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On Writing

Micromanaging creativity in the name of diversity undermines them both

Stephen H. Provost

“Does it matter if it's not ‘historically accurate’ to write a fantasy book about a diverse cast of people?”

I found it hard to believe I was even reading this question.

It was posed in a comment to my most recent blog entry, where I addressed the issue of diversity in the film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the novel upon which it was based.

I was going to respond to the comment there, but then realized I had a bigger point to make.

First things first: my answer to the question. When a story is set in a specific historical time and place, of course it matters.

It matters for the same reason it mattered that Gods of Egypt utilized a nearly all-white cast. That film, like Miss Peregrine, was clearly a fantasy, but it was just as inarguably set in a specific historical place. Depicting the population of ancient Egypt with a cast of European actors was absurd – not because it was politically incorrect, but because it was inaccurate.

It would have been just as absurd to populate the cast of Vikings with Senegalese or Brazilian actors. Or to transport a large number of Asian, black or Native American characters to a Welsh island in 1942, the setting for Miss Peregrine.

If you start rewriting history to conform with your political agenda, how are you different than the Soviet propaganda machine that sought to rewrite history in the mid-20th century? Or the Taliban warlords who destroyed the giant, ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 because they were an “affront to Islam.”

History is important because it links us to our past: the good, the bad and the ugly. Destroy or doctor it, and we forget where we’ve come from. We lose, to some extent, a sense of who we are.

Preserving history

This is precisely why diversity is important. We must, indeed, never forget the Holocaust or the slave trade or racial segregation or the European plunder of the land we call the Americas from dozens of established, sovereign nations.

But we don’t get to cherry-pick history. We don’t get to treat it as some sort of a smorgasbord and skip straight to the dessert – even for the sake of something we believe to be a noble cause in the here and now. The Russian Communists and the Taliban thought they were fighting for noble causes, too. Who decides?

Your political agenda shouldn’t. History should.

And by the same token, your political agenda – whatever it is – shouldn’t determine what a writer or a filmmaker or any other artist gets to create. We tried that once before in reaction to those Russian Communists. They called it McCarthyism, and the result was that everyone who didn’t conform to the prevailing definition of political correctness was either persecuted, blackballed or both.

It might not be typical – and it won’t be popular in some quarters – to characterize McCarthyism as a form of political correctness, but that’s exactly what it was. And in the minds of those who believed America was being infiltrated by “pinkos” and “commies,” it was the noblest of causes.

Today, we’re dealing with a different sort of political correctness, attached to a different cause: diversity. Or at least one definition of it.

Who would argue that diversity isn’t a noble cause? Certainly, I won’t. Then again, I couldn’t have disputed that the Soviet Union was a threat to the United States during the McCarthy era and beyond. There were, without a doubt, Russian spies in the United States during the Cold War, and the Cuban missile crisis really did push us to the brink of nuclear war.

Stifling diversity

The irony is that many of those championing what they call diversity are, in fact, undermining it.

How? They’ve defined it so narrowly that only their particular standards for diversity will do, and they’re demanding that writers and filmmakers adhere to those standards. The result, if they’re successful, will be precisely the opposite of diversity: It will be a series of books and films that exist within a very narrow spectrum, reducing writers to a paint-by-numbers approach that encourages tokenism at the expense of intellectual honesty.

In my blog on Miss Peregrine, for example, I pointed out that the story was, in fact, built around a persecuted minority (the Jews during World War II, as portrayed both by actual Jewish characters in the story and, allegorically, by the peculiarly gifted children). It also showcases strong female characters, such as Miss Peregrine and Emma.

But that, apparently, isn’t good enough for some folks because it doesn’t fit their definition of diversity.

So how precisely should we define diversity? My wife wrote her Mad World trilogy that featured a Latina protagonist in the first two books and a gay hero in the concluding volume. Is that “good enough”? Or was she remiss not to include a transgender individual, a Native American character and an autistic character in the mix?

The fact is, though, that she didn’t write her books the way she did to meet someone else’s standard of diversity. She did so because she wanted to; because she thought that writing what she did, the way she did, resulted in the best story.

Encourage diversity. Celebrate it. Promote it. But don’t mandate your definition of it in each and every creative work that happens to cross your desk or meet your eyes. If we start mandating that every book or movie include X number of this or that minority, that’s not diversity, it’s conformity.

The ends and the means

Am I proposing that we stop working toward a more diverse world?

Precisely the opposite. I’m suggesting that certain critics are actually impeding diversity trying to micromanage the issue.

We need to take a broader view. True diversity doesn’t demand that every piece of entertainment we create be mashup of Vikings and Roots, any more than it promotes one white suburban retread after another. Instead, it embraces and celebrates a spectrum of creative endeavors ranging from Barbershop to Miss Peregrine to Brokeback Mountain to Pan’s Labyrinth.

Diversity is the lifeblood of the creative process. It’s something that truly artistic people naturally embrace because it is, when it comes right down to it, the wellspring of originality. It’s what sets the creative writer apart from the propagandist, whose narrow visions are built on mandates and agendas, not creative freedom. A world without diversity is a world of repetition, tedium, stagnation.

Awareness and freedom

Critics who see and decry a lack of diversity have a point. They want to change it, and so do I, but in some cases, I believe they’re going about it the wrong way. Awareness is essential, but so is creative freedom.

Artists and authors won’t achieve diversity by fighting among themselves and trying to micromanage one another’s work. We aren’t promoting diversity when we try to shame others into creating the kind of art we deem “acceptable,” any more than we’re doing so when we stack the deck at awards ceremonies to favor “people like us.”

We’re promoting diversity by creating original work, and then by championing that work – not by condemning someone else’s.

If we want to point fingers, we shouldn’t be doing it at one another, because the people at fault for a lack of diversity in the arts aren’t the artists themselves. They’re the money men (and women) who are content with endlessly rehashing the same tired material in one reboot and retread after another because they’re “safe bets,” rather than taking a chance on something original. Safe bets all look alike: no diversity – and no creativity.

The two go hand-in-hand.

Being an artist is challenging enough without having to contend with the sort of squabbling and internecine warfare that, at the end of the day, stifles diversity rather than promoting it. We have better and more important things to do. We have new stories to tell, new characters to invent, new worlds to create – which is precisely what we ought to be doing.

"Miss Peregrine" didn't lack diversity. It was about diversity.

Stephen H. Provost

Do people pay attention to books anymore, or do they wait for the Hollywood adaptation to care? Do they understand the power of allegory, or are they content to go looking for something on the surface that might offend, and then use that something the basis for dismissing a story entirely?

Three years ago, Ransom Riggs released a fabulous book called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” This story held particular fascination for me, not only because it was deftly told, but because it was based on old photos the author had collected at flea markets, swap meets, antique shops, etc.

I’ve never met Riggs, but I like to think of him something of a kindred spirit. The old photos he collected inspired his fiction in much the same way that my own historical research provided the inspiration for my novel “Memortality.”

But despite the book’s quality and popularity, the story didn’t make its way into the nation’s collective consciousness until it was adapted into a Tim Burton movie. And now, much of the attention is focused not on the story, but on a controversy over whether the film’s cast was diverse enough.

I think that’s a shame – not because diversity isn’t worthy of attention (I wrote a book about it titled “Undefeated”) – but because the furor seems to be overshadowing a fantastic story.

Before I go any further, a few personal thoughts: In addition to being a fan of Riggs’ book, I found the movie enjoyable. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Burton’s, but I’m not a detractor, either. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies over the years, while others I found to be so heavy on style that they overwhelmed the substance.

I’m also well aware that Hollywood has far too often ignored clear opportunities for diverse casting, particularly (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Edward James Olmos have been rare exceptions) in lead roles.

But here are two questions worth asking:

  1. Do moviemakers have a responsibility to “diversify” a film based on a book that apparently lacked that diversity to begin with? And
  2. Are authors responsible to champion diversity in their stories and, if so, how?

The first question leads to the second because, as far as I could tell, the characters in Riggs’ book weren’t particularly diverse … in the conventional sense. I don’t recall reading explicit references to characters who were identified as racial minorities, and the vintage photos the author included in the book depicted, by and large, white children.

CRITICS MISS THE POINT

So Burton’s casting was based largely on Riggs’ writing, which, in turn, was based largely on those photos he found at flea markets and swap meets. Does that make Riggs somehow tone-deaf to the issue of diversity?

No, it doesn’t. For one thing, the story includes strong female characters, such as Miss Peregrine and Emma, who appear to be more formidable than any of the male characters. For another, some of the characters are Jewish, and the story takes place in the midst of World War II, when people of Jewish ancestry were the most persecuted individuals on the planet. The explicit comparison the author makes between the Nazis (human monsters) and the hollowghasts (paranormal monsters) couldn’t be clearer.

Even more to the point, the “peculiar” children are depicted as having to hide in a time loop to escape the cruelty of those who would persecute them for being different. And on top of that, each child is different in his or her own unique way: One floats unless she’s held down by heavy shoes; another spits out bees; another transplants hearts into robotic models.

The cast of characters is, in fact, nothing if not diverse. It’s not about skin color or ethnic background; the point is made allegorically, and very effectively.

I applaud J.K. Rowling for suggesting that Dumbledore was gay and saying that “white skin was never specified” when she created the character of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. But the story doesn’t live or die by the sexual orientation of its characters or their skin color. It stands on its own. So does Riggs’.

And that’s the point here. Would there have been a salad bowl of Asian, black, Native American and people of other ethnic backgrounds in 1942 on a remote island off the coast of Wales, where much of the book is set? My hunch is there wouldn’t have been.

In fact, it's more than just a hunch: According to one estimate, there were around 7,000 blacks in the United Kingdom as of 1940, out of a total population of 48 million. That pencils out to 1.4 one-hundredth of one percent.

So most likely, the town depicted in Riggs' book have been populated almost entirely - if not exclusively - by people with pale skin and Welsh ancestry. Ethnic minorities within this group would have been (following Riggs’ World War II allegory) children at the home with Jewish names such as Jacob Portman – whose grandfather, in a biblical parallel, is named Abraham – and Emma Bloom.

The first responsibility of any author or filmmaker is to remain true to the world you’ve created, not the world your audience is living in. If you create a less-believable story to placate potential critics, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of your audience.

Riggs recognized this, and he understood the power of allegory to make an important point about diversity and human nature. Both of these things helped make “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” the success it has become. And I, for one, wouldn't change a thing.

Note: Creative freedom is no less important than and, indeed, is a vital element of free expression. It cannot and should not be compromised to those who would burn books on either the altar of bigotry or its equally tainted counterpart, the shrine of political correctness. For more on this subject, see my blog titled "Micromanaging creativity in the name of diversity undermines them both."

Impostor Syndrome: The Writer Behind the Curtain

Stephen H. Provost

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

So said Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (aka the Wizard of Oz) in the 1939 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy.

The wizard, of course, wasn’t really a wizard at all. He was nothing more than a charlatan – a con man. 

In writing this piece, I wondered to myself: Did Baum, in some sense, see himself as the wizard – an impostor hiding behind a curtain, performing marvelous feats that were really nothing more than tricks or sleight of hand? 

Many of us authors do.

No small number of us are prone to viewing ourselves as men and women behind a curtain. Our books serve as our magical veil, which both connects us to and protects us from the outside world.

Many of us are loners who never quite fathomed the social games played by our more outgoing peers – even though we studied them scrupulously in the hope, perhaps, of imitating them. Of pretending to be a series of someones we’re not.

There’s a name for this: It's called “impostor syndrome.”

Those of us afflicted by it become so accustomed to playing roles that we wind up thinking it’s the only way to succeed.

But then, if someone happens to catch a glimpse of that “man behind the curtain,” we feel certain we’ve been found out. We aren’t real authors, after all. We’re just play-acting, and worst of all, we’ve failed in the one thing we believe we just might be good at: putting one over on the public at large through some elaborate ruse.

When we do venture out of our literary cocoon for book signings, presentations, conventions and the like, we often take great care to avoid any possible missteps. We don’t want to give off even the slightest hint that we might be something less than the larger-than-life image we’ve projected onto that curtain. It’s called keeping up appearances … or, to our way of thinking, maintaining the illusion.

Two sides of the curtain

Writing is both the perfect and absolute worst profession for those of us suffering from impostor syndrome. It’s perfect because it allows us to relate to the world in a very intimate way, scrawling or typing out insights and details that other, less observant sorts, are wont to miss. Yet in the same moment, it denies us the very intimacy we crave because it separates the real “us” from the world we’ve been so carefully observing.

We can create worlds of our own in which to find refuge from the real one, wherein reside all manner of critics ready to expose us as the frauds we’re certain we really are.

Our writing is our curtain.

But that veil of protection can’t shield us from our own desire for acceptance … which we’ve merely transferred from ourselves to our writing. Our baby. And, lo and behold, those critics out there are just as eager to bully and ridicule that baby as they were to assail us.

So we’re right back where we started.

Scathing reviews confirm that we are not now, nor were we ever, “real” writers. So do those rejection slips and emails, which bombard us as long as we keep sending out query letters.

Are you seeking affirmation? Adulation? If so, you might want to think twice about becoming a writer. Fame isn’t part of the job description unless your name is Rowling or King or Patterson. Achieving even a cult following is a major accomplishment.

And job security? Forget it – your chances of making a cushy living as a writer are akin to your chances of making it in the NBA.

Being a writer will most likely make you appreciate the day job you’ve held for the past 10 years a lot more. (Most of us have to keep our day jobs, by the way.) Think for a moment about that 8-to-5 job. Now imagine having to reapply for that position every time you completed a project. Imagine sending out another resume, going through another series of interviews, enduring another background check every six months or so just to keep doing the same job you were already hired to do.

Unless you have a contract that covers more than one book, that’s part of what it means to be a writer.

Rending the veil

Repeated rejections are the last thing you need if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome. At best, they’ll reinforce the feeling that you’re just not “worthy” (whatever that means); at worst, they’ll make you feel like even more of a pretender. “I knew I was never any good in the first place, and this just confirms it.”

Even successes are often rationalized away as flukes.

  • “I may have sold one novel, but who knows if I’ll ever sell another!”
  • “Yes, I sold a few thousand copies, but it’s not enough to pay the bills, so I’m obviously a failure.”
  • “I didn’t win that award I was up for. Those readers who bought my book? Sure fooled them!”
  • Or, conversely: “I won some award? Big deal. People still aren’t buying my book. I must have done a real snow job on those judges!”

See what you’re doing here? Not only are you denigrating your own work, you’re insulting your audience – whether it be the people who’ve bought your book or the judges who thought it merited an award. Nobody wins here. You’re only accomplishing one thing: perpetuating the singularly pernicious illusion that your talent is all just an illusion.

The curtain is suffocating you.

This is the challenge authors face when they find themselves enmeshed in impostor syndrome, and it’s why you’ll hear so many of us encouraging one another to ignore the bad reviews, wear rejection letters like a badge of honor and, above all, keep writing, even if no one seems to care or even notice.

But perhaps most important piece of encouragement anyone can offer is the reminder that the writing is its own reward. When it comes right down to it, our writing isn’t really a curtain at all. It’s more like a prism that allows us to fashion our “inner light” into an array of colors that we can send forth in unique patterns at impossible angles to illumine the world around us. We get to discover ourselves and, in the process, offer the world at large a ticket on its own voyage of discovery.

What could be more exciting than that?

Despite what we might tell ourselves in moments of self-doubt and frustration, we writers aren’t impostors at all. We’re explorers.

An impostor can only mimic what’s come before. It’s an explorer’s unique privilege is to go forth in search of something new – and, upon finding it, to unveil it for the rest of the world do see.

Then, suddenly, curtain is gone. And the wonders we've hidden behind it are unveiled in all their glory.

Curiosity: The Writer's Muse

Stephen H. Provost

Writers are born, not made … or is it the other way around? The nature-versus-nurture debate has baffled philosophers for millennia, as though there were some definitive answer to be had.

But is there really?

We’re keen on labeling and compartmentalizing things for our own convenience, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s helpful in determining whether the leftovers in the fridge are beef stroganoff or Fancy Feast.

But we creative types don’t tend to like leftovers. We’re all about cooking up something new (even if it is a new perspective on something old, like highway history, for instance). I’ve written about everything from my hometown’s history to ancient religion; I’ve penned a children’s fairy tale and a paranormal adventure. There’s no formula to any of it, but there’s common thread: It all stems from the kind of curiosity that might prompt our cat Tyrion to forgo the Fancy Feast for the stroganoff if he happened to discover it lying on out on the kitchen counter.

“Ooooooooh! Something newwwwwwww! Imma gonna try it!”

Curiosity is that singular trait that sets writers (and other creative types) apart from the crowd. It’s also the one thing that ties nature and nurture together in a package – even if that package is anything but neat. It’s a swirling, seething ever-shifting sea of endless discovery and transformation. What comes next? What’s over there? How did we get here?

When it’s not killing the cat (and most of the time, it’s not), curiosity is like a perfectly sustainable engine of renewal and reimagining. It’s a natural part of who we are, but it leads us to seek out new information, refine our craft and take the next step in our artistic development. It’s the part of our nature that nurtures us. Can we all start singing “The Circle of Life” now?

Seriously, instead of trying to figure out whether a good writer is born or made, follow in the footsteps of Puss in Boots and Pangur Bán. Get curious. Explore, discover and write about what you find, whether it be in the recesses of the past, the pages of some forgotten tome or the back alleys of your own imagination.

The more you nurture your own creative nature, the more accomplished you’ll become – and the more fun you’ll have.  

Hakuna matata.

Note: The accompanying photo does not constitute evidence concerning Schrödinger's cat. It's our own tuxedo-attired Tyrion, who's very much alive and, despite his innate curiosity, often likes to think inside the box.

"Memortality": Coming in February 2017

Stephen H. Provost

The phone rang. It was my publisher. One of the reasons he was calling was to ask me whether I’d be upset if he delayed the release of my forthcoming book on Highway 99 a few months.

You probably think I was disappointed. The book’s written, the illustrations are ready to go, the contract’s signed, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on the project. But as eager as I am to see it in print, the rest of what my publisher had to say made any mild disappointment I might have felt evaporate in the proverbial New York minute.

“We’d like to publish ‘Memortality.’”

“Memortality” is a novel I’d written after I finished work on the Highway 99 project, based on an idea that occurred to me when I was working on my 2015 release, “Fresno Growing Up.” As an author of historical nonfiction, it’s my goal to bring memories to life again. But that got me wondering: What if someone could do that for real, not just through words on a printed page? What if our memories of lost loved ones could literally bring them back to life?

That’s the concept behind “Memortality” (a word I coined by combining “memory” and “immortality”). It’s about a very special woman named Minerva Rus who can use her eidetic memory to put things back the way they were … and even bring people back from the dead.

I’ll be sharing more about the “Memortality” and how I came to write it in the months ahead, but suffice to say I consider this the most original, exciting story that’s ever popped into (and now out of) my head.

I submitted it to Linden Publishing, which released “Fresno Growing Up” on its Craven Street imprint and did an excellent job with the design and marketing. I didn’t know what to expect. But not only did the folks at Linden accept the manuscript, they’re making it their debut release on a brand new imprint. To an author, that’s like being chosen to carry the flag at the Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s quite an honor.

The target release date for “Memortality” is Feb. 1, 2017, and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon. The Highway 99 book is due to be out just a few months later, so I’ll have not one but two books hitting the shelves in the first half of next year.

In the meantime, I’ll be continuing work on two new projects – both of which are moving right along. But “Memortality” is front and center. I’m thrilled to announce it as my debut novel for Linden/Pace and I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop during the months ahead. Watch this space and my Facebook page for updates on “Memortality,” including the cover reveal, plot teasers, etc.

This is going to one heck of a memorable ride.

Writing: The Great Escape

Stephen H. Provost

Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly a dozen freestanding books of various lengths, a couple of short stories, dozens of newspaper columns and more blog entries than I can count.

Why do I do it? Why pursue an occupation that many find daunting to consider and grueling to pursue?

Because I can? No, because I must.

I don’t have any choice. “Writer’s block” to me is nothing more than an excuse not to get started (most often) or not to continue (occasionally). It’s a phantom menace, the voice of the wolf inside my head that I don’t feed very often because the other wolf is a lot hungrier.

George Orwell posited that, putting aside the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing prose:

Sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”

Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”

Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Political purpose: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Guilty on all counts. Orwell’s “1984” left a lasting impression on me as a young adult, both for its creativity in fashioning an alternate universe and for its insights into the human condition.

I share each of the four motives he mentioned, but all of them together aren’t what keeps me writing. One thing does: Like Orwell, I’m able to create an alternate universe. And, to be blunt, I like it better there.

New worlds, old worlds

Novelists create new worlds; writers of non-fiction revisit old ones. I’ve had the privilege of doing both. As an author of paranormal fantasy/science fiction, I get to imagine what life would be like if the rules were different, if the world were more vibrant, if the challenges less mundane and the means of answering them more noble. Who wants to worry about paying bills, going to the doctor or attending some pointless meeting when you can imagine yourself slaying a dragon – or, far better yet, befriending one?

As an author of historical nonfiction, I get to travel back in time and visit worlds that have passed into memory. I wrote a book about my hometown as it was during my childhood and another about the history of a long-traveled highway. Sorry, H.G. Wells, but I don’t need your time machine. I can research and write my way back into a world that might otherwise have passed to oblivion. Talk about power. Talk about responsibility.

It’s not that I don’t like this world. I have a wonderful wife, two stepsons who are maturing into proverbial “fine young men,” a father who loves me and two cats who provide unconditional affection (they do demand a bowl of kibble and a rub behind the ears, but that’s beside the point). I live in a beautiful town where I don’t have to choose between the beach and the forest and the foothills, because it’s got all three. What’s not to like?

In response, I refer you back to the earlier reference to bills, health concerns, meetings … you get the picture.

I write because, in doing so, I can escape such mundane concerns. I write because I have the audacity to believe that I can create a world more exciting, more honorable, less bitter and less tragic than the one in which I live. A world where whimsy and nostalgia vanquish bigotry and heartache and disease – maybe not every time (a good story has to have conflict, after all), but enough to keep hope alive that I’m headed for a happy ending.

Writer's Paradox

There have been times in this life when I’ve lacked that hope, and it was then that I started writing, first in the angst of teenage isolation, then in the aftermath of job loss and divorce. I suppose that means there’s something to the old cliché about affliction stoking the fires of creativity, which makes this musing something of a paradox: Torment set my pen in motion, a chariot upon which I can escape that self-same torment.

But that paradox no longer matters. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and now that life is good again, I’m not about to quit. This is one of those “till death do us part” things, with one singularly fascinating caveat: My writing will survive me, and will carry a portion of me into the afterlife of the printed page.

That’s something Orwell touched upon in his nod to egoism: Writing offers a taste of immortality achieved through memory preserved – of "memortality," if you will. (I like how that sounds.) And though it’s a taste and nothing more, it’s enough to whet the appetite for what lies beyond. In the next line, on the next page, in the next chapter.

To visit worlds where I’d like to live – and worlds that will outlive me.

This is why I write.

This is why I’ll never stop.

5 Ways Artists Can Defend Themselves Against Trolls

Stephen H. Provost

Don’t be a DiC. Dismissive critic, that is. DiCs are closely related to trolls and bullies, along with other, even less savory characters.

They’re all over the place these days, multiplying like Roger and Jessica Rabbit on a pleasure cruise through cyberspace.

The DiCs are newly empowered by 140-character limits and more platforms KISS and Lady Gaga have in their combined shoe collections. But they’ve always been with us, eager to sacrifice our feelings on the altar of their egos. A few well-chosen words, and our self-esteem can go up in flames.

Why do they do it?

Mostly because they want to look like authorities on something. Anything. And it’s a lot easier to spend 30 seconds banging out those 140 characters than it is to spend years earning a degree or doing any actual research.

Social media has leveled the playing field in many respects, with one result being that any Tom, DiC or Harry can claim expertise and proceed to tell others why their inferior. Because they can, they do. And all too often, we let them trap us inside a house of cards. They mark what they consider to be their territory with sarcastic tweets, hit-and-run Facebook comments, and scathing reviews on Yelp or Amazon.

Authors, musicians and other artists  can be particularly susceptible to DiCs, because we put our heart and soul into what we create.

How to combat them? Here are five suggestions.

Understand their motives

Yes, it’s personal, but it’s not about you. It’s all about them. These insecure egotists have a single goal: Building up their own sense of worth via a false comparison with someone else. They try to remake their victims in the image of their own straw men (and women), so they can proceed to tear them – you – down.

Don’t let them, because you really are better than they are – and they know it. If they trick you into believing the opposite, they’ve won.

Recognize their methods

DiCs want to insulate themselves from any fallout because, when it comes right down to it, they’re more scared of you than you are of them. That’s why they hide behind computer screens, podiums and their own dismissive tone when confronting others.

They use sarcasm in place of substance. They favor personal attacks and fallacies over rational discussion. And they hate to lose, so they’re going to pretend they’ve won even if your logic is unimpeachable.

My advice: Don’t waste it on them.

Think of them as venomous snakes defending their territory: They lie in the weeds, just waiting to inject their poison into you because they’re scared you’re more powerful than they are. And they’re right: You are. They want to bring you down before you can use that power against them, even though you probably wouldn’t have even noticed them otherwise … and that’s the one thing they find scarier than being exposed as powerless: not even being noticed in the first place.

Don’t engage

Paradoxically, even as they seek to ensure your own safety, they actually want you to respond. Why? Because they need to be noticed. If you respond, it satisfies their egos by demonstrating that they can control someone else. You’ve taken the bait, and now you are (in their minds, at least) under their power.

Just the other day, someone tossed a dismissive piece of criticism in my direction from the safety of a public podium. I had no opportunity to respond, because that podium provided the critic with the safety he felt he needed.

But that wasn’t the end of it. After the meeting was over, he approached me to “reassure” me that his remarks weren’t meant personally – and, conveniently, to reaffirm his position. He attempted to assert a measure of authority by stating he had some background in my field. I responded briefly with my reasoning, then he told me something to the effect that he “wanted to let me know” his opinion.

I initially took this as a cue to restate and elaborate on my own point of view, but before I could do so, I stopped myself. That was, I believe, exactly what he wanted me to do. Instead, I looked him in the eye, nodded once, and politely said, “OK.” He didn’t have much choice at that point but to walk away, because I’d asserted my control by ending the conversation on my terms.

Listen just long enough

One problem with DiCs is they realize critiques can be helpful. If we simply tuned out all criticism, we might miss the constructive kind. You know: “Your fly is open” or “You have something between your teeth” or “You might not want to say that in polite company.” It’s in our own best interest to take notice of constructive criticism, and the DiCs use this fact to get their foot in the door by masquerading as people who “just want to help.”

Here’s the best way to respond: Listen just long enough to determine whether their criticism is constructive or dismissive, then, if it’s the latter, disengage. Shake the dust off your feet and walk away. The bad news is that some DiCs are so practiced at drawing people in that they’ve become adept at concealing their motives and identity. The good news? Once you know their methods and motives, you’ll become adept yourself – at seeing through their camouflage.

They won’t know what’s hit them when you shut that door in their faces.

Oh, and one more thing: Once you've identified them as DiCs, don't let them back in.

Seek out constructive criticism

It may seem counterintuitive to actually go looking for criticism, but the more you seek out constructive criticism, the better off you’ll be.

Not only do constructive critics give you information you may need, they also provide barometer against which to measure the DiCs.

Constructive critics:

1)      Tell you the truth, whether it’s affirming or critical. They’re not “yes men” or DiCs; they’re authentic.

2)      Don’t have any personal stake in whether you take their advice or not. They’d be no less fulfilled in their own lives either way. They aren’t trying to stroke their own egos. They’re only engaging with you because they care about you.

3)      Are civil and respectful. Because they’ve got no dog in the hunt, they won’t bully or pressure you. They recognize and affirm your right to make your own decisions, even if they don’t agree with them.  

Constructive critics are essential because they are, first and foremost, not critics but allies. They’re your friends before anything else. They want to affirm and help empower you, not prove that they’re somehow superior.

The more allies you have, the more perspective you’ll gain and the better you’ll become at recognizing the DiCs.

There’s another advantage, too: Because they’re your allies, you’ll have more support when those DiCs do, inevitably, rear their ugly heads. You won’t be singing solo anymore: You’ll have a chorus of voices telling them to go right back where they came from.

 

 

 

Which word? Ten common mix-ups and how to avoid them

Stephen H. Provost

Less isn't more, but it's not "fewer," either.

Loose lips may sink ships, but if you lose those lips, you won't be able to sink much of anything with that mouth of yours.

If you've ever bitten your tongue or ground your teeth in a conversation  with someone who's used "between" instead of "among," here's a shortlist of the 10 most common mistakes I've seen in 30 years as an editor — and some tips on how to avoid them.

1. Less vs. fewer

"Fewer" refers to a something that can be counted, such as jelly beans or coins or subatomic particles. "Less" should be used for things that aren't quantifiable, such as water or wood or grease. One commonality you'll notice here is that "fewer" usually works with words that end in "s" — plurals. It's helpful to remember that this doesn't always apply. For instance, some plurals derived from Greek and Latin, such as "criteria" and "fungi," don't follow the formula (plural: formulae). But in most cases, it's helpful to remember this simple rhyme: If it's less, just hold the "s."

2. Its vs. It's

"It's" is a contraction of "it is." Its is a possessive: belonging to it. Here's a handy way to remember this one: You wouldn't write hi's or her's or our's (at least, I hope you wouldn't!). The problem here is that proper names do take an apostrophe, but pronouns don't. This might be Stephen's blog, but it's not hi's.

3. Lay vs. Lie

"Lay," like "assure," is an action typically performed on an object. It's something you do to something. Lie is something you do to yourself. You may lie on the bed, but you lay the pencil down on the desk. In this context, "lay" is a synonym for "place." If you're unsure which to use, try substituting "place" for "lay/lie." It makes sense to say you placed the pencil on the desk, but not that you "placed on the bed." Interestingly, there's far less confusion between "sit" (I sit in the chair) and "set" (I set the glass on the counter), even though the same principle is involved. Having grown up in Southern California, I have a theory on this: All the sun lovers there habitually announced they were going to "lay out" in the sun. Even though this phrasing was incorrect, it was so widely used that it became accepted; it's possible that the habit of misusing "lay" crept into broader use from there.

4. Comprise vs. compose

It's become more fashionable (but no more correct) to use the phrase "comprised of" in all instances — probably because people think it sounds more intelligent or sophisticated. It doesn't. Fortunately, there's an easy way to remember how this distinction works: If you're tempted to use "comprised of," just substitute its synonym, "included" in your sentence. You'd never say something is "included of." 

5. Assure vs. ensure vs. insure

"Insure" has to do with insurance. It's something you pay for. To ensure something is to offer a guarantee (ensuring that there's enough time to accomplish a task). No money required. "Assure" is something you do to someone, just as "reassure" is. It's typically followed by an object: "I assure you that I'll be there on time." Without the object (you), "assure" wouldn't work in this sentence. 

6. Loose vs. Lose

I'm not sure why there's so much confusion here. Think of it this way: You might lose the game if your trousers are too loose. "Loose" has two o's, so it's bigger around, and that's when your trousers are likely to hit the floor. (How embarrassing!)

7. Onto vs. on to

"Onto" involves the act of moving something from on place to another  putting it "onto" something but people have developed the habit of writing about "holding onto" things. That's incorrect, because you're not moving anything. The proper phrase here is "hold on to." There's an easy way to remember this: You can "hold on" without "to," so you should keep that word separate when you add it.

8. Infer vs. Imply

You imply something, but you infer a conclusion from information. I'll admit this is one of the harder distinctions to remember. The best tip I can offer: You've probably never heard anyone claim to have implied something from something else. Remember this simple saying: Infer from info. ("Infer" is similar to "lay" and "assure" in that it needs an object — even if it's only an implied object — to make sense.)

9. Me vs. I

I think three-quarters of American schoolkids in my generation were chided for telling some adult, "Me and my friend want to go out and play." We got so accustomed to being harangued for misusing "me" as a subject, that we overcompensated by using "I" as an object: "That mean kid was bullying my friend and I." We even started thinking that "I" was intrinsically more sophisticated than "me" (just we elevated "comprised" above "composed.") Fortunately, most people only make this mistake when more than one person is the object of the sentence. No one would say, "That mean kid was bullying I." If you're unsure which word to use, remove the other person from the equation, and the answer becomes clear.

10. Flaunt vs. flout

When you're flaunting something, you're showing it off. When you're flouting something, you're acting in defiance of some rule, expectation or norm. This one's pretty easy to remember: Just repeat the old saw, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Substituting the word "flout" sounds jarring — and it should.

Author's Bonus: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

We're used to saying something's not true; we never say it's "not false," because we're smart enough to realize that would be a double-negative. Unfortunately, the fiction/nonfiction distinction doesn't work the way it should. "Nonfiction" contains an inherent double-negative: It refers to a story that's "not not" factual or historical. In other words, it is factual or historical. Yes, this is confusing. Yes, it makes very little sense. But it just goes to show that, sometimes, nonfiction really is stranger than fiction.

 

 

Writing out the old year, writing in the new

Stephen H. Provost

It's Christmas night, and I'm reflecting back on the past year, thinking about how lucky I am to be a writer. I get to learn about fascinating people and places, and I get to tell their stories to folks who might otherwise never have known them.

Sometimes, if I'm working on a novel, I get to send characters out of my head into a whole new world - the "real" world - and I get to introduce them to some new friends: whoever's kind enough to invite them onto their nightstand, onto their bookshelf and into their hearts.

Other times, when I'm writing nonfiction, I have the privilege of reintroducing readers  to men and women from times past - people they might have forgotten or perhaps never knew. I get to be the voice of the dead, the singer of lost songs, the teller of old tales. 

And this year, I got to do it professionally. After publishing eight works independently over the previous three years, I was fortunate enough to see the release of my first traditionally published book and sign a contract for the release of a second. To say 2015 was a very good year would be an understatement. To achieve, at the age of 52, something that's been a dream since I first set out to write a novel more than three decades ago is immensely satisfying, to say the least, and I'm grateful to each and every one of you who took the time to let me know you enjoyed "Fresno Growing Up."

I have to admit, it's a little strange - but gratifying - to find myself doing book signings and giving library talks about my work. When I first dreamed of becoming an author, I was a teenager with a few friends, a lot of time on my hand and a fertile imagination. These days, as the editor of a small-town newspaper and a published author, I'm something of a public figure, but deep down I'm not that much different than I was as a teen. I suspect a lot of other authors aren't, either. Many of them, like myself, are probably introverts and dreamers who started writing because they'd already begun creating worlds inside their heads - and because the world "out there" can be a little daunting. 

As an introvert, I find it enormously satisfying to find that some people "out there" enjoy the creative results of my reclusive fantasies and historical investigations. It makes me want to write more.

So that's precisely what I intend to do. My lofty goal: to produce more work in the coming years that you'll enjoy just as much as "Fresno Growing Up" - perhaps even more. I'm setting a target  to write two books a year for the rest of my mortal life and trusting my creativity to keep pace with that ambition. 

Next year promises to be just as much fun as 2015 was. I'll be hard at work on fine-tuning my second historical project, a book on the history of Highway 99 in California, which is set for release late in the year, and I've also finished my second novel, for which I'm currently seeking a home.  I like to think of it as a kitten in a basket that I'll place on the doorstep of the perfect publisher, who'll pick it up and make it purr for the masses. Another ambitious goal, to be sure, but who can resist a cute little kitten?

I'm so excited about this project that I've already started working on a sequel (something you're not supposed to do before you sell the first book, but I've spent most of my career as a writer and editor being conventional - I figure it's time to think outside the book jacket for a change). I don't want to give away too much, but the concept behind this series is based on a principle I took from my nonfiction work: the richness of history and the magic behind memory. It's a paranormal novel without any vampires, zombies, werewolves or any of the other standard characters you've seen before. Intriguing? I hope so. I'll just leave it at that.

Beyond that, I've done some preliminary research, writing and photography for another highway book, which will likely receive my full attention once the in-progress sequel is done. 

Beyond that, who knows? For us writers, the discovery's the best part of the journey.

 

Why we should stop using "ISIS" and "Islamic State"

Stephen H. Provost

I've consistently spoken out in favor of the right to self-identification. If people want to go by specific names or adopt a certain label for themselves, they should be able to do so without any squawking or squabbling from the peanut gallery.

It's not Cassius Clay, it's Muhammad Ali. Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta goes by Lady Gaga. And no matter how odd we might have though Prince's symbol name was back in the '90s, that was how he wanted to be identified. So be it. No matter how many times Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy changes his name, we've got to respect that, too. 

But I realized recently that there's important caveat to the right of self-identification: Regular, decent folks should get to choose what they want to be called. The bad guys? Not so much.

Naming rights

The "naming rights" craze for stadiums, bowl games and other major events has always made me cringe. Candlestick Park was always Candlestick Park to me until they tore it down. My wife, who lived for many years in San Diego, is of a similar mind: She refuses to call Jack Murphy Stadium by its new corporate name, even today. 

Back when the bowl-naming financial bonanza got started, nearly thirty years ago, I wrote a column about my refusal to include the corporate sponsor's name in news reports when referring to the Cotton Bowl or the Sugar Bowl. My reasoning? If Tostitos or Discover or some other corporate entity wanted to advertise in the newspaper, it should pay the newspaper for advertising space (heaven knows newspapers need the revenue these days!).

I was gratified when my editors backed me on that decision, even though it went against the grain of what most newspapers were - and still are - doing.

Shaming rights?

Still, while tongue-twisting corporate names like the Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl and the MagicJack.com St. Petersburg Bowl are annoying in the extreme (trust me, folks, I couldn't make this stuff up), corporate sponsors don't necessarily fit the definition of "bad guys."

Maybe, however, one NFL owner does.

Should we really be referring to an NFL team by its nickname when that nickname focuses on the color of a person's skin - and is considered a racial slur by a large segment of the population? I don't think so, even though I covered a high school team with the same nickname a couple of decades ago, before I'd thought the matter through. Proponents of the name argue for "tradition," but a bad tradition is a lot worse than a good innovation.

A few publications have refused to use the name in print, as have a few scrupulous journalists. I've talked to some who eliminate all references to the nickname by simply referring to the team by its home city of Washington. Good for them. It shows you don't have to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of respect. Still, despite this, the vast majority of publications continue to use the nickname simply because that's what the franchise owner chooses to call the team.

Is that reason really good enough?

Propaganda rights?

Even worse is the willingness of many media outlets to let acknowledged terrorist groups self-identify - even when their names are inaccurate or offensive to a segment of the population. Or both.

The prime example of this is the continued use by some - both in the media and in the general population - of the acronym ISIS to describe a Middle East-based terrorist organization. CNN has been particularly stubborn on this, even though it's patently inaccurate: ISIS stands for "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." This despite the fact that:

  • The vast majority of Muslims have repudiated it as patently un-Islamic.
  • It doesn't constitute a state in any sense that the term is generally used.
  • Its activities aren't confined to Iraq and Syria

Three inaccuracy strikes and you're out, right?

The Associated Press made some progress by calling it the "Islamic State group," but even that term legitimizes it - remember, this is a terrorist organization - by deferring to some perceived right of self-identification as the "Islamic State."

I'm sorry, call me crazy, but when you start decapitating people, leveling building and enslaving large populations, I think you ought to lose a few of your "rights."

Isis is, in fact, an ancient goddess who's still revered by some segments of the population. So perpetuating the use of this term amounts to valuing a terrorist group's right to self-identification ahead of both peaceful Muslims and peaceful devotees of Isis, both of whom should have a right not to have their reputations sullied in print.

Look at it this way: Would any media outlet call this group "CHRIST" or "The Christian State" if it chose to identify itself that way? I don't think so. Nor should it. 

Where your rights end

Continuing to use the term ISIS is not only inaccurate and irresponsible, but also extremely damaging. Associating this group with Islam legitimizes terrorists by allowing them to usurp the identity of a major religion - and use that conferred legitimacy to recruit naive and disenchanted Muslims. Beyond that, it risks implicitly encouraging a backlash against the vast majority of those who follow Islam and want absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.

The right of self-identification, like every other right, should never be taken as absolute. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Certainly, this applies to rocket launchers as much as it does to fists. And the right to self-identification, even for law-abiding peaceful people, it's not a right enshrined in the Constitution. It's merely one being conferred in the course of our communication.

We need to stop conferring rights upon terrorist organizations. If prison inmates don't have the right to vote, terrorist groups shouldn't get a vote on what we call them.

A year ago, the French government decided to stop using terms like ISIS and Islamic State to describe the group in question, and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that he'd be doing the same thing. Both of them, along with a growing number of world leaders, favor of the Arabic term Daesh - which the group itself despises because it can be interpreted to mean "crush underfoot."

That's precisely what this group is doing to those who disagree with its radical and violent ideas. But instead of being sensitive to how innocent Muslims (and an Egyptian goddess whose worship predates this group's existence by five or six millennia) are being dragged through the mud, we're worried about the sensibilities of people who want to conquer, kill and enslave people.

That doesn't say much about our commitment to accuracy, and it says even less about our values.

7 Tips for Becoming a Successful Author

Stephen H. Provost

What does it take to be a successful author? First, you might want to ask yourself what it means to be a successful author. Since writing's about communication, Job One is to communicate with your reader. If you can do that, everything else is likely to follow: good reviews, a publisher and yes, maybe a few extra dollars. But ignore those things when you're writing or you'll never get there. To get you started, here are seven tips on how to go about it. 

1. Know your craft.

You can't write a book if you don't know how to write a sentence. Don't tell yourself, "The editor will fix that." Two simple facts: No editor will know or care as much about your work as you do. If you use your editor as a crutch, it means you're limping along, and you need to be in the best shape of your life to do this. If your editor is anything but a last line of defense, you're using him/her wrong. You are the expert on your story, so act like it. Care enough to understand language and how to use it. This doesn't mean following your eighth-grade English teacher's rules religiously. Dialogue, for example, should be true to your characters - the rules of grammar be damned. But here's Tip A1: You need to know the rules so you can know when to break them. 

2. Think like a journalist.

Yes, some journalists get lazy and rely on a "paint by numbers" approach to writing. Too often, they fall into the habit of relying on the same clichés passed along to them by police chiefs and public information officers. But they have one advantage most other writers don't: a hard deadline. They can't take the day off because they have "writer's block" or feel like sleeping in. They can't tell their editors they "don't feel like writing today." I asked bestselling author John Scalzi how his background in journalism helped him in his career as an author. This was his answer: The deadlines he faced gave him the discipline to write consistently.

3. Inhabit your world.

Remember when Chevy Chase blindfolded himself in "Caddyshack" and hit the golf ball onto the green? Maybe you don't. (After all, the movie came out in 1980.) His character's advice was to "be the ball." This doesn't mean you should blindfold yourself while you're writing. That probably won't work too well. But it is a good idea to block out distractions and put yourself in the middle of the action. Imagine you're the protagonist or, if you're writing nonfiction, one of the people affected by the events you're describing. The more you're a part of the story, the more invested you are; the better you can describe what's happening and, even more important, the what the characters are feeling. If you like living in your world enough to stay there for eight hours straight writing about it, chances are your readers will, too.

4. Write conversationally.

This is not the same as "writing the way you speak." If you were to do that, the result might not even be coherent. You're a storyteller, so tell a story. Spin a yarn. Don't write a thesis or a form letter. You're not trying to impress people with your vocabulary or talk down to them like a second-grade teacher. You're trying to grab and keep their attention. If you start writing like a bureaucrat or a textbook writer, no one's going to want to read your stuff. Even other bureaucrats fall asleep reading small print, and students have to read textbooks, but they don't want to, do they? Reading should be fun, so have fun with your writing. Your attitude will come through.

5. Don't write a memoir.

Seriously. Is your name Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, Kennedy or Reagan? If not, most people probably aren't going to want to read about your life. Even if you're the best writer since Stephen King, few people outside your immediate family will want to read about the time your Aunt Mabel fell asleep in her mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner when you were 7. Nothing against you or your Aunt Mabel, but subject matter matters. Readers want something they can relate to (yes, that's a dangling modifier, but see Tip 1A). Too many writers use the tired admonition to "write what you know" as an excuse to write about their own lives. The trick is to infuse your writing with what you've learned from your experiences, not relate those experiences verbatim and call them a story.

6. Write like an explorer.

What's around the next bend, over the next hill? Write like you can't wait to find out, and you'll give your readers that same passion for your story. You've heard the advice to "write like a reader," which is good as far as it goes. But go further. If you're reading a good story, you'll want to be an explorer, too. The writing will pull you along, and you'll be eager to turn the page to find out what happens next. Write with that same desire, with a passion to learn about your characters and the world you're describing; your readers will pick up on that and go along for the roller-coaster ride.

7. Write with abandon.

Be fearless. Don't worry about what happens if your manuscript doesn't sell. There aren't agents or publishers, queries or rejection letters in the world you're creating for your readers. You can be whoever you want to be, and that's the beauty of it. Your last book didn't catch on? So start the next one (you should have started it already). Stop thinking about your boss' demands, your favorite video game, the dirty dishes, your Facebook friends or the big game on TV. The minute you pause to let the "real world" intrude upon your creative process, you'll lose the flow and find yourself out of the zone. That zone is your gateway to success.

The Story Behind "Fresno Growing Up"

Stephen H. Provost

"Fresno Growing Up" was, like most books we authors write, a proverbial labor of love, and all the more so than most because of its subject matter. It's about the place where I grew up, a city that happened to be growing up itself at the same time (hence the title). The postwar Baby Boom era defined the Fresno for tens of thousands - even hundreds of thousands - of residents. It was what many consider the city's golden age, when it was growing not only up but also out, stretching its wings northward and learning to fly along new freeways and buy at new shopping malls.

As I write this, Fresno may well be entering a new golden age, with downtown redevelopment proceeding at a pace not seen in decades and the city reclaiming some of the vibrancy that marked the era covered in my book, roughly from 1945 to 1985. 

I no longer live in Fresno, and in fact, it was my departure from the city that planted the idea for this book in my head. In 2011, I found myself without a job due to downsizing within print journalism: For the first time in more than 25 years (all in the San Joaquin Valley and 14 of them at The Fresno Bee), I wasn't working at a newspaper. Ironically, I'd chosen journalism so I could write for a steady paycheck - something a career as an author couldn't promise - and I had spent the majority of my career in newspapers as an editor rather than a writer.

After a year as a substitute teacher at Fresno Unified, an opportunity arose to get back into journalism with The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, so I left the Valley for the first time since age 15. It was then that I started to write books. My wife, Samaire, can take a good deal of credit for this: She'd always wanted to be an author herself and had what seemed like a hundred stories swimming around in her very creative brain. I said to myself, "If she can do this, why can't I take a stab at it?" I'd gotten into journalism to be a writer, so why not write?

My primary job at The Tribune was as a copy editor, but I also started producing an occasional column on language and communication. Meanwhile, I was self-publishing a series of books under the name Stifyn Emrys (see the Works section of this website). I wrote about ancient history, mythology and philosophy; I produced a children's story, a dystopian novel and a companion novella. Then there was a book called "Undefeated," a series of stories about individuals who had overcome prejudice and bullying. 

This last project served to whet my appetite for delving into recent history, and Fresno seemed to be the ideal topic. Despite having moved to an area (California's Central Coast) that's pretty close to paradise, I was, in some ways, homesick for Fresno - not necessarily the city that it had become, but rather, the place where I grew up. According to the old saw, you can't go home again, but I decided to try anyway, and I chose writing as my means of transportation.

I'd read a few works on the early history of Fresno, but I hadn't seen a book dedicated primarily to the postwar years - the years I remembered from my youth - so I decided to write one.

Writing nonfiction is, for me, a process of exploration and discovery. I'm not the sort of author who sets up an outline, accumulates folders full of notes and gets "everything in order" before I start on the actual text. I research and write as I go, because it keeps things interesting. Each new revelation leads to another line of inquiry, pulling me along like the passenger on a scenic tour of some wondrous land who never quite knows what's around the next bend. As the journey continues, an outline takes shape on its own.

In the case of "Fresno Growing Up," the work evolved into a three-part project: the first part dealing with Fresno's postwar growth, the second revisiting the city's pop culture during the period, and the third focusing on sports and recreation. Plenty had been written on local government and civic leaders, so I turned my attention instead to the people who built Fresno's movie theaters and shopping malls, who scored the goals for the Fresno Falcons or the touchdowns for Jim Sweeney's Bulldogs, who made and played the records we all heard on KYNO and KKDJ.

Starting with my own experience as a base, I consulted books on Fresno and books the Baby Boom era, looked up hundreds of newspaper articles and conducted phone interviews with some of the folks who helped shape that era - people like Dean Opperman (who graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book), Roger Rocka and Dick Carr. Some of those I tried to contact didn't return my calls, and in a sense, I couldn't blame them: I hadn't written any books under my own name at that point, and my newspaper writing for the previous decade and a half had consisted largely of headlines and photo captions. Bylines? They were practically nonexistent. 

Besides, I didn't have a publisher. I didn't even considered looking for one until the book was finished, assuming that I'd just publish it myself through CreateSpace (Amazon's self-publishing platform), as I had done my previous works. But then, this project had something those earlier books hadn't: a large number of historical images, along with a collection of photos I'd taken myself. I'm a writer by profession, but I've always enjoyed photography, and to be honest, I got as big a kick out of taking pictures for "Fresno Growing Up" as I did writing the text.

Bottom line: I knew I couldn't create the kind of presentation I wanted for these images within the constraints of CreateSpace's platform, so I decided to test the waters with traditional publishing by contacting Linden. The Fresno-based publisher had a great track record (nearly four decades in the business) and had published just the sort of regional history book I was producing. Among its titles: Catherine Morison Rehart's series on "The Valley's Legends & Legacies," illustrated books by Pat Hunter and Janice Stevens, and volumes showcasing Pop Laval's vintage photos of Fresno.

I had heard one horror story after another about authors papering their walls with rejection notices and unagented authors not even being considered for publication, so I was ecstatic when I heard back from the folks at Linden that they were interested in publishing my book on their Craven Street label. Now, with the book scheduled to hit the shelves in just over two weeks, I'm just as excited as I was then - if not more so. The quality of the book's presentation not only met my high expectations, it exceeded them, and I believe provides a fitting tribute to Fresno during the era covered in the work. It's my hope that those who grew up in Fresno during the postwar period will agree with me, and will join me in the concluding that, contrary to that nettlesome old saying, sometimes you can go home again.

Using the Right Word Isn't a Special Effect

Stephen H. Provost

Effects or affects? Which is the noun and which the verb?

To find the answer, just think of the phrase special effects: The second word starts with the sound ef. You'd never think of saying (or writing), "special affects," as a noun, would you? Since effects functions as a noun in this instance, just remember that it works that way in most other instances, as well - except when it means to cause. In that case, it's a verb: One effects (or causes) change.

Similarly, affect can act as a noun occasionally: Someone's affect refers to that person's observed emotional state.

Those are exceptions to the rule, but try not to get hung up on them. They're not the true source of the confusion. The real problem is that we think they sound alike, so we forget which one goes where. And when we speak quickly, they do sound alike. They both come out as uh-fect, just as February tends to come out sounding like Feb-yu-wa-ry and often winds up as aw-fun

It takes careful enunciation to reveal that effects (think FX, as in the FX Channel) doesn't really sound like affects (uh-fects) at all. If you remember that much, it might affect how well you remember overall rule. When in doubt, just consult your TV listings.

It's not a special effect, it's just proper usage.

Choosing a Title for My Highway Book

Stephen H. Provost

It's easy to agonize over every sentence when you're writing, but if I kept stopping to rework everything I'd typed, I'd never get anything done. Early in my career as a journalist, I learned to spend the most time working on the first paragraph: the hook or, as it's known in the business, the lede. (They started spelling it that way to distinguish it the from the lead used in hot metal typesetting - which doesn't explain why so many reporters insist on misspelling the past tense of the verb to lead as lead. It's led as in Zeppelin.)

If the first paragraph's important, the headline is crucial. You get somewhere between four and 10 words to get the readers' attention and tell them why they should bother to read the story. I've spent the bulk of my career writing these things. When I wasn't writing stories or columns over a span of nearly 15 years, I was writing headlines.

Once I started writing books, I had to come up with titles - for the overall works and for individual chapters. As in journalism, you want something distinctive and eye-catching. How many times have you seen 'tis the season in a headline around yuletide? Or the phrase remembered fondly on a story about some beloved figure's death?

Book titles can be just as challenging. It's nearly impossible to come up with one that hasn't been used before at some point, but similar titles for dissimilar works aren't likely to cause any confusion. Hypothetically speaking, books about Pat Benatar and Muhammad Ali might both be titled Hit Me With Your Best Shot, but no one's likely to mistake the '80s rock star for the former heavyweight champ.  

Occasionally, you may manage to hit on a truly original idea. To my knowledge, the title Identity Break hadn't been used before I published my first novel, under that title. I didn't have to search long and hard for it; the idea came to me without much effort even before the book was finished.

Finding a title for my latest work, a history of U.S. Highway 99 in California, was a different story. For much of the time I spent writing it, I planned to call it Ghosts of Old 99. That was the title I used when I submitted the idea to my publisher. But then I started seeing books on retail shelves with titles that referred to highways haunted by "real" ghosts, and I started thinking the title might not work too well, after all. The ghosts I was referring to were memories, not actual phantoms that might require the attention of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and company (or whoever winds up in the remake). 

I scrapped that idea and started running through potential keywords in my mind. Whether you're writing a headline or a title, once you get the right keyword, you're halfway there. In this case, my mind fixed on the word Golden, as in the Golden State Highway - the name chosen for much of Highway 99 in California way back during the 1920s. My first idea was The Golden Era of the Golden State Highway. I liked it - especially the repetition of the word golden, but it seemed too wordy. Titles, like headlines, should be as punchy as possible, so I started scaling it back. First, it became The Golden Highway and then, finally, The Golden Road, with the subtitle Memories of Highway 99 in California.

I liked it. My wife liked it. My publisher approved it as a working title, so there you have it. Unlike with Identity Break, other books share the main title here, but none involve Highway 99 specifically or even highways in general. L.M. Montgomery, who also produced Anne of Green Gables, did write a children's novel by that title more than a century ago, which no one would ever mistake for a highway history. 

So The Golden Road it is. That's my big announcement for today. You can read more about it on the page dedicated to this work elsewhere on my website. It's due out in 2016, but I've been talking about it for the past few months online. At least now I won't have to refer to it as "my Highway 99 book" anymore.

The Writer Ain't Your Personal Pinata

Stephen H. Provost

It's not the reader's job to whack away at the author until candy comes spilling out of his or her guts, then continue to swing away in frustration because said writer has dispensed fruit sours instead of Hershey's kisses. The writer isn't my slave, and George R.R. Martin doesn't "owe" me another Game of Thrones installment any more than he owes it to his characters to keep them alive.

They're his characters, and we're his readers. Note the sentence construction. No one ever says, "Neil Gaiman is my author" (with the possible exception of Amanda Palmer) or "Joss Whedon is my screenwriter" (unless it's the CEO of Disney, which employed him for the latest Avengers flick). There's a perfectly sound reason for that: Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin and Joss Whedon are the ones doing the work. Without them, there'd be nothing to criticize. Do you think J.K. Rowling goes around bashing her readers for mispronouncing the name of a character, skipping a chapter or failing to finish the book in one sitting? Get real. She's got better things to do with her time - like write another book.

Some people are ripping Joss Whedon for the way he wrote the Black Widow character, Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As near as I can tell, the criticism is mostly about a story arc in which Romanov and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) tentatively explore their feelings for each other and she reveals that she was subjected to the trauma of a forced sterilization procedure.

Hey, critics: Last time I checked, there was nothing wrong with falling in love - it can be a downright pleasant experience, and it doesn't automatically make you a "weak" character. In fact, the Romanov character is a lot stronger than the indecisive Banner in the movie. As to the forced sterilization procedure, yes, that would be traumatic, and the inability to have kids does have the tendency to create a sense of loss - for men and women alike. Both Romanov and Banner feel it. 

The subtext of the scene in which this is revealed suggests that the inability to have children doesn't make someone a monster. It doesn't make either of them less human. And for those critics who failed to notice, procreation as a means of continuing the species was a fairly clear theme running through the plot as a whole; I suspect Whedon wove this secondary story into the script as a means of exploring that theme on a more personal level.)

Regardless of such considerations, however, it was Whedon's story to tell. He didn't deserve to get death threats on Twitter for writing the Natasha Romanov character the way he did - or for not writing it the way a few strident critics wanted it written. A say "a few" because, as of this writing, 89 percent of audiences and 75 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked the movie. Whedon can take that as vindication. And he can take pride in the fact that his name's on the film - because he did the work. You didn't. I didn't. We have a right to our opinions, but this will never be "our" movie because without us, it would still exist. Without him, it wouldn't - at least not in its present form.

And that would be a shame, because it was a lot of fun to watch.

Note: Careful observers will have realized that I misspelled the Black Widow character's last name - which is actually "Romanoff" in the Marvel Universe - throughout this post. This was by design. My wife's next novel is titled "Romanov" (with e "V"), so I thought I'd plant a little seed: a little advance marketing. Wink.

And Farthermore ...

Stephen H. Provost

Ever wonder when to use farther or further? The former indicates physical distance: It's farther from Los Angeles to Australia than it is from my bedroom to the kitchen (although it may not feel like it when I'm particularly tired). The latter is conceptual: The scientist went further in explaining the laws of physics than anyone else ever had.

Want an easy way to remember the difference? No one ever says, "And farthermore ..." to drive home a point. It's always furthermore