Monday, December 30, 2019

A new decade dawns

    The first of January marks the beginning of not only a new year but also of a new decade, the two thousand and twenties. It’s a month named for the Roman God Janus, protector of portals, who had two faces, one looking into the past, the other into the unknowable future.

    It’s a time for renewals and resolutions and the making of fresh bright plans. Like Janus, the pundits are recounting, lamenting, and celebrating happenings of the old year and predicting what’s to come. Some will get a few things right. Many will not. There will be pleasant surprises and satisfactions ahead and severe disappointments and sad tragedies both natural and human-caused.

    Because this ought not to be a time of cynicism, I’m making my own hopeful predictions for what will happen reasonably soon:

    Federal legislators will address the epidemic of distracted driving mayhem, passing effective laws that stop cell phoning while driving, thus saving some 5,000 American lives annually and avoiding thousands more highway injuries. Technically, this will be accomplished by using the built-in GPS chips to disable phone use while moving more than 20 miles per hour. People will realize the wisdom of this and simply pull over to make or receive important calls and will just put off all those unnecessary inane ones, none of which are worth dying for.

    Blind partisan adherence to one entrenched camp or the other regarding issues like abortion and global warming and immigration and health care will fall away in favor of unarguable truths based on hard provable facts, and the American populace will come together in search of real solutions.

    World leaders will at long last realize the folly, horrendous expense, and needless tragic deaths and suffering caused by distrust, religious division, historical differences, and out-of-control militarism, and our planet will begin to know real peace in which human imagination, compassion, and understanding will flourish.

    We will save our young people from lives of ignorance and drug use and crime and despair.

    We will unite to halt the decline and ongoing extinctions of wild creatures for which, like us, Earth is their only home in the vastness of the Universe.

    We will solve all these problems and issues and more because we know there are ways to address or prevent almost any challenge we face, as we’ve proven to ourselves so many times in our long successful evolution.

    Each of us will resolve to do and be better and contribute what we can to our species, thus inevitably reaping a windfall of incidental benefits ourselves.

    I wish you a happy New Year and New Decade.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Seasonal memories

   I grew up in the Berkshires village of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where spring is fragrant and verdant as the ground thaws, summer is balmy, fall is spectacular with the trees putting on their brief annual display, and winter is harsh but also filled with a cold beauty. I remember snowfalls haloing the streetlights and covering the countryside in softness and stillness. Sometimes a freezing rain would crust the snow thick enough to cautiously walk on and speed our improvised cardboard sliders down hillsides.
   My father was a deacon in the golden-domed Congregational Church that still dominates the village center, and my mother taught Sunday school to the kids there, often using a changeable felt board with homemade multicolored cutouts for illustrations. Mom baked for the Wednesday evening church suppers that were some of the finest meals I’ve ever had, because all the women brought only their best recipes for casseroles and salads and meatloaf and cakes and pies. After each convivial feast there would be entertainment—a world-traveling adventurer presenting a 35mm slide show of exotic places, or a magician, or a black-and-white comedy movie.

   When we knew there was going to be a full moon to bathe the brilliant snow and make the blue night clear as twilight, we’d spend a Saturday afternoon shoveling off a frozen pond deep in the woodswhich bore here and there the tracks of woodland creaturesclearing a place up on a bank amid the laden evergreens, and setting a bonfire with downed wood gathered from the surrounding forest. That night we’d hike through the snow back to the pond, light the fire, and skate as the moon and stars swung overhead, taking breaks to drink hot cocoa from thermoses. We’d drizzle maple syrup onto the snow to turn it into a chewy candy that fueled us with carbs against the chill.

   As Christmas drew near, volunteers would go out to village home yards and sing carols, their breath pluming the night air. Church members would drape the sanctuary balcony with garlands of aromatic balsam. On Christmas eve we’d attend the candlelight service and sing the old carols. On Christmas morning Mom would insist we attend services before returning home to share the tree and then enjoy her special dinner.

   I hope you, too, have good memories of seasonal holidays past, and I wish you memory-making celebrations as 2019 draws to a close.

   Have an exciting and rewarding New Year. Please join me here on occasion for more thoughts on life and writing.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Good Grief America

Naomi and I were watching "Good Morning America" the other day when one of the multi-million-dollar talking heads said in all his studied sincerity, "The teenage pilot was flying this ultralight above a lake when one of its propellers stopped moving." The screen was clearly showing the single-engine ultralight in flight. This is equivalent to reporting that "the accident happened as the driver was travelling on the Interstate and one of his steering wheels stopped moving." I'm glad that in my piloting years none of the propellers on my single-engine Cessna ever once mysteriously stopped moving. 

Our schools for some sad years now have been failing to educate the mass of people on even the simplest levels in an attempt to never leave even the slowest student behind, embracing brilliant ideas such as open book testing and question-by-question pre-coaching so a high majority will pass achievement exams and the schools will thus look competent. Consequences of this trend have recently surfaced in the news as arrogant, affluent parents have been caught bribing officials to wedge their over-privileged, under-educated, and lazy offspring into prestigious colleges. 

So I guess we should not be surprised to be burdened with a couple generations of idiots in even high well-paid places.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Kitty O’Neil

     In 1976, on pure speculation and little cash, I drove a tin-can Fiat from North Carolina to Bonneville, Utah, to cover attempts on the Word Land Speed Record in a hydrogen peroxide powered three-wheeled rocket vehicle on the vast salt flats, one for the men’s record, the other for the women’s. The drivers were Hollywood stunt man Hal Needham and beautiful part-Cherokee stunt woman Kitty O’Neil, who had been deaf since stricken by three childhood diseases at once. Kitty had already been an Olympic diver, had become the first woman member of Stunts Unlimited, providing stunts on demand to film makers, and had raced motorcycles in the grueling Baja 500. At only five feet two inches and 100 pounds she was small but nonetheless impressive with an infectious radiant smile. I interviewed and photographed her and sold my article to The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest reprinted it.

     Kitty battered down many barriers, overcoming cancer and meningitis. Consider her deafness alone; imagine never hearing another human voice, or music, or a breeze teasing through pine trees, or a rain shower, or a competitor’s racing motorcycle coming up on her from behind, or even her own voice. To converse she read lips and spoke in a monotone.

     She performed many daunting stunts, including a record 180-foot fall from a helicopter. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she leaped in a swan diver’s pose from the top of the Valley Hilton Hotel in Sherman Oaks, California, onto an air bag 127 feet below, the bag looking like a postage stamp from that height. She did stunts in Airport 77, The Blues Brothers, The Bionic Woman, and Smokey and the Bandit. She set 22 speed records on land and water, including water skiing at 104.85 mph, the water like concrete at that velocity. She drove the rocket car on dry lake Alvord in Oregon at an average two-way speed of 512.71 mph, hitting at one point 621 mph. No woman before or since has gone faster. Mattel put out an action figure of her and actress Stockard Channing played her in a movie called Silent Victory.

     She died at 72 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, in late 2018. I was privileged to have met her.

     It is no coincidence that the independent, beautiful, part-Cherokee, motorcycle-riding love interest in my suspense novel series is named Kitty.


Monday, December 2, 2019

A Miracle becomes a Nightmare

     When I was growing up our black dial three-party-line telephone was the major thing I remember that was molded of plastic. It was a substance called Bakelite, a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin invented by Leo Bakeland. Lots of other uses caught on. Buttons, billiard balls, lamps, chess sets, poker chips. Highly flammable celluloid had also been around for some years, used to make things from jewelry to handles for straight razors to thousands of miles of movie film.

     It was early days in the making of our Plastic Planet.

     In my lifetime I’ve seen these miraculous synthetic materials come to be used in every aspect of our lives—even to enhance and extend our lives with plastic contact lenses and lens implants and safety glasses and hard hats and helmets and pacemakers and medicinal syringes and IV bags and implantable artificial joints and prosthetics and medical equipment. Thousands of beneficial products.

     But there is an ever-looming and much larger dark side to our Plastic Planet. In 2020 people around the Earth will buy a million plastic beverage bottles a minute, buy 24 billion plastic-containing pairs of footwear, discard a billion plastic toothbrushes and three trillion plastic cigarette filters and miles of plastic food wrap and millions of other plastic objects after only brief one-time use. Plastic items are easy to throw away—the roadsides everywhere are evidence of that—but the problem is they don’t go away. Tedious, complicated, and expensive recycling is only making an insignificant dent in the problem.

     It’s fast becoming a nightmare, choking our waterways and oceans and landfills, killing fish, bits of it even lodging in our bodies. Creating an ugly landscape of lingering litter everywhere.

     There are things we all could be doing to at least reduce the problem. Carry reusable beverage bottles and cutlery, buy degradable bamboo toothbrushes, donate rather than discard old shoes, store leftovers in glass containers, request paper grocery bags, carry fabric shopping bags, don’t use plastic straws, buy fresh foods not wrapped in plastic. Don’t litter; recycle instead.

     For the sake of our only planet—our only home—we need to do these things and more and teach our kids as well.


A reminder: My new novel Killing Ground is available in print or e-book on Amazon. There's an easy buy link on  Check it out. Maybe a Christmas gift for a reader you know?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Where’s the Net?

   It reaches around our planet, but where could you go to find the Internet’s source?

   Turns out it’s in many places.  There are 3,900 co-location data center sites, about half in the U.S., that host multiple websites and connect billions of people.  Thirteen big Google data centers scattered around the globe (seven of them in the U.S.) store our search histories.  Four vast Facebook centers (three in the U.S. and one in Scandinavia) are constantly a-buzz with inane conversations and selfies.  Twelve independent companies run all of the world’s root name servers (many of which translate domain names into IP addresses), and a lacy network of some 329 major undersea cables stretching thousands of miles transmits 99 percent of the world’s data between continents.  And of course the Net is also circling out there in space and sizzling between cell towers and humming in the air all around us wirelessly.

   Maybe someday they’ll implant a chip in each newborn so everybody will be connected all the time.  To watch people, especially young people, and their near-constant attention (not to say addiction) to their cell phones and tablets and laptops now, maybe that day has almost arrived.

p.s. My new novel Killing Ground is live on Amazon in print and e-book. The story is set in Africa against a background of elephant poaching that is still decimating the once great herds across that vast and troubled continent. There's an easy buy button on Please have a look and maybe pass the word on to your social media friends.   

Monday, November 18, 2019


     When I first began selling my debut novel in stores, I couldn’t believe anyone would want my autograph, and I still can’t quite believe it five books later.

     A few famous autographs and what they’ve sold for:

The last autograph John Kennedy signed, on a Dallas newspaper copy.   $39,000.
A Jesse James signed photo.   $52,000
An Albert Einstein signed photo.   $75,000 in ‘09
A baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.   $191,200 in ‘06
A baseball signed by Babe Ruth.   $388,375
A signed John Lennon/Yoko LP, owned by John’s murderer.   Perversely, $525,000
Lincoln’s signed Emancipation Proclamation.   $3.7 million
George Washington’s signed Acts of Congress.   $9.8 million

     Before Neil Armstrong blasted off for the moon in July, 1969, he and crew mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins wanted life insurance, but it was way too expensive, considering their uniquely risky occupation, so they autographed hundreds of commemorative envelopes their families could sell if they didn’t make it back.  The envelopes have become collectibles, and one sold in 2013 for $50,788.

     So buy any one of my suspense novels, available on Amazon and also easily through my website.  And some day . . . who knows what it might be worth?

     By the way, my NEW stand-alone novel Killing Ground is live on Amazon in both e-book and print versions. Check it out on my website.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Flying Facts

    Flying has become so commonplace that we take it almost entirely for granted. There are now 100,000 commercial flights a day around the planet, and at any given time there are a million people in the air. In ten days that’s a million flights. Not incidentally, all these flights, of course, are constantly spewing a prodigious tonnage of exhaust into our thin and fragile atmosphere along with a billion terrestrial vehicles, an unprecedented fact noted by more than a few scientists trying to warn us of inexorable global warming.

   The daily consumption of aviation fuel, in fact, is staggering. So much that tanker truck transport from refineries to major airports is far too costly and impractical, so pipelines do the job. Raleigh Durham Airport 100 miles inland from my home is served by the same jet fuel pipeline that supplies Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which handles 275,000 passengers a day on 1,000 flights using their five runways. It’s the biggest airport in the world, serving every major carrier and a flock of minor ones. The terminal buildings alone cover 156 acres in seven concourses housing a total of 192 gates and 263 concessions--restaurants and snack shops and retail outlets. The speedy underground train that connects the concourses whisks 200,000 people daily. There are 30,000 public parking spaces. The rental car complex covers 68 acres and the cargo warehouses take up another 30 acres. Baggage handling is extremely complex, of course; it’s a miracle they can handle it all so efficiently and reliably. It takes 63,000 people to keep this one vast airport pulsing, not including pilots and crews.

     Facts concerning the flights themselves are equally interesting. In an airliner on the takeoff roll you're doing at least 160 mph before the wheels leave the ground. Most flights cruise at five or six miles high where the temperature six inches from your nose in a window seat is often 50 F below zero and you're doing 500 to 600 miles per hour or about 80 percent of the speed of sound. (In the year I was born airline companies boasted of astonishing speeds up to 200 mph.) Most of the background noise you're hearing in flight is not the engines but is simple wind rush past the fuselage and wings and control surfaces. At cruise the cabins are pressurized but not to a full atmosphere. That’s to extend the life of the fuselage by cutting down on the considerable expansive force of each pressurization, and it's a reason many people go to sleep during a flight.

   Flying is statistically quite safe, of course. Yet the occasional crash that kills a few hundred people gets wide notoriety, while some 40,000 annual motor vehicle deaths and 4.5 million injuries in America alone get little media notice at all; we simply tolerate it. In 18 months, more people die on American highways than died in a decade of Vietnam, yet there is no memorial to them. Some 5,000 people are dying on our roads every year now because of cell phone use alone, yet nobody seems to give a damn. There are no protests, no interminable congressional debates, no outraged articles in the The New Yorker. At the recent North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh the state police had a BMW on display that was almost crushed into a ball in a 60-mph collision that killed a 17-year-old girl who was on her cell at the time. People shook their heads at the gruesome sight but I'm betting most forgot it before the day was done and many used their cells on their drives home.

     So, buying an airline ticket--despite the minor TSA hassle and the contribution to global air pollution--rather than slogging to your distant destination through the high-stress mayhem on our highways, is often well worth the cost. It might even save your life.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Brutal Barbs

     It’s always interesting reading those few grumpy one-star Net comments on products and services, and those emotional discussions on every news issue or announcement, which often degenerate into the crudest kinds of name calling and vicious put-downs.

     We’ve always had put-downs, of course, but in those much-lauded good old days they were more civilized, more intelligent and clever.  Classier.

     A few examples:

     From Beethoven after listening to a rival improvising on the piano for a half hour: “Will it be long before you begin?”

     Theodore Roosevelt about President McKinley after he refused to declare war on Spain:  “No more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

     Abraham Lincoln on the ideas of his political opponent Stephen Douglas:  “As thin as the soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.”

     H.G. Wells on a literary work by Henry James:  “A magnificent but painful hippopotamus.”

     Winston Churchill on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after he supposedly convinced Hitler to leave England alone in exchange for Britain’s noninterference:  “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

     Winston again on Clement Atlee:  “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

     Prince on a rival’s new album:  “Michael Jackson’s album was called ‘Bad’ because there wasn’t enough room on the jacket for Pathetic.”

     But my favorite is one from radio and TV host Arthur Smith to a rude heckler.  I think it can be applied equally well to most of those mean-spirited losers out there who cruise the Net giving one-star reviews to everything they come across:  “Sorry, I can’t hear what you’re saying.  I’m wearing a moron filter.”


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Downside Up

     All my life, I’ve thought of northward on a map as ‘Up,’ southward as ‘Down,’ and eastward or westward as ‘Over.’  Living in New England, we would drive ‘up’ to Canada for a summer vacation or ‘down’ to Florida for a mid-winter warmup, or ‘over’ to New York State to visit my uncle and his family.  I would look ‘down’ at my feet to see if my sneakers were tied or ‘up’ into the night sky to marvel at the familiar constellation Orion.  Everybody else I knew seemed to observe the same orientations.

     Then a few years ago I went way ‘down’ to Chile in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night sky from a barren mountaintop high in the Atacama Desert, where it has not rained in decades and the atmosphere is not only free of moisture but also free of both air and light pollution.  Severe clear.

     The night sky was spellbinding in its majesty.  Impossible to adequately describe.  Venus was casting my shadow onto the ground, I could see the Andromeda galaxy with my naked eyes, and the legendary Pleiades, those ancient beautiful seven sisters, were dazzling and nested in a bed of diamond-like lesser stars I’d never even known were there.

     But the constellation Orion was upside-down.  A few other constellations that I’d been able to see from the Northern Hemisphere and that I could still see from the Southern Hemisphere were also upside-down.  What?  I had to make a sketch on a pocket pad to figure out why.  For the first time I realized there really is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘over.’  Those are all merely arbitrary concepts.  Weightless astronauts learn this lesson quickly on arrival at the International Space Station.  At any distance from our home planet, there is no longer any ‘up’ or ‘down.’  Even on the surface of our planet, if I look ‘down’ at my sneakers and then wait twelve hours, or half an earth revolution, I’m actually positioned on my head from where I was twelve hours earlier, looking ‘up’ at my sneakers.

     It was a disconcerting lesson in orientational prejudice.  The good people in Chile have every right to say they’ll go ‘up’ to Antarctica for penguin-watching or ‘down’ to Maine for photographing moose if they wish, and I have no right to fault them for it.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Crimes against graphics

     Authors often invest nearly superhuman effort—thousands of laborious hours over many months or even years—in creating fine books worthy of publication and significant readership.

     But in all too many cases those efforts are sadly thwarted by hasty, half-hearted, or just plain incompetent graphic cover artists, who in most cases I suspect have not even read the first paragraphs of the books they’re tasked to work on for a mere few hours.

     There are many ways a fine book can be cloaked in graphics rags that are sure to relegate it to obscurity.  I’ve served as an awards judge for two excellent writers’ organizations and have studied book covers in stores for years, and I think I’ve seen them all.  Dark red lettering on a black background is a frequent way to render cover copy unreadable.  A background photo that was never interesting to begin with and has no relevance to the subject matter or setting of the book is another unsubtle way to turn off readers as they scan the shelves; a novel set in the dead-flat country of eastern NC featured a dull cover shot of mountains, for one bad example.

      Whimsical graphic experiments that look like something created during a workshop/vaping session at a convention of abstractionists can also doom books quickly; a recent cover had the one-word title broken up into syllables and scattered, so it required some study to figure out, and the author’s name, in dark gray over slightly darker gray, was utterly lost at any distance over two feet away.  Selecting tiny font sizes on covers and for the inside text is a just-plain-mean way of convincing readers to shun a book.  Murky low-contrast nonsensical collages that turn to mud when reduced to the thumbnail sizes often used to advertise books in magazine ads and online is a clever way to test the vision, and the patience, of book browsers.  Why publishers allow, or even seem to embrace, such criminal graphics is a mystery.

     There are fads and trends in cover design that come and go, some good and some not so good.  There’s one current industry-wide trend I like.  Almost every hardcover dust jacket is done with an overall finish of matte varnish, which provides a good grip and a nice rich feel for the reader.  Using spot high-gloss varnish on these covers, such as for the title and author name and a selected graphic element, provides pleasing, attention-grabbing contrast. 

     And of course there are the superb covers that complement and even augment their books’ contents and make these relatively few volumes stand out amid all the intense competition in any bookstore.  Those graphics wizards are to be commended.  The covers and interior layouts are indeed works of art done by thoughtful, caring people with real talent.  The authors lucky enough to benefit are deeply grateful, I’m sure.  Invariably, such covers adorn books that the rest of us writers would do well to emulate. Just as these covers themselves ought to be studied and emulated by some of the lesser graphics practitioners out there.


Friday, January 25, 2019

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


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The New Killer Addiction

   It’s epidemic.  All over the planet.  And there doesn’t appear to be a cure.

  People, especially young people, are increasingly no longer involved in the real world around them but are almost constantly engrossed in the shallow artificiality that is flipping past their emotionless zombie gazes on their smartphones and tablets.  Take a short break from your own cell and look around in any public park, at the beach, on school campuses, in airline terminals, on buses and in airplanes.  Nearly everyone is immersed in Phoneworld.  You see couples on the street far more engaged with their phones than with each other.  People ostensibly go out for a group dinner, then rudely ignore each other so they can receive messages and feverishly thumb texts off into the ether.  Tourists standing before nature’s splendors take endless phone shots and selfies rather than indulge in old-fashioned experiencing and enjoying.

   The addiction all too often has gruesome and deadly consequences.  Driving while texting and talking on cellphones is killing 5,000 people a year and injuring thousands more across our nation alone.  Even distracted walking with resultant injuries is becoming a threat, with people bumping into each other on busy sidewalks or stepping out into traffic.

   A recent Baylor University study of college students, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, found that women spend an average of ten hours daily on their cellphones, while men spend an average of eight hours.  Subtract sleep time and that doesn’t leave many hours for reality.  Sixty percent of all students queried admitted they may have Screen Addiction. 

   Nobody seems to know what to do about it. 

  There are increasing pressures that deepen the addiction through thousands upon thousands of apps.  A Hilton app lets you use your phone as a room key.  Restaurants and supermarkets and stores are encouraging you to use your phone as an ordering and checkout tool, allowing them to operate with fewer employees.  Theme parks have navigational and ride-wait-time apps that speed customer flow.  There are gadgets that tether your phone to you so you seldom even have to put it down or into a pocket or purse. 

   And all the while robotic web crawlers, lurking invisibly and silently behind our billions of screens, are at work for vast data centers like Facebook and Google and Amazon, tirelessly watching and listening and gathering and storing away data on every addict, from our educational and employment and medical and political and social histories to our dining and entertainment preferences to our brands of underwear.

   Is this an early sign of artificial intelligence (AI) creeping into our lives, eventually to seek more control over us than it obviously already has?  Robots are not only building our vehicles but are also taking over driving them.  Computers are piloting and landing planes and controlling our habitats and talking cordially with us and even generating news reports. 

   We lost one of our great minds recently.  Before he left us, Stephen Hawking warned humankind about the insidious encroachment of AI.  So far, there’s no evidence I can see that anyone has listened to him.

   We’re all too mesmerized by—and intimately occupied with—our wonderful cellphones.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Three tips for writing well

1.  Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Though slender, it’s the finest book I’ve ever seen on using the language accurately and effectively.  The book will give you most of the basic mechanics you’ll need as a solid foundation to succeed.  If you’re already producing publishable work, go back and re-read this book anyway.

2.  Read 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias.  It’s one of the better books I’ve come across about structuring fiction (and even good non-fiction).  On Writing by Stephen King is another worthwhile book.

3.  Shun adverbs (those words ending in ly) and don’t use too many adjectives.  An adverb is a lazy “tell” word, and you should always be showing the story to the reader.  Show a character to be excited, for example (instead of saying “she exclaimed excitedly”), maybe by her nervous mannerisms or by her flushed complexion.  On a related note I never use the lazy exclamation point, and many top writers don’t, either.  It’s nothing more than a punctuational adverb.  If your words are not powerful enough in themselves to convey your meaning, an exclamation point isn’t going to save the situation.


Are you sitting still?

   You may think you are, but you’re not.  You never can be.

   As the earth turns, a person standing on the surface at the equator is zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour toward the east.  (Do the math: a point at the equator has 24 hours to get all the way around to the same place, so 25,000 miles, which is the circumference of the earth, divided by 24 hours = 1,100 mph)  Depending where you are on earth you could be moving at up to this speed.  This is the biggest reason why we launch rockets toward the east; they’re getting a nice free boost in that direction just sitting there on the launch pad.  (Naomi and I are headed for FL today, by the way, to witness a 3 December launch.)

   And the earth takes 365 days to complete one orbit around the sun, which is 94 million miles away from us.  (Do the math: our orbit circumference is 2 x pi x 94 million = 590,619,418.9 miles, divided by 365 days = 1,618,135 miles that the earth speeds along its orbit per day, or 67,422.3 mph on average.

   And the entire solar system, the sun and all its family of planets and moons, is racing around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at 514,000 mph. (A speed at which you would circle the earth at the equator in just 2 minutes, 54 seconds.)

   And the entire Milky Way Galaxy, with its approximately 400 billion suns (including ours) all arrayed in a beautiful glittering spiral pattern, is flashing through space at an incredible 1.3 million mph.

   So the next time you tell your child to sit still, dammit, be advised that she or he simply cannot. Not by a long shot.

   And neither can you.


Taking miracles for granted

     Miracles are all around us every day, yet we take them only as our due.

     Consider glass.  What would our lives be like without this miraculous stuff?  It’s everywhere and it’s essential to the quality of our lives.  It’s made by melting simple sand, one of the most abundant materials on our planet, yet it’s incredibly durable, it can withstand extreme temperatures while remaining dimensionally stable, and, fantastically, we can see through it as though it were not even there. 

     Nobody seems to know how long glass has been around, but there’s a 5,000-year-old example in a British museum.  The Indians didn’t have glass in their abodes when the Pilgrims arrived in America wearing too many clothes, but Virginia settlers built a glass factory in the early 1600s and started putting rippled windows in their buildings.  Many of those windows still survive and serve.

     Without glass our homes would be dark boxes.  It lets in natural light and gives us expansive views while serving as a barrier to the elements.  Without glass, vehicles as we know them would never have been built, Edison would never have been able to invent the light bulb, and we would not have developed clear mirrors that let us see ourselves as others do.  Because of its miraculous optical qualities—its ability to bend light—glass can be fashioned into prisms that spread light into its colorful spectrum, and it can be made into lenses that help near- or far-sighted people see with great resolution.  It gives us cameras that allow us to faithfully capture still and moving images.  It can be crafted into precision mirrors and lenses that bring distant objects close through binoculars, and that even let us peer far out across deep time into the vastness of the Universe through telescopes.

     Glass is only one among many daily miracles that greatly enrich our lives, but I think it deserves special recognition.

     I propose a National Glass Day on which we should all raise a glass in toast to this magical material.