Review: So, Anyway . . . I’ve got this complaint about this John Cleese book

By G. Robert Frazier

So, Anyway . . . I read this autobiography by Monty Python alum John Cleese, and I laughed. But certainly not as much or as hard as I hoped I might.

So, Anyway ...To be honest, the book is a bit dull at times. It’s not that Cleese’s life isn’t interesting. It is. I mean, the guy is wildly entertaining in his numerous classic sketches and standup routines on Python, and he’s starred in a few modestly funny movies. He can tell a pretty darn funny story.

Translating that humor from the small screen to the written page – or pages in the case of his book, aptly titled So, Anyway . . . (Three Rivers Press, $16) – is another matter. Sure, there are funny anecdotes here and there. And there are references to the brilliantly hilarious Python sketches he is renowned for. But they are few and far between.

I suppose that’s to be expected in an autobiography, where a lifetime of experiences are recounted to provide insight into who this man becomes. It is always interesting to learn more about the people who entertain us, but sometimes all we really need are the juicy bits.

Cleese instead regales us with his life story in a somewhat dry chronological blow-by-blow account that never really gets to the good bits fast enough. In fact, by page 255 of the nearly 376-page tome he still had not joined Python’s Flying Circus or recounted those experiences.

This is one autobiography where, for the sake of the reader, a little nonlinear storytelling would have gone a long way to increasing the readability, and laughability, of the book. I expected more from the man whose comedic genius gave us not only the popular TV series but films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and the sitcom Fawlty Towers.

I guess I’ll just take my complaint over to the Complaints Department.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Around the Web: A roundup of articles on reading and writing

by G. Robert Frazier

As you know, I occasionally like to list a roundup of interesting articles about reading and writing. I’ve been meaning to add a new list for a while but have been busy writing, so the list just kept getting bigger and bigger. Herewith, then, is my latest collection for your reading enjoyment. Feel free to comment about any of the items that strike you or post links to articles you’ve come across. 

President Obama will nominate Carla D. Hayden to be the Librarian of Congress; Hayden would be both the first African-American and the first woman to hold the position.Speaking of diversity, blogger Jenny Bhatt wrote this interesting article on

Speaking of diversity, blogger Jenny Bhatt wrote this interesting article on diversity in publishing. The publishing industry should certainly encourage and promote diverse authors when it can, especially based on the statistics, but what we don’t need is a box on submission forms asking the writer’s color or sexual preference. Let’s let our words speak for us, not the color of our skin.

James_Patterson

The LA Times Book Prizes will honor U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and novelist James Patterson. Additionally, five finalists were announced in 10 categories. Patterson is currently sponsoring a contest in conjunction with his online master writing course in which he pledges to co-author a book with the winner of the contest. The catch is it costs $90 for the course and your chances of winning are probably as good as winning the next Powerball jackpot. Still, could you imagine what it would mean to have your name on a book alongside Patterson’s? Talk about a career highlight! I am very tempted to give it a shot. It’s only money, right? And, at the very least, you do get the benefit of learning in his writing course.

The Horror Writers Association has announced its final ballot for its annual Bram Stoker Awards. I so want to read all of these books. But more importantly, I want to be on this list some day. I’ve got a horror novel in the works that I hope to dust off in the next few months.

While we’re talking about genre, which is more important? Literary or genre fiction. Join the debate here. Personally, I’m a genre writer. I like characters that do things, action and mystery. I feel you can explore plenty about the human soul by putting your characters in unusual and moral situations while still being entertained.

The PassengerNPR talks the latest trend in crime thrillers: The ‘Girl’ in the title. Even more interesting are the comments at the bottom of the article, so be sure to read through. I just finished reading a “Gone Girl” type novel called The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz. See my review at BookPage.

If you missed it when it was first posted, here’s Christopher Walken reading “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

The New Yorker recently cited T.S. Eliot as offering this advice on What Makes Great Detective Fiction.

Here’s a great way to get to know your characters. Interview them and ask these probing questions that CEOs sometimes ask on new hire interviews.

I’ve been saying it all along. There’s just something more to like about an actual print book than a bunch of digital letters flashed on your e-reader. According to a recent study, 92 percent of students agree.

Any sci-fi writers reading this? If so, have you ever wondered what it means to be a science fiction writer in the 21st century? That’s what author Charlie Jane Anders asks in this article over on io9.gizmodo.com.

Author Jo Nesbo has the perfect writing room. He never uses it.

To the sensory cortex in your brain, reading is the same as doing. The words you choose not only have the power to change your readers’ minds. They can also change their brains, according to new neurological research.

Publishers Weekly posted a different sort of list recently: 10 books about loneliness. The cool thing being that in examining loneliness, they also serve as an antidote to it.

Here’s a take on the ever-raging debate of pantsing versus plotting from The Atlantic. It’s from a 2013 article, but still plenty relevant for writers wrestling over how best to approach their craft.

The battle lines have been drawn again against The Huffington Post over its policy of not paying writers for their work. Some interesting reads on the subject (and make sure you read the comments as well to further the debate) at Writer Unboxed, from Chuck Wendig, and Huffington Post UK editor in chief Stephen Hull.  For more on writers getting paid for what they do, check out Kristen Lamb’s blog.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these roundups, and a week since this happened, but it’s fitting that we pay tribute to Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, who both passed away recently. In memoriam, BookBub posted seven timeless quotes from Harper’s book, while Eco left this advice for writers.

Have you come across any interesting reads for writers? Share a link in the comments section.

Around the Web: Advice and trends for the writer

by G. Robert Frazier

I peruse a lot of online articles about writing and reading every day in order to further educate myself on the craft as well as stay up on recent trends. Some of the articles also provide entertaining reads. Because I’m such a swell guy, I occasionally like to share what I’ve come across in this blog. Herewith are some writing-related missives to fill your head:

I came across this interesting blog from Annie Neugebauer, who attended last year’s World Horror Con and asked some of the biggest horror authors in the game what scares them.  I have to agree with Jack Ketchum that Alzheimer’s is a scary disease to contemplate, both for the person experiencing the disease and for family members. But from a writing standpoint, losing all my stories to some computer virus or hard drive crash would rank right up there. Thank God for the Cloud!

Speaking of horror, the Horror Writers Association released its 2015 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot this week, with its members voting through February. Should be interesting to see which books rise to the top and eventually make their way to my never-ending reading list. Naturally Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams made the list, as did Clive Barker’s latest Hellraiser opus, The Scarlet Gospels, two books I am looking forward to reading.

If horror’s not your thing, the 2016 Edgar Award nominations were also announced this week. Winners will be announced at the 70th Annual Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on April 28.

Electric Lit featured this look at the debate about including cultural pop references in your novel versus trying to set your novel in the eternal present.

Any short story writers reading this? Here are some inspiring quotes about the art of the short story to fuel your head.

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll come across is to write every day. But in this article, author Daniel Jose Older takes issue with that advice and believes that what stops more people from writing than anything else is shame. “That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be’, ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.” Older believes that “no one can tell you how to manage you’re writing process.” Everyone has to figure that out for themselves.

The Washington Post recently published an article about how used book stores are making a comeback. But author/blogger Kristen Lamb argues in a recent post that buying used essentially “robs” authors from getting paid. Salon responded that Lamb isn’t seeing the bigger picture of used book sales. As a writer, I can definitely see Lamb’s point. Writers don’t make much money as it is and for their work to be resold through used outlets with no remuneration doesn’t seem fair. But Salon’s point is also valid in that it could potentially lead someone to purchase other books in your canon. Personally, I buy new print books whenever I can as they are more presentable on my bookshelves, they don’t smell bad, and the pages are germ-free. But, from time to time, I will buy used, especially if a book is out of print or otherwise impossible to come by. I occasionally resell some books I’ve read at discounted prices on eBay, but I always try to sell them in a like new condition rather than one with bent covers, creases in the spine, or marked pages. The author might not be getting any kickback from the resale, but I don’t mind a few extra bucks going in my pocket here and there.

Finally, you know what they say about how writers should just type and not let their internal editor get in the way of their writing? That the best thing to do is just get your words down on paper as fast as you can? That a shitty first draft is to be expected? Well, here’s something else to consider: According to a research study at the University of Waterloo, if you want to improve the quality of your writing, type slower.

They may have a point, but I haven’t got time to type slower. I’ve got far too many ideas in my head that I’m trying to get down on paper. I’ll worry about prettifying my prose when I do my rewrites.

Garth Risk Hallberg, on the other hand, who wrote the giant 1,000-page City On Fire, maybe should have taken their advice to heart. If he had, maybe he could have avoided these truly cringe-worthy sentences that you just have to read to believe.

Review: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography a hilarious diversion

by G. Robert Frazier

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (Three Rivers Press, $16) was a fun little diversion from the usual high-octane thrillers and hard-boiled detective novels I like to read. Every once in a while you need something a bit more light-hearted to sort of decompress. This fit that bill nicely.

Choose Your Own AutobiographyTypically I wouldn’t bother with anything about Neil Patrick Harris, let alone an autobiography. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s a talented actor and he’s certainly making a name for himself following his post-Doogie Howser M.D. fame. But I was never a big fan of Doogie and … wait for It … I never got into How I Met Your Mother either. The best thing he’s been in of late was Gone Girl, and maybe I only liked it because (SPOILER ALERT!) he got killed in the most grisly fashion. (What’s that say about me?)

Bottom line, I don’t really regard him as someone I need to know about in great detail. At least not at this point. Maybe after he is elected president someday … maybe.

But at this point, I’m more than content with a short article in Entertainment Weekly or Variety about him than reading an entire book about his life. I think part of that is he’s still so young and he just hasn’t done enough yet to pique my curiosity further.

I think, somehow, Harris knows this about himself too. It explains why his autobiography is really nothing more than a series of snippets or vignettes from his life collected together as a sort of best of moments. Almost like they are funny stories he’d tell if he were a guest on a late night talk show or as if they were brief flashes of memories from his life. (And isn’t that the way all memories are anyway? I mean, who really remembers their life in a linear timeline?)

There’s no real narrative or arc binding the vignettes together, so to make things even more interesting, Harris allows the reader to pick which vignette to read next by offering a choice at the bottom of each. The idea is brilliant in that regard and immediately makes for a more engrossing and interactive reading experience.  It also allows you to read the book in spurts, without having to keep track of an over-arching theme. If you want to read something else in between chapters, so be it. No harm done, because every entry is self-contained.

To keep you on your toes, he throws in some hilarious “what if” scenarios that usually end badly for him.

Admittedly, several of the more truthful vignettes were also amusing diversions and fascinatingly good reads. Some more so than others.  Depending on how you choose you can actually get to THE END in no time flat, which is what I did. I reached the “final page” so quickly that I actually found myself going back to other chapters I knew I hadn’t read yet to see what I’d missed.

If anything else, the book makes you wonder “what if” your own life diverged in different ways. What adventure would you rather choose if you could?

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Related reading:

7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach About Writing

Killer Nashville writers’ conference full of inspiration, fun

Best-selling authors M. William Phelps, left, and John Gilstrap, right, and someday best-selling author G. Robert Frazier, center, seen at the 2015 Killer Nashville writers's conference.

Best-selling authors M. William Phelps, left, and John Gilstrap, right, and someday best-selling author G. Robert Frazier, center, seen at the 2015 Killer Nashville writers’s conference.

by G. Robert Frazier

The Killer Nashville writers’ conference has come and gone, I’ve had a day or two to decompress, and now it’s time to share some takeaways.

Overall, the conference was an enjoyable and educational experience. Kudos go to conference founder Clay Stafford, Jaden (Beth) Terrell, staff and volunteers. Everyone was especially friendly and helpful. The conference included three days of panels (as many as five panels running simultaneously every hour or so), breakout sessions, roundtable pitch sessions with agents and editors, guest lectures, autograph signings, and social gatherings. There were a few last-minute changes of rooms and panel lineups, and even a few technical glitches with the in-room audio systems, but somehow they managed to pull it off without too much confusion or frustration to the attendees.

killer nashville bookA highlight of the event was the book launch for the first-ever Killer Nashville anthology, Cold-Blooded. I managed to get autographs from most of the authors who attended. (Somehow I missed you Paula Benson!) Can’t wait to read all the stories and setting my sights on being a part of next year’s anthology!

I met a lot of other writers in attendance, “friended” their Facebook sites, and followed their Twitter accounts. (If you’re reading this and I didn’t get to you, just like me on Facebook and follow me @grfrazier23 and I’ll return the favor.) I encourage everyone to stay in touch. Writing is a lonely business and we can all use each other’s support and encouragement.

The conference’s guests of honor -– best-sellers John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum — were each fantastic. Clay Stafford did a great job interviewing each of them and getting them to share wonderful stories about the business of writing.

M. William Phelps

M. William Phelps

Phelps opened the conference with the talk: “Crime Pays: Books, Television and Film – The Explosion of the (Serial) Killer Genre,” sharing insights into the true nature of serial killers contrasted with the entertainment world’s depiction of such killers. He also provided attendees with the true story behind his hair (it’s about branding and marketing, ways to make you stand out in a crowd)!

Gilstrap provided the most moving and uplifting speech of the weekend with his “Dare to Dream” segment. He said the secret to finding writing success is to persevere. Keep believing in yourself even when others don’t.

Gilstrap also had the best, most memorable quotes from the weekend:

  • “The smartest conversations you will ever have is with writers.”
  • “I’m of the belief that we don’t value dreaming enough.”
  • On Hollywood: “You count your fingers after you shake hands.”
  • “Every success is preceded by rejection and failure.”
  • On writing: “The act of stopping is the act of surrendering.”
Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain sign a copy of their latest book in memory of my mother, one of their biggest fans.

Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain sign a copy of their latest book in memory of my mother, one of their biggest fans.

The award for friendliest authors has to go to Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain, co-authors of the best-selling Murder She Wrote series. My mother was a huge fan of the Murder She Wrote series and loved the books. The Bains signed a copy of their newest book in her memory and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with them about the series.

Robert K. Tanenbaum was by far the best-dressed author. Believe it or not, this was his first-ever conference appearance!

Best-hair belonged to M. William Phelps.

Following are some other highlights and observations, as well as my personal rankings on the panels and events I attended (one star being fair, two stars being good, three stars being very good and four stars being excellent):

  • Get A Literary Agent**** with literary agent/best-selling author Sheree Bykofsky. A great kickoff to the event on Thursday, Bykofsky provided practical advice on how to write a query letter and how to make a verbal pitch to agents. She was knowledgeable, encouraging, funny, and, perhaps above all, approachable. Plus, I won a free book from her for my “elevator” pitch.
  • Pacing Your Novel*** — The panelists here had a lively discussion about tips and tricks to keep your thriller novel moving. As panelist Don Helin pointed out, “Emotion is what drives real suspense.” Panelist Ken Vanderpool said he ranks each chapter he writes by the amount of tension it creates on a 1 to 10 scale, so that when you then look at a series of chapters together they should resemble a heartbeat graph with ups and downs along the way. And hey, they even had handouts! I love handouts.

IMG_20151030_114738104 (1280x721)

  • Crime Scene/Dupin Detective Award*** — Dan Royse, assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, created a mock crime scene for participants to solve, complete with evidence to log and process, video interviews with “witnesses,” and a floorplan/grid on which to outline the murder scene and evidence found. The sheer amount of clues and information to be processed was remarkable in itself and gave me a new respect for the true men and women of law enforcement. All those TV shows fail to capture the true details that go into solving crimes.
  • Getting it All Done: Time Management for Writers**** — Another great panel, focusing on how to keep procrastination at bay and how to shut off your internal editor as you write. Author/panelist Jonni Rich suggested always ending each writing session on an upbeat note so that you’re excited when you get back to it. Lynn Cahoon suggested using apps like Freedom and Self Control to keep you off the internet until your writing session is over. “It takes courage to open that word document,” she said. “Your book has to take priority.” This panel proved to be time well spent.
  • How to Write A Thriller*** — Author David Bell described the thriller as stories of “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” “It should engage the heart as much as your head,” he said. Bell is a proponent of outlining because it gives no excuse for writer’s block. Recommended reading from the group: any John Sandford novel or early Robert Ludlum. For young adult genre writers, visit the Better Novel Project for a breakdown on how to write YA.
  • How to Write Effective Scenes*** — Philip Cioffari did a great job of breaking down scenes into their core elements and showing how writers can craft the best scenes possible. One trick: be aware of what’s going on in both the foreground and background of your scenes. It’s stuff most writers have encountered before, but served as good refresher material and good introductory material for writers just starting out. I was disappointed to have to leave the session early because of an agent roundtable I had scheduled.
  • How to Write Speculative Fiction** — This panel never really found its footing. I was eager to hear from writer about writing in the horror, sci-fi, paranormal genres, but they spent the first half of the session addressing more routine matters, such as outlining or “pantsing.” At that point I left to find a panel that was more on topic.

One astounding fact was that nearly everyone in attendance was already published. Whether with a traditional publisher, indie publisher or self-published, they all had books for sale or to talk about and they all managed to get onto a panel. It was discouraging in a way for anyone unpublished, but also encouraging in that if all these people can get published, there’s no reason anyone just starting out can’t too. The Killer Nashville folks recorded all the sessions and plan to make them available to attendees. I’m eager to see and hear what I missed.

Neither of the ticketed bonus sessions I attended were worth the extra money. (Lesson learned for the next time I attend.) The final event, in fact, was a big disappointment. It was supposed to bring together six of the agents attending the conference for a panel on what agents really want, but only half of them showed up. The others went home early. Not good when you’ve paid extra money for that session and you only get half of what was promised.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the venue. The Omni Hotel in Nashville was spacious (maybe just a bit too large) and clean, convenient to downtown, and elegant (and a bit cold). There were plenty of spaces to relax outside of the panel rooms to catch up with other authors or to just sit and unwind. The art adorning the walls was spectacular to look at, as were the views from the large windows. Even the patterns on the carpet and the chandeliers in the conference rooms were impressive.

All in all, I’d say Killer Nashville 2015 killed it.

More on Killer Nashville:

Anthology commemorates 10 years of Killer Nashville – BookPage

Killer Nashville shiny, bright – Mudpies and Magnolias

An interview with Killer Nashville author C. Hope Clark – The Reading Frenzy

A Conversation with Killer Nashville author Maggie Toussaint – Omnimystery News

Reading and Writing Around the Web: The Nonfiction Edition

Every day I scour the web for interesting articles, tips, and just great reads. Most of what I’ll share concern reading or writing, books, movies and TV, because that’s what I’m into. If you see something worth reading or care to discuss a topic, just leave a comment.

I may not be a paid journalist any longer, but I still appreciate interesting news stories that are timely, well-told, or that inspire debate or critical thinking. Here’s a roundup of some articles that caught my eye in the past week:

The New York Times had an interesting report about Amazon’s bruising workplace culture. But even the Times was at odds with the story, as its Public Editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out what she felt were flaws in providing complete fairness in the article. There are numerous links in her opinion piece to additional takes on the article, both in favor and against. The article and its fallout-over 5,000 comments on the Times article alone—has the attention of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. And Fortune offers three lessons from the Amazon takedown. Apparently the idea of peer reviews that Amazon uses have been popular for years, according to NPR. Doesn’t make them right, though, if the idea is just to tear down someone else or stab them in the back so that you can get ahead.

Elsewhere, Conor Friederdorf of The Atlantic recently posted his annual list and links to 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism. Says Friederdoft: “This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven’t included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.” Truth is often stranger than fiction, as they say.

NPR posted this story about a library in Sri Lanka after it was gutted in a mysterious fire decades ago and how it has been reborn.

NPR also has a neat story about the first two women set to graduate from the Army’s elite Ranger School.

And this article sounds like that movie The Monuments Men: Nazi treasure train found in Poland.

For those of you who still can’t stop talking about Harper Lee, there’s a forthcoming book that explores the childhood relationship between the author and Truman Capote, “Tru & Nelle,” by Greg Neri, and how their friendship pushed them to write.

There was an interesting discussion between Liesl Schillinger and Benjamin Moser in the New York Times earlier this month about the so-called death of the novel. Of course, the novel is anything but dead. If anything, it is continuing to evolve with the advent of both self-publishing and ebook publishing, but the article is definitely worth a read.

For young adult authors out there, here’s an interesting article from NPR about cultural touchstones that today’s youth have never had the pleasure of knowing.

And, sadly, here’s an interesting story about the late actress Yvonne Craig, and her heroic battles onscreen as Batgirl and offscreen as an advocate for workers unions, free mammograms and equal pay for women.

Read anything good lately? Articles, books, or otherwise. Post your list (and links if you’ve got ‘em) in the comments below.