Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Authors: don't make stupid mistakes when you should be impressing readers

Errors in online text are the electronic equivalent of a piece of lettuce stuck between two front teeth, an open zipper, upside-down wristwatch, or toilet paper trailing from your ass. They are evidence of carelessness that distracts people from your message. Textual errors are especially bad for authors who want to sell their words.

On an online forum for writers, editors and publishers, someone was trying to attract attention to a new book and get advice for promoting it. He wrote, "My first novel . . . will soon be relaesed
to Amazon, B&N and e-books."

That typing error is not a big deal, but it stands out like a sore thumb and could have been easily fixed before the world saw it. Also, a novel is not released "to" e-books.

Sadly, these errors are part of a pattern of carelessness limiting the effectiveness of this new novelist who is trying to sell books in a very crowded field.
  • Some of the errors in one short blog post include "bias" instead of "biased," "wonderous" instead of "wondrous," "existance" instead of "existence," "Capitalism" instead of "capitalism," "was" instead of "were," "socio-economic" instead of "socioeconomic" and "hell bent" instead of "hell-bent."
  • In just a few paragraphs of his online book sample, he wrote "marines" instead of "Marines," "cake walk" instead of "cakewalk," "whaopping" instead of "whopping," "coffee-table" instead of "coffee table," "main-room" instead of "main room," "oak, dining table" instead of "oak dining table" and "table-lamp" instead of "table lamp." There is also improper punctuation.
The author is a good storyteller, but he's a careless author. Based on the online sample, the book—like the cast of Saturday Night Live—was "not ready for prime time."

Every word an author writes is part of an audition. An author is never "off-duty." No author (and no non-author) is perfect, but perfection must be your goal. Bad spelling, improper grammar, missing punctuation or wrong choice of words are intolerable in books and everywhere else. NEVER rush through a sentence or paragraph and excuse your errors by saying "it's only a blog post," "it's only a tweet," or "it's only a comment on Facebook."

image from Thanks.

Monday, September 24, 2018

What if Stormy Daniels refuses to write a blurb for your book? Also, beware of blurb whores and blurb swappers.

Every author dreams of having cover blurbs (endorsements) from famous people who'll say nice things which may entice other people to buy books.

Often, especially for a new author with a new book, it's just not possible to get the attention of a celebrity or expert who will add authority to yours.

That doesn't mean your book has to be blurbless.

There's nothing wrong with asking for and using blurbs from friends and family if what they say will be appropriate to your book. Later on, if the President, Stormy Daniels or Oprah Whinfrey falls in love with your words, you can revise the cover to incorporate the new comments.

The first book from my tiny publishing company, Silver Sands Books, was I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life (2008). It deals with my life. It made perfect sense to use blurbs from people who know me, rather than some distant Nobel Prize winner or bestselling novelist or historian.

The book is funny.

Identifying Howard Krosnick, the source of my front cover blurb, as "author's classmate since first grade" is almost a parody of the traditional stuffy IDs ("professor of Indo-Eurasion folk medicine at the University of Guatemala), and reinforces the mood of the book. Howie said, "I couldn't stop reading. I couldn't stop laughing." Blurbs don't get better than that.

Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults) is an updated replacement for the 'flunk' book. It has a fantastic cover blurb which says, "This book is so funny that I nearly peed in my pants. My girlfriend didn't think it was funny, so I got a new girlfriend."

The blurber, Nicholas Santiago, is someone I know through business. His words are sufficient. I see no need to explain who he is, and I doubt that Lindsay Lohan, Ivanka Trump, Paris Hilton or Perez Hilton  could have written a better recommendation. I received "five stars" and some nice words from the Midwest Book Review—but those words are not as funny as Nick's words.

Most blurbs I've seen are written by authors, and many of them are not well-known authors. Apparently "Author A" thinks she or he will gain some useful publicity by having a quote printed on the cover of a book written by "Author B."

(above) Barbara Barth wrote a wonderful book, The Unfaithful Widow: Fragmented Memoirs Of My First Year Alone. The back cover shows great reviews from authors Philip Nutman and Patrice Dickey. I never heard of them. The reviews on Amazon from 'ordinary' readers may be more persuasive. 
  • Try to avoid obvious blurb swaps (“I’ll kiss your ass if you kiss mine.”) Tit-for-tat is tacky.  
  • Some authors are apparently so desperate for publicity that they become 'blurb whores.' I know of one author whose name seems to be on many more book covers as a blurber than an author. When someone writes a huge number of blurbs—particularly for books in the same field—the blurbs (and the blurber) lose credibility. 
  • Avoid blurbs (and reviews) from people who are connected with your book. I know of one book that carries a blurb from an employee of its publisher, and another with an Amazon review from the book's editor. 
There's nothing wrong with your acting as a writing coach for your blurbers. You can even write a complete blurb and ask someone to "adopt" it.

If you’ve written a how-to book, the best blurbs will come from people who have actually been helped by it.

A good way to find “amateur” blurbers who might write sincere comments about actually benefiting from your book is to observe online communities that are concerned with your subject. If you find articulate people with problems your book solves, offer to send them free advance copies (even PDFs or word-processing files if bound copies are not yet available or if you will not be publishing on paper) in exchange for their comments. You can say that you’d like to know if the book was helpful and how it can be improved. Mention that you might like to quote their comments, but don’t guarantee it.

James & Geoff. Which one did I sit next to on a plane?

Don’t be too timid to approach famous authors, politicians, business leaders and celebrities, especially if you have something in common which can create a bond. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Write a good letter and explain how you think the book relates to the prospective blurber. Find a reason to compliment the candidate. If possible, refer to a time when you were in the same place, perhaps during a speech or a book signing or on an airplane. (I once sat next to James Earl Jones. Hmm. Actually, it may have been Geoffrey Holder.)

Short blurbs are usually better than long blurbs. Humorous blurbs (if appropriate) are often better than serious blurbs.

Request blurbs as long in advance as possible—as soon as you have a draft of your book that is good enough to show. The book does not have to be complete. You can probably get by with an introduction, a table of contents, and a few chapters sent as a PDF. If you want a blurb from someone famous, it’s probably better to send an ARC (advance reading [or "review"] copy) than a PDF.

Incorporate good “early” blurbs into your back cover and first page as soon as possible. If other blurbers read them, they may be more likely to write similarly positive comments.

Mike Duran discusses blurb etiquette.

The Stormy Daniels photo came from NBC News. Thanks.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Authors: Whistle while you work—or have a device that whistles, hums or sings to you

Music can make life—even work—more pleasant.

I had thought that "Whistle While You Work" came from the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South, but it was actually part of the 1937 animated Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The song shows Snow White and a bunch of cute animals happily whistling while cleaning house.

This song even generated an anti-Nazi parody:

Whistle while you work.
Hitler was a jerk.
Mussolini kicked him in the peenie.
Now it doesn't work.

Snow White is the source of another popular work song. "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work I go" is sung by the seven dwarfs.

When I was a kid, we sang this parody:

Hi-ho, hi-ho
It's off to school I go.
I heard the bell
And ran like hell.
Hi-ho, hi-ho.

In 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai, showed Allied POWs whistling the "Colonel Bogey March" to maintain morale and dignity while building a bridge for their Japanese captors under horrid conditions. That song was written in 1914, but it, too, was the source of an anti-Nazi parody in the Second World War.

Göring has only got one ball
Hitler's so very small
Himmler's so very similar
And Goebbels [mispronounced "go-balls"] has no balls at all

Slaves may have sung since ancient times to mitigate their misery. In the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles, Lyle (played by Burton Gilliam) taunted the mostly black railroad workers: "When you was slaves, you sang like birds. Come on! Let's hear a good, old nigger work song!"

Around 1980, I was writing about 20 hours a day to complete a book with a very tight deadline. I discovered an NPR radio show hosted by Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes. Ed played great jazz after midnight, and the music kept me awake enough to keep writing.

Although I enjoy many kinds of music, and my home is filled with radios, plus recordings and the equipment to play them, I somehow got out of the habit of playing music while I write. I recently rearranged my home office, and rediscovered the great Tivoli radio that had been on my desk for over a decade. While I'm in the car, I love talk radio, but when I'm writing I find that voiceless music is less distracting, very comforting, and sometimes even stimulating.

So, turn on some music—or whistle while you work. It was good for Snow White and the prisoners.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

I shouldn't need a mortgage to buy a book (updated from 2015)

I love words. I love etymology. I love learning about languages. I love English. This book seems to be written for me.

The description on Amazon says: "This outstanding book is for everyone interested in English etymology and in loanwords more generally. It will appeal to a wide general public." [emphasis added]

The description doesn't indicate that the book contains hundreds of beautiful color pictures printed on expensive glossy paper. It apparently has lots of words about words.

I'd love to own this book—but various versions of the book are priced from $33.78 to $64.99. I don't have $64.99 worth of love. The book is priced for libraries, not the "general public." The $42.24 DISCOUNTED! Kindle edition is absurdly overpriced.

The publisher is arrogant, ignorant and short-sighted. Maybe in a few months I'll find the book in a dollar store.

I've previously complained about what I call ego-driven book pricing, but the other books I mentioned were not books I cared about. This complaint is about a book I do care about. This complaint is PERSONAL. I feel deprived, and I am pissed off.
  • When pricing a book, remember that if the book is priced too high, especially if it's much higher than competitive books, or if it seems to offer poor value, few people will buy it.
  • If your book contains some vital new discovery needed for business or government, you can charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
  • If your book provides entertainment for the general public (and especially if you are an unknown author with well-known competitors), keep the price below $25 for the hardcover pbook, under $15 for the paperback and under $10 for the ebook.
UPDATE: The book is now available for less than $11. Did he publisher read my previous complaint?

Monday, September 17, 2018

What goes between the pages of your book? (updated from 2009)

The main parts of a pbook (printed book) book are the spine, front cover, front matter, body (or body matter), back matter and back cover. There’s no anti-matter unless you’re writing sci-fi. Ebooks have images of front covers (and sometimes even back covers).

The front matter may seem utilitarian and as boring as a real estate lease, but it can be very important. Potential buyers, both in bookstores and online, often read or skim these pages as part of a buying decision, so pay careful attention to them. They should be written as well as your main text, and should help to sell the book.

What follows is a typical sequence for front matter. Sometimes pages and sections are skipped, or sections are combined or switched around.


Pages in the front matter traditionally have no page numbers printed on them, or have Roman Numerals. Since I publish my own books, I make my own rules, and I like numbers on almost every page and I avoid Roman Numerals. When you publish your book, do what you prefer—but prepare to be criticized if you vary from tradition.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Because of the growing importance of online sales, there is a trend to move some items that traditionally were in the front matter into the back matter, or to eliminate some items entirely. This way, people who are glancing through your online sample quickly get into the "meat" of the book and are not delayed by uninteresting pages.

The half title (or bastard title) page is the first right-hand (“recto”) page and has nothing other than the title of the book. Half titles are often added to create an additional page with something on it as opposed to a blank page. The half title page is not necessary, is somewhat archaic, and its use seems to be declining, particularly in less formal books. It’s a pompous waste of paper. Why the heck should anyone have to read your title THREE TIMES (four if you count the spine) before starting to read the book? If you have a half title page, the back of it (the first left-hand or “verso” page) is usually blank.

Sometimes the first recto page will have comments from readers or reviewers to help sell the book. Some books have several pages of comments. I think one is enough. Three pages of glowing and gushing endorsements may help to make a sale if someone is browsing in a physical store or online, but they are wasted on a reader who has bought the book wants to skip the “commercials” and start reading. One page may help reassure customers that they made a good choice, but don’t waste any more trees or electrons.

Sometimes the first verso page will have a list of the author’s other books, blogs, etc. I put this up-front in my early books, but the list has grown and is in the back matter of my recent books.

The title page may be the second recto page if you have a half title before it, or it may be the first recto page. It may even be farther back if you have a comments page. It has the title, subtitle, author’s name and publisher’s name. It may also have names of other people involved in the production of the book, such as a co-author, editor or illustrator. The address of the publisher can go on this page or the next page.

The back of the title page is usually called the copyright page. It has the copyright notice, the ISBN to identify your book, Library of Congress catalog information (if any), and the printing history or revision or version. It may also contain disclaimers or legal notices, and contact information. Tip: If your book is published after September, use a copyright date for the next year. This way your book will always seem to be one year fresher as it ages.

The next recto page is often a dedication, where you get to thank or kiss the butts of some important people in your life, whether or not they were involved in making the book possible. I often push this page a bit farther back, after the table of contents, because it’s usually less interesting to potential purchasers. Traditionally the page will not say “dedicated to,” but just “to” or “for.” Don’t forget to thank your parents.

The table of contents can be an important sales medium, so make it complete, clear, informative and well-written. If chapter titles don’t explain what the chapters are about, put in some explanation. For a fiction book, you can skip the table of contents, unless the book is a collection of short stories. The sequence of chapters and the numbers of their starting pages will frequently change as the book evolves, so make sure the final version is accurate. I once left two chapters out of a table.

Note: most ebook formats are "flowable" and the books have no fixed page numbers, just a sequence of chapters.

It’s frequently recommended that you call the table simply “contents” and leave out “table of.” However, James Felici, author of The Complete Manual of Typography, one of the best-looking and most informative books about the publishing business, has a full-fledged “Table of Contents.” I would never criticize him, and if you put out a book as good as his, I won’t criticize your table of contents either, no matter what you decide to call it. James came up with a nice innovation that you may want to emulate. Ahead of his complete ten-page table of contents he has a one-page “contents at a glance” to make it easier to find the major sections. If you have a large complex book, try it.

If you have charts, tables or illustrations, you can put a list of them and their pages after the table of contents. If you don’t think people will be impressed by the list, or will look for specific items, it’s probably a waste of space. As with the table of contents, make sure the page numbers (if any) are accurate.

The foreword (not “forward”) is an introduction, but it’s not written by the author. It’s often written by someone who knows the author, or—even better—by someone famous. If the writer of the foreword is famous enough to possibly increase sales, the name can go on the book’s cover and title page. The foreword generally includes a reference to some interaction between the foreworder and the author (“The first time I met Pete I was arresting him for smoking crack. I had no idea he’d become a brilliant business consultant.”) The foreword should explain why the book is important, innovative, well-written and tastes good.

Unlike the foreword, the preface (pronounced “preffis”) is written by the author. It’s an introduction to the book (but some books contain both a preface and an introduction). This is your first opportunity to talk to your readers. You can say a bit about yourself, why you wrote the book, what you went through to write it, and what you hope it will accomplish. The preface is usually signed by the author (in type) and the date it was completed and the city (but not the state) where it was written. The date and city seem a bit fuddy-duddyish to me so I don’t include them.

Sometimes the preface is followed by an introduction if the book needs a more formal explanation of what comes ahead.

The acknowledgment (or “acknowledgement”) is the section where you thank the people who helped you to research, write and complete the book. You can just have a list of names, but it’s more common to have at least a sentence to explain what each person did. I sometimes combine the dedication, thank you and acknowledgement into one section. I've even thanked the people who buy my books. This is a good place to flatter your seventh-grade English teacher if she was not listed earlier on the dedication page—especially if you think she’ll show off the book and help to sell more copies.

The prologue goes only into a fiction book. It usually introduces a character, or provides a "back story" that’s important for understanding the book. Prologues are a bit old-fashioned, and often what is put into a prologue could function as your first chapter.

Now, at last, the front matter is finished and you get to the part of the book that matters most—the body matter, or just “body.” It’s usually divided into chapters, but the chapters may be included within several sections or parts. The body typically takes up 90% or more of the book.

Next comes the back matter, usually starting with the epilogue in a serious literary work (not a book on motorcycle maintenance). It may relate the fates of characters after the end of the main story, tie up some loose ends, or even prepare readers for a sequel. The tone of writing is usually the same as the body of the book.

An alternative or additional way of wrapping up is an afterword. This is a section where the author addresses the readers, as in the foreword many pages previously.

An addendum seldom appears in a Print On Demand book or ebook. It’s a section where the author can provide additional material, explanations or corrections that couldn’t be in the body of the book because those pages were printed already. It may be an actual printed page bound into the book, or a separate piece of paper, a CD-ROM, or even an online file.

Endnotes are pretty much like footnotes, but they’re gathered together at the back of the book. Endnotes may be numbered to correspond to reference numbers in the text, or just refer to specific pages. They can offer information or explanations or cite the sources for statements in the text.

The glossary is an alphabetical listing of terms used in the book or related to the subject of the book, with definitions. Don’t bother to include common words.

The bibliography is a list of books and other reference sources consulted while writing the book. It may also suggest further reading, even if the recommended books were not consulted by the author.

The index is an alphabetical list of words and phrases used in the book, with the pages they are found on. Indexes can be constructed by a PC, or manually by the author or a professional indexer. If you make any changes that could cause words to shift from one page to another, you'll have to redo the index. Ebooks are usually searchable and don't need an index.

The term “colophon” comes from Latin and Greek words for “finishing,” and usually explains why the book looks the way it does. It may include a list of typefaces used, and indicate who designed and printed the book, and possibly some technical details of the printing. A colophon is not mandatory nor common, but I sometimes use one because it gives me a chance to sound off about bookmaking.

It’s common for a book to have a paragraph or even a page or two “about the author.” It should be written in the third person, even if you write it yourself. Make it interesting and entertaining, and convince potential readers why they should trust you and your book. Include your photo if it's not on the book's cover.

If you have graphic images in your book, you should have a list of photographs and drawings, with the names of the photographers and artists who produced them. Try to list them in the same sequence they appear in the book, but page numbers are optional.

Finally, after all of the printed pages, most paper-based books have one or more blank pages. Books are printed from large sheets of paper called “signatures” that are cut to provide different quantities of different size pages. It’s unusual for a book to be designed with a number of printed pages that perfectly matches the number of pages provided by the signatures. Consult with your printer to find out the possible number of pages you can have. By slightly stretching or cutting your book, you can minimize the blanks at the back. It looks really stupid—and wastes trees—if you have half a dozen blanks. Some printers, and vanity presses such as Infinity Publishing, even put blanks in the front of the front matter. That’s unforgivable. Ebooks seldom have blank pages.

Keep in mind that you’ll probably have to reserve the last verso page for a bar code, an identification number and “Printed in the USA” or another country.

(Illustration from Thanks.)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Some tips for finding a "bargain" editor for your book

While writers' magazines and directories have lists and ads for professional editors, (and yours truly is available for editing), there is another potential source of high-quality editing that may be available for less money, and the editors may be available to do your work much sooner.

Check with some journalism departments and college newspapers—perhaps where you went to schooland chances are you'll be able to find several bright and eager candidates. Read some samples of their work. Maybe submit a sample chapter for editing. Ask faculty members for opinions. Then make the deal.

I was the copyeditor for the Brown and White student newspaper while a journalism major at Lehigh and did some editing of other students' term papers—but not books.

Roseliny Genao edited some of my early books while on the student newspaper at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and she later went on to MIT for an MBA. "Not too shabby" as Adam Sandler said.

Students' skill levels will vary, of course, and so will your needs and their prices. You can pay per hour or per project. Expect to pay more if you need major rewriting than just copyediting.
  • A student who has a part-time job making minimum wage flipping burgers will probably be thrilled to earn $20 per hour, or $300 - $500 for a publishing project.
  • The vile Outskirts Press charges 1.6 cents per word for copyediting.
  • The vile Xlibris charges 1.1 to 1.3 cents per word for copyediting. 
  • BookBaby charges $7 per page for copyediting and $10 per page for line editing. The company estimates 250 words per page, so that works out to be about 3 or 4 cents per word. 
If the job goes well, be sure to put your editor's name in the book. If you used a student, send a note to his or her faculty adviser.

As long as you're investigating colleges, consider hiring a professor, not just a student. If you're writing in a specialized field, it could be worthwhile to hire a faculty member to check your facts, and pay someone else to polish your prose. Different kinds of editors do different kinds of editing.

[photo of Dartmouth building came from Yahoo]

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

MB is another horrid 'publisher' to avoid

Over the years I've used this blog to skewer incompetent authors and the companies that try to take their money. Today it's time to poke MB Publishers, a South African company that is trying to operate internationally. The company name apparently comes from the initials of author Marilette Barbara van Heerden, whom I assume founded the company after publishing a self-help book with Balboa Press.
The "about" page on the MB website is ghastly. I would not trust MB to publish blank paper.
  • Spelling and grammar are abysmal.
  • A publisher should be able to spell "publishers."
  • A bibliography is not a novel.
  • The entire site is filled with unnecessary uppercasing, and has inconsistent unnecessary uppercasing.
I wonder if the company has any editors who know how to use English. I published a newspaper when I was in sixth grade and it was much better than the crap turned out by the incompetents at MB. If a publisher's own website is this bad, we have to assume that its books will be equally bad--or even worse. Like its competitors, MB offers a variety of publishing packages with different prices and services. Packages are named after animals, ranging from the $70 "caterpillar" to the $25,200 "blue whale." They include 'free' books that are not really free, of course; and even if you spend $25,200 you'll have to pay extra to have those books shipped to you. The more expensive packages include a "National Radio Station interview" or "National Television Interview." MB doesn't specify the country where the interviews will be broadcast and probably can't guarantee that the interviews will be broadcast.
A publisher's website is both an advertisement and audition. It should be a sample of the best work the company can do. MB has failed its audition. Not surprisingly, the product description of an MB book I saw on Amazon was similarly sloppy, as was the interior of the book.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Books and sins

I've always had a strong (and maybe strange) reverence for books. Maybe it comes from my parents, who were avid readers. As a Jew, I am part of "the people of the book." When I was in college I sometimes spent food money on books. I was still building bookshelves two weeks before I was due to move out of my college apartment.

When I see books in the trash, I rescue them. In junior high school when a friend's older brother and his buddies gathered around a barbecue grill at the end of the school year to burn their school books, I tried to rescue them—but was blocked by superior forces. Assholes!

I seldom think of sin, but if sins do exist, book burning is certainly high on the list. (I'm posting this on Rosh Hashanah. That's the first day of the Jewish New Year of 5779, and the beginning of the ten "Days of Awe" or "Days of Repentance." This is a period for introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. Since I am absolutely perfect, I have no reason to repent. Other opinions may vary.)

Books have always been extremely important to me. As the photo at the top shows, even as a little kid, I used the bathroom as a library so not a moment of potential reading time was wasted. (I wonder why my parents put me on the toilet while I was wearing a diaper.)

The sales brochure for the Bronx apartment my parents brought me home to in 1946 boasts of "built-in bookcases in every apartment." Now in 2018, I can visualize only two pieces of furniture from that apartment: the bunk beds I shared with my sister Meryl, and a mahogany bookshelf that later moved with us to other homes.

As a child with an early bedtime, I read books by flashlight under the blanket. Even now, I share my bed with my wife and often a pbook or my iPad or Kindle Fire.

Before TiVo gave me the ability to fast-forward, I always read during TV commercials. I read at most meals—even at restaurants. Some people think it's rude. I think it's efficient.

After writing paperbacks since 1977 and ebooks since 2009, I decided to publish my first hardcover in 2011, a new format for my "stories" book. It evokes new emotions from me. The book feels very good. It looks beautiful, with a glossy dust jacket and the title and my name stamped in bright golden ink on the cloth covering the binding.

A hardcover book provides a special experience. Perhaps ebooks will replace paperbacks, but I don't think anything can replace hardcovers.

Torah scrolls are still handwritten, after thousands of years. Grave stones are still chiseled. Initials are still carved on trees. They should still be readable long after the last Kindle and Nook are recycled.

Even though I am the sole employee of my publishing company, my hardcover seems about 96% as "professional" as the similar Tina Fey book from publishing giant Hachette. Even though I've seen my cover design and read the title hundreds of times, I can't resist holding the book, feeling it and studying it. Even though I've read my own words hundreds of times, I can't resist reading again.

I got the idea to write this book way back when I was 11 or 12. I'll probably become 73 next Spring. I'm not sure if this book represents my life's work, but if it does, that's OK with me. I'm very proud of the book (I've never thought that pride is sinful).  I honestly think it's a very good book and fortunately, so do the reviewers.

Hardcovers make more impressive gifts than paperbacks and maybe they'll even impress book reviewers who would ignore a paperback.

My hardcover book seems so much more "real" than other formats. I'm almost in awe of it and didn’t want to mark up the first proof with a red pen as I do with my paperback proofs. It would seem like defacing a library book—and that's a sin.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

What year is this for Jews, Chinese and Muslims? (Also: the Jewish vuvuzela, Sadie Hawkins Day and Chinese food)

Jewish people are celebrating a New Year, "Rosh Hashanah" in Hebrew. (The o is long and the a's are short so its vowel sounds rhyme with "bo hahaha." 

"Rosh Hashanah" is a transliteration of the Hebrew words meaning "Head (of) The Year." "Rosh" means "head," "Ha" means "the" and "Shanah" means "year." "Of" is understood, so it doesn't have to be written.

As with most languages, Hebrew has varying pronunciations. Some pronounce the "Rosh" as "rawsh." A less-formal (and perhaps more Yiddish-like) pronunciation of "Rosh Hashanah" is Rusha (like Limbaugh) shunnah (like shunner).

Hebrew and Arabic are similar Semitic languages. The Hebrew "shalom" (which is used for "hello," "goodbye" and "peace") is "salaam" in Arabic. The Islamic New Year's Day is "Ras as-Sanah" and begins on the evening of Tuesday, September 11. (I will resist the urge to mention another Islamic connection with September 11). The new Muslim year is 1440.

The picture up above shows a "shofar." It's a ram's horn used to make toots and squeaks to celebrate the Jewish new year. It's kind of a Jewish vuvuzela. Some shofar humor is here and here.

The common New Year's greeting is "Shanah Tovah." (It rhymes with blah-blah nova.) There are longer greetings, too.
  • In Hebrew the word for "she" is pronounced like "he" and the word for "he" is pronounced like "who." The word for "who" is pronounced like "me." The word for "fish" is pronounced kind of like "dog." (And you thought English was confusing?) My first name in Hebrew is "Mee-cha-ail." means "who is like God." I'm not sure if it's a question or a comparison. Maybe my parents chose the name because they thought I was divine prenatally.
Sunday night is the beginning of the first day of the Jewish year 5779. Like every other day, it's also the first day of the rest of your life, and my life. In the Jewish calendar, "days" (and holidays) start at sundown—not a microsecond after midnight.

Adapted from The Jewish calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth around its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon around the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth around the sun (a year). These three phenomena are independent of each other, so they have no direct correlation. On average, the moon revolves around the Earth in about 29½ days. The Earth revolves around the sun in about 365¼ days—about 12.4 lunar months.

In the Jewish calendar, months have either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to the 29½-day lunar cycle. Years have either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to the 12.4 month solar cycle—which creates a problem.

A 12-month lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than a solar year and a 13-month lunar year is about 19 days longer than a solar year. The months drift around the seasons on such a calendar. To compensate for this drift, the Jewish calendar uses a 12-month lunar calendar with an extra month occasionally added.

Instead of the February 29th Leap Day (also known as Sadie Hawkins Day, when women are allowed to propose marriage to men) the Jewish calendar can have a leap month.
  • Jewish holidays that have fixed dates in the Jewish calendar have changing dates in the western "Gregorian" calendar. Most western Christian holidays, like Christmas, have fixed Gregorian dates. Easter, on the other hand, moves around. Some people say that Jesus's "last supper" was a Passover seder. Passover and Easter are usually close. Christmas and Chanukah (often inaccurately called the "Jewish Christmas") may be very close together, or weeks apart.
The year number on the Jewish calendar represents the number of years since creation, calculated by adding up the ages of people in the Bible, back to the beginning. This does not necessarily mean that the universe has existed for fewer than 6,000 years of about 365 days each. Even religious people readily acknowledge that the first six "days" of creation are not necessarily 24-hour days. A 24-hour day would be meaningless until the creation of the sun on the fourth "day."

There is no universally agreed upon starting point for the Chinese calendar. Tradition holds that the calendar was invented by Emperor Huang-di in the 61st year of his reign in what is now known under the Gregorian calendar as 2637 BCE. Many people have used this date as the first year of the first 60-year cycle of the Chinese calendar, but others use the date of the beginning of his reign in 2697 BCE as the start. Chinese Americans use 2698 BCE as the basis for numbering the years. Some Chinese people are 60 years ahead (or behind) others.

Adapted from The Chinese Lunar Calendar names each of the 12 years after an animal. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha summoned all of the animals to come to him before he departed from Earth. Only 12 came, and as a reward he named a year after each one in the order they arrived. The Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality.

The Chinese calendar provides leap months, like the Jewish calendar. Jews and Chinese have much in common—emphasis on family, education, entrepreneurship and love of Chinese food. During World War II, some Jewish refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe found safety in China. Shanghai Ghetto is a great movie about that period.
  • So, if according to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5779, and according to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4715, what did Jewish people eat during the 1064 years ("the Dark Ages" or the "Hunger Years") until Chinese restaurants appeared?
Happy New Year!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Try writing something you think you can't write, or hate to write. Even poetry. Or a novel. Or nonfiction.

I once wrote a poem about a wiper. Could you?
When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher was a miserable bitch—hated by almost every kid in the class.

We were once assigned to write an essay about poetry. At the time, I pretty much hated poetry, except for funny stuff like one of the world's shortest poems, by Ogden Nash:

"The Bronx?
No thonx."

Basically my essay said something like I hated poetry because it is artificial and is much less efficient than prose for delivering a message.

I DESPISED faked/fudged/phony constructions like:

"My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty."

I got an "F" on the essay.

Elliot, one of my classmates, got an "A" for a few pages of bullshit about poetry "opening a golden door into the soul of the poet."

I was sent to the guidance counselor for guidance and discipline.

I did not get any discipline but I got some valuable guidance: Give the bitch the same kind of bullshit that earned Elliot the "A."

In other words, if you want to succeed in life, give the audience what it wants, even if you have to lie or sell out.

I didn't think it was good advice then or now. An audience can usually determine if a performer's heart is not in a performance.

A few weeks later, we were assigned to write poems. That was even worse than having to write about poems.

Rhyming is probably a natural activity and source of amusement for every kid.

But going from "Roses are red, violets are blue. Sugar is sweet but I hate you" to something of homework quality would have been a major leap for me.

I was desperate to avoid a second flunk from the bitch, so with help from my father I did come up with something that I still think is pretty good. It was about a windshield wiper destroying rain drops. I don't remember it all, but it started with:

"Oh wiper, you viper,
You snake on the glass.
You strike hard and swiftly.
You kill with each pass."

I got an unexpected "A" on that one.

I also got an "A" on a second poem that involved some event in international relations in 1959 or '60. Apparently President Eisenhower was being pressured by the dreaded commies to give in on some diplomatic negotiating.

I need a word to rhyme with "now," and my father suggested the phrase "but Ike would not kowtow."

I had never heard "kowtow" before, and thought my father had made it up just for my poem. Pop explained that it came from a Chinese word meaning "submit" and I kept the word. The bitch knew what it meant and was impressed.

(Impressing teachers is not necessarily a major achievement. One time in college I used "lifestyle" in an essay and the professor put a note on the page about it being an excellent choice of words. In my mind I gave the professor a lower grade for being impressed by such routine terminology. Apparently "lifestyle" was a big deal in Bethlehem, PA in the 1960s.)

In high school I became a pretty good rhymer. I wrote some silly poems and songs about bad teachers.

I've never bought a poetry book, but I do have appreciation for rhyming lyrics, especially:

"Lady Madonna, baby at your breast
Wonders how you manage to feed the rest"
(Lennon & McCartney)


"When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone"

I have no plans to write serious poetry, but being forced to succeed at something I hated has probably been useful to me as person and as a writer. I have gained appreciation for those who do write poems well, and I sometimes insert rhymes in my prose just for the fun of it.

This is probably the third time in over 50 years that I used the word "kowtow." It's not part of my normal writing vocabulary, but if I encounter it, I don't need to get a dictionary.

I've been writing nonfiction since I was a journalism major at Lehigh in the 60s. I never aspired to write "the great American novel." Or even a lousy un-American novel.

However, I've often been told that I have a great imagination and maybe I was wrong to shun fiction. 

As an experiment I wrote a novelized back story as the first half of a nonfiction book, Internet Hell. I think it turned out well and readers like it. I enjoyed the freedom of not needing to care about facts, truth and reality—but my training and experience as a journalist made my unreality realistic.

I think all writers should experiment with genres outside their comfort zone. You might enjoy it, or even create something great.

. . . . . 
wiper photo from Thanks.