Monday, January 30, 2017

Rigorous revising

     Somebody said it’s not so much the writing but the re-writing that can make a great book.

     I’ve always considered each task unique.  First I have to get the whole raw story down from beginning to end.  That’s Job One.  Then I flip a brain switch and go into re-write, revise, and polish mode.  Job Two.  Culling out unnecessary adverbs (as most adverbs are) and even trashing some adjectives, restructuring sentences for clarity, tightening up, stomping out typos, spackling holes, painting and wallpapering and furnishing and tidying up the whole story as best I can.

     It’s an almost endless process.  Each time I read through a manuscript I find something else needing attention.  I only know I’m nearing the end of the job when I change a word or phrase and then change it right back.

     It can be fun.  Like detailing your car, or dressing up in your best outfit.  But it can also be a difficult process because having poured your soul into the writing, you’ve lost a great deal of objectivity.  So a good tip is to let the raw manuscript cool off for a month before tackling revisions, at which time you will hopefully have regained a modicum of objectivity.

     When I was in the graphics business I learned early on that you can never proofread too much, and having a really competent proofreader on the production team is invaluable.  You don’t want to send an order for ten thousand color brochures for a client to the print shop with any possibility there’s a typo lurking therein, because if there is one, you have to eat the reprint costs to keep that client happy.  You can’t afford to do much of that and stay in business.

     Thank goodness my proofreader is Naomi.  She’s ruthless and absolutely thorough, with an utter disregard for my sensitive feelings.

     Which is exactly what I need.

     If you’re a struggling writer, I hope you have the indispensable asset of a good proofreader and editor on your team.


Monday, January 23, 2017

          Some time back, I was reading a novel by a prominent best seller when I came across a passage wherein the protagonist, supposedly a person with firearms experience, called a shotgun a rifle.  I stopped reading the story right there.
          If we’re going to write mysteries or thrillers or crime novels, we’re sooner or later going to involve firearms, so it behooves us to know a little about them.  The best way to do this is to spend a few hours at a local range, where you can actually fire guns at targets, inspect various weapons, and ask questions.
          But if you don’t have the time for that, here’s a basic lesson.  It’s a good bit to take in, so pay attention:
          A shotgun is a smooth-bore long gun capable of firing a shell containing pellets ranging from numerous lead flakes (bird shot) to a number of lead balls (buckshot).  The flakes or pellets exit the muzzle and disperse in a spray pattern, which pattern is controlled somewhat by the choke, or degree of diameter reduction toward the end portion of the barrel.  A full choke tends to confine the spray pattern so the charge is effective over a longer range, whereas a modified choke, for example, allows the charge to disperse sooner, at shorter range for more coverage.  Accurate aiming of a shotgun is not required because a target can be anywhere within the spray pattern and still get hit with at least a few pellets. 
          A rifle, on the other hand, has helical grooves and lands that have been machined into the bore in order to impart a spin to the bullet, thus increasing accuracy.  By the way, there is virtually no difference between the lethal power of an assault rifle round and many ordinary deer rifle rounds, despite the overwhelming bad press the assault rifle has received.  In fact, many game rifles have far better accuracy over a longer range than assault rifles do, so a deer rifle, especially with a telescopic sight mounted on it, can be a much more effective weapon than an assault rifle.
          Long guns (both shotguns and rifles) may be operated semi-automatically, that is, producing a discharge with every pull of the trigger.  Or a mechanism like a lever, a bolt, or a pump may be used to bring a new round into firing position before every trigger pull.  Fully automatic guns of any design, which produce a rapid succession of discharges as long as the trigger is held back (as a machine gun does), have for many years been illegal to possess anywhere in America, and violation of that federal law carries a severe penalty.  The fastest-firing guns of any type that are legal (including assault rifles) require one trigger pull for every round fired.
          There are two basic types of hand guns: revolvers and semi-automatics.
          A revolver holds five or six rounds in a cylindrical cluster, rotating a new round into firing position on each trigger pull (or when the hammer is thumbed back).  This type of gun is famously used in western movies.  There is no safety.  You simply aim the gun and pull the trigger.  It is impossible to effectively suppress the sound because gases, and thus noise, can escape between the end of the cylinder and the beginning of the barrel.
          A semi-automatic pistol (often erroneously called an automatic) carries a number of rounds, from as few as seven to a dozen or more, in a magazine that is commonly contained in the gun’s grip.  The gun almost always has at least one safety mechanism and can be effectively sound-suppressed (the long tube that you see Bruce Willis screwing onto the muzzle is not really a silencer; it’s more accurately called a suppressor).
          The thingy you load into a cylinder or a magazine is not a bullet.  It is a cartridge, which consists of a casing (usually brass) containing the primer, the powdered propellant, and the bullet.  In a revolver, the empty casing  is retained in the cylinder after firing (therefore it won’t normally be left behind as evidence), whereas the casing is always ejected from a semi-automatic (or from a rifle) and could be flung some distance from the gun in the process.  Bullets are usually made of lead and come in many varieties, solid-nosed or hollow-nosed, nylon clad, Teflon coated, and so on.
          The caliber of a cartridge tells you its bullet diameter.  In other words, a .38 caliber cartridge has a bullet with a diameter of .38 inch, or about three-eighths of an inch.  A fifty-caliber round is one-half inch in diameter.
          You got all that? 
          With ready access to the Web, there’s never any excuse for not getting technical details right.  Fiction is a fragile construction, and all it takes is a single glaring error to crumble it all to dust for the reader, as happened for me when that best-selling author carelessly called a shotgun a rifle.


Monday, January 16, 2017

The state of our media
The following correction was run in the prestigious New York Times, concerning an article the paper had run about the passing of legendary pilot Bob Hoover: 

 “An obituary on Wednesday about the pilot Bob Hoover referred incorrectly to his escape from a prisoner of war camp in the final days of World War II. While he escaped from the camp with a friend, only Mr. Hoover then flew a German aircraft to freedom; his friend was not with him on the plane. The obituary also misstated the name of the Ohio airfield, now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where Mr. Hoover was based after the war. It was Wright Field, not Wilbur Wright Field. In addition, the obituary misidentified the Bell Aircraft X-1, which Mr. Hoover trained to fly. It was a rocket plane, not a jet. The obituary also misidentified the company with which North American Aviation, for which Mr. Hoover worked as a test pilot, merged. It was Rockwell-Standard, not Rockwell International. And the obituary referred incorrectly to the P-51 fighter. It was a propeller plane, not a jet, and Mr. Hoover did not test it at Wright Field. In addition, a picture caption with the obituary misidentified the plane shown with Mr. Hoover. It is an F-100D Super Sabre, not an F-86 Sabre. And because of an editing error, the byline for the obituary misstated the surname of the reporter in some copies. He is Craig H. Mellow, not Bellow.”

That’s way too many mistakes in one brief article published nationally.  Sadly, such inept reporting in papers and on TV is not at all uncommon these days, even from large once-respected news media.


p.s. I was fortunate to witness Bob Hoover performing at a Dayton air show.  He was stunning.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Creating creativity

Where does creativity come from?

If it were possible to bottle it or press it into pills or entube it as a topical ointment, a person could quickly become richer than that Gates couple.

It’s often associated with mythical mists or muses, or angelic whispers in one’s ear, or superlative IQ, or an Ivy League education, or some divine gift twisted into a lucky person’s DNA.  I don’t think it’s any of those things.

Creativity, I believe, draws on a sort of savings account.  And the more a person has managed to squirrel away in that account, the more creative she or he can be.

But the account is not in a vault.  It resides in the convolutions of the mind.

A person who has studied—really studied—a molten sunset, or the way twilight burnishes a loved one’s skin, or the perfect play of muscles in a galloping horse, or a roiling summer thunderhead, or the changing veils of droplets in a waterfall, or a glassy backlit ocean wave, or an overheard happy or contentious conversation, and who has stored such knowledge away in that brain bank, has a wealth of material to apply to creative constructions of all kinds, from art to sculpture to crafts to writing.  Only through careful scrutiny can an artist or photographer begin to capture the subtle play of light and shadow and myriad combinations of hues that will have the power to deeply touch others of our species.  Only through listening to others and studying their behaviors can a writer hope to reproduce the panoply of human emotions faithfully, and thus command the widest possible audience.

A high, sad percentage of humanity idles along only peripherally aware of surroundings, assimilating only a fraction of the beauty, mystery, and majesty of life and nature that abounds all around us on our planet. 

Those relative few who do experience life to its fullest through habitual in-depth observation of everything around them are the richest by far.  And the most creative.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”—Confucius

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”—Yogi Berra


Monday, January 2, 2017

Six things that are bad for us

1.  Booze is now second only to tobacco on the deadliest drugs list, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Between 2002 and 2014 alcohol-related deaths have surged 37 percent.  Alcohol has been linked to at least seven forms of cancer.

2.  Opiods like morphine, oxycodone, and methadone, used as supposed pain killers, may actually increase patients’ sensitivity to pain over the long term, according to a University of Colorado study.

3.  Marijuana may take a long-term toll on mental health, particularly damaging learning and memory, and reducing blood flow to almost all parts of the brain, according to researchers.

4.  With the prolific use of cell phones, distracted driving is killing thousands every year.  And now public health experts attribute some ten percent of all pedestrian injuries to distracted walking.  You may want to just hang up and walk.

5.  Insomnia, which has a variety of causes, such as too much self-imposed stress in work or home life, adversely affects learning, memory, and emotion, according to a Chinese study.

6.  Trampolines are damned dangerous, period.  They were responsible for 7,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. in 2014 alone. 

But, wait a minute.  Haven’t we really known this stuff all along?  Logically?  Intuitively?  Why do we seem to always need more studies to illustrate the obvious?