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On Writing

The crucible of open dialogue and the echo chamber of fear

Stephen H. Provost

There’s a school of thought that’s gaining currency. It states that people don’t have a right to an opinion about things that don’t directly affect them.

The argument usually goes something like this: “You can’t possibly know what it’s like to deal with this, because you’ve never gone through it, and you never will. You’re not one of us, so you don’t get a say!”

This is dangerous for more reasons than one.

First, it sets up an adversarial mentality between two “sides” before anyone even gets a chance to express their ideas. It perpetuates the “us vs. them” attitude that has become so pervasive in today’s culture.

Second, it makes identity more important than the substance of what might be said. It assumes that a particular group is unqualified to weigh in, not because of what they might say, but because of who they are. If any member of the “out” group dares to speak, he or she had better parrot the party line – thereby adding nothing to the conversation – or risk public censure/alienation.

When identity is codified into law as the basis for inclusion, things get ugly. People aren’t allowed to vote because of their gender or skin color. This is both bigoted and undemocratic.

Third, depriving a segment – any segment – of the population of a voice makes dialogue impossible and casts the status quo in stone. Conforming to a status quo without question makes growth impossible, because it shuts down the marketplace of ideas. Only through dialogue can we bounce ideas off one another and find better solutions than any of us might have arrived at on our own.

Shutting people down makes greater understanding impossible, too. But when any group that shuts out people who “aren’t like us” isn’t interested in understanding other points of view. Members of such a group think they know everything already, and that other perspectives hold no value moving forward.

Free speech

Finally, it violates the spirit of free speech.

In the Skokie case, courts ruled that neo-Nazis were allowed to march through a heavily Jewish community that included a number of Holocaust survivors on the grounds that freedom of speech trumped their feelings. They were, essentially, trying to create a “safe space” for themselves. I, personally, disagree with the court on this. I think speech and events designed to provoke an incendiary response add no value to the public discourse.

But the point is, the court thought so highly of free speech it allowed an event most considered repugnant to go forward.

Now, before someone decides to lecture me about the First Amendment applying to governmental limits on free speech, rest assured, I get that. Shutting people down based on their identity doesn’t violate the letter of that amendment, but it sure as hell undermines the spirit of it. That spirit is founded on the notion that we’re all better off when we feel free to share openly – and when we make the effort to listen. Even – and perhaps especially – when what the other person’s saying might challenge our prejudices.

Most places aren’t Skokie, and most people aren’t neo-Nazis. This essay isn’t about such extremists, or anyone whose views are so clearly worthy of disdain. It’s about ordinary, rational people who are being told to STFU because they belong to a specific group – regardless of what they might say. Not a group like the KKK, but much larger groups, many of which aren’t joined electively and hold no abhorrent or even unified views. Not all (fill in the blank) are alike!

Imagine if someone said sports fans had no right to an opinion on free agency because it only directly affects players and owners. Or if people without children were told they had no right to speak their mind about the condition of our schools. Many people are affected by actions indirectly, and many of those people have ideas about those actions. Do they have as much insight as those with direct experience? Perhaps not. But those outside a situation can bring valuable perspectives that, in some cases, offer ideas based on a more detached view. Pre-emptively dismissing such ideas because of their source rather than their merits is short-sighted and foolish.

The crucible

Conclusions and prejudices may turn out to be well founded, but they still need to be challenged. And those challenges need to come from people with different perspectives. Otherwise, how will we know for sure whether they’re valid? We might still believe in a flat Earth, a geocentric model of astronomy, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and that masturbation leads to blindness. Forming a hypothesis and conducting an experiment are crucial to the scientific method. But how can you form a reasoned hypothesis if you’ve never considered alternatives? And why bother to experiment if you already (think you) know the answer?

When you shut out people you worry might have opposing views based on nothing more than the messenger’s identity and the fear of being offended, you set the table for the kind of insular thinking that spawned Jonestown. An extreme example? Sure. But the principle is the same. And if the principle operates unchallenged for long enough, that’s the kind of thing that ends up happening. The frog will boil.

So, the next time you tell someone they don’t have the right to an opinion because they’re not like you, ask yourself whom you’re hurting. They won’t be the only losers, because it’s not a zero-sum game. Your conclusions might be right. Them might be wrong. Or, just maybe, greater truth and understanding might arise from the crucible of open dialogue.

Without such a crucible, nothing new and beautiful will ever be fashioned. Increasingly, out of fear, we’ve chosen to replace this crucible with an echo chamber.

There are no “safe spaces” when it comes right down to it. The world is a brutal and dangerous place, which is precisely why we need to stop alienating one another. We may not achieve safety, but we can find hope for a better world – not by ostracizing and dismissing others before they even open their mouths; only by engaging.

Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

Book reminded me why I admire the "Father of Christian Rock"

Stephen H. Provost

I met Larry Norman once, backstage after a concert at a church called Bethel Temple in Fresno, California. It was sometime around 1980, and the encounter was brief, but it stuck in my memory.

Others were gathered around, wanting to greet him, and when my turn came, I asked him a question I’ve long since forgotten. What I do remember was his response – not to the question, but to me personally. He stepped forward, and I must have either taken a step or leaned back. He said something to the effect of, “You value your personal space.”

I was maybe 17 years old at the time, and I’d never even thought about that concept before, but I immediately knew he was right. What I later learned about Larry – and seems apparent, as I look back on it – was that he took pride in being “invasive.” In challenging the status quo. It was one of the things I liked so much about his music.

It’s not an exaggeration to put Larry Norman up there with Dylan, Paul Simon and Lennon as a songwriter. In fact, I consider him the most gifted of the lot. The Great American Novel may be the most literate protest song ever written, all the more so because it straddled two worlds, critiquing secular society and Christian culture with equal candor. That’s something Larry did throughout his career.

Reintroduced in print

After that single meeting, I never got another chance to talk to Larry or to know him beyond what he revealed in his lyrics. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 60. But recently, I got the chance to know him better via Gregory Alan Thornbury’s superb biography, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent Books, 2018).

Thornbury’s evenhanded approach to Larry’s life stands in contrast with a documentary called Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, released the same year as the musician’s death. One writer described the video as a piece of “postmortem character assassination,” which doesn’t seem far wrong, considering it contains a number of vicious rumors that range from unsubstantiated to provably false. I won’t repeat those here. The video included interviews with an assortment people who had axes to grind against Larry and took the opportunity to do so; after all, the target of their criticisms was no longer around to answer them.  

Thornbury, by contrast, didn’t rely on recollections that might have been colored by the passage of time and the deepening of grudges. Instead, he was granted access to Larry’s personal archives – a collection of letters, notes, recordings, news clips, etc. – which contain accounts of events as they happened. The result is a sober picture of a man who was at once blunt and enigmatic, who fought a war for awareness on two fronts, challenging both secular seekers and the Christian establishment to look at themselves in a new light.

Two-front wars are hard to win, as reflected in songs such as Shot Down, his response to “rumors and gossip” from the church establishment that he was “sinful,” “backslidden” and had “left to follow fame.” “They say they don’t understand me, but I’m not surprised, because you can’t see nothin’ when you close your eyes.”

But the secular establishment was no more friendly. They didn’t want to hear songs about Jesus unless they were one-off fluff pieces like Jesus is Just Alright. Larry didn’t write fluff pieces.

An intentional enigma

On some level, Larry made himself hard to understand on purpose. But was that such a bad thing? It forced people to think for themselves rather than just accepting someone else’s easy answers. Jesus had done the same: In Larry’s words, “he spoke in many parables that few could understand, yet people sat for hours just to listen to this man.” Larry’s provocative lyrics and concert monologues had much the same effect.

That’s one big reason I related to him – and still do. In my own writing, I strive for originality. Repeating “the same old story” holds no appeal. If all I’m doing is reinforcing others’ biases, that’s neither loving nor illuminating. “I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” I don’t know whether Larry ever quoted that verse from 1 Corinthians in this context, but he might as well have. He refused to write songs filled with popular Christian catch phrases, and Thornbury relates that he once said, “I believe that clichés are a sin. Maybe not to God, but to the muse of art.”

Larry wrote in one of the letters Thornbury quotes: “Music is powerful language, but most Christian music is not art. It is merely propaganda. It never relies on – in fact it seems to be ignorant of – allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become. Propaganda and pamphleteering is (sic) boring and even offensive you already subscribe to the message being pushed ... which is why Christian records only sell to Christians.”

The second album in Larry’s trilogy of albums was pure allegory, focusing on man’s past in the Garden of Eden. It didn’t mention Jesus by name at all, so the Christian audience assumed he’d “gone secular,” finding further “proof” in the album cover, which featured a naked Larry playing the part of Adam. Never mind that he was only shown in a silhouette that was overlain by the image of a lion: You couldn’t even see his skin. What mattered was the self-righteous Christian establishment didn’t want allegory; it didn’t want to think. It wanted its spirituality spoon-fed in black and white, which was something Larry refused to do.

Outsider looking in

Larry lived his life as a perpetual outsider who once said, “I don’t feel like belonging to anything or anyone.” The cover of his most acclaimed album shows him scratching his head in bewilderment, and its title proclaimed he was Only Visiting This Planet. Lost behind the obvious Christian message was the sense that he must have felt that way on a personal level, too. Indeed, he once said he felt “like an orphan with a small, isolated voice crying out in a cultural wilderness.”

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

Perhaps Larry’s childhood helps explain why he apparently felt so out of place. Thornbury writes that Larry grew up in a Christian household, but that he found church boring and street preachers joyless. His conversion at age 5 was personal, “without benefit of clergy.” It wasn’t to please his father, with whom he had a strained relationship, but to fill a void left by the man’s absence during a childhood where bullies outnumbered friends. Jesus became his best friend, and he “didn’t feel so alone after that.”

From then on, Larry knew Jesus was the answer, but he still felt he had to ask the questions, and this is what set him at odds with a church establishment that wanted people to accept its proclamations on faith. But Larry’s faith was in Jesus, not doctrines. Never was this more apparent than in the early ’80s, when his Phydeaux record label issued a T-shirt with the slogan “Curb Your Dogma!” (With Phydeaux being a faux-French spelling of Fido, the dog’s name. More wordplay.)

Larry even questioned “sacred cows” like the church’s knee-jerk condemnation of homosexuality. “Is homosexuality a real issue?” he asked. “Well, (in the church) you can’t talk about it on the grounds that the gay (community) wants to discuss it. They say, ‘We were born this way.’ But we ‘know’ that it’s not natural, that they’re not born that way. But do we know that? Have you thought about it?”

The implicit answer was no, they hadn’t. Congregations were merely parroting the judgments they had been thought, rather than thinking for themselves.

Larry didn’t fit in with either the secular questioners who didn’t like his answer or the religious establishment, which didn’t like his questions.

A time of hope

For a while, though, his approach appeared to be working. In the heady aftermath of the 1960s, there was a degree of synchronicity between American culture and the type of Christianity that Larry was espousing. He shared the egalitarian goals of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and listeners were at least open to songs about spirituality by mainstream artists such as George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Blind Faith (Presence of the Lord), Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky) and Ocean (Put Your Hand in the Hand). The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar made Jesus “cool” and helped open the door to a certain degree of cultural commonality between Christians and non-Christians.

Grassroots movements such as The Vineyard, which started as a Norman-led Bible study, helped make Christianity more accessible to those who didn’t care for the formality or hierarchy of a traditional church. This wasn’t really anything new: The concept of the priesthood of all believers (translated in modern language as “a personal relationship with Jesus”) dated back to Martin Luther’s insurgent campaign against the Catholic Church. The 1970s were the same thing happening all over again.

The upstarts weren’t entirely innocent. There was even some ugly, even vicious anti-Catholic propaganda created by, among others, Keith Green, an incredibly gifted but often very judgmental musician whom Larry had steered toward Christianity. There was plenty of animosity to go around. And just as the Catholic Church had struck back against Protestantism in the Middle Ages, the mainstream church struck back against Larry Norman and others like him, branding them wolves in sheep’s clothing who were willing to “compromise with the world.”

Scapegoat and change

It didn’t help that egalitarians like Larry had no idea how to take their movement to the next level. They started out as critics of structure and organization, but when they tried to adapt this model to business, it created a series of misunderstandings and bad feelings. As a result, Larry’s vision of a record label built on a community of artists came quickly crashing down.

When one band signed to Larry’s label wanted to jump ship for a secular record deal, Larry was, by Thornbury’s account, willing to eat his own investment. But he said the band would have to keep its agreement to release an already-recorded album because he’d made a commitment to his label’s distributor. This wasn’t good enough for the band, which led Larry to dig in his heels on other points, as well, and although he wound up with nearly everything he fought for, he was subsequently blamed for much of the acrimony that ensued. This happened in part because of a failed business model and in part because the establishment was just itching to blame Larry for everything that went wrong.

Case in point: Thornbury relates that Larry fought to save his first marriage despite his wife’s drug use, visits to the Playboy mansion, multiple alleged affairs and admission that she had cashed thousands of dollars in checks made out to him. Larry was never accused of being unfaithful himself, but when he slept with a woman as a single man after his second marriage collapsed, he was castigated for it. Years later, the woman claimed he had fathered her child. That claim was never definitively proven (or disproven), but just the possibility it might be true confirmed everything the established church wanted to believe about the old thorn in its side – and provided the ammunition it craved to discredit him.

This all happened even as it embraced such “leaders” as Jim Bakker and Tony Alamo, both later convicted of major crimes, and Jimmy Swaggart, who was forced to admit his own infidelity. But however egregious their actions might have been, none of these people committed the ultimate transgression against the Christian establishment: asking too many questions. This was Larry’s cardinal sin, and even though he arrived at the same answer as they did (Jesus), they cared far more about how he got there. And because it was different than the way they’d gotten there, they condemned it.

At the end of the 1970s, Larry Norman appeared at the White House to play for one of his fans. President Jimmy Carter was a socially conscious Christian who shared many of Larry’s views. But when the ’70s ended, a different kind of Christianity rose up on the wings of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. This more judgmental, less inclusive movement ushered in a new establishment that slammed the door shut on egalitarian brand of Christianity that Larry espoused.

No room at the inn

There was no room for questioners like Larry Norman in the new world of black-and-white Christianity, and he never again attained the level of popularity or acceptance he had achieved during the 1970s. In the end, he died young and relatively unknown to many, despite being recognized as the “Father of Christian Rock” and the man behind the most critically acclaimed Christian album of all time.

Larry may have engaged in a degree of self-pity at times, but that’s a natural human response to the kind of attacks he faced. Given his immense talent, he could have probably made a fortune as a musician catering to either secular or Christian tastes. But he refused to cater to anyone, and that brought both scorn and frustration from both sides of the fence.

As an artist myself, I can relate. I’ve always insisted on asking the hard questions, refusing to settle for clichés in place of real answers. When it became clear the church didn’t want to listen, I stopped going. Unlike Larry, I didn’t start out with the ultimate answer. When I became a Christian, it was a trial run rather than a leap of faith. I recall saying to myself, “I’ll give this thing a chance. If it works, great. If not, at least I’ll know why.” Ultimately, it didn’t work for me, and what drove me away is the same narrow-minded intransigence Larry encountered all of his life.

The same evidence led us to different conclusions. Larry chose to continued the battle, while I stepped away from the war zone. I couldn’t understand why people who followed a prince of peace felt the need to remain continually at war with those they said they loved – even those who shared their core beliefs. I still can’t. And in the years since I left the church, those wars have only intensified. The conformist Christianity that marginalized Larry’s message during the 1980s has, if anything, gained a firmer foothold. The same people who excused men of dubious character like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart now place their hope in a similarly corrupt president, sacrificing their principles for the sake of a worldly kingdom no god would ever claim.

Larry Norman, prophet

Larry’s lyrics from The Great American Novel turned out to be prophetic": “The politicians all make speeches, while the newsmen all take notes. And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats.” Such are the times we live in, and we need voices like Larry’s today more than ever – voices that challenge us to be a better version of ourselves. Articulating that challenge was Larry’s greatest gift, and it’s why I still listen to his music today, long after I stopped going to church.

Consider this lyric from the same song: “You kill a black man at midnight just for talking with your daughter. Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water. And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on. And with every meal, you say a prayer you don’t believe, but still you keep on.”

Few others had the insight, integrity and guts to write lyrics like that, even at the height of the protest era. I can only imagine how many evangelicals would react to them today, in an era when most congregants admire a president who also enjoys the ardent support of the KKK.

My affinity with Larry stems in part from the fact that I, too, feel like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, with two things at stake: my personal integrity and my artistic vision. I have no desire to be either a religious robot or an embittered existentialist. Like Larry, I feel like a voice in the wilderness fighting an uphill battle. I refuse to conform for the sake of conformity or stop asking questions for the sake of “peace” – not when that peace is really a thinly veiled form of oppression.

I like to think, in some ways, that I’m following in Larry’s footsteps. Whether that’s the case or not, there’s no arguing that he inspired me.

I’m sorry I didn’t get another chance to talk to Larry Norman after that night in 1980, but I’m grateful to Gregory Thornbury for letting him speak to me again.

A prophet has no honor in his own country.
— John 4:44
The church doesn’t think I’m a Christian.
— Larry Norman


Writing the biography of a legend: Molly Bolin

Stephen H. Provost

Some people read romance novels for pleasure. Others read science fiction. In my youth, I was smitten by the Tolkien bug and went on a binge of epic fantasy, but these days, I have a different guilty pleasure: I read rock star biographies. Sammy Hagar. Freddie Mercury. Zeppelin. All four members of KISS.

For a while, I’ve wanted to write a biography of my own. Not a memoir, and certainly not an autobiography. I’m not in the business of putting people to sleep.

My friend Anne R. Allen, an author one of the premier bloggers on the business of writing, makes some good points in a recent piece on memoirs. The three that stood out to me were:

  • Tell a page-turning story.

  • Focus on significant and unique personal experience, especially when tied to a well-known person or event (emphasis mine).

  • Remember that a memoir, like a novel, is read for entertainment.

The first and the third points are closely related, and all three together are the criteria I use when deciding to read a biography. Plain and simple: I want to find out more than I already know ... about someone I already know about. And I want that “more” to be entertaining.

But as an author, I want my stories to be original. I don’t have much interest in writing yet another biography about Freddie Mercury, no matter how big a fan I may be (and I am). That story’s been told, and no one needs me to tell it yet again. One of my main objectives as an author has always been originality. I wanted to write the definitive history of Fresno in the Baby Boom years in 2015 and of U.S. Highway 99 in 2017, because no one else had done it.  

As you might imagine, this quest for originality becomes more challenging in the realm of biography. If you write about a regular, average person, who wants to read that – unless the story is knock-your-socks-off incredible. But most well-known public figures have already been featured in biographies written by better-known authors than I. So, my desire to write a biography has always been unfulfilled as I waited for the “perfect” subject I suspected would never come along.

Then, she did. The result is The Legend of Molly Bolin.

Out of the blue

The irony is that this book came about because of another project that was more a labor of love than anything else. I didn’t write A Whole Different League (AWDL) to be a big seller; I wrote it because I had grown up as a sports fan and had always been fascinated about leagues that didn’t quite make it. I’d spent a decade working as a sportswriter at daily newspapers, yet I’d never written a sports book. I figured it was time to do so.

Writing AWDL, like reading rock star biographies, was something of a guilty pleasure for me – so much so that I wrote it in fits and starts over the course of two years, putting it down to write something I thought would be more marketable before picking it up again between projects. I had the first draft all but done when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League from the late 1970s, which had lasted three years and featured the likes of Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman ... and Molly Bolin.

The odd thing was, I’d never heard of Molly. But what made that even stranger is that she had scored more points than any of them. More points in a season. More points in a game. More points in a playoff game. More points in a half. More points in a career. The fact that the premier scorer in the first women’s pro basketball league had somehow flown under my radar piqued my interest, so I started doing some more research. I found out that she had remarried and was now Molly Kazmer, so I took a flyer and looked her up on social media.

Lo and behold, she answered my request and wound up providing me with some great firsthand information about the WBL for that final chapter. But the more she told me, the more I became convinced that her story alone would make a fascinating book. Had anyone else written one on her? Had she ever considered writing one herself?

By fortuitous happenstance, the answers were “no” and “yes,” respectively. In fact, she had been accumulating a wealth of photos, newspaper clips and other memorabilia to someday document her life and career. I suggested to her that “someday” might be now: Would she consider working with me to tell her story?

Again, the answer was “yes,” and for the next 10 weeks or so, we communicated almost daily as I wove together her life’s story from a combination of her many recollections, media resources and interviews with contemporaries – many of whom had amazing stories of their own to tell. There was Tanya Crevier, the 5-foot-3 ballhandling wizard who played three years of pro ball with Molly and still performs an amazing and inspirational show worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters for people around the world. Then there was Greg Williams, the only person to coach women’s championship teams in three different pro leagues, on top of an impressive Division I college resume. He not only was kind enough to sit for an extensive phone interview, but he agreed to write the foreword.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

An amazing story

Even with all that, though, Molly was the star of the show. Not only was she the top scorer in the first women’s pro league, she was the first player to ever sign. She went from a benchwarmer during the first half of her rookie season – to the team’s offensive star, even though she was young enough to have been a junior in college.

She adapted her game from Iowa’s old 6-on-6 rules (three offensive players always in the frontcourt; three defenders confined to the other half of the hardwood). But not only that, she turned it to her advantage by using a quick stop-and-shoot style that presaged the modern jump shot practiced by the likes of Stephen Curry – to whom she’s been compared. Or, perhaps, he’s been compared to her.

She even won a precedent-setting court case and helped pave the way for today’s merchandising boom by pro athletes such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James, when she came up with a marketing strategy that made her basketball’s answer to Farrah Fawcett. Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Pete Maravich, Martina Navratilova and Rick Barry play a part in the narrative, too.

I won’t give anything more away (you’ve got to buy the book!), but I will say this: The Legend of Molly Bolin is everything a great biography should be – and not because I wrote it. It was simply a great story waiting to be told, and I had honor of being the one to tell it.

The story isn’t just about Molly. It’s about all the players, coaches and executives who made history by taking part in the WBL and other early women’s leagues. People like Althea Gwyn, Doris Draving, Cardte Hicks, Connie Kunzmann, Robin Tucker, Rita Easterling, Janie Fincher and Tanya Crevier. The league was inducted as a whole into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last year as Trailblazers of the Game, and deservedly so.

But there are at least a few members of the old WBL who deserve to be inducted individually, as players like Meyers, Blazejowski, Lusia Harris and Lieberman have been. After all, if a Stevie Nicks can join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Fleetwood Mac and a solo artist, it only makes sense to bestow the same kind of honor on a Molly Bolin.

Like one of her jump shots, it ought to be a sure thing.




A guide to Facebook friendships for authors: 15 dos and don'ts

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t attend church these days, but when I did, I noted a constant tension between “outreach” and what the numbers game, and I realized that all too often, the line between them was blurred. Motives were mixed, and sometimes it seemed like a church was advocating outreach to the poor and needy as a means of putting more rear ends in the pews (and, by extension, more money in the offering dish).

If this seems cynical, it isn’t meant to be. I’m just pointing out that pure and not-so-pure motives can work toward the same ends. But when the latter dominate, they tend to undermine the former – or overwhelm them entirely.

You can exhale now. This isn’t a blog about religion. It could just as easily be about elected officials and the tension between public service and political donations. Or corporations, and customer service vs. the bottom line.

It isn’t about those things, but it’s about the same sort of underlying tension, which is becoming more and more common in the world of publishing, often among independent and self-published authors.

Writing is a tough business: Not many are able to make a living at it, and it’s difficult to get noticed, even if you’ve got an agent or publishing house in your corner. Whenever something’s this hard, it’s natural to look for shortcuts. It’s easy to buy “how to” books and enroll in dubious workshops written by people who promise success. But most such people are merely hoping to line their own pockets by capitalizing on your desperation to somehow make things happen.

One of the things these books and workshops often emphasize is networking. Many of us, as authors, aren’t good at this. We aren’t social creatures by nature, preferring to wrap ourselves up in our next story rather than venturing out into the world at large. We’re not experts at self-promotion, by and large, and most of us tend to shy (or run) away from it ... which makes us even more prone to trying shortcuts. When it comes to networking, we don’t like to schmooze or make sales pitches, we stick our toe hesitantly in the water, pull it back out at the first sign of a chill – and, in the process, do more damage to our public image than we would if we’d jumped right in.

Instead of doing the work, we rely on shortcuts, which seem less painful in the short term but seldom accomplish anything in the long run.

One such shortcut is the Facebook friend request, which has become the online equivalent of handing out your business cards to strangers on a street corner. (Show of hands: How many of you keep a business cards someone thrusts into you hand on the sidewalk?) I’ve been getting an increasing number of friend requests from other authors online, which in itself is fine, but that seems to be as far as it goes. Few of these authors bother to follow up by posting on my profile, and some don’t share much of anything on their profile except pitches for their releases.

Repeat after me: That’s not how networking works.

Real networking

Networking requires engaging with people, and getting to know them as human beings rather than sales marks who “maybe, just maybe, will buy my book” (or review it or share my posts with others). Such friend requests have less in common with actual friendship than they do with childish games like ring-and-run, or with superficial but sometimes guilt-inducing chain messages/emails. Still, this tactic has become so pervasive that I’m more hesitant to accept friend requests from other authors than anyone else except Nigerian princes or porn bots.

Some authors are encouraged to pursue this course because many people will accept their requests simply based on the fact that they’re “fellow authors” and that they have a fair number of friends in common. Then, instead of introducing themselves, they often immediately send you invitations to “like” their Facebook business pages, hoping that this in itself will somehow magically produce more sales. Hint: It won’t.

To return to our church analogy, it’s like passing the offering plate while parishioners are still finding their seats – before the first hymn or chorus is even sung. Or like demanding supporters make cash donations before a politician is even elected ... wait, they do that anyway, but you know how highly people think of politicians, right? ’Nuff said.

Good networking requires a lot more than this, and being a socially awkward author who feels out of his/her element when it comes to marketing will not change this fact, no matter how badly we might wish it.

But the beauty of Facebook is that authors can actually do networking – real networking – without ever leaving their comfort zone. If you’re on Facebook, you don’t have to meet anyone face-to-face (although occasional personal appearances are still a good idea). You can make meaningful contacts without ever leaving the comfort of your home office. If, like me, you’re a lot better at one-on-one interactions than mass marketing, do that! Take Facebook’s friend requests literally and make friends.

This requires, first of all, that you avoid the temptation to send off friend requests willy-nilly to any author who happens to share 50 mutual friends or more. Check to see if you have other interests, a hometown, a favorite band or something else in common – more than just writing in the same genre – before you approach someone. Facebook has tools to help you find these areas of common interest, so make use of them. Then, if someone accepts your request, interact directly. Respond to something on their profile. Engage. And not necessarily about books. About art, philosophy, history, music.

If they buy or review your books, that’s gravy. If not, you’ve done something more valuable: You’ve made a friend. And friends are more likely to read your work because they want to, not out of some sense of duty to a fellow writer.

Dos and don’ts

Here, in a nutshell, is my advice for dealing with other authors, and friends in general, on Facebook.

  • DO send friend requests to people with whom you have something in common in addition to writing.

  • DO engage with new friends on a personal level. Start conversations that have nothing to do with books and even less to do with selling them: Make pitches the rare exception, rather than the rule.

  • DO talk about writing as a craft; give your friends insight into how you work and let them share your excitement at your progress ... but because they’re your friends, not because they’re “marks” for a potential sale.

  • DO stay positive and encourage others to write, regardless of whether they’ve read a single word you’ve written or are ever likely to.

  • DO have a sense of humor, including about yourself. Post funny stuff.

  • DO share a variety of types of posts on your profile, from memes and polls to personal insights and photos to music videos and news stories.

  • DO respond to posts on other people’s profiles, not just your own.

  • DO let people know what you believe in; talk occasionally about your principles and how they’ve helped shape your life and work, but ...

  • DON’T spend too much time on partisan politics unless you want to spend a lot of energy fighting off trolls and risk alienating friends who are sick of hearing about it.

  • DON’T send out friend requests like mass mailers, hoping to put another notch in your gun.

  • DON’T immediately ask a new friend to “like” your Facebook business page. (Hint: You’ll attract a lot more page followers by actually posting interesting stuff there – imagine that!)

  • DON’T treat your Facebook profile as nothing more than a sales showroom for your books.

  • DON’T engage in author wars; no one wins when you presume start telling other authors how to write, and most people outside the author community don’t care.

  • DON’T spend a lot of space complaining about the industry. We all need to vent sometimes, and friends will understand that, but if you’re too negative too often, people will tune you out.

  • And, above all, DON’T get so distracted by all this that you stop writing. That is what makes you a writer, after all.

New book recalls outlaw leagues, forgotten teams

Stephen H. Provost

I’ve always been a sports fan. Well, maybe not always, but at least since I started watching football as a preteen. My father followed all the L.A. teams, so I did, too. I collected baseball cards, followed the box scores in the newspaper and parked myself on the sofa every Saturday and Sunday to watch six hours of football – shouting at the TV every time the ref made a lousy call.

My parents and I attended half a dozen Dodgers games each year, and my dad took me to see a Lakers game and a Rams game. We lived next door to the Dodgers’ left fielder at the time, Bill Buckner, and he got me a ticket to see a game in the 1974 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a World Series game against Oakland that same year.

But I wasn’t just a fan of the major sports. Dad took me to an L.A. Aztecs soccer game at the Rose Bowl, where the 9,000 fans looked lost in a sea of 100,000 seats. I also saw Steve Young play a game for the L.A. Express. I loved the ABA’s 3-point shot and the USFL’s two-point conversion, and I followed the Southern California Sun in the old WFL. I even remember watching Dick Lane announce “World Champion L.A. T-Bird” roller games on syndicated TV. They were more spectacle than sport, but I didn’t know it at the time.

Memories from my childhood tend to find their way into books, as they did with Fresno Growing Up and Highway 99. So it is also with A Whole Different League, my latest release, an extensive look at outlaw leagues, forgotten teams and the players who made them great – or at least interesting – of only for a brief moment in time.

The work covers more than two dozen big (and wannabe big) leagues, most of which receive an entire chapter’s worth of information. Their founders were innovators who broke down racial barriers and ushered in the era of free agency. They gave us the three-point shot, which changed the way basketball is played today. With names like the WHA, AAFC and All-American Girls Pro Baseball League, they fielded teams with names like the Chicago Whales and Philadelphia Bell. They were upstarts and outcasts, playing in rundown arenas and without TV contracts but making the kind of memories you don’t find in prime time.

Writing the book

I started this project a couple of years ago, picked it up again, then put it down before finally finishing it this year. It was one of those ideas that just kept its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go, and I’m glad it didn’t. It’s the first book I’ve published on my own imprint (Dragon Crown Books) that includes photos and statistical tables, and it’s also the first in a larger format: 8 by 10 instead of the standard 6 by 9.

It was an involved process, to say the least. The research involved sifting through more than 400 newspaper articles, magazine pieces, websites and books on everything from the National Bowling League to the Negro Leagues, from the All-America Football Conference to the All-American Girls Baseball League. Even Roller Derby. I thought I’d almost reached the end of it when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League that ran for three seasons starting in the late 1970s.

I got in touch with Molly Bolin (now Kazmer), the league’s all-time leading scorer, who in turn put me in touch with Cardte Hicks, the first woman to dunk in competition. Both were kind enough to share their memories of the WBL, whose members were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last summer as “trailblazers of the game.” If you’ve never heard of either of these great athletes, that’s part of the reason I wrote this book.

Writing historical nonfiction is not only a trip down memory lane for me, it’s also a journey of new discovery. This book was no exception. If you enjoyed accompanying me on my scavenger hunt of old U.S. Highway 99, chances are you’ll enjoy this work, too. And there’s more where that came from: Forthcoming books will focus on U.S. Highway 101 and the history of American department stores/shopping malls.


A Whole Different League contains stories of:

  • The high-scoring basketball star who was so volatile an opposing team once hired five boxers to stand guard at courtside – and who disappeared, never to be heard from again, on a trip to Africa.

  • The Hall of Famer who came out of retirement at age 45 to play alongside his two sons, leading his new team to a championship and winning the MVP Award.

  • George Steinbrenner’s first big signing: the two-time college basketball player of the year.

  • The NBA legend whose poor eyesight led to him to design the ABA’s red-white-and-blue basketball. 

  • Miami’s first pro football team, which was almost as bad as the 1972 Dolphins were good.   

  • The man who built Wrigley Field and the team that played there before the Cubs called it home.

  • The first pro baseball game played under the lights at Wrigley – more than 40 years before the Cubs played their first night game there.

  • The hard-partying skater who signed the richest contract in pro sports but wound up sleeping on a park bench after he lost it all.

  • The team owner who warned Donald Trump he'd have "no regrets whatsoever" punching him “right in the mouth.” 

  • The batting champion who hit like Ty Cobb but was banned from baseball. (No, it’s not Shoeless Joe Jackson.)

  • The team that was supposed to bring NFL football to Los Angeles nine years before the Rams moved west from Cleveland.Jackie Robinson’s professional debut – in football.

  • The man who set a record for the most points scored in a pro basketball game, even though he averaged fewer than 12 points a game that season.

  • The man who coached pro teams to championships in three different leagues.

And that’s just the beginning. At 334 pages, it’s the second-longest book I’ve written (behind the two-volume work, The Phoenix Principle). A Whole Different League is available now on Amazon. I had a great time writing it, and I hope you’ll have just as much fun reading it.

Movie review: "Bird Box" is what horror should be — and usually isn't

Stephen H. Provost

There’s a Geico commercial playing in theaters these days that trots out several badly overused horror movie clichés. A bunch of teenagers are seen hiding from a creepy guy behind a row of chainsaws (!) rather than escaping in a running car, answering their cellphone and, finally, inexplicably, running toward a cemetery.

“If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do,” the announcer says.

It’s funny because it’s true: A lot of horror movies are bad. Really bad. That’s why I don’t bother with most of them. If I want to laugh at a horror movie, I want it to be intentional (think Young Frankenstein). I don’t want to go in expecting suspense, and instead have to suspend disbelief to avoid laughing out loud.

This brings me to Bird Box, the newly released Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich. I’ve written about the book here before, and I enjoyed it, so I went in hoping the movie wouldn’t entirely screw up a great novel (as movies are wont to do: Think Logan’s Run).

Thankfully, it doesn’t.

One reason it succeeds is that it doesn’t have people make inexplicably poor decisions simply to put them in harm’s way. They do make bad choices, but those choices are rational and — more importantly — driven by human compassion. The characters must decide whom to trust based on little or no information: Do they leave a stranger “out there” to die at the hands of a mysterious, ravening predator, or do they expose themselves to potential harm by letting that person through the front door? The tension between compassion and self-preservation plays a key role in the movie, as it does in the book. Contrast this with your typical low-budget horror film, wherein a bad screenwriter conjures up some false motivation that no one in real life would ever share in order to justify the terror. (Or simply forgoes motivation entirely and makes the “heroes” a bunch of idiots.)

Bird Box, the movie, wisely adheres to the same formula that made Josh Malerman’s book a success: focusing on the human response to horror, rather than the horror itself. This, I think, is at the heart of the formula for successful horror. Often, the more graphic the horror is, the more two-dimensional the characters become. They wind up being little more than props to be bludgeoned and butchered in the next big gore scene; mannequins at the mercy of Freddie or Jason (who are the real “stars” of the show). To be blunt, I don’t care whether those mannequins live or die, so why should I care about the movie?

I’ve seen a handful of horror films in the past year, and this has been the dividing line between good and bad in each of them. The Nun was awful, filled with jump scares and clichés that left me yawning and rolling my eyes. (Just because The Exorcist worked, that doesn’t mean filmmakers need to keep recycling the “Catholics vs. the Antichrist” theme from now until the Second Coming). The Halloween update was another by-the-numbers retread, rendered passable only by the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis.

On the positive side was Stephen King’s It, which succeeded for the same reason Stranger Things works as a series: It reintroduced us to a childhood we all remember through vivid characters placed in harm’s way. The “evil clown” trope wouldn’t have worked otherwise (it helps a little that it’s not a real clown). If you doubt me, check out Terrifier, another “evil clown” film that I turned off halfway through because I just wanted to go to sleep.

Also effective was A Quiet Place, which was, in some ways, similar to Bird Box. In both, society is threatened by a mysterious predatory evil that limits humans’ ability to interact normally with one another and their surroundings. In A Quiet Place, the characters must remain silent because the predators hunt by sound; in Bird Box, they can’t look at their enemy without being driven mad to the point of suicide. Both films feature strong characters, and I highly recommend seeing both, although I think the story behind Bird Box is more original. The idea that our greatest enemies are unseen, and that those enemies can drive us to the brink of insanity and beyond, is powerful stuff.

The movie did deviate from the book in a few respects. The birds play a bigger role in the film than they do in the novel, and there’s a romance between two characters that doesn’t exist in print. (I give props to Malerman’s original version, in this respect, for its subtlety and the recognition that a deep bond can form between characters without having them jump in the sack.)

The movie also gives the evil force a power I don’t remember from the book: the ability to play tricks on the mind by mimicking voices of its previous victims. While this does add some heightened suspense at the end of the movie, there’s little or no indication prior to that of any such ability on the part of the unseen enemy. Some foreshadowing would have helped.

As with Curtis’ presence in the new Halloween, Bullock and Malkovich bring considerable acting chops to Bird Box, but unlike Curtis in Halloween, they don’t have to carry the movie. The story does that, as it should.

Capsule review:

Bird Box is what a horror movie should be — but hardly ever is: tension, suspense, human frailty and courage in the face of terror. Malerman’s book was still better, but it inspired a film that’s several cuts above for a genre that too often relies on cheap jump scares and tired tropes. Malerman understood that humanity is at the core of a good thriller, and the filmmakers wisely followed his lead. It’s an original story deftly told and a strong cast make this well worth seeing.

"Motel California" by Heather M. David (review)

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t often write book reviews in this space, in part because I don’t read many books cover-to-cover these days. Motel California was an exception. I’ll admit it’s a “coffee-table book,” so it didn’t take me long to cover its 184 pages, but it’s worth taking your time for the quality of the artwork, the presentation and the nuggets of information you’ll find there.

Heather M. David has created a beautifully illustrated, record of the motel in California that’s a worthy addition to the library of any highway history buff or fan of 20th century Americana. Motel California chronicles the heyday of the motor lodge in the Golden State, offering a glimpse at the kind of man-made scenery that transformed highways into something like an amusement park ride all their own, even if you didn’t stop for the night.

David approaches the motels from an architectural standpoint, briefly spotlighting the architects themselves before embarking on a series of chapters dedicated to various motel themes and styles: Storyland, The Western Frontier, Desert Oasis, Tropical Paradise, Cosmic Voyage, Seaside Escape and Mountain High. (David points out that these distinct themes allowed motels to distinguish themselves from one another and stand out from the pack.)

Other chapters focus on the restaurants/coffee shops adjacent to many of the motels; rooms; pools; and, of course, the neon and plastic signs that lit up the night, beckoning travelers to their destination.


David does a good job covering most of the state, dedicating significant space to the Orange County/Disneyland area, as well as Lake Tahoe. I was pleased to find pages on some of the motels I’m familiar with and a few that I covered in my own book on Highway 99 and my forthcoming work on Highway 101. Those include the Motel Inn – the world’s first “motel” – and the nearby Madonna Inn, both in San Luis Obispo.

She also includes a vintage picture of the Western Motel in Santa Clara, with its distinctive cactus sign. I took a photo of this one myself for Highway 101, so it’s still there, although (unfortunately) the neon has been removed.

As a native Fresnan and the author of Fresno Growing Up, I also particularly enjoyed the material on Fresno’s old motels, one of which (The Tropicana Lodge) is featured both on the cover as well as inside. I was pleased to see the chapter on signs included both the old Fresno Hacienda sign and the iconic “diving girl” sign from the old Fresno Motel. The picture of the interior of the old Pine Cone Restaurant was a particular treat, as I remember visiting that place as a child and digging into a “treasure chest” for trinkets they gave away to youngsters.

The book is handsomely illustrated with postcards, historic and modern photos, souvenirs and vintage ads, all in vivid color on glossy pages. I was struck by the off-kilter sign on the Jump n’ Jack Motor Hotel (page 28), the camel attraction at the Pyramid Motel in Anaheim (page 60), and the outrigger-style architecture of the Palm Springs Tropics (page 76) and San Diego’s Half-Moon Inn (page 78).

In terms of the text, the book is at its best when it traces the history of the various locations, pinpointing when the motels opened and letting the reader know what happened to them. Something I didn’t know: The Palm Springs Tropics was adjacent to a Sambo’s, which also operated a “Congo Room” cocktail lounge on the site. There’s a cool photo of the interior of the Congo Room, too.

I’ve long been fascinated by once-ubiquitous pieces of our culture that have faded from view over time: old motels, gas stations, shopping malls, department stores, sporting venues, concert halls. For me, buying Motel California was a no-brainer, and I wasn’t disappointed. If your interests run parallel to mine, I’m betting you won’t be, either.

Motel California (184 pages, full color, $45, CalMod Books) is available from the author’s website or via Amazon.


A heroic dragon and a dose of sarcasm: my two latest releases

Stephen H. Provost

What happens when you get two book ideas at the same time? Until this fall, I would have worked on one and put the other on the back burner, but when one idea inspires you and you’re facing a self-imposed deadline for the other, you don’t have that option. Besides, when one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, each tends to provide a nice break from the other.

So, over the course of the past six weeks or so, I wrote them both, which explains why I released The Only Dragon and Please Stop Saying That! within a couple of weeks of each other.

The Only Dragon: The Legend of Tara

In point of fact, both ideas inspired me, but under normal circumstances, I probably would have put off The Only Dragon had I not decided I wanted to release it in time for the local Dragon Festival, which was fast approaching. I’d been fascinated by dragons since my parents bought me a stuffed snake (which I insisted was a dragon) as a toddler, and I had wanted to write a dragon story for years.


Finally, I had a good excuse. I would create a fable that explained why the dragon is known the world over, how she – in my book, she’s a girl – came to breathe fire and why the dragon is revered in the east as a symbol of good luck and reviled in the west as a fearsome, demonic creature. I’d throw in a pair of noble wizards, a couple of power-hungry kings, a mysterious goddess-like character and a snarky gray tabby for good measure.

(Coincidentally, I just adopted a gray tabby myself. The vet told me she was male, so I named her Ragnar, only to have the vet reverse herself six weeks later; so, now she’s Khaleesi – Kiki for short.)

Most authors don’t write fables these days, but I love the genre, and it’s something I enjoy writing (see The Way of the Phoenix, Feathercap and some of the stories in Nightmare’s Eve). It offers a poetic way to examine the world around us and what makes us human.

Please Stop Saying That!

Please Stop Saying That! is an old idea, as well. It’s a riff on something I did as news editor at The Fresno Bee: I created a local stylebook that included examples of jargon, clichés and buzzwords to avoid when writing stories. It was a serious endeavor, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but laugh at how silly and, sometimes, meaningless they sounded; about how we’d use them without even thinking because they were so deeply ingrained in ourselves and our culture.

Now that I’m no longer a working journalist, I can let some of that sarcasm out, and that’s what PSST! allowed me to do. There’s something in there to offend almost everyone if it’s taken seriously, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously, so please don’t (except for a few jabs at bullying and bigotry, which ought to be condemned whether you’re using humor or not). I toyed with the idea of calling it Think Before You Speak, but I liked PSST! better, in part because it sounded cool as an abbreviation.

Psst. I think you’ll like both these books, the fifth and sixth I’ve released this year. That’s a record for me, and I’m proud of it, but I’m not stopping now. I’ve got plenty of ideas waiting in the wings, and more time than ever before to explore them as a full-time author. This is the life!



Facebook friends aren't notches on your "networking" gun

Stephen H. Provost

Dear potential online friends: I’m not a target in your networking strategy, and I won't be another notch on your gun. Even if you are authors.

There’s a weird trend going around among authors on social media. They hit up as many fellow writers as possible with friend requests, immediately invite them to “like” their Facebook page ... and never have any other contact with them.

Then, they call it “networking.”

Often, these authors only post about their books, sales milestones and positive reviews; they don’t bother to visit other profiles after their request is accepted, and they don’t manage to post anything much about themselves except for industry stuff.

It reminds me why I never liked cocktail parties, where the whole point of the evening is to make contacts, exchange business cards, and talk about inane subjects everyone is certain to forget five minutes after the party’s over – if not sooner.

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other fields, but I do know I didn’t get a lot of requests from fellow journalists when I was working in newspapers.

Common interests

Look, I like connecting with authors because we have something in common. I also like connecting with Star Trek fans, classic rock connoisseurs, old highway enthusiasts and people who are into mythology. But adding someone to your social media “stable” and then proceeding to ignore them isn’t connecting. It’s putting another notch on that Facebook gun of yours.

I remember going to churches where pastors lamented the need to “grow their flock.” There weren’t enough warm bodies in the pews, and the way they talked about attracting new visitors made it sound like a numbers game. The focus wasn’t on getting to know the people as individuals, it was on adding more “souls” (who could put enough money in the offering plate to keep the church lights on and, of course, pay the pastor’s salary.)

Authors have more of an excuse. It’s difficult to support yourself putting out books, and marketing is as much a part of the job as writing – if not more. When book sales slump, people get desperate and start throwing “publicity” at the wall, hoping something sticks. I know what this desperation feels like: I’m going through just such a slump right now. But I also know it doesn’t work: When people start throwing random ads at me, I tune them out. It also alienates people who might be able to help you if you took a different tack.

Like, maybe, trying to get to know them.

What if you treated social media like a visit to a new neighbor’s home? You wouldn’t go over and knock on the door, wait for it to open, then just stare at the person for a moment and walk away. You’d introduce yourself, give them a bit of background on yourself, tell them it’s nice to meet them and maybe say something complimentary about their home.

Perhaps you find you have something in common; perhaps not. After a couple of minutes, you excuse yourself and leave. Maybe you leave it at that. Or, if you enjoyed the conversation, maybe you ring the person up a couple of days later and invite them out for coffee. Maybe then you start talking a little about your books ... along with other things you have in common. You forge an actual friendship.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do when you go over and introduce yourself is push your way past your new neighbor and into the house without an invitation.

Social protocols

On social media, that’s what it can feel like if someone immediately sends you a direct message. Somehow, we’ve had a hard time translating the social protocols we’ve developed in the real world to the online environment. Maybe it’s time we started doing so. (When sending naked or half-naked selfies to strangers has become common practice, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve lost our bearings.)

I’m friends with a good number of authors online – because they’ve let me get to know them, and vice versa, not merely because they’re authors. I’m friends with other folks who aren’t writers, too, and I feel more comfortable with some of them than I do with many of my author friends. Because, even though I’m an author, I don’t like to talk about writing all the time. I like to talk about music and history and science and politics and philosophy and a host of other topics, weighty and frivolous.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly more selective about the people whose requests I accept. I’ve become aggressive about weeding out potential spammers and scammers, and I’ve started watching new friends I do accept closely. Do they bother to comment on something I’ve posted? Do they post their own thoughts, or do they just repost links? Are they continually asking their contacts to buy this product, sign this petition or contribute to this cause?

Or are they people, authors or otherwise, who I can feel comfortable being friends with – even if it’s only online? I’m not trying to make people feel paranoid, as though I’ll drop them if I don’t hear from them for a week or a month. I won’t. I just want people whose company I can enjoy without feeling I’ve got a marketing target on my back.

We live in an era when the hard sell has collided head-on with a case of collective amnesia about how to treat others with respect and courtesy. That makes it even more of a challenge do real networking and cultivate real friendships. It also makes it even more imperative that we make the effort to do so. Not because we’re authors, but because we’re ... human.

Highway 99, the Lost Chapter: Trucks and Truck Stops

Stephen H. Provost

Sometimes, you can't squeeze everything in. You've done your research and you've found a lot of interesting stuff - too much, in fact, to fit in the pages of the book you're writing. So, something has to go. 

Highway 99: The History of California's Main Street originally included a few sections that ultimately failed to make the cut. I had to leave out an entire chapter on big rigs and truck stops that I'd intended to include, but which wound up being sacrificed when the manuscript wound up being longer than I'd intended. So here it is, the "lost" chapter, presented here for the first time with the photos I originally chose to illustrate it. Enjoy!

(If you like what you read here, Highway 99 is available for purchase on Amazon or through the publisher at

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

More Than Four Wheels

You can’t get too far on the highway before seeing a “Divided Highway” sign. In some places, 99 is divided by a center median, often landscaped with oleanders or other shrubs. But there’s one kind of division you’ll find on the highway no matter which stretch you’re traveling: the division between vehicles with four wheels and those with 18 (give or take a few).

It’s hard to miss the big rigs, buses, tractor-trailers and the like that are so common on the highway. For years, 99 has served as the economic backbone of the state, passing through fertile farmland and industrial centers alike. Warehouses, grain silos and distribution centers line the highway. In the days of the federal highway system, it didn’t matter whether you were transporting raisins from Selma or dates from Indio: U.S. 99 was the way to go.

Still, even today, if you’re behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Mazda, you might not pay much attention to the infrastructure built around the trucking industry. The average motorist might cross the Tehachapis without taking much notice of signs with messages such as “6% grade 2½ miles ahead” and “Trucks use low gears.” Trucks are supposed to observe a lower speed limit and keep to the right, so swifter automobiles can pass. Runaway truck ramps, with their heavy gravel to slow down out-of-control big rigs, are visible on the downslope from Lebec heading north toward Grapevine. You’ll see the first one on your right, a little more than three miles north of Tejon Summit, and the second on your left less than a half-mile later.

In the highway’s early days, without such precautions, accidents were far too common and, often, tragic. The original Ridge Route had more than its share of hairpin turns hugging steep cliff walls; a single mistake, even at 15 miles per hour, could be catastrophic, and the white picket fences that served as guardrails around dangerous turns were hardly sturdy enough to keep heavy truck from lurching over the edge. The 180-degree hairpin called Deadman’s Curve between Lebec and Grapevine was particularly treacherous.

Once the Ridge Route Alternate was built, the straighter highway reduced the danger of missing a turn but raised a new threat: The straighter road meant trucks could build up a head of speed going downhill that made them even more dangerous if their brakes started smoking and failed unexpectedly.

In 1946, The Bakersfield Californian detailed a truck’s “mad plunge” just before midnight one July evening. It went out of control and sideswiped a passenger car, sending it off the highway and leaving the driver shaken but uninjured. The truck careened on toward Grapevine, where it slammed into the rear of a van, propelling it into a row of gasoline pumps and three other cars at the Richfield filling station. The truck, meanwhile, kept going, plowing into yet another car and shoving it to the edge of the embankment, where both vehicles burst into flames. A passenger in the truck was burned to death, its driver suffered a broken leg, and the driver of the final car to be hit was hospitalized with severe burns.

Other news reports told similar stories. Out-of-control trucks became, as one writer put it, “juggernauts of death” on a stretch of highway that was fast becoming known as Bloody 99: the steep grade just south of Grapevine. During one 10-day stretch in 1943, that single section of road bore witness to nine runaway truck accidents.

Engineers added a concrete barrier to keep trucks from swerving into oncoming traffic, and other proposals surfaced as well. One involved requiring trucks to stop at the summit and switch into low gear before descending, though critics argued that this would merely back up traffic and create a new hazard.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The Grapevine Grade wasn’t the only trouble spot. The Five Mile Grade, heading the opposite direction near Castaic, was also the scene of numerous brake failures and truck crashes. A runaway truck ramp, like those above Grapevine, was built in the 1950s to reduce the number of accidents, but it only remained in use until 1970. It was then that a freeway upgrade created a novel alignment: New southbound lanes were added, following a gentler downward slope to the east, while the old southbound route was converted to carry northbound traffic. As a result, drivers traveling over the five-mile stretch between Castaic and Violin Summit progress British-style, on the left of oncoming traffic. (A significant gap separates the two segments of roadway).

The emergency ramps came in handy, not only for truckers, but also for law enforcement. On at least one occasion, one of the ramps Grapevine Grade halted more than a runaway trucker: They stopped an accused runaway kidnapper. In January of 2008, Highway Patrol officers and Los Angeles responded to a report that a man had assaulted his estranged wife and abducted their child, making his escape in a stolen truck. The officers pursued the suspect northbound over more than 70 miles from Highway 101 onto Interstate 5 before the chase finally ended just north of Grapevine. It seems the man mistook one of the runaway truck ramps there for a highway exit and found his vehicle immobilized by the coarse gravel.

He was arrested immediately.

One reason the trucks can be so dangerous on a steep downhill slope is their weight. Big rigs can weigh up to 40 tons, compared to the typical car at only 2½ tons. Once they get going at highway speeds, they can require two-thirds more pavement to stop once the brakes are applied – if the brakes are working. That’s part of the reason California requires trucks rated above a certain weight (currently 11,500 pounds) to stop at scales cleverly designated as “weigh stations.” And it’s no accident that two of the eight or so weigh stations along the historic U.S. 99 route can be found at either side of the Tehachapis, just south of Castaic and slightly north of Grapevine.

The state recognized the need for scales early. In 1938, officials set up a 24-hour truck-checking station at Fort Tejon, near the point where the 99 began the steepest portion of its descent into the San Joaquin Valley. Highway Patrol officers were on hand to make sure loads were within limits defined under state law. “This station,” the California Highways publication declared, “will not only guard against overweight loads, but will also enable the traffic officers to insure that trucks using this mountain route are in good running order, and that all their braking equipment is working properly.”

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Private scales operated by companies such as CAT also opened up and down the highway, with nearly two dozen along the old 99 route between Los Angeles and the Oregon border as of 2014. Such private operations help ensure truckers’ loads are below the legal weight limit. CAT, for instance, offered this guarantee on its website: “If a driver receives an overweight fine after weighing legal on a CAT brand scale, CAT Scale Company will either pay the fine or appear in court with the driver as an expert witness in order to get the fine dismissed.”

Scales are far from the only highway business to have emerged in support of the trucking industry. As the nation shifted from the railroad to the highway as its primary means of transporting goods, a new industry sprang up to support the drivers who spent days away from home, driving long hours cross-country. They needed places to spend the night, to clean up, to grab some coffee and get a bite to eat. They also needed a place to buy the kind of fuel their semis ran on, diesel, which wasn’t always available at traditional gas stations.

Truck stops sprang up to fill these needs. Some establishments that catered to travelers and tourists, such as Sandberg’s, refused to serve truck drivers. But other stops along the old Ridge Route and elsewhere offered various combinations of a garage, cheap accommodations and a diner or coffee shop that suited truckers pretty well. As time passed, some roadside establishments started catering specifically to truckers, seating them first at the lunch counter or offering them a place to shower in the back.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, truckers had to make do. During the early years, some stayed at roadside auto camps, and many roughed it by sleeping in their vehicles, whose wooden seats were anything but the epitome of comfort. Anything more elaborate was usually improvised, and not necessarily any more comfortable. One San Joaquin Valley-based company rigged up a couple of ’22 Packards with wooden boxes over the cabs where the relief driver could sleep. The casual observer might have feared an appearance by Dracula at any moment.

By the mid-1930s, however, a few manufacturers had started offering sleepers as part of the package. The wooden boxes gave way to so-called “coffin sleepers,” cramped quarters usually placed directly behind the cab. These compartments might have been 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, giving the occupant barely enough room to turn over. Drivers with claustrophobic tendencies need not apply.

In the early 1950s, Kenworth offered a CBE model, which stood for “Cab-Beside-Engine.” The CBE design included a sleeping space for the relief driver between the cab and the engine, a configuration that earned it the nickname “suicide sleeper”: Few occupants could expect to survive a crash while they slept right next to the engine.

As trucks gained horsepower and gained load capacity, there was often no longer room for them at the inn. Many early motor courts included carports alongside their cabins, but they were called CARports for a reason: They didn’t provide enough clearance for trucks. Drivers ran into the same problem at some service stations, where canopies built to shield pumps from the elements were often too low to allow larger trucks access.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99. © Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

Truck stops offered an array of services that establishments catering to the auto traveler did not.

Many of the earliest among them, like the earliest motels and gas stations, were independent operations, but larger companies soon entered the fray once they realized they were missing a large segment of the market. Flying A’s flat-top station in Fresno, with its 110-foot “GAS” tower on the west side of 99, was a prime example of an early truck stop. The canopy was 70 feet high, providing ample room for trucks – which got their own separate entrance. Diesel fuel was available; there was a “completely equipped” truck lube pit, a public scale capable of weighing the largest truck on the road, and free shower rooms for all truckers. The expansive parking lot provided room for truckers to park their rigs and get a few hours’ worth of shuteye.

The station was still there until recently (having been removed to make way for the new high-speed rail line), although it sold Valero gasoline at the end, as does another venerable establishment, Clark’s Travel Center in Indio, offering “everything for the traveler, whether you are an RV’er, trucker, river rat or desert rat.” Amenities include a truck wash, long-term parking, self-service laundry, 24-hour restaurant and car-truck wash. Clark’s, which opened in the 1940s, advertises itself as “the oldest operating truck stop on historic Route 99 from Canada to Mexico.”

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The restaurant at Klein’s Truck Stop in the hamlet of Herndon, just north of Fresno, earned a reputation for serving among the best breakfasts around. The restaurant stayed open into the new millennium before finally closing its doors, yielding to a Taco Bell and an am/pm minimart while maintaining a huge parking lot as a place for truckers. One traveler from Los Angeles endorsed it by stating that, no matter how hungry he might be, he always held his appetite in check if he were within 50 miles of Klein’s.

Despite its popularity among the locals, there was no mistaking its target audience: the truck driver traveling the Main Street of California. When a truck driver came in, the hostess would usher him to the head of the line. The waitresses wore beehive hairdos, and each table had its own jukebox, offering up (of course) country music. The cooks made the kind of all-American fare that kept the belly feeling full for hours: hearty portions of chili, barbecue dishes, chicken-fried steak, their famous biscuits and gravy, and “pancakes as big and flat as Fresno.”

As time passed, places like Klein’s were eclipsed by truck palaces called travel plazas or travel centers, giant complexes along 99, I-5 and other major highways that were affiliated with big chains. And as the complexes grew bigger, a funny thing happened: Suddenly, they weren’t just for truckers anymore. Convenience stores served as many travelers as truckers, selling touristy T-shirts and CDs alongside motor oil and citizens band radio accessories.

Flying J, with four locations along the old 99 route, offered such amenities as Subway and Denny’s restaurants, 14 showers, a CAT scale, public laundry, video game arcade and ATMs at its site north of Bakersfield. Pilot, which bought out Flying J and had six locations along the old highway route as of 2014, offered another option, as did Petro Centers (four), Love’s Travel Shops (four) and TA Travel Centers (five).

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Media Meltdown: Blurb for my new book

Stephen H. Provost

Here's the blurb for my forthcoming book, "Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump," due out June 1. Pictured above is the full cover:

Some politicians use the media to their advantage. Others reshape it in their image.

Had the political force that is Donald J. Trump met the immovable object that was the American news media in the 20th century, the result would have been predictable. Trump would have vanished without a trace, along with such wannabes and also-rans as Edmund Muskie, Howard Dean, Gary Hart and John Edwards.

Today, however, the once-powerful Fourth Estate might as well be in foreclosure, shattered into a million pieces by cable television, talk radio and the internet. Newspapers, their stranglehold on information broken, are on life support. Gutted by cost-cutting and consolidation, they see the very same digital platforms that crippled them as their last, best hope for salvation. Television news, meanwhile, has descended from Cronkite and Brinkley into a three-ring circus of breaking news and talking (or shouting) heads.    

Trump, a carnival barker of a president, has taken for himself the role of ringmaster, using his chaotic style and the power of his office to dominate the spotlight. At once condemning and exploiting the media, he's transformed the presidency into a reality show, complete with multiple scandals and cliffhangers to keep everyone tuned in.

He didn’t arrive out of nowhere. The way for his ascent was paved by the media themselves, hungry for drama to stoke ratings and boost subscriptions. When cable and the internet began siphoning off readers/viewers by targeting their built-in biases, the nation became polarized and the gloves came off. Civility was sidelined, spin became the MVP, and the referees – the mainstream media – were benched.

This is the story of how carnival journalism has supplanted and, in some cases, co-opted what’s left of the mainstream media, and how politicians like Trump have both fueled and profited from the change. Is any of this good for the nation? A game without a referee might be more fun to watch, but is it fair? Media Meltdown provides some of the answers.

Nightmare's Eve: About My New Collection

Stephen H. Provost

A Collection of Twisted Tales

Connoisseurs of the murky and shadowy side of our existence often seem at pains to define the word “horror.” Too often, it brings to mind the B movies unleashed on us every year at Halloween. Or the grainy black-and-white “classics” they used to tuck away at the upper end of the UHF dial on weekends between midnight and 3 a.m. All bloodletting and jump scares and shaky cameras. I’ve never been much for any of that, because (for one thing) it always seemed like a wilted daisy chain of clichés and (for another) it didn’t scare me.

Jump scares startle, they don’t scare. Shaky cameras  make me queasy, and blood loses its impact when it spews out all over the place like Old Faithful.

This kind of thing, admittedly, does scare some people. Everyone’s different. But blood and gotcha scenes and monsters don’t add up to horror in my book — which is one reason I never really thought I’d write horror. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest.

It may surprise you, too, if you’ve read some of my other material, say the whimsical Feathercap or the uplifting Undefeated. In many ways, Nightmare’s Eve is the antithesis of the latter, which is a series of true stories about people who overcame seemingly impossible odds. The stories in Nightmare’s Eve aren’t true — and thankfully so, because most of them involve odds that really, truly are impossible.

The essence of horror

That’s where my definition of horror begins. It’s got nothing to do with monsters or gore, specifically. It’s all about what scares you. True horror dawns when you realize that you’re somehow “on the wrong side of things” ... and there’s no realistic way that you’ll ever get over to the right side again.

Horror is being trapped, hopeless, desperate. It’s that sickening feeling that rises up from the pit of your stomach when you recognize there’s no way out. And isn’t that true for all of us, really? You’re stuck there in that body of yours, and you won’t be getting out of there alive now, will you?

But horror is about more than death, it’s about that inexorable journey toward it. Our survival instinct demands that we claw and rage against it, but our very resistance to the inevitable can make it all the more tormenting. In fighting a battle we cannot win, do we merely prolong our agony as we fall apart piece by piece, inexorably? What would be, to you, most terrifying? To lose your freedom? Or your memory? Perhaps a loved one, or your ability to separate reality from illusion. When the things we love, we count on, we take for granted are stripped from us one by one, with no hope of ever recovering them … that is the true, naked aspect of horror.

Horror is the dawning of hopelessness, in that twilight time between waking and sleep when fear and panic mount for we who find no solace in slumber. For those of beset by nightmares that visit us anew each time we close our eyes. We cannot make our eyes remain open forever, yet as we surrender to exhaustion, the Sandman shows no mercy — but throws open the doors of our inner mind to madness.

From The Twilight Zone

The stories and verse you’ll find in Nightmare’s Eve will strike a familiar cord to those familiar with The Twilight Zone. They’re stories of ordinary people in the present day, extraordinary people from the past and imaginary people from a not-too-distant future that might be. Some hope does manage to seep in, on occasion, a solitary beam of sunlight creeping through the blinds into the dusty, vacant prison that is our soul.

What will it illuminate? A way out of the maze, or another dead end?

And a maze it is, this journey, with twists sometimes ironic, sometimes terrifying ... but always unexpected.

There are tales of the occult; of two renowned and noble saints (one named Nick, the other George); of fate and vampires and space exploration. Of psychic powers and time travel; of malevolent entities and genies and dragons and man’s best friend.

This work began as a small collection of three stories: Turn Left on Dover, Will to Live and A Deal in the Dark. The first of these, also the first written, contains a character for whom I named my cat, Allie (not Alley, as in Alley Cat, as many often suppose). It takes place in a city modeled after my hometown. And if you don’t know where that is, just pick up a copy of a very different book I wrote titled Fresno Growing Up.

The collection expanded gradually over the course of about four months to include 16 tales and 10 poems. I’ll share below the table of contents to whet your appetite for a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart or heavy of foot. You’ll want to have a spring in your step for what lies ahead. Read it before bed if you dare; it’s designed keep you awake at night.


  • A Deal in the Dark
  • Will to Live
  • Just the Ticket
  • Turn Left on Dover
  • Mama
  • Breaking the Cycle
  • Virulent
  • Anatomy of a Vampire
  • The Ends of the Earth
  • The Howl and the Purr
  • Teeth
  • The Faithful Dog
  • Lamp Unto My Fate
  • Nightmare’s Eve (Rotten Robbie's Christmas Comeuppance)
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • George & the Dragon: The Untold Story


  • Certitude
  • Lost Soliloquy
  • Unwound
  • Upon Reflection
  • Merlin's LAment
  • Bleed Not
  • Lost at Sea
  • Torrent of Tears
  • A Never-Setting Sun
  • This Vale of Dreams

Catchphrase fatigue: Why buzzwords lose their sting

Stephen H. Provost

“Why are people talking like that?”

I ask that question a lot, especially when I see some new linguistic trend go viral … the way the term “go viral” went viral, for instance.

The answer I get most often is: “Get over it. Language is always evolving.”

Perhaps. But the process has accelerated since the advent of social media, which introduces new mutations to the literary gene pool at a frightening rate.  

Buzzwords and catchphrases used to be appear every so often, then fade gradually from our consciousness over the ensuing decades. One generation might say “keen,” another “groovy,” and another “cool” or “awesome.” We’ve always been prone to putting our own stamp on things by creating synonyms, but these days, new words appear, wear out their welcome and vanish at a dizzying pace.

Media in general, and social media in particular, have given us all immediate access to a national (or global) conversation. And this conversation has introduced us to words and phrases that, in the past, might have spread slowly or never caught on at all. Some remained confined to one region or another: Many words and phrases that “go viral” in the 21st century would have been subject to a natural geographic quarantine a few decades ago. “Y’all” has become more than a Southern affectation; and “dude” is no longer confined to the SoCal surfing culture.

Filter removed

Maybe that old-fashioned quarantine was a good thing. Widespread access to the internet —and social media in particular — has removed a filter that kept the language relatively stable. Now, it careens all over the place like a pinball. Buzzwords can go rolling down the black hole at the bottom of the table without warning. Or they can get stuck between two bumpers in a frenzy of repetition that tries the patience of the most dedicated arcade aficionado.


It’s not evolution so much as mutation mania. Words and phrases become so pervasive that they can go from innovation to aggravation in a matter of months — or even weeks. That’s one thing about a virus: You get sick of it damn fast.

Are you already sick of hearing words like these: woke, snowflake, (blank)splaining, mindful, bae, GOAT, cuck? I know I am. How about phrases such as “fake news”? Some words seem to have been made up out of whole cloth; others are borrowed from the existing lexicon and reformatted with new or narrower definitions. “Privilege: comes to mind.

New and redefined words appear out of nowhere and leave us scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “What the hell does that mean?” That question soon gives way to a plaintive plea as we’re bombarded with these buzzwords time and again: “Please, make it stop!”

Redundant pundits

Further frustrations stem from the fact that some of these words don’t add anything to the language. We already have words for them. You can find them in any good dictionary. But we’ve put down our dictionaries because we’re too busy creating new entries for our own personal thesaurus. We’ve become redundant pundits.

Woke? Mindful? What’s wrong with just being aware? (“Woke” is particularly galling because it appears to be a bastardization of the perfectly good adjective “awake.”) And you don’t need to talk about ’splaining when you know the meaning of condescension. Are four syllables too many for you? (Yes, I know that last remark was condescending. I’m making a point.) Once upon a time, we called fake news propaganda … or bullshit.

Then there’s "privilege," which has become pervasive in the lexicon as a pejorative term against a person’s status. Once upon a time, we denounced people’s actions and attitudes — bigotry, racism, chauvinism, etc. Now, instead of condemning them for what they do, we berate them for who they are. They’re “privileged.” But isn’t this, ironically, just another form of bigotry? Because the target’s different, it’s supposed to be OK.


Adapting words like "Nazi" and "retarded" — a la "feminazi," "Grammar Nazi" and "libtard," for example — is distasteful, to say the least.

His jargon conceals, from him, but not from us, the deep, empty hole in his mind.
— Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say

“Snowflake” implies that it’s bad to be different. I don’t buy that: Conformity for the sake of conformity is downright dangerous. “Cuck” is just rude, and “bae” is … well, I don’t know what it is.

GOAT is a funny one. As an acronym, it’s short for “Greatest Of All Time,” and it’s become pervasive in sports commentary. But once upon a time, it meant virtually the opposite: A goat was someone who made a mistake that cost his team the game. Talk about confusing!

How many of these terms and definitions will still be in use fifty, twenty or even ten years from now? My hunch is that most of them will wear out their welcome and become fading footnotes in the evolution of the English language. That’s how evolution works, if you think about it: The vast majority of mutations aren’t helpful; they’re damaging or, at best, irrelevant.

Keep that in mind the next time someone defends the latest new buzzword on the grounds that “language is always evolving.”

Most mutations backfire. And most of these buzzwords are better off going extinct.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Goodreads to authors: Pay $600 to give away a $10 book

Stephen H. Provost

Hey, fellow authors, Jeff Bezos is laughing at you ... all the way to the bank.

Bezos is already the richest man in the world, but that’s not stopping him from making a few extra bucks off the proverbial “starving” authors.

Until now, Goodreads has offered a free service allowing authors to promote their books via giveaways. (They weren’t really free, as the authors were, giving away their books, but Goodreads didn’t make any money off it).

No more.

As an author who’s run Goodreads giveaways in the past, I received an email this morning about a new program that’s being touted as “a more powerful book marketing tool for authors and publishers.” Of course, there’s a catch: This new program will charge authors $119 bucks to run a “standard.” And if that’s not enough money to line Bezos’ (or his shareholders’) gilded pockets, you can run a “premium” giveaway for the bargain basement price of $599 smackeroos.

I call them Goodreads Takeaways.

Bezos, who just became the world’s only $100 billion man, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, which purchased Goodreads back in 2013.

Like he needs the money, right?

Forgive the sarcasm, but when you’re struggling to promote a book that sells for $10, it’s hard to get excited about paying 600 bucks just to give the damn thing away!

Any faint hope that these new packages would be somehow optional upgrades is quashed in the first paragraph of the email, which states that the new program “replaces our current Giveaways program.”

Of course, Amazon … er … Goodreads is touting enhanced features of the new packages. The standard package get “a notification letting them know there’s a giveaway starting.” Oh, goodie! Let me jump up and down a little bit higher.

And if you buy the premium package, you’ll get “premium placement in the Giveaways section.” Translated, this likely means that unless you dish out the $480 extra for the premium package, your giveaway will be buried.

(None of this is really much more than the giveaways offer now.)

I’ve paid to promote my books before. I’ve spent money on gas to drive to book signings. I’ve invested in posters and bookmarks and postcards. But I’ve never paid hundreds of dollars for the “privilege” of giving my books away, and I'm not going to do it now. That’s where I draw the line.

Oh, but the exposure!

I’m sorry, but I get paid to write. I get paid a decent salary to write in my day job, and I don’t value my work as an author any less. I'm not going to pay to do it. I'm not a flippin' vanity press.

As Wil Wheaton said when he was asked to contribute his work to Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, “How about no.”

That’s my answer to the new Goodreads Takeaways, too. They take money away from authors and give them to the richest man in the world.

Not just no. Hell no.

Let Goodreads know what you think: Take the survey here.

goodreads programq.jpg

Why time travel doesn't work

Stephen H. Provost

Time travel. Whether you’re reading H.G. Wells or watching Capt. James T. Kirk “slingshot around the sun” in the U.S.S. Enterprise, and it’s always a lot of fun. “What ifs” make for great stories, and time travel opens up a vast trove of possibilities.

Still, it’s just fiction. We can’t actually do it, and here’s why.

I’m no physicist, but I know the difference between an object and a unit of measurement. The first is tangible in a very real way; the second is merely a convention. It’s a human construction, entirely artificial and fully dependent on the thing it’s designed to measure.

We create such constructs all the time. They help us make sense of the world.

The words you’re reading right now represent real things. The word “box” represents a real object, but the word is not that object – and apart from the object it refers to, it would be utterly meaningless. We could have just as easily called that object a Heffalump or a Bandersnatch. Whatever we decide to call it, as long as we all agree that the word in question represents a cube-shaped object with a hollow interior, we’ll understand one another just fine … which is the purpose of communication.

The same is true for numbers. Numbers don’t exist in and of themselves; they measure things that exist. We can use Roman numerals, Arabic numerals (our own system). We can use a base-10 system, a base-5 system or whatever. Our choice. The things we’re numbering remain the same regardless of the labels we place on them, and we can’t count anything unless we have something to count.

Say we’re measuring something in space. We can use inches or centimeters or whatever, but the actual thing we’re measuring – its physical length – doesn’t change, no matter what units we devise to quantify it.

So, how does this apply to time?

Like distance, it’s something we measure, using years, centuries, hours, minutes, etc. We can base our system on a sundial or modify it for daylight savings. We can monkey around with the calendar to create a year of 12 or 13 months if we so choose. For centuries, the Western world used the Julian Calendar, devised by Julius Caesar; these days, we use a calendar promoted by Pope Gregory XIII. But whether we use one or the other has absolutely zero effect on the way Earth rotates on its axis or orbits the sun.

In the same way we talk about “distance” and “volume” to measure length or storage capacity, we use the concept of time to measure a specific aspect of our universe: change.

Without change, there would be no time, because there would be no way to tell the difference between one moment and the next. In fact, there wouldn’t be any moments, per se. The concept of time merely gives us a way to understand and document change; without change, “time” is meaningless, just as the word “box” is meaningless without the thing it describes.

You might argue that it’s still possible to travel forward in time by entering a condition of stasis. This is at least theoretically possible – although the idea of “freezing” and “unfreezing” the human body is problematic in a practical sense and has not been achieved outside of science fiction. But think about it: We’re traveling forward in time anyway, so none of this would really change the nature of the way things work: You’d merely be altering a single physical element – the body – by prolonging its viability. Other than that, change would continue in the very same manner it otherwise would have.

(One could even argue that prolonging average human life span to more than 70 years from just over 30 at the start of the 20th century constitutes a form of forward time travel.)

To “go backward in time,” by contrast, would require far more than simply placing one small element of the universe into stasis. It would mean restoring the entire universe, down to the smallest subatomic particle, to the precise state in which it existed in 1776, 1492, 10 million years BC or whenever you wanted to go. To describe such a task as Herculean would be the biggest understatement of all time (pun intended).

So while it might be great fun to talk about slingshotting your way around the sun and finding yourself back in, say, medieval England or Biblical Judea, it ain’t gonna happen, folks. That’s why they call it science fiction.

It’s also why people like authors and poets, screenwriters, musicians and visual artists are so important. They can take us on journeys beyond the limits of this universe, into the only alternate universe any of us has ever really visited: our imagination.

The trip there and back again is no less a journey of discovery than any other adventure you can …

… imagine.

"Bird Box": a thrill ride about ordinary humans in extraordinary crisis

Stephen H. Provost

Every now and then, a story is so engaging and deftly told that it overcomes the reader’s own personal difficulties with style and renders the so-called “rules” of writing superfluous. Bird Box was one such book for me. Author Josh Malerman delivers a story that kept me interested from start to finish, which is – in the end – the hallmark of a successful novel.

Although he occasionally falls into a clipped voice (especially in the early going), his quick-hitting style is an asset overall. It’s far better than being sucked into an endless quagmire of unnecessary description, and it fits the story perfectly. It allows the author to build suspense throughout without boring the reader – quite a feat in any novel-length endeavor.

There are a lot of things Malerman doesn’t describe in the book, some of which the reader is probably just itching to know. But the fact that he leaves out these descriptions is a master stroke, because it allows the reader to focus on what’s important: the human story about how people cope (or fail to) and interact in a world overrun by paranoia, false hopes and heroic deeds that sometimes succeed but just as often end in tragedy.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

The premise of Bird Box is ingenious: How do human beings adjust to a world in which opening one’s eyes means near-certain madness? The execution is also first-rate, sometimes in spite of the fact that Malerman breaks the rules - and sometimes because of it.

A writing coach might tell you that Malerman uses variations on the verb “to be” far too much. But it works, and that’s what matters. It amplifies the matter-of-fact narrative, which reflects the crisis situation that pervades the book. This is proof that rules sometimes demand to be broken, when the author does so in service to the book’s mood and plot. It’s to his great credit that Malerman is willing to do so.

The main stylistic problem I had with Bird Box (HarperCollins, 2014) was its reliance on present tense in the two streams of narrative that run through the novel, one present day and the other in the past. For me, it slowed down what was otherwise a tension-filled page-turner of a ride, especially when the writer moved to past tense in the midst of a present-tense section. (None of these moves were wrong, structurally speaking; they just slowed me down a bit.)

Malerman also seems to run short on material for his present-day narrative stream and, as the book goes on, uses it more frequently for flashbacks that aren’t covered in the “past” stream. At times, he does so to provide key information that might not otherwise be available, which is all well and good. In any case, this is a minor quibble and in no way a deal-breaker.

A few questions are left unanswered, such as why some animals go mad and others don't - or why they do so at varying rates, whereas nearly all humans are exposed to the danger that's involved in opening their eyes very early. But this, too, is minor, and not essential to the plot. In fact, Malerman's ability to keep from getting bogged down in the nonessential is part of what makes Bird Box such an engaging read.

In fact, I’m giving this book five stars because it’s so successful in spite of my own personal criticisms. I don’t do that often because, honestly, most authors who use a style I don’t enjoy, such as present-tense narrative, don’t hold my attention beyond the first ten pages. The fact that Malerman was able to hold my interest is testament to his ability as a storyteller and to the success of “Bird Box” as a story about humans in crisis and how they react both to that crisis and one another.

Highly recommended.

Don’t open your eyes.
— Tagline for "Bird Box"

Dear pretentious critics: Here's why we don't like you

Stephen H. Provost

How do you decide what movies you want to see? Do you read the reviews? If you do, you probably have one of three reactions: You might go to the movie if it gets a good review, you might decide to ignore the review altogether, or you might wind up doing the exact opposite of what the critics recommend.

If you’re in the third group, chances are you’re not acting that way just to be rebellious. You’re doing it because you’ve figured out that the critics’ choices usually don’t jibe with you own.

The same principle holds true for music, literature and any other form of art. Often enough, critics and fans enjoy the same things, but in other cases, their opinions diverge — sometimes sharply.

Critics tend to look down their noses at art they consider derivative or clichéd, saying to themselves, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. Why should I waste my time on seeing it again?”

Just yesterday, I wrote an entry here that touched on the importance (among other things) of originality in writing. I’m not one of those people who’ll see a movie several times or reread a book, no matter how much I enjoyed them. In fact, I’ve never read a novel twice in my life. Been there, done that. Hearing a song too often can turn it from catchy to cloying. Watching a movie repeatedly can put me to sleep.

But, hey, that’s me. There are plenty of people who enjoy hearing the same song over and over, rereading their favorite novels and watching the DVD of their favorite movie time and again. The Wizard of Oz became a yearly tradition on broadcast television in 1959, and the same treatment is given to holiday films such as Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas during the holidays. So, there’s obviously a big appetite for this.

One thing these movies have in common is they’re accessible: They tell stories in such a way that a lot of people can relate to them.

The problem with many critics is they think accessibility is a bad thing. Bands that put out songs with a lot of hooks are dismissed as banal or simplistic. Meanwhile, their music racks up huge sales and fans flock to their concerts.

When it comes to major awards, they’re seldom, if ever, bestowed upon “genre” movies or novels. Academy Awards for Best Picture aren’t given to science fiction, fantasy, horror or comedy films. It "just isn’t done.” Similarly, you’ll never find Stephen King or J.K. Rowling in the hunt for a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Does this mean their work is unworthy? Millions of readers will tell you otherwise.

This doesn’t seem to matter to the critics. Many of them appear to thrive on the notion that they’re somehow “above” public opinion — and strive to maintain this impression by dismissing certain kinds of storytelling wholesale. The irony of doing so is that they’re judging genres based on stereotype, which is itself a form of cliché.

Clichés and stereotypes

What many critics have lost sight of is the difference between art that’s derivative and art that’s accessible. I make it a point to write conversationally so my readers can relax and enjoy what I’ve written. I don’t want to make them work too hard. One of the perks of being an adult is that reading gets to be fun, not the kind of textbook chore you had to endure in grade school.

(Sometimes, I think stale textbook authors and self-important critics emerged from the same mysterious protoplasm — that gooey muck that spawned F. Murray Abraham’s character, Professor Crawford, in Finding Forrester.)

Accessible writing isn’t simple-minded. On the contrary, it’s deft. I like to make my readers think. I’ve written books and articles on philosophy, for Pete’s sake. But that doesn’t mean presenting people with such a pretentious, confusing mess that it’s impossible to make heads or tails of it.

Despite what many critics seem to think, art can be accessible and original at the same time. It can be intelligent and fun. A good mystery can make you think and enjoy yourself at the same time. (Not coincidentally, mysteries are another popular genre that’s on the outs when it comes to consideration for major awards.)

Is it any wonder that some people choose to ignore the critics or even use critical disdain as an excuse to check out a book or movie? People don’t like being excluded. When their favorite film or novel is dismissed without a second thought, they don’t like that much, either. The people who do the dismissing will lose their credibility — regardless of their expertise or sense of self-importance.

The word “discriminating” can carry two different definitions: “selective” or “dismissive.” Too often, critics cross the line from the former to the latter, and in doing so render their opinions irrelevant.

That’s my critique. Take it or leave it … but either way, go have fun.

This is a writer's most precious commodity

Stephen H. Provost

A writer’s voice is like his or her soul.

No offense to ghostwriters. I don’t mean to suggest you’re selling your soul by trying to sound like someone else. Everyone’s got to make a living, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Writing is such a difficult way to make a living, that sometimes, it might seem like the best way to do so is to sound like someone else. I’m not just talking about ghostwriters. I’m talking about authors across the spectrum who can't help but feel the pressure to write the "next" Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I have three words of advice: Resist that pressure.

Because ...

  1. Someone’s already done it better than you possibly could, even if you were the best writer in the known universe, because the person who did it first was the original.
  2. Apart from that, another "someone else" out there can probably do it better than you can, too. No offense, but in a world of 7 billion people, there are probably just a few writers who are more gifted than you are.
  3. Most fans of established authors aren’t looking for the “next J.K. Rowling.” They’re looking for the next book from J.K. Rowling.
  4. Trying to emulate another author too closely isn't much more creative than filling in the blanks on a Mad Libs game (remember those?). We all try to emulate successful and talented authors; at a certain point, however, a line is crossed between inspiration and mimicry that's like comparing a bus stop to a bus. To put a finer point on it: Even if it feels like you're spinning your wheels, that's far better than not having any.
  5. And, most importantly, if you’re writing like someone else, you’re not writing like yourself. Which is not only a big loss for your readers (because no one else can write like you can), it’s can also be personally demoralizing. Is there anything that puts a bigger damper on the creative instinct than the feeling that you can only find success by imitating someone else? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one.

Your voice is your most precious commodity as a writer. You may feel like, as an author, you're on a leaky lifeboat in the middle of a storm-tossed sea (and what author hasn't felt that way at one point or another?) In such moments, the last thing you should throw overboard is your voice. That's your life-preserver.

Day jobs

The good news is that, contrary to what many readers believe, the vast majority of authors don’t make their living writing books. They’re journalists, science teachers, medical doctors, public relations professionals, website designers … you name it. Even many of those who have won awards use writing to supplement their incomes rather than to pay the rent.

This may not sound like good news, especially to the large number of authors who would love to quit their day jobs and make a living from their writing. But consider this: If you have a day job, it gives you the same kind of freedom authors like Rowling and King and Patterson have the freedom to write whatever the hell you want.

If you’re a mid-range writer on a contract who’s struggling to make ends meet, you might have a lot of people telling you that you need to write specific things that sound like a specific someone else.

How much fun is that?

“I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on,” bestselling author, scriptwriter, etc. Neil Gaiman said in a 2014 interview. “I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Gaiman is, in fact, a novelist, and he’s written some very good fiction. His point is, he isn’t just a novelist. He’s other things, too, and he can afford to be those things because he's "made it."

What those of us with day jobs often fail to realize is that we can do the same thing. We may not be free to write as much as someone at the top of the pyramid, like Gaiman, but we do have the same kind of freedom. So instead of trying to “make it” by writing like someone else — and becoming entrenched in a less-than-creative process of grinding out the next not-quite-so-great fill-in-the-blank title, why not exercise that freedom?

Original spin

I have a day job, and I don't make enough to live off writing books. Would I like to? Sure. But I’m luckier than most because my day job involves writing (I’m a newspaper editor/reporter) and exposes me to plenty of fodder for my off-the-clock writing.

That’s allowed me to, like Gaiman, explore a diverse array of topics and genres. I've written (as Stifyn Emrys) books that are philosophical and inspirational, and (under my own name), I've tackled speculative fiction and historical nonfiction.

As long as I don’t get caught up in worrying about “making it,” the process is a lot of fun. Plus, I get to keep my own voice.

My foremost criterion in writing each of the books I’ve written for Linden Publishing — Fresno Growing Up, Memortality and Highway 99 — has been originality. People had written about Fresno’s pioneer years before, but they hadn’t focused primarily on the Baby Boom generation. There are tons of books out there about Route 66, but Highway 99, which was similarly important out here on the West Coast, had received little such attention. As to Memortality, I have yet to run across another story that pairs the concept of a person’s eidetic (photographic) memory with a supernatural ability to raise the dead.

What fun is it to cover the same old ground, anyway?

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I’ve never been interested in flattering anyone. I’ll stick to plain ol' sincerity and hope someone else likes what I’m putting out there. If so, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll still have had a ton of fun along the way.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Value your voice

A good editor will:

  1. Fix errors in spelling, grammar and usage.
  2. Point out inconsistencies and content gaps.
  3. Suggest ways to tighten and punch up your writing.
  4. Give you ideas about where to take a story.
  5. Suggest changes in style where they may slow down or confuse the reader.

But a good editor will never simply change your voice without consulting with you. Changing your voice without asking or just because it sounds better to the editor’s ear is not OK. (Your ear matters as much as or more than the editor’s — suggestions are fine; wholesale changes without consultation most definitely are not.)

If you come across an editor who wants to significantly change your voice, my advice is to run like hell, don't look back and keep on writing.