Category Archives: Writing

Election Season

I am finding this election more painful than any I’ve previously experienced. While negative campaigns are hardly new, this one feels different: the personal attacks are more vicious and the disinterest in reasoned debate is more blatant. In previous elections, I could imagine that most people wanted peace, economic prosperity, and opportunity for all (with maybe only a little bit more for the people like themselves), and that their arguments mostly concerned the how of it. In this election, the personal attacks have supplanted civil debate to the point where substantive policy discussions take place off the public stage.

In my lifetime, we’ve never a candidate for national office like Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s disinterest in facts, his sociopathic disregard for social norms, his antipathy towards immigrants, Muslims, latinos, blacks, women, LGBT folk, and other groups with which he does not identify, and his ignorance of the basic mechanisms of our democracy make him unique among major party candidates. He is a disastrously bad candidate for office.

At the same time, Secretary Clinton is far from perfect. Her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state reflected poor judgement. It endangered the security of her communications and suggests that she felt entitled to disregard rules and procedures that protect the nation and the historical record. That said, the FBI has concluded her behavior was not worthy of prosecution, and I accept their judgement. Despite her behavior, I believe Clinton operates in a world that acknowledges a social contract—a world where it matters whether you tell the truth, a world where experience in government is not seen as a disqualification for governing, and where a person’s record—both good and bad—can be discussed and debated in a sensible way.

Trump throws out all rules of good behavior. He lies blatantly and constantly. One need only spend a few minutes fact-checking to determine this. He encourages racism and incites violence. He brags about abusing women. He claims a God-like capability to make the improbable happen. Building a wall between the US and Mexico and getting Mexico to pay for it would require both the cooperation of the Mexican government and a broad consensus in our own legislative branch. Neither is plausible. He seems wholly ignorant of our country’s constitutional limits on presidential power. His claims about climate change, his ability to defeat ISIS, and his ability to promote economic prosperity are not supported by any scientific data, discernible plan, or economic theory. Trump seems motivated by a pathological need for attention and acclaim. His exhibits no interest in helping others. Trump says he wants to make America great again, but his solutions will come at the expense of all Americans.

We will always have bigots and fools, demagogues and sociopaths. We will always have politicians who begin to equate power (for them) with public good. But it pains me that such a large segment of our population seems to like Trump for the very crude, bigoted, and bullying behaviors I find so abhorrent in him. They appear to prefer an angry demagogue over a statesman. I worry that frustration over our deadlocked congress and general distrust of government spurred by Republican claims about government inefficiency and incompetence have become so strong that a large number of Americans would accept a tyrant rather than trust in our the system of checks and balances defined in our constitution.

I do not understand the scorched earth attitude of some of Senator Sanders’ supporters, people who would apparently rather allow Trump to win than support Secretary Clinton. Regardless of what you think of the candidates as individuals, the policy differences between the Democratic and Republican party platforms could not be more revealing. Failing to vote out of disappointment or anger over Sanders’ loss elevates emotion over common sense, and places vengeance over concern concern for the common good.

I will vote for Secretary Clinton for president. I don’t believe we advance by suppressing the rights of immigrants. I believe Trump’s economic and tax plans will increase the gap between the rich and the poor. I believe Trump’s personal behavior and speech encourage violence and civil unrest. I will vote for Clinton knowing she is not perfect and knowing that she carries the baggage of long service in the public eye. I will vote confident that I have done the right thing.

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Notes On Writing Dialog

My first drafts tend to be heavy on dialog and light on everything else. Early scenes may consist of nothing but dialog. Eventually, I go back and add description: expressions, movement, sensations, a setting. If necessary, I compose interior dialog. I consider theme. But for me, the story always lives first in what my characters say to one another.

Good dialog drives the story forward. It entertains. It explicates character. It demonstrates conflict. In a story, it always has a purpose.

Notes on Writing Dialog

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone who talks has a reason for being in the story, a purpose, or a goal they want to achieve. Some possibilities:

  • To meet an attractive person
  • To network or forward their business or career
  • To try to convince someone of something
  • To find out something

In this excerpt from Billy Goat Stats, Coach Rocker wants something from Billy, a new freshman basketball player, but he isn’t ready to explain himself, setting up the coming conflict. Not surprisingly, Billy flounders.

“I understand congratulations are due, and not just on your state win. Digger tells me you got MVP at your last game. What was it, 62 points and 18 rebounds?”

Digger, Billy gathered, was Assistant Coach Paulson. They’d met briefly at orientation.

“Yes, sir. But the other team’s point guard was injured. I’d never have made so many—”

“Hold it right there, young man. There are always circumstances. Great players know how to take advantage of them.”

“I’m really not that great—”

“At little humility can go a long way, Billy. You don’t actually want to convince people you don’t deserve your successes, do you? Tell ’em you’re something special and they’ll more than likely believe you. Muhammad Ali taught us that.”

“But he was a great boxer, wasn’t he?”

“Sure, sure.”

Coach Rocker showed Billy into his office and waved him to a chair. “So how’s your dorm? Getting settled in?”

“It’s fine.”

Billy didn’t know if it was because he’d won a basketball scholarship, but he’d been given a room in a suite with two other athletes in Brookhouse, a dorm that was only a short walk from the Athletic Center and Basketball Coliseum. The truth was, he’d rather have been nearer the quad with it’s green lawns and shaded walks, but he wasn’t going to complain.

“Meet your roommates yet?”

“One of them. Jason Pritchard? He’s a catcher, I think, from Ann Arbor. On a baseball scholarship. The other is Mike Brooks.”

“Oh, yes, promising shooting guard.” The coach seemed distracted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Billy and the small TV mounted on the wall of his office as if he wanted to catch the scores. “I’m sure you’ll get along.” Coach Rocker’s eyes returned to meet his. “Tulane Sampson is over there too. Nice guy. You have a lot in common. You should look him up.”

Billy knew who Tulane Sampson was. Everyone knew Tully Sam. He was Hoosier State’s star center. Last year he’d led the league in scoring at twenty-seven per game. He was also a black kid from New Orleans, and more significantly, a senior. What in hell did Coach Rocker think the guy would have in common with Billy, a freshman and small-town midwestern white boy who’d played point guard in high school, but would be lucky to get off the bench at Hoosier State?

“Well, thanks for stopping by, Billy. We’ll look forward to seeing you at practice.”

Billy rose, wondering why he’d been summoned to speak to the coach, only to be dismissed so soon. Maybe the coach made a point of welcoming all the scholarship students?

“You be sure and introduce yourself to Tully—421 Brookhouse. Nice guy.”

Everyone is hiding something. We all have secrets:

  • How we are feeling
  • What we really think
  • Our involvement in a crime, conspiracy, or infidelity

In this scene from The Door Behind Us, Jersey reveals more than he intends about his experience as a soldier. Frank’s blunt response is instructive.

“My mama, y’know, she picks at me ’cause she says I talk too much but don’t say nothing. She wants me to tell her about the war, because she’s got this fool idea that talking about it is gonna do me some good—make me less nervous or something. She read this story in the Current about a doctor up in Scotland who’s had some luck treating people with shell shock. They called it battle fatigue, but it’s the same damn thing. I keep telling her I’m not like the fellows she reads about, loud noises just make me nervous is all. Talk, she says. Like I’m gonna to tell her about Lieutenant Heiser getting his head sliced clean off by a machine gun. When she gets ragging on me particular hard, I think about telling her ‘bout that—just to shut her up.”

“Don’t do it.” Jersey, in his own world, was startled by Frank’s reply, and by his vehemence. He looked up to find Frank had stopped tossing fresh hay from the loft and was jabbing randomly at a fresh bale. “She won’t like it.”

“Okay, Frank,” he said, tossing off a ragged salute. “I won’t.”

Dialog is an opportunity to contrast what characters are saying with what they are thinking or feeling, this creates conflict and increases tension.

  • Physical reactions may contrast with a characters words in order to create conflict
  • Interior dialog may contrast with speech

In this scene, also from The Door Behind Us, Frank is questioned by Dr. Jones about how he came to fall off a freight train.

“You have not said how you came to be on that train or what happened to your friend, Jersey,” Jones prompted.

“The head of school, Mr. Underwood, found an address for me. My father’s parents. They were in Plainfield, but I lost the address. It was in my coat when it was stolen from me on the train. I had no money, and Jersey…chose to stay in Philadelphia, so I jumped the freight.”

The doctor’s eyes glinted from under gray eyebrows. “Did you and your friend have a falling out?” Frank had not realized he was so transparent.

“He wanted to stay at the school. There was a girl—I don’t know. He just wanted to stay. Why do you want to know about Jersey?”

“You talk of him warmly.” Agrippa opened a hand, palm up. “Then, poof, you are alone. Then you fall off train.”

“I was thrown off the train,” Frank said sharply.

“Of course, of course.” The doctor’s eyelids were half closed.

“You think I tried to kill myself.”

“No, I don’t. The idea crossed my mind. The sheriff’s too, I suspect.”

“Why would I try to kill myself?”

The doctor put his thumbs in the pockets of his vest and moved his belly gently as one would rock a baby. “There is the world as we would have it and there is the world as we find it.”

Dialog is a great opportunity—perhaps the best a writer has—to differentiate between characters. Some ways characters may contrast:

  • Language or dialect
  • Use of obscenities
  • World view
  • Class or education level
  • Favorite topic or bet noir
  • Verbal ticks
  • Listening skills—or the lack of them

In this scene from Valentine Shower, Reuben has been pining over a misunderstanding with his closest friend. His sister Yaffa comes over to see what’s up. It was Yaffa’s first appearance, so it’s important the reader get to know her.

I swallowed. “Are you here to help me or insult me?”

Yaffa smirked. “Six of one, half dozen of the other….”

“Look, it’s nice of you to come by, but I really don’t need—”

“Oh no, bro. I’ve been waiting for this ever since you reached puberty—and nothing happened. I deserve this.”

Yaffa’s high school years had been marked by unreliable boyfriends, flying hairbrushes, and salty tears. Maybe she had a point, but I wasn’t about to concede it. I chewed.

Yaffa bounced in her seat. “Come on, what is it? Girlfriend trouble? Boyfriend trouble? An online gambling addiction? That would be boring even for you. Oh no, it’s not a porn addiction? Because that’s nothing—everyone’s addicted to porn these days. You can hardly escape from it.”

“It’s not porn.”

“You know it’s okay, right, to touch yourself? Everybody does it.”

I nearly choked on the omelet. “Jesus, Yaffa. Will you give me a second to get my thoughts together?”

“You haven’t had a thought out of place since you were eight. You can’t blame me for getting excited.”

“I resent it, you know, when you talk about me like I don’t have any feelings.”
Yaffa’s glee morphed into seriousness. “Sorry, bro.”

I wasn’t fooled. “Just because I don’t choose to wave them around like a set of great pompoms.”

“Wave what around? ’Cause you know these are natural, right? I can’t help that I was born with—”

“I was talking about my feelings, not your boobs.”

“Oh, right. Never mind me. I’ve been a little sensitive since Boom Boom was born.”

“Boom Boom?”

“Yeah, Jim started calling Jack that when he started on solid food and got the worst case of gas.”

“TMI, sis.”

“Wow, you actually acknowledge that I’m your sister. I suppose I ought to be grateful—”

I was certain it was part of the nefarious plan, but I was more than ready to spill my guts, if only she would stop talking. “You win! I’ll tell you what’s going on if you promise to not to say anything for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes. Promise, or I’ll throw you out and cut my wrists.” I demonstrated with a butter knife. It was a low blow, but the omelet hadn’t kicked in, and I was still light-headed.

Yaffa pursed her lips and stared for a second. “You’re going to talk about your feelings for a whole ten minutes? You know, it might actually be worth it.”

“Just shut up, would you?”

Yaffa reached for her coffee. “Okay, bro. I’m listening.”

Writing dialog is fun, but it’s also hard work. Done well, it may near poetry-like density of meaning.

Review: Billy Goat Stats by John C. Houser

Wow! Great review!

The Novel Approach

TNA Page Turner Resized

Amazon USAmazon USTitle: Billy Goat Stats (A DIY Family Story)

Author: John C. Houser

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 246 Pages

At a Glance: An outstanding novel, and one I’m delighted to share with you.

Reviewed By: Sammy

Blurb: Back from summer basketball camp and starting at Hoosier State on an athletic scholarship, Billy is looking forward to playing basketball free of pressure from his overbearing, bigoted father. Too bad he’s trading one set of problems for another. His boyfriend Jonah dumps him, expecting he’ll want to spread his wings now that he’s away from home, and the basketball program at State proves harder to navigate than he imagined.

Despite his hurt at Jonah’s treatment, Billy is not ready to give up on a relationship with the out-and-proud musician. Their geographical distance isn’t Billy’s biggest problem, since it makes it easier for him…

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Billy Goat Stats Available for Pre-order on Amazon

The rollout continues. If you have got a Kindle, you can order Billy Goat Stats

Introducing Billy Goat Stats

On May 25, Dreamspinner Press will publish Billy Goat Stats, the second in my DIY Family series. I wrote the novel because I fell in love with the main character, Billy, in my previous novel, Music Box. Billy appeared when Jonah, one of the earlier novel’s protagonists, needed help coping with bullies in school. Billy befriended Jonah despite being a jock, a basketball player, and popular—that is to say, from as distant a social sphere as I could imagine. When their friendship blossomed, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if their relationship moved beyond the platonic.

Exploring Jonah and Billy’s story presented some challenges for me as a writer. First, it required that I describe an intimate, but mostly long distance relationship. Billy starts the story by leaving Glen Falls to take up a basketball scholarship at Hoosier State University. Jonah is left behind to finish his senior year in high school. Jonah believes a relationship impossible. Fortunately for Jonah, Billy is not one to shy away from a challenge, and their telephone bills grown with the strain of hours of late-nite calls. Establishing intimacy with Jonah is only one of the challenges Billy faces in his freshman year. Helping to hold his team together as they make their way towards NCAA March Madness is another.

Billy Goat Stats Cover

Cover

Writing about basketball was a problem of my own creation. When I introduced Billy in Music Box, I had no idea I would write about him again, so I carelessly indulged my fantasy and made him a “long and tall” basketball jock. Unfortunately, I’ve been more a hiker and rollerblader than a team sports fan, and I’ve never followed basketball. Research skills to the rescue!

Studying basketball statistics with an eye towards describing a realistic season for Billy’s team led me into the larger world of sports statistics and the obsession with numbers energizes and occupies so many sports fans. From there, the leap to Billy’s interest in tracking his own life statistics was a short one. I hope you enjoy tracking Billy’s progress as much as I did!

Productivity

I wrote a single paragraph today–in two hours. It was a very important paragraph.

Co-work

Tonight I meet friends for one of my twice-weekly co-work sessions at a coffee shop in Philadelphia. Our version of this type of session involves 15 minutes of socializing, an hour and a half of writing, and then a couple more minutes of chat.

It’s striking how much more likely I am to be productive on any given day, if I plan just this little bit of structure. Humans are social beings. The prospect of company and the commitment involved in sending an RSVP are just enough to make sure I’ll go, and once there, write.