Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Writer Reads. And Should Help His Readers See A to B.

It’s clear in reading Louis L’Amour’s “Education of A Wandering Man” that Mr. L’Amour read a lot of books.

That’s as it should be. A writer ought to read a heck of a lot more than he or she writes, just so there’s enough information inside one’s head to draw on when the writing begins.

One thing I felt lacking, however: A connection between A and B.

It would be highly valuable for any aspiring writer to see how an idea gleaned from a book helped influence something an author writes.

For instance.

On page 198 of this very book, L’Amour writes:

I believe that man has been living and is living in a Neanderthal state of mind. Mentally, we are still flaking rocks for scraping stones or chipping them for arrowheads. The life that lies before us will no longer permit such wastefulness or neglect. We are moving into outer space, where the problems will be infinitely greater and will demand quicker, more accurate solutions. We cannot trust our destinies to machines alone. Man must make his own decisions.

What an inspiration and motivation for the Hermit of Iapetus. If I ever get back to that book, this passage will be a big guiding post as I work on it.

That being said, L’Amour’s book is still a valuable one for the writer, even if the how isn’t explained all that well. What’s important is the example. One might think that writing for the “frontier” or the “West,” as L’Amour did, would be easy, as there are a thousand tropes enough for a thousand novels per author. Nevertheless, L’Amour hints at how his long studies and experiences helped him shape his stories into something more than they would be if he had to invent every damn thing out of whole cloth.

Next time, take a few of the hints into a deeper look, just to help a fella out.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Draw the Moon

As you perform your peer reviews this week (and in subsequent weeks; this won’t be the last time we do these) remember one thing:

You probably see things differently than the writer.

Each of us have different experiences. Different backgrounds.

For instance, throughout the Book of Mormon we see the people of Christ – whether they be Nephite or Lamanite – defend themselves with the sword from their enemies. Prophets like Alma, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni defended their rights, their lives, in battle.

But Alma tells us the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi had a different perspective:

And the great God has had mercy on us, and made these things known unto us that we might not perish; yea, and he has made these things known unto us beforehand, because he loveth our souls as well as he loveth our children; therefore, in his mercy he doeth visit us by his angels, that the plan of salvation might be made known unto us as well as unto future generations.

Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.

(Alma 24:14-15)

Both the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and the Nephites who welcomed them and protected them believed in the same God, in the same salvation. But they saw war and bloodshed from different perspectives.
To understand why we see things differently than others, that is learning.

We learn from Alma that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies wanted to show gratitude for the Atonement and their forgiveness by forsaking the sword (see verses 11 and 12 in the same chapter).  Yet we may have difficulties fathoming their conviction, not having experienced the same things as they.

Another example:

“When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light and dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. He described mountain ranges ‘ablaze with the splendour of his beams,’ and deep craters in shadow as ‘the hollows of the Earth’; he also rendered these observations in a series of masterful drawings. Six months before, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot had also turned the viewfinder of his telescope towards the Moon. But where Galileo saw a new world to explore, Harriot’s sketch from July 1609 suggests that he saw a dimpled cow pie. Why was Galileo’s mind so receptive to what lay before his eyes, while Harriot’s vision deserves its mere footnote in history?”

Gene Tracy, founding director of the Center for the Liberal Arts at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, suggests the difference between what Galileo saw and what Harriot saw was that Galileo was surrounded by artists and may have also studied the Italian art of chiaroscuro – the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.

“When Galileo looked at the face of the Moon,” Tracy writes, “he had no trouble understanding that lunar mountaintops first catch fire with the rising Sun while their lower slopes remain in darkness, just like they do on Earth. Galileo therefore had a theory for what he was seeing when those pinpricks of light winked into existence along the terminator line of day and night; he even used the effect to measure the heights of those mountains, finding them higher than the Alps. Harriot, a brilliant polymath yet possibly blind to this geometry, looked at the same scenes half a year before Galileo, but didn’t understand.”

Both learned men looked at the same object – the Moon – using variations of the newly-invented telescope. But because one had a different background in art, he was able to better understand what he was seeing.

My point to this? Fourfold:

1. As writers, we have a duty to try to explain to the best of our ability what we mean. If, in peer review, we discover our readers don’t quite understand what we mean, we need to take them seriously. We need to ask questions to discover what it is they do not understand, and make efforts – often multiple efforts – to better explain ourselves.
2. As readers, we have a duty to not only point out when we do understand, but to indicate in detail when we do not understand. If we do not share praise and criticism, the writer whose prose we are reading will not learn to be better communicators. Merely saying “This is good,” or “I don’t understand this,” is not good enough. Strive to include as much detail in your review as possible.
3. As readers, we may have knowledge or a different approach on the writer’s subject that we can share with them to help them better explain themselves. We have to share that.
4. As children of God, we have a duty to continue learning, even in areas that lie outside our principal interests, because we never know what learning in one field will help us understand concepts in another.



Monday, May 21, 2018

Roof Report, Life with Solar, and ‘The Colonel’s Horse’

You’ll recall back on April 7 we had a severe (for Idaho) hailstorm occur, damaging the shingles and the siding on the back of the house. I can now report that repairs are underway.

If I’ve calculated correctly, we’ve replaced about 2/5ths of the shingles on the house, all on the lower part (the only lower part left is over the front porch and a tiny pop-out above the kitchen window). If my calculations are right, we’ve got about 55 of 85 bundles left to do to finish the house.

I can report this:

1. I have one finger that’s not really speaking to me at the moment. I managed to mash it at least once each day over the three days we spent doing shingles this weekend.
2. Of our three children, Liam and Lexie have swung hammers to put shingles in. Isaac came out on the roof for social purposes and moved some loose shingles around for us, but that’s about it.
3. Mother Nature saw us on Friday putting shingles up and decided we looked hot so brought over a rather intense thunderstorm (including new hail) and just sorta stalled it over us.
4. Houses need shingles because otherwise their roofs leak like sieves, as we discovered during said storm as the garage turned into a shower and the closet in the laundry room into a waterfall (fortunately a minor one).
5. My wife is a shingle-driving fiend, particularly when her laundry room is threatened with additional flooding.
6. The nifty little homemade ladder elevator I saw on YouTube, the one that featured the power winch I figured was optional, probably would have worked better if I hadn’t regarded the winch as optional. As it was, we slung the 30 bundles of shingles up on the house via the time-tested method of me humping the bundles into the back of the truck and handing the shingles four or so at a time to the kids, who stood on top of the truck box and flung the shingles onto the roof.

Good news is once we’d shingled the exposed roof and it rained again, there were no new leaks. I had certainly hoped that would be the case, but you never know. I’m always so optimistic in my pessimism.

So the bigger test comes later this week now, when the Blue Raven solar people come to remove the panels for us so we can re-shingle that portion of the house. They balked at first when we suggested they do the work for free, but after Michelle pointed out to them that their crew opted to put the system up under the following conditions that it was probably best to do the work for free:

1. It had snowed the previous night so they had to shovel the roof in order to do their work, thus making it harder to see any damage.
2. Their “roof inspector” guy never actually got up on the roof to look at the state of it.
3. We told them we’d had a hailstorm and they could see the damage to the siding, and knew our insurance adjustor hadn’t been by yet to inspect the house, yet opted to do the install anyway
4. They found one hole in the roof, straight through the waferboard, indicating again the roof might need repair.
5. When they suggested we cover the cost of the removal and reinstall with our homeowner’s insurance, we pointed out the panels hadn’t been up there at the time the damage occurred, so the insurance company was very likely to say “Nope. Ain’t gonna.”

I feel a little cheap about it all – but not cheap enough. There were enough error precursors there for their crew – which we were trusting to do things right – to say, “Yeah, we’d better wait until after the insurance adjustor takes a look first.” I should have done a lookie at the roof as well, but it’s very high.

Aside: As I posted about the shingle job on Facebook, a friend reminded me of this quote from MASH:

Hunnicautt (after talking with his father-in-law Floyd on the phone): Colic. Her intestines are blocked. We gotta keep her on her feet, so they won't twist. And we gotta clean her out. Lots and lots of warm water.
Hawkeye: I think I'll stroll up to the front to see how the shooting's going.
(Next scene)
Hawkeye: Hook this to the spigot up there.
Hunnicutt: It looks awful high.
Hawkeye: You want the other end?
Hunnicutt: It's not so high.

Bottom line is: If you’re going to have solar panels installed and you’re not sure what condition your roof is in, have it inspected professionally beforehand – don’t trust the solar installers to do the job.

On a positive note for Blue Raven, they’re willing to work with us (though we had to talk with three different people to make sure this was filed under “you’re fixing your own mistake,” and they did send someone out to see why our inverter kept shutting down, and seem to have fixed the problem.

We still haven’t seen an impact on our power bill, but this is only the first month after we got the system installed and running, and I’m not exactly sure how it all works. Next month’s bill will tell. And it had better, else Blue Raven will get yet another phone call from us. And likely Rocky Mountain Power will hear from us too. We’re crossing our fingers that once the removal and reinstall are done, it’s smooth sailing from here on out. And we’ll have a roof underneath that’ll more than match the expected lifespan of the panels.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Magicians’ Hats and Nixon on the Piano

“A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.”

Louis L’Amour, in “Education of A Wandering Man”

What, may I ask, are you putting in your hat?

I hope, as you research your topic and prepare to write a rough draft that you are indeed putting something in your hat.

Not that your hats are empty. You picked your topics because you already had an inkling or an interest in that subject; you already had stuff in your hat.

But those who really want to learn know you shouldn’t rely on the same old tricks.

My challenge to you: Put new stuff into your hat. Learn something new about your topic. Learn several something news about your topic. Widen and deepen your knowledge. You’ll find the more you learn, the easier it is to write on any topic because you have more experience already inside your own head to draw on.

But remember David McCullough’s caution from his essay “A Love of Learning” (emphasis mine):

Learning is not to be found on a printout. It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly form books, and most readily form great books. And from teachers, and the more learned and empathetic the better. And from work, concentrated work.

Did you know, for example, that former US President Richard Nixon plays the piano? And quite well, if I’m any judge of piano players:

(For some reason, the sound in this video cuts out at about 2:08 in. Ironic, given Nixon’s later experiences with an audio tape with no sound.)

Knowing Nixon played the piano is, however, only information.

Learning this, however, gives me another character trait to include with the hallucinatory Nixon that entertains and befuddles the protagonist of a novel I’m working on. It’s one more bit of information in that magician’s hat that may eventually help me produce a book someone else wants to read.

It’s the same with you. You have lots of information in your hat about the topic you’ve chosen. Add to the hat. Make connections between new information and old information. Then show us those connections as you work to convince us the problem you’ve identified really is a problem, and that there exist solutions to that problem that’ll make the problem go away.

Fill up your hat. Then show us your tricks.

Pomp and Circumstance. And Suction Cups.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, our oldest son will graduate high school. Meaning, among other things, we will hear some version of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” Which means, thanks to my brain’s ability to cling to odd bits of information and imagery, I will be thinking of octopuses.

I blame Sesame Street.

I have no idea why the videographers at the Children’s Television Workshop chose Elgar’s piece to accompany this footage of a weird-looking octopus (oddly, I don’t remember it being an organ version of the music, but clearly that’s what it is), but I remember watching this as a kid and thinking, just exactly how big is this thing and WHY ARE THEY SHOWING US ITS MOUTH OPENING AND CLOSING.

I now realize that is the octopus’ breathing apparatus, and had I seen the actual mouth – that terrible parrot-beaky thing – I would have been more traumatized by this video than I ever was by the Operatic Orange.

Posit: Bugs Bunny did more to help me develop a love (or at least familiarity with) classical music because they chose to present them with non-threatening imagery (including Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny chasing each other with increasingly larger bits of weaponry AND a sentient electric shaver) that Sesame Street did, with their FREAKING singing oranges and their octopuses flapping their breathing tubes and suction cups at me.

Well, except for the alum. The alum freaked me out too. Maybe Bugs Bunny isn’t as innocent as I think.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Steinbeck in Space

The last story in Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth” could have been written by John Steinbeck, if Steinbeck wrote science fiction.

Save for the setting on Venus, “Logic of Empire,” which follows two Earthmen unequally convinced that slavery exists in the “colonies” of Earth and decide to find out who is right by signing on as laborers on Venus for a six-year sting, sounds clearly like Steinbeck’s tales told from the orange groves and fields of California. They quickly discover that the tales of servitude they’ve heard are true and that the songs of Tennessee Ernie Ford could just as easily be sung about the plantations of Venus as they are about the coal mines of Appalachia.

Maybe Heinlein was inspired by Steinbeck as he took social strife to the stars. Or maybe this is Heinlein before he got a bit weirder as his career went on. In any case, it’s better than the typical utopian sci-fi where the Enlightened Earthmen and associated hangers-on go hurtling into the cosmos to solve others’ problems because everything back home? It’s peachy.

In any case, “The Green Hills of Earth” is an interesting read as we see the cares and woes and triumphs and tragedies of life on Earth spread to settlements on other worlds and moons in the solar system. It’s an interesting contrast to the typically utopian view of the settlement of space.

Heinlein introduces us to space hoboes. He introduces us to a spaceman who overcomes his fear of falling in a rather unique way.

Had I read these tales as a younger version of myself, I may not have been as excited to live on the Moon or further afield – as I fully expected the opportunity would exist. Who wants to be a slave on Venus, or an effete twerp who moves back to Earth from the Moon only to find out you miss Moon Culture too much?

In a way, some of the stories reminded me of this:

Which may go a long way in explaining why the more utopian view of space settlement is more popular.

However – I find I like writers before they get too strident in their finger-wagging. I don’t mind the subtle wag as they’re often fun to identify. But when all that’s going on leads to the author winking and blinking and wagging his finger, I get put off.

Also: Steeeeinbeck Iiiiin Spaaaaaaaace!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Keep the Lord in Your Writing

I had an epiphany, sitting in Sunday School this weekend: I’m struggling with my novel because I haven’t been reading my scriptures.

Oh, I’ve been reading. Lots of fiction and non-fiction alike, paying attention to how authors use words to tell their stories or convey their facts.

But I have not been reading my scriptures regularly on my own.

And that’s a problem.

Particularly since the novel I’m struggling with is spiritual in nature.

It’s like needing water, standing next to a clear, cold pool of it, and trying to quench my thirst by licking the dew off the leaves.

The Lord reminded the Israelites of this:

When thou has eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee.

Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day:

Lest what thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein;

And when they herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou has is multiplied;

Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage;

Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;

Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove three, to do three good at thy latter end;

And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine had hath gotten me this wealth.

(Deuteronomy 8:10-17)

As we write the Argumentative Synthesis – or any other bit of writing for that matter – we do enter a kind of great and terrible wilderness, where we’ll encounter not scorpions and drought, but word counts, feedback, writer’s block, difficult research, and varying demands on our time.

It seems counterintuitive to say, “Hey, I need to put my studies aside and do what the Lord has asked me to do,” but we gotta do it. I was hit several times with that thought this Sunday, listening not only to things in class, but things in my heart.

God gave Moses the words to say, as Moses was obedient unto God. He makes us no less a promise.