Sunday, July 29, 2012

Midwest Writers Workshop is Invigorating

I spent three days at the annual Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, and it was time well spent.   This is my fifth time and there is always a good mix of sessions on writing and marketing, and this year you could do a 45 minute one-on-one session on social networking.

Terence Faherty shared his concept of "two for one," talking about the two streams of plotting that he finds essential for his two mystery series (P.I. Scott Simon and failed seminarian Owen Keane) .  He plots out the murderer's story before the protagonist's, since the former is hidden from the reader during most of a mystery.  I always develop the bad guy's motive and back story, but I found Faherty's concept so helpful that I got home and wrote a three-page 'story' for my main bad guy.  And I wrote it from another character's point of view.  It was very instructive.

D.E. (Dan) Johnson discussed what he calls the heavy lifting of writing good fiction.  Simply put, it's that setting is not just a place, it needs to work as party of a tapestry that includes characters and plot.  A well thought-out setting can contribute to tone, tension, and (in a mystery) misdirection.  I have not read Johnson's books, all set in Detroit, and intend to.  From a quick glance at them, it almost looks as if the city is another character in the books.

There is always a great deal of marketing and how-to-publish info at Midwest Writers (#MWW12).  A continuing helpful reference for me will be Jane Friedman's blog on publishing.  The workshop offers five-minute pitch sessions with agents (four this year) and Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest gave an instructive, and humorous, presentation on giving an effective one.  You'll want to check out his new book, Red Dog Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political.

This mid-size conference is instructive and informal, with many opportunities to interact with faculty and other participants.  Come next year.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Language Can Wound Even if You Don't Think So

In 1985, the Section for Women in Public Administration sponsored and Marie Rosenberg Dishman and I wrote a booklet entitled The Right Word: Guidelines for Avoiding Sex-Biased Language.  The goal was not to beat people over the head with a pound of political correctness (in fact the PC term was not yet in use), but to offer alternatives to those who wanted to replace some long outdated terms.

I have written several other articles on the topic, and my favorite anecdote remains one from the first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.  She was a commentator when Discovery Astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon, a physician, helped craft a device used in an attempt to retrieve a satellite.  It entailed several stitches made with a string and a sail maker's needle. A male astronaut, acting as Mission Control communicator with the shuttle, complimented Dr. Seddon on her "seamstress" work.  Ride said she wanted to correct that comment, and did so with a smile.  "That was the work of a surgeon," she said.

Gentle humor is an aid in many situations.  When it comes to sex-biased terms, some changes were just plain easier.  There is no longer a need to call a female aviator an aviatrix or an usher an usherette, and you would probably be locked out of  the office if you called your administrative assistant a 'gal Friday.'

There are other terms in relatively common use that could be offensive and we don't think about it.  Someone who has deviated from a long-held tradition or office policy might be said to be "off the reservation."  Think about it.  That term undoubtedly arose when Native Americans were forced onto reservations more than a century ago.

And what about the term "white trash?"  We know it's meant to be insulting.  Is a user saying people who are not white are more likely to "be trashy" and only some especially sloppy white people are?  Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred that insult is hurled with no racial intent, but it's still a hurtful term.

What brought such uses to mind recently was a series of emails among some fiction author friends.  One had circulated a draft of a new book cover, and several of us tossed humorous darts at the publisher (who since revised the cover - it was really awful!).  A couple of the others said the man on the cover was "so gay."  The man was the woman's boyfriend, so bad artwork or not, he was supposed to be heterosexual.

These were comments made among friends, not meant as hateful barbs.  Maybe the term was so 'neutral' to a couple of the other authors that they would use the expression around gay or lesbian friends.  However, I'm not sure a gay young man who was bullied in high school would find it funny, nor likely would his parents.

Taking the term away from a discussion of someone's appearance, it's impossible to ignore that the term "that's so gay" is now used to refer to something that is dumb or an excuse that is poor.  Clearly, it's an insult.  Why do we ignore the use when we would call out a colleague who uses terms such as 'spic' or 'kike'?

The thinking is likely, gee, I know they don't mean any harm, or I don't want to be a spoil sport.  It can be uncomfortable to be a 'language police officer,' and sometimes you have to pick your battles.  The best lesson can be in the form of a question.  When you ask someone why they use a term or phrase, it makes them think.  They may come to understand that language can offend whether it is intended it to be demeaning or not.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Favorite Books of James Larkin


Today's guest post is from a reader whose tastes roam through every genre and many books that defy classification.  Meet my husband, James Larkin.
This is a list of the best books I've ever read, in no particular order.  I made this list by quickly going through my library and being ruthless in the selection.  Undoubtedly, there are some important omissions.  I'm not so sure about mistaken inclusions.  I left out text books and so-called sacred writing (most of the books on this list are sacred to me).  

I included several books because of their "memory" to me, or, maybe more simply, what they meant to me at the time I read them.  I include many books by authors who have much more famous/successful works than the one I mention.  Tough nooglits.  

A quick note on noted short story writers.  I think all of them should be on the list, but I'll include a few at the end.  And maybe one or two authors will be included for their entire body of work.  Stephen King comes to mind for the body of work thing, although I'm way too much of a snob to have him on my list.  After all, he's sold one zillion books, so how good could he be? It goes without saying that you would do well to read any of these;  it'll feel like Disneyland on Acid, without leaving the farm.  

Again, no particular order, (the numbers are useful anyway):

1) The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.  Ten Boom's family hid Anne Frank.  Life Lessons abound.

2) Pop: 1280 by Jim Thompson.  Jim's a soul mate.  Started reading this one weekend in Chicago and on Monday bought 3 more.  Carnage-o-plenty!

3) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I hate to do this but the recommendation includes referencing his "other" work.  This is so much better.  Period.

4) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  Trippy.  Pun optional.

5) Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  Never underestimate the power of stupid people in groups.  

6) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.  It was my first of Saul's books and I love him for it. 

7) Being There by Jerzy Kosinski.  He never uses 2 words when one will do.  

8) Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  There are 2 kinds of readers in the world and if this isn't on your list you're the other kind.  

9) Ironweed by William Kennedy.  Sublime.  Time and place.  

10) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Prolific authors should sometimes be put to work.  
11) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.  This might break the sacred work category, but I reference it to this day.

12) The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  I will admit to reading this after seeing the movie.  It's on the very short list of Eastern-bloc writers who've made an impression on me.  

13) The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon.  Maybe more than most authors on this list, you should read something of Michael's before you read anything else.  You will be glad you did.  

14) Marathon Man by William Goldman.  William struck gold in Hollywood, but I don't hold it against him.  He actually wrote a sequel to Marathon, but I don't remember the name, even though I do remember the book.  It might have been called "Brothers", but don't quote me.  

15) I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.  I read another of his long books, and I am currently reading a novella by Wally.  "This much is True" is an indictment.  

16) The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  This book deserves a place on this list for what it meant to me while I read it and for the crime that Hollywood committed in the name of this book.  PLEASE skip the movie, it has nothing to do with the book.  

17) Animal Farm by George Orwell.  I am proud in all the wrong ways that I read this book in 6th grade and could tell you it was about politics even then, before the internet.  Again, never underestimate the power of stupid people...

18) Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck.  They should be read together.  

19) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  They should be read together.

20) The World According to Garp by John Irving.  This was a new kind of writing to me when I read it.  Early '80's.  The worm has turned. 

Short Story Authors, and Writers notable for the body of work, in no particular order:
Jim Thompson
Raymond Carver
P.K. Dick
Harry Crews 
Scott Cremer
Travis Cremer

Poets, in no particular order:
Richard Peabody.  Rich taught me that "slinging the words" was ok.  Because of that lesson, I am able to put myself on this list:
Jim Larkin.

My favorite author writes words with her deeds as well as her keyboard, and she is my lovely wife, Elaine L. Orr.  Elaine writes "cozy" mysteries" and has earned a living writing most of her life.  Her lessons are innumerable, but how to practice love is at the top of the list.  I wish I was taught the value of creativity and quirkiness early in life.  These aren't Elaine's words, but they could be: 
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL*

*as near as I can find Graham Nash is the author of Teach Your Children, by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Ideas to Avoid Typos

There is no point in making a typo unless it gives someone a laugh. For example, I used to do some work in the public administration community, and you can guess what left-out letter caused the most eye rolls.  I thought I'd share, via Yahoo Voices, a couple of my tips for keeping typos in abeyance.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Revving the Creative Juices

I've been working on several projects, and every now and then a speed bump pops up.  When that happens, I read, usually a mix of fiction and nonfiction.  Nonfiction of the moment is Writing Mysteries, which Sue Grafton edited.  Not all edited books create a cohesive whole, but his one does.  It has three major sections -- Preparation, the Process, and Specialties.  

Topics include "Writing a Series Character" (Sara Paretsky), "Pacing and Suspense" (Phyllis Whitney), and "Revision (Jan Burke).  The thirty-five articles are concise, none more than twelve pages, making it possible to delve in and out of the book.  Though the publisher was Writer's Digest, it was prepared with the support of Mystery Writers of America.  

I read much of this book not long after it came out in 2002.  It was worth the time to browse it again.