Category Archives: Non-Fiction

“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,” Truman Capote.

A Word is a Word is a Word, Damn it

Sitting near the back row of pews at church (are protestants even allowed to sit near the front?) the congregation burst into song because the program told us to. Otherwise we just sit there and try not to make eye contact.

The hymn bothered me.

It wasn’t the message, nor the melody. It wasn’t even that the song had too many verses (some hymns can last as long as a sermon). It was because of a simple, easily avoidable grammatical error that made me nearly shout something I usually only shout during football games. I’m told shouting in my denomination is frowned upon because it’s not in the program.

I might be able to handle this misuse of the English language if it was a one-time deal, but it was in the refrain. The refrain.

The composer used “I” when he should have used “me.”

Inexcusable.

My grandmother was an English teacher, so growing up the use of language was something I had to pay more attention to than silly things like math. That kind of attention turned me into someone who’s not very much fun to talk with at parties.

Or at the grocery store.

Standing in a grocery store checkout line one day, perusing magazine headlines like “Kim and Kanye are Space Aliens from the Moons of Jupiter” (which I don’t doubt in the slightest), and “Sandra Bullock Channels Nostradamus; the End is Near,” I noticed a handmade cardboard sign on the credit card reader. It read, “This Machine is Broke.”

Really? Broke?

So, this device that is connected to every bank in the country is somehow out of money? I pulled a red Sharpie from my pants pocket and added an “n.” The man behind me laughed.

I can’t help myself. I’m OCD enough (my favorite rock band is OC/DC) to have been a newspaper editor, which made my head hurt. Here are some of the major offenders:

  • No matter how many times you use it, irregardless is not a word.
  • Pacific is an ocean, it doesn’t mean precise or exact.
  • Doughnuts are made out of dough. Donuts don’t exist.
  • Theatre is a British word meaning theater. Theater is an American word meaning theater. For all you theater types, stop trying to use the British version. That’s a level of pretentiousness that can only be pulled off by hipsters.
  • PIN number is repetitious. What do you think the N means?
  • Free gift is silly. If it’s not free, it’s not a gift, is it?
  • Fantastic doesn’t mean something is amazingly good. It means something is not real. If your dinner is fantastic, you’re going to be hungry later.
I’m serious about grammar. Don’t make me come over there.

But still, about that I/me thing.

“This composer is still alive,” I told my wife as I sat in front of my laptop. You bet I looked him up. “He has contact information on his website. I’m going to write to him and tell him he has a grammatical error in his hymn.”

She put her hand on my wrist. I looked up. She just shook her head.

Damn. What’s the point of being a grammar nerd if I can’t correct everybody?

Hmm, aluminium is a word? Thanks for nothing, Noah Webster

Back off, this is MY language now.

The British chap* on television said something that struck me as silly. Not the context, the pronunciation.

Given that Americans speak English, and the English speak English (strange but true), language comprehension problems between Americans and the English should not exist.
They, of course, do. There are enough subtle differences between the two versions of the English language to make a conversation between an American and a Brit sound like it’s in Klingon.

The man on television pronounced aluminum “al-U-min-E-um,” which I discovered is correct, although horribly uncomfortable to say. Go ahead; try it.

This particular pronunciation problem came from two sources.

The first being English chemist Sir Humphry Davy who in 1807 discovered a metal in alum and named this new metal alumium. He later changed the name to aluminum because “aluminum” sounded more (whatever word they used for “hip” in 1807). Davy’s colleagues in the chemistry department couldn’t let well enough alone and changed the spelling to aluminium in 1812 because they just couldn’t let Davy have his day in the sun, now, could they.

The second reason is that Noah Webster developed a God complex and completely mucked up American English.

Noah Webster, Jr., was a lexicographer, a pioneer in the field of textbooks, and yes, the dictionary dude. In 1828, he published “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” You see what he did there? It’s the “American Dictionary of the English Language,” meaning it’s not the real English language.

Ever wonder why former British colonies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and freaking Belize spell color with a “U”? It’s because that’s how it’s spelled. Webster thought English spelling rules were inconsistent, so he tried to standardize them.

He cut out the “U” in words like colour and flavour, changed “ise” to “ize” in words like organise, and realise, turned tonne into ton, grey into gray (although for some reason he left the greyhound dog alone), and aluminium to aluminum even though compared to Sir Humphry Davy, he didn’t know jack squat about chemistry, or apparently spelling.

Damn straight.

It doesn’t stop there. Because of Webster’s tinkering even words spelled the same in both countries are not always pronounced the same.

In England, privacy is PRIV-a-cee, advertisement is Ad-vert-ISS-ment, schedule is SHED-u-al, mobile is mo-BILE, oregano is OR-EH-GON-O and garage is GARE-idge.

As an American, this bothers me. I grew up thinking the British talked funny. Turns out it was us. However, Americans aren’t the only villains here. Time, culture, and geography also play a part. But mostly Webster. Yeah, let’s blame most of this on him.

Aluminium indeed.

 

*You can’t use “chap” unless the voice in your head talks with a British accent. For example, “that German chap with the funny mustache gave us quite a fit during the war.” Or, “that New Guinea tribesman chap with the spear.” Wouldn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of a Texan, would it?

Ernest Hemingway’s Bloody Mary Recipe

Ernest Hemingway getting the job done.
Ernest Hemingway writing: Just getting the job done.

Writers drink. Or do drinkers write? Either way we should all turn to the masters to learn our craft. As for writing, Ernest Hemingway said, “Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.” As for what happened next, Papa Hemingway often had a cocktail … or seven. Below is Mr. Hemingway’s recipe for the perfect bloody mary.

Hemingway not writing: Having a few drinks, and taking his son fishing.
Hemingway not writing: Having a few drinks, and taking his son fishing for literary critics.

“To make a pitcher of Bloody Marys (any smaller amount is worthless) take a good sized pitcher and put in it as big a lump of ice as it will hold. (This to prevent too rapid melting and watering of our product.) Mix a pint of good Russian vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a tablespoon full of Worcestershire sauce. Lea and Perrins is usual but you can use A1 or any good beef-steak sauce. Stirr (with two rs). Then add a jigger of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Stir. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper. Keep on stirring and taste to see how it is doing. If you get it too powerful, weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority add more vodka.”

Corporate-Speak: Don’t Let It Happen to You

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The company email was painful.

“We are focused on enhancing our climate by creating a paradigm so that we may be a model for blah, blah, blah.”*

And you’re selling what, now?

As someone who’s dealt with politicians, large faceless corporations and small children for years, I’ve been attacked almost daily by gibberish. However, “enhancing our climate” is not just an attack, it’s the literary equivalent of an intentional food poisoning.

Trust me. I just threw up a little.

The point of communication, any type of communication, is to communicate. And the best way to do this is to choose words that actually mean something. Unfortunately, since we Americans have used the English language as long as we can remember, we think we can communicate. However, most of us have a weaker vocabulary than Koko the sign language gorilla. We have the mistaken idea that if something sounds good, it must be good. Right?

Wrong.

For example: “The positive aspects of the elements of our character factor into condition of the situation.”

blahI just made that up (hey, I could work in government), and although the sentence may seem important, all it really sounds like is official. Read it again and tell me if the sentence means anything. No, wait. I’ll save you the time. It doesn’t.

“I want French fries,” has meaning.

“I sat on a cat,” has meaning.

Even “I like both major candidates running for president,” has meaning. It means you’ve gone stark raving mad.

The point is Americans are busy people and we don’t have time to spend determining if we should listen to what you say, or if we can nod our heads and wander off to read in the bathroom.

Kenny Rogers, during simpler times.
Kenny Rogers, during simpler times.

Here’s a tip: If you use words like aspect, character, condition (unless you’re talking about the great 1968 song “Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition), element, factor or situation, chances are you’re simply babbling in Corporate-Speak.

If something’s important enough to read, it better be written simply enough to understand. Here are Jason’s Five Steps to Battling Corporate-Speak:

Step one: Have an idea.

Step two: Chose words to express that idea. If you can’t define a word without saying “uh,” or “um,” don’t use it.

Step three: If you’re confused about words, you can find lots of them in a big red book. No, the one labeled “dictionary,” not the one labeled, “Better Homes and Gardens: New Cook Book,” although that one does have a killer recipe for roasted potatoes.

Step four: Put these words together. If the words don’t make sense, try putting them in a different order.

Step five: Read it aloud to Koko the sign language gorilla. If she doesn’t throw you through a window, you’ve advanced beyond Corporate-Speak and can now communicate in English.

 

*Company name withheld to protect the enhanced integrity of its character.

So, you want to write a novel. Let’s get started

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A friend recently posted on social media (seemingly the only media people listen to anymore) that he had started writing a book. Good for him. He concluded his post with “I have never completed a fictional work in my life. Always gave up before I got through it.”

How many of you have done the same thing? I know I have.

After starting a couple of novels in college (and failing miserably), upon graduation I sat down and hammered out my first novel. Unfortunately, like all first-time novelists (or non-fiction writers for that matter), I had no clue what I was doing. I plopped down in front of my Mac Plus, loaded MacWrite, and typed whenever I got the whim.

Flashback to a simpler time.
Product of a simpler time.

Note, I said, “typed.” I don’t think I was really writing. I didn’t consider character development, setting, plot, or any of those other pesky elements of a story we’re taught in school. I fired on pure inspiration alone. And yes, I fired blindly.

About 10,000 words in I almost quit. I wanted to. I mean, I really, really wanted to because writing, contrary to what people who don’t write believe, is hard. Sure, it’s sitting in front of a computer, or typewriter, or blank pad of paper (like I did sometimes while writing that first novel, on the hood of my car, staring across a lake hoping inspiration would fall from the sky). But the act of writing, of composing entire new realities, of bringing new people to life, is nothing but hard work.

Don't question this man.
Red Smith. Great writer, snappy dresser.

One of my favorite quotes on writing, mainly because of its accuracy, has been attributed from everyone to Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Wolfe, but it was Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Red Smith who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Although I did everything wrong, two years later I finished my first novel out of pure persistence. It was awful. Simply terrible writing. It’s gone now, thankfully. I had the manuscript in a box for a while, but it was lost in a move at some point, and the electronic copy is on a 3.5-inch floppy. Good riddance.

I started four more novels after that, and stopped at roughly the 10,000-word mark for not doing what I’m going to outline in these five handy bullet points:

  • cannibals2
    Available now. Just click.

    Don’t let a good idea pass you by. Good ideas are everywhere; you just have to pay attention for them. Stephen King conjured the basic thoughts for his novel, “It,” when his footsteps on a dark, creepy bridge made him think of trolls. Danielle Sosin’s novel, “The Fate of Mercy Alban,” popped into her mind unexpectedly when touring a historic mansion. My latest work, the novella “Matriarchal Nazi Cannibals,” came to me in a dream. I woke, and told my wife who said, “You should write that story.” And I did. Thanks, honey.

  • The two main obstacles in writing a novel are starting it, and finishing it. Start at the beginning. No, scratch that. Don’t start at the beginning. Novice writers spend a lot of time staring at a blank page because they don’t know where to start. Don’t be that guy. Start somewhere – anywhere – which, strangely enough, is rarely the beginning of the story, but usually winds up being the opening of your novel. If you really need the beginning, or origin story, weave it throughout your work as the reason for the protagonist’s troubled soul. Start somewhere exciting, like when your hero is in trouble. Your goal is to get words on a page. This will help you do it.
  • Goals – set them. Novel lengths vary. A YA or romance may be as short as 50,000 words, whereas a thriller or science fiction epic could be 100,000-plus. Either way, those numbers are daunting. Your goal should not – I repeat NOT – be to finish the novel. (Yes, yes. That’s what we’re doing here. Bear with me). If finishing your novel is the goal, you’ll probably give up at 10,000 words. You need multiple goals. Your main goal should be to complete one chapter. After that’s finished, your main goal is now to complete another chapter, and so on. Relish the completion of each small goal. If your working goal is the book as a whole, you’ll quickly start begging yourself to quit. Try establishing a word count. Five hundred words a day, 1,000, 2,000, something attainable. Before you know it those chapters will add up.
  • I said 'Finish,' not "Finnish."
    I said ‘Finish,’ not “Finnish.”

    Don’t edit your work until you’ve finished the entire manuscript. First-time writers who keep going back to edit almost never finish their book. There will always be something to fix. Always. Graham Greene, author of “The End of the Affair,” famously stopped mid-sentence whenever he reached his daily word count. That way he could easily pick up where he left off without having to refresh his memory.By reading what he’d already written, he would have felt compelled to edit it. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your work AFTER it’s finished. The main thing that keeps writers from becoming authors is they don’t finish the book.

  • Now finish the damn thing. That is all.

Writer’s Block: When Words Act Like Jerks

Thanks, Blank Screen. I love you, too.
Thanks, Blank Screen. I love you, too.

One of the biggest complaints from beginning writers – apart from “where are my groupies?” – is “I don’t know how to start my story.” This unforgiving reality is akin to the terrifying “what do my characters do next?” and “I’m out of beer, and my fingers can still find the right keys. I’d better go to the store.” These are all forms of Writer’s Block, that dark place that lurks in the periphery of a writer’s workspace. It’s the evil that keeps words off the page.

Sucks, huh?

I’m not going to lie to you. Every writer has this dark place. No exceptions. However, what separates the Author (ones who push through Writer’s Block to finish their story), and the Writer (ones who don’t) is that much like that leaky faucet in the bathroom, the Author has learned to live with it. Or, better yet, he’s learned to fix it.

I’m one of those who has learned to fix Writer’s Block (most of the time). Yep, fixed it myself, and I’ll tell you how in exactly nine paragraphs.

First, let’s look at the different types of Writer’s Block. None is easier to overcome than the next, nor harder. Writer’s Blocks come in many forms, and they’re all complete dicks.

And how do we fix the problem? Yes, with extreme violence.
And how do we fix the problem? Yes, with extreme violence.

How do I start? There’s an idea. A great idea rolling around in that big noggin of yours. It may have just appeared. It may have been spinning recklessly downhill for years, gaining momentum (I had a character inside my head for twenty years before I finally let him out. He became the protagonist in my first novel). It doesn’t matter how long the idea’s been there, the problem is it doesn’t want to come out.

Sometimes starting a novel or short story is easy. The protagonist kills dragons. Okay, so start your story with the protagonist killing a dragon. None of this mucking around with him waking up in the morning to fix coffee. Get to the action. In my first novel, “A Funeral Story,” the character Deever Dickson (the one with the twenty-year incubation period) has sex with strange women he meets at funerals, so in Chapter One, bingo, he has sex with a strange woman at her Dad’s funeral. (It’s less awkward than it sounds. Okay. No, it isn’t.) The point is, get to the Point.

How do I start? Part 2. Every writer has a ritual. When I first started, my ritual was to write like mad, then whenever I felt like writing again I’d read what I’d written before, edit it, and by the time I finished, I didn’t feel like writing anymore. Oh, sometimes my favorite TV program was about to come on, or I had to use the bathroom, but the result was the same. After my first manic session of pounding words onto a page, I was stuck. I eventually had four 10,000-plus-word novel intros in my top desk drawer, and I no longer had interest in pursuing any of them. Fortunately, I realized something had to change. (How to defeat Writer’s Block coming in five paragraphs.)

If everybody's dead the book just write's itself.
King: If everybody’s dead the book just writes itself.

What do I do now? In the middle of a story – a good story, a worthwhile story, a story you may actually finish – a chasm opens, and the protagonist just stands there. Not because he can’t fall into the chasm. Not because he can’t grab that dangling vine. Not because he can’t pull himself up to safety, gripping the president’s nuclear football in his teeth, and saving the world from annihilation. It’s because you have no idea what he’s going to do. Characters develop a life of their own, and tend to do things you never planned. (That’s kind of scary. I’m sure most writers should be locked away for their own safety. Me included.) But sometimes even your most well developed character just won’t do anything. Nope. Not a damn thing.

So, what now?

If you’re an outliner (I’m not), this may not be a big problem. But for those organic writers, a good shake up might be in order. In an interview, Stephen King said he got stuck like this while writing “The Stand.” He resolved his problem by killing some of the main characters. It worked. “The Stand” is one of my favorite King novels. It’s also a good thing he writes fiction. I suspect people frown on this method in non-fiction.

Okay, so we’re nearly to the paragraph I promised. The paragraph where I tell you how to cure Writer’s Block. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. It’s as Pavlovian as it gets, baby.

hemingway
Papa Hemingway punching Writer’s Block in the face.

Writing is simply a habit – get into it. When I could no longer put off the fact that writing was something I had to do, I made a writing space. I went to that space at the same time every day (every day), had the same lighting, the same chair, the same beverage, the same background noise, the same sameness. Eventually when I sat at the same space, in the same chair, at the same time, my head knew we were writing. And you know what? It works. I haven’t had true Writer’s Block in at least eight years.

So, fellow Writers, give that a shot. And if your character still can’t move away from the side of that chasm, send a sidekick flying over the edge, or maybe a love interest, or both. It couldn’t hurt.

Read First, Write Second

A soon-to-graduate student I’d never met walked into my office and asked for a few moments of my time. No problem. Any teacher who turns away a student is not really in it for the teaching. I’m not sure what they’d be in it for, although the summer vacations are better than botched vasectomy, that’s for damn sure.

Young writers not reading Truman Capote's books gave him such a headache.
Young writers not reading Truman Capote’s books gave him such a headache.

Although this student was going into the public relations field (can’t fault him for wanting to pay the bills), what he really wants to do is write. Specifically he wants to write narrative nonfiction. Good for him. Six of my books are narrative nonfiction. That genre is rewarding, fun, meaningful to readers, and the research is tax deductible. Thank you IRS (you don’t hear that every day).

My first question to him was, “Have you read Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’?”

He hadn’t.

Hmm.

There are certain books that define every genre, and if you want to write in that genre, you should probably read them. Surprise, surprise, people can learn from history. For what not to do, let’s turn to baseball.

George Brett. He dated the bat, but never took it to meet his parents.
George Brett. He dated the bat, but never took it to meet his parents.

In 1992, when Kansas City Royals future Hall of Famer George Brett chased his milestone 3,000th hit, an interviewer told Brett he’d just surpassed St. Louis Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby on the all-time hits list. Brett responded with, “Bruce Hornsby and the Range?” Really, George? As a major league player, you should have known enough baseball history not to confuse a Hall of Famer with a mediocre pop band. Nice work.

Don’t be like George. Know who came before you.

at-the-mountains-of-madness-book-cover

For pulp horror, try H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” For modern horror, Stephen King’s “The Shining” is a must.

If you want to try your hand at fantasy and haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and “The Lord of the Rings,” or Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, you’re not doing yourself – or potential readers – any favors.

Humor? Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or Dave Barry’s “Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only 9 Months, with Tools You Probably Have around the Home” are good places to start.

If you want science-laden science fiction, the late Michael Crichton was the best. Just pick any one of his surprisingly easy-to-read volumes off the shelf at your local library. You won’t be disappointed.

49495For narrative nonfiction, like I suggested to the student, start with “In Cold Blood.” Capote dubbed his book a “nonfiction novel,” and it reads like such. However, it’s not. The book seamlessly weaves Capote’s and friend Harper Lee’s impeccable research into the murder of the Clutter family throughout the narrative giving the reader the sense they’re watching the events happen.

The point is, read. Once you’ve read the books that define your genre, read something else – anything else. If the writing is good, you’re going to learn something. I don’t write psychological thrillers, (I write the aforementioned horror, fantasy, science fiction, and humor), but the last few books I’ve read (and the best books I’ve read in a long time), are by Jillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects,” “Dark Places”), and Tana French (“In the Woods.” I’m angry about that book. More on that sometime later, but it’s a great read nonetheless).

So, writing students, my first advice to you on the Process is to pick up a book and turn the pages. I’m sure every writer I’ve mentioned (even the dead ones) would tell you the same thing.