I write stories derived from my family’s history. Researching them fills in the foggy areas of my memory and the blank spaces of my family tree. Writing them is painstaking documentary and intimate connection with people four generations away. I discover patterns of emotions, attitudes, and behavior that help me understand myself. I explore grief, loss and anger, sibling rivalries, love and estrangement, and the various forms of love – of children, parents, spouse and friends. When I write, I try to put myself behind their eyes, to see and feel the world as they saw and felt theirs. By telling their stories, I hope my readers and listeners will better understand their own.

Murder On The Old Santa Fe Trail

Posted by Mark on September 21st, 2015

A Western short story I wrote just for fun — Murder On The Old Santa Fe Trail — has been accepted by Planetary Stories/Pulp Spirit. OldSanteFeSaloonRead the story here.  And here’s an example of the illustrations that Planetary Stories/Pulp Spirit want to run with the story.  Many thanks to my friends in the Fort Mason Writing Group for their inspiration and encouragement.

Survival Is Insufficient

Posted by Mark on September 9th, 2015

I launched my agent quest this morning.  Emails went out to nine agents pre-qualified for their history of selling debut novels and historical fiction.

Most people would look at my odds and argue that even trying is an irrational act.

I agree.

But I’d rather die trying.

Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon

I did the numbers: Those nine sold 129 debut novels over 10 years.  Maybe one a year made it big.  Perhaps two did well enough that the publisher bought a second novel.  The rest disappeared into the oblivion of fewer than 100 reviews on Amazon.

Each of these agents receives about 20 unsolicited submissions per day.  Adjusting for multiple submissions, that’s about 72,000 novels pitched to just nine agents over 10 years.

The QueryTracker website lists 1,400 agents.


But what the hell, what’s my alternative?  I recall Joe Simpson’s predicament in the film Into the Void: Fallen into a crevasse, sudden death averted by a ledge, one leg broken, presumed dead.  He can’t climb out.  His fate? Die slowly.

But there is one option:  Lower himself deeper into the crevasse. Maybe there’s a way out.

If he stays where he is, he will definitely die.

Definitely die vs. almost certainly die anyway: Which would you choose?

From deep in my memories of 1970’s rock’n-roll, I recall a snippet from a Pink Floyd song:  “Hanging on in quiet desperation.”  What Joe Simpson faced by staying on that ice ledge was the illusion of survival, but in desperation.

I take the motto of Emily St. John Mandel’s Shakespeare troupe in Station Eleven: “Survival is insufficient.” I’ve already managed to survive one of the losses most likely to destroy a man:  The death of a child. I chose, as my mission, to draw from the depths of that chasm of grief something worth writing about. I also chose to make that writing as much fun as possible. Those choices led me into historical fiction with a focus on family conflict. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

I may never write well enough or catch the attention of the right agent or win the support of the right publisher or strike the right chord for a large reading audience to become a “successful novelist.”

But if I don’t try, it will definitely not happen. I’d like to see it happen. I imagine it happening. So I’m going for it.

Test Reader Feedback: Taking the Risk Out of New Fiction

Posted by Mark on August 10th, 2015

Making new fiction successful in the marketplace is probably the highest risk enterprise ever invented.  So I can’t help but try to mitigate that risk, and one way is to get feedback on my novel In the Mouth of the Wolf from a test panel of regular readers.  These are not writers or aspiring writers, just people who enjoy historical fiction.  Here are some highlights:

From Peni Schwartz:

I completed your book in just three days and enjoyed it very much.  It’s clear you have spent a good deal of time and effort to write a novel that both grabs the reader’s interest and touches their heart.

From Gail Longo:

Thank you for the gift of the opportunity to read your book. It caused me to reflect more on the broader picture of humans in daily struggles with personal relationships. It aroused my feelings of sadness over emotional eruptions that spur nations to justify war. War causes innocent people great suffering, loss of life and homeland.  It seems like it is universally condoned by the leaders of nations.  To me, war feels like the giant emotional tantrum of a child mind. It is that part of the mind that stops breathing so that the mind and heart are frozen and blind without ways to resolve the pain.

Amedeo was kind and heroic in teaching his neighbors to read, choosing books to awaken their appreciation of life as an adventure, and to encourage poetry blending emotions with history. I like the portrayal of his wife, her courage and strength of will.  I am glad that Amedeo held love in his heart for his brother, and that even though he was bewildered and grieving the loss of that relationship, he persevered in reaching out to his brother to confront him with questions that led them to fill in the gaps between the years. I find that the image of the two of them together at the end lingers in my mind.

From Emilio Marasco:

I enjoyed the book.  What I liked best was how you used history to account for the brothers’ actions toward each other.  You may run into the issue that most Americans don’t know Italy’s role in WWI or (and some couldn’t care less) what was happening in Europe between the world wars, e.g. how and why Fascism arose in Italy.

From Cecilia Strettoi:

E’ stato un vero piacere leggere il suo romanzo!  It was a real pleasure reading your novel!  I really needed a good book…and it was impossible to put down.  One of the things I liked best was the character of Maria and her message that it is not really important to establish a line between what and who is Italian and what and who is Austrian.  She is not political; she goes beyond  definitions and she cares about the peace and the serenity of her family and – ultimately — her city.  It is true that Trieste’s history is very peculiar and that its people had to endure a longer tragedy than the rest of Italy, and this emerges very clearly.  Grazie di aver scritto questo romanzo!  Thank you for writing this novel!

Mille grazie a tutti quanti!  Many thanks to all of you!


Rewrite complete

Posted by Mark on July 13th, 2015

Thanks to excellent coaching from staff and agents at the San Francisco Write to Market Conference (backed up by my own independent research) I’ve rewritten and retitled the novel formerly known as Amedeo.  It’s now just half as long, at about 85,000 words, and has a new name:  In the Mouth of the Wolf.  I’m currently recruiting a half-dozen test readers.

Thank you, Robert!

Posted by Mark on February 19th, 2015

A spec cover design by my Vashon Island friend Robert Leung, based on reading my first two chapters.  Looks like a thriller!  Guess I’d better MAKE it a thriller…


In the Mouth of the Wolf vs Amedeo

Posted by Mark on January 2nd, 2015

I’ve settled on a new title for the novel formerly known as “Amedeo.”  Too many readers leapt from “Amedeo” to “Amadeus” and thought of Mozart.  The new title comes from the use in the opening scene of an old Italian wolf hunter’s good luck wish:  In bocca al lupo —  crepi il lupo.  Roughly translated:  If you’re in the mouth of the wolf, may the wolf choke on you and die.  The tone is comparable to the American theater phrase “Break a leg!”  I think “In the Mouth of the Wolf” as a title communicates the high stakes involved in the story and the phrase will intrigue readers.  It definitely speaks of a predicament!  Here’s the opening scene:  In the Mouth of the Wolf  (Note re: photo, I found it on a search for “wolf eating” but was unable to locate a photo credit)

A Quick Look Back

Posted by Mark on January 2nd, 2015

As a writer, I began the year with what I thought was a finished novel, “Amedeo.”  Thanks to excellent feedback through a Tom Jenks workshop and subsequent work with a new writing group formed from participants in that workshop, I put novel number two (“Lidija”) on hold and embarked on a complete rewrite of “Amedeo.”  I tried at least five different time frames, eventually settling on a chronological structure spanning 1900-1945.  At Jenks’ suggestion, I read “Anna Karenina” and found ways to go deep into my characters in order to add richness to the story.  I still have a cinematic style, but added the ability to zoom way in and get into multiple characters’ heads and hearts in the same scene.

I finished on Halloween, exactly four years to the day from when I sat down to write the first draft of “Amedeo.”  The following week, I attended another workshop called “Write to Market.”  I left with a new title, “In the Mouth of the Wolf,” and four thumbs up from the four agents I pitched there.  However, all said it’s too long, at 168K words (roughly 672 pages).  They want about half that, 85K/340 pages, saying no debut novel longer than 85K can be sold.  One asked for the first 50 plus suggestions on how to divide this book into two or three books.  I sent those, but no response yet.

When I told my prior readers about the length issue, all were outraged.  Nevertheless, I went back to my earlier attempt to use a 7-day structure (May 1-7, 1945) with flashbacks and created a draft in Scrivener.  After just cutting and pasting to get the right order (including what I view as necessary flashbacks) I got it down to 89K, within striking range.  However, I worry that I’ve lost the ability to show how Amedeo and Umberto evolve.  The flashbacks feel jarring, and there are probably too many of them.  It’s not “Parallel Lives” revisited anymore.  It’s a different book, and I’m not sure I like it.  I finished that rough redraft 10 days ago and have just let it sit.

In addition to my readers’ outrage, one reason I’ve resisted making the radical cuts and changing the time frame is the feedback I received from Tobias Wolff.  He was gracious enough to take a meeting with me the day after the “Write to Market” conference and in our discussion told me that a long book isn’t a bad thing, that readers enjoy immersing themselves in a good story.  Then he read my first two chapters and pronounced my work “quite publishable.”

I now have two other agents who want to see my first 50.  I’ll send them out, and we’ll see what happens.

Fatto. Done. On with number two!

Posted by Mark on October 31st, 2014

Thank you, Catherine and Sejal

Posted by Mark on October 20th, 2014

Comments from two of my wonderful readers:

I only read this style of novel occasionally and frequently I read reluctantly, but if I start, I make myself finish. With your story, I read eagerly, excitedly, and hungrily. The pacing of the narration borders on the masterful. — Catherine Linn, Bermuda Dunes, CA

Amedeo is just an absolutely gripping, stunning novel.  The hard work and care you put into developing this manuscript shows on every page.  Your decisions were all so deliberate, and you do a masterful job of weaving inner narrative with interpersonal conflict with historical context.  The novel works like a perfect telescope in that respect, with seamless motion between close shots and macro-societal views.  I was entertained and I learned – very hard to accomplish those two goals individually, let alone together. — Sejal Patel, San Francisco


The Last Demitasse

Posted by Mark on September 21st, 2014

Why is a 19th century demitasse important? The morning after he destroys all his family’s porcelain plateware, in a rage over going bankrupt because of his gambling, Giovanni stumbles into the kitchen for an espresso made by his daughter Anna, 10. His sons Umberto and Amedeo look on as Giovanni realizes he is drinking from the only surviving cup and saucer, an ornately gilded, brightly colored cup of translucent porcelain. What did that demitasse look like?

To me, it’s this kind of detail that adds richness and depth to a good story. So I went hunting for a suitable design to describe Giovanni’s demitasse, and I found this one. I promptly fell in love with it and bought it on eBay! In the story, I changed one detail: Three cherubs instead of two.