Can you spell “cheating” ?

Christmas_ScrabbleMy husband has a friend named Sammy, a reader/writer who wallows in books and finds the library the most arousing of repositories. (We have no quarrel with his assessment.) Add to this picture that Sammy is quite the social animal and likes to game.

Nothing so far-fetched as Las Vegas, mind you. Sammy plays board games. He has a high IQ and relishes the challenge of finer fare. However, being convivial and kind, Sammy ends up facing all kinds of people from his side of a board–anyone who wants to play.

For years, Sammy has played Scrabble with a fellow named Frank. They are an odd couple. Sammy has always won 80 to 90% of the games. No one who knows Frank is surprised, for Frank is not a book reader.  Why Frank loves to play Scrabble with Sammy has been a bit baffling.

There were times when Sammy was sick but Frank, without sympathy, would insist on the weekly Scrabble game. Decorum demanded that the winner give the loser an opportunity to win. Perhaps Frank thought Sammy would do poorly when under the weather. Sammy would take his Tylenol for Flu, put on his slippers, get out the board, play, and win.

'Geoffrey got a triple word score! . . .no, we weren't playing scrabble, I give him points if he strings three words together.'These days something has changed. Frank is no longer losing. Sammy confides that while winning at Scrabble had become so predictable he wanted nothing better than to quit, he kept on out of kindness. However, since he is at present losing, quitting will make him out as a cad. The odd thing is that Frank still does not read books.  Sammy has trouble understanding the victories of his barely literate friend.

I think Frank is memorizing words with high-point letters like X and Z in them. Either that or he is consulting his phone when Sammy leaves the room to grab a couple of drinks or snacks. Is it cheating? I don’t know.

I have had students who are unskilled English writers but who can memorize grammar rules and spelling.  They cannot conjugate properly when writing, nor, for that matter, can they string together words coherently in speech. This will come later, if they become readers. However, some of these students show the ability to memorize for the sake of multiple choice quizzes. Conscientious writing teachers are wary of making classes manageable for students like these—unless the latter actually fall into the tempo and flow of a language through reading, they are cutting corners. There are problems for students who pass writing courses without actually learning to write (because they are not good readers). These problems impact others, demonstrating the injustice of lax college English teachers.

A case in point is that of a Middle School science teacher who wrote with English grammar and spelling mistakes all over the board, making the students snicker. Her students did poorly because they could understand neither her written nor spoken words. Nonetheless she was passed through her college English classes and got a full-time job making more, per hour, than the adjunct college writing teachers who “mercifully” allowed her to pass due to her memorization techniques.

Let’s be Frank about Scrabble. Is memorization a fair demonstration of skill?SavageChickens.com_-297x300

Or is it a kind of cheating?


11/22/63 by Stephen King

A writer’s book review

I don’t know about you, but for me, being a writer really limits my time for pleasure reading. After sitting behind my computer, writing for 4-6 hours per day, my eyes and mind are pretty tired of staring at words. But every now and then, a book’s synopsis strikes me as irresistible. That was the case for King’s latest, 11/22/63.

Science fiction has always been one of my favorite things. I’m a Star Trek geek. I loved (and still love) all of those series except Deep Space Nine, which I found, um, boring. The Star Wars moves are among my favorites. And the recent Battlestar Galactica series was, well, out of this world fantastic. None of these gems, however, managed to top my obsession with ABC’s LOST, which, while not science fiction, did make use of one of that genre’s most popular topics: time travel (albeit with a twist). And so, when I read a review of King’s 11/22/63, I knew had to indulge.

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for decades. Even back when critics used to pan his books and his writing skills. The Rule of Law for many critics seems to be, if a writer does genre writing, he’s a hack. I’m sure King had a good laugh about their conclusions while en route to the bank with another colossal check in hand. I could actually use this post to rant on and on about why I believe King is one of the best writers of our time, but for today, I’ll just move on to my review.

Katie sent me 11/22/63 for my birthday in mid-December. I knew it was a very lengthy affair along the lines of most King books, but looking at this mammoth in hardcover form, a staggering 849 pages, I decided to set aside a reading schedule of at least an hour per day every day, starting immediately after I finished working on my own book, which is usually about 3:00 p.m. This method actually worked very well, and I am happy to report I finished the book last week (I did take a week off over the holidays due to company, etc.).

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read any book, for writing-related purposes or just for fun, where I could stop myself from analyzing the author’s style and technique, and thus it seems fitting for me to center my review on those issues. (If you want to read a critical review centered on plot, I’m sure there are hundreds floating about the Internet to choose from.) King’s style hasn’t changed all that much over the years, but I did notice a few “wow” moments along those lines in 11/22/63. Most notable, he addresses the reader directly now and then. Phrases such as, “Now, I know what you’re thinking.” I had to read it a couple of times to make sure that’s what he was doing. And yes, it was. And I am totally impressed. He doesn’t do it all that much, but when he does, it just feels like the perfect moment for that slight author-to-reader interruption.

This is also the first King book I’ve read where he writes entirely in first person. I’ve written in third and first person, and I can say without pause that first person is much more difficult. It’s a point of view factor. If you start writing in first person, you have to stay that way all through the book, which can be quite a challenge when writing a mystery or suspense novel because your narrator can only be in one place at one time and cannot (I repeat cannot) know what other characters are thinking. There were a couple of spots where King took liberties on this, but only a couple so I will give him a pass. Overall grade of point of view: A-minus.

The next thing I look for is overall quality of the storyline. If there is one downside to most of King’s books, it’s that they always seem to stall in the middle. Perhaps this is because he usually has so many characters, and he wants to keep us up to speed with all of them, so he does. Too many characters isn’t an issue in 11/22/63 (probably a direct result of the first person narrative), yet the book still stalls a bit around the halfway point. That’s partly due to what’s going on plot-wise, but more so because (I believe) King just decided he was having fun throwing a romance into the middle of his book so he went with it. End result, there is too much Sadie for my taste, too much time spent on his relationship with both her and the small town where he takes up temporary residence while waiting for time to catch up to where it needs to be so he can carry out his plan, which, if you didn’t already know, is to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy. Nonetheless, the Sadie business is but one small pothole in the road on an otherwise smooth, A-plus journey.

The last point I always look for in a novel is whether the ending works, and if so, whether its theme stretches beyond the limits of the book itself. In other words, has the author hit on something that provokes a general discussion outside of what happened between the pages of his work? In the case of 11/22/63, that answer is a definitive yes. You know how in It’s A Wonderful Life we are encouraged to think about what the world what be like if we never existed. Well, with 11/22/63, the question to ponder is, would robbing the past of a horrendous event alter the future for better or worse? King’s book has an interesting answer to that, one I’m still thinking about. Well done, Mr. King. Very well done indeed.

Is Borders’ bankruptcy the end of an era?

Last weekend I went to Borders here in Fresno to shop their going out of business sale. I didn’t expect to find many bargains since this store will supposedly remain open until late September, but I wound up spending sixty-some dollars. Deals on cookbooks and animal books were abundant. I browsed around the store for at least an hour and as I was doing so I was reminded of my days in Seattle where every Wednesday night, with very few exceptions over a five-year period, I attended a critique group downtown. The building where we met just happened to house a huge Borders’ store on the ground floor. I usually tried to arrive early so I had time to check out the latest books (always study your competition!) or simply to browse the massive number of books and movies and CDs the store carried before going to my meeting.

The clearest memory I have of that Seattle store is that it was always busy. Sometimes there were three or four check-out lines—and that was at six-thirty in the evening, not weekend afternoons. Every seat placed around the store was occupied. The second story coffee shop area was usually busy as well. The last time I was there was late spring 2002. If someone would have suggested to me back then that a high end bookstore like Borders would be facing bankruptcy in nine years, I would have laughed them out of the building. And yet, nine years later, here we are.

I’m as guilty as anyone for allowing this to happen. The sad truth is, prior to my stop at Borders this past weekend, I hadn’t been there for over a year. As for why, I have one a one-word answer: Amazon. Let’s face it, most of us have very busy lives. It’s much easier to sit at our computers in the evening after a tiring day and browse for books (or just about anything else). We don’t have to leave our chairs to make a purchase, and it arrives at our doorstep within a few days. Amazon doesn’t charge for standard delivery—three to five days (or two days if you are an Amazon Prime member). Buyers in most states, California included, don’t have to pay sales tax either.

We can talk all we want about changing our ways, promising to make our book purchases at only book stores, but the reality is that we won’t follow through on that promise, at least not for long. It’s time consuming and costs more—not a very viable business plan. Logic then would dictate (as Mr. Spock would say) that the answer to the question in my title is a sad but resounding yes. The end of Borders is the end of an era, and there is nothing we can do about it. Change happens, and that change is not always for the better.

How far will digital technology for writers evolve?

Despite maintaining this blog with Julia, I’m far from tech savvy when it comes to marketing myself in this digital age. As writers, we have a constantly expanding social universe to explore: Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, phone texting, business-related internet groups such as LinkedIn. If I put in the time, I could probably have a decent presence on all of these sites; trouble is, I wouldn’t have any time left to actually write.

I’m hoping that in the future we will be able to prepare one site (such as our blog) that we can upload to all of these other sites with the push of a button and all of our info will automatically be put into the right slots. Maybe that will happen sooner than I think. When I compare the growing trend in E-books and digital publishing, I’m reminded of the transformation in the music business that has been taking place since the early 1990s. People held back on embracing the MP3 format for a long time, even though the technology was available. I can remember offering to get both our girls MP3 players for Christmas one year, to which they rolled their eyes and snorted. They wanted new Walkman’s, like all the other kids had.

Today I purchased my first MP3 album from Amazon, something I have been resisting for years. I’m from the old school of 45 singles and LP records. I eventually embraced CDs because they are durable, portable, and a space saver compared to those large 12-inch LPs. And, a bit like records, many come with color booklets reminiscent of the old album inserts. (I might need a magnifying glass to read them, but still.) And, best of all, I can hold the CD and case in my hand.

An MP3 “album” is nothing more than a downloaded file. There is nothing to “hold on to.” It arrived on my computer in a matter of minutes. I can see its little icon on my desktop. If I want to listen to the songs, I open Media player and click on the title. Fine, as long as I’m sitting at my computer, but what if I want to listen in my car? Or outside while I’m gardening? Well, then I pop in the just created CD that I burned from that download. Or, I copy the whole song list to my I-Touch and listen on that. A digital download gives you multiple formats, including the all-important “I can hold it in my hand” CD. There’s no fancy label, no color insert—but I can make those myself with software and a printer if I really want them. Best of all, the MP3 versions often come with extra songs not found on the retail CD. And they cost less.

Another plus for music sold this way is that buyers can purchase a single song, a few songs, or the entire album. Most songs can be “previewed” for a 15-20 second listen so you can pick only the songs you want. A dollar a song on Amazon. It’s hard to imagine that working for E-books—the dollar a song bit, I mean. Free chapters, or at least excerpts, are offered on Kindle and most other E-book sites, but we can’t very well sell our books chapter-by-chapter, now can we?

Then again, who knows what the future holds. I continue to be amazed on a daily basis insofar as what my Smartphone can do: internet, GPS, email, texting, photos, games. I play Words with Friends, a Scrabble type game with my daughter Katie, who lives in San Diego. I take a Father’s Day photo of her dad sleeping on the couch with our dogs and send it to her under the header “Dad napping with his boys.” My other daughter, Carrie, sends me a picture of an Elvis painting I did years ago which remains on display at Graceland (“Taking the tour with Mike. Look what we found, Mom!”). Everything is incredibly instant, that’s the thing that seems hardest for me to adjust to. But I’m getting there, a day—or should I say an hour—at a time.

Foggy at fifty

Do readers want to read the type of stories I write? I must confess I’ve begun to wonder. Nearly every sale by new authors seems to be about strange, incredibly dark worlds that none of us mere mortals will ever visit let alone reside in. Personally I find that reassuring given how I’m not very fond of vampires, werewolves, or heretics. Ditto for serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists. Yet it is these very subjects that rule the day where publishers are concerned. The latest to come along is “Wither: The Chemical Garden Trilogy, Book One” by newcomer Lauren DeStefano.

To be fair, I haven’t read DeStefano’s book. But the lengthy review in this Sunday’s Fresno Bee makes me pretty confident I wouldn’t enjoy it. The basic plot centers around a 16-year old girl abducted by a “gatherer,” whose purpose is to kidnap all girls as soon as they become old enough to reproduce. Those girls deemed “undesirable” by said gatherer are killed or sold into prostitution. The others are used for breeding.

“Wither” is being pushed as a young adult novel by Simon & Schuster. Do tell. I can only conclude that I must come from an entirely different world, as I just can’t imagine how or why publishers would present young girls with a book like this. I don’t care if it somehow has a happy ending or whatever moral runs through its misguided plot. What good can be found in telling a story about girls kidnapped and forced to have sex? To quote the Bee’s reviewer, “Rhine is kidnapped from her Manhattan home and forced to live in a sprawling Florida mansion with two other teenage girls, all of whom are dressed in bridal gowns while sedated and married off to the same man, Linden.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this reviewer loved the book.

If this is the kind of story I have to write in order to place a book with a major publisher, I’m ready to call it a day.

E-books: Are we there yet?

To hear Amazon tell it, yep, we’re there and getting closer to ridding ourselves of those awful, cumbersome creatures called printed books. As Julia notes in her post below, Amazon claims its Kindle sales topped paperback books for the first time. I don’t doubt Amazon’s figures, but I think it’s important to note that not everyone buys their books from Amazon, or, for that matter, other online sources. There are still a heck of a lot of folks who like to go to physical stores and browse through the many titles offered on the shelves. Maybe they grab a cup of coffee and a muffin while they’re at it, sit down, and chat with other customers. Maybe they discuss the latest bestseller, or some new cookbook they picked up on for next to nothing on the clearance table.

One can “browse” through Amazon’s titles in similar fashion (less the face-to-face contact), but really, are any of us ready to say it’s the same as going to an actual store and holding a book in our hands, paging through it, reading not only the first page but whatever page(s) we might like? This may just be my own personal taste, but I haven’t purchased a book I’ve read all the way through in quite some time. The linear notes on the back cover are interesting, the first few pages are well written (sometimes the first few chapters), and yet, by the middle of the story I’ve lost interest because the characters and or plot falls flat.

But, as is often the case, I digress. The purpose of my post today is to pass along what Julia and I have learned in our year-plus of blogging here on WordPress. E-books remain a tough sell. Readers email us asking if we have printed books to sell. And so, after giving the matter considerable thought, we researched some print on demand places, settled on one, and took the plunge. I started with 75 copies of a reprinted version of my Elvis/Nixon book. Julia has kindly been using it as a study course in some of her classes, thus I have sold out that first printing and ordered another. I have resisted putting the printed version up on this blog for sale, but that is changing as of today. When given the opportunity to purchase an e-book or PDF on CD as an alternative to buying the printed book, every single one of Julia’s students has gone with the printed version.

That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on e-books. We still believe it is the wave of the future. But, and it’s a BIG but . . . our own experiences out in the field, so to speak, tell us we simply aren’t there yet.

Within the next few days I will follow up on this post with a detailed discussion centering on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing your work in printed format, so stay tuned.

The truth is stranger than fiction quandary

By now most of you have heard about the female doctor from Bakersfield (CA) who attempted to enter her boyfriend’s home by climbing onto the roof with a ladder, removing the chimney cap, and lowering herself down the chimney. She got stuck halfway down and suffocated via crushed lungs. She was there three days before someone found her. (Her boyfriend left the house prior to the attempted break in.) It’s a tragic story of course. So tragic, in fact, that I had to read it a few times before I was willing to accept it had actually happened.

Further details will emerge regarding this unfortunate woman’s relationship with, as the police put it, “her on again off again boyfriend” in the weeks to follow, but what’s relevant to this post is how utterly unbelievable it seems that a 49-year-old woman with a medical degree would even contemplate such a foolish act let alone attempt to carry it out. I decided to mention this incident here because it reminds me of something a writing teacher of mine once said regarding fiction: If you write about an event in your story that sounds too outlandish to be true, your readers are likely to set your book aside with a roll of their eyes and a sarcastic, “Like that could ever happen!”

The point is, just because we may have witnessed or been party to a bizarre event in real life doesn’t mean it would make good material for a novel. When I lived in Seattle I attended a weekly writing group. One of our members, I’ll call her Jennifer, refused to incorporate this advice. Jennifer was a good writer and a very nice person, but at least once a month she would read a scene that contained some outlandish or unbelievable aspect. Every single time, the majority of members would say it “bumped,” meaning it pulled them out of the story because they started to think about how or even if said event could have occurred. Jennifer would always respond with a civil but exasperated, “But it really happened!”

Maybe, but so what? Our goal as writers is to create a world readers want to spend time in. If we clutter that world with scenes and/or characters that make them roll their eyes in disbelief, it won’t be long before they close the cover and return to the believable reality that is their everyday world.

The e-book experiment: tentative results

As I mentioned in my post last week, the Grassroots’ Writers Guild is nearing its one year anniversary. As such, we feel it’s important to update readers on the concepts we initially put forth on this blog. Today’s topic is marketing via e-books. Does it work? The early answer is, yes and no. While Julia and I have sold some books that way, both via downloads and CDs, the numbers (for me, anyway) haven’t been high enough to grade it a success. On the other hand, it hasn’t been a failure either, so the fair thing to say is that the jury remains out. Our guess is once we get out into the writing community, doing some talks at bookstores and writers’ events around town, sales will pick up. But as with all experiments, we won’t know until we try. Meanwhile, we have opted to add some old-fashioned actual printed books to our repertoire prior to scheduling those appearances. That will be the best way to gauge peoples’ reaction. If they are willing to pay $12 to $20 for a printed book (price determined by length) versus $5 for a CD (book length inconsequental), that will give us a definitive answer. (A review of the printer we chose will appear on this blog in the near future.)

The point is, marketing remains the key to success as a writer. If readers don’t know who we are, they aren’t likely to buy our book(s). Given the number of books currently available via electronic format, that makes sense from a reader’s point of view. Readers can go onto Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple, and probably a dozen other sites, and browse through literally hundreds of thousands of titles, be they self-published or electronic versions of current best sellers. What are their criteria for picking a certain book? Do they search via subject, key words, author name, previously published works? Probably all of those and many others I haven’t thought about. Basically, it’s a crap shoot. About the only foolproof method to make a sale would be for a reader to go onto the site with an author’s name and book title already in hand. How do we make that happen? By getting our names out there, any and every way we can think of. Creativity must be the name of our game.

I will be updating my personal page and my Elvis section this week, so please stop by again and check it out. As always, we welcome your comments. Have a good and productive week!

Free Elvis novel download for Elvis Week

Hello my fellow Elvis fans! In honor of Elvis Week, I am offering the dowloadable version of my Elvis novel, Face the Music, absolutely free through August 22. Please pass the word along to all your Elvis friends. There’s no catch, it’s my gift to you in honor of Elvis’s memory. I haven’t had a chance to get to Memphis since the 10th Anniversary, which seems ages ago. Hopefully I will make it back there someday before I am too old and feeble to make the journey.

To get your free download, which is available in PDF format only, email me at and put “Face the Music” in your email header. I will get your copy (via PDF attachment) out as soon as possible. If you enjoy the read, please leave a comment on the Face the Music or Elvis page. Happy reading!

P.S. If you are unsure of how to read an e-book, take a look at our “Reading downloaded books is easy” page via the link to the right.

Here comes the (writing) judge

When people learn I serve as a judge for an annual self publishing contest sponsored by a national writing magazine, they always want to know what it’s like.  My first response is that it’s a lot of work for very little pay. On average, I review 50 entries; the time involved probably works out to about $5.00 per hour. Each book must be evaluated in numerous categories: structure, plot, characterization, grammar, and book design. After those grades are calculated, I must write a couple hundred words on what the author did well and what needs improvement.

Grammar is the easiest category to stamp a grade on; either the writer knows the basics or she doesn’t. You’d be surprised how many people go through the time and expense of having a book self published without checking it for typos and grammatical errors. The most common mistakes I see are with punctuation:  no commas or too many commas, overuse of exclamation points, semi-colons where colons belong. Then there are those who overuse italic and/or bold print (often the same ones who abuse exclamation points). To me, these are gimmicks that signal a lack of faith in one’s ability. One of the most important rules writers must follow is to trust our readers. If we write in an intelligent, engaging manner, our readers will get it—no gimmicks necessary.

Characterization is pretty straightforward. Either dialogue is fresh and believable or stale and stilted. The protagonist is likable and/or interesting or plastic and forgettable. Secondary characters help move the plot forward or take up space.

Structure and plot are more difficult to assess, but when either or both is lacking, everything else about the book becomes pretty irrelevant. The most common mistakes in this area appear in non-fiction entries. A book on ice fishing that spends half the narrative talking about the author’s childhood in Maine (cold winters!). A memoir that devotes countless pages to everyday events (lunch, a favorite dress or toy, a mundane conversation). A marketing seminar masquerading as a self-improvement book. In fiction, a structural problem is usually related to overwriting—explaining every line of dialogue with a line of introspection, going into back story for pages on end, repeating the same event through different characters’ points of view, dwelling on too many sensory details. All of these methods do little but serve to slow the story. And guess what? When the story slows, readers lose interest—and fast.

Grading a book’s design is somewhat a matter of personal taste (What’s gaudy to some might be gorgeous to others). What’s important for the purpose of review is that the chosen cover art fits the book’s subject matter and the space on the back cover is utilized as a promotional tool—blurbs by other writers praising the book, a teaser or short synopsis (never give away the ending!), an author bio. What doesn’t belong in that space is a series of blurbs by the author himself, praising his own work (and yes, this is a common error, especially by professionals with PhDs and/or Masters.) Inside, the text itself must be sharp and easy to read. Fancy fonts don’t cut it. And size matters. If the text is too large, say 14 point and up, I get the feeling the author is trying to make the book appear as if it has more content than it does. If the font is less than 9, I’m guessing the author knows her book is too long and probably in need of a major edit.

By now you’ll probably agree with my initial assessment that judging is a lot of work for $5 an hour. So why do it? Because despite the majority of books that are filled with some, and often times many, of the errors noted above, I always come across a couple of gems. Books that deserve to be picked up by a conventional publisher so they can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience. If my recommendation (which is passed on to a finalist judge) helps even one of these authors fulfill his or her dream, I consider my effort time well spent.