is bad for books. Duh!).
I am forever grateful for McKinnon and “The Neighbors” for reminding me, more than any other book did this year, why I read. And driving that passion home for me with a stake to the Literary Heart .
(note: the metaphorical stake is plastic because nothing can harm your Literary Heart. Also – steak. Mmmm…)

Where Were You When…A Life’s Journey Through Books

So the beginning of this is going to be a little strange, but just go with it.

So I’m trying to lose about 15 pounds before the new baby comes in July. To do so, I need to change some dieting habits, i.e. drink less soda, consume less sugar. My problem is if work gets a little slow, I’ll eat and drink more, but I don’t eat healthy. I eat cookies, or food from McDonald’s, and I drink soda. A lot of it.

So this past Tuesday, the brilliant dietitian that I am, I decided I would eat cauliflower and drink water. Which, aside from going to the bathroom more frequently (which I hate!), it was working well…until about 7:oo that evening when someone started poking me with a million knives. It turns out eating an entire Ziploc bag of cauliflower may be healthier in theory, but it’s not going to make you FEEL better in the long run.

So of course I ended up doubled over in the bathroom. And I couldn’t help but be reminded back two years ago when I turned 30 and had to go through my first colonoscopy. And as anyone will tell you, the worst part about the colonoscopy is the preparation of cleaning yourself out the night before, which basically means drinking something that tastes like bathroom cleaner, but is really a powerful laxative that leaves you in the bathroom for hours on end.

And, this of course, reminded me of “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell for the simple reason that this was the book I was reading at the time, and I remember how powerful it was, and immediately upon finishing, I had to look up every other book she has written because one just wasn’t enough.

And this got me thinking about the power of books, and how they’re with you through the ups and downs of your lifetime.

Like when I was in my early twenties, and me and my best friend KG decided that after ten years of friendship, we would try dating. (But if I’m being honest, I mean KG finally decided she wanted to date me, because I had been trying that for years) And anyone who knows anything knows that when you date your best friend, it could go either extremely well, or extremely poor. And unfortunately, our courtship went sideways almost out of the gate, and was also the beginning of the end of our friendship as we started growing even further apart. It was also around Valentine’s Day and I was beyond devastated, reopening old wounds and thoughts that I would never find the one. Not sure I was ever going to get out of the abyss, I picked up “Bluesman” by Andre Dubus III, and almost immediately became engrossed in this coming-of-age story about a teenager in a different time period, but for some reason, the story resonated with me so personally in that moment, and I couldn’t have asked for a better story to get me moving again.

Before that was of course the Harry Potter craze, specifically JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” I was 22 at the time, fresh out of college, and temporarily living in Northern Virginia at the time, isolated from friends and family, but venturing out on my own, really for the first time (I don’t count college). I ordered the book through Amazon, waited for it to deliver around 10 am on a Saturday morning, and then I did nothing but read the entire day. This gargantuan, 800-900 page book, but I couldn’t put it down, because I needed to know what happened before the media floodgates broke and ruined the ending, and I finally finished around 7 or 8 that night, exhausted but relieved. Sometime in the afternoon, I chowed down on some fish sticks, but never put the book down.

I mean….Don’t You Just Frickin’ Love Books?! 

Of course, I won’t ever forget being 15 years old. My mom took me and my sister to Waldenbooks and we were each allowed to pick a book. And for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I was drawn to one in particular, “A Bend in the Road” by Nicholas Sparks, and I don’t remember ever devouring a book so quickly, and being a hopeless romantic who couldn’t get a date in high school, Sparks made my heart ache by describing love that I was missing. Sparks is also responsible for my own writing journey, as his ability to evoke deep emotions within me that I didn’t know existed, created my own personal desire to write and do the same for others.

Years later, my girlfriend’s mother would give me a book she thought I would enjoy. It was called “A Perfect Day” by Richard Paul Evans, and was the story of a writer who was just starting out, getting his first book published. Suffice it to say that Evans was successful in not only writing a great book, but hammering home the point that writing was exactly what I should be doing with my life.

This is only a small sampling. I could talk to you about “Every Day” by David Levithan, or The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Or we could beckon back even further to anything by Roald Dahl, RL Stine’s “Goosebumps” series, the quirky stylings of Dr. Seuss, particulary Marvin K Mooney, Will You Please Go Now and Green Eggs and Ham, which I read religiously every time we had to go to the doctor’s office. But my point in writing this blog is simple:

Books are always there for us.

Through good times and bad times, books are there. They let us forget about our troubles if for only a few hundred pages. They inspire us to be better people. They make us laugh when we don’t want to, cry when we really don’t want to. They help us to find what we’re looking for, when we didn’t even know we were looking for that particular thing. They connect us to others, and help open our eyes to events to which we were previously ignorant.

Why do I want to be a writer, you ask? Because of everything I just said. To inspire and help others in the same way countless authors did, and continue to do for me.

I have never been more sure of what I was meant to do.

 

 

“Holy Typos, Batman!”and Comparative Descriptions

Currently Reading: I finished Nicholas Sparks’ “Two by Two” this past Sunday. Awesome book, if you can get through the first 30 pages. They tend to lag on, but the rest of the book is pure joy. For the writers out there viewing this, have you ever heard the expression “Show, Don’t Tell,” which basically means use descriptive writing as opposed to just saying what happens? Well, the first 30 pages is a great example of telling, but not showing. Basically, it’s a whole bunch of paragraphs setting up the book, but rather than sitting you in the middle of a scene, it’s the narrator basically droning on about his life, but not actually telling you anything of substance. I thought this part was unnecessary. The rest of the book though? Typical Sparks. And I totally mean that in a good way if you enjoy his writing.

But Wow….talk about typos!! I have never seen anything like this in a Sparks book. Missed punctuation here, “he” instead of “she” there. At one point on page 438, it reads, “Monday was London’s last day of school before Winter Break.” Then on page 440: “Tuesday, London’s last day of Winter Break.” Dude, which is it?? I re-read those two pages four or five times, trying to decipher if I was misreading it, but I don’t think I was. Pretty unbelievable considering this isn’t a first-time writer at a dinky publisher, but instead a well-established author with a rich history of best sellers (including this one). Some of this falls on the author, sure, but grievances like this generally belong to the editor/publisher, I assume.

Now I’m onto “The Girl With All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey. I’m enjoying it so far as I’ve already eclipsed 150 pages in less than two days. Carey is actually a pen name, but the writer himself has a history of work for Marvel and DC Comics, among other publications. The fact that Carey is a seasoned veteran is obvious. I’m particularly impressed with his descriptive writing. I’m jealous of his use of what I like to call Comparative Descriptions. Example: “Seventy miles of England’s green and pleasant land, all gone to the hungries and as safe to wander in as it would be to dance a mazurka in a minefield.” Now, have I ever heard of the Mazurka? No, but the sentence is constructed in a way that I don’t have to.

If you’re interested, “The Girl With All the Gifts” is a post-apocalyptic story, set in what was once London, but is now overrun by Hungries (think Zombies), as the few human survivors try and find a cure. The titular Girl is a child zombie, waffling between her Hungrian instincts and her love of the humans, especially one in particular, her teacher Helen Justineau. I’m excited to see how it turns out.

On a sidenote: My wife J asked (I’m hoping in jest) if “The Girl With All the Gifts” is the sister of “The Girl on the Train” and if both of these girls are the daughters of “The Woman in Cabin 10.” I’m gonna go ahead and say, um, no.

Currently Writing: Wednesday is my best night to write, as J is prepping for a 5K this weekend with her mom, and they like to stroll our son E around the neighborhood while they power walk. So tonight should give me a solid 60-90 minutes to write. This will likely include some editing, but hopefully I can get into one of the short non-fiction pieces I’d like to explore that I mentioned in my last post. Also, I’m still waiting on a couple books that I ordered from Amazon, that I hope will assist me in successfully building my platform.

Distractions? Saturday was my first Auction Experience, as we visited my uncle’s auction house in the morning. J bid $2.00, and won a cookie jar. I got a set of wrenches for $12.50. All in all, I would call it a successful first venture. Let me just say that Auctions, Bingo Halls, and Yard Sales definitely bring out a unique group of individuals, and I’ll leave it at that. Sunday was football-stupid Eagles cost me valuable sleep because of poor coaching-and Monday, we strolled around my sister’s neighborhood with our son dressed as a bluebird. He was quite the trooper for being only 379 days old, but the candy selection itself was disappointing. I mean, seriously, applesauce??? Come on, people!! Bring on the giant chocolate bars, and gummy candies. Halloween is about creating cavities, not eating mushy fruit!! Oh well. Maybe next year.

Until next time, Keep Reading! My beard will be longer the next time I post as it is officially No-Shave November. You’ll just have to take my word on that.
-MP

When to Introduce “The Event,” and Building Your Platform

Currently Reading: So I’m 240 pages into “Two by Two” by Nicholas Sparks, a tantalizing average of about 120 words per day. If this pace continues, I could read an average book in about 3 days, which would translate to approximately 120 books per year. How awesome would that be?!? Unfortunately, this pace will not continue (see: Life, cross reference: Shit Happens). What can I attribute to the current blistering speed? Two things. 1)Nicholas Sparks is one of my all time favorite authors. Probably top two, running neck and neck with Richard Paul Evans. He creates characters that you remember when you put the book down, and you find yourself daydreaming about the world when you’re supposed to be working. He was the first writer that made me want to write books. He also writes the type of books that I find myself drawn to writing – both he and Evans are often categorized into Women’s Fiction, but oddly I’m OK with reading books from a writer that caters mostly to women readers.

2) I’m in a good rotation at work right now. Let me explain. So even though my job title mentions nothing about customer service, essentially that is what I do: take payments from customers whose utilities are powered by the city itself. My job rotates into 3 stations on a monthly basis: two inside the lobby and one in the drive thru. Station 1 in the Lobby’s main task is to wait on all the customers that walk in the door. Also, they are secondary to answering the phones that ring non stop. Station 2 in the Lobby’s main task is being primary on the phones, as well as processing all incoming mail payments, which on Mondays turns into a giant shit show of busyness that starts around 7:40 and doesn’t let up until after 4. Needless to say, I hate this rotation the most. Station 3 in the Drive Thru’s main task is to wait on the customers who do not want to get out of their cars and prefer quick, wait-free service. Also, the drive thru station is located on the other side of the building, isolated from everyone, so it’s just you, a tiny enclosed room, and the radio. Can you guess which I love the most? So when the customers don’t come to the drive-thru and the phone isn’t ringing off the hook (yes, I’m still required to answer the phone there), I’m able to read, something not afforded in either of the other two stations. So if your work is caught up inside, you sit and stare at the wall waiting for a customer. In the drive thru, the head honchos aren’t around to spy and make sure you don’t look bored. So I read, and read a lot. Hence my progress.

“Two by Two” is one of Sparks’ best books in my opinion, but I’m surprised at how long it took to reach The Event. The Event is what occurs in every book (child goes missing, dead body turns up, etc.), and is usually mentioned in the book jacket when describing said book. Typically, The Event occurs in the first 50 pages and the rest of the book depicts the aftermath. But in “Two by Two,” I didn’t hit The Event until about page 220. It made me question whether or not I misread the book’s description or, at the very least, misinterpreted it. It’s just unheard of to be 50% into a book and wondering when something is going to occur that you’ve been waiting for since Page 1. In any event, as a Wannabe Writer, it’s good for me to see different ways to approach The Event and decide what works best for me and my novel.

The fun thing now about reading an author you’ve already read at least 15 times, you develop a fun game in predicting the outcome of the rest of the book. I’ll let you know if I was right or not.

Currently Writing: On Tuesday, I looked into a small, local publisher as perhaps a venue to launch my novel “Off the Record” that I completed several years ago. Upon investigating their submission form, I realized it was more complicated than I thought. I assumed it’d be a quick query letter and submitting a pdf file. Instead, there are in-depth questions regarding BISAC codes and whether or not you have your own publicist. I’ve decided I need to do a better job of building my platform. So on Tuesday, I found some books I wanted to read because right now, my online presence/platform is non-existent, and that is not good. In addition, I want to really think about my answers to these questions, because I probably have one shot with this publisher. So that’s where I stand right now: working on building my platform, which likely will include some redesigns to this blog. But don’t worry! I’ll still be bloggin’. I’ll also be editing/rewriting “Off the Record” as it stands, as well as editing/writing/rewriting another story I’m looking to publish. In addition, I recently thought of some short non-ficiton pieces I’d like to put to paper and see what they look like, because I think they have a potential viewership in the online market as well. So that’s what will be happening in the near future.

Distractions: None. Can you believe that? Ok, so it’s probably a lie. But I don’t consider “spending time with my family” a distraction. On Monday, we  visited a raggedy Pumpkin Patch because my wife J insisted on finding a pumpkin to carve for our 1-year old son E who will never remember this experience except by the endless pictures J decides to take, which will inevitably include several unflattering shots of Yours Truly that I hope don’t find their way onto any Social Media outlets. But who am I kidding? I actually enjoy carving the pumpkin. I love the smell of the inside once you cut the top off, and I love how slimy the seeds and innards are when you squish them between your fingers.

And because I love this, I was willing to drive out of my way on Monday afternoon in the cold and windy conditions; park my precious Rogue into a shady field; push my son’s stroller over a rickety, dirt path into a patch that looks like it’s where pumpkins go to die; ;carefully step over the broken pumpkins into uncharted territory that probably includes bugs that will eat at my sweet skin, while my wife and son wait patiently in the safe part of the patch; rip the only decent looking pumpkin off the vine with my bare hands like the Hulk because I don’t have tools, all the while pricking my fingers; drag the 10 lber back across said patch and hope that I don’t fall onto my face; kneel down so I can pose in the Patch of Horrors with my son; pose again because J didn’t like the light in picture 1; pose again because E moved slightly in Picture 2 (have I mentioned J is a P.P. -Photographing Perfectionist?); and then pay $12.00 dollars for The Experience of a Lifetime. J insists these will be memories we cherish lately, and really who am I to argue?

…but then again, $12 could have bought me a new paperback….damn.

Until Next Time, Keep Reading!!
-MP

 

The Last 48 Days

Currently Reading: Well, I finally finished “A Man Called Ove” (hopefully, right? It’s only been a month and a half!). I was pleasantly surprised; however, the ending did drag a little bit, and was also kind of predictable. Still, I like Backman’s writing style, would recommend this book, and would certainly read another one – he has at least two other published books out already.

After finishing “Ove,” I blew through “Love and Gelato” by Jenna Evans Welch. I was hesitant to read this book because of my own stubbornness: Jenna is the daughter of well-known author, Richard Paul Evans. The elder Evans is one of my favorite authors. Ever. I had a feeling this book would be good, but a nagging question ate at me: would “Love and Gelato” ever have been published if her father wasn’t well-documented? After all, her agent, Laurie Liss, is the same agent that represents Richard Paul Evans. What bothers me about this is what this means to me: sometimes, the book that gets published isn’t the best book, but it’s written by the person that has the “In.” It’s the same reason I’m bothered when I see a book by Joe Hill in prime position on a bookstore shelf. And it dates back to my high school years, when the “best athletes” on your high school teams were the ones who had parents that were well known within the community, not the ones with the most talent. It’s the harsh reality that Publishing is a business, and sometimes, it’s all about Who You Know. And unfortunately, I don’t know many people in the publishing business. I didn’t stay in touch with my writing professors from college, at least two of whom that have been published. But even if I did stay in good contact with them, is that how I wish to be successful? By piggy-backing the success of others? I don’t know. But it would certainly make my life a lot easier than it currently is.

Now wait!! Don’t get me wrong! This “Rant of the Slain” as I like to call the above paragraph does not in any way diminish the quality of “Love and Gelato” by Mrs. Welch. The book is a phenomenal YA read and makes me want to jet on over to Italy pronto (Wait, is that word even Italian? Ah, who knows). Welch has created characters that you remember when you shut the book. Characters that you think about while you’re at work. She’s created a world that parallels your own, a world you’d like to escape into, and are more than happy to dive into once the workday is over. That, folks, is damn good writing. Her father has that talent, and clearly she does too. “Love and Gelato” is a book not to be missed, and I love that you don’t have to be an 18-year old girl to enjoy it, even if the main character is. The only downfall is that “Love and Gelato” is Welch’s first book to be published, so we will have to wait awhile to read another.

Next on the reading list: “Two by Two” by another of my favorite writers, Nicholas Sparks. I read recently that Sparks’ movie production company has shut down, so “The Choice” may in fact be the last book brought to the Big Screen. This is truly a shame, because even though “The Choice” performed poorer compared to other Sparks’ blockbusters, it was one of the better adaptations, staying truer to the book than even its successful predecessors, “The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “Walk to Remember” and “The Best of Me” just to name a few.

Currently Writing: Well, not much, unfortunately. However, my brain has not stopped working, as I have thought up two more ideas (one being a screenplay I’d like to try someday), as well as the opening line of a novel that I thought up while eating dinner, though I don’t know the story behind that line yet.Here’s my problem: the ability to focus. I have several ideas up in the ol’ noggin that I’d like to put on paper, but I don’t know which to devote the majority of my free time to, and even when I decide where to place my focus, several other ideas jump into my head, and I don’t want to lose them, so I feel I need to get as much information about said idea down on paper before it escapes me. Does anyone else have this problem? It’s like Author A.D.D., but I’m pretty sure no good doctor on earth will write me a prescription to cure this. Maybe I just need to cut back on caffeine?

Distractions That Prevented Healthy Writing: Well, in a word? Me! I haven’t been my best writing self in the last 45 days. Saturday the 22nd was my birthday, and I took the next two business days (Monday and Today) off, and am finally able to sit down and do a little blogging/writing.

However, if I wanted you to feel sorry for me, I would tell you that work is a tough distraction. I work in Customer Service and more often than not, I’ll have a day where someone comes in and yells or complains about how bad city government is, and that their electric bill is way too damned expensive, and that they should be able to pay it later than 3 weeks past their due date, and we’re just cruel and hateful people because we shut off their service for lack of payment. And what is my allowed response? Smile and Nod. They call you a name? Smile and Nod. They swear? Smile and Nod.

Now look, folks. I…LOVE people! Why do you think I want to write these books and do this full time? So people can read them, enjoy them, and escape from the problems in their own life like I do when I read a good book. But working in customer service is tough. It wears. You. Down. When you come home dejected and devoid of energy, how do you muster the courage to write productive pages that aren’t just sad and angry gibberish? Too often, I come home and crash in front of the television, thankful just to be at home with people that love me, rather than at work dealing with people who, well, don’t exactly care about my well being.

I’m a tough guy, though. Don’t worry about my state of mind. But if you read this, I wouldn’t mind if you sent good thoughts my way, ESP-style, encouraging me to come home and find the energy to write, write, write! That’s the only way I’m going to change the world, right?

Until Next Time – and I promise it will be less than 48 days – KEEP READING!!
-mp

Moving Forward: Pulling Success From the Clutches of Failure

Happy Almost 4th of July to you and your families! Are you eating burgers? Dogs? See any fireworks yet? Well, I hope it’s glorious when you do!

Let’s start off with the bad news: my short story “The 9 Lives of Jay Catsby” was not selected by voters as one of the Top 25 to be voted on to be published in a collection later this year. I can’t say I’m surprised. Because I was not a long time member at Wattpad when the contest started, I did not have a following, and therefore could not muster up the votes, despite blog pleas and several tweets mentioning the vote. It was always going to be a long shot at best.

But still, I’m quite disappointed. I saw this as a golden opportunity to achieve a goal of mine. Because I frequent Target stores a lot and saw the poster indicating the contest, I thought it was, as they say, written in the stars. Meant to be. I work forty hours a week. I have a family that I enjoy spending time with, so my opportunities to fully immerse myself in writing are limited. (Yes, I know. If I truly want this, I wouldn’t make excuses, but if you have a family, you understand the sacrifices one has to make in order to write and hold a full-time job). So I naturally saw this as something I was supposed to do to achieve success. A sign. (Sidenote: I’m very pessimistic until an opportunity comes along, and then I dream big. Very big.).

But alas, I was mistaken. It was just another life lesson for me. Another due that I had to pay as a writer before my big break comes along, if it ever does.

But let’s focus on the positives. The good news: I started and finished a writing project of mine! At all times, there are approximately 9,000 ideas floating around in my brain, just waiting to be put on paper to see what they look like, but usually they just bang against each other like rocks in space because I don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time. But my brain not only gave birth to this idea, my fingers ran with the idea, putting down on paper, finishing it, editing it, and submitting it. Rarely does this happen. So this is a huge step for me. Anytime I complete a project related to writing, I can not view it as a failure, even if the end goal is not reached.

I don’t plan to stop here either. There’s more than one way to get a short story published. I have a finished project, a great short story, and it’s just a matter of making someone else believe it’s good. I haven’t had much luck in that department yet, but maybe that just means my luck is about to change.

A huge thank you to my wife, who is the hero of this story. She understands how important writing is in my life, how desperate I am to be published, how much I struggle on a daily basis not doing what I love. She took the reins of the house, left me the time to write, gave me the time I needed to get this project done. I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s my rock. Any I success I achieve in writing is only success if it includes her, because I am able to do what I do because of her.

Congrats to the 25 stories who did receive the necessary votes, and are eligible to be one of the ten finalists to be published later this year! I, more than anyone else, understand how hard of a step this is to achieve. To those who, like me, did not make the top 25: don’t give up. Use this as an opportunity to find other avenues to achieve publication. That’s what I aim to do.

Until Next Time. Keep Reading!
-MP

 

My Journey…So Far

I want you to know where I came from and why writing is so important to me.

I don’t know for sure, but it started in third grade. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Shilling, had us write creative stories on green-lined construction paper. We would write stories about the Amazon rain forest. I would fill 20-30 sheets of paper while some of my classmates struggled to fill five. (Note: Considering I think each sheet probably held about two sentences because of how big kids write, it probably amounted to maybe 3 typed pages? Maybe. But still.) Writing came natural to me. But you know what the best part was? When we read the stories to our classmates, and to hear them laugh and be amazed. I can still remember that, how fun it was to know readers were enthralled by something I did. In 5th grade, I wrote another story about Sheldon, a turtle who dreamed about being a limousine driver, but he was extremely fat, so he went on a diet of only salads, but eventually turned into a salad. It was even illustrated, albeit poorly, by yours truly. I still have that story. I pull it out every now and then and reminisce.

Then middle school happened, and junior high and high school. And what happened then? Puberty. Acne. No dates. An obsession with girls who did not reciprocate my feelings. A drain on my self confidence.

Did I write during this time? You betcha, but it was mostly self-loathing entries about how terrible life was, and how I was obsessed with this girl and I was pretty sure she was the love of my life. And then a couple months later, I would write the same entry, only it would be about a different girl. And the reason I call them “self loathing entries” is because I loathe myself every time I re-read this. Kind of a “What the hell were you thinking?” type of entry.

Then in tenth grade, something happened. I started writing again. Not “Dear Diary” style, but actual fiction. I wrote a poem about a cow who didn’t moo and was therefore mocked by society. (It was ahead of its time, clearly, but brilliant nonetheless) I wrote a short story, I wrote a murder-mystery play that was briefly available online for purchase (or so I was told). Something wonderful was reignited inside of me, something that had been dormant for 5 years, but was now active and hungrier than ever.

I continued to write. I took a creative writing class, I wrote for the school writing collection and submitted several pieces. I knew writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I even bought a book, Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents because it was recommended to me by one of my favorite authors of the time, Nicholas Sparks. I wanted to write love stories like him. (I figured my obsessive longing for females with my diary entries gave me the edge to do this) I was convinced I wanted to write for a living, I applied to two colleges, Pitt-Johnstown and Susquehanna University. Susquehanna was a campus built around trees and lush greenery, with squirrels running around. It also had a dedicated writing program. Pitt-Johnstown did not. Case closed.

When I was accepted into Susquehanna University’s writing program, I assumed it meant I was a big deal, that Susquehanna rejected hundreds of curious writers and accepted only the best of the best. Boy was I dumb. I’m pretty sure everyone was accepted. The first college writing class I took was Intro to Poetry, with mostly upper-classmen. Let me tell you three things about me and poetry: 1) I can’t write poetry save for one epic Cow poem, 2) I don’t enjoy reading poetry except for a few sonnets here and there, and 3) I’m awful at dissecting poetry–meanings, rhyme schemes, verse, etc. Somehow I managed to pull a B in the class.

I eventually got into fiction classes and felt more in my element. But I soon realized something that the naive, wide-eyed high schooler who figured he’d have his first novel published in his early twenties didn’t know: writing is extremely subjective. And my professor, a published author himself, stories that spoke to him. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything in the class, but the momentum that had carried me through high school hit a giant brick wall in college. Suddenly my stories were not beloved. They were criticized, picked apart by eager peers wanting to impress teacher. They would repeat phrases that the professor spoke in class, probably oblivious to its actual meanings. My confidence shattered quicker than dropped glass. I became hardened, bitter, angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated. In a way, it sucked. But in a way, it was good to hear: most writers don’t get published in their twenties, if ever. The hard dose of reality was demoralizing, but I know it was also necessary.

Senior year of college, something strange happened. I took a novel class and…the professor didn’t hate it! It was a story about a freshman baseball player who was secretly using steroids to help his game. Steroids in pros were starting to become a major things at this point. “Juiced” by Jose Canseco was big, and Barry Bonds was shattering records with a body that looked nothing like it did in his Pirate days. It was a relevant story, and the professor gave more positive feedback than negative. Perhaps he was just running out my clock, pushing me through the door with a boost of confidence after shattering it for the past four years. Perhaps he actually liked it. I’ll never know for sure. I graduated before I finished.

With four years of student loans in front of me, I took the first job I could find as a bookseller at the local mall. The pay was shit, I worked nights and weekends, but I didn’t have a girlfriend or a life, so it fit well. And I was working with books! If the pay had been higher, I could have seen it as a career track. During this time, I finished that baseball novel at around 103,00 words, edited it, and tried to find an agent. I didn’t find one. Meanwhile, after 13 months selling books, I found a better paying job in banking. I continued to write, although sparingly, dated my wife, married my wife, moved out of my parent’s house, got a cat, bought a house, got a dog, knocked up said wife.

Then disaster struck. The bank where I had clawed and worked my way up over 7 years was bought by a bigger bank and I lost my job. Meanwhile, my pregnant wife gave birth to our baby boy three weeks early. He had Respiratory Stress Syndrome and spent 10 days in the NICU in York, where I spent my 31st birthday.An occasion that was supposed to be joyous became chaotic and stressful. When my healthy son turned one month old, right before Thanksgiving, I worked my last day at the bank. I was unemployed for five months, and in that time, while raising my son, I found an old friend: writing.

A story had been brewing in my mind for a while, a children’s Christmas story that I began writing. Over the span of a few months, I nearly finished it. I shopped it to one agent who–surprise surprise–never responded. But I plan on shopping it more very soon.

My writing life has gotten back on track. I’m writing more, I just entered a shorty story of mine called “The Nine Lives of Jay Catsby” in a contest with Wattpad, and I started this blog with a pen name I hope to use with my published works someday.

There are two lessons in all of this. One, writing is subjective. I guarantee if I presented a novel of mine called “Fifty Shades of My Grey” to my college professor and peers, it would have been beaten down to a pile of shit because of how terrible it was. Just because what you write doesn’t appeal to a certain room, it doesn’t mean it’s awful. It’s like fishing: You just need a wider net. Two, Never Give Up. My son spent ten days in the NICU, I lost my job at the worst time. But I’m still standing. No matter what is going on in your life, whether it’s trying to publish a story or getting through a tough time, never give up. 

Thanks for reading, and Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there!
-MP