Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

Agent Orange


Orange can be beautiful

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now…at least two years! And that’s the give-a-way isn’t it? Two years. At this point in time, anyone who mentions the past two years is most assuredly referencing the presidency of Donald J. Trump—which is exactly what I’m doing.

The question that interests me is how can we writers use the current political situation in our novels, stories, poems? There is a sizable non-fiction library already out there. Beginning with Fire and Fury, (I loved it.) and most recently The Commander in Cheat, a book I highly recommend. In between the two, you have, among many others, e.g., Bob Woodward’s excellent work: Fear. So the thought struck home, what about fiction?

What indeed? I’m going to list some topics that I believe may work as plots for whole novels or subplots within novels or short stories or indeed, poems that tackle such themes as power, dominance, authority, control, truth, deception, the list goes on and on.

In regard to the criticism that all of these topics have already been written about—well of course they have. Everything has been written about! It’s how you dress these ideas that will make them your own.

Plots for writers of Dystopian novels:

Three fascist dictators (think Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong-un) publicly conspire to wage war against each other but in fact bomb key cities the world over, setting in motion their ruthless plan to rule the earth. Each dictator secretly intends to kill the other two.

An American journalist, by way of a digital anomaly, receives a highly secretive document that reveals a plot hatched among the President and select congressmen to destroy American Democracy. The document reveals a violent take-over of liberal media (enemy of the people) networks.

A novel centered around a liberal-activist family who, while hosting a neighborhood barbecue for their like-minded friends, hear that several cable newscasters (think Anderson Cooper, Ari Melber, Van Jones, and Rachel Maddow) have all been arrested for “high crimes and treason” and their whereabouts unknown. And in the next twenty-four hours MSNBC and CNN become pro-Republican networks?

Any of the above could be plotted as a Sci Fi or even Fantasy novels. Power is power, right?

Plots for YA novels:

A freshman college student sends pics to her mother, an analyst who works for the CIA, that show FBI agents pushing several liberal professors into unmarked black vans on her college campus. And then the student’s phone goes blank.

A young teen couple who ride out to their favorite “spot” to be alone and witness a group of fundamentalists marching out of a church carrying torches and guns.

A junior high school girl realizes her boyfriend has no problem lying about his past as he desperately campaigns for president of the senior class.

A young man believes his pastor, who preaches that global warming is fake news, until he finds out that the preacher is secretly using church funds to build an expensive retainer wall around an exclusive park area that he owns. The wall will effectively hold back rising tides due to global warming, while allowing total flooding of contiguous working-class properties.

Plots for Literary novels:

The Trump presidency offers up tons of themes around which any number of novels could be penned. Here are a few suggestions.

Political rhetoric vs reality

Hatred as a motivating force

Dehumanizing the “other” engenders or reveals the dehumanization of the aggressor

Domination is weakness.

Capitalism’s miracle commodity: ignorance.

The fundamentalist notion that Evil is acceptable when it works toward an imagined good.

So what do you think? As you watch the news, do you find yourself mulling over things to write? Has the Trump presidency already made an appearance in your current work in progress? I look forward to hearing from you.

Sad Note:

Last night as I was finishing this post, I saw the online news of the latest school shooting. The young man, Kendrick Castillo, of Hispanic descent, threw himself at the shooter, saving his classmates and died as a result.

At a Florida rally, a supporter responded to Trump’s railing against Hispanic migrants with the following remark:

“Shoot them.”

Trump laughed

What’s your Brand? I don’t know, what’s yours?


Lately, I’ve been thinking about the issue of “Building my Author Brand.” I’ve read several articles on this sort of thing, but I’ve yet to do it—i.e., construct the Brand that will identify me as a writer. At any rate, I thought about it this morning, and of course like all writers, my mind began to wonder a bit and hence this dialogue. I hope you enjoy it.

 CRUEL AGENT: What’s your Platform? (He looks at you the same way he looked at the homeless person outside the building—the one with the upside down MAGA hat on the sidewalk.)

YOU: Uhm, well, I have a blog.

CRUEL AGENT: Is that a fact?

YOU: Yes sir. (You always used sir as a sign of respect—being a country person and all.)

CRUEL AGENT: (Bored) How many followers?

YOU: Oh, let’s see maybe a couple hundred. Well, (looking up and to the right. Something you’d told yourself not to do because it means you’re lying…which is exactly what you’re doing.) could be more than that, because a lot of them are, you know, car dealers and insurance companies, and stuff. Yeah, more like a thousand.

CRUEL AGENT (Leaning back in his chair.) What’s your brand?

(If it wasn’t a smoke-free building, he’d probably light up. It’s a cigarette pose. You want to remember that for your next novel.)

YOU: (Deer in the headlights.) Brand?

CRUEL AGENT: You do have a Brand don’t you? (Stares at you with open mouth—totally derisive. The same way your ex looked at you upon realizing you’re broke.)

YOU: Sure, of course. (Wracking your brain for a brand.) Well, I’m not a sci fi, or mystery writer. I think my brand will have something to do with uhm…I want to write literature, so something literary?

CRUEL AGENT: You need a Brand. Something that LABELS you. IDENTIFIES you.

YOU: Yes, of course. No, I realize that. I mean…sure.

CRUEL AGENT: We can do that for you, right here and now. You want a Brand?”

YOU: (Brightening.) Sure. (You look down at the manuscript in the leather portfolio in your lap. When you look up, your agent is lighting a cigarette off a brand of red-hot steel. You hear a sizzling.) Oh?

CRUEL AGENT: Bare the hip. It won’t hurt—much.

HOMELESS MAN: (Watching you run down the sidewalk screaming.) That’s number seventeen for the week—a record. (Shouts.) Could-a left me some coins!


As you can see, I’m having a lot of fun mulling over this branding business, but I suppose at some point I have to get serious and do it.

Have you constructed your Brand? Have you thought about it? What sort of problems have you faced when you pondered the notion of “how people will identify your creative output?” Look forward to hearing from you.

The OED and Me


Some time ago, I purchase a 1972 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: all thirteen volumes. I even built a special stand for them. (Shown above. My dear wife, Sadako, did the felt cover on the top shelf–so they can rest comfortably.)

I love these books. Not so much though that I intend to read the whole work, as did Ammon Shea, in one year, and then wrote a book about it: Reading the OED. I did read his account of reading the OED. So, let’s move on.

The British poet, W. H. Auden, was asked what one book he’d wish to have if stranded on a remote and uninhabited island. He responded without hesitation, “the OED.” I believe I understand this fascination with the world’s greatest dictionary of the English language. Here’s why.

A few months back, I was working on my novel—I’m currently slaving away on the second draft. Early on in the narrative, my female protagonist begins a relationship with a young man. For her, one of the most fascinating aspects of his character is that he quotes poetry. The first instance of this occurs when he delivers the whole of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem: There is no Frigate Like a Book.

Now, while I am familiar with the poem, I can’t recall each and every line from memory, so I did the next best thing—I Googled it. I pasted the poem into the scene and immediately became interested in lines 5-6:

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

I got up and pulled the T-U volume. One downside of this multi-volume dictionary is that one can’t easily pile all twelve volumes next to the keyboard. That’s why I built the stand, but I still have to lug the heavy book to the desk. It’s a small price to pay.

I looked up traverse. I knew it meant to move through a place, but what I didn’t know, and the OED pointed in a bracketed note, was another meaning:

“Traverse, a toll paid for passing through the limits of a town or lordship.” And from the 1852 Hull Shipping Dues Act 2209, we learn that “Certain tolls are…Toll Traverse.”

Dickinson’s poem There is no Frigate Like a Book was written in 1853.

I had not known beforehand the relationship between the words Traverse and Toll. The OED gives us these remarkable and often illuminating examples from known, as well as obscure, sources, that add depth to our understanding of words and their historical usage.

The dated, usage samples listed in the OED are priceless, and I often find myself studying those more than the definitions. Admittedly this knowledge didn’t help me one whit with my novel, but it made me feel better, stronger somehow.

Oh, and I recently came across this word: canorous. It means Singing, melodious, musical; resonant, ringing. One of the stated examples is from Thomas DeQuincey’s famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: A long, loud, and canorous peal of laughter.

Hmm, maybe I can find a place for canorous in my novel…we’ll see.

A quick note: I don’t always use the OED. I more often than not work with the smaller and more manageable Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

Do you find yourself on occasion thumbing through the pages of your good, old dictionary and finding some nice surprises?

Writing Technology



Many of us writers, including myself, have written on current issues regarding electronic communication networks. We have delved into our love/hate relationship with the world of hi-tech: the wonder of it all—the speed, the ease of use, the universe at your fingertips, as opposed to the horror of it all—the waste of time, the manic distractions, digital unreality.

Today I’d like to discuss even yet another dimension we writers must deal with and that is: writing technology. For example, I’ve just completed a scene in my novel (I’m working on a 2nd draft revision.) that involves I-phone use.

The scene had to do with the heroine having to use an incapacitated person’s cell phone to make a 911 call. She needs to use his phone because her own phone battery is dead, and she has misplaced her charge cord…something I do all the time. She’s not at her own home, so the missing cord is her only charge method. Now here’s where it gets complicated character-wise. At first, I was going to have her NOT call 911, but I quickly realized that was out of character. She has her flaws, but for her not to call 911, even when the incapacitated person is reprehensible, would flip her moral compass to the extreme. So, she must call, and she does.

Enter the plot problem. I’m working with a two-year old first draft. I had forgotten what comes next. In my first draft, she doesn’t call. She asks her ex-boyfriend to call. And now I realize that to avoid my heroine from looking like one who is a moral coward, I need her to make that call, but I also need her, for the sake of my plot, to ask her boyfriend to make the call. What to do?

Google to the rescue. I Google “911 calls that fail.” It turns out that 911 has yet to be able to locate all cell phone calls as opposed to landline calls, especially in rural areas—such as my heroine’s. It all works out. She makes the 911 call. The 911 rings—stops, and a CALL FAILED message pops up on the screen. So now, she must call her ex, (which is what I want her to do) and ask him to make the 911 call on his landline. Whew!

After writing this scene, I realized just how much of this novel, set in 2019, has required use of current technology from I-phone use, including Skype and FaceTime to Television-computer-telephone hook ups and everything in between.

Here’s a real-life narrative. Some years ago, I was involved in a relationship with a woman who professed herself to be a Republican, Christian, conservative. Upon her first visit to my humble home in Mississippi, she let me know that it was a major disappointment. My home was not up to her high standards. Her two children from a previous marriage, both in their early teens, did not agree but knew better to argue. They left after two contentious days of bickering, back-biting, and arguing. I remember my epiphany: that the relationship was headed south. I waved good-bye as she pulled out onto the highway. Back inside, I poured a hefty glass of Merlot from the bottle I had hidden during her short visit. I picked up my remote to check the weather on my 52” flat screen. What immediately popped up was GOD TV. Until her visit I had no idea such a thing existed. It was all she watched. I hit the channel button—nothing happened. I hit it again. Again. Again. To my horror, I realized she, or her tech-savvy, fifteen-year old daughter, had locked my television on GOD TV. I had no idea what to do. I called a good friend who told me to pull the plug wait a few seconds then plug it back in. The TV would reset to its default position. I did, and it worked. I used this real-life episode in my novel.

So, have you found yourself in a tech-related plot problem? How did it turn out? I hope to hear from you.

The Media Center, a.k.a. The Library

Decatur has opened a new high school: Austin High.

The new high school had an “open house” for the public a few months back, and my wife and I decided it would be interesting to go see how it looks. How is it different from schools of ancient times, that is to say, when we were teens? I was also curious from a writer’s standpoint. I was, at the time, rewriting the chapter where my biology teacher protagonist is wrapping up her school year and cleaning up her science lab; hence, I definitely wanted to check out the science lab. We found it quite easily.




Sadako’s first comment was: “It looks like the science lab I went to.” I could only agree. It looked exactly like every high school science lab I had ever seen. There were maybe six or seven stations with black tops. (We had those in 1966.) Each station included a sink, water spout and a gas line. There was a line of storage cabinets along the wall. Cabinets no one could reach.

We moved on. The gymnasium was nice—but again, no surprises. Classrooms were…classrooms. The seating for students was interesting. The two-seater desks seem to suggest collaborative effort, which is a good thing. I thought the plant and the lamp on the teacher’s desk gave the room a nice homey touch. What I felt was a bit odd was  that in every classroom, as seen in the Math classroom below, hung a rather large American flag. Is the jingoism necessary? Do our millennial students need to be told every second of the day that this is America? It just seems a bit much.

After peering into several classrooms, (They were all the same.) we decided to visit the school library. It was not easy to find. We had to ask several students who were stationed at strategic points. “Where’s the library?”

“Oh, you mean the Media Center.”

“Ah.” We were pointed in a general direction. And after a few wrong turns…we found it.

Dear friends, dear blogger friends, let us join hands and bow our heads and grieve together. How sad it was. How disappointing. How utterly pathetic. Words fail me….


As you can see, books are NOT the emphasis here. In fact just to look at the titles you have practically crawl on your hands and knees.  The tables that seat five students have computer hook ups. I’m not sure if that means that students bring their own laptops or if the school provides such, I don’t know.

The wall of windows is interesting. I think its purpose is for students to hand signal each other—that it’s time to go!

I took a “closer look” at the books themselves. A general subject section revealed a very cozy set of books. For instance, one can see the engaging title: Thanksgiving by Appelbaum. Now whether or not a millennial student is hot to check that one out, I can’t say, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


But let’s move on to the literary section.


This was a hoot. I was happy to see Joseph Conrad’s collection of stories, but why is it sitting next to Toni Morrison’s two novels: Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye? And why are Toni Morrison’s works next to Heller’s Catch 22? And then, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, which was published in 1980. Authored by Margaret Craven, it’s a novel that chronicles life of Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Okay. The fact is the books are a hodgepodge, hit or miss collection, all out of order, as if they were simply shoved onto the shelf straight out of the moving boxes, revealing the obvious fact: nobody gives a damn.

Sadako called my attention to a Japanese novel. I rushed over to see if they had my favorite author, Yasunari Kawabata. No, they didn’t. They had a manga.


High School Debut. As you see it addresses the question: Who doesn’t need a love “coach” in high school? It looked as if it had been checked out quite often!

The sad fact is, in this particular high school, grades ten through twelve, the library, whoops, Media Center, is not a place that even remotely encourages the reading of books. If I were a student would I choose to read High School Debut over, say, Toni Morrison or Joseph Conrad? Of course I would. That’s my point. I had teachers who could and did direct my reading because I didn’t know what was out there. I don’t have a problem with a student reading High School Debut but I also want them to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings or Native Son by Richard Wright. Is it too much to ask?

What are your thoughts on the purpose or need for a school library? Should it be there or abolished altogether?


Troubled Times


But then, when were we ever NOT in “troubled times”? The thirties and forties? Depression and World War. The fifties? Racism and McCarthyism. The sixties? Assassinations and Vietnam. The seventies? Drugs and serial killers. The eighties? I don’t even remember the eighties. The nineties? Techie Takeover. The millennium? Okay, okay. It’s a hard life.

So here we are: September 2018, with our Democracy standing on the razor’s edge. Will we survive this insanity? Or will we slowly? quickly? descend into a fascist state? I agree with Michael Moore, I don’t think it’s impossible. We all get up, make ready for the day, drink our coffee, watch the depressing news, get into our cars, and for one reason or the other, sally forth into the world. Can this typical day come to an end? Yes, it can.

The idea—imagined or otherwise—of a normal life style coming to an end is what we writers write about. It’s the only thing we write about. We know this intuitively. Someone dies or doesn’t! Someone travels or not; answers a call or hangs up; falls in love or gets dumped; gets married or divorced; or as recently in my case, receives a notification.

I got a letter from my pharmacy. Here’s the situation. I take two pills every morning: one for high blood pressure, Valsartan, and another for some mysterious pain in my back. For all I know that pill is a placebo. At any rate, the letter stated that my current high blood pressure medicine, Valsartan, “may be linked to risks of developing cancer.” It went on to say that “short term use is low” for developing any health issues. I’ve been taking the damned thing for ten years…Jesus. So, I responded as you might expect. I FREAKED OUT! Especially when the letter stated, “patients taking the recalled Valsartan medicine should continue taking their medicine until they have a replacement.

Oh, right, just keep taking the killer pill “that’s linked to risks” until they figure out what to do. Great idea. Thank you for that winsome advice. So, I staggered like a doomed duck from one room to the other.  What to do? What to do? I finally settled down and re-read the letter. There was a website I could go to and check whether or not the big pharma lab that made MY med was one that had produced the “compromised” Valsartan. I did just that.

The company listed on the bottle is Alembic. I’ve never heard of them. It turns out that Alembic’s Valsartan is okay. It doesn’t contain the carcinogenic element. Well, that was good news. I still have about two weeks left of the current pills, so I keep taking them. I do feel better. I feel much better.

I finish the pills. I get a notification from my drugstore. The other prescription is ready, but the Valsartan isn’t ready. I ask about that. The druggist says my “care giver didn’t call it in.” I felt like being sarcastic, but I meekly tell him thank you. I’ll go to the doctor’s office and see what’s going on. I do that—post-haste.

The receptionist behind the window in the crowded waiting room tells me that Valsartan isn’t listed on my chart or whatever she’s looking at. I respond (nicely, politely) informing her that I’ve been taking it for years. “It’s not there,” she says. Then she tells me that I was supposed to have come in for a check-up back in June.

WTF is she talking about? I tell her that I didn’t remember such an appointment. I wasn’t given an appointment reminder. She repeats. “You were supposed to come in June. That’s what it says. It’s now September.” She stares at me with her mouth hanging open. It’s all my fault—obviously. “You want to make an appointment? The doctor does want to see you,” she smirks. She could win an award for MOST CONDESCENDING.

“Yes, please,” I say. I’m fighting off reptilian urges.

The next day I show up at the doc’s office. A student assistant comes in. She’s a very pretty young lady from India. She’s so nice. Asks me how I’m doing. I tell her I’m okay, but I mumble about the pain in my legs. Neuropathy, I suggest. At her suggestion, I remove shoes and socks. She checks the pulse at the top of my foot. It’s good. She gives me a quick response test by pricking my feet with a prong. I pass the test.

My doctor, who is also from India, comes in. He gruffly tells the assistant to call my pharmacy. She does so and hands him the phone. She sits at a chair behind him. He sits at the computer and talks on the phone, staring at my online info. I feel rather odd sitting there with my shoes and socks off. I’m sitting on the hard-cushioned patient’s bed. It’s quite high, and I’m gazing down at the two of them. It’s not too unlike an out-of-body experience. My doctor’s professionally tough on the phone. “Are you a pharmacist? I need to talk to a pharmacist, immediately. This is Dr. Reddy!”

I like that. Give ‘em hell, Doc.

My drug is okay they tell him.

“Thank you,” he says. He hands the smart phone back to the assistant.

He lets me know that I’m okay. “You can pick up your prescription,” he says. He pats me on the shoulder. The student assistant tells him that I complained a bit about my legs hurting. I feel almost guilty. He ignores the student who is still talking. He checks my foot pulse. “He’s okay,” he smiles. “Paul’s okay. Yeah, Yeah.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You have low potassium. Eat bananas,” he tells me. “Eat more bananas.”

“Yes sir,” I say. He tells the pretty assistant to go check on another patient. I thank her for her concern.

I go to pick up my Valsartan. It’s not ready. I go back later. It’s still not ready. I go back a third time, and they are all smiles and hand me my newly filled prescription. All is well. I get to my truck where my black lab, Cody, sits. He leans against the door on the rider’s side. He’s a great dog. I sit there in my truck. Cody’s panting, ready to go home.

I watch an incredibly heavy man with long gray hair struggling to get out of his car. It’s very difficult for him to turn in his seat. At one point with one foot in and one foot out, he stops to catch his breath. Finally, he emerges and starts shuffling toward the store. Cars stop for him. Everybody stops for him. We all feel for him.

Ah, what a day.  I’m fortunate. I know I am. I think about the patients who had been taking the “compromised” Valsartan. I hope those people are okay. Hope, it’s all we have sometimes. Hope for ourselves, hope for each other.

Thank you for reading. I hope to get back to blogging now that summer is nearly done. Ah, autumn. I love autumn.

Last Day at the Conference


View outside my window here in Madison. Oh, it is spring…right?


It’s my last day at the UW-Madison Writers’ Conference. It’s been a wonderful experience. One particular event I’d like to mention was the Advanced Manuscript Critique. I sent in the first ten pages of my just completed novel. A chosen author/editor critiqued the ten pages. In my case it was Lucy Sanna, author of  Cherry Harvest, (I highly recommend it.) and at an appointed time, I sat with Lucy, and we went over the critique of the ten pages. Let me say right off the bat: Lucy Sanna is tough~! I consider myself extremely fortunate. She gave me great feedback, which will make my novel better and stronger. At one point during our talk, she asked, “What’s the word-count of your novel?” I responded firmly and proudly, “One hundred twenty-three thousand.” “That’s too long.” was the immediate response.


She did come back later and tell me that 123,000 is acceptable for a debut novel…a million words is acceptable for a debut novel if it’s “GREAT.” But the magic number it seems for the reading public is 90,000 words. ( the range being 80,000 –110,000) I had no idea. So, it’s stuff like that, along with the great sessions on the craft and business of writing that make a conference worth a writer’s time. Regarding my word count, the good news for me is, that it’s a lot easier to delete than it is to add.

The great debate through out this conference has been between Traditional and Self-publishing avenues. As we all know the self-publishing world has “taken off” in the past five or so years and many authors have taken that route and quite wisely so. I’m still not sure whether or no I want to go the rather torturous agent route: Your query letter has to be perfect. They may never get back to you…probably won’t. If they reject you, consider yourself rejected forever. If there is one error, you’re doomed. You need to know exactly what it is they want…maybe even their favorite wine. It gets strange. And I haven’t even gotten to the part about their 15% cut of whatever you earn…if you earn anything. In fact getting an agent doesn’t necessarily mean publication…and even if you do get published, you still have to be your own publicist. So, the argument goes…why not simply skip all the anxiety and go self-publishing and take control of your own game. It’s a fascinating world out there.

So, it’s the final morning of the conference. I’m staying one more night to get past the bad weather. When I left Alabama it was big time Spring–roses budding out, day lilies starting to bloom, lovely white dogwoods in full bloom and seventy-six degrees. Here it’s cold, very windy, and snowing. Wha?

Nevertheless, it’s been a great time. And thanks to all of you for the really nice words.