Monday, July 29, 2013

When in doubt, write the way you talk

This here's a little handout I share with my Composition 110 classes.  They seem to enjoy it.

A little of this goes a long way, so use caution.  There is such a thing as a conversational tone, but writing is not talking, nor is it conversation.  Writing is more formal and it's meant to last.  It's like putting ideas in a carbonite word-freezer to save them for all time; timeless prose, and all that.  Writing entirely the way you talk quickly tires the reader, unless that writer is Garrison Keillor.  If you are Garrison Keillor, I don't suppose you'd care to make a guest post on my blog?

That said, every writer has had the experience of typing along with everything moving forward in that magical, Goldilocks at the third chair, don't get any better than this sort of way.  And then, all of a sudden, like a problem out of a Chinese algebra book, along comes an idea they don't know how to explain.  I mean, the writer knows what they want to say in their head, but the words on the page don't do justice to what they mean.  In fact, upon review, the words look like the writer just took a big swig of stupid-juice and dropped their IQ by 25 points.  Then, paralysis sets in and the concept stands out like a cold sore on a prom date, in all of its pink, scabby-wet glory.

It's times like these when the writer needs to take a step back and ask themselves, "How would I explain this to my 13-year-old cousin?"  Why the 13-year-old cousin?  Good question.  The average American reads somewhere between an 7th and 10th grade level.  Let that regurgitate for a while.  The average cop, nurse, homeless guy, burger-flipper, office manager, convenience mart checker-outer, and anyone else you are likely to encounter, reads as well as the typical middle-school student.

Yes, there are specialized audiences.  An article written for a peer-review team of nanotechnology cardiovascular surgeons reading about a new way to do whatever it is they do will probably not need this advice.  Then again, such a writer probably isn't reading this essay.  Know thy audience.

Something else I am not saying is to dumb the whole thing down.  People might not be specialized readers, but most are smarter than they're given credit for being.  We're pretty good at spotting a phony, except the really good phonies.  They get elected to high office where they can practice their phoniness for years while our tax dollars pay for it.  But I digress.

Writers are far more convincing when using words and phrases they understand.  Don’t use big words for the sake of using big words.  That's like putting a spot of neon-orange lipstick over the cold sore.  And that's just wrong.  Remember, writing is communicating.  Even super-secret journals are a way to communicate.  For those troubled areas, where the idea is barely clinging to understandability, just talk it out and write it down.  We're all expert talkers and writers need to leverage that ability.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

CANCER UPDATE #2: The Cancer Card

Health Update follows essay.
A couple of days ago my wife and I were invited to a dinner theater presentation entitled, "Menopause the Musical."  The subtitle, from the official website declares, "The Hilarious Celebration of Women and the Change," exclamation mark and reserved word.

Sidebar:  why won't dinner theaters do anything like Shakespeare or Sophocles?  I mean, Oedipus Rex had singing in it.  I've heard Cormac McCarthy wrote a play.  That might be good.

But, back to the main idea - First:  no man I know wants to see a musical presented by amateurs about menopause.  Guys, I don't mean to blow the cover, but you know it's true.  I just had the courage to type it out loud.  Cancer has profoundly changed my perspective on such things.  Secondly, dinner theater dinner, at least in this neck of the woods, is usually a click or two under the mediocre bar.  That's true too.  You know it and I know it.  Together we can stop the charade.  Join me brethren!  Through solidarity we shall find strength.

Other couples are going.  It's not just lady's night.  The men will pay and sit and nod and speak amongst themselves, listening for funny lines so they can later tell others, "It had some funny parts." Or, "It was ok." Or, "Yeah, it wasn't too bad."  They'll smile as they say these things, remembering the rubbery chicken with white sauce and the cold rolls from a bag and the lukewarm peas with pearl onions, and the beasts in their hearts will howl and grow weaker.  Oh, the things we do for love…

BUT - I have cancer.  My type-3 might be acting up that night.  I may be unable to attend; stuck at home, alas.  And if I could get one brave man, amongst the men of the group, to volunteer to stay with me that night, that would help quite a bit.  Then, perhaps, when the ladies see how two of the men (one heroically and stoically and bravely battling cancer and the other selflessly giving up the show on a Christian mission to console his brother), yes, when the news gets out that two of the men can't be there, and here is my selfless hope, then maybe the other ladies will decide they don't want the single women to feel bad and how maybe a lady's night would be best.

This is the cancer card in all its power and glory.  With just one use, I may be able to channel portions of the tides of history to help my fellow-men.

Next week I may have to buy a crossbow or a new pistol to take my mind off things.  And if daughter #1 could wash the car, not forgetting to vacuum the mats, that too would help.  Perhaps down the road, a larger screen to help me see things, might be in order.  These are just examples.

Like all special cards, the Cancer Card must, or should be, judiciously used.  There's nothing worse than an overplayed special card.  We don't want people to get sick of it because it's been used over and over and over again for every little thing that comes along.  But, if you have cancer, I urge you, don't overlook this new ability.

Health Update:  I am in the midst of my second 46-hour chemotherapy treatment.  They send me home with a little side-pump that makes me look like I'm on field-duty for AT&T.  The surgeon released me two weeks ago.  The family doctor said to call if I need anything.  The oncologist is the only doctor I'm seeing on a regular basis.  He's a nice guy, but really not my type.  I don't see the relationship going much further than where it is today.  My sense is that it's too early to tell how I'm going to react to the chemo.  There is a laundry list of side-effects.  Last time I had only small hints of cold intolerance, just a toying with of nausea, and a small yet noticeable impact on my level of energy.  That may have been beginner's luck.  Otherwise, so far, so good.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Under A Cloven Moon: Book 1


Please turn your eyeballs to the right and gaze upon my newest book.  Now, slowly reach for your credit card or go to the ebook vendor where you have an existing account.... You know what to do.

Under a Cloven Moon:  The Satanta Run is available at both and Barnes&!  As with my other novels, UaCM:TSR is less than the price of a medium Starbucks.

Acknowledgements go to:

StreetlightGraphics:  professional, courteous, and responsive.  I recommend them to anyone looking for help in ebook formatting, design, and artwork creation.  Their work-ethic restored in me a little hope for the world.  They did the cover and what a great cover it is.

My two beta readers:  Nancy for her critical eye and honest questions, even though my sense is, this genre isn't her favorite cup of tea, she still did a great job -- thank you so much.  Some day when I use bundles of five-dollar-bills for kindling, you'll be on permanent retainer.  And to Tracy, who devoured books like this.  I can only hope he appreciated how much his feedback helped.  Unfortunately, Tracy passed away earlier this summer after years of struggle with many health problems.  He was a high school friend and those of you who are the praying sort, please remember his family.

Myself:  The big technical deal for this book is the fact that I formatted them to meet both .epub and .mobi standards for the different platforms used by various ereader devices.

Lihturary Commentary (ahem…):

The book is styled after some older school Science-Fiction / fantasy forms.  There is as much narrative in the work as there is dialog and the scope of the story is expansive. As the first work in a series, I thought this appropriate.  There is plenty of room to grow, and it will grow.  There are quite a number of characters readers will be introduced to and in some ways this is a character driven story, though the plot provides the highway.  The plot also provides plenty of areas of tension and bloody battles.  Thematically, if you're interested in such things, keep an eye on the clash of cultures and notice the fancy-dancy symbolism of the moon being nearly split as representative of this.  There are three dominant cultures and one minor cultural outlook portrayed in this novel. The intrinsic tension happens as these cultures encounter and struggle against one another.  AND - if none of that makes sense or matters very much, it's still, I hope, at least, a well-told tale.

Finally, anyone interested in being a beta reader, please contact me.  You will have to hunt for my email address in the 'About Me' section over at the bottom on the right column.  It's a bit obtuse because I hate spammers.  But send me an email and we'll talk.  I have a number of works that aren't done cooking and they would benefit greatly from a fresh set of eyes.  We can go over the details as things progress.
Three books I'm currently working on:  The second book of the Cloven Moon series, a near-future science fiction work called Shareware, and a weird, very contemporary, book about a man named Frank who's a combo sociopath/slacker.  If any of those sound interesting, and if you're willing to read them and then allow me to pick your brain, drop me a line.  At this point, the beta-reader position is a pro-bono position.  Alas… the labor of love.  Or, we might barter something.  If you live close enough I can drive over and wash your car.  I also make a mean box of plain peanut butter cookies.  I could next-day them to your house.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Generation Touch-Screen

Those who can use technology have an advantage over those who cannot use technology.  That’s obvious.  For some time this has been explained as another example of the haves vs. the have-nots.  The divide caused by a lack of access to early exposure, training, and opportunities (predicated on financial / social mechanisms such as positive parenting and school district educational offerings).  I see this in the classroom.

Every semester, approximately 8% (yes, I keep purely anecdotal, statistics on all sorts of things) of my students do not know how to do simple computer-based activities such as using a word-processing program like MS Word, navigating to a folder on a network drive, or saving and then retrieving a document on that same network drive.  On the other end of the bell-curve are those students who are uber-proficient.  Once in a while someone brings in a laptop or tablet and adds the classroom printer to their device, via wireless routing magic.  Please don’t tell anyone as this is against college policy.  I give these examples merely to demonstrate the haves vs. the have-nots.

My guess is, we are nearing a point where there is going to be a split in the traditional two-cell dichotomy.  In a few years a third type of student is going to emerge and this student will be stuck somewhere in the middle of the computer-skills illiterate and the computer-skills proficient.  These students will represent the touch-screen generation.

Most tablets, cell-phones, and newer laptops and desktops have touch-screen options.  If all one does with technology is consume media (movies, books, music, videos, and web-related social networking) ala the Kindle for example, there is no need to learn about network drives or files or how to type a cogent sentence.  There will be those who know very little, those who can navigate visual user-interfaces to see what they want to see, and those who sit bored as I try to help the others.

For educators, this poses philosophical and practical challenges.

The touch-screen and the icon (like the little picture of the trash can; the recycle bin on the computer screen) hearken back to the pictographic form of written communication.  For the previous fifteen centuries or so, mankind has favored script-based communication for recording information and for passing that information forwards, with deep roots in math, language, and history.  As a comparison, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were pictographic while the ancient Sumerian cuneiform represented the more script-based written language.  Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule because throughout history one can find examples of pictographs.  Consider the relatively recent and universally understood lady with a skirt verses the man in trousers on many public restroom doors.  Nevertheless, it has been impossible for many, many years to write one’s doctoral thesis using such symbols.

The question arises, can knowledge be created, organized, presented, rearranged, and moved forward using a less than script-based paradigm?  How can a student express their own thoughts and ideas on a subject when they are lacking in basic scripted language skills?  I’m not saying it can't be done.  Go learn ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics before telling me otherwise.

It reminds me of the world imagined by Hermann Hesse in his 1943 book Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game).  The protagonist of this book, Joseph Knecht, rises to fame by playing a knowledge game wherein all fields of study, to a very granular level, are represented by glass beads and the players of the game receive accolades by rearranging them in new and wonderful ways.  As a side note, Hesse seems to have envisioned something similar to the internet, at least as best as a writer in 1943 could have done it.

Are the touch-screeners reaching out in a new way or have they devolved into something that is going to hurt them academically?  In the short term, the answer is probably.  But in the long-term, say ten years from now, I’m not so sure.

On a more practical level, what’s the role of the educator in all this?  Obviously, those who are technology illiterate will remain so, and should be given opportunities to learn how to do these things.  And those who love technology will continue to excel in that field, often as a natural outgrowth of their other passions.  But, what of those who know only the touch-screen?

The classes I teach focus on other matters, though I do offer to help those learners who need a crash course in how to create, save, and retrieve a file.  But these mechanical skills are a means to an end.  What I’m curious about is whether or not the touch-screen offers a new means to the same end.

Presently, the technology allowing for a more image-based knowledge articulation isn’t widely available on an accessible scale.  Today, my hands are tied, as are those of all educators.  We will be stuck making the same offers for the same type of help for those who have grown up in touch-screen land.  Yet, increasingly, students will arrive looking for a continuation of what they know best; accessing information in a visually intuitive fashion, while still relying heavily on technology.