Genre, quantification and precision

I was just trying to remember how to forward my land line. I went to the Xfinity website. Before I found the answer, though, I was presented with a survey about how my experience was. Which got me to thinking …

It seems more and more of our experience is being quantified, presumably to make various commercial activities easier for merchants and service providers. The power of virtually infinite computer power and the Internet have helped us make a giant leap in the way we slice, dice and parse our lives.

There is some evidence that this preference for classification is hard-wired … a survival skill. And that Babylonian who marked out the first pictographic writing probably worked for the then-equivalent of Amazon. Certainly Aristotle carried the notion of divisions and subdivisions of practically everything forward.

Which brings me back to genre. It’s a conundrum for a beginning writer: to get through the genresvery narrow eye of the needle that leads to a published work, you need to know your genre and state it in the first line or two of a query to an agent or a publisher. Trouble is, “genre” is a pretty vague notion, the more so because published authors routinely ignore it.

Not too long ago, as my weekly writers’ group worked through my first novel, Fatal Score, one of the members said, “This novel is a bit literary for a thriller.”

“A bit literary” made me think of Amazon’s review questions. Amazon is now asking a series of classifying questions that would warm the cockles of Aristotle’s heart when one reviews a book. (Example: How would you describe the plot of this book? Predictable/Some Twists/Full of Surprises). Maybe we should go to a more precise, numerical score for genres. Perhaps a ‘literary-ness’ dimension. (This would of course be a vertical scale with Literary on top and Commercial on the bottom.) Then a complexity dimension (much like the fog index) with board books at one end and a modern philosophy text at the other. There could be many others.

I can just see the first line of the query:

Fatal Score (88,900 words; 8.4 action/6.7 character/5.1 tension/6.4 litfic/7.4 complexity) is a thriller about big data, the brutal reality of future medical care, and an ordinary guy who makes an extraordinary discovery.






New Orleans Purgatorio: A Short Story Podcast

Here’s a Podcast of my short story, New Orleans Purgatorio,   which was shortlisted for the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom short story prize.

New Orleans Eveningpodcast copy222

Why a podcast?  Well, my writer friends know that the market for fiction is changing faster than a 2016 politician’s promise (sorry!).  This is, frankly, an experiment in advance of a larger commitment to produce my first novel in audio form.

Hope you enjoy!

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!



Writing a Solitary Endeavor?

I grew up with the notion that the novelist was a solitary sort,writer cigarette tucked away in a drafty garret, composing literature for yes, a decade or more.  Then, through a process never very clearly explained, this solitary creature would be FOUND.  A great editor would become friendly; publication would follow. And another iteration of the Great American Novel would be visited upon an adoring public.

Right …

The other day, I was looking for an article on podcasting.  I found the article, but it was slow to load, waiting for <<pop>> a window exhorting me to publish NOW.  For a mere $4,000, I could have that great editor…and publicity…and reviews.  NOW.  I closed the window.

DInner was near, and I was to be the cook.  What temperature to use for roasting vegetables?  Sure enough, Google provided several options.  And the first one said…hmmm, loading slowly…<pop> Publish your work NOW.  Different unusually discriminating small publisher.  For only …

Maybe that garret was a better way.


New Titles from Writing Group Authors

Two writing group friends have new books out:

John Harrigan, former foreign service officer and professor has an historic thriller, Crosshairs on Castro.  What if, in the confusion that surrounded the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the government decided to assassinate Castro?Crosshairs

John weaves this plot around meticulously researched details from the historical record.  Edge-of-the-chair exciting!  See more of John’s writing at his website.


Jacy Sutton’s Available to Chat is a new take on a very old subject:  Love, lust, and the interesting in-between.  The first line of the blurb is, “People tell Olivia that her online beau may actually help her fading marriage.”  We know how that turns out, right?  Well, no, we don’t.  It’s complicated, interesting, full of great conversations and convolutions.  See more at Jacy’s website.

There’s another coming soon from Karla Jorissen that pits a couple of smart women against a cadre of bad and semi-bad guys.  I’ll let you know …


Creativity and the art of zoning out

There are many prescriptions for creativity. Enough that it’s clear that nobody has come up with a formula that works for everyone. Meditating hasn’t worked for me, because I need my mind to be active. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be distracted by the flow of information and irritation that is everyday life.

For me, the solution is race walking. Yup, that hip-wiggling form of locomotion that looksRace walk great on a young woman and somewhere between odd and hysterically funny when an older, overweight guy does it. (This I know from experience.) The important part for me is that the magic of repetitive movement quiets my mind but allows the cognitive flywheel to spin uninterrupted.

I discovered this when I had my knee scoped a couple of years ago. No race walking for several months. My second novel, which I was rewriting at the time, became mired in bad writing and incomprehensible plot twists. I exercised on the elliptical machine, to be sure; but the gym’s constant noise and intrusive TV monitors blunted my thought process. When I got to the point that race walking was okay again, the novel started sorting itself out.

For me, good writing requires mental solitude, and exercise provides that freedom.

The World of 2026 … Again

First, a thank you to readers. A couple of months ago, I asked you to help me out with my vision of what the world would look like ten years from now. A group of intrepid souls realized that my request to answer the blog post in the comment box wasn’t working (my WordPress skills are Future technologyapparently lacking), and I got a wealth of commentary from them anyway. The most regular critique of my initial vision came in the form: “Your 2026 looks a lot like today. Surely much more will have happened by then.” That gave me pause. Leaving out geopolitics, which I didn’t have the temerity to predict (except to assume CyberWar I will happen in a few years, which I take to be obvious), things did move pretty much at current pace. I hadn’t fleshed out that assumption with deep analysis; after all, I’m writing fiction. But really, look back at 2006. More apps, yes; otherwise, not so different.

About a week ago, the economist Paul Krugman reviewed THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH, by Robert J. Gordon, in the New York Times. Krugman, reflecting on Gordon’s thesis, says “The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected.” He notes that between 1870 and 1940, “Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses.” But today, “you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.” (Tell that to one of the chilly dudes waiting in line outside the Apple store for the latest iPhone. Wait … have our lives become trivial, or is the insatiable quest for life improvement focusing on that which is available?)

Anyway, I feel more comfortable with a world in which I don’t have to spend too many words explaining exotic, transformative technology. Thanks again for your additions and corrections.

Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.