Friday, March 13, 2015

Announcement: grieving, back April 1

My mother passed away this past Tuesday after an extended battle with heart issues. She was 68 years old.

Even though my mother was not in the best of health, this was something of shock. She had open-heart surgery last spring, and for a brief while things looked hopeful. But in the end her heart problems overcame her.

I am going to suspend the blog until the end of March. I need some time to mourn, to get my head on straight.

For a briefly while I had planned to keep the blog going by reposting old content, but I think it would be better to suspend operations for a few weeks instead.

I realize that many of you have also lost loved ones, and I wish you the best in overcoming your own challenges, even as I work to overcome this. Each person—and each person’s love and grieving—is unique.

I had a good relationship with my mother, and there is no major guilt or regret regarding anything I wish I had (or hadn’t) done while she was alive. During her final days, I was at her side for much of the time. I am grateful that I was able to do this. My mother knew how much I loved her.

My only advice to you in this editorial is as follows: Appreciate those who are close to you while they are alive. None of us—or them—is here forever. 

May God (in whatever way you conceive that term) bless all of you—and I’ll see you again on April 1.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What makes a language "difficult?"

What makes a language “difficult” or “easy”? 

Generally speaking—the complexity of the grammar, the language’s system of pronunciation, and the writing system. Some languages (like Arabic) have extremely complex grammatical systems. Whereas others (like Indonesian) have very simple grammar. 

Spanish requires a native English speaker to learn only a few new sounds, while a tonal language (like Mandarin Chinese or Thai) requires a native English-speaker to learn an entirely new system of distinguishing word meaning by pitch. 

Some languages (like Korean and Farsi) require the native English-speaker to learn new and unfamiliar systems of writing.

As you’ve probably gathered from the above, much of the “difficulty” of any particular language is relative. Russian is a bit of a challenge is your native language is English. However, if your native language is Bulgarian (or if you’ve learned Bulgarian) then Russian is fairly easy. Portuguese is easy if you’ve first studied Spanish or Italian; but tricky if you only know English.

For our purposes, then, “difficulty” is largely a function of a language’s proximity to English. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Nor would you likely be surprised to learn that German is closer to English than Arabic or Thai (neither of which are related to English at all). But let’s examine these relationships (or lack thereof) a bit more systematically.

When you understand the concept of language families, you will be able to more easily estimate which languages will be easy for you to learn, and which will present more of a challenge. Most languages share common elements with at least one or two other languages. A language family is a group of languages that share common characteristics. Here are some of the major language families, and the principal languages within each family. 

Group #1: Closely related to English:

- Western Germanic: German, English, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish
- Scandinavian: Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic
- Romance: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Romanian, Italian

Group #2: Distantly related to English:

- Slavic: Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian
- Hellenic: Greek, Macedonian
- Indo-Iranian: Hindi, Urdu, Farsi (Persian)

Group# 3: Completely unrelated to English:

- Sino-Tibetan: Chinese, Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese
- Semitic: Hebrew, Arabic
- Altaic: Turkish, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian
- Dravidian: Tamil, Telegu
- Austronesian: Indonesian, Tagalog

For some readers, a close examination of the above three groups will yield some surprises. Perhaps you never suspected that Farsi (Persian)—the national language of Iran—is a distant cousin of English. But this is true. If you study Persian, you’ll be able to pick out a handful of words that are similar to English. For example, bad is bad in Persian. Brother is barâdar, etc. Because of the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages, Persian employs a variant of the Arabic script, so a page of written Persian looks completely extraterrestrial to native English-speakers. But Persian is actually family—albeit very distantly related family.

Within the Romance and German languages, there are even more similar words. Try to guess the meanings of the following German words: Apfel, Haus, April, Farm, harsch. You can figure them all out by reading them aloud (apple, house, April, farm, harsh). Many other German words are less obvious but very similar to their English equivalents: Helm = helmet, hängen = to hang, Vater = father.

You will also find many common elements between English and Spanish. (Care to guess the meanings of the Spanish words abrupto, acento, autor, or tigre?) Likewise, there are commonalities among the various romance languages. The Spanish words for “fish” and “box” are pescado and caja. In Portuguese, the words are peixe and caixa. There are also words that are similar across Portuguese, Spanish and English—like hospital, to cite just one example.

These close relationships between languages result from a variety of historical and geographic circumstances. (You probably noticed that many of the languages within the same family are spoken in neighboring countries.) In many cases, similar languages represent divergent branches of the same linguistic origin. 

This was definitely the case with the Romance languages, all of which are “degraded” forms of Latin. The Roman Empire originally imposed the same language—Latin—on its colonies in Gaul and Iberia. But today the ancient Latin that was originally spoken in these former Roman provinces has become the modern Romance languages of French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Latin found its way into English first through the Roman conquest of the ancient British Isles, then through the Norman (French) conquest of England in 1066. Latin was also the common language of Western Christendom for centuries.

This information will give you some basis for estimating which languages will be easier to learn—but there is more to the story. Although Russian is more closely related to English than Indonesian, Russian is a far more difficult language for native English-speakers to learn. While a language’s distance from English is a major factor in his level of difficulty, it is not the only factor.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is a branch of the U.S. government that is responsible for preparing American personnel who will be stationed overseas in diplomatic and other capacities. One aspect of this preparation is language training. The FSI conducts courses in more than 70 languages.

The FSI has also classified the major languages of the world according to difficulty. The following categorizations are loosely based on the FSI model, with some changes. (For example, I placed French, Portuguese and Hebrew in slightly more difficult categories than those in which the FSI places them.)

Group #1: Easy languages that are closely related to English: Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish

Group #2: Slightly more difficult languages that are closely related to English: German, French, Portuguese

Group #3: Easy languages not related to English: Indonesian, Tagalog, Malaysian, Swahili

Group #4: Moderately difficult languages not closely related to English: Bulgarian, Russian, Persian, Hindi, Turkish, Greek

Group #5: Difficult languages for native English-speakers: Thai, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian

Group #6: Most difficult languages for native English-speakers: Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Arabic, Korean

What should you take away from this list? An immediate observation might be that if you are a beginner, think hard before you start with a language in Group 6. And yes, this might be a case of me telling you, the reader, to do what I say, rather than what I do. Japanese—a Group 6 language—was the first one I learned well. 

(And in my case, this turned out to be a good decision. But I could have learned Spanish or French in half the time, and with half the effort.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Killer robots and the "day job"

Very few fiction writers achieve financial success overnight. This means that most of us have extensive experience with the dreaded "day job". 

Traditionally, the day job of choice for aspiring writers has been something in teaching--usually teaching English. 

A day job in teaching has many advantages for the would-be novelist: Educators have flexible work schedules. When you have the entire summer off, that gives you a big chunk of dedicated, pre-scheduled writing time. 

And if you teach English, your job involves books and literature. So even when you're "at work", you're spending time with something that you love.

Speaking of the "job" aspect:  While the educator certainly has a job to perform, the work environment in education is typically less stressful than average. (This is especially true for college professors.) Educational environments encourage contemplation, which is a big part of the writing process.

I should have gone into teaching. Masochist that I was, however, I majored in Economics and then went into the corporate world. I had to be different. 

I should have known better. Corporate environments are notoriously unfriendly to writer types: the stress, the conformity, the constant business travel. It is no accident that Fortune 500 corporations hire a lot more accounting majors than English literature majors. 

There is also the fact that most writers (myself included) don't like to take orders from other people. We aren't good "team players".

It wasn't all bad. I met some interesting people during my years in the corporate world, and had some valuable experiences. I also learned to apply business principles to my own life, which is a valuable skill for anyone to have. 

For the most part, though, I was the proverbial square peg in the round hole. My chances of rising to the level of senior management were roughly equivalent to my odds of winning the lottery.

However, my long slog through the world of cubicles, boardrooms, and factories (I spent most of my corporate days in the automotive industry) provided some unexpected returns. 

Many of my stories, like "The Vampires of Wallachia", have corporate themes and settings that appeal to non-literary types. I may not have been destined for the corner office, but I did learn about the corporate world from every conceivable angle. (I took business courses at the graduate level, too.) 

I believe that my unique background (as novelists go) shows up in my stories in the form of enhanced realism. I have insights that I simply couldn't have gained if I'd spent my pre-novelist career in the ivory tower of academia, teaching courses on Shakespeare and Modern American Literature. 

For example, my novel Termination Man is set in the automotive industry. While the companies and specific situations are fictional, the book draws extensively from my own experiences. I worked for a large automotive manufacture for 13 years. I spent additional years working for automotive components suppliers. Termination Man is fiction, but it reflects the reality of the automotive industry in many ways. 

Then there is my story "The Robots of Jericho". (Both stories are included in the collection, Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.) 

"The Robots of Jericho" is a long short story about industrial robots that come to life and go on a homicidal rampage inside a factory. While the premise of the story is fantastic, the setting of the tale is wholly realistic. A lot of mundane details about factories are embedded in this story. I believe that this element of "real life" facilitates the suspension of disbelief that is required for the reader to accept the story's supernatural elements.

The idea for "The Robots of Jericho" occurred to me about five years ago, when I was touring an automotive battery plant in northern Ohio. I was watching the robots move behind the safety cages, and they suddenly reminded me of the raptors in the Jurassic Park films. 
The rest of the story--including its more mundane human conflict--fell into place within a few weeks.  

Hopefully this post will encourage aspiring writers to see the "day job" from a new perspective. The day job is more than just a way to pay your bills until you succeed as a writer. The day job is also a source of story ideas.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesday Thomas Sowell quote

The inimitable Thomas Sowell on the social engineering and big-government initiatives of recent times:

“Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”  
– Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is probably my favorite economist, and definitely one of my favorite conservative writers overall.

Sowel, by the way, is no Glenn Beck. Sowell bases his arguments on data--not the wishful thinking of ideology, either rightwing or leftwing.

By the way, if you haven't read Sowell's Basic Economics, now would be an opportune time to correct this oversight. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lafcadio Hearn, the original Japanophile

Lafcadio Hearn
(1850 – 1904)

The Western Japanophile has become a common phenomenon. Many Americans, Europeans, and others get a taste of Japanese culture and become “hooked”. However, few Japan enthusiasts have been as dedicated or as passionate about Japan as Lafcadio Hearn was.

A Drifting Idealist

Hearn was a drifter who was looking for the ideal society. His search took him from Great Britain to America, and then to the West Indies. Unsatisfied, he decided to give Japan a try. He reached Japan in 1890, and he knew right away that he had found his paradise.

Hearn declared that “everything Japanese is delicate, exquisite, and beautiful.” He became obsessed with the culture of “old Japan”—its folklore, fine arts, and customs.

Ironically, the Japanese themselves were going through a period of self-disillusionment, in which they viewed the culture of “old Japan” as inferior to the culture of the West. Japan was rapidly changing, and Lafcadio Hearn believed that this was a tragedy. He was particularly dismayed by the transformation of Tokyo, which was beginning to look less like an Edo Era Japanese city, and more like a metropolis of Western Europe or America.

Hearn eventually married a Japanese woman, and even took a Japanese name. He turned his passion for Japan into books about the country, and became recognized in both Japan and the West as a skilled interpreter of Japanese culture.

Hearn lacked one important qualification that most Japan enthusiasts value: he never fully mastered the Japanese language. Although he learned to speak Japanese passably, a complete grasp of written Japanese eluded him all his life. At the time of his death, he was still unable to read a Japanese newspaper.   

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The eleven year-old who critiqued Charles Dickens

British author Charles Dickens adapted many of his works for public readings. In an age before television or radio, Dickens’ dramatic performances attracted huge crowds.

Dickens gave readings not only in his native England, but also in America. During once such American reading tour in 1867, Dickens fell into conversation with a young girl while aboard a train near Portland, Maine.

The eleven-year-old girl was extremely precocious. Not only was she familiar with Dickens’ books—she had no qualms about giving Dickens (by this time an internationally famous literary figure) frank feedback as a reader. While giving novels like David Copperfield and Great Expectations overall positive assessments, the young girl also informed Dickens of a few passages that were “boring”.

Far from being insulted or threatened, Dickens was delighted. He made notes of the girl’s comments. At the end of the train ride, Dickens took the young girl by the hand and escorted her to her parents—who were surprised to find their daughter on such familiar terms with the famous author.

The young girl was Kate Douglas Wiggin. In later life, she would become the author of a number of books, including the classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903).

Wiggin also wrote a memoir of her long conversation with the British author who was known as “the Inimitable”. Published in 1912, Wiggin’s memoir was entitled A Child's Journey with Dickens.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Under the rose

In Ancient Rome, the rose was a symbol of secrecy. Roses were often painted on the ceilings of banquet rooms, in fact, to remind everyone that what was said at these gatherings was confidential.

The Latin loanword sub rosa literally means, “under the rose”. It is used in English to indicate something that is secret or confidential—like the particulars of ancient Roman conversations said “under the rose.”

Consider the following usage example, from the 4/14/14 edition of The Weekly Standard.

Putin’s education from the Balkan wars may extend further. He apparently remembers what others choose not to recall: that the West did not aid Slovenia militarily, although the Slovenes defended themselves successfully; that Croatia was provided only with sub-rosa military assistance during its struggle; that Bill Clinton hesitated for three years, from 1992 to 1995, before acting in Bosnia-Herzegovina; that a vast crowd of Western media and political apologists recycled Serbian propaganda throughout the Balkan wars; that foreign political and military officials on the ground were prone to sympathize with the Serbs, allowing their atrocities to proceed unchecked.  

The word that gives prostitutes a bad name

Meretrix is a Latin word for prostitute. The adjective meretricious is based on a similar Latin term, meretricius, “of or pertaining to prostitutes”.

As is often the case, though, the Modern English usage of this Latin loanword is far from the original meaning. Meretricious primarily means, “based on pretense, deception, or insincerity”.

Usage examples:

meretricious claims
a meretricious argumenta meretricious documenta meretricious statement

Plain packaging of tobacco products is a useful means of combating the meretricious marketing of the Mad Men of the tobacco industry. –International IP and the Public Interest

This author from really likes the word meretricious—though he doesn't seem to like Republicans much.

“Nobody can deny that the Republicans have done a fine job spending millions of dollars on meretricious advertising to scare people into hating a law that those same people simultaneously love piecemeal. Nobody can deny that the Republicans have done a fine job spending millions of dollars on meretricious politics in order to define the entire ACA by its shoddy launch -- which was, I keep pointing out, almost nine months ago. Nobody can deny that they are staking their entire midterm election strategy on saddling the Democrats with a law that is working, relying on the perception that their meretricious advertising and meretricious politicking have created to convince people is not. Well done, consultants and ad people. Have another round on me.”

Meretricious can also mean “flashy” or “gaudy”, as in meretricious ornaments.
 “Sanders evokes the meretricious flashiness of the prototypical motor dealer in a manner that I do not think has ever been eclipsed in all the cinematic and televisual depictions of car dealers.” –Spear’s Magazine

Friday, March 6, 2015

Political fiction, and dystopias of the Right and Left

I recently finished reading Dan Simmons' novel, Flashback (Reagan Arthur, 2011). Flashback is a dystopian novel set in 2032. In Flashback, the America of twenty years hence is a crumbling former superpower plagued by pervasive drug addiction, rampant violence, economic depression, and social disintegration. 

Dan Simmons didn't write the world's first dystopian novel, of course. The dystopian novel has been around for years. However, Simmons' novel offers a uniquely contemporary--and controversial, for some readers--explanation for America's future decline. Consider some of the background information that is woven into the story:

- By 2032, America's national debt exceeds GDP by several times, due to decades of excessive spending on entitlement programs. The American dollar is practically worthless. 

- To acquire hard currency, the U.S. leases out its military to fight wars for India and Japan, which are the world's new leading economic powers. (China, in case you were wondering, has dissolved into civil war.)

- After years of open-border immigration policies in the American Southwest, California, New Mexico, and Arizona have partially rejoined Mexico. Texas is an independent republic. Politically, the United States is no longer a single country, but a collection of semi-affliated entities. 

- Radical Islam is the world's primary political/military threat. Muslim nations throughout the world have joined together in a new supranational structure call the Global Caliphate. 

- Canada and Western Europe are now largely under Islamic rule. 

- About ten years prior to the opening of the story, Iran destroyed Israel in a nuclear attack known as the Second Holocaust. 

- Another key element of the story (which I'll touch on only superficially for the sake of brevity) is drug addiction. The eponymous "flashback" is a new drug that allows users to re-experience happier times by deeply immersing themselves in their most treasured memories. In an America beset by contemporary despair, flashback abuse is pervasive: about 85% of Americans are addicted to the drug.  

These points are just the backstory. Flashback is primarily a murder/mystery tale, peopled by a memorable cast of characters. To be sure, the world of Flashback is dark and depressing; but it is also highly engrossing. Not only was this book a very enjoyable read, it also got me thinking about the nature of the dystopian novel. 

As you can likely extrapolate from the above summary, Flashback projects a world in which everything that the political Left treasures---entitlement programs, moral relevancy, appeasement of radical Islam, and top-down diversity programming--has resulted in the Worst Possible Scenario. Flashback is a fictional demonstration of the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the policies of the Left are clearly to blame in this future world gone awry. (Simmons even identifies the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the beginning of the American downfall.)

Although I happen to be a conservative myself, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Flashback is an apolitical book. This is a politically charged novel, and there is nothing accidental or subliminal about this. Simmons is clearly concerned about the present direction of America, and his concern is palpable throughout the story. While Flashback is not exactly Atlas Shrugged, it is a book with a strong and unequivocally conservative political message. 

But isn't fiction supposed to be apolitical? you ask. Not necessarily. Although writers who combine fiction and politics do risk alienating some readers, the basic idea is not exactly new. 

Nor must the political ideas expressed in novels be restricted to vague, safe platitudes like "war is bad," "all people are basically good." etc. Novelists sometimes strike hard at contemporary hot-button issues. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin with the express purpose of galvanizing abolitionist sentiments in the United States. Margaret Atwood penned The Handmaid's Tale as a vehicle for feminist ideology. 

Dystopian novels (novels that present some sort of worst-case projection of the future) are almost always political in tone, and most are sharply partisan. The aforementioned Handmaid's Tale is a classic example: It presents a future in which women are strictly controlled by rightwing male overlords--every woman's worst nightmare. The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985, long after the sexual revolution, feminism, and legalized abortion were commonplace. Some readers therefore questioned the plausibility of a near future world in which female sexuality would be subject to draconian male domination.

The best known dystopian novel, 1984, was written in 1948 by the British author George Orwell. In 1948 Josef Stalin ruled the USSR with an iron fist and threatened the freedom of Western Europe. In Orwell's novel, Stalin is clearly recognizable in the character of Big Brother. (Big Brother even sports a Stalinesque mustache.) 

Today, there is nothing particularly controversial about criticizing Josef Stalin. However, Stalin was popular among the leftwing intelligentsia of Orwell's time. In 1948 the full truth about Stalin's bloody purges were not widely known in the West. Orwell's thinly veiled denunciation of Stalin therefore went against the grain of left-leaning, elitist opinion. 

As you can see, then, dystopian novelists often have an unpopular or controversial message to sell. Which brings us back to Dan Simmons' novel. Flashback was written and published in an America in which roughly half of the population has demonstrated its agreement with Barack Obama at the ballot box. A novel that criticizes Obama's policies is therefore bound to draw fire. 

And Flashback did draw fire: Practically every 1-star review of the book criticizes the novel on political grounds, not on literary grounds. There are almost no unfavorable reviews of the plot, characterization, etc. Every 1-star reviewer is worked up about the fact that Simmons has written a politically incorrect, gauchely conservative novel. Here is a sample:

"Flashback is such a shameless and thinly veiled political and social treatise, which struts out every extreme ring-wing polemic and attributes the fall of the United States (and the rest of the world) in the next 30 years directly to the 2008 election of President Obama!"

"The ultra-conservative right-wing rant riddles the novel...offensive on many levels."

As I have noted, it is fair to call Flashback a political book, and a biased book, but no more so than Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1984, or The Handmaids Tale. It is also fair to note (as I previously have) that Simmons' projection is the Worst Case Scenario. Obamanomics will almost certainly have long-term negative consequences. But questions of degree and magnitude are open to debate. In other words, Obama's economic policies may or may not bring about the dissolution of the United States as we know it, and complete societal calamity. 

The world that Simmons depicts to make his point is no more hyperbolic than the world that Atwood presents to make her point. Does anyone really believe that there is any significant danger of the emergence of a patriarchal dictatorship like the one Atwood describes? Of course not; but that does not make the literary device invalid. Dystopian novels usually do rely on worst-case projections, and they are seldom intended to be subtle. 

Why then, did Flashback infuriate so many readers? For those on the far left side of the political spectrum, dystopian novels seem to be fine as long as the chief villains are Christian fundamentalist zealots, white supremacists, or male chauvinists--their traditional boogeymen. But to imply a future world wrecked by excessive government spending, radical Islam, and progressive social engineering upsets the orthodoxy of Democrat / liberal = good ; Republican / conservative = bad to which some left-leaning readers so obviously subscribe. 

Bottom line: Flashback is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. You may or may not agree with Simmons' predictions of the future; but his story is fast-paced, well crafted, and multilayered. To dismiss this book simply because it has a conservative political message is to ignore one of the twenty-first century's more creative dystopian novels.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thoughts about language skills and your resume

Some of you have asked for insights regarding how a foreign language can be useful for your career, and how foreign language skills should be described on a resume.

Here is an item to get you started: a lengthy quote from the book Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One

Language Skills and Your Resume

In order to land a better job with your language skills, you must first make potential employers aware of your skills. This naturally leads to another question: How should you describe your language skills on your resume?

Most resumes are divided into standard sections, such as “Experience”, “Education”, etc. Near the bottom of your resume, you should have a section entitled “Language Skills.” In this area, you will list the languages which you have studied, and your degree of accomplishment in each one. A sample “Language Skills” section might look like this:

Language Skills:

Spanish: Extremely proficient in the written and spoken language. In my current position, I utilize Spanish daily to conduct business and technical discussions.

German: Advanced proficiency in spoken and written German. I frequently utilize German to analyze product specifications from my company’s European suppliers.

French: Basic conversational skills and reading ability. I often travel to France to visit suppliers and attend key meetings.

As you can see, I prefer the term “extremely proficient” instead of the word “fluent” to describe your skills in a foreign language that you have truly mastered. To many readers, “fluent” applies only to a native speaker. The term “extremely proficient” informs the potential employer that you are functionally fluent in a language without making a claim to native fluency.

The above resume excerpt indicates that the applicant has extremely advanced skills in Spanish, moderately advanced skills in German, and basic skills in French. Always list your languages in the order of descending skill level. It is okay to list a language in which you presently have only basic skills. 

Be sure that your resume does not overstate your abilities. At some point, you will be asked to demonstrate your proficiency in the language. (In most of my past positions, a native speaker of at least one of the languages I had listed was present in the interview.) Therefore, exaggerating your abilities is not to your advantage in the long run.

Notice also that I have listed at least one business function which the applicant is presently performing with each language. She uses spoken and written Spanish as an integral part of her job. She uses her German reading skills to analyze product specifications. Even her basic French presumably comes in handy when she travels to France on business trips. It is important for you to explain how your language skills have made you a more effective professional.

You can also work your foreign language skills into the “objective” or “mission statement” that you place near the top of the resume:

“Seeking a challenging position in operations management, utilizing extensive global project management experience, and advanced Japanese and French language skills.”

“High volume industrial sales specialist, specializing in the Latin American market. Extremely proficient in Spanish and Portuguese.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Robert Olen Butler on fiction writing

Robert Olen Butler has always appealed to me for a variety of reasons.

First of all, as some of you may know, a few years ago I wrote a book on the importance of learning a foreign language. I am a language aficionado. Olen is also an accomplished language learner. He learned Vietnamese during the war years. (Olen's experiences in Vietnam color much of his fiction--especially his short stories.)

Butler also has some interesting things to say about the nature of fiction. For those who are intricately focused on the logical process of writing, some of his references to "the white-hot center" of a story, etc. may be a bit off-putting. Butler's central thesis is that you can't write from your consciousness---that fiction comes "from the place where we dream."  

Within the crowded field of the advice-to-aspiring-authors genre, Butler is less accessible than many others. He doesn't, for example, have much to say about the mechanics of outlining, plotting, etc.---all the things that standard fiction writing primers include as standard material. 

Nevertheless, Butler will give you some fresh insights regarding what fiction is---and how the idea for a new story should be discovered. If you haven't heard him before, your concepts of what fiction can accomplish will be expanded by what he has to say---- whether you are a writer or an avid reader (or both). 

I actually had my own Robert Olen Butler moment in 2010---when I discovered the grain of a story idea that eventually became Blood Flats

I was on a business trip, driving back from Alabama. The drive took me through Louisville, and the surrounding countryside of Kentucky. I looked out the window at some of the grittier parts of downtown Louisville, then later at the knob hill region around Bardstown. 

I had recently seen a documentary about the increase in meth trafficking in the American South. I imagined a conflict that involved meth trafficking, set in a little town among those knob hills. I also saw how some elements of such a story could take place in Louisville.

No---I didn't get the whole 184,000-word novel mentally completed on that trip; but I got the key ingredients of it: a recently discharged U.S. marine who comes home to rural Kentucky, only to find that his hometown has been taken over by meth traffickers.  The ex-marine (Lee McCabe) struggles not only with the criminals--but also with a sheriff who hates him, all because of a failed romantic relationship that took place more than two decades ago--before Lee McCabe was even born. 

Anyway, back to Robert Olen Butler: This video from YouTube is a long one; but it is worth your time. (Watch it in several sittings if you need to.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The upside of being fired from a bad job....

Sometimes an employment situation ends because of economic factors beyond anyone's control; but sometimes an employment situation ends because the job you hate also hates you back. 

This piece is not about getting laid off or "downsized"--but about getting fired.

I was fired from a miserable job twenty-two years ago next month, on April 2, 1993. It turned out to be the best career move I ever made. 

(As I've mentioned before, the workplace in my novel Termination Man is partially based on this long-ago job from hell.)

Key points:

1.) Being fired from a bad job can be a good thing. If you react positively and proactively, you can turn a firing into an opportunity to find a much more satisfying employment situation. (This is what happened to me in 1993.)

2.) A lot more people are fired than you might think. This is especially true in certain professions (like sales, for instance).

3.)  Don't think of the employment situation in paternalistic terms. You are an independent economic entity--just like your employer. The employment relationship is a business relationship, nothing more, nothing less. Your employer is not your spouse, government, parent, or religion. 

Sometimes business relationships end. Employees often choose to end employment relationships when they are dissatisfied with their employer. When an employee rejects an organization by quitting, very few companies regard this as a deep existential crisis. They find a replacement employee and move on. Simple as that.

In the same way, you need not be ashamed if an employer ditches you because the organization (or one particular boss) decides that you are not a "good fit." Politely tell them to go pound salt; and move on. 

Two exceptions are worth noting: 

- To be fired by one employer can be a fluke, nothing more than a case of a "bad fit;" and the problem may indeed be a toxic organization. On the other hand, if you seem to be fired by every employer---the problem is likely you

-  A firing for unethical conduct (ex: stealing) is rightly a source of shame---and not something for which you should blame the organization that fired you.

4.) If you have been fired, you need not broadcast this fact during job interviews. This is your business. Is a prospective employer going to spill the dirt about every ex-employee that rejected them by getting another job? Are they going to air their dirty laundry in an interview? I think not.... Remember: A job interview is a sales presentation--not a confession, in which you must feel obligated to bare your soul.

To close out this topic, let me leave you with a quote from Craig Walker, hero of the novel Termination Man:

"I’ve always believed that a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes it prevents an individual who is stuck in a dead-end job from spending the next ten or twenty years in a situation that is counterproductive for everyone involved. When a person is fired, a third party makes the decision that the fired person should have made for himself." 

Microeconomics and price theory

Question from a reader:

"Dear Ed: What is the difference between microeconomics and price theory?"

Price theory is an integral part of microeconomics. In fact, price theory is sometimes used as an alternative name for microeconomics.

This is not immediately intuitive for most people, until you look more closely at what microeconomics actually is.

The word microeconomics is derived from the Greek word mikros, which means “small”.

Microeconomics is the branch of economics that deals with individual economic units. This means not only individual consumers, but also savers, workers, firms, specific industries, and even markets. 

Don’t get too hung up on the idea of microeconomics referring to “small” things. Many of the outcomes that it examines are, in fact, quite large and significant. Microeconomics, though, looks at these large factors from “the ground up”—at how these factors are determined and influenced by the decisions of individual economic entities.

In most cases, economic outcomes are the result of many decisions by many economic entities—be those entities firms, consumers, or the holders of bank accounts. (Again, the term micro- should not be misunderstood.)

Almost every economic outcome is heavily influenced by prices. If gasoline is cheaper, more will be consumed. When the government limits the price of a good, firms produce less of it, and shortages result.

The centrality of prices to microeconomic decision-making (and larger microeconomic outcomes) is the reason for the term price theory.