Archive for February, 2011

Corruption reform

February 26, 2011 2 comments

Conservatives and Liberals are being pitted against one another by corruption that thrives on loopholes that stay open as long as the people are distracted with vitriolic rhetoric.  Conservatives warn that liberal ideas taken too far lead to Socialism.  Liberals warn that conservative ideas taken too far lead to Nazism.  But both sides are ignoring the “taken too far” part.  Things only go “too far” when too much money is poured into the political process and issues and suspicions and accusations are fed like a wildfire.

Campaign reform never seems to get anywhere in Congress because too many members of Congress are beholden to the moneyed interests who are ruining the campaign process.  So it is up to the people to say enough it enough.

Some have pointed to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow corporations unlimited campaign contributions as the fox moving into the henhouse.  There is a move afoot to repeal that decision by getting Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution stating corporations do not have citizenship and therefore do not get the rights of citizens in the political process.  The Supreme Court’s decision was based on an earlier tax finding that corporations can treat certain income the same way as individuals.  That’s fine.  No one has a problem with fine tuning the tax code in ways that make sense.  But extending that rule to say corporations should have every other right of an individual citizen, including political rights, is going “too far” to the right. 

Every dictator in history has held onto power by directing public tax money to wealthy business supporters who then enforce and otherwise influence the populace to not revolt against the dictator.  Thankfully we don’t have a dictatorial government.  And thankfully we are seeing dictators around the world pulled down off their thrones.  But we can still fall into this same pattern.  Substitute “Aristocracy” for “Dictator” and the scenario becomes not only plausible but likely.

At this point my conservative brethren will throw up their hands and accuse me of fomenting “Class warfare.”  Not at all.  Businesses do hire the populace.  People who work hard should be rewarded with better lives.  Capitalism works and market forces should be allowed to control economic trends.  Lopsided wealth distributions are naturally occurring and cannot be “evened out.” 

But corruption is corruption.  It is corruption when a multinational corporation only gets that big because of unfairnesses it has bought from its government.  It is corruption when that same corporation buys laws that allow it to export jobs, slash benefits, save money with substandard products and otherwise enrich itself at the expense of its own workers and the public.  It is corruption when that same corporation hides behind campaigns of false information it has created, and shields itself from scrutiny and change by buying politicians.

And most importantly, it is corruption that feeds the noise that keeps us from seeing the corruption for what it is.  The Supreme Court’s decision legitimizes corruption by renaming it citizen’s rights.

Arianna Huffington recently published an essay where she quoted Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University.  He has coined a term Agnotology which means the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically or culturally generated. “People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth — or drowning it out — or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

I believe in the liberating power of calling things by their proper names.  It seems Proctor has renamed a very old concept: propaganda.  Yes, that’s an ugly word.  Here’s another one: indoctrination.  Even better: brainwashing.  If you bury the population with misinformation and cut off any sign of positive change, you accomplish a lowering of everyone’s expectations.  You can keep squeezing and robbing and people come to think it’s normal. 

The Constitutional amendment would be a good first step.  Passing laws that restrict lobbying would be helpful too.  But what campaign reform really needs is teeth.  If we are going to call corruption by its real name, then let us proclaim how bad it is to the public good. Violations of election and campaign laws should be enforced as treason, and prosecuted as capital offenses.  Donations to political campaigns should be limited only to those entities who can vote in those elections.  This not only cuts out PACs, corporations and unions, it also limits outside influences in local elections. The government should encourage people to participate in the election process, so campaign contributions should be tax deductable, but only up to a certain dollar amount, say $1,000.  Bigger contributions should be allowed, but on the individual’s dime.  And all political contributions must be contemporaneously made public.

The Founding Fathers knew the corrupting power big money can have over government.  They had seen wars fought by the crowns of Europe entirely for the benefit of the rich who supported them.  They gave us “One man, one vote” to level that playing field.  They also wrote extensively on how important it was for the populace to remain informed, and vigilant.  They envisioned a government by, for and of the people that would act against the kinds of big money corruption that had poisoned Europe.  They also gave us a government designed to allow everyone who works hard to live better.  Somewhere along the way, the freedom to excel became a mask for the corruption we are supposed to restrain. 

Maybe they didn’t see it coming because America was young and most of the corrupting money in Europe was old and inherited.  Growing your own fortune in America just didn’t look like it would lead to buying and selling the government.  But now, two hundred years later, most of the wealth in our country is inherited.  The top 1% of our citizens own not only 90% of the wealth, but they control 90% of our nation’s means of production, the ability to create more wealth.  We do have an aristocracy.  Denying that fact won’t improve your chances of becoming a multimillionaire.

So if this effort is to have any chance of success, if we are to save our democracy, we need to control the conversation.  It isn’t campaign reform, it is corruption reform.  And it isn’t targeting some theoretical, invisible enemy; it is targeting a very real, very present threat to our free society.

Categories: Politics

Painting with Words

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Continuing my series of repostings of articles I have written about writing in various other forums.  I wrote this one after getting a short story rejection.  Having finally sold a book, I hope this essay doesn’t come across as whining.  I think I found a few useful things to say.  Enjoy. 

Painting with Words

by Jay Hartlove

Maslow Would Be Thrilled

Having so successfully filled my life with enviable joys like a happy marriage, loving children, a good paying career and all the material bonuses that come with it, I feel somehow guilty to complain about not being able to fill that highest segment of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Creative Success.  Yes, I got another rejection today.  Being the romantic (read desperate) silver lining seeker that I am, I am taking this moment to reflect on this pursuit that I love so much, in spite of my commercial invisibility.

Busy Life

Since I do lead a busy life (some have said insanely so) I only get to write when everything else is done.  I’m not complaining.  The peace that comes at the end of the day, when there is literally nothing left to distract me, is a very good space from which to launch myself into the world of whatever story I am working on.  Since this peace often doesn’t happen until after 11 pm, I have given that name to my muse. 


Eleven is like most women I have been attracted to, a flirt, a provocateur, a trouble maker with a mind of her own.  I am always thrilled when she joins me in earnest, but that means I don’t get to sleep until I completely run out of gas around 2 am.  Oh, and yes, I get up at 6.  And also yes, my real wife does get jealous, which is only appropriate.

Writing Like a Painter

Writing in installments like this, and on demand, I can clearly see how the work progresses.  I have come to realize that I write the way the old masters painted with oils.  Since oil paint takes days to dry, and puts color down in layers, the painter has to carefully plan the progression from blank canvas to finished work, and wait days in between each step.  The first layers to go down are pale and easily covered up, and do little more than record the decisions made by the artist as to scope and basic layout.  The next layers fill in increasingly more detail and document more and more in-depth decision making.  Finally, the last layers are going back and embellishing on decisions already made.

Approaches to Writing

I do the same thing when I write.  Ask any six writers about their process, and you will get at least six different answers, probably more.  Some outline extensively.  Some fly entirely by the seat of their pants.  Some are driven by the need to tell the plot, while others design characters and then let those characters take the story where they want to.  You can probably guess from my paint layer metaphor that I am an outliner.

Drafts as Layers of Color

Having watched myself do this for about 30 years, I have identified six layers of “paint” that I lay down.  The initial idea gathering and note collecting is the stage for a painter where doodles capture small bits of inspiration.  The first draft for me is the barest assembly of these notes into a sketchy outline.  It basically sets up what will be the beginning, middle and end of the story.  This “pencil sketch” is really just a test of whether the story concept holds together well enough to be worth pursuing.  If not, then the concept is abandoned and the story bits (the doodles) are filed away for possible future use.

Who Are These People?

Once an outline shows promise, I typically ask who are the characters whose story is being told.  This is the artist working out the details of the main figures in the painting.  I add how and where in the story we will find out the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations.  A key question I try to answer at this point is why are these characters the right characters to be telling this story.  This addition usually takes the one page story sketch up to a three page outline.

Going Back With New Eyes

You can see where this is going.  The idea is to take advantage of the enforced breaks between writing sessions to come back with a fresh perspective.  By reimagining how a situation would feel to be in it, or to ask anew how a character would react, now that you know them better.  I try to change my perspective as much as possible with each new draft.  I wrote my first novel back in 1984 before personal computers were widely available.  The first complete draft was handwritten in spiral bound notebooks.  Then I got a word processer, took off my writer hat, put on my editor hat, and rewrote it as I typed it.  I don’t have to reach for such dramatic changes now to achieve refreshed viewpoints, but it was very useful when I was just figuring out how to do this.

A Story to Tell

Once I have a basic plot arc, and have decided who is telling the story, I then get serious about figuring out the story sequence.  As this stage the story starts sounding like a story.  I establish goal markers and decide how the information will feed to the reader.  Now I don’t just have a “this is what the story will be about.”  Now I have a story I can tell.  At this point the outline is actually a synopsis of the story and is up to about ten pages (for a novel).

Fleshing It Out

If I have been excited enough by the story to have gotten this far, I will have started imagining what key sequences and interactions will look like, so I add them to the outline.  I start hearing the voices of the characters and start seeing how they react to plot developments.  I fill in decisions about setting and history and character back stories.  I adjust the plot to fit the characters.  This is the stage where a painter has painted the rough of the background and middle ground, and now adjusts lighting and tone so the figures work in the rest of the painting.  By now I am up to twenty or more pages, and ready to start actually writing text.

Using the Outline While Writing the Book

As I get to the plot or character development landmarks I have set along the road, I reassess how much information the reader should have by now, and how best to move the story along.  Sometimes this means sticking to the original plan, but often it means making more adjustments to the plan, and the plan document, the outline.  So I change the outline to fit what I have decided while writing.  The value of this is, when I am not writing, but I have a minute to think about the story, I can pull out the outline and run through it again to affirm or change decisions I’ve made.

Draft No. 5

The first finished draft of a novel is therefore actually Draft Number 5.  The one-page sketch became the three-page outline, which became the 10-page synopsis, which became the 20 plus page working roadmap, which then became the completed first draft.  I have run the story in my head countless times and have made countless changes along the way.  Whether I have told the story in the best possible way is still an unknown, but I know I have gotten where I wanted to go.  The bridge reaches the other side of the canyon, the belt goes through all the loops, whatever metaphor makes sense, I have told the story I set out to tell.  The painter can put down the brush and step away for a moment.  Because now I take off both the writer hat and the editor hat, and put on the critic hat.

The Vanishing Book

Now I read the book cover to cover as if I had never seen it before.  Does the pacing work?  Do you know what you need to know by the time you need to know it?  Do the characters make sense?  Can you sympathize or identify with the protagonists?  Is the central conflict of the story believable?  Do conflicts get resolved in ways that make sense and are satisfying to the passive reader?  All those heartless critical questions need to be answered as objectively as possible.  And any unsatisfactory answers must be addressed with changes.  This is where the painter, having painted what he set out to paint, must now make his vision convincing by adjusting a shadow here, a glint there, to create a seamless experience for the viewer.  The painting has to vanish, and the viewer must only see the picture the painter is presenting.  Anything that doesn’t fit, anything that distracts the reader from the story being told must be adjusted or removed.  The book must vanish, leaving only the story.

A Note about Humor

Once the first written draft is done and I am in rewrites, and I am approaching the point where I have said everything I ever wanted to say in the story, one of the things I check is the dialogue to make sure people still sound like themselves.  This is also the stage where I insert quirky and humorous touches.  I write about deadly serious things, and I have to make sure to allow humor to enter where it should.  Even in the direst of times, people find humor in life, even if only in irony.  The fact that I don’t tend to dream up humorous concepts and tend to add humor as a flavoring at the end has no doubt limited my commercial appeal.  The rejection that inspired this blog entry included an advisory that I was welcome to submit again, and the magazine was currently looking for quirky, humorous stories.  Oh well.  

Painting With Words

So when you hear someone talking about painting with words, don’t make the mistake so many beginning writers make of thinking this means painting detailed pictures in the reader’s mind with a lot of adjectives and adverbs.  To me it means going back and adding things you forgot, or have thought of since, now that you have had time to think about it more.  It means adding layers of color in the form of better and more refined decisions.  I have come to respect the usefulness of fresh looks due to my interrupted writing schedule.  But even full time writers need to step away and come back.  Having multiple projects going at the same time provides another mechanism for stepping away.  I am finishing my third novel, and I have seven others plotted up to the ten page synopsis stage.  If I feel like I’m not seeing what I need to see on the current priority project, I will pull one of the others to the front for a week or two.  When I pull up the main project again, I usually see something new that gets me all fired up.

Maslow be damned.

Categories: Writing

Biting Off Too Much

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I wrote this original online essay for all of my creative readers a couple of years ago.  The two books I talk about, The Chosen and Daughter Cell, are now done.  My experience is as a novelist, but I think my comments can translate to songwriters and fine artists as well.  I hope you find this helpful.  I wish someone had told me this 30 years ago when I was starting out.

Biting Off Too Much

Finding the balance between challenging and digestible

By Jay Hartlove

I spent a number of years grousing about how commercial success meant selling out to small mindedness.  The idea of an elevator pitch made my skin crawl.  (An elevator pitch is a 30-second synopsis of your story that you give to an editor or other buyer when you catch up with them in an elevator.)  The counter argument given by the publishing industry is if you can’t say what your book is about in less than four sentences, then you don’t know what your book is really about, or worse, your book isn’t really about anything.

I ran head long into this argument when I wrote an admittedly ambitious book that had two complete but intersecting storylines.  It was called, “The Passover Tarot.”  One storyline was a religious horror story, and the other was a medical thriller.  My two central characters were a magician and a geneticist.  I wanted a complex story.  I got booed out of New York.  Three different editors, two with publishers and one free lance, all said the same thing: too complicated to keep a reader hooked.

I still liked my characters and my story, so I split it into two novels.  The religious thriller (now called “Chosen”) still has many scientific elements, and the medical thriller (now called “Daughter Cell”) still has a big supernatural component.  Both stories work.  Both are quite marketable.  Once I get done with rewrites, you may well see them on bookshelves someday.  But I was left with the nagging question, what line had I crossed with the first combined book?  How complex is too complex for a reader to digest and enjoy?

Digestibility has a lot to do with the rate of information feed.  One trap I fell into was trying to be too mysterious.  You don’t want to give away too much too fast, lest you spoil the mystery of what is going on.  But if you hide too much until too late, the reader will not know enough about what is happening to get interested.  You who are writing the story know what’s going on, so it’s tempting for you to play keep-away with the reader.  But you and your enthusiasm won’t be there when the reader opens the book.  If you don’t give them enough soon enough, they will close the book.

I am a very visual writer.  My movie fandom has led me to see my stories on the big screen as they play out in my head.  But movies have an advantage over books when it comes to information feed.  A motion picture throws an enormous amount of information at the viewer.  Even if the story is boring and the characters are flat and nothing makes sense, the viewer is still “in the room” experiencing what the characters are doing.  Not so with a book.  It is also much less likely for a viewer to get up and leave from a bad movie than for a reader to put down a bad book.  The moviegoer is more invested in the movie-going experience.  You put down a book and you’re right back in your own life where you left it.  The result is, movies can get away with playing keep-away a lot longer than books.

Having big, scary, unexpected things happen to your protagonist right off the bat is a good hook, but you had better be forthcoming with why those things happened, or your reader is going to see through your stunt, yawn and move on.

Withholding critical information from a protagonist, and therefore the reader, is a staple of suspenseful writing.  It is not the same as keeping the reader in the dark as to what is going on in the story.  And it is even moreso not playing dishonestly with facts in the story.  Purposely cheating the reader by revealing the falsity of established facts is a cheap trick and should be avoided except in that rare instance when it makes perfect sense for the story in your carefully crafted twist ending.

Why is adding complexity to a story a good thing?  The world is not simple.  Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  Cause and effect cling to everything all the time.  If you don’t explore at least the obvious consequences of the actions in a story, it will not feel real.  If you are telling a police drama, you don’t have to follow every victim through counseling, but you should require the cops to deal with the effects of their actions.

High school composition writing classes teach there are three things you have to describe to tell a story, characters, plot and setting.  They also teach each story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You can have all these things and still fail to make your story feel like it is happening in real life.  The key missing ingredient is the word “describe.”  To make it feel real, you have to describe your characters, plot and settings in sufficient and interrelated detail that the reader feels like he/she has visited a piece of reality, with the same subtleties and vagaries readers are used to experiencing in the real world.

My two-story book was based on the notion that if life is complicated enough that only magicians and scientists can figure it out, then it should be complex enough that a successful magician and a successful scientist would have to cross paths.  Here’s a hint.  If it takes 43 words just to describe the central theme, even before you get to the plot, then you might have bitten off a lot.  I can admit it now.  I allowed this theme to become a chip on my shoulder.  I was determined to make this work, to prove it could be done.  And I did it.  Patient friends have read it and said it was ultimately satisfying.  But now I see doing it was an exercise for me, not a book for the reading public.

I sat on a panel at a science fiction writing conference about the lack of big ideas in modern writing.  I argued there are plenty of big ideas being put forth, especially in science fiction, but what is lacking is a thorough exploration of how such big ideas would impact the world in which they happen.  Even if those worlds are not our world, consequences have to be explored or it won’t feel real to the reader.

I know from my “Passover Tarot” experiment, you can have too many big ideas in one story.  Exploring them all buries the reader in a net of details.  Even the most committed reader has to put the book down once in a while.  If the story has too much going on, it will be a struggle for the reader to get back into it after a break.  That’s a fatal flaw.

There are storyline models that lend themselves to complex tellings.  Having a story impact different characters in different ways.  Giving a character a secret past.  Telling your story out of sequence.  A favorite that shows up in a lot of my writing is having a character discover the world is not as it appears.  But the key is to make it feel real by exploring enough of what you have set in motion that the reader will never say, “Hey, what about this consequence?”  With a lot going on, you have to be willing to explore a lot of consequences.

A good parallel is in painting.  You want to explore your subject enough that the viewer wants to linger and see what you have done.  You don’t want them to take it all in, in just one glance.  On the other hand, you don’t want them to be overwhelmed and confused by what they are seeing.  They may linger a moment trying to figure it out, but if they walk away shaking their heads, then you haven’t communicated what you were trying to say.

There are also mechanisms for getting information to your reader that can add complexity and therefore a sense of realism.  Switching your Point of View (POV) between two groups of characters creates a sense of time passing and simultaneity.  This is a storytelling staple, but it doesn’t add much complexity.  In fact it is so easy to digest, we see it in children’s literature from Narnia to Winnie the Pooh.

Switching between three or more different POV characters runs the risk of needing a Dostoevsky scorecard.  If you do it quickly with very short chapters, you can create a sense of urgency, but you run the risk of spinning heads like a George Lucas space opera.  Use these “camera” tricks in moderation.

If you have a story that proceeds linearly and follows one character through one plotline with no surprise impacts from a secret past or unseen influences, you can still make it seem real by just describing everything that happens in realistic detail.  Back to the painting parallel, photorealistic painting can be very engaging, no matter how simple the subject.  The amount of information draws the viewer in.

If you have made your reader work to get through your story, then you have to give them a very satisfying ending.  This sounds like the kind of commercial pabulum I rejected for so many years, and here I am espousing it myself.  But think about it.  Even if you managed to tease them along with just the right information feed and lots of interesting details, if you challenged them to keep track of multiple storylines, or multiple POVs, or non-linear timelines, then you want them to be glad they did it.  Getting a reader to finish your book is not the victory circle.  Getting them to recommend your book to their friends, that’s victory.  It doesn’t have to be wildly popular.  Challenging books are not generally embraced by casual readers.  But challenging satisfying books gain very loyal followers.

Categories: Writing
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