Monday, October 28, 2013

Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award

Well, I had a busy Saturday night. I'd known for some time that I was one of the three nominees for the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the emerging author category. (I was really hoping I'd get to punch my way out of a giant egg to dramatize my emerging status, but no.)

Anyway, I was sure I would not win. I didn't prepare any remarks. I didn't put the champagne in the fridge. I almost wore a bathrobe to the event. (See, they said to wear business attire. Well, for a writer, business attire = bathrobe and giant mug of coffee. I would have done it, too, but my wife, Margaret, said I'd be sleeping in the guest room until New Year's Day if I did.)

But somehow I wound up lugging this giant glass book-shaped trophy home. My name is on the spine in gold leaf. Pretty, huh?

I'm not going to lie, the best part about this award is the check that's attached. Five years ago when I was writing ASHFALL, Margaret and I were so poor that we thought we might lose our house. Things are immensely better now, but $5,000 is still enough to make a big difference for us. The second best part of winning is the opportunity to make a $2,500 gift to a library of my choice. I woke up in the middle of the night last night with an insanely awesome idea for using that gift. Now I just have to see if the library will go for it.

The third best part of winning the award was, without question, the other emerging author finalists, Tricia Fields and Kelsey Timmerman. You can see their pictures to either side of mine in this photo:

Photo by Peggy Tierney

One of the first things I did after learning that we were all finalists was to rush down to Central Library and check out their books. Here's Tricia's debut:

It's a crime novel set in a remote town on the Mexican border. Tricia's prose is spare and lovely, and the novel moves along at an electric pace. Tricia is married to an Indiana State Police investigator, and every detail of the book rings true--at least in my admittedly inexpert ears. If you enjoy crime fiction, police procedurals--heck, if you've ever seen CSI--buy a copy today. Margaret tells me that the sequel, Scratchgravel Road, is every bit as good. I haven't read it yet, but the copy we bought on Saturday is perched atop my teetering to-be-read pile.

I'm insanely jealous of Kelsey Timmerman. He has traveled all over the world to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about the people who make the stuff we wear and eat. Take this book, his second:

He wrote this book in less than a year while traveling to four continents to research it. It took me two years to write SUNRISE and I traveled to . . . Iowa. I have no idea how he managed to write such a lucid and empathetic account of how the other 95% of the world lives while spending much of his life on the road. I certainly couldn't do it. If you enjoy travel books, want to know more about the food we eat, or more about how those who produce it live, buy a copy of Kelsey's book.

I was also thrilled to spend some time with family I see too infrequently, so I'll leave you with this picture of my sister-in-law Caroline, her daughter Anna, and her son, Max. As you can see, it was a memorable Saturday night for all of us.

Photo by Peggy Tierney

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Seventh Grade Teacher Forces Me to Write Bad Poetry

So, I got this email a few hours ago:
Hello Mike, 
My name is Uma* and my son enjoys reading your books and has chosen you for an author study for his English class. He's in 7th grade.  The assignment is to pick three books written by an author (but only one from a series). For the assignment Omo* has read Ashfall and the novelette, Darla's Story.  This is how I'm hoping and praying you can help? By any small chance do you have a short story, poem, or any other piece of writing you'd be willing to share with my son so we can complete his reading assignment?

I know I'm probably asking too much but I though I'd give it a try as the assignment is due this Tuesday and if we can't find a short writing by you we have only a few days to restart the assignment which isn't possible.

Thank so much in advance for even reading this email and hopefully considering helping my son with this dilemma.

All my best,


Here's what I wrote back:
Hi Uma*,

Good lord, that's an annoying assignment. Let the poor kid read what he wants to!

Sure, here's some haiku for your son. I'm sorry, I'm a terrible poet, but hopefully this will do:

Reading is more fun
when students are allowed
to choose their own books

This is fun! Let me try another:

There's nothing wrong with
reading a series, one book
after the other.

Hey, maybe I'm not as bad as haiku as I thought! I'm going to write a non-haiku now. Ooh, poetry level-up! I'm even going to do a title like real poets. Here we go:

Children Who Read

Are less likely to use illegal drugs,
Are more likely to delay sexual activity,
Score better on standardized tests (not that it should matter),
Are less likely to wind up in juvie or prison,
And are more pleasant to talk with.

Yet some teachers
Squeeze the joy from reading
Turning passion into peels
Dry and lifeless.

Yet some teachers
Try to quantify the unquantifiable
"Its Lexile is too low."
"You can't read it."
"Its Lexile is too high."
"You can't read it."

Yet some teachers
Give rewards for reading
AR points or chemical candies
Though reading is its own reward.

Other teachers nurture readers.
Guide their book choices
instead of forcing them.
Some teachers collect books like gems,
but share them like love.

To teachers who sow books
in the furrows of young minds,
And to readers who persevere
despite their teachers,
I give

Hmm, hope that helps. If my poetry is too political, you could use this:



And she wrote:

Hey Mike-

You're amazing! Thank you so much for your concern! I'm sure this will fulfill the assignment requirement!

Omo* says thank you and he hopes you have plans for future novels!

We'll never forget your help!

All wishes for your successful future,

Uma* and Omo*

*I have changed the names of the mother and her son for privacy. I've also edited their emails in trivial ways. I edited the poems I sent them for this post, too, because my first efforts were far too embarrassing to share on my blog.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why I'm No Longer a Democrat (And Why You Should Give Up Your Party, Too)

Lately my social media feeds have resembled raw sausage links that have been left out in the sun for eight days. They're packed with rancidness, their casings so swollen that they're threatening to burst. Since the U.S. government shutdown began, social media appears to me to be more vituperative than at any time since the 2012 presidential election.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Now 99% of the people I meet in person are lovely--friendly, nice, and kind. By the law of averages, about 31% of those people are Democrats, and about 22% are Republicans (Gallup, September 5-8, 2013). It therefore follows that at least 30% of the people I meet in person or online are lovely Democrats and at least 21% of them are lovely Republicans.

So why can't we just all get along? Why is the internet such a cesspool of political animosity? And why can't we agree on basic premises, such as: 1) the U.S. government ought to stay open, and 2) the U.S. government ought to pay its bills?

Part of the problem with internet discourse is the internet itself. It was designed to share information among groups of scientists who already knew each other. It has long since outgrown that purpose, and it's not particularly well designed for the way we use it today. For more on the fundamental defects in the internet, see this post.

But there's another, even larger problem. Psychologists have been studying political partisanship for some time, and it turns out that rational thought and partisan affiliation generally don't co-exist in our brains. When self-identified partisans of either party are faced with a  question that touches on their political beliefs, the parts of their brains associated with emotion light up under an fMRI scan. The parts of their brain associated with reason are relatively quiet (summary, study). Partisan thought "is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain's pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected." Source. Note the second part of that quote--the brain will reward a partisan with a shot of dopamine when s/he rejects unwelcome information, regardless of whether that information is true or not.

More recent research shows the problem to be even worse. Political partisanship is so damaging to the rational parts of our brains that it even impairs our ability to do math (summary, study). And the better you are at math, the more impaired partisanship will make you.

This research has profound implications for our media. If you're consuming partisan media, you're paying attention to people who literally can't think straight. Would you listen to a bunch of newscasters who regularly went on the air so drunk that they couldn't engage the rational part of their brains? No? Then you should ignore Fox News and MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, The Blaze and The Daily Kos, and pretty much all talk radio.

If you cite or link partisan sources on social media, I'm going to assume that--like the "journalists" you're citing--you've lost part of your capability for rational thought, at least where politics is concerned. And I'll probably hide your posts. It's nothing personal--I also hide the posts of drunk people. Well, unless they're really funny. Then they're okay.

I know that journalists are people and that all people have biases. That's why it's so important to get your news from people who are actively trying to overcome their personal biases. Who are banned by their organizations from partisan political activity. Who are committed to facts, not opinion, whose goal is to inform, not to seek political advantage. I get most of my news from NPR, Reuters, and PBS. I used to visit The Huffington Post occasionally, but I gave that up last year, even before I was aware of the partisanship research, because I noticed a long string of articles with "facts" that, well, weren't factual (and Huffpo ignored my emails pointing out their errors).

The other change I'm making? I no longer consider myself a Democrat. I've always voted split tickets, but 2012 was the first time that I can recall voting for more non-Democrats than Democrats, so this is not a radical change for me. I'm making the change because I value the quality of my thought more than any possible party affiliation. Henceforth, I'm going to identify myself as an Independent. One of the things that gives me hope for the U.S. despite our current mess is that Independents are the largest political affiliation and appear to be growing. If you're still a Democrat or Republican, I hope that--for the sake of your rationality and your country--you'll consider joining us.

Monday, October 7, 2013

An Argument With My Editor

One question I occasionally get asked: "If you and your editor disagree about something, what happens?" Well, here's a play-by-play of one such disagreement for your edification and (hopefully) amusement.

I'm a fanatic about words. I always strive to find the perfect word, the one that communicates the exact sense of a scene or feeling. My editor at Tanglewood Press, Peggy Tierney, is a fanatic about voice. She's always trying to keep the prose in my books in the protagonist's voice, Alex's voice. In that sense we complement each other, but it also leads to an occasional argument.

I turned in my third rewrite of Chapter 48 of SUNRISE yesterday--well, the third rewrite since the manuscript went to Tanglewood. I have no idea how many times I rewrote it before I sent it in. Anyway, I got this note back from Peggy today (you may have to click on each email snippet to see the whole thing):

 I responded:

 Then, after two minutes of deep contemplation, I realized I was wrong and sent this:

 Forty-five minutes later, I get a reply:

Obviously she hasn't read my second email--here's what she sends one minute later when she gets to it:

And my reply:

And hers:

So there you have it--a tell-all expose of a knock-down, drag-out word nerd argument!