Christmas Bells

[Although this is a blog dedicated to my writing, it would be the ultimate hubris on my part to think that my creations alone are worth publishing. Thus, I present a real writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his contribution to our Christmas literary legacy. This poem is as relevant today as it was when Longfellow composed it during the Civil War.]

church_bells

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Of situations and grandmothers

People ask me what I’m up to. I tell them I’m working on my next book. (Check out my first book here.) The next obvious question is, “What’s it about?” That’s when I lower the boom and give them the most feared answer in all of writing:

It’s a story about my grandmother.

No one wants to hear this sentence because no one wants to hear about anyone else’s grandmother. (This is also true of grandfathers, but they tend to get the short shrift in this respect.) Chances are your grandmother’s story wasn’t even interesting to your grandfather. Yet it seems as if everyone who has ever written a story has written about something amazing that happened to their grandmothers.

A further problem is that “what happened to your grandmother” isn’t a story. It’s a situation. And there’s a big difference. A situation is fine for a news article but not for a novel. It’s a long journey from a situation, as interesting as it might be, to a story.

But it can be a good journey, a fascinating journey, even a fun journey. That’s the journey I’m on now. I’m turning an amazing you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up situation drawn from my grandmother’s life into a story that I hope is a journey my readers will want to take with me.

It’s a novel, so 99% of the content will be from my imagination. The other 1% is the situation – the grain of sand that I hope to build a pearl around. Or if you prefer a cooler metaphor on these sultry summer days, the speck of dust around which will grow an intricate and beautiful snowflake.

For that reason, I must go now. The journey awaits.

Quote the period, nevermore!

cannedhamThere’s an old story about a certain woman cooking a canned ham. Before putting it in the baking pan, she always cut off both ends. Each time she did so, her husband watched with growing anxiety. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he spoke up to her.

“Honey, why do you always cut off the end pieces? Those are my favorite parts of the ham.”

His wife was taken aback and indignantly answered, “My mother always cut off the ends!”

“Well,” her husband pushed on, “why did she do it?”

Hands on hips, she was prepared to give him a piece of her mind until she realized… she had no idea. Now her curiosity was piqued. She called her mother to find out why she had done it that way. The mother explained that she had to cut the ham down because it wouldn’t fit in her smaller baking pan. Thus, this woman was throwing away part of her meal for no reason at all.

What the heck does all this have to do with writing?!? It’s a perfect parallel for one of the most problematic punctuation puzzles posed to prospective prose-slingers. (How’s that for excessive alliteration?)

To wit: Why must we always put periods inside quotation marks, even when it makes no sense? The reason for doing so in the first place has nothing to do with sense. By modern American usage standards, the following statement is correct:

My favorite movie is “Star Wars.”

But it’s wrong. “Star Wars.” is not the name of a movie. (It would be OK to say my favorite TV show is “Awkward.” Unlike the previous example, the period is part of that show’s name.) The better (but currently incorrect) way of writing this is:

My favorite movie is “Star Wars”.

The reason, believe it or not, has to do with the thankfully long lost art of typesetting. Except for rare cases such as hobbyists and museums, we haven’t used typesetting in many decades. Here’s the explanation from the Grammar Girl, reproduced here without permission:

Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods.

In other words, the pan was too small. Well, we don’t use the pan anymore. It’s time to drop this stupid convention that has no basis in our present world.

Do we really want to live in this world?

Do we really want to live in this world?

The British wised up. They dumped this antiquated practice early in the 20th century. But this is America. We know better than to change to some newfangled (actually it’s old-fangled because it predates the printing press) way of doing things just because it’s better. That’s why we still have 12-inch feet and 5,280-foot miles instead of simple meters and kilometers. We’re stubbornly stupid. Even Gutenberg would agree.

Well, not this guy! I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Let the world kick me, deny me as a rebel, and ignore my opinion, but I refuse to be dictated to by ancient technological limitations. They’ll call me a “nutjob”. (See? I just did it! Let the revolution begin!) No matter. As Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” (Note: That period placement is OK.)

The time has come to join the modern world. Put the period in its place.

“A Slippery Land”

It’s finally done. My first book, a novel about Haiti, is available for sale in paperback or Kindle edition. Here’s the cover:

ASLcoverFor the sake of completeness, here’s the back cover:

ASLback

I’ve been working on this book in one form or another for more than four years. It started out as a screenplay, one that finished in the top 5% in the world’s most prestigious screenplay competition. Some of the judges’ comments included: “Strongly, clearly, confidently, and dramatically written… Settings are vividly brought to life… There is a heartbreaking authenticity to this.”

The story follows the life of a Haitian girl over six years, beginning with the nightmare of the 2010 earthquake. Her life becomes a series of trials common to many Haitians. How she faces those difficulties reflects on the resilience and strength of the Haitian people.

The book’s title comes from a painfully appropriate Haitian Creole proverb: “Lavi se tè glise“, which translates to the English: “Life is a slippery land.”

While a fictional tale, “A Slippery Land” carries a lot of truth. It incorporates many actual events I’ve seen or experienced and observations I’ve made while visiting the country and getting to know its people over the last 15 years.

Please consider buying a copy and letting me know what you think. The book is suitable for a wide audience, including Young Adult – even though it has no vampires, zombies, or mean girls, though Haiti could qualify as a dystopian society – or anyone who enjoys reading and learning about other cultures. It should be particularly good for book clubs because there’s plenty to discuss about our perceptions of Haiti and the third world.

You can see and purchase the paperback or Kindle edition through my Amazon author page here.

Thank you for reading.

icon - black on white

Save my little darlings!

An oft-heard recommendation for writers-in-training is some variation of the macabre maxim, “you must kill all your little darlings.” It’s not a mandate for infanticide but rather advice to remove from your work those passages whose purpose is more to build your ego or impress others than to drive your plot or build your characters.

This dictum, which has been attributed to everyone from Faulkner to Stephen King*, is hard to obey. First of all, we love our clever turns of phrase and our precious metaphors. Writers tend to be an egocentric bunch (actually, nearly all human beings fit that bill) who want others to appreciate their genius (or mediocrity, as the case may be). Otherwise, why try to publish our work instead of just scribbling it out and reading it to ourselves?

I have a worse problem. I don’t even want to hurt my darlings.

In this instance I’m talking not about my prose but my characters. They’re like my children or my friends. How could I stand to let them suffer needlessly? Sure, a character has to go through crises and conflicts or they end up in a totally tedious tome. (Now that’s a little darling if ever I wrote one!) No one wants to read:

They started out happy.
A bunch of happy things happened.
They lived happily ever after.

Hopefully, no one wants to write it either. It’s OK for my darlings to go through the fire – we all must – but I need to redeem their trials so the journey is worthwhile.

This afflicts my reading as well as my writing. I’m one of those people who gets ridiculously wrapped up in the characters in a story. (To read more about my obsession, check out this post.) I can’t stand it when characters I’ve grown to care about don’t wind up in some positive state by the end of the tale. Do whatever you want with the jerks in the story, but leave my buds alone.

I prescribe to the Golden Rule of Writing: “Do unto your characters as you would have done unto you.”

Does that make for a boring book/movie/play? By no means. There are lots of (most, I’d judge) stories that have what some would call a happy ending. For some reason, though, it limits the critical reception since critics fawn all over Humpty-Dumpty-esque characters that self-destruct never to be put together again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Austen, Dickens, and Tolkien (to name just a few) pulled it off somehow. There are worse examples to follow.


*Evidence indicates it was actually coined by a Cambridge lecturer named Arthur Quiller-Couch back in the 1910’s.

Coming soon!

My first novel is on the verge of being self-published. Sorry. That’s a misleading statement. The book isn’t publishing itself. My self is publishing it.

The good news is, it’s absurdly easy to publish one’s own book today.

The bad news is, it’s absurdly easy to publish one’s own book today.

Thus, my book will be out there soon, fighting for attention amidst an overwhelming onslaught of similarly hopeful creations by similarly hopeful creators. My hope is that its quality rises above that of the average tome available. But who am I to judge?

I’ve already given a teaser in a previous post. Since then I’ve finished the book, changed the title (twice), and had a terrific designer create some fantastic cover art.  Come back in a month or so and I’ll shamelessly and relentlessly plug it.

One agent told me that it’s a hard sell because it’s about Haiti and no one is interested in reading about Haiti. I hope that’s not true for many reasons, not just because it means no one will buy my book. More importantly, it saddens me to think that people might no longer have any concern for that sad and beautiful nation.

Six years ago this week Haiti was all anyone was talking about. This past Tuesday (January 12) marks the sixth anniversary of the horrific earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, injured countless more – no one will ever know exactly how many of each – and put millions out of their homes.

Now, they tell me, no one cares.

I hope you do.

Look closely

Whenever the subject of book tours is brought up in the company of writers, they all talk about how much they dread them. The travel, the repetitive questions, the crowds or the absence of them. I can’t imagine why they don’t enjoy the experience. If I had a book tour, believe me, I’d make the most of it. Easy to say since the prospect is slim for me. I can always dream.

If it’s any consolation to those jaded scribes, I enjoy hearing author presentations of any kind. The standard format is to have the authors read excerpts from their work then endure a line of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of autograph hounds. Serious RSI potential.

One of my favorite writers, Mark Helprin, did the signing thing but declined to read from his book, claiming that there were only a few great actors in the world and there was no way he could do his prose justice with his weak performance skills. There’s a lot of truth in what he said. What’s the point in hearing him read his own stuff anyway? Usually, I’ve already read it. If I’m there, I’m probably a fan so he doesn’t have to sell me on the book.

Instead of reading, Helprin described fascinating, often bizarre experiences he’d had. Not surprising, since his books are filled with such occurrences. He concluded his talk by urging his readers to follow his example by keeping our eyes open to the amazing things that happen around us all the time. (That’s heavily paraphrased. My addled memory can’t recall his exact words and my comparatively pathetic prose can’t come anywhere near his lofty standard.)

In the spirit of his admonition, and my unwillingness to devote too much time to this post in the face of deadlines and exhaustion, I present some photos of things I’ve observed in recent months. Since each is worth 1,000 words, this could be my longest post of all.

Enjoy, but then go out and have your own experiences.


I saw these two buses drive off a ferry recently. Which one would you prefer to ride, “Elite” or “Lamers”?

IMG_20150917_112917463_HDR IMG_20150917_113050820

 

 

 

 

This is what’s called a “no-brainer”. Who’s the marketing wizard who came up with “Lamers” for a name? It’s almost certainly a person’s name – a person who put his (or her) ego before the company’s best interests.

This guy was giving away ice cream in downtown Boston. I love this town!

This guy was giving away ice cream in downtown Boston. I love this town!

A visitor on the bike path. Is it any wonder I spend as much time on it as possible?

A visitor on the bike path. Is it any wonder I spend as much time there as possible?

What's cooler than the front porch of a general store?

What’s cooler than hanging out on the front porch of a general store? Especially Alley’s. (Martha’s Vineyard)

There’s something inspiring about these two trees seeming to grow out of nothing but rock. (Acadia National Park)

 

Devaluation

wordcloud1Lately everyone has been worried about the devaluation of the Chinese yuan against the US dollar. It must be important because it’s mentioned in every business report and the front page of the Wall Street Journal. For some reason, it also significantly devalued my IRA.

I don’t understand this. I’ve never spent a yuan. I’ve never held one in my hands. I couldn’t even tell you what one looks like. Yet it cost me all sorts of money because of its devaluation, whatever that is.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t pay a lot of attention to money. While there are people whose lives revolve around the topic, I find it less interesting than Lithuanian zoning regulations. That’s bad, I know, in our mammon-obsessed culture where money somehow signifies credibility, even for the least credible presidential candidate.

Words are the currency I put the most stock in. The devaluation of words and, on a larger scale, the language is what keeps me up nights when others toss and turn over the latest price of pork bellies on the futures exchange. I’m here to tell you that the news is not good. Words appear to be at their lowest value in ages. The evidence is seen all around us as the meanings of words and phrases change faster than the Standard & Poor’s index.

I blame Facebook for a lot of this. “Friend” is a crucial word in my vocabulary and life. It once indicated a relationship of some intimacy. An old proverb says,

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Another translation puts it this way:

There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

These aptly sum up a real friend versus a “Facebook friend”. How can you be a friend with someone whose only connection to you is a photo and a few carefully laundered and embellished personal facts? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the number of Facebook friends a person has is usually inversely proportional to the number of that one’s true friends.

sallymemeFacebook has also turned us into a nation of Sally Fields. Everywhere I turn, people, organizations, and companies are begging me, yea, bribing me, to like them. “Like us and we’ll give you free stuff,” or, “Like me and you’ll be entered in a sweepstakes.” If we step back and acknowledge this for what it’s saying about our culture, it’s pretty pathetic. In truth, it all makes Ms. Field look downright dignified. At the very least, she was ahead of her time.

The most culpable culprit in this ongoing linguicide is corporate America. Look at the gifts they’ve bestowed on us:

  • going forward – “In the future”, “soon”, and “later” weren’t good enough. Everything happens “going forward.”
  • at the end of the day – Other than giving us a good song in Les Mis, this mal mot has added nothing to our lives.

And my personal favorite:

  • Reach out

No one calls, writes, texts, asks, visits, patronizes, drops by, contacts, or tells anymore. We all reach out. We could wipe out the national debt if we put a tax on the use of this banal phrase. It’s bad enough when businesses do it. It has invaded the realm of personal discourse. “Thanks for reaching out to me, Mom. I’ll finish my homework when I’m good and ready.”

Notice one thing about all those biz-speak words. They all increase ambiguity. Thus, an executive may truthfully say, “Bonuses will be distributed going forward,” but might not intend it to happen in your lifetime.

When we say we’re starving, we aren’t. What we say we need, we don’t. Most disasters aren’t. That which we call awesome rarely inspires awe; it barely gets our notice. Great usually isn’t. Important things aren’t. Very-special, can’t-miss episodes of television programs are nothing or less.

Word devaluation doesn’t necessarily hit our wallets, though it could over time. More immediately, it throws our communication – and consequently our relationships – into disarray. We don’t know what we mean anymore. Misunderstanding is on the rise as precision is lost.

Don’t take my word for it. You’ll hear it for yourself going forward.

Cutting back

bothendsAs some of my readers are aware, I have two blogs, this one (SITS) and Limping in the Light (LITL). Keeping up two separate blogs, even as minimalist as these two are, is a significant amount of work, especially if quality is an important consideration in their content, which it is to me anyway. I’ve written about time constraints and priorities in another post, so I won’t bore you with it (again) here.

Combine these blogs and the daily mundane activities of life with attempts to actually write stories to be sold, published, or otherwise used beyond the realm of the blogosphere and there’s a serious conflict. Something’s gotta give. Everything we do represents something we don’t do because that slice of time and energy has become unavailable.

The conflict is illustrated most tangibly blog-wise when I take shortcuts, such as using the same post in both blogs (q.v. here), write skimpy posts (q.v. here), and when I’m late with a post (q.v. what you’re reading now, one day late.) On the whole I’ve maintained an exemplary record, considering the longevity of the blogs. LITL spans over five years and 300 posts while its little brother SITS is comprised of about 70 entries spread over the last 14 months.

Not a bad run, but it’s going to slow to a walk after today.

In order to devote more time to my “job”, i.e. writing – and also to accommodate some other “opportunities” insinuating themselves into my life – I’m cutting back to one post a week total, that is, for both blogs. From today forward, I’ll write a single post per week, the intent being to alternate between the two platforms. The day of the week is TBD. Recommendations welcome.

This eases up the demands on my schedule, but it frees up your time, too.

You’re welcome.

To tell or not tell

snoopyTo become a Writer is arguably the most common hidden dream of the average person (or beagle) on the street or in the cubicle. So when someone actually takes the plunge and decides to try to fulfill that long held dream, there are a number of critical questions to ask, among them…

  • What should I write about?
  • How do I get an agent?
  • Do I have what it takes?
  • Should I quit my day job?

And one that can be very perplexing for the neophyte scribe:

  • When people ask what I do, should I say I’m a writer?

True, anyone who puts figurative pen to paper can claim the title.  By definition, a writer is one who writes. End of story, right?

Not so fast. Something about calling myself a writer feels arrogant. Faulkner, Austen, Dickens, Seuss – now, those are writers. How can I possibly claim membership in such an elite club?

Okay, let’s reason this out, weigh the pros and cons, mull over the upside and downside. (I’ve just said the same thing three times. Would Faulkner have done that? I submit to you that he would not. Seuss, maybe.)

Consider the advantages. Everyone you inform becomes part of your network and a potential advocate. You never know who’s a friend of a guy who once dated a literary agent’s cousin. Boom! You’ve got an in with no more effort than telling the truth. Less concrete but maybe even more significant is the way claiming to be a writer builds your resolve, your commitment, your sense of being a writer. What we call others – including ourselves – goes a long way in determining how they view themselves. I’ve given this concept some thought and even wrote about it in a post on my other blog. (Interest piqued? Check it out here.)

As you might expect, given the structure of this article, we also need to examine the drawbacks of so bold a declaration. First of all, it might not feel like a fit unless you’re somehow getting recognized for your efforts, either in the form of remuneration or publishing. There’s nothing like a little legal tender to make one feel worthy of one’s title. That’s a lie of course, but it’s how the world works and how we too often feel.

The greater negative from my perspective as a person who shamelessly wears the scribe’s moniker, is that anyone and everyone then feels they have the right, indeed the responsibility, to feed you their brilliant ideas for stories. This is an excellent and surprisingly easy way to lose friends and alienate relatives.

You’re a writer? You should write about my grandmother.

I’ve always thought the lives of trash collectors would make a great story.

The most dangerous unwanted sources, unfortunately, have been my Christian friends. They tend to give me not their ideas, but God’s. “God told me you should write this story!” This immediately conjures up several questions: How do you say no to God? Why didn’t I hear God tell me to write that story? Why didn’t he tell you to write it?

Example: Someone once approached me and told me God had given her an idea for a Christmas play. Of course, He wanted me to write it. I won’t divulge the entire plot, though I can tell you that the story wouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes of stage time. Suffice it to say that the denouement of the play was nearly everyone in the cast frying in Hell. Wouldn’t that enliven your Christmas spirit?

While I managed to restrain myself from jumping all over that killer idea, I did go so far as to come up with a couple of potential titles:

It’s a Wonderful Death

Have a Helluva Christmas!

writerI get my revenge, however. Anyone and everyone I encounter are story fodder. It just happened here. The person did in fact give me a helluva basis for a blog post. It might not have been her intention but, last I heard, turnabout is still fair play.

It’s not all bad. Some people have given me excellent prompts for stories. Even then, though, if my heart isn’t in it, there’s little chance I’m going to spend much time thinking about it. Most often, I jot it down as a note for future reference.

I never know when I’ll want to write about the trash collection lifestyle.