Sunday, September 29, 2013

Notes and Quotes

Over the years I have squirreled away notes and quotes in a small book I keep on a shelf above my desk. I haven’t looked into it for sometime, but this morning, while looking for something else, I rediscovered it and spent an hour or so reading through what I have saved.

Many are quotations I wanted to remember, by authors I sometimes can’t recall. Fortunately, I’m a good researcher, and note the essential details whenever I write down something another has said or written. These scribbles range from absurd statements to true philosophy. I’m not sure where each one falls, but I thought I’d share at least some of them with you today. It is bits and pieces like these that spark ideas for what may turn into essays or short stories or novels or film scripts.

I begin with one of my favorite authors, Virginia-born and Nebraska-raised, Willa Cather. It is from On the Divide:

Milton made a sad mistake when he put mountains in Hell. All mountain peoples are religious. It was the cities of the plains that, because of their utter lack of spirituality and the mad caprice of their vice, were cursed by God.
With that as a starting place, I went on to another note written on the bottom of a shopping list (that had nothing to do with what I wrote) and no guide as to why I wrote it:

English is the universal language. If you don’t think so, go anywhere in the world and say "dollar."
I then turned up a description of behavior that doesn’t appear in the psychology books:

Assertive/Defensive: Assuming the necessity to adamantly defend an act or position before the need arises.
An all-to-frequent stance taken not only by our political leaders, but by strangers you might talk to in a meeting or a store.

A much longer note is for a story. The premise is that a nuclear holocaust has taken place, and the only survivors are those who have access to an anti-radiation drug (which does exist in some form already). These people are secure in only three countries. One is a democracy, one is a totalitarian state, and the third is one that has succeeded in avoiding war for a thousand years. All three share the same geologic features: deep underground caverns and caves in sturdy and immoveable mountains. In the story the generations renew themselves through their children, and their children’s children and so on until it is safe to re-emerge into the sunlight. It is a story I don’t think I’ll ever write.

Another quote, this time from Cicero:

My precept to all who build, is that the owner should be an ornament to the house, and not the house to the owner.
I believe that should stand for all who build, whether houses or songs or poetry of stories or, most importantly, lives.

And a return to Cather, from her story, Eric Hermannson’s Soul. It is a piece I was going to carve into the railing of the deck that overlooks our fields and mountain side:

I think if one lived here long enough one would quite forget how to be trivial, and would read only the great books that we never get time to read in the world, and would remember only the great music, and the things that are really worthwhile would stand out clearly against that horizon over there.
This last was written in 1771 by an author whose name is unreadable in my own handwriting. I offer it as a coda for any creative person regardless of your art-form:

We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken, it is the fault of the writer.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Learning to Read

I was reading a magazine recently that is devoted to old cars. While I do own two antiques, that is cars more than 25 years old, they are rough, unrestored, working vehicles. I do want to keep them running, but making them into "better than new" holds no appeal for me.

But I digress.

I was reading about a car that the owner had restored, and in the description of the interior, was the factory term "Carpathian burled elm patterned vinyl inlays." A mouthful of words to describe some pieces of plastic film used to decorate parts of the interior. As I read the description, my mind went back to the first time I heard such language used. I don’t mean the words, but the formula being applied.

One of my best friends in high school was the son of a furrier. The man was adept at finding and sewing furs into beautiful and expensive clothing. It was a thriving business back in those years. Women, especially, seemed to covet coats of fur for what the garment symbolized as much as for their warmth. It was as natural as the skins themselves that a language would develop around what went into the garment.

But enough of this digression.

What was really interesting to me was a description of a coat the father had recently made: "mink dyed rabbit." It took a minute, in my innocence, to parse that phrase and realize what it signified: a common bunny skin dyed to look like mink. I don’t know if that process would also make the fur feel like mink, but I suppose it was enough to know that people would think it was mink. In any case, that was in some ways, the beginning of a loss of innocence on my part.

The lesson, of course, is that one cannot simply rely on words used to describe something. One must factor in the order in which the words fall, ever so trippingly from the tongue, as Shakespeare would have it. And one must pay attention to the source, and not be swayed by appearances. An automobile brochure is designed to make you want whatever model is being presented, regardless of its inherent qualities (or lack there of).

But again I digress.

What you read or hear is not necessarily what you get. The same applies to furniture, appliances, jewelry, even food.

Oh! And politicians.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sell Yourself

Like everything else related to creative work, the steady money is in the jobs that support the creative people. What the new order in publishing offers is the opportunity (for those willing to do the work) and the tools to do the whole job. As a writer/producer of commercial films for many years, I know that the profit came from the difference between what films cost to produce, and what they sold for. The real money, if there ever was any, went to the client who bankrolled the production.Today, publishing is getting much like any other enterprise.

There was a time when publishers and their editors really worked for their writers, tried to help them make the best book possible, introduced them to the book buyers and reviewers, and so on. Not today, according to even the bigger names among authors. Now, if you are getting published, you have to do the work of selling, promoting yourself and your work. You do readings, you write a blog, you go to book fairs and offer your work. You might as well be the "producer," as well as the writer. Using the new tools, and working with the new companies that populate the internet, you can do as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing. Here is what the publishing world of today looks like: the writer writes, then finds a company that will, for a price, take the manuscript the rest of the way. There are programs that allow the writer to plug the text into a predetermined format. Type face, type size, and other elements of printing have been reduced to programs that can be applied to any written word that has been created in a computer. The real change is that a writer today can buy the services as needed. Some writers have a full set of computer skills, but if you don’t, you can hire someone who can do the job. Then there are people who will design and produce the cover, and companies that will see the completed product through to e-book formats and on-demand printing, turning out soft- and hard-cover books at a competitive price, allowing the writer to own the product and control the margin between cost and sale price.

Once the book is in print or on disc, the real work begins. Promoting the work of others is a profession, but some writers are good at generating interest in their own work, and enjoy the contact with their readers. It cuts into the time you need to write, of course, but if you do it right and well, you just may sell enough books to allow you to subsequently hire that service too. Still, it is going to take time and effort to put your work before the public, and a lot of it you are going to have to do yourself. Might as well own that, too, it seems to me.

I have published both ways. Accidents of Time and Place left me as a computer file and came back between covers. The completed manuscript was sent electronically to the publisher who then saw the book through to delivery, and distribution. Promotion was, even then, more or less up to me. The next book, Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage followed the same route, except that I retained the electronic rights and published it as an e-book myself. The manuscript for my next book, Suspect: Five Stories of Suspicion, Suspense and Murder, will be entirely my own production, using an on-line printer. I will see the manuscript translated into hard copy and electronic format, create the cover, determine the price and own the whole project. That means I will also be in charge of promotion and sales, but that isn’t too different from what I have been doing.

Watch this space for the publication date and a special offer for you.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Years ago someone said that if a room full of monkeys were seated at typewriters, they’d eventually write The Great American Novel. The speaker didn’t know about computers, but he (or she) could look at the shift from hand labor to machines and see the future. I suppose that the future holds great promise, especially for those who have either a skill that can’t be robotized, or the skills to make robots that do anything people can do, only better, faster, safer or cheaper – or all of those. The fact is, more and more jobs are being taken over by machines and given up by human hands. Not a new trend, of course. It has been happening right along with human development. Think club instead of hand, as in killing an animal or another human being.

The real change came with the Industrial Revolution, and is still going on. Like any form of evolution, the move from manual to automatic is ever-changing. Sometimes we see it coming, and other times it just comes from behind and passes most of us in the dust.

Many years ago, in researching a film about the American automobile industry, I ran across two quotations that seemed to sum up two very important elements of the ongoing conflict between profits and production.

Henry Ford said, "A large corporation is too big to be human."

The other quote was from Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers. The man who led the effort to unionize the auto industry was talking about the future: "I have no objection to automation. But who will buy the Fords?"

Henry hadn’t the opportunity to meet the present day Supreme Court, wherein corporations were given the constitutional right of free speech. He was talking about the responsibility of corporations to give honest work its honest reward.

Reuther, on the other hand, was talking about robots working the assembly lines at Ford, GM and Chrysler. There were other manufacturers then, but only those three have remained to see the day when automated assembly lines have largely replaced the hands-on builders of busses and trucks and cars.

A recent story in a weekly news magazine focused on the next phase of the industrial revolution and frankly, it offered a rather scary look at the future. There are already cars that drive themselves, and even a fleet of long-haul trucks that drive with only one driver for three rigs; the other two are fully automated, and take their instructions from the lead vehicle. Of course industry spokesfolks will say "It won’t happen," and "At least not soon," and other supposedly comforting phrases, but we all know that these things will come to pass, should the world still be here when the technology is perfected. It is only a little comforting to think about the 1939 Worlds Fair, and the General Motors "World of Tomorrow" exhibit. It featured cars that drove themselves (along a defined roadway), and the prediction that the individual driver would soon be replaced. Well, it’s happening.

That leaves us with the question: "What about me? Will the work I do be turned over to a machine?" And don’t think that just because you are a writer, it doesn’t apply to you. An automated journalist has been at work for several years now, researching and writing daily news. It may not be Pulitzer winning journalism, but it will be someday – maybe when the judges for that prize are robots, too.

Still, the question remains: who will buy the Fords?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Labor Day

Not for the first time, I find myself on this Labor Day weekend hard at work. I’m in the final stages of building a new manuscript that will, I hope, be submitted to a publisher in the next few weeks. It isn’t ready yet, because there are still some passages that need re-writing, some that need editing, a few places where new words are needed, and so I labor even as the calendar tells me it is a holiday from such efforts.

Of course, I’ve almost always (as an adult) labored on Labor Day. Just as I have on most days of most weeks of most years. It is what I know how to do. Sometimes it is for someone else, but almost always, when I look at it closely, it is for me. I enjoy work. I like results. It feels good to accomplish something, especially if it is done with my own hands or my own inner resources. The tools of my trade are mixed: thinking, analyzing, ordering of thoughts, observing, but also physical skills such as writing or typing and reading.

When I’m not engaged in the writing part of my life, I am often working on something three-dimensional: repairing something broken, modifying something to extend its utility, preparing for needs I know will arise. Cutting firewood is one of those, and at this time of year the urgency of that work begins to accelerate. I have four large trees recently brought down that need to be made into logs that will then be split and stacked and eventually, burned.

The other day I spent several hours restoring the surface of our main driveway that was disturbed by a couple of inches of rain. And I have equipment that needs to be readied for winter or just maintained for occasional use.

All of these jobs are things I know how to do, and enjoy doing. The enjoyment may diminish when I have to do them just to keep going, rather than dong them when it is convenient, but in the long run I enjoy the successful conclusion of any and all tasks that fall under the rubric of "work." It is the way I’m made. It is the way America was made.

Celebrate Labor every day.