Monday, March 30, 2015

     Writing is a lonely enterprise.  You can spend months or years creating a novel, all the while with no assurance it will interest an agent or publisher at all.
     Joining a groupa local, regional, or national organization of writerscan not only alleviate the loneliness, but it can also offer training and tips, provide invaluable advice about the business from those who've climbed further up the literary mountain, and open up opportunities for promotion.
     For years I've happily belonged to Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and a Southeast sub-chapter (SEMWA), and to International Thriller Writers (ITW).  These organizations offer fellowship (if that word is still politically correct), valuable business contacts, and excellent advice on every aspect of writing and publishing.  I've learned much just from their newsletters, which I keep on file for reference.  Both organizations publish excellent short story anthologies open to member submissions.  Both are heavily involved in conferencing functions.   I've recently joined the North Carolina Writers Network, as well.  They sponsor two  conferences and respected writing contests of their own each year.
     There are many unexpected benefits.  For example, I served three years as an ITW awards judge, twice for novels and once for short stories.  I had to critically read a wide array of authors from all over the world, authors I never would have been exposed to otherwise, and that couldn't help but broaden and enhance my view of the craft, and to teach me a good deal.  Plus all those books I got to read were free.
     There are a goodly number of similar organizations from which to choose.  Sisters in Crime (bit sexist, that, but they do accept a male or two), Romance Writers of America, Western Writers, the Historical Novel Society, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, even the Cat Writers Association, whose members write about felines.
     Any of these fine organizations will warmly accept like-minded souls who are struggling to achieve success. So fill out an application or two.  Learn the secret handshakes and online passwords.  Banish that loneliness.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Engaging etymology

I've always been fascinated by how words and sayings originated.  A few examples:

An old English word for spider was cob.

Sleep tight
Mattress foundations were once just laced ropes, which would not sag if kept tight.

The whole nine yards
Length of an ammo belt in WW II war planes.  If you fired off the entire belt, you shot the whole nine yards.

Buying the farm
In WW I, a soldier’s life insurance was enough to buy a modest farm.

Iron clad contract
After the strong iron clad ships of the time.

Over a barrel
A half-drowned, helpless person of old was placed face-down over a barrel to expel lung water.
Passing the Buck
In the early West, a common Buck jackknife was often passed to designate the dealer in a card game.

A shot of booze
In the old West a cowboy could buy a small glass of whiskey for a .45 cartridge, a single shot.

Barge in
River barges have always been hard to control.  Sometimes they still get loose and intrude on somebody’s day.

From the old French phrase couvre-feuor “cover the fire,” done at evening’s end.  Later in the colonies, folks covered the hearth fire for the night with a clay pot called a curfew, to prevent stray sparks.

From excessively-gaudy old Mississippi riverboats that were floating theaters.

From the French auteur, which somehow sounds classier.

From the Germanic bokiz, or beech, used for wooden tablets on which scribes carved runes.  Writing has always been hard work.

From the Latin suspensus, meaning a state of mental uncertainty with anxiety, which pretty much describes me when I’m attempting to write the genre.

For thousands more etymological examples, see  You can search the site for almost any word’s origin.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dejecting rejections
     Fifty years ago, NASA Apollo scientist Bill Borucki had a Big Idea. 
     He said, “Let’s build a space telescope to look for planets orbiting stars.”  If a planet were to pass in front of its parent star, he reasoned, the light would dim, thus revealing that planet’s presence.  Scoffers lined up to shoot down the idea, which then languished for decades. 
     But in 2009 a team including Borucki launched the Kepler space scope, which has since found 1,800 confirmed exoplanets rolling around other suns in only a minuscule portion of the cosmic vastness.  Some have even been directly imaged.  Quite a few are earth-sized.  Cosmologists now suspect that most of the trillions of stars in the universe must have orbiting bodies, some inevitably within a zone wherein water is liquid.  This, in turn, greatly enhances the likelihood of life out there. 
     Many cosmologists now believe it’s virtually a statistical certainty we’re not alone in the universe
     A Big Idea, indeed.  But one roundly rejected for decades as impossible to ever research.
     After World War II, photographer Robert Frank crisscrossed the U.S taking thousands of candid photos.  Much of what he shot was raw and ugly.  Poverty.  Racial prejudice.   Mind-numbing work conditions.  His pictures contradicted happy-myths propagated by The Saturday Evening Post and TV’s Leave it to Beaver.  His photo book, The Americans, was vehemently criticized and then largely ignored.  Only 1,100 copies sold, earning him $800.
     Today, Frank’s book is considered an iconic 20th-century work.  Hope you kept a copy.  A single print showing sullen people riding a segregated New Orleans trolley recently sold for $633,000.
     Louisiana oil-field roughneck James Lee Burke spent nine years trying to sell his first novel, The Lost Get-back Boogie.  The manuscript gathered 100 rejections.
     When the University of Louisiana Press finally published the story, it drew a Pulitzer nomination, the first of many accolades Burke has since earned.  He’s still writing best-sellers, a number of them becoming hit movies.

     Myopic unimaginative publishers also rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter debut novel 12 times, Agatha Christie’s debut novel 23 times, and Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind 38 times.  Almost every publisher in England spurned Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies.  
     I hope all of those editorial naysayers have been plagued by thoughts of the millions of dollars they turned away from their doors.  The Harry Potter franchise alone has been worth billions.
     Rejections are to a writer as tipsy shot gunners are to ducks.  We have to live with them.  I wish I’d kept track of the rejections I've gotten over the years.  They’d fill a barrel.  In fact, a few years back, a smart writer did keep track of his rejections and sold a magazine article about the number and variety of them.

     Even after we survive all that crushing rejection and finally do manage to get our work published, we face a gang of one-star losers out there who cruise the Net viciously putting down everything and everybody they encounter, while never actually accomplishing much of anything themselves.

     The naysayers have always been an ineradicable presence throughout humankind.  Society’s gleeful shot gunners.  We can take a lesson from the likes of Bill Borucki,  Robert Frank, James Lee Burke, J.K. Rowling, and migrating mallards though, and simply ignore them as we carry on, trying our best.

     And there are occasional payoffs along the road.  Although I’m not in sight of the best-seller lists yet, I've gathered a thick file of e-mails and notes from folks all over who have liked my work.  One missive was from a man in Birmingham, England.  The first fan letter he’d written in over twenty years of reading, he said.  Five years before, an auto accident had left him in a wheelchair.  He said my books had brought back to him “the outdoors and all its splendor” and had given him strength to step up his therapy intensity.

     That one is taped to the wall behind my computer monitor.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Political over-correctness

     It began reasonably and innocently enough, as political correctitude always does.

     Women should have the right to vote. 
     Well of course they should, come to think of it.

     Women should be able to have careers. 
     And why the devil not?

     Women should receive equal pay for equal work. 
     That’s only fair, really.
     Women should be able to serve their country in the military.  Even in combat. 
     Well, if they’re absolutely sure that’s what they want.

     Men damn well better eradicate all forms of sexism and start watching their spoken and written language closely to erase all forms of gender favoritism.
     So we guys started doing our best to comply, alternating the use of she and he, and him and her, making sure we use Mr. and Ms., respecting hyphenated last names, desisting from ogling cleavage, not calling the waitress cutie-pie.
     There should be, and there is, in fact, essentially no difference between women and men whatever.
     Whoa.  Wait a minute.
     There’s correct.  Then there’s over-correct.

     If there’s no difference between the genders, then why don’t we allow both sexes on a football field or on a basketball court?  Why do we insist on different Olympic events for women and men?  Why do we allow women’s magazines and men’s magazines?  Why don’t men attend breast-feeding classes and why don’t lingerie boutiques offer codpieces?

    Sorry, but the genders are different in many ways.  Not just psychologically and emotionally but also down-deep physically.  That’s inescapable fact and has nothing to do with fairness.  Female and male brains are even wired differently.  According to a National Academy of Sciences study, confirmed by brain scans, a woman’s brain is configured to be feeling-oriented, while a man’s brain is set up to be action-oriented.  A little thought backs this up.  For uncounted generations the men of most tribes were by tradition the hunters and providers, while the women nurtured and protected the children they bore.  Our brains have evolved exquisitely to reflect and perpetuate this. 
     And do we really wish it were not so?  I like being a guy.  Naomi likes being a gal.
     But we writers had better be aware  of ever-changing politically-correct sentiments at all times in creating our fiction, lest we inadvertently tread on sensitive toes. 
     Nails painted or not.


p.s. 1  Yesterday (3/8) was International Women’s Day.  More power to you, ladies.

p.s. 2  Once in a while an author will attempt to write a story from the opposite gender’s point of view.  Sometimes it works.  Often it doesn't, quite.  As for me, it’s plenty-enough challenge trying to write well from my own gender’s point of view.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Blogging into the void (2)

         As I’ve said, for much of my life I’ve written on speculation.  Cranking out articles, short stories, and in recent years novels, as a sideline to my regular bill-paying day jobs, and sending my work around the circuit hoping some of it would be accepted and even paid for, and much of it eventually has been, even by several top magazines and a traditional book publisher.  But it’s always been an inefficient, time-consuming, and often frustrating process, accumulating vastly more rejections than acceptances.  Yet I’m still at it today.  Still mostly on speculation.

          I began this weekly blog a year ago in the hope of helping a few talented but struggling writers out there, maybe saving them from many of the learning pains I’ve gone through over the decades.  It’s a way to pass on a little of the generous help and advice I’ve received from kind folks over the years.  And of course it’s also a way to promote my writings.

          But once again I’m working on sheer speculation, posting into the great void.

          If you’re enjoying this blog and maybe gleaning a few useful tips on writing from it, would you please take a minute and let others know about it?