Homage to Dotage

A recent article reporting the results of a survey for one word that summarizes our current president also noted that North Korea’s leader (or at least the translator who brought his words to us) managed to find a word that has fallen out of use in American English but quickly captivated its audience: Dotard. The same newspaper helpfully suggested several other lesser known insults to deploy in reply. This reminded me of  the “Shakespearean Insults” widget I once had on a web homepage (in fact “dotard” was used by Shakespeare). Political cartoonists have also had some fun with the idea of a war of words that taps into the vast reservoir of underutilized ammunition. If I had any hope of remembering all these great words, I would surely assist in preserving them like antique seeds in a seed bank.

As for the original article, I was interested as a qualitative researcher in the results of this experiment and the way they were graphically summarized. The most common word selected was “Strong” but the percent of respondents who selected it was not especially high (9 percent), indicating a low level of agreement. However, when the words were grouped by their connotations, negative words (some barely publishable) clearly dominated. I found that for myself it was difficult to come up with a word to summarize all that I think and feel on this subject. This may be because I am inclined to be over-wordy or it might be that I don’t think very fast on my feet. Whatever the cause, I salute those who managed to find one single word to do the job.

 

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A Spell of Trouble

When I spotted the headline in the local paper today, I did a double-take. I texted my distant spouse with a photo and he first replied, “I know.” And then, before I could write, “You DO?” He replied “Furry??” The paper had taken President Trump’s pronouncement that he would answer North Korea’s aggression with “fire and fury” and blown it up into a blaring headline that announced “Trump warns of ‘Fire and Furry‘”. As one of my co-workers pointed out, spellcheck would not have saved the day on that operation. There is no substitute for good, sound quality control (says the girl who left the “e” off of the word “note” in an email to clients yesterday, thus changing the spirit of the message).

I realize that the unmangled message from the president is very serious in nature but I can’t shake the image of a basket of puppies or kittens being handed out at a diplomatic meeting as an antidote to tense negotiations. Who knows? Maybe it would work.

Making History

As a life-long fan of history and archaeology, I have been saddened to hear of great treasures torn asunder by war in the Middle East.  Some lesser-known treasures have suffered obliteration closer to home. I think of my visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient city in the heart of the United States that was partly swallowed up by pavement.

It’s a time-honored tradition in a way, wiping out the memory of those who came before. You can see places on ancient monuments where later visitors worked to wipe out the names and images of others, whether it’s modern graffiti vandals etching over historical relics or Egyptian pharaohs knocking out the images of their predecessors. The value of history in teaching us about our nature and potential is part of what motivates those who destroy. They do not want us to share that knowledge and grow away from them.

Writers do their part in rescuing these vanishing scraps of heritage by documenting them in many ways. They can be the sources of both fiction and non-fiction material. Written works and pictures can draw attention to them and make the case for preservation.

I recently began participating in preservation itself by volunteering as an archival transcriptionist for my state archives.  My task is to take scanned documents and type their contents so that they can be searched by researchers. Among the benefits of doing this work is learning more about the language use of persons from another era, always a valuable body of knowledge for a writer. I also find that poring over words written in the past, often with pen strokes that preserve their gestures, is a moving experience.

While it’s true that my new sideline is yet another distraction (along with my art ventures) from actually writing my next book, I don’t see it as time wasted. I like to think that I am helping keep a few small pieces of our shared human story in hand.

 

 

A Picture’s Worth

Lately, the coffee shop crowd will greet me with, “How’s the book?” In fact, I have set aside my writing project for now to work on visual arts projects. Since some of my book covers have come from past art projects and working in another medium stimulates creativity in general, this does not feel like a bad trade. I have set up a new blog devoted to recovering old art projects and documenting new ones, as well as recording the results of my “haiku-a-day” project.

In reply to my admission, the writer among them grins and says knowingly, “Same with my book.” The implication is that I’ll never finish. With 18 books under my belt (some of which waited over a decade in an envelope in a closet to be published) I am neither worried nor hurried. My present book will get done when it and I are ready.

The Horrible Truth

Are you writing horror fiction? Before I renewed my acquaintance with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, I would have thought that was a no-brainer even Abby Normal could answer: Of course not. You’ll find nary a zombie and no trace of a hockey-mask wearing fiend hanging randy teens by their heels with meat hooks and firing up his chainsaw in any of my work.

There’s more to the case than buckets of blood and entrails though. In Danse Macabre, King describes his first personal taste of horror as having been subjected to the then-terrifying announcement that the Soviets had beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik. On the Horror Writers Association site, horror is defined in a post on the basics of horror fiction as a sensation of intense dread and fear, a common definition found in many corners of the web. The post also includes several other definitions, including “that which cannot be made safe.” The author remarks fondly on the classic anthology Prime Evil, which ranges from the-corner-of-your-eye-maybe-you’re-crazy-who-knows to knee-deep-in-blood types of stories, an excellent survey of the breadth of the genre and its sub-genres. The post goes on to lament that horror as we currently define it has slipped far away from the subtle and become dominated by gore.The subtler writers have gone underground so to speak, eschewing the “horror” label for “supernatural” or “fantastic.”

Teresa Hopper at Forward Motion, however, informs us that even if you are merely trying to cause chills for (let alone scare the wits out of) readers, you are writing horror. Stephen King may be better known for splatter but he also gave us The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which relies solely on mundane but very real fears familiar to anyone living on the edge of the Maine woods (especially two days after the remains of a long-sought elderly through-hiker were confirmed found in a lonely ravine just off the Appalachian Trail). I am reminded of the movie Poltergeist, which featured plenty of traditional scares but also played on the more ordinary adult fears of property loss and injury to family. Fear is fear.

So where does that leave Abby Normal’s original shoot-from-the-hip conclusion? Do I actually write horror? At least one of my works, a short anthology, consists of stories filled with ghosts and shape shifters. I now admit that I meant to at least “cause chills,” which is plain enough from the YouTube trailer with its creepy tune imploring at the end “Where are you? You Gotta get Me Outta Here!”

At the time I posted it, I added keywords like “ghosts” and described the genre as “supernatural.” I avoided “horror” because I was concerned readers would be disappointed by the lack of plasma. I forgot what my mother once said about the old horror movies we all enjoyed growing up: “You could almost see the strings on the bats but they still scared us.” I spent Halloween watching an old favorite, the Boris Karloff version of “The Mummy.” It chilled without spilling a drop of blood in front of us because it obeyed all the rules of horror at their most basic.

P.S. If, like me, you are beginning to feel less afraid of horror (ironically), here are a few prompts to get started.

The Catfish Are Jumping And The Thumbs Are Up High

When NPR solemnly informed me this afternoon that self-published authors on Amazon in the Kindle Direct program were “catfishing” and “astroturfing,” I began to fret over whether that was me they were talking about. I’d heard both terms before but couldn’t remember exactly what they meant. My interest was further piqued by the announcement that there would be consequences and there were reporters and scholars fast on the heels of these scofflaws.

It turns out “catfishers” are people who pay poverty-stricken writers a little bit to slickly remount their stories and sell them under a pen name. After that, they apply “astroturf,” fake reviews (sometimes paid for, sometimes cajoled out of friends) that make the subject seem popular and desirable. They also dream up bios that make the fictional author seem like an expert in the subject and a genius in general. One catfisher covered in the story claimed his alter ego spoke fifteen languages. Catfished books can become bestsellers, thanks to the marketing genius of their creators. Real authors suffer as a result, losing sales to con artists who flood the market with books on subjects like weight loss and leave readers disillusioned and fed up.

One way to keep catfishers from manipulating your book buying choices is to carefully review the author’s background and also checkout other reviews written by positive reviewers (if all the reviews are glowingly positive, you may have some fakery going on, possibly for money). As for protecting yourself against these unscrupulous practices as an author, keep an eye on reviews and reporting suspicious entries. Of course, you should also try not to be so desperate that selling your goods to a catfisher sounds like a great source of cash.

Anyone who looks at my books on Amazon can satisfy themselves that I’m not pumping my brand up with hyperbole. One look at my bank account would confirm that.

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.