All the Time There Is

On a nice day in May, as I lay in my zero gravity chair in the backyard, looking up, examining cloud patterns etched in a blue dome, its bottoms fringed round with the yellow-green of spring trees—it occurred to me that however much time this reverie took, I could spare.

Growing older, I become more patient. With each passing year—each step closer to the chasm that ends this life and drops us into the next—I am less concerned about running out of time.

When young I was often impatient.  

Now, my impatience is all used up.

In the midst of the storm and strife, the middle years of life, there are things to accomplish that seem time-bound. We must prove ourselves in some minor skill before we can move up the ladder. We must pile up enough gold to send our kids to college by the time they are ready to go. We need to stretch and to strive, to scrimp and to save, to squirrel away assets against the future.

All that is behind me. Now, everything worth doing seems to want all my attention. It is less vital to finish than to engage. 

Kipling sketched a remarkable image of the afterlife—only I suppose it applies to my here and now:

When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it—lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from—Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money, and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!

We who have lived beyond the hustle and urgency of mid-life know a secret we could tell to those still trapped in that gosh-awful hurly-burly. But it’s no good; they would not listen. 

Or rather, they would not hear. Even gifted with the best intentions and the strongest focus, they could not hear. You don’t have ears for that secret until it becomes your own. 

It is the whisper of Eternity. It says: Go. Do. Enjoy. Be. You have all the time there is.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer 

Fonix

news story stunned my ears last week, courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio.

“A bipartisan bill is expected to be released this month that would change the way most public schools in Wisconsin teach reading,” reported Corinne Hess. 

“. . . Instead of being taught reading through pictures, word cues and memorization, children would be taught using a phonics-based method that focuses on learning to sound out letters and phrases.

“According to [the Department of Public Instruction], only about 20 percent of school districts are using a phonics-based approach to literacy education. Other reading curriculums that don’t include phonics have been shown to be less effective for students.”

Whoa. Stop the presses!

Bipartisan? Could peace be at hand in the Great Reading War?

Phonics

When I was a kid in 1951—yes, 72 years ago—our teachers taught us phonics. They leaked the remarkable secret that each letter represents one or more sounds in the spoken English language. (I mean American English, Dear Reader. I hold no brief for British, ANZAC, or South African speakers who utter tortured diphthongs where we would use vowels.)

We learned that “a” can be pronounced long, as in “bake”; short, as in “flag”; soft, as in “father”; and so forth. We learned that “c” is sometimes hard, as in “cat,” and sometimes soft, as in “recess.” Interestingly, “bicycle” has a soft c and a hard c, both in one word. “Y,” also interestingly, can sound like a long “i,” as in “tyke,” or as a long “e,” as in “candy,” or as a short “i,” as in “bicycle.” But sometimes it has a special motive force of its own, as in “Yankee.” 

We were taught that phonics rules had exceptions—quite a few of them, actually. For example, sometimes the sound normally represented by the letter f is actually spelled with the two letters “ph,” as in “telephone.” Sometimes the two-letter combination “ch” is pronounced like a hard c or a k, as in “chorus,” not with the soft “ch” sound of “chair.” And so forth, and so on. 

Oh, so many exceptions. Yet, even with all these exceptions, the whole thing hung together and made a kind of sense. 

Light bulb. Photo by MEHEDI HASAN ( KΛΛSH ) on Unsplash.

When you met an unfamiliar word you could “sound it out,” and nine times out of ten it turned out to be a word you already knew. You could produce a string of sounds from a word’s letters, and you would suddenly recognize the word. 

Hallelujah! A light bulb went on in your head. 

Sometimes you had to try three or four runs at it, using alternate pronunciations, but eventually you could figure it out. 

The opportunity to sound out the words you didn’t know made reading a joy. You could move forward at a decent speed. A great bonus was that when you figured out a word, all its snags and bumps stayed with you. So when you discovered that “diaphragm” spelled dy-uh-fram, not dy-uh-fraggum, you remembered that silent g ever afterward.

It was never a perfect system, but it worked pretty well for those of us who were thoroughly drilled in phonics in the first two or three grades of school.

So what could possibly go wrong? 

Politics, that’s what.

Poor Johnny

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It. Flesch’s thesis was that a new method of reading instruction—the so-called “whole word” or “look-say” method—was robbing a generation of youngsters of the power of reading. Instead of learning to associate letters with sounds and thereby sound out the words they were reading, young people were expected to simply recognize words one by one, from their general shape. This made reading into an insurmountable guessing game, according to Flesch—akin to the challenge faced by young Chinese who need to learn thousands of separate characters.

Horace Mann. Public Domain.

The whole word method was not actually new—education guru Horace Mann embraced it in the 1840s—but it had gradually supplanted phonics instruction in American public schools in the first half of the twentieth century.

When Flesch launched his withering critique in 1955, it met stiff resistance from a liberal educational establishment that had largely adopted the whole word method and rejected phonics. This debate soon went the way of all debates in our fractured society: The politicians made it their own. Reading became just another battlefront in our great cultural war. If you were conservative you favored phonics; if you were liberal, you pooh-poohed phonics and favored the whole word approach (also called the whole language approach).

That frozen paradigm has persisted through six or seven decades. If you were for phonics, you might want to put the 19th-century McGuffey readers back in the classroom; you might also be suspicious of fluoride in the water supply and aspire to Make America Great Again. On the other hand, if you favored the whole language approach, you were probably a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union and wanted to put Critical Race Theory in the classrooms. 

A Freshening Wind

Now, there seems to be a shift in the wind. For the first time in my long memory, it seems both sides have tired of treating reading as a political football and are seeking to coalesce on “evidence-based” or “scientific” methods of reading instruction. And scientific evidence has accumulated in favor of phonics to the point where it cannot be ignored. 

But here’s what’s really new: The Republican assemblyman drafting new legislation on the matter is working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to draft a plan teachers can embrace. Liberal Democratic governor Tony Evers, himself a veteran educator, sounds willing to endorse a bipartisan phonics plan.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if educational practices, for once, were not held hostage to partisan ideologies? One would like to think it can happen.

A Personal View

I was taught phonics. My wife, also a product of the 1950s, learned to read by the whole word method. I am a good speller and know a lot about the way words are put together. My wife is not a confident speller and is deaf to many verbal nuances. 

On the other hand, there are probably people who became excellent spellers and wordsmiths without ever being exposed to phonics. And there are probably people who learned phonics but did not learn to read very well. No theory can fully capture the natural differences in people’s aptitudes and learning styles. 

As a traditionalist, I look askance at laws that would dictate teaching methods statewide. What ever happened to local school boards?, I wonder. Should not they, rather than the legislature or the DPI, control the curriculum and pedagogy in their own schools? 

In an era when powerful forces militate for broad uniformity of policy in all arenas, there is something to be said for the idea of local variation—or at least, for the possibility of local variation. It’s hard to imagine that Milwaukee and Black River Falls have the same set of problems and need identical solutions.

Even with that caveat, if current trends bring about a re-emphasis on phonics, that’s probably a good thing—especially if we can bury the hatchet on our longstanding war over how children learn to read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer 

Create a Discussion Guide for Your Book

Note: The guest post which follows, by my friend Joy E. Held, is a timely discussion of why authors should create discussion guides for their books, why it is important, and how to approach it. Happy reading!

As an author and educator, I believe in the value of reflection as a way to better comprehension. I like finding discussion questions at the back of books, but when it came to create one for my own books, I couldn’t find anything. I discovered many examples, but no specific guidance on building one. I put on my teacher hat and built a template that any author can use.

When the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to gather in person and talk about books, readers, authors, and publishers quickly pivoted to virtual meetings. Zoom, Facebook, Vimeo, Kaltura, Google Meet, Skype, Cisco WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and others filled the void offering free or reasonably priced options for keeping the conversations about books moving forward. 

At the time, I was serving in a volunteer role as the vice president of programming for a nonprofit writer’s group with a writing craft book club. I was stunned at how easy it was to get popular authors to agree to meet with a group of writers via Zoom on a weeknight to talk about their books. The practice is still in place today because authors and publishers discovered how easy and valuable it is to connect with readers virtually to extend the discussion about a book. It’s a great way to make published books accessible to more readers when in-person and virtual options are combined to accommodate everyone regardless of location. 

Why Not Discussion Guides?

This was also the moment I started looking for reading group discussion guides to support our conversations when an author wasn’t available to meet with us. I discovered that guides were out there, but not in the numbers I expected. That’s when my experience as a college English professor reminded me that I had written dozens of reading guides to accompany the literature I taught in my courses. Why didn’t more authors include study guides with their books?

The answer is probably because developing a study guide is not an intuitive process for most people. Authors may know their subjects inside and out, but designing a set of stimulating questions for readers may not seem like an easy process. Because it isn’t. However, there are reader’s guides available from many publishers as their marketing and promotions departments know the value of providing thought-provoking questions for readers to consider after they have read a book. The priceless value is the fact that a discussion guide extends the amount of time and interaction a reader has with a book. Also, a decent discussion guide helps educators assign deeper study of a book and expands the understanding of the message or theme of a story.

One way to engage readers beyond the last page of your book is to provide a set of discussion questions. Educators, book clubs, librarians, and curious readers appreciate the extra information because a book discussion guide takes them behind the scenes, so to speak. How do you go about developing this tool?

Online Course

Enter the educator (me) with a template to help authors create a discussion guide for their books. Once an author understands learning styles, teaching methods, and how a reader typically engages with text, the process can be replicated for as many books as they write. I created an online course to teach writers how to create a discussion guide for their books.

I’m excited to share this practice with authors, editors, publishers, educators, librarians, book clubs, readers, students, and anyone who wants to encourage deeper engagement with a book. The broad topics of the course include:

  1. learn the value of book discussion guides to many different consumers of media
  2. understand research practices that support your knowledge and abilities to create discussion guides
  3. receive tools and a step-by-step plan
  4. have the option to share your guides with me/other students. 

The course is divided up into these SECTIONS:

  1. What is a book discussion guide?
  2. Typical contents of a book discussion guide.
  3. Discussion categories and how to create questions from your book.
  4. How and why a book discussion guide will help you and your readers.
  5. Downloads of worksheets, progress journals, infographics, checklists, a resource list, a sample fiction book discussion guide, and a basic book discussion guide template.
  1. What is a book discussion guide?
  2. Typical contents of a book discussion guide.
  3. Discussion categories and how to create questions from your book.
  4. How and why a book discussion guide will help you and your readers.
  5. Downloads of worksheets, progress journals, infographics, checklists, a resource list, a sample fiction book discussion guide, and a basic book discussion guide template.

Writing a book is generally about connecting with other people. Authors typically have an intention in mind when writing a book be it fiction or nonfiction. Call it a message, theme, or purpose, writing and publishing a book is one way to reach more people with your story. 

You may or may not have a finished or published book at this point. It doesn’t matter because this formula can be put into action at any stage of a book’s life. It can boost interest in a new book and lengthen the shelf life of an older title because of the way a good book discussion guide adds dimension and interest to a publication. Once you have the process in hand, anyone can go from “how do I extend the life and interest in this book?” to increasing sales and expanding engagement almost indefinitely. What do I mean by “expanding engagement?” 

Expanding Engagement

Expanding engagement with a book means ways to keep a book “top of mind” for a reader. There is social media, of course, but a good book discussion guide has the potential to do so much more than posts or even paid online advertising. It works the same for any genre and any writing style because once a reader finishes the last page of your book, you want them to keep thinking about the content, wondering about you, the author, and having ways to delve deeper into the book’s meaning, purpose, construction, and more.

“Create a Discussion Guide for Your Book” course provides a step-by-step action plan about the why, how, when, and what of developing a knockout discussion guide to accompany your books. Even poetry! Every published work has a history, a construction period, and more that readers are eager to learn about. The course contains printable worksheets, checklists, text lessons, videos, and progress journals that will give you the tools to design, create, analyze, and share a discussion guide based on your book. Once you have the formula, it is repeatable for every book you publish.

The course retails for $197.00, but readers of this blog have access to the sale price for a limited time. To get started, click this link and start immediately. 

Only $97.00 for a limited time.

All good things,

Joy

Copyright 2023 Joy E. Held

Same Old Soapbox

Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood, A Retrospect

At age seventy, I abandoned myself to the literary craving and became a full-time writer.

That was in January 2016. 

During an apprenticeship marked by small successes, the possibility of “doing a blog” was often brought to my attention.

The notion was preposterous. It would suck up all my time, leaving me none for serious writing. Besides, how could I ever think up enough new content? 

Every fiber of me railed against it, but in April 2019 I started this blog. In the process, I conferred on myself the title: “Your New Favorite Writer.” Well, if I didn’t do it, who would?

That was over four years ago. I have posted about a thousand words almost every week since then. It does take a lot of time, about a day a week. But on the other days I have still gotten some serious writing done. 

Besides, I have made an interesting discovery:  The blog itself is serious writing. 

“Be that as it may, O New Favorite Writer—how do you balance such unequal tasks as posting a blog and writing the Great American Novel?” 

The answer, Dear Reader, is that it’s all of a piece. (And thank you for asking.)

It’s All One Thing

Sherman

When I say “all of a piece,” I mean the writing life cannot be forced into small, separate pigeonholes—or narrow silos, if you prefer a farm metaphor. It is not that you must move your book forward at the expense of your blog. It is not that you must spend all your time writing, to the exclusion of reading what others have written. It is not that you must devote yourself only to the art of narrative and pay no attention to sales, trade, and the soil of commerce. 

No, Gentle Reader. You must do it all at once. 

General Sherman said, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Your New Favorite Writer says: “Writing is a mess, and you cannot parse it.”

Lionhood

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

About the time I started this blog, it dawned on me that to be a serious writer you must become a Literary Lion, and you dare not put that off until your first Nobel Prize. If you are to have any chance at all, you have to jump into the Literary Lion business right away. 

Armed with this stunning insight, I posted a series titled “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.” The six steps are:

  • 1. Cut the line. Skip straight to literary lionhood.
  • 2. Write.
  • 3. Get feedback.
  • 4. Associate.
  • 5. Submit.
  • 6. (Develop Your) Platform.

When I wrote six pieces, one a week for six weeks, about these six steps, I continually warned readers that “simple” does not mean “easy.” Each step is simple. But you have to do them all together, continuously. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

Some time later, I was compelled to revisit my six simple steps several times to enlarge or clarify, based on my new experiences. But in the main, the six steps have held up well.

Proof of the Pudding

It seems to be a law of language that common sayings and nostrums get simplified over time. One example has to do with proof and pudding. People today commonly say, “The proof is in the pudding.” That’s an interesting saying, but in isolation, rather mystifying. Why should proof be in pudding? Why conceal evidence in pudding?

Listen, Fair Reader: Your New Favorite Writer is old enough to remember when the saying was used in its original form: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Ah! Clarity. If you want to know how good the pudding is, eat it. The eating will tell you what you want to know. 

I offer my journey as proof of the pudding of achieving Literary Lionhood in Six Simple Steps. 

I have been on the loose in the literary world for slightly longer than seven years. During that time, besides establishing and tending this blog (“One of the best writer’s blogs on the planet,” according to Laurie Scheer), I have:

  • Had a dog story published by Fetch! magazine.
  • Had three short stories published by The Saturday Evening Post.
  • Had my debut historical novel, Price of Passage, published by DX Varos Publishing, under a traditional, royalty-and-advance author’s contract. 
  • Completed a middle grade novel, Izzy Strikes Gold!, currently seeking representation and publication.
  • Begun a World War II historical.

But that’s not all. Besides these obvious milestones, I have been busy associating. I have attended six or seven writing conferences. I am a member of the Wisconsin Writers Association, the Chicago Writers Association, and the Authors Guild. I am de facto leader of two small but important writers’ mutual critique groups in my home town.

Selling books at Literatus in Watertown.

The moment you sign a book contract you become a salesman. So I am learning about that. I visit bookstores and ask them to stock my book. I do author events from time to time—signing and selling fests, where the books are purchased one by one after actual conversations with readers. I am scheduled as the featured speaker at a couple of events in the near future. And, with the help of publicist Valerie Biel I am learning how to sell books through Facebook advertising. 

I have become a fixture at my local public library, regularly reserving and carrying home more books than I have time to read. Stacks of books—all kinds of books—litter every horizontal surface of my home. I read as much of this conveyor-belt feast as I can manage.

And a lot of great books are being published by folks who have become personal friends of mine—Nick Chiarkas, author of the excellent, heart-filled New York gang novels Weepers and Nunzio’s WayGregory Lee Renz, whose debut firehouse novel Beneath the Flames delighted critics and book buyers alike; Christine DeSmet, author of the Fudge Shop Mysteries series; Kristin A. Oakley, author of Carpe Diem IllinoisGod on Mayhem Street, and the forthcoming The Devil Particle—and many others. 

Me, Me, Me

This is all about me. Does it sound like boasting? 

So be it. But my purpose, Gracious Reader, is to show how all these activities lean in on one another. A writer’s life comprises all of them, and more. If it’s just one thing—or two, or three—it will not sustain itself. It will not endure.

And what is success? Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. If literary success is measured in dollars, I am, to date, a miserable failure. But if personal satisfaction may be considered, the past seven years have made me a wealthy man

The proof of my pudding is in living the dream. You can quote me on that.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Shooting the Curl of AI

A Writer’s Nightmare

Suddenly, it’s upon us. 

We stand unprepared, all thumbs and fumbles, wondering what to do. Like always.

It’s AI, artificial intelligence, and it’s coming to get you. Elon Musk said recently that artificial intelligence “has the potential of civilizational destruction.” Never mind that he might have had selfish reasons for saying that. You’ve got to consider the possibility that he told the truth.

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash.

We’ve known for decades that someday machines would learn to think. I once read a futuristic short story in Playboy magazine, back in the days when we all read Playboy for the articles (nod, nod, wink, wink). In this story, a worldwide group of computers had been connected with one another. Their pooled intellect gave birth to an über entity which took over the world, cutting biological humans out of the picture. 

I don’t remember the story’s title, or who wrote it, but it appeared in the 1960s. 

So we can’t say we didn’t see this coming. 

But now, it’s here, arriving on our doorstep last week, in a COVID-style sneak attack. Remember March 12, 2020, when they canceled March Madness?

It now seems the second full week of April 2023 will be remembered as When AI Became a Serious Matter.

Playing Around

People—not scientists necessarily, but the kind of dreamy folks I hang out with, i.e., writers and philosophers—now report playing around with something called ChatGPT. In their playing around, they have discovered that ChatGPT can write prose that seems remotely like something a human being might have written

Enrico Fermi in 1943. U.S. Government photo, public domain.

Let me assure you, Dear Reader, I am not among those who have played with ChatGPT. I would not have been among those playing with nuclear fission in 1942, either. 

The first nuclear reactor, in the West Stands section of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Drawing by Melvin A. Miller of the Argonne National Laboratory, public domain.

But I gather, from what those others are saying: The problem is not that one cannot detect the output is computer-generated. Rather, it is that for the first time one can imagine that in the future—for example, later this afternoon—ChatGPT or a similar program will get good enough that one can no longer tell the difference.

Never mind the potential end of world civilization; AI could impact writers. 

This is serious.

Colloquium

I took part in a recent colloquium of concerned authors. Scores, maybe hundreds, of authors attended. Many of these authors, unlike Your New Favorite Writer, earn all or part of their income by writing. 

I started out puzzled but eventually caught the drift. Or, rather, drifts. 

  • 1. AI programs will soon start writing better than we can . . . or almost as well as we can . . . and we’ll all go broke. Publishers will no longer need human authors. They’ll just push a button on a machine and get a book, ready for release. No royalties will be owed to any humans. The AI machines, we assume, will accept their wages in electricity and silicon.
  • 2. Since AI is already quite useful at discharging the kinds of tediosities with which we writers are burdened, some of us hunger to use AI programs or bots—or whatever they are—in our own writing practice. Not for writing, you understand. Oh no, never!! Rather, we would use them as slave labor for menial tasks—up to and perhaps including the elaboration of trial texts which the writer may then modify. Thus we would reserve the higher functions of authorship for us who so richly deserve royalty checks. This would be, I suppose, something like the way research professors use graduate students. In this sense, AI is merely a tool, like a dictionary or thesaurus, clearly beneath the mystical heights of creative writing.

But you’ve already seen, have you not?—It’s so hard to get ahead of you, Astute Reader—how in some vague way this second concern is already at odds with the first?

  • 3. So, to reconcile the first and second concerns, some participants declared we authors ought to embrace AI to whatever extent is warranted, so long as the publishers are required to attribute each published work to a specific human author—one who gets paid. 

It would take at least an act of Congress to make this happen. But a squadron of intellectual property lawyers is already cranking up its engines to bombard publishing contracts and book copyright pages with model provisions—“guardrails,” they call them—protecting authors’ rights to control the use of their product, and importantly, to get paid. 

This drafting of guardrail language, all by itself, strikes me as a Herculean task. But it may be necessary work, because as you know, what people can do, they will do. 

There is no holding back this tide of AI. It’s a giant wave, and we shall either find a way to shoot the curl or be crushed in the collapsing pipeline.

  • 4. Beside the three areas of concern already mentioned, there is another. It seems existing AI platforms already incorporate the output of human authors as a training aid. The chatbots are learning to write better because their creators feed them sample text from published books that are the copyrighted property of authors—without acknowledgment or compensation, as far as I can tell. 

It may be possible, through legal action by authors’ groups, to prohibit the use of authors’ works as training materials for AI bots, or even to claw back some form of payment for the unauthorized uses that have already occurred. 

It’s yet another messy area for the lawyers to sort out. But I take it as a mere corollary of two more basic questions: 

1. Who’s going to do the writing, people or machines? And,

2. Who’s going to reap the benefits, authors or publishers? 

Pardon my chutzpah, Gracious Reader, but I suspect we’re still missing the Big Picture. 

Story

It’s all about the power of narrative. I once heard a lecturer say that when it’s time for bed, kids ask for stories. They don’t say, “Mommy, please read me the telephone book” or, “Daddy, I want to hear a grocery list.” They say, “Read me a story” or even, “Tell me a story.”

Authors are storytellers. Even technical writers owe their jobs to the particular skill of stating scientific or technical facts in a way that allows readers to understand those facts as a sequence of events including a chain of causation. In other words, they tell stories, no less than novelists or playwrights do. What’s true for technical writers is even more obviously true for freelance journalists and for the authors of narrative nonfiction books. 

So, if we storytellers are afraid that publishers will gain access to computer programs that allow them to cut us out of the profits, ought not the publishers worry that they, likewise, will be cut out of the profits?

If AI can write as well as human writers, will there not come a day (perhaps next Tuesday) when you can pull a cell phone from your pocket and command: “Tell me a story.” And the phone will make up a story on the spot and either speak it or type it to you. Maybe it will even assemble a complex dramatic video for your entertainment. 

And—get this, Dear Reader— the product will be first-rate. It won’t be merely grammatical. It will be tense and compelling. Maybe not hilarious—humor is notoriously difficult, and it may exceed the capability of machines to learn. But they’ll be able to assemble great suspense and action films. They’ll do it all by themselves. You can order up an original story at the touch of a thumb.

Originality

Oscar Wilde in 1888. Photo by Napoleon Sarony, 1821-1896. Public Domain.

Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, upon viewing a flawless forgery of an art masterpiece, “It has all the virtues of the original, except originality.” The same may be said of these future machine-generated stories. Readers, however, will still gobble them up.

BUT SO WHAT?  What difference does all this make? 

If we can get stories concocted instantly by our phones, what impact will that have on literature?  Surely it will mean authors and publishers as we know them will no longer exist—at least, not in any traditional framework.

Yet story will survive. 

If we look to our phones for stories, that’s only because story is a basic requirement of the human race. You might even say the capacity for story is what makes us human. 

One can easily imagine machines telling stories. 

One cannot imagine machines needing stories told.

Only humans need that. And those who hear stories can also invent other stories. In fact, some of us can’t help ourselves. 

So story will survive. Humanity will go on. There will still be human storytellers.

I’ll still be here, writing the old-fashioned way, regardless what the machines may be doing. Whether I’ll be paid is another question; but then, I’m not being paid now. 

It’s not about the money. It’s about the story.

Keep reading. Keep writing.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

A Postscript

Perhaps you recall reading about my old band teacher, Emerson Ebert, in a post on Tuesday, March 28.

Emerson Ebert, a recent photo.

I learned, to my delight, that Mister Ebert is alive and going strong at age 98. So I printed a copy of the blog post and mailed it to him, with a cover letter expressing, first, how startled I would be if he remembered me after more than sixty-five years; and, second, how much I was hoping he would not be offended by my writing about him.

A few days later, I received this wonderful note from Mister Ebert, written in a firm hand: 

Dear Larry,

What a surprise when I received the letter from Larry Sommers.

Believe it or not I do remember Johnny Stevens, Jack Spencer and Larry Sommers.

You certainly described the Streator music program in detail.

This was a real walk thru the past for me.

At any rate you can’t imagine how rewarding your letter was to me. Thank you!

Sincerely,

Emerson W. Ebert

98 years

He was not displeased. In fact, he was pleased.

Encouraged, I put through a phone call to a number I had which I thought might be his. I left a message, and when he called me back I was delighted to speak with a man I knew back in the Fifties, when he was a grown man and I was a kid.

We had a nice, long chat. It included pleasantries, memories, and updates. Finally, we rung off.

Two things come out of this, Dear Reader:

1. When you reach the far end of life, you often appreciate more those people you took for granted, or were not particularly close to, in the early days. Such is the case with Mister Ebert, who really struggled heroically in the parlous exercise of teaching us music.

2. The rewards of authorship are not limited to money or fame—neither of which is guaranteed, anyway. There are moments when something you have written kindles a new friendship or reaffirms an old one. These rewards are just as sweet as the other kind.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Woman River

Last fall, I attended the Wisconsin Writers Association’s annual conference, which was held in Superior. 

Doug Lewandowski, a Duluth writer, introduced himself and told me about his book—a collection of related short stories about people and events in a small Minnesota town called Woman River. He was rather low-key and matter-of-fact about the book. He gave me a copy, free of charge. I promised I would take it home and read it.

Time went by. 

You have no idea, Dear Reader, how many books I feel compelled to read—not only for my own enjoyment, but also in pursuit of my literary career. Woman River went to the bottom of my pile. Finally last week—about six months after Doug gave me the book—it reached the top of my pile.

POW! Take that, O smug, self-satisfied one-book wonder who brashly claims to be “Your New Favorite Writer”! 

I was, as the Brits would say, gobsmacked.

Let me belatedly assure you Gentle Reader: Doug Lewandowski is the real McCoy. Woman River is a great book. I wish I could write like that.

So I’m passing this recommendation along to all my friends. Get hold of a copy of Doug Lewandowski’s Woman River and read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Here’s the review I posted on Goodreads.com a day or two after finishing the book:

The town of Woman River is filled with flawed people. They mostly smoke Luckies and drink Hamm’s beer—but it’s 1959, so that’s pretty normal. None of them sought to be flawed, but all of them want love. And—in a small but difficult miracle arranged by author Doug Lewandowski—we the reader get to see their love bulging from every wound and pressure point. 

The book is a great affirmation of life with all its worries. One comes away feeling this is what writing is for. 

Woman River is a novella built of short stories, each related to all the others as the varied residents are bound to one another by ties of affection, loyalty, and eternity. 

A young farmer recoiling from a failed marriage pits his stern father against his lifegiving lover. The innkeeping couple face a dread illness with stoic devotion. The local pariah and the capable police chief share an affliction of combat stress. The town’s ethos revolves around its church, which comforts and challenges in equal measure. The priest clings to his precepts while falling under the spell of his gracious housekeeper, who must choose her own destiny. 

The text could use a bit of proofreading, but the narrative is sure, deep, and compelling. As Midwest regional literature, this book might be compared to Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, Michael Perry’s Pop. 485, or the works of the late David Rhodes. But I almost feel it’s the book Steinbeck would have written, rather than Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row, had he grown up in Minnesota, not California.

You should read Woman River. Don’t miss out on great writing.

#

I mean it. Read Woman River. You’ll be glad you did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage 

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois 

FREE FOUR-CHAPTER PREVIEW!

(History is not what you thought.)

Jack’s Big Show

Jack Benny, 1964 publicity shot. Public Domain.

The new thing called television was run by the same networks that ran the old thing called radio. 

Popular radio programs, from The Lone Ranger to Art Linkletter’s House Party, were carried over to TV and brought their loyal audiences with them. 

A great radio show was The Jack Benny Program, a weekly half-hour of hilarity and running gags that ruled the air from from 1932 to 1955. Benny, like many others, made the jump from radio to TV, appearing on CBS television from 1950 to 1964 and on NBC for one year after that. For five years, he and his ensemble pulled off the frenetic trick of appearing regularly in both media.

An Overnight Success

Benny Kubelsky with violin, early 1900s. Public Domain.

He was Benjamin Kubelsky, a violin player from Waukegan, Illinois. After achieving great mediocrity in school and business, the dreamy 18-year-old took his fiddle to the vaudeville stage in 1912. 

Audiences yawned. 

Famed violinist Jan Kubelik hinted at legal action because of the similarity of names. Kubelsky, adding jokes to his routine, changed his billing to “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology.” 

Ben Bernie, a well-known “patter-and-fiddle” star, was not amused. The new kid’s name was too similar.

Kubelsky—having meanwhile served in the U.S. Navy for World War I—adopted the name Jack, common parlance for a sailor (“Jack Tar”). 

After two decades of scratching out a living, first as a vaudevillian, then as a movie novice at MGM, Jack Benny auditioned for NBC Radio and became an overnight success.

Show Within a Show

Jack Benny, newly-minted radio star, in a 1933 NBC publicity shot. Public Domain.

For NBC, Benny—billed as “the star of stage, screen, and radio”—exercised his dramatic skills by portraying a radio comic named Jack Benny. 

This fellow Benny lived a sedate bachelor life in Beverly Hills. He employed the gravel-voiced Rochester, a butler-valet-chauffeur played by black actor Eddie Anderson. Benny’s girlfriend Mary Livingstone (in real life his wife, Sadie Marks) dropped by often, as did people from the cast of his radio show: bandleader Phil Harris, boyish tenor Dennis Day, the closely harmonious Sportsmen Quartet, and rotund announcer Don Wilson.

Mary Livingstone, 1940 publicity photo. Public Domain.

Add a rotating cast of quirky character actors including multi-voiced Mel Blanc, supercilious Frank Nelson (with his famous baritone “Ye-e-e-s-s-s?”), and race track tout Sheldon Leonard (“Psst! Hey, Bud!”), and you had the basic ingredients. 

Dennis Day. ABC publicity photo, 1960. Public Domain.

A show’s plot would focus on some minor incident in the life of stage-screen-radio star Jack Benny. One week he, Mary, and Dennis would go to the race track to play the ponies. Another week Rochester would drive him to the train station for a trip to Palm Springs. Another week, Benny went Christmas shopping or stewed about an impending meeting with his show’s sponsors. Odd things happened to Benny in these commonplace situations, with disparaging commentary by the screwball characters in his cast. 

A comedian playing a comedian in a show about nothing. Are you listening, Jerry Seinfeld?

Pay No Attention to That Man at Center Stage

With kooks on every hand, Jack Benny himself seemed like the normal person in the show. But not exactly . . .

Each episode revolved around Benny. He was center stage. The shady characters, uppity store clerks, band members in a constant state of carousal, wry Mexican villagers, and most of all Benny’s long-suffering household intimates—Mary, Don, Dennis and especially Rochester—all served to call attention to Benny’s eccentricities.

He was vain and vainglorious. Blue-eyed and never ageing beyond 39, he admitted freely to being a violin virtuoso and a comic genius, with leading-man looks thrown in. 

He was indecisive, sometimes making a store clerk wrap, unwrap, and rewrap a purchased gift half a dozen times so that he could change the sentiments expressed on the card inside.

Most of all, he was cheap as only the rich can be. He had fabulous wealth, which he kept in an impregnable basement vault, while pathologically resisting any effort to part him with a dime. This miser image was displayed in every show and developed in almost every joke, until no American could have been unaware that Benny was a skinflint. 

His stinginess was the tacit explanation for his car, a 1908 Maxwell roadster, always on the verge of death. When Rochester, as chauffeur, would suggest Jack acquire a new car, he always insisted on coaxing a few more miles out of the Maxwell. The car’s throes of anguish in its brave attempts to start were given voice by the great Mel Blanc.

Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson as Rochester from the television version of The Jack Benny Show, with Jack’s 1908 Maxwell—one of the rare times an actual car was shown. CBS Television, 1951. Public Domain.

When Benny encountered a hoodlum demanding cash, the studio audience and every fan at home could see the punchline coming.

Jack was a master of the long pause. Comics to this day rave about Benny’s comic timing.

Fred Allen 1940 publicity photo. Public Domain.

Audiences, who may not have understood such subtleties, roared.

To boost ratings, Benny and rival comic Fred Allen concocted a feud, which played out on both shows over a period of almost twenty years, until Allen’s sudden death at 61 in 1956. A typical exchange:

Allen: Jack, you couldn’t ad lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash.

Benny: You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.

But Benny’s writers were there, every Sunday night. And when he moved from radio to television, “audiences learned that his verbal talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gesture” (Wikipedia).

A Smooth Transition

Except for that discovery, the transition was seamless. Of all shows that went from radio to TV, Benny’s had the least noticeable format change. The Jack Benny Program on television was exactly what we radio listeners had always seen in our mind’s eye.

Benny trouped on for another fifteen years on television and continued making stage and TV appearances until shortly before his death in 1974. 

Audiences gradually learned that Jack’s on-air persona was a carefully constructed myth. In person he was warm and generous. And his devotion to music was real, even if his musical talent was less than stellar.

He donated a Stradivarius violin purchased in 1957 to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time of the gift, Benny said, “If it isn’t a $30,000 Strad, I’m out $120.”

If you’re interested in a more complete account of the Jack Benny Program, try  https://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Jack_Benny_Program.

Next week: Something completely different. Tune in.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought.)

BOOK REVIEW & INTERVIEW

CHARRED

by G.P. Gottlieb

Charred, the third book in G. P. Gottlieb’s Whipped and Sipped mystery series, puts the reader deep in the mind and heart of Chicago café owner Alene Baron at a time when Covid seems to have shut down everything except arson, murder, and chicanery.

A construction site is torched, an unburned body found in the debris. Amidst pandemic-imposed precautions, protest marches, and opportunistic looting, it’s all too much. A dead body at a fire scene shouldn’t have anything to do with Alene’s café, but—as things turn out—it does.

Baron is hardly an eager sleuth. She just wants to protect her family, her friends, her business—and her love commitment to divorced police detective Frank Shaw. The rhythm of these concerns as they overlap and clash in Alene’s brain forms a distinct heartbeat for this engaging story. Everything is further complicated by the skeleton in Alene’s closet—an estranged uncle who wants absolution for his role in a long-ago bank robbery.

Juggling characters, relationships, and conflicts in a way that flows swiftly to a compelling conclusion is Gottlieb’s special strength as a mystery writer. This is the third literary outing for Alene and her coterie, and the author strikes a confident pace with a narrative which, though complex, always moves forward.

Readers of the first two books, Battered and Smothered, will certainly enjoy Charred. And so will anyone else who enjoys mysteries whipped, sipped, and basted with the juice of uptown intrigue.

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INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

G.P. GOTTLIEB

Dear Reader,

Few authors I have met since entering the literary world can match Galit Gottlieb for hard work, organization, and brains. It was Galit who introduced me to my book publisher, DX Varos Publishing. And when the book was published, she helped me spread the word by interviewing me on her New Books Network podcast, New Books in Literature. Besides organizing and conducting this weekly half-hour author interview show, she has found time so far to write and publish three engaging murder mysteries, the Whipped and Sipped series from DX Varos.

These are great books, and if you like a mystery, they’ll be right up your alley.

A few days ago, on your behalf, I asked Galit these questions:

ME: What made you become a novelist, and more specifically, a mystery writer? 

G.P. GOTTLIEB: In 2014-15, I made it through an epic cancer battle by dreaming of the novel I was going to write if I made it out on the other side. I’d written stories, poems, and songs, but because I loved reading mysteries, I wanted to write one. I read a lot of classics, and especially enjoyed Rex Stout’s descriptions of the gourmet food his protagonist enjoyed. In my book, I thought, I’ll also include recipes, and the food will be what I like best-vegetarian, healthy, clean. So, I sat down and started writing a story about a café owner in Chicago, very close to where I live. I worked with a fabulous teacher, spent three years perfecting that first novel, and won a publishing contract in a rare stroke of good luck!

ME: How much of your protagonist, Alene Baron, is G.P. Gottlieb? How do the two of you differ?

G.P. GOTTLIEB: Alene is nothing at all like me; she’s from a different generation, a different neighborhood, and had different dreams. Also, I have no business ability and can’t imagine running a café, dealing with employees, or facing endless dilemmas. I do love eating and drinking in cafes though, and I enjoy being around people, so maybe there’s just a little bit of me in her.

ME: What is next on your horizon as a writer? 

G.P. GOTTLIEB: I’ve started another novel in the Whipped and Sipped series (it might be called POUNDED), I’m writing lots of essays to submit to journals and as guest posts, and I’ve been working on and off on a novel in short stories for several years. I enjoy most of the process except for the marketing, which I wish wasn’t as necessary as it is. My plan for this launch is to write so much that every day people around the world look at social media and see another essay by me – some are standard, but some might be (and have been) referred to as “odd.”  As long as it entertains me to write it, I’m okay if anyone thinks it’s odd!

Writing a Historical Novel

Dear Reader: This is a Friday Reprise of material originally posted on 28 May 2019. It’s amusing to read it now, because when this was written, I thought the book was done. I had no idea! At any rate, hope you enjoy the retrospective.

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)