OlympianFourteen years ago, I penned the first words to The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas.

“I was 12-years old when my father took me to my first Olympic Games.”

Yesterday, I read a review on Amazon by ‘Kevin.’  I know nothing about Kevin other than his posted reviews on Amazon indicate he is an ancient history aficionado.  Kevin posted his review a month ago in January 2016.  I don’t often check my books on Amazon, but I am glad I checked yesterday.  Kevin’s comments are greatly appreciated.  He writes,

Think of the most beautiful song you have ever heard. Now imagine reading a book that makes you feel the same way.

That is the feeling I got while I was reading The Olympian. This profound novel was beautifully crafted, with bits of wisdom and many interesting passages. The exciting and inspiring writing pulls you along, and the imagery is amazing. What makes it even more fascinating is that it is (for the most part) based on real people and events.

This novel really is one of a kind.

Thanks, Kevin, wherever you may be.

greener grassI am working on two manuscripts.  One will be my fifth historical novel.  In it, I express my remorse for the bad choices men make that haunt humanity through civilizations because we too often ignore the lessons that history teaches us.  The other is another quirky story along the lines of The Sixth Day.  It explores the oft quoted observation we’ve borrowed from bovines, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  Is it?

There are many methods to writing.  None is categorically wrong, and each brings value to the task.  My three personal guides are

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, which Steven Pressfield recommended to me in 2002 when I wrote The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas

I am immersed in a new approach to my writing in 2016, collaboration.  Earlier this year, a friend who writes gifted another friend and me the book Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac.  Bandersnatch discusses the collaboration of the Inklings, a collaborative writing group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among nearly 20 other writers.  The Inklings would meet weekly to discuss their works in progress.  I was intrigued and asked my two friends if the idea interested them as much as it interested me.  It did.  A month ago, we began meeting every Monday morning for two hours beginning at 4:30AM.  You would never believe how quickly 120 minutes can fly.

The weekly meetings – and other communiqués that we share with each other during the week in emails and texts – have been invaluable.  Criticism flows freely, positive and negative, and observations, suggestions and recommendations find their productive ways into my manuscripts.

I am thankful to have special friends who are willing to do this.


After I had completed at least three drafts of my first novel, The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas, my friend Steven Pressfield suggested, “You might first fivewant to get a copy of Noah Lukeman’s book The First Five Pages.  I think you will find it helpful.”  That is a typical understatement from a great author.

I had the book in my hands a week later, and – slow reader that I am – had finished reading its 200 pages in just a few days.  I was devastated, tried and found guilty of every trap Mr. Lukeman advises writers to be cautious.  I went back to ground zero and re-wrote The Olympian another three times.  As The Olympian remains my best seller, I must have done something right, and I will forever thank Mr. Pressfield for his sage advice.

Over the years, people have come to me to discuss writing projects.  One of the first things I tell them is to secure a copy of The First Five Pages.  The pages in my copy have gone brown, the yellow highlights have faded, but the black ‘stars’ and underlines I’ve made over the years will remain forever.

While the book overflows with indispensable information, the exercise that has been most valuable to me is presented in Chapter 3, “Sound.”  Mr. Lukeman writes,

“Take some time to read poetry.  Spend weeks reading as many different poets as you can.  By devoting all this attention to the individual word, phrase and stanza, you will learn a greater attention for language, and this attention will eventually show in your own work.”

I have read poetry daily since I read that paragraph in 2003.

celticLast week, I discovered a new poet, Amairgen, one of the mythological Milesian kings who conquered Ireland.  As he approached the island and stepped ashore, Amairgen sang an invocation calling upon the spirit of Ireland that has come to be known as “The Song of Amairgen.”  Irish tradition claims that Amairgen’s ode is the first poem ever composed in Ireland.  I find great beauty and rhythm in “The Song of Amairgen,” and I think you will see, using this poem as an example, how poetry can inspire writers and improve their prose.

Listen to “The Song of Amairgen” while you read

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave of the ocean,

I am the murmur of the billows,

I am the ox of the seven combats,

I am the vulture upon the rocks,

I am a beam of the sun,

I am the fairest of plants,

I am the wild boar in valour,

I am the salmon in the water,

I am a lake in the plain,

I am a world of knowledge,

I am the point of the lance of battle,

I am the God who created the fire in the head

Writing Advice from Jorge Bergoglio

first fiveWhen we write or speak a single sentence, we arrange words in such a way as to present a clear thought to those who read or hear them.  A book or a speech is a collection of sentences assembled to deliver an idea.  A sentence or a collection of sentences, written or spoken, creates an image or images in our mind.  The sentence creator is successful when his words evoke the image he intended to create with his words.

Stores and libraries are filled with books to help us communicate effectively.  Story by Robert McKee is one of the most popular for screenwriters and novelists.  My personal favorite is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman; it is always within arm’s reach of my desk.

Pope FrancisYesterday, I read a few sentences that gave me great insight to writing more effectively, and the advice came from a rather unlikely source, Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis, The Joy of the GospelEvangelii Gaudium is a 2013 Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis, a communication from the Pope to encourage people to undertake a certain activity, in this case the proclamation of the Gospel.

In paragraph 158, Pope Francis quotes Pope Paul VI (1897 – 1978), “The faithful … expect much from preaching (and writing), and will greatly benefit from it, provided that it is simple, clear, direct, well-adapted.”  He then adds his own advice,

“Simplicity has to do with the language we use.  It must be one that people understand, lest we risk speaking to a void.  Preachers (and writers) often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers … The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it.”

Pope Francis presents the basic framework for all effective communications:  SIMPLICITY.

I set my word processor to give me ‘readability’ statistics when I review spelling and grammar.  There was a time when I inadvisably wrote to achieve a ‘double digit’ grade level thinking that it would lift my writing to greatness because only ‘educated people,’ could understand my ‘word collections.’  I’ve long since abandoned that practice.  My current working manuscript, for example earns a 6th grade Flesch-Kincaid readability level.  I am satisfied because that means it will make sense to a broader range of readers.

As you speak or write, take advice from Pope Francis.  KISS …. Keep it simple.

By the way …. I blew it on this one … it’s at grade level 10.

Jump at the Sun

Stephen King, photo by Shane Leonard
Stephen King, photo by Shane Leonard

One of the truths of writing is this:  If you don’t read, you can’t write.  Stephen King puts it best, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.  Simple as that.”  Mr. King is unerringly correct as one might suspect of the most prolific author America has yet to produce.  And so I read ….

Ten years ago as I was completing my first novel, The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas, my friend Steven Pressfield 

Steven Pressfield

recommended that I read Noah Lukeman’s writer’s guide The First Five Pages.  I took Steve’s advice and I am glad I did.  I immediately set to re-writing my fourth draft, basically from scratch.  Mr. Lukeman’s book is indispensable to the would-be author.  I took particular note of Chapter 3, “Sound.”

Mr. Lukeman tells us that accomplished poets often make for the best writers of prose because they pay close attention to the sound of language and its rhythm.  He concludes the chapter with this exercise:

“Take some time to read poetry.  Spend weeks reading as many different poets as you can.  By devoting all this attention to the individual word, phrase and stanza, you will learn a greater attention for language, and this attention will eventually show in your work.”

Noah Lukeman

I read that and dove head first into Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage followed quickly by Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I’ve held true to Mr. Lukeman’s recommendation since and I read poetry almost daily.  The more I do, the better I feel I write.

Reading is essential to writing well, and what you read will ultimately influence what flows through your pen to the paper.

For several years, I have subscribed to the “Word for the Day” at whose international non-profit organization provides “resources for living in the gentle power of gratefulness, which restores courage, reconciles relationships and heals our Earth.”  Two weeks ago, the Word of the Day were two sentences authored by Zora Neale Hurston in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at the sun.’  We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

I was unfamiliar with Zora Neale Hurston, but I was so taken by those two sentences that I secured the book from my local library and have been swept away by it ever since.  Last night as I read from Dust Tracks on a Road, I read what I consider the best writing I have ever been privileged to read.  It is so beautiful and poignant that I want to share it in my blog.  In this paragraph, Ms. Hurston reflects on her imaginary childhood friends and playthings.

“They all stayed around the house for years, holding funerals and almost weddings and taking trips with me to where the sky met the ground.  I do not know exactly when they left me.  They kept me company for so long.  Then one day they were gone.  Where?  I do not know.  But there is an age when children are fit company for spirits.  Before they have absorbed too much of earthy things to be able to fly with the unseen things that soar.  There came a time when I could look back on the fields where we had picked flowers together but they, my friends, were nowhere to be seen.  The sunlight where I lost them was still of Midas gold, but that which touched me where I stood had somehow turned to gilt.  Nor could I return to the shining meadows where they had vanished.  I could not ask of others if they had seen which way my company went.  My friends had been too shy to show themselves to others.  Now and then when the sky is the right shade of blue, the air soft, and the clouds are sculpted into heroic shapes, I glimpse them for a moment, and I believe again that the halcyon days have been.”

If you have an inclination to write, read and then “jump at the sun.”


The Writing Process, part 1

a masterWhether or not you read Stephen King books and whether or not you like Stephen King, I am certain he will be remembered well into the future as one of the most prolific, if not one of the greatest novelists this country has ever produced.  I used to paraphrase Mr. King as saying, “If you don’t read, you can’t write.”  A bit of research reveals his method for success.  What he actually said is,

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

I for one would not challenge his advice.

I want to focus on the ‘reading’ aspect, and I’ll return to my original paraphrase:  If you don’t read, you can’t write.  I have been an avid reader since childhood.  Among my favorite authors are Nikos Kazantzakis, Steven Pressfield, Mark Helprin, Victor Hugo and Ron McLarty.  Each writes in different form and each writes about different subject matter, but each is a master of the art in his own ingenious way.  I do not seek to emulate any writer, but I am certain that the more exposure one has to literature in all genres, the better-equipped one is to write and to develop her own style.

Just recently, I received a letter from a woman writing her first novel and asking for some advice.  She told me she was an avid reader, but had not read anything since she started her manuscript because she did not want “to be influenced” by another writer.

Frankly, I disagree.  If I read good literature and it influences my writing, then I am a better writer.  We certainly don’t plagiarize in any way, shape or form. pressfield However, Steven Pressfield once told me, “It’s okay to steal as long as you make it better.”  Touché.  I’ll admit, I’ve adapted a sequence or two from Les Miserables and even one from Mr. Pressfield’s Legend of Bagger Vance in two of my manuscripts.  My ‘theft’ didn’t make the original concept any better, but I believe it made my stories better as I envisioned them and eventually put them on paper.  I’ll challenge you to identify the book/s and — I think even more difficult — the specific scenes.  [My son Brad is excluded from the challenge.]

first fiveWhen I completed the fourth re-write of my first manuscript, The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas and believed I was finished, Mr. Pressfield advised me, “You might want to check out this book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.”  I’ll discuss Mr. Lukeman’s book in greater detail in a subsequent post.  He devotes an entire chapter to ‘sound,’ which he likens to rhythm.  After reading Mr. Lukeman’s discussion on rhythm, I learned to begin each day reading poetry to help me establish rhythm to the prose I would write that day.

As I wrote The Olympian, I began my early morning reading Lord Byron’s The Pilgrimage of Childe Harold.  I’m embarrassed to admit I can tell you nothing about the poem, but I am convinced that it greatly influenced the rhythm of The Olympian in a positive way that made the book more ‘authentic.’

With four novels under my belt and well into the fifth, I am convinced that Stephen King is absolutely correct:  you cannot expect to become a good writer unless you read every day.