I’m beginning to think I might write a book aimed at my generation: “History Changes: Why What You Learned in School Isn’t True Anymore.”

Couple of things make me think this is a good idea. First, I did go back to college in my 40s to pursue (and nab) a Masters in History. So I have the personal experience of having learned my history in both the 1960s and the 21st century.

In the 1960s, we didn’t have new textbooks – especially not in Catholic schools. So I learned about the California Indians and how they made adobe bricks in a book that may have been written and illustrated before World War 2. I am not joking.

The second reason I think my book idea is good is that I’ve met many people who absolutely believe that what they were taught 40 or 50 years ago is fact, and nothing can change that. For example, they were taught that the Founding Fathers were good Christians; how dare anyone imply otherwise?

The Founding Fathers were really smart guys. Some owned slaves. None of them ever considered that women or non-whites should be admitted to the club. Some were Deists, not Christians. They set down lofty ideals that I wish we all lived up to, but they were wrong about very serious matters.

Not long ago I had a lively argument with a woman (a dear, smart woman who was a friend) about the Civil War. She insisted it was fought over States’ Rights. Of course she did! She was taught that in school. Mid-century history books taught everyone that the Civil War erupted over States’ Rights. It wasn’t true. There was only one state right that sparked the Civil War, and that was the right to own slaves. Here’s an NPR essay on that.

Lots of things have changed since Baby Boomers were educated. Pluto is no longer a planet, and we now know about plate tectonics … but I’m not an astronomer or scientist, so I’ll stick to history. Columbus isn’t much of a hero, unless you’re comfortable lionizing a guy who took slaves as souvenirs. Civilizations that were completely unknown in 1970 are being discovered now (Google Gobeckli-Tepe). And almost all descendants of any European are also descendants of Neanderthals, and possible a couple of other extinct species.

Some concepts that we’ve clung to are simply not true. Did you know there’s really no such thing as race? It’s a chimera. The genes that control skin pigmentation are not that different from the ones that control eye color or ear lobe size. Europeans/Americans used the concept of race to justify their particular brand of slavery, but it was bogus from the get-go. “Races” as we usually define them just don’t exist.

So anyway, that’s my idea. I may get to it eventually but I’ve got two other non-fiction books in the pipeline, so I’d better get busy.

A day or two ago, all the major news outlets ran stories about the life-shortening consequences of sitting. For one 24-hour period, we were bombarded with the bad news, which is now buried in slew of one-day-wonder stories. But in case you missed it:

Briefly, sitting too long will shorten you life.

A study of 8000 people over age 45, that lasted four years, concluded that the longer you sit, the shorter your life. The consequences seem to kick in at 30 minutes. Sit for longer than that at a stretch, and you will die earlier than if you stood and moved more often. Those who sit for 90 minutes at a time were twice as likely to die younger than those who moved frequently.

And all this is true, even if you exercise!

OK, I need a break because looking up those news links and some pictures and writing this has kept me at the computer for over 30 minutes. Must move.

I’m toast.

I’m so toast.

I am a writer. I’ve spent the last 30 years sitting, usually in front of a monitor, for hours at a time. That is what writers do.

If we’re not selling enough, or writing enough, or earning enough, the advice is always: Park your behind in your chair and don’t get up till you’ve written something! And it’s good advice. Except the implicit “and then you die” part.

Norman Mailer hinted at the consequences:

But writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable. You put on weight, you strain your gut, you get gout and chilblains. You’re alone, and every day you have to face a blank piece of paper. 

Here’s another quote, from Burton Rascoe. He died in 1957; cut him some slack for the implied sexism:

What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.

Rascoe was sitting when he stared out of the window; of that I’m certain.

This is awful and cataclysmic. How can I write in 30-minute bursts? Excuse me, the alarm just went off. I must run up and down the stairs three times.

Ok, I’m back. And then there’s TV, and movies, and even football games. We sit all day! I am great at sitting; I could medal in competitive sitting.

My dog, watching and waiting for any sign that it’s time for a walk.

I do exercise daily, after all. I have a dog. She takes me for walks, sometimes long walks. I have stairs in my place.

Still, exercising doesn’t seem to matter. You sit too long, you die faster. Ick!

Oddly, starting a month or two ago, my dog started barking at me as I sit at my computer. She’ll be fed, walked within the last hour or so, untroubled by strange noises, etc. – but still she barks. She’s never done that before. Even before the story came out, I was joking with friends that she has decided to not let me sit for very long. She stops barking when I get up. She wants me to be active.

I wonder if she’s been carrying on a secret correspondence with those doctors who conducted the survey? My dog is well-connected; I wouldn’t doubt it too strenuously.

The Los Angeles Times has a longish story/interview with Cheech Marin today,

Cheech — who will, ever and always, in spite of his many accomplishments, be known to Baby Boomers as stoner Cheech of Cheech and Chong — has written a memoir. So the article is about that, about his life, his eclectic passions, and more. Here’s a link to his book on Amazon, Cheech is Not my Real Name … But Don’t Call Me Chong.

And below is my favorite photo from the many printed in the Times.  Because I’m a Baby Boomer, and all Baby Boomers have a pony picture!

Back in the bad on’ days that we all miss, guys with camera and a Shetland pony roamed residential neighborhoods, stopping at houses and offering to take pictures of the kiddies on a pony for cheap. They had Western gear to dress up the kids: cowboy hats, kerchiefs, fringed vests, chaps. Everyone got a black and white photo, and everyone loved it … except, probably, the pony. But we never thought of that back then.

Here’s Cheech. I’m going to go look for my pony photo so I can scan it and post it here.

A friend is taking a series of high-priced classes to empower her. The classes teach her to build up a business and get people to sign up for her products. She tells me that fellow students have varied businesses. Some are life coaches and some are doing woo-woo stuff (my friend’s description). Some are selling technical skills and others are artists.

The teacher is great, I hear. Some million dollar figures are tossed around to describe her business and her home. My friend is trying to pull all this training and information together so she can start making money. The tech stuff – the social media posting and mailing lists, etc.-– is hard, but other than that, it’s just hustle. And my friend, a native New Yorker, knows how to hustle.

“I’d be dead,” I tell her. “I hate hustling.”

“I know. I can tell.” She admits she’s not crazy about hustling herself, but that’s what she’s gotta do. Hustle. Make those calls and get those people, those speaking gigs, those sales.

Know why I hate hustling? Because the core principle of hustling is manipulating another human being to enrich yourself, whether it’s good for her or not.

How is that right?

I hate being hustled; that’s probably why I loathe the idea of being the hustler. When someone hustles you, or pushes you, or manipulates you, you become a mark. Not a partner, not a fellow human being. Just a mark, to be used for their enrichment.  And the best hustlers, sadly, are the ones that look at you warmly, use your name, and treat you like you’re special.

That system sucks. We need a better one.

A hundred years ago, lots of men and women made money by plugging songs. They were known as song pluggers.

Huh?

Yup; even George Gershwin did it in his early years, before his songwriting efforts took off like Seabiscuit at the starting bell. So what’s a song plugger?

Someone who, in the days before radio, stood on street corners or outside of stores, or even rose at the end of a Vaudeville show or movie, to belt out a tune that was for sale nearby. “For sale” meant as sheet music, to be played on piano. Remember, no radio, no recordings, very few records. The idea was to get that song to a customer’s ears. If they liked it, they’d hurry to Woolworth’s or a music store and plunk down a nickel for the 12 inch by 15 inch pamphlet of notes, and learn to play/sing it themselves. This was advertising before 1925, and a little bit after.

Easy work, if you’ve got a pair of lungs and a bit of nerve. Not sure how well it paid. Gershwin supposedly made $15 a week, as a 16-year-old kid. The profession  evolved into a pitchman-type of thing, but has mostly disappeared.

Today, we have jobs that people a hundred years ago could not have envisioned. Even fifty years ago. I’m not talking about the latest flavor of astrophysicist or network administrator; that high-tech and scientific jobs would get more specialized and complex IS predictable. But who could’ve foreseen, for example, that ordinary, middle-class folks would be hiring coaches to help them deal with life?

Life coach is a career path. It’s rather competitive now (so was song-plugging), but ever since Tony Robbins became famous and started pulling in bazillions o’ bucks for pumping up the rich and famous to perfect their craft/swing/tone and become more rich and famous, coaching has become a respectable way to make a living.

I know writers who pay to meet with coaches each week or two and be encouraged to set goals, make outlines, take x number of actions towards achieving said goals, or maybe just be gently chided for not fulfilling the promises of the previous meeting. Sometimes this graduates into buying packages of weekly online sessions or empowering weekends with a particular coach and other supplicants.

I also know mild, sweet people in the coaching business. They don’t rant and scream; they honestly want to help all their clients and make a living doing so. I see training programs for coaches offered. It’s a business, I fear, that is fast reaching the coach-client saturation point.

But it is a business no one saw coming.

Another example of a profession no one could have foreseen: Mata Amritanandamayi, the religious figure that gives hugs. Tens of millions have received her hugs; her entourage is apparently fifty strong. She works hard; hugging up to 15,000 people a day. Is there any precedence for such a career?

Is this a one-shot op? Maybe not. There’s a 7-year-old child traveling the USA giving hugs to policemen, supported by a GoFundMe account.

 

What makes Game of Thrones, and all really compelling stories, so great?

Everyone in that book and show, every single solitary person, named or unnamed, ongoing players or incidental  walk-ons, is passionately advancing their own self-interest.  They know what they want and they bite and scream, kill, plot, manipulate, and die for it.

96748a784dfb2c9e87dd7d1f39b4f09fOne character through the first few books, and only one, was known for her passivity. She was a young girl in a dream world, thinking the sadistic Joffrey was her true-love prince, then that a handsome knight would rescue her, etc. That was Sansa, and until recently (when her attitude changed) she was the most unpopular person in the books. She did nothing really wrong but she didn’t fight for what she wanted. Not fighting seemed to be what she wanted–the Cinderella complex in Westeros.

Readers despised her. Proves my point, huh?

Good detective stories start with someone who wants something very badly. Badly enough to kill for it? would be the cliché comeback. The inheritance. The beautiful woman. To not be exposed. Unless they’re willing to kill for it, there’s not much of a story. And the detective wants something too, which drives their pursuit of the evildoer.

Think about the classic detective stories. There’s the nobleman who wants the compromising picture of himself with an adventuress. The drug kingpin who wants more money and influence, the flunkies who will maim to rise up in the organization, and the detectives with heartbreaking backstories which slowly emerge. A good plot brings out all these passions.

Thrillers: Secret societies with devotees who give their lives, over centuries, to protect their treasure. Bad guys want riches and both sides throw an endless stream of operatives into the fray, all willing to kill or be killed. Ivy League professors with physical stamina want to save the world, kiss the girl, and get back to the classroom.

rexfeatures-1998559dWar stories revolve around that kill or be killed mentality. Romances revolve around passion and sexual tension. Westerns throw misogynists and misfits into a setting with no rules and lots of guns. Fantasy? The topic is broad, but does anyone doubt what Katniss wants? As well as any character in the Hunger Games? That’s another series in which even the incidental folks are clearly driven by specific needs.

Every story worth reading makes you root for the hero,  and you can’t really do that if he or she has no deep desires, no wish to fulfill, no purpose.  That is the problem of one book I’m reading now: it started out with a bang, a woman leaves her husband for a disastrous affair. But once that ends, about a fifth of the way into the book, readers become mired in everyday angst and unimportant encounters. I don’t care about the hero or her dates and emails anymore.  I don’t see where this story is going.

In contrast, Gone Girl started with a missing wife and a narrator who flat out told us he was lying to the police. Who could put the book down? We had to find out what he had to find out: who took her? Or did he know? He wanted passionately to clear himself. Gone Girl presents a small cast but each person was willing to destroy the others to get what they wanted.

Ramp up the stakes and desires, and you’ve got Game of Thrones.

If you’ve read any advice on writing fiction, you’ve probably come across the excellent idea that every book or scene start with our hero wanting something, even something mundane. A glass of water that gets them up in the middle of the night. To forget their awful mess of a life, so they spin fantasies about the people they pass while riding a train to nowhere.  A new job for a little extra money that leads them into adventure.

Yes! I can put two and two together!

moby_dick_by_alexiussHerman Melville in Moby Dick used a brilliant twist to hone and sharpen everyone’s desires: he put them all on a ship in the Atlantic, where all anyone could truly desire was a successful voyage. That meant they all wanted to slaughter whales and make bucks. Then, led by their obsessed captain, they all wanted the white whale.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slaves dream of freedom, while the varied cast of white characters enjoy the lives that they’ve chosen – either with slaves facilitating their lifestyles, or by venting their cruelty on said slaves, making commerce of slaves, etc.

The title character in The Great Gatsby was driven to spend years building himself into someone Daisy would love, but his world was populated by shallow, lesser souls who wanted desperately to stay drunk and convince themselves they were having fun. Tom wanted to hold onto what was his. Daisy wanted it all, but like Sansa, she wanted the men to make up her mind for her. Their passions drove them all, and Nick, bless him, wanted none of it in the end.

250px-masha_heddle_hboI want to find the man who killed my father and duel with him. I want true love and will break hearts and marriages to get it.

The best books manage to imbue desires and motivations into every character. I don’t need to know each innkeeper’s backstory, though occasionally it’s given. And later, when one’s dead body is hung up by vengeful brigands, her story becomes complete, even though, in the vast scheme of George R.R. Martin’s world, she didn’t matter at all, wasn’t even a plot point. I’m not sure she even had a name, but I remember her.

Went to a breakfast meeting with other writers this morning, and here’s some of the Useful and Fascinating Things I Learned:

  1. 99Designs is actually, as good as it sounds. A friend tried it: she needed a cover for a book she’s writing and was willing to pay their asking price ($395, I think). Within two weeks, she had 26 covers submitted by participating artists. She had no trouble narrowing the field down to the few best, because a couple of artists had been so quick to respond and there had been discussions with them about what she wanted. The nice thing about 99Designs is that,since you have already agreed to pay the winning designer the money, you are free to talk back and forth with any or all of them. She not only got a cover that she loves, but a professional relationship for more work in future, because the cover designer was able to recommend a cartoonist to illustrate another book!
  2. Another site that two of our group had tried and enjoyed is DeviantArt.com, where up and coming (i.e., amateur) artists can post work.It may be significant that both these folks were male, and when one warned that some of the work was edgy and x-rated, the other chuckled. In any case, they suggested it as a place to find artists with a style you like, you might be willing, even eager, to do a cover at low rates.
  3. I should never, ever go anywhere without at least bookmarks and business cards. Blew it again!

I will try to be better at posting. My life is like whack-a-mole: just when I manage to fit effective tweeting into it, I find I’ve been neglecting Facebook. I bring that up to snuff and suddenly I haven’t blogged in a long time.

Same with housework. I’m cooking regularly, but suddenly realized I have no clean clothes to wear because I forgot to do laundry. I start reducing the clutter but then the dishes get out of control. IfI cared I’d be upset. But I’d rather be writing.

I do not like book series.

I avoid them, though I’ve been fooled a few times. The Eyre Affair by Joshua Fforde fooled me. I enjoyed it but I did not ever read the second novel in the series. Figuring out about 3/4 of the way through the book that this was an SF detective story with sequels already published took the momentum away. Spoiler Alert: Thursday Next is gonna be fine because she’ll be in the next book; her sidekick and pet dodo will also survive.

Of course there are serial exceptions to my antipathy: Harry Potter, LotR, Sherlock Holmes, and more. These are well-written, excellent books!

Most series, though, fall far short of the standards set by these wildly successful and worthy tomes. Allow me to list the reasons why.

1. Too often, a series’ only purpose to sell more of the author’s books

bookseries1A good book will prompt me to look for more by the same author. It doesn’t have to be a retread of the same book.

Sadly, my patronage doesn’t seem to be enough to keep most writers in business (possibly because I use the library more often than I buy). This could be a trend. So authors and booksellers find new, innovative ways to get readers to buy.

Among both Indie publishers and the big NY houses, a book series is the new black. Authors are taught that this is the path to success, just as they were taught 10 or 20 years ago that they must open their book with a bang to hook the reader, or 80 years ago that they should never end a sentence with a preposition.

Every author who’s ever read a bit of advice on a writers’ site or gone to a seminar knows that the current modus operandi for making money (by which I mean, of course, simply being self-supporting, not necessarily rich) is this:

  1. Write a novel, then a second novel with the same characters and setting, then a third and fourth -— as quickly as you can.
  2. Publish first novel.
  3. After 30 days (at which time it no longer qualifies for Amazon’s Hot New Release list), publish the second book. Make first novel free and advertise the hell out of it.
  4. After another 30 days, release third novel.
  5. Another 30 days, release 4th. By this time you’ve probably bundled novels one and two and are giving the set away.

That’s the way to do it, I’m told.

Never mind quality, editing, proof-reading, or any of those time-sucking dinosaurs. But DO pay for a sexy cover. That sells the book, after all.

These books often make money. They’re sold to people who just want a quick escape with familiar characters who will come out on top in the end. They’re not great literature. Pulp fiction has rarely achieved that status, but who cares?

2. Series volumes are predictable

Unless you are reading George R.R. Martin, you can be fairly certain that the hero of a series will keep escaping the bad guys. The heroine will not get her pretty self killed, the detective will solve the case, and the adventurous youth will grow in wisdom.

And if you are reading George R.R. Martin, you have nothing to do but brush up on your sigils and make bets with fellow readers about whether the book will follow the TV show plots, at least until the next book emerges in, well, whenever. May I suggest you pick up a classic by Robert Heinlein to pass the time?

I digress. The point is that little varies in the formulas of most series books, because the author doesn’t want to change a pattern that works. Most especially in mystery series. Readers supposedly like it that way. No upsets, no surprises . . . .

But a story is not real life! This is the world of imagination and drama! Books should keep you guessing and turning the pages. They should startle you. The last thing a book should ever be is predictable. That’s dull.

I admit, others disagree. My mother read and reread Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books till she died. She loved that they were all so alike, she was never quite sure if she was reading the same one over and over. I think the real reason she kept reading them was that she had a crush on Raymond Burr.

For myself: I DON’T have to know what’s going to happen in the end. In fact, I prefer to be surprised.

lr-short-33. You cannot recreate the wonder, charm, and surprise of the first book

The first time one reads about sandworms and bene gesserits, or Highland mists and romps in the standing stones, or even of societies that rank and order their citizens by whatever part of the color spectrum they can see (Joshua Fforde again), it’s mind-expanding. Magical. Exciting. Like falling in love. Ah, me.

Reading the second book is kind of like going back to the romantic glen that’s become a bit more damp and smelly over the years. The setting is just not as exotic as it was that first time. You’ve seen it, or at least you’ve imagined it all before. Whether it’s intergalactic smugglers, shape-shifting teachers, or romantic, sexual tension, by the second book we’ve been there already.

4. Lately, the first book in a series simply ends half way through (which brings us back to reason #1)

I paid for and downloaded one of the many books my Kindle advertises, even though I knew it was part of a science fiction series. It looked intriguing. What I got was half a book.

The story was fast-paced, the characters, for the most part, believable. I had minor complaints, like blank lines in the middle of scenes (clearly, I was meant to pause here) and hyphens where they didn’t belong, but nothing so awful that I was tempted to stop reading. One of the many characters was in great danger, and shocked by what he saw. Others, in different parts of the world, had barely started their dramatic journeys. Nothing was pointing towards an ending of any kind, but the book stopped. Just like that.

With a big ad for the second book.

That’s sleazy. I can’t think of a better word for it.

I will not buy the second or third book, out of sheer spite for the author. How dare he or she treat a reader that way!

Lord of the Rings, written 70-odd years ago, did stop each book in the middle of the story, though not at a cliffhanger. Resolution did not come till the very end. It was an epic tale told by a master, and really should be viewed as ONE book, too big to be bound. (One book to grab them all, one cover to bind them?)

But unless your last name is Tolkien, do not try this with your own work. It’s manipulative.

Summing Up:

Not all series are lacking in interest, but I don’t read most of them. Ever hear the phrase “So many books, so little time?” That’s the way I feel. There are millions of books out there, but I only have a couple of hours a day to read. I don’t want to waste my time with the second-rate ones.

I want my escapism combined with a story that enriches me. I want to read books by authors that took time with them. Years. If an author hammers out a novel a month, I will avoid him or her like the proverbial boil-producing plague.

I want to thrill over brilliant prose, not obsess over the constant typos, misused words and commas. I want  to feel a character’s angst, not marvel at its libido or derring-do. I want to learn something from each book. Maybe it’s about human nature and resilience, or maybe the author will take me to a world so different and spectacular that I’ll gasp, right there in Starbucks. Maybe I’ll cry.

Do me like that, baby, and I’ll tell all my friends to buy your books. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

12932884_1598507900468945_613133606886174276_nWhy do we act against our own best interest?

I could have gone to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend. Like my friend Lynn to the right. See how happy she is?

I meant to go, but I didn’t volunteer to do booth duty anywhere, so I didn’t have a solemn commitment. And someone asked me to work for them somewhere else, and it was drizzly, and my daughter asked me to babysit, and my car is not so reliable that I just jump in and go like I used to . . .

Man, I’ve got a ton of excuses. Now, pictures of people I know having a great time are showing up all over Facebook and Twitter and I’m realizing I blew it.

Cfp7q9vUMAAHCS9I could’ve gone to one of these great panels that folks are tweeting about. Panels I would pay money for and they’re free and all I had to do was show up!

Last year I listened to John Scalzi talk about the new Red Shirts TV series. I remember in the 90s that I sat in while Tony Hillerman was interviewed, and another time I spent half the day in line to get an autograph from my daughter’s favorite author Dean Koontz. (That poor man signed every darn book for hours, and was gracious and funny the whole time, btw,) I had a blast.

CfqEcvKUAAASvhM

Robin Quinn tweeted these last two photos. That’s her on the left with fellow writer Esther Pearlman. See that big smile?

My big complaint about the Festival of Books is how crowded it gets, because it’s always on a sunny, beautiful weekend. This would have been the perfect time to go!

I have to learn this lesson every decade or so. Once I was invited to fly to France with a couple and share their vacation. I didn’t go because, well, I’d just taken a long vacation and I couldn’t rationalize the expense and I had all these responsibilities and blah-blah-blah. Then my friends returned with stories and pictures and bottles of Calvados, and I realized that a gift had been held out to me, and I’d turned up my nose.

I got it; I wrote about it: that lost chance was a lesson I’d never forget . . . but I do forget it, often.

Why are we not more opportunistic, in a good way?

I’d kick myself, but I’m averse to pain.

This is what I heard on the radio two hours ago, on the news station:

Now that it’s spring, it’s time to honor yourself with that new kitchen you’ve always wanted.

Um . . . in what weird universe does that make sense?

What does a kitchen remodel have to do with spring or with personal honor? Why would a copywriter (I assume it was written by an ad copywriter) think that would catch people’s attention and make them listen?

Well, it did catch my attention, but not in any fashion that would compel me to call this contractor and hire ’em.

Honor myself, buying your service? Just another trope that has crept into our commercial dialogue, along with “You deserve . . . [insert name of overpriced product, weight loss clinic, or attorney here].”

And if one more person responds to a query with, “That’s a great question!” instead of an answer, I’m liable to slap them. Well, not really, because usually the people who say that are sweet. But I’d really prefer the answer, please; I don’t need validation.

Am I just getting old and crotchety?