The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.

Three lessons learned from Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing by Stephen King is much more of a memoir than I anticipated. I expected it to be more prescriptive, like many of the books on writing that I’ve read. But King had a different lesson in mind. He decided to show how his life had shaped his writing, and vice versa.

King does offer some instruction on writing in the latter half of the book. I took away three key lessons from it.

1. The first draft is for you.  The second draft should be for everyone else. King says he learned this approach as a teenager from his first newspaper editor, who told him: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and I know this lesson well. Reading it in King’s book was a good reinforcement. Every piece of writing I have ever done has begun as a story I told to myself. I think that’s my favorite part of the process — getting the story out there so that I can enjoy it. I admire the heart of the story. I enjoy the turns of phrase. I stuff in every bit of information I have that I think is interesting.

When I’m done, I read it as a reader, not  a writer. The second draft is for everyone. Maybe a turn of phrase is too florid for someone who isn’t particularly impressed with my writing skills. I take that out. I notice some repetition of an idea or information, so I make some cuts. I examine whether my reader will have any unanswered questions. I ask myself if I’ve given the reader a reason to start and finish the story. As King says in this book, you write the first draft with your door closed. The story is just for you. Then you open the door upon starting the second draft, because after that the story belongs to the whole world.

2.  Fear is a writer’s enemy. King writes: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I’ve seen my fair share of bad writing. Some of the worst writing has come from writers who had no confidence in their abilities. They assumed that whatever they wrote was going to be terrible. And they fulfilled that prophecy.

King points out that overuse of the passive voice, for instance, comes from a writer’s timidity. The writer is fearful of asserting an idea too strongly. He or she backs into ideas or actions rather than boldly laying them out for the reader. The timid writer writes “Joe was shaken by his own quick decision to shoot the guy” rather than “Joe shot the guy and trembled.”

The same goes for turgid prose. Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Reaching for cliches rather than coming up with something original. Writers do this when they think their writing is plain or dull. But a confident writer can pen lean prose that rivets an audience. Any inexperienced or tentative writer should approach the second draft of a story with the intention of cutting 50% of all their adverbs and adjectives. Replace adverbs with more descriptive verbs and nouns. Those are the most powerful words in any sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are like perfume. Too much will give you a headache.

3. A good story with good characters beats everything else. This sounds simple, so let me quote King: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

What does this mean to me? It’s not the gimmicks that really matter. Genre writers might be able to catch some eyeballs with some fabulous world-building, cool magic systems, and awesome technology. But in the end, readers want good characters that they can relate to and care about. And they want a story that pulls them along.

With that in mind, you should try to put a something real into all of your characters. Give them a piece of you or a piece of someone you love. Or someone you hate.  You don’t have to make your characters analogs of yourself. Every human being is complicated by thousands of memories and feelings and fears and desires. Just give one or two of those things to your characters. Yearning for a lost love. A desire to rise to the top in a career. A fear of heights. A weakness for cookies. These things make characters human. And you’ll find it easier to add other traits and quirks to them that don’t necessarily come from you.

Once those characters come alive, the story also comes alive. Whatever your characters want will drive the story.

4. King had another lesson related to the one about a good story, a lesson I disagree with. He says plotting isn’t important. Character and situation is important. Put a good character in a situation that they need to get out of and the story will come. Apparently that is King’s approach to writing his gigantic novels. Obviously it works for him. He’s made a fortune with it. Others subscribe to this approach, too.

I can’t operate that way. I do build characters and I do put them into situations. But I also need to have a plan. Otherwise, I get stuck. I don’t have to start with that plan, but ultimately I need to have it. I need to map the plot to some extent. Thousands of other writers agree with me, so I won’t bother to argue the point.  Some writers are gardeners and others are architects, or as Chuck Wendig would say: Some people are plotters and some are pantsers (i.e. seat of their pants).

The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.

Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

Muse & the Marketplace takeaway: Novel revision time

So I went to my first Muse and the Marketplace, the annual writing conference held in Boston by the wonderful nonprofit Grub Street. This was a big event for me because I had signed up for the show’s Manuscript Mart. The Mart is a unique feature of the conference where writers can sign up for meetings with literary agents and book editors who have donated their time. The agents and editors will read 20 pages of your manuscript and a synopsis ahead of the show and then sit down with you for 20 minutes.

I signed up for a meeting with an agent and an editor at a major press and sent them the first 20 pages of the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since December (95,000 words written so far).

The meetings happened yesterday, and they were productive but painful. Long story short, although I have good ideas, my synopsis revealed some holes. I need to re-plot the book. I also need to rethink my character arcs. My beta readers love my characters and other aspects of my writing, but this editor and this agent saw past that. They wanted to see more depth. They wanted my characters to have more at stake.

Bottom line, a character can be well-rounded and interesting, but that’s not enough. They must have a wound that drives them. They should be striving to regain something they lost. Or they should be seeking to right a wrong that was done to them. They should be trying to restore order in their lives after something has upended everything.

I thought I was doing these things with my characters, but it’s clear to me that I need to do more. I need to raise the stakes.

For a few minutes I came away from these meetings discouraged, but as I drank a beer with a bunch of other writers (including my mom), all I wanted to do was go home and write. I had the urge to revise.

The manuscript I have was only 75% done, but I’m not going to finish it. Not yet. I’m going back to the beginning. I’m going to rip pages a part and revise. I can’t go any further into this book until I’ve gotten the first few acts just write. I need to make sure I have a good story before I finish it. I’ve spent a few hours on it so far. The first chapter is gone. Important elements of it have been integrated into subsequent chapters.

I’m also digging deeper into the inner lives of my characters, seeking out their pain and disappointment, they hopes and dreams. I’m going to pull it all out of them and make them desperate to push my plot forward.

Here’s how the book starts now:

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was from, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel swollen with life. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains,  which marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish that far north were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Villiard knew the river well. Downstream from its headwaters, it carved through the great Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket, watering crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where he had grown up. As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, it was throttled by  Vaydeenum. Here in this city the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood.

He could could smell the rotten stink of river choking to death on the foulness of the city that he now called home. As he saw the rotten, dead things float by, he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart.

Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After long days of working in fields he had drunk from the Weiss.  He led herds of sheep to the river to water them. But this city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Zombies and politicians, Oh My! Mira Grant’s Feed

Have you ever forced yourself to finish a terrible book just to confirm to yourself that you are right: It really is terrible?

I picked up Feed by Mira Grant after it scored a Hugo nomination and a lot of good buzz from the science fiction press. It featured an intriguing premise: A political thriller set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of a blogger/journalist. I love politics, I’m a journalist, and I’ve recently renewed my interest in zombie literature after becoming a fan of The Walking Dead comic. So, I thought I’d enjoy Feed.

Unfortunately the experience of reading this book is like a clinic on how NOT to write a book. I suffered through all 571 pages primarily to emphasize to myself what I should avoid in my own writing.

Let’s start with the exposition. The information dump is the most treacherous trap in genre fiction writing. When you are building a world and placing your characters in it, you have to explain how that world works, whether it be some alien world, a sword and sorcery kingdom or a zombie-infested United States. The best authors do this efficiently and with subtlety. Mira Grant does not.

Her narrator dumps information relentlessly. She dumps info on everything. The nature of the zombie virus, the complicated and absurdly unbelievable mechanics of the blogging industry in her future, the process of earning a license to go out in the wilds of a zombie-infested world, the construction of zombie-proof buildings and vehicles, the laws about how to handle people who have been infected.

It seems like Mira Grant is more interested in information dumps than she is in telling a story, because when she does set out to tell the story between information dumps, almost nothing happens. There’s a scene late in the book where the narrator is setting up a video conference session with dozens of fellow bloggers to discuss a huge conspiracy. She devotes pages and pages to the details involved in setting up the conference call and securing it and getting everyone into the call. Then the video session commences and NOTHING HAPPENS. Seriously, you’re expecting her to tell her colleagues something interesting. She doesn’t. She fires everyone, then rehires them in some sort of contractual procedural madness that doesn’t matter to the plot. Then she pulls a couple people aside for some one-on-one discussions that, again, involve nothing interesting. I was expecting some plot advancement. In the end, all there was were empty dialog and information dumps. End of chapter.

What’s a good way to get a story going if you’re struggling with your plot and need to get out of information dump mode? How about some dialog? Mira Grant doesn’t know how to write dialog. Her main characters are bloggers in their early, early 20s (youth is fetishized intensely in this book). The main characters, narrator Georgia Mason,  her brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy are all kids. And they are all extremely unlikable. Mira Grant believes that snarky repartee makes for good dialog and character development. She is dead wrong. Get it? Dead.

Here are Georgia and Shaun and colleague Rick investigating the cause of a zombie horse outbreak at a ranch:

If anything odd happened here, we might find signs of it around their stalls,” [I said].

Under the six hundred gallons of gore,” Rick muttered.

Hope you brought a shovel!” Shaun called, sounding ungodly cheerful.

Rick stared at him. “Your brother is an alien.”

“Yeah, but he’s a cute one,” I said. “Start checking the stalls.”

And here are Georgia, Shaun and Rick reflecting on a tense encounter with soldiers pointing big guns at them.

“That really upset you, didn’t it?” [Shaun asked.]

“What, you mean the part where the nice guys with the big guns demonstrated over a live feed that I can be incapacitated by taking my glasses away? That didn’t bother me one bit.” I shoved Shaun’s feet off my lap. “Sit up. This isn’t a cruise.”

“Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” said Shaun, pushing himself upright. Twisting around to face Rick, he said, “So, Ricky-boy, you seen your ratings? Because I have some ideas to spice things up. Let’s start with nudity.”

Don’t you just want to spend 571 pages with these people? Cocky, pseudo-journalists who don’t report the news. All they do is self-aggrandize and editorialize and toss impersonal snark back and forth. The reader knows this because every chapter is book-ended with excerpts from their blogs. Ugh.

Next problem? Repetition! In a world where fears of viral zombification are constant, everyone is constantly getting their blood tested to prove that they’re not about to go undead. Entering a restaurant? Blood test. Checking into a hotel? Blood test. Entering your own house? Blood test. Unlocking the door to your car? Blood test? Entering a highly secure area? Blood test, blood test, blood test. That’s right, multiple blood test check points, where the character gets their fingers pricked by a needle and light flashes back and forth from red and green before settling on a color (Hint, red is bad. It means a bullet to the brain).

After the first few chapters, the reader is clear. Blood tests are everywhere. After 400 pages, I don’t need the author to devote a page or two in every chapter to the details of every blood test. I don’t need the narrator describing the different brands of blood test kits. Let’s give it a rest. Get to the story. Oh, that’s right, there is NO story.

The repetition doesn’t start and end there, either. Don’t get me started about narrator Georgia’s medical condition, related to the zombie virus, which has rendered her pupils permanently dilated and forced her to wear sunglasses everywhere. Rather than have nightmares about hungry zombies, I’m going to have nightmares about the countless pages devoted to Georgia’s light-induced headaches, moments where she gropes around for her sunglasses in the morning, and misunderstandings at security checkpoints where dudes with guns demand that she remove her sunglasses. Please, make it stop!

I could go on with the reasons why this book falls on its face… like its horrible inconsistencies. For instances, Georgia’s eye condition has disabled her tear ducts, which means she can’t cry with tears. She even remarks late in the book about how she wishes she could cry, but the virus that damaged her eyes have robbed her of that. How poignant… and yet, in the middle of the book she does cry. With real, live tears and everything. Anyway, moving on. Let’s get to the heart of why this book is a whole lot of suck.

There is no payoff. You suffer through all this mediocrity expecting to see some sort of revelation that is mildly interesting, but there isn’t one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

This book is about a muddled, half-developed conspiracy. Georgia and Shaun and their follow bloggers are part of the press corps traveling with a front-running candidate for the GOP nomination for president, Senator Ryman. He’s an aw-shucks, down-to-earth, country boy with “straight white teeth,” who is about as one-dimensional as a line on a sheet of paper. His eventual running mate is Governor Tate of Texas. This guy might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead.

The book turns into a quest to find out why someone is trying to assassinate Ryman and/or derail his campaign by murdering the people around him — murder them with ZOMBIES!. Of course the bad guy is Tate, the asshole running mate who spouts off constantly about propriety and morality and God all the time… all while being really really really mean to Georgia and her fellow dirty bloggers. Any reader who is spoiled by the previous sentence should really get a blood test for the zombie virus, because you are BRAIN DEAD.

Anyway, in this book it’s up to Shaun and Georgia to discover he’s the bad guy and prove it. Why the CDC, the Army, the Secret Service and just about anyone with half a brain missed the obvious clues is beyond me. At one point a clue literally gets stuck in the bottom of Shaun’s shoe. No joke!

Even worse, when the bad guy (Tate) is confronted and revealed, his only explanation for why he was trying to kill Ryman and do assorted other bad things was to say that someone had to restore the “moral fiber” of America. Oh, please. Don’t we hear enough of this stupidity on MSNBC and Fox News?

Oh, and did I mention that this is the first book in a sequel about bloggers in zombie apocalypse? The next one is called Deadline, in which our surviving heroes seek out the conspirators who helped Tate do all his dastardly deeds.

This book is awful. After I read it, I tried to find some reviews. I’d only heard glowing endorsements, so I needed to dig deeper. I’ve been shocked by the majority of reviews that rave about it (mostly blogs and genre sites since no mainstream reviewing bodies have bothered to touch it). User reviewers are mostly positive, too. Probably 80% of Amazon reviewers gave it four or five stars. This is where you need to look hard at the bad reviews. The one- and two-star reviews. Read them closely and see if the complaints made by disgruntled readers (like me) are reasonable.

Don’t believe the hype on this one. Feed is terrible. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone, even a diehard zombie fiction fanboy. Just don’t do it to yourself.

Read on the street: Winning over the ladies

Here we have a proudly owned Ford truck with a modestly lifted suspension. It’s parked in a Whole Foods lot. Yes, a Whole Foods lot. Not exactly the typical ride of that store’s clientele, but here it is. We encountered it there after doing a little bit of late-night shopping following a trip to the local movie theater.

I decided to share this classic ride here in the inaugural post in a series I’ll be doing on this blog on interesting and ridiculous things I’ve read while walking the Earth.  What’s there to read on this truck, you ask?

Let’s take a closer look.

Isn’t that classy? I imagine this guy is a heterosexual, and his ultimate goal is to find a girlfriend, wife, or some other female companion. If so, someone needs to tell him that he’s doing it wrong.

What self-respecting woman would step up into a truck with that trash stenciled on it? None, most likely. In fact, only a woman with no self-respect would ride in this rolling travesty.

Long story short, this guy ain’t winning over many ladies with this truck, at least no ladies with a minimum of half a brain and a hint of dignity.

How to know when you’re reading crap: Cooks Source

There’s not much to add to the whole Cooks Source debacle-phenomenon. But I do have a funny little coda. First, let’s rehash.

In case you have been away from the Interwebs for a few days, here’s the quick version.

  1. Writer Monica Gaudio learned that an article she wrote about the medieval origin of apple pie had been printed with her name on it but without her permission or her knowledge in a free, advertising-supported weekly publication called Cooks Source.
  2. Monica contacted the editor of Cooks Source requesting a published apology for the act of plagiarism and a small donation ($130) to the Columbia School of Journalism.
  3. Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs declined to make amends and instead emailed this gem to Monica:

But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”

photo by Len Rizzi (public domain)

Clearly Ms. Griggs was operating under a poor interpretation of modern copyright laws. From here the story blew up. People like Scifi writer/editor John Scalzi blogged about it and author Neil Gaiman tweeted about it to his 1.5 million Twitter followers. From there, the Internet attacked. Cooks Source’s Facebook page became a flame-war pig pile. Vengeful spirits called the rag’s advertisers ordering them to pull their ads. Folks hammered Cooks Source’s office with angry voicemails. The discussion board on Cooks Source’s Facebook page became a an investigative thread where hundreds of people hunted down the sources of other articles, recipes and images the magazine has stolen over the years. It had ripped off the likes of NPR, Disney, Martha Steward and the Food Network. It’s safe to say that Cooks Source is dead and gone. Judith Griggs probably just hasn’t realized it yet.

Which leads to my tiny contribution! This week my girlfriend was away at a conference in Springfield, Mass. I drove out Friday night to meet up with her and we had dinner in Amherst. Over dinner she asked me if she had missed anything interesting going on in the world while she was in “conference mode.” I thought about the election, about that Quantas jet blowing an engine, and about that whole Randy Moss drama.

But then I realized, Cooks Source’s downfall was the most interesting thing I could think of. So I told her all about it. We had a good laugh over the whole mess. After dinner, as we were walking out of the pub, I noticed a rack of free local publications next to the exit. And what should be sitting in the midst of all those free publications? Why, Cooks Source, of course! “A Publication for Food Lovers of Western New England,” according to the tag line on the front cover of this cheap tabloid-style “magazine,” which is printed on newspaper stock.

I decided to peruse the publication. I found the lifted article that Monica Gaudio had written. As I studied page by page of the magazine, there were signs everywhere that the publisher of this rag was playing fast and loose with copyrights. None of the images in the thing had any sort of credits attached. Photos, images of medieval paintings: these things have sources. A photographer always gets a photo credit. An image of a painting usually includes a credit for a museum or gallery. But in Cooks Source, not a single one has a credit.

Another thing that caught my eye: The magazine doesn’t really have any masthead. No names, no accountability. Who’s the publisher of this ting? Who’s the editor? There’s only an anonymous PO Box and email address (cookssource@gmail.com).

Next, I noticed the table of contents page is very thin on details. It displays the names of all the articles, but not the author’s names. That’s a little fishy to me. And if you flip to the articles (Monica’s included), there’s no information on any of the authors. Just a name. No contact details, no bio. Usually contributing writers get to promote themselves a little in a magazine like this.

All of these details should set off alarm bells to readers and advertisers alike. This magazine has been flouting the copyrights of dozens of individuals and companies for years, and people should have noticed before today. This publication is a piece of trash that has profited through theft for years and someone with a good eye should have noticed it long ago.

Finally, here’s your daily does of irony. The flimsy masthead information in the printed edition starts off with this little gem:

Cooks Source is a monthly publication dedicated to the news and knowledge of foods in Western New England. It is produced by Cooks Source Publications and is copy-right (sic) protected, and may not be reproduced without permission of the publisher.

(Emphasis mine).

Learning the value of book reviews

I’ve never been a big reader of book reviews. I suppose I’d rather spend my time reading books than reading about them.  Reading a bad review can obviously  save you from reading a bad book. However, it can also prevent you from reading a flawed book that is frustrating  but also rewarding in some small way. Had I read this New York Times review or this Washington Post review of Chronic City, the latest novel from Jonathan Lethem, I might have avoided reading it. Instead, I bought Chronic City without reservation. I knew the reader’s work well and assumed I would enjoy it. I was wrong. I hated reading this book. But I’m also glad I did. How is that possible?

Since I first encountered Lethem more than 11 years ago, I’ve always felt a special connection with his work. When I read Motherless Brooklyn I was living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood – the very same couple of blocks of Cobble Hill – where the book takes place. The protagonist, Lionel Essrog and his mentor Frank Minna had their private detective’s office on the same block of Bergen Street that I walked  every day on my way to the F train, which I took to Manhattan for my daily commute to work. I loved living in Cobble Hill and I loved that book. I had also always been a fan of post-modern detective fiction, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which Lethem’s novel seemed to evoke.

Several years after I read Motherless Brooklyn, and long after I had left New York, I read his other great Brooklyn novel, The Fortress of Solitude. This book was even better. More complex characters, a more thought-provoking plot. So I didn’t hesitate to read Chronic City. Had I known what I was in for, I might have paused.

If you have read the reviews I linked to above, you have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Chronic City is a deeply flawed novel. The word “tedious” comes up a lot in many reviews. I did not enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it down because of my loyalty to the author. The reviewers were right. This is a tedious book. It lacks any plot, which I find essential for any novel despite what some more experimental or avant-garde authors may argue.  I also hated most of the characters. The main protagonist and primary narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a cipher with a ridiculous name. He’s a former child television star who is living off residuals from his one big sitcom, living in a dreamlike Manhattan where he does nothing but go to dinner parties hosted by old money and nouveau riche New Yorkers. He enters a new phase in his life when he meets and starts palling around with Perkus Tooth, an obsessive and (I think) slightly autistic pop culture critic who spends most of the novel smoking pot, obsessing over some vases he’s found on eBay, and looking for profundity in pop culture detritus such as old Twilight Zone episodes and Marlon Brando movies. Chronic City is mostly about these two characters and the friendship they develop: Chase the cipher, who lacks any real sense of self through most of the book, and Perkus, who is the type of person I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life, let alone for 467 pages of drug-fueled paranoia and pseudo-intellectual masturbation.

Despite the frustration I felt reading Chronic City and despite the book’s many failings, I’m also glad I finished it. I soldiered on, and over the last 80 pages it enthralled me. Here  Lethem stopped letting his annoying and cartoonish characters chew up scenery and wax on about inane subjects that none of us care about. Instead, Lethem introduced a crisis into the characters’ lives. He also ultimately unveiled several very interesting truths about the main characters, the New York City they were living in, and why many of their paranoid fantasies and the nagging sense of alienation they felt were extremely justified. I found myself loving those last 80 pages. But they didn’t make up for the 400 pages that I suffered through before that.

It’s no small coincidence that the book started to get good at the point where Perkus Tooth is forced out of his apartment and ends up squatting into an apartment complex for dogs. Yes, dogs. In one of Lethem’s precious flourishes, he’s created an apartment complex which some rich woman’s estate had paid to convert into something of a shelter for homeless dogs. The apartments are made up to look like human habitations, giving the dogs a sense that they are not in a kennel but in a home… and perhaps their masters will be home soon to take them for a walk. Perkus takes up residence with a dog named Ava, and the whole book takes a turn for the better. This is where the characters come into focus after spending hundreds of pages chattering about nothing at all. Instead ideas that they had alluded to in passing, such as a cloud that covers much of lower Manhattan (a reference to 9/11), start to take on some meaning.

I say it’s no coincidence that the book picks up steam at this point because the chapter in which Perkus moves in with the dogs was published as a short story in the New Yorker. I’ve also read several references that a short story about Perkus Tooth originally appeared in an anthology before Lethem expanded it into a novel. I haven’t read the anthology, but my sense is that Lethem originally wrote an inspired and excellent short story. He should have left it at that. Instead he expanded it into Chronic City and added a new narrator (Chase Insteadman, who is only a minor character in the original short story).

So, I hated reading this book, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The book reviews I referenced were dead on. This is a tedious book that lacks plot and is stuffed with annoying characters. BUT, the last 80 pages are good reading… just not good enough to make up for the first 400. That’s why I hated reading this book but found myself happy that I stuck around until the end so that I could find that little nugget of goodness hidden under hundreds of pages of ill-conceived and mediocre execution.