Friday, August 31, 2018


I drifted away from our monthly writer's group discussion about people hearing things differently than a writer intended. I didn't physically leave, of course, but I may as well have been on Mars. My memory rudely inserted the anxiety I felt once when I impulsively spent eight hundred dollars on stereo equipment that I certainly didn't need. I was as detached from the writer's meeting as if I had fallen asleep. For some odd reason, my muse wasn't interested in the writing being reviewed, and some oral comment or critique I heard during the meeting shut down my normal brain function and I was suddenly in my own world, my mind vividly filled with apprehension from the unexpected - and quite rudely inserted - memory from years ago. My muse had abandoned me.

Memory has a way of being kind, or at least kinder than reality, and the excitement of having two close friends stop by after work to listen to my new, expensive, pride and joy speakers gradually slipped in to displace the anxiety I felt when I spent over a month's take-home pay on a whim. Back then, our stereos were the pinnacle of home entertainment back when direct-drive turntables, cobra-style tonearms and Shure V-15 type 3 cartridges were the mark of excellence in personal taste and audiophile distinction.

The purchase of the stereo components I had dreamed of for years - a pair of JBL Century 100 speakers - didn't come from our meager budget, but from an unexpected financial windfall that was the benefit from a brutal stretch of overtime work that upset our family routine and even affected our relationship. I was rarely home during that miserable period, working sixteen hour days and even once spent twenty-four hours, without interruption – not even for foodon one service call. When I received my first large overtime check, I splurged on the JBL speakers that I still have.  My wife supported my desire to buy the speakers as a just reward for both of us enduring the tumultuous time.

I carefully “balanced” the new speakers per the instructions I saved from Stereo Magazine, measuring the distance between the speakers, taking into consideration the drapes and carpet, and listening to professionally mastered records that carefully reproduced the exotic sounds required to adjust my Marantz 200 watt stereo receiver to the new, space dominating speakers.

Paul stopped by first, parking his custom-turbocharged Datsun 280Z in the driveway. Money was no object to Paul in his quest for perfection, and his taste in stereo sound was impeccable.

Hmm,” he said, standing dead center between the speakers. “Try Allan Parson’s Pyramid. That’s a great one to test with.”

I carefully played the first cut on the “A” side, then waited for Paul’s profound analysis.
They sound really, really good, George, but you need to crank up the bass a little. The sound just isn’t full enough.”

After Paul left, my wife – who thought the settings were perfect – asked if I was going to change the bass settings.

No,” I replied. “I think it sounds great the way it is.”

Not twenty minutes after Paul left, Bob pulled up. Bob was another single friend who was also a renowned audiophile. His LP collection was stunning in its own right. I respected Bob’s opinion as highly as I regarded Paul’s.

Standing in the very same spot Paul had stood an hour earlier, listening to the same Alan Parson’s album, at exactly the same volume and adjustment, Bob quietly pondered the music.
Well, George, they really, really sound great, but there’s way too much bass. They sound ‘boomy’.”

The room slowly came back into focus and I once again heard voices discussing the merits of something or other. Someone’s writing was still being discussed. I carefully glanced around the room. The moderator was telling a new group member to take critiques with a grain of salt as everyone hears things differently. No two people interpret the same thing the same way.

I couldn’t help think how true. And not with just writing.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Dirty Secrets of a Writers Group

I posted a blog for the Sarasota Writers Group back in 2014 that I recently updated and "tuned."  I hadn't posted it on my own blog before, so I decided to post the updated version here.


Dirty Secrets of a Writers Group

As George Collias reminds us from Earnest Hemingway: "Write drunk, edit sober,"
Or was it Dylan Thomas? I don't remember.

Thinking of writing that book that has been buzzing in your head, but don't know where to start? Google "Writing your first book" and you'll find around 690,000,000 hits, some of which may even be useful. Helping new writers is big, big business.

You may come across the suggestion to join a writers group. Helping writers of all ages and genres is a basic premise of most writer's groups, many of which are listed in the Arts and Entertainment section of your Sunday newspaper. Internet searches show local writers groups and most public libraries can usually point you to a writers group in your area as well. Writers groups usually welcome new writers with enthusiasm and understanding, they are glad to see you taking that first step.

While you will welcomed by the members of a writers group, do not expect them – almost all of whom have other day jobs – to dedicate their priceless time at a writers group meeting just for you, at least not more than once. Almost everyone in a writers group will help a new writer as best they can, from writing and editing, to proofreading and suggestions about publication. A new member may even find a mentor who will take them under their wing. However, if you are looking for free editing for your book or novel, you're wasting their time and yours as well.

Writers groups vary in their format, with some groups welcoming all writing while others are designed for a specific genre such as poetry or novels or non-fiction narrative. Don't expect in-depth discussion of your historical fiction novel at a poetry writers group. A good writers group will help define the writing process and help develop the mechanical and technical skills that allows new writers express themselves while understanding most writers do not have a bachelor's degree in English or a Masters in Fine Arts.

Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For English Class

I was once told a writer who doesn't have a grasp of grammar is like a color-blind person trying to paint a portrait. If you are offended when someone points out spelling errors in your manuscript, or your grammar is horrendous, you might want to try something besides writing, Unless, of course, you have a really great friend who likes to edit. A good dictionary will do wonders for your acceptance in a writers group. If you don't bother with spell checking, you're off to a bad start unless you are a really gifted story-teller. You don't have to be a great typist to be a writer. A few writers I know still write in longhand and have someone else transcribe their work. Often that typist is also an editor of some sort.

I’ve found several writers groups that minutely dissect pre-submitted writings. Each group member gives his or her critique, allowing the writer the final few minutes to defend or explain their writing. I’ve found the defense is usually embarrassing or frustrating for the writer, who almost always thanks the group for their honest opinions, then never show up again. I find these meetings offer little in the way of inspiration or encouragement. William K. Zinsser, in the introduction to the 7th edition of his revised and updated "On Writing Well" writes: "My concerns as a teacher have also shifted. I'm more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing – confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity – and I've written new chapters on those values."

Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For Professional Counseling

There isn't much sympathy in most writer's groups for personal or political vendettas, e.g., it was all his/her fault and the world needs to know what a bad person he/she really is and you all are going to sit here while I read chapter after chapter of this agonizing diatribe. Many writers get that personal story off their chests and find they don't have a second book in them, which leads to the question; Why do you want to write? Are you telling a story? A personal memoir or an autobiography? Are you planning on making a fortune writing? Well, good luck, I know hundreds of writers but only a few who call it a profession. So, whom are you writing for? Who is your target audience?

If you are writing an autobiography, which is the usual genre for new writers, there are only two scenarios for your looming masterpiece: A; You are already famous and people may actually buy the autobiography, or, B; You are just like the rest of us and nobody cares. If you fall into the first category, you probably don't need a writers group, your book will probably grabbed by a publishing house. If you fall into the second category, however, the writers group probably doesn't want to read it. They’ll help you write it, and they’ll do their best to encourage you, but don’t expect to impress a seasoned group of writers enough to make them want to hear all your details. You may find even your relatives won't read your manuscript. They will tell you they will read it when they get a chance, but they won't, although they may skim through it to see what you wrote about them.

The best advice for new writers is to finish your autobiography and put it on a thumb-drive. Put it away until you're famous and can update it. Now sit down and write for fun, write because you enjoy writing. Write because you have a story to tell, you know, the one you have been thinking about for years. Then bring it to a writers group and read it out loud in front of people you don't know. New writers are often cloaked by intimidation or insecurities as they venture into an unfamiliar world that glaringly exposes their shortcomings and lack of experience. That bravado usually crumbles quickly in front of a writers group. You may want at least a warm, comfortable feeling with the group before exposing your soul, but when you do read in front of a writer’s group read only enough to make them want to hear more.

Many writers will at one time or another inadvertently revert to writing about personal experiences. The memories are often painful and unexpectedly personal. Writing is often cathartic, especially for new writers. While an insensitive writer's group might dampen a new writer's candid honesty, most members understand the self-discovery process. Shared experiences can become part of the camaraderie of a writers group, but don't overdo it. Constant repetition of personal problems is a sure way to shut off a receptive group of listeners anywhere, much less a writers group.

Make Them Beg For More, Not Mercy

I had the pleasure of watching members develop and grow into marvelously entertaining writers during the several years I was the Sarasota Writers Group Leader for the Florida Writers Association. However, I've also watched people attend several meetings, then drop off, either discouraged or disappointed in what they found, or in some cases, what they didn't find.

I have been asked what the difference is between a writer and an author. I've been told that authors have published books. I argue many books by celebrity authors are actually written by ghost writers. To me, an author is the visionary or creator of an idea to be conveyed, while the writer is the conveyor of that vision or concept to print. It follows that most authors are writers. A writer may do journals, blogs, newspaper columns, or magazine articles or any other form of written communication. A writer to me is someone who puts words into print to convey thought.

­You are displaying your descriptive powers, or your wit, to a group of like minded individuals asking for their response. There isn't enough time at any meeting to listen to more than five hundred words or several pages of material from any one writer unless it is a special writing. It only takes several hundred words to appreciate a writing style or the dialog between characters. Listening to someone read page after page of their own work can be like listening to a children’s violin recital.

I have watched people join our writer's group and grow beyond their expectations, and conversely, I've seen talented writers drop by the wayside, discouraged or disappointed with their work. Many new writers take critique of their writing as criticism, and unfortunately, depending on the critiquer, sometimes it is. A new writer must be thick-skinned when submitting work for critiquing, but at the same time be open to change if the criticism is valid. Being poorly critiqued has probably discouraged more aspiring authors than any other single factor. Most critiques I've read are given in good faith, meant to improve the caliber of the work under review. Unfortunately, critiques are a direct reflection of the talents and skills of the critiquer. I've seen great writing attacked because the critiquer was simply repulsed by the subject. It is often hard for those who aren't professional editors to separate the stimulus to an emotional response from the writing that triggered it.

Often religious or political viewpoints become the focus of the critique instead of the writing itself. Novels in the sexual realms tend to be fire-starters. I can only imagine what kind of responses E L James would have gotten with her Fifty Shades of Grey from most writers groups I’m familiar with. The book, in my opinion, could have used the help of a good writers group. Sir Salman Rushdie said about the book: "I've never read anything so badly written that got published." I doubt James would have abandoned her book because of a bad writers group critique, but good critique could have definitely have helped the quality of her writing. The fine line is critiquing the quality of the writing itself as opposed reacting to the emotionally charged nature of the subject.

Critiques are often ego based, or subconsciously prejudiced, and those are deadly to a new writer. I can read anonymous critiques from members of our group and tell who wrote it by the style of the critique. Alan Sherman wrote a parody of Peter and the Wolf, performed by the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, and one line from the work has stuck with me since I heard it almost fifty years ago: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." That's exactly what happens when several critiques vary in their assessment of a given work. The writer being critiqued doesn't know which way to go or which path to follow to improve their writing. I was once critiqued for using too many adjectives in a manuscript while another critiquer in the same group said the writing was bland and needed better descriptions. One friend attends several writers groups, and much to his dismay, can't satisfy any two of them with any one piece of writing. One group felt a narrative he wrote was flippant, distasteful, childish, while the other group thoroughly enjoyed the same piece of work.

Writers Groups Are Basically Mutual Admiration Societies

If you read in front of the group, be polite enough to listen to others who read their material. After all, they were polite enough to listen to you. If you head for the door as soon as you're finished reading, don't expect the welcome mat to be out when you return.

Don't let your speaking style detract from your writing. If you sound like you're reading the telephone book when you are reading Steinbeck out loud, have someone else to read your material to the group. We have a regular member who is in demand to read other people's work. Her interpretation and inflection when reading makes even the aforementioned telephone book a pleasure to listen to. I recently read a member's final proof and was astounded to find I was intrigued by the book as I had a hard time following it during the readings. Every reader embeds their own images and emotions on the material they read, which may be quite different from someone else’s interpretation, even the author’s intent. Don't expect an audience to cheer your first attempt at explaining how you developed nuclear fission if you, like me, read out loud like Elmer Fudd. Get a good speaker, or hand out enough printed copies so your audience can read for themselves.

I've attended writers groups that follow a specific reading and critiquing format almost religiously, often intent on developing writers in a competitive environment such as winning awards for the group members. Other groups tend to mix up the readings with presentations from outside guests, from published authors to publishers and editors while critiquing is done separately from the meetings. Comments are almost always called for after a reading so a writer has immediate feedback on their work. Every group is different in its makeup and purpose and rarely are there any fees associated with writers groups. If the group you visit doesn't offer the education or experiences you are looking for, try another group.

You Can't Please All Readers

I have one piece of advice for new writers: It is your story and you are the one telling it! Write it your way and let your writing reflect your heart and your soul. You are the artist and this is your medium. I like my own writing, I can read it for hours and I'm sure you can read your own writing for hours as well. Bring it to the next writer's group meeting, well, five hundred words of it at least, and see if others hear it as you meant it. Don't be discouraged if the group you meet doesn't like your writing. Take the criticism and find another group and see if they accept your style and content. Arthur Godfrey once famously said, "Some people just don't like ice cream." As long as you please those you are writing for, you are by my standards a successful writer.

My favorite group likes vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, and just about every other flavor of ice cream, but every once in a while, someone brings in a delicious upside-down cake instead.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018


“Hon, do you have good black dress shoes?” my wife asked as we packed for our trip north for our granddaughter’s chain of social events. 

May has become more than just the climax of the academic season, wrapping up not only the scholastic year, but dance classes, chorus, music lessons, and just about every other after school activity a student can be enrolled in. This year was even more special with our granddaughter’s communion, so it was time to dry-clean suits and dig out the old shoes I haven’t worn in years.

“Sure,” I replied, “I still have my old wingtips from when I left IBM. Let me dig them out, they're in a closet somewhere.” I tossed out my last pair of black loafers, my semi-official footwear for formal events here in Florida, a couple of months ago.

As I pulled out my comfortable old friends from the back of my closet where they had resided under assorted bags and boxes, I suddenly faced my own mortality. No longer the spit-shined, combat boots of corporate America, they were now sadly distressed, forlorn, shockingly aged almost beyond recognition. They were far removed from being the forefront of the uniform of confidence and determination I remembered when I placed them there over twenty years ago. I naively thought they could be pulled out at any time and once again be worn with the distinction and authority they once held in the arena of interpersonal combat in the world of corporate America.

I stared at the faded, cracked shoe leather. Pieces of the polished leather had peeled off, exposing the vulnerable, soft under-skin of the shoes I had worn so many times. I turned the shoes over, the soles were as good as new. I had replaced the soles twice in the wingtip’s lifetime and the soles were still ready. Ready to stride confidently into a customer’s meeting or a region seminar. The uppers however, were like me; no longer ready to stand in front of a crowd from behind a podium or stand toe to toe with a competitor.

I had placed them in the back of my closet, complete with wooden shoe trees in them to keep their shape back when I retired. They were highly polished the last time I saw them, ready to be put into service at a moment’s notice. They had spent the last quarter century in retirement, but they were no longer serviceable. My old standbys, my stalwart support in the face of perils that could not intimidate them, unfortunately could not answer the call to duty. 

I couldn’t help but be nostalgic as I stood there looking at my past, the memories of a quarter of a century ago. I carefully carried them out into the garage and as one last gesture, photographed them. Then they went into the trash.

I walked back into the house. “Hey, Hon, we’ve got to go shopping. I need new black shoes.”

But the new ones won’t be wingtips. They may not even have laces. A pair of nice slip-ons will do nicely.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Light is Better

A young boy carrying a fishing rod walked past me as I was photographing a serene lake-shore not far from my campsite on Blue Ridge Lake in Georgia. He was looking for an open spot to fish. He stood among the weeds for a moment, looking at the deep, clear water. He turned and spotted a sandy beach area, free of weeds, at the far end of the cove where the edge of the lake narrowed and merged with the landscape.

He dutifully carried his rod and tackle box through the several hundred yards of underbrush to the clear spot. The water was so shallow there he could have waded out into the lake for twenty feet or so if he had just rolled up his pant legs. He carefully prepared his tackle and cast into the lake with all his might. The bobber splashed into the quiet surface only ten or so feet from where he was standing, his bait immediately sinking to the sandy bottom just below the red and white plastic bobber that rocked only twice, ever so slightly. He was fishing in mere inches of water. There was no room for any fish.

An old joke flashed through my memory:

A drunk, on his hands and knees, is looking for something under a city street light when a good Samaritan walks up and asks if he can help.
Yeah,” replied the drunk slowly,”I dropped my car keys and I can’t find them.”
The good Samaritan gets on his hands and knees and begins searching for the lost car keys. After a few minutes, the good Samaritan asks “We’ve looked everywhere, are you sure you lost your keys here? “
The drunk tries to focus his gaze on the good Samaritan. “Nah,” he says, “I dropped them over there somewhere...”
The good Samaritan sat up. “Then why are we looking for your keys over here?”
Because,”” said the drunk, “The light over here is better.”

The young fisherman had selected a spot that had no weeds to stand in, undeterred by the fact he could see it was far too shallow for any fish. I looked back at him as I turned to leave. He was still standing at the water’s edge, holding his fishing rod with both hands, intently watching his bobber that was magically suspended on the crystal clear surface, just inches over his bait. I couldn’t help but hope he never loses his keys.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Earth is Not Round

The world is not round. I know it isn’t flat, but it definitely isn’t round. To claim it is round would assume there is a symmetry, a total balance of our beloved planet, peacefully and methodically plodding through time and space. If there were a perfect balance, there would be no tides, no ebb and flow, a perfect understanding of beauty and harmony. I know the world is really out of balance, however, because the film “The Shape of Water” has been nominated for 13 – let me spell that – thirteen – Academy Awards. There is definitely something wrong with our slowly spinning, normally predictable planet. It must have one hell of a wobble.

I understand that I may be the one who is out of balance here, because I just spent nine dollars and ninety-five cents – senior discount – to sit through what I consider to be the most ludicrous, offensive, and downright stupid films I have ever seen. I put “Mars Attacks” on a pedestal compared to this awful film that has been elevated to God-like cult status with its prestigious award. At least Mars Attacks was fun to watch. The Shape of Water's dance scene with the creature from the black lagoon - seriously. I’m not joking - doing a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers Felliniesque dream sequence, failed to elevate the film above the murky, tannin-colored realm of despair. They didn't even come close to the aliens bowling on Easter Island. 

The standard Hollywood formula of oil company bad, government agent bad, everybody bad except the maligned hero/heroine and his/her mentor, was spiced with a dash of, believe it or not, a Soviet spy with a heart of gold. The pathetic mentor, according to formula, has to be convinced the hero/heroine can save humanity and together, along with a co-worker – black, of course – and the good Soviet agent – he’s really a doctor – defeat the forces of evil wearing the red, white, and blue. Ad Nauseam.

It wears thin in less time than it takes to get the lid off the popcorn bucket. The acting is well done, as if they know they won’t get paid if the audience laughs out loud during the scenes where the creature plays with the owner’s remaining cats just after it’s eaten the head off one of them. Funny stuff, but even here Mars Attacks did it better.

Like sex scenes? There are several solo episodes by the heroine to establish the fact she’s in dire need of fulfillment, and surprise, surprise, our finned creature rises to the occasion. I can imagine the excitement when they discovered they could wire the old lagoon creature’s costume with LEDs to glow with the enthusiasm required for such an event.

And healing powers? Wow! Another opportunity to fire up the power pack! For a primordial omnivore, even the convoluted Soviet agent bad guy/good guy could have used the “asset” if only his timing had been better. I have a problem with films that portray the old Soviets as the good guys and the Americans as mean-spirited evil doers, regardless of whose aquarium they’re trying to drain.

Time to dig out the old Slim Whitman soundtrack. Indian Love Song never sounded better.