It can be impossible to ever know the full truth about a crime. Eyewitnesses don’t have perfect recall, and fingerprints and DNA evidence aren’t the magical solutions that shows like CSI would have you believe.
But how far would you go, and how much would you risk, to seek out justice and prevent future victims from being murdered—without locking up the wrong person?
That tension is at the heart of the new novel by Hilary Davidson, ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, told from alternating points of view: the detective and the suspect.
This book is a public service, since novelists are typically thrown into the deep end of the literary pool, filled with tiger sharks and clones of Nicholas Sparks, and told to figure it out. Which happens about as often as you think.
Her first novel, EVERY LAST SECRET, was a mystery that won the Malice Domestic Competition and was published by St. Martin’s Press, but she’s also published award-winning books on poetry and is now working on something with a historical twist.
No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.
I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.
So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.
I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.
To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.
(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks
If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.
Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.
There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:
Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES).
Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.
(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can
I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning.
For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.
Look in those unexpected places.
Answer questions from folks starting out.
The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.
Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.
Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.
(3) Take things apart to see how they work
If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.
That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?
What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?
Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”
Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.
It takes no talent to do those things.
Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.
No, this isn’t the start of a joke leading to a bar and the cats ordering cosmos or something. It’s a real video of a seriously unlikely friendship that works: two pigs walking a cat.
If you’ve ever owned cats, as I have, you know how impossible this is. Dogs are social–they’re pack animals. Cats are solitary hunters, if not psycho killers, God bless ’em. And I tried to walk our three cats.
Did. Not. WORK.
Here’s what usually happens when you try to walk a cat and this Cat Walking Guru, who is a braver man than I.
Thank you to all the readers of this silly blog. I’m running experiments and on a streak of posting once a day–so now’s a good time to switch things up. What would you like to see?
WordPress shows which country people are reading from, and I’m noticing Finland, China, Turkey, India–and some place called the Isle of Man, which seems a bit sexist. It’s 2018, not 1518.
I’m running a plugin that translates the blog into the following languages:
If you’d like another language on the list, tell me and I’ll get it going.
Bleeding red ink
What first pages of popular or classic novels are highly over-rated, or put you in a coma, and deserve getting bled on with a red pen?
Which music videos are completely bonkers–or so wondrously complex that the lyrics and images need deciphering?
And is there a movie, TV show or streaming-thing that begs to be watched and dissected?
Switching things up
Should I open up the blog to guest posting goodness, as long as it’s not Karen reposting her Facebook feed full of MLM about essential oils?
Tell me if you’d enjoy more series, like Fitness Tips for the Apocalypse, or want one-offs like weird news stories about psycho killer raccoons terrorizing Olympia (real story) and Texas grandmothers shooting monstrous alligators who ate their miniature horses years ago (also real).
I’m also thinking about adding more analysis of current events and tips on fighting lies and propaganda, seeing how the world has gone completely mad. Bit more serious than I intend for this blog, but these are not normal times.
Hit me up
Happy to listen to suggestions however you want to give them, except by telegram, Twitter DM’s or showing up in person. Not kosher.
Except there’s more to it than a joke. These folks really are brave, and no, those windbreakers do not make them invincible.
As a former journalist, I get what they’re doing. We used to have the police scanner on all day and night in the newsroom, and if you heard about a flood, fire, car crash, murder or other bit of mayhem, it was a race to see who could grab their camera and notebook to get out the door first.
When everybody else heads away from danger, reporters walk right up and say hi.
Weather reporters don’t get much respect. It’s seen as an entry-level job, with veterans and hotshots doing “real news.”
So noobs at a TV station are usually the ones who have to get up at oh-dark-thirty to drive into the mountains and do a live shot at 6 a.m. that yes, it’s snowing, as you can see. Then another live shot at 6:30, 7:30, noon, and so forth. The same shot. The same news.
TV weather reporters wade into the floodwaters and storm surges.
And yes, they hit the beaches and try to remain upright when hurricanes roll in with 100+ mph winds.
It’s a tough job.
We should appreciate them more. These folks literally risk their lives trying to educate us and hopefully save some lives. Because if they’re showing up with a brave camera crew, it’s a clear sign that we really should get out of town.
Because we’re apparently living in a reality show dystopia, and watching the news can put you in therapy, take a little break to watch this video.
Then cuddle your cat, play with your dog or befriend a murder of crows by feeding them peanuts (in the shell, it’s a happy puzzle!) every day until they start bringing you shiny objects as tribute. These shiny things may include car keys. Resist the temptation to turn your crow army into a crime ring with a chop shop behind the wrecking yard.
If taking some time with your furry pookies doesn’t help, watch THIS video of unlikely wild animal-human friendships.
Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.
So let’s talk about creativity.
Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?
Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.
All the way.
Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.
1) The more you do it, the easier it gets
You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.
In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.
And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.
The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.
Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.
But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.
Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.
2) You can’t save up and go wild
It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.
A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.
Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.
Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.
The difficulty goes up exponentially.
Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.
Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.
If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.
Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)
Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.
It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.
Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.
Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.
Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.
Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.
3) Loud music and solitude
There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.
Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.
Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.
This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.
4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps
It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.
Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.
HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.
I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.
Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.
And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”
Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.
Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.
Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”
The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.
5) Mixing it up is essential
You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.
Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.
Journalists should try fiction.
Novelists should give poetry a go.
Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.
And there’s an order to how you write or train.
Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.
Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.
6) Deadlines focus the mind
Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.
Deadlines make things happen.
I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.
Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.
For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?
Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.
Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.
Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.
And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.
For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.
Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.
You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.
I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.
Not good because the muse decided to bless me.
Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.
You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.
There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.
Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.
There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.
Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.
3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews
Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.
It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.
If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.
Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.
4) Romance is a story that needs to be told
Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.
War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.
The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?
Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.
Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?
That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.
Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?
5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak
If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.
Every. Single. Time.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.
The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.
Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.
Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.
This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.
Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.
Happy wife, happy life.
There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.
The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.
I like that message.
Strike that. I love it.
It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.
Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.
P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.
Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.
Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.
Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.
Missed the whole damn thing.
It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.
So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.
P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.
In normal times, I’d never title a post like that, except as a joke. Yet these are not normal times.
You can see that based on how people changed the way they use Twitter.
I follow all sorts of people: screenwriters and speechwriters, librarians and literary agents, authors and architects. Twitter let’s me chat with folks from Iceland to India, and instead of talking about the things we love, like books and movies, most of the people I follow increasingly tweet about politics. Why? Because it’s not hyberbole to say that free democracies around the globe are under attack.
Creative people get that. They see what happens to reporters, writers and filmmakers when authoritarians subvert what used to be a democracy. They understand that liberties like freedom of the press can be taken away by the stroke of a pen and watch as police round up political leaders along with reporters who write stories the Dear Leader doesn’t like.
This list of five is mostly conservatives and national security / law enforcement folks. That’s for one simple reason: they have the strongest ethos on this issue.
It takes guts to walk away from your political home. Your career will suffer, even though you’re choosing country over party. I respect the hell out of that.
As for national security professionals and counter-intel folks, they know this fight better than anyone and have dedicated–and risked–their life to protecting all Americans, regardless of party, race, creed or color. My grandfather flew bombers in World War II and was a FDR Democrat, while my father’s a disabled Vietnam vet who votes Republican, but they both served the same flag and constitution. They swore the same oath to protect our country and constitution from enemies foreign or domestic.
Our democracy is under attack from enemies foreign and domestic, as are democracies in Europe and around the world. If you care about that, the people on this list are worth a listen.
If you’ve owned dogs and served cats, as I have, watching them closely can give you a peek inside their noggins.
There’s a great book by Jared Diamond—GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL—that drops serious knowledge about the kittehs and doggos, and yes, that book is all about the rise and fall of civilizations around the world, so why would he bother with house pets?
(1) Diamond says you can figure out which civilizations struggled and which turned into mighty empires with a simple trick: count how many plants and animals they could domesticate.
(2) That’s because you can’t have permanent villages and cities, much less an empire, if you’re stuck roaming around as hunter-gatherer. Tough life, carrying everything that you own, especially without a horse to haul it around. You have to be able to grow wheat and herds of goats and such to settle down and have villages, then cities, then science and tiny supercomputers that allow a single human to send Candy Crush spam to all of their Facebook friends.
(3) The only animals that can truly be domesticated are ones that naturally travel in packs or herds, because only those animals understand how to be social. In other words, animals with some natural manners. Other animals might be sort of tamed, but never truly domesticated.
(4) Doggos live in packs and are totes social.
(5) Cats are solitary hunters and brutal killers. Seriously. Yes, even the ones that look like this:
Back when The Discovery channel did science instead of reality shows about pawn shops and such, there was a Top 10 Predators episode. You had the great white shark, polar bears, lions, tigers, Kevin Spacey, you know, the usual suspects.
Number 1? House cats. Even if well fed, they’ll run around killing scads of birds, mice and whatever else they can, just for fun. They are furry little Sith Lords.
So why are puppers and doggos so different?
I’ve watched our Hound of the Baskervilles from when he was about one year old and have gotten a good look inside his head.
Mystery Number 1: Why do dogs HATE the mailman?
This seems to be such a cliché, an urban legend. The kind of thing that could get traced back to an off-hand line on I LOVE LUCY that just took off in pop culture and never died off.
Except there are good reasons for dogs to hate mail carriers and delivery folks.
Since we live on a dead-end road with few neighbors, there are two distinct types of people driving by: folks who live here and visitors.
The Hound doesn’t bark once when he hears the cars of people who live here. Doesn’t even look up—he knows the sound of each engine, though he’ll head for the door to greet family members when he hears their car start up the hill.
Random visitors might get barked at, but to him, they heed that warning and keep on driving past to their destination. They don’t stop at our house or show back up again tomorrow.
Delivery folks do.
To the dog, the FedEx folks show up all the time and the post office people come by every flipping day, ignoring all his barked warnings.
Even worse: the mailman is the only person to stop at the corner of our property for a long time. I believe, deep in my soul, the Hound thinks the mailman is peeing on our mailbox. Because that’s what a dog would do: mark territory.
It doesn’t matter who’s wearing the uniform and driving the delivery truck. To doggos, those are the colors of an invading army, and each person wearing them and stopping at the mailbox is sending a clear message: “Your home is now my territory, and so are the homes of all your neighbors and friends. Your warning barks don’t frighten me. I’ll be back tomorrow to pee on the mailbox and claim your home as mine. Do something about it, tough guy.”
Mystery Number 2: What do dogs think of cats?
Back when we had three cats, the Hound couldn’t figure them out.
He understood the rules: don’t go upstairs, don’t go in the dining room and stay off the couches. We trained him to do things and when he did them, he got rewarded with treats or affection. That’s the system.
Cats don’t listen. They don’t care about your stupid rules or wishes.
To help train the doggo, we have him sit in another room when food goes in his bowl. And it might be a few minutes before we tell him OK, go eat. He sits at attention, no problem. It’s like he’s in the army. He enjoys clear rules and learning new tricks.
There’s no way any of our cats would ever sit and wait for food, not even if you offered them treats and love.
Quite the opposite. Whenever they were hungry, they made sure you knew it. Joy the White (kinda like Gandalf the Grey but after fighting that demon thing) would go further. If she was pissed off, she’d make it literal by stalking into the room to glare at you while she peed in a corner, just to show she was upset about her food bowl being empty or some such thing.
To the Hound, the cats were unpredictable and immature little furballs with no brains or social skills.
If he saw one of them breaking the rules, like walking into the dining room, he’d police them, gently nosing them back into the kitchen. Trying to get them in line. It wasn’t aggressive, like he was the boss. It was incredulous. “Are you crazy? Don’t offend the Tall Wizards Who Control Light and Dark, because we have a good thing going here: warm house, soft beds, fresh food and their protection. Why are you trying to screw that up?”
This isn’t a question of brains. Cats are plenty intelligent and with a lot of effort, some people have trained them. With zero effort, you can watch them do clever things and get into all kinds of trouble. Like experimenting with gravity.
Dogs are pack animals and wired differently. Puppers simply don’t understand why the Tiny Furballs with Needle Claws have no social manners and refuse to learn things from the Tall Wizards, especially when the reward for learning things is yummies and love.
Mystery Number 3: The on-off Switch of Guard Dogginess
The Hound sees it as his job to (a) alert us when strangers or delivery people are outside, and (b) to guard the door.
This is fine normally. When we have a lot of people over, though, it can be a hassle and a mystery–because once people are in the kitchen or dining room, there might be 15 people there he doesn’t know, and he won’t bark at a single one. his tail and happily gets petted all night.
A similar thing happens the Hound hits the kennel: the kennel owners always let dogs out into a fenced area separated from the main run. Every time, the new dog goes to the fence to touch noses with all the other dogs, then they let that new dog into the main area with tiny terriers and Great Danes, with zero problems. They all play together.
Except none of that works when the dog can still see their owner. They’ll bark at the other dogs and do not get along. The Switch of Guard Dogginess going from OFF to ON. Back on duty.
I took this idea home and started putting the Hound in the library when guests push the doorbell. Mystery solved: if people are at the door, he’s on duty. Once people are past the foyer and in the kitchen or dining room, I let him out and everything’s great.
In his doggy brain, he’s thinking something like this: “Clearly, the Tall Wizards let all these people deep inside to our most sacred room, where we store all the food. So they’re friends. Friends who brought us MORE food as tribute. I have never smelled so many good things! Our pack is popular, which means our territory and power is growing. The mailman dares not challenge us now.”
For serious dog knowledge, here’s some pretty good stuff on dog body language.
You put water and wheat-powder stuff inside, push a button to use the Force, then POOF, out comes bread.
Sort of like this:
This breadmaker is in a nice, white box with all kinds of buttons.
Not included: Destroyed AT-AT shelter.
Asking price: Five bucks or one-quarter portion.
It’s cedar, medium-sized and fancy, while our Hound of the Baskervilles is black, large and not fancy at all.
If you don’t have a destroyed AT-AT handy as a shelter, this will do nicely, as long as you’re under 5’3″.
Once I finished building it, our dog sniffed at the treats inside, drank from the water bowl and ran off to chew on sticks and chase rabbits. He never entered it again.
Later, he explained to me that the whole point of being outside is to be outside, rain or sun, and that being rained on is good for you sometimes. It makes you appreciate the sunshine. He also said that kibbles are for cats and that when we’re gone, he sits on every chair in the house, not because he doesn’t know it’s wrong, but because rebellion is good for the soul.
Not included: Dog.
Asking price: An old Jiffy Peanut Butter jar of full of pennies, nickels and a couple of quarters.
FOUR REPORTER NOTEBOOKS STOLEN FROM THE NEWSROOM
I worked at a dying newspaper before working at dying newspapers was cool.
When the death spiral got fast and tight, they started rationing rolls of film, pens and reporter notebooks.
Yeah, they rationed notebooks. If you run out of paper while covering a story, hey, write on your forearm. It’s blank.
The second the supply cabinet got restocked, starving reporters rioted to grab all the film, pens and notebooks.
I still have enough reporter notebooks to roof a ranch-style house. They’re just the right size to put in your jacket pocket. Love ’em.
Not included: Stories for dying newspapers or rolls of film. Sorry. Threw the film out. Nobody even develops film anymore.
Asking price: A moleskin notebook that’s too nice for you to actually use, so you keep on writing on the back of envelopes to save the moleskin for the deepest of deep thoughts.
TWO SANSA MP3 PLAYERS
These are miniature technological wonders, tiny black boxes perfect for playing your favorite songs stolen from the interwebs, now that the only albums people buy are ones made of vintage vinyl and hoarded by bearded hipsters.
If you are not a bearded hipster, load these things up with your favorite songs for when you put on shorts and run around the neighborhood despite having two Hondas and a bicycle you never ride.
If you lose a player, who cares, because you have a spare with the SAME SONGS.
Actually included: Random music. Charge these up and yeah, there’s music on them. I have no idea whether this was during my Lenny Kravitz phase or not. Could be a bunch of Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Asking price: Two random CD’s you’ll never use again. I’m making a shiny roof for a bat house.
ONE RANDOM BOX FROM MY GARAGE
I’ve lived in NY, WA, Germany, the Netherlands, the Hinterlands, NY again, Spokaloo, Bellingham, Tacoma and now Monte—and every time I packed up to move, most things went into boxes that got transferred from one garage to another without anybody opening them. I paid attention during Greek Lit about that whole Pandora thing. You do NOT open boxes.
Whenever the garage door closes, these boxes put on Barry White songs and start multiplying.
Not included: A single clue as to what’s in the box.
Asking price: A random box from your garage, or enough C4 to atomize at least 45 boxes of stuff I’ll never look at again.
Five years ago, this was hot stuff. Small. Digital. Stick it in your pocket while you travel the world.
This is still the perfect camera for somebody learning to shoot or a starving college kid who realizes that even the smartest smart phone can’t zoom worth a damn.
Not included: Photos. You have to shoot them. Turn the dial to a setting you pretend to understand, frame the shot and push the button.
Asking price: Drive by with your windows down and I’ll happily Russel Wilson this thing into the soft cushions of your back seat.
This is funny, sure. But the Series of Tubes is packed with funny little things involving dogs, cats and kids with painted faces at county fairs who like turtles.
Let’s dissect this little piece of film to see what makes it work.
First, there are no words getting in the way of the images. This isn’t a PowerPoint slideshow. Nobody has to explain the joke, and it actually works better than English speakers like me have no idea what the announcer or anybody is saying, though it would not shock me if this is Scandanavian, if not Swedish, and make me have a sad for not speaking Swedish.
Second, there’s actually a structure to it, despite being so short. There are two setups before we get to the payoff, two different dogs doing the right thing, and ignoring all the food and chew toys, before the last dog decides obedience courses are a free buffet.
Third, the Benny Hill music makes it all work. Right when the setups are over and we get our payoff, the music puts you right there, and the golden retriever rewards us, not once or twice, but again and again, going after every treat in sight and ignoring all commands.
This snippet of moving pictures gives us the biggest possible gap between expectation (obedience) and result (chaos).
The great thing about the Series of Tubes is that so many people are sifting through so much stuff, you’re bound to find random bits of awesomesauce. Things you would never intentionally seek out.
John Lindo is wonderfully random bit of awesomesauce, and I am happy to do a little Friendly Friday shout-out to him.
Watch this, then let’s talk about why it works, and why it went viral.
This works because there’s a massive gap between expectation and result.
As an audience, we’ve been trained to think of professional dancers as size zero models that come in male and female. They’re young, tanned and costumed. They dance with the stars, and sometimes date the stars.
John is proudly the opposite of all that. He looks like an average middle-aged dad from the suburbs and shatters your every expectation. He’s full of joy, competence and confidence. I’m not a dance expert or fan, and I’d happily watch more videos of him, and try to learn a bit from him. My wife would go nuts. If we men were crazy smart, we’d do Fight Club on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then get John to teach us to dance like this on Mondays and Wednesday while our bruises fade, then we’d surprise our wives or girlfriends on Friday nights. Continue reading “Age and size matter not — attitude is everything”→
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.
Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.
They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.
So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.
You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.
It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.
Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.
My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.
This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.
So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.
That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.
Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”
I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.
And it was a waste of time.
Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. Didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits, fixing dangling modifiers and such.
But she rocked.
I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.
As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.
And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.
That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.
I remember seeing this clip, way back: Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke, not nervous and freaking out before her big race — just happy to be there and filled with infectious joy.
And now she’s good-humored enough to do this video.
Happy Goddess of Australian Hurdlers, I salute you.
If anybody ever deserved to have their own reality show — a show people would actually watch to see somebody fun, instead of human train wrecks like Snooki and the cast of Jersey Shore — then it should be you, Michelle the Jenneke.
Who ever suspected that a sign-language interpreter could ROCK?
Lydia Callis has been the star of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pressers. (That’s journalism slang for a press conference, which is PR slang for “Hey, reporters, bring your cameras and notebooks and we’ll talk about stuff.”)
Do I know sign language? No. But when I watch her, hey, even I get the gist of things. She is seven separate flavors of awesomesauce and deserves her own show, teaching kids across America sign language.
If you live in the Seattle, or the Kirkland — or even Denver, Portland and Instanbul — there’s an author on tour you should meet. (See when and where below.)
C.C. Humphreys is not only a literary muffin of stud, but a former actor and FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER (bonus points). He actually knows how to use a sword, which gives me an excuse to play the Best Swordfighting Scene in Any Movie Not Involving Lightsabers.
He’s a genuinely interesting human being, a man who speaks with one of the sweetest British accents on the planet, maybe because he grew up in the U.K. despite the fact that he is technically Canadian. Is all that legal? I DON’T KNOW.
This accent gives everything he says an extra bit of charm and gravitas, even if he’s telling you, “Listen, you’re being rather beastly.”
All you want is for him to keep talking.
So: he has a new novel out, A PLACE CALLED ARMEGEDDON, which is about the siege of Constantinople, though you have to say which siege, because the place got attacked all the time.
“Alexander the Great, what are you doing this weekend?”
“Oh, the usual. Maybe drink a bit of wine and take a long ride on one of my horses. I have a stable or six full of those things.”
“Come with us. We’re gonna sack Constantinople — it’ll be great.”
“OK, that sounds fun.”
C.C.’s novel is about the siege of 1453, a particularly good year for a siege, hearty and full. It goes well with filet mignon. Anyway: This man can write like nobody’s business, and the novel is worth it.
Also: If you go to a writing conference and hit one of his seminars, you’ll remember him, because he puts on a show. This may be because he was an actor on stage and screen. I believe all of his grandfathers were actors, too. It’s in his blood. The man played Jack Absolute, the 007 of the 1770’s, and he also played Caleb the gladiator on an NBC series.
Also-also: most of his readers are women for some reason, even though he writes swashbuckling historical novels about battles and blood rather than romances involving men in kilts.
EITHER WAY: I truly like and respect this man, and his books. You will, too, if you (a) see him on tour, (b) buy one of his novels, (c) lurk on his blog, which you can read here, or (d) chat with him on the Twitter at the mysterious handle of @HumphreysCC.