Monday, November 27, 2017

Responsible reporting

                  If you don't read the newspaper
                  you are uninformed, if you do
                  read the newspaper you are
                  misinformed. —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.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Long words

     The longest place name in the world has 85 letters.  It begins with T and ends with u.  It’s a mountain in New Zealand, and the romantic Māori translation is, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.”  The second longest is in the UK and has 58 letters.  It begins with Ll and ends with och.  If you look it up I’d suggest not trying to pronounce it because it could tie a knot in your tongue.  The Welsh translation means, “Saint Mary's Church in a hollow of white hazel near the swirling whirlpool of the church of Saint Tysilio with a red cave.”  Reminds me of a Kentucky hillbilly’s driving directions in the dark ages before GPS.

     The third longest place name in the world, and the longest in the United States, with 45 letters and 14 syllables, is owned by a beautiful 1,400-acre lake (actually three lakes joined by narrow channels) in quaint Webster, Massachusetts, not far from where I grew up.  My father taught me how to pronounce it, and I’ve never forgotten.

     It’s Char­gogg­a­gogg­man­chaugg­a­gogg­chau­bun­a­gung­a­maugg.  The meaning is controversial, but many agree that the translation from the Algonquin means, “Fishing Place at the Boundaries—Neutral Meeting Grounds.” It’s located near the intersection of the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island borders, though that was of no concern to the native Nipmuc and Monuhchogok Indians who originally shared it with several other tribes way before white people showed up with too many clothes on and started paving everything.  Nipmuc campfire tales concerning the lake must have taken all night long to tell.

     Folk in the area today refer to it simply, and quite adequately, as Webster Lake (pronounced Webstah in the Eastern Massachusetts dialect). 

     Therein lies an important lesson for all us writers:

     Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.


Monday, November 13, 2017


     They’re important, of course, for attracting reader attention, at least until you become a well-known best-selling author, at which point your name can take up the top third of so of the book cover, with the title relegated to a secondary size and position on the lower part, because it will be your name that sells the book, and not so much the title.

     So, meanwhile, how do you come up with a commanding title?  Think about some of the titles that have struck you over your reading years.  Many good ones ask a question.  A recent one by Gregg Hurwitz that caught my eye was Trust No One.  It poses several questions.  Presumably the title is aimed at a protagonist.  Who and what could he or she be?  Why should the protagonist not trust anybody?  It immediately casts an intriguing shadow.  Fifty Shades of Gray also poses several intriguing questions about character and plot.  Go to any bookstore and browse the shelves.  Look only at the titles.  Which ones catch your eye?  Try to figure out why.

     Analyze some of the famous titles that still endure long after the books were written.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Ship of Fools, East of Eden, Valley of the Dolls, Gone with the Wind, The Old Man and the Sea, The Grapes of Wrath, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Each of these creates its own interesting aura as soon as you see it, and most pose hidden questions.

     I favor strong one-word titles for several reasons.  I think they’re more memorable.  They can be large on the cover to show up well, making the books stand out from their neighbors on bookshelves, and they’re even readable in the smallest online thumbnails.  For a series of novels they create a theme of sorts simply because they are each only one word.  And I like that they also create a clean, strong image that can be enhanced by bold, simple graphics with lots of contrast (I hate it when some cover artist, for example, uses black lettering for a blurb on a dark red background the low contrast rendering it difficult to read; it’s done more often than you’d think, even for name authors).  I think bold one-word titles also look good on advertising and signing table displays.

     I try to make the titles even stronger by using all caps.  The four novels in my series are:  GUNS, DIAMONDBACK, KLLRS, and DEATHSMAN.  All stimulate background questions, as well.

     Of course, Stieg Larsson’s novels or the J.K. Rowling stories have been wildly successful with whole-phrase titles like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

     So titling is at once a highly personal choice and an absolutely critical marketing choice.  The trick is to find one that will stop the typical browsing reader, and that’s worth whatever time it takes to find the perfect one.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Writer hell

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." —Stephen King


I would add that too many adjectives will also make that aforesaid slope even slicker.