“A Cruel Blessing” a Ballad

by Jackie Houchin

                 I know this is an unusual post, but in this time of lock-down, I’ve not been able to focus on writing anything new. So I’m presenting this Ballad I wrote for a Creative Writing class at Glendale Community College. I’ve tried to publish it, but no one will take this many stanzas (27), although one of the lines is only ONE word. Can you find it?  And it’s less than 600 words. 

                This ballad is based on a real person I knew, a man who had Grand Mal epilepsy.  

 

“A Cruel Blessing”

 

In olden days, the ancient Land

Of Ararat became

The birthplace of a first born son—

So beautiful, but lame.

 

The lameness was inside of him,

A sleeping fiend, unseen,

That would attack and seize him fast

Once he became a teen.

 

But now, the babe lay peacefully

Against his mother’s breast,

And drank her nectar, white and rich,

And safely took his rest.

 

They double blessed and named the boy

Vartan and Victory.

Then sprinkled him with holy oil

To seal his destiny.

 

A close-knit tribe, his kin instilled

Within their growing child,

A pride of place, and heritage,

A name kept undefiled.

 

The father taught Vartan to war,

Retaliate, defend,

And laid in Victory the love

Of truth, and God and friend.

 

The mother gave him nourishment

To make him strong of limb.

Likewise, the food for soul and mind

She gently forced within.

 

Then on their son they placed this grave

Responsibility,

“The future of this clan does rest

On your integrity.”

 

Relentlessly the clock of months

Ticked thirteen times around.

Vartan approached his manhood proud,

A prince as yet uncrowned.

 

But on his honored day there struck

A death – so fresh, so raw.

The gruesome end of one most dear

Was what young Vartan saw.

 

Then deep within the boy-man’s frame

An aura and a flash

Preceded tremors, shakes and quakes,

A weakness, then a crash.

 

Like frozen forms the family

Around the crumpled lad

Took in with shock and fright the sight,

And wailed, “Our son is mad!”

 

They mourned the loss of hopes and dreams,

(As well, the one so dear),

And wake became a vigil grim;

A sick bed and a bier.

 

Vartan lay still as death that night;

The other’s corpse quite close.

At dawn they lowered bones below,

But Victory arose!

 

A celebration wild with joy

Then met the rising son.

They dared to hope that only once

The dreadful foe had won.

 

Forgotten soon the grievous curse

As manly, Vartan grew.

A wanton woman caught his eye,

Then taught him all she knew.

 

But in the rush of ecstasy

The pleasures turned to pains.

He screamed, convulsed, then toppled down

Amidst a dozen stains.

 

In shame they found the fallen oak

And slowly hauled him home.

Beside the hearth, he warmed and woke

With kin, but all alone.

 

A disciplined and structured life

He thought would bring release.

Vartan desired glory bright,

But Victory sought peace.

 

So in the frozen, northern wastes

A soldier he became.

And hardship burned the dross from him;

A cruel and thorough flame.

 

But still, in light-less days he fell

A victim to his plight.

And so there came to dwell in him

A darkness more than night.

 

A disciplined and structured life—

This time, a different kind;

In solitude and quietness

Release he’d surely find.

 

So to the Church, went Victory.

He knelt, and prayed and read.

Now sixty months of sanity

Have eased his tortured head.

 

A Holy Man, a Prophet true

Is what he’s meant to be.

For holy oil had marked him thus,

And sealed his destiny.

 

Now from the monastery, he

Speaks out the Truth he’s learned,

And prays forgiveness from his kin

For hopes and dreams he’s spurned.

 

For from Vartan no seed will flow

To populate the clan,

And to defend the name and place

There’s no one who will stand.

 

But, praise! The sleeping fiend has fled—

It dared not seize a priest!

So God and Church held Vartan in…

And Victory released.

Vartan 2

Vartan woman

Vartan 3

Vartan monestary

 

  • * * * * *

 

 

 

 

How to Write a Humorous Book (a not-very-serious version)

An Author Guest Post by Marc Jedel

People always ask me about my writing process for my humorous murder mystery series. They’re interested in how I get the ideas and how these turn into a novel. “Magic,” I tell them, but that rarely suffices. Some authors seem to swim in an endless pool of plots and characters, effortlessly plucking out one plot twist or character arc after another until they’ve burned through their keyboard.

Not me.

So how does it work for me?

Research. That’s a fancy term for my process. I start by collecting funny anecdotes, interesting people or snatches of overheard conversations. Back in the days when I used to leave my house, I would add notes to my phone about what I saw in daily life. (Don’t worry if you see me hanging around now, I’ll be wearing a mask.) I also change the names and exaggerate—or combine—the incidents to protect the guilty.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that I pay much more attention to my surroundings than I ever did. I also have become more willing to approach strangers and ask them questions. Who’d have expected that the solitary life of a writer would make me more social?

Plot. As plot ideas smack me in the face, I jot them down before I forget. My extensive study of bestselling books clearly highlighted the importance of having a plot. All those other successful authors must be on to something. I try to come up with ideas for challenges to throw at Marty (my protagonist) and then think about how he might solve the case despite those problems through his powers of self-delusion, attention to detail, and the inability to leave a coherent voicemail message.

Characters. Once I developed the concepts for a few of my regular characters, I find myself wondering how to make life more difficult for them during the course of the book and how they’d react to unexpected situations. Having my novels take place over the course of about a week has been a deliberate approach to force myself to increase the pace and make the characters act and react more often.

Humor. By setting up an imperfect character who’s not particularly good at the one thing the reader expects him to achieve in the story, and then making his life hectic, I’ve found plenty of opportunities for situational humor. Personally, I’ve always been better at coming up with a quick, funny comment in the moment than telling canned jokes. I can never remember punchlines so there’s no chance of my doing standup comedy even if I were funny enough.

Dad Jokes, Puns, Shakespeare Lines and Lyrics as Humor. These make me laugh as I’m writing my stories. Writing can be a long and lonely process, and editing even more boring. My dog is great company but not the best conversationalist so I have to entertain myself as I go. Sometimes that spontaneity happened months ago and I wrote it down and sometimes it comes to me as I’m writing. Typically, the use, or misuse, of parts of music lyrics as dialogue hits me on the spot. Same for most of the puns. Fortunately for readers, my editor is awesome and she removes the attempts at humor that aren’t quite funny enough.

A while back I read a good article about famous Shakespeare put-downs and quotes. That gave me the idea to develop a key character in my third novel, SERF AND TURF, who plays the Bard in Renaissance Faires and tries to use Shakespeare’s quotes whenever possible. He wound up as a fun character who starts off as a suspect and winds up … well, you’ll have to read the book.

Outline. Some writers are ‘pantsers’. This means they fly by the seat of their pants, writing without a detailed plan. Not that they wear pants. Some authors probably do wear pants when they write. That’s kind of a personal question best unasked of an author, especially in these days of shelter-in-place.

I outline. I admit to it. If I didn’t, I’d still be trying to figure out how the book would end, or who gets killed. Creating an outline with each scene on one line of a spreadsheet helps me to look at holes, try to spread out when different side characters show up, and make sure the action keeps moving forward at a good clip. Then I go through all my notes and put most of the notes into the relevant scene so I can include all the right amount of humor as well as balance tense vs wacky situations. Once that’s done, there are no more excuses. It’s time for the next stage.

Write and Edit. This part sounds simple — write, edit, repeat.  Eventually magic makes it good.

My books in the Silicon Valley Mystery series, starting with Uncle and Ants, are humorous murder mysteries. The first three are available as audiobooks from Tantor Audio almost everywhere that audiobooks are sold. The books can be read standalone but I think you’d enjoy reading all 4 of them—and probably enjoy it even more if you buy copies for everyone you know. I know I would.

Silicon Valley is not your typical cozy mystery locale and Marty Golden doesn’t fit the normal profile of a mystery protagonist. Despite finding himself thrust into challenging situations, Marty isn’t exactly hero material. He brings a combination of wit, irreverent humor and sarcasm mixed in with nerdy insecurities, absent-mindedness, and fumbling but effective amateur sleuthing skills. With an active inner voice and not a lot of advanced planning, he throws himself into solving problems. Sometimes, he even succeeds.

Hit and Mist, book 4, was just released on May 8 and can also be read standalone. The books are free to Kindle Unlimited readers. Buy them on Amazon at: amazon.com/gp/product/B07PHNT7XM.  For more about my books or me, please visit www.marcjedel.com.

*****

Bio for Marc Jedel

Marc JadellMarc Jedel writes humorous murder mysteries. He credits his years of marketing leadership positions in Silicon Valley for honing his writing skills. While his high-tech marketing roles involved crafting plenty of fiction, these were just called emails, ads, and marketing collateral.

For most of Marc’s life, he’s been inventing stories. Some, especially when he was young, involved his sister as the villain. As his sister’s brother for her entire life, he feels highly qualified to tell tales of the evolving, quirky sibling relationship in the Silicon Valley Mystery series.

The publication of Marc’s first novel, UNCLE AND ANTS, gave him permission to claim “author” as his job. This leads to much more interesting conversations than answering, “marketing.” Becoming an Amazon best-selling author has only made him more insufferable.

Family and friends would tell you that the protagonist in his stories, Marty Golden, isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination for Marc, but he accepts that.

Like Marty, Marc lives in Silicon Valley where he can’t believe that normal people would willingly jump out of an airplane. Unlike Marty, Marc has a wonderful wife and a neurotic but sweet, small dog, who is often the first to weigh in on the humor in his writing.

Visit his website, marcjedel.com, for free chapters of novels, special offers, and more.

Uncles ants    Chutes Ladders    Serf Turf   Hit and Mist

 

(To read my review of Serf and Turf, click here)

 

 

 

This article was posted for Marc Jedel by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

Writing From Jeopardy!

by Sarah Beach

In 1990, I was hunting for my first job in the film & television industry, after spending about six years getting used to living in Los Angeles. I had social circles, a church home, and after four and a half years working at the County Law Library and then several months doing temp work, I finally got what seemed like a good prospect for an entry level job.

It was a blind ad in one of the trade papers, the Hollywood Reporter. “Wanted: researcher for quiz show. Send resume and cover letter to PO Box.” It gave the address. There was nothing more than that. I looked at that and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” After all, I had two degrees in English, which had included doing a lot of research on my own, for my own writing projects. And then there was over eight years of working in libraries, first at the University of Texas at Austin, and then the Law Library. Resume and cover letter were sent in, and then more temp work while waiting to hear anything back.

Then came the call: “This is Jeopardy! Can you come take the contestant test and a proofreading test on Saturday morning?” You bet I could! (Actually, I was very thankful it was on a Saturday. At that week, my temp job was full time weekdays and I would have been hard put to skip any work.) I showed up at the test location, and there were maybe 60 or so people sitting waiting. One guy looked around, fascinated, who said, “Are these all the people who answered the ad?” I don’t recall if I actually answered out loud, but I certainly thought, “No. These are just the people they called in based on the resumes and letters.” Once we filed into the testing location, it was explained to us that the producer was looking for people who were at least as smart as the show’s contestants.

Once the testing was done, we were let go, and then came another waiting period. By the time I got a call to come in for an interview, my temp job had been cut back to part time, so I was able to schedule my interview without losing any work time. I thought the interview went well, because certainly the prospect of working for the show had great appeal.

I like to think that my closing line of the interview helped cap it for me: I told the head writer that I was an info-junky, that I liked to collect fascinating information of all sorts.

A couple of weeks later, the last day of my temp job, in fact, I got a call from the producer. He told me the starting pay (precisely the minimum amount I had calculated I would need to meet my living expenses), and I said okay to that. He asked if I could start on Monday. And I said absolutely. So from doing temp work, I stepped straight into what is almost the only secure job on Hollywood, working for the quiz show Jeopardy! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title, which is trademarked).

The hallmark of Jeopardy! and what makes the audience trust it so much, is the level of attention paid to getting the facts correct. Everything, every little factoid in the clues is double sourced. In the office, the by-word was “There is no such thing as common knowledge.” Things like “Paris is the capital of France” were double sourced from two independent sources (usually something like an encyclopedia and an almanac). Only direct sources (quoting directly from a literary work, for instance) could be single sourced. So, a quote from Bartlett’s was not allowed to stand on its own, you had to find the original source (preferably) or another non-Bartlett’s quotation source.

On any particular day, as a researcher, I could be delving into five to seven different categories which could cover anything from Shakespeare movies to astrophysics to word play to the Crimean War. The object was to make sure the writers had read their original source correctly (they only had to cite the sources they used for their clues, the researchers had to find the second sources to verify the information). Then off we went to make sure everything passed muster. Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t.

So how does this affect someone as a writer, outside of those specifically formulated clues for the quiz show?

As I had said in my job interview, I am an info-junky. I like learning things, and many of those little side bits of information have found their way into my own fiction. A day reading about plasma energy ended up giving some background to a science fiction story I was working on. I learned little tid-bits about stamp collecting and coin collecting that could be used in mystery stories. Researching a popular legend about an English historical figure for a game category ended up inspiring a novel I am currently working on (now, several years after leaving the show). Any writer should spend some time just wandering through encyclopedias, or other collections of information. Staying stuck in your own interests can leave you much too predictable in your choices as a writer.

But another thing those years working on the show did for me was really hone my research skills. I learned how to focus in on the points I needed to learn, and how to find them. Instead of trying to do all the research upfront for a novel, do the basic stuff that you need (details of locations, basic attire, diet, and such) and then get on with telling your story. If you reach a point where you want to add something, then you can stop and do spot research for those particular elements.

For instance, that novel I mentioned I’m currently working on: it’s set in the spring, in the medieval period, in England. I wanted to have a scene where an orchard of trees was in bloom, with wildflowers rampant in the grass below. All of a sudden I went, “Oops, I know about the date I have this story going. Are the apple trees in bloom yet, or do they bloom later – or worse, earlier?” Research ahoy! Turns out, those trees would indeed be blooming just as I needed them. Elsewhere at one point, I was going to have my female main character prepare for a feast, and I was thinking she’d put on a velvet gown. But then I went, “Wait. When did velvet come to England? What was it made of? Would she have had velvet?” Turns out, not likely. Fine wool it is, then. Not rough stuff, but tightly spun, tightly woven, high quality wool, dyed black. “Oops, wait again. What cloth dyes were available?” More research required on medieval dyes in England.

While I worked on the show, I often told people it was a great job for a writer who was not yet making a living from their writing. I looked at more material than I would have if left to my own devices. And I have pretty broad, eclectic interests. 

The other thing about working on the show that greatly influenced my writing was learning the importance of choosing the right word. Not just the most evocative one, but the most accurate. In a Jeopardy! clue, the wrong wording can throw the whole thing into inaccuracy. But also, word choice can influence the implications of what is being said. Do you mean this to be cast in a negative light, or in a positive one? How you choose to word something can make a great deal of difference about where your Reader’s mind goes. Do you mean to imply that your hero feels contempt toward the women he meets? If not, be careful about saying that he “smirks” at them, when all you really mean is that he is smiling. If you want him to be really vicious about it, then say he “sneers” at them.

Close is not good enough for storytelling. You are trying to weave a spell over your audience, ensnare them in the world of your tale, shutting out the “real world” for a time. Choosing the right word, with the right tone and connotation is important.

In conjunction with that, pay attention to the casual language you give your characters. It is very easy for our everyday idioms to creep into our writing when we are caught up in our first draft. We don’t always register when it happens. “Okay” is a prime example of this: it’s very modern and very American. “Plugging into” something belongs to the age of electricity and afterward. Not knowing the source of idioms is what gives us people writing things like “give free reign” to mean giving someone a wide open choice. Unfortunately, the proper phrase is “give free rein”, which literally mean to let the horse run where it would. To “reign” is to rule, and so “to give free reign” is actually a bit contradictory.

Eventually, the time came for me to get out of Jeopardy! and I moved on. It was a great job to have, and made a big difference for me as a writer.

   * * *

About the Author

Color headshot

Now residing in Las Vegas, I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when 16. After getting my Masters degree in English, I moved to Hollywood, because of the high demand for Medievalists (NOT!). As a freelance writer and editor, I find that Nevada offers better conditions for the wallet. I love writing all sorts of things, and occasionally also create some artwork.

Visit Sarah’s Website here

 

 

This article was posted for Sarah Beach by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)