Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thought--and Captured

I've only time and energy for a few words tonight. How nice it is, however, to have that energy at 9:17 PM in the evening.

Yesterday two thoughts crossed through my mind for Life Group studies, two lesson series I could develop and teach, maybe even write for publication. I won't say what they are, since much thinking and development are necessary before I can do anything with them. They may not even turn out to be anything good (although I think they are).

But I captured them. One was actually a day old when last night arrived. I wrote this on to a simple concept sheet. It would only be a three or four week series, quite fitting for what many life groups want to do. The other one came to me yesterday evening. I'm not quite sure what it was I was thinking of that spurred the idea, but it seemed a good one, and so I captured it; wrote a concept sheet on it, although I couldn't remember two things I needed to remember. Some research today and tonight in Wikipedia gave me the two missing links, plus a little more, and I have nine lessons in this series. This one would take some work, but if I can pull it together it may be one of the best things I could do.

Tonight also I worked some on lesson 3 in "Life on a Yo Yo: Peter's Development as an Apostle". This will probably be a fifteen lesson series, which I will likely teach after the first of the year. I don't know how much I will write in the way of student handouts of other materials, but I will pull some together.

Meanwhile, I've got to substitute for our main teacher this coming Sunday, so I'm off to study.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


This has been a very busy Saturday, raking leaves, cutting deadfall, trying to get a riding mower started, buying groceries. I'm much too tired to do much right now.

Last night I spent a lot of time on the Thomas Carlyle letters to Leigh Hunt, specifically one where Carlyle discussed poetry. Ideas for an essay came to me, and I began some notes and even some writing of the essay. Tonight I'm just going to read in the next book on my list.

A high note for the day was buying gasoline for $2.109 per gallon, the lowest it's been here in over 3 years, if I remember correctly. Then, when we were at another part of town, I saw a gas station manager change their price to $2.099 per gallon. They are not the lowest station in town, so I suspect at the Murphy Oil on the Wal-Mart outlot it was probably about $2.069. Way to go, Congress, for ending the prohibition on offshore drilling, which is depressing the futures market, which is coming back to the current price.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


You hear of stars aligning, and astrologers will say that means something. Or you will hear someone say, "The stars must have been aligned for me!" Well, tonight events align for me. Significant events; events that demand my immediate attention, that will consume the evening.

Yes, today is payday, and in today's mail will be my monthly bank statement. So tonight I get to balance the checkbook, see what bills have to be paid (or automatic payments recorded), and plan out my budget for the month ahead. Rarely do these two events come on the same day of the month. I will also use this occasion to enter several months' worth of expenses into my budget tracking spreadsheet. So the evening will be consumed with the mundane.

Oh, you were expecting these events to be something momentous? Expecting me to announce a book deal, or some other publication acceptance? Sorry to disappoint. The mundane, common-place events of life govern, I'm afraid. In this regard I think of Charles Lamb, on of my favorite authors, a Romantic-era essayist and man of belles lettres. He worked at the East India House as a clerk, and did his writing on the side. His job was not strenuous, nor his hours long by today's standards. Yet he always claimed his real work were not his essays, poems, and letters, but rather the endless ledgers in which he recorded endless sums for endless ships with endless imports.

So, perhaps, may it be with me. The works I shall be known for will not be the poems, essays, or novels I hack out in 30 minutes stretches on work day evenings or two hour blocks on weekends. No, it will be volumes of construction specifications, engineering reports, training class notes, internal e-mails and thousands of business letters. These are my works, world. Look upon them and despair.

Don't mind me. Received a rejection last night, for a poem I submitted eleven months ago, and had long written off. I'm surprised it came, because it had the old postage on it.

And my key board here at work is acting up. Many letters I have to pound twice to get the pixels to behave, and the space bar is spaced out.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Review: "The Ode Less Travelled"

The next book on my reading list was The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within, by Stephen Fry, 2005, Gotham Books, ISBN 1-592-40248-8. I won this book, the second place prise for the February 2008 sonnet contest at Absolute Write. I began reading it less than a month ago, and finished just this afternoon.

This is a teaching book, a primer on writing poetry. No, that's not exactly right: it's a primer on writing formal poetry--that is, metrical poems in rhyme, typically to some specific form. Here are a couple of excerpts from the author's Forward.

"I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random."

"I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it."

Fry does this by focusing totally on formal poetry. Free verse is not mentioned, not even as something he plans not to cover. He begins with a 121 page discussion of meter, describing all the metrical feet, how they are put together in lines, and how lines can be grouped for metrical effect. He next covers rhyme, 66 pages worth: the basics of end rhyme and internal; full rhymes, partial rhymes, and identical rhymes; couplets, triplets, envelope rhymes, interlocking rhymes, cross rhymes. Next is a long section, 136 pages, on various forms. He begins with defining stanzas, and then defines a bunch of forms and discusses them: terza rima, quatrains, rubai, rhyme royal, ottava rima, Spenserian stanza, ballad, heroic verse, odes, villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ballades, rondeau and its many cousins, etc. Last is a short chapter on poetic diction and poetics today.

I find much to commend in this book, and much to fault. In an era dominated by free verse and the "poetry as emotional release crowd", I find the emphasis on formal poetry refreshing, especially the section on meter. Fry also emphasises that modern poetry should have modern diction. He speaks against what he calls "wrenched syntax" just for the sake of meter and rhyme--I like that, as I believe poetry should be written in the language of the era in which it is written.

I found some things I disagree with, that were treated either shallowly or were, IMHO, inappropriate for a primer on poetry.

- The section on forms contained too many forms, and hence they were not treated either sufficiently or well. What makes for writing a good poem in that form was never discussed, only the specifications for the form.
- There was no discussion of free verse. I understand, by its content, that the book was about formal poetry. But not having stated that, the impression is given that only formal poetry is poetry and free verse is not. I'm a formalist, but I found this handling of free verse somewhat baffling.
- The order of the book seemed backwards to me. The discussion of poetic diction and the condition of poetry today should have been first, since poetic diction is common to all poems, formal and free, metrical and non, etc.
- The book had no discussion of the line as the fundamental element of poetry, nor of metaphor, simile, figures of speech, imagery, personification, and many other poetic devices. Some of these should certainly be in a primer on writing poetry.
- As I mentioned, there was little discussion on poetic quality, or regardless of formal verse or free; what makes for a good poem? You won't learn that by reading this book.
- Fry uses his own, "made-up" poems to demonstrate most forms. Sometimes he uses the poems of others, but not often. This was somewhat annoying, though I think part of Fry's argument: See how easy it is, with just a little knowledge.
- The book has some cursing. This is almost all towards the end, with increasing frequency the closer you got to the end. It's as if Fry knew cursing would turn some people off, and held off with using it till the readers was well into the book and hooked. The book could have easily been written without it, and this fact alone will limit the number of people to whom I can recommend the book.

And I can recommend the book, though with cautions. It does not give a beginner's treatment to the broad spectrum of the poetry world, but rather to a small part of it. And, it is unlikely to be much help by itself. The one who desires to learn how to write poetry will need to find other books to supplement this one.

Book Review: "Moses: A Model Of Pioneer Spirit"

Our Life Group (a.k.a. adult Sunday School class) is studying the biography of Moses written by Chuck Swindoll. I'm not teaching this series, but as co-teacher I have to be ready each Sunday. The other teacher ordered the books, and included an extra book for me. Moses: A Model of Pioneer Vision, was also written by Chuck Swindoll. It appears to be self-published by his ministry, for it has no ISBN and the publisher is listed as simply "Insight for Living".

Although this is not on my official reading list, I read it as preparation for class. It is a small book, 64 numbered pages, with lots of white space. To be honest, I'm not sure of the purpose of the book. It is not a biography, nor a Bible study. The cover and title page also have the words "Recovering A Pioneer Spirit". This does not seem to be part of the title; maybe is a series title. The Introduction, by Swindoll, says, "My hope is that this brief but penetrating study will explode within you a burst of new hope and fresh energy. When it does, you will discover how much easier it is to face the dawn of each new day. Furthermore, it is remarkable how contagious vision is...it spreads!"

Unfortunately, this book did not do that for me. Perhaps it was too short, and the white space too much, to allow me to take the book seriously. Perhaps I read it when too distracted by my "troubles" to give it the brain power needed to fully appreciate it. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed with the book.

Swindoll focuses on Moses' time of preparation for his leadership of Israel, including the forty years of immersion in Egyptian culture and forty years of being a shepherd in Midian. It covers the burning bush event (what book on Moses doesn't?), and the crossing of the read sea. It is too short to cover much more. In it all, Swindoll tries to show us how Moses was a pioneer, and how we should somehow have the same spirit he did. Possibly I'll re-read it somewhere down the line, but right now I don't see where Swindoll achieved his aim with this reader.

I did find his four recommendations at the end on how to gain some of that pioneering spirit to be insightful.

1. It takes tight places to break lifetime habits.
2. When hemmed in on all sides, the only place to look is up.
3. If the Lord is to get the glory, the Lord must do the fighting.
4. Our "Red Sea deliverances" open and close at the Lord's timing.

Don't take my review here as a recommendation not to acquire and read this book. I really think my current experiences of life prevented me from a full appreciation.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A New "Research" Project

This morning I meant to post a report of a short book I finished, something not on my official reading list. I wrote some notes for the review last night, then laid them and the book next to the portfolio I carry to work each day. Alas, this morning, when I finished devotions at my desk, poured and doctored coffee, and opened my portfolio, the notes and book were not there. I suppose in my normal, strict routine way of getting out of the house in the morning, looking on the kitchen table for something out of the ordinary I was supposed to pick up was too much. That will teach me to go one tiny step further in the evening and put the non-standard item in the portfolio rather than next to it.

So what to do in my personal time, after devotions, at my desk? I have finished culling printed writing materials from notebooks, so nothing to do there. I was not ready to again pick up John Wesley's letters and take up where I left off somewhat more than a month ago (expect a future post on that). Reviewing Absolute Write for a poem to critique or a political discussion to burst in on revealed nothing I had to do. But there, in my favorites in Internet Explorer, was the folder titled "Carlyle" and in it the link to The Carlyle Letters Online, hosted by Duke University. A few clicks, making decisions on what to read, found me at a letter from Carlyle to Leigh Hunt in June 1833. I decided on a letter to Hunt because I recently posted for critique my parody of Hunt's famous poem "Jenny Kissed Me". If my readers can stand this affectation, here's my parody.

Hunter Licked Me

Hunter licked me on the nose,
showing me his deep affection.
Whimpering, this dachshund knows
who provided food and protection.
Tell me that my poems won't sell,
that no muse has ever picked me.
Call me crazy, but then yell
Hunter licked me.

I read the letter from Carlyle to Hunt, and decided, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a collection of letters between Hunt and Carlyle much as I have between Emerson and Carlyle?" So I decided to start one. I copied that letter--including footnotes and source citations, and dumped it into a MS Word document. Some formatting was needed, to put it in my typical compressed yet readable layout (trying to save a tree or two, you know), and making the footnotes real footnotes rather than embedded things at the end of the letter.

All of that took little time, so I decided to do some more. I went to the Index By Recipient, and found one more to Hunt in the 1832-34 time frame. This puzzled me, because I expected more than this. So I went to the chronological list and found a number of letters in this time frame, including the first, a brief Carlyle note to Hunt about receiving a book of his from Hunt's publisher. By the time my work day officially started (okay, I may have done my personal stuff 15 minutes too long, but I'll make it up this evening), I had fourteen pages of Carlyle to Hunt.

So what am I going to do with this? Don't know yet. And I have to see if I can find Leigh Hunt's letters on line. I know they've been published, but haven't yet looked for them. I suppose you could call this a "reading and research" project. But it's more than that. It is entertainment for me. And it should also, should I really read these letters, help with the brain atrophy I'm trying to overcome.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mainly Reading

This past weekend I went to Oklahoma City to visit with daughter, son-in-law, and grandbaby Ephraim. I went with my mother-in-law, my wife being already there. We had a good time, a combination of baby-sitting and visiting. An excellent church service on Sunday, where son-in-law Richard preached on Philippians 4:4-9. First he read a story for the children before they were dismissed for children's church, about a boy named Alexander (I think) who was having a no good, horrible, terrible bad day--with a couple of other adjectives thrown in. His adult sermon was on the same theme. Since I have had a lot of them lately (bad days, not sermons), his sermon spoke to me.

I need to get out of the doldrums; and I shall. It will just take time. I've mainly been reading as a means of pulling myself up. I finished a small book (not on the official reading list) for Life Group, Moses: A Model of Pioneer Vision by Chuck Swindoll, which I shall soon review in a post to this blog. I'm also working through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. This is a book on how to write formal poetry, which I won in a sonnet writing contest. I'm about three or four days from finishing it, and will review it on this blog when finished.

As I read this last night, in the chapters dealing with various forms of poetry, I found myself suddenly beset with a mild case of Sidelines Syndrome. This hasn't hit me for a while, so maybe this is a good sign of coming out of my funk. I put the book aside--since I could no more concentrate on it--and began writing two poems. I know, poetry would be the worst possible thing to turn to if I have any hopes of being published, but at least it was something for my writing.

We'll see what happens tonight. We are supposed to have rain, so I'll be stuck in the house, nothing important will be on television, I don't really have to play mindless computer games, and maybe, just maybe, my brain muscles are starting to strengthen. Can a new chapter be far away?

Thursday, October 9, 2008


It happened again. I went downstairs to the Dungeon last night, after church then a late supper, to do my various writing activities. And on my wife's computer (she's away baby sitting our grandchild) was a blue screen error. Two flat-screen monitors showed the same thing:

then a bunch of words, then
Stop: 0X00000077 with some similar comma-delimited letters and numbers

After the last time, I learned that all this stuff means something, and that the type of error and all these letter-number combos can help diagnose the problem. So I wrote them down, went to my computer and did a Google search for "Kernal Stack Inpage Error". The first hit was a Microsoft support page, which talked about this and about parameters. It says "To determine the possible cause, you must interpret the error message. If both the first and the third parameters are zero, the four parameters are defined as follows....If either the first or the third parameter is not a zero, the following definitions apply...."

What the heck is a parameter? I assume it's those four letter-number combos in parentheses, but what does "if the parameter is zero" mean? The letter-number combos are all in the form of 0x000073B4, that is, a single digit followed by an x followed by eight digits or letters. But is the parameter the entire thing? Or is it the digit before the x? Since they all have an x in them, are they all non-zero? or is the x meaningless? The third letter-number combo was 0x00000000; is this a zero since all the digits are zero? I assume it is, and thus, per the instructions, the second parameter is the key one; except what shows in my parameter doesn't appear in the Microsoft help screen. Some help.

I don't absorb writing well from the screen, and since the failed computer is my server, I couldn't print the instructions. So I left the computer as it was and spent my much-reduced time on other stuff. Today at work I did the same search and came up with other pages, not all Microsoft, that purport to help solve the problem, but none of which seem to be speaking English. One tech support forum says:

"If you can restart your computer after the error message, Autochk runs automatically and tries to map out the bad sector. If for some reason Autochk
does not scan the hard disk for errors, manually start the disk scanner. If your
computer is formatted with the NTFS file system, run Chkdsk /f /r on the system
partition. You must restart your computer before the disk scan begins. If you
cannot start your computer due to this issue, use the Command Console and run
Chkdsk /r."

So now I have to learn what an NTFS file system is, I guess, and figure out (somehow) if my computer has that or whatever the alternative is. Back to Google, I guess. After that it will be something else.

I can't keep unplugging this machine and running down to a computer fix-it store, where they tell me it's a motherboard problem when it isn't. So I guess I'll have to bite the bullet and 1) spend beaucoups hours learning how to do it myself, 2) have in-house service for big bucks, or 3) buy a new computer.

And the dream keeps fading away, as time to pursue the dream goes from an oasis to a mirage. Don't mind me; received another rejection yesterday.

ETA on 10/10/08: The problem is not resolved, because the on-off switch, tempermental almost since we got the machine, has quit working entirely. The Dell tech support people were most unhelpful, though they didn't mean to be. The backdoor channel I have available through corporate buying power has resulted in e-mails and calls. Seems like for a $500 bill and a week I can have this resolved like new. And the dream....

ETA on 10/20/08: The problem still is not resolved. I learned I can't buy an on-off switch by itself. I have to buy the whole front of the computer box. But this only costs about $21 with shipping, and supposedly I can do the switcheroo myself. However, I have decided to bite the bullet and just order a new computer. Because of the many problems I have had with this--most of them Dell's doings--Dell is being really nice and giving me a good discount. I assume our corporate buying power has something to do with that. I don't need monitors or software, so that helps. I may get it this week sometime, which will allow me to take the weekend to install. Later, I may buy that front piece for the other computer and see what I can do with it. And the dream....

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trying to get engaged

For some time now I have not been applying myself wholeheartedly to anything. At work, I have been in a position that doesn't require significant application of brain power. As senior engineer in the company, I'm assisting people on their more difficult problems. I'm coordinating training courses, and on occasion teach one. That has taken up a lot more time than I expected it to do. But it's easy. Make calls, send e-mails, repeat. I spend a lot of time on what I call research and development, studying new trends in our business, taking notes, plan some training, write some simple design guides or specifications--most enjoyable, but not brain taxing.

For the last several weeks I have disengaged from writing. All I'm doing is organizing, filing, and typing a few things I wrote some time ago. I'm also back-checking the latest round of edits on Doctor Luke's Assistant before discarding the mark-ups. I was working on some new Bible studies to write, but I've set those aside as well. Oh, yes, I also wrote a couple of haiku over the last weeks. These were not simple 5-7-5 ones, but rather well-thought out for the fundamental haiku elements.

Work around the house doesn't take much effort, nor does the reading list I'm going through. So I have felt my brain slowly disengaging. Certainly at work it is somewhat, and now off work it is as well. This is a terrible feeling in a way, for I have always had my brain engaged in many things; scattering concentrated thought around many projects. Now it seems the toughest thing I have to decide is whether to keep a certain piece of paper or not, and if kept where to file it. I wrote a triolet about this sort of thing last November:


I long to live that day when I will rest,
and cease to tax my brain. Then I will die
and stand before my Maker. Yet, I'm blessed;
I long to live! The day that I will rest
is somewhere out there, far beyond the quest
that now demands I try, and fail, and try.
I long to live that day when I will rest
and cease to tax my brain, then I will die.

But beginning last week, really Friday of the week before that, I began working on a project at work I had put off for a long time. It required learning a new computer program, and what I feared would be tedious work depicting a large drainage basin for calculating flood flows. Only one person in the office knew the program, and I didn't think he knew it much. While waiting on him to answer an e-mail of a request for help, I worked on learning the program myself through reading the manual and just trying stuff. I got pretty far along, far enough to enter a dummy project and get it to run. I finally had this training session and it turned out the guy didn't know any more than I did at that stage.

As I feared, the work is extremely tedious. It requires me to really think about what I am doing. My brain as a consequence has rebelled. By the time I finish a full day of working on that, I have nothing left to think at home. Hence I have been reading, doing a few of these simple writing things, and playing mindless computer games. For an hour or more.

My hope is that this difficult project at work will be like exercise for my brain. Can the brain atrophy, like one of the voluntary muscles? When I cease to tax my brain, will I then die--intellectually if not physically? Hmmm, enquiring minds want to know. Hopefully this will turn out to be good for me. Maybe a few more days of having to use my brain the full eight hours at work will strengthen it, and I will find myself with something left in the skull come evening. Hey, this evening I had enough left to write this post.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

More thoughts on "The Totem"

I knew as I was typing yesterday that other things had come to mind that I wanted to include in my review of The Totem, but which escaped me at that moment. They've since come back.

Morrell begins almost every chapter with a style I like, call it a "B-A-C" style. If you take the normal order of three events, some past event that lead to what is happening right now and one that happens next, and represent it by letters, it would be A-B-C. That is, A happened, now B is happening, and C happens next. In the B-A-C style, you say B is happening, a follow-up to A which just happened, and C happens next. Morrell does this constantly throughout the book.

I hesitate to say every chapter, but for sure in many chapters. I also used this method when I wrote Doctor Luke's Assistant. I had never seen this described in any book on writing techniques. In fact, DLA was complete before I began reading those books. I just liked that style: begin the chapter with immediate action; then say what happened between chapters; then return to the action moving forward. As I began to pay more attention to the writing style in other novel, and to read those books on writing, I never saw this technique used or even discussed. So I edited some of those out of DLA, and haven't been using that style in In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. After reading Morrell, I'm reconsidering.

Another thing Morrell did exceedingly well was the working in of back story. All the major characters had a past that impacted something on the event in the book. Slaughter had killed someone while on duty as a cop in Detroit, and was himself another shot with a shot gun and almost killed. The reporter was an alcoholic, fallen to a low position on the newspaper staff. The medical examiner had been in a fast-paced similar position in Philadelphia and ruined his career by becoming obsessed with his work. The younger veterinarian, Owens, had a past. Morrell is in no hurry to tell us all this. For the first third of the book he concentrates on developing the horror that is to come, letting the reader know enough to conclude the truth without giving it fully away. The last third of the book is devoted to the fast-paced actions that lead to the penultimate battle. The middle third of the book consists of long-ish chapters that give the back story of the major characters. It is done well. Even when telling us the back story, Morrell tells just enough to help us understand the characters, not so much as to overwhelm us.

A few more observations.

  • I mentioned that the denouement left me unsatisfied. One of the reasons is we don't find out what happened to several characters who contracted the virus. We see them in their fully affected states, or even in their developing states, but with a couple of exceptions we don't find out about them. We don't see any consequences for the mayor, who botched things so badly.
  • The hippy colony was established in 1970; the book takes place around 1993. Yet during all this time, the town of Potters Field apparently had no contact with them, didn't know they had changed locations, didn't know how many were there or if they even existed. While the town "decided" in 1970 they wouldn't have anything to do with the hipppies, it seems unlikely that for 23 years the two existed so close together (at most 60 miles apart), and no one from the colony came to the town to buy or sell, seek medical treatment, whatever. That is somewhat improbable, it seems to me. If they couldn't come to town because of the virus, why did it take 23 years for this outbreak to occur? While this is a weakness in the plot (in my opinion, of course), it doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the tale.
  • The reappearance of Lucas Wheeler, the boy from the town who joined the colony, at the very time when he was needed to identify the one person from the colony who made his way into town during the crisis, was a coincidence too much.
  • Editing: I remembered another thing I wanted to say. The tie of the title to the story was not as strong as I would like. Morrell defines totem on the front end pages: "1. among primitive peoples, an animal or natural object considered as being related by blood to a given family or can and taken as its symbol. 2. an image of this." I suppose the tie-in is based on what Dunlap, the reporter, found in the throne room. However, I would have liked the tie to be stronger.

That's all I can think of for now. Plus I feel like I have written too much negative. Each of these seems to be magnified in my words, whereas they were really a series of minor problems, none of which individually, nor all together, made the book any less enjoyable.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Book Review: The Totem

Continuing to chip away at my long reading list, today I completed the next book on it: The Totem, a novel by David Morrell. I don't know how well his name is known among the reading public, but everyone knows the character from his first novel: Rambo. Yes, Morrell wrote First Blood and created the Rambo character, later picked up for movies. I bought The Totem mainly because of Morrell. He taught a one-day class on fiction at the 2006 Glorieta Christian Writers Conference in New Mexico, and I bought his book on writing fiction.

I got aways into the book and began to realize it was a horror story. I don't read horror at all, and was surprised this was a horror and not an action book. I turned to the cover, and it was right there: "A classic horror novel". Well, nothing to do but continue. After all, I bought the book, and needed to get my $4.98 plus tax worth (from the Barnes & Noble remainders table).

The book was originally published in 1979, but Morrell re-released it in 1995, adding back in material the original publisher had asked to have deleted, and updating it for the later date. It takes place in and around the town of Potters Field, set in Wyoming. A colony of hippies had settled there about 1970, and hangers-on had come into the town and were run out by the townspeople. The version I read put those event 23 years in the past, so it was obviously updated.

The novel begins with a rancher checking his fences in June. He finds some deer carcasses and then a cow carcass that was mutilated in a frightening way. He calls the old vet, who comes out and gets the carcass, takes it back to autopsy it, discovers something terrible--whatever it was that killed the cow--but dies of a heart attack. In the confusion, the carcass is incinerated. So the cause of death is a secret. After that, a boy is bit by a raccoon, and within sixteen hours has become a lunatic animal, crawling on all fours, snarling, biting, licking. He attacks his mother, biting her, and runs away.

At this point rabies obviously comes to mind, but not exactly, for rabies takes more time to develop. A younger vet is called in; and the medical examiner. The police chief, Nathan Slaughter is also involved. In fact, Slaughter is the main character, although he isn't introduced until the seventh chapter (I'll have to discuss that with some writing pros). Slaughter left police work in Detroit to live an easier life on a simple ranch outside Potters Field, but was pressed into service as the town's police chief five years earlier.

In the early going, Morrell does a good job of painting the scene so that the reader knows more than the characters. The reader knows long before any of the characters that this isn't rabies, which doesn't act as fast as whatever is going around. The early encounters with the whatever-this-disease-is are explained slowly. As the book progresses, less and less time is spent on each new encounter. This technique enhances the idea of a virus spreading rapidly, exponentially. The attacks come both in the town and out in the valley, and in those ranches that touch the mountains. The character who found the mutilated cow disappears; five state policemen use dogs to pick up the sent from where his abandoned truck. The arrive at a lake up in the mountains after dark, and are attacked by something and killed. Actually, in the scene Morrell does not really explain what happens to them, but implies it's something pretty bad.

A reporter, Dunlap, had arrived in town just before the attacks start. He is doing a story on the old hippy colony and what became of it. He is an alcoholic, has fallen from a higher reputation, and is relegated to this. Another character returns to town. He was the teenager who joined the hippy colony which resulted in his father killing one of them and spending time in prison. The son has come back to claim his share of the ranch, also with notions of a possible reconciliation to his dad. Of course, his dad takes on a solitary vendetta against whatever is coming down out of the mountains, killing stock and spreading this virus.

Slaughter, the police chief, while checking a scene where the town wino died, is attacked by a "cat", but shoots it and blasts its head to bits. The boy who bit his mom is trapped in an old mansion (the town's main tourist attraction), and appears to be killed by a sedative--as a dog had been earlier--only to come to life on the autopsy table. Slaughter at this point on the Saturday night realizes something pretty bad is going on. The next morning he called the mayor, suggested drastic measures, only to be turned down and eventually turned out as police chief. Since the disease, probably a virus, did that to the boy (and to his mom), the thought is planted: could this be related to humans, perhaps the hippy colony gone amok?

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, in case someone reading so far decides to buy the book, so I'll stop here. The book is well written, as you would expect from a man who was able to have his first book published and turned into a movie. Morrell now has many novels to his credit. I found two things that bothered me about the book.

1. Too many times a past perfect tense is used when a simple past tense would seem appropriate. I did not mark this in the book, and flipping pages just now I can't find any examples. I mean such things as "He was wondering what was causing the sickness" rather than, "He wondered what caused the sickness." These came in batches, continuous few paragraphs. I'm sure Morrell had a purpose for this, but I couldn't detect it.
2. The denouement was not as complete as I would have liked. We didn't actually find out what caused the virus. It turned out to be related to the hippy colony, but how did it happen? We never found out what happened to the rancher who disappeared, and must presume he, his wife, and son perished. A few other loose ends are not tied up as neatly as I would have liked.

It's a good read, however, and I recommend the book. It has a few cuss words, and Jesus' name is taken in vain some, especially in one scene. But the book has no gratuitous violence and sex, which help to recommend it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

October Goals

While I am in this maintenance time, my goals will be modest.

1. Attend 1 meeting of my critique group. It will meet three times this month, but I'm not sure I want to devote six hours (or ten hours including driving) to this activity this month.

2. Complete my submission log. I came close a couple of months ago. An hour should suffice for this.

3. Contact the editor who has had The Screwtape Letters study guide, mailed three months ago today.

4. Continue to cull through the many writing-help items I have printed from Internet sites. Read or scan as appropriate, and discard anything not absolutely essential.

5. Add a few (say three or four) posts to the poetry workshop I started at the Absolute Write poetry discussion forum.

6. Gather all my writing, all the scraps and sheets that contain things as small as haiku or as long as chapters, into one place and file them as appropriate. I'm not really too far from having this done. I think three hours might be enough.

7. Plod along, as time, energy, and motivation allow, on three writing projects: the Elijah and Elisha Bible study; In Front Of Fifty Thousand Screaming People (maybe write one more chapter); and the Documenting America column. Although I'm not planning to market it at this time, I don't want to abandon it totally.

That's enough. I may possibly come back and edit in another one or two if I think of something.

ETA: Shame on me; saw one right away.

8. Post 10 to 12 times to this blog.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The September Report

Time to check in, and see how I did relative to my goals.

1. Attend critique group once (it meets every two weeks), and present the next chapter in my work-in-progress novel. I did this. I actually came close to attending the second time, but life got in the way.

2. Blog 10 to 12 times. I'd like to do more, but will settle for that. Did this one too. I posted 13 times, so slightly exceeded my goal.

3. Update my submissions log. I filed a few papers last night, and discovered I haven't entered in my log the last several submissions I made. That may be important come tax time. I only partially finished this. Entered a few of the missing submissions, but not all.

4. (If I finally decide to market it) Submit Documenting America to about twenty newspapers as a possible self-syndicated column. As I posted last week, I have decided, for the time being, to shelve "Documenting America", due to not wanting to commit to the time it would take each week. My loss, or the nation's loss? Who knows.

5. Work on, and complete if possible, the proposal (with four sample chapters) for the Bible study requested by the editor. I did very little work on this project. Did some hand writing of the first sample chapter, and typed that, but then laid it aside while in the throes of decisions about DA. Maybe some in October.

6. Wait (patiently) for a response on the two projects I currently have out with an editor and agent. How else can one wait? Next week will be the week to follow up with the editor, and the first week in November for following up with the agent.

7. Continue to work on my reading list, the writing help book and the next one, whatever it is. I did fairly well on my reading list. I completed two books, and reviewed them both on this blog. I am more than half-way through the next book, Totem by David Morrell. I may be able to review that either late in the weekend or early next week; it will take a couple of posts. I don't even remember what the next book is on my list, but I think it's non-fiction.

One thing not on my September goals list, but which should have been, was:

8. Lead an on-line discussion group about "The Line as a Poetic Device" at the Absolute Write poetry discussion forum. I did this. Completed the research in early Sept, and began the workshop on Sept 5th. I let it lag after awhile, but will likely pick it up again, if not in October then probably in November.