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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Delight of Stumbling Around

by RJ Robertson

“Did you read the directions?” A notorious question. It’s a rare guy that doesn’t endure that question every once in a while. On the other hand, when my wife says, “How did you know this was the way?” my chest swells, my face smirks. I graciously say, “Well, I came upon it one day when I had time to check out the possibilities.”

It’s pure delight when a fortuitous stumble propels an unanticipated treat. For example, yesterday, while returning an over-due book to the library I found I had a little extra time, so I decided to wander through the new acquisitions and just-returned shelves. My left arm, unaided by any conscious intent, darted out at one point and grasped a book, “JORGE LUIS BORGES… THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969,” written in large, white letters on an almost-iridescent, pea-green jacket, with a painting of a sprite, in renaissance-art style, in translucent blue on the right of the cover. Below it was a formalized aleph.

All that description—tedious as it might have been—is necessary for you to envision what it was my right eye (the good one) and left arm seized upon. Why? Ah…  that is a question locked in my sub-conscious. Sorry, Dr. Freud is out of the office today. What I can tell you is that the very “old-fashioned-ness” (If I may be pardoned a neologism now and then) was part of the attraction. There are those who would say it’s serendipity. That’s a label, not an explanation.

You see, after a heavy dose of what is winning the short story contests these days, the Curmudgeon escapes the dungeon and tears out into the ancient world looking for a kindred (not kindled, dammit) spirit.

A few months back we submerged into The Brothers Kamarozov.  It took a couple months to finish, but it felt absolutely revitalizing. I surfaced again when I resumed taking long, deep breaths instead of multi-tasking gasps. Then a few weeks later I picked up Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, and consumed it with equal zest.

I know, I hate to think what all this might be saying about me, but never mind. It occurs to me that I have wandered quite some distance from my subject, but it’s all relevant in a random sort of way. Anyway, no sooner had I peeked into the first story, “The Aleph,” (1945) than I encountered the following beginning:

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity.

Well, that first paragraph (half, actually) spoke to what in me feels, “Hey wait, world, I can’t keep up… [and then] Oh, to hell with it. Do you see what I mean? I have a meg or two of PDFs. of prize winning stories on an (old-fashioned. i.e. from the 1990s) zip drive, a three inch thick file folder with reviews of books I certainly must read, I see new library stocks, every time I go there, of wonderful looking titles I hunger to chew on. If the guys in the white coats fooling around with stem cells can keep me going another two hundred years—and if publishers stop right now—I shall satisfy my longing to know everything about everything. Meantime, I’m not holding my breath.

The point is, however, that Mr. Borges gave me more than a book full of interesting stories. I don’t know whether he intended or not, but I have a new way of selecting my reading.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grammar with R.J. Robertson Part 2 (Plus a Quiz!)

Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along:
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style

Well, enough of excuses and allusions. My discussion is in four parts. In the first I will detail ten of the commonest errors one encounters in everyday speech and writing. It is in the form of a quiz. If you get all or most correct, you might be satisfied to go your way in peace. Or, even if you don’t, you could simply resolve not to do it again, and still go your way in peace.  If you endure to the second part, I will present the rationale for the correct choices in common sense terms. In the third part I will say a bit about the parts of language, and how they require the currently-reigning rules. (Heaven knows I’m no expert at it, but I do have the basics, and we’ll muddle through.) Finally, in the fourth part I will reverse course and propose that, if you hang around long enough, many of the things I criticize (following Strunk and White) will be common practice.  Off we go, then.
Which statement in each of the following pairs is correct?  (Answers below)
1a “Mom came to town this morning, and her and me had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
1b. “Mom came to town this morning, and I and she had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
2 Which of the above statements do you think a young, radio announcer actually said as she started work?
2a (1a.)       2b (1b).
3a. ”I got tired while reading the article and lay down for a short nap.”
3b. “I got tired while reading the article and laid down for a short nap.”
4a. “No sooner had I lain down than I fell sound asleep.”
4b. “No sooner had I laid down than I fell sound asleep.”
5a. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was laying it on pretty thick.”
5b. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was lying it on pretty thick.”
6a. “Mary handed the groceries to him and I.”
6b. “Mary handed the groceries to me and him.”
7a. “Its been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
7b. “It’s been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
8a. “I’ts still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
8b. “Its’ still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
9a. “There was no one to whom I could give my report.”
9b. “There was no one to who I could give my report.”
10a. “Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.”
10b. “I was able to buy the house very cheap, because of its dilapidated condition.”

Answers to the quiz:
 1 - b; 2 - a; 3 - a; 4 - a; 5 - a; 6 - b; 7 - b; 8 - ( a ringer, “E, none of the above.”); 9 - a; 10 - b.

Comments on the quiz items:
On 1) I tried to tempt you by putting the speaker’s partner before the speaker. This would be considered, perhaps, a little more polite, but it is a distraction; a. is grammatically incorrect, polite or not.
2) calls for a guess, of course, and so is not a real test of grammar, but it emphasizes a point. I heard it on a local radio station – driving through Nebraska a few years back. If that is what one hears from a radio announcer, for God’s sake, what’s going on?
3) is straight forward, just a test of which of two wholly different verbs gives the correct meaning
4) again straight forward – each is the past tense of a verb, but which is the correct verb?
5) a test of which of two verbs – having some forms in common – is correct here. The transitive verb, lay, is called for, because John was laying it (the object) on.
6) once more I threw in the “politeness” ambush just to mislead. It might seem more courteous to hand the groceries to him and me, than to me and him, but either statement is grammatically correct while the other is incorrect, because it has the conjunction, and, linking an objective case with a nominative case.
7) For questions about punctuation, see Truss.* It’s (contraction of ‘it” and “is”) true that the word, it, is extra complicated, because grammarians had to find a way to distinguish the contraction of “it is” from the possessive case of it, which has to be it’s to conform to the rule of showing possession by apostrophe (‘s). Example: “After biting the apple I said, “it’s rotten,” meaning it is rotten.
8) What can I say? Am I supposed to follow my own rules? I threw these misused apostrophes into the quiz because Truss fulminates against them as she finds them all over the place: signs in store windows, announcements of various agencies and even newspapers.
9) This one can be quite annoying, as many people have it just backwards.
10) Unintended humor of this sort results from unnoticed ambiguity.
* Truss gives a raft of hilarious examples, worth the price of the book by itself.

A Literary Quiz, or why speech identifies your social status.
1. Who was the English language author referred to in Heinlein’s motto at the top?
2. Name the work from which the reference is taken.
3. What character speaks the line that Heinlein cites?
3. Name the musical comedy based on this work.

Answers to the literary Quiz:
George Bernard Shaw, the playwright.
The play Pygmalion.
Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist who bets he can transform a street girl’s speech so that she can be passed off as a duchess in fashionable circles.
My Fair Lady.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Value of Notebooks...
by Hudson McCann

While most of my night stand is covered with a disparate collection of items -- a chalk-white lamp; a beige cube clock radio, Kleenex box and 3” Super Woman doll -- a two-foot high pile of books covers the northeast corner.  In the past couple of years, as writing wedged itself into my daily life, the height of the books hasn’t changed, but the contents of the pile has. Some of the books are now authored by me.

No, the books aren’t published. The self-authored books are notebooks that contain stories initiated from group prompts, first drafts, revisions of scenes, notes from lectures, character sketches, book recommendations, web pages, trade associations and other writer’s resources.

Once, in a lecture, when my attention derailed from the topic, I turned to the last page and generated an index for the book on hand. Since the pages weren’t numbered in my blank book, that was the first step in making it a reusable source. Surprised and pleased by the sheer volume of material I had captured, I eventually did the same for the remaining books in the pile. What a treasure trove!

Taking the time to go through and index the notebooks, I found rough gems of ideas that simply needed polishing. Seriously, I think I must have written some of the items while asleep or in a trance. I don’t remember writing them. Not that all of them are immediately useful, and some may never be, but many are complete thoughts that one day might be.

Lexicons are my favorite finds in the notebooks. They are accurate lists of words and phrases about a topic or experience that interests me and, might one day be included in a piece. When I develop a lexicon, I write the topic and underline it at the top of the page. Underneath and for some, several extending pages are lists that accurately describe the topic. All lexicons are works in progress and can be added to at will. Now that I have an index, I know that there are a few that I started on one page, then tapped into a vein of information later and continued the lexicon pages later.

Developing a lexicon is much like a writing prompt without connective words. For example, not long ago I accompanied my niece to a tattoo “parlor.” As the tattoo technician inked her dragonfly, I created a lexicon page to capture the proper names of the items in the shop. I started with the names of the equipment, then the surroundings.  I listed the types of music he offered and the bands and artists he favored; surprised by a single Brittany Spears in the collection among the heavy metal. Turns out a young girl brought it to play during her time in the tattoo chair. 

As a complete novice to the world of tattoos, I listed the names of the various genres evidenced by the books on the shelf next to the CD player.  I added my impressions informed by my senses to the lexicon. In this case it included what I saw, smelled, heard, and later, what I felt when the artist inked my Celtic tat, with the precisely named, 'tattoo gun", that he wrapped in a "baggie.” And, so I learned that sometimes accuracy is mundane. I was imagining the gun with an official name, like the Inkerator Three and the sandwich bag he used to cover it was The Trojan. In asking, I learned a better story. The tattoo artist designed the gun himself using parts from others until he got the effect he wanted. The baggie turned out to be a process improvement that saved him maintenance time. My lexicon include bits of information to add texture to writing sometime in the future.

Last year, when attending a writing conference in Taos, NM, where I learned about Lexicons from my instructor and author, Priscilla Long, I started a lexicon, titled, New Mexico. During the week, I kept a running list of impressions From the veranda off my hotel room I saw trees, cacti and prairie dogs. Later I asked or learned the specific names for each. In the morning, not long out of bed with a hot cup of coffee, I used the time to write phrases and metaphors to describe the scene before me as a writing warm-up. Someday, perhaps I'll want to tap those memories. At that time, I will have words for the subtle differences in the bleached color green found in panoramic views of Taos, rather than the verdant landscape scenes in springtime Chicago.

I always have a notebook with me, and I employ it often. It's not hard to imagine that it will be useful for a scene to be written sometime in the future, about an ophthalmologist's office that will include the ladies' room key attached to eye glass frames or the names of the magazines offered in large print.

Since beginning the collection of lexicons, I have expanded my strategies for creating them. My notebooks include pages torn from magazines and newspaper augmented by my own impressions. A new addition, for example, is a brief article I tore out on how to read clouds from Backpacker Magazine. Someday, when my smart heroine is out hiking, she won’t just see a tall, dense cloud, she’ll know its Cumulonimbus and head for shelter.

Sure, I could go to Wikipedia and get the accurate names of things, but lexicons offer deeper, more personal descriptions of a subject. They allow me to form opinions and ideas at the time and tap them much later when I can no longer access them directly. The present moment of creating a lexicon, offers richness and depth especially in rewrite.

Now that I have a variety of lexicons, I find that they inspire me to write. At my fingertips, like a ready-to-heat meal, I have all the ingredients, to which I simply need to add characters… from another page in one of my notebooks.

Grammar with R.J. Robertson

Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along:
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style
Part 1

by R.J. Robertson

"Many years ago a wise and cynical man 
proved that the way a person talks is 
the most important thing about him."
Robert A. Heinlein (in his, The Cat Who
walks through walls.)

I got this job because – having been educated before the era of “don’t inhibit a child’s self-expression” – I  thrust myself unwittingly into the role of Curmudgeon of Grammar in the Evanston Writers’ Workshop.  

The C of G is not exactly a knightly title, you understand, but it does have one faintly noble perquisite: you get to criticize the work of writers better than yourself. I populated this role, without realizing what I was doing, by complaining about too many liberties being taken with English grammar in otherwise excellent work submitted for critique in the Evanston Writers’ group.            
Unlike with the younger generation – most of whom seem to have learned English in the polyglot culture of popular media, modified by the linguistic license rampant in immigrant cultures thrown together in our large cities – I learned grammar from a gentle, but no-nonsense British lady who taught it in one quarter of my first year at university. It was a sacred mission for her, and it spread to us, her students, as she instilled the rules of English, and convinced us why our language needed its rules.                
The latter point is well put in E B.White’s explanation of why he took up the cause pioneered by Will Strunk in The Elements of Style. White said, “If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game without foul lines.” If you examine Strunk and White on style and Lynne Truss’s, Eats Shoots & Leaves, on punctuation, I think it will not be hard to convince yourself of the aptness of White’s dictum.

To be continued...

Visit R.J. Robertson's website at: RichardJRobertson.Com 

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Reaction to Updike

In a break from our series, Dispatches in the Field, we bring you this brief article from Michael Horvich, in response to a recent article about writer John Updike. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dispatches From the Field: "Overwhelmed"

In the second in our series of "Dispatches From the Field," Michael Horvich discusses his reactions to the conference.

If you missed our conference, be sure to put next year's on your calendar: Saturday and Sunday, 06/04-05/2011.

The Evanston Writers Workshop (EWW) Conference took place in Winnetka, Illinois on May 15 and 16, 2010. The conference was a first for me, a wonderful experience and I learned a lot about the writing profession. However, my mantra became “DO NOT BECOME OVERWHELMED,” although I did a little. Having learned so many new things about the “business” of writing made becoming a published writer seem further away than it ever had been. But I repeated my mantra over and over and listed: I am further along than ever, learning more is good, making connections with like minded people helps, you love writing and that’s what counts, etc.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dispatches From the Field: "The Middleman Age of Civilization"

In the first of a series of "Dispatches From the Field," we will host a variety of articles from attendees to our first annual Writers Conference, In the Trenches with the Writer.

If you missed our conference, be sure to put next year's on your calendar: Saturday and Sunday, 06/04-05/2011.

And now, without further ado, here is our first dispatch: "The Middleman Age of Civilization," by RJ.

Driving home from EWW’s first-ever conference I had what, to me, was an insight about our share in where the world is trending (pun intended, sort of). Thinking about all the time and energy that had been devoted to agents and how to butter them up to get your slice of territory under the sun, it struck me: Of course, history has hit a new epoch. The last age of civilization was the industrial age. Now it’s the middleman age. I never was very satisfied with all those books and articles about “the post-industrial era.” So, it’s _post_, but what is it now?

Well, it came clear. What do brokers, agents, supervisors, managers all have in common? They are middlemen (and women). They operate between producers and customers. Only in third world countries is it still sometimes the case that farmers, cottage-industry producers and the like meet their customers and haggle, gossip, lunch together and deal face to face. And that is changing fast. Nowadays only the middleman has the semblance of that old style of doing business, and even then there are layers of middlemen. And it is true in all fields: farming and industry. In the arts it is the agents who are between the public and the performers. Symphony directors, painter’s schools, book editors, county farm agents… are the complement of engineers in manufacturing. They organize the work of producers to make the product more useful to the consumers.

But it is the middlemen, artistic agents, financial brokers, advertising agents, product salesmen, and the like, who make or break the producer of goods. You have to placate them, seduce them, accept the handsome awards they give themselves and take what they offer back, if you want your product to meet a market.

With mass production manufacturing, industrial farming and all I guess it is essential to have someone to bring your product to the attention of the customers who don’t even know what they are looking for until the middlemen inform them.

But with this new development there are new dangers too. Last night on 60 Minutes they reported on a technician on the oil rig who kept notifying his superiors that something was going wrong. He was directly in touch with it. But the decision was made by a “supervisor” from BP who wasn’t directly in touch with the real world of the drill. He said, “Keep going,” according to 60M. That is just like what happened with the Challenger Space Shuttle. The scientists and engineers said “It’s too cold, the rubber O-ring might harden and snap.” The supervisor said, “Keep going.” The shuttle exploded, the crew died. There are many more such stories out there. But what the heck, the world now has three times the number of people it can support. So we can risk a few now and then. The decision makers are never close to the ones that get it in the neck. It’s not their hides.

Just like every development in civilization has its benefits, so it has its problems. I think in the age of the middleman, there should be a law that the man or woman on the firing line gets to veto the middleman, who doesn’t know the scene in the trenches.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

We want YOU! attend our First Annual Writing Conference, of course! You asked for it, and we listened. We have a plethora of panels (and found our thesaurus to boot!), but today I want to highlight our Keynote Speaker: Ms. MaryJanice Davidson. You NEED to hear her speak!

Here's why:

She's more fun than a barrel of monkeys! A multiple best-selling author on both the prestigious (and coveted) New York Times AND USA Today Bestseller lists, she really knows the business of publishing from the inside. From the trenches, say! (And our conference theme IS: In the Trenches with the Writer!)

Prolific, funny, and down-to-earth, we have asked MaryJanice to talk to us about the publishing business, keeping the momentum going once you finish one or two novels and are trying to figure out "what next," and her in-general thoughts she would have loved to have someone like her share back when she was first starting out.

She has written a prodigious 66 books so far! Here's the list, from her website:
1. By Any Other Name (1998)
2. Adventures of the Teen Furies (1998)
3. Dying for Ice Cream (1999) (ebook)
4. Secrets 6 (2000) (Love’s Prisoner)
5. Reunions (Too Good To Be True) (2000) (under the name Janice Pohl)
6. Escape The Slush Pile (non-fiction self-help) ebook 2001
7. Thief of Hearts (2001)
8. Naughty or Nice (2001) (Santa Claws, a Wyndham Werewolf Story)
Was originally released as “Nicely Naughty” as an e-book that is no longer available
9. Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul (What I Learned in Spite of Myself)
10. Undead & Unwed (2002)
11. Canis Royal: Bridefight (2002)(e-book)
12. Love Lies (2002) (e-book)
13. Secrets 8 (2002) (Jared’s Wolf)
14. Lighthearted Lust (2003) (There’s No Such Thing as a Werewolf) (e-book)
15. Under Cover (2003)
16. Beggarman, Thief (2004)(e-book)
17. Cravings (2004) (Dead Girls Don’t Dance)
18. Forgotten Wishes (2004) (Love’s Tender Fury)(e-book)
19. Perfect for the Beach (2004) (My Thief)
20. How to Be a Wicked Woman (2004) (The Wicked Witch of the West Side)
21. Merry Christmas, Baby (2004) (Undercover Claus)
22. Men at Work (2004) (The Fixer-Upper)
23. Undead & Unemployed (2004)
24. The Royal Treatment (2004)
25. Bad Boys with Expensive Toys (2004) (The World is Too Darned Big)
26. Bewitched, Bothered, and BeVampyred (2005) (Night Mares)
27. Derik’s Bane (2005)
28. Hello, Gorgeous! (2005)
29. The Royal Pain (2005)
30. Undead & Unappreciated (2005)
31. Undead & Unreturnable (2005)
32. Betsy the Vampire Queen (2005) (first 4 Betsy books combined)
33. Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace (2005)
34. Romance at the Edge: In Other Worlds (2005) (Beggarman, Thief)
35. Charming the Snake (2005) (Savage Scavenge)
36. Kick Ass (2005) (the Incredible Misadventures of Boo & the Boy Blunder)
37. Bite (2005) (Biting in Plain Sight)
38. Really Unusual Bad Boys (2005) (Bridefight, Mating Season, & Groomfight)
39. Wicked Women Whodunit (2005) (Ten Little Idiots)
40. Sleeping with the Fishes (2006)
41. Jennifer Scales and the Messenger of Light (2006)
42. Undead & Unpopular (2006)
43. Drop Dead Gorgeous (2006)
44. Mysteria (2006) (Alone Wolf)
a. Fangs Again (2006) never got published
45. Surf’s Up (2006) (Paradise Bossed)
46. Valentine’s Day is Killing Me (2006) (Cuffs and Coffee Breaks)
47. Dead & Loving It (2006) (Santa Claws, Monster Love, There’s No Such Thing as a Werewolf, & A Fiend in Need)
48. Swimming Without a Net (2007)
49. The Silver Moon Elm (2007)
50. The Royal Mess (2007)
51. Undead & Uneasy (2007)
52. Doing It Right (2007)
53. Demon’s Delight (2007) (Witch Way)
54. No Rest for the Witches (2007) (Majicka)
55. Over the Moon (2007) (Driftwood)
56. Mysteria Lane (2007) (Disdaining Trouble)
57. Fish Out of Water (2008)
58. Undead & Unworthy (2008)
59. Dead Over Heels (2008) (Undead & Wed: A Honeymoon Story, Survivors, & Speed Dating, Werewolf Style Or, Ow, I Think You Broke The Bone
60. Betsy: Bride of the Vampire (Undead 5-7; Dead & Loving It) (2008)
61. Seraph of Sorrow (2009)
62. Undead & Unwelcome (2009)
63. Faeries Gone Wild (2009) (Tall, Dark and Not So Faery)
64. Undead & Unfinished – to be released July 6, 2010
65. Rise of the Poison Moon – to be released July 27, 2010
66. Me, Myself, and Why – to be released September 2010

For more information on MaryJanice, check out her awesome website.

And to meet MaryJanice in person, and hear all about her writing process, sign up for the conference! What are you waiting for? Space is limited. Come visit the conference website today! 10% discount for EWW members.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Thow Me Something Mister Game!

I built a video game as a promotion for my publishing house. Everyone take a look at it. If you want to download and play it, you can win free e-books. They have a link to the promotion on their homepage Whispers Publishing. Hope everyone has fun with it!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Call for Submissions! - Magazine dot com

"NARRATIVE" announces:

The Narrative Library $25,000 Book Award Series.
Open to previously unpublished book-length works.


The Winter 2010 Story Contest, with $6,500 in prizes.
Open to all fiction and non-fiction writers. Entry deadline March 31.

All entries will be considered for publication.
Please see the guidelines at

All submissions must be made online.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Spring Fling 2010

Chicago North-RWA chapter conference is pleased to announce:

Spring Fling 2010

Dates: April 23-24, 2010
Location: Hyatt, Deerfield, IL
Headliners and Keynote speakers: Cherry Adair and Julia Quinn

We hope that you'll join us for the conference featuring workshops led by our headliners, Julia Quinn and Cherry Adair as well as authors Jenna Petersen, Elizabeth Hoyt, Jade Lee, Courtney Milan, and Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and many others.
Pitch appointments will be available with guest Editors: Amanda Bergeron (Avon), Lindsey Faber (Samhain) and Kat O'Shea (Leap Books & The Wild Rose Press) or Agents: Diana Fox, Laurie McLean, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, and Paige Wheeler.
Please check our website regularly for updated information:

Hope to see you there!

** Permission to forward granted and encouraged! **

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Amazon Sells More e-Books This Holiday Season Than Hard Copy

You may have read this elsewhere, but the news bears repeating. The ramifications for this, both in terms of the publishing business and in terms of being writers, is serious and far-reaching.

Check out this article from Business Week. Let us know what you think, in the comments section, about whether this is a 'good' or 'bad' development and whether it's changed your writing and submission habits. How about as a consumer? Do you buy ebooks or plan to in the future?