Snakes Alive

The following came from a post on my Google Site’s “Schoolhouse” page:

Last year, I was discussing the business of self-publishing my work in e-book form with my youngest sister, who is probably the only person who has read everything I’ve written. She lamented the thought that I had not been published “the normal way,” not even in paper. “What do you even call yourself?” she asked. “You’re not quite even self-published in the same sense as those people with hundreds of copies of their vanity press book stowed in their garage.” I replied, “They call us ‘indie’ authors.” For my birthday, then, I got a talking card with Indiana Jones on the front and the immortal quote: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

It isn’t easy being an indie author. We not only don’t get much respect but we get “that look” I’ve learned to expect when I mention what I do with my spare time. It’s a “deer-in-the-headlights,” full-on panic stare somewhere between “Look at the time! I just remembered I have a pot boiling on the stove back home!” and “They’re doing great things with anti-psychotics and shock therapy these days.” (Perhaps, in keeping with the theme,”It HAD to be snakes….”) Part of the cause for that reaction is that the person who has just heard your confession is afraid you will make them read something, something long and turgid and very,very bad. I envy people like my husband, who is a photographer, who can share their hobbies very quickly. Writing is a serious commitment for an audience to digest, whereas a photograph can be scoped out and politely cooed over in under 45 seconds. I’m not saying my husband’s work is bad or that it’s worse than he thinks. It’s just that I have never seen anyone decline to ‘take a look’ and I have never seen that panicked stare come back at him in response.

After staring at me for a few moments, most people change the subject. Some, like my husband, will talk to me in the same tone one uses when their 4 year old tells them he plans to be an astronaut and a brain surgeon. I would like to point out that I have known people who do things like play in garage bands and hop into pick up basketball games. They don’t necessarily believe with any seriousness that they’ll someday be in the NBA or win a Grammy. Weekend painters I know don’t seem to be possessed of the idea that they will someday get a gig at the Louvre. I don’t imagine I’ll ever make more than enough money to buy myself the occasional treat at my hobby. I don’t think I’m any more deranged than all the other hobbyists I mentioned but then I suppose shock therapy might convince me otherwise.

I’ve learned not to mention my hobby too often, which runs a bit counter to the need to promote my books but goes a long way towards keeping me in the good graces of my comrades. I know that when I go back to work after the long weekend I will not say that I spent a happy interval completing and launching my latest book (which I did). I’ll probably just say that I helped cook the Thanksgiving dinner, watched a Muppet movie, and rested a lot. I’ve become one of those people with a secret life but not one that will generally make a superhero of me. In some eyes, I’m the guy who wears fishnet stockings and lace garters under his business suit or the lady who owns every album and magazine cover ever for her obscure favorite pop singer. There are worse things to do with my spare time. I just wonder why my cubie neighbor, who is obsessed with anything risky involving water and motors and celebrating the above with rowdy bar hopping that ends with people face down in the dust, is considered normal? For that matter, why is it normal to like watching the Kardashians and acceptable to swoon over “50 Shades of Gray?” If that’s ‘normal,’ then I’m proud to be Indie.

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Farewell, Gentle Yolanda

This article about the delicate manner in which the writers of the new television show “Sleepy Hollow” handle their 18th century hero trapped in modern day America tickled me, in part because I have written a three-part fantasy series set in the same era (albeit in Russia). I have enjoyed watching this show, although, like “Gilligan’s Island,” it always leaves me with a lot of questions. Some of the questions are even the same, as in “how come an outfit worn that long through that many unfortunate adventures doesn’t repulse everyone around it?” It’s a tough balance between wordy, ornate speech and moving the plot along while staying true to the characters.

Suddenly All Hell Broke Loose with The Weather or It Was a Dark And…

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing would have given Snoopy pause:

  1. ” Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  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.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  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.”

Lies, Damned Lies, and Psychology

Want to show your readers that a character is lying? It’s common wisdom that the eyes give liars away. According to recent studies, however, you can’t always spot a liar by their eye movements. Fortunately, Psychology Professor Richard Wiseman has discovered a few other ways to spot a liar (list copied from the article linked below):

  1. Me, myself I: Liars make up stories that never actually happened, and so tend to reduce the number of times they refer to themselves. Look out for any sudden drop in words like me, mine and I
  2. Shifty: Lying is difficult and people tend not to move around when they are concentrating on something. Be wary if a person suddenly becomes very still
  3. Umm … err: Liars are far more hesitant than truth tellers and tend to stumble over their words. Listen out for tell-tale umms and errs.
  4. Timing: Liars often have to think about what they are going to say before they speak. Be suspicious if someone suddenly pauses before starting to answer a question.
  5. Token gesture: Liars tend to move their hands around more than truth tellers. Be wary if someone suddenly starts covering up their mouth or touching their hair as they chat.

The End of Good Writing

Recently, I sent out a a tweet about an article in the New Republic that pronounced a seismic shift in punctuation rules. These had seemed almost immutable, like the laws of gravity or that rule about wearing light colors after Labor Day. I was shocked and even distraught to discover that periods at the end of sentences are considered loud and aggressive. In their places, we are supposed to be using nice, tranquil exclamation points. (I mean “!”) Imagine, I always thought periods were plain vanilla, passive aggressive at best, and they turn out to be pure toadstool and arsenic sauce. If you don’t believe me, you can see it here. The period is further described in this piece as “a sign of irrational anger“!

I remember when using exclamation points was a sign of amatuerish writing. And people who used them a lot seemed way too eager! We used to be annoyed by the unfettered use of exclamation points! I had to purge a lot of them out of one of my early fiction pieces when I redeveloped it but then the piece was partly meant as parody and I was trying to make it a little more serious. Parody begs for exclamation points, doesn’t it? (!)

I researched reactions to this assault on the poor period via an unscientific sample of nonrandom coworkers. Most jeered and one remarked, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard, ever.” The last remark prompted me to point out that I read it in two separate places and it was totally not my idea. It briefly became a “thing” with the group, a running joke in which we kept reminding each other to be sparing with punctuation. One thing I like about this group is that they don’t do their material to death, so I can expect they’ll be onto the next joke in a day or so. I also like that they backed me up (even though they made fun of me in the process) in my belief that periods are necessary to keep chaos from descending on our prose. And what we write is confusing enough without not being able to tell where our sentences start and end. And please don’t turn me in to the composition police for starting so many sentences starting with “and.”

In addition to the war on punctuation, there appears to be a war on cursive writing. This is yet another of the habits ground into the heads of folks of a certain age that is probably now losing its usefulness to texting and email (the likely culprits in the impending demise of the period). Probably because I always had horrible penmanship and was generally called out about it, I’m not especially nostalgic on this score. I have memories of one of my first college professors watching us write answers to an essay exam in Russian class in proper Cyrillic script and taking the opportunity to ask aloud, “Is your handwriting this bad in English too?”

My sources on the demise of cursive initially consisted of long, passionate letters to the editor (probably handwritten in cursive). I did some research after the fact on the web, weary of polling my coworkers and less than eager to draw their attention to my handwriting. Also, I’ve had enough of people remarking, “How quaint! You know shorthand” when in fact I do not. Most of the posts on this subject are titled “Should Schools Teach Cursive?” Since the question comes out of the omission of cursive by the so-called “Common Core” standards in education, this question has political overtones, as in the evil Democrats who sponsor this government overreach into the school are just interested in depriving your children of important intellectual tools that would otherwise allow them to fully participate in our society. So periods are aggressive and cursive is the linchpin of modern civilization! And my eighth grade English teacher was right? And so was my Russian professor? And my former boss’ obsession with semicolons…no…I’m still right on that one…right guys?!