Why bother to write?

Why I Write
by Pat Conroy

A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largesse. From the very beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire. I would work without a net and without the noise of the crowd to disturb me. The view from on high is dizzying, instructive. I do not record the world exactly as it comes to me but transform it by making it pass through a prism of fabulous stories I have collected on the way. I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself. I am often called a “storyteller” by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title.

–from My Reading Life


ABNA opens . . . and some misunderstood facts

I thought some of you might be interested in entering the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. It’s open now for YA novels and general fiction. You need a pitch of 300 words and a complete manuscript (and you’ll paste the first 5K words into a text box, so you need a text-only version of the opening). Why not enter? It’s free!

I entered.


And now for something completely different!

Here are some of the gross inaccuracies that writers have presented as part of their stories or TV episodes. This list was passed around during a recent writers’ workshop. I don’t know if they’re entirely accurate, but then what list is? (Considering only lists passed around at some group meeting, that is.)

CATEGORY: Aviation

1. A stall in an airplane has nothing to do with the engine. It refers to the airplane flying so slowly that the air over the wing separates and reduces the lift. It is not fatal. Lower the nose, regain airspeed, and you’re fine. All commercial aircraft stall benignly (if they stall at all), although it is a bit unnerving for the non-pilot.

2. Air traffic controllers don’t “control” an airplane. The pilots control the airplane and have the final say as to what the airplane does. A pilot may, at his discretion at any time, refuse to follow instructions from the controller if he deems it unsafe. (The usual caveat is: But he’d better have a damn good reason.)

3. Aircraft depressurize as an explosion of air, not a torrential wind tunnel of doom. If it’s a massive depressurization it’ll suck people out in a fraction of a second, not several minutes. A bullet hole in an airplane fuselage is not enough to blow out a major chunk of structure.

4. Pilots don’t need permission to fly around in most US airspace nor do they need to file a flight plan. A flight plan is an aid a pilot may choose to use to aid controllers and help people find him should he get into trouble. The exceptions are airspace near major airports, restricted areas like nuclear power plants and military bases, and airspace above 18,000 ft. Other than that, getting into your airplane (such as a light plane) and enjoying a flight requires no more permission from the government than getting permission to go for a Sunday drive. Nor should it.

5. Metal fatigue and fracture is the name of the department Hubster started out working in back in the day (at Lockheed, then General Dynamics.) All aircraft have structural limits. Having your hero point the nose at the ground, gain blistering speed, and then yank back on the controls as hard as he can is not an exercise in withstanding the g-forces; it’s an exercise in watching your hero’s aircraft flutter to the ground in many little bent aluminum pieces.

CATEGORY: Weapons and the Holes They Make

1. When someone is shot, getting the bullet out is relatively pointless compared to stopping bleeding. A bullet that’s inside has already DONE its damage, and can be left there, often indefinitely.

2. If someone is coughing up blood after being shot, they were hit in either the lungs, the throat, or the stomach. Of the three, the stomach is the only one that isn’t likely to kill in under five minutes.

3. Proper procedure when someone is hit by an arrow varies by arrowhead. Some can be just pulled out (particularly modern ones, made for practice or hunting). Some have to be surgically removed. Under no circumstances is it wise for someone to break off an arrow that’s stuck in someone they don’t want dead; instead, they should use the shaft to stabilize the arrow, then get the injured person to a doctor.

4. Shoulders are not simply absorbent spots to take a blow. You have major, complicated joints in your shoulder as well as an important artery and a lot of muscle. Getting shot, stabbed, or otherwise nailed in the shoulder is actually a serious injury.

5. A unit of blood is never just grabbed off the shelf for an emergency tranfusion. There’s always some paperwork. The patient still gets a blood draw so that a type and screen can be done later.

6. A rifle has significant recoil. A rocket launcher actually doesn’t–but it has backblast, due to its rocket firing.

CATEGORY: The Body and Its Functions

1. Flatulence and a kitchen match can not cause enough of an explosion to open a lead safe.

2. Sweating bodies, no matter what you’ve read to the contrary, smell bad.

3. The ugliest part of the body is actually the mind.


We’re watching you, but it’s for your own good, we promise

Someone on a mailing list mentioned that she sees underlining in random spots when she reads Kindle books. She thought it was a formatting issue that people should fix.

But then other readers replied:

1: The underlining in some books on Kindle is actually the highlighting done by other readers. By going to the menu you can choose not to show what other readers have highlighted.

2: Does that mean that any annotation someone makes on their personal Kindle copy of a book shows up on Amazon’s “master” copy? That means Amazon not only tracks all the books you have, but also where you are in a particular book AND every note you make on it.

3: Oh, absolutely. If your machine is online and you’re using Amazon Kindle software, it’s phoning home your every move. Amazon is nearly the worst, but all the readers are in some measure invasive.

4: Having worked at Amazon, I can promise you that any fairly low-level employee can look up anyone who bought a particular book, as well as lists of books bought by individuals. The Kindle highlighting is simply an additional issue vis-a-vis privacy.



Eeeep! I knew they were “keeping statistics,” but it’s even crazier than I suspected.

Well, anyway, here’s something I can add to my litany of Why I Still Prefer “Real” Books to E-books, Even Though I Can’t Manage to Get My Own Books Done That-A-Way. This info-sending isn’t necessarily going to be “turned off” just because you mark on the menu that you don’t want to see others’ highlighting or that you don’t want your notes backed up, you know; they might SAY they’re going to ignore your info and harvest it anyway. Who’s going to catch them? *Because* no one but employees in the Amazon IT department can go into that code. Right?

I know about the spyware that keeps track of which websites you visit and keyloggers that sneak onto your own system and so forth, but I check for those and take off any that I find, and then hope for the best. There’s a trade-off involved with reading Web pages and perhaps getting your visit recorded. Or with checking for keyloggers on your computer now and then. You are getting a benefit from websurfing and using your computer for word processing (or whatever) that kind of makes the hassle worth it. We can also prevent the spying most of the time.

With books . . . well, I’d rather “they” didn’t know what I am reading AND what I might be doing with the books that they know I have. Ugh, even them knowing the books I have is a problem.

Solution: I can buy “real” books at the used book store or at garage sales and THEY WON’T KNOW. This is how I get those evil 1960s cookbooks (I love them for the kitsch factor, plus Mama keeps saying, “That’s how I used to make that dish!”) and old versions of Bobbsey Twins novels (pre-sanitizing and Bowdlerizing). Bwaa-ha-ha! They can’t stop me!

(At least not yet. That’s probably coming.)

Yes, I can also buy new books at a bookstore if I use cash and don’t use my “tracking cookie” in the form of the discount/rewards card, and perhaps “they” won’t know. However, the checkout register prints the titles of the books you get on your receipt, so the stores DO know that someone bought this group of books together. I’m sure there is a marketing aspect to this as well as a Homeland Security aspect.

But it shows you how much closer we are to having Big Brother watching all the time . . . and most people shrug it off and say they have nothing to hide. Um . . . OK.

Everything’s cool! We’re all friends. La, la la.
Nothing to see here. Move along!


I am not changing zodiac signs. No matter what.

I’m wishy washy–and I don’t care!!

(Note excessive use of exclamation points)

Guess what, though . . . I am still a Pisces under the “new” system. Not that I believe that strongly in astrology, but I can’t get rid of my favorite mug and all those great rubber stamps.

So that this journal does not turn into the Journal of Gloom, I will not mention the sad extended-family stuff that goes on tomorrow except to ask for some positive thoughts for us and for David, Alice, Elizabeth, and Jeff. It’s raining, and despite my explanations to the Universe that this is called the “Pathetic Fallacy” (the weather is imitating the characters’ emotions, that is), it’ll probably rain some more tomorrow in Fort Worth. I shall now eat a yogurt.

(A container of yummy stuff, not the monster “Yogurt” that lives under Xzunic molds on the planet Mongo. Just to make things clear.)

Hope you had a nice Martin Luther King holiday. We watched a parade on one of the UHF stations. Otherwise, we didn’t accomplish a darn thing. Who’s with me on this?

Remiss in my duties

I’m sorry that I haven’t made time to answer the comments that many of you have generously posted on my last few entries. It seems as if Real Life keeps intruding. The moment I get one fire stamped out, flames burst out of another corner of the room. I’ll be coming back to some of it as soon as possible.

My sister-in-law’s mother crossed the Veil yesterday, quite unexpectedly. (This is the mother of my husband’s brother’s wife–of course, my other sister-in-law’s mother would be my mother-in-law, who is already gone. How complicated everything seems.) We’re trying to figure out the best way to support them this weekend.

Before that, I had been trying to sort out some other stuff that I’ve been shoving aside. Got some of it done–yay me.

I also joined the 2011 In Photos FLICKR group (a total copycat from green_knight, who joined and journaled about it) and have been trying to keep up with that. Everyone is posting snow pix, and we do have some leftover snow, but nothing as interesting as their stuff. “Tired of myself and tired of this town,” I think. It’s tough finding anything different to photograph around here. I’m just not SEEING it. That’s the point of joining the group–maybe I can start re-imaging the same old things.

CONTEST: Can you write a Graham Greene pastiche?

I got all excited when someone sent me a link to the rules for The Strand Magazine’s “Complete The Graham Greene Novella” contest! Finally, something I Might Have A Chance at.

THE EMPTY CHAIR is an unfinished mystery novella left behind by Graham Greene. In the last four back issues of The Strand, they’ve serialized what there is of the novella. There are four chapters and the beginning of a fifth, and they want another 4-5K words to wrap it up and reveal the perp.

Graham Greene is of the generation of writers I grew up reading and therefore subconsciously patterned my writing after. I could write in that sort of talky style! If I could figure out what he had meant as the solution to the murder mystery puzzle, I would be steps ahead.

Then I took a clear look at what I would have to do. I’d need to find a library that carries The Strand and/or order the back issues (no, because by now there’s no time for them to get here–the deadline is Jan 25th.) I’d need to read each chapter and analyze it to see where I thought the author might be leading us so I could guess who the perp is and how the crime was done. I’d need to write in a slightly twee style, because this novella is Greene juvenilia (to some extent–age 22), not mature or late Greene as in THE THIRD MAN and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT.

I am also supposed to be working on several other things right now and shouldn’t drop everything to try to do this. Should my entry drop into the quicksand, it would be more wasted time. I’m not sure I am up for the challenge.

So . . . can you write a pastiche? Do you have a library nearby that carries this magazine? (You need the last five back issues.)

Here are the rules for submitting your work for the Graham Greene novella writing contest:

1. Please do not call our office concerning this.
2. Please do not submit any material via regular post. If we receive submissions via regular post, they will be returned to you.
3. We are looking for something that is 4,000-5,000 words in length. The winner of the contest will receive $500.
4. Submit a Microsoft word file as an attachment to the following email address: greene@strandmag.com
5. If you’re interested in finding out what happened in previous chapters, you can either find copies at your local library or purchase them on our website.
6. If you’re interested in getting the fifth chapter which is a very short chapter that will help you complete the book, we can send that chapter via email to you.

[Note that there is no rule reading “if you’re interested in finding out what happened in previous chapters, please email us and we’ll send you an MS-Word file with the previous chapters.” Some sites promoting the contest show that “rule,” but it’s not on the Strand’s contest rules page. The official guidelines tell you to come buy the back issues on the website or look at them in the library. This is a major hurdle. OF COURSE YOU HAVE TO HAVE READ THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS! You couldn’t get by with just “knowing what happened in previous chapters,” because to write the actual finale you will need to allude to events and people by name, and you’ll need to pick up on tossed-off references made in the earlier parts of the novella so that readers say, “Of course! Why didn’t we realize that?” But anyhow, I thought I would point this hurdle out before anyone gets too excited.]

6. The deadline for entering your work is January 25.

If you decide to enter, let us know in the comments! I think this would be a fantastic opportunity for someone like me to get noticed. I just don’t think I can track down the back issues with sufficient speed.