Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Freeway State of Mind

               A friend of mine who lives outside of Los Angeles asked me why Angelinos are all so obsessed with the freeways. After all, we talk about them, we put them in our movies, and of course we write about them.
               I’ve been writing about L.A. and the freeway system my whole career, and I’ve developed theories about them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am a little obsessed with them.
               Let me be clear. Everyone in Los Angeles hates the freeways. They’re horrible. But they also define us.

               They are what make us what we are. Without them, we would be a much friendlier place. Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities described the basic problem of L.A. perfectly. We are really a number of communities that have kind of all grown together.
               Most of these were orchard communities.
               Land developers realized that houses were more valuable than trees and so bedroom communities began to spring up. Since this happened after the advent of the automobile, people could live one place and commute into work.
               So now we have freeways.
               All of this created the Los Angeles phenomenon of the single use area. People live one place, commute to work someplace else, and commute to entertain themselves in a third place.
               But another phenomenon has risen because of it. So many cities in the world have a kind of city center around which the community grows and helps to define the community.
               The city center of Los Angeles is the freeway. We are growing around it rather than growing around a centralized downtown experience, and in fact because of this, different towns become strangely united. People who normally would go to Claremont for entertainment will feel equally comfortable in Pasadena and parts of Long Beach even though these areas are miles and miles distant.
               They will pass by Duarte on their way from Claremont to Pasadena never considering stopping, and it could be argued that Pomona is culturally closer to Montebello than Walnut even though they are next door neighbors.

               The result is a great deal of unfriendliness.
               It’s easy for me to get to areas in town where people like me live and congregate, so I never bother to get to know my neighbors.
               On one side of my house a police officer and his family live. These are interesting people who always seem to be laughing and having a good time. Aside from waving at them, I’ve never had contact with them. On the other side of my house lives an immigrant from somewhere. I’m not sure where. He’s obsessed with gardening and Asian art. On trash day, he brings in the trash cans for everyone on the street, and every once in a while he’ll bring my newspaper to my door step leaving a coin for luck underneath it.
               Why haven’t I gotten to know him?
               Because it’s easy to get on the freeway and drive down to Long Beach where I know I’ll have good time with my friends. The ease of those relationships makes the work of getting to know my neighbors unnecessary.
               The result is that we spend hours on the freeways, commuting and growing angrier. All we want is to get to our friends and engage in human relationships. But we sit in traffic for hours completely surrounded by strangers and feeling completely alone. They create a kind of community isolation and despair.
               So we become obsessed with freeways. At least I do.
               If there were one thing I’d change about L.A., it would be the phenomenon of the single use area, and some communities are trying to do that. The freeways are meant to be a kind of stopgap, a way to bring people together in a city were public transportation doesn’t work. However, they have ended up having exactly the opposite effect.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Mann of War Cocktail

My novel, Mann of War, is coming out soon from Oak Tree Press. I've been looking around, found that there was a Man of War Cocktail. In anticipation of my new novel, I played with that recipe and came up with the Mann of War.

Cocktails Collection - Blue Hawaiian

Here's the recipe:

1. Pour too much bourbon over ice and chunks of fruit.

2. Pour in just enough blue curacao to turn it teal.

3. Drink it angrily as you think about all the criminals who get away with their crimes, and plot your revenge!

Don't drink too many. The fruit flavor makes you think it's not very strong. Soon, you're snoring on someone else's couch.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mann, I'm Having Fun

I can't tell you how much fun I'm having with the early promotion of my book.

Sunny Frazier got me going, told me to have a good time with promotion, and I've followed that directive religiously.

It makes sense of course. I've never been able to do my various jobs well when I haven't enjoyed them. I don't think anyone can. And the careers I have now, teaching and writing, are a joy.

Anyway, I've tried to make promotion a creative act, and in the last year of studying this, I think this was the best advice I have gotten. When joy permeates what I'm doing, people react. When frustration does, people react to that too.

This last week has been the most fun of all. I got together with several of my students/friends, and we filmed a trailer for my upcoming novel, Mann of War. I haven't see the final product yet, but I can't wait.

I am so grateful for all the people who let me kill them on screen especially Elder Zamora, who lay on the ground with dirt and flowers on his head in the halls of Cal Poly, Pomona as professors stared quizzically at him. Does that whet your appetite for the film?

Who else am I grateful to? David Falkinburg, Hanna Phipps, Ann Brantingham (does this go without saying? It shouldn't. In a life of gratitude, I am most grateful to her), Daniel Cuesta, and Charlotte San Juan. All were willing to die publicly for my art or willing to be bystanders.

Anyway, here is an interview with two of them. It's the first of my sock puppet interviews. Watch and enjoy! They're interesting artists and people in general. By the way, want to be shocked? David, the published writer and director of the film is only 22 years old. Can you imagine the possibilities in front of a talent who is so young?

So what is a sock puppet interview? My sock puppet, Sockk of War, interviews creative people about things they do well.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Everything's Coming up Jeffrey

I don't know what you're doing on Friday at 3pm, but I'm going to be listening to 88.7 KSPC in Claremont, California.

They've made the wise choice of featuring the poetry of my student and friend, Jeffrey Graessley.

Jeff's one of a long string of successful students. When he came to Mt. San Antonio College (we all call it Mt. SAC) a few years ago, he had a lot of raw talent, but he knew that he had to do some work. So he removed a string of piercings from his mouth and got down to work.

It's been great to see him succeed, to see him develop talent and ability over the years.

It's been great to watch him publish all his work as well. He's had poetry in a number of magazines, and he's working on a novel that I think it going to go. It's the first steam-punk occult western I've seen since Brisco County Jr.

He's a great writer and a young writer, and he's done the one thing to contribute to his own success that all of my students who have had great success have done.

I'll tell you his secret at the end. For now, I'm going to brag about my students.

There are a number of students I can't write about since their publisher have asked that they keep their novels on the QT for the time being, so I'm not going to talk about them. Others who have been successful, I'm going to not write about. Why? Because so many of the students have published work, found writing, changed their lives, that there's not enough room.

But here is a list of a few of the most recent:

Marta Chausee whose book is coming out in the next month or so from Oak Tree Press.
She took my novel writing class two years ago and excelled. She was focused took and gave criticism and was a leader in her groups. All great qualities, but not the key to her success.

Michaelsun Knapp has published all over the place and is getting paid for his fiction and poetry. In a year or so, he'll be moving on to an MFA, and I can't imagine the number of books in his future. He's doing extraordinary ekphrastic poems right now. Hard to wrap your head around how good these are.

Michael Torres just published his first chapbook through Finishing Line Press, and his poetry has been all over the place. He won a PEN award and his work is good.

Scott Creley, Elder Zamora, David Falkinberg . . . there have been too many to name who have done well.

What's the common denominator?

It's tempting to say I am, but it's not that.

On the other hand, I did give them the same advice that they all followed, so maybe I can steal their glory.

What they all did, what all my very successful students have done is to form strong and sustaining communities to help them with their writing. This more than anything I have seen or done has been the hallmark of success.

Of course it spurs on all the other things that makes people successful.

People in writing communities write regularly because the community demands it.

People in writing communities revise carefully because they are embarrassed not to.

People in writing communities read more and better because of recommendations.

People in writing communities stay positive and focused.

People in writing communities aren't unrealistic.

People in writing communities send their work out when it's ready.

The advice that I gave to them all was to get into a good group and get as much out of it as you can. They've all done that and have succeeded beyond what I expected and quickly. All of these highly successful writers have been my student in the last two years.

So, what are the other hallmarks of success? Let us know. We're all on our way, but we all have a ways to go.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Research - The Secret Language of Place

I love the way that places try to speak to me even when I can't understand what they are saying. On my daily walks, my wife and I spend much of our time trying to decipher the language of civil engineering, why a "G" is printed into the concrete here and what the pipes that come out of the ground near the school are for there.

We've always wanted to see the site of the St. Francis Dam tragedy on San Francisquito Canyon Road just outside of Santa Clarita.

(The Dam still intact.)

The St. Francis Dam was part of William Mulholland's vision for watering the Los Angeles area. He was responsible for so much of the water that had been pumped into the area, and for so much of what the water did in the area. He brought in water from Owen's Lake, which devastated the Owen's Valley and did little for Los Angeles. But the aqueduct he built was a feat of engineering genius. Eventually, he built the St. Francis Dam.

The St. Francis Dam is one of those forgotten tragedies, possibly one of the worst things to ever happen to Los Angeles, but few people remember it.

On March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed because of the weakness of the rock surrounding it, and a wall of water and debris was sent into the low lying communities between it and the sea. Because of the lack of records at the time, there's no way to be sure to know even how communities were swept away let alone how many houses and people. We do know that bodies swept into the ocean were found as far away as Mexico.

Ann and I went to view the site on a rare rainy day, but the rain seemed appropriate enough given the site we were going to visit.

The dam is located up in the foothills of Los Angeles in the Grapevine area, which has a kind of scrubby beauty -- miles of hills covered with the kind of bushes that live on almost no water and house mice, snakes, and desert birds.

(Beautiful foothills of the Angeles National Park.)

It took a while to find the spot due to a blow out that had us in Sears for a couple of hours and the fact that we had only a general sort of knowledge of where it is. This is the best way to travel, and the way we always go. We don't always end up where we wanted to go, but it's a lot of fun going this way.

We did eventually find San Francisquito Canyon Road however just off Cooper Hill. The road is one lane and still holds some of Mulholland's positive legacy. Once of the aqueduct's power generators is still working here in an art deco building straight from the 1920s that looks too nice to be simply generating power. Leaded glass windows, bas relief, trees. Absolutely beautiful.

(The best shot I could get without blocking traffic. If you notice, I shop at Car Max)

Seeing the site has become easier since a storm in 2005 swept the road away nearby. The main road passes above, but the old road is perfect for hiking and leads you directly to the site with bits of debris from the tragedy fallen off the rock wall nearby and onto the road itself.

(A concrete block with a piece of the iron from the dam)

It's nearly impossible to see the dam unless you know what you're looking for. Even then it's difficult. We spent a little while trying to figure out what we were looking at, and then saw a bit of iron out of the rock face, rubble, and a small wooden cross marking the spot.

And did the voices of the dead speak to me? I don't think so. Or if they did, I wasn't listening well enough. But if the dead speak here, they are speaking everywhere.

What spoke to me was the canyon. California speaks to me. I know that this place is going to appear in my poems and my fiction. It's working its way into me like a virus or a splinter or a less painful metaphor. What's going to come out?

I don't know. But I can feel it down there like all places that speak to me.

Here's the blog questions and please answer below if you feel like it: What places speak to you? What do they say?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why I Became a Writer

Today a number of writers are trying an experiment. We're all writing on one theme and linking our sites. Today, we're writing about why we write. Watch my video, read the text, and then check out the other blogs! The links are below. --John

And here is Sunny Frazier, answering the exact same question


I've often wondered if writing is “nature” or “nurture.” While vocabulary, grammar and craft can be taught, imagination fostered, are some writers born with the gift and drive to write?

I grew up in a home without books. We were a Navy family and household items are shipped by weight. The military only covers so much when you move. Books are heavy. I didn't realize this growing up and mistakenly thought my family was purposely depriving me of books.

However, my father is from the South, North Carolina tobacco farmers. In the winter, men would sit around the potbelly stove at Bell's store and swap stories while they whittled and drank bottles of RC laced with peanuts. When my father was home from cruises, he would tell stories at bedtime. I grew up hearing tales of Uncle Doll, 100 years old with knots on his head who gnashed his teeth and chased my father and his cousin from his house. The laborer during the tobacco harvest who asked my grandmother for a glass of baking soda and water, then promptly dropped dead of a heart attack. The glass sat on the shelf above the fireplace, never to be used again, a reminder that death could strike at any time

Every tale had a purpose, a moral for a child to absorb. From these stories I picked up rhythm, cadence, color and the art of storytelling. Without influence or exposure to great writing, I blindly found my own way and my own voice.

In school, I was taught to write strict, boring, soul-killing compositions. Eventually, I broke away and wrote a series of stories for my classmates. Fairy tales where Snow White and Cinderella were transported to the 1960's and did the Watusi in mini skirts and go-go boots. As the stories were being secretly passed around in class, the teacher confiscated them. We heard him laughing at his desk while I reddened with embarrassment. He made me stay after class and said, “Do you realize how talented you are?”

No. I thought everyone could write. I never considered what I did as special. I'd kept it secret for so long that, until I was 12, nobody was there to mentor me. After that, there was no stopping me. I was the kid who loved essay questions on tests because I could pen my opinions and not be restricted by “True,” “False” or multiple choices. I was elected editor of the high school newspaper, guaranteed to kill one's social life. When I joined the Navy and they denied me the rate of Journalist to make me a Dental Tech, I volunteered to write for the base paper at every new duty station. Washington D.C. took notice of me. I got out and went to college on the G.I. Bill for a degree in journalism.

I worked as the token woman on a city newspaper. When I realized I was underpaid, I confronted the publisher. He said I should have a man supporting me. I walked away from journalism job and turned to fiction writing. When I went to work as a narcotics secretary for the sheriff's department, I discovered I was a mystery writer.

Why did I become a writer? Because I had the tools and the instinct at an early age. Because I had initiative and never let obstacles stand in my way. Because I never doubted myself or let others discourage me. Because I pushed to have my words heard. Because I had no choice.

I am a writer.  

Kyle Van Sant          

Charlotte San Juan

Chris Swinney

Saturday, November 17, 2012

East of Los Angeles

This was originally posted in text form on Oak Tree Press's blog. Here I am reading it as we drive through my part of Los Angeles. This road, at least, hasn't changed.

The impact of living in Los Angeles on my writing has been unbelievably powerful. My desire to leave Los Angeles has been equally powerful. How has place changed your view of the world?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Confessions of an Extrovert

I believe there is a commonly-held belief that extroverts are shallow and introverts are complex. I had that belief anyway when I was younger. I even tried to pass as an introvert declaring that I liked being alone. Well, the truth is that I do like being alone sometimes, but it's also true that I get energy and vitality by meeting people, and meeting people is about all I've been doing in November. I'm behind in everything. I have book reviews piling up, forewards to books that I need to write, and about 100 essays and stories to grade, but for the last two weeks, I've been meeting new people and stealing the energy of their vitality.

Rise up extroverts. We are not shallow. We are simply people who like people. And if we have the ability to meet and talk to people, we have the ability to bring our work to those who would never have seen it before.

So what have I been doing? It started on November 1st at Laguna College of Art and Design. Grant Heir invited me, Kevin Lee, T. Thrasher, Luke Salazar, Paul Tayyar, Donna Hilbert, Sarah Miller, and Lorene Delany-Ullman to read for his classes.

I cannot believe how beautiful the campus was.

Indoor spaces, outdoor spaces, places for people to work and think. I found myself envious of what these students were doing and where they were allowed to do it. Grant Heir is doing amazing things for these students, teaching artists how to write and how to expand their artistic vision into the written word. He is amazing as is his program.

The reading was a reading of the new generation of California poets, but I was able to leave my detective writer's mark all over the campus. I have business cards with information on my upcoming book from Oak Tree Press. On the otherside I have the words "Murder Is Easy" in huge type. I left these about.

The reading itself was a thrill. These poets are some of my favorites. I use their work when I teach poetry, and it was an honor to share a stage with them.

At the end of the night, Grant asked me to list my favorite poets. I never emailed him back, but I wanted to give him my list of living poets. Why promote the dead? Here's a SHORT list of the poets whose work I love, Grant: everyone who was on stage with me, Gerald Locklin, Billy Collins, Lloyd Aquino, Sharon Olds, B.H. Fairchild, Michaelsun Knapp, Michael Torres, Ted Kooser, Thomas Lux, Scott Noon Creley, Elder Zamora, T. Anders Carson, Clifton Snider, and . . . ah what's the point of going on. There are so many many many. Let me point out though that Luke Salazar's new book is exceptional. He's the one standing to my right.

And I've been working on promoting and paying for the SGV Lit Fest ( We had an evening featuring a number of my favorites at my house -- Luke Salazar, Clifton Snider, Sergie Smirnov, Jo Scott-Coe, and Charlotte San Juan. All great writers and much pasta was consumed by everyone. Everyone donated, everyone had fun. If the festival will be great it is because of these wonderful people.

And the fund-raising goes on in the weekends with the poetry classes that I've been teaching. It's amazing to see the growth people can make in just 4 lessons so far. The only sad note is that with Marta Chausee's recent move, she hasn't been able to make it.

Finally, the two readings at Whittier College. They've been using my poetry book down there -- East of Los Angeles -- and it's such a thrill to read to people who know your work. They were insightful and interested. Only two of the many were English majors, but they all were interested and focused. My parents went to Earlham College in Indiana -- Whittier's sister school, and I found myself jealous of them. Small class sizes with professors like Scott Creley and Tony Barnstone to give them individual attention.

So that's what I've been doing for the last two weeks and it's been exhausting by fun. As an extrovert, meeting people and reading my work is what I love to do. It's great to see my name in a magazine, but seeing people actually reacting to my poetry or fiction charges me.

Well, this has been a long blog post, but I wanted to leave you with a question to reply to or think about. For me, writing is about making a personal connection, letting people know that we're all in this together, and the best place I can do that is in a reading or meeting someone face to face. What is writing about for you? No wrong answers here, just different ways of seeing the same thing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Trailer for Study Abroad

Here's the trailer for my new poetry chapbook. Some of you have already pre-ordered it, and it will be sent soon!!

Thanks to Daniel Cuesta
Charlotte San Juan
Brendon Williams
David Falkinburg
Ann, who has the camera

Monday, October 29, 2012

Figuring out Youtube

I think I have a handle on how to use youtube.

I have a sense at least.

Job number one was finding someone to help me out. It turns out that David Falkinburg, my friend and former student and one of the many people Sunny Frazier calls "the wonder boys," has a genius for film making. He put this teaser together and he's putting together the trailer for my book coming out in January. I cannot believe how good a trailer he's come up with. I'm floored really. Don't worry, I paid him for his efforts, and I think he could get a business going. This is just something he put together without me asking. The actual trailer is a work of genius.

The good thing is that youtube can be an incredible tool for anyone who wants to use it well. After a while, videos take on a life of their own and people you've never contacted or met begin to watch it and it spreads.

The difficulty is getting that first group of people to watch it. Here's what I think is my best method.

1. Promoting myself like crazy on facebook. I have hundreds of friends, and I hope they're willing to resend my images and get the word out so people can see my videos.

2. Gaining friends and followers on youtube itself. As I understand it, that's about the same method of gaining twitter followers and facebook friends. I have an account, and I'm willing to use it!

3. Getting the help of my legions of friends and students. I do have a lot of good friends, and I'm grateful to all of them. If I can get them to repost the video and get their friends to repost the video, then that will be something.

The thing is that I think youtube is probably the best tool for getting our names out there and getting people interested in our books. I'm a personable enough guy, but there's no way I can reach people on Trinidad. However, I bet there are people sitting behind a computer screen in Trinidad looking for something interesting online.

So here are two questions for my semi-weekly blog.

1. Would you please repost my teaser trailer on your twitter and facebook accounts?

2. What am I missing about youtube? What else should I be doing to promote myself on that medium?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Backing Out Into Traffic

My good friend, John Buckley, joined an MFA program in Michigan just as his first two books published. Here, he talks about the strange world of promotion while entering a new world. We miss you here in LA, John, but we love your success out there!

Today, he's guest blogging on my site. (By the way, contact me if you're interested in guest blogging about marketing).

Backing Out Into Traffic

I did it in reverse. I got my books published and then I went back to school. I thought seemingly going backwards meant I would have it all worked out.

I did look. And then I looked again. On paper, I would have plenty of time. One seminar Monday evening, one workshop Wednesday afternoon. Six hours a week, fewer hours in a classroom than when teaching four sections as an adjunct professor. Other than six hours, I would sleep, eat, write, cash stipend checks, and, most importantly, have plenty of time to promote my two forthcoming books, my solo collection, Sky Sandwiches (Anaphora Literary Press), and my collaboration with Martin Ott, Poets’ Guide to America (Brooklyn Arts Press). I’d be able to offer my chapbooks from Propaganda Press, Breach Birth and Leading an Aquamarine Shoat by Its Tail, as bonuses for anyone buying a full-length collection at the many, many readings I would arrange throughout the Upper Midwest.

And then I arrived in Ann Arbor.

What did I overlook? The MFA program director and my workshop professor both urged me to build ties with my fellow classmates, what I’ve now learned to call my cohort, the other writers with which I’ll apparently be grouped in perpetuity. That sounded good enough. Leaving Southern California had meant leaving behind the foundation of fans and fellows I had slowly constructed over the past year, and I needed someone in this new city to buy my books. But before I can even think of relying on my MFA community to invest in my creative output with dollars as well as workshop comments, I’ve had to start paying a new set of dues to this new union of minds and talents. That has meant spending Thursday afternoons drinking coffee and mingling in the Hopwood Room, Thursday evenings at readings for the Zell Visiting Writers Series, Friday evenings at Mark Webster Readings for second-year students, and Saturday evenings at J. Edgar Edwards Readings for first-year students like me. That has meant trying to build relationships with colleagues almost twenty years younger. That has meant tackling my usual social anxiety in a whole ‘nother context. But if I want to survive on Literature Island without getting voted off, I have to have a semi-successful social game.

What else did I overlook? Taking classes seriously takes serious time. I need to read a novel a week for my seminar. I need to read at least a poetry collection a week for my workshop. I need to develop more consistent, disciplined writing habits than I’ve had in the past. And if I’m going to have anything to offer of merit in class discussions and informal conversations, I need to spend my free time acquainting myself with the work of as many other famous, renowned, celebrated, previously-unknown-to-me writers as possible. Did you know Southern California’s not the only part of the world that has ever produced poets? It’s true. And if I’m going to sound less like a fraud than I feel that I am in my heart, if I’m going to justify my inclusion in one of the country’s best MFA programs, I need to read. There go Sunday, Tuesday, and every morning.

And money. Money, money, money. I expected to take out over twenty grand a year in student loans. I like student loans. You can defer paying them back until you graduate. You can deduct their interest from your taxes. I was going to take out so much in student loans, until the Powers That Be took another look at my financial profile and cancelled ninety percent of what they had previously offered. Apparently, I’m not allowed to take out more loans than my academics cost. And when the generous University of Michigan gives me a full tuition waiver and a modest but considerable stipend, it considers me to require very little else. So much for the massive road trips I had planned.

OK, so I’m very lucky. I got a free ride to a great program, and some extra money to boot. I get to be closer to my family. I get to watch trees change color again. Worse Mexican food; better Middle Eastern food. But suffice it to say that playing the MFA game is less conducive to launching a wide-ranging marketing blitz than I initially expected. Someday, I’ll have made my bones at the University of Michigan. Someday, I’ll have even better work collected and published, work that my Ann Arbor cronies rally behind, work that I can afford to push nationwide. For now, I look forward to AWP and to returning to Southern California for well-hyped guest appearances here and there. For now, I’m learning to love the new hustle, hoping my books in the box in the corner don’t grow stale.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Scandalous True Biopic of a Writer

I have a big problem with writers’ biopics. I haven’t seen many that I like. The problem is that the working life of a writer is fascinating inside the mind of the writer, and the greatest portion of what happens in the writer’s life is internal.

But you can’t film that, so to make the film dramatic, filmmakers find ways to show why writers are flawed. Of course, they’re flawed. Everyone is flawed. If we were to choose the worst moments of everyone’s life, everyone would look like a villain.

Tom and Viv is a good example. T. S. Eliot is lambasted for institutionalizing his wife. Institutionalization was almost certainly the wrong thing to do for her. However, the argument of the movie is that because Eliot was a poetic genius, he should have had the preternatural knowledge that the best psychologists of his day did not have, and he should have used our modern understanding of psychology to cure her. On his own. Against her doctor’s advice. Because he wrote “The Wasteland.”

A damn unsatisfying movie if you ask me, but what is a filmmaker to do. Who we are as writers happens on the inside. Everything else is just extra.

100 years from now, what kind of film would they make of me? I’d certainly come off as a gregarious, messy man-child, and that’s in great part true. But the truth is that I’ve always felt that the real me exists some place way down deep beyond the jokes. The real me is someone who likes nothing more than to contemplate life and put those thoughts on paper. I wonder how any of us would come off.

By the way, I loved Midnight in Paris. It was by far the best movie of last year. Do you have any writers’ movies that you like?

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Little Inspiration

I'll be back with vlogs as soon as I can, but for today, a little meditation on inspiration.

I feel most myself when traveling. I'm excited, energetic, creative. I often need travel for inspiration. We all have our tricks, and mine is to get out.

This is especially true for my two favorite characters, Robert Mann and Harrison. Robert Mann has to travel the world finding interesting ways to kill people. Harrison works for the foresty service and travels through California's natural places. He's the protagonist for my forthcoming collection, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. I have a rule for Harrison. Each story has to have magic.

There is plenty of magic in nature, but you can't write about nature straight. I can't anyway. Not any more than I can write about love or death or happiness straight. The magic happens when the worlds of nature and man collide. So I went looking for that this weekend and ran into it again and again.

I found it in San Simeon when my wife shouted for me to stop. Off on the side of the road were zebra grazing with cattle as though they belonged on the California coast.

These are all that remain of William Randolph Hearst's private zoos, the legacy of a man's vanity. They've been let out to roam the hill and mingle with Hearst's other herds. It's magic to see zebra running around even if they aren't natural. Watching them though, I realized that they're not natural, but they feel American, just as mustangs brought from the old world feel America, just as Russian Thistles -- which we call tumbleweeds-- do too.

We drove out to the Carrizo Plain after that and watched the tarantulas playing in the grass. They're all over if you watch out for them, and they're alien and beautiful. They look so deadly, but they're harmless enough out here especially if you give them room.

Harrison's magic won't happen though until they come into our world. A tarantula in the grass is beautiful. A tarantula walking across the road has the potential for inspiration.

Ann and I were amped up after that and decided to go off to Sequoia National Park, which for my money is more beautiful than Yosemite. It's mid-October now and people are gone. Campgrounds lie empty.

There's something about a place people have abandoned. That's why we all flock to Stonehenge. It's eerie and strange, and the ghost of the people seem to be around you. It why the Greeks did all they did to create culture.

Greek culture is a result of their reaction to ruins. The Greek had a civilization in Mycenae and Tiryns. Something happened, we're not sure what, but they abandoned their great buildings built from massive stone blocks, and they entered a dark age. At some point, the Greeks looked around and saw what they lost. They were inspired by the great buildings standing empty, and they decided to rebuild. The culture we know as ancient and classical Greece was built -- and it was built as the overwhelming emotional reaction to a place that had been abandoned by people.

In the empty campground, you can hear all the summer-time noises still. It's strange to walk through the separate campsites with their tables. Here and there, people have carved their names into tabletops -- tribute to the fact that they existed and that they were bored too. What could be so magical as seeing the forest already taking back the campground. And if you know where to walk, you can find a grove of roses nearby that someone years and years ago planted and abandoned. They grow wild now, taking over the top of a hill.

It was a long day of inspiration, but how better to spend 16 hours? What about you? When you need inspiration, what are your best techniques?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Should I Vlog?



David Falkinberg -- Director, editor, artistic genius
Michelle Dougherty -- Axe murderer
Jeffrey Graesley -- Axe murderer
Elder Zamora -- Bob Dylanesque INXSesque card holder
Daniel Cuesta -- Lettuce Eater
Scott Creley -- Pop up dude
Ann Brantingham -- Feet
Archie the Dog Brantingham -- Thing John steps over right at the beginning of the video
John Brantingham -- Johnny Danger

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Alternative Promotion

My theory is that everything we do promotes everything else. My teaching sells books. My poetry sells mystery. My mystery sells poetry and on and on.

I had a really interesting week. Daniel Cuesta, one of my former students and current friends, has been making broadsides for my poetry, which I now sell to help support one of my other projects, The San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival (, check it out!). He made a broadside of one of my poems, "In the Imperial War Museum, February 2, 1991" a while ago. It's a sonnet poem about when my wife and I started dating.

I'm really luck to have such a talented artist doing this for me. Now Daniel has done a print for another poem. This one is about driving in L.A. and the importance of swearing while you're doing it, "The Art of Merging."

If you're wondering, this poem is NOT autobiographical. Although I do swear on the freeway. All rational people do.

I'll be selling these to help fund the festival as well, but it's not a completely selfless act by me and I hope not for Daniel either. As we sell this work and promote it, that's a moment to talk about my suspense novel (Mann of War coming out in January from Oak Tree Press). 

I've been doing all sorts of things like this to promote the book. The new idea, a business card that says "Murder is easy" on one side and gives the details of the book on the other. If I leave these around everywhere with the "Murder is easy" slogan facing up, I think people will look at the book information on the other side.

So what do you think? What are your best alternative marketing tools for your books?

By the way, thank you Daniel, I've never been so honored!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Posse Posts

A very quick post today. Speaking of small-press marketing, if you want a good site, check out Sunny Frazier's Posse Posts on her website. She scours the internet for the best advice. Read her suspense books too. I love them and my students do too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On the Radio

One of the first things that was alluring about the woman who would become my wife was that she had been a DJ on college radio. I met her when I was twenty and out on my own for the first time in my life. I was living in central London, meeting all sorts of interesting people at the time, but she was the most interesting.

(This is Ann today. The shorter one is my dog, Archie.)

Photo: John is a part of art.
(This is me today.)

Like me, she was an ex-patriot who was out for culture. She was an artist and seemed to have an endless knowledge of literature, painting and sculpture. Most excitingly, she'd been a DJ on college radio back in her USC days and had interviewed musical legends such as Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) and Mike Score (of Flock of Seagulls).

And she'd been on the freaking radio!

There was a cache to being on the radio, and there still is.

In my quest to sell my small press books, I've been lucky enough to get an interview with Krista Kedrick on A Novel Idea live at 2pm on Sunday October 7th.

It's a necessary and important part of the promotion process, and I need to do more of it. How else can you reach out and give your readers the feeling of who you are? How else can you reach so many people?

Well, actually there are other ways, but this is the freaking radio -- the home of Edward R. Murrow, Enrico Caruso, Cole Porter, and David Lee Roth. This is where authors go when they grow up.

 (From Diamond Dave's Wikipedia page)

So the pressures on, but I'm not nervous about it. I'm just excited. I've actually been on the radio a couple of times, but never like this, never indulging in the narcissistic pleasures of a single author interview for a half hour.

The game plan for the radio from now on: I'm going to target as many shows as possible and try to spread the word. Maybe next year, when things lighten up a bit, I'll think about pitching my own show. I've emailed a company about that. I could leave blogging forever and talk to people.

The only problem with both of these plans is that when I hear my voice, it kills the delusion I have that I have a rich baritone that's reminds people of James Earl Jones in an advertisement for molasses.

Anyway, please tune in and ask questions or make comments. It should be fun.

Here's a question to all my blog readers. Do you think it would make sense for me to drop the blog and do an internet radio show instead?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Novel Idea Live

Hi Everyone,

On Sunday, October 7th, I'm going to be on Internet radio. It's a call in show, so you can hear me either

1. Mumble

2. Act foolishly

3. Curse unintentionally


4. Do a good job.

Please tune in and give me a hard time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An interview with Morgan St. James

Who should read Morgan St. James's work?

Anyone who loves mystery fiction. Ms. St. James has been writing it for years, especially for the small presses. I've always been impressed by her novels. The detail, the plot, the writing. It's all great. She has a new book coming out now -- Who's Got the Money -- from Dark Oak Press. I wanted to see how she promotes her work.

Here's my quick review of her book, you should read it. It's fun and interesting and everything you want from a mystery. Since this is a blog about promotion though, I won't review it in detail. Instead, I asked her about how she promotes her work.

Who's Got the Money? 
At what point in your writing process do you start to promote the novel you’re working on specifically? I mean you are clearly branding yourself as a writer all the time, but when do make that shift so you are promoting the current novel?

I begin very early in the process. As soon as I have the framework for a new novel, I make reference to various aspects of it. It helps to build anticipation for a new book. For example, when the manuscript for “Who’s Got the Money?” was partially finished I threw out tidbits on social networking sites about the fact the manufacturing in Federal prisons is an EIGHT HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR a year industry. So many people think prison manufacturing is a small program limited to items like license plates that it was bound to spark interest.

Later I appealed to the “chick lit” element with questions about getting even with someone who stole your heart and your money, which is another aspect of the book. Opening up that dialogue, also let me talk about my other upcoming book, (now available) “Confessions of a Cougar,” which could neatly fit into that genre.

 There is so much lead time from completing the plot to actual publication that it presents a great opportunity to talk about your upcoming book or books. If the book you are promoting is not your debut novel, this is a way to let readers know they can expect more books from you.

Some people wait until just before the release date, but then they’ve lost out on the time they could have been building interest.

What percentage of the time do you spend promoting online versus meeting people face to face?

I’d say the breakdown is something like 75/25. You can do online promotion at any hour of the day or night, and it frequently comes down to the wee hours after midnight. In addition to setting up a blog or website for the book and posting consistently, by choosing targeted sites you can reach a large amount of potential readers and ask them to share the posts or links. However, it is important to get out there and put a face on the author. Particularly with the sharp increase in books being produced due to the ease of self-publishing, there is still something special about the face-to-face meetings.

One of the chapters in my book, Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction,” is about polishing your personality. There is a vast difference between being a ho-hum author who might put an audience to sleep during a reading or talk and an entertaining, dynamic speaker. Everyone can find their own style for personal presentations or book signings, but a key element is to be engaging.

Your work is often diverse. You work with a writing partner some times. Other times you write humorously and alone. Sometimes your work feels to me like pure suspense. Does the feel of the book change the way that you promote it?

Absolutely. It would be highly inappropriate to give a humorous talk or write a humorous article about a book that deals with kidnapping and rape. By the same token, if it is one of my funny crime capers or a book laced with humor, a dead serious presentation would do nothing to encourage people to investigate further or better yet, to buy the book.

When I write with a partner, I always make certain to give credit to that partner’s contributions to the creation of the book and how the book benefited from their expertise. We all have different strengths and the key is to identify them and establish a working pattern for both writing and promotion.

What do you do for research? I know that you are kind of an expert on this. What can you tell my readers about going out there and getting real information?

For the obvious things, the internet is a wonderful source. However, since most information is not vetted before posting, it is important to verify it through other sites before taking it as the absolute truth.

It is also important to recognize when the net might not be the be the most reliable source and to enlist the help of those with expertise in a particular field. For example, in a crime situation, most police stations, law enforcement agencies and prisons have Public Affairs Officers who will be more than happy to help you with facts if you call and explain that you are an author and need some information.

When writing The Devil’s Due, I needed to know where an inmate would be housed if they were beaten to the point of being on life support for the rest of their life. The extra fact was that this scenario takes place in 1970 in Illinois. That meant conditions might not be the same as information available on the net. I called Joliet Prison and the Public Affairs Officer was great. She didn’t know first-hand, but called people who did and got back to me with the information. In 1970 he would have been housed in the prison infirmary. However, in later years, there was a special facility for such cases which is not on the grounds of Joliet.

It is also important to build relationships with people you can call for information in various fields. They might be people in your social circle, ones you meet at events or conferences, or friends of friends. It ensures accuracy and saves lots of time if you can place a call or send an email with a question that relates to some aspect of your book.

What do you see as the most productive thing you do for promotion?

That is hard to say, because different tactics get various returns. Sometimes the internet interviews and articles work well, sometimes it is personal presentations or radio guest spots. Sometimes a media release with a great hook produces lots of hits and your story turns up in many small newspapers. I do think when you are lucky enough to wrangle an article or interview in a newspaper with high visibility it gives you a definite bump. A few years ago the Las Vegas Review Journal featured an article about me and my Amazon numbers rose for about a week afterwards.

How do you choose a new book from a living writer yourself?
I love mysteries and fast moving action. I also like political thrillers and some action adventure books. I listen to lots of audio books because I frequently drive between my home in the L.A. area and the one in Las Vegas. Fortunately libraries now have good collections of audio books, so I’ll generally take something from an author I know and like, often Robert Crais, Michael Connelley, Richard Northcut, Lee Child or J.D. Robb, and then take a few other books from authors I haven’t read. It helps me to explore their work, and if I don’t like it, I simply switch to the audio book of an author I like.

By doing that, I’ve discovered some authors I love and others that made me pop the CD out after only a few chapters.

I look for believable characters, a good pace and an intriguing story.