About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

Message in a Book

A few weeks ago I took my granddaughter to a used bookstore. I, of course, did some browsing myself. I came upon a volume that was on my always-increasing want list and bought it. One thing led to another, as they often do, and the book — The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, edited by James Patterson — sat patiently on my headboard until a few days ago.

I was looking for something short to read before bedtime and which did not involve a screen. The aforementioned volume seemed to be the perfect source for something of that nature. I picked it up, opened it, and started turning pages. I reached the Foreward and found two small white cards inserted into the book’s gutter. One was a business card for a hospital liaison employed with a local senior living community. The other was the gift card which I photographed and have reproduced above.

I have since been intermittently preoccupied with this discovery. It does not look as if the book was ever read past the Foreward, if, indeed, at all. I would like to think that the recipient, after whatever life event occasioned their stay at the facility, quickly recovered and was too busy enjoying liquid (as the card suggested) and horizontal (as the card did not!) refreshments to read the book. This, I fear, is wishful thinking. It is probably far more likely that they have gone ahead, leaving the book behind to be packed up with others and taken to the used bookstore where it eventually passed to me.

That would be nosy me. I went so far as to call the person whose name and telephone number were on the business card, assuming, due to the close proximity of the cards in the book, that they were the giver. My intent was to explain that the book passed into my hands and to ask, generally, if the recipient ever got to drink that Manhattan, thinking that answering that question, as phrased, would not violate any HIPAA rules. Alas. The giver no longer worked at the facility. Another unsolved mystery.

I wonder what happened to the last owner of the book in question.  It bothers me, probably because of my age, and also probably because I’m in contact with a number of my high school classmates as we approach our fifty-year reunion in July. Many are joking that they are not going to send in their reservations before June 30. They are joking, but not really laughing. I totally get it. We inhabit fragile and temporary shells that slip and slide toward an unmarked and unknown use-by date.

Enough of sad-sack me for today. Have you ever found a cryptic message or note in a book? If so, please share. Thank you for stopping by, and enjoy your weekend.

 

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10-4

 

One of my biggest problems when writing is that I tend to get in my own way. This has occurred with some frequency during my latest project, currently titled The Lake Effect, which I discussed here a few weeks ago. You may or may not recall that I dreamt the beginning, middle, and ending of what is a love story. All that I have had to do is write the thing. This I am doing,  and am having fun doing it. Occasionally, however, I can’t leave well enough alone. I know that I should simply tell the story. I’m doing that, but occasionally I seem to consider myself to be duty bound to insert into the narrative examples of how clever and knowledgeable I consider myself to be.  As one might expect, I am usually wrong. The result is that my narrative bogs down. I’m not getting tripped up in detail. Sometimes one should stop and smell the roses, so long as the scent is pertinent in some way to the story. My mistake has been that I will be moving from Point A to Point B but will insist on stopping and describing Points A1, A2, and A3 along the way as well. I don’t consider my reader, who (hopefully) will want to get to Point B with all due and deliberate speed. I do this and  wonder why it isn’t working, then realize that I am boring myself. If I am putting myself to sleep, then what am I doing to my poor reader, who will probably leave the building, never to return?

I have found that as a sort of enjoyable and tutorial penance for such a writing error I am best served by watching a few episodes of Highway Patrol.  It was one of my favorite television series in the 1950s and remains so today. Each episode was about twenty-five minutes long. They would shoot the episodes in two to three days, twice per week, and broadcast close to forty episodes a season. This was done on a very limited budget. There were no fiery car crashes or extended shootouts through shopping malls.  There were other constraints. Broderick Crawford was the lead actor. He played Dan Mathews, the taciturn, grizzled head of the unnamed Highway Patrol unit featured in the series. Crawford’s parts in each episode had to be shot in the morning because he was usually well-toasted by lunch. It somehow worked. Crawford delivered his dialog staccato-style (“Youshouldbesorryforwakin’meathishourwhaizzit?”) (“CorneraBrownanChocorantwoaclock”) (“21-50taheadquarters10-4”) when ordering his officers about. The cadence of Crawford’s diction, or lack thereof, was perfect for an episodic series where time was of the essence.  There was also a formula applied to the shows which becomes obvious after a few different viewings. It was simple. A crime would be committed, Matthews and his team would chase their tales, and some evidence would be discovered, all within the first half of the episode. The last half of the episode (all twelve minutes or so) would show Mathews and his associates bringing the evildoers to justice. Voice-over narration by a gentleman named Art Gilmore gave each episode a quasi-documentary feel (“Burglary is the alley cat of crime, wandering the night in search of prey”). At the conclusion of each episode, Mathews, as he was getting into his car, would stop, look at the camera, and break the fourth wall by directly addressing the television audience with a pithy safe driving platitude, such as “It isn’t the car that kills…it’s the driver!” Just so.  

Each episode of Highway Patrol was suspenseful and exciting even with such a cut and dry formula. Nothing ever really felt left out. Each minute — each second — was important. Highway Patrol was the first television series to utilize fast cutting — a few different action shots of just a couple of seconds’ duration (usually consisting of a police car racing to a crime, or chasing a suspect) — to move the action along.  They also didn’t spend a lot of time getting the viewer from Point A to B. Mathews would get a lead, jump up from his chair and say, “Let’s go!” The next scene might show him driving quickly down a street for about two seconds (stock footage was often used, as Crawford at one point during the series run had his real-world driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence) followed by Mathews getting out of the car at his destination and shooting it out with the criminals. Bing bang boom.

If while writing you find yourself stuck in a thicket of your own design and wondering what to weed and what to water watch a few episodes of Highway Patrol. It is possible that you will absorb its lessons about narrative and storytelling by osmosis. All four glorious seasons (Crawford said the series stopped because they ran out of crimes) can be found on DVD,  YouTube and a couple of cable channels. It works for me. If you already have a method of bringing your writing errors and ommissions on track, please share. And thank you. 1075 to 21-50. 10-4.

 

7+

First Books on the Moon

April has been quite a month for scientific events. Mark Alpert last Saturday discussed the recent presentation of an image of a black hole at the center of Galaxy M87 and gave us some insight, otherwise absent from most accounts, into the importance of what was revealed. Another attempted milestone which occurred this month was not as successful as the image presentation but was not entirely a failure, either. It is also extremely relevant to what we do.

I am referring to the crash landing on Earth’s moon of the SpaceIL Beresheet Lander. Lost in the disappointment of the Lander’s failure to achieve a soft lunar arrival was that 1) the Lander carried something named “The Arch Lunar Library” which 2) may well have survived the impact.  This particular payload is the first in a planned series of lunar archives prepared and maintained by the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit organization that tasks itself with maintaining a billion-year history of Planet Earth (this is done, I would guess, by people who, unlike myself, do not spend their time streaming Turkish crime series on Netflix). The Arch Lunar Library was preserved on something called “Nanofiche,” which is a disc-shaped medium as opposed to those flimsy cards of a similar name that spill all over the place when you try to get them into a reader at your local library without adult supervision.  Nanofiche will apparently last for thousands of years. The medium is so indestructible that it can probably be used to crush the last cockroach. Nothing damages it except for saltwater. It can outlast everything else, however, including, apparently, a crash lunar landing at otherwise destructive speed.

So what does the payload contain? Many, many things, including millions of images of pages of books: all sorts of books, fiction, non-fiction, how-to, what have you, books. It’s an ongoing project, so maybe a book that you are writing right now will be included in the future. I don’t mean to make you choke or anything, but there you go. Keep writing. Before you resume writing again, however, I strongly urge you to read the overview of the Lunar Library which will answer many of the questions I had, such as why someone was doing this. The article is a bit long, but it’s a quick read. It’s hair-raising in spots, but in a good way.

My question: if you were to pick a book to include in a project like this, which would it be? I’m not talking about your favorite book, necessarily. I’m talking about the book that you feel would be most appropriate, most deserving, for a project like this. My choice is an easy one: From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne. What say you?

Happy Easter and Chag Pesach Sameach to all of my friends As Leonard Cohen said in a very different context, it would be a real drag without you.

 

4+

A Different Path

Photo courtesy of Alex Holyoake from Unsplash.com

I had an interesting experience a few nights ago. I consider it to be a writer’s dream. Literally. I dreamt an entire novel in one night. Better yet, I woke up and remembered every bit of it, from beginning to (happy though bittersweet) ending. I reached for the notepad and pen that I keep at the bedside for such occasions and scribbled the notation “when Ed dropped in” so that I would remember to work on it the next morning. The dream was so vivid and compelling, however, that I got up, grabbed my Chromebook,  and typed a synopsis, outline, and what passed for my early purposes as a first, last and middle chapter. I’ve been working on it since. Every once in a while, however, a little voice in my head will pipe up (I call it my “pipsqueak”) and say, “No. You don’t know how to do this.” It’s right. I don’t know how to do “this.” I refuse, however, to let “this” stop me.

The “this” with respect to my work in progress is that it is probably a romance novel. That’s a section of the bookstore that I don’t normally walk through. I read The Bridges of Madison County when it was first published, but that was a long time ago.  For right now, however, I am going to worry about writing the story I am going to tell the best way I possibly can, and not worry about the genre thing. That’s an issue for down the road.

The title of the work, at least as of this moment, is The Lake Effect. It has elements of science fiction (with the sharp edges filed off) that form the bedrock of the plot. Almost all of the book takes place in a tiny village in northern Ohio, with a dip into a small town in southern Louisiana and, for about half of a crucial moment, in rural France. There’s a tough and tender female protagonist who functions as the fulcrum of the novel, and while there is a love triangle of sorts she isn’t Princess Leia and the story will never be mistaken for  Part Ten of Star Wars. There are some quietly suspenseful moments, and there is also a “ticking clock” of sorts, but you won’t find any explosions, karate, or gunfire. Yes, this work in progress is quite different for me. It is uncharted territory, but that’s okay. I’m walking forward with eyes open and hands steady, and fingers typing away.

So why go outside my comfort zone? One reason is that I don’t leave a gift on the table. The gift, in this case, is an entire novel dreamed out and remembered. It may not be the type of story I usually try to tell, but it’s the one I have, and the one that I will give to you one way or the other. The genre is irrelevant. Authors, as we know, actually do jump genres without breaking kneecaps.  Blake Crouch started by writing serial killer novels, jumped to a contemporary western, and then wrote science fiction novels. He had two — TWO! — television series adapting his works in the same year (!) and another one is coming. TKZ’s own indescribably wonderful Laura Benedict recently blurred her own fiction lines, moving seamlessly from the supernatural suspense genre to the domestic thriller shelves, and with superlative results (read The Stranger Inside if you haven’t as yet). Going back a bit, an author named John Jakes wrote a ton of science fiction and western novels which anyone who read them loved. Very few read them. He then turned to writing historical fiction and not only had lines of folks waiting to buy and read the new ones but also had them adapted to television. Think Paul Sheldon in Misery by Stephen King without the alcohol and the crazy fan. Richard Matheson, a much-beloved horror author who King has credited as his major influence, wrote Somewhere in Time, a romantic novel with science fiction overtones which is treasured to this day. There are many other examples. I’m not going to compare myself to all of those wonderful, successful authors (and the others I haven’t named) who have done this. I will, however, use them as models.

Oh, another thing. I am miserable at outlining. A lot of writers are. I have a friend and client, an author who writes novels in huge chunks but never outlines. He emailed me the other morning to tell me that he had written 22,000 words in the last four days and still had no idea where his latest novel was going. I understand. But. I have an entire outline. It has a beginning and an ending and a wonderful middle — usually the hardest part — so I am writing most of the middle first, going, like John Coltrane, in both directions at once while listening to the Top 40 songs of 1944 for inspiration. I’ve changed a few things in the original outline along the way, not because the original idea did not work, but because I thought of something else that worked better. There is a mentality at work — and it’s not just with me — that says if one has an outline you have to rigidly stick to it. No. It’s your outline. You can change it if you want when you want and for whatever reason you want. Think of it as a house that you love but are going to remodel. To go back to Misery, the ending of that book is far, far different from what King originally envisioned. While his original ending appeals to me in a sort of sick, twisted way, I think he ultimately wrote a better book. All he did was change his outline just a bit.

My advice du jour, after saying all of that, is 1) don’t give up the story you have for the story you want. They might both be the same thing; 2) outline. You can change it. It’s yours. You will, however,  have a clear idea initially of where you are starting, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. Just leave yourself free to make rest stops, take detours, and see the sights along the way; 3) if you get an idea in the middle of the night, get upright and commit as much as you can to paper, screen, or whatever. You can change it later, run with it, or put it aside, but once you forget it, it’s gone; and 4) don’t listen to your pipsqueak under any circumstance.

Now please enjoy your weekend, and thank you for dropping by.

 

 

6+

Start with a Line…

 

.comPhoto courtesy Jordan Steranka from unsplash.com

“Start with a line…” Okay. How about…”My emotional development was arrested when I was eighteen and given a life sentence.” Actually, I don’t mean that type of line when I wrote the above title. I meant the modern version of the old campfire game where someone thinks of a sentence to start off a story, the person next to them offers a second sentence to continue the tale, the next person creates a third sentence, and round and ‘round the campfire they go until the story is complete or something like it. It was inevitable that someone would create a new version of this game. Several someones have, actually.

I learned about the new versions of this storytelling method through a friend whose high school and college-age daughters have been writing short stories and novels online in collaboration with like-minded people from all over the world. There are a number of websites dedicated to this purpose. Each has their own rules. One gives a potential contributor a couple of minutes to come up with a sentence with a set word maximum. Another imposes a character limit, in terms of letters, numbers, and spaces (as opposed to, you know, people in the story).  There is at least one that permits contributors to critique each other. I bet that gets interesting. The stories, as one might expect, can meander quite a bit and the quality of the contributions and the ultimate sum of the parts can vary wildly. A number of the finished products actually turn out pretty well, however.

Two of my favorite sites of this nature are Folding Story and Novlet, but there are others to be found if you google “stories collaborative written online” or something similar. My participation has been limited to reading as opposed to contributing (I’ve been too busy watching Love, Death & Robots on Netflix, notwithstanding the warning that it is for mature audiences). It seems likely, however, that these and similar sites would be good places todevelop the ability to craft killer sentences or paragraphs by hitching them to developing stories, get the creative juices flowing during an episode of writer’s block, or even suffer the slings and arrows of peer critique if you are looking for that sort of thing and Facebook happens to be down for the day.

Please take a few minutes, check out the sites I mentioned (or find your own!), and let us know what you think. If you have been a participant on one or more of them and are so inclined please share your experience. Thank you. And enjoy the first Saturday of Spring 2019. Boing!

 

7+

If You REALLY Want to Do This…

I want to speak to those of you who are at the early stage of what will hopefully be a long and successful career in the arts, whether it be with writing, performing, painting, sculpting, or whatever. Please note the word “hopefully” above. Many are called, but very few get there. I’m not attempting to discourage you. My attitude is that somebody is going to be successful and it very well might be me, or you, or both, so let’s go for it. Realize, however, that failure is a repetitive possibility, and that you have to be prepared to keep trying. 

That said, I am going to strongly recommend that you watch a documentary about an artist — a sculptor — who briefly tasted success and quickly lost it before dying in obscurity. Success? We’re talking a government-sponsored museum devoted entirely to his work. That is success of a sort by any standard. Six years after the opening of the museum, however,  it was closed and virtually all of the artist’s work was destroyed, memorialized only by photographs and some miniature models which he recreated. The guy picked himself up, supported himself with jobs that were by any standard a poor use of his talent, and continued to work at what he loved practically up to the day he died.

I am referring to Stanislaw Szukalski. Odds are that you have never heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until a friend recommended Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, produced by George and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose family helped to support the man in the twilight of his life. The video, available on Netflix, is narrated primarily though not exclusively by Glenn Bray, a bibliophile and comic book collector. I want you to be as surprised delighted, depressed and as startled as I was so I am going to only give you the general highlights of what you will find. Bray discovered Szukalski’s work by utter happenstance in 1971 and became obsessed with it, the more so when he learned that Szukalski was living only a few miles away from him. Bray reached out to Szukalski and met with him, forging a friendship which lasted for some fifteen years until Szukalski’s death. Bray, who was active in the underground comic book industry, introduced artists in the medium to Szukalski as well. They had seen his work without knowing it, and in all probability you have as well. Szukalski designed one of the more intriguing and unsettling sets seen in the original film version of King Kong. It is his freestanding work, however, that is stunning. His sculptors and artwork are by turns breathtaking, disturbing, erotic, and startling. He never stopped creating, whether it be sculpting, drawing, or writing. Szukalski was also obsessed with the origins of humankind and the human condition. He devoted a significant amount of time researching and writing the theory of Zermatism, leaving the world several bound volumes containing over ten thousand pages of text and over forty thousand drawings illustrating and, to his mind, proving his point. He believed that humanity originated on Easter Island and that human beings have been controlled by…but you will want to watch Struggle to get the rest of that story.

Struggle is loaded with comments from Bray, DiCaprio the elder, and various artists. There are also still shots of Szukalski’s work from the 1930s through the 1980s. The most interesting elements, however, consist of video recordings of Szukalski himself which Bray made and preserved. These are worth watching for many reasons, one of them being to observe Szukalski’s arrogance and charm co-existing simultaneously in the same place. Anyone who encountered Szukalski no doubt experienced approach-avoidance conflict. Szukalski may possibly have been wrong about some things but, if Struggle is to be believed, he was never in doubt.

The takeaway from Struggle — and it really rubs your nose into it, however unintentionally — is that real artists, and really, really good artists, don’t always succeed. They never, however, stop creating. You may not reach the heights of a James Patterson, Ernest Hemingway or Nora Roberts, but if you have a story to tell you need to — you must — keep trying to tell it. So endeth the lesson.

To take Jordan Dane’s excellent question of yesterday — what book first inspired you to write — a step further, please tell us: who or what motivates you to continue to create even as success might remain elusive?

(All photographs and illustrations are (c) The Estate of Stanislaw Szukalski. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

7+

A Little Something Extra

People love something that is free. The problem which those of us who offer commodities for sale face is that our audience after a bit not only loves “free” but also expects “free.” There is a way around this. It is the concept not of “free” but of “extra.”

Most of us infuse a bit of our personal knowledge and/or interests in our stories. If you do this you can take things a step further, giving your reader (who is also hopefully a buyer) a bit more about the subject matter or point(s) of interest in the book either within the narrative or outside of the story by providing further information within the book itself or through a link to a dedicated web address that does the same thing. It gives the reader a bit of lagniappe, a French term meaning “a little something extra.”

I initially encountered the term “lagniappe in New Orleans.  It doesn’t have to be big, just 1) kind and 2) deliberate. I chatted up a cashier at a Walgreens and when she was done with the sale she tossed one of those counter mints in my bag, I assume because I was nice to her. It’s a good marketing ploy. I still visit that particular Walgreens at least once whenever I’m in the city. It’s not a new concept either. When I was a bambino my parents would take their angelic and perfectly behaved children out for Sunday dinner to a restaurant called The Florentine which was a Columbus institution right up to its closing in 2016.  It was old school before there was old school, with oil paintings on the walls, linen table cloths, and food on the table almost as good as your grandmother’s. What we loved, however, was that the cashier, who seemed ancient in the 1950s, presided over a collection of penny candy. He would pass out an assortment of mini-rolls of lifesavers, Necco wafers, and the like. Naturally, my brother, sister, and I always wanted to go there for the weekly dinner out. We subsequently moved to another city in 1963, but when I moved back to Columbus in 1978 and visited The Florentine the guy was still there, seemingly no older and still passing out candy to the children whose families patronized the restaurant. More recently I found that another Scotty’s Cafe, another Columbus area restaurant, does the adult version of that. At the close of the meal, one of the owners presents the customer with a small but extremely delicious piece of cake or breakfast roll, gratis. Believe me, you’d come back to Scotty’s anyway for the main course, but the little extra surprise — the lagniappe — seals the deal. It tells the customer that they’re glad you came in.

I started thinking about this because of a new James Patterson (with Max DiLallo) novel I just read titled THE CHEF. It’s a thriller, set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (great market timing, there), and is about a police officer who also runs a food truck. The concept, in case you’re wondering, actually works. My point in mentioning it, however, is that at the end of the book Patterson and DiLallo include the recipes for a number of the dishes mentioned during the course of the story. We’re talking Crab Gumbo, New Orleans-style grits, and the like. They’re food truck-ready recipes, which means that you or I could (probably) make them without setting our kitchens on fire. It was a nice surprise to find those. Lagniappe. Folks aren’t going to buy the book because of it, at least initially, but if the authors decide to turn it into a series readers might remember the inclusion of the recipes (or recall having read about them in a blog post or review) in the first volume and come back for more.

Other authors have a reputation for including similar information and/or lists in their novels. Ken Bruen, in the books which comprise his long-running Jack Taylor series (and yes, the Jack Taylor series on Netflix is based on those novels) includes exhausting but terrific references, usually through the voice of Taylor, to novels and popular music projects, whether in the text or as an epigraph. I actually keep a notebook dedicated to Bruen’s recommendations. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and my musical tastes to be broad and eclectic, but Bruen never fails to either surprise me with something new or remind me of something long forgotten. It’s not just me, either. I know of a number of his readers who buy his books with a mind to heavily underline the music and novel titles which Bruen drops like breadcrumbs throughout Taylor’s narratives.

Author Tim Dorsey does something similar in his series featuring a madcap, cheerfully insane serial killer named Serge A. Storms. While Dorsey invents fresh new Rube Goldberg-type methods of murdering the deserving in each book, the primary reason to read them is Storms’ non-stop, trivia-engorged patter about the state of Florida. One could literally plan a vacation — one week a year for twenty or so years — touring the sites mentioned in the series and visiting the bars, restaurants, and tourist traps noted therein, almost all of which are a bit off of the beaten path. Grab a volume and go. It’s better than a triptych. I know folks who have done this and read each book just for a new vacation idea.

Word gets out among fans, and you can help it along with regard to your novel. Note on your social media pages that your novel is about (fill in the blank) and that at the end of the book you provide a list of places/things/music/whatever pertaining to that topic for those who wish to explore it further. Or include a short story of a few pages. It doesn’t have to be huge, just large enough to say “thank you” to the reader who, when confronted with a mammoth number of entertainment choices, chose you.

My question for you: do you have an unusual interest that you have spun into your writing project? Does something like I have described appeal to you? And readers…do you make lists of referenced works, the way that I and others do? Please let us know.  

9+

Fighting Off the Fog

Photo courtesy Roman Mager from unsplash.com

My local news this morning reported that a gentleman with dementia — several years my junior — is missing.  I wondered: why him? Why not me? I have watched loved ones — relatives and friends — succumb to the foggy twilight of forgetfulness, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, and poor judgment in increasing numbers in the past several years. My greatest fear at this point in time is that I will join the ranks. As I approach the age status of “codger,” I would prefer to be described as “still sharp as a tack” to “If found, please return to…” or worse, “If found, please don’t return.”

I may some time ago have mentioned that I have scheduled the following entry to appear monthly on my Google calendar: “Are people telling me that I am forgetting things? Am I getting into trouble? Do I get lost in familiar places? Have I forgotten that I have left this message for my future self? If so, I may have Alzheimer’s Disease and need to either get help or end it all.” The message recently popped up for the first time (that I can remember, heh heh) on my calendar. I could honestly answer “no” to all of the questions that my past self asked my present self (except possibly for the one about getting into trouble. It depends on your definition of trouble). It occurred to me a few months ago, however, that I need to do more than just schedule a monthly self-check on my mental status. I must up my game as I get older. I want to pass into that good night the way that Robert B. Parker did. He was busily writing at his desk when Azrael tapped him on the shoulder, clapped hands, and said: “Let’s go!”  Similarly, Bob Hope, as befits a comedian, had everyone laughing through their tears as they gathered around his deathbed. His wife reportedly asked him if he wanted to be buried or cremated. His response, filtered through a raspy gasp, was “Surprise me!” Indeed.

Photo courtesy Gina Lin from unsplash.com

I’ve been doing a number of things to increase the odds of walking the final plank in as superlative a condition as possible, writing all the way. One is exercise. I don’t like it. I find it boring. I did engage in jogging for a while, many years ago, but the rum kept spilling out of my glass. I only enjoy such activity if I can call it something else and multitask while doing so. I love walking when I am in other cities. I can take mental photographs, get writing ideas, and occasionally sharpen my survival skills if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t like walking in my own locale because for the most part the scenery is somewhat boring and I somehow always find myself wandering into a bakery, which is also dangerous. I accordingly bought a treadmill about a year ago and put it in front of the television. I have decided that I am not allowed to watch Netflix, Prime or Cinema HD (shhh!) unless I’m walking briskly on the treadmill. It works. I’m never bored, and I’m actually doing something constructive amidst the sex, explosions, and fisticuffs of what I’m watching. I walked for a couple of hours yesterday while watching American Gangster and loved every minute. The activity improves my mood which in turn helps me to think more clearly. It has increased my stamina as well.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from unsplash.com

Reading is another intellectually stimulating activity. Reading of any sort is good, but of late I’ve been shifting at least some of my reading time away from the mystery and thrillers I love and toward literature that requires a bit more concentration.  After perusing several articles about how to start and finish Ulysses by James Joyce I located my well-worn copy and started reading a page a day while successfully resisting the urge to burn my eyes out with hot coals. So far so good.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from unsplash.com

 

There is also of course writing, which I am doing right now. Maybe it’s true that a roomful of monkeys chained to typewriters will eventually randomly type the works of Shakespeare. Sometimes my contribution to this blog resembles what the chimps come up with before they produce The Tempest but my posts have to be done by a time and date certain That takes concentration, as does most writing. Another stick sharpened.

All of the above, however, isn’t enough. One thing I regret about my high school years is that I never really mastered mathematics beyond Algebra 1, primarily because I could never properly use a slide rule. Does anyone remember slide rules? It was a type of analog computer which went the way of the dinosaur once pocket calculators became so common. The last slide rule was made in 1976. I was simply born too soon. I have lived long enough to see YouTube, however, and there are all sorts of videos as well as self-instruction websites where a mathematics dolt like myself can work at their own pace and begin at their own level. I had a couple of false starts before deciding that I needed a refresher course in Algebra 1. I was surprised at how much I remembered, how much I had forgotten, and how much I still don’t understand. I am chipping away at it, however. I would like at some point to understand calculus but it’s as important for me to try as it is to succeed at this point.  I find that it helps to listen to music while I do it. I generally favor post-punk (Parquet Courts) or soul (anything that was released on the Stax/Volt labels) for pleasure but when confronting a math lesson there is something about a Louis Armstrong solo from his days with the Hot Five or a Miles Davis set from the 1950s to the early 1960s that brings a broom and dustpan to the frontal lobe.

Photo courtesy Chris Bair from unsplash.com

You don’t have to be old — by whatever definition — to start thinking about this. I know people who seemingly cannot function without a device in their hand, who haven’t read a book in years, and whose idea of exercise is adjusting the remote volume while they binge on a new Netflix serial. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Just add some things into the mix that up your thinking game a bit,  clear the cobwebs, sharpen the instruments, and generally tune up the cognition. If you are doing something, no matter what your age, please share. And if you aren’t doing anything because you don’t feel the need, bless you.

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Three Movies…and What We Can Learn from Them

(My apologies in advance…my internet service has been out to lunch for the last few days. I have been getting by with cell phone tethering but that has been spotty as well. It’s weather related and since we’re going to have more of the same for the next several days I may not be able to respond to comments, etc. I will do so as time and ability might allow. Thank you!)  

I am old enough to remember when Netflix was a DVD rental service. It actually still does that, though it has almost single-handedly transformed and popularized video-streaming. There is so much available that it is easy to acquire decision stress over what to watch. It is also quite easy to become addicted to the point where one lets other, more important things (such as writing) slide.

If you’re going to watch Netflix but you want to justify paying the time bandit instead of following your Muse you can actually learn quite a bit by judiciously choosing what you watch. I’m going to briefly discuss a couple of movies that you can find in Netflix’ nether regions that you either may not have heard of or which flitted across your attention due to not being your type of movie. I’ll also mention another that just hit theaters (remember theaters? Those big cavernous places that you stopped going to because half of the audience thinks they’re on Facebook, and can yell out everything they want?) yesterday. Without further ado:

Train to Busan: I quit watching Walking Dead when Rick’s son lost his eye and then pretty much gave up on the zombie horror sub-genre altogether. Someone recommended Train to Busan on Netflix as a zombie movie for people who were tired of zombies or hated the genre. My friend was right. Train to Busan, a South Korean horror film, hooks you in the first three minutes, giving you a hint of what is to come, stepping back and featuring a bit of human drama, and then putting you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half or so. The set up is that an overworked hedge fund broker takes the morning off to accompany his young daughter (who is the cutest little kid who ever walked the face of the earth) on a high-speed train to visit her mother. The zombie apocalypse breaks out on the train and off we go. These zombies, by the way, aren’t the usual shambling dodos that can be taken out with a well-placed arrow. They are fleet of foot (they can somehow stumble and run like hell at the same time) and extremely aggressive. My favorite line of the film occurs when a passenger gets on the train intercom and says, “Conductor, we have a situation!” No kidding, Sherlock. The film itself features an excellent example of how to hint at a problem at the beginning of a work, let the problem percolate off-screen (or off the page), and then bring it back with a vengeance. It also is a reminder that light rail, buses, trains, boats, or planes are to be avoided at all costs. 

Hell or High Water: This contemporary western finally made it to Netflix and will cause you to trade in your bird box or whatever. A man gets out of prison to find that the family farm has gone into foreclosure during his absence. He and his brother embark on a scheme to rob the branches of the regional bank which holds the mortgage and then use the money to pay off the loan on the farm. It could have been a comedy — and yes, as an exercise you could rewrite it as a comedy — but it isn’t. Things don’t go exactly as planned and the brothers soon find that law enforcement is after them. Jeff Bridges, in what might be the performance of his life, plays a Texas Ranger who is just weeks away from retirement. His investigation into the robberies will certainly be his last case and he wants to retire on top by identifying the robbers and bringing them in dead or alive. There is plenty of moral ambiguity to be had all around, a few quirky characters, and an ending you won’t see coming. There’s a bit of action and plenty of drama, all of it perfectly placed and paced,  but you will want to take notes on the dialogue, which is first class from beginning to end and which is just as important for what is not said as for what is.

Serenity: I obtained days before its theatrical debut an advance copy of this new Matthew McConaughey vehicle without knowing anything about it. I assumed from the title that it was a film about sobriety, ala Clean and Sober, but contrare mon frere. It’s a noir tale with many of the elements of Body Heat but which, alas, goes adrift. McConaughey plays a charter boat skipper whose ex-wife shows up, telling tales of abuse, drunkenness, and cruelty at the hands of her extremely wealthy new husband. She wants McConaughey to kill the despicable cad, promising great rewards of the material and carnal kind. One can understand why McConaughey loses his wrestling match with temptation but that is the only element that truly works here. The story gets sidetracked needlessly and pointlessly, giving one the feeling that some of the scenes were inserted to make Serenity long enough for theatrical release. There is also a twist to the story that is ridiculous by any standard. The result is a textbook case of what occurs when 1) you try to grow a story with scenes that aren’t the equal of the existing product and 2) throw a shell game into the plot which makes the audience the patsy. The Coen Brothers (who have nothing to do with Serenity) do this occasionally with UFOs, for reasons best known only to themselves. It doesn’t work for them. The cleverness inserted into Serenity doesn’t work either, and the result is a work which robs you of two hours of your life which you will never get back. It’s a great example of a waste of elements and actors, a model of what not to do to your target audience.

My question for you: what film, television show/series, or whatever have you watched recently which provided one or more teachable moments — good or bad —for your writing? And how so?

 

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Comic Relief

Photo courtesy Natalia Y on unsplash.com

Happy New Year! I hope that your holiday was as good as mine. I learned something which may have some major repercussions for me going forward.

I am not sure how what follows originally came up for discussion. The source, however, was my twelve-year-old granddaughter. She talks quite a bit about some things and not at all about others, with the border between the two constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep up, which is okay. It gives her the freedom to chatter away and me the impetus to keep trying to figure it out. So it is that during one day of her Christmas vacation she was at one moment talking about a manga character and the next was talking about something she called “comic sans.”  I assumed at first that she was referring to comic book character that she particularly revered. As she continued for a bit longer, however, I realized that she was referring to a type font.

We each and all have a favorite font. Actually, that’s wrong. We each and all have a font that we use by default. Mine, since Jesus was in short pants, has been the boring and predictable but nonetheless popular Times New Roman. Many prefer Arial. It’s not something we usually even think about, particularly when reading. A great number of books make a point of referencing, usually on a page at the back, the font in which the book is printed and providing a three or four sentence summary of its history. To wit:

This book was printed using the Beelzebub font designed by a group of renegade Tantric monks in the early 18th Century. It was once popular but fell out of favor due to the spread of a superstition that the Universe would end upon the setting of the one-billionth charact

I in any event never really paid much attention to the topic other than to occasionally check out the pull-down menu on whatever word processing software I am using and to marvel for a moment at all of the choices. I realize that my choice of Times New Roman is similar to walking into Baskin-Robbins, checking out the thirty-one flavors of the month, and choosing vanilla. Most editors and the like prefer Ariel or Times New Roman, however, so it’s a safe bet. Only…only…there seems to be a bit of discussion among the younger set regarding “Comic Sans MS.” or “Comic Sans” for short. It was originally developed as a typeface for comic book narration and word balloons in 1994. A short, light-hearted video about it with a sample can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34fOZgy4TqI One doesn’t use it for formal documents such as a will, a contract, or an all-important postgraduate thesis. But. But. The discussion taking place among the young ones concerns the use of Comic Sans as a creative tool. Proponents say that there is something about it that aides the creative process, one that seems to cause words to flow almost unbidden from brain to fingers and beyond. Opponents (my younger daughter, among them) say it doesn’t do any such thing and looks like crap besides.

 

Photo courtesy Raphael Schaller on unsplash.com

I checked Google Drive to see if I had Comic Sans as a choice and sure enough, there it was, theretofore unnoticed in the menu. It looked godawful though somehow familiar. The familiarity should not have been a surprise, given that it mimics the text that was popular in comic books, which I read by the boxfuls for decades. I opened up a new document and started writing with it. Two hours later I was still writing, stopping only after being entreated to make a pizza run. I was, as they say, in the zone. I found that for the first time in my life I actually preferred writing to reading. The words simply seem to flow, just like the kiddies say with Comic Sans than with Times New Roman or anything else I have used. God forbid that I would submit anything in Comic Sans unless it was specifically called for, but it is certainly easy enough to convert into another format for a submission or final copy.

Check it out, particularly if you are having problems, as we all sometimes do, with getting things going in the grammar mine. I can’t really explain why it works for me and apparently for others, but work it does. I find that writing with purpose is often a struggle — as with many things (but not all) it’s a lot more fun to want to do it than have to do it — but the line has been blurred. I’ve been writing and writing quite a bit, each and every day, since I have made the change. If you would, please check out the typeface — I’m having a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem so I can’t duplicate Comic Sans here — and please tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Ilnur Kalimullin on unsplash.com

I have to mention something else. I think it is terrific that young people, or at least a segment of them, even give a flying fig about a font, what helps them write, and what makes them better writers. My generation at that age really didn’t care or even think about fonts. We only thought about the print being large or small. We knew there was a difference in fonts among newspapers, books, comics, and instructions but we didn’t remark on it or give a flying fig. Younger folks do and they’re talking about it and other elements on their way to writing the best stories that they can. They are not just writing. They are reading, which is encouraging, or should be, for all of us.

 

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