Archive for The craft of writing

Extroverted Author Phobic of Book Signings

I’m not shy. In fact, I kind of enjoy public speaking. Last year, I wrote a blog gushing over how much fun I have attending book clubs. I raved about the perks: the informed audience, insightful conversation and, of course, the often “bottomless” wine glass! But there are never ever bottomless wine glasses at a book signing! And that’s only one tiny factor contributing to my aversion of these emotionally hazardous outings.

Earlier this week, for the debut of my new novel, RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW, I was invited to do a reading before the Probus Club in Vancouver. My first reading for this novel! I approached the event with my usual trepidation. I envisioned a cavernous auditorium with me at the front and an AV guy at the back and two bored-looked people scattered in the hundreds of empty chairs between us. As it turns out, it was a fantastic morning that I spent with two hundred interesting women, many of whom had already read the first installment of my Second World War Shanghai novel series, THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY. Their enthusiasm and support, not to mention the terrific book sales, blew my expectations out of the water.

So, you might ask, what the hell am I complaining about?! Well let me put it in context by describing a slightly less successful event.

A few years ago, I was invited to a signing inside an AAFES exchange store at Ft. Lewis in Washington State to promote a new novel at the time. (For those of who you who have never seen an exchange store, imagine if someone merged a Costco, a Target and a Macy’s into one entity.) The people running the store couldn’t have treated me better. They aggressively promoted my appearance with enormous posters—I’m talking Saddam Hussein-sized headshots—and they put me at a table right at the front of the store with what can only be described as a mountain of my own books behind me! It was a gray rainy Saturday; absolutely perfect for foot traffic. And man, was there a lot it! The problem was that none of the visitors had come to see me. People rushed past me as though I was there to clean up a particularly unpleasant spill. A few kind souls stopped to ask me where they could find eggs, beer, camping supplies, etc. After the first hour, I had sold roughly four of the four thousand books behind me. And then, something remarkable happened. It actually got worse! Another table was set up across from me… for the Arizona Cardinal cheerleaders to sign their Christmas calendars. You can imagine that if scantily clad cheerleaders came to an army base to autograph their photos, there might be a response. “Stampede” would be a better description! The lineup extended out the door and snaked around my lonely table (with the life-sized posters of me and the insurmountable pile of my books). The only thing that saved from melting under my table was that, even at the time, I could actually see the humor in the situation.

Of course, these two scenarios are, for me, the extremes of the spectrum when it comes to book readings/signings. I’ve done events with surprisingly good turnouts and others that were disappointingly unattended. I have to say that invariably the people who do show up are polite, attentive and generous. But for me, nothing can compensate for the hollow sense of personal and professional inadequacy that comes with addressing an almost empty room or bookstore.

If you happen to be J K Rowling, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, then probably crowd control is your biggest worry at a book signing. But if you’re me or, I suspect, numerous authors like me, then I think turnout is always a concern and an evening can be made or broken by the number of people who actually show up. Promotion, online marketing and, as an extra security step, seeding the audience with friends and families can help (though people will eventually start to recognize your kids and parents by their pathological enthusiasm). Sometimes, it’s just too much of a crapshoot dependent on factors beyond anyone’s control (the weather, competing event, etc.)

So until I write my own boy wizard, love-struck vampire or religious cryptographer/detective blockbuster that turns me into a household name, I’m going to remain leery of book readings. But please do keep inviting me to your book clubs, where the company is always guaranteed and the wine is never rationed!

Balancing The Dual Career

I don’t have time”… four little words that so often give people carte blanche to turn their backs on their ambitions and dreams. Frankly, I don’t buy it. I realize many of you are so overwhelmed with work, family, health, financial, and or school commitment that you barely have time to breathe, let alone consider pursuing your dream job. And there are times—for those with very young children, significant illness in the family, or in the midst of personal crises—when it’s impossible to pursue anything but the hope of keeping your head above water.

Still, I think too many people use a lack of time as an excuse.

I’ve been an Emergency Room physician for over fifteen years, and in the past seven years I realized my dream of becoming a published novelist. I hope you don’t interpret this as gloating. No one who knows me would ever mistake me for one of those annoyingly ultra-efficient people. You know the type: someone who, in an avereage day, seems to be able to paint a house, teach his child Japanese, canvas for a local charity and still host a dinner party for forty.

If I have time on my hands, I can make a shave and a shower an all-day ordeal. I am capable of being an Olympic-level procrastinator. I have papers from the previous millennium still sitting in my inbox. Were it not for hired help, my lawn would be a jungle. And my garage is beyond description; it’s possible that Jimmy Hoffa’s remains are somewhere behind the stacks of boxes, books and magazines.

My advantage is my drive. When I sink my teeth into something, I do so with single-mindedness that borders on obsession. Other obligations and commitments invariably suffer, but I try to follow one rule that I won’t let my wife or kids bear the brunt of my obsession. Family still comes first. However, when I’m writing a new novel, I cut back on all other pastimes. Netflix loses an avid follower. My timing in tennis goes to crap. I even stop reading for pleasure and focus solely on research.

Around the same time I started to seriously pursue my dream of writing professionally, I also began to dabble at golf (by ‘dabble’ I mean lose ball after ball to the woods and the water). My wife “suggested” that I choose between the two time-consuming pursuits. It was the easiest choice of my life. I have never once thought of writing as a sacrifice. It’s my passion and still my favorite hobby.

Of course, when it comes to pursuing dual careers, I do have a huge advantage over people with nine-to-five jobs. As an ER physician, I am basically a shift-worker. And while the workload can be intense, the hours are not long compared to most of my colleagues in other specialties. I often have free time during the daytime, when the kids are at school and my wife is at work, to focus on writing.

I am also lucky in that I get to flex both sides of my brain in my two chosen careers. Medicine is traditionally considered a “left brain” function, focusing on science and logic, whereas creative writing is viewed as a “right brain” activity, relying on imagination and creativity. This, of course, is a gross simplification. Work in the ER often requires great imagination and creativity, as we often have to respond on the fly and come up with all kinds of “band aid” solutions. And creative writing, especially plotting, can be an almost scientific process. After all, how often have you heard novels described as “formulaic”?

Nonetheless, pursuing two such diverse interests helps to keep both exciting. One feeds the other. My work in the ER—especially meeting new patients who give me a glimpse into their fascinating lives—fuels my creativity. And my writing offers the perfect outlet and antidote to relax after a long or stressful shift. In many ways, it has reinvigorated my fervor for and appreciation of medicine.

I warn you, though, chasing the dual career is not easy. It takes considerable juggling. There are no shortages of naysayers willing to catalogue all the reasons why failure is inevitable. And sometime it is. Depending on your aspirations, it takes more than just talent and determination to succeed. Often, luck and timing is even more important. They certainly played a huge role in my particular case. But I think it’s tragic that so many people find excuses to never try to in the first place.

For those people willing to take the plunge, the rewards—and believe me, I am not speaking in terms of dollars and cents—are immeasurable. However, I get a little concerned to hear of people who have left long-term stable jobs to follow their dream career path. There’s a huge advantage in working a job with a steady income to compensate for the sporadic income of the other. I’m not only speaking about food on the table and a roof overhead (though those are hard benefits to ignore.) In the literary world, many authors who support themselves on their writing income alone have to make compromises in terms of their projects. I’ve always had the luxury of writing whatever I choose to. I consider every dollar I make in royalty as a bonus. Don’t tell my publisher, but I would write for free.

As best as I can tell from a quick Google search, there’s no real science behind managing the dual career. But here are a few basic common sense principles—as I see them—to giving yourself a chance to succeed at a second career:

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  2. Give yourself time to succeed
  3. Capitalize on your expertise and experience
  4. Do your homework
  5. Follow your passion, not your wallet
  6. Know when to walk away

I am not advocating dual careers for everyone. Sometimes it’s truly impractical. And some people would find the diametrical tug of two jobs too stressful or counterproductive. But speaking for myself, pursuing a second career has turned out be one of the best decisions of my life.

Maybe a time will come when I have to choose between the two. Or maybe the decision will be made for me. But right now, my life is incalculably richer for doing both, and I cannot imagine working solely as a writer or a doctor.

There are plenty of reasons not to bother tackling a new career challenge. But every job gets a little monotonous at some point. What’s the harm in varying it up a little along the way?

My writing routine? None!

I know writers who follow routines so rigorous that it would make a Swiss rail schedule look unpredictable. They sit at their desks every morning at the same time with the same flavor of tea until they produce the precise number of words as they had the previous day.

Me? I am the polar opposite. I need neither a designated space nor a specific block of time to do my best writing. In fact, often the opposite is true. Two or three unscheduled quiet days can be paralytic to me accomplishing anything, while I might do my best writing in the midst of my most hectic schedule as an ER physician and father of two schoolgirls.

I have no specific routine or ritual to my approach. Sometimes I write daily while other times I take weeks between sentences. I write morning,noonand or night. I can write anywhere. All I need are ideas and a keyboard, but I never set out to reach a certain word count or number of pages in any one session. That is a recipe for disappointment.

What inspires me most when tackling a new manuscript? Momentum. I am very cognizant how important those first pages and chapters are to the success of a novel, however, I know from bitter experience that I can over-polish a rough gem of an idea down to a nub of nothingness. So I try to turn off that self-editor and allow the story to carry me.

When I feel the story taking shape, hear my characters voices and can envision a shadow of the finish line, those are the conditions—regardless of my surroundings or my schedule—under which I write best!

A newly-minted blogger thanks some veteran bloggers

With the publication of my latest novel, The Far Side of the Sky, l finally learned why so many authors rave about book bloggers. Several of these passionate and intelligent readers were kind enough to review my last novel, and I was thrilled to learn that more than one included The Far Side of the Sky on their Best Books of 2012 lists!

As someone new to blogging myself, I have quickly come to see the challenges they face. So it is with great appreciation that I present: Anna at Diary of an Eccentric blog included the novel in her Best Books I Read in 2012 list. She described this historical novel about the Jewish community in World War II-era Shanghai as “an exciting and beautifully written story about a city and people in turmoil.” Jennifer at Jenn’s Bookshelves blog included The Far Side of the Sky as “a book I adored” in historical fiction during 2012. Finally, I was thrilled to see Kelsey at The Independent Review listed my novel in her Top Five.

A Writer’s Digest post titled “Why Writers Need Book Bloggers” states: “Book bloggers cut through the noise of the Internet simply by writing detailed, thoughtful reviews. The best of them lack the snark that anonymous corners of the internet can breed. They’ve cultivated their voices and sensibilities. They’ve grown a loyal readership. They seem intent on maintaining the quality of their blogs, which shows in the depth of their reviews.”

I couldn’t agree more with Writer’s Digest’s assessment of these thoughtful ambassadors of the blogosphere. Thanks for the wonderful reviews. I appreciate them all. And I can’t wait to offer copies of the next novel in the trilogy, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, to readers – the release date will be September 2013.

How a father inspired a book

My latest novel was released last spring. On Father’s Day, I was acutely reminded who was the inspiration for the first of my trilogy…


My father on his 80th birthday.

Here’s an obscure Father’s Day recollection: my dad once told me that the Hungarian Nazis in Budapest were even more vicious than the common German variety. Why, you might wonder, would I possibly remember this on this past Father’s Day of all times? For that I need to offer a little perspective.

I lost my dad—a long-reformed chain smoker and one-time cancer surgeon—to lung cancer two year ago. Dad was never a big fan of Father’s Day. But, in his defense, Dad wasn’t much of a believer in any religious or secular holiday.
My father was a complex man. He was intensely private, extremely proud and stubborn beyond pigheaded, but he was also generous, principled, fiercely loyal and very funny. He once ordered a pizza to be delivered to an Italian restaurant whose manager told him that the kitchen was too busy to make pizza that night!
But back to the war… as a Jewish teenager, my father survived Nazi-occupied Hungary largely thanks to his wits and a big dollop of luck. Read More→

Finding time to write

When it comes to my approach to writing, two issues are dear to my heart: time and momentum.

I have had seven novels published in seven years, and I still hear the same question posed by readers, interviewers and, especially, aspiring writers. Sadly (for me), it is not: ‘Where do you get such inspired ideas?’ or ‘Why do your characters seem to spring off the page?’ No. The one thing everyone seems to want to know is: ‘Where do you find the time?’

Aside from being a writer, I am still a practicing Emergency physician with two school-aged daughters. Some people seem to find it inconceivable that I can complete novels while holding down a full-time job and raising a family together with my working wife.

The truth is that writing and time do not necessarily correlate for me. In fact, often the inverse is true. Two or three unscheduled days can be paralytic to accomplishing anything, while at times I do my best writing in Read More→