Thursday, December 30, 2010

It Snowed in New York

I'm sure you haven't heard.

I have some strong feelings on the snow, or, mainly New Yorkers' whiny response to it. First, judging by the breathless coverage on the news you'd think all of the following:

1. It had never snowed in New York before.
2. New York snow is thicker, heavier, slipperier, and generally more problematic than snow in the rest of the country.
3. There might be a rest of the country, but it's not all that important what happens there, unless what happens there somehow demonstrates that the people who live in that part of the country (which, lest you forget, is not New York) are less civilized than those who live in New York. Like that crazy pastor who wanted to burn the Korans.

Now I'm going to admit something that I shouldn't. It gratifies me that a bunch of New Yorkers are stuck in the snow. It makes me happy that these folks who so casually deride rural living are now trapped by the urban congestion they profess to love. I laugh at the folly of their narrow streets, at the fickleness of their public transportation system, at their lack of wide open parking spaces. It makes me smile to know that we hicks who live in the middle of the country, if we don't have one ourselves, know somebody who can attach a plow to the front of their gas guzzling pick-up truck and plow their own damn road. It pleases me to think that these sophisticated people, who willingly pay exorbitant taxes for the privilege of living in the "greatest city in the world" are suddenly left in the lurch when their precious government can't compete with nature. I chortle in glee as I picture the stranded car waiting to be freed by the disgruntled plow driver.

Perhaps now, more than five years after Hurricane Katrina, people will finally begin to realize that no matter how much faith we put in government, there are things for which it will be woefully overmatched. Maybe now, with self-important New Yorkers blaming their mayor for an inadequate response, we'll finally admit that no matter how often government promises to take care of us, the reality is we better, when the shit hits the fan, be prepared to take care of ourselves. Maybe now, now that their self-assured, smug, condescending attitudes have been covered in a little snow, they'll realize that the New York way isn't the only way. That there are people out here in the great middle whose ideas aren't stuck in the past and whose way of life deserves a little more than the supercilious scorn usually reserved for it by the self-appointed elite.

But probably not.

I've Been Kindled

This is me reading my Kindle. I love it like whoa. I was sort of an anti-ereader person last year but the more I had to wait for a title to free up at the library, and the more my house got stuffed with books, and the more I looked at the economics, the more it made sense to ask for a Kindle. The Wife got it for me for Christmas. I'm reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest on it right now (which sucks, by the way), and that leads me to a story...

When I purchased that book (with an Amazon gift card, bang!) The Wife was jealous because she wanted to read it and there was pretty much no way I was going to just give her my Kindle for three days or whatever. But then we had another Christmas to attend--The Wife's side. And at that Christmas, my mother-in-law presented The Wife and I with one of those It's For Both of You presents. I let The Wife open it because I'm chivalrous. We were warned:

"Now, if you don't want this, I'll buy it back from you," Mother-in-law said. I was intrigued.

The Wife opened it and it was...(you already know, don't you, you anticipatory reader)...a Kindle!

Mother-in-law was apologetic because she'd found out a day or two before that The Wife had already given me one, so she felt bad that I hadn't gotten a gift. I quickly corrected her. I had been given a gift, and it was the greatest gift of all--the gift of not having to share.

Now, there are two things I'd like to share (see what I did there?), one of which wouldn't be possible (or at least very difficult to do) without a Kindle. If you've read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or any of the subsequent books, you know that the author is (was?), for some reason, obsessed with telling the reader exactly what his characters eat. If I've learned anything about Sweden it's that they eat a lot of sandwiches and drink a lot of coffee. They drink coffee so often that I was curious just how many times the word "coffee" appeared in the third installment of the series. So I used the search function and discovered that there are 103 uses of the word in the book. The book, in its paper form, is about 600 pages, which means that, on average, coffee is explicitly mentioned every sixth page. Here's an idea: how about having someone drink a Coke?

Also, you can browse the Kindle Store and search for titles and whatnot, just like on the Net. So, for research purposes, I looked up books on "psi"( paranormal ability and the like). I got a bunch of books and I clicked on a few and I found this gem, summarized thus:

Chronicles of Psi – Book I – A New Beginning

In a world that has reinvented itself from the ashes of a ruined civilization comes a child of The Foretelling who must find his way to save mankind from further destruction. Along his way the forces of his world conspire against him to destroy him or gain the power he wields for their own selfish purposes. He must learn his destiny and how to use his gift before the world is ravaged and destroyed yet again.

A young girl, trained as an assassin, is commissioned to protect the boy, yet finds herself embroiled in this war of politics and subtlety even as she leaves her guild training grounds. Her greatest challenge lie in finding him in time before the others seeking to destroy him do.

This story begins the saga of the Chronicles of Psi, where the rare gift of psionics or mind powers called “Psi” are used by human and creatures alike to the benefit or destruction of those around them. This post apocalyptic world is filled with terrible creatures and forces struggling for power over the world.


Favorite parts:

1. The whole first sentence, which almost makes a little sense. Also, what good is "The Foretelling" if it failed to stop the destruction of the world the first time? Are we just supposed to not care about the first mankind? You know, the one that was totally wiped out before this foretold child showed up after the fact?

2. I like how the "forces of his world" are unsure whether they want to kill him or steal his powers. Nothing like indecisive forces.

3. Who commissions an assassin to protect somebody? Does the commissioner value irony over success? Maybe this world should be wiped out too.

4. What does a "war of subtlety" look like? Do people raise their eyebrows cryptically at one another until someone gives up in confusion?

5. If the assassin's "greatest challenge" is in finding the kid, then what's the point of sending an assassin? Why not send someone who's really good at hide and seek?

6. Psychic powers can apparently be used for good or evil. Huh. Who knew?

And a bonus for the new year: Glamour shot!!!



Are you entranced by my beguiling gaze?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Poetry and Christmas Gifts Go Together Like Chocolate and Milk

Here's the poem I attached to the Yankee Swap present that I took to today's Christmas gathering:


"Shit You Sometimes Need"


If you want a sexy gift
then this one's not for you.
It will not make your car shine
it doesn't make fondue.
There are no gift cards in this box,
no wine or Lotto tickets.
Once it's open the response we'll hear
will probably resemble crickets.
These are things you hate to buy
so please, do not get peeved.
If you're a girl or a guy
it's shit you sometimes need.
So if you hate it, pack it up
Put it right back in the box.
And just be glad you didn't get
six pairs of argyle socks.
You might regret the choice you made
it may remind you of what's in your colon.
But like Jesus's birth, miracles happen
and your gift could still get stolen.


Because even at Christmas, I'm all about fecal references.





Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vonnegut's Creative Writing 101

From the introduction to his book of short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things--reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


He then says great writers tend to break all the rules except the first one.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Goose and the Golden Eggs

The Goose and the Golden Eggs


The farmer was poor. Grain prices had fallen precipitously. He didn’t have the heart to slaughter his cows. Cows were so peaceful. How could you kill something that lowed? It didn’t particularly bother the farmer that he was poor. He was a man of few needs. His wife, however, dreamed of fancy cars and sparkly jewelry and other things that would make her friends jealous. She had grown tired of being pitied by those in her social circle and although she respected the farmer for his honesty she told him one day, “If you don’t start making some money, I’m leaving you.”

Although she was harsh and honest to a fault, the farmer liked the idea of having a happy wife. He began to brainstorm ways he could make more money. He’d once had an idea for a game show, but he wasn’t sure how one went about having television shows made. And he’d heard on the radio in his truck a story about a man who made millions by placing tiny ads in newspapers, but he was skeptical. A solution did not immediately present itself, so the farmer went where he always went when he wanted to do some serious thinking. He went to the barn.

In addition to the cows, the farmer owned a goose. The goose was old and while it still provided the occasional egg, the farmer mostly kept it around because it seemed to be a good listener. While the farmer talked, the goose would emit an occasional honk that, to the believing ear, seemed to be pitched in way that simulated conversation.
“I’ve got a problem, goose,” the farmer said.

The goose honked plaintively, as though affirming something it already knew.

“My lady’s fixing to leave me unless I can scrap together enough money to get her something fancy. She likes fancy things, she does.”
The goose honked: “I know she does.”
“I been trying to think of something but I just can’t. Guess I’m a little outta practice. Only thing I know is farming and farming don’t make a man or his woman rich.”
Honk, once again, in agreement.
“Ah, well. I’m sure I’ll come up with something. Life tends to work out, you know,” the farmer said.
Honk: “It does indeed.”


When the farmer went to the barn the next morning to do his chores, he noticed something shiny lying on the straw next to the goose. It was the size and shape of an egg, but as the farmer came closer he knew that an egg it could not be. It was shining like the sun. He went to lift the object but was surprised at its weight. It was much heavier than any egg should be.
“What have you got here, goose?” the farmer said.
The goose only blinked at him.
The farmer, knowing nothing of fancy things, took it inside to show to his wife. “Look what I found in the barn,” he said.
The wife handled the egg. She turned it this way and that. She smelled it. She scratched it with her nail. Flakes of gold fell off. The wife looked accusingly at the farmer. “Where did you say you got this?” she asked.
“The barn. It was next to the goose.”
“That old, worthless thing?” the wife said.
“The very.”
The wife huffed. She dropped the golden egg on the table and stood up. “You take this egg right back where you got it,” she said. “I see what you’ve done. You’ll get us both thrown in the clink.”
“But…but,” the farmer stammered. He took the egg back to the goose.


Life went on in the normal manner for some time until one day the wife came home furious. “Guess where Mildred’s going next week?” she asked the farmer. “Vegas. Mildred’s going to Vegas for a vacation. Know where I’m going on vacation? That’s right. Nowhere. I’m going nowhere while Mildred’s going to Vegas. I’ve had it up to here!”

The farmer didn’t see what was so special about Vegas, but he thought it was his role to please his wife so he went to talk to the goose. “Hey, have you still got that golden egg?” he asked.
Honk. It sounded like a yes to the farmer. After some searching through the straw he found the egg. He took it into town and traded it for a plane ticket to Vegas. When he got home, he handed his wife an envelope. She looked at it dubiously.

“Go ahead, open it,” the farmer said.
She slid a nail along its back and pulled out the plane ticket. But instead of the surprise the farmer expected to see, his wife’s eyes flashed anger. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’ve done here. You never took that egg back like I said. The cops will be here any second, I reckon.”
“But the goose laid it!” the farmer said. “The next time it lays one I’ll take you out to the barn and show you.”
His wife sniffed. “As if I’m stepping foot in that filthy shack,” she said. She tore the ticket up and dropped it into the wastepaper basket.

The next day the goose laid another golden egg. “Come on,” the farmer told his wife. “You’ve got to come see. It’s laid a second golden egg.”
Reluctantly, the farmer’s wife followed him into the barn. There, shining brilliantly next to the goose, lay a golden egg, even larger than the last. The farmer’s wife lifted it and turned a baleful glance on the farmer. “Do you think I’m a fool?” she said. “You’re stealing these eggs from some nice rich family and pretending this goose here lays them. That’s the dumbest cover story I’ve ever heard and I know just how to put an end to your nonsense.”

She went to the wall where the farmer hung his tools and drew his scythe from a hook. She used it to slice the head clean off the goose. After that there were no more golden eggs, and the wife, claiming she couldn’t live with a man she couldn’t respect (“you could have at least made up a believable story,” she scolded), left him. She married a young man whose father had become wealthy by creating a popular game show. The farmer lived alone in poverty. And they both lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Roosevelt's Revisions

In the course of boning up (funny phrase that) on my Pearl Harbor history, I ran across President Roosevelt's revised draft of his famous infamy speech. Interesting to think about the choices he made as a writer. I share my thoughts below the document (which you can click to enlarge).




Most interesting is that Roosevelt's famous "a date which will live in infamy" line was originally "a date which will live in world history." Let this be a lesson on word choice. Other changes of note:

"suddenly" attacked instead of "simultaneously" attacked, which changed the focus of the sentence from being attacked by both Japan's navy and air force to the fact that it was a dirty sneak attack. Also, in this same sentence, FDR added "without warning" to the end of the sentence before realizing that "suddenly" essentially said the same thing and he struck it to avoid redundancy.

I also found it interesting how FDR changed "Hawaii and the Philippines" to "Oahu" as the place that was attacked. It's more specific and it removes the Philippines, which, let's face it, Americans wouldn't be nearly as willing to fight for. Later in the speech, other references to the attack on Manila were removed and "attacks" became singular. Indeed, that Japan attacked the Philippines on this date has largely been forgotten by history, thanks largely to Roosevelt's address. "Oahu" delivers a better punch, and it's obvious in the speech that Roosevelt is appealing to Americans' anger in his justification for war.

Later, Roosevelt, well ahead of Strunk and White, substitutes one word ("states") for three ("contained a statement").

Lastly, the beginning of the speech is intentionally written in the passive voice. As the Wikipedia article states

The wording was deliberately passive. Rather than taking the more usual active voice—i.e. "Japan attacked the United States"—Roosevelt chose to put in the foreground the object being acted upon, namely the United States, to emphasize America's status as a victim. The theme of "innocence violated" was further reinforced by Roosevelt's recounting of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with Japan, which the president characterized as having been pursued cynically and dishonestly by the Japanese government while it was secretly preparing for war against the United States.



Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Went to the Dentist Today

Your first question is why. It's a fair question, one I asked myself about ten minutes into the ordeal. One answer is guilt. When it gets to be four years between appointments you start to worry that there might be something going on in there that you should know about. Like oral cancer. Which brings me to the real reason I went: fear. Specifically, fear of death and of spending a great deal of money all at once. Fear is a fine motivator. And the logical part of my brain said something like, "You know, Murph, the longer you put off going, the greater the possibility that whatever problems you do have in there are going to get worse. And that means it's going to cost a lot more to fix them, or it might be too late for you to fix them at all and then you'll die. So maybe you should go."

I went. Sometimes I listen to myself.

I had to have x-rays. You'd think this would be the easy part. I did too. But I have a really bad gag reflex. Whenever anyone tries to jam something down my throat that isn't designed to go down my throat, I gag. Crazy, I know. So the dental hygienist almost got barfed on. Three times.

That over and the vomit remaining in my stomach, she proceeded to show me my hard-earned x-ray results. They were surprisingly good. I was expecting the news to be something like, "You have oral cancer," or "we need to pull some teeth," or "you need a few root canals," so when she said, "See these pointy, shard-like things here and here and here and here and here? That's tartar."

Tartar? I laugh at tartar. I mock it in my dreams. I make fun of its spelling and mispronounce it on purpose. Tar-tar.

"We'll do a cleaning today and then another in a few weeks."

Say what? I have to come back? Because of tar-tar? But how can this be?

She started cleaning. I've cleaned things before (The wife may disagree , but really, I have). I've cleaned dishes (okay, not very often), and I've cleaned my car. I've cleaned our hot tub (once) and I clean myself nearly every day. The act usually involves water, some soap, and maybe some gentle scrubbing. This lady obviously had a different understanding of the term. Because never have I "cleaned" something by taking a metal prong and scraping the holy hell out of it for forty minutes. That's not cleaning, that's abuse, brother.

When she was finally done torturing me (I gave up nothing!), the dentist came in. As far as I can tell, the hygienist does all the work and the dentist counts the teeth. I think I could be a dentist. He counted, said some stuff I didn't understand (he's Asian), and then the hygienist said I was going to have to have two cavities filled.

Cavities? There had been no mention of cavities. I almost threw up three times and they couldn't tell I had cavities until the dentist counted my teeth with his bare eyes and a little pointy thing?

So I made the second appointment. It's over Christmas vacation. And I learned some lessons:

Lessons Learned:

1. It's better to be a dentist than a dental hygienist. Unless you're a sadist or can't count.
2. Don't make fun of tartar. It will have its revenge.
3. Cleaning teeth is not the same as cleaning other things. It hurts more.
4. X-rays are nothing compared to the discerning eye of a good dentist.
5. Going to the dentist sucks. Actually, I already knew that. So consider this one a lesson reaffirmed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Poem (Metaphor Included Free of Charge!)

Anita was bored, and since she's just about the only reader left, I should probably make her happy. Here's a poem I wrote (and got published, but they didn't pay me) a couple years ago:




Tombstone

By

Paul Murphy

There’s a stone at the edge of the graveyard

It isn’t much to see.

There’s a taller one to the left of it

that looks more important to me.

But mom never seems to notice

that its shadow falls on her face

when she kneels on the ground

and touches the name

of the person who rests in this place.



Note: Is it really that hard for programmers to make it so Blogger will accept my cut and paste from Word? These geeks invented phones that can accept credit cards but they can't reconcile formatting differences?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What I'm Revising: Qualifiers

Here's where I pretend I know what I'm doing and give writing advice. Something I've noticed about strong writing is a lack of what I'll call here "qualifiers." (If you know a better term then please supply it.)

Strong writers know what they're talking about and have confidence in their descriptions. Instead of writing, It felt a little like the short, disorienting fugue she sometimes got when sleeping over at a friend's house, the strong writer will authoritatively state, It felt like the short, disorienting fugue she got when sleeping over at a friend's.

Phrases and words like "a little," "sort of," "kind of," "about," "nearly," "sometimes," "like," and many others show weakness. Just say it and stick with it. Even the most discerning reader won't take offense to the mild inaccuracy of the revised sentence above. Sure, the girl probably doesn't always feel disoriented when she sleeps in a strange bed, but it's better to err on the side of conviction than to signal to your readers that even you believe the idea of description is weak.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Items

1. I got pulled over for speeding yesterday with my daughter in the car. She told me she was going to tell her preschool teacher about it. I said go ahead, because she was going to whether or not I gave her permission. This is one reason The Wife and I will never spank her. She would tell everybody, and I'm pretty sure something would be lost in the translation.

2. Overheard before school this week: A kindergartner and his mother were awaiting the start of the school day in the hallway outside my room. The kid was whining and carrying on about something. So the mom, pulling out the trump card all parents carry up their sleeves, says, "Stop it right now or you're not going to Wal-mart after school."

3. I've seen the future, and the future is postcards.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Guess the Hack: A Game

Introducing a new game today. Below you will find four excerpts. Three are cleaved from real live books written by real live professional authors. The other one I wrote. Can you spot the one written by the hack? Also, bonus points if you can guess the authors. (They're all famous.)

1. She turns, a gun glints, then sprouts a bright white flower. But the shot, in that dark, cramped corridor, goes wild. It ricochets, knitting a wild web of velocity trails across the corridor before settling, finally, into the meat of a conduit in the ceiling.

2. The embers of the fading day cooled on the horizon. And as the sun approached the end of its daily parabolic stroll, she knew she didn't want to be alone when night drew its heavy curtain.

3. For a minute or so he was quiet, catching glimpses of the big homes through the trees and manicured shrubs, all the places so clean and neat and not a soul around, nobody outside.

4. He paused, silent for a moment. Then without another word he turned away from the lights and voices in the fields and tents, and followed by his three companions went round into his garden, and trotted down the long sloping path.



Make your guesses in the comments. There are prizes, but this blog is not a participating location. Better luck somewhere else.

Speaking of which, if you'd like to post your own version, consider this express written consent.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Lesson from Michael Chabon

As you can see over there I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I've not read him before but I've heard good things. I picked up the book because Gary Trudeau, interviewed in my USA Today newspaper insert, said that he reads mostly non-fiction because if he reads someone like Chabon it'll take him three months to get through the book because he's so frequently knocked off his feet that he stops to analyze just what Chabon did that accomplished the knocking. So I pretty much had to read him even though I hate Doonesbury. (And most comic strips, really. Not funny. Like, hardly ever.)

Anyway, Chabon taught me something not to do.

He's an amazing writer. That much is clear a page or two in. But he does something at the beginning of chapter two that I have now promised myself not to do. I share it with you, free of charge:

Here's the end of chapter one:

Joseph Kavalier lifted his own head from the mattress and stuffed the pillow beneath it. "Thank you," he said, then lay still once more. Presently, his breathing grew steady and slowed to a congested rattle, leaving Sammy to ponder alone, as he did every night, the usual caterpillar schemes.

I was blown away by "caterpillar schemes." At first, it was one of those short phrases that in the course of reading strikes you like a hand to the chest. You stop, notice, and then really consider the thing. I went back and reread and, once having figured out the meaning, just kind of sat there for a few seconds thinking, Shit, that's good. Who among us hasn't, in our youth, lain awake night after night, considering how we might break free of our ugly selves and emerge fantastically into a new world of color and possibility? It's a perfect metaphor. I was left both bitterly envious and awed at once.

And then Chabon ruined it.

I was proud to have figured the thing out. I'm not a smart man, Jenny. When I understand a metaphor, I'm like to tell my wife about it. So I was feeling good about myself and feeling a fawning admiration for the writer when I read this at the start of chapter two:

It was a caterpillar scheme--a dream of fabulous escape--that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia and the Pacific to his cousin's narrow bed on Ocean Avenue.

I was pissed. I wasn't immediately aware of why I was pissed, so I thought about it. And here's the lesson for the day, kids.

When you come up with something so incredibly fresh and awesome such as "caterpillar scheme" you don't repeat it. Use it once and get out quickly. Repeating it lets everyone know that you know it's fresh and awesome. It's a turn-off. It's a little like coming up with the perfect one liner at a dinner party and then saying it again.

Also, trust the reader. I wasn't educated at Harvard. I was not raised on the classics. I never took a college course that required me to analyze literary novels. But I understood exactly what Chabon meant and he cheapened my understanding by explaining it to me with "a dream of fabulous escape." I felt insulted. Trust your reader to recognize your brilliance. And if they don't, so what? It's their loss.

Some Thoughts on Stuff

I've been reading a lot more lately. This is because it's now cold outside, and my new favorite place to read is in the hot tub.

Speaking of reading, I read Michael Lewis's book The Big Short. It's about the subprime mortgage crisis. Although I understood approximately one-third of the book I still enjoyed it. Lewis obviously sees the Wall Street traders and ratings agencies as the villains, and he makes a strong case. However, I still can't excuse the actions of millions of Americans who took out loans that were obviously too good to be true. The greed wasn't only on Wall Street. There's a problem with society at large when that many people feel the need to impress their friends by purchasing what they had to know was too much house.

Has anyone invented a washer-dryer combo that allows me to avoid the physical transfer of the wet clothes into the dryer? This doesn't seem that hard. You put the washer on top of the dryer. When it's done, a hatch opens in the bottom and the dryer turns on. Come on, inventors. Quit dicking around with making phones do stuff I never want my phone to do and come up with something useful.

I voted. I got a sticker. It felt good. The voting, that is. The sticker didn't feel like much at all.

I have a new and what will surely be short-lived interest in high finance after reading the book mentioned above. And here's my advice: The Fed's 600 billion dollar stimulus is going to lead to more inflation than they hope. Buy gold.

I wrote a killer lead to my work-in-progress, but connecting that killer lead to the next sentence is proving difficult. The transition is sort of a let-down. Maybe that's why so many books I read don't really have very good leads.

Judy Blume overuses dialogue tags in the Fudge books. (I've been reading them aloud to my class and reading something aloud makes most dialogue tags feel superfluous.)

I can't explain it, but I'm really good at Wii Tennis.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vote

I'm doing my civic duty and reminding you to vote. I would like to say that I don't care how you vote, but that's not true. I actually do care. Because the morons you people in other states elect can completely screw things up for the rest of us. (Talking to you, Massachusetts.)

Now, some people say that if you don't vote then you have no business complaining about how things turn out in the coming years. But that's just a bunch of nonsense that people repeat because it sounds good. The truth is, half of the people in this country who are able to vote will not. And guess what? A lot of them will bitch about all sorts of things in the coming months and years.

And they can. It's called freedom of speech. See, freedom of speech means you can say any stupid thing you want to and you can even say it if you don't vote. No one's checking. Seriously.

If you don't vote and then you complain about the results and someone says to you, "Yeah? Well who did you vote for?" you can simply lie to them and say you voted for the other person and things would be better if that person had won. It's really easy. You just pretend to have voted. And if you're the kind of person who's going to lie about voting then you're probably also the kind of person I don't really want voting in the first place. There are enough disingenuous turds in the political process already. So stay home. Liar.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Halloween Party Time!

Next Friday is Halloween party day at school. For the uninitiated, Halloween party day is when students stuff their cheap Wal-mart costumes into their backpacks, spend the morning learning absolutely nothing because all they can think about is changing into said costumes, and then, after donning their Iron Man or Darth Vader or fireman (how quaint) get-up, proceed to growl at me under the mistaken impression that I am somehow confused about their true identity.

Holy shit. The Hulk is in my classroom.

We have a parade first. Here's how it works: Everyone gets in their costumes (including the teachers. If you don't, you have to endure an hour's worth of "What are you supposed to be?" and "Nice costume" and "Party pooper". And that's just the other teachers.). We line up. We walk through the halls and around the building, then back through classrooms so that all the little kids can see us. Kids I don't know wave at me. Three of my future delinquents will try their damndest to terrify the five-year-olds. I will pray that the line moves slowly so we can delay the start of the party and that no one gets lost.

Then we'll go back to our room. In the room I will try to stretch out any quiet activities for as long as I reasonably can. So we'll eat first. And I'll do the whole, "I'll call your group as soon as you're quiet." Except even when they are quiet I won't call on them right away because I want the eating to take as long as possible. Kids are quieter with their mouths full.

However, there will come a time when most of them are done eating and they'll start talking. It will get progressively louder. Some of them will leave their seats and cause trouble. A couple of boys will take their temporary personas too far and wrestle or sword fight or kick each other in the 'nads. Someone will cry. There will be parents in the room and I'll attempt to win them over by offering them food that I did not provide. Then I'll get on some kid (probably the nad kicker) to show the parents how stern I am. Eventually, we'll play a game to kill more time. I like quiet ones, like 7-Up. If I'm lucky, the clock will move fast. And if I'm really lucky, some of the parents will ask to check their kids out early.

This is what happens when you become an old fuddy-duddy. Halloween is no longer about the costumes or the candy or frightening little kids or even getting kicked in the 'nads. It's about getting through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Posts from the Past:

Want to know what not to pass out this Halloween? Click here.
Want to read about a terrifying Halloween tradition? Click here.
Want to participate in the Great Chocolate Milk Debate? Click here and vote in the comments!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Sold a Poem

I haven't submitted any poetry in about a year and a half, but this week I got a contract in the mail from Jack and Jill and they're paying me fifty bucks to publish one of my poems. It's about sledding. So that's fun.

My mother-in-law got selected for jury duty. Most people I know dread jury duty. In fact, I may be the only person in America that would LOVE to be on a jury. Alas, in my thirty-four years I've never gotten the call. What's a guy have to do to be inconvenienced around here?

After lots of submissions and plenty of requests for fulls, I'm pulling my YA off the grid. I know "it only takes one" and all that, but I've gotten very similar feedback on the story and it's quite obvious that the problems are significant and ultimately not fixable (at least, not without drastically changing the story. And I use the word "story" loosely.)

The good news: Almost done with another book.
The bad news: Been "almost done" for months.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Firing Bad Teachers

Unless you've been living under a Rock--efeller Plaza you probably know that NBC is focusing on education this week. Coinciding with the release of Waiting for Superman, every NBC station (and I think there are like twenty of them) is taking their turn telling us how crappy the American education system is. I've got a lot to say on the subject, including how I think the above conventional wisdom is mostly wrong, but I'm going to limit this post to what I've heard a lot this week: Bad teachers need to be fired. Even the President said it.

What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked: Just what exactly is a bad teacher?

Teachers are unique. There is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher's performance. Other jobs are simple. If you're a salesperson and you don't meet your quota, you suck. If you're a lawyer who loses cases, see ya. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you're going to go out of business. And if you're a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you're not going to be cooking for very long.

The easy answer is to say that a bad teacher is one who doesn't educate the students in her classroom. Right now we use standardized tests to determine this. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws.

I give you the following examples. Let me know which teachers you'd fire.


Teacher A is young and energetic. Just out of college she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired in a poor, inner city district where many of the parents didn't graduate high school, much less college. Some of them barely speak the language. Many of her students come to her reading well below grade level. A lot of them don't want to be there. Some of the parents resent the amount of homework she's asking these students to do in order to catch up. She sends home books for students to read but they don't read them. A lot of the books don't come back. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can't teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems they tell her to quit complaining and do her job. At the end of the year she gives the state standardized test and despite her best efforts many of her students perform poorly. One kid just filled in bubbles to make a pretty picture. Another was sick but his parents sent him anyway.

Teacher B is old and set in her ways. She doesn't like to try anything new. She's got her way of doing things and it's worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in a lily white district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow-through with homework and assigned reading. Teacher B doesn't worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn't screw them up they're going to be okay. She's right. Despite ignoring "best practices" and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.


Mrs. Jones is a hard-ass. She's the teacher a kid fears getting. You can't away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It's work, work, work. And if you don't work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don't turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don't like her much either. She's opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn't need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones's students outperform the other classes in the school. But her kids absolutely hate it. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.

Miss Violet isn't too bright. She doesn't know the curriculum very well and isn't real effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn't have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes--no, loves--is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting a group of three of them and there's really no better way she can spend her day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. Once, when Stephanie was reading a journal entry about her dog dying, Miss Violet actually teared up. Her students adore her and they can't wait to come to school. In fact, if you asked them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet's classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet's students don't do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.


Which teachers would you want your child to have?
Which teachers would be best for kids from broken families?

Here's a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as "good" or "bad" maybe someone should actually watch them teach.

And here's another point to consider: Half of new teachers quit within the first five years. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to encourage young people to go into teaching because the workforce is old and when the economy recovers the country is going to need teachers. But why in the hell would you enter this field if you're going to be the scapegoat for all the nation's ills? And why would you choose a job where you're judged not on how dedicated you are or whether you're willing to go where you're needed most, but on how well your students (whom you do not get to choose) perform on a test?

If we want smart, dedicated people to become teachers we might first try not vilifying the profession.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Unicorn Chased Me

It was late at night. I was walking through the woods with my video camera because weird stuff happens in the woods at night and I'd yet to adequately test my "Nightshot" setting on the camera. Allow me to paint you a picture with words: it was kind of foggy. And cold. Not cold enough where you could see your breath (it was too dark for that and I wasn't aiming the camera with its Nightshot setting anywhere near my breath. I mean, who wants to watch someone breathe in black and white?) but cold enough that you could wear a sweatshirt for a while and then wish you hadn't when you started running from a unicorn.

There. I don't know about you, but here's how I decide which blog posts to read: I use the Blogger Dashboard and I read the title of the post and the short excerpt from the beginning of the post and if it sounds interesting I click it. If it don't, I don't. So I thought to myself, Who wouldn't want to read about a unicorn chasing me? And now I have you within my nefarious grasp. Yes, you could leave, but then you'd miss out on learning the top five worst places to fart. (That probably should have been the blog title, huh? Oh well, blog and learn.)

So I thought about apologizing for my blogging absence but then I read someone's blog post title and it was something like ANNOUNCING MY COMING HIATUS and I thought, Who gives a shit? I don't care if you don't blog for a while. Seriously, I have other things I could be doing other than reading your posts about your kittens. So I am going to assume that you too have been doing other things. (Even though my mind insists on creating images of you refreshing my blog every thirty seconds while you sip one of those absurd energy drinks to fend off a panic attack. (Assuming energy drinks can do such a thing.)) So, screw the apologies. You're fine. I'm fine. Let's get on with it then.

TOP FIVE WORST PLACES TO FART:

5. The shower--even a benign little tut stinks when it ventures out into the aromatic mist created by the intoxicating blend of Ivory Soap and Garnier Fructis Fortifying Shampoo.

4. Elevator--but it's hilarious if you're drunk enough

3. Job Interview--which, I don't know about you, but when I'm nervous my digestive system churns out an impressive amount of gas. Or maybe it always makes that much gas and I'm so used to farting it out that I don't realize how often I do until I can't.

2. On a date--an early date, that is. Like the first or second. If you're not farting in front of her by the third date, move on. She's obviously not the one. Every guy knows that farting in the presence of a girl is the exact same as saying those three little words. It's just a lot funnier.

1. In bed (or the couch or backseat or wherever you prefer, you animal) during "the act." Not that this has EVER happened to me. I've just heard stories. Funny ones.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'm Still Alive

I have two somewhat flimsy excuses to explain my absence from the blogosphere.

1. I've been on vacation. I don't mean, like, summer vacation, because duh. I mean I was in a car and traveled first to Traverse City and then to Wisconsin. I won't entertain you with the details. I realize this excuse kind of sucks because both places I stayed had better Internet access than I have at home. Nevertheless, it's not cool to go off and blog while on vacation. That, my friends, is dorky.

2. School is starting. I've been in my classroom on three occasions and I sat in on job interviews for an entire day. We've got a new math program that I've yet to sink my teeth into and I have to teach a couple of subjects that I haven't taught in a few years. This excuse is also poor because I haven't actually done any teeth sinking and I haven't looked much at the content expectations for the subjects I haven't taught. But I feel a little guilty blogging when I know I should be doing responsible things and so I haven't. This is the same reason I didn't read much in college. I just couldn't justify reading Stephen King when I'd already decided to neglect 100 pages of assigned text.

Apologies for not commenting on any of my faithful readers' blogs. It would be political of me to assure you that I have been reading them, really I have, but it would not be the truth. Haven't read a blog in weeks. I trust, though, that you're posting more frequently than I and that you haven't let the quality slide. So keep it up, everybody!

Oh, and this has nothing to do with anything, but a while back The Wife was reading off things other people had said on Facebook and my favorite, in response to this story, was "Way to go, Jesus!"

I have taken to saying this just because I think it's hilarious.

So, fellow bloggers, Way to go, Jesus!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Didn't See That One Coming

I started running over Spring Break and I've been really good about keeping at it all summer. And if you would have told me back in April that the biggest problem I'd have in August was painful nipples, I'd have given you the same look I gave the TV when I watched this.

Apparently, nipples are sensitive. Some of you may have already known this, but I've always had a strict policy regarding my own. Specifically, I like to pretend they're not there. Adhering to this policy has become difficult, though, because whenever I run five or more miles the suckers really hurt.

The Wife did some research (because, in accordance with the above stated policy, I was busy pretending the pain was a figment of my imagination) and learned that the problem is pretty much what you'd think. You sweat, the nipples get hard, they rub against the shirt, and the salt in the sweat acts like grains of sand, and there you have it, sore nips.

So now, before I run, I put Band-aids on them which I hate doing because 1. We don't have that many Band-aids in the house and I'd hate to actually need one and find them all gone because I used them on my stupid, shouldn't-be-there-in-the-first-place nipples, and 2. they don't work all that well because you put them on when the nipples are smushy and then when they turn unsmushy the Band-Aid is no longer flush and you've got the potential for chafing anyway and 3. the whole process forces me to spend way too much time thinking about, looking at, and tending to my nipples.

I have figured out a remedy, though. I've never once even thought about them while sitting on the couch eating ice cream.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jim Jamo Lost

I'm pretty sure it's because the Lansing State Journal did not publish my letter to the editor. The Wife was unsurprised by this. (She's also unsurprised that Joe Biden has yet to reply to my chocolate milk question.) I'm not entirely sure how the LSJ decides which letters to print. Yes, mine was obnoxious and full of obvious falsehoods. It was not serious in any way. But who decided letters to the editor have to be serious or, you know, factual? Read through them some time. Most of the political ones are full of nonsense, and I find at least half of them obnoxious. I guess the difference is intent. The lesson is clear: if you want to make an ass out of yourself, don't be too obvious about it.

In other news I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because as a person living on the planet Earth in the year 2010 I believe it is required. The Wife warned me that there was a ton of backstory in the first 100 pages or whatever, so I was prepared for it and it didn't really bother me. Once it gets rolling it's hard to put down. I read all six hundred plus pages over three days.

Also read The London Eye Mystery and enjoyed it, especially the voice of the autistic main character. Really well done. It's not as good as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but there's no shame in that.

Closing in on the end of my novel. It looks like the first draft will be done by the start of school, which was the goal. I'll spend a couple of months smoothing out the story, fixing inconsistencies, dropping in details that didn't become necessary until later, etc., and then I'll be looking for readers to affirm my worst suspicions.

I'll be vacationing for most of the next two weeks, so basically nothing will change with respect to the blog. Feel free to reread this post over and over again or, even better, go back and read some old stuff from when I was funnier.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Vote for Jim Jamo

With the elections coming up this Tuesday I've been researching the candidates. Yesterday, I created a tally table to record how many yard signs each candidate has within a three mile radius of my home. I figured I'd just vote for whomever had the most signs. That way, I help to ensure that people who spend the most money get the most votes. Hey, it's worked so far, right?

Right?

However, there is one man for whom yard signs cannot dissuade me. His name? Jim Jamo. He's running for circuit court judge. With all the letters to the editors floating around this time of year, I thought I'd write my own. So many of these letters take things way too seriously. I took a different tack. I sent this letter to the Lansing State Journal today. They probably won't publish it, so I offer it to you, free of charge:

I support Jim Jamo for Ingham County Circuit Court. I’ve known Jim since before he was born, when he visited me as a spectral fetus while I slept. Even then he impressed me with his overwhelming integrity. Jim has more integrity in his left nostril than you have in your entire family. When Jim Jamo blows his nose, he uses a Brawny paper towel because Kleenex is unable to contain his integrity.

Jim Jamo’s experience as a lawyer will make him an excellent judge. He once wrote a brief so eloquent that the judge who read it wept. In 1992 I witnessed Jim defend a client with nothing but a series of well-placed facial ticks and exasperated sighs. Defendants will be unable to lie in front of Jim Jamo. Thanks to his integrity-laced mucus, Jim can sniff out a liar at a distance of thirteen miles. Tough, all-seeing, phlegmatic--that’s the kind of judge we need. Vote for Jamo. (Or he’ll flick an integrity booger at you.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

I'm Getting Close! (And a Writing Tip)

Almost done with my latest book. I love this feeling.

I'm at 60,000 words and probably have ten thousand more to go. I have a writer's tip tonight:

We all get to the point where we're not super excited about writing the coming chapter. It might be one of those chapters that are necessary but not as exciting as the ones before or the ones that will come after. If I were a good writer, my advice would be to find a way to make that chapter interesting, but since I'm not, here's what I do instead:

  • I think about just skipping it and going to the next chapter.
  • Then I tell myself that I'm avoiding the issue and ultimately doing nothing but delaying the inevitable and besides, it's just easier to write it in order.
  • So I write the chapter, but here's the tip:
I write the thing as quickly and as crappily as I can. Well, I don't intentionally write it crappily, but I tell myself not to care if it is crappy. I tell myself the same thing I told myself during every finals week at Michigan State University: Doing well is not as important as getting it over with. And while that probably wasn't the most effective self-talk in college, it works just fine in writing, because if it is in fact crappy I can go back and make it better later. But usually, I find it's not 100 percent crappy; there's usually a few lines or at least ideas that get to hang around. It's like 95% crappy most of the time and since just about the whole first draft is 95% crappy, there's really no reason not to just spew the words out.

So that's my advice: Crappy writing is better than no writing.

Word.

Hey, I finally bought an ipod. I bought it because I always felt guilty about disappearing when I wrote. I would leave The Wife and The Wife likes hanging out with me even if I'm not really conversing or listening to her and am totally in my zoned out writing mode. But she likes to be in the same room regardless. I can't blame her. I like hanging out with me, too. Anyway, I bought the ipod because I'm sitting there in the same room as The Wife and she tends to watch really bad TV while I'm trying to write. Tonight she had Joy Behar's pathetic excuse for a talk show on. So I put the headphones on (my ear holes are too tiny for the ear buds that Apple provides--maybe that's why I never hear what The Wife says. Ha.) and I can write without being interrupted by Nancy Grace or Joy Behar or one of the Kardashians while still being in the same room as The Wife. That's problem solving, folks. So I've got the thing going right now and Dolly Parton's Here You Come Again is playing. Why do I have Dolly Parton on my ipod, you ask?

When what you should be asking is why you don't.






Also, I have a pimple on my nose. Because apparently, my nose didn't get the memo that I'm no longer 15. Due to the pimple and the blogger's unrelenting vanity, there will be no v-logs anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Day at the Beach

Yesterday we went to the beach. I'm not really a beach person. I hate the feel of sand between my toes. The water is usually too cold and full of things I'd rather not think about. I don't like people. And I try not to be seen without a shirt.

But I figured, how bad could it be? It was a Monday. We were going to a state park. State parks tend to attract a certain clientele, many of whom are overweight, ghostly white, and hairy. I'd fit right in.

No such luck. It was like a convention of skinny, well-tanned people. I've read there's an obesity epidemic in this country. Could have fooled me. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous people frolicked in the surf. A group of buff seventeen-year-old dudes engaged in some horseplay and Frisbee. Wispy blondes strolled along the sand, smiling and checking out the guys playing Frisbee. Old guys with ponytails and smooth chests made out with fit, leather-skinned ladies. It was a nightmare of beauty. All of which is to say I kept my shirt on, as you can see in the pics. This was not a crowd that would have appreciated my fine pelt of lustrous back hair.

Little one had fun, but only because she's too young to know any better. About thirty seconds after entering the water (you'll notice me helicoptering like the over-protective parent I am) a chunky five-year-old swam over and admired my daughter's Ariel toy. She asked to play with it. My daughter handed it over. Big mistake. Because later, this same ragamuffin came strutting over while Little One and her father constructed a badly misshapen sand castle. I had placed Ariel in the moat area and commented that she was swimming in her pool. The fatty corrected me. "That's not a pool. That's a river."

"No," I said, "rivers have sources. Rivers flow downhill. Rivers have a current. That, young lady, is a pool."

She chose to ignore me. Then she plodded over to where we were keeping our other beach toys and hijacked a plastic watering can. She came over and gave Ariel a shower. Little One cried. We took Ariel and went back into the lake, hoping to escape the roly-poly snot. We got away. Ten seconds later, I look back to see The Wife pointing at the watering can floating aimlessly in the lake and telling the little shit to go pick it up. The little shit did not. "It's not mine," she said. Obviously.

The Wife retrieved it. Later, when the whale came paddling toward us yet again, I steered Little One away, and since I was carrying a yellow plastic pail I decided to put it to good use. Nonchalantly, while walking away and not looking at her, I scooped up a bucketful of water and tossed it into the air where it just happened to fall on the head of an impertinent little thief who didn't know how to respect other people's space or privacy.

Yes, I felt kind of bad. Thirty-four-year-old men should not be throwing water on five-year-old girls, no matter how annoying they are. But then again, five-year-old girls should have parents who actually watch them and teach them to not be jerks.


John Grisham Proves It: Writing for Kids is Hard, Yo.

I'll admit it, I was excited to read John Grisham's first foray into children's literature, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. I've read about 20 of his books and generally enjoyed them. (Especially The Firm. That book rocks.) So because I am cheap, I waited until the other men in their mid-thirties returned the two copies the library computers claimed to have and I snagged one a couple of days ago.

I read it. It sucked.

At first, I had a hard time believing Grisham actually wrote it. Then I thought, Well, okay, he wrote it but it couldn't have possibly been his idea. His marketing team must have talked him into doing it so he could branch out and ensnare a new generation of readers to replace all the old trial lawyers who're dropping like flies due to long hours and stress and amicus briefs.

I still hope this is true.

Because it was like Grisham forgot how to write. He's never been Hemingway or Faulkner or other authors known for their comparison usefulness, but Grisham knows how to tell a story. He keeps the tension high. The earnest young lawyer is constantly in trouble as he fights an enemy with both limitless power and sinisterness. His books move at breakneck pace. He cares not for fancy language and wastes no ink with metaphor or allusion or other such literary crap. John Grisham tells good stories simply.

In Theodore Boone, the story is awful. There is no tension. Worse, there are tension teasers which never develop into anything. It's almost like J.G. was afraid to put his young lawyer in any real danger because he thought he might scare his readers. In fact, most of the problems I have with the book derive from what quickly becomes abundantly clear: John Grisham has no clue how to write for kids.

First, the voice is third person omniscient and not even moderately appealing. It's stodgy, like the story is being told by a fifty-five year old former Southern lawyer. Grisham wastes little time writing scenes. Instead, he just tells the reader whatever it is he needs to know.

Theodore Boone was a good kid who didn't care about girls and never got into trouble and really really liked the law.*

Stuff like that. Also, Grisham commits that most heinous of kidlit sins. He uses his book to preach. His sermon: "LAWYERS ARE NOT ONLY USEFUL TO SOCIETY, THEY'RE INDISPENSABLE AND REALLY GOOD PEOPLE, TOO." I suppose he's trying to head off all the lawyer jokes that his innocent readers will be exposed to about the time they hit high school.

Theodore Boone himself is too good to be true; he is a character without flaws. His parents, both lawyers, work hard, care about Theo, and volunteer at a soup kitchen (I'm not making that up) when they're not working diligently (and honestly) for their clients, even though they really don't make as much money as you kids hear about on the television. And Theo, because he's such a law freak, is constantly helping his poor classmates (and even an adult here and there) with their legal problems. He provides advice on divorce, foreclosure, and a DUI, to name a few, and he does it all gratis because charging would be unethical (Theo's not a "real lawyer," after all.)

Another problem (not that preaching and a lack of conflict isn't enough) is the seemingly random sidebars (see what I did there?). In order to establish Theo as a legal expert, Grisham has him give the aforementioned advice to his classmates. But none of this, including what could have been an interesting bit about his best friend (a girl) going through her parents' divorce, ever has anything to do with the main storyline. I kept waiting for these bird walks to come back and matter and they never did.

I could go on. But I think it's interesting to note that John Grisham,who could sell a few hundred thousand copies of his grocery list, wrote such a horrific novel for kids. Why? I posit the following:

1. He just didn't give a damn.

2. He doesn't understand that kids want a great story just as much as adults.

3. He adopted a paternal stance and instead of writing to entertain, he wrote to guide and to educate. There are a number of places in the book that read like a primer on America's legal system. Grisham has young Theo tell his classmates all about how the start of a trial will work so that his readers can understand such terms as "prosecution" and "witness stand" and "jury box." It was as if Grisham didn't realize kids watch TV and movies and probably already know all this shit.

4. It's not easy to write a thriller for kids because you can't just hack up bodies to create suspense and intrigue. Grisham, to his credit, realized this and had the murder in the book be a tidy strangling. There were other moments where you could almost sense that Grisham wanted to have a bad guy do something naughty but couldn't quite pull the trigger. I guess he was protecting his readers. (See #3)

5. He hasn't read much middle grade and young adult fiction.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough. The book stunk and I think you should read it to revel in its stinkiness.
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*
Not an actual line from the book, but trust me, it's close enough.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tidying Up

A quick post because The Mom, The Wife, and The Jonathon have all pestered me about announcing a winner for the poetry contest. I mistakenly thought that since I was offering no prize that no one would care about winning. Guess I was wrong.

The winner is Tina Laurel Lee. Tina's poem was so completely baffling to me that I just figure it was probably awesome. My experience with poetry (and modern art and Kafka and string theory) is that if I don't understand it it's because I'm too obtuse to recognize its inherent genius. So Tina wins!

Also, I'm going to the beach today.

And a teaser: I read John Grisham's book for kids, Theordore Boone: Kid Lawyer. It gave me a blog idea. When I get back from the beach, I might write it. And you will agree with me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I'm So Pumped!

Been churning out the words on my work-in-progress. And I love it like whoa.

I'm at about 50 thou out of what'll probably be around 70. Then I'll add a bunch of useless shit that I think is hilarious to push it up to 80. Then I'll cut most of that out when I realize it's really not all that funny and end up right around 70 again. This one's totally getting pubbed. It actually has a plot. It's an absurd plot, but a plot nonetheless. (I like "nonetheless." Three words in one--can't beat that. (Or maybe you can. Are there any four words in a word words? Say that three times.))

And can I just say that my story has awesome characters? Okay. My story has awesome characters. I'd share, but you really have to read the thing to get it and I'm not letting you read it.

Yet.

If I let you read it now, you'd be all, "Where's the ending?" And I'd be, "I said I wasn't done, but you were impatient. Let that be a lesson to you." And you'd be, "There should be an ending." And I'd walk away (virtually, of course. I don't actually meet my beta readers. I mean, could you imagine the awkwardness? We'd start a conversation and I'd trip all over my words and you would be, "You don't trip over words on your blog." Jerk.)

Oh. And I have repetitive bits. I love repetitive bits. "Running gags" you might call them. There's one about of one my characters who dated a girl with an "enchanting chin." See, this girl---never mind. Just trust me, it's killa funny.

So what are you up to?

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I read Ray Veen's Talonshale this past week. It's seriously good. I don't even read that genre much and I thought it was seriously good. And I'm not just saying that because he reads my blog. If I didn't like it, I just would not say anything at all. (But behind his back, I'd email other people and be like, "Oh, my god. That sucked so bad. What a waste of my time. If he asks you to read it say you're going on vacation and they don't let you read there.") Seriously, it's awesome. If he lets you read it, you should.

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Haven't heard jack squat from any agents in about six days. New round of queries goes out the virtual door tomorrow.

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Congratulations to Spain. You are the best at the most boring sport on the planet. Even though it took you almost two hours of playing time to score a goal, I'm sure the three people in America who were watching were really excited when it finally happened. Muy bien futbol. (I don't know how to get those diagonal slant things above the letters. They're stupid anyway. Other languages...pssh.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How About a Poetry Contest?

I got this idea from Tracy, so blame him.

He posted a poem called "Kick a Little Stone" on his blog and then said, "The simplicity of this poem blows me away. Topics [in the book] range from kicking stones to going to the beach to swinging up, up into the sky."

So. Go to Tracy's blog. Read the poem. Get a feel for it.

Then come back here and write your own.

The Rules:

1. Keep it short. I'm not looking for Paradise Lost.
2. It must be about something children do.
3. You can be serious or funny. Please don't be oblique or metaphorical. I'm not up for that today.

Small print: No prize will be awarded, but a winner will be named.


Mine:

Wagon Bumps


Daddy pulls the wagon

Over sidewalk cracks

He rolls it through rain puddles

The wheels leave skinny tracks

We hurry under dripping trees

My mouth is open wide

We take a hairpin turn so fast

The back wheels start to slide

I’m shaking in my wagon seat

Rattle-battle-thump!

And then my wagon’s in the air

It’s hit a tree root bump

Daddy stops and looks behind

There’s worry on his face

But I just smile my biggest smile

And say, “Pick up the pace!”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Etc.

  • It's hot.
  • I sent a few queries out today even though I know nobody's working, and lo and behold I got a rejection just hours later from Joe Veltre. I appreciate those agents who send out rejections while the rest of the country takes the day off.
  • The Wife and I watched Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief last night and holy smoke did it suck. I can't think of a movie I enjoyed less. I turned it off with ten minutes to go because I just couldn't take it anymore and because it was almost eleven o'clock and I figured even the local news would be more interesting. I was right.
  • Conversely, we just got back from Toy Story 3 and it was awesome.
  • I read a book for grown-ups recently, Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes. It was found in his files and published posthumously. Now I know why. Here's a tip for all you successful writers out there: If you have unpublished novels just lying around, get rid of them. Because after you die your family members, caring more about money than your reputation, will publish them to your embarrassment (assuming you can still feel shame in the grave). My guess is most of the music in Michael Jackson's vault similarly blows. (But I'll probably still listen to it. I mean, c'mon, it's Michael Jackson.)
  • I'm struggling to find books this summer and my reading is suffering. The local library has a limited selection and my checking account has limited funds. Most of the stuff I'm excited to read (Fat Vampire) isn't out yet. So recommend some slightly older books for me, will you? I'm looking for titles that are maybe a couple of years old that fell through the cracks and I forgot about them. Young adult and middle grade preferred, go heavy on plot and if there's some humor all the better.
Out.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Elena Kagan for the Court

There's some question about whether Elena Kagan is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court because she's never been a judge. People complain that there isn't much a paper trail because she hasn't had to rule on cases and this makes both sides of the aisle nervous. There seems to be a lot that isn't known about her.

But if judging is what I think it is, then Kagan should be confirmed based on her answer in the following clip alone:



I wish you wouldn't, indeed.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I Read The Deathday Letter

I'm not going to review the book because a. I suck at reviews and b. the author has been known to stop by this blog so 1. If I write a complimentary review people (who, I don't know) would say, "Well of course you wrote a complimentary review" and 2. If I didn't write a complimentary review I'd a. feel like a dick and 2. would be lying.

But the book got me thinking, although not about the stuff I was supposed to think about.

It got me thinking about how difficult it is to succeed writing a book like The Deathday Letter. And by succeed I mean selling lots of books, becoming a household name, and then treating people horribly.

First, I should say that Shaun David Hutchinson made it further than I think most books like this do or will. The Deathday Letter, if you do not know, is about a fifteen-year-old kid who receives a letter telling him he's got one day left to live. It's a clever premise; one that's easily understood and tickles the imagination. And it's funny. And it's well written. And there's a serious message, too.

But the book's target audience is unabashedly young adult males. And I love that. I wish there were more books for these kids. I like to read books like this and I like to write books like this so I wish The Deathday Letter all kinds of crazy success. (Seriously, just buy the book. I did. See photo above.)

Unfortunately, the book has and will continue to fight an uphill battle. I bought the book at a honest to goodness bookstore. It was in the YA section which was on the back wall and took me ten minutes to find. I bought it the day after it came out and it was sandwiched between other authors who last names start with H. And there were two copies.

Conversely, I knocked down seven vampire books with black covers and was screamed at by a gang of goth girls because they thought I was disrespecting Richelle Mead on my way to the YA wall. This was because the vampire books were practically placed in the middle of an aisle so that you needed to go out of your way to avoid them.

Now I know Shaun is just elated to have the thing published and out there and there's no way he'll ever complain (I wouldn't either), but let's just look at the hurdles he's had to clear to elbow aside enough books to get his own on the shelf.

  • First he had to write it. This is hard.
  • Then he had to get an agent interested in it, even though the target audience tends to spend a lot of time playing video games and watching YouTube and playing sports and staring at girls. And when they do read, they pick up fantasy novels or books for adults. (I know. I mostly read Stephen King in high school. I didn't even know there were books for high school kids.)
  • And then said agent had to get a publisher interested, in spite of the above challenges.
  • And now I'm skipping some steps, but after all that there were two (now there's one) copies of the book in my local bookstore (and it's a big one) and you pretty much had to be looking for it like I was to find it.

It depresses me. Mostly for selfish reasons because before I sit down to write another novel I will think to myself, "I really want to write a funny book for high school guys, but will anybody read it? And if nobody is going to read it, then do I have a chance of finding an agent? And if I do find an agent who gets it and loves it, which might be kinda hard because 90% of YA agents are chicks, will he or she be able to find a publisher (more chicks) who not only likes it but thinks it will sell enough to make it worth her while?" And I won't be the only one.

So here's hoping The Deathday Letter gets great word of mouth, high school dudes buy a copy, and publishers are suddenly clamoring for more books like it. Because I really want to click on an agency Web site and read, "I'm always on the lookout for books with penis jokes and scatological humor." Because, dude, that's my kind of agent.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Goals for the Summer

Summer for me does not start on whatever date it's supposed to start. It starts when I'm done teaching. That day is Friday. So I've been thinking about what I'd like to accomplish over the next three months with respect to reading and writing. My goals are all things I can do without help from anyone. This is why you will not see ACQUIRE AN AGENT. ACQUIRING AN AGENT relies on someone other than me (or Anita or Tracy or The Wife or The Mom) reading my stuff and recognizing it for the pioneering genius that it is. Unfortunately, I have discovered that literary agents have a huge blind spot when it comes to appreciating pioneering genius. I call that blind spot The (Il)Literati's Collective Bias Against Anything Written by Paul Michael Murphy.

On to the goals:

1. I am going to query like a madman. My plan is to query over 100 agents for both my middle grade novel and my YA. Ideally, I'll be able to stop somewhere before 100, but I will not stop querying until the agenting community has publicly denounced both my books and me personally. If I were them, I would start with my chin. My chin deserves widespread scorn.

2. I'm going to finish my third novel. I have one that stalled out about halfway through but I still like it quite a lot. So now that I don't have to grade papers or plan lessons or enter stupid data into the stupid work database or watch Criminal Minds, because I think I've seen them all, I can look at it with fresh eyes and finish the thing.

3. I am going to read 40 books over the summer. My reading has been a little behind last year's pace, partly due to lack of initiative and partly due to the cinder block that was Under the Dome, so I'm going to make it up this summer. I still plan on hitting 100 books by year's end.

P.S. Westerfeld's Leviathan was cool.