Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ban This!

I despise censorship. Heck, maybe despise is too lenient of a word. I abhor, detest, loathe and execrate censorship. To top it off, I'm a Christian. Some of you may not think those two sentiments mix, but hey, I'm a walking oxymoron (and some think there's emphasis on the "moron" part).

So, what is it that has my drawers in a wedgie? Oddly enough, an article on the religion blogs at I mean, seriously, of all places. Stranger things have happened. Here's the deal, the NY Department of Education wants to ban a boatload of words from standardized testing. What words, you ask? How about words like dinosaurs, birthdays, religion, Christmas, halloween and divorce to name a few.

Apparently, these clowns come up with a list like this every year. Why? Because these words may offend some people. Of course, who might they offend? Jehovah witnesses, Christians, atheists, republicans, democrats, tea partyists, smart people, stupid people, average people, you, me and everyone. Seriously? Give me a break. Do these people not have anything better to do with their time? God forbid a word on a test evoke an emotion. In fact, maybe we should ban all words that may possibly bring about some inkling of a response. Then we can go in and do that to books, too. In fact, we should ban books, too.

I'm so sick of this type of baloney. We're really becoming a country full of pseudo-do-gooders who feel the need to try and protect everyone from everything. All in the name of the children, of course. Oh blah. The logic is that these words, used on a standardized test (don't even get me started on standardized testing), might evoke some negative feeling, which would then disrupt the poor child's brain skills, and cause them to fail the test.

Oh My God.

Folks, we're talking about the same kids who go home to four or five hours of Sponge Bob Squarepants before mom or dad get home from work for crying out loud. The same kids who may or may not be getting enough to eat and when they eat at school have to suffer through processed frozen crap warmed up in an industrial microwave. The same kids who can't read the damn words in the first place because their parents don't care enough to be a part of their education. The same kids who are being failed by a broken public education system.

Yes, I hear all of you public school teachers crying out in offense to what I just said, but deal with it. You know as well as I do that the system is broken. You can put as many good teachers in a broken system as you want and it's still a broken system. Believe me, I see this first-hand every single day, so don't get me started on that, either. This isn't an indictment of teachers. It's about the system and idiots within the power centers like the NY Dept. of Education making up a list of 50 words that they "feel" should be banned from standardized tests.

And it gets worse. Slavery is on this list. Are you serious? I'm sorry, but how on earth can you test over American history without using the word slavery? This is stuff that we, as human beings, need to remember. We can't ban slavery out of our history. We have to remember these huge mistakes that our predecessors made so that we don't make them again.

Poverty's on the list, too. Really? You think these kids don't know about poverty? War, Religion, Rap Music and politics are on the list, too. "I'm sorry children, we won't be talking about war today. Ooops, wait, I said it. I'm so sorry. I hope that didn't make you feel bad, little Tommy." Well, guess what, little Tommy knows about war because his mom is still in Afghanistan fighting terrorists (another word on the list of proposed banned words).

I'm sure there are plenty of you who disagree with me on this, but give me a break. My grandparents dealt with the Great Depression and WWII. My parents dealt with Vietnam. My generation has dealt with 9/11, recession and multiple wars on multiple fronts. My kids's generation is dealing with many of the same issues and if we aren't real about it they'll grow up with some utopia-type belief that nothing bad ever happens. I'm not kidding when I say this, we're turning our kids into a bunch of namby-pamby milquetoasts by sugar-coating everything for them.

Here's the thing, maybe it's common sense to avoid using certain words on tests, but is it really up to a small minority of people to dictate which words should be censored? When it comes down to it, these jagoffs ought to be concentrating on how to better educate our youth. They need to figure out how to individualize the education process. Maybe they should even look at how to revolutionize education and fight the powers that are force-feeding our kids standardized tests in the first place. Maybe they need to occupy congress until they get rid of the draconian rules that teachers must follow in order to make sure that all children are tested equally on tests that don't tell us anything of real value, anyway.

Well NY Department of Education, here's what I have to say about your BS list of words:

Don't abuse your power. Your alcohol, tobacco and drug-addled brains need to learn to deal with the fact that kids deal with cancer, death, disease, evolution and divorce. They work on computers at home, they trick-or-treat on Halloween. They are or know people who are homeless, they hunt, eat junk food, play sports, have parents who are unemployed and living in poverty. They celebrate religious holidays like Yom Kippur, Christmas, Ramadan and Kwanzaa. They listen to rap and rock-and-roll. And stripping standardized testing of these words and more is not going to change the fact that kids are strong and intelligent enough to deal with them. So, pull your heads out of your asses and do some real work. (BTW, "Asses" isn't on the list, apparently, but bodily functions like "Fart" are.)

That's all for now.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Authentic Voice

I recently read a blog post about authentic voice in characters of different races. The article was intriguing to me because within 13th Summer I have male character, Charles Washington, who is black and married to a white woman. He is from the south, but doesn't have a "deep south" accent. In fact, his personality and his speaking vernacular are very similar to my Grandpa McKee's, who was from Texas and white. Basically, his dialogue is sprinkled with "Honeys", "Y'alls" and "Sugars".

Charles has a daughter, Joy, who talks pretty much like any other midwestern teenager, but has overtones of a gentle southern accent. My other characters speak "midwestese", which is to say that they have a relatively bland dialect.

So, after reading this article, I began questioning the authenticity of Charles' character based on his dialogue with my protagonist. My main concern with the dialogue when I wrote it was whether or not the dialogue flowed. So, I really try to keep the dialogue pretty straight forward and maybe "season" it with a few words or phrases that give personality to my character.

Here's a for instance:

“So, what were ya’ doin’ zippin’ down that hill, there Mr. Scott?”
After so many years of being called Bing, he almost didn’t reply.
“I asked what you were doin’ zippin’ down that hill so fast.”
“Oh… just havin’ fun I guess.”
“Y’alls Mamma or Daddy ought’ve taught ya’ better than that.”
“But no one comes down that road.”
“Well, I guess I’m no one, then ain’t I?” The man opened his mouth and filled the cab with
gentle laughter.
“I probably shoulda’ told ya’, Mr. Washington goes to Hollenberg every morning on that road
and that you should watch out,” said Lonnie.
“Well, that might’ve been helpful, Mr. Lonnie, but don’t be too hard on y’self. Mr. Scott
here should know to look both ways. I mean, they teach that in Kindergarten still, don’t
they?” He winked at Lonnie.
“What’s in Hollenberg?” asked Bing as they pulled into a driveway that disappeared into a
single stand-alone garage.
“Oh, not much. I just doctor people’s animals. I’m a vet part-time and farmer part-time. It
pays the bills,” said Mr. Washington.
“So… should I call you Dr. Washington?”
“No, Charles or Mr. Washington, if you please.”

The previous was dialogue from the 13th Summer MS. Now that I look at it, I'm questioning the idea of "Y'all's". Which, in my experience, has nothing to do with being black. I lived in Texas for a summer back when I was a child and I remember one man, very white and practically blind, who spoke that way even when referring to one person. He would say things like, "Y'alls want a rootbeer float?" even if he was only speaking directly to me. My problem is that I don't want there to be a perception that I'm trying to have a character speak in a manner which is cliché or a mimicked version of how I might perceive someone of a particular race speaking.

I also don't want my reader to think that a character is necessarily ignorant by the way that they speak. In this case, Charles Washington says things like "doctor people's animals". This was something very specific to my Grandpa Wollenberg and generally something kind of midwestern. However, anyone who understands what it means to be accepted into and graduate from a veterinary school knows that it takes an extremely high level of intelligence.

I want my characters to be more than skin deep. Literally. Charles Washington has a certain dichotomy within his character. On the one hand, he's very affable, a loving father and husband, but on the other hand he's so easy going that people might perceive him as a bit backwards at first blush.

So, here is where we begin to question the idea of race and dialogue. My view, as an author, on Charles Washington is that his accent and manner of speaking have nothing to do with his race. My concern, though, is that there may be some perception by the reader that he does speak this way due to his race. How do we, as authors, express character through dialogue without offending someone at the first mention of a person's race. In my manuscript, Charles Washington's race is important because Joy being of mixed race is important when we explore Bing's grandpa's racism.

When we explore the book The Help, the blogger's argument is that the author only uses a particular type of dialect when a black character is speaking. Specifically that the character has a heavy southern accent accompanied by an associated dialect, whereas the white characters speak straight English with no real accent or dialect.

So, what do we do as authors? Personally, I believe that the most important aspect of a book aside from good story and plot is character development. I believe that it's important to create genuine characters. In doing this, there may be a requirement of dialect or of accent. However, dialect and accent should be applied appropriately regardless of race.

Being authentic is incredibly important to me and this subject is very important to me. So, if there are other authors out there with thoughts on this, I'd love to hear from you.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing Like a Designer or A Thousand Wordsworth's are a Picture.

Okay, aside from the horrible title, I really do have something to say in this post.

As some of you may know, in my real life, I'm a graphic designer with mad skillz. Okay, maybe not so much mad, but skillz, none-the-less. Those who know me well, know that my favorite graphic designer is Paul Rand. Rand, like many designers of his time, was very Swiss School, but sometimes with cool little twists. He was a firm believer in "less is more" and "form follows function." You may know him only through his design. He did some pretty cool stuff: UPS (the old logo before the crap-tastic new shield they have now), Cummins, IBM, Westinghouse and the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to name a few.

Why do I bring this up and why do I point my pen at Rand's work? Simply put, writing holds many similarities to graphic design. Graphic design, in its purest form, strips away the non-essentials and focuses on the essentials and arranges them in a coherent manner so that it solves a problem, tells a story and evokes an emotional response from the viewer. In my opinion, the goal of writing fiction is identical.

When you compare masters such as Hemingway, Twain, Strunk, Bradbury and a plethora of others to designers like Rand, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser or Ivan Chermayeff, you'll find that the theories behind their designs and writing dovetail quite nicely. Let's look at some basic principals of design and writing as presented by the masters of their crafts.

1) On Simplicity

Hemingway - "Use short sentences." or "I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket."

Twain - "Anybody can have ideas - the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

John Carmack - "Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity."

Paul Rand - "He [the designer] unifies, simplifies, eliminates superfluities. He symbolizes ... abstract from his material by association and analogy. He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest."

Paul Rand - "Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations."

Mis van der Rohe - "Less is more."

2) On the Strength of Writing and Design

Hemingway - "Use vigorous English."

Strunk - "Vigorous writing is concise." This one could also fall under principle number one.

Twain - "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worth to rank as a prize composition just by itself."

John Tanedo - "Design to express, not to impress."

Saul Bass - "Design is thinking made visual."

Massimo Vignelli - "The life of a designer is a life of fight: Fight against the ugliness."

3) On Showing and not Telling

Anton Checkhov - "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Twain - "Don't say, 'The old lady screamed.' Bring her on and let her scream."

Wouter Stokkel - "It's art if it can't be explained. It's fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It's design if it doesn't need explanation."

Scott Hanselman - "The difference between a designer and developer when it comes to design skills is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it."

Shawn Leslie - "Good design means never having to say, 'Click here'."

4) On Surprises

Stephen King - "Good books don't give up all their secrets at once."

Paul Rand - In reference to the "Next" logo. "Splitting the logo into two lines accomplishes several things: it startles the viewer and gives the word a new look, making it easier to separate from common usage."

5) On Removing the Superfluous

Stephen King - "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Twain - "As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out."

Hemingway - "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the $10 words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

Adrain Shaughnessy - "Graphic design has been likened to a wine glass. When we drink wine, we barely notice the glass it's served in. It wouldn't be true to say that we dont' care what glass we drink out of -- we wouldn't choose to drink a rare vintage out of a Tupperware mug, for example -- bit it's the wine that matters, not the vessel it comes in."

David Craib - "Design should never say, 'Look at me.' It should always say, 'Look at this.'"

6) On Why We Write or Design

Twain - "This is the love of your life. It's what I want to do when I wake up. Nothing feels so absorbing, so fulfilling."

Stephen King - "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."

Paul Rand - "Design is everything. Everything!"

Colin Wright - "Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end."

Saul Bass - "The fact of the matter is, I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful. I don't give a damn whether the client understands that that's worth anything. It's worth it to me. It's the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares."

7) On Revision

Twain - "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by."

Twain - "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

Stefan G. Bucher - "Making good design is easy. It's polishing the half-assed stuff that takes time."

Gunnar Swanson - "Graphic designers find themselves in a role of visual dishwashers for the information architects' chefs."

Saul Bass - "They (students) are not privy to the process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have to go at it... They redo... It gets better... It slips... It gets worse... It comes back... It comes together. And maybe it's something that's pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, 'Gee, it comes hard and it's so difficult. Am I really suited for this?'"

8) On Bad Writing and Bad Design

Twain - "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it."

Stephen King - "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Santiago Borray - "Design is like a mom. Nobody notices when she's around, but everybody misses her when she's not."

Mieke Gerritzen - "Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere."

While writing and designing are two different processes, it's very obvious that the approach and results of the processes are very similar. As writers, we are designing good stories. We begin in our imagination. We ask "What if?" We begin hammering out an overview of where our story goes or maybe we sit down and fly by the seat of our pants and intuition plays heavily into our process. Either way, our process includes paring things down to the bare essentials and revising it until it bleeds. In the end, writing, like design, is what we do because we must.

That's all for now.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Author Accessibility or Hey, Stephen King is my FB BFF!

So, I took some NyQuil last night at about 7:30, fell asleep by 8pm and woke up at 3:30am with a severe case of cotton-mouth and ready to start my day. So, I figured I should hit my blog and entrance all of you with some of my meaningless drivel.

The e-revolution (some are calling it an e-volution) is creating a really interesting paradigm shift. Yeah, I used a stupid $10-word when I could have used a nickel word, but I like the word paradigm. Anyway, I'm finding that authors are not only willing to friend me on sites like goodreads and authonomy (and yes, I mean published authors, some of whom have been on the NY Times Best Seller list in the top 25 or higher), but will actually respond to messages.

While many best-selling authors lead a reclusive, monastic lifestyle, new authors and authors that understand the value of social networking seem to be more open to allowing people into their lives. I'm not sure how long this trend will hold out, but I really do like it. One example of this is Amanda Hocking. As many of you know, Amanda e-published several of her books and sold thousands of copies of them. This allowed her to generate a six-figure income and it caught the attention of publishing houses. In return for her hard work, she was offered a $2-million deal to write more books. Her name is generating a lot of buzz in the blogosphere (is it still cool to use that word? I hope not, because I'm not really into being "cool") and she's the newest reason that many bloggers are using, myself included, to back up their claims that self-e-publishing is the wave of the future. Anyway, I had just signed on to a social reading Web site called and I saw Amanda as a friend of a friend and so I sent a friend request and to my surprise, she accepted.

Here's the thing. I've gone through both and and have done the same thing over and over with published authors whose books are selling and friended them and they've friended me back. Not only that, some have responded with messages (not canned messages, either). But this wasn't the only thing that surprised me. As I've been tweeting about my blog or tweeting back at other people, I've noticed that other writers are beginning to follow me on Twitter. This was a truly big surprise to me.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think it has anything to do with my writing ability or lack-thereof. And I have to admit, I am a bit starstruck and kind of think it's cool that they're willing to follow my tweets. What I do think, though, is that writers are understanding the power of social media. Why? Because guess what? When I see someone following me, I go take a quick look at their profile and in almost 10 out of 10 cases, I follow them back.

Whether its a deep need to return the favor or some other psychological phenomenon, I believe that many of these writers understand the value of having hundreds or thousands of followers and by reaching out, they are able to add another to their fold. Of course, my theory could be completely wrong and they may just follow me because my tweets are such valuable gems that they can't bear to not read them. Okay, who am I kidding? But it's a fun thought, right?

I will close with a "writer beware" type thought, though. If you tweet and you follow me in order to get me to follow you (which I don't mind at all), please don't spam me with your tweets. I had one person follow me and I followed them back and immediately the spam began. "Buy my book!" "One day only special, buy my book of stories on for 99 cents!" and so on. It got old really quickly and it didn't make me want to buy their book.

I enjoy following other "tweeters" and I love seeing the advice by agents and other writers in their blogs and I love that they tweet about their blogs. This has opened up a whole new world to me and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. But please don't spam me 20, 30 or 100 times with your e-book pitch every hour. I didn't follow you for that and it really makes me sad if I have to unfollow you.

Anyway, I'm loving this and I promise that if you follow me, friend me or message me I will be your twitter BFF or your FB BFF. And Stephen King, if you're out in the ether, I'll be your FB BFF, too!

That's all for now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another Interlude. Again, brief.

I wanted to quickly thank Jenny Bent for taking time out of her day to answer 10 questions from aspiring authors on the Mother. Write. Repeat. blog. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first ten to ask a question and was very pleased to see that Jenny answered my question.

So, without further ado: Here is my question.

Neal Wollenberg said...
Hi Jenny, do you see future rights negotiations between publishers and authors becoming more hostile as more authors e-publish their own books or do you believe that this new trend empowers authors more?
April 15, 2011 8:57 AM

And her Answer:

jenny bent said...
I think that publishers will be reducing e-book royalties further--they've reduced them once before and I think as e-book sales continue to grow they will reduce them again. They've also started asking for multimedia rights, in some cases asserting their ownership of those rights rather than asking, where previously those rights were retained by the author. Currently, it's unclear as to whether original e-book publications fall under the non-compete clause in every author's contract; I expect any moment that this will be made explicit. Authors and agents have never been able to influence changes like these (for instance, e-book rights used to be retained by authors, until publishers decided unilaterally that these were their primary right) -- we just don't have the leverage against the big conglomerates. I could go on and on about this, but will spare everyone the boredom!
April 15, 2011 1:36 PM


Quite frankly, I wasn't bored at all because this is an incredibly fascinating subject to me and I'd love to know more of what Jenny thinks. Anyway, it was fun to actually bend the ear of an actual agent even if it was only for one question!

The entire post with questions by the blogger and other writers can be found here:

That's all for now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dream a Dream or I am NOT an AP Style Guide Guru

Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves. Especially when the day has been a pile of shit and you wonder what the hell is going on with the world. Sadly, that's probably a post that needs to be reserved for another day. So, despite the sadness I'm feeling... for my wife and for all of the people who have been affected by the recent tragedy that we've experience in our small hamlet, I will press on. My humor will probably fall short and jokes will be stale. The rain will still come down and we will still mourn. I'm sorry, you're here to learn about writing. I suppose one thing you could learn from this is to take the pain and the hurt and write from those depths that nearly kill you. Write. Write. Write.

Moving forward. Writing and grammar are invading my thoughts and contributing to my madness. Apparently, I dreamed a conversation between my boss and one of the editors at work regarding new AP Style Guide recommendations about the use of hyphens. The gist of the conversation revolved around new guidelines that changed how hyphens are used. Basically, AP Style Guide was saying that we need to eliminate as many hyphens as possible. In theory, I like this. Anything to get extraneous punctuation the hell out of my way. But alas, it was simply a dream. Unfortunately, I wrote an article and I followed this new "rule."

Yeah, not so cool. But bear with me, I honestly thought that I had overheard this conversation. I could picture it vividly in my mind. I believe it. Well, AP Style is not bending to my will, okay? I was full of crap. I had no idea what I was thinking or doing. I'm an idiot. The thing is, I'm not sure which is scarier: the fact that I dreamt about my boss and another co-worker or that I actually believed what I had dreamt.

Okay, but your'e here to learn, right? So hyphens... yeah. Cool things, hyphens. Whatever. Here's the skinny:

AP says hyphens are joiners. Make sure you use them to avoid confusing people. Use them to form a single idea from two or more words. Know-what-I-mean?

However, guess what? "Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion."

So, HA! I say my dream was not merely a dream, but a premonition. Hyphens are optional in most cases. Damnit, get rid of them and take commas with you while you're at it. Okay, not all of them, but seriously. I wasn't horribly wrong, I was just ahead of my time.

The key issue is that when you use a hyphen, you shouldn't be confusing your reader. ¿Que?

So how's this for ambiguity? Recovered and re-covered. AP Style gives us these examples: He recovered his health. He re-covered the leaky roof.

Also, use a hyphen when you have a situation where you're using a compound modifier. This means two or more words that express a single concept and those words precede a noun, use a hyphen.

Examples: full-time job, know-it-all attitude, bluish-green dress, etc.

But guess what? Sometimes, you don't hyphenate. If the two words occur after a noun, don't hyphenate the damn things.

More AP Style examples: The dress, a bluish green, was ugly. She works full time. His attitude suggested that he knew it all and was a jerk. (I added "he was a jerk")





When the modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion: (Direct quote from AP Style, okay?) Confused, yet? The examples: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken.

It gets better. Compound proper nouns and adjectives. Let's designate some dual heritage: Italian-American, Mexican-American... but wait! No damn hyphens for French Canadian or Latin American.

Meh. Hyphens suck. Let's just ditch them. Know-whatta-mean?

That's all for now.

Holy Carp Batman! Something smells fishy!

So, this is what I've been missing within the Twittersphere?

Oh, and while you're at it, the hands have it damnit.

Now I get it.

That's all for now.