Category Archives: Writing

Your Words Will Find Their Audience If

The Las Vegas 51s at Cashman Field. Never to be seen again, by the way.

Your words will find an audience if you remember that there is more to a story than a plot. As a case in point, I’m going to use the lyrics for the song Africa by Toto. Africa was written by  David Paich and Jeff Porcaro.  Google’s display of the lyrics can be seen here. Mr. Paich has said that it’s about “a white boy [writing about] Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” (source = Wikipedia) Before I go on, let me state that I’ve always liked the song. It’s in my main playlist on Amazon Prime. I think Toto was a collective genius in recording and releasing it. Weezer has covered it. You know you’ve made it when Weezer covers you, or Weird Al parodies you. In this case, Weird Al helped Weezer cover the song in their video. Check it out here. The Weezer cover was by fan requests. Okay, they’ve made it. The song rocks! But, it ain’t the lyrics, bub!

Take the second verse (please.)

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company

What? Solitary company? What they hey? Do those dogs need a quiet place to masturbate? Do wild dogs even do that? And it goes on.

I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

Hey, look at that mountain over there! Looks just like another mountain doesn’t it? You could say “rises like Mount Charleston” and have as good a simile. Oh, my. Meanwhile, back in the first verse we find this:

I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”

I’ve never been to Africa either, but I don’t imagine I could read the minds of old African men. (Remember: I like this song.)

Here’s the thing. As a song, there’s more to it than just the basic storyline. In this case that’s a wonderful thing. The basic oh-so-thin plot is backed up by the rest of the song. The central theme, drilled home over and over by the chorus:

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

The fade-out, the denouement if you will, takes seemingly forever, repeating that theme, and repeating that theme, and repeating that theme. In the song world, that’s known as “the hook.” I’ve seen memes of it on social media. And there’s the music, which is, frankly, rather haunting.  The music is equivalent to the setting, the characterization, the voice, of a story. In this case, the music and the theme together make a hit out of what is probably the most lacking in substance set of lyrics ever penned. Heck, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor (by Lonnie Donegan) has more meaning. They’re Coming to Take Me Away (By Napoleon XIV) is profound in comparison. but those songs don’t have the music, or central theme, to grab the listener (reader) and keep them listening (reading.)

You can probably think of a book or two in which the plot isn’t much, predictable maybe, ho-hum, except that you just had to finish the thing anyway because of how well it was written, how much you rooted for the characters, how memorable was the theme. Books are just like music. They need more than a good plot to be memorable. In fact, a good plot is sometimes secondary to the other elements that make a book great.

Something to think about while working on your 2019 projects. You’re welcome.

Here is a link to the official video of Toto doing Africa on YouTube.

Your Ideas Aren’t That Interesting

I know, I know, why isn’t this original? For the second week in a row? Well, two things. First, this guy (drat him) has done it again. This link goes to a marvelous article!

Second, when you’re done with his marvelous article, come back here and you’ll find my commentary on the same following below. So, neener neener, it is original after all! Take that, doubters!

I know. I know. Already I feel you pulling away. I sense you tensing up, like a flicked sphincter. You’re mad. I can see you’re mad. I get it, you have ideas, and ideas are the backbone…

Source: Your Ideas Aren’t That Interesting

See what I mean? Sure, he can be crude, but damitol (a generic mood improving drug, you know) he’s sharp as a tack. And, if you ever sat on a tack in first grade, you know that those things are sharp!

What Chuck writes about (I’ve never met him, but I call him Chuck here, ’cause what’s he gonna do about it? It is his name!) is the fact that our ideas are just ideas. I’ve read that there are only nine plots, really. Or even five. Or even only one plot. You know the drill. Some ordinary person gets thrown into a set of ever wilder circumstances. They try a solution that makes it worse, and again, and again, until, well, you know. What makes you unique is how you relate that plot. The characters, are they compelling? The danger, is it high enough? The stakes, are they worth the trouble? You know all that, so I’m not going to belabor (belabour?) the point. Just pick a plot and run with it. Remember your tropes. Have fun!

What struck me about saying that our ideas are not that interesting is that it is a good reason why you should not worry about somebody stealing your latest story if you happen to show it around, and becoming rich off of it. For one thing, I doubt if you need more than your fingers and a few toes to count the total number of rich authors in the world. For another, it’s mediocre. How do I know? For all the reasons Chuck <grin> lists. And, remember, ideas are not copyrightable, so if you do see something similar, it’s because ideas tend to be “in the air” at various times, and nothing more. There are not a lot of instances of actual plagiarism, or story stealing if you will, in a typical year. The trick, like Chuck says, is to work your particular version of magic on the ideas and make the story wonderful.

Easy-Peasy, huh?

On Day-Jobs And Starving Artists

I’m going with a guest poster this week, because this is a good article. He can seem crude, but he is erudite. (These and other words are available from Amazon.com)

There was a bit of a to-do yesterday on the ol’ Twitters about how artists and writers should follow their dreams with reckless abandon because life is short and you don’t have to play …

Source: On Day-Jobs And Starving Artists

Wintertime Blues

In the Butterfly Pavillion outside of Denver, Colorado, 2008.

Summertime Blues? Bah! In Nevada we’re upside-down on the seasons. Winter is the good one. Some years, like this one, it even rains a lot, which is a nice change. Summers are best avoided by staying inside and counting your air-conditioned blessings. But you do have to “Work all Winter just to Try to Earn a Dollar,” right? Well, sort of. If you’re a writer, you need to write all year, no matter what the weather, no matter whether you have a cold or the flu, and no matter whether your last project has sold or not. Hence, the Wintertime Blues. The days are short. The night is long and full of . . . nevermind. Somebody already used that one.

This winter I’m doing mostly editing. And entering contests with my YA. The editing is of a chapter book that I think is pretty timely (believe it or not) and that I think will be an easy sell. We’ll see. Now all I need is a new project to draft while I’m doing those other things. I love drafting, because I get lost in it. Even if the first draft turns out to be awful, I get lost in creating it. That ever happen to you? I figure it’s a sign that there’s at least a good idea in there somewhere.

Tomorrow evening I’m going to facilitate a goal-setting meeting for The Las Vegas Writers’ Group. I have my goals for the year, and I’m already meeting a couple of them. How about you? Are your goals written down and ready to be fulfilled? If not, I’d suggest that you get busy on them, before you do anything else. If you want to learn more about goals, come to tomorrow’s meeting!

Goal Setting

View from Zabrisky Point in Death Valley NP

Everywhere you turn this time of year, you are exhorted to set goals. You can look on a writer’s advice website, you can ask Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss, you can ask anybody, you just have to have goals. Much as I’d like to disagree with that sentiment, I’m afraid it’s true: you need to have goals.

Maybe they don’t need to be written down formally, but I find writing them down helps keep them straight as I go along. They don’t need to be in a particular format, but some of the formats and protocols can be very helpful in deciding where you want to go this year, or decade, or lifetime. (Unless you’re like Richard Blaine, and never plan that far ahead, in which case, you’re depressed.)* The true fact is that if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t ever get anywhere. So, goals.

Maybe you want to sell that first novel this year? Get an article published in The New Yorker? Finish your short story anthology? Finally publish that book you’ve been sitting on? Attend a couple of useful conferences? It doesn’t matter, because it’s your life, and these are your goals, but you need to set them in order to achieve them. You can revise them during the year, but you need to set them in the first place. Okay? Good.

There are books about goal setting, and there are goal setting workshops, and you should check out these, and any other sources of help you can find. I met a major goal last year when I entered a novel in a nationwide contest. This year, I’m going to also enter it in as many regional contests as I can find. Hey, I like it, so it has to be good, right? And edit and polish my current chapter book. And start a new big project while I’m at it, because drafting is the most freewheeling fun part of the process, so I’ll be doing some. I expect to add a couple of goals this month as well, The Las Vegas Writers’ Group meeting is all about goals, and I intend to take advantage of the opportunity.

As should you, my friend. As should you.

Later,

S.

 

 

 

 

*If you don’t get this, I’m sorry. Try googling the name.

Know Thy Language

Nature Reclaiming a Picnic Area in the Eifel

The picture is sort of reflective of my topic this week. You could think of it as the German parts of English as they still exist. Crumbling in spots, mossy, but still some solid bits. So it is with English, the language of, well, me. And you, if you’re reading this. I have lately been studying French, which is what sixty percent of English actually amounts to. In the past I have also studied Spanish and German. Spanish is cognate with French, but not a significant ancestor of English. German and French are a different story. Here’s a condensed version.

A thousand years ago, German and English, (Anglisch) were the same language. (The Angles and Saxons were Germans.) And, to this day, English mostly uses German syntax. Which is why talk like Yoda if you want to, you can. In German, they call that “putting the most important idea up front in the sentence.” In English we call it “talking weird,” but we still understand it. English has lost virtually all of its noun and pronoun cases. Modern German hasn’t, but that’s another story. German, like many languages, has two forms of the pronoun for “you.” English has one, except in what is usually thought of as formal, or religious English, when we use Thee, Thy, and Thine. Oddly, those forms are not formal, but rather personal. In German somebody might speak of “dein Hand.” Shakespeare would have said, “thine hand.” Dein, thine, pretty similar. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the various forms of “dein,” such as “deine,” were gone. And after a while even the root word faded away. There are still a few groups of people using that personal pronoun, and it still appears in standard dictionaries, but mostly people just misunderstand how it should be used. The personal “you,” in German today, is Du. In French it is Tu. Maybe those two are just too close to the formal “you” not to be combined with it.

Formal “you” was used on authority figures, religious or secular, and people you didn’t know well. That’s why the bible uses “thine,” because supposedly we all have a personal relationship with a god. But to a king or a priest, you would have used “you” or “your lordship” or similar phrasing.

In 1066 French started moving in on English. By Shakespeare’s day it had taken over a lot of our more common vocabulary. Today, it’s difficult to say anything without using a French word. Anything ending in “tion,” for instance, is French. You may be sitting at a “table,” just like a French person might be. And the word on those eight-sided signs, the red ones? That’s a French word, too. In Latin it was “Estop,” and in France it is “Stop.” Only in Canada do they use “arret” on Stop signs. Well, it’s their country, but Stop is a French word. Oh, and that rule about putting an “e” on the end of a word to make the vowel long? That’s pure French.

French was the language of the (Franco)-English nobility, and even today, the more French form of a word seems to be unconsciously thought to be superior to a simpler form. Ironically, a good way to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, at least to someone who knows the language, is to use (utilize?) lots of fancy French words when some plain words, French or German, would sound better. Everything can be good between two people, or it can be copacetic. The difference? Trying to sound smarter than you are. (Unfortunately, such phrases have been soaked up by some jargons, so they get used more than they should be.)

As a writer, knowing the mixed history of English can help you to clarify what you’re trying to say. Rather than that old “I after E except after C” rule, that doesn’t work half the time, consider that in German, the letter combination “ei” always sounds like our long I — “eye”. Again, in German, the combination “ie” always sounds like our long E — “eee”. If it isn’t a German word, it’s a French word, and, if sounded as long a “ay”, it’s spelled ei. Originally, all French “ei” words were sounded as A. French “ie” words are borrowed from German, and, well, what do you know? “Aye.”

English is a great language. One of its best features is that there is no institution dedicated to “pure” English or even “proper spelling” as with other languages, most notably French. Now that you know a bit of the history of our fine language, you’ll be better able to manipulate it into the story you want to tell.

You’re welcome.
Wilkommen
de rien

The view from Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA, in 2003.

Tempus fugit velut sagitta est, Fugit velut Musa sapientum fixa fructum. Not gonna translate, either. I just read a Twitter feed link about this being Madeline L’Engle’s 100th birthday. Holy cats, huh? Of course, she did manage to start a very good and popular book with “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Brit friends, in this case that period belongs inside the quotation marks.) I have to hand her kudos for that. I’m more like, “It was a dark and stormy night, so I stayed in and watched Netflix.” (Okay, Brit friends, carp about that one all you want. And this one.) 

My point this week is persistence. Unaccountably, I am still not famous and rich. Or at least rich. But I persist. I’m about to start shopping a novel yet again. This time for sure! How do I know? Because every successful author I’ve ever met, or listened to, or read advice from, says so. It’s like Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! (You don’t want to hear me play the violin, by the way.) (Yes, I sort of can.) Honestly, anyone who says I can’t write a good story is just wrong. Too bad for them when I am famous, huh? And, I know it because all my life I have wanted to write and travel and dole out bits of wisdom. I’ve done it a lot, but not for money. Now, though, the world shall see.

Nothing heavy this week. Just persistence. Are  you persisting?

Creativity and Struggle

Le tour eifel, 2012 Photo by Tami Cowden

Recently I listened to Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. Like most of her poetry, it is about bittersweet relationships, heartache, love, struggle, and a bit of redemption. That’s true of a lot of creative works. In popular music, an amazing number of tunes are breakup songs. Take Breakfast at Tiffany’s for example. “And I said, well that’s one thing we’ve got.” Or Green Day’s famous Good Riddance (Time of Your Life,) which is not, as many high school faculty seem to think, a sincere wish that you enjoyed yourself, but a bitter and snide farewell to someone the singer thinks has wronged them big time. I’ve written one good poem in my life. It was shortly after I broke off a relationship. I remember being surprised that being the dumper was no more pleasant than being the dumpee. It’s tough times, and no mistake. But, outside of that, I’ve just lived a fairly quiet life of great fortune and privilege.

I had cousins at Jamestown, and a direct ancestor who arrived in 1729. The next year he married a girl from Garden City. One of their many sons is also my direct ancestor. He fought with a Connecticut regiment during the American Revolution. Odd, because they were from Philadelphia. Yes, I have direct ancestors who were genuine Philadelphia WASPS. And, of course, I’m a white male with blue eyes born smack in the middle of the twentieth century in Ohio, of all places. White privilege was invented for people like me. One breakup does not a creative career make. I can’t sing the blues; outside of my eyes there’s nothing blue going on here. I can’t write heartfelt song lyrics about loss and deprivation, because, well, haven’t really had any. In college, some friends and I were into the Alice books. Bill was the Carpenter, Ed another character. I was the Mock Turtle. “He hasn’t really any problems, you know.” So true.

Now, your basic African American, there’s somebody with problems. Besides being on the inverse side of privilege, consider their ancestry. Slaves! The lucky bastards! No wonder they invented the blues! No wonder they continue to shine in creative ventures of all kinds. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

But, dammitall, I like to write stories. I’m not sure I’ll ever tug many heartstrings, but I try to entertain. And sometimes, entertainment is all you need, you know?

What Would Jesus Say?

Sunset over Las Vegas

Not a religious piece, I promise. Instead, I am speculating about how original meanings can be distorted and lost over time. In 2009 one Stephen Mitchell published a book he titled, The Gospel According to Jesus. Yes, he knows that Jesus never wrote a word. The guy was illiterate, a not uncommon condition in his time and place. But it’s a catchy title for a scholarly work.

The story of the book is that the original documents which became the Christian New Testament were subjected to the sort of linguistic analysis that is used when they find what may be a new sonnet form Shakespeare. Word use, spelling, sentence length, style and voice, all are subject to computerized analysis. After doing this, the oldest, and presumably most authentic, bits of the Christian gospel were uncovered. These bits were written probably sometime in the fifties. (Not the nineteen-fifties; the fifties.) The idea being that the authors of these bits may actually have met Jesus, or at least heard him preach. Many parts of the New Testament were written much later, decades, even a century or more. So now we have it: the oldest, presumably most authentic, “Good news about Jesus.”

I’m going to assume you’re familiar with at least some of the story of Jesus’s birth, death, and afterlife. If not, feel free to read a contemporary version of the Christian New Testament after you read this. You’ll be surprised.

This oldest gospel opens with John the Baptist. Then Jesus comes down to the river to be baptized. (This is all in the orthodox bible, of course.) What’s missing is anything preceding baptism. No birth story at all. No magi, no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, no star, no manger, no Bethlehem. As a matter of fact, the Jesus birth story is amazingly like the story of Buddha’s birth, which precedes Jesus by hundreds of years. The chief difference is that Buddha also rated an earthquake. Somebody saw fit to add that birth story later on. Don’t care why because this isn’t that sort of post. It was done, is my point.

When he hears of John’s arrest, he leaves town. He picks up some posse at Galilee, and proceeds to wander around Judea preaching. He taught at the Synagogue at Capernaum.  Here is an excerpt from his preaching in the villages:

And someone asked him, “When will the kingdom of God come?” And he said, “The kingdom of God will not come if you watch for it. Nor will anyone be able to say, ‘It is here’ or ‘It is there.’ For the kingdom of God is within you.”

He wandered Judea for a while, teaching and healing. The crowds got larger. One day he went up a hill and gave what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the beatitudes are there, as is most of the rest of the sermon. What isn’t there is the story of the loaves and fishes. Here is an excerpt that is there:

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor. But I tell you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and sends rain to the righteous and to the unrighteous.

I had a friend tell me flat out that Jesus never said to love your enemy. In the gospel, the passage above is part of a quotation from Jesus. Maybe you begin to see my point. Just one more quote, again from Jesus’s sermon on the hill:

Be careful not to do your righteous acts in public, in order to be seen. When you give charity, don’t blow a trumpet to announce it, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that people will praise them. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you give charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and keep your charity a secret; and your Father, who sees what is secret, will reward you.

A couple paragraphs later, he talks about prayer, which he also insists should be a private thing. He offers what the Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer” as an example of what to say to “your father” “in secret.” This is not your grandfather’s Christianity. Nor is it what is mostly heard from today. And there is one more significant thing missing from this oldest, presumably most authentic, gospel. The book ends when, at about three in the afternoon, (Jesus) gave a great cry and died. Full stop. The end. Finito. No burial, no resurrection, no reappearance, nothing. In this, the oldest and presumably most authentic gospel, he, as we all must, died and disappeared from the earth.

I commend the book to your attention. It’s copyrighted, so I can’t just give you a link to read the oldest gospel for yourself. But you can probably find the book at a library if you can’t afford to buy a copy for yourself. My point being that, other than that oldest gospel, the rest of the gospels were written later, by people who had no chance to have ever heard Jesus speak, but who did have various agendas which they were pursuing. Instead of “Love your enemy” and “Pray in private,” we get divisiveness and “thoughts and prayers.” Instead of the liberating “Kingdom is within you,” we get a hierarchy that doles out religious truth as it sees fit. Whether there was an actual Jesus or not is irrelevant. There was certainly an initial book of “Good News About Jesus” that was, over the next few centuries, modified and added on to until the original could barely be seen, although, in truth, it is still in there.

I’m not preaching, nor speculating as to why this is so. Maybe in a later post. For now, I’m just noting how wildly different the meaning of a book can be after enough people add to and reinterpret it. Amazing, isn’t it?