Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Loss of Excellence

The Way We Were Was Better

If you ever watch Judge Judy on TV then you know that people are far less educated than they used to be, say 15 or 20 years ago.

I watch Judge Judy and I also watch some old game shows on TV. The difference in how people communicate is striking. First of all, quite a few immigrants show up in old game shows, such as "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marks. These contestants are impeccably dressed in suits, ties, dresses, hats. Their hair is carefully combed and the ladies are usually wearing pearls or some other nice jewelry. They are in public, so they are showing their best face to the world. They speak in whole sentences, and although English is often their second language, they speak eloquently and politely. It's truly a revelation to see how Americans used to be. I suppose that's how we gained our reputation as a civilized country where people can seek and find better lives.

Contrast this to Judge Judy where contestants often show up in clothing better suited for the beach. It's not unusual for Judge Judy to chastise someone for wearing shorts and a tank top into court or for having boobs largely on display. She has been known to send them out of the court room or ask women to borrow a sweater or shawl to cover themselves so that we won't have to stare at their breasts spilling out over their plunging necklines.

These modern day contestants mostly grew up speaking English, but it's difficult to believe because they don't speak in full sentences or use actual words. Very often people on Judge Judy say, "My car was tooken by the tow truck." Judy will admonish, "There is no such word." This is received by a look of confusion. "Oh. Okay. Anyway, it was tooken by the tow guy." Duh.

Or they will say that they "borrowed someone some money." No. You "loaned" money to someone. The other person "borrowed" it from you. Again, total confusion ensues.

Litigants will declare that they "conversated" with their friends. Judge Judy will point out that there is no such word as "conversated." She might even acknowledge that some dictionary publishers have caved and included this bastardized version of "conversed." But Judy, bless her, refuses to allow this horrid non-word to exist in her courtroom. I want to yell at them, "Just say, 'we talked, moron!'" Because I can't stand hearing "conversated." There is nothing sadder than a poorly educated person trying to sound educated by using a made-up word. Only geniuses like Shakespeare are allowed to get away with that.

Statistics show that America has slipped down, down, down in the world education scale. I think we're around #26 now with Asian countries holding top spots. I hear people talk about classrooms being too crowded and teachers being too over-worked and under-paid. The latter, I can understand. But too crowded?

I went to school with Baby Boomers. Our classrooms and graduating classes were huge. I never felt deprived of an education. In Tulsa Public Schools in the 1960s and 1970s I had the choice of taking general math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. I chose from French, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. I could elect to take band, orchestra, choral music, or speech/drama classes. I had English classes and advanced English classes along with newspaper and/or yearbook classes. I had civic classes and geography classes, classes in economics and world and American history. In gym, we even studied interpretive dance along with gymnastics. I couldn't swim when I was 16, so I was given swimming lessons in high school. (The pool at Will Rogers is closed now, but it was used every day when I was in school there. We were taught to swim and dive. Those who already could swim were taught competitive swimming and diving.)

By the time I graduated, I was well-versed in arts and sciences and ready for college, having all the credits needed for any university. I wasn't a straight A student or "gifted." I was ordinary, run-of-the-mill, average. I struggled with math, so my parents enrolled me in summer school for math classes so I could concentrate on that one subject in a smaller class with more individual teacher attention. It worked because I made As and Bs in those math classes (before I was making Cs and having a devil of a time keeping up!).

Public school options have changed and, evidently, not for the better. Students are graduating with much lower standards and spouting words like "tooken" and "conversated" with aplomb. They haven't studied any other language, which is good, I suppose, since they haven't mastered their own. They have indulged in the arts only through MTV, YouTube, and going to concerts. 

We are a nation of people who have accepted less and less and now aren't surprised by having it. The top one or two percent receive the best the country has to offer, including education, and the rest of us cater to them and pretend we still have a thriving middle class and that we're not slipping farther and farther down the "dumbing down" ladder.

I write this with a wince, knowing that I sound like an old lady shaking my finger and whining, "In my day . . . "

But, hey. In my day it was much, much better. We spoke and wrote with confidence. Reading newspapers, magazines and books was something we saw our parents doing every day and so we did it, too. Knowing who was president, vice-president, our state representatives, our governor, our mayor -- these were things that we all knew because we were expected to know them!  Not knowing showed that you were ignorant and lazy. Even people who couldn't read made it their business to know such things because they wanted to be aware and involved.

Before we point all our fingers at the education system, maybe we should look at ourselves. Children copy what they see. How often do you read the newspaper? What magazines do you read regularly? How many books do you read every year? Do you ever discuss civic matters with your children or in front of them? Do you take an active interest in their homework and how they execute it? What kind of role model are you?

Granted, we don't have to wear dresses and pearls every day or three-piece suits, but we should take pride in our outer appearance and our inner deportment and character. We should never allow "tooken" and "conversate" to be spoken without a cringe and a correction! Complacency breeds mediocrity. We're already at mediocre. You want to go lower?  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Writers Never Die -- Or Retire

I'm at a strange crossroads. I'm sort of retired, but not really because writers never actually retire. Not as long as their brains function.

In a couple of weeks I will receive -- gulp! -- my first Social Security retirement check. I have already received my Medicare Health Insurance card. I am officially old. A couple of months ago I eased out of my "other" writing job of writing and editing a monthly small business magazine. I still do a little work for it -- proofing and some rewriting -- but it is no longer a priority in my life. I work part-time for an animal rescue group keying and logging in medical and adoption data. But my main job now is my novel writing, so I've transitioned back to that. For a couple of decades all I did was write novels for a living. Then I hit a dry spell or impasse -- I'm not sure what it was. I just know that what I wanted to write and what the editors at the publishers I'd been working for wanted were two very different things. So, I stopped writing novels and concentrated on writing non-fiction again. I had been a newspaper reporter before I sold my first novel.

Here I am back at writing novels full time and doing a bit of work for the animal rescue organization. And I'm eligible for Social Security. Yikes! How did I get here? And why don't I feel retired?

Well, of course, I'm not retired. And God willing, I won't be until I'm incapable of writing or dead. Even after death, writers don't instantly fade from the landscape. Our writing endures. For the vast majority of us, it won't endure forever as with such luminaries as Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare, Austin, etc. But our work will linger for a good long while after we're gone. It will remain nestled in readers' brains and hearts and they will smile when the recall "that book" they so enjoyed or "those characters" that made them sigh or smile or cry a little.

When you're writer, you can't turn off your ideas. Even when I was writing nonfiction mostly, I was dreaming up fiction stories or rewriting the ones I was reading. It's like eating for us. You can go a while without it, but then you have to indulge or wither away.

So, here I am at the crossroads of retired and still working. I know a lot of people are here with me. Most of them, however WANT to retire and simply can't because it's not financially feasible. I can, but I don't want to, so I won't. I'll keep working, keep writing, keep plotting, keep looking for more readers for my books.

It's an odd place to be, though. Every day -- even weekends -- I feel that I must work as I have for so, so many years. Today is Sunday and I haven't written on my novel-in-progress yet and I might not! Maybe that is my form of retirement. I will take days off. I won't write on Sunday and maybe not even on Saturday. (Yes, I know, I'm writing now. Just go with this.) That seems like a good step toward retiring. I might even go away for a few days and not take my laptop so that I don't write while I'm gone. 

Baby steps. That's the ticket! I'll take baby steps toward slowing down and not feeling that I must work every day or perish. That go-go attitude kept my mortgage paid, the lights and heat on, and food in the fridge. I've lived a blessed life, being able to make my living as a writer since even before I graduated from college.  I know this. I've known it every day when I sat down at the computer (or typewriter, back in the day) and set to work. Breaking away from that every day routine will take some effort, but I feel I should do it. I should retire a little.

Now if I can just make those characters in my head be quiet for a day or two at a time, this might just work.

Work. There. I said it again. See what I mean? Oh! I just thought of a killer scene for the book I'm plotting! Jeez Louise. This retirement business is tricky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why We Read

Infectious Reading

I recently read an interesting article by the ever-interesting novelist Neil Gaiman about the importance of reading. Often, I see posts on Facebook and other places wherein people fret about the younger generations not appreciating reading and preferring to play video games. This fretting flies in the face of huge sales of Harry Potter books and many other adventure novels aimed at children and teens.

I'm of a mind that there will always be avid readers, just as surely as there will always be those who can't bring themselves to read more than a caption under a photograph or instructions on how to play a new game.

Gaiman quotes Rebecca Solnit, who asserted that "a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another." That's so very true, and it's why many people not only enjoy books, but also films, TV, and video games. A book, however, gives you a wholly different journey because, when done well, it allows you to know someone else's mind, feelings, and experiences. You don't just "watch." You live and breathe with a character or characters.

As Gaiman puts it, "books are the way we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth..."

He cautioned against preaching and writing what you wouldn't be that interested in reading. Difficult tasks. That might surprise some, but writers know it's true. The need to "preach" hinders us all. We have beliefs and truths we want to present in every novel, but if we hammer home these "lessons," we risk alienating our readers. Likewise, every writer has written "fluff" to fill out a book. Fluff is usually scenes that go on too long and serve no real purpose other than to add pages, relating information the writer has recently learned and feels compelled to share even it's boring to others, or fascinating facts that end up stopping the book's narrative. To take the editing pen and strike out paragraphs and whole pages takes courage, but is necessary. Like cutting out a cancerous growth.

Lessons or ideas should be sprinkled in, rather than poured into book pages. Otherwise, you will over-season and ruin your original, good recipe for a well-told tale.

In my new novel. SOLITARY HORSEMAN, I dealt with three "lessons." With so many, it was a delicate mission to keep them under rein so they didn't trample my story. Throughout, I had to remind myself why we read -- to immerse ourselves in another place, time, and body, so that we emerge different than when we entered that fictive world. Also, and this is no small thing, to entertain and delight. When I write, I craft scenes that I hope will compel readers to keep turning the pages, but also to elicit smiles, frowns, and maybe even a giggle or longing sigh. This happens when readers "become" the characters; when they forget where they are and what they're doing and take breath for breath with the character in the book.

I recall when I read THE STAND by Stephen King. In it, a deadly disease was killing off most of the population and symptoms started off with people coughing. I had been reading the book during my break at work. When I went back to work, a co-worker walked past me and coughed. My heart froze and my gaze snapped to the person as a sickly fear slithered through my mind with the thought, He's infected! Of course, in the next instant I was back in my own world and laughing at myself even as I marveled at Mr. King's ability to wrap me up so tightly in his fictive world.

That my friends, is talent. And that is also why we read.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Riding on Skirt Hems

Thank You, Ladies

   Every writer has other writers to thank for inspiration, encouragement, and lessons learned. Although I have a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, I learned how to be a novelist from other working writers and from books I fell in love with and wanted to emulate.   I’ve studied – and still do, occasionally – novels as my textbooks. Authors such as Phyllis Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt sparked my interest in romantic suspense. I examined their sentence structure, their dialogue, and their expertise with mood setting and describing characters and action sequences.
  Janet Dailey and Sandra Brown fired my imagination with contemporary stories of people who were more familiar to me – more realistic and sexier. I can’t begin to count how many hours I’ve spent going over and over certain paragraphs and snippets of dialogue penned by these women. They were my able tutors.
   LaVyrle Spencer’s books challenged me to write straight from the heart, elevate my prose, and take risks. To me, her novels are works of art. 
  Lately, I’ve taken lessons from E.L. James, Sylvia Day, Roni Loren, Katrina Halle, and Mia Sheridan. To say that I’m obsessed with the “Fifty” novels would be a gross understatement. I’m enamored with each one of them and totally “gone” for Christian Grey.
  There are so many wonderful writers whose stories and characters cling to my mind long after I finish their books. When I write, I aspire to join them in their stratosphere. Sometimes I make it up there with them, and let me tell you, the view from there is addictive. Visiting that place makes me work harder and learn more as a writer so that I can breathe that rarefied air.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I Love Writing -- Except When I Don't

I Love You. I Hate You.

Ah, the writing life. I'm in the final third of a novel that I've been writing since last year. Ugh. I used to think of myself as a fast writer. I don't anymore. I think that's because of advanced age, but it could also have something to do with advanced wisdom. I'm more critical of my writing because I know more about the art.

However, there are days when writing is nothing short of torture. When each word is like a tooth extraction. When I delete more than I keep. When I wonder what's going on . . . have I lost it? Whatever "it" is?

Today? Well, today the writing is going fairly well. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Another handful of chapters and I can write "The End." Then begins the rewriting, revising, editing, and rewriting again. I'll be glad to reach those stages because I'm eager to jump into my next book.

I still love writing. I love daydreaming about upcoming scenes. I love creating new characters. I love plotting a new book. And most days, I love writing page upon page on a book that I've been dreaming and scheming about for weeks or even months.

There are also days when I look back and try to figure out what I've done wrong. Why do some writers take off and sell, sell, sell? Why didn't any of mine strike that perfect chord in millions of readers? I read the bestsellers in my field and I just don't see how most of them are better writers than me. On those days, when writer's blues grip me, it's difficult to march on. Even telling myself to be grateful for what I have accomplished often isn't enough to pull me out of the doldrums. Oh for those days when I was just beginning and believed beyond a shadow of doubt that I would "break out" with my next book and find a larger, more devoted
reading audience!

Nowadays I just hope for a decent number of reviews on Amazon, knowing that getting to the magic number of 50 (when Amazon takes notice) will be nearly impossible, no matter how much money I spend on promoting the book.

That's something that never changes in this writing life. The next book is always so much more promising than the one you're trying to write. It's the dangling of that carrot . . . the greener grass on the other side of the fence . . . the glimmer of a gold ring as you ride the carousel. It's what keeps us all writing -- when we love it and when we hate it -- the temptation of better days and better stories ahead of us.