Category Archives: Stuff That Defies Categorizing

Christina Baker Kline at Texas Book Festival

Had a chance to attend a presentation by Christina Baker Kline at last weekend’s Texas Book Festival. Kline is best known for writing Orphan Train: A Novel and A Piece of Time. It has been suggested to me that I ask her to endorse my novel, Compromise With Sin, which is similar to Orphan Train in that both deal with actual early 20th-century events. Sending her a book is on my long to-do list.

In a slide-show presentation, Kline presented behind-the-scenes glimpses into the writing of A Piece of Time, a story about Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson, his longtime muse and the figure in the famous painting “Christina’s World.” To give an idea of how iconic the painting is, Kline showed parodies of the painting, ranging from Princess Leia to Wiley Coyote.

In doing extensive research, Kline serendipitously met a seasoned docent at one of the Wyeth museums. Kline was in a tour group being led by someone else when the docent, who was observing the group, pulled the writer aside. “I see you’re taking notes,” she said. Kline explained she was writing a novel. “I can tell you everything you want to know.” That’s what I hope will happen to me on our upcoming trip to Santa Fe, the locale for about one-third of the novel I’m currently working on.

Tim and I also attended a session at the book festival called “Sea Change: Wading in the Waters of a New Climate.” Its significance for the purposes of this blog has to do with an apt metaphor Cambridge University Professor of Physics Peter Wadhams used. Wadhams, the author of A Farewell to Ice: A Report From the Arctic, was asked if our planet is at a tipping point. In answering the question, he explained what a tipping point is: “You can poke a lion with a stick and it wakes up and goes back to sleep, but if you poke it too many times, it wakes up and eats you.”

Quotable

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

–Oscar Wilde

Falling Star: Kirkus Revised American Heart Review

Being awarded a star by Kirkus Reviews is a big deal for writers. Have I mentioned that Kirkus gave Compromise With Sin a star? Forgive me while I milk that as long as possible.

After the elation of getting a star, I don’t know how I’d feel if Kirkus revoked it. That’s what happened to Laura Moriarty. Kirkus Reviews made news last week by revising a review and snatching back the star that had been awarded to her young adult novel, American Heart.

The reason? Many readers of the novel had posted on Twitter and Goodreads saying that the futuristic story about  a white girl overcoming her own prejudice to help a Muslim girl escape from a detention camp promoted an “offensive white savior narrative.” Kirkus reacted to the uproar by re-assigning the novel to the reviewer, a Muslim woman who specializes in YA fiction. She revised her original review, adding that the story is told through the filter of a white protagonist about a Muslim character, and revoked the star.

(Does anyone else notice the peculiar language here, as though “white” must mean “non-Muslim” and “Muslim” must mean a race other than “white?”)

Moriarty noted that the takeaway for writers is not to even try to write about people different from you. “Kirkus just really, really pushed things farther in that direction.”

Oh, please. As a writer, I see that I have a responsibility to be fair in depicting cultures other than my own, but I can’t be afraid to go there. I probably will offend some people at some time.

As for American Heart, could you ask for better publicity?

Here’s the NPR account of what happened. 

Leave a comment.

Quotable

When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

–Samuel Johnson

The Mortality Fallacy


No, this isn’t a spooky Halloween post. So why the tombstone? It’s because I want to rant about one of the most common errors people who should know better make when it comes to life expectancy.

How many times have you heard that a hundred years ago most people died–pick a number–before they were 45, 50, 60?  Yet maybe you had grandparents who lived into their 70s, and if you visit an old cemetery and look at the dates on tombstones, you’ll find lots of people who lived very long lives.

OK, I’m not disputing that Americans in the 21st century can expect to live longer than their counterparts in the 20th century. But there’s a popular fallacy about life expectancy. It has to do with looking at “average” life expectancy, something that was seriously skewed by high infant mortality rates in the past.

The best way to look at life expectancy is to take the view of actuarial tables, which look at it this way: in a given year, someone who’s 20 years old can expect to live another X years while someone who’s 40 years old can expect to live another Y years, etc.

So here’s what it looked like in 1900:

A baby born in 1900 could expect to live another 48 years. Does that mean most people died before age 50? No. This number reflects the high probability of the child dying in infancy or early childhood.

A child aged 10 in 1900 could expect to live another 50 years.

Someone aged 30 in 1900 could expect to live another 35 years.

(Statistics are from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

Leave a comment.

Quotable

Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.

–Salvador Dali

Get That Word off the Tip of Your Tongue

You know the feeling. A word poised on the tip of your tongue, and no matter how hard you try, it just stays there. Well, don’t give up. There are a couple of sources that might help.

OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus

I decided to test drive OneLook Reverse Dictionary and Thesaurus. I plugged in a search term: “horse breed with spots” and hit “Enter.” Here are the first four answers in a list of 100: “appaloosa, dalmatian, pointer, Holstein.: The word I had in mind was “pinto” which came in at #52. So I guess this search is most helpful when you know exactly what you’re looking for. That could be problematic if you’re a foreign spy,. Saying “dalmatian” when you should say “dapple” could get you outed.

Being a thesaurus, the site is also good for finding synonyms. An added bonus is that you can find crossword puzzle answers when all you know are a couple of letters (which hardly seems sporting).

Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary

The idea behind Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (4th edition), by Marc McCutcheon is to pin down the right word by looking at a category and sometimes its subcategory. As the author says in the book’s introduction, “Consult Descriptionary whenever you are tempted to use words such as whatchamacallit, thingamajig, or doohickey . . .”

For example,  say you want to find WWII slang for food, you’d go to World War II Slang in the Military category. There you’d find terms like shimmy pudding for Jell-O, kennel rations for hash or meat loaf, and tin titty for canned milk. (The mess hall–or ptomaine alley–isn’t necessarily known for polite conversation.)

My advice is find the terms you want, then take time to browse because you’re almost certain to turn up other gems.

The 711-page fourth edition has some new categories, including Brain, Rocks and Gems, and Torture and Punishment.

Is It Ever Finished?

I published Compromise With Sin on June 1st, but it won’t leave me alone. During the night I woke up with the queasy feeling that I’d said pony when I should have said ponies. It could easily have happened, as I originally had one pony pulling a cart, then decided two would be better. Of course, I had to check it out, and fortunately the ponies are plural.

Quotable

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

–P.J. O’Rourke

 

How To Read a Novel MOOC

I told you a few weeks ago that I’d signed up for a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “How To Read a Novel,” offered by the University of Edinburgh and FutureLearn. Well, I’m woefully behind and probably won’t get caught up. But I can tell you after the first couple of weeks that it’s very well done.

The course blends video lecture, illustrated excerpts from novels, reading assignments, and participant comments. I particularly enjoy the comments. Week 2 was an in-depth look at characterization, and one participant noted that she’s mistaken “having read a lot of books with being well-read.” She plans to re-read a number of books.

Compromise With Sin News

On Saturday I’ll participate in an indie authors event at the San Marcos (TX) Public Library. Called “Going Rogue: Self-Publishing 101,” the event is an opportunity for the public to learn “the various aspects of writing, branding, marketing, and generating sales from an interesting panel discussion.” In addition, I and other authors will display and sell books and talk with visitors.

And next Monday, I’ll visit the book club at Brookdale Gaines Ranch in Austin.

Quotable

To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit.

–Christina Baker Kline

Thank-you Notes Trip up This Writer

The other night I was talking with my niece Carol Loucks about writing, and I said I’d rather write a novel than a thank-you note. My approach to thank-yous is to procrastinate forever because the writing will come easier in the future than it will right now. Anyone else share this rationale?

Is there help for people like me? Surely Google has the answer. I dug up several sites that want to help, most of which have the same basic advice. Here’s one from Hallmark: “How To Write a Thank-you Note,” by Jeanne Field.

OK, she has six steps, beginning with the greeting to the sign-off. I get that I’m supposed to say “thank you,” specify what I’m thanking them for, and offer details about how I’ll use the gift. I generally cover all six. Where I get stymied is that the message just feels so stilted. I seal the envelope and stick on the stamp, knowing that it lacks personality. It sounds dumb.

What do you do? Leave a comment. Thank you.

Quotable

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.

–Ray Bradbury

How To Read a Novel

I just signed up for my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It’s called “How To Read a Novel,” hosted by the University of Edinburgh. The eight-hour, four-week class begins July 24th.

How To Read a Novel will explore plot, characterization, dialogue, and setting. I’m looking forward to interacting with a community of readers, potentially from all over the world.

The course is free. For $64 you can upgrade, which means you get a certificate and have unlimited access to course materials for as long as they exist online. With the free version, access extends just 14 days after the course ends.

I’ll keep you posted.

Quotable

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

–Ray Bradbury

Celebrating Chuck Berry’s Words

When Voyager went into space in 1977, its cargo included a gold 33 1/3 record with 27 songs. Curated by a committee under Carl Sagan, the representative music included Mozart, Stravinsky, a Navajo chant, and “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. At the time, Saturday Night Live and Steve Martin played with the idea of aliens’ response to this musical treasury.

Chuck Berry, who died March 18th at the age of 90, lived long enough to see his music leave our solar system and enter interstellar space, a fact NASA confirmed in 2014. Wow.

To bring this blog post back to earth and somewhat consistent with the mission of NovelWords Cafe, I’d like to look at Berry’s lyrics. He’s been called the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll. For example, here are the last lines of “Memphis”:

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

There are several YouTube videos of “Memphis,” the most unusual being one featuring Berry and John Lennon.

Berry also wrote and recorded poetry. You can listen to “My Dream,” recorded in 1971.

Can’t Put That Book Down?

OK, readers, I know some of you get so caught up in a novel that you can’t put it down.  It would be fun to hear your real-life examples.  How would you complete  this sentence: “I was so riveted by (name of novel) that I (blank.)”

I thought of this recently when one of the writing blogs I follow (sorry, I’d link to it if I could remember which one) featured an article that encouraged writers by asking them to imagine how they’d like to have their book reviewed.

Well that got the old adjective factory spinning our of control. “Gripping, mesmerizing, shocking, sensational . . .” I could go on.

Then I took it to the next level. Here’s my favorite imagined review: “This important historical novel speaks to our times and held me spellbound. When the tornado sirens sounded I stuck fast to my favorite reading chair instead of taking shelter. Talk about riveting. I’m writing this from heaven.”

Please leave a comment, even if it’s to tell me I should get back on my meds.

 

 

What’s the True Meaning of “America First?”

In light of Trump’s latest assault on innocent human beings & on values decent Americans hold dear, I’m departing from my planned post & posting a day early. “America First” is hardly a new idea, as this 1941 political cartoon by Dr. Seuss illustrates. It was an ugly sentiment then, & it’s ugly now.

Dr. Seuss, PM Magazine, October 1, 1941