Fiction Craftsmanship

I’m in the middle of reviewing and practicing my workshop with slides on fiction craftsmanship, the discipline that covers how one writes fiction. The rules for writing fiction are the subject of the mammoth The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press), now in its eighteenth edition. The fifteenth edition, the version that I have, is huge—it weighs three pounds and is a couple of inches thick and 957 pages in length. The rules for writing fiction are different from those for journalistic writing. The accepted bible for journalism is The Associated Press Stylebook, a much more modest volume.

Turns out that the rules for fiction and journalism writing are not very different, but, in my experience, any deviation from the fiction rules can get a manuscript immediately rejected by a fiction publisher.

So my presentation’s purpose is to help people get published. I point out that creativity is the most treasured resource for a fiction writer; it’s ingrained and cannot be taught. But craftsmanship can be taught and learned, and it is required to allow creativity to emerge. And that’s why I’m there teaching the class.

I’m scheduled to do the workshop in the middle of the month, so I have to get going on my rehearsing. It is in some respects the most difficult of my presentations because it is so meticulous and detailed. But I’ve done it many times over the years, so I’ll manage.

It is always so fulfilling to be able to help young writers.

Foggy New Year

Fog settled over the Columbia, Maryland region on New Year’s Eve and continued into New Year’s Day until the sunshine drove it away. Fog is rare here. It brought back sharp memories of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and of my college days at the University of California, Berkeley. When I was a child, we lived in the Oakland hills, and I could ride my bike to a spot where I could look across the bay to The City (as we called San Francisco). I remember as a child how glum I felt on days shrouded in fog so thick that I couldn’t even see down the hill to the end of our own back yard.

All those feelings came back on this New Year’s Eve as I looked north from the back of my house and couldn’t make out the far shore of the small lake behind me. As the day wore on, the sun dispelled the mist, and even though the temperatures rose to the low sixties, the day had a gaunt and wan look, without promise.

As my regular readers know, I am partial to weather so warm that others complain, thanks to my years serving in the tropics. I cleave to the sunshine and deplore the winter cold. To me, the epitome of gloom is a cold day with no sun.

And it is only January! Months of cold and darkness lie ahead. The only good thing about the winter months is that I write more because it’s too cold to spend time out of doors.

Small compensation.

The New Year

I interrupt my contemplation of the future to greet the new year. With “Auld Lang Syne” echoing in the rafters, we say farewell to 2022 and welcome in 2023. January 1 was, when I was growing up, the feast of the circumcision of Jesus, one week after his birth. Now, I am told, that at least in the Catholic church, it is the day to celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

What can we say about 2022? It was marked by the continuing coronavirus pandemic, resulting in everyone wearing masks and keeping their distance. Throughout the year, from February on, we watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine but was unable to conquer it. And we joined with President Biden to repair the damage done by Donald Trump.

What can we look forward to in 2023? I expect that, despite the appearance of new variants, COVID-19 will continue to recede as a threat. My guess is that Ukraine will continue to turn the tide against Russia. And there is at least the possibility that Trump will be prosecuted.

What I personally look forward to is finally being able to resume work on my two books currently in train as I recover from the death of my partner, Su. I’ll continue to put health first, stressing diet, exercise, sleep, and wholesome living.

My determination to live well past my hundredth birthday remains as strong as ever. 2023 is another year in which show that I can do it.

Foreseeing the Future

When a reader found and read my blog of sometime ago about foreseeing the future, I went back and reread it myself. I realized that it needs updating.

Here’s the background: during the thirteen years when I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S., I became an expert on foretelling what the North Vietnamese were going to do based on signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of their radio communications. In the referenced post, I described letting my mind wander over the facts and suddenly knowing what the North Vietnamese would do next. While that description was accurate, it didn’t reveal what was really going on.

During my years in Vietnam, I was continuously observing the North Vietnamese in action. Fortunately for me, they were quite rigid in the way they went about their business. To wit, when they were preparing for combat, they invariably moved their combat units close to the target (movements which we could detect through airborne radio direction finding [ARDF]), established a forward command post to run the operation, set up a watch net (the control station was on the air twenty-four hours a day, ready to respond to subordinate calls), replaced their one-time pad ciphers with simplified codes (that we could break and read), and introduced a simplified signal plan (callsigns, schedules, and frequencies) for greater ease in communicating while on the move. The final tipoff came when the forward command post assumed communication control of the combat units. That told us they were ready to attack.

More in the new year.

Pneumonia

On Wednesday, my son took me to a local medical facility to be examined for a strange physical condition I had developed, a severe cough and troubled breathing, but no other symptoms such as running a fever. After a thorough examination and chest x-ray, I was diagnosed as suffering from pneumonia. I was astonished. I had endured pneumonia two previous times in my life, both when I was suffering from exhaustion. But this time, except for a devastating cough, I was feeling fine.

I tried without success to learn from the internet more about pneumonia and how one contracts it. I’m at a total loss to understand how this came about.  

All that said, I decided that I’d better take care of myself. So I didn’t attend yesterday’s Men’s Forum meeting at the Senior Center, I cancelled a social visit this afternoon, and I’ll lay low for several days. I already have an appointment with my primary care physician for a regular checkup next Wednesday, so I don’t need to make any new appointments.

I certainly don’t want to come down with pneumonia again any time soon, so I’ll ask my doctor what I should do to protect myself. I’m still trying to figure out how this happened.

If any of my readers can enlighten me about the disease, please do.

Thanks.

Fillers

Because I am a writer, I listen more carefully than most to the way people talk so that when I write dialogue, it will sound genuine. The problem is that if I wrote dialogue the way people really talk, no one would read my work.

Americans I know load their speech with what I call fillers—words and phrases that add no meaning. The two most painfully obvious fillers are like and you know.

How often have I heard “So he’s like, you know, mad,” and “Well, you know, I’m, like, feeling threatened”? Like is also used in place of “said,” e.g., “So I’m like, ‘Why don’t you come in?’ and he’s like ‘Not now.’”

The irony is that my readers expect (and get) conversations that are clipped and economical. They are designed to push the storyline ahead and, often, to create tension that fillers would dispel.

I am often credited with creating realistic and believable stories. And, in fact, everything I write about in my fiction is events that really did happen. My work becomes fiction because I attribute the happenings to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I know.

Little do my readers know that I write dialogue far more direct and brief than any I encounter in real life. Amazing what writers can get away with.

Added Sixth Chord

As readers may remember, I’m a trained musician with a BA in music from the University of California in Berkeley. And I particularly cherish music at Christmas time. What strikes me as I listen this year is how many of the songs that have now become traditional originated in the U.S. and use harmonies typical of American popular music. The most obvious characteristic is the use of the added sixth chord, rarely used in music originating before the twentieth century.

The added sixth chord is simply the normal triad (notes a third away from each other sounded simultaneous, e.g., C, E, and G) with the addition of a tone a sixth away from the chord base tone (e.g., C, E, G, and A).

To my ears, the sixth chord has a feeling of familiarity, informality, or casualness missing in the more formal traditional Christmas carols and hymns. You can hear the added sixth chord in American standards like “White Christmas,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” It makes Christmas music feel more friendly, less alien and distant. I still enjoy and revere the traditional and foreign carols like “Silent Night” and “The First Noël,” but that makes me respect even more the presence of the added sixth chord in American Christmas music.

My Christmas Tree

All through the years when my children were growing up, I went to great lengths to be sure we had a large and showy Christmas tree. It was always taller than I was and laden with large ornaments. But as the children grew up and moved out to be on their own, our annual trees became smaller and smaller until I ended up, more years ago than I can remember, with an artificial tree only two feet high, including the large gold star that tops it off. That little tree now stands at the back of my round white marble dining room table. I don’t remember when I first got it.

The ornaments on the tree are tiny. There are perhaps half a dozen traditional balls in a variety of colors, but most of the ornaments are three-dimensional representations of angels, snowmen, bells, and gingerbread houses. One, a white bell, is labelled “Meg&Robert 10-4-97”. It must have come from my youngest daughter, Meghan, and her husband, Robert, in October 1997. It has been on the tree for many years. It tells me that the tree originated more than 25 years ago.

After New Year’s, I put the little tree back into storage. I keep it in a white plastic bag in a box in the closet off my workout room in the lowest floor of my split-level house. Putting it away for the year always feels a little sad. It means that the happy celebration with my children and friends is over for another year. The unyielding cold and short days of winter are with me until March. The warmth I so yearn for after all my years in the tropics won’t arrive until June at the earliest. And the joy of Christmas is past. So I hunker down to endure the bleak time ahead.

Boxer Day

Today, the day after Christmas, December 26, the second Day of Christmas, is Boxer Day or, alternatively, Boxing Day. Despite what I thought as a child, the day has nothing to do with the sport of boxing—two men in shorts going at each other while wearing boxing gloves. It was, rather, on that day, according to tradition, that the well-to-do prepared boxes to give to their servants and other lower-class people. The boxes, first and foremost, contained money and sometimes goods to relieve the poverty of the working class.

December 26 is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he was a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who angered members of various synagogues by his teachings. At his trial for blasphemy, he denounced the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him (Acts 7:51–53) and was then stoned to death. Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, a Pharisee and Roman citizen who would become a Christian apostle and is known to most of us Saint Paul, participated in Stephen’s martyrdom.

Boxer Day and the other days of the Christmas Season remind me of the rich tradition which I am heir to. My forbears left me a resplendent heritage. My job is to be worthy of the legacy by creating a cultural bequest that will enhance the lives of my descendants.

Christmas Day

It’s here! It’s the day children all over the world wait for impatiently. And after plunging down to the single digits yesterday, the temperature is only 9 degrees as I write and is expected to remain below freezing all day today. But no snow. Once again, we have to do without a white Christmas.

Never mind. The day is magic either way. If you’re Christian and religious, you’re celebrating the birth of Jesus. If you’re not, you’re rejoicing in the best holiday of the year—a time when people overcome their hostilities, and brotherhood reigns supreme. And if you’re Jewish, you’re observing Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which this year began in the evening of Sunday, December 18, and ends tomorrow evening.

I’ll be spending Christmas Day alone. I’m content with that. I’ll play hymns and carols on my Steinway, listen to glorious music on the radio, play my favorite Christmas CDs. I’ll remember my happy years when my children were growing up and look forward to seeing them and their children during the coming week. I’ll probably spend some time reading, my favorite pastime, take a nap in the middle of the day, and enjoy sweets I wouldn’t usually allow myself.

Christmas has always been a magic day for me. I’ll enjoy it to the hilt. And I wish you, my readers, all the joy of Christmas. May this be your best Christmas ever!