The 411

Simon Sez is the online version of my long running e-newsletter. The blog will focus on my life as an author, my trials and tribulations as a foreigner in America and the oddities I discover along the way.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Little Something For The Weekend

Your spooky thought for Halloween.

"The world's an inn, and death the journey's end."
-John Dryden

Monday, October 27, 2014

SHELF LIFE: The Good, The Bad & The Educational

Great fiction can teach a writer a lot about their craft, but so can bad fiction.  I don’t go out of my way to find crappy stories, but if I come across one, I won’t trash it, I’ll examine it. 
A few years ago, I attended the Alameda International Film Festival on Halloween night because the organizers were showcasing a number of short horror features.  It was held at a great little community movie theatre located on a quiet neighborhood street.  In a previous life, the theatre had been a church.  Now the pulpit served as the projector room.  The pews had been replaced, but instead of theatre seating, it was all threadbare sofas and la-z-boys.  Neat!
That was the good side of the evening.  Sadly, only a couple of films were entertaining.  Most were lacking and a couple were damn right awful.  I didn’t go in with high hopes, but I was hoping for something to stand out.  However, the night wasn’t a washout.  Each of the films taught me something about my writing.  Several of the stories lacked subtext, and were nothing more than a series of events daisy-chained together.  Others blew my suspension of disbelief because they lacked credibility and/or suffered logic problems.  A couple had complex stories that were unsuccessfully told.  A couple of stories had conclusions come out of nowhere, while others were so obvious that I knew what to expect moments after the opening credits.  One was technically perfect from a story standpoint, but suffered from awful dialog. 
I walked away from the night with a head full of pointers.  The movies made me conscious of my own work.  Had I committed any of these cardinal sins in my current batch of works and in my past stories?  Because of what I’d seen, I gave a couple of my "finished" short stories another going over just to make sure I hadn’t committed the same literary sins. 
The problem is that after a while, it’s easy to get complacent.  I’ve gotten comfortable with my writing voice and if I don’t pay attention, my writing will get worse and not better.  Seeing someone else’s mistakes makes me think about my own potential clangers sticking out from my manuscripts.
A truly great story can inspire and educate, but it can’t demonstrate the mistakes.  For that, you have to look at the imperfect.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Little Something For The Weekend

That explains all those people with flatulence problems.

"He that lives on hope, dies farting."
~Ben Franklin

Monday, October 20, 2014

SHELF LIFE: Report From The Dark Side (Guest Post)

I'm turning SHELF LIFE today over to my chum, Jess Lourey.  A couple of months ago I expressed my feeling about crowd funding by authors to get their book projects off the ground.  Well, Jess is doing it...along with all the guilt that goes along with it.  Now, here's Jess.

On October 1, 2014, I went live with my first-ever Kickstarter campaign. I am requesting $12,056 by October 31 to fund the professional self-publication of The Catalain Book of Secrets, the magical realism novel I began writing in 2001, days after my husband died. This first week of the campaign has been a roller coaster of emotions, in particular, excruciating self-awareness and low-lying self-loathing. Let me explain.

First, the self-loathing. I've traditionally-published ten books, and with each of them, I apologize when someone asks me to sign them because I feel bad that people are spending money on me. When I get a starred review from Booklist or Library Journal, I suspect the reviewer might have been drinking. If you told me you liked my hair, I'd wonder if you needed glasses. I'm that person. And so, when I tell you that The Catalain Book of Secrets has magic in it, the kind that will stick with you long after you put the book down, know that it is a physically painful act for me to say something nice about myself. That's how much I believe in this one. I can't keep it down, which is why, after phone conferences with three different NY editors (Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster) and three subsequent rejections (and many more), I decided to self-publish. I can do it. I've done it before.

But this book is magical realism, and so not easily-categorized and therefore, not easily sold. Plus, it's completely different than the humorous mysteries I've built my audience on. For CBS to find its audience, I needed the help of booksellers. To reach them, I needed to step out of my comfort zone and go to Kickstarter.

Cue the self-loathing.

There is a story of a great-aunt of mine quietly choking to death at a dinner table because she didn't want to ask anyone for help. I am the child of German immigrants who worked hard, and then worked harder, and then drank and talked about people. But they NEVER asked anyone for help. I've self-pubbed before and so know it can be done on the cheap, and I have friends (hello, Simon!) who have done incredibly well for themselves by writing and self-publishing great books at little upfront cost. But that wouldn't work for CBS. It needs the support of booksellers and book groups to find its audience. Not only that, I saw firsthand how few risks the Big 5 ( were taking, and that means that writers, readers, and bookstores everywhere are losing out. What if I could use my book to pave some sort of trail that connects indie authors with indie booksellers? That idea captivated me, but I didn't have the money to do it on my own. Getting a book in bookstores requires professional reviews, galley copies, shipping, and more, and that adds up to much more disposable income than a midlist author/teacher has.

So I did it. I launched my Kickstarter campaign.

It felt gross.

But then...the money started coming in. The campaign was 34% funded in the first 24 hours. HOLY MOLEY!!! And with the money came the loveliest notes from strangers, friends, and family, notes about believing in me and supporting me and wanting the best for me. I hate the word "humbling" almost as much as I hate LOL, but it's the only word that fits that experience. And suddenly, I was faced with the fact that all these people believed in me enough to invest in me. Awesome, right? Except that meant I needed to start believing in myself on a whole new level. Not only that, I would have to quickly learn how to accept gifts gracefully, in the spirit they were given. Tall order. I also witnessed a buzz start to build for this book that has been living in my heart for twelve years--miraculous, right?! So that's what I've been up to since October 1.

That, and talking to the owner of an influential, progressive bookstore here in Minnesota. She's excited to help me get CBS on indie bookstore shelves all over the country, if the Kickstarter campaign is successful. This is incredibly exciting to me. Not only could the book find its audience, but maybe, if this book goes gangbusters, I can figure out some sort of indie underground railroad where books are reviewed and stocked based on their quality rather than the name of the corporation that published them. It's a tall order I know, and with half a million books being self-published each year, it'll require more structure to figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff. But these are exciting times, and no matter how this turns out, I have no regrets (and only residual self-loathing) when I think about the launch of my Kickstarter campaign.

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter writing, her books are "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." Jessica also writes sword and sorcery fantasy as Albert Lea and edge-of-your-seat YA adventure as J.H. Lourey, and is branching out into literary fiction, including magical realism, under her given name.
She is a tenured instructor of creative writing and sociology at a Minnesota college. When not teaching, reading, traveling, writing, or raising her two wonderful kids, you can find her dreaming big, playing with her dorky dog, or watching craptastic SyFy original movies. Visit her website at, her Facebook page at, and her Twitter feed at All are welcome!

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Little Something For The Weekend

Depends on your dental coverage...

"You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."
~Walt Disney

Monday, October 13, 2014

BOOK OF THE MONTH: Inside Wormwood Scrubs

It's Halloween this month, so I went with a spooky choice as my Book of the Month pick—THE SCRUBS.  This is also a title of mine which has fallen between the cracks with readers and I hope you will take the time to check it out.  I think you'll find it worth your time.

The Scrubs is what people commonly call Wormwood Scrubs prison, located in west London. It’s an unusual name for a prison, but not as unusual as some in Britain. In Manchester, you’ll find Strangeways prison (although, it has been renamed in recent years because of its bad image). I do like how British prisons have weird names whereas American prisons sound like vacation getaways. Pelican Bay. San Quentin. Soledad. It seems like cruel and unusual punishment to be incarcerated in a place that sounds so idyllic, but I digress.

Wormwood Scrubs was built in the Victorian era and is a typical piece of neo-gothic architecture. The prison strongly resembles a fortress in some ways, except it keeps people in and not out. It’s not very big as prisons go. Less than fifteen hundred people call it home. If you ever take a trip on a Central Line train of the London Underground system, you’ll see the prison as you ride through Acton. If anyone has watched the original version of The Italian Job with Michael Caine, the prison he’s released from is Wormwood Scrubs. But any relationship between the real life prison and the one contained within these pages are purely fictional. I took the prison’s name and its location and ignored everything else.

Anyway, I stopped thinking about Wormwood Scrubs in terms of a name of a prison and started thinking about what the words meant. This is a habit with me. I think about words we all take for granted and break them down. Too often we take words at face value and forget their meanings. Places were named for a reason, not by chance. So I forgot the prison identity and just wondered about Wormwood scrubs. Wormwood is an herbaceous plant. It’s a key ingredient of absinthe. Wormwood oil is poisonous, considered psychoactive and possibly addictive. Wow, what a herb! The word scrubs bolts on nicely onto wormwood. A scrub area or scrubland is an area of stunted vegetation. I wondered whether Wormwood Scrubs the prison had been built on an area of scrubland covered with wormwood.

I liked the concept of a prison built on top of an area covered in a poisonous, psychotropic and addictive plant. It’s just asking for trouble. All we need is a psychotic prisoner with special powers and we’ve got ourselves a story!

I have to admit that THE SCRUBS is a guilty pleasure. It started out as a short story but kept getting bigger as I got caught up in creating this alternate universe for this prison and its inmates. And it’s not going to stop here. They’ll be two more installments—SCRUBBERS and SCRUBLAND. There’s just too much fun to be had playing with THE SCRUBS. Besides, someone has to stop Jeter. I hope you agree and you’ll come back for more.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Little Something For The Weekend

The book--the only eco friendly mode of transport.

"A book is a dream that you hold in your hand."
~Neil Gaiman