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Friday, September 30, 2016

Celebrating a giant for peace and justice

“I write to understand as much as to be understood.” – Elie Wiesel

Born on this day in 1928, Wiesel was not only a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate but also the author of 57 books, written mostly in French and English.  His powerful and wrenching book Night was based on his experiences as a prisoner in the infamous Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  He died this past July at age 87.
Along with writing, he was a professor of humanities                        
 at Boston University, which created the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies in his honor. He was involved with Jewish causes, and helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.   The Norwegian Nobel Committee described Wiesel as "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world."

Known as a writer with an uncanny knack of involving the reader almost from the outset of each of his books, he noted, “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don't see them.”  In other words, you just “know” from where you start reading what has already transpired because of the effectiveness of what he has written.

Wiesel won a remarkable 30 international awards and honors, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the John Jay Medal for Justice.  His memoirs are terrific examples for those seeking to write these types of works.  His advice:  “With memoir, you must be honest. You must be truthful.  Not to transmit an experience is to betray it.”

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Write what you like to read

“Sometimes the characters develop almost without your knowing it. You find them doing things you hadn't planned on, and then I have to go back to page 42 and fix things. I'm not recommending it as a way to write. It's very sloppy, but it works for me.” – Barbara Mertz

An American author who wrote under her own name as well as under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, Mertz was a noted academic as well as a leading writer.  Born on this day in 1927, she earned multiple degrees in ancient history and Egyptology, including a Ph.D. in the latter field.

One of her remarkable 19-book series  (written as Peters) focused on a professor who held a degree in Egyptology.  I say remarkable because all told she wrote 71 books, including many series built around mystery and suspense.  And while she was best known for those, two of her nonfiction books on ancient Egypt also have stood the test of time.  Those, her first works in the mid-60s, are still in print. 

More than a dozen of her books were nominated for or won best novel or best mystery awards, led by Trojan Gold; Naked Once More; The Last Camel Died at Noon; The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog; and Night Train to Memphis.

The recipient of a number of grandmaster                                     
 and lifetime achievement awards, including being named Grandmaster at the Anthony Awards (for mystery writing) in 1986 and Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America in 1998.   She wrote bestsellers right up until her death in 2013.

When asked why she liked writing mysteries, suspense and thrillers instead of more of her "scholarly" works, she replied that it was what she most enjoyed.  “There are lots of things to write about, but I think it would be difficult to write books I don't like to read.”

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

You live through your characters

 “Fiction, for me, is sort of a protracted way of saying all the things I wished I said the night before.” – Christopher Buckley

The only child of arch-conservative author and speaker William F. Buckley, Christopher was born on this day in 1952 and has made his own way in the writing world as a noted humorist and satirist, creating such well-known works as The White House Mess, No Way To Treat A First Lady and Thank You For Smoking – the latter made into a terrific film as well.
Buckley’s humorous pieces have appeared in all of the nation’s            
leading newspapers, and he also has had an ongoing career as a magazine writer and editor, particularly at Forbes.   And, Buckley has done considerable time in p.r. and says that “In public relations, you live with the reality that not every disaster can be made to look like a misunderstood triumph.”  As a former p.r. practitioner myself, I have to simply add, How True!

Buckley’s p.r. efforts were primarily in the political arena and his first-hand knowledge of the political world has often provided the base for his  satirical fiction, which he says he finds most enjoyable.  And, he says writing is a great way to live a life you might only imagine, noting, “You live vicariously through your characters.”

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Building your writing 'foundation'

“I think young writers should get other degrees first, social sciences, arts degrees or even business degrees. What you learn is research skills, a necessity because a lot of writing is about trying to find information.” – Irvine Welsh

Born on this day in 1957, Scottish novelist, playwright and short story writer Welsh is perhaps best known for his novel Trainspotting, also made into a critically acclaimed  film.   His work often depicts the “mean streets” of his native home of Edinburgh, where he grew up the son of a dock worker and waitress.

After dropping out of high school, he tried his luck at a variety of jobs before getting into the London music scene, where for a time he thought his success might rest with writing songs.  But it was while telling some of the tales of his childhood and upbringing that he was encouraged to start writing down some of those stories and that led to his writing Trainspotting.   He returned to school, worked on several degrees and finished the book.

 Despite being lambasted by some as “too mean,” it became an almost instant success and started him on his writing path.  And in response to what he was writing, he said, “The first job of a writer is to be honest.”
Since then (1993), he has written 9 novels         
 – several following his first group of characters –  a number of books of short stories, and several plays and screenplays.    He’s also directed several short films.  Welsh's writing is dominated by the question of working class and Scottish identity in the period spanning the 1960s to the present day.

“Writing,” Welsh said,  “is about culture, and should be about everything. That's what makes it what it is.”

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Monday, September 26, 2016

The 'notable' way to remember

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” – Will Self

Born on this day in 1961, Self is a novelist, journalist, political commentator, television personality and author of 10 novels, 5 collections of shorter fiction, 3 novellas, and 5 collections of non-fiction writing. Also a regular contributor to dozens of the world’s top magazines and journals, his work has been translated into 22 languages.  Fiction, though, is his forte’ and he said. “I always wanted to write fiction. Always. As far back as I can remember it's been integral to my sense of myself - everything else was always a displacement activity.”

A native Londoner, he is a graduate of Oxford University and first got interested in writing at age 10, greatly influenced by great science fiction writers like the great Frank Herbert.  Self’s first published book, a 1991 collection of his short stories called The Quantity Theory of Insanity thrust him into the public eye as one of the new generation of great English writers, and since then he’s been nominated for many awards, in particular for his novels Umbrella and Dorian.

As for advice to new writers, he says simply, “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement - if you can't deal with this, you needn't apply.”

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Life's work becomes the prize

“Without discipline, there's no life at all.” – Katharine Hepburn

Known for her fierce independence and spirited personality, Hepburn was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years. She appeared in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received four Academy Awards for Best Actress — a record for any performer.   
On a recent visit to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, we found this display of both the 4 Oscars AND one of her favorite portraits.  So I felt compelled to snap this photo and to write a few words about this marvelous actress, who also was a bestselling author for her 1991 autobiography Me: Stories of my Life.   The book topped bestseller lists for over a year.

In 1999, Hepburn was named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.  Also a Kennedy Center recipient and Film Institute Hall of Fame inductee, she was named in a number of books and magazine lists among the most influential women of the 20th Century.  Hepburn died at age 96 in 2003.

In her later life, she once remarked, “For me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.”

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

The 'delicious' world of poetry

“Every afternoon, I would shut the door of my bedroom to write: Poetry was secret, dangerous, wicked and delicious.” – Donald Hall

Considered one of the major American poets of his generation (he celebrated his 88th birthday this past week), Hall’s poetry explores the longing for a more bucolic past and often reflects many a poet’s abiding reverence for nature.

Hall uses simple, direct language to evoke surrealistic imagery.   In addition to his poetry, he has built a respected body of prose that includes essays, short fiction, plays, and children’s books.  He also is noted for the anthologies he has edited.  Hall has long been a popular teacher, speaker, and reader of his own poems.  Once criticized for the simplicity of a poem, he replied, “Everything important always begins from something trivial.”

For Saturday’s Poem, here is Hall’s

An Old Life

Snow fell in the night.
At five-fifteen I woke to a bluish
mounded softness where
the Honda was. Cat fed and coffee made,
I broomed snow off the car
and drove to the Kearsarge Mini-Mart
before Amy opened
to yank my Globe out of the bundle.
Back, I set my cup of coffee
beside Jane, still half-asleep,
murmuring stuporous
thanks in the aquamarine morning.
Then I sat in my blue chair
with blueberry bagels and strong
black coffee reading news,
the obits, the comics, and the sports.
Carrying my cup twenty feet,
I sat myself at the desk
for this day's lifelong
engagement with the one task and desire.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

'Remembering' ... and writing it down

“During the Middle Ages they understood that words accompanied by imagery are much more memorable. By making the margins of a book colorful and beautiful, illuminations help make the text unforgettable. It's unfortunate that we've lost the art of illumination.” –  Joshua Foer

Born on this date in 1982, Joshua Foer is a freelance journalist living in New Haven, CT with a primary focus on hard sciences.  He also was the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion, described in his 2011 bestselling book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

A native of Washington, DC, Foer’s writings have appeared in some of the nation’s top newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

“We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case,” Foer said.   “Great memories are learned. At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged.”

In 2012 Foer gave a TED Talk that has been heard and viewed more than 4 million times.  If you’d like to join the group, click on this link for the very entertaining and enlightening 20-minute presentation:

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dreamers dream; writers write

“Good fiction must be entertaining, but what makes fiction special - and True - is that the realness of a novel allows it to carry a larger message.” Jerry B. Jenkins

Michigan-born novelist and biographer Jenkins is perhaps best known as co-author of the Left Behind series of books with Tim LaHaye. 

In addition to his writing, he has produced television and movie programs, served as an editor, and was vice president of the Moody Bible Institute.    In his 40-year career, he has had 21 books reach the New York Times bestseller list, 7 as number 1.  In 2001 his book Desecration was ranked number one in the world.
Jnkins has written some 180 books, including                       
some non-fiction, although the bulk of his work is romance novels, mysteries, and children's adventures.  When asked about the volume of his work, he noted that,  “I love inventing worlds and characters and settings and scenarios.”

“Writers write,” he added.  “Dreamers talk about it.”

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Taking us to whole new worlds

“Human history in essence is the history of ideas.” – H. G. Wells

“The father of science fiction," although some argue that it was Jules Verne), Wells was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific English writer in many genres, including the novel, history, and social commentary, he authored such sci-fi classics as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds, which got even more famous after a 1938 radio broadcast by actor Orson Welles.

Born into a poor family, Wells became enamored with books after breaking a leg at age 9 and spending his recuperation time reading books                                 
from the library.  He decided then and there 
that he would be a writer.  But first he had to get his education, which he did on his own, overcoming much financial and personal hardship -- both things that shaped his writing.   Eventually he earned an advanced degree in biology.

That scientific background stood him in good stead when he started writing his “fantastical” stories that became the foundation for what would be termed “science” fiction.  Also an artist, Wells made part of his living doing sketches but noted “I had rather be called a journalist than an artist” since it was also during that time – in his late 20s and 30s – that he started writing social commentary in both newspapers and magazines.  But, while he was widely read in other genres, it was his science fiction that made him famous.

Wells noted that an author should always strive to make a story as credible as possible, even if both the writer and the reader knew certain elements are impossible.  That allows a reader to accept the ideas as something that could really happen, he noted.  Today, that is called "making the plausible impossible."

“What really matters,” he said, “is what you do with what you have.”

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Writing fictionalized 'truth'

“All fiction has to have a certain amount of truth in it to be powerful.” – George R. R. Martin
Best known for his series of novels that have led to the epic HBO production, Game of Thrones, Martin has had a long and extremely interesting career, writing both novels and short stories in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres.  Also a screenwriter, television producer and longtime writing teacher, he said he intended the Game of Thrones series to be 3 books.  That was in 1991 when he first started them, and now he’s hard at work trying to finish the 6th and 7th installments – all very long, extremely good, and wonderfully complex.

Born on this date in 1948, Martin grew up in New Jersey but said his voracious appetite for all kinds of stories and books made him a citizen of the world and of history.  He said just as he used to lose himself in the books he was reading, he finds a similar effect from his own writing. 

“The odd thing about being a writer is you do tend to lose yourself in your books. Sometimes it seems like real life is flickering by and you're hardly a part of it. You remember the events in your books better than you remember the events that actually took place when you were writing them.
The winner of some two dozen major national and international writing awards, Martin said he has many, many files of ideas that he hopes to get to once he has completed his massive Game of Thrones opus.   As to advice to new writers: 
  “Start with short stories,” he advises.                                       
 “After all, if you were taking up rock climbing, you wouldn't start with Mount Everest. So if you're starting fantasy (or any genre), don't start with a nine-book series.”

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Monday, September 19, 2016

The 'magical' world of writing

“I just love writing. It's magical, it's somewhere else to go, it's somewhere much more dreadful, somewhere much more exciting. Somewhere I feel I belong, possibly more than in the so-called real world.” –  Tanith Lee

The proilific Lee, born on this date in 1947 (and who died last year), produced an amazing body of work in science fiction, horror, and fantasy.   She was the author of over 90 novels and 300 short stories, a children's picture book (Animal Castle), and many poems.   And, she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award best novel award for her book Death's Master.

Despite her success with adult fiction, a large part of her output was children's fantasy, which spanned her entire career from The Dragon Hoard in 1971 (her first book) to the more recent The Claidi Journals containing Wolf Tower, Wolf Star, Wolf Queen and Wolf Wing.

Much of her work, she said, came from "small things" rather than major inspirations, and as to her preference for what she liked to write, she replied, “Writing is writing, and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?  I just write.”
As for who should write, she said simply,                                
“Writers tell stories better, because they've had more practice, but EVERYONE has a book in them. Yes, that old cliche.  I believe it's true.”

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

A unique 'writer' combination

“Family legends confirm that I've been a storyteller pretty much from the moment I learned to talk. I quickly learned that character, pacing and plot were important to any work of fiction, but that nothing was more important than believability.” – Lynn Abbey 

Abbey, born on this date in 1948 in Upstate New York, brings a unique combination to her writing – being first a computer programmer and then a writer.   Another interesting part of her background is that she has a master’s degree in European history and a B.A. in astrophysics – one of the first to earn that degree in the 1960s.    But with her background in history, she said, “I love to curl up with a book about some dusty corner of history.”

But, in spite of that, her own writing began and mostly remains in science fiction.  She broke into the field in 1979 with her novel Daughter of the Bright Moon and the short story "The Face of Chaos," part of a Thieves World shared world anthology.  She said she’s a big fan of anthologies because editors are interested in all comers, and you have a great chance to be included even if you’re a beginning writer.

Thus, In 2002, she not only returned to Thieves World with the novel Sanctuary, but she also began editing new anthologies, beginning with Turning Points.   And, she said, she’s a big fan of short stories and writers of short stories.                                      

“For me,” she said, “writing a short story is much, much harder than writing a novel.  Short-story writing requires an exquisite sense of balance. Novelists, frankly, can get away with more. A novel can have a dull spot or two, because the reader has made a different commitment.”

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Star-Gazing: Saturday's Poem

“A poet should always be 'collaborating' with his public, but this public, in the mass, cannot make itself heard, and he has to guess at its requirements and its criticisms.”  Louis MacNeice

Irish poet MacNeice’s body of work was widely appreciated by the public during his lifetime (1907-63), due in part to his relaxed, but socially and emotionally aware style.   He was part of the generation called the Auden Group, also sometimes known as the "Thirties poets,” that included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis (father of renowned actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

Here for Saturday’s Poem is a poem MacNeice plaintively wrote on the occasion of his 50th  birthday.

Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding thoughts in vain.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Spawned by 'The Power to Read'

“When you have a novel set in a fictional history, you still should get your history right.” – Kurt Busiek

Born on this date in 1960, award-winning comics writer Busiek got started during his senior year in college when he submitted some sample scripts to editor Dick Giordano at DC Comics.   None of them sold, but they did get him invitations to pitch other material to DC editors, which led to his first professional work, a back-up story in Green Lantern.

By 1993, Busiek and was teaming with artist Alex Ross and together they produced the Marvels limited series which, as comics historian Matthew K. Manning notes, "reinvigorated painted comics as a genre, went on to become an acclaimed masterpiece, and spawned more than its own fair share of imitators."
Busiek has been the winner of numerous awards                             
 as “best writer” for the Marvel Series, The Avengers, which also have been made into several movies, and a version of Conan the Barbarian.  Since 2006 he’s also done extensive writing of stories about Spiderman, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

“I could name you a dozen superheroes whose powers I'd like to have. But if I could have any power in the world, it would be the power to read or watch a creative work and absorb the technical skill of the people who made it,” he said.  “Because then I could have even more fun writing. That's my core identity. I'm a writer. I just love telling stories.” 

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Small openings to a huge world

“A picture book is a small door to the enormous world of the visual arts, and they're often the first art a young person sees.” – Tomie dePaola
Born on this date in 1934, dePaola has created more than 200 children's books, and is known best for picture books such as Strega Nona.  In 2011, he was honored for his lifetime contribution to American children’s literature with the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, presented by the American Children’s Librarians Association.  He’s also been a finalist for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award.
A native of Connecticut, dePaola was first going to be an art teacher, earning several degrees, including the equivalent of a Ph.D. in art while teaching at a number of colleges and universities.  But, after his books became successful, he left the teaching world in 1978 to concentrate full time on his adopted profession.
His lush artistic style has earned him legions                             
 of followers – kids and their parents alike – and he’s worked in a number of areas ranging from his famous Strega Nona series to memoirs, legends, folk tales and religion.  It’s in religion that he’s also earned accolades for his fine art, creating numerous significant pieces that are displayed at museums and religious centers around the country.

DePaola was attracted to art at an early age and credits his family with encouraging his development as an artist and influencing the themes of his works.  “I remember feeling guilty that I had a good childhood. I thought everybody who is famous has to have a desperate childhood and work his way out of it, but I had a great one.”

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