Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

The World of 2026 … Again

First, a thank you to readers. A couple of months ago, I asked you to help me out with my vision of what the world would look like ten years from now. A group of intrepid souls realized that my request to answer the blog post in the comment box wasn’t working (my WordPress skills are Future technologyapparently lacking), and I got a wealth of commentary from them anyway. The most regular critique of my initial vision came in the form: “Your 2026 looks a lot like today. Surely much more will have happened by then.” That gave me pause. Leaving out geopolitics, which I didn’t have the temerity to predict (except to assume CyberWar I will happen in a few years, which I take to be obvious), things did move pretty much at current pace. I hadn’t fleshed out that assumption with deep analysis; after all, I’m writing fiction. But really, look back at 2006. More apps, yes; otherwise, not so different.

About a week ago, the economist Paul Krugman reviewed THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH, by Robert J. Gordon, in the New York Times. Krugman, reflecting on Gordon’s thesis, says “The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected.” He notes that between 1870 and 1940, “Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses.” But today, “you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.” (Tell that to one of the chilly dudes waiting in line outside the Apple store for the latest iPhone. Wait … have our lives become trivial, or is the insatiable quest for life improvement focusing on that which is available?)

Anyway, I feel more comfortable with a world in which I don’t have to spend too many words explaining exotic, transformative technology. Thanks again for your additions and corrections.

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.

Rollin’ the Stone Up the Hill

I knew it had to happen, but I figured I’d be reading Hemingway or Shakespeare, Steinbeck or Joyce when it did.

I’m talking about the hit-upside-the-head feeling of being a talentless dSmashed Guitarrudge.  I recognized it right away, because I’ve had it more often than I care to admit as a musician, listening to other guitarists play spectacular stuff that I couldn’t touch.  Makes you want to go home and trash your axe.

So here I am, deep in the middle of the story arc of my second novel, Skins and Bone.  The Cape Cod Writers Conference has come and gone.  Lots of pearls, lots of help. Yes, they tell me, not all writing can be lyrical.  Really, you just have to plug along.  Write every day.  Pretty soon you’ll have something you can revise.  Then I pick up Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  Here are a couple of bits.

“He has a great smile, a cat’s smile. He should cough out yellow Tweety Bird feathers, the way he smiles at me.”Sleeping cat

“You drink a little too much and try a little too hard. And you go home to a cold bed and think, That was fine. And your life is a long line of fine.”

Drat!  Well, the good news is that trashing an Eberhard Faber #2 is not a big deal.  Wait a minute, I write on my computer …

A Reading

My Story Blues Highway was published in the May, 2013 annual Bacopa Literary Review, and I was asked to read a portion of it at the Bacopa annual meeting in Gainesville, FL.  Here’s the reading:

The Bacopa Review had 80+ short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry.  See the Bacopa website  for a copy.   My whole short story, called The Cle eland Travel Inn, is here:

On Writing from the master of mystery and crime

elmore-leonard1-c4b445dd335d73a2096095ed3b2a2f27dd4be19c-s6-c30Yesterday, we learned that Elmore Leonard has passed on, perhaps to write in another sphere.  The New York Times published an obituary and an op ed piece describing him as having elevated the genre.  Leonard wrote a piece on making a narrator that doesn’t usurp the story that is beautiful for its brevity and clarity.  I have extracted it (how could you fool with the words of a master?) in deference to the widely advertised short attention span of, well, almost everyone.  Mr. Leonard would tell you (and does, several times, in the complete article), that there are exceptions to each of the rules.  He says:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather:  If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

2. Avoid prologues:  A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

(Even) if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:  If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

I just checked the first pages of my first novel, and I believe it took me to page 70 to violate all of the rules (except the prologue … I washed that out months ago in rewrite).

Cape Cod Writers Conference

A month has gone by since I promised myself that I would get my electronic world in order and blog twice a week.  I also promised myself that I would not give into the temptation to publish personal banalities when I have nothing interesting to report.  But that’s not it, either.  I have a couple of good posts that require some audio/video editing, and I just haven’t had time to do them justice.

I’m attending the Cape Cod Writers Conference, on which more will follow.  And, Oh, yes, I got some fascinating stuff on my ‘groped’ request.  More on that shortly.

Groped! … Help!

Novice writers get a raft of advice.  One of the most repeated is the admonition to ‘Write what you know.’  Probably a good idea.  After all, if your character is someone entirely outside of your experience, how will you know how she reacts to the events in the plot?

That brings me to the problem at hand:  In my current story, my protagonist Weezy, Joe Mayfield’s special friend (lady friend? See last post ‘Pelvic Affiliate’) attends a business event with him.  Now, Weezy is 35 and no shrinking violet.  At the event, Joe’s uber-boss slips a hand on Weezy’s girl surprisedbehind. I need some help from the women who read this, because I haven’t been groped.  Fondled, maybe, and then only in a friendly way.  Never groped, though.

What would you do?

There’s some background on Weezy here, although I’m more interested in how YOU would react.  The lead-in to the grope is an excerpt from Skins and Bone, here.

If you are willing to answer, write a response to this post.  In the response, let me know whether you’re willing to have your answer be public.  (I moderate all posts and will not show your response if you tell me it should not be public.)


Potholes!  Newly returned to Minneapolis, I had forgotten that pothoPotholeles are an attribute not of winter, but of that brief season between Winter and Road Construction called Spring.

I get potholes in my stories, too. In the chapter of Skins and Bone that I just put up, someone in my writing group pointed out that Nita Solchow, a minor chararacter who is interested (perhaps romantically) in my protagonist Joe Mayfield is far too emotionally fragile when confronted with the fact that Joe’s attention and intention is toward Louise Napolitani. Nita is, after a New York investment banker. It was a point well taken. I was talking about how she felt, not how she acted. So, I’ve got to fill that pothole with some cement and do a bit of a rewrite.

Ahhh … the Internet!

I am constantly astounded by the Internet.  It has changed fiction writing, at least genre fiction.  If your story has an involved plot, you have to love the Internet.

Last night, I was knocking around cyberspace, looking for a few details for my current writing project and second novel, Skins and Bone.  I was able to get a detailRoyal Societyed map of the road Fiskani Chomba (see, 100 common Zambian names in Nyanja and Bemba languages, available on several websites) needs to travel from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia (Google Maps), to a small airport in Congo.  (I know the airport’s fully functional; I saw it right down to the tarmac on Google Earth.)  The time differential between Lusaka, her destination in Dubai, and the bad guys she reports to in New York?  A snap on www.worldtimezone.com.  Oh, and a quote from the statistician Thomas Bayes?  Google has scanned the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society for 1763, and there he is in his glory.  Inside dope on Charles Ponzi and his scheme?  Dozens of articles.  (His full name was

Charles Ponzi

Charles Ponzi

Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi. Phew!)

In short, I think writing as an art form has been more heavily affected (no, not impacted … that’s still a dental term in my lexicon) by the Internet than music, and that’s saying a lot.  Twenty years ago, you had to travel to an area you expected to write about to get details.  That’s still essential for places your story spends much time in, but you can do peripheral locations from you computer, in your underwear.  (And no, you can’t go entirely naked even indoors in Minnesota in winter.)  Books that needed a minimum press run of 1,000 and an investment of $50,000 or more can now be printed as singles or as electronic files.

That’s the good part.  The other part is that Twitter can make a perfectly bland observation moronic and blow it to a thousand inboxes, and there is an enormous amount that probably none of us really want to know on social media.  (Your dog did what on the rug?)

I think the amount of important information in the world is growing at a slow, steady rate.  That’s an optimistic vision, as you surely know if you have been given the “magic of compound growth” talk by a life insurance agent.  The Internet has provided access we’ve never had before … a good thing.  But it’s also added an enormous pile of manure to dig through on the way to finding that pony.