Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why Won’t We Read the Classics?

From Wikipedia:
“In his ‘Disappearance of Literature’ speech given over a century ago in 1900, Mark Twain said, (referring to a learned academic's lofty opinion of Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’) that the work met the Professor's definition of a classic as ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read’."

I got the gist of Mr. Twain’s quote because I once decided I wanted to read Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael.” What a cool opening line. The wife actually got me that piece of dialogue in a frame for my office wall; not to apply immense literary pressure mind you, but it does peer critically down upon me from on high; as if I had a chance in hell of ever writing like Melville. 

With the exception of high school, where I had to read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, reading a classic would never have been on my radar prior to my delving into writing. But when I did, I began to wonder what it was that made a Classic, classic. Since I knew the story of Moby Dick, I decided I should try one I knew nothing of. So I asked for several titles for Christmas. And I got them. I Robot by Isaac Asimov was one I really wanted to read, but I knew that one from the movie (yeah, I know … not the same, but humor me). Stranger in a Land by Robert A. Heinlein was another, but Santa didn’t leave it. He did, however, bring me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and I found that pronouncing his first name was nearly as difficult as reading the book.

Written in 1932, BNW is a dystopian tale of future Earth, where advanced genetic engineering allows the State to control every aspect of human reproduction and intelligence in order to maintain specific classes of people, from the brainless Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron for laborious menial tasks, all the way up to the elite Alpha-Plus, the caste that would be future World Controllers. Assembly line people. And it was Henry Ford’s concept of the assembly line that Huxley demonized in BNW.

But I digress.

Besides the technical differences in the writing—single quotes around dialogue as opposed to double quotes, EM dashes with a space on either side, to name but two—the opening chapter of this book (twenty pages) could be considered a massive information dump delivered by characters through dialogue; done well, mind you, but an info dump none the less. After a while, it became tiresome. Today’s novels jump right in so as not to bore the reader.

The first paragraph:
A SQUAT grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.
The second paragraph was more setting.

I also picked up on a fair amount of multiple POV shifts in short bursts with little attribution, which caused me to lose track, go back to see who was talking, and eventually, stop reading—a bad habit I’ve developed from being rejected by agents so many times. The story finally began midway through chapter three, but by then I’d had it. I expect I’ll pick it up at a later date and finish it, and not just so I can say that I’ve read it. I’m sure it’s a bit like 1984 by George Orwell (which I read while in the Navy), and I’m certain I’ll enjoy it as soon as it gets started.

It’s interesting to me that, just twenty years later, in 1951, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and the trend of opening with characters in action is there, as evidenced by his first paragraph.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Man! Takes my breath away. Sets the tone, introduces the main characters, and speaks to the old man’s conflict.

So I think I understand why we won’t read the Classics, as Twain says, even those we would like to say that we have, if only to sound learned around our peers. In some cases, like that in Huxley, the writing is old fashioned, with outdated styles and antediluvian vocabulary and technical differences. They read nothing like those of today’s writers, and we may as well try to read the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays, but I think it better to attend the performance.

I like to think our generation is busily cranking out new Classics that won’t be read by future readers who will more than likely say … “King? Rowling? Clancy? Yeah, I’ve read them.”

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Friday, September 12, 2014

By Dawn's Early Light - 200 Years

It is a special week in my home town of Baltimore, for it marks the 200th birthday of the Star Spangled Banner. The celebration runs the whole week, from Wednesday to Wednesday, and includes Ravens and Oriole’s games, a mock bombardment of the fort for the kids, a huge fireworks show, tall ships from around the world, US Navy warships, the incredible Blue Angles, and of course, tours of Ft. McHenry, the last defensive position in the Battle of Baltimore that withstood a forty-eight hour bombardment by the vaunted British Fleet. 

Historians believe that, had Baltimore fallen, this country would not have been.

Something to think about, eh?

Watching the Oriole game this evening, I learned that Francis Scott Key was a lawyer, and he came to be on a British warship to negotiate the release of an American prisoner. But the British would not let him leave while the bombardment of Ft. McHenry was in progress. So he was aboard an enemy ship when dawn came, and he wrote the famous words that we know today as The National Anthem. The Star Spangled Banner was rumored to be a poem, set later to music, but according to Dr. David Hildebrand of the Colonial Music Institute ( the words were always meant by Key to be a song, set to the tune of The Anacreontic Song (yeah ... I can’t pronounce it either).  

“It is commonly believed that Francis Scott Key wrote ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as a poem that was later set to music, but this is not the case. The structure doesn't match any poem.”

And … in case you didn't know, in the fourth and final stanza, are the words “In God is our trust.” Seems in this day and age of Political Correctness, where Prayer is forbidden in our schools, and God and Faith offend the Godless, God played a mighty big role in the formation of this country.

So we’re going to make an attempt to brave the crowds tomorrow early, and see if we can’t find a parking place downtown. I’m pretty sure the foray won’t be as bad as the War of 1812.

Happy Birthday, to the greatest flag in the world.

Best Regards,

Ps.  A final tidbit: The flag that flew over the fort had 15 Stars and 15 Stripes.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy—A Review

I have been remiss of late, tending to my blog, but this week I thought I’d depart from my normal theme of writing about writing and all that comes with it, and turn my attention to a movie I saw over the weekend with my grown son, Corey.

I am an insufferable geek when it comes to Sci-Fi and comics. Growing up, I saw all the movies and TV shows and read all the comic books; except for Guardians of the Galaxy. I’d never actually heard of the series, and I expect that’s because Marvel first published it long after I outgrew my comic book phase.

There! I said it! Out! Grew!

So when I saw the Guardians trailer, my curiosity piqued. The day comic books came to the movies, all my childhood heroes came to life. They became real, and learning of Guardians  was like being nine-years-old again, and discovering Spiderman #1 sitting in the spinning display rack at the drugstore.
I could imagine nothing cooler.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a tongue-in-cheek technical wonder for the mind that follows a tried & true Sci-Fi formula, where a sprinkling of unlikely misfits band together to save the galaxy from the evil Overlord. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is the Earthling with a passion for 80s music, who is abducted as a child just after his mother dies. We fast-forward to adulthood and catch up to Quill as an intergalactic version of Indiana Jones. But everything changes when he acquires—The Orb. He has it, the Overlord wants it, and the pursuit begins. Possession of the powerful sphere leads him to the rest of the gang, the coolest of which are Rocket the laser-toting, wisecracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) with what I consider to be the coolest line in the whole movie: "Ain't no thing like me, 'cept me." And then there's Groot, a tree trunk/plant thing that can say just three words … “I am Groot,” (voiced by Vin Diesel). These two are worth the price of admission, I tell ya! Add to this lovable pair a green Zoe Saldana as Gamora the living weapon, and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) as a walking assemblage of muscle that takes the literal interpretation of earthly expressions.

Ten minutes into the movie, I leaned over and said to Corey, “I have to see this one again.”

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, you undoubtedly leave your disbelief at home when you take in movies such as this, although you will need to suspend whatever disbelief you do bring with you at one short point in the show, but trust me, it will be easy to do. 

There are the requisite space battles and fisticuffs and high-speed chases, and several twists turns and setbacks along the way, and the 80s soundtrack will have you humming to songs you haven't heard in a while, if not singing out loud. The end of the movie drops a hint of things to come as any good series will, and as with all the Marvel movies, this one uses its signature preview (or post-view), so do stay for the bonus scene after the closing credits.   

I give it 6 out of 5 stars. 

Live Long and Prosper.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Poe-ta-toe? Poe-tah-toe? Toe-ma-toe? Toe-mah-toe?

On occasion, I think about those new folks in our country who have to negotiate the English language, and wonder if they experience the same confusion and bewilderment as I did in my early school years.   

I’m not referring to speaking the language; I’m referring to reading and writing it. I used phonetics in/inn the title to emphasize the point, as the two/to/too different pronunciations are actually spelled the same way/whey. Then there/their is the opposite of that—words that sound the same and are spelled differently: creek or creak, council or counsel, principle or principal, capitol or capital. These last three always trip me up. Thank God for proof readers. Spell Checker won’t help you/ewe here/hear.  

Ok, this is fun, but it’s making me a little crazy. What prompted me to ponder all this was a story I was working on. I never paid much attention to these variants until I began writing, and in doing so, realized what a quagmire the English language really is. Working on a short story the other day, I wrote the line:

“Cole nodded toward the large manila envelope laying on the table in front of her.”

Ooops! Is it “laying,” or “lying?”  You just can’t trust the grammar checker for these things. To be sure, you have to look it up, which is exactly what I did. I happened upon a Writer’s Digest article a while back that had several links to various interpretations of how words are misused. But in searching for them here, I found a site that has everything (or most everything) in one place. I like it better.

Enjoy your/yore self.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

What is a Character Arc?

If you’re like me, there are some movies you watch every time your spot them on TV; favorites you choose to watch again regardless of anything else that’s on. Other than A Christmas Story, which only airs at Christmas, mine are The Sandlot, The Green Mile, and Scent of a Woman. There are probably a few more I can’t think of at the moment, but I wanted to chat about Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino and that other guy.

Now I’ve seen this movie at least five times, stolen lines from the dialogue, and used them as my own. “I’m in the amazing business.” I used that one on Maggie on our first date. We’re married now, so needless to say, it worked. And she still thinks I’m amazing. 

Go figure.

So it played again today, on the 4th of July. I stopped what I was doing and settled in to watch, and to see how many lines of dialogue I could repeat along with the characters. About the time prep-school student Charlie Simms, there by benefit of a scholarship, met retired U.S. Army  Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade for the first time, it struck me what a beautiful piece of writing this was.

LTC. Frank Slade was an asshole; a despicable human being who made everyone around him uncomfortable and want to run for cover. He was easy to hate, or at the very least, dislike with vigor, and for those who have not yet seen this movie, he was also blind. Frank was a man in pain, and all he knew how to do was lash out and feel sorry for himself. It was the base starting point of Frank Slade’s character’s arc.

As I watched the movie, I studied how the Slade character began to change as he set his plan of suicide in motion in New York City. As events unfolded, Slade continued his anti-social ways, but at the same time, began to warm up to Charlie; a kid facing misplaced disciplinary action for an act of vandalism, witnessed by him, but perpetrated by others on the Headmaster’s car. Charlie refused to rat out the offenders, and due to that, faced expulsion. Slade began to look upon Charlie, who was virtually alone in the world, as a son. By the time all was said and done, Slade reclaimed his humanity by helping Charlie through his ordeal. When the movie was over, LTC. Frank Slade had completely changed for the better. 

End of character arc.

I'm certainly no expert, but that's basically how it works. Slade was in fact, the antagonist that changed by virtue of Charlie. Charlie provided the conflict and foiled Slade's suicide plans by restoring his faith in the value of living. Giving Slade a reason to live was the goal, albeit unintended, the school hearing was the inciting incident, and Charlie’s redemption due to Slade’s participation was the happy ending, or climax.
If you need a great example of a character arc, see this movie. There is a bit of language in it, but it’s no worse than what you’d hear in a gansta rap song now-a-days.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Wonder Why You Can't Get Any Writing Done?

I use Sundays to write. I have the whole day if I skip church, and it's usually the first thing on my mind when my feet hit the bedroom floor.

... Well, the second thing, right after watching all my Sunday Morning shows.

So around noon, when I stop yelling at the TV and the talking heads on the Hi-Def, 40-inch screen, I switch off the power, and head to my office. And since I have to pass the kitchen anyway, I take a moment to whip up my third cup of Bailey's laced coffee to loosen up the ol' gears.

Yesterday, we returned from a successful Oxford book signing. Following the hour drive, I felt a bit lightheaded when I got out of the car. Maggie said that worried her. She wanted me to see the doctor because it could be a blood-pressure problem. 

So naturally, I thought about dying. 

Then I wondered if she would be able to decipher my computer filing system and find all my completed manuscripts so she could rake in the potential fortune after I move on to the great writer's office in the skyor wherever, now that I've skipped church. I decided that with my cryptic and scattered filing system, she wouldn't be able to locate those potential "great American novels" … not without spending a great deal of time—time she could use to spend my fortune. I decided to create an easy-to-find file just for completed manuscripts. Then I would knuckle down and get to work on the new book.

As I began sorting through files, I stumbled across an old short story I just happened to discuss with a colleague while at the book signing yesterday. I decided to send it to him so he could get a better feel for what we had discussed. But it was years old, so I had to read it first.

… and then re-write it.

That complete, I sent the file and turned back to the writing awaiting me. As I “back arrowed” through the files, I saw one titled, “List of video trailer post sites.”


In it were sites I had noted years ago in the event I needed places to post a book trailer that I didn't have at the time. Since I had one now, I naturally wondered if they were still there.

Oh, they were there alright. Each and every one of them. So I started with Google Video.

I discovered my existing Google account got me in, and when I logged on to the site, I saw Facebook-like posts of people I know, posting things that they've done, and I wondered why I had nothing there. So I read their posts and decided I needed to add something.

A reader had posted a very nice review of Chain of Evidence on Amazon and Goodreads, among others, earlier in the day, and I thought I should post it on this newly discovered Google site. So I did, and then I went ahead and posted it on a few Facebook sites as well. Then I read a few posts before remembering I wanted to post the trailer on the video site. But before I did that, I had to help the wife carry in the groceries. And cobble together a vodka and coke.

That completed, I had to find the trailer. It was on my computer somewhere, I was sure.

A few minutes later it was back to Google to post the clip. But wait. What’s’ this? Google Play? Maybe just a quick detour.  

“What do you want for dinner?” Maggie calls. I look up. I swear someone moved my clock ahead.

With another Sunday shot, I went back into my office to close up for the day, thinking about all the writing I didn't get done. But just as my computer was spinning down, I remembered that I forgot to create the Completed Manuscripts file.

So I scribbled it on a Post-it note and went to bed.

Sound familiar?

Best Regards,

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Book Signing in a Quaint Little Town

As any author will admit following several vodkas or their libation of choice, after their dream of being published for the first time becomes reality, their fantasies turn to their first book signing and the throngs of adoring fans that will be in attendance. They picture long lines of readers that come in all varieties of shape, size, age and denomination, eager to have the book they just purchased signed and personalized by their now most favorite author. 

Of course, that’s why they are called fantasies.

One has to work for such a privilege, and the first book signing is just one of the first steps in a long series of appearances and interviews that will hopefully take the author along a road toward becoming a household name. My first bookstore signing happens this Saturday, June 28, at Mystery Loves Company Book Sellers in Oxford, Maryland. They had asked if I had a poster they could use to promote the event, and since I hadn't been to the store, or to Oxford in several decades, I decided to drive the poster down.

Oxford is a sleepy little resort town at the mouth of the Tred Avon River just off the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s eastern shore, and as I rode into town, the first thing that caught my attention was the 25 MPH speed limit. In today’s fast-paced rat race, I was glad for it. The speed allowed me to drink in the scenery as I made my way down the town’s main, single lane street.

It was as if Time had overlooked this small berg, with people walking dogs or riding bikes at a pace where, it would seem, they had not a care in the world or a place they had to be. In many ways it reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up; tree-lined one lane neighborhood streets where, if two cars approached each other from opposite directions, one had to pull over to let the other by. I passed several small country stores that catered to tourists and residents alike; antique and nick-knack shops, and a real estate office that fit into the scheme of the town like a puzzle piece. I found myself wondering what a little house on the water might cost in a historic town like this. 

Then I answered myself.

“More than you have or ever hope to have.”

 I found the bookstore and chatted with Kathy, the owner, for a bit, and then took a drive through town. The colonial architecture was a step back in time to the days where people used horse & buggy to travel back and forth, and as I made my way around, I pulled over many times to take in the charming country porches with their rockers and hammocks, and the white picket fences running along the inlaid brick walkways. It seemed a majority of the narrow side streets led to the water’s edge, and at the end was usually a bench or several big lawn chairs in which to sit, and let your troubles go as the tranquility washes over you. 

                   I parked the car and sat on one of the benches … just for a few minutes.

There are B&Bs here too, and I fully intend on taking advantage of one in the very near future. But for now, I am focused on the signing this Saturday. So if all this sounds like a place you’d like to come and visit, or take a swim, or just have a nice dinner at one of the restaurants, maybe you’d like to stop into Mystery Loves Company Book Sellers to say Hi, and maybe find a book or two that strikes your fancy. If mine happens to be one of them, I’ll be there this Saturday, June 28th, from 1 to 3 pm., and I’d be happy to personalize it for you for a small fee.

OK … I’m only kidding about the fee.

Come down, say Hi, and treat yourself to a day from your childhood.

Best Regards,

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"The difference between the right word and almost the right word

is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Mark Twain

When I started writing seriously in 2005, everyone who loved me (all two of them) encouraged me in a similar way. My daughter Danielle bought me a Merriam-Webster Word Calendar for my desk so I could learn a new word every day. Maggie, on the other hand, subscribed me to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day, and I began receiving an email on a daily basis, each with a different word. The object of all this was to help me grow my vocabulary, because everyone knows that being a writer requires a vast knowledge of words.


Poppycock - \POP-py-cock\ Noun: Foolish words or ideas, empty talk or writing.

For a while, I actually tried to memorize the words flowing across my sphere of consciousness. I found I couldn’t memorize them any better now than when I was in school, except for the ones I liked. I didn’t remember their exact definition, but I understood the words and knew how to use them. Some of the others I tore from the calendar and stuffed in a drawer, or saved away in a file for later use. On occasion, I’d roam through those saved words and dust my manuscript with a few here and there; words like:

Wax - \wax\ intransitive verb (what the hell is an intransitive verb?):
1     :  to increase in size, numbers, strength, prosperity, or intensity
b :  to grow in volume or duration
c :  to grow toward full development
2   :  to increase in phase or intensity —used chiefly of the moon, other satellites, and inferior planets
3   :  to assume a (specified) characteristic, quality, or state :  become <wax indignant> <wax poetic>

“Wax” is the opposite of “wane.” This is an archaic word seldom used in regular discourse, but I read it in a book somewhere, liked it, and decided to see if I could use it. The dialogue, as I remember it, went something like “… he waxed poetic, memories of Sunday school.”


How many people could I have scratching their head on that one?
But I never actually found a place to use it. The odd thing was, I started hearing it every now and again. Weird!

I did, however, use this one:
Cupidity - \cu-PID-i-ty\  Noun:
1:  inordinate desire for wealth :  avarice, greed
2:  strong desire :  lust
It’s neat how words can mean different things depending on how you use them. When I used it, it was all about the Lust.

It’s true that a writer needs a decent vocabulary in his toolbox, so I still pay attention to the word-a-day emails. When I see one I like, I may go back and substitute it for something I used earlier. That’s not cheating because I learned something new, but because I’m not constantly trading new words for words already written, I realize that being a writer isn’t about using a vast quantity of “nickel” words; it’s about how you use the ones you already have.

Some of the most powerful and endearing quotes are just good ol’ fashion English, and there ain’t nothing fancy about ‘em.

“Ask not, what your country can do for you.”
“Honor is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”
“There’s no crying in baseball.”

See what I mean?
Do the best with what you got … grammar notwithstanding.

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Illustration used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at