Lament from the Lake (Encore)

Subtitle: How writing has ruined my reading….

We’ve spent an idyllic weekend at a lake resort with our grandkids, and we’ve had a wonderful time. I even brought a book along to read. Sad to say, I didn’t get far. You’ll soon find out why. There was a brief sighting that stirred my artist’s soul—I thought I’d seen a young lady entranced by one of my books. Alas, the thought was fleeting.

bikini beach reader

This is the lass I mentioned. [sigh] The giveaway? My books aren’t available in hard cover. However, several of my readers do like hats. That should count for something.

My reading problem didn’t evolve overnight or as the result of my proximity to a body of water. The condition sneaked up on me like a disease, a sort of literary high blood pressure. I had no idea the conversion was under way, but over the course of some amount of time—thirty years, give or take—my ability to read for enjoyment took a monumental hit. Call it readaplegia, which ought to be a real condition if it isn’t already. I’ll even give it a definition: it’s a noun meaning the inability to read for pleasure because the reader is so keen on words and structure that he or she can’t escape the need to either admire or criticize the content.

“Whoa—this is really intense,” I mumble, ignorant of my affliction. “What an astonishing choice of verbs. Damn. I really wish I’d thought of that. I should probably make a note of it so I can steal it later. What’re the chances that ______ [name of actually talented writer] will ever read my stuff?”

fat guy

Here’s a guy who literally devoured my book. Seriously! Cover and all. He washed it down with a six-pack of Corona Light.

[Full disclosure: I often employ the word “stuff” when referring to my own work. Some folks don’t react well to “shit,” especially mine.]

I can easily remember a time, mostly prior to discovering The Once and Future King as a college student, when I could read for pure pleasure. I gobbled novels the way I imagine Rosanne Barr destroys bonbons. Okay, maybe not quite like that, ’cause it takes a little more effort to zip through a 500-page tome like Watership Down or Zombie Cheerleaders from Mars (another fave which most people think was only a movie. Pflibbbbbt! Illiterati).

zzz-zombie-cheerleaders

Sorry! I couldn’t find the cover for the sequel, so this will have to do.

The disease has progressed slowly, as I mentioned. I didn’t recognize it at all when working on my journalism degree, though I suspect my professors may have suffered from it. God knows they had to wade through a Congressional Library’s worth of monstrously awful “news” items and “features.” Poor slobs.

I have no idea how long ago my affliction began to manifest itself, and even today I can recall a time or two when what I read actually transported me to some fictional time and place. It’s the sort of journey I desperately want to provide for my own readers. But the process requires that I constantly scratch the itch my disease has unleashed. It’s a vicious, bloody circle, and there’s no escape. Kinda like the traffic rings in Boston and parts of civilized Wales—God help you if you get stuck on an inside lane!

One reads; one reacts. The normal reader gets a scene of profound relevance. Something moving has happened; they smile, or frown, or weep. On the other hand, I get that the author has misused a semi-colon, or that the passage drips with adjectives, or that the rhythm sucks, or the whole thing would work better as a series of shorter, punchier clauses with a kind of staccato punctuation, as if T.S. Elliot were doing an action scene. Think: e e cummings in [gasp!] upper and lower case, with punctuation.

HieroglyphicsI hope you can imagine how annoying this is. The temptation to correct spelling and grammar would make a sixth grade language arts instructor shudder. [And who the hell decided that Language Arts was a better way to say “Writing?” I’ll bet it wasn’t a writer.]

Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. I love writing. I used to love reading. I’ve done this to myself; I have no one else to blame. And even with all that said, I will still read, because I know there are writers out there, somewhere—geez, there’s gotta be!—who can still transport me to a fictional time and place.

I just hope that once I get there, I’ll ignore the urge to figure out how the hell they did it.

–Josh

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An Unusual Encounter

This week’s post will, of necessity, be brief. My bride and I are traveling, and my writing time is limited. HOWEVER, something has occurred quite recently that I feel compelled to mention; I’ve met someone whose very existence challenges my concept of reality.

Over the past decade I’ve written four novels* which feature a race of people who, on average, stand about two feet tall. Their technology is essentially Stone Age, and yet they live in contemporary times and must compete for survival in the world you and I occupy. (*Book four will be published in the next month or so.)

But before you ask, let me assure you it’s not one of the players from my Little Primitive tales who has suddenly popped into my life. It’s someone–prepare yourself–much smaller.

I firmly believe that stature should never be the measure of a person. And yet, stature in its extremes is, well, difficult to ignore. There’s no doubt that someone measuring eight feet tall is going to garner second looks. Now imagine the reverse. Would you not take a second look at someone who tops out at around four or five inches?

I certainly couldn’t!

Perhaps the hardest part to believe, for me anyway, is that the little fellow whom I’ve recently befriended, has many of the characteristics I once attributed strictly to fantasy. My new friend, you see, is a gnome.

It came as a complete shock to discover that he not only exists, but that he’s not alone–by a long shot. My little community, tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, plays host to quite a few of these tiny yet intelligent and skillful individuals.

For the time being, he’s asked that I not photograph him or any of the locations where his kind live. As a result, I’ve no alternative but to rely on a common sort of rendering, which while cartoonish, isn’t really all that wide of the mark.

Alas, I don’t have time, here and now, to discuss this further. I promise, however, that once I’ve had the opportunity to get to know my new friend better, I’ll reveal more. And, assuming he gives me permission, I’ll delve deeply into his story.

For now, please bear with me.

–Josh

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The Power of Dialog (Encore)

It’s unfair to highlight one aspect of writing, whether non-fiction or fiction (in any of its many flavors) when there are so many such factors to choose from. But one thing is certain, bad dialog can derail an otherwise good story. A great plot won’t save it, nor will superbly drawn characters. At least, not these days. Examples of crappy dialog by well-known authors abound, but most of them achieved their fame a long time ago. Today’s market isn’t as forgiving, especially for those whose books don’t occupy an all but hereditary spot on the bestseller lists.

So, what makes dialog good, and why is it a powerful tool? If done right, dialog can go a long way in helping a writer in the “show, don’t tell” game. What characters think, do and say shapes them in a reader’s mind. How they say things is just as important.

“Good” dialog is nothing like real-world dialog. For one thing, it tends to be smarter and sassier with few, if any, uhms and uhs. It rarely incorporates a listener’s name in a verbal statement, and it takes full advantage of action tags which will also help to portray a character’s outlook, proclivities, and mood. (Full disclosure: I had a proclivity once, but I had it removed.)

Rather than continue to preach, I’ll simply provide a modest exchange between two people who meet in a bar. The original version of this arrived in my email one day and consisted of about ten short paragraphs leading to a punch line. I’ve revised it to include all the issues mentioned above.

Male Logic

“So,” Wanda said over a glass of Burgundy, “you like beer?”

Jake nodded, yes.

“How many beers a day?” she asked.

“Usually about three,” he said. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how I feel. Sometimes I’m really thirsty, sometimes I’m not.”

“That’s reasonable,” she said. “And how much do you pay, per beer?”

“Here? In this bar?”

“Yeah.”

“Five bucks, but that includes a tip. I appreciate good service.” He winked at their waitress.

“That’s commendable,” Wanda said. “And how long would you say you’ve been doing all this beer drinking?”

Jake tilted his head, stretched, and let out a sigh. “About 20 years, I guess.”

Wanda whipped out a pen and did a quick calculation on a napkin. “If a beer costs $5 and you have three a day, that puts your spending each month at $450.” She scribbled through another short equation and smiled at the answer. “In one year you spend about $5400 on beer. Does that sound right?”

“I suppose,” Jake said. “I don’t see anything wrong with your math.”

Wanda worked through one last problem then sat back, feeling satisfied. “If you spend $5400 a year on beer — not accounting for inflation — you’ve spent something like $108,000 over the past two decades.”

Jake shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Do you realize that if you didn’t drink so much beer, you could have put that money in an interest-bearing savings account. And, taking into consideration compound interest for the past twenty years, you could have gone out today and bought an airplane?”

Jake thought about that for a moment and then drained his glass. “Do you drink beer?”

“Why, no. I don’t,” Wanda said.

Jake smiled. “So, where’s your airplane?”

~*~

Notice there’s a mix of long and short paragraphs, as well as long and short sentences. The first half is strictly dialog, then the action tags kick in. This helps to keep dialog from sounding sing-song and stilted. Characters react, both orally and visually, which keeps the scene moving.

Just for practice, the next time someone sends you a joke or some other cute bit of dialog, see if you can improve it to publication standards.

–Josh

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How much of you should go in your book? (Encore)

While the answer is obvious for those who write memoir or family histories, the question becomes a great deal trickier when one is writing fiction. To a certain extent, all of what we put in a novel is derived from our own lives, even if the story we’re telling is set on another planet, in a different dimension, or smack in the middle of some utterly illogical fantasy land. None of that matters.

The admonition to “write what you know” seems silly to me; what else can we write? Our characters reflect the emotions we’ve felt in our own lives. Our likes and dislikes will be reflected in the words and actions of our cast. The players in our make-believe world are likely derived from folks we’ve met, or wished we hadn’t.

We can write about survival in the Arctic based solely on the weather we experienced while visiting relatives living in snow country. Our action sequence involving a great white shark will lean heavily on what we experienced while snorkeling in three feet of fresh water as a kid. Our cowboy hero will command his horse with consummate expertise because of a pony ride we took during summer camp. The killer in our action/adventure novel will drive a car, a truck, or a tank with incomparable skill simply because we’ve spent some time behind a steering wheel.

Can our characters pilot starships, do brain surgery, or manage a sword dance? Of course! And they’ll do so convincingly because of things we’ve seen and done in our own lives. That’s one of the wonderful differences between writing novels and writing textbooks. No one’s life (their real one, anyway) will depend on the expertise we bring to a tale we’ve completely made up. Our character can root around inside someone’s head and ferret out a bullet or a magic bean; that doesn’t mean we should be allowed anywhere near a real operating room.

We extrapolate. We imagine. And then we fill in the gaps. We can empathize with a fatally wounded legionnaire sprawled on the ground at the feet of a Celtic swordsman, his innards rapidly transitioning outdoors. We know what pain feels like; we understand shock; we’ve been light-headed on more than one occasion. We can make our reader live through scenes where our players experience far worse.

Sam Clemens never experienced time travel or lived in ancient England, yet his magnificent novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has enthralled millions. I seriously doubt J.K. Rowling encountered much actual magic before, during, or after she created Harry Potter and the horde of imaginary beasts, bad guys, and bravado which populate her books.

The mix of memory and imagination is a powerful one, but it’s one we can harness. Doing so takes time and effort, of course. But what worthwhile thing doesn’t require exactly that?

There are risks involved, too. What if we get the details completely wrong? What if we confuse the details of one era with a different one entirely? What if…

But those are questions for another day. And trust me; I’ll get to ’em sooner or later.

–Josh

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When it flows (Encore)

When humans write, certain things happen in our brains that help us do what we do. The more we write, the more we train our gray matter to blot out distractions.

Fluffy's in the yard, somewhere.

Fluffy’s in the yard, somewhere.

Rather than think about the laundry that isn’t getting done or the grass that’s drawn the attention of the Home Owner Association’s lawn Czar, we focus on getting our fictional hero into or out of a jam. Alternatively, instead of focusing on paying bills or ironing shirts, we zero in on a recount of the day Uncle Rupert got stuck under the house trying to rescue the neighbor’s cat, which turned out to be a possum.

Our brains learn other coping skills, too. Like ignoring hunger pangs, monotonous noises, even uncomfortable clothes. Once we’re finally on task and the words have begun to flow, it can become very hard to stop. If you know the flow, then this will be all too familiar:

mad“Yes, dear! I’ll join you in a little while. I just have to finish this paragraph.”

Of course, the paragraph turns into a page; the page morphs into a scene, and just about the time you realize you can completely wrap up the chapter with just a tiny bit more work, you detect the sounds of an aggrieved spouse flipping through the Yellow Pages in search of a divorce attorney.

If this hasn’t happened to you yet, just keep writing, and it will.

Fortunately for me, my marriage has survived such flows. Most recently, however, there haven’t been any. I’ve allowed myself to be consumed in non-creative stuff such as taxes, lesson plans, and other worthy commitments. (I won’t dwell on the amount of time spent on FaceBook or “research.”)

For every writer who goes on a tear and becomes so immersed in an evolving tale, there must be thousands of readers who experience something similar. Who hasn’t been so absorbed by a story at one time or another that they just couldn’t stop reading?

man-reading-bed“Turn off the damned light, Filmore! You have to go to work in the morning.”

Mumble.

“Filmore? Did you hear me?”

Mumble.

Filmore! I’m talking to you.”

“Hm? Hang on, dear. I’m almost– Hey! Why’d you turn the light out?”

If you’ve been through something like this, then you’ll have an inkling about what a writer experiences when it flows. I can’t even talk about it without tripping over clichés. The experience may well be supernatural. And if not, then it’s almost certainly driven by the creative equivalent of endorphins. I shall henceforth call them plotdorphins. Someone alert the OED!

tangled lightsBut seriously, when it flows, something does happen in your brain, and it’s gotta be way more than one tiny little synapse firing. It’s more like a whole series of them, winking on and off like a string of cortical Christmas lights–the super deluxe kind with plastic reflectors and a built-in controller to manage the blinkeration. Only organic.

I don’t know what it is or how it works, but if I could boil it down, ferment or otherwise distill the stuff, I’d sure as sugar bottle it. I’d pour myself a serving every time I sat down to write, ’cause I’m already addicted to it, and I can’t get enough.

And I need it now more than ever.

–Josh

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A Merger on Father’s Day (Encore)

Here it is, Father’s Day again, so here’s a tale which is, at least, marginally about a father and son. I hope my own kids don’t think I treated them like this. My pride in them has no bounds. 

Aaron ran through the house in search of his father. “Dad!” he cried, “Dad, guess what? I worked a deal!”

Solomon Mays turned away from the Kennedy/Nixon debate on the Philco. “Really? What kind of deal?”

Aaron puffed up his eight-year-old chest. “I got Billy Johnson and Jake Warner to stop fighting—them and their gangs, too!” His wheezing always got worse when he was excited, but just then he was too proud to care.

Solomon nodded. “And how did you manage this miracle?”

“I said I’d give ’em each a dollar.”

Solomon frowned. “You can’t buy peace, Aaron, and remember, the deal-maker never pays. Is that understood?”

“Yes, but–”

“There’s nothing to add, Son. Trust me—I know. That’s why so many people come to me to work out the toughest deals.”

“But Dad–”

“One other thing, Aaron. A good deal-maker never gives details to anyone who isn’t part of the bargain.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron said, his shoulders slumping. He wanted desperately to explain how he collected a dollar from the parents of each of the smaller boys in both gangs as a reward for stopping the fighting, but now he never could.

“Did I tell you about my latest deal?” Solomon asked. “I brokered the merger of two unions: Federated Sock Knitters and United Hosiery Workers. I worked a deal everyone else just walked away from. I guess they got cold feet!” Solomon laughed, but Aaron thought it made sense.

~*~

Murph studied the memo for the hundredth time, and still couldn’t believe it. Someone had complained about him and used the magic words: sexual harassment—something you made jokes about. Nobody took it seriously, until now.

Probably that prissy blonde in Overdue Accounts, he thought. She’s just the type. He dropped the memo in his top drawer and locked it. It was nearly four, still sixty minutes away from freedom.

If only the damn phones would stop ringing.

They didn’t. He hated phone calls more than any other aspect of his job, but as a Supervisor the tougher calls were routed to him. He would rather have chewed glass.

“Line two, Mr. Scanlon,” Sara Broadnax said. “The guy’s pretty upset.”

Murph watched as she bent to water a potted plant on a low shelf in her cubicle. She oughta change her name to Sara ‘Broadass.’ He picked up the phone. “Scanlon here.”

“I’ve just wasted two hours trying to make sense of your lousy installation manual. Listen, I–”

“Hold on a second.” Murph turned to his PC. “How do you spell your name?”

The caller gave his name and address, but Murphy couldn’t find him in the system. “Did you fill out the warranty card?”

“Yes, but….”

“We don’t have a record of it.”

“Because I haven’t mailed it yet!”

Murph relaxed. “We can’t help you until we have the warranty card.”

“But I just bought the damn thing today.”

“So? Send in the card, wait a couple weeks, and give us another call.”

“No, wait–”

“G’bye.” He hung up. What a jerk.

Bev Pierce, a summer intern, walked past his desk. Murphy sucked his teeth, oblivious to everything save the sway of her hips. Oh, my! I wonder what she’d–

“Scanlon!” The Department Manager’s voice made him cringe. He’s probably sore about that stupid complaint. I’ll bet it was that secretary with the big–

The Manager stood scowling in the doorway to his lair, some twenty feet from Murphy’s desk. “Where are the productivity charts? I shoulda had ’em hours ago!”

“No problem.” Murphy poked around in his desk pretending to look for the hand-lettered charts, knowing they weren’t complete. He’d been too busy sweet-talking a file clerk into going out for a drink. She’d turned him down. It’s probably just as well, they’d card her for sure.

“Scanlon!”

“On my way.” He snatched the charts from a corner of his desk, grabbed his coffee mug—its contents long since cold—and paused a few beats until a mail clerk went by. Scanlon blundered into him, spilling coffee on the charts.

“Damn!”

“Oh, geez! I’m sorry,” the victim said.

“Nice going, you idiot! They’re ruined.” Scanlon stepped to the Manager’s door and curled his thumb at the clerk. “I’ll have to re-do them, thanks to him.”

The clerk drifted away in silent mortification.

“Well, hurry,” said the manager. “This merger business is going to keep us busy as hell. And forget about taking your vacation; nobody gets any time off before Christmas.”

Oh, Marge’ll love that. Maybe she can take the kids and go somewhere. I could use a little peace and quiet.

Bev Pierce caught his eye a second time as she returned from her errand. Murphy smiled. Oh, yeah.

~*~

Long ago, when Mavis Jones was young, a kindly preacher treated her and a handful of other migrant workers to lunch and a movie. Mavis, a deaf mute, couldn’t follow the story, but it didn’t matter, for in the film she glimpsed a lifestyle unlike anything she ever imagined possible—a woman who worked in an office.

From then on, Mavis often thought of such a life. She imagined herself wearing fine, clean clothes and sitting in a comfortable chair. She dreamed of knowing the mysteries of the printed word and using a telephone.

Of course, that was the movies; no one really lived like that. Still, the memory sustained her as she worked in the fields. Even if she could have told people of her crazy ideas, she wouldn’t have. It wouldn’t be right. Folks respected her as a healer, one whose knowledge came from a long line of people skilled in the ways of nature. If she started talking about clean clothes and telephones, people might lose faith, one of the strongest medicines she had.

Though she never again saw the preacher who took her to the movie, Mavis always felt she owed it to the churches to attend. A ride to Sunday Services was the only thing she expected in return for any healing she attempted, and any church would do.

Mavis didn’t expect much from life and thereby avoided a great deal of personal misery. She knew there were always good times to balance out the bad. So when the sickness came upon her, she accepted it as calmly as she accepted everything else.

~*~

“Of course I want you to work for me, Aaron,” Solomon said. “But I won’t start you at the top; it wouldn’t be fair to the others. In fact, you should really start somewhere else, learn the basics, and then come back here.”

“But now that I’ve got my degree, I thought everything was set. All my life I’ve wanted to work with you. It’s the most important thing in the world to me.”

Solomon shook his head. “No, Son, the most important thing in the world is always The Deal. Never forget that.”

Rather than work somewhere else, Aaron went back to school. His asthma kept him out of Viet Nam but didn’t stop him from earning his MBA. He went to work for D. Webster and Associates, where he became the youngest partner in Webster history. He couldn’t wait to share the news.

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron pressed the phone to his ear. “You won’t believe it–they’ve made me a partner!”

“Congratulations. But, aren’t you a little young for that?”

“I guess my work on the Kressworth merger made the difference. Imagine, twenty-six stores in a single chain!”

“Yes,” Solomon said, “I did read something about that, but I’ve been pretty busy myself lately. I just wrapped up a deal with the three largest department stores in the country—forty locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

“Gee, Dad, that’s great.”

“Keep at it, Aaron; one day you’ll be ready for the really big deals.”

~*~

“You don’t understand,” Murphy said to the lawyer. “I didn’t do anything I wasn’t encouraged to do.” Concentration proved difficult as the attorney happened to be a tall redhead with a spectacular figure, obvious despite her conservative business suit.

“Mr. Scanlon, the–”

“Call me ‘Murph,’ please.”

“According to the formal complaint, you not only made lewd remarks and unwelcome advances, you actually touched these women. With six plaintiffs, I can’t believe we’re even considering letting this go to trial.”

“Y’know, your eyes are unbelievably green. Has anyone ever told you–”

“They’re contacts, Mr. Scanlon, and you can discuss any other observations you’d care to make with my fiancé’.”

“I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“Like with the women in this complaint?”

“That’s not fair! I can tell the difference between ‘No, period’ and ‘No, not yet.'”

“Not according to this.” She waved the complaint before tossing it on the table in disgust. “My first loyalty is to our employer; they’ve retained me to defend you and them. To do it, we’ll need a character reference or two. Is there anyone who’ll vouch for you—a minister perhaps, someone in a service club, your mother?

Murphy shook his head. “The woman who runs the doughnut shop likes me, I think. ‘Course, I don’t know her all that well….”

The attorney drummed her fingers on the conference table. “Anyone else?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Save your energy, Mr. Scanlon. Use it to say good-bye to your assets, assuming we’re lucky enough to work out a settlement.” She gathered his file and slipped it into her briefcase as she stood up.

Murphy stood up as well, but slowly. Then he straightened and smiled. “You doing anything for dinner?”

~*~

“What’s the matter, Mavis? You haven’t picked much. You ain’t even close to quota,” the foreman said. “Besides, you don’t look so good.”

Mavis smiled and nodded, like she always did, though the pain in her belly almost caused her to double over. But if they knew she was sick, they might not let her work, and she couldn’t allow that—it wouldn’t do for folks to see a healer getting sick. As soon as the foreman looked away, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the last of the green-gray leaves which had sustained her in the fields. She chewed them slowly, waiting for the numbness to begin.

“We gotta finish here today,” the foreman said. “There’s a bunch of rich Yankees comin’ to inspect the place and we gotta look modern. That means y’all have to stay outta sight.” He looked at Mavis. “You understand? You better get movin’ now, as slow as you are.”

~*~

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron addressed the speakerphone built into his desk, just one of the perks he received as the CEO of D. Webster and Associates. “It’s great to hear your voice. Do you like the retirement home? Need anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” Solomon said. “They take good care of me here. Any chance you might get away for a visit?”

“I doubt it. In fact, I only have a few minutes right now. You wouldn’t believe what I’m working on, Dad, it’s the biggest, and toughest, deal of my career. In fact–”

“A tough one, huh? I remember my last one. The Middle East Peace Treaty was the hardest deal I ever worked on.”

Aaron smiled. “I’ll call you when I can.”

~*~

Murph needed time to think on his way back to the office and took the long route, along the beaches on the coast.

The company agreed to keep him on the payroll though his days as a Supervisor were over, and what he owed from the settlement meant he could forget about early retirement, unless he won the lottery. But then, he’d just been served with divorce papers, so even that might not be enough.

What I could use is a little something to take my mind off my troubles.

As if in answer to a prayer, he saw a woman in the distance struggling to change a flat tire by the side of the road. He didn’t need to make out much detail, the contrast between her tan and her white bikini was enough.

He never saw the 18-wheeler he turned in front of. Few attended the closed-casket service.

~*~

Mavis was embarrassed by the fuss everyone made over her. They brought more food than she could ever eat, tried to comfort her, and kept her company, though most of the time she just slept. She couldn’t tell them where to find the green-gray leaves she needed for her pain.

The foreman’s daughter brought a puppy to cheer her. It snuggled in the crook of her bony arm, as if it and the Bible at her side were bookends. Mavis relaxed, forever.

Though they buried her in a pauper’s grave, the service was conducted by three different ministers and the cemetery was crowded with mourners.

~*~

“Aaron? Are you all right? You’ve been out of touch so long I was getting worried.”

Aaron smiled into the phone. “I’m fine, Dad, really, but very tired.” And I won’t be wheezing anymore.

“A tough merger, huh? But you pulled it off?”

“Just barely,” Aaron said, knowing it was a deal no one would ever top. “I wish I could tell you about it, but–”

“No, Son, I understand.”

“I knew you would. Anyway, you’ll know all about it eventually, everybody will. Let’s just say the negotiations were out of this world—way out.”

“I’m very proud of you.”

Aaron smiled.

“By the way,” Solomon said, “did I ever tell you about my worst disaster?”

~*~

Murphy awoke propped in a wooden chair with a cane seat that pinched him every time he moved. Still, it beat not moving because it was the most uncomfortable thing he’d ever sat in. He tried to stand, but an unseen force pressed him down. Nor was the chair the only thing he couldn’t get away from. The surface of his desk was obscured by a legion of red phones—all ringing. It was eight A.M. on a Monday, as he instinctively knew it would be for all time.

Memories came back slowly; his orientation to this place had been quick and confusing. It was conducted by a man in a white robe and a woman who appeared to be wearing nothing but red paint. The man looked uneasy and apologized, explaining the disarray as a by-product of what he called the “ultimate merger.” The woman didn’t say much. She spent most of her time laughing, though there was no humor in it.

Murphy looked across the corridor at a woman lounging in a leather-upholstered swivel chair. She smiled happily as she spoke into a white telephone, dashed off a note, and appeared the very picture of blissful efficiency.

He stared at the nameplate on her desk. Mavis? What in hell kind of a name is that?

~End~

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So, you wanna be a wordsmith? (Encore)

…then you’d best use words the way they’re meant to be used. I know I’ve misused words in the past. Like way too many writers, I get the past tense of lie and lay, laid and lain confused and have to look them up several times a year. (The web pages I use greet me with, “Oh good grief, you again?”)

I’ve compiled a list of some of the words my students have managed to misuse. While the great majority don’t stray into the land of acyrologia, they do stumble a bit more than more experienced writers do. This is most likely because the folks who’ve been doing this for a good while are well aware that they’ll make the same kinds of mistakes, so they make sure they’ve got a bunch of sharp-eyed readers to help them ferret out the offenders.

Here are some of the words I’ve seen most often used incorrectly. Do you think you might have accidentally used one? Or more?

Let’s start with bemused. Many people think it’s synonymous with amused. It ain’t. Bemused means confused. Trust me; I’ve been bemused, and there’s nothing remotely humorous about it.

When I see words being misused, I feel compelled to make corrections. Compelled, you see, means one is forced to do something; it’s not just that one is unwilling to do it. He or she has no choice.

I’ve probably heard the alleged word “conversate” more often than I’ve seen it in a manuscript. No matter, it’s still a prime offender. Trust me on this: conversate doesn’t mean having a conversation. In fact, it doesn’t mean a damned thing. Please don’t use it; it’s not a word.

Next up are two words with nearly identical spellings but totally different meanings. Get these wrong and your more erudite readers will abandon you–and your writing! Discreet means unobtrusive, unlikely to give offense. It can also mean capable of keeping secrets. The troublesome non-synonym, discrete, means separate or distinct. You see, there’s no need to treat this discreetly, the two words have utterly discrete meanings. Got it?

Enormity is a word that seems to give many folks trouble. It means extreme evil, not great size. The enormity is my appetite, not my waistline. [sigh]

Then there’s the subtle difference between grisly and grizzly. If you’re talking about something horrendous or horrific, use grisly. Unless, of course, you’re referring to Ursus arctos or one of its honey-loving kin.

Another oft-mangled word is nauseous. It refers to something that causes nausea; it doesn’t mean to feel sick.

For some reason, the word peruse is often confused. If you peruse something, it means you’ve examined it carefully. Don’t mistake it for skimming over something.

And how ’bout prodigal? The proper meaning is wasteful. The Bible tells us of someone who wandered off and squandered his inheritance. The prodigal part refers to throwing away his wealth, not his road map.

And then there’s redundant, as in the oft-maligned “Department of Redundancy Department.” What it doesn’t mean is being repetitious. What it does mean is using words that just aren’t needed; they’re superfluous. There’s a difference!

If you intend to refute something, be ready to completely disprove it, otherwise you’ll just be offering a rebuttal. A charge successfully refuted in court could mean freedom for the accused, a rebuttal only means one person disagrees with another. The defendant may still end up in the slammer.

Let’s also set the record straight on restive. It means fidgety or difficult to control. It definitely does not mean restful. My dog is often restive when he should be restful.

Finally, we get to the word travesty, which simply refers to a mockery or parody of something. Please don’t confuse it with tragedy, unless the act is so biting that it causes the mocked party to collapse and die.

Happy wordsmithing!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

A guest blog… (Encore)

Shasta

My human calls me a “chewer,” like it’s a bad thing. Sheesh. If only he knew my family history, but of course he doesn’t ’cause we adopted each other at the local pound. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful. I have a wonderful life, but I also have a proud heritage. I come from a long, long line of chewers.

I may go through a sock or two, or an occasional sweatshirt, and I once consumed a pin cushion–with pins–but I’m nothin’ compared to my uncle Tank. I’m told he ate a ’73 Chevy Impala. But I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. It was prob’ly just a Volkswagen.

So, yeah. I chew stuff. It comes naturally, and it takes many forms. And when I started working on this little itch I had on my back leg, it shouldn’t have become a big deal.

Usually an itch goes away after a little tooth work. This one didn’t. It required some serious mastication. My human fussed at me about it, and every time he saw me workin’ on it, he yelled at me to stop.dog eats homework

Silly human. I just went into another room and chowed down. In no time I had created a spot the size of my paw that oozed pink and raw. Oh, what a proud moment–it wouldn’t take long to gnaw my whole leg off! (And they said Tank was a legend. Ha!)

Just when it got good, my human intervened. He put stinky stuff on the spot, and I don’t mean the good stinky stuff. Then he wrapped it with cloth strips. Cloth! Like he forgot about the socks and sweatshirts.

Well, those cloth strips became appetizers. I couldn’t get enough of the main course: my leg.

That’s when the real challenge began. He took me to the vet, and she knocked me out. Makes me shiver just thinkin’ about it. The vet has the stinkiest stuff of all, and her cloth strips are much tougher. To top it off, they wrapped my head in an enormous sheet of gray plastic.

When I woke up, I saw the world from inside a megaphone. I couldn’t see my body. Worse still, I couldn’t reach my leg.

It was war!

Shasta coneSadly, it took me a week to devise a strategy: if chewing got me here, it might get me out, too. Except, the edges of the plastic cone remained out of range, but not for doorways, furniture and the water dish. Oh, no. I turned into a front end loader.

At the end of Week Two I realized I could bend an edge of the cone against a wall and by working diligently, I could get my teeth on it.

And chew!

By the end of Week Three, I had worked my way completely around the outside edge. Now I looked at the world from inside a colander!

Then my human covered my painstakingly arranged bite-marks with duct tape. How was I supposed to compete with Home Depot? But I did. I kept chewing.

And chewing.

Through layers of new tape and old. By the end of Week Four, I was nearly free!

Which is when my human removed the remains of my plastic prison and told me to leave my leg alone.

But, my leg was fine. Good as new!paw-print-wclaws-l

I swear, I’ll never understand people.

My name is Shasta, and I approve this message.

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You Think Halloween Is Scary? Ha! (Encore)

I’ll tell you what’s really scary. I’ll share a secret that’s seen little exposure over countless millennia, and for good reason: it’s frightening in the extreme. You probably think you know what I’m talking about, but you don’t. You can’t know unless you’re a member of… the club–the fellowship of fiction writers. The people who think up the strange and unusual, the calculated and cunning, who dwell in a particular intellectual realm where conjuring something bizarre and making it seem somehow normal is perfectly acceptable. Ah yes, now you understand; I’m talking about what goes on inside a fiction writer’s brain. <cue scary music>

Now, before you go into pooh-pooh mode, consider what follows. My bride and I took a trip to northern Arizona a while back (fall, 2019). While there we made many of the usual tourist stops and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. (It must be true; I have photos of us smiling.) Having known the woman who has willingly shared my name for a half-century, I also know it is unwise to share with her the more “creative” thoughts which often blitz through my noggin like rabid, Walmart bargain hunters on Black Friday. <shudder>

So, we’re looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, centerpiece of a 1,900 square mile national park. And while most folks are oohing and ahhing over the undeniably magnificent terrain, I’m thinking of ways to send some of my more deserving characters over the edge. How do I lure them closer to their doom? How do I obscure the designs of my killers? How do I provide for their escape? Could they ride the same bus my wife and I rode in on? Why not? And why couldn’t they dispatch any number of other people while they’re at it?

I’m certainly not oblivious to the needs of the victims. Far from it. I’m wondering what goes through their minds during the one-mile drop to the bottom of the canyon. Can they ride the air currents? Perhaps glide a bit and thereby make it to a non-lethal landing in the Colorado River? What injuries will they sustain, assuming they survive the splash? Who fishes them out? Or do they float downstream only to go over another edge, a waterfall, and meet their end on the jagged rocks below?

Fun stuff! We also toured the red rock bluffs and canyons in and around Sedona. They’re beautiful, wild, rugged, and largely untraveled. Consider that last bit for a moment: largely untraveled. To me, that says there could be almost anything lurking in the deepest backwater. So, what if someone went hiking back there? Maybe they get lost. Maybe they finally find a stream and go skinny dipping. Wouldn’t that be the perfect time to discover there are some seriously strange creatures living there? Like for example–oh, I dunno–a giant lizard of some kind? I can see it now. And you can, too!

I’ll save my thoughts about the high deserts, mountains, and lava fields near Flagstaff for another time. The same goes for the gigantic meteor crater near Winslow, the volcanic mountains which burst from the ground and spewed molten earth across the land, and the ghostly remains of the cliff dwellers’ homes. They all triggered ideas about potential stories or sequels to tales already done.

Welcome to my worlds.

–Josh

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The Curse of Backstory (Encore)

Of all the story-writing sins committed by beginning writers, by far the worst consists of dumping a trailer-load of backstory on the unsuspecting reader. Fortunately, this error becomes clear almost immediately, at least to the reader. As an editor, this practice not only makes me cringe, it makes me wonder if the writer has ever actually opened a novel and read it. And by novel, I mean one written by someone with an actual story to tell, who can differentiate between the stuff that interests readers, and the stuff that puts ’em to sleep.

Believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference — just read a bad novel, and God knows there are plenty of them to choose from. Fortunately the worst aren’t in print. As much as I bad mouth the Big Five, the one positive thing I can say about the efforts of the “traditional” agent/editor/publisher/marketing cabal, is that they give a thumbs down to the truly bad along with the potentially good.

I firmly believe most novels submitted to agents, editors and publishers aren’t worthy of being put into print. Most need a significant amount of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work. I know, because many of those writers come to me for help. I get to see what they’ve done, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why their manuscripts received a “Thanks, but no thanks,” assuming they got any feedback at all. That’s a different rant which I’ll discuss at a later date.

Along comes Amazon, and the old modus operandi is dumped on its head; Amazon made self-publishing not only economically feasible, but relatively easy. Print-on-demand utterly clinched the deal. Suddenly, anyone who could copy and paste their text into a computer-generated template could format an honest-to-God paperback book. The e-book versions were even easier. And as quick as a red neck can learn to say, “Watch this; somebody hold my beer!” crappy books flooded the market.

Please understand, I’m NOT saying all self-published books are crap. Far from it. I’ve published quite a number of them myself, and they’ve been well received. And, I’ve helped dozens of other people to produce books of their own. But they all have a degree of polish that’s often lacking in self-published work. In short, they’ve been edited.

And one of the first things I encourage (nag, berate, argue, comment, filibuster) is the elimination of backstory. If it’s truly worthwhile, it can be sprinkled in as needed. But a wholesale dumping of background material is almost never appropriate. I say “almost” not because I know of a case where it worked, but because I’m sure there’s probably one out there somewhere. I just haven’t seen it yet.

If you’re just starting your writing career, you can save yourself an astonishing amount of grief, to say nothing of time and energy, simply by eliminating every particle of backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary. Trust me when I say no one cares about Uncle Doober’s bowel issues, or whether or not Gramma Grundy ever used self-rising flour. What we do want to know is how Uncle Doober got elected Mayor and/or how Gramma Grundy eventually poisoned him. That’s where the story is!

That’s what someone, someday, might make into a movie.

–Josh

Posted in editing, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments