Monday, February 29, 2016

An observing exercise

     How good an observer are you?  The skill is critical if you want to be a competent writer.  It can be learned.

     So here’s a quick exercise.

     First, watch this video of two old grain silos being imploded recently in my home town to make way for a development.

     Now watch the video again, pausing it frequently.  At each pause, scrutinize precisely what’s happening.  Where were the charges placed?  How did the silos fall; did they hesitate at any point?  How did the top structures collapse?  Can you spot the point where one of the silos cracked apart as it was falling?  How close were any buildings?  Did you notice the black skirting around the base of the structure?  What was that for?  How long did the demolition take?  How large was the dust cloud and how high did it rise?  What did it sound like?  Take notes.

     Write a brief scene describing exactly how these structures suffered a mortal series of blows and came down.  Don’t use any clich├ęs.  Use only your own fresh descriptions.  Had you been near the scene, you could also describe the smells and the observers’ exclamations.  (I witnessed the demolition from about the same angle as shown in the third video view.  It was impressive.)

     And that’s how you can add believable realism to your writing.

     Start really observing your surroundings wherever you go—seeing in depth and detail, hearing everything, smelling, feeling, touching, filing it all away in your miraculous memory bank.  Make this a constant habit and I guarantee it will help your writing immensely.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Texting neck

     New research suggests that constantly tilting one’s neck downward to text on a smartphone can result in dangerous neck strain. 

     Using computer modeling, surgeon Ken Hansraj found that a head bowed at only a 15-degree angle adds about 27 pounds of pressure to the spine.  When a person looks down at a 60-degree angle, as one would in order to stare at a hand-held phone while texting or surfing, the spine strain increases to an incredible 60 pounds, about the equivalent weight of four bowling balls.  This can cause neck cramps, pinched nerves, herniated discs, and early spinal degeneration.  “Just look around,” Hansraj told “Everyone has their heads down.”

     So texting can be long-term harmful to those of us addicted to cell phones.  (Who these days is not?)

     And we all know texting or phoning or surfing while driving can be short-term lethal.  There are thousands of highway deaths and many thousands more maimings every year as proof.

     But who among us is willing to stop texting and surfing under any circumstances?  Or at least willing to cut down on the most inane messaging?  Even considering the potential cost of our lives if we don’t? 

     Sadly, nobody I know.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Being funny

     The late Robert B. Parker’s highly popular novels were deftly threaded with wry, dry humor.  Since Parker’s death, other writers have attempted to mimic his tales under his name.  One of these authors managed to capture the laconic protagonist Jesse Stone believably, and did a fine job with the New England story setting.  But, sadly, that writer tripped on a banana peel and fell on his nose when he tried to emulate Parker’s humor, and it soured that whole novel for me.

     Good humor is some of the most difficult writing there is.

     For example, here’s an exchange from a recent action novel by a well-known author.  Two men are on a private helicopter heading into lethal danger:

     “Is there any food service on this flight?” Joe asked.
     Pete laughed as Joe complained.

     The first line is at best mildly humorous.  It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny, especially under the circumstances, so when the author says “Pete laughed,” it’s not only improbable but also the author is in effect saying to you, the reader, “I’ve just written something funny here, and you’re supposed to laugh along with Pete.”  Incidental problems are that we can see the first line is a question, and don’t need to be told as much.  Also, we don’t need to be told that Joe is fake-complaining.  We’re smart enough to figure that out.

     Compare the above little mess with a few lines from Robert Parker himself.  Sheriff Jesse Stone is speaking with his deputy, Suitcase Simpson, after the deputy has made a wise logical observation:

     “Suit,” he said.  “You may make detective someday.”
     “We don’t have any detective ranks,” Simpson said.
     “Well,” Jesse said.  “If we did.”

     Here’s another example, from the prolific John Sanford.  Detective Lucas Davenport, who has been saddled by his bosses with serving on an ultra-liberal commission to root out every last vestige of discrimination, in any of its myriad forms, from the police department, is talking to his subordinates Sherrill and Sloan about approaching a witness.  He addresses Marcy Sherrill:

     “So I’ll let you warm her up when we get there,” Lucas said. “Woman talk, bonding, chitchat, that kind of stuff.”
     “Sexism,” Sloan said, shaking his head, “And from a member of the Difference Commission.”
     Lucas’s hand went to his forehead: “Ah, Jesus, I forgot.  There’s a meeting tonight.”
     They looked at him with sympathy, and Sherrill patted his shoulder.  “It could be worse,” she said.
     “I don’t know.  You could be shot.”
     “He’s been shot,” Sloan said.  “It’d have to be lot worse than that.”

     The humor in these examples is warm, subtle, and grin-stimulating.  Done with the merest of touches.

     If you can’t write humor, don’t.

     But if you’re still compelled to write humor, first really study a few of the masters such as Robert Parker or Janet Evanovich, then do so with subtlety, a light touch, and respect for your readers, trying your best to emulate the masters.


Monday, February 1, 2016

About Time

     What time is it?

     Turns out that depends on many things.

     Military people count time quite sensibly, as minutes and seconds within 24 of our hours.  
For them, 2:20 in the afternoon is simply 1420.  The rest of us are often unsure whether someone means before or after noon when they suggest a time to rendezvous for romance.  And time is always different for all the zones around the globe, of course.  It must be confusing for those poor folks near a time zone border who live on one side and work on the other.  They could get to work at a time before they left home, for example. 

     We divide our year arbitrarily into 12 months, but what is a year?  For us, it’s one trip around our star, or about 365 days, and a day, of course, is one earth rotation.  But on Mars a year is 687 of our days, and a single day on Venus is 243 of our days, but a day on Jupiter is only 10 of our hours.  A year on Uranus lasts over 84 of our years, on Pluto it’s 165 of our years.  Nobody on Earth can live so much as a single Pluto year even if they drink veggie smoothies and don’t watch politicians debate.

     It takes our star about two minutes to rise and clear the horizon; in other words it appears to move its own diameter in 2.13 of our minutes.  But on Mars sunrise takes 1.44 of our minutes, on Mercury it’s 16.13 of our hours, while for a maximum type-A Neptunian, it’s but 2.85 Earth-seconds.  Yet of course the sun is not really moving at all in relation to any of us.

     All this was hard enough to sort out, but then along came that electric-haired Einstein who, one of our centuries ago, told us in his relativity theory—long since now a proven fact—that time is not a constant and is really quite unreliable because it moves slower under increasing gravity or under increasing speed.  Near the speed of light (186,000 miles in a single one of our Earth-seconds) time nearly brakes to a relative stop.  This means that time moves a little slower for somebody standing at our equator, zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour as the earth rotates, than for somebody standing on the north pole, who is only turning around in place as the earth rotates (you’d think they’d get dizzy), but astronauts on the ISS are in an even slower relative time frame because they’re doing 17,150 mph to keep from falling onto Disney World or New Jersey.  But wait just an Earth-minute, they’re in zero gravity so they also experience a faster time factor.  Luckily, all their time variations don’t work out to zero or they’d never get anything done.  They’re already wasting enough of whatever their time frame is playing with their weightless food and beverages.

     On some huge dervishing distant planet, a hundred of our years unfold while only a single minute elapses for us.  Wow.  Imagine how THOSE poor creatures would feel waiting in line at the DMV. 

     And consider the geniuses who figured out how to make the GPS system work.  The satellites are speeding so their time slows down by our Earth-based reckoning.  They’re in elliptical orbits so their distances from earth and their speeds are constantly varying too, so . . .  Anyway, those clever GPS math wizards had to accommodate half a dozen different time-shifting gremlins just so you can find your way to the World’s Biggest Gator attraction somewhere in Florida before you run out of ethanoled gas.

     The next, ah, time somebody asks you the time, it’s okay if you tell them you honestly don’t know and nobody else in the universe does either.