Tag Archives: teaching

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

A bit of this was published in very early posts, but it has been completely rewritten.

A writer lives for libraries.

If you want to be a surgeon, there are a hundred textbooks you will have to read. If you want to be a lawyer, the reading list is even longer. If you want to be a novelist, however, you don’t read textbooks, or how-to books. Oh, you can, but beyond the basics, they are worthless.

If you want to be a writer, you have to read whole libraries.

Of course, for a minimal amount of money, you can live on e-books, and know everything about what people think in 2018. If you want a broader education — if you want to know what people were talking about in 1988, or 1908, or 1758, you need libraries.

(The primary exception to this rule is Project Gutenberg, which I recommend without reservations. Check out this, and this, and especially this.)

I didn’t have access to libraries when I grew up. I was born on a faraway planet called Oklahoma in the fifties, on a farm three miles outside the nearest town, and that town was tiny. We had no plumbing at first and the wind blew through the walls in the winter. Don’t get me wrong; I loved life on the farm, and it wasn’t poverty. This was normal life at the edge of the world on the edge of the modern era.

I learned to read from Little Golden Books. They were cheap, available at the local dry goods store (local means twenty miles away), and Dr Seuss wasn’t writing yet. When I was about ten, my grandfather sent me a copy of Tom Swift Jr. and his Outpost in  Space for my birthday. I was instantly hooked.

We lived midway between three towns, which we visited frequently. If you farmed in the fifties, you spent half your time farming and half your time fixing broken machinery. That takes replacement parts, and that means a trip to the John Deere dealer.

Every time we went to town, my great-grandfather would give me a quarter. Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Rick Brant adventure books all cost a dollar each. I bought a book every fourth trip. Looking back, most of these books were terrible, but a few were gems.

When I was about twelve my mother dropped my father off to buy parts, then drove to the other end of town and took me into the county library. I had never seen a library and was barely aware that they existed. I almost fell out of my work boots. It was a big room with tables down one side, and ten double shelves of books down the other.

“Library, where have you been all my life?”

The nice lady librarian typed up a temporary library card and told me I could only have one book the first time. She would be a big part of my life until I left for college and I still remember her face, but I never knew her name.

My mother was waiting, so I quickly picked up a book. It was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, and my fate was sealed. more on Wednesday

510. Books About Books

The Great American Read sent me scurrying to my personal library to review some books about books. That is an odd sub-genre, but not a small one.

From my library (i.e., room-filling book pile) I pulled out The Novel 100 by Daniel Burt, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith and Twenty-five Books That Shaped America by Thomas C. Foster. I have certainly read many others over the years, picked up while wandering through libraries. I own these three because they were on remainder lists, which made them cheap enough to buy.

I also have A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam, which deserves a whole ‘nother post, later. (See the aside below before you write me about my bad grammar.)

Why do we read these books on books? For the lists and for the opinions. Everyone who writes one of these books is highly opinionated. They have to be, since there are no real criteria for making these choices. It’s all very subjective. One person’s Great is another person’s Crap.

It might be interesting to read a few dozen of these lists and see what books, if any, end up on all of them. Moby Dick, might qualify; everyone admires it from afar, although few read it. Still, I wouldn’t bet money on any title ending up on every list.

The best of these authors admit that their picks are personal, and could have gone a different way on a different day. They defend their choices with humor, which is always welcome. A good book-on-books is fun to read. Even when the prejudice is potentially offensive, we get to laugh at academics looking like red-necks without realizing it. And, no, I’m not going to admit which one of the above I’m talking about.

The criteria for inclusion are also different from book to book. The Novel 100 is based on pure quality, and on continuing to be recognized as fashions change. Daniel Burt begins with 1. Don Quixote and carries though 100. Gone With the Wind. Then he adds an appendix called the second hundred. The reader gets a two-fer.

Seymour-Smith skips great books which were not influential on other writers or the culture in general, and includes books which were influential, even if they were inherently bad. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is an example of the latter. Seymour-Smith’s list runs from 1 The I Ching through 100 Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Mercifully, he does not provide a second hundred.

Foster writes with a light tone, sometimes slipping too far into flippancy, and only gives us twenty-eight books. His twenty-five include a two-fer of short books of poetry and a trilogy of novels. He also provides a list of fifteen runners-up.

If I wanted to collate the books in these three collections, throwing out the duplicates, the number would probably be close to 300. Am I going to read them all? Not in this lifetime, but I can read these reviews and come away with at least an idea of what I am missing. I can also garner a much smaller list of ones I actually might read some day.


Aside. If you are a writer, you must ponder the weird cock-ups where grammar meets usage. Take the phrase I used humorously, a whole ‘nother post.

Another post makes sense. If you add the modifier whole, the phrase falls apart. In another whole post , whole seems to modify post when it is meant to modify another. That is, it seems to say an additional post instead of a very different post.

It is similar to German, which has two words for another. Noch eine Bier means “Bring me an additional beer”, but ein andera Bier means “Bring me a different beer, I don’t like this one.”

You might try to break another into an other so you can squeeze in the additional modifier closer to its referent. But that doesn’t work either. You end up with—

An whole other post. That puts an instead of a in front of a consonant. So you try—

A whole other post. But that doesn’t work either, because you have lost the “n“, which leaves your reader muttering under his breath, “A other post? That’s not right!”

So you end up splitting another in a different place, ending up with a nother. Put that back into the phrase, and you get a whole ‘nother post which sounds right, even though it’s wrong.

Ain’t English fun?

This brings up Writers Rule # 1, to wit: If that which is grammatically correct looks bad, use a different sentence altogether.

You might also call it the “There are things up with which I will not put!” rule.

Serial Novels

Continued from earlier this week, when I discussed the Serial posts that were also writing how-tos.

I’ve been writing a long time, with some publishing success, and long years of drought. I’m not going to say, “But the things that didn’t get published are still good!” If you have been reading Serial, you already know that.

Here is the full list of my novels, not counting fragments.

Contemporary novels: Spirit Deer, Symphony in a Minor Key, and Raven’s Run.

Science fiction: Jandrax, published 1979,  A Fond Farewell to Dying, published 1981,  (and the novella To Go Not Gently which was extracted from it in 1978) and Cyan which is presently available

Fantasy: Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.

Steampunk: The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork.

The Cost of Empire is freshly finished and looking for a publisher. Like Clockwork is in progress as we speak, and a little more than half done. You won’t be seeing either of them in Serial, but I’ll tell you when to start looking at your local book seller.

Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven are a single story, long enough for two novels, with a natural break in the middle. You won’t be seeing them here, but you will be seeing just the opening section of VOTM, Marquart’s story, starting Monday. 

Serial Education

Continued from last week, when I started to talk about what has already appeared in Serial.

Starting January 20, 2016, I presented a long fragment of the unfinished novel Voices in the Walls. I won’t give details, since you can read for yourself, but it was a teaching event. I interlaced the novel fragment with a chance to look over my shoulder as I worked. That turned it into a how-to for new writers.

#           #           #

Here is a bit of unavoidable nerdishness. I should have transferred Voices to Backfile. I didn’t. Time is short and work is long, and I never found the time to get it done.

You can still read old multiple posts, but it can be a major PITA (pain in  . . . ) because they are presented in archives last-first, and you want to read them first-first. Worse still, archives does not distinguish between AWL posts and Serial posts, so you have to read every alternate one.

It isn’t really hard if you know the secret. Here’s how it is done. At the bottom of each post are right and left arrows to the next/previous post. If you start with the first post of VITW, read it, then click the right arrow, it will take you to the next post. Unfortunately, in my world that will be the same-day post over in AWL. Slide down through that post and click the right arrow to go to the next day’s post of Serial. And so forth.

It goes quickly after a few clicks to get into rhythm. Try it. VITW is worth your time.

#           #           #

The entire novel Jandrax followed. It was and is available in used bookstores both locally and on Amazon, so it was not a lost work, but I included it with annotations. If you just want to read Jandrax, buy a used copy. Clicking through 92 posts isn’t worth 95 cents. But if you want to read the annotations in which I discuss why I did what I did, and confess to my screw-ups, it’s all there for you to enjoy.

more tomorrow

Symphony 136

John Teixeira stared at his son, slowly shaking his head.  He said, “Son, I am proud of you. Why haven’t you been doing this kind of work all along?”

“Now,” Neil interjected quickly, “the favor you offered. I’m taking you at your word, and asking one. I am asking you, ‘Don’t spoil the moment.'”

John reached out for his son’s hands and said, “Of course. I am just surprised — and pleased,” he quickly added.

“Do you remember the last conversation we had, about how Oscar wants to be proud to be Chicano. Today he was, and if you were proud of him as a Chicano, I don’t think he’ll ask much more.”

John Teixeira swallowed hard and smiled to cover his feelings. He said, “I am proud of my son as anything he really wants to be, as long as he does his best at it.”

Oscar Teixeira looked eleven years old and eleven feet tall.

# # #

Carmen came to relieve Janice at the wheelchair, and managed to push him across the playground with one hand on the handle and one hand holding his hand. The children were milling around with their parents or wandering off toward the buses. Most of them had already come by to say hello to Neil, but a few more drifted in to welcome him back. There was much hand squeezing and hugging. It made him uncomfortable; it always did. But at the same time, it thrilled him.

Then he saw Lisa Cobb. She was standing with two strangers, waiting by Carmen’s car. As he rolled up, Lisa stepped forward, very proper and terribly embarrassed. She put out her hand for an adult hand shake, and Neil used it as a lever to pull her in for the hug she really needed. She backed away, biting her lip, and simply said, “Thank you.” Then she rushed to the woman and hid her face in her skirts.

The woman enfolded her in the kind of totally safe embrace that Neil could never provide. She said over Lisa’s head, “I’m Mrs. Bowman. The county uses me as a short term foster mother, so I see it all. Lisa told me a lot about what happened. She is one lucky little girl that it was stopped before things went any further. And she is lucky to have people who care for her like you two.”

“We are lucky to have kids like Lisa to care for,” Neil said.

“Coming here today was completely her idea. She didn’t know if she could go through with it. She’s still embarrassed by the whole thing. I told her the sooner she started living a normal life, the better. Then when she saw you, she had to talk to you even though that embarrassed her worse than anything.”

Lisa slipped under Mrs. Bowman’s arm and stared at Neil from its shelter. He said, “How do you feel, Hon?”

“Okay. I’m okay now.”

“How is your mother?”

“She’s getting better. They let me see her yesterday.”

She dropped her head and said, “I’m sorry about your jaw and all.”

Neil said, “Look.” He drew back his lips and showed her the wax covered wires. “I never had braces before.”

She giggled and then slipped around behind Mrs. Bowman, looking very young indeed.

# # #

On the way back to his apartment, Carmen said, “You just added another member to you fan club.”


“You just hurry up and get well, and I’ll show you how jealous.”


Symphony 135

As they crossed the playground, the Cinco de Mayo celebration was just getting under way. Neil said, “I want to sit next to John Teixeira.”

“I don’t see him.”

“Keep looking. I sent word to his wife to have him here no matter what.”

Janice looked curiously at him, but their relationship was newly repaired and fragile. She did not presume upon it to ask questions. Instead, she searched the grassy area where folding chairs had been set up until she saw John and Sandy Teixeira.

She parked him beside them and pulled up a chair on the other side, still puzzled.

John Teixeira met Neil’s eyes while they measured each other anew. It was almost as if they were meeting for the first time. Neil put out his hand and John shook it without hesitation. He said, “I heard what you did for the Cobb girl. If there is anything I can ever do for you, just ask.”

“There may be. Just watch the show, and then we’ll talk about it.”

In the center of the open space in front of the folding chairs, the children had constructed a cardboard fort. Carmen and Gina had arranged for a PA system with two mikes. Stephanie Hagstrom stood by one; Rosa Alvarez stood by the other. They read the narration, first Stephanie in English, then Rosa in Spanish.

The year was 1862. Using independent Mexico’s debts to European powers as an excuse, France had decided to invade Mexico. The French General Laurences arrived:

“So this is Vera Cruz,” Stephanie read. “What a beautiful country Mexico is!”

“Asi es Veracruz,” Rosa echoed. “Que campo tan hermoso tiene Mexico!”

The French army arrived in construction paper hats, carrying broomstick rifles, and attacked the fort at Puebla. Regular Mexican troops and Zacapoaztla Indians rose up from where they had been hidden behind the walls and defended it. Three times the French attacked. Three times they were repulsed. When the day — Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May — was over, the French invasion had failed. Never again would a European power invade the Americas.

When the applause had died down, Neil said, “What did you think?”

“It was very good,” John Teixeira admitted. “You must have put in a lot of work on it.”

“Not me. I was in the hospital.”

“Mrs. Wyatt then.”

“Not according to the reports I got. She said she just sat back and let the person in charge do his job.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will. Here comes the person who wrote, produced, and directed the whole thing. He did the research; he organized the kids. He harassed them until they learned their lines and got their costumes together. He made it work.”

Oscar came walking up as Neil was speaking, with a smile that threatened to break out into a grin — or to go away altogether. Neil reached out and shook Oscar’s hand gravely. He said, “John, meet the one who put it all together while I was in the hospital. The boss. El patron.” more Monday

Symphony 134

He thought back. “I guess I didn’t. I felt my jaw give way when he hit me, so when I woke up with my mouth wired shut, I thought I knew the whole story.”

“It was more serious than you realize. The doctors tell me now that you will be fine, but we didn’t know that at first.”

Carmen took both his hands in hers and kissed his knuckles. She said, “I love you, Neil McCrae. When I thought I was going to lose you . . .”

Neil put his arm around her and drew her close. He ached to kiss her. He said, “You don’t have to lose me. Ever.”

He swept the hair back from her forehead. He admired the shape of her mouth, and the dark depths of her eyes.

“Bill offered me a job,” he said finally.

“I know. I knew about it yesterday.” She paused as if she were afraid to go on, then asked, “What did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything. It all depends.”

“On what?”

“On your answer to my next question.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to go on teaching at the same school with you, if you turned me down when I asked you to marry me.”

# # #

After Carmen left, Neil lay back thinking of the one irony everyone had either missed, or had chosen not to comment on. When it came down to blood and dust, he had believed Lisa instead of Jim Pollard. He had never even made a decision; it had been automatic. Just as automatic as the decision the community had rendered against him in Oregon a year earlier.

# # #

Bill had been right about how long it would take Neil to recover. By Friday morning he was still seeing double and he could not stand up for more than ten minutes at a time. The blows to his head had been a terrible shock to his system.

He badgered his doctor into letting him out by promising to stay in a wheelchair so he couldn’t fall and re-break his jaw if he passed out. It was nearly eleven by the time he had finished the paperwork. Janice Hagstrom picked him up at the hospital entrance, and stowed his folding wheelchair in the back of her station wagon.

He said, “Thank you for picking me up.”

She laughed self-consciously. “If ever there was a case of ‘the least I could do’, this is it. I still don’t understand why you don’t hate us all for the way we treated you.”

Neil closed his eyes against the brightness of the day and said, “That’s easy. You were just trying to protect your children. How could I hate you for that.”

“I would think it would be easy to hate us,” Janice said as she pulled out, “but I’m glad you don’t. Is it true what we hear?”

“What do you hear?”

“That you are going to keep on teaching here, and that you and Ms. de la Vega are getting married.”

“Yes and yes. June fourteenth.”

Janice took pity on his obvious exhaustion and let him sprawl quietly in the front seat all the way to the school. There she pulled out the wheel chair, and then had her hands full keeping his kids from trampling and battering him with greetings. more tomorrow