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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Starving Artist

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

Charles Bukowski

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Writing Genre: The Scope of Science Fiction

One of the hallmarks of science fiction is its intense originality. Science Fiction has few limits on topics or scope, and has wandered far into speculation about the future, future societies, and technological change. Along the way, science fiction writers have explored fiction's classic themes of life and death, human failure, and challenges intrinsic to any worthwhile story. To catch an editor's eye, you must have something different in your story, something you handle especially well--a vivid character, an intriguing background, a compelling theme.

Paula E. Downing in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 1994 

Finding a Topic To Write About

Learning how to write is hard enough, but deciding what to write about--isolating a marketable subject that is appealing to you--is the most difficult task a writer must confront. Find a subject that intrigues and motives you and that will simultaneously intrigue and motivate readers. The task is double-edged. Salable subjects are around us everywhere; on the other hand, they are astoundingly elusive.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Monday, May 29, 2017

Writing in First Person

First person, past tense is a good way for beginning writers to tell a story. As voices go, it's straightforward, its boundaries reasonably clear. It's a familiar voice; we normally frame the ongoing narrative of our lives in the first person, past tense. "Where were you?" "I was out walking the dog and I stopped to buy an ice cream cone." But a first person narrator must be a participant in the story he's telling, and his involvement limits his information. He can report only what his senses reveal, what others tell him, what he knows, and what he speculates.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

For Writers, The Lure of Hollywood

They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze....In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.

Character in Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Writing Nonfiction

A beginning writer has more going for him if he decides to write a nonfiction book....A beginner has just as good a chance to find a salable idea as the professional writer.

Doris Ricker Marston

Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out.

 William Zinsser

Being a writer of nonfiction books doesn't seem perishingly difficult; it just requires a certain amount of energy and an intelligent interest in the world. And a certain accumulated skill at organizing the materials that one's research gathers.

John Jerome

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.

W. Somerset Maugham

I'll bet you think that if you write a nonfiction book that is interesting, fact filled, and with touches of great writing, a publisher is sure to buy it. Wrong. You have forgotten the first basic rule. Find out who wants it.

Oscar Collier

Fact-based writing can reach creative levels just as fiction writing does, and in the hands of an accomplished nonfiction writer, imaginative use of facts can be transformed and become art.

William Noble 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Truman Capote's Betrayal

One of the most public and wholesale rejections of a writer occurred in 1975, when Esquire published "La Cote Basque," an early chapter from Truman Capote's novel-in-progress Answered Prayers. Capote's women friends from New York's cafe society were horrified by the exposure of their secrets and promptly banished him from their inner circle. According to his editor, Joe Fox at Random House, "Virtually every friend he had in this world ostracized him for telling thinly disguised tales out of school, and many of them never spoke to him again." Their little writer friend, the elfin troublemaker, had taken things just a little too far. Capote crossed a line he claimed he hadn't known existed, though he confessed to a certain amount of delicious anticipation before the piece ran, and he agreed to be photographed for the magazine's cover with a fedora wickedly tilted atop his head while he pared his fingernails with a very long blade.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For the Trees, 2000

Sportswriter Red Smith

The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences. You can search the columns of Red Smith and never find a batsman bouncing into a twin killing. Smith wasn't afraid to let a batsman hit into a double play. But you will find hundreds of unusual words--good English words--chosen with precision and fitted into situations where no other sportswriter would put them. They please us because the writer cared about using fresh imagery in a journalistic form where his competitors settle for the same old stuff. That's why Red Smith was still king of his field after half a century of writing, and why his competitors had long since been sent--as they would be the first to say--to the showers.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, first published in 1975

Friday, May 26, 2017

Revealing Oneself Through Fiction

Many start writing fiction as a dodge, thinking it will provide a good hideout from themselves. Yet those who write stories and novels to escape themselves invariably discover that this is who they stumble over at every turn. Even though novelists and short story writers ostensibly deal in fantasy, they are the most self-exposed authors of all. Writers of nonfiction can be judged on their ability to marshal facts coherently and gracefully. Poets can hide behind elegant words, powerful metaphors, and seductive rhythms. Fiction writers are judged by the emotional authenticity of their work. To create authentic feelings in their characters, they must first call up their own.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Floyd Mayweather's Cry For Help From the Bowels of the Clark County Jail

     Undefeated lightweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., an unpopular fighter in a corrupt and dying sport, pleaded guilty in December 2011 to beating Josie Harris, the mother of three of his children. The assault took place in Mayweather's palatial 12,000-foot square home in the upscale Southern Highlands neighborhood in Las Vegas.

     On June 1, 2012, Mayweather began serving his 87-day sentence at the Clark County Detention Center. Because he's a celebrity and a notorious loudmouth, corrections officials, for the boxer's own protection, isolated him from the general jail population. (I'm sure jail administrators were not thrilled to learn they would be responsible for this guy.)

     A few days into his incarceration, Mayweather's attorney filed an emergency motion asking for a modification of the multi-millionare's sentence. The boxer's lawyer, citing "inhumane" conditions at the lockup, wanted the justice of the peace to change Mayweather's sentence to house arrest, or, at the very least, 3 days a week in the hell-hole, and the rest of the week at home. (There are millions of Americans who would plead guilty to murder in order to be sentenced to life without parole at Mayweather's mansion. There are probably hundreds of thousands who would find the Clark County Jail an improvement over their current living conditions.)

     So what were the inhumane conditions that required Mr. Mayweather's immediate rescue from county incarceration? Was he living off bread and water in a stifling hot cell equipped with a bucket and a lice-infested mattress? Was he fighting off rats, sexual predators, a gang of deranged skinheads, and sadistic guards? What?

     According to the 35-page sentence modification motion with the attached affidavit from Mayweather's personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, after 10 days in the can, the boxer was getting out of shape. Incarceration was interfering, in a serious way, with his career as a prize fighter. (And great prizes at that. Last month, in his victory over Migel Cotto, Mayweather walked away with $32 million. Most fans who paid to see the fight paid to see Mayweather lose. Instead they saw a boring bout.) As an inmate at the Clark County Jail, Mayweather was not able to maintain his exercise regime. And perhaps even worse, the joint's food and water were simply not up to his standards.

      Because this special man was forced to eat bread, fruit, and energy bars purchased from the commissary rather than the crap fed to the other inmates, Mr. Mayweather was only taking in 800 calories a day. In other words, his Clark County captors were starving him to death! They were not mistreating an ordinary beater of woman, this man was a professional. He was the holder of a title belt, and lest you forget, he had been on "Dancing with the Stars"! (His only defeat.) How could this be happening in America?

     Arguments on Mayweather's motion were heard before Las Vegas justice of the peace Melissa Saragosa on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. Ruling that Mayweather's request did not meet the criterial for sentence modification, (an illegal sentence, or one based upon an untrue assumption or mistake of fact) Saragosa condemned the prisoner to 75 more days in Clark County hell.

     When asked by a reporter to comment on Mayweather's sentence modification plea, prosecutor Lisa Luzaich remarked, "It's jail. Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"

     Floyd Mayweather is now a successful boxing promotor operating out of Las Vegas.     

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Writer's Vocabulary

A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language, for some kinds of fiction at least, can be more effective than complex language which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty or faulty education.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 1984

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Literary Jerks

An ordinary, nonliterary jerk is a person with an off-putting personality who nobody likes. While the term "jerk" is not included in the jargon of psychology, we all know what it means. Miserable jerks are even worse, and populate every profession. In the literary world, miserable jerks are often well-educated novelists whose literary ambitions far exceed their talents. Miserable jerks often end up as unpublished college professors teaching aspiring novelists how to write. Again, if I may use the vernacular, a flaming jerk is an egotistical, mildly talented novelist who writes a bestseller that miserable jerks hate. While writing bad reviews of this flaming jerk's novel, they take to their writing desks to imitate his literary style. It's all pretty sad.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

Kurt Vonnegut on Literary Critics

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.

Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, 1981 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bombers On Welfare: A New Form of State-Sponsored Terrorism

     Americans who grew up in the 1950s were programed to respect and obey the law, work hard, and raise their own children without state interference. They also paid their taxes. Today, I image that most people of this generation remain true to these values. I've been fortunate to have lived in this country my entire life. I earned a wage for forty years, paid my taxes, have never been to jail, and helped raise a family. I don't like paying taxes which I believe are too high, but I pay them anyway because that's part of the social contract that binds us as a nation. It's also against the law to cheat the government.

     Citizens of my generation were taught to play by the rules. You don't drive unless you have a valid driver's license, an updated inspection sticker, and car insurance. I consider being pulled over for speeding and not being able to produce my driver's license because I left it at home a big problem. I would come away from that experience feeling like a criminal. I still view shoplifting, bad check passing, and illegal drug possession as crimes of moral turpitude. Growing up, I don't think I met anyone who had been in jail. In the past, cops were treated with respect even if they didn't deserve it.

     Today, when I go to the doctor's office, if I don't have my social security data and my insurance papers, the doctor won't see me. There are no excuses. When I go to vote, I expect to be asked to produce a driver's license or some other form of identification. That requirement doesn't offend me because it makes sense. You are only allowed to vote once, and you have to be a U. S. citizen.

     Years ago, the U. S. government lent me money to go to college. I paid it back. The idea of not paying it back never entered my mind. In my day, people who didn't pay their bills were considered deadbeats. The vast majority of citizens who were on welfare back then were on the dole temporarily because they were ashamed and embarrassed by having to rely on the government. Welfare was not a way of life. People didn't feel entitled to a free lunch.

     In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the terrorists' mother was on television criticizing the United States government for framing and not protecting her two sons. She and her husband had lived in this country ten years. They left the county but their boys stayed here. While the family lived in Massachusetts they were on state welfare. The boys had free rides in college, and while they were plotting to kill Americans, were living off welfare checks.

     Since the bombings, a Massachusetts state legislator has been on TV revealing how easy it is in that state to get on welfare. All a resident has to do is ask for the money. Social security numbers are not required. In other words, bureaucrats in Massachusetts have no idea who they are giving taxpayer money to. As it turned out, they were giving it to a pair of terrorists who set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon.

    One would have to conclude that the people of Massachusetts are either very wealthy or not very bright. As a U. S. citizen who pays his taxes and obeys the law, I can't see my doctor without my social security data. In Massachusetts, suspected terrorists go to college free, and live on the dole. This gives new meaning to the phrase state-sponsored terrorism.

     

Literary Awards

Goodreads.com lists over 6,000 [literary] prizes on its web site. The oldest, the Nobel Prize in Literature, was founded in 1901; the youngest was established yesterday. Ten more will certainly be announced tomorrow.

Amanda Foreman, author, 2013 interview

Clean Up Your Writing

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976

Monday, May 22, 2017

George Orwell and C.S. Lewis

If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called "England Your England" while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

David Brooks, "Really Good Books, Part I," The New York Times, May 22, 2014 

The Screenwriting Workshop

There comes a time in every screenwriter's career when he feels the need to cease a solitary existence and enroll in a class or workshop. Before you jump in, be aware that many of these classes are taught by petty people. Of course not all workshops are evil. [I'm not so sure about that.] In fact, there are many wonderful workshops and teachers across the country. Just make sure the instructor of your workshop promotes constructive, not destructive, feedback, and the other students seem talented, supportive and serious. [My idea of good advice from workshop instructor: If you have real talent, get the hell out of this class. Movies today are crap, written by teams of hacks. Write a genre novel or get into nonfiction. Or better yet, get a real job.]

Richard Krevolin, Screenwriting in the Land of Oz, 2011

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Teenagers Charged With Murdering a Boy in a Car They Stole

     At two-thirty on the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, 2017, Ebony Archie pulled into the Kroger supermarket parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. With her 6-year-old son Kingston Frazier asleep in the back seat of her running Toyota Camry, the mother entered the store to purchase some medicine.

     According to a parking lot surveillance camera, shortly after the mother entered the grocery store, two men in a two-door Honda Civic approached the Toyota. One of the men climbed out of the Honda, got behind the wheel of Ebony Archie's car and drove off with the 6-year-old still in the back seat.

     When the mother came of the supermarket and discovered her car and her son missing, she reported the theft to a Hinds County sheriff's deputy on patrol on the lot. She did not, however, initially mention that she had left her son in the stolen car.

     At 4:30 that afternoon, when the distraught mother informed the police of her missing son, the authorities broadcast an Amber Alert.

     Sometime during the early morning hours of Friday, May 19, 2017, a citizen reported seeing the stolen Toyota parked alongside a dirt road outside the Madison County town of Gluckstadt, Mississippi. In the back seat of the vehicle, police officers discovered the corpse of Kingston Frazier. The boy had been shot at least once in the head.

     At ten o'clock that morning, Madison County District Attorney Michael Guest announced at a press conference that within hours of the discovery of Kingston Frazier's body, three local teenage suspects had been taken into custody and charged with capital murder.

     The murder suspects were: Dwan Wakefield, 17, D'Allen Washington, 17, and Bryon McBride, 19. (In Mississippi, 17-year-olds accused of capital murder can be charged as adults. They could also face the death penalty.)

     According to media reports, Dwan Wakefield was a senior at Ridgeland High School where he had played football until he was thrown off the team for an unspecified reason. At the press conference, the district attorney did not reveal the roles each suspect had allegedly played in the boy's murder. The suspects were due in court for arraignment on Monday, May 22, 2017. 

Biography As The Unwanted Genre

Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both. In the historian's view it takes ten thousand biographies to make one small history. To the novelist biographers are simply what Nabokov called, "psycho-plagiarists."

Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper, 2002

Friday, May 19, 2017

Movies About Writers

     Writers like watching movies about themselves. It gives us something to do. My doctor father used to scoff at movies about doctors because he was always finding fault with some diagnosis or treatment. I don't know how cops or lawyers feel about their portrayals. Politicians are usually shown as corruptible. Teachers as sad. Writers are variously crazy (Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"), reckless (Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys"), cranky (Van Johnson in "23 Paces to Baker Street"), self-destructive (Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend"), without principle (William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard") and/or flailing (Paul Giamatti in "Sideways"). Nothing to argue with, really.

     What we are not shown doing in movies is writing. Composers are shown composing because we can listen to their flights of fancy on the soundtrack. Painters are shown painting because one can actually see art in progress. Kirk Douglas did some very good van Gogh impressions. Ed Harris went so hog wild in "Pollock," one was tempted to go out and buy an original Harris. But writers are rarely shown laboring at the craft....I suppose there's nothing visually dramatic in what we do, though we can get quite worked up about crumpling little balls of paper, tossing them on the floor, then turning our heads this way and sometimes that.

Roger Rosenblatt, 2013   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

In Writing, Having an Idea For a Book is the Easy Part

Most anyone can have a great idea. A smaller group might get it onto paper in some form. A fair number of those will be able to revise parts of it until it is very good. Yet to take all the elements such as character and themes and place, and to think about voice, style and language, just doesn't happen in one fell swoop. Only a few writers can take what first comes out on the page and work it until every bit of it is right, until all of its parts become a beautiful whole. True talent--perhaps even genius--lies not in coming up with the idea but in being able to do the hard, dogged work that brings that idea to fruition.

Carole Burns, Off The Page, 2008


B. R. Myers on The "Literary" Novelist

The joy of being a [literary] writer today is that you can claim your work's flaws are all there by design. Plot doesn't add up? It was never meant to; you were playfully reworking the conventions of traditional narrative. Your philosophizing makes no sense? Well, we live in an incoherent age after all. The dialogue is implausible? Comedy often is. But half the jokes fall flat?  Ah! Those were the serious bits. Make sure then, that your readers can never put a finger on what you are trying to say at any point in the book. Let them create their own text--you're just the one who gets paid for it.

B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002
[This is an outstanding, groundbreaking book.]

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Journalist as Con Artist

     Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson.

     Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

     The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett produced work so stark, yet so complex, that any attempt to dismiss him as a mystery writer would be a glaring error. In Red Harvest, 1929, he deals with mob control and mob wars in a town called Personville, nicknamed Poisonville. The bad guys are bad, and the good guys are bad in a good way, and the whole book is a morality play. Forces of light and dark run through the actions of tough guys. The value of traditional male ideals is enhanced because even some awfully cynical people can still hold them.

Jack Cady, The American Writer, 1999

The Role of Popular Music in Mass Shooting/Suicides

School shootings, like other mass murders and suicide clusters, reflects the culture of the times. The role of the media takes many forms in such events, but perhaps nothing rules and mirrors the culture of adolescents the way music does. Yesterday's swing and jazz, as remembered in bebop, the Lindy, the shimmy, and the Charleston, have evolved into the music that fills our world today: Rock and roll. New wave. Punk. Heavy mental. Grunge rock. Hip-Hop. Gangsta rock. Death rock. The beat, lyrics, groups and individual artists are held in high regard. Rock-star look-alikes are everywhere. And the fashion follows the music in more than clothing. Attitudes and beliefs systems are born from the messages communicated or reinforced through teen music.

Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect, 2004 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jim Thompson's True Crime Writing Tips

True crime stories must be post-trial, with the perpetrators convicted and sentenced at the conclusion…Use active writing, avoid passive constructions. Remember that detectives probe, dig up, determine, deduce, seek out, ascertain, discover, hunt, root out, delve, uncover, track, trace, and inspect. They also canvass, inquire, question, and quiz.

Jim Thompson in Savage Art by Robert Polito, 1995

Supernatural Fiction

More than other genres, supernatural fiction is defined by atmosphere and characterization. By atmosphere I mean the author's ability to evoke a mood or place viscerally by the use of original and elegant, almost seductive language. The most successful supernatural novels are set in our world. Their narrative tension, their very ability to frighten and transport us, derives from a conflict between the macabre and the mundane, between everyday reality and the threatening other--whether revenant [a ghost that returns], werewolf, or demonic godling--that seeks to destroy it.

Elizabeth Hand in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002

Literary Critics in England Versus the U.S.

     Book reviewing in England is and always has been somewhat differently arranged than in the United States. Most often, in the United States, writers review one another's books and there is some sense of generosity born of shared time in the novel-writing trenches. It is more common in England for a novel to be reviewed by what you might call professional book assessors…

     It is perfectly acceptable, and even desirable, in England for a reviewer to show off his talent for eloquent invective at the expense of the author--desirable because it's fun for all, and if a novel is entertainingly killed, that's one less author who will be pulling his chair up to a crowded table.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at The Novel, 2005

     

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The World's Most Stupid Book

Think of what a difficulty it would be if you couldn't use the most common letter in your writing. In 1937, Ernest Vincent Wright took the challenge head on and wrote a book called Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E." Wright literally tied down the e  key on his typewriter and spent 165 days writing without e's (the e-filled subtitle was added later by the publisher.) Not that Wright lived a life of ease from his e-less accomplishment. He died the day Gadsby was published. [The plot of this self-published book revolves around the dying fictional city of Hills that is revitalized thanks to the protagonist, John Gadsby and a youth group he organizes. The book, sought after by book collectors, entered the public domain in 1968.]

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type of Person To Be A Writer, 2003 

Drug Raid Adrenaline

One of the biggest adrenaline rushes on this job [law enforcement officer] is being the first one through the door on a drug raid. You wait on deck, knowing that because you are about to enter a place where the occupants can be both armed and high...You have your gun drawn, sweat salting the corners of your mouth, ready to rumble with a pit bull, ready to shoot, punch, duck, shout commands. You don't know what's on the other side of that door. One suspect? Two? A baker's dozen? That great unknown generates a specific electric charge, one that starts in your stomach and ends up somewhere in your chest, a kind of queasy excitement born of both expectation and resolve. There is nothing like it. [The same is true for the people being raided.]

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Written

The shortest science fiction story on record, which is always attributed to that most prolific author, Anonymous, is in its entirety: "The last man on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door." These two lines have the hallmarks of a good science fiction story: It's accessible, there's at least one mind-bending idea, it has an interesting character, and you want to find out what happens next.

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Science Fiction Fans

I think science fiction, along with jazz, is America's great contribution to world culture. It's as great as jazz, as profligate, and wonderful. What disappoints me about it is that most of its practitioners have not been as good as they should have been, and the fact that science fiction emerged as a genre of commercial literature, forced to make adjustments and compromises to accommodate a mass audience, which was not its aesthetic interest. I don't segregate myself from those who do so. The readership has contributed to this debasement, I suppose, but any readership does. Norman Spinrod said the worst thing about science fiction is fandom. I don't disagree with that at all. Fandom has destroyed some authors. The need to be a hero.

Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, 1980 

Teenage Parents Accused of Giving Toddler Marijuana

     In late November 2013, someone called 911 to report that the parents of a two-year-old had helped, observed or encouraged their toddler to breathe smoke from a lighted bowl of marijuana. The alleged incident took placed in Mayfield, New York, an upstate town in Chatauqua County not far from Buffalo.

     On December 5, 2013, deputies with the Chatgauqua County Sheriff's Office arrested the parents and the grandfather of the weed-exposed child. George Kelsey, 18, Jessica Kelsey, 17, and 54-year-old Don Baker were booked into the Chataququa County Jail on charges of second-degree reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. A magistrate set each of the suspect's bond at $20,000.

     The two-year-old victim has been placed into the care of a child protection agency pending the outcome of the case.

     If the endangerment charges prove true, these stupid, drug-addled parents should lose permanent custody of their child. Moreover, the judge should impose the maximum sentence on all three defendants.

     In a nation of potheads, kids under twelve are the only sober citizens left. How long will that last? 

Appreciating the Novel

Willing suspension of disbelief is a strange state of mine--reading nonfiction does not require it and neither does reading poetry, since both are based on logical argument…The world is full of people who are rather proud that they don't read novels. Publishers often lament that the audience for novels is narrowing, and especially that it is losing men. A literary education not only enlarges a readers' willingness to suspend disbelief by extending her range of pleasures, it also strengthens her ability to enter the meditative state, and to be receptive to the influence of another human mind, because it is a state of contemplation that is essential to the true appreciation of the novel.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways at Looking at the Novel, 2005 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

E.B. White's Journals

My journals date from about 1917 to about 1930, with a few entries of more recent date. They occupy two-thirds of a whiskey carton. How many words that would be I have no idea, but it would be an awful lot. The journals are callow, sententious, moralistic, and full of rubbish. They are also hard to ignore. They were written sometimes in longhand, sometimes typed (single typed). They contain many clippings. Extensive is the word for them. I do not hope to publish them, but I would like to get a little mileage out of them. After so many years, they tend to hold my attention even though they do not excite my admiration. I have already dipped into them on a couple of occasions, to help out on a couple of pieces.

E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954 

The Real Threat to Civil Liberty

An important tenet of civil liberties is that the greatest danger to liberty comes from the powerful state. The greatest disasters throughout history have been inflicted by states. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Stalinist murders, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide--all were inflicted by governments. Hence, the focus of civil libertarian concerns has always been on the abuse of power by state actors.

Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works, 2002

The Traditional Fantasy Milieu

At the heart of most traditional fantasy milieu is a culture derived from that of the European Middle Ages, in large part the medieval societies of what are now Great Britain, France and Germany. The culture is a synthesis of both the Roman culture that dominated western Europe for some five centuries and of the Germanic culture that eventually overran and absorbed it. Three major institutions formed the basis of medieval society and dictated how most people lived. These were feudalism, manorialism and Christianity.

Michael J. Varbola in The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, edited by the editors of Writer's Digest Books, 1998 

The M'Naghten Case and the Birth of the Insanity Defense

     On Friday, January 20, 1843, in a shot heard around the world, Scottish woodcutter and conspiracy theorist Daniel M'Naghten fired at and killed Edward Drummond, private secretary of Sir Robert Peel. M'Naghten was under the impression that he was shooting at Sir Robert, then Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was further under the delusion that Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the first London Police force was part of a cabal, along with the Pope and the Society of Jesus, that plotted to abridge the rights of British subjects and that had deliberately set out to spy on and persecute him.

     That M'Naghten was insane there was no doubt; nine medical experts testified for the defense, and none for the prosecution. That insanity was accepted as a defense came as a surprise, and that M'Naghten was acquitted "by reason of insanity" came as a shock. [In many states the insanity defense doctrine is called The M'Naghten Rule.]

Michael Kurland, How To Try a Murder, 1997


Friday, May 12, 2017

University Hazing Deaths

     Over the past ten years there have been more than two dozen hazing deaths at U. S. colleges and universities. Victims of these unintentional, senseless killings were members of fraternities, school bands, or sports teams that had long histories of putting new members through right-of-passage rituals. These young people died because they desperately wanted to belong. Despite the efforts of university administrators and others to break this tradition, hazing has continued and students die as a result. (Since 1970, there has been at least one hazing related death on a college campus every year. Eighty-two percent of these  hazing deaths involved alcohol.)

The Penn State Case

     In early February 2017, a hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house led to the death of a 19-year-old pledge from Lebanon, New Jersey. After consuming vast amounts of alcohol, Timothy Piazza fell several times causing a fractured skull and shattered spleen. Fraternity members waited 12 hours after the pledge's first fall to call 911. In May 2017, the local prosecutor charged eight fraternity brothers with involuntary manslaughter.

The Chen Deng Case

     Before the Penn State hazing death, Chen Hsien Deng died pursuant to a fraternity house incident.

     Chen Hsien Deng, a 19-year-old freshman finance major at Baruch College in Manhattan, New York, joined the Pi Delta Psi fraternity. According to its published profile, this fraternal organization is an Asian-American group with a mission to "spread Asian-Amerian cultural awareness." Founded in 1994, the organization has chapters in twenty states and the District or Columbia.

     On Friday, December 6, 2013, thirty members of Pi Delta Psi left New York City en route to the Poconos Mountain region in northeastern Pennsylvania. Chen Deng was one of four fraternity pledges participating in the weekend getaway. The group had rented a house in Tunkhannock Township in Monroe County.

     On Sunday, December 8, 2013, at eight-fifteen in the morning, three of Deng's fraternity brothers drove him to the Geisinger Wyoming Valley Hospital emergency room in Danville, Pennsylvania. Doctors found the freshman unresponsive and immediately placed him on life support. Twenty-four hours later, Chen Deng died.

     Two days later, a spokesperson for the Luzerne County Coroner's Office announced that Chen Deng had died from "closed head injuries due to blunt force trauma."

     Investigators with the Poconos Mountain Regional Police Department, when they searched the rented house in Tunkhannock Township, found marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

      At the hospital, detectives spoke to Sheldon Wong, the fraternity's "pledge educator." Wong said that Deng had injured his head when he fell backward in the snow while wrestling another fraternity brother. Charles Lai, another member of the fraternity told a different story. According to Lai, Deng had died during a hazing ritual called "The Gauntlet." In this initiation game, a blindfolded pledge is repeatedly tackled as he runs a gauntlet of fraternity brothers while carrying a backpack full of sand. After Deng was knocked unconscious in the snow outside the rented house, fraternity brothers carried him into the dwelling.

     Before driving Deng to the hospital, fraternity members removed and replaced his wet clothing. Next, someone made an Internet search regarding the unconscious pledge's symptoms. The Internet inquiry also included determining the location of the nearest hospital. An hour after Deng collapsed in the snow, the three Pi Delta Psi fraternity brothers drove him to the emergency room in Danville.

     At the hospital, one of the fraternity brothers called the rented house in Tunkhannock and instructed someone there to dispose of all fraternity memorabilia as well as anything else that would reveal what had happened to the dead pledge.

     In July 2015, 37 members of the fraternity were charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hindering apprehension, and other related offenses.

     In January 2017, 25-year-old Ka-Wing Yuen became the first defendant in the Deng Case to plead guilty. Yuen pleaded guilty to the felony charge of hindering apprehension and the lesser offense of conspiracy to haze. He faced up to eight years in prison. The judge sentenced Yuen to five years of probation.
     

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

The Golden Age of detective fiction occurred between the two world wars, when several crucial developments changed the genre forever. The stories became more literate and the detectives more believable--no longer were they persons of super human intellect who could look at someone's shoes and determine where they had just been by the type of dirt collected there. Also, much more emphasis was put on period and character as opposed to merely constructing a clever puzzle.

Jay Pearsal, Mystery & Crime, 1995

Killing Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle was naturally gratified by his success but increasingly concerned that Sherlock Homes was damaging his aspirations to be considered a serious writer. As early as November 1891, only four years after Holmes's first appearance in print, he had written to his mother revealing that he was thinking of "slaying" Holmes in the final story of the first series. "He takes my mind from better things," he explained. Mary Doyle was horrified that he should think of eliminating the source of such a handsome income and urgently advised him to reconsider.

Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008 

Novelist Lawrence Block on False Starts and Failures

     In the past two or three years I've had perhaps half a dozen ideas for novels that got no further than the first chapter. I've written three novels that got no further than the first chapter. I've written novels that died after I'd written over a hundred pages; they repose in my file cabinet at this very moment, like out-of-gas cars on a highway, waiting for someone to start them up again. I very much doubt they'll ever be completed.

     That's not all. During that same stretch of time I've seen two novels through to completion and succeeded only in producing books that no one has wanted to publish--and, I've come to believe, for good and sufficient reason. Both were books I probably shouldn't have tried writing in the first place. Both failures constituted learning experiences that will almost certainly prove beneficial in future work. While I could by no means afford the time spent on these books, neither can I properly write that time off as altogether wasted.

     But how could an established professional [author] write an unpublishable book? If he's written a dozen or two dozen or five dozen publishable ones in a row, wouldn't you think he'd have the formula down pat?

     The answer, of course, is that there's no such thing as a formula. Except in the genuinely rare instances of writers who tend to write the same book over and over, every novel is a wholly new experience.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Writing Students Can't Take Criticism

     I have had creative writing students who could neither give nor take criticism without getting fiery red in the face and rough in the voice--so sensitive to personal slight that they could neither take it themselves nor dish it out, without a heavy component of hostility. Untreated, that disease can be fatal; even treated, it is uncomfortable.

     If criticism affects you that way, you are very unlikely to "make it" as a writer, because there is no way to learn, except through criticism--your own or someone else's.

Wallace Stegner, Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002 

Violent Crime as Entertainment

American culture as a whole has cultivated a taste for violence that seems to be insatiable. We are a people obsessed with violence, and consequently, our entertainment industry is driven by such violence. The violence of our popular culture reflected in movies, TV programs, magazines, and fact or fiction books in the latter part of the twentieth century has made the shocking realism of this violence a routine task that we all face. Our own sense of humanity is anesthetized to the point of losing consciousness. [The trend has continued into the twenty-first century. A recent study showed that movies rated R in the 1990s are much milder than their modern counterparts. Moreover, the Internet is a venue for people who enjoy the aftermath of criminal deviance and raw violence.]

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1998

Executioners Got No Respect

Accounts of criminal trials published in old books and documents generally go into much deatil of the court proceedings. The judge's name, the lawyers' speeches, evidence given by the witnesses, even the prisoners' protestations, are covered in full. And when executions were held in public, news sheets described each one minutely, dwelling avidly on the victims's behavior, the crowd's reactions. Yet little if anything was said about the official presiding over the dreaded finale. He was referred to only as the "executioner," thereby implying that he was unworthy of further identification, except as an object of scorn.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 1991

Suspension of Disbelief in Fiction Reading

In any piece of fiction, the writer's first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe), or else to engage the reader's interest in the patent absurdity of the lie. The realistic writer's way of making events convincing is verisimilitude. The tale writer, telling stories of ghosts, or shape-shifter, or some character who never sleeps, uses a different approach: By the quality of his voice, and by means of various devices that distract the critical intelligence, he gets what Coleridge called--in one of the most clumsy famous sentences in all literature--"the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 1983 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The AR-15: America's Favorite Rifle

     The Colt AR-15, often known as the assault rifle, has captured the imagination of gun enthusiasts who are drawn to its sleek form, portability and ease of use, as well as a mystique born of its connection to the M-16, its combat cousin from the Vietnam War.

     Part of the appeal of the firearm stems…from the ability to "accessorize it like a Barbie doll," given  extras like interchangeable optics systems and gun barrels. Its military pedigree and appeal to hobbyists has helped spur sales of 5 million AR-15s in the last two decades, with most of these buys coming in just the past six years. According to industry figures, nearly one of five guns sold in the U. S. is now a semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle….

     Even with the renewed effort to ban them, AR-15-style rifles appear to have attained a level of cultural currency rivaling the six-shooter that "Won the West" and Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum.

Andrew Blankstein, "The Most Loved, and Hated, Gun in America," NBC News, December 13, 2013

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Prison Health Care: Providing the Best For The Worst

     There is something profoundly wrong with a government that provides convicted felons with better health care than it does to many sick people who haven't committed crimes against their fellow citizens. Perhaps this is what happens when a criminal justice system is organized around the idea of protecting the defendant. In Massachusetts, for example, a judge ordered the state to finance the sex change of a man who had murdered his wife. If Robert Kosilek hadn't strangled his wife to death, taxpayers would not have been forced to pay the cost of changing him into a female.

     In 2005, a judge in California, after determining that prison health in that state was unconstitutionally substandard, granted a so-called "receiver" the power to hire state medical personnel and set their pay levels. In 2004, the prison health care bill cost California taxpayers $1.1 billion. In 2012, the cost of providing California inmates quality health care cost the state $2.3 billion. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of California prison system health care workers--doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, and psychiatrists--jumped from 5,100 to 12,000. The system also employed 1,400 health care paper shufflers.

     In 2011, 44 of California's highest paid employees worked in the prison health care system. A psychiatrist who worked at the Salinas Valley State Prison, made $803,271 in 2012. (This shrink must  have been good.) A prison doctor in northern California made, in 2011, a base salary of $239,572 plus $169,548 in overtime for working nights and weekends. A registered nurse at the High Desert State Prison pulled down $246,000 that year. In bankrupt California, when it comes to health care, nothing is too good for the state's 124,700 state prison inmates. (These prison health care expenses don't cover the tens of thousands of county jail prisoners throughout the state.)

     Since 2006, heroin addicted inmates at Albuquerque's Metropolitan Detention Center, New Mexico's largest jail, have been treated with methadone to ease the trauma of withdrawal. Warden Ramon Rustin, in November 2012, announced that the $10,000-a-month program was too expensive, that the taxpayers of his county simply couldn't afford this in-jail drug treatment measure. Rustin, the former warden of the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with 32 years experience in the corrections field, said he didn't believe the costly program helped drug-addicted inmates stay out of jail once they were released.

     A month after Warden Rustin's effort to save the county serious money, the  county ccommissioners ordered him to extend the program two months during which time a study of its effectiveness would be conducted. (This is typical government. In the private sector, studies of cost-effectiveness are ongoing, and if a measure wastes money, it's immediately cut.) The county also received $200,000 a year from the state to help fund its methadone program.

     When a person commits a crime that is serious enough to land him in prison, any health care he or she receives while in custody should be treated as a privilege rather than a constitutional right. The rule should be this: If you want good health care, don't murder anyone, rob a store, break into a home, beat your wife and children, or commit a sexual assault. If good health is your priority, exercise, quit smoking, eat right, and stay off drugs and booze. Also, get a job. If you feel the need to switch genders while in prison, fine, but you don't deserve to have law obeying taxpayers foot the bill.

     In the United States, when it comes to health care, crime pays, and at the huge expense of the law obeying tax payer. (Here's an idea, if you get sick and need an expensive operation you can't afford, but don't want to rob a bank or kill someone, stop paying your taxes.)  

A Bad Novel is as Hard to Write as a Good One

When it comes to the novel you have to work long and hard even to produce a bad one. This may help explain why there are so many more bad amateur poets around than there are bad amateur novelists. Writing a good poem may be as difficult as writing a good novel. It may even be harder. But any clown with a sharp pencil can write out a dozen lines of verse and call it a poem. Not just any clown can fill 200 pages with prose and call it a novel. Only the more determined clowns can get the job done.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

What To Do If You Want to Write a Novel

If you want to write a novel, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1985 

Science Fiction Versus the Fantasy Genre

If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it's science fiction. If it's set in a universe that doesn't follow our rules, it's fantasy. [It's the rocket ship versus the magic carpet.]

Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990

Monday, May 8, 2017

Writing Your Memoir

     A memoir takes a certain amount of arrogance to write….One must think one's life is important or interesting enough to palm off on an unsuspecting public. At least fiction writers have the pretense that their work has more to do with their characters than with themselves. Still, I doubt you'd find much of a difference between a memoir writer and a fiction writer in the humility department.

     Or maybe memoir writers tend more toward exhibitionism, are more willing--eager, in fact--to slap their cards on the table and squawk, "Read 'em and weep." The fiction writer, cagier, plays his hand close to his vest, pretends he knows how to bluff.

     If you write your life down on the page, beginning with "I was born in…" and ending with, "As I pen these immortal words, I gasp my last breath," what you've probably got is a self-indulgent autobiography, not a memoir. A memoir usually deals with a portion of one's life--say, childhood--not the life in its entirety.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 1994

Joining A Writing Group

Blooming writers really do not know what to expect when they sign up for a workshop or a creative-writing class. Some want to learn to write, or to write better. Others have been writing a great deal for a long time and want some feedback. These are realistic goals. A certain kind of person finds writing classes and workshops to be like camp, and just wants to hang out with all these other people, maybe with a writer he or she respects, to get and give response and encouragement, and to hear how other people tell their stories. Some people want other people with whom to share the disappointments and rejection letters and doldrums. A lot of people like to work on other people's writing because it helps them figure out what they themselves love in the written word, as well as what doesn't work for them. And others want feedback from people who aren't quite friends or editors but who will be realistic and honest and helpful.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994

Mega Millions Lottery Odds

     [In state mega millions lotteries], the incredibly remote odds [250 million to one] don't really sink in for people. They don't really understand probabilities at all. Once you have a bunch of zeroes, it doesn't matter how many you have--one in 10,000, one in a million or one in a billion….

     When people are desperately sick, there's always a part of the brain that thinks there will be a miracle cure. It you want something to be true, your brain is awfully good at figuring out reasons, magical ones, that there's a good likelihood that it is true. The desire to win does drive a certain kind of frenzied optimism.

Professor George Loewenstein as quoted in an Associated Press article by Sharon Cohen, December 17, 2013


Who Do You Trust?

     An AP-GfK poll conducted [a few years ago] found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling….

     What's known as "social trust" brings good things. A society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.

     Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities….

     People do get a little more trusting as they age. [Perhaps that's why so many old people are victimized by swindlers.] But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting that those who came before them….

     There's no single explanation for Americans' loss of trust. The best-known analysis comes from Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam's nearly two decades of studying the United States' declining "social capital," including trust. Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings makes people less trustful than the "civic generation" that came of age during the Depression and World War II….

      Crime rates fell in the 1990s and 2000s, and still Americans grow less trusting. Many social scientists blame 24-hour news coverage of distant violence for skewing people's perceptions of crime.

Connie Cass, "Poll: Americans Don't Trust Each Other," Associated Press, November 30, 2013 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The First Date From Hell Case

     Efren Molina experienced a smaller scale but real-life version of what Clint Eastwood and Michael Douglas went through in the classic thrillers, "Play Misty For Me" (1971), and "Fatal Attraction" (1987). In both films, Eastwood and Douglas scored quickly with women they didn't know who turned out to be violent psychopaths extremely adverse to rejection.

     On Tuesday evening, November 20, 2012, 39-year-old Efren Molina, a week after meeting Jillian Martone, took the 35-year-old out to dinner in Boca Raton, Florida. It was their first date. Following food and drinks, the couple returned to Molina's apartment.

     Shortly after midnight, things turned ugly when Martone referred to herself as Molina's girlfriend. Taking exception to that characterization of their relationship, he corrected her. She flew into a rage. Molina asked his date to leave the apartment, but instead of stomping out of the place, Martone allegedly punched him in the face, then tried to stab him with a kitchen knife.

     After disarming the furious woman, Molina told Martone to leave his apartment. She refused. Molina and his roommate had to drag the screaming woman down the stairs and out of the building. Moline returned to his apartment and called the police.

     Before the police arrived at the scene, Martone threw two rocks that smashed Molina's apartment window. When officers with the Boca Raton arrived at the scene, they found a hysterical Martone still outside Molina's building.  After questioning Molina and Martone, the police took the woman into custody.

     Martone was charged with aggravated assault with intent to kill, battery, and burglary. (Why burglary? Once she refused to leave the apartment, Martone became an intruder.)

     This was not the first time Jillian Martone had run afoul of the law. In January 2011, she had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and causing a public disturbance. Three months later, the police took her into custody on charges of DUI and possession of a harmful drug without a prescription.

     While first dates are risky, and don't always turn out well, not many end up with bloody faces, broken windows, and hysterical women being hauled off to jail on charges of aggravated assault. It could have been worse. Who knows what would have happened had there been a second date. (I have been unable to determine the disposition of this case, but will venture a guess that the criminal charges were dropped in exchange for some kind of mental health treatment.)   

Lapdog Journalism

I think the principal problem with the establishment press, at least in terms of political journalism, has been excess deference to, and closeness with, the most powerful political factions, precincts over which journalism is, at its best, supposed to exercise oversight and serve as a watchdog. Instead it serves as a kind of amplifying mechanism and as a servant to them.

Glenn Greenwald [The Guardian journalist who published surveillance stories leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.] Quoted in The Daily Caller, December 7, 2013 

Execution by Rope

For centuries, disposing of criminals by hanging them was the standard method in England and indeed in many other countries, for lengths of rope were cheap and although the gallows had to be built high, those were the only overheads. In the early days all that was needed was a hurdle [A portable frame made of interlaced twigs used as a sled on which prisoners in England were drawn through the streets to execution.], a rope over a beam and a ladder; and of course, the dominating personality, the Lord of the Scaffold, with an assistant. After being dragged on the hurdle from prison to execution site, the victim climbed the ladder for the noose to be secured, and then the ladder was twisted, "turning off" the felon and leaving his feet kicking in the empty air.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 1991

Writing, The Fear of Failure

I believe that the writer who can't figure out what form to write in or what to write is stalling for a reason. Perhaps he is dancing around a subject because he is not ready to handle it psychologically or emotionally. Perhaps he is unable to pursue a project because doing so would upset his world too much, or the people in it. Maybe not writing, maybe being driven crazy by the desire to write and the inability to follow through, is serving some greater goal, keeping some greater fear at bay. Fear of failure is the reason most often cited to explain why so many aspiring writers never realize their dreams.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For The Trees, 2000

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Kleptomania

Shoplifting is…misunderstood because the line between crime and disease has blurred. Although most estimates put the number of kleptomaniacs among shoplifters at between 0 and 8 percent, some experts believe that the disease is far more prevalent. Others contend that so-called shoplifting addiction has replaced kleptomania altogether. [How about greed replacing both of them?]

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Clear Writing

     First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read….What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

     Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

Friday, May 5, 2017

Truman Capote on Interviewing

The secret to the art of journalistic interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything.

Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, edited by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

The Comic Novel

Comic novels often offend as many people as they please because each reader's capacity for tolerating irreverence is different; what seems tame to one reader seems right to another, what seems corrosive to one reader seems hilarious to another.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, 2005

Elmore Leonard on Writing

     On August 20, 2013, the famed crime novelist Elmore Leonard died at his home in Bloomfield Village, Michigan. He was 87. In 200l Leonard wrote an article for New York Times entitled, "Writers on Writing: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle." In this now classic piece, Leonard set out ten basic rules "that I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story..." His ten rules:

1) Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long....

2) Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially following an introduction that comes after a foreword....

3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue....

4) Never us an adverb to modify the verb "said"...he admonished gravely....

5) Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words....

6) Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."...

7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly....

8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters....

9) Don't go into great detail describing places and things....

10) Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptdoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking about or doesn't care....

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Anthony Baye Arson-Murder Case

     Between December 27, 2009 and January 4, 2010, an arsonist in Northhamton, Massachusetts torched more than 40 homes. It was the biggest crime spree in the history of the town. One of the Ward 3 neighborhood fires took the lives of 81-year-old Paul Yeskie and his son Paul, Jr. who was 39. Police officers patrolling Ward 3 during the early morning hours on four of the arson-pleagued nights, pulled over a vehicle driven by 26-year-old Anthony P. Baye. These investigative stops did not result in Baye's arrest.

     Anthony Baye was brought in for questioning on January 4, 2010 by Massachusetts State Police sergeant Paul Zipper and Trooper Michael Mazza. After he was warned of his Miranda rights to remain silent, and have access to an attorney, Baye asked to speak to a lawyer. The officers, instead of terminating the interrogation at that point, informed Baye that he would be better off speaking to them first. They assured him that if he took responsibility for setting the fires, the judge would go easy on him. Utilizing the age-old confession inducing technique (developed by Fred Inbau in the 1930s) of minimizing the seriousness and immorality of the crimes (referring to the arsons as "tomfoolery"), the troopers got Baye to admit setting 15 of the fires.

     While Anthony Baye didn't come out and admit setting fire that killed the Yeskies, he did say he never meant to do them any harm. In soliciting the arson-murder confession, one of the interrogators misrepresented the criminal law when he assured Baye that if he hadn't intended to kill the Yeskies, he could not be charged with felony-murder. (Under Massachusetts law, if Baye had intended to set the fire which inadvertently led to their deaths, he was guilty of criminal homicide under the felony-murder doctrine.)

     Following the ten hour, videotaped interrogation, the state troopers took Baye into custody. The local prosecutor charged him with two counts of first-degree murder and several counts of arson. Given the seriousness of the crimes, Baye was not granted bail.

     Baye's attorneys, Thomas Lesser and David Hoose, on grounds the state interrogators had violated their client's Fifth and Six Amendment rights by not discontinuing the interrogation and providing him with an attorney when he requested one, filed a motion to suppress the confession.

     On September 21, 2011, Hampshire Superior Court Judge Constance B. Sweeney heard arguments on the defendant's motion to suppress. At the conclusion of the pre-trial hearing, Judge Sweeney, while expressing reservations regarding the troopers' interrogation techniques, ruled Baye's confession voluntary and therefore admissible. The defense appealed Judge Sweeney's ruling to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court which agreed to rule on the admissibility of Baye's confession before rather than after his trial.

     On May 21, 2012, the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justices ruled the Baye confession had not been given voluntarily and was therefore inadmissible as evidence against him. Although the justices didn't specifically rule on the issue of whether continuing the interrogation after Baye requested an attorney rendered it inadmissible, the constitutional law on this issue was settled. In the Baye case, the state interrogators had clearly violated Baye's Miranda rights. Under Miranda, a confession can be inadmissible even though it was given voluntarily. Once a suspect exercises his Miranda rights, the interrogation must stop. Anything said by the suspect after this point is not admissible evidence regardless of the fact no coercion was involved.

     One year after the court ruled Baye's confession inadmissible, the defendant, pursuant to an agreed upon plea agreement, pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter. On May 15, 2013, the Hampshire Superior Court judge sentenced Anthony P. Baye to twenty years in prison followed by fifteen years of probation.
      

Guns in Police Interrogation Rooms

     Detective Eric Smith, a twenty-year veteran of the Jackson, Mississippi Police Department was assigned to the Robbery-Homicide Bureau. On Thursday, April 5, 2013, Detective Smith was in the third-floor police interrogation room questioning a 23-year-old murder suspect named Jeremy Powell. Detectives suspected Powell of the stabbing death of a man named Christopher Alexander.The suspect wasn't officially under arrest.

     At six o'clock that evening, during the station-house interrogation, the murder suspect attacked the detective. As they struggled, Jeremy Powell got control of the officer's sidearm, a 9 mm pistol. With that gun, Smith shot the detective four times. After killing the police officer, Powell took his own life by shooting himself in the head with Detective Smith's gun.

     Ken Winter, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Chiefs of Police Association, told an Associated Press reporter that it's not unusual for police officers to wear their guns in police department interrogation rooms. But according to Fred E. Inbau, the world renowned authority on criminal interrogation, that should not be the case. In his classic text, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, Mr. Inbau wrote that when interrogating a suspect in the police station, "Do not be armed. The interrogator should face the suspect as 'man-to-man' and not be police officer-to-prisoner. Another reason for not being armed is the fact that in close quarters the suspect, if so inclined, might be able to seize the interrogator's weapon for use on the interrogator or others...."

     Keeping guns out of the interrogation room was the rule years ago when I went through the FBI Academy. If it's not standard operating procedure to follow that precaution, police supervisors should enforce Fred Inbau's rule. In this case, the enforcement of that simple prohibition would have saved two lives. 

The First Whodunit

Literary murders are as old as the book of Genesis. But no one before Edgar Allan Poe, as far as we know, ever wrote a story in which the central plot question was "who did it?" and the hero was a detective [C. Auguste Dupin] who correctly deduced the answer to that question.

William G. Tapply, The Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995

Thornton P. Knowles On Creativity

Many writers are reluctant to talk about the creative process--that is, how and where they get their talent, ideas, and inspiration to write. Many deny that talent is an inborn phenomenon while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired to create. Perhaps creativity is less a mystery than lack of creativity is. When a reader tells a writer that he can't imagine how one can produce a book, some writers may wonder how one cannot.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

The Interrogation Room

     The interrogation room should be a small plain room about eight feet by ten. It should have one door with a small window, covered by material that can be easily removed from the outside to allow officers to view the subject when he is alone. The walls should be of a neutral color with nothing hanging on them. [No distractions.] A table or desk and two chairs should be the only furniture.

     Sit the suspect with his back to the door so he doesn't think about freedom. Sit directly in front of the suspect two to three feet away from him. You must be able to see the suspect's entire body to detect any movement. Never sit across a desk or table from a suspect because you won't be able to see his lower body or hands. [Not only that, a desk or table between you and the subject makes him feel less vulnerable.] It's better for just one interrogator in the room. [And never wear a gun during an interrogation.]

 Albert Joseph Jr., We Get Confessions, 1995 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Nonfiction Novel

     Time Magazine's all-time best nonfiction list--a selection so politically correct it's virtually useless as a reading guide--contains just two books about murder. Both works, Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood can be found under the subcategory "Nonfiction Novels."  This begs the question: how can a novel, a work of fiction, be a work of nonfiction? Isn't the term "nonfiction novel" a contradiction?

     Al Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective in charge of the 1959 Clutter family murder, the Holcomb, Kansas mass killing upon which In Cold Blood is based, told my friend and colleague, Dr. John Kelly at the University of Delaware, that Capote's account is more fiction than fact. According to Dewey, Capote altered the story's chronology, created composite characters, and invented scenes and dialogue. While Capote based his book on the Clutter case, he intended it as a novel, and that was how it was published. So what is this book doing on Time Magazine's nonfiction list? Perhaps the list's compilers, unfamiliar with the true crime genre, had to include a couple of crime books by well-known novelists. At any rate, just how much liberty can a nonfiction writer take before his book slips into the fiction genre? This is a debate that has gone on for decades.

     Doris Ricker Marston, in A Guide to Writing History, defines what is alternatively referred to as narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, literary journalism and the new journalism as: "...a dramatic presentation of true reporting. There are real characters moving as they actually did in the events that actually took place, and with action dramatically presented."

     Book-length practitioners of this genre include Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joseph Wambaugh and Tom Wolfe. While Truman Capote claimed to have invented the "nonfiction novel," as Anthony Arthur points out in his book, Literary Feuds, others before him--Thomas Carlyle, Lytton Stachey, John Hersey, Alan Moorehead, Shelby Foote and Ernest Hemingway--had applied novelistic techniques to nonfiction. In his introductory essay to New Journalism, an anthology of narrative nonfiction work, Tom Wolfe predicted that literary nonfiction would replace "the novel as the number one literary genre, starting the first new direction in American letters in half a century." While the genre has gained respect and now outstrips the literary novel in the marketplace, it has not dethroned its fictional counterpart as a form of literary art.

     The following quotes about literary nonfiction are from professional authors who write in the genre:

Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.
Theodore A. Rees Cheney

Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques and devices of fiction writing. These techniques, except for invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.
Tracy Kidder

Creative nonfiction demands spontaneity and an imaginative approach, while remaining true to the validity and integrity of the information it contains. That is why the creative nonfiction form is so appealing to people with new ideas or fresh interpretations of accepted concepts in history, science, or the arts; people with an intellectual curiosity about the world around us or a fresh viewpoint or approach.
Lee Gutkind

Story-driven nonfiction is extraordinarily successful, and there's a huge market for it now. I think it's partly because when you publish a nonfiction book, especially one that's story driven as opposed to didactic or scholarly, you can target the market in an easier way.
Charlie Conrad

Creative nonfiction is frequently about people. We're all curious about how other people live, what they do, and how they think.
Rita Berman

...for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work.
Truman Capote

I certainly always use novelistic techniques, but I also felt that the boundaries between fact and fiction should never be blurred.
Tom Wolfe

The line between truth and fiction has become so blurred that the public no longer knows what to expect.
Jack Olsen

I very often will have The Orchid Thief [a nonfiction book] referred to as a novel, and it drives me crazy.
Susan Orlean

    

Difficulties in True Crime Writing

The tools I have used for my writing career have been my ability to interview people and get them to tell me the truth, and my abilities as an investigative reporter. I might spend weeks verifying some little fact that is just going to be great in my book--it's going to be a little spark. Fiction writers don't need to spend weeks looking for the little spark--they invent it. I write about real people, real Americans getting into trouble, getting out of it, going to the penitentiary, going to the electric chair, being murdered, being saved. And it's all true.

Margaret DiCanio in The 3rd Degree, October 1997 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Feminists Debate Prostitution

     Feminists across Western Europe are sounding the alarm. Prostitution, they claim, has become today's "white slavery," which ever more women from Bulgaria and Romania, Africa and Asia, being forced, tricked or seduced into selling their bodies.

     But in so doing, these activists are creating a schism in the [feminist] movement, between those who see prostitution as another form of male oppression and those who see it as a possible means of female empowerment.

     Much of the debate is centered in Germany, where prostitution is legal. As a result, the German author Alice Schwarzer said, the country has become…"a paradise for johns from all over the Continent," who come in busloads to frequent the new "mega-brothels" in Cologne, Munich or Berlin.

     And, indeed, prostitution is big business in Germany. In bordellos along the borders with France and Poland, countries where prostitution is illegal, groups of visitors are often offered flat-rate packages. Though exact numbers are rare, experts estimate that there are as many as 400,000 prostitutes in Germany, serving more than a million clients and churning out a hefty revenue of 15 billion euros a year.

Mirian Lau, The New York Times, December 29, 2013 

Not All Writers Want to Write About Themselves

Some writers never write about themselves because they are private, or because they do not believe it is possible for one to say anything objectively truthful or valid about oneself.

Deena Metzger, Writing For Your Life, 1992 

The Memoir and Autobiography Genres

     How many people take themselves seriously enough, or think they are important or interesting enough, to write a memoir or an autobiography? Judging from bookstore inventories, a lot of people. One would be hard-pressed to name a well-known politician, entertainment figure, television talking-head, professional athlete, or writer who has not written (or had ghost-written) a memoir. But celebrity types are not the only ones who feel compelled to write their life stories, or about specific events in their lives. Ordinary people who have accomplished unusual or exceptional feats; been involved in catastrophic events; had interesting jobs or professions; dealt with serious physical or emotional illness; or have overcome personal problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism, bad marriages, and criminal injustice, write memoirs.

     Sociologist Diane Bjorkland, in her book, Interpreting the Self (1998), makes the point that the memoir/autobiography has, over the years, gained stature as a literary form. She writes: "...autobiographies, as a record of how people have interpreted and explained their lives, are full of rich material for theorists. They are much more than straightforward attempts at personal histories; they are an amalgam of cultural ideas, scruples, rhetoric, and self-presentation. As literary scholars in the last half of the twentieth century have increasingly recognized this complexity, they have shifted from their former neglect of autobiography as an 'artless literature of face' to an appreciation of autobiography as 'imaginative art.' "

Monday, May 1, 2017

Keeping Both a Personal and Writer's Journal

If you have not been keeping a journal or diary, it is time to start one--or a couple of them. There is a personal journal where you write your innermost feelings about life, often in a spirited, free-writing, spontaneous fashion. Then there is a writer's journal, where you record your thoughts and ideas about your writing work. In a writer's journal you conduct an ongoing, spontaneous dialogue with yourself about writing, developing the subjects and ideas you intend to or are actually writing about. I compare a writer's journal to an artist's sketchbook. It is where the masterpiece begins.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997 

The Effect of Narrative Nonfiction Books on the Novel

What I remember about my first years as a published novelist is how eager publishers were, in those early days, for new fiction. This may have been because there was no New Journalism yet--once it appeared it dealt fiction a kind of double whammy, since the New Journalists used many of the techniques of fiction while keeping the appeal of fact.

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999