Monday, April 27, 2009

CANDIDE, A Rusty Medal

It’s rather hard to believe that I’m still on CANDIDE. Voltaire’s work, I fear, has taken a turn for the worse. Well, actually, it hasn’t taken any sort of turn which is why it and its predictable nature has grown tiresome as I come to its end. I did want to share an excerpt from Chapter 25 with you.

Let me first mention that for the past year, I’ve been trying to read several of the “classics.” Admittedly, some have been more enjoyable than others. With each, I sought to learn some tidbit to improve my writing. A few great works, admittedly, bordered on the tedious. Despite its outstanding start, I now lump Candide (written in 1759) into this latter category, which is why I find this particular excerpt so amusing. In it, young Candide has asked the noble Venetian, Pococurante, about his vast library. Pococurante criticizes all the “classic” works such as those by Milton, Cicero, and Virgil. Anyway, here’s what Pococurante says about my esteemed Greek poet:

"Homer is no favorite of mine," answered Pococurante, coolly, "I was made to believe once that I took a pleasure in reading him; but his continual repetitions of battles have all such a resemblance with each other; his gods that are forever in haste and bustle, without ever doing anything; his Helen, who is the cause of the war, and yet hardly acts in the whole performance; his Troy, that holds out so long, without being taken: in short, all these things together make the poem very insipid to me.

I have asked some learned men, whether they are not in reality as much tired as myself with reading this poet: those who spoke ingenuously, assured me that he had made them fall asleep, and yet that they could not well avoid giving him a place in their libraries; but that it was merely as they would do an antique, or those rusty medals which are kept only for curiosity, and are of no manner of use in commerce."

Some of you will probably give a hearty amen to Seignor Pococurante’s appraisal of Homer, one of my favorites. In fact, no one on this blog will hold that against you (wink, wink). As for me, I laughed when reading the second paragraph, if only because I wonder what Voltaire would think if he had known that the same would be said about his satire 250 years later?

Do you have some books that are just sitting in your library for show? Perhaps, these form our literary, rusty ‘badges of honor.’ We proudly set these conquered trophies aside in a place of honor on our bookshelf to let everyone know that we did, in fact, survive reading Voltaire, Milton, etc.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More on Chapter Headings

The boys of the family (2 grandfathers, 2 uncles, and 2 kids) braved ominous black skies this past weekend to tackle the first ever annual manly man family camping trip. We lucked out with the storms all passing over and leaving behind 70 degree, perfect camp weather.

Tossing rocks into Lake Ray Roberts highlighted the trip for my two nephews. The photo above shows me teaching the two little guys a thing or two about rock throwing. Personally, I loved the campfire – making it, the cooking, and (authors will appreciate this) storytelling.

As the night turned late (i.e., past nine o’clock), we played the story game where everyone takes turns saying a sentence. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t have to follow my 5 year old nephew. His storytelling strength definitely lies with the ability to change the pace. Every story needs a cheetah that appears and punches a dragon in the nose, right? Well, feel free to use that in your WIP.

In other news, I really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments on the last post, especially since chapter titles are something I’d not considered before. I like what PJ and David expressed. In short, the chapter titles need to suit the book.

Both Voltaire and Rick Riordan use titles that matched the voice of their overall story. Good titles not only do this but also usually serve a purpose in that they heighten the anticipation, building suspense and foreshadowing what is to come.

Please, no snide remarks on my own modest blog posting title today. After all, I’m still recovering from the weekend camping trip.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chapter Headings

Do you put any thought into your story’s chapter headings? Some authors prefer to just use numbers with no heading. I do like chapter titles, but mine tend to happen rather haphazardly. Usually, each one comes about during the WIP with just enough brief description for me to remember during editing what went where so that I can find what I’m trying to fix.

If you’ve read any of Rick Riordan’s PERCY JACKSON books, you know that Mr. Riordan puts some thought into his chapter headings. For instance, the first chapter in his first book of the series is titled, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Math Teacher.” Enough said, right? Well, all his chapter titles are that clever.

Perhaps, Voltaire inspired Mr. Riordan. What? Although, not quite as outlandish, Voltaire does make use of the lengthy chapter title. Check out the first six chapters:

Chapter I: How Candide Was Brought Up In a Magnificent Castle and How He Was Driven Thence.
Chapter II: What Befell Candide Among the Bulgarians.
Chapter III: How Candide Escaped From the Bulgarians, and What Befell Him Afterwards.
Chapter IV: How Candide Found His Old Master Pangloss Again and What Happened to Him.
Chapter V: A Tempest, a Shipwreck, an Earthquake; and What Else Befell Dr. Pangloss, Candide, and James the Anabaptist.
Chapter VI: How the Portuguese Made a Superb Auto-da-fé to Prevent Any Future Earthquakes, and How Candide Underwent Public Flagellation.

That last one seems as long as the chapter! In other news, I’m taking two of my nephews (age 5 and 7) camping tomorrow at a nearby state park. It should be fun as neither one has ventured into the great outdoors before. We’ll hopefully get a good campfire and load up on s’mores. The younger nephew is the one I took to the zoo last weekend. Pray that he overcomes his concern (i.e., sincerely terrified fear) that a bear is going to get him, or I’ll be faced with a sleepless night.

More on titles next week. Have a good weekend!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Music John

The last post ended with the KISS acronym – Keep It Simple Stupid.

“Simple is better,” they say.

It reminds me of my friend, Music John, making me listen to the CD he’d produced after graduating from a well known music school and explaining to me all the intricacies of this and that musical feat that he had wrangled into it and him bitterly complaining that it was much more musical than the simple songs that played on the radio, that trash. I did think he had a pretty song, but it wasn’t anything catchy or something I’d listen to again.

Where am I going with this analogy? Writing for the masses (not the critics) is like this -- the untrained brute puts together a coarse, poorly written novel stated in simple terms because that is all he knows. It stinks and its poor quality is apparent to all. The well-schooled but equally ignorant writer employs techniques and forms and grammar and uses every effort to comprise a novel, honing each technique into place. Alas, it’s unwieldy and fails.

The master author takes effort, too, but having honed his writing skills, employs ‘writing techniques’ so that they appear seamless to the reader. These are never noticed and because of that everything appears simple. It’s like the song on the radio – sure it sounds simple and only uses 3 chords but that’s the real beauty of it. All apologies to Music John. K-I-S-S.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More Voltaire

Happy Tax Day! I hope a refund is on its way to you. If Tax Day doesn’t do it for you, April 15 also marks the day that Major League Baseball honors Jackie Robinson. Players can wear his #42 and every team sets aside time for a ceremony.

Onward to writing -- Yesterday I briefed you on some of what I had learned about the French philosopher, Voltaire. Let us now return to his most famous work, CANDIDE.

I find CANDIDE a very simply stated, straightforward, short satire that avoids the long drawn out opinions that infest other 18th century works. I’m not yet completely through it, but I will go ahead and say that CANDIDE’s timelessness likely rests on the fact that Voltaire conveys his political and religious criticisms through a book that mostly reads like a child’s fable.

Stated another way, Voltaire knows what he wants to say and says it in the simplest terms. Doing so isn’t an accident. Voltaire had a fine education and knew Latin, Spanish, and English as well as his native French. I’m sure he could have impressed us by stating his complex philosophies in equally sophisticated terminology and plot.

So, as I ask myself what I can learn from Voltaire, one of the ‘authorly’ lessons I’ll take away is another example of KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. Oh, and be intentional about it. Sometimes the best and most beautiful things are those whose masters left them simply crafted. Incidentally, by simple, I mean simple in appearance to the reader, seamless if you will. Thus, even if my story contains hidden meaning and plot twists and complex characters, I must take the extra effort to think through the ‘simplest’ way to present these elements within my story.

Do you agree? I do think there is an equally enticing other side of writing, whose extended complexities create its attractiveness, but we’ll blog on that in a later post. Unlike taxes, I can put that off to another day. ;-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Taxes, the Zoo, & Voltaire

First, my condolences to all tax procrastinators. My sympathies as I’ve been there before.

Next, I want to report a successful zoo trip. It’s been years since I went to the zoo. I can’t speak for the kids, but I had a blast. If you visit DFW, definitely plan on going to the Fort Worth Zoo. I think the only zoo in the country that is supposed to top it is the San Diego Zoo, which I’m excited to say, LW and I may see next month on a vacation (more on that in a later post)! Anyhow, the pic shows LW and #2 son admiring a giraffe.

Onward to business – First, for those new to the blog, I’m in the process of tackling all of literature’s classics in hopes of bettering my writing skills. At the moment, I’m most of the way through Voltaire’s 18th century work, CANDIDE. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t ever recall having been coerced into reading it in high school, and I had anticipated a painful, difficult read. My paltry recollection of Voltaire centered around him being a French philosopher. I envisioned pages of meaningless tangents and needless listings of monarchies and lengthy descriptions of items such as divans. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A little history – Voltaire is a pen name for François-Marie Arouet who appears to have been a prolific writer, having over 2,000 books/pamphlets published. Born in 1694, this Frenchman argued for social reform, occasionally landing in prison or exile for his work. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Voltaire felt writing better suited him.
Get this – it said that his 1752 work, MICROMEGAS, might well be the first sci-fi book. Hmm … apparently, alien ambassadors visit earth. Who’d have thunk it? My appreciation for Voltaire deepens.

Another odd fact – a month before his death in 1778, he apprenticed himself to the visiting Benjamin Franklin as a Freemason. Then, when he did die, and maybe somebody can explain this to me, but according to Wiki, Voltaire’s heart and brain were embalmed separately from his body.

Voltaire certainly seems an interesting fellow, huh? I’ll talk more about my impressions of CANDIDE on the next post. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read any of Voltaire’s work or if you had similar misgivings.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Going to the Zoo

I’ve the day off today, and if the weather cooperates, we plan on taking our 15 month old son and our recently turned 5 year old nephew to the Fort Worth Zoo today. I’ll let you know how we fare. Has anyone seen the news about all the wildfires in North Texas? I hope we can still go. Yesterday, the sky turned gray and a burnt smell permeated the air.

Switching topics, have you ever wondered why Easter falls on different calendar dates? I knew it had to do with the moons, but I wasn’t entirely certain exactly why. Here’s an excerpt from Wiki (feel free to skip the next 2 paragraphs if such useless trivia bores you):

Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, which is calculated differently in Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity (see Computus for details). Easter falls on the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, the full moon on or after 21 March, taken to be the date of the vernal equinox. The Western calculation uses the Gregorian calendar, while the Eastern calculation uses the Julian calendar, whose 21 March now corresponds to the Gregorian calendar's 3 April. The calculations for identifying the date of the full moon also differ. See Easter Dating Method (Astronomical Society of South Australia).

Because Easter in Western Christianity can fall between March 22 and April 25 on the Gregorian calendar, Good Friday can fall between March 20 and April 23, inclusive. In Eastern Christianity, Easter can fall between March 22 and April 25 on Julian Calendar (thus between April 4 and May 8 in terms of the Gregorian calendar, during the period 1900 and 2099), so Good Friday can fall between March 20 and April 23, inclusive (or between April 2 and May 6 in terms of the Gregorian calendar). (See Easter.)

Quite a mouthful, huh? Anyway, I am thankful to be off work today and to have some time to reflect on the sacrifice made on mankind’s behalf so long ago on this day. Enjoy your Easter weekend!

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The end of POMPEII’S first page reads:

Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain.

POMPEII is the first book I’ve read by Robert Harris, though I recently purchased IMPERIUM. As you might surmise, POMPEII deals with the infamous volcano that erupted in the year 79 AD. I like the above sentence because it sets a nice tone and foreshadows the volcanic eruption. Preceding it, the main character has just finished fixing an aqueduct two hours before dawn.

In honor of another Thesaurus Thursday, let’s see how else the excerpt might be stated. My effort:

A stifling heat already suffocated the dark fields ahead, signaling another hot, rainless day.

Anyone else want to try? Feel free to critique my sentence or the one Robert Harris wrote. It’s a good exercise I use to hone my writing skills.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Blogging agent Nathan Bransford published a post a couple days back on prologues that I found interesting. He doesn’t object to stories that use prologues, but I’ve seen where other agents vehemently object to material beginning with a prologue. In fact, I even axed my prologue in writing my first work simply because I didn’t want to hoist a red flag to any prologue hating readers.

Most of the time, the prologue opponents’ logic includes statements such as, “If it’s relevant to the book then it can go in chapter 1.” Seemingly, some agents think a prologue amateurish, as though it should be beneath a ‘real’ writer. Oh my!

I suppose prologues follow the authoring rule that is not a rule: If you write well, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t, then it does. I actually enjoy a good prologue, will likely write a book in the future containing one, and I’ll even confess to LOVING the leisurely, over-informant epilogue. What about you?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Interesting Links

I finally plowed through my backlogged Google Reader after being out of town over the weekend. I came across a few interesting links to share with you.

Need more willpower to finish writing your story? Try brushing your teeth with your other hand, courtesy of Life Hacker.

Fast Company has a list of 5 noteworthy figures’ favorite kid books. There's a couple in there I hadn't read before that I'll have to find for #1 son.

Paula over at Writer’s Edge has a post up about the top 10 best books on writing. Can you tell that I love any sort of post involving book lists?

I found this interesting: GalleyCat conveyed an NPR story that attractive authors have a better chance of getting a book review. I suppose I won't just set the timer for my author photo. Well, a little Photoshop can go a long ways. ;-)

Last, being that I work with Excel practically everyday doing my day job, I love that GalleyCat also passed along a story about a guy who wrote a story on an Excel spreadsheet and has had it downloaded 10,000 times.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day

The United States Army 4th Infantry Division Band from Fort Hood ushered in the 2009 baseball season at 1:05 PM in Arlington, Texas with the national anthem, interrupted by the early arrival of two sensational looking (and loud) B-1 bombers flying overhead. Former President and past Ranger owner George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch – a great looking high fastball across the plate.

Everything looked set for a great afternoon, and the game didn’t disappoint. LW had bought us two upper deck tickets a couple months back for my birthday. It was blustery cold, but we were there, and we enjoyed every moment.

The Rangers pitched well, played solid defense, and made key hits, including this one: 20 year old phenom Elvis Andrus hits a double in his first big league at bat. Look close. You can see the ball flying off the bat.

The Rangers posted a 9 to 1 win over the Cleveland Indians. Let baseball season begin!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Amazing Grace

I’m posting this entry retroactively. I’ve been unexpectedly out of town the past 4 days and without internet. Did you notice I finally missed a day of posting? I think it’s my first absence. I’m no Cal Ripken, I suppose.

I did miss reading everyone’s posts and hearing from you and will do my best to catch up. We all love Google Reader.

Alas, I found out early Thursday morning that my grandmother passed away. She lived in Tennessee, so LW and I, along with our 15 month old son, basically spent Thursday through Sunday driving there and back. It wasn’t the happiest occasion to have to make a trip, but I did feel really blessed to attend the service. Grandmother led an exemplary life, living as a model of Christian faith and cheer to all those around her. Her family and friends that came Saturday to the services testified to that. She would have turned 95 this year. I’ll miss her, but it is times like these when having a faith gives you a joy you wouldn’t otherwise have.

I’m not sad. Strange as it may sound, I’m happy for her. The opening song they sang in the tiny country church she attended sums up my feelings for me. The song? Amazing Grace. The best line goes, “I once was blind, but now I see …” It’s talking about spiritual truth, but I couldn’t help thinking that my grandmother now resides in a better place, and, yes, she can again see.
Grandmother lost her sight a few years back and knowing that she went to Heaven lifted my spirit, but so did knowing that she’s a new body, one not marred by the physical ailments that had gotten her, nor the blindness that took her sight. Thank you Lord for your amazing grace! And, thank you, Grandmother for the wonderful life you lived and the example that you set.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Phrase Counter

I haven't had the opportunity to try this out, but I saw it yesterday out in blog world and thought it the perfect tool for writers. I'll let you know once I get around to using it. Or, beat me to it and let us know what you think.

Ever wonder if you say a certain phrase too many times when writing? Can't recall what you wrote last night, much less last month? The Life Hacker blog posted an entry that apparently identifies how many times a Word document contains certain words or phrases. Cool, huh?

Here's the address:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Alert, alert! No April fooling, it’s the first Wednesday of the month, time to participate in Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club! Click the nifty Book Review Club widget to visit other reviews. First, however, stay tuned as I recount my lunch date with Zeus and a review of Wilbur Smith’s THE SEVENTH SCROLL.

As you might recall from my previous book reviews, I usually ask the immortals to meet me at work. This time, however, Zeus had a meeting with his attorney in Dallas. Those familiar with downtown will probably find this humorous, but Zeus insisted we eat at the Record Grill, his favorite joint. I didn’t complain as I ended up paying, and you can get a full plate for under $5.

ME: Hi, Mr. Zeus. Thanks for meeting. Did you enjoy Wilbur Smith’s THE SEVENTH SCROLL?

ZEUS: Hmpf. If one can enjoy mortals hunting for treasure and Egyptian history, then I suppose so. Romance and adventure and all. I prefer Greek stories. Willie’s earned the right to mention himself in the book. He’s written 27 bestsellers and sold 110 million books in 26 languages. What are you asking, Da? Of course, I enjoyed it.

ME: It is D.A., not Da. Yes, well, did you know that Stephen King calls Wilbur Smith the best historical novelist?

ZEUS: I know everything. That King fellow isn’t a king, for one. I’m king, the immortal god who commands the Heavens and who [DR – Note, I edited paragraphs of self-praise out]. What you probably didn’t know Da is that Willie was born in Zambia. He wanted to do journalism after graduating and did for a time, but his father’s advice to get a real job prompted him to become a tax accountant.

ME: You’re kidding?? Ha! That’s funny. A tax accountant? I suppose I know a thing or two about tax accountants. Well, Dickens was a lawyer. Have you been reading Wikipedia again? Let’s get on to reviewing the book.

ZEUS: Ah, yes, I am an expert book reviewer. Consider how beautifully the book begins. It reminds me of the Greek bards of old:

The dusk crept in from the desert, and shaded the dunes with purple. Like a thick velvet cloak it muted all sounds, so that the evening was tranquil and hushed.

ME: If folks only heard that passage, they’d think Mr. Smith’s book was poetry. Why, that’s the slowest two lines in the entire story. Mr. Smith has recounted elsewhere that his very first publisher and agent (Charles Pick) told him to write for himself and upon what he knew best. It’s clear he does that in THE SEVENTH SCROLL as it’s a thoroughly enjoyable adventure story out of Africa, touched with a smidge of romance. The book begins Royan Al Simma’s archeologist husband murdered just as they prepare to decipher 4,000 year old instructions to the greatest Egyptian treasure tomb since King Tut. Determined to continue, Royan hires a good ol’ Englishman explorer and collector, the daring Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper to guide her into Africa.

ZEUS: Fine. You’ve made your point. Only don’t forget to consider who killed Royan’s husband and the obstacles she’ll face, not to mention one of the most exotic and vividly described settings you’ll see in a book. It’s even more enticing than its precursor, the bestselling RIVER GOD.

[Zeus and I have to scoot down on the counter to accommodate a judge and two construction workers who just entered. The Record Grill only holds about fifteen customers at most.]

ME: I’d agree. In fact, I unwittingly read THE SEVENTH SCROLL first. Sequels aren’t unusual these days, only none of the others I’ve read pick up the story 4,000 years later like Mr. Smith does!

[DR – Note, the original book, RIVER GOD, told the story of the Egyptians who buried the treasure. It’s an equally good read, but it is more historical fiction than thriller.]

ZEUS: Enough with those Egyptians. I want to talk about the villains. The main one [DR – Villain’s name omitted to preserve the plot] makes Hades look charitable. He wants and he gets. Actually, that sounds like me. Ah.

ME: Personally, I loved the setting that you mentioned earlier. Here’s one passage I found:
“Then the gorge of the Dandera River was too deep and steep to follow any longer, as sheer cliffs dropped into dark pools. So they left the river and followed the track that squirmed like a dying snake amongst eroded hills and tall red stone bluffs. […] The dangling lianas swept the surface and tree moss brushed their heads as they passed, straggling and unkempt as the beard of the old priest at [the monastery].”

ZEUS: That’s fine to like the setting. I said it was good. Normally, I like squabbling mortals, but I’ll say that the camaraderie in this book made the characters for me. They’re mostly predictable. So what, I say. It’s part of the charm.

At this point, two police officers entered needing a seat. Zeus has great respect for law enforcement, so having finished, we left. I hope you enjoyed our review of Wilbur Smith’s THE SEVENTH SCROLL as much as I enjoyed reading the book. FYI, there are a couple of R-rated scenes that keep this one from being kid friendly, which is a shame.

In closing, Wilbur Smith writes in a league of his own. His success proves that, and I think anyone that has enjoyed Clive Cussler or James Rollins will love THE SEVENTH SCROLL. Don’t forget to visit Barrie and browse the rest of the books reviewed today. Have fun!