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Echo

Echo
     The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
     The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
     After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
      He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
     The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
     “I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
     “Dream?”
     The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
     “And used it?”
     “Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
     “And she used that one, too?”
     There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
     “Ahhh…so it was just a—”
     “That was no fucking dream, lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
     “But, you got over it.”
     “Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
     “You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
     Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
     “I’ll bet. So…”
     “So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
     The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
     For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
     “Said? I don’t—”
     “You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
     “I… You have to be kidd—”
     “Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
     “… then…then I’m…dead?”
     “As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
     “I— Shit!”
     “Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
 

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Author’s Note:
     One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
     Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
     At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
 
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
 
1 Comment

Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Short Story

 

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Honey? You’re Snoring Again.

Honey? You’re Snoring Again.
 
 
 
 
      Tired of having your sleeping partner wake you with, “Turn over, damn-it, you’re snoring again!”? That’s especially annoying when, like me, you can’t sleep comfortably on your back or side.
     Hate waking to the sound of your partner sawing wood at high volume? Dislike waking the one you care for from comfortable sleep in order to increase your own comfort?
     There’s an easy, and close to free, solution that can provide nocturnal quiet in most cases. It’s fast, it’s painless, and, also helps prevent a double chin. Win/win.
     Try this: Open your mouth and do a false snore. If you’re like me, the loudest noise comes from the back of your mouth, at the roof, and exits through your open jaw.
     Now, try it again, but this time, as you do, close your mouth, slowly, and you’ll notice that just before your lips touch, the very nature of the sound changes, and the volume dramatically drops. You’ll probably no longer be able to make the noise from within the mouth. And that’s the magic secret. Keep your mouth shut (always good advice, I suppose) and you either won’t snore, or the volume will be cut to a fraction of what it was. Admittedly, if you already sleep with your mouth closed this won’t help, but if you don’t, this is the snoring solution. Any small noises you still make can be masked with a white noise generator that will also keep you from noticing outside noises like trucks and dogs barking. Those can be picked up at places like Walmart and Babys “R” Us for under $50 U.S.
     There are lots of easy ways of keeping your mouth closed during sleep. One woman reported that she used a sleep mask under her chin with the elastic band over the top of her head. A commercial version can be found here, but you can make one of your own in seconds.
     I first used a soft two-inch wide cloth, to which I added Velcro sealing strips I had in my possibilities box. Being lazy I stapled the strips on (staple ends out). The result is comfortable and effective, though a bit strange looking since it has a decorative motif. Pictures below if you enjoy a good laugh. The only drawback is that because the material gives only a small amount, it interferes with yawning to an extent.
     A later, and more effective version was made with a four inch wide Ace Bandage, two layers thick, folded so as to produce a two inch strip. To keep it from unfolding and separating, I placed a line of stitches across the four layers every three inches or so, since stretch will be in the other direction. You can see the stitching in the picture. To obtain the necessary length I wrapped it around my head as shown, pulling it just short of the limit of elasticity. Once I established that distance I cut the bandage three inches longer than that, then overlapped the ends by three inches and sewed it into a single loop. More complicated to explain than to do. I recommend the elastic version over the original because it’s a bit more comfortable. Modest pressure is all you need, because it’s okay to allow the lips to open a trace. It’s the position of the jaw that makes the real difference, not clamping the mouth closed.
     The solution is so simple I know many of you will be saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” as I did. But for some reason not too many people have been motivated to search for such solutions, and few people I mention it to are aware that commercial products are available. But it can be a godsend. One woman I told about it came back to say that I had saved her marriage. I’ve never saved a marriage before (if you don’t count my own, of course)
     So, as a public service, you might share this article with others. I’d appreciate that. I make no money from this, so it’s not a sales scheme. I’m spreading the word because in the past six weeks the only time my wife woke me to complain that my snoring was keeping her awake was the night the device slipped off my head. It used to happen nightly, so we’re both sleeping better.

Photo0133The original test version. You can stop laughing now.

Photo0130This shows the placement of one of the two Velcro strips. They had a self adhesive backing, but that failed in a night or two so stitching (or staples in my case) was necessary. If you do elect to take the shortcut of staples, a suggestion or two: 1) be sure the folded legs of the staple face out, so they don’t scratch you. 2) Press those legs down so they don’t catch on the pillowcase (in which case, I suppose it doesn’t matter if they face in or out).

For what it’s worth, I tried making one out of several layers of an old Ace Bandage, and it was more comfortable to wear. On the other hand, it wasn’t nearly as effective.

Sleep well!

 
 

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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     The other day I reviewed a new writer’s story, all about a man named John. In the course of the first few pages John walked, John saw, John said, John thought… The list was endless and boring. By the end of the second page I wanted to throw John in the john. After three I had all I could stand.
     And people wonder why I’m so grumpy.
     Everyone knows that when we tell a story in first person we used the pronoun “I” to refer to the protagonist. No one has a problem with that. So, why is it that virtually no one understands that the third person equivalent to “I” is “he” or “she,” not John, Betty, Susan, or any other name? Turn to almost any new writer’s work, though, and you’ll find the character’s name sprinkled like salt in virtually every paragraph.
     Here’s the thing: we never think of ourselves by name unless we’re addressing ourselves from a third-party position—lecturing ourselves for some reason. What that means is that every time you, as a writer, use the character’s name in describing their action, that’s a-point-of-view-break. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to use the name because a reader might become confused over who you’re talking about. But those times are few. And readers won’t forget your character’s name if you don’t use it ten times a page. They really won’t.
     And here’s another thing that needs to be taken into account. If we more often use the other character’s names, while sticking to he or she for the protagonist, that makes the protagonist unique.
     Sure we want to use the protagonist’s name, initially, to introduce them. We also want to use the character’s name at the beginning of scenes or chapters so the reader knows who were talking about. We want to use it in dialogue, where the speaker is placing an emotional emphasis by referring to the character by name. But that’s it. Almost anything else is a POV break, and has the risk of distancing the reader from the action that’s taking place. Make sense? I hope so.
     In addition to that problem there’s the use of the possessive, his or her. That too, is often overused, because the reader already knows who the text is referring to. And when we use the possessive we often add verbosity, along with it, that slows the narrative.
     Look at a few examples:
     “As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?
     And with the line, “She moved her hands to cover her eyes with fingertips” wouldn’t it be smoother to say, “She covered her eyes with fingertips?” Of course. Yet virtually every manuscript I look at is filled with unneeded detail, linked to the possessive, like that.
     Small things kill a reader’s enjoyment, each driving in a tiny splinter of annoyance: Unnecessary references; excessive use of the protagonist’s name; unnecessary description. Each is a minor distraction, but such distractions are additive. So anything you can do to remove the unnecessary and distracting words will both speed the narrative and render the author invisible—placing us in the prompter’s box rather than on stage. And isn’t that were we belong?

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Naked Bitch


Oh naked bitch with whip and chain
You flay my soul, you burn my brain
You give me hate, and only pain
(Yet here I am with you again)
 
Oh naked bitch with eyes of flame
It’s not for me your heart to tame
To you it’s all a boring game
(I cannot seize your secret name)
 
Oh naked bitch when will it end?
My dreams you break, my soul you rend
In hell with you, my time I spend
(It’s me who’ll break, you’ll never bend)
 
Oh naked bitch with hip and thigh
Oh hear my prayer, and heed my cry
You bind my soul, my life you tie
(Please stop the hurt, and let me die)
 
Oh naked bitch, my life you crush
My dreams all torn, their contents gush
And yet to you again I rush
(And when I cry, you tell me hush)
 
Oh naked bitch, I made you so
With deed and word, and even blow
The things I did you’ll never know
(Oh naked bitch I love you so)
 
Oh naked bitch who I adore
Though thousands lay upon the floor
We run to you and ask for more
Oh naked bitch
Your name is War
 
*****

This poem came to me for unknown reasons, and is one of the darker things I’ve written, though one of my favorites. I truly didn’t know where I was going with it, until the last stanza, when I found I wasn’t writing about a woman, after all.

And, like most people who foist their poetry off on others, I have other bad habits. Thankfully, those I do in private.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on July 2, 2013 in Poetry

 

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The Church of the Really Nice Try

The Church of the Really Nice Try

 
 
 

THE CREED OF THE
CHURCH OF THE REALLY NICE TRY

 

     The beliefs of the Church Of The Really Nice Try are firmly based on scripture, and are ever mindful of both the staggering complexities of the act of creation, and of the limitations of the creator—as defined through the word of that creator, The Holy Bible.
     To understand the beliefs of the Triers, as those of the church prefer to be called, you must go back to the very roots of all belief, the first chapter of the bible, and you must stand in judgment as a parable is told:
     There was once a great engineer, who began a project that pleased him mightily. He desired to create a habitat for himself: a house of many rooms.
     For long, he labored, executing each detail of the plan exactly according to his will, until at least the habitat was finished. And he was pleased with the work he had done.
     But as time passed, the engineer became dissatisfied. He had not made the habitat fully self-sustaining, and if it was to remain in the state he desired he must either maintain it himself or create a device to do the job for him.
     Being efficient, and enjoying the challenge of creating something never before seen, the engineer built a device containing self-willed intelligence, plus the ability to modify its own program, as needed. He activated the device and saw that it was exactly as he had envisioned. And he was happy.
     But the device proved not quite adequate to the task, and required excessive attention. The engineer determined that there were some tasks that his creation could not handle by itself, and there was no way for it to perform a valid self-check on its programming modifications without the attention of its creator.
     So the engineer produced a second device, to complement the first, and to interface with it in such a way that continued production of these care-taking devices would be both automatic and self-sustaining.
     But the new device began to produce feedback of an unexpected type, and to access unauthorized data sources, until the original functionality was all but lost. The engineer was very angry, and he cast the pair of creations from his house, into an environment that would bring them constant distress, pronouncing them useless and disobedient

***

     Now, as a judge of the situation described you must ask yourself: who is at fault? Was it the creator, or was it the creation? Was the engineer justified in not only discarding his creations, but forcing them into an existence that he, himself, thought brutal and harsh? Or should he have changed the programming and functionality of the device to fit it more smoothly into his plan?
     The answer is obvious, God screwed up! But that conclusion is inherent in the very statement that God created mankind in-his-own-image. Like us, he is fallible, subject to temper tantrums, and all of the rest of the characteristics that make the human race what it is.

***

     Of course you must be demanding further proof of the fallibility of the Lord. That is the human and reasonable thing to do. So, though this is a rather abbreviated version of the creed of the church, let us explore the matter further:
     Almost immediately after the description of creation there is a short chapter detailing the liaisons of certain occupants of the lord’s heavenly domain with the women of the Earth—often against their will—who produced children as a result. This chapter clearly shows that God has difficulty controlling, and even knowing about the actions of his underlings—scarcely the actions of an omniscient and omnipotent being.
     Directly following the described difficulty with his underlings, God looks out upon a world populated with the sons and daughters of his creatures, and he sees naught but chaos and evil. He becomes justifiably angry at the depravity and licentiousness of his creations, and states that he regrets having created mankind. He vows to correct the situation by putting all life on Earth to death by drowning, save for a favored few. The implication is that this single family will procreate, following the flood, and fill the world with decent human beings.
     The creator then causes Noah, the chosen one, to build a vessel with which to survive the coming flood. It is vitally important to note, at this point, that God planned to change the basic nature of mankind, in one single generation, without intervention on his part other than an act of genocide, directed against the rest of the planet’s population. And he chose the new breeding stock, not by characteristics passed on via genetic means, but by those qualifications that are a result of social and educational background. In other words, the plan was doomed from the start! In demonstration of that, shortly after the descendants of Noah repopulate the Earth God is forced to destroy a city for precisely the reasons he destroyed the entire population of the planet. And though you and I can see the fallacy of God’s plan, God obviously could not—leading to the primary tenant of the church:

He Did The Job Without A Formal Education

 
      But who was there available to teach him? Who was there to suggest that he make changes in the human gene structure, rather than endlessly punish them for flaws he, himself, had inadvertently included within their basic mentality. Still, given the conditions he had work under, and the staggering magnitude of the task, we derive the second tenant of our church:

It Was A Really Nice Try!

 
     A really nice try. But the job was never finished, because of the nearly infinite complexities of the task, coupled with the limitations of the creator. Look around you. Is this what God had in mind for the human race and the planet? Of course not. Over and over, in the text of the bible, he tells us what he wants, and over and over he fails to deliver the message in a form suited to move humanity toward his goal, leading to both the third and fourth tenants of the church.

He’s Not A Good Talker
He Doesn’t Really Understand Us

 
     Like any engineer, he is far better with things than with communications and relationships. After all, who does he have to discuss the issues with in order to gain experience and skill? No one. So it falls on us, the members of his church, to continue the task of building, leading to the fifth, and most important tenant of the church.

It’s Time To Take Over The Job

 
     It’s time for you and I to realize that the task is incomplete, and that it has been left to us to finish the work. Creation is over. The tasks that only a divine being could manage have been finished. Now the human part of the job must begin. Perhaps the task is too small in detail for his abilities, perhaps he has simply given up. Whatever the reason, God cannot tell us how to live together, so it falls on us to solve that problem. We must manage the resources of a world, and must find ways of living together without constant warfare. We must make him proud of his creations, and justify his creation of the universe. This then, is the ongoing task of the Church Of The Really Nice Try.
     There are those who claim a direct contact with the lord, and a channeling of his power. But good people die while bad ones are miraculously healed, while the Lord allows millions to be murdered in the name of an ideology. More telling than that, he allows millions to die, sacrificed to his name. Which leads to the sixth, and final, major tenant of our church

Don’t Expect Miracles

 
     Certainly, one should hope for divine help, and certainly one should praise the Lord for having created the magnificence of the universe, but The Church Of The Really Nice Try is for work, not worship. It is for thinking, not blindly following, and it is for the greatest work a human being can do: The work of God.
     Visit your neighborhood Temple Of Brotherhood In The Faith Of The Really Nice Try. Or visit our webpage at:

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Author’s note:
 
     I began this in the spirit of fun, highlighting some of the inconsistencies of the Bible. My goal was to infuriate those people who have word “holy” appear on their forehead, while their reasoning powers diminish to zero, when religion is mentioned.
     But as I wrote this, a strange thing began to happen: I began to wish there were such a church, one focused on finding ways to get along, rather than punishing all who disagree with whatever ideology the group embraces.
     And that’s how I became founder, patriarch, and bake sale chairman of The Church of the Really Nice Try.
     At the moment I’m also the only member, true, but I get to wear some really cool purple robes and carry a staff. I get some funny looks, of course, but women really go for a man in purple robes.
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     I hope you enjoyed my little fantasy. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the piece is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well. And if you hate me for writing it, push share, so more and more people can hate me as you do. Win/win ;–)
And if, perchance, my efforts pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. And if it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me.
     If you’re in the mood for something a bit longer, make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 

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Stories, and Why I Hate Them – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Stories, and Why I Hate Them – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     Okay, this is another rant. Why? Because I’m pretty damn tired of reading Stories. And that capital S is there deliberately. I like stories. I just can’t stand Stories.
     Talk to any group of new writers or visit any online writers community and it’s all about Story. Look at the posted work on those communities and it’s always the same. They’re all focused on telling their Story. And that’s it. That’s the whole and only purpose of the writing, to make the reader know the Story. Except that it’s not. Writing fiction is about entertainment—interesting, satisfying, and time filling entertainment.
     Flush the idea that readers come to us for Story. Burn it. Shred it. Feed it to the hogs. Just get rid of it, because readers don’t give a damn about Story until they close the book, lean back, and say, “That was a _______ story.” (Fill in good/great/lousy/etc. as appropriate)
     Until they do that, all that matters is the writing. Think about it. I can take any situation, hand it to virtually any competent writer and say, “Write me a page about ___,” and be certain I’ll get a page that will entice the reader to continue to the bottom and then turn to the next page. It can be about a physical battle, a romantic tryst, or taking out the damn garbage. It doesn’t matter, because that skilled writer can entice you through their ability to make the scene both real and interesting to read, through their presentation skills, their command of point of view, and through their knowledge of what it takes to please a reader. That’s what sets the professional writer apart from all the wannabees. It’s not having great plot ideas. It’s not luck or “natural talent,” It’s knowing how to write for the selected medium. It’s knowing the little tricks of how to to hold a reader’s interest.
     And if you have that ability. If you can can entice your customer to read from top to bottom of the page because they want to, and do for three hundred fifty pages in a row, you’ve written something the reader will enjoy, and recommend to friends. And isn’t the entire purpose of buying fiction to find reading enjoyment on every page, from top to bottom? I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure don’t buy fiction and plow through a history lesson on the life of a fictional character just so I can find an interesting twist on page three twenty-five. That twist is a plus, not the reason I’m still reading well past bedtime. I’m doing that because of the writing.
     If your plot isn’t all that great a reader might say it wasn’t much of a story, true, but they will call it a satisfying read. And that’s what writing is all about. So give your customer a readable page, paragraph, sentence. Choose your words to entice. Think about making every single reading moment compelling, or at least more interesting than whatever a given reader might do where they not reading your book. Just, for God’s sake don’t focus on Story, because that’s history, and history is boring.
     Why? Because history is a chronicle, not a story. It’s a collection of facts, and we usually read facts to be informed, not entertained. They’re devoid of emotion because they’re about completed, and immutable events, not those events as they unfold. And I’m not talking about the use of past tense in presenting the story, I’m talking about being in the character’s moment of now, no matter the tense the writer elects to use in the telling.
     When we read history we’re not sharing the adventure and we have no emotional investment. We’re learning. We won’t worry if some action or plan of the protagonist will work because it’s already happened and we’re only being told the sequence in which it happened. But worry is something readers feed on. It’s worry that causes them to care, and it’s the trick we use, as writers, to hook our reader. If you can make a reader worry they care about the character’s future.
     Worry makes a reader speculate on what the protagonist should do, and what they, themself, would do, were they living the scene. And since the character is just as uncertain as we are, we form an emotional bond with that character because we have something in common, without realizing why, or even that we do. We only know that we want to know what will happen next. And if the writer is skilled enough to make it seem that the story is progressing in real-time (and we certainly should be) we will feel exactly the same sense of urgency the character does.
     But…if we tell the story as a chronicle of events, there can be no sense of urgency because it feels like a report, not something going on around us. And why does that matter? Because a report can be put aside. Great writing can’t.

 

A VTech Christmas Present Warning

A VTech Christmas Present Warning

 
 
 
     VTech, the toy company, has a perfectly delightful little toy called the Alphabet Activity Cube. One of its many features is that the child can choose and insert one of the supplied blocks into a well on the toy’s front, and be entertained with, “Good…you found a G,” or a song featuring that letter. Unfortunately, more then ten percent of the time the letter inserted isn’t the one the toy announces. Usually, it will be one higher or lower in the alphabet, but at times it’s way off and seems a random choice.
Producing a toy that is supposed to teach our children their letters, but which provides the wrong letter, is unconscionable.
     I called VTech’s support line, and though the toy has been on the market for some time, the representative claimed that no one had reported the problem before. He suggested that it was a malfunction of that particular unit, not the product, and that I should exchange it for another of the same model. Yet, when I checked the local store, every one of that toy on the store’s shelf demonstrated the identical inability to recognize their letter blocks.
     For forty years, computer and computer system design was my profession. On hearing the toy misread for the first time, my reaction was that there was a programming problem, probably improper initialization of a register, or poor handling of an interrupt. But whatever the cause, it was a design error, not a defective part in that unit. And that’s been demonstrated as true by its reproducibility in every toy tried. It gives me no pleasure to be right, in this case, because the little girl loves the toy.
     Perhaps most people wouldn’t notice it, or put it down to mishearing the announcement, since the toy’s sound quality isn’t that high and a second insertion of the block usually brings the correct response. But VTech should have easily found the problem during normal acceptance testing, so it appears that their quality assurance department needs to be better educated on testing methods—and the need to test for long enough, and hard enough to actually find the bugs.
     I have to add that I’m not at all impressed with the company, in general. I discovered the problem on the weekend. Since their phone hours are active only during Monday through Friday business hours, I elected to use the email address supplied on their documentation. It didn’t work. I next tried the hyperlink they provide on their website. But that only demonstrated that, yes, the mail address isn’t active. Another thing they weren’t aware of, according to the phone rep.
Not exactly what you would expect from a reliable company. But further checking showed that VTech is just another Chinese company pushing crap out the door, working or not working, for a buck. It didn’t come as a surprise.
     So the bottom line? Avoid this toy. And if you’re a parent expecting gifts from friends and relatives for your little one, make sure they know. Our kids are far too precious to let someone take advantage of them this way.

 
 

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