Monday, December 22, 2014

Talkin’ Tennessee-un

          A quick lesson in Tennessee dialect:
The spoken word                                    What it actually means
             far                                                              fire
             fat                                                              fight
             tar                                                              tire
             yawl                                                           you all
             brat                                                            bright
             wah?                                                          why?
             hail no                                                        hell no
             lay-us gnat                                                 last night
             wail owl rat                                               well all right
             yeeeeeeee-haw                                        this experience is quite enjoyable (useful for
                                                                              everything from eating fried pork skins to making love)
          And so on.  After a few days in Knoxville or Nashville, you can learn enough to  understand restaurant specials and converse with the locals a bit.  After that, hopefully, your drive home will be long enough to shed all the words you've recently learned and return to normal speech.  If there be such a thing.

          There are some two dozen distinct major English dialects recognized in the United States.  Some cover a broad area, like the Southern Appalachian voice that includes Tennessee-tawk.  Some are only used in restricted areas, like San Francisco Urban, New York Urban, Boston Urban, and the extra-hard-to-understand Gullah of the Charleston area.  One I like, especially when used in singing, is Louisiana Cajun.  Near where I live there’s a dialect peculiar to only modest-sized Harkers Island, preserving remnants of the old Elizabethan tongue (high tide to them is “hoi toide”).

          Using dialect and foreign-language accents in writing dialog can be a challenge.   If you try to portray a hillbilly speaking, for example, and you replace the g on all words ending in “ing” with an apostrophe, you could soon have a page swimming with tadpole-like apostrophes, only confusing and slowing readers.  The late Elmore Leonard solved this by not using any apostrophes at all, simply spelling out dialect words semi-phonetically (but still recognizably).

          The best advice I’ve heard is to use dialect words sparingly in the first place, then go back during the final self-editing and cull out even more of them.

          In conveying dialect and foreign accents, the merest hint is almost always quite enough.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The long, long walk

          Starting in June, 1970, Dave Kunst circuited the globe on foot, covering 14,450 miles in four years.  Steve Newman also did the earth-walk, trekking 15,000 miles in four years.  Rosie Swale-Pope, at age 57, set out to run around our planet, often over daunting terrain, going through 50 pairs of running shoes during that adventure and raising a small fortune for charity.  It takes an estimated 20 million steps to walk around the earth.  You can’t actually girdle the world in a straight line, of course, because there are a few rather large oceans in the way, but these exemplary journeys are nonetheless amazing.  How did they do it?  The facile cliché answer would be one step at a time.  Obviously it requires an almost superhuman degree of willpower and determination, and cannot be done without overcoming myriad hardships, doubts, and dangers.

          Trying to write an average-length novel can appear to be a near-impossible slog with a hazy finish line far, far away over the horizon.  It’s a major reason why so many people vow to write a book one day but never manage to do it.  Those relative few who do complete a 100,000-word story, sometimes over tortuous terrain spanning years, are to be commended for making that long solitary journey, even if their work never sees print.  By sheer endurance, if nothing else, they've earned the right to call themselves authors.  And I think, pretty much to a person, they’ll tell you the trip was worth taking.

          So, for the intrepid few who long to take such a journey, how does one go about it?

          There’s a lot of advice out there, but I think it all condenses to a simple formula: A place sacred to your writing + a rough time frame reserved for only writing + putting words down every possible day of the week + a stubborn refusal to ever give up = a book, eventually and certainly, barring a catastrophe.

          The prolific Stephen King writes nearly every morning, then gives himself the afternoon off to walk for exercise, to enjoy being alive, to be with his family, and to take care of life’s chores.  He does not do it for the money; he’s already made plenty of that.  He does it because he’s obsessed with the wonderful journey, as most top authors are.

          I like to write early, starting before the sun comes up across the river outside my office.  I try for 500 new words each day, but that’s a flexible goal.  Sometimes I can lay down 1,000; sometimes I’m ecstatic to get 250 if it’s a tough scene.  I begin each day by going over yesterday’s output, tweaking and polishing a bit, then forging ahead.  I work to only a rough plan, letting my characters do as they will, while I try to be aware of clarity and pacing and good sentence structure and correct grammar, of course.  My job is to get to the end of the book before tackling any serious rewriting or editing.  And on each book journey, I find a certain magic steals in fairly early in the word count.  The story seems to take on a life of its own.  The characters become real, and I begin to share their adventures, quail at their trials, summon courage with them, choke up at their tender moments and triumphs.  And most mornings I can’t wait to get back to the keyboard to find out what will happen next.

          The book I've recently completed, my fourth novel (fourth publishable novel, that is; I wrote two books years ago that were unsalable learning experiences), took fifteen months and has cost me 830 hours of editing time alone (can’t even estimate the total first-draft writing hours).  It will probably require another 100 hours of rewriting and editing and polishing before I’m ready to declare it fit to publish.

          And yet the faint glimmerings of another story, this one to be staged in Africa, are already gathering.

          I can’t wait to set out for that far horizon once again.


Monday, December 8, 2014

The obese Octopus

          I live in a small city in a rather lightly populated area, yet my phone book lists 234 local numbers for government offices.  These numbers break down to 41 federal, 24 state, 61 city, and 108 county.
          Each of these phone numbers represents from a few to several hundred officials and bureaucrats and workers who draw from tax revenues not only while on the job but also throughout retirement.  Not to mention the continuous costs of their many buildings and offices that must be furnished, heated, and lighted.  These numbers also represent a vast fuel-guzzling fleet of various official vehicles from fire trucks; to city, state, and federal law-enforcement cruisers; to buses; to sanitation and delivery trucks.  And this is only in my county.  There are 99 more counties in my state and 3,143 other counties or county equivalents in the United States.
          There are 11 million people working for federal government now, if you include bureaucrats, postal workers, the military, contractors, and grantees.  Another 19.5 million work for state and local governments.  That’s 30.5 million people working for some form of our government.  In addition to uncounted thousands of government buildings across the land, there are 845,000 buildings on 750 military installations worldwide.  All of these require furnishings, climate control, lighting, and repairs.  The cost of maintaining the behemoth military machine in payroll, ships, planes, weapons, and vehicles recently topped $640 billion a year and it’s growing.
          At a thriller writer’s conference a while back, I attended a presentation by an FBI special agent about an investigation into the explosion of an illegal fireworks factory in rural Tennessee.  He said there had been 30 different government agencies involved.  Thirty.  The flashing of the various badges as all those folks stumbled over one other in their detecting must have outshone the original explosion.  Anybody who thinks that investigation had a prayer of being efficient and economical please raise your hand.
          Florida bestselling author Carl Hiaasen is a popular novelist who can make you laugh aloud even as he chills you with his thrillers.  I’m reading the recent Hiaasen collection of his Miami Herald columns titled “Dance of the Reptiles,” wherein he attacks the establishment with his rapier wit and cutting sarcasm, exposing the bungling, waste, profiteering, special-interest lawmaking, and often outright fraud and blatant corruption that have sadly become commonplace throughout our nation and especially in Florida.  It’s a great read.  He calls the meeting of the state Legislature “the annual Tallahassee train wreck.”  He likens the bloated free-spending federal General Services Administration to “a giant stoned octopus that has no idea what all its legs are doing.”  I think that’s a fitting description for the whole vast structure that has grown to myopically oversee and ineptly and inefficiently regulate nearly every aspect of our lives.
          You’d think our government has swollen to become quite large enough.
          Unless you’re a politician, official, or bureaucrat, that is.  To them, bigger is always better.  And the response they all too often make to a problem or crisis is to add yet more layers of fat to government.  More agencies.  More offices.  More bureaucrats.  More waste.  More clumsy tentacles for the already obese octopus, appropriating ever more money out of thin air to gorge it.  This is the same government, bear in mind, that in its wisdom has placed the Coast Guard under obviously non-nautical Homeland Security, and complex health care under the brilliant IRS, whose taxing regulations alone already run to 60,000 pages.  The same government that has blithely ballooned the federal deficit to eighteen thousand billion dollars and rapidly counting.  Administration officials are celebrating the fact that the deficit has “only” grown by $500 billion in 2014. That’s “only” half a trillion dollars in yet more debt that we all owe.  Wow.  Nice going, people.

           I think we don’t need more and bigger government every year.

           I think what we desperately need are more investigative journalists willing to take a close critical look at the obscenely overweight octopus we already have.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Responsible reporting

                  If you don't read the newspaper
                  you are uninformed, if you do
                  read the newspaper you are
Mark Twain
                  (I’ll update that to include radio and TV news these days as well.)

          My mother was a newspaper reporter, and she told me something I've never forgotten.  She said, “Be careful about trusting the news.  It’s absurdly easy for incompetent or unethical reporters to color it.  Let’s say, for example, the Sheriff is in Boston speaking at a law enforcement conference.  There’s a terrible local crime while he’s away.  If I don’t happen to like the Sheriff or if I disagree with his policies, I could choose to report only that he was unavailable, or that he could not be reached for comment.  It would be true, but it wouldn't be honest, and readers might well take it to mean he’s not doing his job.  Do you understand?”

          Sadly, Mom’s advice has grown even more wise considering today‘s pseudo-news reporting.

          Whole networks have obvious one-sided political agendas.  Newscasters are as much ego-brandishing celebrities as reporters, and seem to become overnight experts on any number of topics from nutrition to child-rearing to environmental issues to foreign affairs to astrophysics.  They often essentially pre-judge the guilt or innocence of alleged transgressors and they don’t hesitate to slant the news, even to the extent of inciting violence over this or that incident that instead ought to be handled not in the media but within the established legal system, which is all we have in America for any semblance of true justice.

          Editorializing and commentary in journalism, when clearly labeled as such, are protected under our constitution and rightly so, but straight news reporting should be conducted with professional honesty, integrity, thoroughness, accuracy, and absolute objectivity.  Allowing us, the reading and viewing public, to make up our own minds on the issues.

          But good luck with that in today's world.


p.s.  An update to this entry:  Two talking heads on one of my local news channels reported recently that the Kepler space telescope has found an exoplanet, as though this is the first such planet ever discovered.  One of the beautiful heads had to tell the other handsome head that this planet is not within our solar system, but both reporters missed the point entirely.
          The first exoplanet orbiting another sun out in deep space was discovered 22 years ago, and some 1,800 other such planets have since been found rolling around stars in just our relatively tiny neighborhood of the Milky Way.  Kepler alone has discovered a thousand exoplanets.  But two of its four stabilizing reaction wheels failed, thus jeopardizing the whole mission.  The scope is located 40 million miles from earth, so it's not repairable.  The scientists, however, devised an ingenious way to use the weak solar wind to help steer and steady the scope and continue the mission.  So when Kepler was recently able to discover yet another exoplanet despite its severe handicap, it was a major accomplishment.  And that was the story the talking heads should have reported.  It would only have required a few minutes research on their part and some basic knowledge of the universe in which we live.
          The final sad irony here is that the station's news motto is "Getting the facts right."
          In fact, day after day, they somehow manage to get even the simplest facts wrong.
          But they sure are attractive and speak pleasantly.