Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The July Report

This was my first month for posting goals, so this report will be specific as to how I did on those goals. I'm posting this on the 30th because the 31st, right now, looks to be a day I won't have time to post on.

Here are the goals I set on July 1st, and what I did toward them.
  • Type final edits on The Screwtape Letters study guide proposal; mail to the editor by July 3. I'm happy to say I accomplished this, mailing the proposal on July 2. Still waiting for an answer.
  • Complete proposal on In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People; edit; mail to agent by July 10. This will include work on the first 30 pages of the book, which are to be included. I finished this, but not until last night, July 29, a few minutes before midnight Central Time. While I wish I had finished it sooner, I think the extra time I took made both the proposal and the sample chapters better. Now the waiting begins.
  • Begin work on proposal on the Elijah and Elisha small group study guide. By the end of the month I would like to see the proposal essentially complete, and the weekly study sheets I prepared for Life Group expanded into chapters. If I can have it ready to mail to the editor by then, fine, but I'll be satisfied mailing it in August. Alas, I did NOT finish this, and barely began it. I started looking at it only yesterday, and accomplished very little. This one will take some work, as I have to convert two page student handouts into sample chapters.
  • Attend critique group twice. At the first one present the synopsis for In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People; at the second present the concept for the Documenting America newspaper column, including marketing letter and one or two sample columns. I attended both critique group sessions, but at the second one, rather than taking "Documenting America" I opted for two more chapters of FTSP. Given that no one had seen these, I thought it best someone critique them before I turned them in with the proposal.
  • Finish organizing the scattered piles of paper about the house. Actually, I'd be satisfied to simply bring improved organization to this, even if I don't finish it. At least I want to have all papers of all works in progress filed together, and drafts of all poems put in their assigned places. I did mostly accomplish this. Many, many things are in a proper place, logically filed and easily retrievable. I have some more to go, especially the poetry, but I feel much better about this. I can let the rest slide a month while I work on other things.
  • Organize the business end of writing, including establishing a mileage log so I can get rid of the scraps. As with the last item, this is mostly accomplished. I probably have 20 percent yet to be finished.
  • Continue to post to this blog, at least 10 posts this month, and preferably 15 to 18. Yes! I have been faithful to this blog, reaching my goal for posts--and none of them fluff posts, either.
  • Begin outlining the next life group lesson I'll teach, and prepare it in a way it can become a small group study guide. I did this, and have the lesson series mostly planned (but not studied or written). However, based on what the class chose to do as the next lesson to be taught by the other teacher, I will have to choose another topic. I chose it, and began planning it. I'm not as far along as I'd like, but I have a good start.

Miscellaneous items accomplished include: reading for research and pleasure (but, as I learn more and more, a writer never reads only for pleasure); reading about ten blogs of writers, agents, or editors; a few poem critiques on Absolute Write; reading about promotion for writers.

So, all in all a productive, satisfying month for writing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Almost Done With One More

When July began, I had three book proposals due, based on meetings I had with editors and agents (well, one editor and one agent) at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. The one I concentrated on first was the study guide of The Screwtape Letters. I finished and mailed that on July 2. I still haven’t heard back on that, but the Christian booksellers convention took a week out of that editor’s schedule.

The second one I decided to work on was for my baseball novel, In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. I began working on that parallel to the Screwtape one in June, but had not progressed much. For this proposal, I had some sample chapters writing to do. As I blogged before, I had trouble shifting gears from non-fiction back to fiction. Once I did, I was able to add to the chapters I already had completed, then finish the proposal itself. This all came together last night, when I typed the last edits on the sample chapters. I had typed the final edits on the proposal last Thursday. Now, when I say final edits, that is subject to one more read tonight, with any changes I might see as necessary. So, tomorrow, this will go in an e-mail to the agent who requested it.

Now it’s on to the third one, a Bible study titled The Dynamic Duo: Lessons From The Lives Of Elijah And Elisha. This one will take more work, at least in terms of sample chapters. As I stated before in this blog, I developed these lessons and taught them from March to early June this year. Each week I prepared a two-page student handout, which included comments on the text, sometimes and exercise, lots of maps for understanding, and lots of pictures taken from the web. For my sample chapters, I will have to do away with all the illustrations, and just go with words. So I really have to expand the writing from what I have now. My original goal was to have this one in by the end of July, but that clearly ain't gonna happen. Maybe the end of August, but that might be optimistic.

Still, I have all the handouts with me today, to look at on the noon hour and decide how much of them I can use, how much I will have to add. It's a start, and something I'm looking forward to. Though, I will have to change gears back to non-fiction.

Meanwhile, on the first proposal, waiting, waiting....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What I didn't like about DUNE

The last couple of posts told what I liked about Dune. In this post, I want to say some of the things I didn't like.

- A little short on back story: I can't put my finger on specifics, but throughout the book, despite the way Herbert expertly works in back story, I wanted more. A little bit more of how the universe got to where it was.

- Just short on explanation: Many times I felt things happening in the book were not explained as clearly as I would have liked. I felt I lacked understanding on some things, and that was disturbing.

- Pagan-like religions: I am never comfortable reading about pagan religions, or witnessing their rituals, even if only in words. At several points after Paul and Jessica joined the Fremen, Herbert gives us this paganism. I read it, but didn't particularly like it.

- Barron Harkonnen: He was too much a villain. From his obesity to his evil intents to the implied homosexuality (with that shown in a vile way), he was evil. The best advice I have seen on creating villains is that they must have some redeeming qualities, not be 100 percent evil. The fat Barron was, and that was a negative.

- the emperor's gambit: I never did understand why the emperor set up Duke Leto, ordering ordering the Harkonnens off the planet then ordering Duke Leto to take over Arrakis, but then aiding and abetting the Harkonnen's recapture of it. Why? What was he after? Late in the book was a suggestion that Duke Leto was so nice in the way he dealt with subjugated peoples, and he was so effective at training his fighting personnel, that the emperor felt threatened and had to do away with him. Maybe that was it, all of it, but I wish it had been better explained.

- the change in Paul: When Paul had his visions, described as prescient memory, and his personality changed, he was a less-likable character. And less understandable. I could probably write a whole post on this, but I'd have to go back and pick out some specific examples. I'll just say I didn't like Paul as much after his change than before.

Well, that's it for Dune, I think. If you haven't read it, I suggest reading it. It's long, and sometimes tedious, but well worth the read.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Still more on DUNE

I'll continue today discussing more that I liked about Dune.

- Omniscient POV: I mentioned this in one of my mid-way posts. I love the omniscient point of view. This is where the narrator sees everything from the narrator's perspective, and can get inside the character's heads to know their thoughts. The omniscient narrator sees what he sees, what each character sees, what each character thinks, and can even tell you what the narrator thinks. Herbert leaves off the latter, but does all the former. In one paragraph he sees what Paul-Muad'dib sees and what he is thinking. In the next paragraph, in the same scene, he sees what Jessica sees and what she is thinking. Omniscient POV has gone out of fashion. At writing classes, new authors are cautioned against using this POV. Go with third-person limited, they say, or even just third person. Too much chance of making a mistake with omniscient.

I just can't agree with that. Most of the books I have liked--the sagas of Wouk and Michener--are in omniscient POV. To my way of thinking, this gives the reader a richer experience. We are not limited by what one character sees in a scene. We know what all characters see and what all characters think. That's what I like, and Frank Herbert gave it to me in Dune.

- Violence is downplayed: I am not a big fan of violence, and I hate shoot-'em-up books and movies. In Dune, there is violence, but it is written so skillfully and so downplayed that I almost missed some of it. When Paul and Jessica were captive in a 'thopter, looking for a way to escape, Paul winds up killing one of their captors. I didn't realize he had done so until a little later in the scene there was only one captor left. I had to go back and re-read the earlier description, and then I saw it. Maybe I read right through it. Certainly we saw pieces of battles when the Harkonnens returned to take back Arrakis. But to me the violence was kept to a minimum. You knew some of it was going on in the background. It was foreshadowed a lot, but actual scenes of violence were few, and subtly written.

- The spice: Arrakis, as a desert planet, has little value to the universe, except for one thing: the spice, melange. Mildly addictive in small quantities, this stuff can be found on no other planet. Consequently men go to great lengths to find it, mine it, transport it, black-market it, etc. Apparently the giant sandworms manufacture it, though how they do this was not made clear, or at least I didn't fully get it in the read. It turns the whites of eyes light blue, and the iris/pupil dark blue. At first I thought the Fremen having these eyes was genetic, but by the end of the book I understood it to be environmental, for Paul and Jessica's eyes were beginning to change after a few years living as Fremem. I'd like to know more about the spice, as I'll mention in another post.

- Paul & Jessica's escape: I'm out of time and can't write much, but this was superbly written. Over several chapters P & J are drugged and bound, taken before the vile Barron Harkonnen, taken off to be dumped in the desert, escape from those guys, are found and helped by Duncan Idaho and Liet Kynes, must go into the open desert again, must dodge sandworms, and eventually must convince a group of forty Fremen they are not enemies to be killed for their water, but friends who need help. Their adventures were a highlight of the book for me.

More coming. Next will be the things I didn't like about Dune.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

More on DUNE

I am at work, intending to write the next post in my review of Dune, but discover I do not have my notes with me. Let me just plunge in then, and do what I can without either the book or my notes at hand.

For today, a few things I liked about Dune

- the desert life descriptions: While Herbert did not go into great lengths to describe the deserts of Arrakis, he did show how the scarcity of water affected everything in that desert world. I loved the concept of the dew harvesters, with their swishing sickle-type contraptions. So effective was Herbert at this, that I cringed when Duke Leto, at his first state dinner on Arrakis, dumped half his glass of water on the floor, and his guests had to do the same. What a waste. I believe Leto was planning on making a point about this in future dinners, but of course never had the chance.

- the Fremen culture: This was another great achievement of Herbert. How much thought he must have given to a people who live in the desert without an oasis, who must dodge monster sand worms and yet do so expertly, who must avoid being enslaved by whatever family currently has the planet as its fiefdom, having developed a culture that accomplishes all of this. Such things as the still suits and tents, the sietches, riding the sandworms, etc. are quite well developed and written. Again, Herbert does not spoon-feed us with elaborate explanations of how this culture came into being. Enough information is given on most of these to understand them from the context.

- reliance on Arabic: Obviously much of the names and terms in the book are derived from the Arabic language, even using directly such words as jihad and hajj in the Arabic meaning. As one who lived five years in the Arab world, and who knows a smattering of Arabic, I found this enjoyable. Some terms, such as the words of greeting (can't type it in since I don't have the book here; will edit tonight) are close to the Arabic. I imagine some found this difficult or tedious. I found it enjoyable.

- the downplay of technology: In Dune, the technologies are assumed, not described. Space travel is a given, and no information is given on spacecraft. The 'thopers, for atmospheric travel, are never really explained. Suspensers, poison snoopers, shields, and many other technological advances that are not in our 21st century world are not explained; they simply are. I found this good. The book was long enough without adding too much explanation of what they are and how they worked. Perhaps this is the way of all science fiction writing. Since I don't read it much (the last was Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and the two sequels back in the 70s), I wouldn't know. But I liked it.

I am out of time, and probably have a long enough post. I'll continue soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: DUNE

Dune by Frank Herbert, 1965, The Berkeley Publishing Group, Special markets Hardcover September 2005, ISBN 0-441-01405-4

How does one go about writing a review of Dune? It's a massive job. I shall need three days to say most of what's in my head. Imagine, therefore, how much more difficult it was to write the book in the first place. The achievement of Frank Herbert is immense. To create the planet Arrakis, with all its culture based on physical characteristics, and the worlds beyond Arrakis is a staggering work, easily rivaling the achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I began reading Dune on June 15 this year, and finished July 19. As I said in previous posts (here and here), I found the beginning very hard reading. Herbert did not spoon-feed his readers. We have to figure it out from the barest of clues. On the first page I was confronted with the term Kwisatz Haderach, planets Caladan and Arrakis, the Atriedes family, and the curious term "suspensor lamp". Strange words, strange concepts, hard going. I didn't realize I had a "Terminology of the Imperium" section in the back. I assumed I had to figure these out from context or later illumination.

The second page presented the gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, CHOAM, Landsraad, etc. The first five pages, even the first fifty pages, threw up one difficulty toward full understanding after another. I like to understand what I read. If I can't figure out something from the context or internal explanation, I consult a dictionary, or even on occasion an encyclopedia. But where to go to understand Bene Gesserit? Nothing to do but read on and hope to figure it all out from accumulated context. I did, eventually, stumble on the glossary, and made frequent flips there. It wasn't the most helpful, but consistent with Herbert's aversion to spoon-feeding. I read fairly slowly, trying to maximize my understanding. Possibly the need to understand caused me not to focus on some plot elements, or the depth of character development.

Once I was past the first fifty pages, the extent of new terms diminished. Some others started to become familiar. I consulted the glossary less, and enjoyed the book more. The mind fog over Arrakis started to clear (and in so doing, I hope, provided something for the dew harvesters to collect), and the plot stood front and center. About the time Jessica and Paul had to escape from their Harkonnen captors (or were they Sardukuar?) was when I began to see the big picture.

On the next two days--I think; it could take longer--I'm going to cover what I liked and didn't like about Dune. Today I'll simply mention that I like the fact the book had no swearing, no overt sex scenes, and little violence. Oh, there were wars, battles, and knife fights, but the covering of this was superbly done by Herbert, such that you almost didn't know it was a violent scene. The violence was not gratuitous, and the book did not rise or fall on the violence. This, I feel, is a mark of good writing.

So I conclude today by saying put me in the camp of fans of Dune. Some day I will re-read this, and I don't re-read many books. Thanks to my son for this gift, which has enriched me. More later.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review: The Dark Side of Camelot

I finished Dune yesterday, but I'll need a few days to write my review; it will probably extend over two or three days. So today I will review a book I finished shortly before starting this blog: The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh; 1997; Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316359556.

I have read much about the Kennedy family: the assassinations, the presidency, the ancestors, and the descendants. There is no shortage of books in this subject, for the Kennedy saga combines much of what made America great: immigration, entrepreneuism, politics. However, as Seymour Hersh reports, a dark side also existed. Past books have touched on this to varying degrees, and most people today who dig just a little bit into the Kennedy story know it is not always pretty.

Hersh set out to focus on John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency and his time in that office. He begins with recounting events from November 22, 1963. He focuses on what Bobby Kennedy did, how he immediately moved to hide JFK's private files, put them under lock and key. He hid the president's medical records, to keep the world from learning just what a physical basket case JFK was. As he says, "But it was the man closest to John F. Kennedy who needed to put aside his grief and begin immediately to hide all evidence of Kennedy's secret life from the nation--as well as from the new president...." And, "The brothers understood, as the public did not, that they were just one news story away from cataclysmic political scandal."

Kennedy's legacy is one of liberal strength, of diplomatic successes, of great speeches and hard work, etc. Hersh is able to pull the mask off the true JFK and unravel some of this unjustified legacy. Most people have heard about his womanizing, but the extent of moral depravity in our 35th president is astounding. After a late start in the Oval office most mornings, Kennedy would eat lunch there when Jacqui was away, then would go to the White House pool for a naked swimming party with some of his aids and White House secretaries. Hersh explain how when Kennedy was on the road, his aide David Powers was responsible for procuring the hookers who would fill the evening for JKF and others. As a consequence, JFK had round after round of venereal disease, and took massive doses of antibiotics, as well as steroids for other ailments.

Hersh does not confine himself to Kennedy's personal life, however. Clearly documented are: the purchasing of the Democratic nomination in 1960 with the help of the Mafia and Daddy Kennedy's money; the probable stealing of the election in November of that year; the bumbling approach to State issues, where every action was couched, not so much by what was best for America, but by what was politically expedient; the cavalier attitude to the Bay of Pigs invasion by Kennedy and those around him; the way they (JFK and RFK) almost threw away victory in the Cuban missile crisis; and Kennedy's true plans for Vietnam. It is all an incredible revelation.

Hersh wrote his book at exactly the right time. The 1990s were thirty years removed from the presidency that the media called Camelot. Many of the people--the little people no one ever heard of, and the aides to aides--who played a part in the presidency were still alive, and enough years had passed that they were ready to talk. Secret service men spoke freely about how they felt about having to stand outside hotel suite doors while the president was consorting with prostitutes. Those involved in various diplomatic "successes" talked about the truth of the crisis and what the Kennedys knew.

The book has some flaws. It is not documented with rigorous footnotes to sources. The end of the book has "Chapter Notes", wherein Hersh tells of his sources, who he talked with for each chapter, and the nature of what he learned. The way the book is written leads me to conclude it is accurate; I'd just wish he'd have done more footnotes. Then, there is Hersh's habit of saying, "In an interview for this book in...". After the first half dozen times we get the picture that he conducted extensive interviews. After 100 times it was annoying. After 500 times....

This is an excellent read. I encourage all to read it, especially if you still believe JFK was a great president.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sidelines Syndrome

I first encountered Sidelines Syndrome when I was in junior high, a skinny lad who loved both academics and sports but who excelled only at the former and struggled with the latter. I didn't know what to call it then.

I experienced it mainly on Sundays, in the fall, and it continued strongly all the way through high school. We went to mass at 9:00 AM, and got home around 10:30 AM or a little later. Cereal and toast were consumed, Dad fell asleep either on the dining room floor or in his bedroom, and it was time to read, do homework, or watch whatever pre-game football shows they had on in the 1960s. Eventually the game itself would start. How great it was to watch the New York football Giants, with Y.A. Tittle and later Fran Tarkenton at quarterback, Homer Jones at flanker, and…others whose names I can’t remember. I think Frank Gifford may have already retired. But I prate.

However, by the end of the first quarter, I was tired of watching and wanted to be doing. So I turned off the television, went outside, and started playing basketball alone. Not sure what my younger brother was doing; perhaps he sometimes joined me in wide part of the driveway. Within a half-hour, certainly before the end of the first half, my neighbor Bobby, same grade as me, would come out and we’d have a friendly competition. An hour later and we were throwing the football in the street. Other neighborhood kids would join us, and we started a pick-up game in the street. The “field” stretched three telephone poles, the middle pole being the first down. It was always Bobby and me against all the others, all much younger than us. Bobby was Fran Tarkenton and I was Homer Jones. The ten or fifteen kids we played against didn't stand a chance. But again I prate.

Sidelines Syndrome, as I define it now, is the physical or psychological reaction of body, soul, and spirit to being on the sidelines rather than being in the game. As teenagers, SS caused us to have an overwhelming urge of needing to be in the game, not watching others play the game on television even if they were quantum leaps ahead of us in skill and ability. We had to be out playing, not watching. I've noticed that SS has the exact opposite effect on us as we age. Instead of wanting to be in the game, we are glad to be on the sidelines; it lulls us to complacency, tiredness, and an overwhelming desire to sleep through half the game. At least it does me.

Last night, I experienced my first case of teenager SS in years. After working late, I went to Barnes & Noble to read, relax, research, and drink that large house blend that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I began reading Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. I read about ten pages, then felt an overwhelming urge to be writing instead of reading about writing. I couldn't concentrate. So I put that down and began reading in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry. I managed to research one minor topic, then SS interrupted the neurotransmitters and I had to lay it aside. Next was a book about fifty skills a writer should have, or something like that. I couldn't get past the table of contents. The same was true with “Poets and Writers” and “Writers Journal” magazines. Concentration was impossible. I had to be writing.

So I went home, fixed dinner, went to my reading chair, and began planning out what I think will be my next book, a Bible study, and doing some research on it. SS was satisfied, my brain fully engaged, and productive words and concepts flowed. As the evening progressed and way led on to way, I quit about 1:15 AM, a blog post made and three sell-sheets drafted for three future books. I was satisfied; my brain was satisfied, a teen-age type attack of SS fully suppressed, and a 5:55 AM alarm setting turned on. Hey, maybe I’m getting younger!

Don’t bother to look up Sidelines Syndrome in a medical book, or Google it, or check it in Wikipedia. It doesn't exist as a clinically defined medical or psychological phenomenon. I assure you it exists, however, and needs to be dealt with in the right way. Maybe this post will spur those professions to get off their duffs and figure this out—quickly. I can’t take many more nights of less than five hours sleep.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Something New

Today I gave the beginning six chapters, thirty-four pages, of In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People to my key beta reader. He is not a writer, or a critique group partner, but rather a rabid baseball fan. He read the first two chapters a couple of years ago, and loved it. From time to time he's pestered me about where the book stood, if I was writing any more. I had to keep telling him no, so far life and other writing projects were in the way. We'll see what he says about it. I thought of another man I could give these chapters to and see what he thinks about it. I may e-mail them to him tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I worked late tonight (till 6:30 PM) due to having taken time off during the day to run an errand, then went to Barnes & Noble to browse the writing books and magazines. I sat for two blessed hours with three books, two magazines, and a large house blend, and had a wonderful time. I took a few notes from two books of references I will use in an on-line poetry workshop I'll be facilitating in a month's time.

But about a week ago, as if I didn't have enough writing related stuff to do, I began a new project, a new Bible study. I just finished teaching "The Dynamic Duo: Lessons From the Lives of Elijah and Elisha". This is one of the projects I pitched to an editor at the Blue Ridge conference, and for which he wants a proposal. I have a lot of work to do converting my weekly handouts into passable sample chapters and writing the proposal, but my mind cannot focus on that right now, not until I have the FTSP proposal out the door.

However, I needed a project--something mainly for the future--to fill in the odd half hour when I don't feel there is enough time to work on one of my major, current projects. Since I co-teach an adult Sunday school class, and it will at some time be my turn to teach again, and since I enjoy developing and teaching my own material rather than something prepared, I've been exploring what I will teach next. And, since preparing these studies seems to be something I can do, and something that editors might be interested in, I am approaching this new study with the idea that I will write the whole book before I teach the study, rather than just have handouts and expand them into a book later.

So, I have begun planning a study with the tentative title "From Slavery to Nationhood: How God Used the Forty Years of Wandering". It will come from Exodus, maybe Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and perhaps a wrap-up lesson from Joshua. I'm planning a study that could be taught in from about eight to about sixteen weeks, depending on how a given class wanted to do it. So I've read selected chapters in Exodus and Leviticus, and most of the first twenty-one chapters in Numbers. Based on my reading, I already have sixteen potential lessons. I think, by the time I finish, I'll have about twenty. Then I'll have to cull out the weaker ones, and begin the actual lesson prep. That's really the fun part. I get to combine detailed Bible study, research, and writing into one package.

I will probably teach this beginning in January, so I've got some time, but not much. Meanwhile, ideas for another umpteen Bible studies are beginning to compete with novels and non-fiction books and historical-political newspaper columns for space between my ears. At least I know ideas are not a problem.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Productive Evening

My wife is gone again, with our daughter and son-in-law in the big OKC, tending to our grandchild. When she's gone, I try to maintain our normal routines. I found out I sleep much better that way. So last night, I fixed and ate supper first thing, but instead of then going into the living room to read (as we normally do), I went straight to the computer in the "Dungeon", as we call our computer room, intending to do some personal business stuff. I found out I couldn't do the task due to lack of the necessary papers, wasted a bit of time on computer games, and headed back upstairs to read. Twenty pages later in Dune, and I was ready to the Dungeon again.

The project: make some more progress on In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. I had hoped to have the proposal ready to send last Thursday, so I'm obviously behind on my intentions. The actual proposal document is done, subject to tweaking and expansion of the competition section. What I lacked was about five pages of text. I'm supposed to have the first thirty with the proposal, and I only had twenty-five.

Even though I have outlined the book, so that I know the major events that must take place to put my main character into the cross-fire at the World Series (more on that someday, perhaps), I have not outlined it to the point where I know each scene. Those are coming as I get the inspiration, still switching gears from non-fiction to fiction. I have two scenes out of sequence, later in the book, mostly finished, but I needed that next chapter, that next scene, to have the full thirty pages to send. Plus editing, of course.

Last night I couldn't seem to concentrate on the task at hand. I got some other things done, such as filing, organization, reading writing blogs, re-read the last chapter in sequence and did a few edits. But what to do with that elusive scene wouldn't materialize. Should I switch to one of the Mafia Dons, and have them going through the routines of business? Should I do a scene at the farm in Kansas, how the family was reacting to Ronnie's success? Or should I do another baseball scene? None of these seemed right at that point in the story. I thought of scenes later in the book I could work on, but that wouldn't get me where I needed to be as soon as possible. Was this my first case of writer's block? Computer games became a diversion.

Then, about 10 PM, the perfect next scene hit me. I've been intending to have Ronnie, the main character, interact with a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a man I'd introduced briefly in the second chapter. Why not have their first one-on-one interview now. I was immediately taken to the Tribune newsroom, to the sports desk, where John Lind was trying to figure out how to interview the farm boy cum pitching sensation, and pounding keys.

At midnight, I had an almost finished Chapter 6, and was up to thirty-one or thirty-two pages at the start of the book. That put me way, way out of routine, for I don't normally go to bed that late. When I went upstairs and to bed, my mind was full of plot and dialog, and no way could I sleep. Twenty minutes later I got up and went to my reading chair. I couldn't face another chapter of Dune, so I wrote some in my journal, then picked up my Bible and read in Numbers, deciding on the next two possible lessons in my desert wandering Bible study. The words on the printed page were big and bold, the way they always are when my mind is sharpest. How could this be, a sharp mind at 1:30 in the morning? Nevertheless, I had a great time until tiredness came over me in waves about 2:00 AM.

I used to think my most creative time was between 10 PM and 2 AM. Years ago this manifested itself in solving all kinds of engineering problems I took home with me. Then the routines of life crept in, and I no longer worked on creative things at those hours. Is a change coming? Stay tuned.

Monday, July 14, 2008

When friends fall out

In my continuing (and slow) reading of John Wesley's letters, I came today to his April 27, 1741 letter to George Whitefield. Whitefield was in Georgia, America, and has written Wesley on December 24, 1740, a letter that appears to have been critical of a number of things Wesley was doing: handling money, deeds for properties, 'adornment' of sanctuaries. Most important, however, seems to have been the growing rift between the two over doctrinal issues. Wesley was an Arminian and Whitefield a Calvinist concerning the issue of the permanency of salvation.

This difference must have been under the surface, or seemed unimportant, as the two began the great work of the revival. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Whitefield begging Wesley to come to Bristol to substitute for him in a revival that was breaking out there (Whitefield having to be elsewhere) if he thought Wesley to be in error in his doctrine. I just now found Whitefield's letter on line, but have not yet read it. It contains five main points spread out over twelve pages of twelve point font, so it looks like I have lots of interesting reading in the days ahead. I will likely add this to the Wesley letters book, so that I have the full impact for when I read these again, perhaps in a decade or two. Apparently, Whitefield had the letter published in London, with a wide distribution.

Whatever their differences, and whoever was at fault, I'm saddened to see these two giants of the faith have a falling out. Somehow we have to make room in our hearts for those who interpret the gospel differently than we do. For Whitefield to have said Wesley preached a different gospel, and so they could have no fellowship together, seems extreme.

When Paul and Barnabas had their famous falling out, the result was the work was multiplied: two missionary teams went out, with more workers, than would have happened had they stayed together. Later in life, these two giants of the apostolic church were reconciled in friendship. Their dispute was over administrative issues, not doctrine, but still, could not Whitefield and Wesley have looked to their example? Well, maybe they did, sort of, for they divided their efforts.

I have much more to read on this, and possibly will come back and modify this post or make another.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

20 More Pages in DUNE

I didn't read any in Dune last night or the night before, but I did tonight, after returning home from writers critique group; twenty pages, bringing me up to page 316. My edition has 515 pages of book, plus about 30 of appendixes. Tonight I read when Paul and Jessica are accosted by a group of forty Fremen, but are able to work their way out of it and to gain the protection of this desert community. These were two nicely written chapters (found one typo; just a missing close quote). Paul quickly becomes enamored with a Fremen girl his age, and his mother seems to have an opening for a romantic relationship with the leader of this group.

In the next to last scene, Jessica takes advantage of the superstitions planted around the universe by the Bene Gessirit, and as a result we see a Fremen religious ceremony. I found this scene hard to follow. My mind drifted off twice, and I had to re-read to get it; even on the re-read I found it tough. I don't know if that was the writing or just a normal (for me) aversion to pagan religious stuff.

Despite that one difficulty, the book continues enjoyable. Hopefully I can cover the remaining 200 pages in not more than 20 days, and come back to give a full report.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DUNE: the half-way report

Yesterday I reached, and today I passed, the halfway point in Dune, Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel. My son gave this to me for Christmas (or birthday; they're pretty close together), and about three weeks ago it finally came to the top of the pile. My son gave it a good endorsement, saying it helped to define, or maybe it was change, the science fiction genre. I'm not much of a science fiction or fantasy person, but with that endorsement, and trying to please him, when it came to the top and it was time to read fiction, I plunged.

The first fifty pages were very hard reading. So many terms to learn, so many flips to the glossary. So much going back to re-read paragraphs that didn't seem to make sense. Actually, this went on for closer to a hundred pages (my version is 540 pages, including appendixes). I found myself unable to read more than five to ten pages a day.

After a while, though, I fell into a rhythm, and began to find the work enjoyable. Some terms started to become familiar; others could be deciphered from context. The main plot line became clear, and the characters became real. The writing is stellar, and this book has one thing I really like in a book: omniscient narrator point of view. In all my writing instruction sources, they say omniscient is out of favor, and new writers should avoid it. As a reader, however, I prefer it, so why wouldn't I write in it? Tonight I finished a chapter where Paul and his mother are the only characters in the scene. In one paragraph we are in Paul's head; in the next one in Jessica's. And I say, "Hallelujah!" What an exciting way to write. The caution against head hopping is, IMHO, way over stated.

Back to Dune, I can't imagine how much time it took Herbert to create this. It seems more fantasy to me than science fiction. Possibly these two genres frequently merge when the science fiction is so far out there to make Earth invisible. His creation of the desert situations--the sand worms and the Fremen and stillsuits and the whole concept about water conservation is outstanding. The empire, with the tripartite arrangement between the royal house and the guild and the leading families, which has barely come out, is an interesting foundation of the plot. Back story is worked in expertly by Herbert.

I'm on a roll now, reading twenty pages a day or a few more. I'm anxious to learn how Paul and Jessica return to civilization; how Thufir Hawat learns who the real traitor is; what the emperor's gambit is; etc. A few things I question, but imagine they will be explained later. For example, the last chapter I read this evening told of the death of Kynes, the Fremen planetologist who served as the judge of the change. Given that he died, and will have no more part in the story (unless he really didn't die; we don't have a corpus delecti yet, and I always maintain until you have the corpus delecti you don't have a death), why did Herbert spend so much time on the death? Was it just to work in some of Arrakis' physical characteristics, which Paul will pick up on later in this (or a subsequent) volume? The weeks ahead will tell.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Worked a Plan

Yesterday, before making made my late afternoon post, I made a writing to-do list. This included a couple of e-mails not strictly writing related, a couple of over-due replies to old friends. I did those, then tackled the list. As I completed each one, I recorded them in my writing diary with the time. Actually, making a post to this blog was one of the early items on the list, working on In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People one of the last. By the end of the evening, all but one item on my to do list was done, and FTSP was more than 2,000 words further along. My dreams last night were of a completed novel.

I'm not a big fan of to do lists. Oh, I write them, not so much to guide me in what I have to do but to help me to realize all that I must do, to help not slack off before I have enough done. That was the purpose of yesterday's to do list--although I did tackle it in the approximate order I wrote it down.

Today I faced a different problem of work, another time of shifting gears. Returning to work after a weekend for me is always difficult. Not that I don't like returning to work; rather, that the weekend away from work causes me to be inefficient when I return, doubly so after a holiday weekend. I have one main project I need to complete ASAP, a flood study that refuses to cooperate with me. Consequently I'm looking for any excuse not to work on it. But, knowing I should work on it, I bring it to the table and try, but find myself allowing distractions to enter in. I'll waste time on the Internet, even writing stuff or Christian studies stuff, I'll read technical magazines I don't have to read, I'll organize over and over, etc--anything to not work on the difficult task.

I knew I should work on it today, but also knew I would be terribly inefficient if I did. I needed something to work on that would allow me to work efficiently and stick to my work during the time my employer pays me. As I made the 24 minute commute this morning, the perfect task came to mind: write a construction specification section from scratch. This is part of my self-start stuff I always have trouble starting, to keep up with standards. Yet, I love writing specs. It's about the most favorite part of my job. I'd rather be writing a spec for a specific project, but there's a certain satisfaction from taking a blank sheet and creating ex nihilo something the company really needs. So, after my devotionals, my reading in Wesley's letters, and checking a few web sites (all of which happen before I'm "on the clock"), I began writing a guide specification for underground storm water detention systems, something we've been needing for a long time. In two hours I had the basic structure done, and about 80 percent of the writing for one of the eleven manufacturers that will be included in the specification.

Other scheduled activities got in the way, along with people needing assistance--always a welcome diversion, but I had a concrete task to come back to during the day as thirty minutes free came up. By 5:15 PM I had the one manufacturer fully specified and proof-read. Since much of what I wrote for that one manufacturer will work for the others, I'm really pretty far along for about a half day's work. And I didn't waste my employer's time today, praise the Lord.

Of course, my brain is fried tonight. After reading twenty-some pages in Dune, and after an evening walk of about a mile, my brain is as tired as it's been in a long time, and I've barely been able to complete this post. I feel a good sleep coming on. Will my dreams be of completed novels, Bible studies in the planning stage, or underground storm water detention structures?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shifting Gears

The month of June, what time I could spend on writing, was mostly on miscellaneous tasks that had fallen by the wayside for a while, and on pulling together the proposal for Screwtape's Good Advice. With that in the mail last Wednesday, I turned my attention to the proposal for In Front of Fifty-Thousand Screaming People, my baseball thriller. I first started on the proposal, and tidied up the synopsis and wrote the sell sheet. Actually, I did some of this overlapping the SGA proposal, while waiting on my beta readers to respond. I did some market research, and figured out what books out now would be reasonably like mine.

Then I turned to, or rather returned to, writing the book. I began FTSP in June 2004, after pitching the idea to an editor at a conference. At that time all I had was a concept with some plot outline. He liked the idea, and said to send him a few chapters. So I quickly pounded out a prologue an two chapters and sent them. He still liked the concept, but wasn't as thrilled with the writing as I would have liked. I set the book aside, partly not knowing what to do, and partly from the busyness of life.

Over the next three years I pulled it out and worked on it from time to time. I ditched the prologue, as the editor suggested, and polished the writing of the first two chapters. I added a third and polished it. I began a fourth. An idea came to me for a scene well into the book, which I thought would be about 2/3 the way through, and I wrote that. I worked on a plot outline and character development, writing page-long essays in the words of the four main characters, stating in their own words what their motivations were for the events in the book. But I did not do any serious writing, continuous writing for days in a row, as I had done with Doctor Luke's Assistant.

Friday night I decided I'd better get back to this. The agent wants the first thirty pages with the proposal, and when I merged chapters 1, 2, 3, and the partial 4 I had only twenty pages. I figured out what to do with Chapter 4, and finished it as a short chapter. The plot analysis I had done as part of writing the synopsis told me I had to move the scene I thought would be 2/3 the way through to become the first plot point, meaning it needs to be 1/4 to 1/3 the way through. I did that, and made a couple of related changes. Then I sat down on Friday, Independence Day, to write the fifth chapter, intending to do serious writing.

Lo and behold, I couldn't write it! I wrote "Chapter 5" at the top of a re-use page, then sat there, not sure what to do. My plotting did not get down to the level where I had to plan what the next chapter would be about. Yesterday (Saturday), I went back to it and managed to write about half a page. That was a start, but not the type of progress I needed to make. Was this a case of writer's block, my first? I have had times when I was not motivated to write for various reasons, usually the whirlwind of life causing my brain to shut down for a while, but never have the words not come to me when I wanted them to.

After a while the reason for this inability to add this chapter became clear. For the last seven months I have been concentrating on non-fiction as a probable easier way to break into publishing, and purposely laid fiction aside. I brainstormed the SGA book and began it. I turned my Elijah and Elisha study into a potential book and brainstormed it. I thought about ten other Bible/small group studies I could write as follow-ups. A fruitful career as a writer of Bible and small group studies danced before my eyes in waking moments, and through the subconscious in sleeping moments. I had done no fiction writing at all, until after the Blue Ridge conference, with the interest of an agent staring me in the face, I at least read my manuscript and made some edits. I shared chapters 1 and 2 with my new critique group, and received feedback. Now that I'm ready to return to fiction, I can't get my mind around it.

It's hard to change gears between fiction and non-fiction--at least it is for me, this first time to do so. What will the future hold? If my career goes the way I want it to (at this stage of my "career"), I will be switching regularly between fiction and non-fiction. I'd better learn to shift those gears effortlessly, on a day to day basis if necessary. This will be especially true if I follow-through with plans to market and publish the Documenting America newspaper column.

Help! I'm a prisoner of a career that hasn't even started yet.

The good news is that, as I fell asleep Saturday night, a scene late in the book came to me. I wrote it mentally lying in bed, then wrote it on paper Saturday morning. Today, while eating lunch, the way to write chapter 5 came to me, and I'll be hitting the keys for that after I finish this post. So maybe the gears shifted over the last couple of days. May it be so.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Musing on America

Seventeen years ago I was on my last overseas trip (the ones to Mexico in 1996 and Canada in 1997 not counting as overseas). I spent about 30 hours in the Bahrain airport, writing for my visa into post-war Kuwait to come through. It finally did, and I arrived in Kuwait July 4, 1991, where I joined my wife. She had been there about six weeks as a Red Cross nurse, and was about to leave for home. We overlapped three days, I think.

At that time I had spent five of the previous nine years living out of the country: from 1981-83 in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and then from 1988 to 1990 in Kuwait. I remember my first flight back into America, in September 1981, when I came to fetch the family and bring them to Saudi for our life there. Charles was 2 years 8 months old, and Sara a mere 5 months. I flew on Pan Am, which to me was a symbol of America. Upon touch down at JFK airport, many on the plane broke out in cheers and clapping. Home again, to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Several times since then Lynda and I have commented on how reckless and foolish we were, as young parents, to take our children to the Persian Gulf region while the Iran-Iraq war was on. We saw few effects of it while in Saudi, but it was still on when we began expatriate life in Kuwait years later. Several times we saw smoking ships being brought to land somewhere to the south, close enough to see what it was but far enough away to not know what type of ship, or if they were putting into a Kuwaiti or Saudi port. I suspect the Saudi ports were over the horizon, and that they must have been foreign vessels--probably Iraqi--putting into Kuwait ports for repairs. My first month in Kuwait four terrorist bombs were set off, though always in a place that seemed to be to damage a business, not kill people.

In those five years, I had six homecomings to America, plus the one in the trip after the war, so seven overall. I've been to Canada twice, and Mexico once, so in all I have returned to America ten times in my life. Each time was an exhilarating feeling. Home again, to a nation where peace prevails and sanity rules. Home again, to where economic opportunity is bounded only by the effort you put in and the amount the government takes out. Home again, to safety and security. Usually to cheers, always to relief.

The world has changed in those years since the long trips for oversees residency, not for business or tourism. I had the opportunity to be in about twenty-five or thirty other countries. I love this country most of all. Yet, as I've said in an editorial, I see the United States as a fragile experiment, a mere 232 years after declaring independence, 217 after finding a workable form of government. We have outlasted some nations, but many others through history lasted longer. The experiment is still fragile. Forces foreign and domestic want to change us from being the nation we were formed to be. I won't list the changes, and not all readers would agree with the specifics.

Has America passed its zenith? Are we now on the decline? This would take many posts to write about, which I won't do at this time--too much writing to do otherwise. If we have passed our zenith, I hope it is momentary, and that another score of years will find us on the ascendancy again. As I said in the closing line of a tribute poem to Ronald Reagan, "Long live your shining city on a hill."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Fear Rises

Well, yesterday evening I heard back from the agent who has been considering Doctor Luke's Assistant. As expected, he passed on it. I say "as expected" because I have learned the book is unpublishable for a first time novelist. It's way too long by industry standards--forgivable for someone who already has a fan base, but not for a first timer. And, it's Bible era fiction, which is a dead genre right now per the book buying public. So, I guess I chalk this up to writing practice, and move on. Hey, most authors don't get their first book published. Why should I be different?

Last night I finished the final edits on the proposal for my study guide for The Screwtape Letters. Based on the meeting I had with the publisher in May, I have high hopes for the success of this book. Today I wrote the cover letter, tweaked the proposal slightly based on something I had previously missed on the publisher's web site, copied the whole thing, went to the post office, and mailed it. I'm $1.68 poorer, plus mileage. I really had to make myself do those final steps, internally reminding, "The worst that can happen is they turn it down." But fear rose up again, as I've written about before:

Fear of Failure : This isn't a big deal. Rejection happens in the publishing business. You learn to live with it and get over it quickly or you go crazy.

Fear of Success : How would life change if this is successful? If they then want another one? If I have to go thither and yon to promote the book?

Fear of Error : This is the worst, I think. Who am I to claim to know enough to write a book on this Christian classic? I'm just a man who fell in love with it three decades ago, and who recently renewed that love affair, recently helped teach it to an adult life group, and found a lack of materials available to help teacher and student. But, what if I say something in the book that's really stupid? That the publisher doesn't catch, but that some theological sharp-shooters do? Oh, the scorn and derision I could direct on myself. Maybe it would be better to just not mail it and watch television every evening.

Fear of commitment did not enter into this. If the book is accepted, I will have to add to the four sample chapters written: a minimum of 28, and possibly as many as 30 additional chapters, probably in three months. That is a pace I believe I can do.

Let's see, I think someone said that irrational fear is anxiety. Why borrow worries from tomorrow's legitimate ones? Each day has enough worries of its own. First item of my July goals accomplished, within schedule.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July Goals

This will be the first month in a long time that I set writing goals, and the first time I'll post them here. This may be a progressive post, edited several time today as these goals come to mind.

  • Type final edits on the Screwtape Letters study guide proposal; mail to the editor by July 3.
  • Complete proposal on In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People; edit; mail to agent by July 10. This will include work on the first 30 pages of the book, which are to be included.
  • Begin work on proposal on the Elijah and Elisha small group study guide. By the end of the month I would like to see the proposal essentially complete, and the weekly study sheets I prepared for Life Group expanded into chapters. If I can have it ready to mail to the editor by then, fine, but I'll be satisfied mailing it in August.
  • Attend critique group twice. At the first one present the synopsis for In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People; at the second present the concept for the Documenting America newspaper column, including marketing letter and one or two sample columns.
  • Finish organizing the scattered piles of paper about the house. Actually, I'd be satisfied to simply bring improved organization to this, even if I don't finish it. At least I want to have all papers of all works in progress filed together, and drafts of all poems put in their assigned places.
  • Organize the business end of writing, including establishing a mileage log so I can get rid of the scraps.
  • Continue to post to this blog, at least 10 posts this month, and preferably 15 to 18.
  • Begin outlining the next life group lesson I'll teach, and prepare it in a way it can become a small group study guide.