Category Archives: Uncategorized

Progress Report on Book III

Beta-read is complete and Book III is drafted and off to be copyedited.  Title has been chosen.  The cover is designed (although not yet revealed).  Narrator for the audiobook has been identified.  Ads are being designed and scheduled. Still to be come: selection of ISBNs, interior layout, audiobook narration and pricing.  Current projection for publication (he says with fingers crossed):  Early May.

Share this article:

The Muse and Me

So, there is a muse. I know, I know, it was news to me, too.  I had always thought writers were referring to a person who inspired them not some mythical power that guides our hands as we put words on a page.

But she does exist.  In hindsight I had seen glimpses of her influence throughout my life.  A short story in high school that so surprised my English teacher that he read it aloud to the class, a term paper in college that seemed to write itself, an op/ed column I wrote under deadline when I wasn’t really sure what an op/ed column was.  These moments persisted throughout my career but I shrugged them off as just good fortune.

As someone who avoided college courses if they required papers over ten pages long, I was surprised to find myself in jobs that demanded a substantial amount of writing, first as a press secretary, then as a newspaper columnist, and finally as a PR professional.  I put in my ten thousand hours and knew I could compose a good sentence or two, but I would be lying if I thought it was anything close to inspired.

Curious to see if I could write fiction, I set aside one afternoon to try my hand at the story which would become the basis for “The Carolingian Chronicles.”  I hadn’t done any research and didn’t have a plot.  I just wanted to attempt creating a scene to set the stage between my protagonist (Charlemagne) and my antagonist Childeric (the last of the Merovingian kings).  I made one good and one evil and began to write.

I stumbled along for a half hour or so trying to define a time and place.  I put Charlemagne and his father outside hawking and Childeric inside the throne room.  I introduced an envoy from the Church to Childeric and …

Three hours later I looked up.  It was dark outside.  I felt like I’d been drugged.  I barely remembered writing the dozen pages before me.  Worse, when I read the pages, I was shocked at how depraved they were.  I couldn’t believe what I’d written. Embarrassed, I slammed down the cover to my computer and refused to look at the story again.  I began to worry about my mental make-up and what such debauched thinking could mean about me.

It took me years before I unraveled what had happened. I had created an evil character and had let that character drive the story.  It was almost as if I was along for the ride.  At every turn, he took the tale to a very debased place.  It’s what evil characters do when given half a chance.

I’ve since learned to set better guardrails for my characters so they no longer run amok with my storytelling.  It helps that my characters are based on historical figures.  I try to imbue them with attributes that explain the choices they made in history.  Long before I put fingers on a keyboard, I spend hours envisioning them as real people with complicated life stories and nuanced world views.  I never define a character as good or evil as I don’t know anyone who can be described that way.

But, once those parameters are established, the ride is still very much the same. The muse swoops in and words seem to appear on the page as if by magic.  Hours fly by in moments.  Dialogue sizzles in ways I don’t anticipate as the characters interact.  The story takes unexpected leaps and turns that surprise me.  It’s almost like I’m reading the novel myself rather than writing it.

One recent example: To flesh out a character’s back story in Book II of the “Chronicles,” I created a religious sect devoted to “justice.”  In writing the scene, the character referred to it as “the dark path.”  I didn’t like the term as it felt Satanic, so, I changed it to the “iron path” in the next draft.  I still wasn’t happy and went back and forth with it in editing.  Finally, unable to decide, I left it where it started.  Two years later, while finishing Book III, I discovered why it was called the dark path – it was an “aha” moment that resolved several themes I’d been working through and helped to pull the whole third novel together.

Not sure I can take credit for such foresight.  It had to be the muse.

Share this article:

Singing Lessons

When I was ten, I went to singing camp. As much as that may surprise some, it’s true. My elementary school music teacher recommended that my parents send me to the Columbus Boys’ Choir camp in Princeton, New Jersey.
Back in the day, the Columbus Boys’ Choir was a prestigious boarding school for musically inclined children. A Julliard-type affair for fourth through eighth graders, their touring choir performed all around the world, including venues like the Boston, New York, and Berlin Philharmonics. Unbeknownst to me, the camp was how one auditioned for the school.
And so, one morning in the heat of the New York summer, I was packed away and driven to Princeton. The school was what you might imagine, a stately brick structure with practice rooms and performance halls. The camp was held on the grounds outside where the eighty or so campers were housed in cabins.
My cabin was the last one of ten on the right. It was a small structure made to house eight bunk beds and a cot for a counselor. Its front wall was made mostly of screen, so we had the feeling we were always outside. My dad walked me inside to get me settled and stowed my trunk at the foot of my bed. To that point in my life, I had never been away from home and I was more than a little scared. He kissed me on the head and asked if I was all right. I nodded and watched him walk away. I suddenly felt very much alone.
I cried for half the first night as did the boy in the bunk next to me. In the morning we sheepishly introduced ourselves. His name was Ben. A full head shorter than me, he was a soft-spoken, gentle kid. We decided we should be friends.
We were a bit of an odd couple. I was – even then – a bit of a jock while Ben was not. But we liked each other and had no one else, so for the next few weeks we were pals.
Most of our days were spent rehearsing, usually for up to six hours a day. We did other campy things of course, horseback riding, archery, shuffleboard and the like. But it was mostly singing or, for those who played instruments, practicing their craft. I learned a lot about controlling my voice, harmonizing, and integrating it with others.
When we weren’t practicing, Ben and I would kick around the camp for the other organized activities. I always excelled at these, outperforming Ben at every turn. He didn’t seem to care about that, he just liked hanging out. As for me, it made me feel very good to be the best at everything.
One day we were playing shuffleboard. Looking up at the triangle at the other end of the board, I realized I was losing. Counting up the score, I figured out that if I didn’t snag a ten with one of my last two pucks I would lose. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t lose. Especially not to Ben.
“Wait a minute,” I said, frowning. “I need to check something out.” We walked down to the other end of the shuffleboard court. Without Ben seeing it, I dragged one of my pucks with me to the other end and placed it on the ten. Satisfied that it would suffice, I led Ben back; we shuffled our last shots, and low and behold, I won. My spotless record still intact, I walked over to the camp counselor to report our scores.
“I won,” I preened.
“No, you didn’t; Ben won.” The counselor looked me squarely in the eye. “Now are you going to tell him, or should I?”
In that moment, the bottom fell out of my world. Everything I thought about myself fell apart. You see, in addition to being very proud of my ten-year-old athletic status, I always had thought of myself as being a “good guy.” So not only did I lose the match; I lost who I was. I had cheated. And, worse, I had cheated the only friend I had.
I bowed my head, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks. “I’ll do it.” I walked away, shame wracking my ten-year-old body.
“What does he mean, Joe?” Ben asked, following me. “What’s going on?”
I knew what the words were, I just couldn’t bring myself to say them.
“What is it?” I could hear the panic in Ben’s voice. He didn’t know why I was acting so strangely.
“I cheated.” I couldn’t even look at him. “I dragged one of my pucks and placed it on the ten.”
Ben’s face reddened while he thought about this. Eventually, he said, “It’s okay.”
But, it wasn’t. Although we remained friends, it was different. I was different. It took me several days to look him in the eye. I had lost my self-assurance. I was no longer the boy I had thought I was. And I knew I wasn’t worthy of our friendship.
When we got to the end of camp, our parents arrived to pick us up. The school treated them to a performance showcasing the many talents we had honed at camp. The choir performed a number of intricate songs designed for choirs and I have to admit, we were pitch perfect.
When we had finished, however, the instructor announced a “special treat.” He introduced “young Ben Pasternack” and to my surprise, my buddy Ben walked to the stage and sat down at a piano that dwarfed his frame.
He raised his small hands for a short pregnant pause and then he hammered them down on the keys like lightning. It was like watching Mozart as a child. His fingers flew up and down the keyboard, incredibly sure of every note. He didn’t have a score in front of him, he just played and played and played. Everyone there was astounded. I’ve never seen anything like it, even to this day. He was amazing.
Thinking back on it, I suppose that Ben didn’t need to win at shuffleboard. He was already the best at the one thing he cared about. I, on the other hand, wasn’t really that good at anything. Not even shuffleboard. And certainly not at being a good guy, much less a friend.
I wish I could say that after that moment I never again fell short of my expectations. I have failed myself and others many times. And the good person I’ve tried to be always seems to be a work in progress. But hopefully, in the end, my reach won’t exceed my grasp.
As for Ben, I never saw him again. But if I could, I’d like to tell I’m sorry and thank him for being such a good friend when we were ten. He was a really good guy.
Share this article:

Who to blame for our political unrest? Try Jefferson

If you are looking for someone to blame for the divisiveness, acrimony, and civil unrest in today’s politics, blame Jefferson.

Had the founding father not written his immortal words in the Declaration of Independence, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the mess we’re in today.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In its historical context, it’s a breathtaking statement. Throughout most of history equality didn’t exist; the rich and powerful ruled and everyone else served. And, courtesy of the Catholic Church, they claimed a divine right to do so for well over a thousand years. No one considered those words let alone spoke them aloud, especially not to a king.

Philosopher John Locke had penned the phrase “life, liberty, and property,” but the pursuit of happiness? That was Jefferson lifting his middle finger to the power of any state to define the dreams of citizens.

But the pursuit of happiness? That was Jefferson lifting his middle finger to the power of any state to define the dreams of citizens.

His declaration became a clarion call for the oppressed everywhere and inspired revolutions that toppled monarchies across the globe. Throughout history people have thronged to our shores because of the promise embedded in those words.

The operative word in that sentence is “promise.” The founders knew the concept of equality was aspirational and eighty-nine years later, Lincoln affirmed it when called us “…a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Nearly two hundred and fifty years of experience shows that we have yet to live up to that dedication. Our history is stained with slavery, segregation, racism, sexism, and religious tyranny. They all have coexisted with our grand experiment.

At the same time, Jefferson’s words continuously call us to higher ground. It took a civil war to emancipate African Americans — and our nation — from slavery. It took one hundred and forty-four years to grant women the right to vote. Both demonstrated what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” but also showed how agonizingly slow our progress towards equality actually was.

In the last sixty years, however, the American experiment has begun to bear fruit.

We ended state-sponsored segregation; we allowed the races to intermarry; we gave women control over their own bodies, their own finances and allowed them to pursue careers like their male counterparts; We championed the rights of the LGBTQ communities to pursue happiness just like the rest of us. We’ve begun to take measures (albeit slowly) to provide the diversity of our population with an equal opportunity to obtain justice, engage in society, and compete in our economy.

It’s a lot for such a short period of time, and we’re feeling the growing pains of continuous change. We struggle with how far our laws should go, and where the boundaries now are for our collective social mores. The MeToo movement led us to reexamine what are acceptable behaviors between men and women and we’re learning new language to account for sexual identity and preference. Like the argument over Miss, Mrs. and Ms., we’re debating whether or not “they” might be an option for “he and she.”

The murder of George Floyd has forced us to address the racial injustice embedded in our judicial system (albeit slowly) and we’ve begun to scour our business practices, institutions, and social media algorithms to weed out bias in their application.

There’s no guidebook for such rapid social change. And, of course, there is resistance. You can’t change the way the world has worked for two hundred and fifty years and expect everyone to be pleased. People have begun to tire of “wokeness,” being politically correct, and dealing with pronouns.

Behind this exhaustion over continuous change, however, is a more organized effort at resistance. The recent rise of nationalism (both white and Christian) is fueled by their fear of losing their traditional role in dictating the terms of equality and what constitutes the pursuit of happiness. The white nationalist “replacement theory” is a fear-based screed about the loss of power due to the growth of minority and immigrant populations. Christianity’s fifty-year campaign to rescind women’s rights over their own bodies is also a case in point. And if you read Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion, you know they are not finished.

As a nation we will hash this out at the ballot box for years to come. But ultimately, I believe the better angels of our nature will prevail. Jefferson’s words don’t allow for compromise. We either are created equal or we’re not. We either have those inalienable rights or we do not. The words force us to continually examine the norms by which we live to see if we practice what we, and our nation, preach. We can’t afford to back away from them. They are what makes America great. They always have been.

Blame Jefferson.

Share this article:

Dune Discovery

With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Dune, I’m thrown back to a time when I met the novel’s author, Frank Herbert. Once named the best-selling fiction novel in the world, Dune won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for science fiction and placed Herbert among the pantheon of science fiction authors like Asimov, Heinlein and Tolkien.

I was then a young upwardly mobile professional and there still existed a Borders Bookstore chain. I used to spend my lunch hour there combing through new releases and haunting the Middle Ages history aisle.

One day I noticed a display in the window of God Emperor of Dune. As a devoted (and huge) fan of the Dune trilogy, the book was a surprise to me. Herbert had already completed his trilogy with Children of Dune and Dune Messiah. No one expected a fourth book.

I hurried inside and found the book, (oddly in paperback) and scooped up a copy. It was then that I saw, sitting by himself at a card table in the corner, an elderly man with a white beard.

“You’re Frank Herbert,” I said.

“I am.”

I froze, unsure of what to do next. As the sweat beaded on my forehead, I grabbed one of the copies and held it out to him.

“I believe you are supposed to buy it first,” he replied. Embarrassed, I took it back, ran to the front desk and paid for the copy.

When I returned, he smiled and asked who it should be dedicated to. I hadn’t considered that. I blurted out, “me” wondering if that was appropriate. I’d never been to a book signing. Was there a protocol to these things? Would it be better to suggest someone else?

There was no one around. We had the bookstore largely to ourselves and I wish I had had the nerve to strike up a conversation and ask him the hundreds of questions I have thought up since then. But, in my tongue-tied youth, all I could come up with at the time was a feeble, “thanks” and that was it. I’ve regretted the lost opportunity – and cherished the memory – ever since.

Share this article: