These “sayings” drive me CRAZY…

Saying things like this is a sure way to get me in your face and if you use these terms in a story, without making the character a total caricature, it will get you a terrible review, which is what you would deserve for taking short cuts with the English language. You are a writer, so write, say it in a way that doesn’t only appeal to Valley Girls and Stoners.  Write for the world and avoid these phrases at ALL cost:

  1. “I am going to REACH OUT to that person” – If you are not within arms distance of a person, you cannot “reach out” to them.  You can call them, email them, make an appointment to see them somewhere, or even snail mail them  If you ever get within arms length of them, then you can truly “reach out” to them; just make sure they want your advances.
  2. “I can’t wrap my head around that” – Perhaps if you wrapped your head around a brain you would not have this problem.
  3. “Back in the day…” – What day?  Last Tuesday?  A month ago?  1899?  Get specific, tell me WHAT day you are back in.  I have posed these questions to idiots who have used this phrase when talking to me and all I got in response was stuttering inanities.  Which is why I figured they used this phrase in the first place.
  4. “Don’t go there” – Ummmm, where is it you don’t want me to go?  We were having a discussion and not traveling anywhere.  Do you want me to go to a specific place?  Should I leave the room?  The building?  The planet?
  5. “It’s not rocket science” – That’s good since we were NOT talking about ROCKETS or SCIENCE or anything remotely related to these professions.  We were talking about what to have for dinner tonight.
  6. “Push the envelope” – Well gee, I can push an envelope.  Heck, I can push thousands of them all at once.  Does that make me special?   Do you have any idea what it is you mean to say?
  7. “Think outside the box” – Sorry, does it look like I have a box on my head?  Maybe you should talk to my barber.  What box is it that you speak of?  Do you have any idea?  If not get your head out of your as…
  8. “Chill out” – Are you referring to my Martini?  I mean it is already cold.  I drink them in toast the the English language that is being slowly killed off by catch phrases.
  9. “Don’t throw (someone) under the bus” – This punishment should be reserved for people dumb enough to use this irritating phrase.
  10. “It is what it is” – But what is it?  Can you tell me or are you just using this idiotic throwaway phrase to tell me you are too ignorant to express yourself in words?

There are more but if I keep writing this, I will blow a gasket….

For the benefit of Mr. K

All through my blog posts I have told you of the incidents and people who have inspired me to write.  This post will be no different though I write it with great sadness.

I found out last week that one of my friends died suddenly, the cause of his death is irrelevant at this point so I will not go into it, let me just say that he was much too talented and much too young to be gone now.  Even though I went to his joyous wake yesterday, I am still in shock over his death and I will be for some time to come.

The man’s name is James Kasmir and you can visit his FaceBook page here: https://www.facebook.com/james.kasmir

James was a man with a zest for life.  To me he was always smiling, always upbeat, and always willing to entertain.  He was a comedy writer, an adept magician, one of the BEST harmonica players I have ever heard, and one of the most creative improvisational comedians you’d ever meet.  It was during my two year stint in improv that we became friends.  I could tell you of some hilarious skits we did together but that would take much too long because anything Jim was in was funny; I was irrelevant.

Since we were having a wake and since it was to be held in the Ventura Improv Company Theater and since it was to be attended by an astounding amount of talented people who would be performing in honor of Jim, I wanted to get involved as well but not in an improv setting.  So, I wrote a short poem even though my poetry is lacking.  The name of the work is Jimbo The Magnificent and there is a story behind this title that few people knew until I told it before I read this work.

As I said, Jim was a magician and I am one who has always loved magic.  I have even put on a few shows (one when I was 9 years old) but I never reached Jim’s talent level.  Well one day, in a private conversation, I told him that if he was going to be successful magician, he needed a catchy name.  So I bounced a few suggestions off him and Jimbo The Magnificent is the one he liked the best, though I don’t think he ever used it on stage even though I promised him that I would not charge a royalty fee if he did–at least one that was not too steep, that is.

So, using my favorite name for him, I wrote the following.  It was warmly received despite it’s crudeness because it celebrated all things Jim.  That is something we can all celebrate for the remainder of our lives.

I love you buddy.

Jimbo the Magnificent

With mouth organ blazing, he’d pull a rabbit from a hat

Now how in the world could you not laugh at that!

Up on the boards he’d act like he was Heaven sent,

And maybe he was, he was Jimbo the Magnificent.

He’d been known to sing and he’d been known to prance

And sometimes when silly he’d do a naked chicken dance

Whatever he did, he did for our enjoyment.

Because as we all know, he was Jimbo the Magnificent

Now that he’s gone, the lights have gone out

But we’ll all be happy and we’ll all have no doubt

That he’ll be wearing wings to where ever it is he went

And Angels, those lucky Angels, will be laughing with Jimbo the Magnificent

And now a word from our sponsor…

For anyone born in the ’50’s or ’60’s, the phrase above is quite common and well known to you.  It was uttered just before a break in a television program and often by the sponsor of the entire show (such as the Colgate Comedy Hour).  You rarely, if ever, hear that phrase anymore because breaks come just as something interesting is about to happen, which makes you hang around until the show comes back on.

Well this is one such break.  I have been writing a lot about what inspired and challenged me to write various stories and I will continue to do so in the next blog post which tells of a story inspired by a real dog, just not the one that wrote the previous post, she writes her own stories.

In the meantime, I would appreciate it you would go to my Amazon.com author’s page and look at the books I have written.  If you see any you like, then please make a purchase–and give it a review.

http://www.amazon.com/John-Darling/e/B002BM7WGA/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

When your life becomes the story…

When I first started using people I know as outlines for some of the characters in my stories, I made a pledge to never use myself as one.  To this day, I have only broken that pledge once and I was almost forced into it.  Almost.

Let me start by telling you that I loathe Christmas.  Not the Ebeneezer Scrooge kind of loathing, mine goes much deeper than that.  I hate everything about the holiday from the crappy music played decade after decade, to the greed of it (this is what I want for Christmas), to making people feel guilty for not believing in either fantasy (“Honest daddy, God knocked me up” or “If you’re good a fat guy in a red suit will break into your house and leave you stuff.”)  No, Scrooge has nothing on me.  This all being said, I wrote a Christmas story the people have told me is one that shows the true meaning of Christmas.  I will put a link to that review at the end of this blog–just in case you don’t believe me.

With feelings like this, imagine my discomfort when my then 7 year old son came up to me and dropped this bomb, “Dad, is Santa Claus a real person?”  For all his life, my wife and I had played along with the Santa fantasy since all the other kid’s parents were doing it.  I never felt good about lying to my son, but I always thought the truth would hurt him worse.  Pretty stupid, right?  Truth is always better and now he was standing in front of me demanding the truth.  Well I had no ready answer so I told him that I would give him one in the morning.  After a mostly sleepless night, an inkling of an idea came to me.  The next morning I told my son that he should ask Santa himself if he were real or not.  So we got out some paper, pens, envelopes, and stamps then set out to do just that.  When done we walked to the mailbox and sent the query on its way.  My son was skeptical about all this but I had bought myself another few weeks in which to come up with an answer.

That answer appeared in the form of a letter from Santa which was simply a letter the jolly old elf left under the tree for my son.  What was revealed in it worked because my son was happy and he never asked about this myth again. Afterward, I often told people about what I did and many of them with young kids would ask me for a copy of the letter, which I would provide for free.  Then it dawned on me that maybe I could write a short article about the incident and sell it to a magazine.  Was I ever right about that!  I never sold all my rights to the work so I was able to sell the approximately 750 word article over and over again.  One year it was published in Atlanta, San Francisco, and San Diego.

After a few years, this played out which is when I decided to break my pledge.  I felt I could get the letter out to a greater audience if I wrote the happenings into a story called The Letter from Santa.  The problem would be that this was a real event and I wanted to be able to label it as fiction.  I did this by adding one small part to the story.  When people I know read it I ask them to guess what that part is.  So far only one person has guessed correctly.  If you read the story, send me your guesses, too.

So, you can use your real life as a story and it can be successful just remember to change the names of others in it to protect yourself from the innocent.

Here is the link I promised: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00PCS8BBK?*Version*=1&*entries*=0

The last great soap box

Whenever I get a case of writer’s block, I usually pick up the paper, find something I disagree with, then get on my soapbox and speak out about it.  In my case, I don’t actually take a soapbox down to a street corner, stand on it, and yell my feelings at passing strangers.  First of all because I have no soapbox, second of all, this kind of activity can get you arrested or lynched, and third of all, there is a better and safer way to get your opinion out; write a letter to the editor.  The editorial page of any newspaper is not only the last great soapbox, it is also one of the most widely read sections of any paper.  I know that people nowadays have more ways of expressing their opinions in blogs, like this, FaceBook, Twitter, etc. but anything posted this way can easily get lost on the cacophony of voices all shouting at once.  When you read something you are holding in your hand (like a book) you are much less distracted.

My first success in this arena came by way of The Arizona Republic when they printed a letter I wrote about Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon and his mishandling of the American economy.  That was some coup since this paper leans so far to the right that some wags call it The Arizona REPUBLICAN.  Since that time, some 40 odd years ago, I have had hundreds of letters to the editor printed all over the country and one even showed up in Sports Illustrated.  In my home town, where I have lived for 30 years, I am known for my frequent letters.  Strangers who hear my name often comment on my letters, some not so kindly and others with rapt admiration for my courage to speak my mind on any subject.  If you read my prior blog, you will know that I also get phone calls, one of which lead to a fascinating story and a great friendship.

I get letters published so often by so many newspapers (one was published locally just two days ago) because I have studied the craft and have written articles on the subject.  I have been asked, several times, to come speak to groups who are engaging in a letter to the editor campaign.  I have given speeches on this subject to groups that I don’t agree with because I think that everyone has a right to their opinion and have the right to express it.

What follows is a list of Do’s and Don’ts that will help anyone get their letter published anywhere they send it.  It is a proven formula that has worked for me for decades.  Use these tools to get your opinion out there because it does matter, there is no greater weapon to use against Totalitarianism and that ilk than that of FREE SPEECH!

The Don’ts

Don’t call anyone a name no matter how much you think they deserve a special designation.  This kind of schoolyard tactic will get you bounced virtually every time.  If you think a politician is mentally deficient in some way, the better way is to show what he or she said or did then tell why it was wrong in your opinion.

Don’t accuse anyone of something you are not sure they did not do.  You can say you think it is “coincidental” that a legislator voted to support a landfill near a homestead right after his campaign accepted a large donation from a waste management firm, but don’t accuse him of being bribed.  If you have facts showing that he was bribed, turn that over to the editor so they can do a front page piece on it.

Don’t belabor a topic.  Once you have made your point, wrap it up and get out of there.  No one likes to hear someone repeating the same thing over and over again.  Besides, newsprint is expensive and editors don’t like to waste it.

Don’t write about something that only affects you.  I am not saying that an opinion on a singular issue will not make its way to the Editorial page, it just might.  But if you write about a topic that affects a large number of people you have a much chance of publication.  Editors often group in kind letters and will dedicate an entire page to one subject.

Don’t be late.  If you want to comment on something, do it now.  Don’t wait a month or so after the fact.  Editors want commentary on current events and unless you have a bold new angle on a topic, they most likely won’t use your opinion at a later date.

The Dos

Do keep it short and to the point.  I know that 350 words do not sound like much, but try to cap it at that, it will increase your chances of getting in the paper.  Remember what I said about editors and newsprint.  If you think you can’t say much in 350 words, you will surprise yourself at how much you can say if you stay on topic.

Do keep your letter positive.  This can be difficult since you are writing on a subject that most likely affects you emotionally.  Especially if it is in regards to a tragedy of some sort.  You can still make a letter like this upbeat.  After you say what you have to say about the topic, offer ideas on how such horrible things can be avoided in the future.

Do be nice to the editor.  You don’t have to send him cookies (though you can) but if you get a letter published and he “edits” it in a way you don’t like, just accept it.  After all, he is just doing his job.  I can almost guarantee that calling up an editor and yelling at him is sure way to get any future letters tossed.

Do keep it local.  Do send local issues to your local paper.  The New York Times does not want to hear about local issues that only affect Paducah Flats.

Do send letters to outside of your area but only if it is a national one, then please send your letter to everyone.  Most of the time editors only use opinions of those who live in their geographical area, but that is not always the case; I have been printed in many eastern papers even though I live in California.  I have a list of newspapers who only publish in California in case I have an issue that only affects just this state and I have a bigger list of newspapers from across the country if I want to comment on a national issue.  With the advent of email, it is easy to send a hundred letters at once and newspapers prefer this type of contact—it saves them the trouble having to open all those envelopes.

So get out there and say it!  Good luck good writing!

To get you going, here is a link to an excellent source of email addresses of newspapers nationwide:  http://www.ccmc.org/node/16179

The Art of Non-Fiction

In my last blog post, I may have seemed to indicate that writing non-fiction required no imagination, but that was not my intent.  As someone who has written numerous non-fiction articles and one book in this genre, I know that it does take some imagination, just not as much as it does when you write a fiction story from scratch.

One day, many years ago, I received a call from a man who liked a letter to the editor (a topic I will cover in the next blog) that I wrote and was published in the local paper.  It was a letter condemning the war in Iraq as being senseless and unnecessary.  We talked at length on the subject during which time I found out that the caller was 99 years old and had been working in Democratic politics for over 70 years.  This made me realize that I was talking to a man who most likely had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Upon inquiry, he told me had done so–three times.  I was floored and I told him that I was interested in writing an article about a man who had been involved in party politics for such a long time.  I wanted to write a “living history” piece about it.  The man was very humble with his response but agreed to meet with me and discuss the idea.  So we made a date for me to go over to his house; when I got there and met William LeCrone Hammaker, my story idea went into the shredder.

The reason for this was due to the fact that I found out that Bill had a greater interest in another subject than that of politics; he was far more interested in the promotion of peace in our world.  So much so, that was the longest active member in the history of a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) http://forusa.org/  Among his contemporaries in this group was the late Martin Luther King.  After our interview, I went home, read over all the notes I had taken, then let my imagination kick in.  I didn’t change the facts one iota, but I did come up with a catchy title for Bill that stayed with him until his death three years later at the age of 102.  I dubbed him “The Professor of Peace”.  He loved the title and the recognition it brought to his work.  You can read about this remarkable man here: http://www.vcstar.com/opinion/at-100-years-old-william-l-hammaker-still-for  (this is a re-print of my earlier article, it was re-printed on his 100th birthday).

I was lucky that I was doing this job as a freelancer.  Had I been assigned to do this story by a magazine or newspaper, I would have had to stick to the story line but instead, I was able to use my imagination to write the story with a different angle to it and bring some satisfaction to Bill and his family.

When writing non-fiction, the question “What if…” is not so much a factor as the questions of Who? What? When? Where? and How?  By asking them, you can see that the curiosity that drives the mind of a fiction author, also drives the mind of a non-fiction author since most of the time all of these questions need to be answered in a work of non-fiction.  Then they have to be presented in a way that will hold an editor’s and an audience’s interest.

I remember a time when the Why? question came to my mind.  I remember it clearly; I was driving in my car going around a corner in front of the now defunct Montgomery Ward store in my town when a song on the radio ended and the DJ announced that the band who performed the song was The Goo Goo Dolls.  I thought, “Why would anyone want a band name like that?”  So I set out looking for the answer.  Around 150 band names later, I found what I was looking for and I had a large database of band name origins so I decided to add a few hundred more and came up with this book: You’re the Who?: A guide to classic band name origins + rock connections!  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0073YIU30

The only “problem” with writing non-fiction is that you have to stick to the facts whereas with fiction, if a fact does not exist, you can just make it up.  It takes a great deal self-control to keep from embellishing a non-fiction story to make it more interesting so it will produce a sale, but with the right amount of skill and some imagination, you’ll find that embellishment is not needed.

Why I write like I do…

Unlike some authors,  I do not write in just one genre.  I let the story idea dictate which category it fits into so that way I do not force a hard edge sci-fi story like Life In The Fast Lane into a detective story such as A Notary Public Is Missing!.   

The late author, Michael Chricton, wrote the same way.  For example, would the theme of Jurassic Park fit into the storyline of Exposure?  That would be doubtful.  More than likely he, like me, had ideas about stories and wrote them in the genre that served them best.

Unlike this great author, though, I only write short stories.  I have tried to write novels but no idea will stick in my brain long enough to complete one.  I have to get stories out of my fractured mind before I forget what I am writing about.

One other thing about my writing is that I frequently create my stories and characters out of real-life situations and real people that I know.  I only change their names to protect me from the innocent.

For instance, the latest victim of The Prime Cut Killer in my story Tat is based on a real-life bartender who is every bit as beautiful as described in the story. When I showed her the final work, her only objection to it was that she was dead.  When I told her that she would be the lead supporting actress, and possible co-star, if the story were made into a movie, she dropped her objection.  Hollywood is waiting.

Not only that, the story Tat is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the very same bar where she works.

In this blog, I will be going behind the scenes of my works to reveal what lead me to write a story. I have given talks on this matter and people are often surprised at how little an incident needs to be to get me going.  Sometimes it is just a word or a sporadic action that lights the fire and, believe it or not, I never know in advance what it will be.

I will also be talking about the art of writing.  Not so much how to do it but how and where to find inspiration to do it along with examples from my life.  I will offer advice to new authors as well.