The Jark on the Spiv’s Deed

I love getting reviews that make me think.

I got a review of a book chapter this morning that did that.  This reviewer told me I used obscure words that would be unfamiliar to readers.  Well, I can’t argue with the merits of that advice in general.  I love Hemingway in no small part because of his spare style.   When an author uses a word that I have to look up, it almost always annoys me.  It’s not that I don’t like learning new words–to the contrary.  The problem is that looking up a word takes me out of the story.  It breaks the fictional dream, which is at the heart of modern fiction.

My first reaction to the review was to run my chapter through the two tests of readability that come with most word processors: the Flesch grade level and the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score.  My chapter had a Flesch grade level of 4.1 and a reading ease score of 82.5.  According to Wikipedia, that grade level score means that a US fourth-grader should be able to read and understand it.  The same Wikipedia article says a reading ease score of 90 is easily understood by an eleven-year-old, while one of 70 is easily understood by a thirteen-year-old.

It’s interesting to see how various authors stack up on the readability scales.  This blog actually gives some comparative scores.  The Old Man and the Sea, for example, has a grade level of 4 and a readability score of over 90.  This means that Hemingway’s masterwork is exceptionally readable:  lower grade levels and higher readability scores are good things when it comes to lucidity.  Authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham have grade levels of 6 to 8 and reading scores from 75 to 80.  These are all readable authors by any measure.  Depending on the passage you choose, other famous authors don’t fare so well.  One passage from Proust in particular has a readability score of -515.

This blog isn’t doing so well, either. It has a readability score of 67.3 and a grade level of 7.7.  If this were fiction, I’d be looking for ways to make it more readable.

The point is that if you are writing fiction, you probably don’t want your use of language to obscure your meaning.  You want your fiction to be readable.  You’re not trying to impress your reader with your proclivity for polysyllabic elucidation. Oops.  I meant to say, “your tendency to use big words.”

Okay, then, back to my thought-provoking reviewer.  My scores are roughly the same as King and Grisham, so that must mean my chapter is peachy-keen, right?  By the way, “keen”–as in making a high-pitched sound–was one of the words my reviewer objected to.  If you think the scores absolve me, think again.

Consider this sentence:

                The jark on the spiv’s deed wricked the truth. 

This unintelligible sentence has a readability score of 100 and a grade level of zero, so by the above measures it’s more lucid than, say, the children’s book Goodnight Moon, which has a grade level slightly less than 3.

Say, what?

Suppose I had written instead:

              The forged seal on the criminal’s deed twisted the truth.

It turns out, this says the same thing as the earlier sentence, except it uses plain English rather than obscure words.  This second sentence has a grade level of 3.6 and a readability score of 86.  It’s also a sentence anyone reading this can likely understand.

So what’s going on?  Like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, I like to do the math.  If you look at the formulae for the Flesch scales, you’ll see that they are based on counting characters per word and words per sentence.  In fact, all the scales that mechanically calculate readability do the same kind of thing. What they don’t do is decide whether or not your words are obscure.  So my first sentence, the one with the jark on the spiv’s deed, is short and uses one-syllable words, hence the high readability and low grade level scores.  Readability in this case is a deliberate artifact–I constructed a sentence to “falsify” the score.

Now, another way to test readability is have real people read the sentence and see how many know what it says. In fact, you could have fifth graders read it and find out if the “average” –whatever that means–fifth grader understood it.  Of course, that kind of real-world test can’t be automated and built into your word processor.  I think we don’t need a test, though, to conclude the first sentence above is unreadable, despite its score to the contrary.

Does this mean that the Flesch scales and all their relatives are useless?  No, of course not.  In fact, if you compare the results of the Flesch scales with the above real-world test using real people, the results generally have a 90% correlation.  That’s really quite good, especially for social science results where there are often multiple unmeasured variables.  One of those unmeasured variables in this case is how common the words are in the passage being tested. As the above example shows, it’s an imperfect measure.  Still, for most documents, readability fails more due to long words and complex sentences rather than obscurantism. Thus, the scales do in fact measure something useful.  They’re just not 100% accurate.

This takes me back to my thought-provoking review.  It’s a matter of taste and style whether or not use a particular word.  Indeed, Dean Koontz has almost made a trademark of using at least one obscure word per novel–kind of like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearance in all of his films.  He does this was a certain insouciance–one of his words–and this is no doubt part of his appeal to his legion fans.

Now, the fact that Dean Koontz does this doesn’t make it “okay” for a beginning author.  If I used the wonderful word “insouciance” in an opening paragraph, I’m sure the acquisitions editor would stop reading and toss my manuscript in the reject pile.  Koontz, on the other hand, could open with the page 178 of the Tulsa phone book and he’d still get a contract and readers would still buy his book.  He’s not only more talented, he’s a best-selling author.  The “rules” don’t apply to him: nothing sells like success. Whether it’s an agent, an editor, or an ordinary Joe picking a paperback out at the supermarket, Koontz’s solid reputation means that he doesn’t have to prove himself with those first paragraphs. I do.

So how about that verb “keened” that I used?  Well, it’s onomatopoetic (there I go again!), so I like it.  I’m also pretty convinced it’s not so obscure that people will have to look it up, although I concede it’s not a word most people would use in conversation.  Bottom line: I think I’ll keep it, but I’m glad I thought about it.


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Craft or Art?


I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.
–Ray Bradbury

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
–Pablo Picasso

Life is choices.

When you’re eighteen, the future stretches before you. Your life is a page with no words, a canvas with no paint, a score with no notes. Each choice you make writes the story, colors the portrait, and sings the harmonies.

However, for every door that choice opens, it closes another. At eighteen, I dreamed of many careers, and I was lucky enough to follow several. By the end of my fifth decade, though, I’d still not tried writing fiction. I thought it couldn’t be that hard. I’d written dozens of research papers, a couple of math text books, and I’d read a zillion novels.

So, I set out to write a publishable short story. That was my goal. Six months, tops, and I could cross that off my to-do list. After all, I had lots of stories to tell. I’d just pick one, polish it, and I’d be done. Like Bradbury, I didn’t think I needed anyone to tell me how to write.

Of course, I’m not a natural genius like Ray Bradbury. I’m just a guy who wanted to write fiction.

Hemingway tells us writing is easy: just sit at a keyboard, open a vein, and let the blood flow. How true! Sure, I had lots of stories in my head. But they turned out to be excruciating to write. Characters came alive in my brain. Their anguish became mine, along with their joys and their triumphs. All those strangers stomping around in my skull, clamoring to be heard, scared the crap out of me. I had to get them out, onto the page.

Despite being so real in my head, when they populated my page they turned to ash. Instead of living, breathing people, my pages filled with dust. My mathematics monograph on A Rapidly Convergent Iteration Method and Gateaux Differentiable Operators was a zinger by comparison.

So, I decided to read a book on how to write. In fact, I read a bunch of books, but none of them really helped. Even John Gardner’s marvelous The Art of Fiction didn’t help, although it clearly provided a theoretical basis for effective fiction.

The problem is that good fiction is more than characterization, or plotting, or pacing. It’s more than dramatic structure, or theme, or metaphor and simile. It’s even more than the solid foundation that Gardner teaches. Good fiction is also craft: countless details that work together to produce art.

When I first joined Writing.Com, I was incredibly lucky to have a small group of talented writers take me under their collective wing. I learned simple techniques to make prose more effective. At first, these looked like stylistic idiosyncrasies, like tricks. But then I remembered from my mathematical training the difference between a trick and a technique. A trick is something you do once; a technique is something you can do many times.

If you master the techniques of effective writing, then and only then can you develop your own style. Indeed, it is in mastering those techniques that your style evolves.

Just because you own paints and a brush doesn’t mean you can produce art. Just because you can construct grammatical sentences doesn’t make you an author.

Sometimes, I’ll have a beginning author reject my suggestions about technique, telling me that’s “not their style.” Fine. Everyone has their own style. But pay attention to the Picasso quote at the start of this essay. Contrast it with the Bradbury quote. Unless you’re one of those rare geniuses like Bradbury, it pays to learn the techniques other authors have worked out over the ages. Even Picasso said we are all beginners, learning from each other.

Picasso mastered the techniques of realism as a young man. If you don’t think so, just Google “Picasso realism” and look at the images that come up. In fact, he never totally abandoned realism. Consider his lovingly detailed 1924 painting of his spouse at the top of this blog. While his 1954 portrait   of Jacqueline Rocque is a recognizable Picasso, he also penned this delightful and realistic sketch   of her in the same year.
Picasso never abandoned realism even as he developed his world-shattering style.

Picasso once said that when he was young, he could have become anything: a doctor, a lawyer, an author. Instead, he said, he became Picasso. But he became Picasso because he first learned the rules like a pro, and then broke them like an artist.

If you are an author, really an author, you have stories in you clamoring to get out. You have no choice. You must write them. But if you want their telling to be effective, you need to master the craft of writing, just as Picasso mastered the craft of drawing.

Effective stories are works of art. Successful authors make their own rules. The artist knows the purpose the rule serves and breaks it with deliberate intent, to achieve an artistic goal.

So is writing art or is it craft? The answer is that it’s both. Craft precedes art, and art transcends craft.

I’ll end this essay with another quote from Ray Bradbury: “You fail only if you stop writing.”

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Describing Characters

Descriptions are an important tool in a writer’s bag of tricks.  Done correctly, they incite the readers’ imaginations, deepen point of view, and advance the plot and character. But descriptions are hard to do well. Elmore Leonard said his most important advice to writers was to “try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”  Keep your descriptions lively and focused on advancing plot, character, and establishing point of view and readers will devour them rather than skip them.

It’s worth noting that there’s one school of thought that deprecates descriptions of your point-of-view character.  The whole idea of third person limited is that your reader will experience your fictional world through the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of your POV character.  Unless we’re pretty narcissistic, most of us don’t go around thinking about how we look, how tall we are, the color of our eyes, or other personal details.  To be sure, readers need to know some minimal things about the POV character, lest she be a stick figure, but her emotional state and the sensations she’s experiencing are more intimate and subjective, and thus more effective at establishing POV.  Knowing that she’s seven feet tall and weighs 90 pounds is important only if it’s essential to the story.  If it’s not, leave it out.  Indeed, peculiarities in appearance can work against putting the reader inside the POV character’s head.  Thus, how much you describe your POV character depends on the story and on your own style.  Fiction is art, not mathematics.  There aren’t any axioms or theorems, just guidelines.

Since I believe that descriptions should be integral to the story, before I give my example I need to have some idea of characters and plot.  Suppose, for example, I’m starting a new story and I have the following two character profiles:

Joe is twenty-something, an accountant who is struggling to make ends meet. He’s had a hard-scrabble existence with a community college degree in bookkeeping.  He’s got low self-esteem, and he over-compensates by working out obsessively and studying pre-law in night school. 

 Kirsten is an heiress and, like Joe, is twenty-something.  Despite her Ivy League degree, no one takes her seriously, so she over-compensates by wearing expensive business suits, keeping a severe, short hairdo, and wearing wire-framed glasses instead of contacts.  Her beloved father is dead and her mother has re-married. 

The plot involves Kirsten hiring Joe as the fall-guy in a complex and ruthless plan to swindle her over-bearing step-father.  Hmmm…I may actually wind up writing a story or novella based on these ideas.

I find that it’s helpful to locate a photo that captures the image I have in my mind.  When    Joe-Smallyour novel goes into production, the artist assigned to your cover will almost certainly ask you for descriptions or even a stock photo of your main characters.  Thus, I will often search for this photo early in the writing process.  Having a physical image helps keep me grounded and consistent throughout the creative process. There are many sites you can peruse for stock images, and you can purchase royalty-free images for a modest price.  For example, for Joe I found the image at right on

JoeLogoWhile it’s inexpensive to purchase a royalty-free image–the one above cost about $1–you can download a copy for free that’s overprinted with the site name and logo.  The original, uncropped photo of Joe with the Dreamstime logo, is at right.  You can’t use that for public distribution since you’ve not paid for the rights, but it would suffice for your personal use while writing your novel.

KirstenJust for completeness, let me include a photo that matches my mental image of Kirsten, at left.

All right.  So I now have photos of what Joe and Kirsten look like and what the plot will be.  Next, I need to describe them.  But wait–there’s another challenge.  Joe and Kirsten will likely both be point-of-view characters.  The first chapter will thus almost certainly use one or the other for the point of view.  Thus, I’ll need to describe the point of view character while in his or her point of view.  That’s tricky.

Before we being writing, it’s useful to choose the point of view and to decide what information the scene needs to convey.  Suppose we’re going to be in Joe’s point of view.  Let’s start by listing what we’d like the reader to know about Joe’s appearance the first time they meet him.  First would be his age and gender.  Second might be that he’s muscular and obsessive about fitness.  Third might be his stubble beard, dark hair, and maybe a mussed appearance to go with being a working stiff.

The challenge, of course, is to achieve this without using a trite contrivance like having him look in a mirror.

As with most things, it’s much easier to say what not to do than it is to say what to do when describing characters.  An important point, I think, is don’t info-dump your descriptions.  This info-dump consists of the narrator, standing outside the story, describing Joe.

Joe wore a rumbled Walmart suit and scuffed suede shoes.  His broad shoulders and trim waist spoke of the hours he spent in the gym.  He kept his hair short, with razor cut sides.  His only concession to fashion was the carefully trimmed stubble on his chiseled cheeks. 

That gives a detailed idea of what he looks like, but it violates the basic principal of third person limited: the reader is supposed to experience your fictional world through the senses of the POV character.  If that’s Joe, he’s pretty shallow to be thinking these things about himself, yet I want Joe to be a more or less ordinary working stiff.

Consider instead the following paragraphs.  You’ll find all of the above information except the “broad shoulders” and “chiseled cheeks,” both of which are a little over the top.  Instead of an info dump, though, the information arises in a natural way, through the words and deeds of the characters.

Joe was lost in the depths old lady Marchan’s tax return.  With his right hand he scrolled through her deductions, while with his left he flexed an exercise handgrip.  He grimaced as a satisfying burn flamed in his forearm, but then the chime built into the doormat told him a customer had entered the office. He hid the grip under a stack of tax forms and turned to face the door.  The new arrival was a willowy brunette who looked to be about his age or maybe a bit younger, say 22 or 23, with no makeup, icy, blue eyes and creamy skin that made him think of Michelangelo’s Pieta. 

He rose to his feet, went around the desk, and extended his hand.  “Good evening, ma’am.  I’m Joe Hatcher.”  Now that he was standing, she seemed taller than he’d first thought, nearly equal to his six feet.  It was almost like she’d used her clothes and posture to make him underestimate her.  He decided to flash his dimples.  “What can I do for you?” 

She barely touched his calloused hand.  When she spoke, her frosty contralto prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.  “I’m here to engage your services, Mister…Hatcher, did you say your name was?”

Jesus, what was this woman doing in a place like Acme Accounting Services? Like his suit, Joe was Walmart, and her outfit screamed Saks Fifth Avenue.  He ran his fingers over his stubbled chin and nodded to the guest chair.  “Have a seat and we’ll see what we can do.”  He could use some cash, and it looked like she had plenty.

She perched on the edge of the plastic seat and chewed her lip.  Her straight bangs fell across her brow and obscured her trendy silver eyeglasses, but her hair was buzzed short on the sides, nearly as short as Joe’s razor cut. It was like she couldn’t make up her mind between channeling Annie Lennox or Princess Di. 

Her lips parted as if she were going to speak, but just then a car drove through the strip mall’s parking lot, its radio blaring hip-hop and its bass thumping.  Her gaze dropped to Joe’s scuffed suede shoes, and her expression soured, as if she’d bit into an apple and found him inside.

He retreated back to his chair behind the desk and waited. Was she going to speak, or what?  The overhead fluorescent light flickered and buzzed, casting a harsh glow over the cramped office.  Silence stretched.

This is all first draft, and the rough edges of craft still stick out, but let’s take a look at what’s here.  First, notice that it includes all the information about Joe’s appearance in the original list without stopping the story with an info-dump.  Instead, we learn this in the natural flow of events.  We even learn that he’s maybe a little more sophisticated than he lets on, since Kirsten’s skin reminds him of the marble in a famous Renaissance sculpture.

These paragraphs also include a description of Kirsten, including that her appearance is deceptive and contradictory.  We get Kirsten’s appearance piecemeal, as we would when we meet a new person in real life:  we pick up on bits as we interact with her.  We’ve also got a hint of the class difference between Joe and Kirsten.  Finally, we know from her icy expression and frosty tone that she’s cold.

It’s also worth noting that the opening sentences are designed to draw the reader into Joe’s head.  He’s doing something—lost in the tax return—and exercising his grip.  The latter leads to a burn in his arm, a subjective feeling that puts the readers squarely inside his head. The doormat chimes, he reacts, and the willowy brunette walks in.  We get some final scene setting with the flickering light in the “cramped” office and the hip-hop music blasting from the parking lot of the strip mall.

There’s some tension building as she chews her lip and doesn’t speak.  Hopefully, at this point the reader is hooked.  What does the woman want? Clearly, Joe hopes to make some money, but the situation screams that there is risk—that the woman isn’t going to be honest with him.  Joe’s manipulative, too, since he “flashes his dimples,” so we’ve already got conflict.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence should advance plot or character, and preferably both. I’m not as skilled as Vonnegut by any stretch, but I think almost every sentence in the above accomplishes one or both of those goals while at the same time conveying information about setting and the appearance of the characters.  This isn’t easy to do, but with some thought and attention to craft, it’s not impossibly difficult, either.

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Info-dumps and the Evolution of Opening Paragraphs

Opening paragraphs are tough to write. Everyone knows that. You’ve got to introduce your character, draw the readers into the story, foreshadow the plot, and establish the point of view. You also have to orient your readers, so it helps to answer as many of the who, what, when, and where questions as you can. Even more challenging, this is your first and best chance to capture your readers. The best openings grab them by the throat and make them continue reading.

I thought it might be helpful to show the evolution of the opening paragraphs to a short story I’ve been working on the last couple of weeks.

Here’s my first attempt.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. He checked his mobile phone. No signal. Awesome.

My usual technique, in evidence here, is to first and foremost draw the readers into the head of the point-of-view character. I almost always start by naming the character, and then go on to have some visceral reaction to the physical surroundings. In this case, he shivers and his shirt clings to his clammy torso. With any luck, the reader is now in his head, so whatever follows is also in his head. I also locate him in space (in a diner in Oklahoma) and time (it’s July). In fact, the diner is old, since it has “ancient” scents. We also learn he’s in a remote location, since there’s no cell signal. Finally, the name of the diner–The Last Chance–adds a bit of foreboding and foreshadowing.

All in all, this doesn’t look like a terrible opening to me. It didn’t quite work for the story, though, since I didn’t think it had enough information. Basically, this is your typical “guy gets lost in the middle of nowhere and weird things happen” story–the kind you would see on an old Twilight Zone episode, for example. So, I decided I needed to add a bit of that to the opening, along with an explanation of why he was there. So, here’s my second attempt at an opening paragraph.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and he was overdue. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner. 

Now if the waitress would take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Notice this adds that he’s lost and paints a picture of a ghost town buried in the forest. There’s also a bit of tension since the waitress seems to be ignoring him. While that was better, the first paragraph now drags a bit with too much explanation, so I decided to insert another paragraph with even more explanation, some of it to set up things later in the story.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and his report was overdue.

This trip had been a total waste. After all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell like iPhones in Silicon Valley in these parts, but no one here had any money, and most of the time there was no network for the monitors to connect to. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner.

Now if the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Well. Harumph. That needs work. Look at the last sentence in the first paragraph. It’s all telling: an info-dump. Same for the second paragraph. How embarrassing. So, let’s work on that.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside a nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. With all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell around here like prayer books at a revival, but no one had any money, and these backwoods bumpkins didn’t even have cell phone coverage. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this diner, such as it was. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

All right, then. This is better. Now the information at the end of the first paragraph is clearly in Hank’s head, and we’re getting a sense of his frustration and isolation from what he’s thinking. I like the first paragraph at this point.

The second paragraph? Well, it’s still got too much information. It sounds like earthquakes and seismic monitors are important to the story, and they’re not. What is important is the feeling he’s “dropped into another century” and he wants to get “back to civilization,” added in the final paragraph.

So, here’s where the opening stands now.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. The few bumpkins who’d listened to his pitch didn’t have the brains to pound dirt, and no money besides. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find a place to eat. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

At 190 words, that’s still a little long. The precipitating incident, the arrival a mysterious stranger at diner, starts in the next paragraph. It’d be better if I could push that earlier, so this probably still needs some work.

The point is that openings are hard. The story stands at 2800 words right now, and I’m happy with everything except the first 200 of them.

I’ll keep you posted!

Next day thoughts:

I’ve decided to delete the entire second paragraph.  The only essential information is that he can use his GPS to guide him to the nearby turnpike, and I moved that tidbit to later in the story.  Now I can have the precipitating incident right there at the beginning.

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Fun With Easter Eggs

While they are fun, this blog is not about the coloring hard-boiled ova from hens.  Instead, this is about clever hidden references that directors and authors sometimes plant inside creative works.  For example, in my most recent novel The Hounds of Hollenbeck, the protagonist’s address is the same as Franz Kafka’s when he wrote Metamorphosis.  There’s also a little mini-scene with earthworms that’s an homage to David Lynch and Blue Velvet.

It can be lots of fun finding Easter eggs in movies.  A famous example is Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo appearance in nearly every film he directed.  Other directors have imitated this. For example, in Jurassic Park, Stephen Spielberg’s reflection appears in the hub cab of the jeep after it falls out of the tree. M. Night Shyamalan makes a cameo appearance in his movies.

I thought about this topic the other night while watching an old Columbo episode with Suzanne Pleshette in a guest-starring role.  Remember, she played Bob Newhart’s wife in the 1970s sitcom, but before that she was in Hitchcock’s The Birds, playing a school teacher who gets pecked to death.  In the Columbo episode, Falk asks her what she does, and she says she “used to work with children and animals.” I immediately thought of her earlier Hitchcock roll, and wondered if this was an Easter egg homage to Hitchcock.  Only the writers know.

Anyway, here are a few fun Easter eggs for your enjoyment.

Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Apparently while shooting, the cast had a real Easter egg hunt on the set.  They neglected to clean up thoroughly, though, and sharp-eyed fans spotted Easter eggs scattered here and there throughout the film.  Folklore says this is the origin of the term “Easter egg.”

Newhart.  In the final episode, Bob wakes up in the apartment he and Emily shared in his prior sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, where Suzanne Pleshette played his wife.  Suzanne is there, and he tells her he just had a horrible dream about running an inn in Vermont.  In another episode of Newhart, Bob and Mary Frann, who plays his spouse in Newhart, go to a psychiatrist’s office where Mr. Carlin, one of Dr. Hartley’s patients from the 1970s sitcom, appears.  The psychiatrist comments it’s taking him years to correct the damage done “by that quack in Chicago.”  This blog points out that in a retrospective of the The Bob Newhart Show, there are more Easter eggs, this time back to Newhart.

Silence of the Lambs.  The Easter egg here is in the poster.  It’s memorable: it shows Jody Foster’s face with the death’s head moth splayed over her lips.  Of course, the moth has a skull on its carapace, hence its name. But on the poster, the artist was able to be more detailed and more creative.  It’s actually shows seven nude women arranged to look like a skull, taken from a famous Phillipe Halsman photo of Salvador Dali.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Hidden in the hieroglyphs on the wall of the well of souls are images of R2-D2 and C3PO.  They do get around, don’t they?

Return of the Jedi. Three of Jabba the Hut’s workers on his barge are named Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto, a reference to the classic SciFi film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Phantom Menace. E.T. appears in the senate cheering as Palpatine announces the formation of the Empire.  Of course, Yoda appears in E.T., at least as a costumed child.  In fact, there’s a whole web page that speculates E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars are from the same universe, all based on Easter eggs.

Back to the Future.  Marty crashes into a farmhouse where the son is named Sherman and the name on the mailbox is Peabody, a reference to the famous time-travelling cartoon duo.

3rd Rock from the Sun.  When Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, greets his boss the Big Giant Head, played by William Shatner, the latter complains about a crazy person on his flight to earth who claimed gremlins were sabotaging the space ship.  Solomon says, “The same thing happened to me!”  Of course, in Twilight Zone the Movie, Lithgow reprised Shatner’s roll in the TV series where exactly the same incident happened.

Hannibal.  In Florence, Hannibal’s first victim peals and eats an orange, in tribute to Coppola’s Godfather, where an orange appears in the scene where any character about to meet their death.

Toy Story. The carpet in Sid’s house is the same as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  Of course, those two movies are exactly the same (eye roll).

20th Anniversary of The Simpsons. Fox put Easter eggs in many of their shows during the week of the anniversary.  For example, in Bones, there’s a scan of Homer Simpson’s brain (Season 5 – Episode 7, 5:19 to 5:21).  In House, the eponymous physician refers to Cuddy’s breasts as “Patty and Selma.”

Roseanne. In 1993, the actress who played Becky left the show and the producers replaced her with a new actress, Sarah Chalke.  In the final scene of her first appearance, the family is watching re-runs of Bewitched and discuss the fact that two different actors played Darrin. Rosanne makes a sarcastic comment about the producers thinking the audience must be idiots to not notice.  Then the new Becky,  Sarah Chalke, remarks that she thinks the second Darrin is “much better.”

As with everything else, Google is our friend.  There are web pages of Easter eggs for movies and for TV shows.  Even these enormous lists, which have thousands of eggs, are not comprehensive.  They miss the Roseanne and 3rd Rock eggs I mentioned above, for example.

Do you have a favorite Easter egg?  Let me know.



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Notes from the Catbox


Meow. My name is Dinger, and I’m taking control of my pet human Max’s blog this morning.

My pet Max is kinda dumb, even for a human. Sometimes he can’t even remember my name and calls me Nonobadcat. I mean, how silly is that? I’m too genteel to repeat what he called me this morning as he dashed out to the farmer’s market. All I did was trip him because he gave me the wrong kind of cat food. I know, I know: for the last 286 days I’ve refused to eat anything but the gravy-ladled salmon and whitefish cat food, but this morning I wanted the beef morsels. With gravy, of course. How hard is that?

Anyway, Max was in such a rush to get away that he left the door to his office open. Since I’m an especially catty cat, I decided to show him. So here I am, to tell you the truth about one Max Griffin, human.

Ordinarily, I’d never read another cat’s email, but Max isn’t a feline so who cares? The first thing I saw was a note from his publisher that his short story collection, What in Dreams Abides, is releasing today. What a great opportunity for my revenge, thought I. I’ll write a review. I purred and narrowed my eyes at the thought, just like I do when he scratches my tummy. He is good for something. Sometimes.

I just pawed my way through this volume. I’m relieved to report that there are almost no dogs in this book. The last two books by Max have had those mangy creatures. The dog in The Hounds of Hollenbeck was even supposed to be super smart, which I guess doesn’t take much for a dog. Anyway, this new book has only one dog which is a big plus.

This one is all short stories. I guess as Max ages, his attention span is fading and he can’t get it together to write novels any more. I mean, he can’t even pet me for than two or three hours at a time before he has to use the bathroom or something. Bless his heart.

Some of the short stories are pretty scary, I admit. There’s one based on the old fable “The Tinder Box” that’s set here in Tulsa, or maybe in Kandahar. It’s kind of hard to tell, since the character seems to hop back and forth between the two, and then into a Disney animated movie at the end. Really, Max is getting so scatterbrained. This story has the only dog in the collection, guarding a dried-up river of sticks. Max is so subtle. Not. Dog, sticks, Cerberus, Styx. Anywhose, this dog doesn’t have much to do besides be a metaphor and gnaw on a bone.  And slobber.  After all, he’s a dog.

At least three of the stories are updates on classic Edgar Allen Poe tales. “The Eye” was really creepy, except for the crickets in the wall. They sounded tasty. The narrator needed a cat to eat them, along with that thing he left in the closet.

Other stories read like they belong on the old Alfred Hitchcock TV shows. There’s one, “Fred Cleans House,” that Max said he wrote to prove that a story about housework could have tension. I don’t get that. There was plenty of tension last night when Max and his partner Gene discussed whose turn it was to clean my litter box. I threw up on the DVD player to calm them down. It didn’t have the desired effect, though. Humans are so stupid.

Oh wait! I hear Max’s car driving down the street. I need to run downstairs and help him unload things in the kitchen. He likes it when I do that, especially when I follow him in front of him.

So, I guess Max’s new book isn’t bad, if you like short stories. It’s kind of scary and icky in places, and it re-works some old tales and folk legends in new ways. Most important, it’s only got one dog, and he’s in a minor role.

I’m outta here.


PS  Here’s a link to the other book, the one with the smarty-pants dog in it.



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Listing Lists of Lists

It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.

I recently wanted to find a list of positive words in order to construct an acronym from the word “nice” — see “Standards Based Learning and Contests” . What I came up with was this:
          Nurture talent;
         Inspire excellence;
         Celebrate creativity; and
         Encourage improvement. 

But what’s interesting was that I found an internet page of positive words.   Who knew such things existed?

I tried to use the list of positive words to construct an acronym for how I try to write reviews:
         Respect the author;
         Promote Excellence;
         Value what is done well; ;
         Suggest ways to Improve; 
         Encourage creativity; and
         Affirm the Worth of the creative impulse.
Well, okay, that didn’t work so well, but you get the idea.

I confess to a bureaucrat’s delight in acronyms. Sometimes they are less direct. In jest, I suggested a colleague in the school of electrical engineering name his lab the “Wireless Electronic Compatibility and Advanced Design” Lab because you could pronounce WECAD as “wicked.” He loved it, and that’s now the name of his lab.

Of course, finding a list of positive words naturally led me seek out a list of negative words. Turns out there are several pages with such words, including one that charges for the list. That struck me as avaricious. For what it’s worth, I didn’t need a list of negative words come up with that description.

Thinking about it, I don’t generally need help coming up with negative words. You know old conundrum: “is the glass half full or half empty?” My daughter pointed out it didn’t apply to me, since I’d think the glass was poisoned.She knows me so well.

Anyway, this list of negative words   includes a list of links to other word lists. There’s even one for math  words.

I have to say the math list is pretty disappointing. Key words from calculus like integral and derivative don’t appear. More advanced words like transfiniteaccretiveinduction, and topology are absent. Mathematicians also name things after people, like Zorn’s Lemma. Who couldn’t love something with that name, even if it does involve the controversial Axiom of Choice? Then there’s Peano arithmetic, which has nothing to do with counting to 88.

But I’ve digressed. Chances are, if you want to find something on the internet, you can. Even a pointless
         Out of touch 

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Mr. Bob’s Kåldomar

I have a friend, Bob, who’s a gourmet chef.  He sometimes shares recipes and cooking hints with me.  For example, he suggested I roll marzipan into a thin sheet and put it between the fruit and top crust of an apple pie.  Marvelous!

But this is about a stuffed cabbage recipe he shared with me.  It’s a traditional Swedish dish called  Kåldomar.

I like the name.  It sounds vaguely Viking, rather like a planet in one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories–one featuring Miles Vorkosigan, for example.  I can imagine Miles and his cousin Ivan eating this dish in some dark fortress.

Anyway, here’s the recipe.  It’s a bit time-consuming to fix, but well worth the effort.


Mr. Bob’s Kåldomar

(Swedish Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)



Two pounds sirloin of lamb

Trim most (but not all) of the fat from the lamb, then cut into strips.

In a meat grinder; combine the following:                                                           .

  • lamb
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 shallot
  • Juice and peel from one lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • fresh parsley

Grind all the ingredients except the meat twice: Mix 1/2 cup oatmeal with the ground ingredients.

Cabbage Wrappers

Bring brine to boil in large stock pot.

Place entire head of cabbage in boiling water until outer leaves are blanched. Remove head of cabbage from the brine and strip off outer leaves.

De-vein the cabbage leaves and trim to the same length. .

Repeat the above steps with the leaves remaining on the head of the cabbage until there are sufficient leaves to wrap the filling.

Finely chop the remaining cabbage and return to boiling brine.

Reduce the finely chopped cabbage in the brine while stuffing the wrappers.

Stuffing the Cabbage Wrappers            ,.

Place filling onto center of cabbage leaf Roll the leaf into a cylinder, then fold the edges over.

Seal the folded edges with a toothpick.

Browning the. Stuffed Cabbage leaves.

Place 1/8 – 1/4 inch oil in bottom of large skillet and heat. Dredge the stuffed cabbage leaves in flour.

Brown the stuffed cabbage leaves in medium hot oil, toothpick side down until golden brown. Turn stuffed cabbage leaves over and brown other side

Drain briefly on paper towels.

Arrange stuffed cabbage leaves on baking dish treated with PAM.


Place the remaining finely chopped cabbage in the brine. Boil until mixture is reduced to approximately 2 cups.

Retaining the liquid, strain the reduced cabbage water mixture. Discard the solids. Reduce the strained liquid to 1 cup over medium heat.

Add 2 Cups beef broth the mixture.

Make a roux using flour and oil or other fat source. Season with approximately 1 teaspoon of Gravy Master. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, a pinch of thyme or rosemary. Thicken gravy.

Pour gravy over cabbage rolls in baking pan.


Cook stuffed cabbage rolls at 350 degrees for 90 minutes. Turn off the oven, leaving the cabbage rolls in the naturally cooling oven for another 20 minutes.T

Serve over egg noodles, seasoned with butter and cilantro. Use a green vegetable such as asparagus for a side dish.

I’ll post my own photo next time I make this.  For now, the one above is from

Her recipe looks yummy, too, but it’s a little different.

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Inside or Outside

Inside or Outside?


Simple Guidelines for Opening Stories and Scenes
Max Griffin

We’ve all read them.  Some stories just grab you by the throat and make you keep reading.  Others kind of meander along, and you fall asleep before page two.  Everyone wants to write the first kind of story.  So, how do you do that?

I’d like to say it’s simple, but of course it’s not.  It takes practice and craft.  This essay is about some simple guidelines–craft, if you will–that can make opening paragraphs more compelling.

It’s worth starting with a bit of theory.  Some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century used an omniscient narrator.  This technique places the author–and the reader–outside the events of the story, looking in.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. However, modern commercial fiction has almost completely abandoned the omniscient narrator.  Today, about thirty percent of all commercial fiction uses a first person narrator, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited.  The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the latter approach and its consequences for opening a scene in a short story or novel.

One way to think of telling a story–a modern way–is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author’s partner in imagining the story. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story.  In his books on the craft of writing, John Gardner was one of the most articulate champions of this idea.

To be sure, there are other theories of fiction than the one Gardner advocated.  Many powerful works of modern literature deliberately use a “distancing effect” (German: Verfremdungseffekt), promoted by Bertolt Brecht among other masters. This competing idea purposefully reminds the readers–or the audience, in the case of theater or cinema–that the fictional events are an artifice and thus strives to engage the readers on a more critical and intellectual level.

However, this essay is about commercial fiction, and in this arena Gardner’s ideas have become dominant.  One might think of the “fictional dream” as drawing the reader into the story from the outside world, while the “distancing effect” places the reader outside the story, looking in, hence the title for this essay.  Commercial fiction today is firmly on the side of putting the reader inside the story.

This dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s a helpful paradigm to keep in mind.  If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state.  You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state.  While the readers are inside the story, you do not want them thinking–you want them believingimagining, and feeling.

It’s not that you don’t want your readers to ever think–surely every author has a message they want their readers take away from their story.  However, you don’t want them puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story.  Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that’s when you want them thinking.

So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream.  The readers become the author’s active partners in imagining the fictional world, in a state of suspended disbelief.  In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it’s the author’s primary task to launch this dream.  Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.

Here are three simple guidelines.

  1. Launch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something.  The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.
  2. The action should  orient the readers.  The reader needs to knowwho the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.  If the scene is embedded in a bigger story, the readers also need to know when it’s taking place relative to the earlier scenes.
  3. At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.

These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice.  It’s amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the second guideline.  The third step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character’s head, is even more challenging.  Let’s look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.

It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom’s hospital room.  He felt bad seeing Tom’s injuries and wished he’d been more careful when planning their hunting trip. 

These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:

  • We know who point-of-view character is: John.  We’ve established we’re in his head because we know he’s “feeling bad.”
  • We know where he’s at–in a hospital.
  • We know what he’s doing and why he’s there–visiting his brother.
  • We know when the scene takes place–dinnertime.

Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers.  Note you have toname John to answer the “who” question.  The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.

Do not start by writing, “It was dinnertime when he walked into the room.”  The pronoun “he” has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in.  Even if the point-of-view doesn’t change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream.  Reinforcing that we’re still in John’s head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.

Do not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character’s ears.  Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks.  Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are.  You don’t want them thinking–at least, not yet!

The worst thing about this opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John’s head.    Doing that takes thought and craft.  The author needs to beinside John’s head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.

John hesitated in the hall for a tremulous breath, and his nose tingled with astringent hospital scents.  He stepped into his brother Tom’s room where a nurse’s aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom’s waiting lips.  John blinked back tears at the sight of the casts immobilizing his brother’s limbs.  Guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat while memories of yesterday’s hunting accident came flooding back.

This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s constructed to make some specific points about craft.  It starts with John doing something personal–hesitating for a “tremulous” breath.  We learn that he’s in a hospital when his nose tingles in response to the “astringent” hospital scents.  All of this combines to make this bit of information more intimate and immediate, since it’s about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he’s in a hospital.  In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom’s injuries in specific ways: he can’t feed himself, he’s on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts.  We also learn that he’s getting dinner, which answers the “when” question.  Finally, we learn that John “feels bad” through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens.  These are all visceral, inner sensations that help to put the readers into John’s head and establish him as the point-of-view character.

It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view–the first opening is 29 words and the second is73 words.  But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John’s head and hence into the scene and the story.

Never forget that guidelines are just that.  They are suggestions, based on both theory and practical experience.  Your story may have different demands or structure.  Maybe you want to employ the “distancing effect,” in which case nothing in this essay applies.  Maybe, for example, discovering why the character is where s/he’s at is integral to the plot, and thus you’ll leave the “why” out of the introductory paragraph.   Always follow your muse, not that of someone else.  At the same time, take advantage of things that make sense for your story and your style.

Good luck, and good writing!


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Notes From the Cat Box

Max is busy writing today, so we have a guest blogger.  His name is Erwin Schrodinger the Cat, or Mr. Dinger for short.  


Notes from the Cat BoxMrDinger 

November 27, 2013

My pet human, Max, is pretty weird.  Selfish, too.  I mean, he wanted to sleep this morning at 5 AM when I wanted petted.  Then he fed me the wrong cat food.  I just had the salmon with gravy yesterday.  What was he thinking?  When I showed my displeasure by trying to trip him on the stairs, all he did was swear at me.  I guess he learned those words in the navy.  Certainly, no proper cat would even think such obscenities.

Anyway, right now he’s shut up in his office working on the next chapter of his latest novel, Timekeepers.  Or so he says.  Speaking cat-to-reader, I think he’s playing solitaire.  But he won’t ever let me in his sanctum, so who’s to say what he’s really doing in there?

He did spend some time petting me this morning before turning into a solitaire-playing hermit, but it turns out he wanted a favor.  It seems his novel Murder Me Tender released today, and he says he’s too busy to blog about it.  He wants me to do it!  I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a dozen better things to do.  Like lying in the sun.  And sleeping. Oh, and pooping.  Okay, so I’ve only got three better things to do.  Still, he did pet me this morning, so I guess I owe him something.

murdermetender_smallHe thoughtfully left his notebook computer open on his nightstand, with the electronic edition of his book right there for me.  The first thing that I noticed was the hunky guy on the cover.  Of course there’s a hunky guy on the cover.  This is Max’s novel, right?  I’d never do anything as shallow and human-like as judge a book by its cover, but I’ve got admit I can see where certain of Max’s species might be attracted by this guy.

The next thing I noticed as I pawed through the pages were the chapter titles: they are all song titles.  Really old song titles. Things like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Don’t Know Much About Algebra.”   I mean, I know when Max passed his PhD comprehensive exam in algebra he nailed his copy of Rotman’s An Introduction to the Theory of Groups shut, so he probably really doesn’t know anything about algebra.  But what’s with that for a chapter title?  Like I said, it seems it’s always about him.  Instead of me.

Supposedly, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca inspired this novel.  I looked, though, and I couldn’t find Mrs. Danvers or Mandalay anywhere.  There’s a big mansion in southwestern Wisconsin, and an estate manager named Daniels, but that’s not the same.  Oh, there’s a May-December romance, too.  Well, it’s really more of a May-August romance, between Brandon and Rick, the estate’s owner.  I did notice that Brandon’s the only character who has no last name, kind of like the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  He’s pretty cute and whip-smart, but Rick’s a bit of a nebbish, like de Winter in Rebecca.  Who knows what Brandon sees in him.  My favorite character was Rick’s sister-in-law and ex-fiancé, Sandra. She cracked me up. I know there was no one like that in du Maurier’s novel.

The mystery had some twists that would make a nice CSI episode. Wait, I think something like this was in a CSI episode.  Brandon even mentions it.  In fact, it was in an old Columbo episode before that.  We felines have excellent memories. We’re smart too.  Smarter than Brandon, or at least we’re brighter than Max. After all, that doesn’t take all that many smarts. Anyway, I saw through this from the very start.  In fact, I wrote down the name of the murderer at the end of chapter one, and I was right!     So there, Mr. Smarty-Pants Author.

My biggest complaint about this book is that it doesn’t have any cats in it.  Who wants to read a book with no felines? There’s this stupid dog who drools and sniffs around.  If Max has time to write about dogs, why doesn’t he feature a handsome Abyssinian like me?  That would be way more interesting.

Despite the fact that it’s got no cats, I liked this book.  Tell Max I said so if you see him.  Maybe he’ll give me some lobster next time he feeds me.

Erwin Schrodinger the Cat

AKA Mr. Dinger

Murder Me Tender is available from Purple Sword Publications.

I got the idea to ask Mr. Dinger to be my guest blogger from Gary Pennick, whose Jack Russell Penny often appears on his blog.

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