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Shepherd and the Professor

I had the happy experience of hearing author Dan Klefstad last year when he read an excerpt from “Shepherd and The Professor” at Lit by the Bridge in Aurora, Illinois. 29844506I think even Dan has some trouble describing the book to would-be readers. But  knowing him and his situation lends the book credibility. Dan lives in DeKalb, Illinois, home of Northern Illinois University, where he received his Master’s Degree and has been host of the radio station’s Morning Edition since 1997.

It’s no coincidence that “Shepherd and the Professor” takes place at fictional Otto Kerner University in Northern Illinois. Nor is it any surprise that one of the main characters is a radio personality at the college station. But there are still plenty of surprises in store for readers.

Clever and funny – I guess one could say it’s tragicomic — the book is presented as the manuscript of Susan Shepherd, gulf war veteran and community cop, a single mom forced into desperate circumstances. She’s been shot on the job, taken advantage of by her peers, and faces suspension or worse; her daughter has taken up with a drug dealer; campus police are dealing with a school shooting controversy and scandal in the university administration. Her former lover, the “Professor”, a convert to Islam, becomes entangled with her in the middle of the mess.

And that’s not the half of it. To make matters more interesting, parts of Shepherd’s story are narrated at times by the Professor, the reporter, and a possibly deranged student. Fast-paced, with short episodes and quick shifts of scene, it’s a quick read without sacrificing depth of characterization and a plot of complex situations. There’s a lot going on but it’s not hard to follow. There are plenty of surprises along the way, in spite of the comfortable feeling as you get to know these stressed-out characters in a small Midwestern college town. For local readers, the setting will seem familiar. For any readers, the story will seem new and fresh.

 

Sorting out the Tracks

29th-writers-institute-logo

After a multi-day conference of any kind, a person requires plenty of time to process it afterwards. So I’m still thinking about my experiences at the U of W Writers’ Institute in Madison, WI April 12 – 15.  The institute was organized along the parallel tracks of writing and publishing, which gave the four days special significance to me and my friend George Stenitzer, who had invited me to join him in Madison.

George is seeking an agent for his book Gist, a business how-to based on his many years in corporate communications. I have been querying agents and small publishers to get interest in my YA novel The Ghost of Jamie McVay. We both attended all four daysand did our best to get all we could from the conference.

Panel discussions and presentations on writing skills ran concurrently all week-end. Much of the conversation about publishing considered the pros and cons of the traditional agent-publication route with the several options for author-self publishing. In addition, the Writers’ Institute offered contests, critique sessions, and master classes on craft. We started on Thursday with a helpful talk by literary agent Jeff Herman: “Why You Don’t (Yet) Have a Book Published.” Over the next few days, here are some of the other presentations that kept my attention:

         “Write a Sex Scene That Fits the Occasion” Dave Thome
         “Turn the Page! Writing Techniques Guaranteed to Improve Yourt Pacing”, Ann Voss Peterson
          “Nine Magic Spells That Will Make Your Characters Come  Alive” Peggy Williams
         “Mistakes Were Made – 5 Lessons Learned” Mark Chiarkas
         “The YA Market: Everything You Need to Know” Kristin Van Risseghem
          “How to Get an Agent”  Lucy Sanna

Each day began with a large-group general session, followed by the concurrent schedule of activities and presentations. Social events livened up the days. Lunchtime arrangements encouraged writers to gather under the banners of their chosen genres. On Friday evening we had the run of the ballroom with a cash bar; and Saturday night many of the participants entertained us with readings of their work. We were pleased to see our friend Chris Reid won a prize for her poetry reading. Looking back, I’m sorry we didn’t hang out in the hotel bar a bit. But the truth is we were pretty tired after the full days of the conference. Neither of us seemed to have the energy for late-night socializing.

Agent pitch sessions are highlights of conferences like this, with marketing/publishing emphasis. At least seven literary agents were on hand this year, speaking at public sessions and responding to pitches in private meetings with writers attending the institute.  George received some positive feedback with requests for further information.

My one pitch to Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary didn’t go very far when she dismissed my book as “more of a mystery” than YA ghost story. Guess I need to work on my pitching skills, or the “leadline” as they call it. I will say that I was surprised there wasn’t more than the one agent with an expressed interest in fiction for YA audiences. Definitely room for improvement there, UW.

If publication depends on luck, though, I should keep trying, because I am a lucky guy. Sometimes I win stuff, anyway. During the conference, for example, my name was drawn at random to win a $500 value book cover from Adept Content Solutions, a book production company. I talked to Lori Martinsek at their booth and she has already followed up with me as their designers work on graphic concepts for The Ghost of Jamie McVay.

Crappy weather all week-end kept us from straying too far from the Concourse Hotel venue. Otherwise it might have been nice to stroll the streets of downtown Madison in the evening. This year’s Institute suffered at the end from an unseasonable snowstorm that sent some participants scrambling home early; others were stranded an extra day as roads and flights shut down.

All in all, the Writers’ Institute in Madison provided a full schedule of events for writers of all genres and levels of accomplishment. They don’t do this for free, of course. The cost of the full conference was $375, with lodging additional. Pitch sessions and some classes were extra, so it’s possible to customize the week-end as you see fit. A number of local attendees came only for one or two days. Every profession has its costs, if you want to invest in it. This event could be especially helpful to new and unpublished authors, and invaluable to anyone looking to network and socialize with other writers. I’d definitely consider going again.

Poetry of our Lives

April is National Poetry Month. As much as that sounds like just another Hallmark moment, we don’t have any problem using it for an excuse to promote poetry in general.
This year Naperville Writers Group is changing things up for their annual event. We are partnering up with Barnes & Noble in Naperville with hopes of sharing poetry with more of the general public.
Looking forward to seeing poets and poetry lovers at the event Sunday, April 8 from 1-3.

PoetryOfOurLives

Hot Off the Presses! Mary Farmer’s “Pressed” a Cool Read

I was pleased to finally read straight through Mary Farmer’s new novel, Pressed. It’s been so much fun reading and critiquing the occasional chapter over the last year! As a member of a writing group (NWG), one can’t help but feel some of the glow of satisfaction Mary must bask in after the completion of her book. And maybe a touch of pride that “one of our own” achieved her goal. Okay, and maybe even a little misplaced sense of accomplishment at having helped in some small way for Pressed to be a better book. Wishing Mary much success. I know her readers will love Pressed. Here is the review I wrote for Amazon, which is where you can buy the book:

Pressed by Marilyn Farmer is a fun book that will keep you turning pages as you follow main character Tank Lismore from the printing house parking lot all the way to the swan pond at the public park. Along that journey you will cheer for the young man to finally take action in his life. You’ll want to see him gather up the courage to approach the object of his desire, the lovely Sloane, who graces the carpeted offices of company management. Tank meanwhile, dwells in the underworld of the printing presses where he is a capable worker. They will come together in the break room over a big diamond ring and a cell phone. Hilarity and danger ensue.

Tank Lismore is one of those characters you love to root for, in spite of his sometimes poor judgement, especially in matters of the heart. Much the same can be said about Sloane, who grows on us as we get to know her. Both of them are up against some of the more entertaining adversaries in contemporary fiction. Not the least of these is Tank’s ne’er-do-well cousin Riley, who swears he’s “got Tank’s back”,  but… well, you’ll find out. In addition to Riley, Tank faces savage bikers, bumbling goons and slick crooked lawyers – to say nothing of the police, including his own Uncle Al.

Farmer’s fast-paced tale has humor and pathos and plenty of suspense. Is it a romantic comedy or a crime thriller? I say yes! But you should judge for yourself.

 

Christine Sneed: “The Virginity of Famous Men”

The Virginity of Famous MenThe Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this collection of stories from Christine Sneed the night she spoke to our writing group in Naperville back in September 2017. We had asked her to do a presentation for an hour at one of our regular weekly meetings. She proposed an outline for a talk “On Maintaining Momentum in Your Fiction.” We thought it would have some value for many of the fiction writers in our group. Alas, some were disappointed, and several felt the talk to be somewhat condescending and elementary. I don’t remember the word “momentum” being mentioned.

I grant it would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the group to know what level of skill , what knowledge of literature the audience would bring. So perhaps Ms. Sneed can be forgiven for her compact high-school English lessons on character, conflict, plot and point of view.

Personally, I was interested in reading some genuine prize-winning literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction, of which it turns out I am mostly guilty. Sneed’s fiction has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements, she teaches writing, and she directs the MA/MFA program at Northwestern University. So I wanted to learn from her stories. By Sneed’s own definition, literary fiction is character-driven fiction in which the character’s interior life is described and explored in a way that leads to an insight about his/her place in the world. The stories in “The Virginity of Famous Men” fit that bill pretty well.

They are not plot driven and don’t concern themselves so much with external conflicts. Take “Beach Vacation”, in which a woman ends up vacationing with her teen-age son at a resort where she discovers she really doesn’t like her kid very much. Well, rightly so, the kid’s a jerk, end of story. In “The First Wife”, that personage describes her marriage to a celebrity as it moves to its inevitable slow death. In “The Prettiest Girls” a Hollywood studio representative on location in Mexico falls for a pretty local girl and brings her back to L.A. We are no less surprised than the narrator when she eventually leaves him for another man. Very little actually happens in these stories. True, the characters DO things, but not BIG things that you would consider major scenes in the plot. Yet, I didn’t feel much was happening on the interior, either. Except for the mother in Beach Vacation, characters didn’t seem to learn anything – either about themselves or the world. But maybe I’m just missing it.

My favorite stories included “Five Rooms,” which I thought clever and original and well-written. A bored and bitchy teen-age girl is farmed out as penance for some infraction to help out a blind neighbor. Through the girl’s narration, which is strong and true, we discover that she isn’t such a bad person after all, far from it; and she herself discovers her own depths of goodness and compassion.
I also liked “Roger Weber Would Like To Stay.” Roger is the ghost of a dead pianist and onetime Romeo from an earlier era who haunts a single woman. She takes to him at first, but then he just starts to wear a little thin.

Another inventive story that benefits from a quirky situation and a colorful narrator is “Whatshisname.” Josh has suffered brain damage that makes him prone to irrational behavior and occasional “pronoun dyslexia,” according to his somewhat insensitive and lowclass girlfriend. Amusing things happen in the story – Josh wins the Lotto and comes up with some really stupid ways to spend the money for excellent causes — but it’s mostly about their relationship.
All of these stories are nicely written, and as mentioned, many of them introduce quite imaginative characters and situations. But if you are used to genre fiction where shit happens or people do things, you might get bored. On the other hand, if you are into literary fiction, this book is full of it.

View all my reviews

The Plot Thickens at Iowa Summer Writing Festival

IowaPictureI enjoyed a great week in Iowa city at the Summer Writing Festival. This is the second year I’ve indulged myself in this floating literary community, where writers of all genres, abilities and experience wade into the waters as deeply as they please. Personally, I wanted to dive into the deep end and participate as fully as I could. But getting the most out of it takes a lot of energy.

I had signed up for Kelly Dwyer’s class on “Plotting the Novel.” To start with, Kelly took it easy on us, not requiring any reading or writing before the class met. But from our first session Sunday night, it was work work work the rest of the week. Our ultimate goal was for each of us to produce a working plot outline for our fiction projects, but additional assignments had us writing every day.

Possible distractions from writing  are the social activities of the week-long sessions. I wouldn’t want to miss these bits that make the Summer Writing Festival special. Every day the “11th Hour” lectures feature presentations from the talented faculty. A Monday night reception (with open bar) at the most excellent Prairie Lights book store is followed by readings. The Beadology store offers an open mic for the participants to share their works in progress. Throughout the week there are dinners, dancing, and lunches with classmates. All day every day participants are hanging out writing, drinking coffee, and socializing at the Bread Garden.

Arriving in Iowa City I had only the vaguest idea for a book. By the end of the week I had somehow put together a fairly detailed outline for my next novel. Thanks to Kelly Dwyer and the helpful and astute comments from classmates, I have enough of a plan to start work immediately, plus an opening scene and lots of good ideas. Beyond that, I also feel refreshed , energized and motivated to begin the new project.

I won the award, but I couldn’t take it home.

The Naperville Writers’ Group awards the “Enwigger” each year to a member for Outstanding Contributions to the organization. This year I was honored to share the lovely object with likewise attractive Loretta Morris. In a fit of chivalry, I insisted that she take the award home to cherish — for the first six months, that is. I will claim the Enwigger for the last  half of the year, until the next popular vote, when it will be bestowed on another deserving writer. Meanwhile, I enjoy the warmth and fuzziness of my peers’ appreciation.

Last year I was recognized with “The Foot” Award, ostensibly for Most Improved Writer. Although also a prestigious honor, the Foot is not quite so pretty and shiny as the Enwigger. In fact, the Foot spent the previous year in an obscure corner of my library, where I could see it and enjoy its significance; but where the somewhat disturbing thing would be unlikely to invite awkward questions from visitors. Nevertheless, it’s the thought that counts.