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Archive for November, 2011

“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

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I remember from an acting class (long long ago and far far away) that the key to great acting isn’t in the delivery of your lines, it’s in your reaction to your fellow actors delivering their lines.

Similarly Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer, said about creating characters in writing: “From Ernest Hemingway’s stories, I learned to listen within my stories for what went unsaid by my characters.”

In other words, more isn’t always more. Sometimes more is less. What your characters leave unspoken often provides more information, reveals more emotion or motivation, packs more punch than what they say.

A great lesson for even greater writing. One I’ll try to remember from now on.

Keep writing

and

Happy writing!

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A couple of weeks ago, not far from where I live, a rock climber fell 80 feet to his death.

Two men were rappelling. One experienced. One not. The fourth time, the experienced guy rappelled down alone to belay his friend from the bottom leaving the inexperienced one to rig himself alone. The man backed off the edge and fell all the way to the ground.

A first responder who also happened to have ropes and climbing experience, climbed up and around to the top of the cliff to inspect the anchor and the man’s rigging.

There were two anchors at the top with a chain attached to each anchor. The rope was fed through two links of chain. The theory is the man grabbed a bight of rope “above” the chain to feed through his belay device rather than both sides of the ropes below the chain. When he went over the side, the rope pulled right through and the man fell.

As an aside, the climbers weren’t wearing helmets. Some climbers maintain that helmets are worn for protection from falling rock and don’t make a significant difference in a fall. This seems to be the case in this instance. In spite of a significant gouge out of the man’s skull, there was almost no blood indicating the man’s heart had already stopped beating–he probably died of a combination of spinal trauma and traumatic asphyxia.

It’s soooo easy to second-guess someone and criticize after-the-fact from a distance. Still, I’m reasonably confident that this incredibly sad accident could have been prevented if the man’s climbing buddy had done a safety check.

How much more time does it take to do that extra squeeze of a carabiner to make sure it’s locked? Or to tie a knot at the bottom of your rope (so you don’t rappel off the end)? Or have a buddy check your rigging?

5 seconds? 10? 30? An entire minute?

Depends how much time you think your life is worth.

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I quit reading a book recently because I found 6 natural history errors in less than 2 pages.

Without really trying!

Ack!

In one section of this book, the author is describing the desert outside of Phoenix, AZ.

1. She talks about a “…flock of canyon wrens…” Canyon wrens are normally solitary (or hang out in pairs at most).

2. She mentions a Common Flicker. No bird is named “Common Flicker.”  There are Northern (red- and yellow-shafted) Flickers and Gilded Flickers.

3. She mentions a Harris Hawk. It’s Harris’s Hawk.

4. She mentions a Mexican Jay. A Mexican Jay’s normal territory is SE AZ, not central.

5. She talks about a Teddy Bear cholla (cactus) “jumping out” to latch on to someone. This is a myth. It doesn’t happen.

6. The author mentions a “plump” saguaro on one page, and the main character talks about how brown the desert is on the next. My take is either it’s Spring and therefore the desert is green and the saguaro plump. Or the desert is brown and the saguaro isn’t plump.

I might give a little on 4 (maybe the Mexican Jay was out of its normal territory) and 6 (maybe they’d had a big rain late in the dry season).

In the same area of the book, the author’s character meets a javelina which she calls a “pig.” I was suspicious, but had to look it up to be certain: javelinas are peccaries, not pigs. But again, it took me less than 2 minutes to find the answer on-line.

On the same page, the woman character picks up her 75-pound bloodhound, slings it around her neck “fireman-style” and “runs” to find her friend. I used to carry a thirty-five pound pack and thought it was fairly heavy. I thought for a woman to sling 75 pounds around her neck was highly improbable. I find a 50 pound bag of dog food cumbersome and heavy.

I asked my husband who was a true hard-core hiker/backpacker in his younger days. He said a 75-pound pack is heavy and difficult. You have to walk leaning forward for balance.

With all due respect to the rest of my gender, it’s so unlikely as to be improbable that a woman could and would do this and run no less (unless she’s some kind of Olympic weight-lifter).

In another part of the book, the author  calls the snow they receive at about 6500 feet in elevation (presumably in the summer) a “freak of nature.” Anyone who lives or has spent any amount of time at altitude knows it can snow–significantly–any time of the year.

The author lives in New England, about as polar opposite as you can get to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. A lack of first-hand knowledge is understandable. But that’s what airplanes and the internet and reference books and fact checkers are for.

I served on a Search and Rescue team for almost 12 years. In this same book, the main character has a search dog. The author’s poor handling of that subject is a whole other blog.

When I noticed the first error, I took note and moved on. With the errors regarding birds all in the same sentence, I quit reading and simply skimmed through the rest of the book looking for more mistakes.

I never finished reading it and I probably won’t pick up another book by this author.

These remarks may seem harsh and I acknowledge I’m a perfectionist (okay, okay…anal retentive) when it comes to natural history (and other things). Errors are inevitable, and not every reader will catch or suspect these errors or even care!

Still…

Lesson #1: There are readers out there who do care, even with a fiction piece, when errors are made or, more accurately, when lots of errors are made.

Lesson #2: Do your research!

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“In matters of style, swim with the current; In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

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Images. Images. Images.

That’s what a note I wrote to myself said to remind me to evoke imagery when I’m writing. In other words, use the most descriptive word possible to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Create a sense of place. Suck your readers in. Place them smack dab into the middle of the scene, so they experience it from the inside, not the outside and from a distance. Strive for a visceral connection. If they can’t SEE it, they can’t FEEL it. They can’t LIVE it.

One of the best writing classes I’ve ever taken was a class on poetic imagery (or something like that). The assignments were to write poems where as many words as possible evoked images of some kind. I labored forEVER over almost every single word. That class really hammered home how valuable to the reader image-evoking words are: Using “chesnut” instead of blah generic “brown.”

One sentence in my  (as yet unpublished) novel, “Don’t Get Dead,” reads: “The sky, a deep rose in the west, dissolved to teal overhead, then indigo in the east, where one by one, stars, bright and unwinking, unveiled themselves for the night watch.”

Some might call that kind of prose heavy-handed or something, but if it fits the mood and/or your style, I say go for it. I do try to only use it moderation, for instance, in setting the scene.

So we’ve belabored the use of imagery. But what about the sense of touch? Of smell? Taste? Hearing?

This is the Prologue to the new book I’m writing (The formal book title is “Death Follows After.” I call it, Gracie Book 2).

PROLOGUE

The station wagon teetered on the edge of the cliff, for a moment perfectly balanced, its headlights parallel beacons slicing the darkness.

Then it toppled slowly over the precipice, headlights flaring out in a crashing of glass and metal.

Steel shrieked against rock, brush and trees. The car plunged, cartwheeling, tumbling, down and down and down, until finally it came to rest on its side at the bottom of the canyon.

The groaning of settling steel drifted away with the dust. The cooling engine ticked to a stop.

Dead silence.

The scene still needs work, but I’m hoping that when you read it, you can at the very least hear (crashing/shrieking) and see the scene (parallel beacons slicing the darkness), maybe smell it (dust) or feel it (cooling).

A bell should “clang” instead of “ring.” In “Don’t Get Dead,” I used “…that rotting cantaloupe smell” instead of “smelling bad.” And “…anxiety tightened her stomach” instead of “she felt anxious.”

Evoking as many senses as you can is one of the keys to effective writing. Be specific. Be imaginative. But most of all, have fun!

Happy writing!

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“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

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