Monthly Archives: July 2014

Plot 10, Writing 3

With apologies to A Chorus Line, “Plot 10, Writing 3”…

Thanks to an initial subscription given to me by my daughter and son-in-law, I have for several years been receiving a monthly publication featuring science fiction short stories and novellas. As one might predict, the quality of the stories varies, with some being very creative and engrossing, and some being significantly less so. What is disturbingly pervasive across the magazine’s creative spectrum, however, is some terrible writing and editing. To wit: the editor of the aforementioned sci-fi magazine, in responding to a letter from a reader complaining that he hated two recently published stories, wrote, “I actually feel like only hating two stories out of the year is pretty complementary, all things considered.” Clearly, the magazine’s editor needs some remedial work. (If you don’t see the error, you do, too.)

This particular magazine is not alone in the bad execution department. It exists in many self-published books as well as newspapers and magazines, and don’t get me started on club and other organization newsletters. I’ve written briefly about this before, but recently have seen so many good plots and articles marred by stupid writing errors that I’m motivated to address the problem in more detail, now.

Some of the problem, of course, can be attributed simply to lousy writing skills. There are a lot of folks who simply find it beyond their skill set to write a simple declarative sentence without error(s). The problem is exacerbated when they try to be creative. Disagreement between subjects and verbs; dangling constructions; tense discordance; the list goes on. What were these people doing back in grammar school? Obviously, not learning English. (Where’s grammar? Upstairs, sleeping.)

Most writing for publication these days is done on computers. You’d think people would use spell check before submitting a piece. But you’d be wrong. Why don’t they? Who knows? Grammar check? Ditto.

When pieces are submitted, they are often sent as e-mail attachments. This has led to carelessness in the editing process. Publications are no longer typeset and may receive no more than a cursory review by a nominal editor before being transferred directly from the submitted file to the actual document for publication. In other words, the role of the editor has become markedly diminished and apparently, in some cases, nonexistent. This is how idiotic errors on the order of, “John slipped behind the wheel and they put the key in the ignition,” can and do occur. With poor or no editing, we see things like there/they’re/their errors, the frequent “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less” mistake, or the abominable her’s instead of hers. Read critically and you’ll find all sorts of execrable stuff like this.

So, what’s the answer? Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is one.

We don’t teach English usage well in our schools. Multiple choice testing and the lack of assignments requiring writing are major contributors to the problem. Worse, many teachers, being recent products of our faltering educational system with its lack of emphasis upon the acquisition of English skills, are simply not equipped to teach current students. The prevalence of texting is another problem that has received much attention. To say it’s ungrammatical would be an understatement.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not for idiomatic, everyday communication. But I think it does matter for more formal journalistic, nonfiction, and creative writing. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but nothing ruins my mood while reading a terrific article or story quite as much as coming across an “irregardless”, a misuse of “begging the question”, a dangling phrase, a homonym error, a misplaced or misused apostrophe, or any of a large number of other errors that should never occur.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I think there’s beauty in our language, and I hate to see it butchered.


Gone Fishin’

This is the 31st entry into, and it’s been a fun ride since January, when I started these weekly entries. And yes, I haven’t missed a week since the inaugural posting.

As regular readers know, the blog has focused on writing for the self-publishing author, with occasional – OK, frequent – excursions into politics, religion, and whatever other thoughts cross my mind.

This week, I’m taking a break from the usual topics because we’ve just spent the past several days on the road, taking in some of the beautiful and occasionally odd sights of our country.

A couple of our “for instances”: The Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, Texas. Yes, in a pasture alongside Interstate 40, one can view ten old Cadillacs half buried and semi-vertical with tailfins pointing upward at an angle approximating that of the slope of the faces of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and painted in psychedelic colors and patterns. In fact, visitors can add their own artistic inspiration if they bring their own spray cans. Or, how about the world’s second tallest crucifix: 19 stories high, standing just outside of Groom, Texas, east of Amarillo. A true monument to wasteful religious commitment, but ya gotta love it.

So, no deep thoughts for this week. Just a bit of a break from more serious subjects. More next time.


Little Pieces

Up to now, I’ve pretty much dealt with both writing, publishing, and marketing one’s books. What I haven’t addressed is the subject of articles and essays, and the task of getting them into print. My own experience has been spotty, with some high points over the years mixed in with lots of rejections. Maybe my own history will prove useful if you’re trying to get some shorter pieces into print.

Back in the 1980’s, when I first started submitting articles to publications, I had some pretty grandiose notions about where I could be showcased. This resulted in a series of rejection letters from some of our finest publications of the day: New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Omni, Playboy, California…all on their lovely stationery. Usually these form missives began with “Dear Author” and went on there to note that either my material wasn’t “quite” right for their august pages or, occasionally, the dubious and likely faux politesse of, “We get many submissions and, unfortunately, cannot publish them all…”

I used to save all these letters, feeling I might someday paper my bathroom wall with them. Recently, however, I gave up on the idea and threw them out.

After receiving a certain number of these rejections, I began to see things in more realistic terms and, looking to a couple of my hobbies – amateur (“ham”) radio and model airplanes – wrote several articles for hobby-niche publications which, in fact got printed. I also wrote for a medical “throw-away” publication called Medical Economics, got a number of letters to the editor into a local newspaper and the L.A. Times. My latest success is that I will have an essay published this summer in a medically-oriented literary journal, The Pharos. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a fair number of these sorts of published pieces – enough to keep me encouraged in my writing while working on my two books.

So, what are the lessons to be taken from this? I think they’re few in number but highly valuable.

First, unless you’re a well known writer or have some high level contacts, you will likely end up on the slush pile of major magazine editors if you’re submitting to them cold. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but you need to be realistic. I’ve still never gotten a story into Playboy, even though I’m egotistical enough to think that the few pieces I’ve sent to them over the years are at least as good as some of the fiction they’ve printed over the same period of time. Send targeted pieces to smaller, niche publications, many of which will likely be happy to publish your work.

Second, and there’s nothing original about this suggestion, write what you know even if it’s not really what you want to do. There’s nothing wrong with writing an article about servicing left handed veeblefetzers if that’s what’ll get you into print in the American Journal of Applied Fetzerology. You won’t make much money at it but you’ll be a published writer, and that’s at least part of your goal fulfilled.

Third, write letters to the editor of newspapers and magazines. You might or might not get printed but, if you do, people will see your name, and that’s important.

Fourth, no matter what you submit and where you submit it, expect a fair share of rejections. It’s going to happen, and if it’s going to upset you, you should probably be doing something else.

Fifth, no matter what, continue writing. The worst thing is to stop. The more you write, the better at it you are likely to become. And don’t be afraid of feedback and criticism. It will sharpen your focus, increase your insight into what you’re doing, and tell you much about the perceptions of your audience. If you’re going to succeed, you have to keep at it and develop a thick skin.

The Five Grumps Step in It Again

   This week, we depart from literary pursuits to vent our frustration over the recent “Hobby Lobby” decision by the five crotchety Neanderthals on the Supreme Court, who’ve both politicized and “religicized” (yes, I made that up) the Court to an unprecedented degree.

   First, let’s recall that our country’s founders were deists who sought, among other goals, to establish a country free from religious oppression. Their idea was to keep any one religion from becoming the sanctioned religion of the United States, and for them this meant in particular that the sort of Christian theocratic influence and abuse previously seen in Europe and England was to be avoided.

   The corollary to freedom of religion and the establishment clause of the first amendment was the implication of freedom from religion. Of course, this is not stated anywhere in the Constitution, but if freedom of thought is an inherent right, then the absence of any establishment of religion clearly implies freedom from it, as well.

   All of which brings us to what’s been going on in recent times with the political right wing, right wing Republicans, Tea Partiers, and the Supreme Court. Any objective review of recent events must lead to the conclusion that the United States is suffering from creeping religionism (a real word). The White House’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, permission of sectarian prayers at public governmental meetings, and now – case in point — the ability of employers of closely held corporations to exclude family planning coverage from employee insurance plans – what happened to the first amendment?

   Here’s what happened: right wing nuts, including five angry and religious white guys on the Supreme Court, have decided to impose their morality on the rest of us. How can they do this? Well, they have already defined corporations as people, issued the infamous “Citizens United” decision, and now they’re saying that “closely held” corporations, i.e., those in which at least a majority of the stock is held by the officers of the corporation who have no plans to sell and thereby give up their control, can impose their religious beliefs on employees by restricting their insurance coverage. What’s next? Refusal to cover immunizations? Blood transfusions? Organ transplants? You name it: the door has been opened and it’s a certainty that we’ll be seeing test cases in the near future. Just wait until the first corporation owned by Christian Scientists doesn’t want much of anything to be covered except (maybe) fractures.

   Well, all right, you may say. Why shouldn’t the owners of Hobby Lobby be able to control the insurance coverage of their employees? Here two answers to the question:

  • Because a corporation is a legal entity, not a corporeal person. The individuals behind the corporation are not the corporation itself. As a legal entity, a commercial corporation cannot have a religion, and should not be able to impose religious views and restrictions upon its employees.
  • As already noted, the founders believed in what became known as the “wall of separation” between church and state, making the Hobby Lobby decision an unwarranted intrusion upon individual rights. How? By making Hobby Lobby a de facto agent of the state. What has been created is government sanctioned, corporate theocracy. This is simply a devious violation of the first amendment of the Constitution.

   If the owners of Hobby Lobby truly want to impose their religious convictions upon employees. and I even agree that, as distasteful to me as this is, they do have some rights in this area, they should be required to give up corporate status and simply become a privately held, unincorporated business. Then, without the luxury of hiding behind all of the protections offered to corporate entities (something right wingers should favor, anyway), they’d be able to offer pretty much whatever kind of insurance policy they might favor.

   Finally, a brief comment about Hobby Lobby’s actual philosophy. It never fails to amaze me how right wing factions constantly talk about individual freedom but only their own and not everybody else’s. In the Hobby Lobby case, their objection to family planning coverage appears at least in part to be based upon the notion that some contraceptive methods may act as abortifacients, although in most cases this is not true. Worse, not covering contraceptive therapy will not reduce the number of abortions. It will, in fact, increase that number. Thus, if the owners of Hobby Lobby are really interested in reducing the incidence of abortions, they should be supporting contraceptive coverage. This logical inconsistency on their part is difficult to understand, but one might suspect that underlying some of it is simply hostility directed at women. And based upon past right wing, religious fundamentalist performance, I’d say that’s a good bet, since they haven’t objected to coverage for erectile dysfunction medications which, as we know, are most often used not for procreation but for recreational sex. Yup, it’s the familiar double standard, promulgated under the hypocritically altruistic banner of that ol’ timey religion.

This week’s annoyance: The five members of the U.S. Supreme Court, who oppose judicial activism except when it benefits their political views, and who have abandoned fidelity both to the letter and the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.