Friday, October 26, 2012

Vote! We need to get this over with!

This election concerns some very important issues, and the differences between the candidates are, at times, stark. With the polls showing that the outcome is just too close to call, I guess it shouldn't surprise me that passions are running high. But this election has brought out the worst in us, rather than calling us to be our best.

Can't we please try to remember that every one of us hopes for a better future? Each of us believes in America and our potential to do good in the world. While some vote for self-interest, many do not. Many are concerned with the greater good, both domestic and foreign. And while we might differ on which candidate can best lead us in the next four years, we're all trying to do our best.

Candidates, who pour forth millions of words (along with a billion dollars on this year's presidential campaigns), are bound to state things awkwardly now and then. Their faces will take on an unfortunate expression from time to time. They will have supporters make an a** of themselves and the candidates they support. But does this election have to be about who said the stupidest thing in an off-the-cuff moment?  Or whose surrogate used the most unfortunate turn of phrase? Or which campaign has the most Super PACs funding the most negative ads? Or about the most outrageous misstatement of the other person's position that the campaign wizards can construe?

Can't we at least maintain a veneer of respect--for self and others?

Instead of respect, I find that the longer the campaign season goes, the less civil we become. States try to limit the franchise believing, perhaps correctly, that having fewer voters gives their party an edge. We're no longer "for" our candidate; we're against the other one--with a disgust that includes everyone who thinks the other guy is worth voting for. Reputations are scorched, and our society is coarsened. Friendships are broken over it (and Facebook is nearly unbearable).

It wasn't always this bad. Perhaps the fact that the midterm elections seem to be the starting gate for the next presidential campaign is one reason things have gone to such an extreme. With two full campaign years to fill, talking about issues loses its punch. But Congress has no impetus to limit campaigns, and the Supreme Court wouldn't uphold it if it did (as it proved in the Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission case that struck down limits on campaign contributions by corporations and unions, calling it speech protected by the First Amendment).

America has held an exalted place in the world in the last century. We have been seen as a "light on a hill," offering a land of opportunity--an equality-seeking, peace-loving haven for downtrodden. But with the rhetoric of this election we have proven ourselves to be far less than our ideals.

We're America. Can't we do better?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Top Ten Ways to . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Procrastinate

Procrastination is one of my greatest talents, so I thought I would share some terrific methods to avoid writing, editing, or any other work you know you must do, but would really rather not.

10. Housework. Even with the kids grown and gone, there's still an awful lot of housework to do. I don't actually do any of it, mind you, but I think about it a lot. A big job like that requires a plan. 

9. Email. I belong to a bunch of authors' lists, and get dozens of emails from other writers each day. Reading all those messages and following their links could take me a week, if I pace myself properly.

8. Facebook. There are far more authors out there than I can keep track of by email. The ones I don't hear from directly, I'll find on Facebook. If I really need to procrastinate, I'll post comments on their walls, then check back every twenty minutes to see if anyone "liked" what I said! 

7. Chatting on the phone with my son. He's an actor in New York which means he needs someone to help him fill the time when he should be learning his lines. A mother's work is never done.

6. Texting with my daughter. We can keep a conversation going for hours, or until our cell batteries die. If she's not available, I'll just poke her on Facebook. (She's also a writer. Need I say more?) 

5.Training the dogWe have a puppy--he's a mutt, but such a cutie. We've been taking him to obedience school, but he can still be a handful, especially as he's gotten bigger. He needs his training every day, or he'll never pass his Canine Good Citizen test. Of course, he can always take the test again later. 

4. Clearing off Tivo.
It doesn't clear itself, you know! Well, actually it does, but if I let it do that, I might lose some long-lost adaptation of a Jane Austen novel picked up by my wish list. As a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I would consider that quite a monstrous thing indeed!

3. Digging up ancestors. Well, not literally. My mom gave me a subscription to to learn more about our forebears. But it's a never-ending chain. There are always more ancestors to discover. Upside? I've located several distant cousins whom I now track on email and Facebook!

2. Talking with my husband. A good marriage requires work, so we'll often sit around and talk about the work we plan to do when we're through sitting around talking to each other. Yup. He's a writer, too.

1. Making up Top Ten lists. 

Phew! That was exhausting.

. . . I believe I'll take a nap. 

(This originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, a publication of the Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Advice to the graduates--and to writers

Garry Marshall
At the Lafayette College graduation ceremony last Saturday, famed producer/director/writer/actor Garry Marshall was the speaker. You might expect an entertaining speech, and would not be disappointed, but he also had a message that's good for graduates and for writers: "You gotta know that sometimes you're gonna get whacked, something's going to go wrong, and you gotta bounce back," (You can see a video of Garry Marshall's speech here.)

Mr. Marshall is known for his numerous successes as a producer of the iconic sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley (starring his sister Penny Marshall), and Mork and Mindy. He wrote for The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Odd Couple. He directed hit movies including Pretty Woman, Beaches, Runaway Bride, and The Princess Diaries. It's tempting to think that he was lucky, that he got all the breaks, that he never knew what it was to struggle. Other people's successes often look easy. On the contrary. he said he was once "fired by a piece of cloth" when Shari Lewis's hand puppet Lambchop told him to hit the bricks.

And he is far from alone. Nearly all artists get whacked repeatedly along the way. According to, Meg Cabot, the author of The Princess Diaries on which Garry Marshall's movie was based, collected her rejection letters in a mailbag she stored under her bed. She had planned, once she was published, to use it as a visual aid to take to schools to inspire children to never give up on their dreams, but she received so many rejections that the bag is too heavy for her to lift.

A half-written novel shoved in a drawer, a completed draft that everyone thinks needs a rewrite but no one agrees on why, distractions from loved ones and life's trials, rejections from agents and/or publishers--each of these can "whack" a writer, sending him or her off track, thinking about the advantages of almost any other line of work. And even when a writer doesn't give up and finds a publisher and sells a book, the per-hour wage most authors earn is less than the guy washing windshields at the traffic light. And he doesn't have to give 15% to an agent. And he gets to work outside.

The life of any artist is one of getting whacked. The life of a successful artist is one of  bouncing back.

What are your strategies for bouncing back after you get "whacked"?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

When Should the Body Drop?

Nope--not talking about middle-aged spread here. This is about when the reader of a traditional murder mystery expects to come across the first victim.

Since authors are told to begin their novels in media res, literally "in the middle of things," some believe that in a traditional mystery the body should appear in the first chapter. Nothing can be a stronger hook for a reader than that, they argue. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a new book must be in want of a strong hook to keep them reading.

But is it always necessary to kill someone off in chapter one? Many don't think so. I just read a Carolyn Hart mystery where the body doesn't appear until page 81. It didn't feel like it took too long to get there. As she shows us, there are other ways to hook readers than by killing off a character.

In one typical story arc, we meet all the people in the closed community, learn about their mutual anger and distrust. Then the most hated character is found dead about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through and everyone is a potential suspect. Think Murder on the Orient Express. This only works if the reader is fully engaged by the setting and characters as Christie enables us to be.

A twist on this is that a popular character is the one to die, making the act more heinous and finding the culprit more imperative. But either way, we have to come to know the characters before we can feel strongly about the murder.

In another typical story arc, a body is found early on and there is one obvious suspect who, of course, turns out to be innocent and would have been railroaded were it not for the protagonist's tireless investigation. This sort takes less time to get to the murder, and the bulk of the story is unraveling who really dunnit.

There are even some where the dirty deed is accomplished before the story opens. This story line can pick up with the victim's funeral, or even later with someone being (wrongfully) charged with the crime. It's harder for readers to have a strong feeling about the victim with this story arc, so the author needs to make us care more about the innocent person who's behind bars.

If you think about it, you've probably read each of these stories many times. Yet, each time it's different because of new characters, setting, and plot details.

I think I'm like most readers who choose traditional mysteries for their characters and the puzzle. For a first book in a series, I like to learn about the setting and become invested in the main characters. I know I'm reading a mystery, and eventually one of these folks is bound to drop dead. Sometimes figuring out who the victim will be is as much fun as figuring out who dunnit.

What do you think? When do you like to see the body drop?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Because we're those dog owners . . .

Darcy at 4 months
Several months ago, we adopted a little black rescue puppy that we were told was half Newfoundland. I checked out the breed and found that they were smart, intensely loyal, and couch potatoes--a good mix for us. So we brought him home and named him Mr. Darcy, after the hero of Pride and Prejudice. After all, he was destined to grow to be tall, dark, and handsome.

Newfie's are huge--big-boned, deep-chested, and heavy-coated. They weigh 130-160 pounds when full grown. Naturally, we expected our puppy to grow to be enormous.  

But things don't always turn out as you expect. Over the past months, he has grown to be a nice, medium-sized dog--much smaller than full-blood Newfies. And he's no couch potato. Yes--he's still young, but he loves to play, and he especially loves to play with other dogs. 

Flat-Coated Retriever
As he grew, Darcy developed some other traits not usually found in Newfies, including a heavily-feathered tail that he carried high, a much thinner body, and a more finely-sculpted head. When we took him to our local pet store, we were told he looked like a small version of a Flat-Coated Retriever. We looked that breed up, and decided that he did bear a resemblance, even though Flat-Coats usually grow to be 55-80 pounds. That's closer, but still larger than our Darcy who tips the scales at under 45 pounds. But then he's a mix. We decided that the shelter that initially took Darcy in was misinformed about his parentage, and that he was a Flat-Coat mix--not a Newfoundland mix.

Darcy at one year
The one thing that Newfies, Flat Coats, and Darcy all have in common is their black coats. Darcy is so black it's hard to get a good photo of him. He's always on the move, but more than that, unless he's outside in daylight, he seems to absorb all the light and his photos look like silhouettes. Here's one of the few photos that allows us to see him well--but he's not even facing us. You can see he has a little white in his tail--but he's a mix. There must also be some kind of white dog in his ancestry expressing itself in his tail.

So we were satisfied with that. Well, almost. Occasionally people would ask if he was a Labrador Retriever, or a Border Collie, or any of a number of other breeds. Answering with "we think he's partly . . ." seemed unsatisfactory--to them, and to us. Then we heard about DNA testing for mixed-breed dogs. 

We joked about it at first. What kind of dog owners would spend good money to check their dog's DNA? Ridiculous!

It turns out, we're that kind of dog owners. In fact, my husband and I each purchased the DNA kit separately to surprise the other. (We returned one. We're not quite that crazy.)

We swabbed Darcy's cheeks and sent the test kit in, betting that our suspicions would be confirmed: he's a Flat-Coated Retriever, and not a Newfoundland. 

The company that does doggie DNA (not to be confused with those that clone dogs--they're really crazy!) has the genetic profile of 185 breeds to which to compare each sample. They tell us it can take up to six weeks, but we started haunting the website after only two weeks to track their progress in identifying what went into making our wonderful Darcy.  

"Sample being processed," they told us on the website. The closer we got to an answer, the more impatient we became. Finally we got the results. It turns out there's no Flat-Coated Retriever in his genes, but he's partly . . . 

Golden Retriever
. . . Golden Retriever?

Each of his parents was one-half Golden Retriever.  That makes Darcy one-half Golden, too. Okay, the contours of his coat resemble a Golden, but really--who'd have guessed our little black dog was half Golden Retriever?

His other half? Well, let's just say those ancestors got around. The lab identified several other breeds, but none of them made up a very large percentage of his DNA. 

They were mostly dogs that are smaller than Goldens, including miniature poodle (he's a Golden Doodle?), Shetland Sheepdog, and Small Munsterlander. That last one was new to me. Turns out they're a pointing and retrieving dog. Darcy has been known to point from time to time, so perhaps that's where he gets it. And he has a smattering of Japanese Spitz. That explains the white in his tail.
Miniature Poodle
Small Munsterlander
Shetland Sheepdog

Japanese Spitz 

So, our Darcy--small, dark and handsome as he is--is also our Golden boy. Does it change anything? Not a bit. But it's kind of nice to know.

Oh, did I mention?  He's 3.3% Newfoundland!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Muppets

The MuppetsI just returned from seeing The Muppets. It's been in theaters for a few weeks, and I'd heard it was great, but I just hadn't gotten around to going. Then my husband noticed that our local theater had it down to one show per day, so we made a point of being there. We really wanted to see this one in the theater instead of on DVD.  And it was great. It poked fun at the Muppet's heyday of the 1980s, but was timely enough to entertain the children in the audience who only knew Muppets from Sesame Street. It reminded me of going to movies with my own kids--to movies that were just plain fun. 
It started me thinking. What do the Muppets teach our kids--and us--about getting along in the world? Sure the Sesame Street Muppets have always taught numbers, letters, colors. and the importance of kindness and fun. But these Muppets--the Muppet Show Muppets--brought back the notion that the world is always better with friends--even if they're a little strange, that the people in your life are more important than wealth, that nearly anything is possible, and that everything looks brighter after a great song and dance sequence. They also remind us that laughter is the third best gift anyone can give (after children and ice cream, of course). Who can argue with that?
I'm so glad I started the new year with The Muppets. There is plenty of time for the serious work we have ahead in 2012. But for a moment, it's nice just to smile and laugh with old friends . . .  and enjoy a great song and dance.