Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The New Henry Title Revealed

The Big Reveal. The New Henry Title

Henry and the ShadowMan Band

Page 1

Everything started the day the Shadow Man appeared. (If you don’t know, my name is Henry.)
Fred, Jamal and I were in the garage practicing. We have a band. Fred and Jamal are my best friends. Fred lives across the street; he was born in China and has two dads. Jamal was born in Egypt and has been to the pyramids. He lives in the next neighborhood over. We added some friends last year, but Terval moved away and Dante transferred to a magnet school focused on drama.
Anyway back to the band. I joined the school band last winter. I play the drums. Fred and Jamal already played instruments. This summer we went to a two week rock band camp. It was a day camp thing, where you went home every night, but all day you worked on your music. You had to get three songs together for the performance on the last day when your parents came to hear you. We thought we had a gift.
Jamal plays guitar and Fred sings and plays guitar. I play the drums and when I am in the middle of a run I am on Fire. I love a roaring go to town drum solo and I also enjoy the finesse of being a quiet background rhythm. I am in the music. I feel invincible on the drums. (I first found my Fire when I visited Altara. It’s another world.)

So for the rest of the summer we've been pouring everything into our music. We practice most afternoons in my garage. Sometimes I go out by myself in the morning or evenings and play, experimenting with the rudiments. (They are the basic drum routines.) What we wanted most was to play for somebody’s end of summer party. It would be lame if we gave our own party or even if I made my little brother Larry give a party for his friends. We wanted a real gig.


COVER REVEAL COMING SHORTLY 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Last of What I did on my Summer Vacation


Soon I will be getting a reputation for putting all my male house guests to work. I figure they appreciate the opportunity to accomplish a task and be praised for their work. I truly appreciate their help. When My brother Mike came earlier in the summer he and son in law Steve put sun blocking cloth up in the screened in back porch. They did a great job and finished in Time for the scheduled party. I did yard work while they attended to the details of hanging the fabric.

When Patrick my nephew came this summer we cut down trees. He is much stronger and has much great endurance than he had on the previous year. And even though we had a few slips neither nephew nor uncle were hurt and we could look at a great job completed and over three hundred pounds of tree stuff taken to the landfill for recycling.

The land fill pays a private contractor on the back side of the property to take in the yard waste and shred it. Then the private contractor will resell it to county residents for use in their yards as mulch. What a sweet deal.

I had fun working with Patrick. The next day we loaded up the jeep and headed to southern West Virginia for rafting in the new river gorge. We stayed in a cabin at Ace adventures and had a great time.



And yes I am certain my guests 

enjoy being challenged, succeeding and being praised.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

To Be Alive Is to be Changing

Why are we surprised by change? The world around us is ever changing. Leaves are falling. Children are growing up fast. I am growing slower. The idea that things always stay the same or some things never change is a myth.

This summer I visited the town of Thurmond, West Virginia. Thurmond lies just five miles from State Highway 19. Yet it takes forty-five minutes to drive the ever narrowing winding road down into the New River Gorge to reach it. The last sign assuring you that you have not made a wrong turn is ten minutes into the forty-five minute journey.

Some things in Thurmond have not changed. The rail station is still there. Trains still barrel through three or four times a day carrying loads of coal. Many of the old buildings still stand. But the rail station is now the park ranger station and a museum. The trains are now electric diesels and not the steam engines that ran these tracks fifty years ago.  Less than half a dozen families now live in Thurmond.  The train stops in Thurmond but only to let another pass not to load or unload anyone or anything.

Even as late as the early sixties Thurmond was a thriving town. The long trek to the highway didn’t matter because people and goods came through the valley by train. All along the valley were other small towns and small mines. All are gone now. The small mines have been replaced by major industrialized mining operations. The coal fueled steam locomotive was replaced by sleek new diesel locomotives. Coal furnaces for homes and buildings have been replaced by oil then gas and electric and in some places geothermal heat.  I don’t remember ever seeing a steam locomotive actually in commercial use but I do remember what an exciting thing it was to see the beautiful new Santa Fe Chief.

For the people of this valley life changed quickly. The mines closed and the towns died. The day before as we floated down the New River on a raft the guide pointed several times to vine covered foundations that were the remnants of other towns now gone.

Most of life changes slowly and incrementally but be assured it is changing, that is how we know we are living.





Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On my Summer Vacation I Went to the Beach

One of the best parts of my summer was a week at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. We had not been to the beach for the past two summers so this was a welcomed time. The towns of Maryland and Delaware along coastal highway are each very different. We start with Lewis in the north which has a large historic district and identifies itself as the first town in the first state and head south.

Following Lewis is The Midway which isn’t really a town and is most significant because of its 100+ outlet store.

We visited them on our one cloudy day. Then Rehoboth which has a large retired population and a large gay population. Right next to Rehoboth is Dewey Beach which traditionally has a younger population. Heading south you have a few miles of salt marsh and few houses before you cross the Indian River Bridge. We started going to the shore about 20 years ago and I believe even then they had begun construction on the Indian River Bridge.* I am glad to announce that it is finally finished.

This is followed by Bethany Beach, which is less commercial than Rehoboth and has some lovely homes. Unfortunately Bethany’s major landmark are six or seven ten story brown condo buildings that appear to have been built using an architect who primarily designed condos for a soviet block nation. Then we come to the small town of Fenwick Island which does not appear to be an island and finally ocean city which has a resident population of 15,000 and a summer population that can reach 300,000.


Our condo looks out on the Atlantic. Almost every morning between seven and eight we saw this fox prowling through the dunes. (The fox is a little down and to the right of center.) All I could think was what an interest habitat that is fifty feet wide and maybe ten miles long, also the wonderful way that some wild life has adapted to our encroachment on their habitat. 

*Actual construction on the bridge only started in 2008. Prior to the the 'construction" at the bridge site was to address erosion that threatened to collapse the bridge. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Treasures, Memories and Lessons

I've missed two weeks of blogging. Sorry. I've been on vacation. 
So I am going to wrap up my box blogs

today and then next week start some mandatory back to school blogs, ‘What I did on my summer vacation.’

I really have many boxes and here are two more today. One is an old wooden cigar box that I believe I got from my Pop Pop fifty years ago. The only reason I doubt that memory is that my Pop Pop smoked a pipe and didn't smoke cigars. Among the things in this box are coins, a railroad spike and some locks. The coins range from silver dollars to pesos to some uncirculated sets with Kennedy half dollars. I don’t remember where the railroad spike came from, but I wouldn't admit it if I did. I found it beside the tracks I didn't pull it out. Some of the locks have keys and some don’t. There is also a ball bearing. I once had a ball bearing that was about 21/2 inches in diameter. It was fun to play catch with. Maybe I lost it because it was too big to keep safe in a box.

I have these treasures because my mother did not completely clean out my childhood bedroom until after college so I had a chance to collect these things.

The second box is newer and mostly post college. Yes I still hold on to things. There are several non- working watches. There is an expired long horn credit card, probably my first foray into consumer debt. There are some miscellaneous jewelry like tie clips. And there is that long white knife. When I was 15 I ordered it from the back of a magazine for a few dollars. I had only had it a few days, but my father saw me brandishing it around inappropriately and took it away from me. Having learned my lessons I got it back 35 years later when we were cleaning out my mother’s house after she died.


So maybe my boxes contain memories, treasures and lessons learned and unlearned. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Congratulations to Tee and Pip On an Upcoming Release



Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris introduced me to steampunk with their Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels.While I still struggle to explain it to the uninitiated I like to describe it as Jules Vern with more gadgets, better writing and no giant squids. Today I am glad to join in the release of the cover for this anthology of Thrilling Tales. 
The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels are a multi-award winningseries, which tells the story of the government agency committed to keeping citizens safe from the strange, the unusual, and the bizarre.
In a very successful Kickstarter in July, the Ministry Initiative was funded, allowing the creation of both a roleplaying game and a brand new anthology.
Ministry Protocol: Thrilling Tales from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is a collection of short stories that will take readers across the Empire and all over the world, revealing new facets of familiar characters and introducing new agents, allies, and enemies from the Ministry’s colorful history.
The authors of this globe-spanning anthology include Delilah S. Dawson, Leanna Renee Hieber, Alex White, Jared Axelrod, Tiffany Trent, Peter Woodworth, Jack Mangan, JR Blackwell, Dan Rabarts, Lauren Harris, Karina Cooper, and Glenn Freund from The League of S.T.E.A.M.
And one of the Ministry’s creators, Tee Morris, presents the origin story of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences itself. Look for the ebook coming in August, with signed print editions to follow.
Feast your eyes on the cover art from the Ministry renaissance man, Alex White, and spread the word about the anthology by entering the giveaway of signed copies of the current Ministry of Peculiar occurrences novelsa Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Box Pop Pop Helped me Make

I am looking at boxes for the next few weeks and have come to realize I have lots of boxes and that we like things that come in nice boxes. Did you ever buy an apple product? Great care was given to having a box with exactly the right fit. The same is true for products that come from Levengers. Levengers sells pens and fine writing paraphernalia. I am going to focus on important boxes or boxes that hold treasures. 

Well today’s box is about 48 years old. I made it when I was ten with the help of my Mother’s father who we called Pop Pop. By the time I was ten,  Pop Pop was pretty old but he still had wood shop in the basement of the home in Yonkers, New York that he shared with my aunts, Fredi and Helen. Each summer when we would go visit he would spend some time with me and my brothers working on wood projects. My projects were made from scraps which reflected my skill level.

For the next few years I used this box to carry my books, drawing materials and other stuff that I took on vacation to amuse myself. In those days cars did not have DVD players in fact the DVD had not yet been invented. So while traveling we read or played license plate games to amuse ourselves.

This box now lives in my garage where it holds sandpaper.



Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Treasure Your Treasures

The subject of boys and boxes came up at a writers group last week so I thought I would spend some time on boxes. In Henry on Fire Henry says he has a box with things important to him and his granddad pulls the missing key to the gates of Altara out of a box of treasures that also includes an old pocket watch for Henry’s brother Larry. 

So let me start by sharing my family’s favorite box story it is The Littlest Angel Charles Tazewell (Author), Paul Michich (Illustrator). At 2000 words the Littlest Angel is longer than the average picture book, it is really a short story presented as a picture book.  The story is written in beautiful prose.

The First line: “Once upon a time — oh many, many years ago as time is calculated by men — but which was only Yesterday in the Celestial Calendar of Heaven — there was, in Paradise, a most miserable, thoroughly unhappy, and utterly dejected cherub who was known throughout Heaven as The Littlest Angel.”

The littlest angel is way too small to enjoy any of the ways of heaven and he is seriously unhappy. The understanding angel asks, “What would make you happy.”  He asks for the box beneath his bed. In the box were:

“Well, there was a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the high hills above Jerusalem, and a sky blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. yes, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.”

Once he has his box his life in heaven flows smoothly. The birth of the child of God is announced and the angels all begin to prepare fabulous gifts, beautiful music, golden harps and the all other types of heavenly gifts. The littlest Angel places his box among the gifts. This is after all his most valuable possession. 

When he sits down and sees his box among the beautiful gifts he is devastated by how shabby his box appears and as the hand of God moves over the gifts he knows he has made a terrible mistake.  The voice of God says:

 “Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that this small box pleases Me most. Its contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things My Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretfully, will leave behind Him when His task is done.”

So treasure your treasures.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Have You Heard Enough?

I heard that the Guardian News has a button on its news feed that you can click and all the news of the royal baby disappears from the page you are viewing. So if you have heard enough about the baby or you are just anti-royal you can enjoy your news without having that cross your page.

Why not have such buttons for all ongoing news stories?

Have you heard enough about an upcoming election, press the button. Have you heard enough about Justin Bieber, press the button. Have you heard enough about the trial of the week, press the button.  The potential list is endless.


They could then list a side bar of the least read stories. I think its a great idea. By the way I am very happy about the new baby royale though for Bradley’s sake I was hoping for a girl. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Are Cliques Always a Bad Thing?

So my fifteen middle schoolers covered quite an age range. So we let them for the most part settle into their own cliques. These were mostly age related and there was only a little friction. We occasionally shuffled them asking the older kids to provide some leadership for the younger ones. We also succeeded at having an identity as a whole.

So it raises the question whether cliques are always a bad thing? Cliques provide a sense of safety and security at this age. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. The truth is everyone has insecurities and is looking for affirmation from others.

So when do cliques go bad. Cliques go bad in ways destructive to the larger community and they go bad in ways destructive to their members.

They hurt the larger community when they become a safe platform from which one strikes out at others. They go bad when they exist to exclude and shut out members of the larger community. They go bad when they embrace contempt or disdain for the larger community.

I think the members of the clique are hurt when the boundaries are permanent and impenetrable. By that I mean the members of the clique hardly exist outside the clique. They hurt the member when the member does not interact with the larger communities as they are naturally inclined to do but do so in ways that win the approval of the clique.

So writing and cliques.

In Henry on Fire, Henry and his friends see themselves at the bottom of the school social ladder and therefore would never see themselves as a clique. Yet they are. By the end of the book they add two friends but before book two begins those friends have moved away. In book two Henry wants to shut out of their group a boy he thinks is less cool than they are. Jamal and Fred are more than ready to embrace this new kid, but Henry struggles to get there.


As I have always said Henry is both the protagonist and antagonist in my story. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Handling Age Appropriate Language

So I spent a week with 15 middle schoolers and I learned some helpful things about my audience. Our group included children who just graduated 5th grade and children graduating 8th grade. Wow there is a difference. On one day we went and cleaned the training facility of Blue Ridge Assistance Dogs. We swept, vacuumed and washed away dog hair as well as cleaning up the outside yard.


As I was already aware, some jobs are preferable to other jobs and no job is preferable forever. Many of these kids had no experience vacuuming, sweeping or doing other household tasks. The tasks they most clearly understood they were best at and the older they were the better they were at their tasks. Two of the older girls very thoroughly cleaned the cat cage. They have a cat at the facility so the dogs will be acclimated to cats and not go chasing them.

So my first learning is my characters are going to start doing age appropriate chores, though Henry is quite vocal that he hates chores. Maybe at some point he will grow up enough to accept the responsibility of chores. The second learning was that I write about 7th and 8th graders primarily for a 4th through 6th grade audience. So for me this means that my characters are dealing with the experiences of 7th and 8th grade, but sharing them in ways appropriate for 4th – 6th graders.


One clear example of this is in language. This was made quite clear to me when a soon to be 6th grader very quietly and innocently came up to me to tell me one of the soon to be 9th graders was using the f word rather freely. I pulled the guilty party aside and said I heard he had been dropping the f-bomb and I didn't mean fart. I told him I didn't like the word but also explained the difference between what he says in front of his friends and what he says in front of the younger kids. 

In real life 7th and 8th graders are experimenting with such language as they seek to appear tough or mature, neither of which is accomplished through the use of the f-word. I think if I did include such language I would have one of the other characters tell the offending character that it just made him look like a little kid trying to sound tough. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Climbing Bull Run Mountain

Last week I missed my Blog day totally. That was the first time I had missed since I started weekly blogs last winter. I was spending the week with 15 middle schoolers in a program we called Making it Better. On Day one of our adventure we were out to make ourselves better at the Bull Run Mountain Conservancy located in the northwest end of Prince William County.



The conservancy preserves 800 acres of the Bull Run Mountains. There are numerous trails to hike and more things to see. The conservancy offers day camps in the summer, classes during the school year and a whole host of other activities. You can find out more at www.brmconservancy.org.

We chose the Fern Hollow trail for the first part of our hike. This took us by the remains of the Beverly Mill.  The mill is a three story stone structure that can be easily seen from I 66 just east of Thoroughfare Gap.  The Mill was opened by the Chapman family in 1742 and operated up until the Civil War. During the Civil War the Confederates used the mill as a slaughterhouse and meat preservation facility. Prior to the Second Battle of Manassas the confederates burned the mill to prevent the meat from falling into the stomachs of the union. The Beverley Family rebuilt the mill 1876. Up until a fire in 1998 there was hope of restoring the mill. After the fire the building was stabilized and is now maintained as an historical ruin site.

Our next interesting point was a deer exclusion zone set up in the spring of 2012. The goal is to see what the forest would look like without deer. The deer eat much of the low new growth in a forest and greatly affect the natural development or do they? We can check back in a few years and see.

We shortly thereafter joined the Chestnut Ridge Trail which took us up to the overlook. The most interesting thing about the overlook is I realized we were standing on the white cliff outcropping that can be seen when you are eastbound on I 66 just east of the Plains.


Overall the hike up the mountain was 2.5 miles long and we were exhausted. The hike down the mountain was also 2.5 miles. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

People Sometimes Ask Where Ideas Come


So here is a developing idea.


Today the FBI is searching for Jimmy Hoffa’s Body in a field outside Detroit. And then there is the group who wants to raise several million dollars to see if they have really located Amelia Earhart’s plane below the reef off Nikumaroro Island. Are these mysteries really so powerful that we will spend millions of dollars of public money, in the case of Jimmy Hoffa and millions of private dollars in the case of Amelia’s plane. You did contribute to the Hoffa search, would you contribute to the search for Amelia’s plane?

I’m imagining a character obsessed with Amelia’s flight. He starts when assigned to do a report on milestones in flight. One friend does the Wright Brothers another does Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, but when the report is over the friends move on with their lives but not our character.

Maybe the Arc of the story could run from June 1 to July 2, the time frame of Earhart’s final flight. So then is this a main character or is it a quirky side character? Maybe he starts to wear his hair like Amelia and to dress like her. She was often photographed in trousers and her hair was on the short side. Maybe on July 2 he is nowhere to be found and his friends believe he has disappeared.  

Love to hear if anyone has any twists they think might be added to the story or character.

As for me I’ll think about this for a year or so and see where it goes. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

I am Not Allowed on the Roof Any More

(This happened some time ago.)

If after you say to yourself, ‘I need to go to the emergency room.’ your second thought is, ‘where are the car keys,’ you are probably not thinking clearly enough to drive.

I was home alone one Friday morning. Pam, my wife, was out of town for the weekend and my daughter Hanna was at work. I was in a hurry to get out when I remembered there was a piece of trim on the roof I wanted to replace and I needed the measurements. In that house I could easily climb on the part of the roof I need to reach from a second story porch. I climbed out on the roof and lifted up my arms to measure the rotting wood. I immediately began to slide down the roof. If I had just fallen flat on the roof I probably would have stopped sliding or slid off and just dropped to the driveway no problem.

No I tried to grab a column of the porch which spun me around off the roof toward the ground below.  I landed just to the right of a pointed statue I could have impaled on and to the left of the concrete porch step I could have smashed onto. And for a while I just laid there.

I decided to try to stand up. I was very stiff. I called my doctor’s office. They said this is the kind of thing you go to the emergency room for and did I want them to call me an ambulance. I said no I’m okay.

I’m not sure why but I decided to take a shower. I was moving slowly but moving. There was a fair amount of pain but it was not debilitating. After the shower I got my keys and got in the car.  Our hospital is about thirty minute away. Halfway there I had to acknowledge that my back was stiffening up, maybe even solidifying. And there was no way I could get from the car to the door of the hospital.

I called my daughter who was able to take off work and drive me to the hospital. Chastising me all the way for being on the roof with the wrong type of shoes and for thinking I could drive myself to the hospital. After a few hours at the hospital they said I had not done any permanent damage and they loaded me up with prescriptions. Once she got me home my daughter kept me drugged until her mother returned on Monday.


I am no longer allowed on the roof. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stuart and Stella Tell their Versions Of What Happened



I Went for a Walk by Stella


Hi I’m Stella. I weigh five pounds and I live with Stuart and everyone else. Thursday afternoon Mama was a little cold from the air conditioner so she opened the back door to warm up the room. She then sat down on the couch and closed her eyes to watch TV. She does that in the afternoon.

I decided I would step out for a walk.  I slipped out the door onto the back porch and then to the doggie door in the screen door. I have to jump up just to get to the bottom of the doggie door. I pulled myself up until my body was half out the door. My back legs don’t work so well, they pretty much just hold up my butt and follow my front legs. Except when I am going down stairs and then sometimes they try to flip over and go first. Anyway once my body was half out the doggie door I dropped twelve inches to the step below. I regrouped and headed across the deck and down two more stairs. Then I had to squish down and belly crawl under the gate. Passing under the gate I managed to knock off my diaper.

Now I headed up the path between the house and the garage. Fortunately no one was on the front porch they often catch me there, then up the driveway to the street. Sometimes the neighbor lady snags me at this point but she was not out that afternoon. Things were a little warm along the street so I headed down the shaded driveway that goes to the houses behind my house. It was a wonderful afternoon for a walk. In the yard at the very end of the driveway I found a very nice pond. I waded in far enough to cool my feet and to get a small drink.

I was quite refreshed and decided to head home. When I got back to the street I decided to walk along the far side of the street on the shoulder because I thought the dust on the shoulder would help dry out
my fur before I got home.

Out of nowhere Stuart shows up, jumps out of his car, scoops me up and is going on and on about where have you been. I decided not to tell him.

Stella is Missing! By Stuart

I got home about 4:20. It was a hot muggy afternoon. My mother in law, Mickey was frantic. Our little dog Stella was missing. I immediately went in to change clothes and search the house. It is not unusual for one of the dogs to get shut in a closet and to just sit there quietly. After that I went out and searched the yard and immediate neighborhood on foot calling her name. You know she only weighs five pounds and barely has use of her legs. And because of other health issues she easily gets dehydrated.

I came back and went through the house again and sent an email to the neighborhood. I then went out on my bike and did the whole street and went up driveways where I couldn’t see the yards. I talked to everyone who was out.

I went home and got my car and again circled the street and then started moving out further. She had been missing for well over an hour and a half at this point. You know a large bird could carry off a five pound dog. I regularly see foxes in our neighborhood and several neighbors have reported seeing coyotes. After circling the neighborhood twice I headed home.

There, just a 100 feet from our driveway, I found Stella walking along the shoulder of the road. I scooped her up into my arms. She was filthy and wet. I told her we were scared and worried and glad we found her. I took her home for a good bath.


p.s. A neighbor emailed that she had seen Stella at the pond, but when she went out to get her she was gone. She may be crippled, but she can be fast. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Who Moved the Road

I live in Prince William County Virginia. The county is some 70 miles long stretching from the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in the west to the Potomac River in the east. In the 20 plus years I have lived here the county has experienced rapid growth and development. For the first ten years I lived here a new traffic light was added every year between my house and the nearest interstate. After that point I lost count.

When I arrived the two ends of the county were connected by winding and dangerous two lane roads. One night shortly after we moved here my 8 year old daughter Hanna and I were heading home at about 8:30 in the night.  Our way was blocked less than a mile from the entrance to our neighborhood because there had been a fatal car accident on the bridge near our home. There was no promise how long it would be before traffic could pass. Our only option was a thirty mile circle around to the other side of the bridge and our neighborhood.  On these unfamiliar winding roads in the dark it was 10 pm before we got home.

The county is now spanned by two four lane divided roads. Other roads have been straightened and leveled, if you know where to look you can see some remnants of abandoned parts of the old roads that have been grown over and reclaimed by nature. Sometimes at what are now wide controlled intersections I try to remember what the road was like. What were the land marks?


One such intersection is Davis Ford and Yates Ford roads. There was a hill and a small nursery at the intersection which was more of a wye than the multi-lane intersection it now is. The funny thing is that often in the early spring I will see a wild turkey roaming around the intersection.  If the traffic is light enough he will be right in the middle of the street. I can only imagine he too is looking for the old landmarks to guide him to a favorite nesting place or food source. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Emergency Room Waiting Time 12 Minutes


I was driving north on Interstate 95 between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C., a little past the halfway point is the town of Fredericksburg. Like most Towns in Virginia among its claims to fame are at least one civil war battle, a college, Mary Washington, and a vintage downtown now populated with restaurants, antique store and boutiques. Unlike most Virginia towns Fredericksburg has two nice hospitals.

A new one has been built south of town and is visible from I 95. And visible from I 95 they have erected an electronic message board which is the real subject of these thoughts. The day I was passing by the message proclaimed, “Emergency room waiting time 12 minutes.”

 I have spent hours waiting in emergency rooms. My experience at our local hospital has generally been between one and four hours to be seen by someone and two to four hours to get out. So truly I rejoiced at this good news. I just wasn't sure what to do with it or why they were telling me this while I passed by on the highway.

Most likely I should just file this away with respect for what fine and efficient services this hospital offers and if I am ever in the area and need a hospital I should recall this.

Then I thought, why would I want to go to a hospital no one was going to? Maybe this hospital stays in business by luring in unsuspecting travelers?  Maybe they are the Bates Hotel of Hospitals?

Maybe there are ambulances that wander the Interstates looking for just the best deal for their patients.

Maybe I should have an emergency to take advantage of the time savings offered by this hospital.

Since I don’t drive this stretch of highway more than a half dozen times a year I don’t know what else they might advertise. The Washington Post recently reported that hospital charges for the same surgeries in Virginia could vary by tens of thousands of dollars. So they might flash up ‘Hip Replacement $45,000,’ ‘Tonsillectomy $7,000’ etc. Or they could post their infection rate or mortality rate or on the happier side they could announce births. Maybe they could take their clues from the DMV and post “Now serving number 897.”

North of Fredericksburg I cross the Rappahannock River and return to the world of talk NPR and I am able to move on in my thought process, but before I do let me ask, “Who thought an electronic billboard for a hospital was a good idea?”


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Just Let the Man Do It


There is an episode of Two and a Half Men, the Charlie Sheen show, where the ner’ do well brother, Alan, goes up on the roof to adjust the satellite dish. Of course he falls off breaking both arms. All through the show everyone keeps asking. “Why didn't you let the man do it?” Alan’s defense is, “A man ought to be able to successfully adjust his own satellite dish.”

I have a 1998 Jeep wrangler. I bought it with these wide off road tires. It’s like driving on four giant marshmallows. So when two of the tires went flat I decided I would get standard rims and tires off the used market. There were enough available on Craigslist that I only had to wait a week to get a set in Manassas. I paid a hundred dollars for four rims and tires.

Possessing both the tools and the skills necessary for the job I traded out the wheels. All was good and I loved the new feel when driving was exactly the change I wanted. Unfortunately after a few days of driving I had an odd clicking noise. I tried and tried to figure out where it was coming from, but to no avail. The car still drove okay so I drove it to church on Sunday morning. Just a few blocks from the church I felt a sudden bump and then my left front tire careened across the road while the left front part of the car came to a sudden and grinding stop on the pavement.

I walked to church while calling the tow truck to come for my car. And even though I said I would not be there and paid in advance for their service the tow truck driver called twice during church to say I needed to be there when he hooked up the car. I wasn't and they did just fine getting the jeep to the repair shop.

Between the towing and the repairs necessary to remount the wheel that came off my hundred dollars wheels and tires cost an additional $250.

And everyone said, “Why didn't you just take it to the man in the first place?”

I wish I could assure you I learned my lesson, but I still have my tools even if I don’t have the skills.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To Heck With Suspense


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #7

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.      Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I wonder if everyone would agree on this one. After all what’s the point if there is no suspense. Isn’t the fun of conversation that I don’t know what you are going to say next? Maybe not so much.

As I first started sending Henry to publishers I would write query letters that set up the twists and turns that set up the suspense to what I thought of as my creative moments. I finally realize the query letter was meant to lay out the plot to convince the agent or editor that I had an intriguing story. The first few pages that accompanied the query letter are to show that I had the writing skills to flesh out the story.

Several things go wrong when the writer is too invested in creating suspense. One is there is the possibility that we have left out more than we realize and the reader doesn’t get it. Have you ever had to reread a part of book several times because something very significant happened but it made no sense? Maybe this is the result of too much suspense and not enough story.

Secondly I am sure the reader enjoys a few surprises but I think they enjoy them more if they have been suspecting that this turn was coming. The first person Henry meets in Altara is the old man Papo. I originally thought of Papo as a Gandalf type guide to help facilitate the story. In Henry’s first three days with Papo Henry Goes back and forth about how much too trust Papo. The evening of the third day the reader and Henry find out Papo is going to facilitate the story by engaging in a plot to kill ‘Henry and the other boy.’

And finally not everyone is looking for suspense. The plays of Shakespeare are probably one of the most widely read and performed body of works in the English speaking world. Performances are attended by those who have read and even acted in these very plays. So we can assume for the greater part of the audience there is no suspense yet they are there on the edge of their seats. Why? They are there to see how the parts are played and the story told.

In my youth I reread the Lord of the Rings at least five times. The story always lagged in Book II and ended the same way in Book III. Yet I kept coming back. It is probably the same for some Harry Potter fans. Maybe we read and reread because we want to escape into that time and space.

Maybe knowing where the plot is going is like having a clearly planned road map for my journey. Even though I have a map there will be many sites along the way I don’t want to miss.

 

This is obviously the last of the Vonnegut blogs. The next four or so weeks will be blogs about some of my recent experiences and observations along the roadway of life.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Writing for One


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #7
1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.      7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

I thought I was writing for the world. As I have said before I thought I had the next great American Novel. So what can we make of this.

At the core of no. 7 is an admonition that I write for a real person. If that one person likes it then others will also. The opposite of this would be to write for a hypothetical everyone. To do that is to lose a concrete and real voice and to end up writing for no one.  

A few weeks ago I went away with a group of guys for a retreat. During our free time on Saturday afternoon five of us set out on a walk. We immediately headed down the gravel road marked ‘keep out.’ We passed several more signs that were equally as ominous but we forged on. We arrived at a small damn on an unnamed river. Signs grew more ominous telling us this was city property, no trespassing, do not walk here. I walked up to look at the fish ladder that was designed to let fish bypass the damn. A sign on the wall of the fish ladder said “If you fall in here you will die.” I liked the clarity of message. After we left the damn we wandered around a few more forbidden trails. When we crossed a small stream on a railroad bridge it struck me that our band of 50+ somethings were no different than the boys in the movie Stand by Me. In the movie a group of middle schoolers set out on a journey following a railroad track. Their goal is to see a dead body they have been told about. Okay we weren’t looking for a dead body but we enjoyed our journey all the more because all the signs told us we were not allowed to do this.

I think maybe I write for an updated 13 year old Stuart. I hope other’s enjoy it also.

Henry in the first book clearly tells us he hopes there is at least one person out there who will care enough about him to read his story. He feels he is doing all he can to pour himself out to whoever that might be. In the final telling of the Henry stories there will be that one person who will care.  
  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Maybe I'm just Too Nice


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #6
1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
I have three thoughts on this subject.
First I am just a nice guy. Yes I have probably done a few mean things in my life but basically it is my nature to be nice. For the most part I don’t even yell at other drivers. (My wife says that is because I don’t commute.) So to intentionally be mean to a character seems to ruin my nice guy self-image.

Second I find it very difficult to be mean to my main character. I really like him. I wouldn't write about him if I didn't like him, more than that I want him to succeed. If he needs something I give it to him. Early in my writing even before reading this list from Kurt Vonnegut it was pointed out to me that I didn't make my characters challenges big enough. My first attempts at giving Henry some obstacles seemed rather artificial. I think through rewriting they became real and congruent with the story.

I enjoyed reading some of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. He seems to have a fairly simple and easy formula. In each chapter Percy is at a new location encountering a new challenger emerging from Greek, or Roman Mythology.   It works.

So I have accepted that once I figure out what a character wants (No. 3 above) it is my job as the writer to do all I can to make achieving that goal impossible.

My third point is a problem. In Henry on Fire, Henry’s antagonist is his middle grade self. In this first story Henry struggles with his anger. In one draft of the story Henry became so angry no body, meaning no reader, would have cared enough to read the story. 

In the sequel a new character appears, Sean, who really annoys Henry. Henry refers to him as a freak. Sean is a very sympathetic character and Henry is a real jerk in what he says about Sean. So when the character is both protagonist and antagonist the challenge is to create a likable character that the reader will root for while he works through his issues.

7.      7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Get to the Point


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101


  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.


My first thought was, “What does this mean?”


Then I remembered this friend who loved to tell the stories of his life, but never started near the end. He thought every detail of the back story was essential to understanding the event to be shared. I am afraid I was terribly impatient every time he started to speak. If he were going to tell you about a recent auto accident he had to start with when he bought the car five years ago and then revert to the reason he needed a new car. Then would follow a brief history of the repairs of the wrecked auto. Then before we got to the wreck he would tell you the back story on the other person and the other car. Five minutes could pass before you found out it was a fender bender and no one was hurt.


I find the other way to approach this is to bring as much action forward as possible and reveal the back story as the plot swings into action.


So if there is a life point to this it is to realize that people’s time is precious and not to be wasted or abused so we do well to get to the point.


  1. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  2. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  3. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Does every sentence have to reveal character or advance plot?

Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

Every sentence? I can’t help but think of Moby Dick which has long passages about whaling. Or the Hunch Back of Notre Dame which is as much an expose on French society as it is about the title character. However if you step back to the French title you discover that maybe the main character is not Quasimodo but is instead the cathedral itself. Notre-Dame de Paris. There still however seems to be a lot of extra material.

I once suggested that Shakespeare could be improved by using fewer words. My wife and several other people promptly informed me that not only was that not true, but that Shakespeare had used exactly the right number of words.

As I have confessed before through most of my writing experience my challenge was too few words not to many. If the assignment called for five pages I always ran out of things to say at three and a half pages. So the idea of cutting out material seems counter intuitive.

So what else might sentences do if not move plot and develop character? Is there no room for visualizing the scene or for setting the larger context? Without that doesn't every story become a”a once upon a time experience,” lacking the texture.

I had not read these points on writing as I rewrote Henry, but I found on my own and from critique feedback that there were a number of scenes that did nothing for the story except possibly bore the reader, further convincing them of how boring Henry’s life was, but leaving the reader so bored they would not continue reading. Some of those scenes made great short stories others didn't even have that quality to them.

So on point 4 I am not 100% in agreement with Mr. Vonnegut, but I would say every sentence should have a purpose. And the primary purpose of the vast majority of sentences should be to move plot or develop character.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What am I looking for?


I continue my series through Kurt Vonnegut 8 points of Creative Writing 

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.     Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.     Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Have you ever walked into a store with a clear idea of why on this day at this time you have come into that store? And very helpfully you are greeted by a guest services assistant (also known as a clerk) and asked. “Can I help you find something?” What do you do? Of course you answer, but which answer.

a.     I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one?
b.     I’m just looking.
c.     No thank you.
d.     None of the above.

I have gotten better about saying a. I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one? But I still don’t always say that. Not because wiznev is a made up word and I don’t really want one. The issue is that even though this may be a planned trip that has taken over thirty minutes of my time already, I am not absolutely certain I am committed to buying a wiznev this day at this time in this place. And what if the clerk took me directly to the wiznev counter and they had the absolutely best wiznevs at the absolutely best price and the clerk produced a special additional 20% off coupon he would give me and I just didn’t want to buy it. What excuse could I give?

Given all this internal conflict over trying to decide what I really want how can I hope to know what my characters want? Fortunately as my characters emerged in the writing of Henry on Fire they began to make clear what they wanted. Papo and his friends wanted to prevent the rise of the Tara. Tanya and Anree both want to share more of Henry’s life in suburbia. Jamal wants to go out with Angela. I don’t think Fred wants anything. And Henry wants to feel alive.

I like the idea of giving characters the freedom to look around the story before they really commit to why they are in it and what they want. Then in the rewrite as I strengthen the characters I can go back and make their desires emerge more quickly and more clearly, but it’s their desires emerging not my plan for them.

My greatest learning in writing Henry on Fire was realizing that I as author could only succeed by giving my characters freedom to develop beyond my original vision. I had previously heard author’s describe this approach to writing and I never believed them until I experienced for myself.     

4.     Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.     Start as close to the end as possible.
6.     Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.     Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who are you rooting for?


1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.     Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

In one draft of Henry on Fire I decided to really bring out Henry’s anger issue. I think I was angry about the fact that the rest of the world did not realize that I had written the next great American novel and in doing so redefined the American literary landscape forever. My angry Henry was mean to his friends. He thought about wacking the old man, Papo, with his walking stick. At a critique group, having only read fifteen pages, a guy said he hated Henry, my main character.

Wow! That was a wakeup call. He not only wasn’t rooting for Henry he hated him. I think we all want to know that someone is rooting for us. It saddens me when I discover parents who aren’t rooting for their children. Yes it is good to be honest about our children’s abilities and inabilities in the world but that doesn’t mean we stop rooting for them. No matter what, parents need to want their children to rise to the fullness of their potential and even beyond, if we won’t root for our own children who will.

I am also bothered by employers who don’t root for their employees. I want to see the people around me excel. I have more than once had interns tell me that their efforts were at least as good as mine. I tell them my goal is to make them better than me. If I knew starting out what I know now, the good lord only knows what might have happened. I in no way want neither my abilities nor inabilities to be a defining limit on those I get to mentor.

We love the star quarterback and we stand up and cheer for the come from behind person who overcomes tremendous obstacles, but there are a whole lot of people in the middle who we need to root for also. That is where most of us live. I’m going to start rooting for the guy who holds up the line while trying to get the exact change out of his pocket. Or the one who meticulous sorts and packs his groceries in the self-check line. Or the person who just can’t quite figure out how to merge onto or off the interstate. Maybe they’ll root for me also.

In my story of Henry I hope you cheer for the girls when they put an end to the boy’s jalapeno eating contest at the school dance. And I hope you cheer for Henry when he puts his all into climbing that rope that I never made my way up. I hope you will root for Anree who so envies Henry’s life in suburbia. And I hope you will root for all kinds of people who are currently part of your life.   

3.     Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.     Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.     Start as close to the end as possible.
6.     Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.     Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.