Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘Phoenix Island’ by John Dixon

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In the lives of kids, there aren’t many grays. In the case of bullying, there’s usually the bully, the victim and the bystanders – bad, good and indifferent. Young boxing champ and heavy rotation foster kid Carl Freeman is none of the above, having declared himself, thanks to a pact with his late father, a Philadelphia cop, to always protect the weak.

But within the confines of the foster care system and the various public schools Carl is dropped into over the course of his 16 years, his attitude is considered more criminal than heroic. When we meet Carl, his latest episode of vigilante justice has landed him in front of a judge who sentences him to the eponymous boot camp facility located off the Mexico mainland – away from any type of governmental supervision and outside the reach of U.S. child protection laws. There it becomes clear to Carl that something nefarious is being perpetrated by the camp commanders and that the teenage detainees are there for more than just reformation.

It’s with this nicely crafted setup that first-time author (and fellow member of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group) John Dixon begins his novel Phoenix Island (2014, Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster). Continue reading → Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘Phoenix Island’ by John Dixon

Another Public Display

Tonight I have the pleasure of doing something a lot of writers don’t enjoy – talking to people in public.

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Yours truly at a Brandywine Valley Writers Group public reading in the fall of 2012. Unlike many writers, I like public speaking. Maybe too much. OK, I’ll shut up now.

The topic will be indie and self-publishing and I’ll be one of three writers on a panel made up of members of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, a great bunch of professional, amateur and aspiring writers based in West Chester, Pa.

Joining me on the panel will be fellow authors Jim Breslin and Jorgen Flood, both of whom have gone about their own publishing adventures via independent or self-subsidized means.

Jim is an editor by day, writes short stories and has produced his own anthology titled Elephant, as well as shepherded the excellent Chester County Fiction anthology, featuring a number of friends and fellow BWVG members. Jim is also the founder of the West Chester Story Slam, a monthly storytelling competition that is now so popular he has to sell tickets and has since spread to other areas of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Jorgen, who hails from Norway (cool accent!), has three titles to his name, non-fiction and historical fiction among them.

One of the reasons I was invited was to discuss the unique structure of Codorus Press, the publishing collective I helped form along with my good friend and former newspaper colleague Wayne Lockwood.

But along with chatting up the many upsides (and occasional downsides) to publishing independently, one of the things I always stress when speaking to groups of writers is this: Whether you’re publishing through traditional means or independently, the fact remains that you can’t just write a book, put it out there, hide at home and hope it sells.

It’s incumbent on every author – no matter how his or her book is published – to get out there. Talk to people about your book. Make connections. Pick up a copy of your book and put it in someone else’s hands and tell them how good it is. Inspire other writers to do just what you have done. I’m constantly hammering away at the same point: Wayne and I are just a couple of guys who had an idea and a manuscript and decided to do something different, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from doing the same thing.

The fact is that being a writer can clearly be divided into two areas. First, there’s the artistic. If you’re a fiction writer, you’re creating something new entirely out of your own imagination. If you’re writing non-fiction, you are using your journalistic talents or your own experiences to convey to the reader a truth or your own observations and experiences.

Second (and this is the bit that lots of writers like to deny), there’s the commercial. Once the art has been rendered, you must now think of the resulting work as a product that has to be appropriately packaged, marketed and sold. And part of that is being willing to get out there and talk to people. Sure, social networking and PR services will help. Great reviews are wonderful. But I’m convinced that one of the most important parts of being a writer – or any kind of artist – is making that connection with the audience.

I will admit that I have a slight advantage in that I’m a naturally gregarious person who is comfortable speaking to groups. But not every public appearance you make needs to rank up there with other great moments in public speaking. The key is to make yourself available, be friendly, respectful and willing to engage. Most of all, be appreciative that anyone has shown up at all, and those who are there want to hear what you have to say.

 

A Public Display

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I remain a frustrated radio guy trapped in a writer’s body. But despite the fact that I don’t get on the air that often, I do get the chance to speak in public every once in a while, and frequently it’s in support of some bit of writing I’ve done.

Recently I was fortunate to participate in a group reading with the Brandwine Valley Writers Group, where I’ve had the good fortune to be a member for the last six years or so. This was a special reading, because it was likely the last one to be hosted by our friends at Chester County Book & Music Co., one of the best indie book stores you could hope to find. The store recently got word that its lease for its current location won’t be renewed, so they’re in danger of shutting down forever. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Over the years been a favorite stop for author Christopher Moore, and has also become firmly entrenched in Codorus Press legend, as it has was scene of a good-natured ambush of Mr. Moore by Codorus founder Wayne Lockwood and me during which we forced on gifted him with a copy of my novel, Immaculate Deception.

For this particular reading, I figured I’d move on from ID for two reasons – one is the fact that I’ve been reading from it for a few years and figured the audience would prefer to hear something new. The second was that the novel does contain some – um, adult language and erotic situations, and the presence of the reading podium in the store’s children section has resulted in the BVWG’s establishment of the Scott Pruden Rule: Keep the naughty bits to a minimum … for the children!

So please enjoy this little sneak peek at my latest work in progress, the as yet untitled second novel and pseudo prequel to ID.

Keep It Short

I’m proud to say that I’m a member in mediocre standing of a great writers’ group, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, that regularly features great and informative guests at its meetings. My mediocrity stems from only being able to make about half of their monthly meetings thanks to my wife’s rotating work schedule.

So when I was able to attend the November meeting with no elaborate scheduling shifts or kid hand-offs required, I was pretty excited (of course, it might have also had something to do with the meetings being held at a great Irish pub with Guinness on tap, but that’s neither here nor there).

The speaker that night was Dennis Tafoya, a writer of modern noir who lives in another part of the Philadelphia area

Dennis Tafoya, author of crime thrillers

and whose novels include Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park. The vibe at BVWG meetings is pretty informal, much like a dinner party where one guest is allowed to hold forth and everyone else gets to eat, drink and be educated. Dennis was very gracious in sharing with us his process of writing, his literary philosophy and what drives him to do what he does.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that his success in mainstream publishing can be directly attributed to his having short stories published with a few online journals, then discovered by a West Coast film agent who steered him in the direction of an East Coast literary agent. It’s that magical publishing kismet that you sometimes hear about, then hate having the knowledge that this apparently really happens to some people.

My first response to this was surprise that Hollywood folks, who only seem able to rehash old crap or generate new crap these days are actually trawling through online fiction journals looking for great stories and their authors. My second thought was, “Wow … I’ve really got to up my short story game.”

That would be, at this point, a game that doesn’t really exist. Approximately 20 years ago, I managed to bang out and finish a nice little story that was published in the University of South Carolina literary magazine, Portfolio. Please ignore that it was at the same time I happened to be the fiction editor. Really … that had nothing to do with it. I swear.

Anyway, that story won an honorable mention in a statewide competition, which was very cool. Since then, though, I’ve been stuck. No nice little awards – not even honorable mentions, mainly because there haven’t been any stories.

See, my trouble with short story writing is that A)  the things I begin working on intending them to be short stories morph into full-scale novels that end up taking 20 years to finish (please see Immaculate Deception), or B) I have great ideas that I get started on but never actually finish.

As I speak, I have between 10 and 15 half- or 1/4-complete short stories sitting in a computer file awaiting my attention after months or years. If they were people, they would have given up and moved on long ago. Even though they’re just stories, I still imagine them tapping their feet and looking at their watches impatiently, wondering when I might return.

Yeah, me too, guys.

I try doing a little self education every so often, attempting to get myself into the short story groove by re-reading collections like William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and even the hefty (especially in paperback) collection of Mark Twain’s shorties hoping that some of their excellence at brevity will rub off on me. I like to think that rather than soaking it up right away, I’m slowly processing and absorbing it in the hopes that at some point it will blossom within me and I’ll be able to easily crank out some stellar (and short … and entirely complete) piece of fiction.

So far, though … nothin’. Well, that’s not true. I did start something the other day, but if I had a nickel for every time I started a story I didn’t finish I’d have … um … it looks like about 75 cents.