Monthly Archives: August 2018

What If We Just Made This Up?

nun playing a guitar

So then I put my dog in the pickup truck.

As long as you’re wasting time on the internet reading a blog, try this little quiz. If you were a writer and made up a character to write about, would you prefer:



  1. a) a male police officer
  2. b) a female police officer
  3. c) a Catholic nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp

There’s not really a lot of information to go on there, however. You might have chosen the young boy because you once were a ten-year-old boy and you went to camp. Or you might have chosen the nun because you actually are a nun (then again, you might have chosen anything but the nun because you actually are a nun).

Creating characters in fiction can be exciting, because you can basically write about any possible human being on the earth, a vast, practically endless, number of options. Creating a character can also feel overwhelming, because you must narrow a vast, practically endless, number of options down to one.

Then again, you could give things a twist, so that any individual choice feels larger. Let’s add a bit of twist to the ones above.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats

I love creating characters, probably the most important aspect of my own writing. As part of how I work, I watch people around me sometimes, listen to how they talk, and even repeat things they said in my head, thinking about the language they used and the tone of it. I think so much about fictional characters and what makes them tick (i.e., do they behave the way real humans probably would?) that I sometimes have trouble reading other books. I’m constantly thinking “No, no, they wouldn’t do that.”

Some books are not really about the characters, however; they’re about the story itself. In those cases, if the detective finds the hidden letter with the clue to solve the mystery, and he solves it, then it’s goodnight, ladies, the book is done. And so what if every single time he talks to someone, he coughs as if he’s not sure what to say, and he’s embarrassed in every store that he forgot to bring cash—and that’s the extent of character development. Who cares if he doesn’t seem real? He found the envelope and solved the mystery.

Sometimes, I care, though I can’t honestly say that it’s wrong to write with shallow, undeveloped characters, when the purpose is to tell an entertaining story. Sometimes I just want entertainment myself. I’ll watch the Three Stooges all day long, and I’m not thinking about how those characters don’t seem real. I’m thinking, “Har! Moe hit Larry with a frying pan!”

In fiction, though, while shallow characters are not inherently bad, they don’t entertain me. I just can’t enjoy that kind of writing. I want to read about, and write about, real human beings. So for the experiment, let’s take those characters I presented and add just a bit more.

  1. a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen named Randi Hotlee; at home he also runs a black labrador rescue unit, with eight dogs currently living there
  2. b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin, but her own father was an abusive famous violinist, and she doesn’t want her kids to take violin lessons
  3. c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own; the sister is also raising the child the nun gave birth to before she became a nun
  4. d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats; he’s very afraid of bees and thinks there might be bees at a summer camp, but he wants to learn to swim

Now who would you choose? And once you’ve chosen, where does that person live, what is one of their favorite foods, and do they know how to ride a bicycle?

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The House of Books

bookstore cat sleeping

I think I’d be good at this

We were barely home from the wide-open green glories of the mountains when my girlfriend sent me an article on the cozy wonders of bookstores. If it’s possible to be reincarnated as a business, instead of something like a chipmunk, I want to come back as a bookstore. I’ve certainly spent enough time in them to feel at home with myself if I do.

Not so long ago, it appeared as if we could be moving toward a time when bookstores no longer exist. I’m more optimistic now that they will continue, but if they do disappear, no matter what fantastic wonders the future may hold, I’m glad I’ve lived in a time of bookstores instead. I love the magic of a bookstore, with all those books available any time you want to walk in the door, to browse from the Harlem Renaissance to Oaxacan Mexican cooking to Tibetan sand paintings. This is real immersion, not that webpage business. You don’t click away from a Oaxacan cookbook. You stand there and turn the pages, lost in it.

I have spent so much time in bookstores that one summer in a casual moment I started reading a few pages of the novel Moby Dick, then stuck a bit of paper in as a bookmark and returned the book to the shelf. No one bought that volume during the next few months, when I went to the bookstore so often that I sat there and read all of Moby Dick during repeated visits. I’m not making that up.

Last weekend my girlfriend and I were in North Carolina to visit my friend Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine Chattahoohee Review. In addition to the amazing house Lamar lives in with mountain views, he built a second tiny house, really just one room, out under the pine trees nearby to serve as a library. I think there can’t be very many people who have a separate building next to their house just for their books.

In Lamar’s library, the walls are lined with books, as you’d expect, most of them on southern literature, with one wall for literary criticism, and another wall devoted just to books about Florida. I don’t have an extensive book collection myself, as someone like me might, because I’ve moved 1,782 times. Actually, I’ve only moved about 30 times in my adult life, but you begin to cast things off after you pick the boxes up enough times.

While we were in North Carolina last weekend, we also went to Asheville for an afternoon, a city filled with young people, brew pubs (we had to try a couple of those), and restaurants, and of course with views of the green glorious mountains. In addition, this tiny city has not one, or two, but several private book stores. We went for a look at Malaprops, probably the most well known. It is what a bookstore should be, filled with people browsing through books on the Harlem Renaissance and Mexican cooking (or perhaps books on Thomas Wolfe and southern fusion cooking), and with a nice cafe on the side.

Seeing Malaprops so full of people gives me greater optimism about the future of book stores. A book store is one of the finest things human beings have created so far, and in my support for bookstores, when I want to buy books, I buy them from an actual bookstore or I don’t buy them. I know Amazon has made many things available (including my own books, and I will thank them for that), but when I want a book, if I can’t find it, I ask a small local bookstore near me to order it. Then I pay the higher price that it costs to buy from them. I’ve also browsed in bookstores over the years, picking out books I’ve never heard of, to take them home and see if I like them. I’ve found some books I loved by doing that, both in America and, as a matter of fact, in Ireland.

If it’s not possible to be reincarnated as a bookstore, if we are only allowed to come back as animals, maybe I could be one of the cats who live in bookstores.

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Before I’m Caught and Returned to the Asylum

Winnie the Pooh

President Xi Jinping of China

I’m so sure you would enjoy knowing that a very common word in medical studies is “randomization”. It means to take the people being studied and put them into groups in a completely random manner, so that no bias is involved in selecting the groups (and then they receive different kinds of treatment, to see what works). Nowadays randomization is done with a computer, though in the 20th century it was done by letting a squirrel in a cage, preferably a young squirrel, pick the numbers.

Actually, I don’t know how it was done. But as it happens, I have a squirrel here in a cage, not all that young, and I’m going to have the squirrel choose topics for me to write about in this blog entry. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that on principle I ruled out writing about any kind of nut or the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

So what does my little rodent have to suggest? Ah well, as uneducated as you might think a squirrel is, it has chosen the fairly subtle topic of satire. To my thinking, there is not enough satire in the world, which cries out to be ridiculed. Satire uses an exaggerated form of writing to emphasize the foolishness of people or situations, and the difference between satire and parody is…sheesh, I don’t know. And I have a degree in English. So much for my education.

I think of parody as sort of slapstick, closer in spirit to Monty Python. Satire is more subtle, but there’s probably overlap. One of the ancient Greek writers, Aristophanes, wrote satires (including one making fun of Socrates) that had some moments the Three Stooges could have worked with.

One of the most delightful bits of satire I’ve seen lately was created in China, where people have noticed that their president resembles the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. As a typical dictator (i.e., pathologically insecure), he hates that comparison, and thus Winnie the Pooh is illegal in China. Think about that. How do you say “I love honey on toast” in Chinese? (我喜歡烤麵包上的蜂蜜)

There goes the squirrel again, and he’s—no, he stopped for a drink of water. Now he’s looking around, and he’s chosen British versus American spellings. What an eclectic little squirrel. What can I say on this topic? At work I get manuscripts from all over the world, and some of them use the British spellings, such as “programme” (American: program), “favour” (American: favor), and so on, and part of my job is to change them. If you’re thinking “Who gives a shit?” you should not apply for a job as an editor. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t give a shit either, but I do want to keep my job.

Here’s a little story about British spelling. When I was in Pennsylvania, I lived in the middle of the state, in Centre County, which uses British spelling in the county name (American: Center County). People in the county have gotten used to the spelling, so that some apparently don’t know any better. One day I was in a small town there and saw a sign on a restaurant advertising some of the food. I have no clue what a “chicken tender” is (a piece of chicken, I guess). Anyway, influenced by the county name, this restaurant had written that they were selling “chicken tendres”. I guess their cars have fendres and when they need a loan they go to a lendre.

OK, maybe that’s editor humor, something a normal person won’t connect with. Me and the squirrel like it, though. Look at…he’s…ah, I should give him a nut. I bet Winnie the Pooh would like those “tendre” jokes, too. And you know he’s British.

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The Provokingly Clever Title Goes Here

lemons and limesOut in the world, much has been happening. All the boys are out of the cave. Little Croatia kicked Russia’s ass in the World Cup. And it’s August already? Here in my world, you know how it can be, you pay some bills, think you’re doing OK, and then another bill shows up . . . and Jesus, where did that one come from? I was going to buy some mink underwear. Now I have to make do with the old silk stuff.

Even when I try to spend time in my imaginary world of words, reality intrudes like a steel wool pad dragged across your belly. About a month ago I decided I was ready to begin looking for an agent to sell the just-completed novel (Birds Above the Cage). Part of being ready to do that of course was finishing and polishing the book until it was as shiny as church shoes. Another part of being ready to go agent-begging with a new book was to conclude that it was time to give up—for now—on selling another book (The Invention of Colors).

Here I am a month later, and every day I try to send out a query letter to contact one agent. I only aim at one person a day, not more, because I find the process so debilitating. That seems like a big word, so I’ll throw in a dictionary definition here, from Merriam Webster. Debilitate: “to impair the strength of, enfeeble” and they gave the example of “sailors debilitated by scurvy”.

As you can see, sending out query letters to look for a literary agent is similar to having scurvy. In this case, the cure is not lemons or limes but rich red wine, or any wine, actually, just whatever you have, and some dark chocolate would be good, although peanut M&Ms will do if necessary.

Here’s what normally happens when you send a query letter: [this space represents the silence of outer space]. Not that the agents can reply to all the mail they get, I understand that. In a few cases, you get a form letter thanking you for letting them reject your book, and reminding you that it’s not you, it’s them, no really, and you should keep trying, and good luck. My highpoint in this process has been twice when someone wrote me a nice little note to say they didn’t want the book. The notes were very personal and pleasant, and I almost felt good about being rejected. That’s how hard this business is, when a nice rejection feels like a good thing.

In case the literary agents grow weary of rejecting Birds Above the Cage, I’m currently writing another book (Moonapple Pie), so they can later reject that. This week I finished a chapter that makes the book one-third written. Unless I’m out somewhere having fun (which happens now on the weekends, since I have a girlfriend), then I’m home writing, or feeling like I ought to be writing, or taking a nap so that I’ll be rested enough to write, or at least rested enough to think about how I ought to be writing.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever written a book I enjoyed working on as much as this one. Why would that be? Am I finally getting enough naps? This book is set in my home town of Gainesville, Georgia, but I don’t think that’s what makes the writing such a pleasure. My home town, by the way, is famous for chickens, and I have not yet included a single chicken in this book. Or wait, I think there was a bowl of chicken and dumpling in the last chapter.

I think I’m enjoying getting to know the characters in this book, two twin brothers (Eston and Elliott) in their early 40s and their sister who is ten years younger. Oleander appeared in their family mysteriously around the age of two years, when she was found wandering in a store and no one ever knew how she got there.

So one word follows another, until a sentence happens. If the words don’t move along and get into place quickly enough, I drip a little lime juice on them. That puts a little fancy in their pants, and they hop to it after that.

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