AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE McNEFF by Miko Johnston

 

mikemcneff

If you write mysteries – stories about crimes, their investigation and prosecution – and want your writing to be publication perfect, wouldn’t you love to know someone who could help you achieve that goal?  Then prepare to meet your next best friend, Mike McNeff.

Mike is a retired law enforcement officer and lawyer. He’s worked as a state trooper, a deputy sheriff and a city police officer; a prosecutor, police legal advisor, defense lawyer and a civil trial lawyer. He’s a firearms expert and certified instructor who volunteers as a teacher for a local gun club. He’s also a published author of three novels and in addition, has recently completed a certified course in editing from the University of Washington.

Mike’s the guy who’ll tell you the crook wouldn’t “snap a cartridge in his gun”, he’d “jack a round in the chamber”.  The proper methods of searching a crime scene. The sound a bullet makes when it hits the trunk of a car or passes within inches of your head. How a corpse would smell or appear depending on the environmental conditions and TOD. He knows this all firsthand.

As a qualified editor, he can tell when a scene moves the story forward or drags down the narrative. He also knows an m dash from an n dash, when to use ellipses, whether that number should be written out, and how many sentences comprise a complete paragraph (hint: it depends on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction – the answer will be at the end of the interview).

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a great guy and a good friend to all, especially writers.

 

Mike, could you begin by explaining the four types of editing that can be done?

There are actually five types. First there is acquisition editing, a review of a manuscript for possible acceptance by the publisher. There’s developmental editing, where the content and structure of a work is developed for publication. Then there’s a line editor, whose job is not to correct punctuation, but make certain that everything written properly develops and moves the story forward. Next is a copy editor and there are three stages: light, medium and heavy. Light is mainly going over the work for major mistakes in punctuation and grammar when the piece is well written and it doesn’t have to be delved into deeply. Medium is really going into the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure to make the piece as readable as possible. Heavy is medium copy editing mixed with line editing. The last is proof reading. The proofreader looks at every word, punctuation, spelling, formatting, looking for any mistakes in the final draft of the manuscript to make sure the copy is clean.

 

You’ve been outspoken about the need for writers to have certified editors review their manuscript before publication. Why? 

Editing is the most crucial thing a writer can have done to their work. I never knew there were five levels of editing before I was certified. To have a neighbor or your mother do the editing isn’t going to work. You need a trained editor who knows what it takes for a manuscript to be ready for publishing. It’s very important because you have to impress readers right out of the gate. A poorly edited work will make it very hard to recover your reputation as a writer.

 

You and I have shared our bafflement as to why so many writers resist allowing their work to be edited. Why do you think that is? 

Two reasons: One, “I can’t afford an editor”. When I hear that excuse I say, “You can’t afford not to have an editor.” Others don’t like having their work critically reviewed. You need to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a successful writer.

 

How can you change their minds?

You have to convince writers they need an editor, or else they’ll learn it through the cruel world of publishing. The market will eventually determine how good your book is, including the reviews you’ll get. Bad reviews hurt.

 

What advice would you give a writer seeking an editor?  

There are books like The Writers Market that offer writers resources. Online there’s the Northwest Editors Guild, the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and other groups like that (in your area). Go on Google and type in editors. It’s important to get editors who are familiar with your genre. Look at websites of different editors. And there’s word of mouth. Talk to other writers about their experiences.

 

What questions should writers ask before hiring someone? 

Find out how long they’ve been an editor. Have they any formal training, either a course or working as an intern for an editor. Ask for references, and then ask what books they’ve edited and take a look at them. Check reviews, but also read at least one or two chapters.

 

Let’s talk about your expertise in law enforcement. Does your earlier career give you an advantage when content editing mysteries, police procedurals and legal thrillers? 

I was a police officer for 29 years. I did what cops call a trifecta – state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired as a city police officer. I’ve been assigned to federal task forces, worked with FBI and U.S. Customs/Border Patrol, so I know how federal officers operate. I was a team supervisor with two SWAT teams and commanded one. Having worked almost every detail an officer can do and almost every type of crime with those investigations, I’m familiar with all the procedures officers have to follow to make a case right. It also helps that I was a prosecutor for five years.

 

What are the biggest mistakes mystery writers make in their manuscripts? 

They get too mired down in police detail.

That surprises me. I’d have thought the opposite – getting it totally wrong.

You want to show you have credible police knowledge, but don’t let reality get in the way of a good story. You see things on TV that cops cringe at but if you get into too much detail you slow the pace of the story, so you need balance. Good example: Law & Order. On every episode the suspect would be brought in with his or her lawyer for interrogation and the lawyer would let the client talk to the police. In real life that would never happen – it would be malpractice for the lawyer, but as a device to move story forward, it works.

 

What about self-published writers, regardless of their genre? 

You need a professional editor. Your English teacher is not an editor for the purpose of storytelling. You need someone who knows how to tell a story and what makes a story work.

 

It must drive you crazy when you read books or stories that get the law enforcement and legal facts wrong. What are some of the worst examples you’ve seen? 

Really egregious are stories that have cops arrest people without probable cause, kick in doors without a search warrant—things that would get a real cop in trouble and the case kicked out. Pushing to the limit is okay, but total breaks with the law don’t fly, unless the story has the offending cop punished. If the story has a cop who commits a felony and he or she doesn’t get punished, that drives me up a wall. It’s one of the reasons so many people have distrust for police officers. They think because it’s on TV or in a movie it must be true.

 

What sources (local agencies; websites) would you recommend to writers who do not have a cop or lawyer in their circle to prevent these inaccuracies? 

Lots of cops write books and pay attention to the legal aspects. Zack Fortier writes about working patrol and dealing with gangs. Another fine author, Bernard Schaffer, has several books out and is still active in law enforcement. Pick up books by those authors and you’ll get an idea. Also read my first novel, GOTU (pronounced GOT-U).

 

Lastly, what reference books should every writer have on their bookshelf? 

The one book I recommend for all writers is The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. Also Gregg’s Grammar Reference, and a good dictionary.

 

* * * * *

Hard Justice.McNeff

Mike McNeff is the author of the western Hard Justice and the Robin Marlette series of Black Ops; the third installment, Blood Wealth will be available soon. He’s currently writing a non-fiction book about four Vietnam vets who survived a horrific battle and its aftermath. For queries about manuscript editing, he can be reached at his website, mikemcneff.com.

 

Finally, as promised, how many sentences should be in a complete paragraph? In fiction, there is no rule. In non-fiction, a paragraph should have a minimum of three sentences.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

AUTHOR NEWSLETTERS AND THE NEED TO REACH READERS by Jill Amadio

HandshakeHow important are newsletters to authors?  Some complain about the time spent writing them and maintaining their content, but readers appear to be experiencing a desire to bond personally with authors they read, and with privacy practically a thing of the past fans clamor for details of a writer’s life.

Letters A few authors still take the old-fashioned route for visibility and reach readers via print, then use e-newsletters to drive traffic to their Web site or blog, and vice versa. I interviewed a couple of bestselling writers a while ago about their newsletters. Thriller mega-author Dean Koontz considers himself a traditionalist as far as promotion goes and is one of the more reclusive of writers. He has never done a national book tour.

“I keep publicity to a minimum and try to reserve my work time for writing rather than for promotion,” he said.

Nevertheless, Koontz has both an online newsletter and one that he home-brews himself. “Useless News” is how he describes his seasonal printed newsletter (Spring, Summer, Holidays) and, indeed, that is its title. He goes on to declare in the sub-title: “but you’re on the mailing list, and there’s nowhere to hide.”

Snail MailHe’s happy that talented people at Bantam, his publishing house, produce his e-newsletter and send it floating into cyberspace where computers grab it for those who‘ve signed up. “I don’t know much about digital marketing”, he admits.   But the snail-mail version is created by Koontz and his assistants at home, one suspects in his Southern California kitchen but actually he has an entire wing of his house, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, devoted to work.

Both versions of Koontz’s newsletter contain glad tidings about upcoming books but the print version is packed with more personal pieces about his travels, home life with his dog, sources of inspiration, and two pages filled with answers to questions from readers. Given away to the 25,000 people or so who have asked for it, it’s obviously a labor of love. The postage costs alone to so many recipients around the world must be astronomical but he enjoys the hands-on task of creating the informal eight-pager whose back page invariably bears a photo of Anna, his golden retriever.

“We let readers know when a new book is coming but otherwise the purpose of the snail-mail thing is to have fun, evoke a few smiles from readers, and thank them for their loyalty,” he said.

But does Koontz’s author newsletter work as a marketing tool for this world-famous writer? “Not so that I can tell,” he said”.

World InternetSara Paretsky told me she began her e-newsletter after she’d published 14 novels. Readers fell in love with her private eye, V.I. Warshawski, and wrote enough fan mail for her to build a large mailing list.  A box on her Web site is provided for people to sign up. Because she has about three times the Facebook followers as she does for her newsletter subscribers she also directs FB readers to her latest newsletter.

“With the newsletter I wanted to expand the number of ways that I could connect with readers,” she said. “Any time someone writes to me I add their name to my list. My blog and newsletter have very different content. I don’t write either very often but the newsletter tends to be more specific to events in my publishing life – tour dates, book synopses, or contests”.

Unlike Koontz, though, Paretsky enjoys electronic communication. She Facebooks frequently and her page is especially well read by fellow authors. She posts about her family, her friends, feelings, and trips, and she replies to comments. Both her Facebook page and blog are informal and friendly. They often feature photos of her golden retriever, Capo – obviously the preferred breed of famous scribes. Readers are interested in anecdotes about her writing life, she said, and are fascinated by her physicist husband’s (Courtenay Wright) history, and her dog stories. She appreciates and values most the reader responses that show her work has touched their hearts.

As a marketing tool she doesn’t find a newsletter particularly important but agrees it can be useful for those who work the Web more than she does.  Terry Ambrose, a former skip tracer and author of a thriller series, is more forceful in his opinion. He considers author newsletters to be nothing more than blatant self-promotion.

Internet Friends World “The better solution is to provide value to the reader,” he said. “My e-newsletter is called The Snitch and talks about how to avoid scams as well as a little about my writing news. Authors should find subjects that readers like to read about, and make it the primary focus. Your books should feature secondarily most of the time.”

Generous as always about sharing her expertise, Sara Paretsky provided a few tips for newsletter writers:

  1. If you send out too many they are really annoying to the recipients.
  2. The most important part of my list are the overseas readers. Facebook doesn’t always allow international readers to join in the kind of simple contests I run, so I always set those up in my newsletters as well.
  3. Keep to a regular but not too frequent schedule. Include pictures. Keep the stories short.
  4. If I am writing about a new book I include a link to my web site where someone who wants more information or a sample chapter can go.
  5. If you receive an award or honor, mention it in your newsletter but don’t be fake humble or overly vain!

A Peek Inside the Kitchen…

Winding Road SignThere’s a TV show I no longer often watch, but in its day with me, I absolutely loved. The show’s name is/was, a variant, of “How’s it made.” When I watched faithfully, they often visited the manufacturing processes for different foods, many I knew about, or ate. With that idea in the background, I thought sharing another twisting-turn and stop on my winding-writing-road might be fun (and cathartic for me). This time, stopping at the “plotting-land” rest stop.

In my mind (and the imaginary worlds therein), characters and setting come easy—plot pieces not so easy. Not because I don’t have ideas, oh no—just the opposite. Too many pieces I want to combine—somehow. Adding to that, my taste in reading and writing is–the trickier the better. With surprises of course. While at the same time making sure, when the truth does comes out, the pieces have to all hang-together. Have to make sense—once you’re looking at the facts in the right way.

In addition, several recent blogs from authors I like/know were about the back-stories to “why” a particular novel—the who, what, where triggering the story. Those posts also got me thinking down this line too, even though they weren’t addressing my particular challenge—the specifics of plotting.

This post is also a public retraction of a private proclamation (smile). I have a very small part in producing an area newsletter, involving layout. One the very competent ladies[i] who spearheads this effort, asked me if I liked puzzles. My flippant answer was no. Duh! A puzzle of course provides the basis for most of my mystery-plotting efforts. Admittedly, for several of my books, my plots were based on simple and one-dimensional ideas, i.e.–a singular and straightforward mini-mart off I-15 combined with a dog named Joey[ii]. Or, could you kill someone with clay flying off your pottery wheel?[iii] Or simply, the beauty of a unique mountain—as in my first novel, Uncle Si’s Secret.

But over time, my writing goals have changed—expanded—one might say “Gotten out of control!” For example, here’s a peek inside the kitchen of my latest. All the images, thoughts, ideas, and accompanying action and symbolism for  Rhodes The-Caretakers. Ingredients for my latest plot:

  • puzzleclipartCreated a character (a villain) in my last Rhodes adventure that I’ve become fond of, and now want him to have a key part in my current story-line. Yes, my mind says, Mugs Nightshade needs to be in the mix somehow,
  • More than once a limo has passed me on I-15, with tinted windows I couldn’t see into, and I wondered who they were transporting. Of course there had to be a mystery involved—not something simple like a celebrity being shuttled from LA to Vegas. No, something more sinister for sure. But then, I also saw a limo on I-40, why, and where could they possibly be headed on I-40? Laughlin maybe? Or doing Route 66 in a limo? Hardly…,
  • Also on I-40—for an extended period of time, dust was flying, huge trucks were coming and going on and off the median strip producing blowing sand—and of course, because of my PSWA awareness, often a highway patrol officer “on guard.” Caltrans was redoing the median strip in our area, which meant grading, clearing, and replacing culvert underpinnings. This situation, I wanted so much to be a key plot/puzzle piece,
  • As if that wasn’t enough, ran into one my town’s volunteer firemen[iv] at the community center, who listens to the channel/band for fires. Goes straight to a person in need—he’s one of the good guys. So, another piece that caught my imagination—I wanted a fire, volunteer firefighters, the devastation caused by that fire, and with murderous intent of an arsonist,
  • Too much Midsomer Murder binge watching also sent me down the imaginary trail of intrigue produced from a “village struggle,” as in many Midsomer plots. I wanted to include something like that…but in my case, are there enough folks in Shiné even to fight over anything? Hmmm,
  • And for sure—another key plot element I wanted was someone from Leiv’s past to arrive in Shiné. Maybe even on the run from a murderer?

ThinkingHeadtoBookEasy putting all that together, right? Just move the puzzle pieces around until they all fit together intriguingly. Ha!

Well—I finally did make it through the plotting puzzle part and put all those piece together to form a plot I’d like to read. Indeed, I’m now about half through with this book—slow writer. But the cake is mixed, and in my mental oven. And now that I’m finished actually bringing the puzzle pieces together, I also wanted to share how grand the feeling is when you’ve fit it all together in a way you like.

Not sure if plotting is a challenge or joy for others, but would love to hear about how your pieces come together. And on the reading front, do you enjoy tricky multi-layered goings on? Or do you prefer when the author just tells the “darn story” and gets it over with!

Thanks for visiting my kitchen-rest-stop on the winding writing-road, and,

Happy reading and writing trails!


[i] Vickie Paulsen, Paula Deel, and Ronnie Shaw. [ii] Reticence of Ravens and Counsel of Ravens [iii] Death of a Perfect Man, and [iv] Larry Menard

Writing a Murder

by Jackie Houchin

 

I began feeding the crows one morning when my Hubby told me that his Cheerios were too stale to eat. I carried the box outside and dumped about a half cup of the O’s in the middle of the street. A friend occasionally throws out stale crackers for birds, so perhaps a few would show up for the cereal.

Halfway to my front door, I turned to look.  A half dozen jet black birds were enjoying breakfast, compliments of moi. I smiled, pleased

IMG_4568A few days later I threw out some stale bread crusts that I’d cut into tiny squares. (I’d hesitated only briefly as the thought of making croutons crossed my mind.) Too much trouble, and besides, maybe my new feathered friends would come again.

They did. Plus a few more.

I bought a cheap 3# bag of kitty kibble and began casting a handful or two out in the street each day. Soon I had eight or nine pecking away. Thinking they needed a bit of protein, I added a bag of raw, unsalted, shelled sunflower seeds to the next kibble bag.  After a month there was a growing murder* of crows waiting patiently for my handout each morning between 6:30 and 7:00.

It was fun.

My actions were not altogether altruistic, however. I’m not a bird lover.  I’d read in several articles that crows often show their gratitude by bringing small gifts for “their” humans. See what a young girl received from “her” crows here. They can also recognize faces (friendly or not) and react to them. For six scary things these cunning creatures can do, click here.

I had visions of coins, golden rings or pins, and yes, even a diamond tennis bracelet.  HA!  Okay, I did get a few Macadamia Nut shells, a small piece of ½ -inch plastic pipe, and – now this is pretty cool – a rose made out of a red pipe cleaner! But no gold and no diamonds.

Once, out of nowhere a flock of seagulls arrived and started eating, pushing the crows to the perimeter.  (Seagulls  are TWICE the size of crows! Seriously!)  I marched out to my driveway and raised my hands to shoo them away.  The sea birds flew off while the crows stayed, unafraid. Casually they walked back to eat what was left. Two came to within three feet of me and cocked their heads this way and that before going back to eat. A thank you?  A closer look at a “friendly” face?

When OSH went out of business I picked up a 5# bag of wild bird seed at a good price and added that to the next two kibble bags.  They really loved that… and told their friends.

IMG_4571 (Edited)Now I have twenty-four black birds each morning. And they are beginning to make a lot of noise if I’m late.  A man down the street came out with hands on hips and frowned at me. Dog walkers give my house that “look” as their dogs pull on their leashes towards the kibble mix.

This has got to stop, I thought one morning.  I will not feed them today. Maybe if  I skip a few days, then a week they’ll stop coming.

The first day they were cool with that. Occasionally I do have to go away early before I can feed them. But the next day, they were pretty loud.  They sit in my Magnolia tree, on the street lamp, and the rooftops of  my and my neighbors’ houses. Some boldly strut on my lawn, close to the porch. When I walk into the street with the kibble others come cruising out of nowhere.

It’s beginning to feel a little creepy.  I worry about stopping the food altogether. So far none have been aggressive, just noisy, but I’ve heard they can swoop and peck. Have a created a monster? Will I experience another kind of murder?

Oh dear! Excuse me, I have to go feed the crows now. I can count well over thirty of them through my window, all eyeing me as I look at them.

Yikes, the bag is getting nearly empty. I must go shopping today!  What would happen if I ran out of kibble!!

 

Writer thinking

Where do writers get their ideas? 

From lots of places, including researching curious facts and from their own experiences. All it takes is a touch of imagination.

To read the “murder” mystery I wrote from my research and experience with these inky birds (and my own imagination), follow this link to my personal blog and the story titled, THE CROW:   https://jackiehouchin2.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/the-crow/

 

*a flock of crows is called a “murder.”

Accent on Character

by G. B. Pool

Talking Mouth

I have mentioned before that “Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story.” It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In a way, it sings. In other words, it brings the story to life.

A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description of same. Through dialogue we discover personality traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than words alone. And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you.

“There’s someone sneaking up behind you. Watch out!”

Got your attention, didn’t it? That’s what dialogue should do.

In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters… intimately. I suggest that you write a biography of at least your principle characters so you know who they are.

First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.

Talking Mouth 2Here is one really cool way to make a character different: Whether he or she is a major or a minor actor in the piece, give him or her an accent. That doesn’t mean you have to write their dialogue all in French or Pig Latin. In fact, too much of a good thing can turn off your readers. But a word or phrase sprinkled in to give the reader a taste of that foreign accent, regional twang, or distinctive way of speaking… speaks volumes.

An accent or even a stutter tells something about the character, at least where he comes from or maybe why she knows so much about French cooking. And it’s fun. It breaks up the monotony of every character sounding alike. A Southern belle would have far more sass that say, a straight-laced New England spinster. And a gal with a lisp can add a little color, especially when she struggles to tell about “a thip thinking in the harbor.” How long will it take for folks to realize there is a ship in distress?

Here are a few examples that might get you in the mood to try an accent:

 

An Accent Enhances the Character:

 In a simple scene where you have a neighbor who makes a guest appearance, why not make her colorful? The first example is a neighbor with no personality. The second example gives her some character.

  1. “Sweetheart, something has happened to your living room. Did you perhaps get another dog?”

vs.

  1. “Honey, somethin’s happened to yer living room. Did ya’ll get another dawg?” (from Hedge Bet)

 

Mexican senoritaHow About a Foreign Accent?

Let’s try Spanish –

The volcano erupted again. “No. No. NO! My Franco no cheat. He best jockey in dee worlds. He no fix dee race. Meester Paul Bradshaw, beeg shot at dee track, pick my Franco to be dee one to give check to Jockey Fund.”            (from Hedge Bet)

 

One thing I do when writing these accents is to put the foreign word or mispronounced (and misspelled) word in italics so the reader gets the hint that the word is supposed to be that way and that I’m not a poor typist or speller. It also makes reading those words a little easier because the reader goes along with the gag.

 

Maybe a Speech Impediment Might Add Character:

Remember, not everyone is Laurence Olivier with a perfect English accent. Take for example a time when your main character encounters someone who is going to give him information. What if she is both colorful in looks as well as speech? This old dear lisps and isn’t exactly a rocket scientist, but boy does she have character.

 

Mouse stopped eating. He must have been rethinking his desire to find the king’s killer. He gazed in the direction Buttons had taken and I think he would have bolted had PJ not spoken.

 

“We never thee what the people in the truckth are doing,” PJ said. “They want uth out on the thtreet or in the front of one of the thtoreth keeping them occupied.”                        (from Only in Hollywood)

 

What about a New England Accent?

Pahk ya cah in the rear so ma customers don’t think we’re bein’ raided,” said the woman.

Harry followed the two women inside. Before Jane looked at the copy of the photo from Evelyn Wright’s passport, she yelled over her shoulder to the L.A. cop, “Shut the doh-wah, honey. Don’t want any vermin gettin’ in the crockery.” (from Closer coming in 2019)

 

Try an accent the next time you want to shake up your dialogue. It brings added interest to your story. And when you “hear” how others speak you just might want to let some of your characters have a go at it. It’s fun and lets you stretch those writing muscles.

Travel

 

 

“I say, ’avin’ an accent is a bit of all right. So ’ave a go at it, guv.”

 

Thanks for dropping by. Write on. G.B. Pool

BREAKDOWN – LOSING THE CULTURAL TIES THAT BIND

Breakdownby Paul D. Marks

As writers we want to convey certain thoughts, emotions and ideas to our readers. To do that we may use literary or historical allusions, scientific and cultural references. And, for the most part, we expect our reader base to have a degree of shared knowledge so that when we mention certain things, anything from Freud and Shakespeare to Billie Holiday or Queen Victoria—who gave her name to a whole era—to the simple phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” they’ll be able to understand what we’re saying and relate to it. And if they don’t know something to hopefully look it up.

 

Unfortunately, our cultural ties-that-bind are breaking down, not being passed on to younger generations. Yes, I know, every generation says this regarding the successive generation. But I think it’s gotten worse in the last few decades. Blame the media or social media, blame the internet, video games, teachers, the educational system, parents, the breakdown of the nuclear family. Blame whatever you want, from whichever side you’re on, but it seems to be true regardless of the cause.

 

For a variety of reasons, younger people today seem very uninformed about history, literature, pop culture (except their own pop culture), high culture and most other things that came before them. And sure, in every generation something gets left behind. When I was a kid I might not have known who Catherine the Great or Katharine Hepburn were. W.E.B. Du Bois or Jorge Luis Borges. Or the difference between Benny Goodman and Beethoven. But eventually they came into my consciousness, because I was curious and because I was exposed to them one way or another. But people today don’t know major figures from the recent past or even from the present. They don’t know what major wars were about or even have a clue as to when—or that—they occurred. And they barely know major figures from the past, who they were and what they did, people like George Washington, FDR. Lincoln. Cesar Chavez. And for many of them it doesn’t seem as if this knowledge ever seeps into their consciousness.

 

CasablancaWhen I was going to pitch meetings in Hollywood, I would start off talking “normally,” as if the people I was pitching to had a shared base of knowledge with me. I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, so I dumbed down my pitches to not include anything that might make them feel insecure or ignorant. Hell, they didn’t even know the great movies, so it was hard to reference them as well. Sure, they’d heard of Casablanca, but most had never seen it. So if I was pitching something that was “a modern day Casablanca,” I had to do it by describing the plot in detail and maybe, or maybe not, throwing in a line about it being a modern day Casablanca.

 

And these were not dumb people; many of them came from and still come from Ivy League schools. Even so, they wouldn’t know such basic things as World War II or who fought on which side in Viet Nam or what the Cold War was and who was on which side there. Or that a “black comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean it has African-American characters. They also might not know basic phrases or expressions, like the one about the camel and the straws mentioned above, so you’d have to explain the meaning to them. Once you have to do that you’ve lost.

 

And this doesn’t only apply to Hollywood people, I’ve run across it talking with psychologists and other professionals while doing research, as well as people I meet in everyday life. Basically many under the age of forty or so, and plenty over forty too. What I’m saying here may be anecdotal, but there have also been studies and “quizzes” that prove the same thing. Some years ago, I remember seeing a questionnaire of, I believe, journalism students, showing how little they knew of the world around them, past and present. I was shocked by it, because if anyone should be curious about history, their history, world history, current events, you’d think it would be journalism students.

 

Many of the great works of literature have biblical references, but again, these people are unaware of them. Hemingway uses biblical allusions in The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises and other works. Moby Dick, considered by many to be the greatest American novel, is filled with them. T.S. Eliot uses them in The Wasteland. And Bob Dylan uses biblical allusions in many songs that would go over most people’s heads today. Even the TV show Lost used biblical and literary influences. I wonder how many in the audience knew what they were or bothered to look them up. How can they know what any of these people are talking about or trying to say if we don’t know what they’re referencing?

Old Books

Shakespeare

 

The same goes for Shakespeare, Greek mythology and other references to great works of the past that our society was built on. Even popular author Stephen King uses biblical and Greek mythology references and foreign phrases in some of his writing.

 

I remember looking up foreign phrases all the time when reading various things. So much so that in the pre-internet days I used to keep both a regular dictionary and a dictionary of foreign phrases close by when I was reading. I would look up references I was unfamiliar with. Pre-internet, I’d also look things up in the Britannica and other reference sources. I wanted to learn all of that and I didn’t feel inferior for not knowing it. But today, even though it’s easier with the internet and hyperlinks, it seems that many people lack the curiosity to expand their horizons.

 

On occasion, I like to use various cultural references in my writing. But if we have to think twice about including such references, it dumbs down our work and society too, as well as the cultural ties that bind us together.

 

When working on scripts, for both film and radio, I was actually told to dumb things down. On a radio show another writer and I were called on the carpet and given a condescending lecture by the producer about using words that were too big…like condescending.  I’m sure it was because he didn’t know what they were.

 

All one has to do is recall Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments to see how little people know, if people today, a few years after he left the Tonight Show, even remember Leno had a show before his cars show. He would show people on the street pictures of Presidents Bush and Obama and many couldn’t recognize them. He would ask simple questions like who is Joe Biden or who crossed the Delaware. And he has said that, contrary to what some believe, they didn’t have to search for “dumb” people. Basically they just went with the first few people they came across, because they didn’t have to search any further. And maybe Jaywalking isn’t scientific, but my own personal experience has borne out those numbers. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they’re apathetic. The why of that is for another article.

 

TelevisionWrapped up in their own little narcissistic worlds, many people don’t know what’s going on in the Ukraine or the Middle East—or across town. They know little about historic figures and literature as well. Of course nobody can know everything, but it seems that a thirst for knowledge has been lost to a great extent and that some people even seem to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. Well, I guess I do that too. Aside from Kim, I can’t name another Kardashian. Aside from Pookie or Gooby or Snookie (hmm, the spell checker didn’t recognize Snookie’s name, but I guess it won’t be too long until it does), I can’t name another Jersey Shoreite—my badges of honor—assuming they’re even still around spreading their own special brand of sunshine.

 

AristotleWhile we have more options than ever for learning, do you think most people are using the net to look up Madame Curie or Plato? Of course there are some bright lights out there like the Khan Academy website where you can take courses on everything from art history to calculus. And Wikipedia is a great resource, but one that has to be used with caution, as a lot of the internet is filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories, celebrity gossip sites and pseudo news websites that are really thinly veiled advertising sites.

 

The use of computers, cell phones, social media and Twitter, etc., have changed the way we interact with each other and the world, along with the fact that, because everyone is so spread out these days, they don’t have their grandparents nearby to pass on that generation’s knowledge. People today have shorter attention spans, don’t want to read long articles, often don’t read about the past or even watch history shows on TV. And, of course, there’s little about literature and history, besides Nazis, on TV. The Discovery Channel shows BattleBots (a lot to discover there) and the Learning Channel runs OutDaughtered. And when there was a Biography Channel and it was actually running biographies (which was rare) they were generally about movie and TV stars of little significance and only once in a while could you find a biography of some truly important historical figure. And these days the Biography Channel has given way to some other amalgamation. But why is this? Well, one can only surmise it’s because people don’t want to learn about “real” people. They want to learn about vapid celebrities or watch superficial reality shows. So the Discovery Channel shows Naked and Afraid and the Biography Channel becomes a PR flack’s best friend. Hey, I watched some of those too, but it’s not all I watch or read.

Broken Computers

All of that said, it goes both ways. I frequently don’t know who this or that “important” person of the current pop culture is. But I also often look them up to see what I’m missing. There are more options today and more niches catering to smaller groups of people and that’s fine. But we still need a shared knowledge of our past, who we were and what makes us who we are.

 

I don’t like writing down to people. I think writers should challenge their readers to want to learn more, look things up, expand their vocabularies and their worlds. The writer needs to challenge them to pick up an encyclopedia, history book, or surf the web beyond the paparazzi photos and cute cat videos (hey, I like them too!). I love using examples from history and literature, etc., in my writing. And I’d hate to see those get lost in the quicksand of lethargy and jaded narcissism that is our society today. There’s more to life than celebrities and more to know than the latest housewives’ gossip and what’s happened just in the span of someone’s conscious memory. There’s more to life than selfies, in both the literal and figurative sense.

 

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And thank you for hosting me, Gayle and the Writers in Residence. I’ve enjoyed being here.

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Broken WindowsBIO: Broken Windows, the sequel to Paul D. Marks’ Shamus Award-winning mystery-thriller White Heat hit the shelves 9/10/18. Publishers Weekly called White Heat a “taut crime yarn” and said of Broken Windows: “Fans of downbeat PI fiction will be satisfied…with Shamus Award winner Marks’s solid sequel to… White Heat.” Though thrillers and set in the 1990s, both novels deal with issues that are hot and relevant today: racism and immigration, respectively. Marks says “Broken Windows holds up a prism from which we can view the events burning up today’s headlines, like the passionate immigration debate,

White Heatthrough the lens of the recent past. It all comes down to the saying we know so well, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.” His short stories appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, among others, and have won or been nominated for many awards, including the Anthony, Derringer and Macavity. His story “Windward,” has been selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, and has also been nominated for both a 2018 Shamus Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. He is co-editor of the multi-award nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. www.PaulDMarks.com

 

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Posted for Paul D. Marks by Gayle Bartos-Pool. Thanks for joining us today, Paul, and for your words of wisdom.

Old Ideas–Love ‘Em!

By Linda O. Johnston

Typewriter and desk What do writers do with old ideas?  That depends!

 As I mentioned last time I was here, I have been fortunate enough to be traditionally published a lot.  But that doesn’t mean that every idea I had made it into a book, or even a novella or short story.

 When I started writing–well, when I really started writing, as a kid, I had to type things up on a typewriter.  What’s that, some of you ask?  It’s the forerunner of our computers and high tech gadgets of today.  Even when I started writing on a computer, it was easier to keep printed copies of my ideas and how I’d fleshed them out into at least the beginning of stories.  Could I have saved them on disks and other techie devices?  Yes, I did that too, some of the time.  But it seemed easier then to hang on to stuff that I’d sent to my printer. 

Computer files And now, my mind remains full of ideas, and I’m always creating new computer files to keep track of them, even if their only existence remains in idea files that I struggle to ensure are backed up, just in case I turn back to them ready to write.  I organize them in general topics–some for mysteries, some for romances, some combined, and lots involving dogs.  And yes, there are others that don’t fit into those categories.

So why am I thinking about this now?  Well, I was communicating recently with a really nice business associate.  She’d recently gone somewhere and seen some wild dolphins. 

Save the Dolphins Which reminded me of one of my earliest ideas that I’m still highly fond of.  Yes, it involved dolphins.  And I thought back then that it would be one of my most cherished published novels someday.  Only… it didn’t get published.  It didn’t even get fully written.  The good thing was that my story’s concept involved changing the world so that no dolphins got killed in tuna nets, as they did in huge numbers when I started the story.  And lo and behold, some of the laws actually changed while I was writing it.  Did the change save all dolphins?  No.  Sure, more dolphins were saved than before.  But the change wasn’t international, and even in waters near here, in the U.S., the protections weren’t perfect, so not all dolphins were saved from that kind of murder.  But my concept wouldn’t have made sense any longer.

 Even so, that’s still a treasured idea.  I’m delighted, though, that the main reason I walked away from it was a really good one–that dolphins actually were at least somewhat protected.

Storage boxes Could I do something different with it now?  Maybe–and the fact that the idea is now back toward the front of my brain at least means it’s scratching at my skull.  But what about all those other ideas I’ve had over the years–like some involving dogs that I began, then elbowed aside because of other stories I was writing that I received contracts for?

 Okay, that’s really part of the fun of being a writer.  Our minds are always working and coming up with ideas and creating scenarios and… Well, you get it, especially if you’re a writer. 

 So… tell us here about some of your old ideas that never made it into a finished work– and what became of them.

Thanks for dropping by,  Linda O. Johnston

 

Pick and ChewsBad to the Bone