Dog Ear
The Words (Dog Ear) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 20 September 2012 00:00

I haven't done a movie review for nearly a year (when I revamped the site, I dropped the movie section). But when I saw the movie The Words, I knew I had to touch on it.

See, it's a writer's movie (don't think that Finding Forrester was - that was a piece of shit). The Words is about a young writer (don't we all know him) who is accepting an award for his critical success, living the life we all dream (don't we look so clever? Isn't our limo sooooo long?). As he and his gorgeous wife come out of the reception reinforcing his greatness, an old man watches him. Later, our literary wet-dream trots out to Central Park - seemingly engaged in his idyllic pursuit to read in the park (while the rest of us are working). The old man sits next to him, feeds the pigeons, starts to chat. He tells the young guy he recognizes him, he liked the book, that if felt like he was living every moment (spider senses tingling yet?) The he asks if maybe the young guy would like to write a story he'd thought of. The author, finding his companion a burden, excuses himself and walks off.

"It's about an old man who wrote a story, and the pissant who stole it."

That stops the guy.

See, after rejection and rejection, the young author doubted he would ever make it, that he could ever shine the way we all dream to. Then, in an old valise in a Paris second hand store, he finds a manuscript, yellow with age. He reads it. It's brilliant. Then he types it up just so he can feel what it likes to write something that perfect. But then his wife reads his work and tells him how beautiful his work his, how he must show it to the publisher where he works as a clerk, all that. So he does. And it goes how we could only dream.

Except, of course, for that old man.

I won't go into further spoilers. No, the reason I'm mentioning this is that here is a character all writers can identify with. If you are a true writer (amazing how many writers there are out there who never really swim in the sea of classics) and moan at the talent of others, then you will understand. You know what it would be like to find a work so magnificent, just sitting there yellowed and lost, and how easy it would be to make it yours. And that's something to think about. Sure, maybe you would never steal an entire book. But a phrase? An idea? A passage? Tempting.

In fact, I'm sure just about every writer has borrowed concept or phrase from some other writer.

But be warned. I've noted before about the horror of finding myself trespassing in copyright (for song lyrics). The sleepless nights. The worried thoughts. The fear of the phone call from the moguls.

I guess what I'm saying is that you should always safeguard against copying. And you should always try for your true voice. And you should beware of the Sirens of fame.

But go and see The Words. Its a fine story-within-story-within-story. Or a horror-flick for writers. Something like that.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 21:27
Don't use contractions (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 13 September 2012 00:00

I was downtown with the Missus watching the play Billy Bishop goes to War. It’s a fun performance, a one-man show which follows the exploits of Billy Bishop, a top-ranked fighter ace from World War One. Oddly, I’d seen it thirty years ago and suddenly it had popped up again at the local playhouse.

After the show, the performers (all two of them (okay, a one-man show, with a second guy on the piano)) sat down and fielded questions from the audience, a nice intimate Q&A. Someone in the audience asked Timothy Williams how he did all the characters (different COs, mechanics, and even high-brow dames) that played roles in Bishop’s life.

Williams' answer was interesting. He explained that in a one-man show, an actor has to conserve energy and vocal effort. The character’s costume might be no more than a pair of glasses or a coat turned out. It comes down, really, to the voice. And mostly to inflections. One has to convey bombastic natures, disdain, or earthiness without needless shouting or effort. And in that, it’s just a matter of the character’s speech patterns.

I found that very interesting. As a writer, I’m fully aware of this. When making a character, you can spend paragraphs explaining the cut of their clothing, their hairstyle, their mannerisms. You can even give them a spell-checker-befuddling Scottish brogue. But the character won’t stick. Readers won’t remember it.

It comes down to the patterns of the character’s speech. A glowering dockhand should talk in short sentences, even fragments. A deceptive salesman or oily lawyer should have sentences that double back on themselves. A hen-pecking wife should literally repeat herself. And a drunk shouldn't’t slur, he should ramble.

This might seem obvious but it’s not quite so when one is in the writer’s chair. When one is threading a story together, it’s too easy to lose the characters in the plot, to make everyone sound alike but wear different hats. If you find yourself throwing a lot of “the astronaut said” or “the governor answered” in your story, you’ve probably lost your speaking style. The dialog cadence alone should identify who is speaking.

In Fire And Bronze, my novel surrounding the Carthaginian Foundation Myth, I leaned this trick first-hand. The story is driven in places by class warfare. There are characters low-born and high. And in one of my pre-publication passes, I focused on just this. Just with the simple trick of pointedly allowing the commoners use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t) and the nobles not (do not, will not, cannot) added a level of identification to their speech. We have no evidence that Canaanites used contractions – I’ve read the Aramaic grammar rules and there is no official recognition of such devices (though they left their vowels off their words, so their language had other unwritten shortcuts). But I think it’s safe to bet that Phoenician merchant-princes appealing to kings for a trade concession spoke differently from the deckhands of their ships. And if one assumes a difference in cadence, one should write it.

Don’t use contractions unless you’re common. Literally!




What price glory? (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 06 September 2012 00:00

Way back when I was finalizing Early Retyrement for publication, someone in my family (who will remain nameless) sent me information concerning an author's exchange, a deal where  you'd send your book to someone in exchange for their's, and the understanding was that you've give it no less that four stars on Amazon. Yes, it was one of those I-rub-your-back-ditto deals.


I remember thinking at the time what a perfectly nauseating business practice it was. And then, recently on Facebook, a fellow writer noted a service where you'd pay $1000 or more and get 50 reviews, all glowing and positive and as sincere as anyone who attempts to "educate" you towards their politician, cause, or religious belief. You can read it HERE - its a wonderful example of Yankee Ingenuity (can you detect my sneer?).

I'm happy to say that Amazon shut him down, that at least one time virtue won, but we all know about evil. It always comes leaking back like a viscous oil.

So maybe I'm too squeamish for publication. I know that it's all about press, that even noble books have "Best Read Ever" and "A real pageturner", attributed to quick-scanning quid pro quo authors or wanna-get-noticed reviewers. Harry Potter relied on legions of soccer mommies to talk up the fact their their brooding spawn were actually reading anything, and so a marginal story went off like a rocket, with it's own movies and theme parks and everything.

So publicity sells books, and everything you do, from phony amazon reviews (not guilty) to book shows (guilty) to weekly writing blogs (guilty) on an author's website (guilty) along with Facebook notification (guilty). And that's the question here; at what point does a writer become a shill? When do we leave the art behind and become blue-light-special hucksters?

I can't tell you an answer here. This one isn't as easy as writing tricks and editing skills. This gets down to your soul, and what you'll do to spread your written word (and perhaps garnish your success). Modesty is not a survival trait. In my corporate existence, I see blowhards and self-promoters rise through the ranks, and all of them lack even the basic modesty of a hound dog lazily licking his balls in the sun. I've seen writers jump on all the book show panels they can (even one's they have no earthly idea of) just to get facetime and book dollars. I've seen just about every version of snake-oil, false-prophet, shoot-the-moon, barnstorming, fast-talking, silver-tongued, bottom-deck lying humans are capable of.

The pool we contemplate is dark and dank and rather filthy.

I guess the only thing I can advise is that we are all different. With my stodgy values, morals and ethics, I'm unlikely to get ahead by pawning bad writing on an inattentive public. And that's fine. I've figured where I draw my own, personal (and perhaps sometimes hypocritical) line between what is right and wrong, true and false, in my quest for literary recognition.

Each writer needs to reaffirm his or her goals and gains from writing. Perhaps you are only penning unimportant memoirs, little more than a personal diary you are willing to share. Or perhaps you just enjoy the art of creation, and making those funny little characters do funny little things. Or perhaps you have a marketing plan, with timeline and checkpoints, complete with a publicity firm.

Some of us will show up on Jon Steward, smiling and trying to be cool.

Others of us will smile and say, "Why yes, I did write a book on Amazon? It's just a silly little thing... What, you'd like to buy one? Well, how nice of you. Thanks."

We all make our own decisions, regardless of what others say and thing. So find where your comfort zone is, look a little beyond it (to see if you are not cheating yourself) and put your mark (big or small) on the world. Doing anything else just makes you crazy.


Last Updated on Sunday, 02 September 2012 20:48
Meds (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 30 August 2012 00:00

Those who check out my bike blog might remember the injury I dealt myself trying to save the planet (and a little rental car cash) HERE.

Ended up at a doc-in-the-box, getting pills prescribed for the pain. Looked on the label and saw that they were sedatives that might make me, well, sedate.

The first day, I learned the power of the word ‘might’. I hung on my desk for about three hours before limping home to crash into bed. So tired.

The day following, I took my pills like a good little boy and went to work. All morning I was like a machine – a machine without batteries, flywheels and a rusted starter. I couldn’t keep those numbers moving. I tried to clean up some of our backfill paperwork and ended up stalling three times. I was really foggy.

But the chilling moment came at lunch. Usually I’ll have a seat by the pond and work on the latest story, novel, edit or pity-rip (i.e. critique of someone else’s writing). Today I was planning on working on a short story I might post up to an anthology in a month or so.

So I sat out by the pond, opened the tinytop, and looked at the screen.


The muse wouldn’t come out and play.

Sometimes she’s a cranky bitch, one that needs jump-starting. I’ll just start reading what I’ve written before and suddenly I know where I’m going. Ignition! Witty phrasing and off-key analogies are mine to pluck and use. I’ll find myself nodding as clever shit just happens, there on the screen. If you’re a writer, you’ll know the moment where words flow and plot-thoughts leap ahead like roadbed graders a hundred miles out from the railhead. So neat and so artistic and so moving. It’s why I write, all for that bliss-state of creativity.

But on this day, nothing. I couldn’t even focus on my prior writings. I couldn’t even seem to recognize what I’d been doing before. I’ve seen people who just can’t write – you ask them to come up with something creative and they just look at you. And I’ve always felt pity for them. But now, that feeling was horror.

Jeez, like, what if it didn’t come back? That part of me I’d always accepted as a strength, my natural-18 creativity, was gone. I didn’t get looks or athletics or personality or anything else. It was my creativity that was mine. And with a single small pill, it had vanished.

I went back to my desk in a state of funk. I simply couldn’t remember how I wrote stories. That synergy of plot-action-words wouldn’t kickstart. During the afternoon I tried basic writing drills (like describing something on my desk in one word, or generating a backstory for the next person passing my cube) and none of it sparked. I got home, took a long nap, and since my leg was no longer hurting (aching, but not hurting) I gave the pills a miss.

Later that evening I opened my tinytop to check my virus settings and ended up browsing my latest story. Saw a place I could tighten and did, pulling out a devil-word “that” and reading the remake over – much smoother. And then it hit me that the muse was back. I could write again. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I knocked out a couple of paragraphs just for the joy of it. Looked critically at one of them and swapped some sentences around so the meaning would build in a more logical sequence. Caught a double-use of a word. All those things I’d known, that heady enthusiastic resourcefulness, it was back.

Those pills. Those pills. I find myself frowning when I think of them. Imagine there was a pill that would make you blind, or paralyzed, or mute for twelve hours. Would you take it?

I’m not taking mine. Not even if it hurts.

Well, not unless it hurts bad.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 August 2012 13:29

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