Sunday, December 13, 2009

Which profession produces the worst drivers? Well, guess what! It also produces the worst fliers. (Good thing authors weren’t included in the study!)

Just ran across this item on AOL News and it immediately took me back to my flying days. But before I elaborate, I shall first tell you the answer: Doctors.

This study was reported by Reilly Brennan, Editor in Chief and Programming Director for AOL Autos. An award-winning journalist, Brennan has written for Motor Trend, Automobile… Magazine, Winding Road, Monocle. He says: “Per year, every 1,000 doctors average 109 accidents and 44 speeding tickets, landing them at the top of the list. Are these sleep-deprived residents and interns too tired to stay on the road, or do they just enjoy playing God in traffic?”
But he also points out that “many of the professions on the list tend to get called into duty with some urgency.”

Now back to flying.

The Cessna 150 my instructor used for training was called “Patches” for good reason. The cowling was red, the pilot side door was yellow-striped, the rudder was blue with white stripes, and the rest of the plane was the original gray and white. It was, in short, the product of a series of cannibalized crashes. And the pieces did not always play well together. The door, for instance, didn’t quite fit and once flew opened just as I was banking over the red and white checked water tower. That was the downwind leg of the landing pattern and I couldn’t have been 20 feet above the thing.

Anyway, Patches’ condition, according to my instructor, was the direct result of the airfield’s proximity to UTMB (Univ. of Texas Medical Branch). Yes. All the crashes were caused by doctors. But why? Those guys are brilliant! To which my laconic, WWII-type teacher replied: “Oh, I dunno. Reckon they feel they’re above it all.” After which he slapped this thigh and cackled raucously over his pun.

That was long ago, of course. At this point in my life I’m grateful Mr. Brennan didn’t include authors in his study. We are probably the most dangerously abstracted people out there. We’re always rehashing or even sounding out bits of dialog, considering plot intricacies, etc. while we’re driving. Frankly, I’d rather be flying with a squadron of MDs than, say, Stephen King, Jean Auel, or Erma Bombeck…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Fanatic Grammatic Goes Way Past Participles

Before I start eating my nominative cases, I'd like to recommend two more grammar websites. This one from my BFF Rose Mary: which, you can tell from the title, is quite as user friendly as Moreover, it has direct applications for authors.

Next is for you technical types. It's from Mary Sell -my editor, as you might guess: That came about when I went into a panic over a sentence I loved, but GrammarCheck didn't. She finally hauled out the big guns over the issue. Oddly enough, it still remains a judgement call. But there it is.

Now, then. After all this angst over perfecting my product, here comes Geraldine Sutton Stith. We met online when she was seeking info on my publisher. Since she had already published a couple of novels, I went to her website and became intrigued. Alien Legacy, a true story of her family's experiences, looked familiar. It was a case I'd discovered when researching UFO sightings for a formal debate. (I drew 2nd affirmative.) I immediately ordered it.

It was August 21, 1955 in Kelly, Kentucky; a night burned forever into the memory of the Sutton family. This poignant tale of terror - and the resultant, enduring ridicule - could only be told exactly the way Geraldine told it - in the words of her salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing family. How else could she have communicated their thoughts and feelings in those extraordinary events?

It felt as real as listening to her tell it over the kitchen table. I could hear her soft accent, see the steep, wooded hills of Kentucky that enfold you like a mother's embrace; yet understand fully the stark horror of strange lights and unhuman beings curiously exploring the grounds and peering through windows.

Yes, Geraldine Sutton Stith told it like it was, and grammar be hanged. If my publisher accepts her, I hope they accept her completely.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Take every opportunity to sharpen your skills

There's a reason I haven't been posting lately: namely, Ammanon Book Three, The Deliverance.

After it had been competently edited (thanks again, Mary!) I submitted it. And OMG. My publisher's manuscript reviewer, hereinafter referred to as the MR, about tore me a new one. She preferred the old school use of commas, for one thing. No real argument there. Then there's my writing style. If you've ever read my Ammanon books, you know I have adopted a sort of Old Testament narrative style to immerse the story in it's ancient setting. And you know that Biblical authors and translators quite frequently begin sentences with "and". Total no-no.

Worse, the format in which I had submitted it was all wrong. Again, I certainly can't argue. Publishers should demand that an author meet their requirements in order to facilitate review and production. Obviously this is no excuse, but the only rules I ever saw were 12 pt. Times New Roman, double spaced. And that was Book Two. Book One was 12 pt. Courier. Double spaced, of course. I was horrified that I'd made such an errors like indented paragraphs and page numbers when they weren't allowed, but I swear I never saw these specifications. Honest. Not in the contract; not on their website. Not that I'm the best searcher of sites...

The point is, I should have asked at the outset.

Anyway, bottom line, I've been slogging through the manuscript virtually letter-by-letter to correct such things. Invariably, one also finds many, many things to improve when one does this. Which brings me to the title subject.

For heaven's sake, stay sharp on the rules of grammar. I don't care how unconventional your chosen style, if the verb doesn't agree with the subject you're not saying what you want to say. A misused adverb can confuse or change the meaning entirely. Trust me, you don't want to confuse either your editor OR your MR. Know what you're doing! Even the automatic grammar prompts on your Word program can throw you if you don't know the mechanics of your language. It's especially important to know when the prompts are wrong!

I got caught once before when I discovered my grammar skills had become antiquated. In the process of updating, I discovered this online goldmine: Just using the free services can be a huge help. Pic your bugaboo (apostrophes, commas, etc.) read the rules, and take the quizzes. I took them all. I was amazed at the way colloquial usage can erode your recognition of proper form.

Check out other authors. Many use their blogs to help writers sharpen their skills. My favorite at the moment is Aaron Paul Lazar. He's turned me around on several points. But there are many others. Google topics like "Writing Essentials" and you'll find them.

Meanwhile, I'm truly indebted to both my editor and MR for forcing me to look again at my writing - this time with all the critical fervor necessary for perfection.

Okay. I've gotta get back to work.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

IF YOU COULD CHOOSE a fantasy world to live in, which one would it be?

Okay, I went and created a world where I'd like to live. Ammanon is a healthy place with many technological advantages. Ammanians are educated, honorable...all that good stuff and they have lots of adventures! BUT that doesn't mean I don't dream of other places I've visited in books. Narnia, for example. Or Middle Earth. Or Du Weldenvarden. Hogwarts.

Where would you live?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

“There is Nothing New Under the Sun”

Over 397,000 works are published annually. Creating something non-litigiously new can be a real problem.

Yes, plagiarism does happen and it shouldn’t. But when you consider over 397,000 works are published every year in the English-speaking world alone (Wikipedia’s stats for UK, USA and Canada), it’s inevitable that ideas are going to be repeated.

The title quote is Ecclesiastes 1:9, attributed to King Solomon: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (NIV version).

Obviously, if there’s been a verbatim lifting of text without documentation, that’s one thing. There have been some very public furors when authors are caught at this. Roots, that towering work by Alex Haley was found to have paragraphs lifted from a work he had used in his research: The African, by Harold Courlander. Another accused of fraud is famed historian Stephen Ambrose. I found quite a list of examples in a New York Books article by feature writer David Edelstein (May 6, 2006).

But when one is accused of similarities, I have to wonder. Famous on this score was Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan whose work How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was yanked from the shelves because of similarities to other authors, most notably Megan McCafferty. Now, I really have no idea just how similar. None of the articles I found expounded in detail. Obviously it was similar enough for the publisher to pull something like 55,000 copies out of distribution which had to be a significant dollar loss for them.

Face it. If you ever become rich and famous, someone’s going to sue you. How hard could it be for someone to get hold of CopyGuard (academic plagiarism-detection software engineered by iParadigms for Turnitin of Oakland, CA); screen your work, and find a way to score a few bucks in court? Granted, famous folks are more apt to have total strangers yell: “Hey! He hit on me!” rather than: “Hey! He stole my work!” but the latter plainly stands a better chance of being provable.

So the Big Problem is this: how do you create something non-litigiously new considering the overwhelming amount of work being produced?

You can’t. King Solomon said so.

Maybe it’s like this: every thought in the universe wanders through the cosmos on a cyclical basis infecting mortals at random. That’s why, when you’re so sure you’ve come up with something either new or distantly retro, it suddenly pops up everywhere. Everybody’s doing a story, a movie or a lunchbox on that very theme. Multiple minds being infected by the currently migrating thought. Think a judge would buy that?

Given this cosmic premise, your worst enemy is the length of the process. It can be years between inception and publication. Even if you’re the first to “catch” a thought, others with more speed, clout or sheer dumb luck will get out there first.

When Ammanon finally stopped being a daydream and came tumbling out on paper – well, the computer screen – it was 2003. It was a fictional place, a fictional race, but it had an ancient Greco-Roman feel to it that hadn’t been done since Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics. No one was doing anything remotely similar.

Then suddenly it was everywhere. It started, near as I can figure, with “Gladiator”. Then came “Troy”, “Alexander”, “Pompeii”, “300”, etc. PBS started running “I, Claudius”, “Rome”; and there was a remake of “Spartacus” as a TV movie. The History Channel reacted with factual documentaries for all of the above. It was saturation plus.

Nevertheless I plugged on. By 2006 I’d found an agent, a publisher, and begun the lengthy process of editing and rewrites. Then I found a bigger problem than genre: names for fantasy places and people. Oh, it’s easy enough to come up with the words. But you can bet you’re not the first to invent them.

“Ammanon” for instance, passed muster both on Google and in the big, fat dictionary I keep by my side. But the first time I looked up my book on guess what! The entry just under mine was the very intriguing Within a Sheltering Darkness – The Log of the Ammanon Deloré by Alan Havorka. OMG. Who could’ve thought up a name like that besides me?

Then I went to register a domain name for my website. My web designer, Al Miller of Kwikit, and I decided on a simple, straight forward But between telling me the name was available and getting it registered - wham! It got snapped up by a genetic testing/genealogical group. OMG. Someone else thought up that word, too! And none of us could’ve possibly copied from the other. It was original with all of us. You’ve got to believe that, Your Honor!

Character names, while not as dangerous as title names, can get sticky, too. In Ammanon, Book Five: The Souls of Many I dreamed up a nice, strong name for a boy warrior: “Pardis”. My dictionary wasn’t using it for anything so I thought it was OK. But guess what. “Pardis” is a girl’s name in India. For that matter, so is “Partha” the name I gave a country in my story. Sigh. I changed the boy’s name, which doesn’t sound at all masculine to me anymore. But the kingdom of Partha, may all those Indian ladies forgive me, remains.

There are many more examples from my own experience. For instance, I named the emperor’s magnificent, legendary steed “Maxor”. Great, huh? Some months later I discovered that Maxor was the name of my mother-in-law’s mail order pharmacy.

And so it goes.

Another problem is the fact that we writers generally weave our worlds in relative isolation. It never occurs to us that someone else is acting on the same thoughts until we emerge years later.

The bottom line is simply this: there is nothing new under the sun. The universe is just too big a place. Of course outright plagiarism will ever be unfair and unacceptable. But for heaven’s sake let’s be reasonable about coincidence!