Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Managing Time

a.k.a “Time-management”

“Where did the time go?”
“Forwards, darling. Always forward.”

Time marches in one direction and, except for sojourns of the mind, don’t believe the physicists who tell you it’s the fourth dimension and as such it is a line you can move your dot on in either direction. Those same scientists also say the earth is round and, hey, it looks pretty flat to me.
My jesting way of saying our experience is that time runs like sand through our sieving hands.

Some years ago, I was blessed with finding a personal key to managing time. It came just in time, (pun intended) when my life became impossible to manage as a classic “sandwich generation” mom and daughter. But I had the tools, and by golly, I managed to take care of all my responsibilities and also write original fiction.

The key, for me, was to set a daily schedule of the minimal I must get done, and make it utterly doable. If anything, make it “under-ambitious,” so tackling the day’s tasks was not daunting. This is a system set for a marathon, not a sprint. I not only got the “must-do” done, I was less stressed about my time.
And here’s the secret kicker: always leave some time for nothing. That is nothing planned, where I can do nothing, do something I want to do, or attend to the inevitable emergencies that pop up. Nothing Time is sacred, and it is part of time management success.

With the rare exceptions of chaotic days (I take that possibility for granted), this system works for me to this day. Time moves forward, and I’m gliding on it.

I hope you find what works for you, so you don’t look back and say you didn’t get to do something you always wanted to do because you didn’t have the time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Professional Approach In Non-Paying Obligations

One of my peeves is the callous attitude some folks have when payment is not involved. We know that when a contract (verbal or written) involves money, it is a professional agreement and deadlines count. But what about agreements that don’t involve exchange of currency?

Some people think these aren’t real, or binding, or at the very least “not as binding” as deadlines set by bosses/contracted editors/clients.

I learned this lesson years ago, when I was part of an organization of volunteers who put together a biannual review of the private schools in the bay area. We met, the chosen head organizer set directives for the standards of the reviews, and we accepted which schools each of us would review. The head set fixed deadlines for submitting the reviews. Some people covered only one school, but I had two schools to cover.

When the deadline came, I submitted my reviews. They entailed research, two school visits to each of the schools, (one an organized tour and the other an impromptu school visit) and interviews with people whose kids attended the schools. No small feat when I had a preschooler and a toddler, as well as a mother who was full time in my care. The head organizer had the added task of looking over all the reviews and making sure they met the standard of the catalog the organization set. It had been a much-lauded publication for over twenty years.

Only the head organizer and I met the deadline. She then had the added task of nagging and needling the other volunteers to submit-please-do-it-NOW. She managed to gain some gray hairs before the publication heroically met the final deadline in time for the Bay Area Private Schools Fair.

 I have since encountered this lackadaisical attitude in critique groups and beta readers, exchanges that do not involve money but do involve agreement to exchange favors. Most folks are professional in meeting standards and deadlines. But then there are others who regularly forget/get distracted and miss these obligations altogether...
...oops, so sorry!

I am not referring to unusual occurrences. Life happens. There are medical and family emergencies. There are situations we can’t plan for and couldn’t even have the ability to notify when they happen. But these are not the rule, and if someone almost always skips and slips, we have an unprofessional attituder (I made this word up 😎) on our hands.
What these folks are saying, in effect, is that because they are not paid, they’ve pushed others and their schedules to the back of the bus.

What to do about it? For myself, I make it a policy not to be such a person. That’s what I do.

At the beginning of this post, I didn’t call it a pet peeve, because I think it isn’t petty to ask for respect. I can’t fix others, but I resolve to be the kind of person I respect. It makes me feel good.

I highly recommend it. If you’ve been such a slacker, change this for yourself. I think you’ll feel good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

When Proper Words Become Verboten

A few months ago, I suggested to DD that she consult with her teacher about certain career choices. “After all, your teacher is both old and wise,” I wrote.

I was swiftly corrected. “We don’t say old anymore. It’s not okay.”

Turns out teacher (and yours truly) are now properly called chronologically blessed.

I am mulling over whether to adjust, as I always have before. I have a long history with such adjustments.
I hope I’m not too chronologically blessed for that.

It started with the (now ancient) advent of Ms. I was a wee-one leaning English as a second language in Israel. Our English teacher was a delightful orthodox woman from South Africa. She informed us that in her English class the new “Ms.” doesn’t exist. “It’s neither here nor there, and proper English has Miss and Mrs.”

No wonder I came to the U.S.A. ill prepared. But I adjusted.

Then came the change from black to African American. I always try to call people what they want to be called, so despite the added length and relative unwieldiness, I adjusted. Some African Americans have informed me recently it’s back to black. I’m adjusting. I’m down with whatever you want because I respect you by either, and I accept this is a fluid matter.

Then came the ban on the word cripple. I’ve adjusted to disabled, and recently to differently-abled.

Retarded shifted to delayed, though they are almost synonymous. The new delayed holds the promise of eventual parity, and I doubt this is factual. But I’m game. I’ve adjusted.

Then came the non-binary pronouns. They are much harder, because my learned English grammar and the ghost of my former teacher from way back keep waving the red pen and striking they/them out when referencing a single individual. But I try.

But now, in my chronologically blessed dotage, I’m beginning to tire. I only ask the language police to respect my age and sense of propriety half as much as I try to respect theirs. Old to them is anyone over forty, and it’s a good olde (sic) word that deserves respect it has earned over five hundred years.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Let’s FACE It

Warning: this is on the gruffly side 😖

In the last year, I’ve gotten many Facebook friend requests where the person requesting chose not to put a photo of their FACE on their profile.

Yes, if I know you in real life and I’m sure it’s you, I’ve accepted. But the vast majority (like 95%) are people I’ve never met. If we have very few FACEbook friends in common, I assume this is a fake profile or some sort of spam. But most show that we have hundreds of friends in common.

This would indicate they are part of the kidlit publishing community, as most of my FACEbook friends are.

Some have chosen to put a photo pf their dog or pet ferret as their profile picture. For a banner, they put a lovely sunrise or field of wildflowers.

I mean, seriously?

I know we’re spooked by the use of our photo for nefarious purposes. I think that if this disturbs you greatly, maybe FACEbook is not the place you want to be to begin with. If you suffer from social anxiety and you fear your appearance will be judged, maybe this is not a good venue for you. Whatever the reason, why are you approaching people who don’t know you in real life with such?

I don’t accept such requests. I’m a basically shy person, so I understand the impulse to hide. But get over it if you choose FACEbook to engage with strangers.

Of all things, this^ is the banner of a site that offers to help you create a “memorably beautiful Facebook timeline.” Honestly, I’d pass.

Let’s FACE it and put a FACE on it. It isn’t your dog or a pretty postcard who’s asking to be connected.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Too Many REALIZations?

“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Mark Twain

Craft advice for writing has a standard admonition to look at “weak words,” i.e. qualifiers that weaken prose. Examples of such oft mentioned are: Very, all, so, quite, rather. You get the idea. Mr. Twain^ said it with aplomb.

A few months ago, while working on my third draft of a novel for middle grades, I chanced upon another word a great writer felt indicated “lazy” writing. The word is realize.
The writer suggests using this word is a shortcut to the experience of realization, a telling rather than showing. A character realized something and stated they had this realization. The reader didn’t get to experience this, we heard about it. Lazy writer = lazy writing.

Something about this struck me as worth examining. Was he talking to me? 😯

Using the find function in Word, I discovered (ahm, realized) that in a 38,000~ word manuscript I have forty-three “realize.” I mean, I had the realization that while the word may have its best uses, forty-three is a few too many. 😶

With little effort, it was easy to eliminate half. The sentences lost nothing and gained directness. A few more needed showing what the character experienced viscerally instead of the statement that the character realized.

By the time this Saturday night verb massacre ended, (it was in fact a Saturday evening) fifteen “realize” were left standing. I’m not a purist, and I can never take any suggestion as absolute. But I suspect this battle with a tick-word I didn’t know I had was good for the story.

Even strong words can be tick-words. Weak or strong, catch and kick the ticks out.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ya-Ya-Hoo, Anyone?

Kids love animal sounds in stories.

When spelling out animal sounds, we aim to approximate. After all, MEH is not exactly what the sheep says. WOOF is not exactly what the dog says, and MEOW is definitely not what a cat says. Just talk to any of mine, and you’ll know what I mean.

When I first drafted my picture book, (THERE’S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR) I was determined this turkey was not going to speak English. While she was relatable, this was not the sort of story where an animal says, “How are you today” and “Where's my kibble.” I had had my fill of anthropomorphic animal stories after reading hundreds of them to my kids. This turkey was going to remain, well, a turkey.

I posted a question on a kid-lit writers board asking for suggestions as to how to spell the sound of a wild turkey. I got the ever-helpful links to actual wild turkey sounds. Before posting the question, I had already listened to such and couldn’t figure how to make the sounds in English spelling, so it was not very helpful. One writer only said, “This is the oddest question ever posted on this board.” That didn’t help, either.

I was stuck. I had the story, and I had the character. But my character needed to speak Turkey. (Not Turkish 😊)

A few months later, I visited the zoo with my kids. In the petting zoo section, a large turkey hen kept following me around. She talked the whole time and wouldn’t leave my side. I saw it as a sign to get back to my story. But I still couldn't spell words out of her calls.

A tall woman in zoo worker uniform smiled at me. “Ya-ya-hoo has taken to you,” she said.
“Ya-ya-what?” I said.
“That’s her name,” the petting-zoo keeper said. “Kind of the sound she makes.”
I listened.
If you stretched and twisted your ear, it was an almost-sort-of-not-quite the sound my new turkey pal was making.
I mean, not really. But when we returned home, (without her) my fictional turkey had her sound.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Choosing Animals with Care

I’ve been reading and giving feedback to many aspiring authors lately, and one issue has come up repeatedly to irk my otherwise want-to-be-generous reading self. It’s the way kid-lit writers use animals in stories.

There’s an old tradition of using animals as human stand-ins. Aesop did it, and even the Old Testament has a donkey who talks. (Numbers 22:28) But in every case, the storyteller chose the animal because something about its species conveys an essential character trait or function in humans, of which the story is really about.

This is most clearly articulated in this fable, about the scorpion and the frog. The frog is the one who can swim (and real frogs do) and the scorpion is one who can’t help but sting (and they do.)

Conversely, in recent picture books, some writers use an animal character humorously, as one who grossly doesn’t fit its species characteristics. Think of Olivia the pig who wants to be a ballerina. Every one of us humans has experienced this “not fitting the mold.”  Ballerinas are supposed to be lithe and graceful, and this is not how we experience pigs.

This way, a cat character who loves to get dirty and stay dirty, much to the consternation of his feline friends, could work. The writer chose a cat specifically because cats are always cleaning themselves. The choice has to do with something of the real animal.

But more and more I’m reviewing drafts with anthropomorphic animal characters chosen for their novelty, (there are no other stories on the market with a Sugar Glider, so there) or their cuteness, (I like bunnies, so there) or just because why not.

This isn’t a new thing. Puss in Boots, anyone? But it seems more like an epidemic in the drafts I’ve been reading lately. Animals are chosen for the wrong reasons or no reason at all.

To this reader, this is not use but abuse of this venerable tradition of anthropomorphic animal-tales.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Writers Need More Readers

With official summer around the corner, some think it the season for pleasure reading.
After all, when else will career busy folks put down their technical must-read-for-work books? When else will school children pick up books they want to read but don’t have to?

Turns out that a whole nation embraces creative writing, and we now have a National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a NaNoWriMo every November. But as more people are writing novels than ever before, fewer are reading them.

Leisure time is precious. Between movie streaming and internet news and animal videos, people have found time to write and encourage each other to publish. But who will read all that output?
Other than committed writers who read and write year-round, (not only in November) and children assigned books at school, most Americans do not read much fiction for pleasure. To illustrate the point, more than ninety percent of book groups are middle aged (and older) women. This leaves out a lot of people, many of whom don’t read a single work of fiction if they don't have to.

I think it’s time for National Novel Reading Month.

The internet tells us there is a National Reading Month. it falls in March, in honor of Doctor Seuss’s birthday. The great doctor should be honored, but this suggests a designation aimed at very young readers only. What happened to all the novels written in November if in March we read picture books? Besides, who’s ever heard of this NaRe[ading]Mo if they didn’t search? Where is the engine that drives this to be an actual national event?

I think July is a better candidate for the honor. But any month will do. 
Just sayin’.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

What Will We Write?

What Will They read?

It’s a big question mark for writers for a post-pandemic period. What will readers read, and hence, what should we be writing?

No doubt, it’s the big five-W questions again.

The pandemic, of course. The one with the number nineteen in its name, though it’s mostly a twenty-twenty event

When sheltering in place and wiping grocery bags with bleach will be in the rear view mirror

Here, there, and most everywhere. But not, in fact, in the same way everyplace.

Human beings on every continents save Antarctica, that’s who L


Religious leaders and some environmentalists already have global moralistic explanations to the "why" of it. I will stay away from such like the plague that this sort of thinking is. The book of Job says it best: we can seek “reasons” but should avoid thinking we ultimately have any handle on moralistic global explanations.

And now, back to the ranch. The place where stories are born and typed, which (for me) is the corner of my room in the corner of my home.

I heard that some people were drawn to stories about plagues. Not me. I had no intention of re-reading Albert Camus’ The Plague, or watching movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion or re-watching Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak. No way. Nah-ah. Not.

In the thick of sheltering in place and leaving home as little as possible to get groceries from markets with empty shelves, all I cared to read, watch, and listen to were stories about normal times. Stories with people who greet each other with a hug, and gather to listen to music in large halls, and go out to restaurants where others’ talking made it necessary to raise your voice for conversation. "Normal," like always.

When we’re back to normal, it may be a modified normal. But stories written before will only need slight changes, not seem downright anachronistic like they do now. Of course, there will be novels with this experience in the background. Stories about how some coped, while others frayed at the seams. They’ll likely include the requisite one person dying in each. But I hope that in less time than anyone imagines at the moment stories will return for the most part to where we left them, way back in the historic time of the Fall of 2019.

©Chaim Goldberg Art

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Can Someone Explain the JOY OF TWITTER?

I took a while (an understatement) to appreciate the connective powers of Facebook. I mean, the first few years I had a page, I looked at it so rarely that my daughter gasped at the un-answered friend requests accumulating on my notification bar.
“Mom, these people will think you don’t like them!”

Who knew that a number next to an icon meant there were messages I was supposed to click on? It wasn’t on the manual. For that matter, I don’t recall being handed a manual for how to facebook in the first place.

But I learned. Slowly but surely, Facebook became a place I check regularly. Facebook groups are water-coolers of surprising high quality. Messenger turned out to be the great connector for one whose phone is not smart.

But Twitter’s charms elude me. The hashtags and twit-speak feel strangely affected, like valley-girl speak of the 1980s. When I post there, I’m in a jungle where I have nary a chirp of evidence the forest animals heard me. You know the old question: if a tree fell in the forest and no one heard it fall, did it make a noise?

Back in the days when my kids thought Facebook was cool, (apparently, since our kind has joined it isn’t so much anymore) they also explained to me that Twitter only makes sense for celebrities. The rest are just riff-raff hangers on, and really, Twitter was for old people. In kid-speak that's professionals in their thirties.
I was not a celeb, and my thirties had passed. But at someone else’s urging, I finally dipped my toes and joined.

And to this day, I’m there but never really there. If anyone cares to explain to me the country called Twitter and how I might like visiting it more, I’m open. Please.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Why Blog?

Fair question, that^.

This is my four-hundred-and fortieth post.
Despite the shrinking blogosphere, and the fact that (other than make-up and erotica themed blogs) blogs don’t sell what we make, I have continued my weekly Tuesday morning posts.


Because I still like doing it. I hope to always do things in life with this guiding light. Sure, sometimes we have to do somethings we don’t like.

Did I write “sometimes?” ^

I meant you could count on having to do things you don’t like but must do anyway. That’s a given.

But may the day never come when I stop doing something I like because it isn’t awash in likes from others.

Turns out, I like meeting you who visit here. Hope you come again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


When my father lectured university age students, he told me that in his mind he would focus on one student as he talked. This made it possible to impart what general thoughts and wisdom he had while keeping the thread personal.

Keeping a personal narrative is essential to have it be a compelling and emotionally evocative voice. Fiction writers know this is vital to good storytelling.

Who is the reader? I realized long ago that, for me writing for younger readers, the reader is who I was back then at the intended reader’s age.
Only it isn’t really. I see through a lens of my understanding of now. Obviously, this is not the real young me of then, but who I have come to think I was.


The attempt to reach a reader is always an act of faith. You can’t hold it in your hands and verify the path with your eyes. Faith, augmented with hope, is the engine that drives the telling of a fiction story to a fictional reader.

The goal is one—

Saying “hello there,” and hoping to connect with you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Universality of Experience

If nothing else, (and there’s plenty else) a pandemic brings home the universality of experience.
There will be time to reflect and assess whether we under-reacted, overreacted, were prepared or not and coped or not.
Right now all such assessments feel premature and sadly too political. Quarrelsomeness is part of our species. But so is mobilization and co-operation.

Which is what I’m focusing on, as friends all over the globe post Corona Outerwear Fashion:

A friend in South Korea^ (They were ahead!)

A sister in Israel^ (She makes these herself)

A friend in Madagascar^

A friend in Maine, USA^

And yours truly in California, USA^

I’m determined to return to musing about writerly and other life things next week. These, too, are universal and there lies the value of shared thoughts.

Can hardly wait to say Bye-Bye to COVID-19. Let’s meet on the other side.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Month of May

I woke up today, tired of Corona and determined to embrace the daffiness that this time of year usually confers on me. So with few apologies, here goes.

I find the very thought of the month of May very gay, in the older sense of this word. The wintry darkness lifted, the flowers bursting forth, and for my writerly soul, the word lends itself to an airy dance.

In May, we swoon and sway
Come May, night give way to day
What else can I say?
Pray, play, and spray away the gray
May is A-Okay

That kind of gay^. Let the bloom of new creativity beam over you, like sunshine’s ray.

Feeling silly positive, and wishing to spread May all over the bay...


And listen, you everywhere yearning for the day we'll all breath free:
We need such fay sentiments right now. Okay?

Oy Vey

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Corona Cheers

I’ve been a sort-of fan of Jay Leno ever since I saw him live in a New York City comedy club way back when he was not famous or the “Jay Leno” America knows from television. He was young, odd looking (thus, memorable) and I, of course, was practically a toddler J

In a long line of stand-up comics that night, he was the only one who so much as made the audience chuckle. Actually, he made us laugh.

So a little while ago, I saw him interviewed by Bill Maher, and his Corona-humor made me laugh again. I rarely remember jokes, and there was a whole string of them. But the first one stuck, and I’m passing it along.

Bill Maher commented that Jay Leno is a “glass half-full” sort of guy. Then he asked how Leno was doing, dealing with COVID-19.
“Sure, I’m optimistic,” Leno said. “The other day I saw Doctor Fauci say, ‘this is a war and we must fight it like one.’ So the reporters asked him ‘how do we do that?’ and Doctor Fauci said, ‘by staying home and watching TV.’”

To this, Leno added, “If there is any war Americans are qualified and thoroughly prepared for it’s the one fought with staying home and watching TV.”

Kind of comforting, I think.

Keep up the fight, fellow folks all over the land.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day

Hebrew: Yom Hasho’ah- יוֹם הַשׁוֹאָה

Challenging times, such as we're enduring now,  befall humankind periodically. Unlike our current global trial, some are utterly of our own making.

Israel observes Holocaust Memorial Day on the anniversary of the brave and doomed Jewish uprising of those who remained in the Warsaw ghetto. The dates were April 19-May 23, 1943. It is an attempt to paint the catastrophe not only in terms of annihilation, but recognize the enormous heroism of the perished and the survivors. Thus, the day’s full name is Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

All over Israel, this commemoration happened today. Every year on this date, at eight in the morning and eight in the evening, the sirens blare and the country comes to a standstill. People bow their heads in silence.
My memory of this day when I grew up in Israel was that the air was unbearably heavy and even lifting my head was an effort. It was a very recent event then, even if to a child it already felt like history. It was also personal, as I’m the child of a sole survivor who had no living relatives on her father’s side.

Israel chose to put equal emphasis on the heroism of those dreadful years. Internationally, the day is commemorated on January 27, the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the allied forces. Obviously, the international community puts emphasis on their act of triumph over this evil.

Personally, I never bought the heroism angle, nor the emphasis on the allies’ role. Most Jews didn’t rebel or survive, and the allies didn’t enlist to save Jews, but responded to a military aggression by the Germans and their alliance. Both choices of how to commemorate this chapter are attempts to re-paint this horrendous time with emphasis that serves the purpose of seeing ourselves as we wish to be seen.

For me, this day is a reminder of the ever-present human capacity for evil. Most days most folks don’t want to recognize it. I understand, because I am no different. I push away the notes of the darkest shadows of our species almost every day, choosing to not fully see it. But one day a year, there is no escape for me.

The Talmud says, “The greater a man is, the greater his capacity for evil.” So on this sad Remembrance Day I know the depth of darkness has a symmetry in how much we can also rise. But I will contemplate the side of light tomorrow. 
Today I reserve for unmitigated sadness.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Writing in Past Tense Means PERSPECTIVE

Storytellers are in a good position to know that a day will come when things as they are today will feel different. We write most stories in the past tense, and this contains the notion that sometime later the events feel/look/are different.

Perspective is embedded in storytelling. Not only by use of the past tense, but in the convention that events have resolutions. Even when they don’t have clear “finally, all’s well”— there is at the very least a coming to terms with what had passed.

I am using this honed skill as best I can, and it works. It helps navigate the challenges of a global pandemic and lives interrupted. Not being a young’un helps also, even if me and mine are at greater risk as we get wiser.

It also helps that I work alone from home even in normal times, (which weren’t that long ago, and will return G-d willing soon) and for all the scary stuff pouring out of every pore of the Internet beast, there are places of respite and I know where to find them.

I’m not going to put the now internet-ubiquitous “stay safe, everyone" out here, because life is inherently not safe. Everyone knows how to be a bit safer, and you don’t need the guilt of imperfection of conduct. I know you’re doing the best you can and that’s good.

But I do plea for perspective. Someday soon, this pandemic will be in the past.

{Brought to you by the letter P ⇧⇩😉}


©Shelagh Duffett

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Historical (not Hysterical) Perspective Needed

Though the global response and economic shut-down feels unprecedented for any who haven’t lived through the great depression or the last world war, (not many of them left) it is not the world’s end nor the end of history, and more than ever we need to know humanity’s past to regain perspective.

I’ve always loved historical fiction. My published novel is one such, about a traumatic episode when at one time and place a feeling that annihilation could be immanent saturated the air. I lived that one, and lived to write about it some years later.
My father had survived a far greater trauma. My mother remembered the Great Depression as something from her childhood that left her frugal for the rest of her life. We have many in our midst who lived through historic shifts in their countries of origin, some still ongoing.

From where I stand right now, I don’t feel the current crisis is in the magnitude of any of the above. But, of course, it’s the unknown-unknown while it’s ongoing. So my ‘”hunch” or feeling only matter to the way I conduct myself, while G-d knows what G-d knows.

Here’s my bit of perspective: As storytellers, we who write will have even more to mine. Stories are an integral part of humanity and always needed. I feel a responsibility not to contribute to fear, and while doing the right common sense things also keep notes and document this event for the future. This doesn’t mean specifically “COVID-19 Tales,” but observations of human behaviors, the good and noble and the less good, for future literary exploration.

The one sure thing is that it will pass. It will be history. Then, we’ll say (as the French do) “Quelle histoire!” (=”What a story!”)

In the meantime, I strive to stay well and most of all to stay generous. Same to you, everyone.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Day of Fooling

Maybe we need comic relief more than ever and maybe mischief is what passes for comedy to some. But this is my blog and so it's my plea to seriously not fool around on this April Fool's.

I know. Bummer. Tomorrow is a sanctioned day for pranks. I like clever humor, but was never fond of the sort April first brings.
Blame it on my first memory of this thing we call April Fools’ Day.

I had just turned five, walking hand in hand with my father. He said that today it is all right to lie. I asked why. He didn’t explain, but said, “Watch me.”

We were approaching our apartment building, where we lived on the second floor. The first floor apartment directly below us was the home of my best friend. Every apartment had back and front porches, and we played on either. That April first, my best friend (who was four at the time) was standing on her front porch and waving to us enthusiastically.

“What happened to your face?” my father said to her, his face painted with a horrified expression.
“What?” she said.
“Oh, dear girl, this is terrible!” my father said. “We have to take you to the doctor right away!”
I was baffled. I squinted to see better. My friend was shaking.
“What is it, Abba?” I whispered.  
“Her face! It’s bright green!”
My friend clutched her face and burst into tears. She ran inside.
“See?” my father said to me. “This is April Fools’.”

My father was a gentle and kind person. I viewed him as the voice of truth. This was very confusing. I had seen no green or any other unnatural color on my friend’s face. I tried to absorb what just happened. I rubbed my eyes as if that would fix my vision.

Then I started to cry. If her face was bright green and my eyesight was failing, April Fools’ was about ill health and possible imminent blindness. A reasonable conclusion under the circumstances.

In the years since I have found most pranks to contain some element of cruelty. Maybe this is a residual taste from that one long ago. Ten years later, my friend told me she didn’t remember this at all. No harm done except that, well, I don’t like it. So there.

Take it easy, everyone. Especially on the young’uns. Especially now.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What the Dickens!

Meaning, Work Harder

Here's a bit of writerly contemplation to remind us that the world isn't ending. Whatever is ahead, good storytelling was-is-and-will-be forever a cementing part of the human race. Dickens himself lived through a few scourges.

However you feel about Charles Dickens stories, few will disagree that he was the master of first lines. Every one of these first lines can be seen as prescient. That's what great lines are.

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought.
The Battle of Life

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
David Copperfield

Now, what I want is, Facts.
Hard Times

Some are as short as it gets:


Bleak House

And some are preposterously long:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us , we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Tale of Two Cities

But what Dickens taught storytellers is that first lines, like first impressions, matter. A lot.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Manners and Decorum et al

As the world enters a new stage of trying to cope with a pandemic, it obviously affects everyone in many ways. I am choosing to continue my mulling (here) and writing (on WORD) as before, even as non-virtual life is changing by the hour. This space is the COVID19-free space. In front of the computer screen, this particular contagion is not a factor.

So on that ^ Note, allow me to reflect as before on what someday (hopefully soon) will once again seem central to sharing our public space.

When I was five years old, my father tried to persuade me that it was fine to eat a chicken drumstick with one’s hands.

“Even the queen of England does it,” he said.

Well, if she does it then it must be okay. We all know the royals set the standard, at least for table manners. So for the next ten years or so, I felt just fine picking hard-to-cut food off the plate using my hands.

Turns out, he was wrong. My father might have been thinking of her Majesty’s ancestor, Henry VIII (as depicted by Charles Laughton in a movie made long before I was born) who ate drumsticks with much fanfare in a scene for the ages.

But the queen, heavens, does not do that. At least not in public. My father gave me the wrong advice.

“So,” you say, “What’s the big deal? You got to eat with less sweat, after all.”

As I reflect on the matter of manners, I realize it is a big deal. It seems more pertinent now than ever, with the significant deterioration in public life of polite decorum. Disrespect starts somewhere in the heart, and once it’s allowed to seep into the waters of public discourse, there’s no slowing this gusher. We’re flooded, and drowning in our own muck.

This is just one of the reasons I don’t use four-letter-words and avoid hotheads when I can.

Teach them well, starting by example. Keep fingers clean. Learning to use a knife and fork takes some time and effort, but the result is a slowing down and added deliberate thoughtfulness. It’s what civilizing is about. That goes for all conduct.

And you know what? Everybody will get to eat while digesting more slowly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Writing in PRESENT Tense

How do you feel, as a reader, about stories in present tense?

My last two drafted novels for Middle Grades are in first person present tense. A year and a half ago I read an excellent YA, Bound by Vijaya Bodach, written that way. When I next sat to write my story, my writing inner voice would have it no other way.

In present tense, I see, taste, and feel what the narrator does in real time. Every detail is vivid, and what is obscure to the narrator is also obscure to me, the writer. There is an immediacy and urgency as I follow, just as in this paragraph.

Of course, present tense has its limitations. An excellent reflection on this (as well as a plea to not use it) can be found in this article. Like the passive voice, (which I also use thrice in this paragraph) there is a reason for the choice of tense. Past tense allows greater flexibility narrating back and forth in time. But blimey if some things aren’t lost or become diffused by past tense narration, just as in this paragraph.

Sharp, immediate, intimate. This is present tense narration in a nutshell.

In picture books, it also seems the most natural. Very young persons begin speaking in present tense. Compare these two sentences and see how natural present tense is for the little ones, as opposed to moving back and forth in time:
1.   I tell Mom I need this cookie
2.   I told Mom I will need this cookie

Imagine what Snoopy can do if he changes it to –

It is a dark and stormy night

Just sayin’. It’s easy enough to edit the whole text to simple past later, and if an editor insisted, I would do it. But for holding my own interest in telling and writing it down, present tense narration does it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Fear of Unfinished Projects

I have a fear of unfinished projects.

It could have started with a rather ambitious project that, in hindsight, turned into a traumatic event. I was four years old when my mother discovered that all of her feminine napkins disappeared. Two packages, which she discovered an hour later in tatters, cut into various shapes.

“What is this?” she gasped. “Did you do it?”

“I am making an airplane,” I explained. It made sense to me. The feminine napkins had one side colored a lovely pink, which I thought made perfect, lovely, fluffy seats.

“You are making what? With what?” she said. Actually, she screamed.

I never made that airplane. My mother’s yelling knocked the air out from beneath my wings.

Many other creative bursts that went nowhere followed. At the age of twelve, filled with nascent romantic notions, a friend who lived about a five minute walk away wound up staying until midnight as we feverishly “made a book” using pop song lyrics and magazine cutouts for each page. It was so much fun she forgot to call her parents and let them know where she was. We vowed to continue our book the next day, and she again forgot to tell me that her parents grounded her when she appeared at the door so many hours after they alarmed everyone they knew including the police. That book of romantic song lyrics was never finished.

I had creative bursts that left feverishly begun and then abandoned projects throughout my teens and twenties. I was twenty-eight before I figured how to work.  

For me, it entailed a solemn vow to not begin something until I finished the last thing.

When writing, “finishing” is never final and done. But to me it means the first draft is written, then a second draft, and then at least one beta reader gave feedback and I revised again. That makes three drafts. After that, a story may sit in the digital drawer or go on to many drafts and revisions. But every manuscript, short or long, will include a typed last line, THE END.

This deal I made with myself has saved me from starting what I couldn’t or wouldn’t finish, and from hundreds of begun-but-orphaned roads to nowhere.

©Doogie Horner

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

My Favorite Meal

Do you have a favorite meal? Mine is, hands down, breakfast.

Breakfast means, literally, break the fast. You’ve not eaten since maybe eight the night before.*
*(Unless you are the midnight by-the-fridge sort, which is an image I’ve only experienced watching movies/sitcoms. In real life, middle of the night is a time when the last thing I want to do is stand by an open refrigerator or even think about food.)

So now it’s eight in the morning. You’ve “fasted” for twelve hours, and you should be ravenous.

For me, this is the mystery of breakfast: I’m not hungry in the least. I don’t know why, I just don’t get that peckish sensation that precedes lunch or dinner. This makes breakfast a meal of complete non-urgent food choice.  
A long time ago I vowed to never eat something I don’t enjoy, (with the exception of social circumstances when someone else is in charge and I want to be polite) so breakfast is pure pleasure food.

It so happens that American food conventions also include my favorites as breakfast food. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, hot cereal, and...
coffee, blessed coffee.

I liken it to reading for pleasure. Not assigned books (whether for school, work, or a book club) or books that are “good for you,” as in must-read-because-it-won-the-Pulitzer-prize. But pure pleasure reading.
At the same time I abandoned “good for you” breakfasts, (bye-bye bran flakes and cold milk) I also vowed to never finish a book that didn’t resonate.

Life is too short.
So eat when you don’t have to, and read when you don’t have to. Life will be good.