Monthly Archives: December 2013

How writers should handle criticism

I don’t understood anything in the sciences, but to rewrite what I think is a maxim from physics, “For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.” By that I mean for every good review a writer gets there will also be a bad review. No artist wants negative reviews; to lay their soul bare only to have the soul skewered, stomped on, ridiculed, and to have their heart pierced by the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

I read of an artist, I can’t remember who, but I think it was a writer, who said he did not mind bad reviews. His feeling was that most books never got reviewed and for him to have someone read his book and to review it meant it was good enough to be talked about, even with negativity, because most books are ignored. He is a courageous soul.

My three e-books do not have a high volume of sales, but they have gotten good reviews, though one to four reviews is certainly a small sampling. I do not know who wrote them, but they are certainly intelligent people. I was more afraid in the beginning when I placed my books on Amazon that I would get bad reviews. I was not concerned about sales. Getting a few good reviews to me means I am doing something right.

I am not sure in todays age where anyone can write a review, how that aforementioned writer would feel. Reviewing is no longer the domain of intelligentsia, but has moved into the digital world with egalitarianism. Anyone can post a review. It is fair because everyone has an opinion, but it also opens itself up to paid reviews, reviews from friends and well wishers, and also from people who just like posting bad reviews because they like to trash people, finding amusement in being the bad guy.

The best a writer can do is take the good with the bad, do your best to be objective in reading both, and remember, whether good or bad, it is just one voice in the crowd. Or do what some do and don’t read them. In the end keep writing to your voice and not to the crowd. A writer should be far from the maddening crowd anyway.



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Why writers must know the difference between dogs and cats

There is a reason dogs, not cats, are mans best friend.

Think about it. When you come home a dog is wagging his tail at the door and welcomes you home by licking your face. A cat doesn’t care your home. He is napping. A dog loves to play. He will chase a ball, Frisbee, a stick, anything; he runs after it and returns it to you. A cat will just look at you with a look that says, “What do you think I am, some kind of dumb dog. I saw you throw that thing, the dogs gets it, and you throw it again. The dog doesn’t get it, I do. I’m out of here. Time for another nap. Hey you got any catnip man. I need a hit.”

If you give a cat a ball of yarn he will play with it, not for long, and won’t do much with it, because he doesn’t know what to do. A dog won’t play with a ball of yarn. He will have a look on his face that says, “What do you think I am, some kind of dumb cat. Throw me a ball man, not a ball of yarn. I want a real ball.” And if the cat gets tired with the yarn and you have no catnip, he wanders into the bathroom, ignores his litter box, and drops a surprise in front of the toilet, meowing with gleeful laughter.

One time I was pet sitting for my brother who had a dog and cat. The kitty wandered into the living room one evening, his little body looking like he was going to heave, which he shortly did, all over the fluffy red carpet. Did the cat offer to clean up? No. He wandered off to take another nap. But the dog said, “No problem.” He ran over and lapped up the cats digested meal like he was a starving cookie monster with a plate of cookies. Dog is man’s best friend. I loved my brothers dog.

The reason a writer needs to know the difference between them is that if one of your characters has a pet, say like the dog Asta, in Dashiell Hammett‘s “The Thin Man,” make sure the dog or cat has a personality. If you create the pet he must behave in a manner that people can identify with, otherwise why is the dog or cat in the story.

You can even go crazy at times. There was a couple-true story-that kept a buffalo in their house. I have seen pictures and read about them. Now that is another story.



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The flaw In Dicken’s “Christmas Carol”

Whenever I think of Dickens’sChristmas Carol” I think not of the book, but of the many movie versions, the best, in my not so humble opinion from reviewing movies for over a decade, is the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. When I think of Dickens, I think not of his Christmas story, but his novels like “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist” or “David Copperfield.”

In 1977 I was at the Dickens house, 48 Doughty Street, in London. It was a three story brick building with a green front door sandwiched between other three story brick buildings. There were no spaces between any of the buildings on the block. In fact up and down the long street were these row houses, I believe they are called. Anyway he lived here from 1837 to 1839. His desk is in the corner of a small room near a window. It was on this desk that he wrote the last two letters before he died and on this desk sat a monkey made of china. Dickens said he could not write unless it was sitting there. Writers are quirky. I find writing easier wearing a Dickens undergarment I took from his laundry hamper. I also visited the Keats house in Hampstead Heath, but like Dickens, was not at home.

The above paragraph is filler, because like Dickens, I get paid by the word. Unlike Dickens, I do not get paid in British pounds, but in peanuts, one peanut per sentence. This is what most writers get paid with, as you know if you are a writer.

Anyway, to the flaw of “Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge, the man who coined the delightful phrase in response to being wished a Merry Christmas, “Bah, humbug, ” is not a cheery sort. He is a miserly, mean spirited, bitter, misanthrope. But then at the end of the story after being visited by four ghosts he is a changed man, a lover of humanity, generous to a fault, smiling, happy as a lark (how do we know larks are happy?) and in a very giving mood.

Scrooge had an epiphany. I get that. But I like the old Ebenezer for he mirrors my feelings about Christmas. I fail to see how this perfectly rational man could get all syrupy at the end of the story, so soft in the head, such a sappy old man. Please Ebenezer, go back to you old self.

I used to love Christmas as a kid because I got cool toys. Then you get to high school and there are no toys, only wooden hangers and underwear. Bah, Humbug. Merry Christmas indeed.

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A writing exercise that stimulates your creativity

When I was in college John Gardner came for Humanities weekend. Also that weekend, Anthony Burgess gave a talk to a theatre full of students. The only thing Burgess said that I remember was he was less than honest about a lawsuit against Warner Brothers who distributed Stanley Kubrick‘s film of  Burgess’s novel “Clockwork Orange.”

But John Gardner, the American writer, not the British writer, was more interesting. He met with a number of us English majors in a small conference room. I remember three things from that day. One was that a student, bless her heart, had made a plate full of chocolate chip cookies. As they were passed around I took my fair share. But there was not enough cookies for everyone. Somehow eyes turned to me whose stack of cookies looked like I been winning at a blackjack table. I told you it was my fair share, I didn’t say it was fair to everyone.

Gardner was a professor of Medieval literature and a writer of fiction, his most notable novels being “Sunlight Dialogues” and “October Light.” Some may say “Grendel,” a retelling of the Beowulf story told from the monsters point of view, but as he told me the next day when he signed my  recently purchased copy of the book, “This is my least favorite book I wrote.” My heart sank, and I never finished the book because I could not shake his comment. He also taught creative writing and wrote about writing.

The second thing I remember is that he struggled to explain why he thought “Treasure Island” could not be easily categorized as fiction, it somehow needed its own category, but he could never explain what he meant. Imagine a writer without the words to explain something that confused and befuddled all present. He clearly got into something he was not prepared for.

The third thing I remember was his writing exercise. He had, I came to find out, variations of the exercise, but the one he shared was this: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just died in a war. Do not mention the son, do not mention death, do not mention war. 

This is a great exercise because it forces the writer not to tell emotion, but create the emotion by painting a picture with words that elicit the feeling of loss. That is the aim of every writer, to make the reader feel something, whether it be sadness, joy, fright, wonder, to laugh, to cry. As a writer you do half the work, the reader does the other half. Your half is to paint the picture, the reader’s is to interpret the picture. So don’t tell, create. Try the exercise, it may open doors to your creativity.

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How to Write a short story from a phrase

Take a phrase, any phrase. My example is ‘having kittens.’ In researching the phrase I discovered its originates from the medieval age that began in the 5th century with the fall of the Roman empire through the 15th century covering the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery

It was believed by many during this era that a witch could cast a spell on a pregnant woman and turn her baby into kittens that would claw at her womb. In fact pregnant women who fell under this spell believed it wholeheartedly, some seeking an abortion for fear of ‘having kittens.’ In fact, in Scotland it was believed that a woman could give birth to kittens if she accidently ate food upon which a cat had ejected sperm. Apparently these beliefs were in vogue prior to the Age of Discovery. I do suggest to cat lovers, however, you do not leave out food a cat can get to, just in case you understand.

Now that we know where the phrase originated from and what it meant, a story can be created. Which way would you like to go?

A Medieval woman has a spell cast upon her. She is  a cat lover and believing what the witch said, she does in fact give birth to kittens. The kittens are all black and that is good because there was also a superstition that if a cat wandered into a wedding, it was good luck and the couple would be fertile. So the mother of the kittens rents them out for weddings and makes a financial killing. Up0n her death she leaves her fortune to-of course a cat.

But what if the woman hates cats, is afraid of cats. If said woman was having an agonizing pregnancy, a witch would tell the poor woman it was because she was going to give birth to kittens. The pregnant woman could only be cured by buying and drinking a special witches potion (some witches were unscrupulous you know). So the woman buys the potion, and when she gives birth, instead of kittens, there are puppies. The new mother did not know the witch was senile and gave her the wrong potion.

The point of course for writers is to dig around, play with words, play with phrases, do research. You never know where it will take you. It might cure you from having kittens.

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Why writers need to know the difference between Guy Madison and Guy Fawkes

In my American dictionary and in my synonym finder the word ‘guy’ is clear. It means fellow, chap, friend, buddy, even boy or old man. It can be meant to include females and males in a group as in ‘you guys.’ It is also be a first name for a male child. Guy Madison was an actor who played Wild Bill Hickok back when TV was black and white and there was no such thing as a remote.

In short, ‘guy’ is a friendly word indicating familiarity. We like guys. But the word has an entirely different meaning in England.

Guy was a first name in England and back in 1605, before there was even a Wild Bill Hickok, this Guy, surname Fawkes, was arrested for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. He was part of a conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords in the hopes of killing King James 1 and restoring Catholic rule.  Months later, November 5th became an Observance commemorating the plot’s failure. In a few decades it became known as Gunpowder Treason Day.

But over time society and culture changes. That day also became a reason for Puritans to voice anti-Catholic sentiments and burning effigies of the pope and other noted Catholics such as dear old Guy Fawkes. As violence increased the observance of November 5th was repealed in 1859. Today it is celebrated by organized events and fireworks.

The name Guy in England has come to mean a grotesque person. Guy Fawkes, was after all, a traitor  and terrorist in the eyes of the protestant country. As a side note, he was to be executed, but he jumped from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus cheating the crown of his death. If interested in what England did to traitors after an execution, you can read the gory details here.,_drawn_and_quartered

I bring this up as a note to writers. Remember when creating a character to research the name. If the character is an American we think of good old Guy Madison, a nice guy. If the character is English the association is something else entirely. If you want an English character to be a bad guy, name him Guy-though I am not sure the Brits use that as a first name anymore. If an American character is a bad guy name him Benedict. Research is always a good thing.


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Why did a former president call this town “the Woodstock of the mind?”

On the Wales side of the England-Wales border lies the small town of Hay-on-Wye. But this little town in the in the Black Mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park, where on Tuesdays many of the shops close at midday, has a unique reputation.

This place is a readers paradise. Where else do you find a town of 1,500 people that supports around thirty used bookstores? And of course they have a library. But as the pitchman says, ‘but wait, there is more.’ Every year, and in 2014, it will be from May 22nd to June 1st, this little village that can, hosts a literary festival of the arts and people from all over the world descend on Hay-On-Wye to the tune of over 85,000 literature and arts lovers.

To quote from their website: “The programme of some five hundred events takes place in the tented festival village during the spring bank half term holiday. Writers, politicians, poets, scientists, comedians, philosophers and musicians come together on the greenfield site to talk, eat, think, drink and be merry.”

In case you missed the first part of the quote-500 events in 10 days. I get the feeling every one of the 1,500 citizens participates in some way to stage 500 events for 85,000 people over ten days. Now you know why former president, Bill Clinton called this town “The Woodstock of the mind?” It obviously has nothing to do with a hemp fest.

Since 85,000 people come to a town of 1,500 it is wise, beginning in February, to go to their website and begin booking tickets and use their ‘bedfinder’ service to locate accommodations for you. But wait there is more.

Hay-on-Wye which has been running this festival for 26 years also runs 10 other festivals around the world in places like Cartagena, Beirut, Dhaka, and Nairobi. And they also host a winter festival. In fact this town always seems to have something going. The festivals have to do with arts, society, culture, a place for intellectuals, arts lovers, political thinkers, truly a ‘Woodstock of the mind.’ This town goes onto my short bucket list.

Here is a link to the towns website for you to explore. It has websites within websites.



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