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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Even award-winning, record-breaking debut novels can have bad sentences.

Even award-winning, record-breaking debut novels can have bad sentences.

Maybe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t a classic novel yet, but it probably will be.  It’s been over 15 years since it was published, and people are still reading it.  Most books are forgotten months after they were published.  I’m betting the Harry Potter books will continue to be read for several generations, so I’ll go ahead and call it a classic now.  If I’m wrong, 50 years from now people can come back and mock me for it.

Whether it’s a classic or not, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has some bad sentences in it.  It’s easy for for me to spot bad sentences because I’ve written a lot of them in my time.  If my English teachers would have red-marked my paper for writing something similar, then it’s a bad sentence.  If my writing group peers would have criticized me for writing something similar, then it’s a bad sentence.

The bad sentences in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aren’t the long, confusing run-ons that can plague much of classic literature.  JK Rowling’s bad sentences are more subtle.  Readers who are into the books for pure enjoyment might not spot the bad sentences, but for somebody like me, who hasn’t truly enjoyed a book in years, bad sentences stick out. 

Bad Sentence #1

He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.  (p. 15) 

If I had written this sentence, my English teacher would have hammered me for the phrase “what must have been.”

“What do you mean ‘what must have been’?” my English teacher might have said.  “Either the kiss was scratchy and whiskery, or it wasn’t.  And don’t use ‘very.’  ‘Very’ is lazy.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I don’t think readers ever found out whether or not the kiss was very scratchy and whiskery.  Or maybe the kiss was “somewhat scratchy and whiskery.”  I’ll never know for sure.

Bad Sentence #2

And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass.  ( p. 112 )

My English teacher would have told me that “smooth as glass” was one of the laziest similes an author can write.  It’s right up there with “as fast as a cheetah.”  Maybe the baby’s bottom wasn’t good enough.  If I had written “smooth as glass” in school, I would have gotten a giant red “CLICHÉ!!!!!!!” on my paper.  Plus, the sentence started with the word “And,”but I do that too, so I won’t count it.

Which is smoother anyway, glass or a baby’s bottom?  That’s one of those things you have to be really careful about if you’re determined to find out.

Bad Sentence #3

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursley’s house in it.  (p. 113 )

2nd-person point-of-view?  I was taught to NEVER use 2nd-person in fiction (except in dialogue).  Even if it were acceptable in writing, this example of “you” came out of nowhere.  It would have been an easy fix for an editor with something like:  “The entrance hall was so big the whole of the Dursley’s house would have fit inside.”

Making the sentence even worse was the use of “big.”  “Big” is a lazy adjective.  Students all over the United States are taught not to use the word “big.”  An author doesn’t need a thesaurus to find a more vivid adjective than “big.”  I can’t believe publishers let a first-time author get away with the word “big.”

Bad Sentence #4

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, a look of awe on his face.  ( p. 201 )

“Of course the look of awe is on his face,” my English teacher would have said, had I written this sentence.  “Where else would a look of awe be?  On his hands?  On his feet?  On his stomach?”

Even though my English teacher would have been engaging in a bit of overkill, I would still get his point.  This redundancy could have been easily fixed with the following:

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron in awe.


“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, his jaw dropping in awe

Maybe I’m being just a little nit-prickety.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe published authors should be held to higher standards than public school students or struggling authors in writing groups.  I don’t know.  Either way, I know that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a wildly successful book, but I also know that even wildly successful books can have bad sentences in them.


What do you think?  Are these sentences bad, or were my teachers and writing group peers overreacting?  Should an aspiring author use the word “big”?  Which is smoother, glass or a baby’s bottom?  Is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a classic?  If not, (when) will it become one?

Reading An Abridged Book Is Cheating?

It's too long, and a lot of people don't know how to pronounce it.

It’s too long, and most people don’t know how to pronounce it.

The problem with long books is that they take a long time to read.  Most people, if given a choice, would rather read a short novel than a long one.  At least, that’s what I think.  I’ve never seen a stat for it, but I bet it’s true.  It’s not necessarily a matter of laziness.  With so much other stuff to do, it’s kind of inconvenient to read a book that’s too long, even if you like reading long books.

A few days ago I found an old copy of an abridged Les Miserables that I had read in junior high.  This reminded me that even before the internet and cable television, I had other things to do besides reading long classics.  Now that I think about it though, I didn’t have all that much to do, so I was probably just being lazy.

Either way, when a friend of mine saw that I had an abridged version of Les Miserables, he told me I was cheating.  I thought, abridged is cheating?  Maybe for a book written in English.  Les Miserables was originally in French, so maybe the abridgment was really just a brief translation.  I appreciate the brief translation.  I’d read a brief translation of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment or Great Expectations.

I’m not sure what was left out of the abridged Les Miserables.  The short version matched fairly well with the Classics Illustrated comic book.  Maybe I should watch one of the movies to see what the abridged novel left out.  I don’t remember any songs in the abridged version.  Maybe that was it.

It’s not just the classics that need to be shortened.  Even modern authors can be long-winded.  George R R Martin has taken six books so far to tell his tale A Song of Ice and Fire.  It was originally supposed to be a trilogy, and now it’s going to take seven or eight books (if he finishes at all).  Literary times have changed.  When I was a kid, an author would start to write a novel and then turn it into a long-winded trilogy.  Nowadays, authors set out to write a trilogy and end up with seven books instead.

I might sometimes complain about James Patterson, but at least his books (the ones he writes AND the ones he doesn’t write) are short.

I have a tough time reading long books now that I have a family to raise, a wife whom I enjoy spending time with, a full-time job, and cable television and the internet.  500-page books or a seven-book series is a lot of time to demand from readers.  In fact, I consider it downright inconsiderate for an author to write a book that’s more than 500 pages.  Mario Puzo kept The Godfather to under 500 pages.  JRR Tolkien kept The Lord of the Rings to three books.  If they could do it, so should other authors with less awesome stories to tell.

I’d love to read an abridged version of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Maybe that’s why the HBO series Game of Thrones is so popular.  It takes a lot less time to watch five seasons of the TV show than it does to read the books.  At least for me, it does.

Maybe I’m a hypocrite for complaining about long-winded authors.  A couple years ago, I wrote a blog serial called “The Literary Girlfriend.”  It was supposed to be about 15 episodes, and I thought I’d be done within a few months.  Instead, it took over a year and 60 episodes.  I laugh to myself when I think about it; I wrote a 60-episode romantic comedy.  I bet even James Patterson hasn’t done that.

The problem with blog serials is that once they’re done and you’ve written a couple other blog posts, the blog serial disappears into blog oblivion.  I’d call it “blogblivion (with a silent ‘g’),” but I don’t believe in creating new words by combining two existing words.

At the same time, I understand why blog serials disappear.  Who wants to read a 60-episode blog serial?  Readers can barely find time to read actual books by authors who’ve gotten published by real publishing companies.  60 episodes is a commitment, even if it’s a free commitment.

To help out, I’ve posted an abridged version of “The Literary Girlfriend.”  I haven’t shortened any of the episodes.  I’ve simply picked five episodes where you can for the most part tell what’s going on.  And if you read only these five episodes (or fewer), I don’t consider it cheating.

“The Literary Girlfriend: The Abridged Version”

 The Literary Girlfriend: Origin Story : This wasn’t the first episode, and she wasn’t a superhero, but it’s still not a bad place to start.

The Literary Girlfriend: Crazy Stuff : Of course, every couple has issues (but probably not THIS problem).

The Literary Girlfriend: A Conversation Between Two Women That Has Nothing To Do With Men Or Relationships : I received a little bit of criticism for this episode, but it’s important for a reason that has nothing to do with the title.

The Literary Girlfriend: Marriage Material : Mention the word “marriage,” and all chaos breaks loose.

The Literary Girlfriend: The Penultimate Episode : Final episodes are almost always disappointing.  The high point is usually the next-to-last episode.


What do you think?  What novel would you like to be abridged?  Is reading an abridged novel a form of cheating? What book series would you like to see abridged?  What blog post of yours would you like to pull out from blogblivion?


What’s better than a 60-episode romantic comedy blog serial?  An ebook sequel called Nice Things!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

I Got Into A Fight Over A Book

Nobody really gets hurt in fight over a book. (image via wikimedia)

Nobody really gets hurt in fights over a book. (image via wikimedia)

I’m not the type of person who gets into fights, verbal or physical.  The last fist fight I got into was 30 years ago.  It wasn’t much of a fight.  It started off as an insult contest, and just as it was about to escalate into a fist fight, I thought to myself, “Why am I getting into a fist fight over something this stupid?”  By the time I figured out that I shouldn’t be getting into a fight, it had already started.  It was over pretty quickly.  The guy who wonders why he is getting into a fist fight always loses the fist fight.

Since arguments often escalate into fist fights, I tend to stay out of arguments too, especially at work. Even though fist fights are uncommon at work, people who get into stupid arguments still get fired.  I might grumble at stuff that I don’t like at work, but my job is too important to me for me to argue, especially when people get fired for arguing.    If anybody asks ask my opinion, I’ll give it, but I don’t argue.

This argument at work started when I saw a co-worker on break reading a James Patterson book.  I won’t give the title because I don’t want to inadvertently promote a James Patterson book while I’m criticizing him.  If it had been a boss reading a James Patterson book, I wouldn’t have said anything, but I was so outraged that this co-worker was reading a James Patterson book that I felt it was my duty to say something.

Looking back, I know I shouldn’t have said anything.  I hate it when others comment on the books I read in public.  That’s why the e-reader app on my phone is so great; nobody knows what I’m reading.  People could think I’m watching porn, and I wouldn’t care.  I’d rather strangers think I’m watching porn than talk to them about what book I’m reading.

“I can’t believe you’re falling for the James Patterson scam,” I said loudly to my co-worker.

“What are you talking about?” my co-worker said.  He was annoyed that I had interrupted him.  I normally wouldn’t do anything this rude, but James Patterson is too important to let slip by.

“James Patterson doesn’t write his own books,” I said.


“Look at the cover,” I said.  “He has a co-author in fine print.”

My co-worker glanced at the cover.  “The co-author got more than fine print.”

“James Patterson has already published 12 books this year.  Nobody can write that many books in one year.  His co-authors are doing all the work, and James Patterson gets all the credit and publicity.”

“Do the co-authors get paid?” the co-worker asked.

“Probably,” I said.

“Then why do you care?”

“Because it’s a scam,” I said.  “You’re falling prey to a literary scam.”

“Did I use your money to purchase my book?” the co-worker said.


“Then, again, why do you care?”

“Because I don’t like to see bad behavior get rewarded,” I said with great conviction.

“Then I shall no longer discuss this with you,” my co-worker said.  “You interrupted me, and I don’t want to reward your bad behavior.”

Okay, my co-worker scored a few points on that one, but I still knew that I was right.  I hate it when I lose an argument even though I’m right.  That’s another reason I don’t argue very often.

I was tempted to continue the argument, but he gave me a cold look.  If I said anything, he might have been angry enough to fist fight me, not because he liked James Patterson, but because I wouldn’t let him read quietly in public.  I’m too old to get into fist fights anymore, even if it’s about James Patterson, and we were at work anyway.  I can’t get into fights every time I see somebody reading a James Patterson book.  Even D’Artagnan would say that was foolish.

I blame James Patterson for this argument.  I know it’s not because I’m getting old.  I don’t care if kids run on my lawn, but now I yell at people for reading James Patterson books.  The thing is, I despise lit-shaming.  I believe reading is great and that everybody should read whatever they want, whether it’s sports magazines or comic books with 20-page fight scenes.  I don’t care if an adult is reading YA lit or if a guy is reading a Harlequin romance.  I might wonder about a middle-aged guy reading Lolita, but I wouldn’t say anything about it.

Yet if I see somebody reading a James Patterson book, I feel like I have to say something.  I know it’s wrong.  I know saying something to a person reading a James Patterson book is worse than reading a James Patterson book.  From now on, I’ll resist the urge to say anything.  It’s for my own good.  Now that I’m too old to get into fist fights, I’m too old to get into stupid arguments.  At least, I’m too old to get into fist fights over books.


What do you think?  Is it wrong to lit-shame somebody for reading James Patterson?  What books/authors would cause you to start an argument?  When was the last time you got into a fist fight?


If you see anybody reading Nice Things, don’t start a conversation.  Just let him or her read in peace and quiet.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

The Chipotle Paper Bag Essay

It's tough to read an essay like this, but at least nobody can watch you eat. (image via wikimedia)

It’s tough to read an essay like this, but at least nobody can watch you eat. (image via wikimedia)

First of all, I don’t want to seem like I’m giving Chipotle free advertising.  I don’t have anything against the fast food chain; I’m just not that kind of blog.  Besides, Chipotle doesn’t give me free advertising, so why should I help them out?

Anyway, Chipotle is printing short essays from several prominent authors (like Jonathan Franzen and Joyce carol Oates) on the chain’s paper bags and cups.  The Cultivating Thought paper bag essay isn’t a bad idea, but it would have been more useful 10 years ago before smart phones and tablets.  Still, I guess it’s better late than never.

Literature in restaurants isn’t a new idea.  Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote his six-word story on a napkin in a public place, but it probably wasn’t at Chipotle.  His tale, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn,” wasn’t the kind of story a restaurant would have wanted.  Prose like that might have turned off eaters.  Something a little more upbeat is probably better.

As far as authors go, Jonathan Franzen might not be the best choice for a paper bag essay.  A few weeks ago, he ticked off a bunch of women in an interview by saying something about Edith Wharton.  Maybe the women whom he ticked off will boycott Chipotle.  Boycotts are pretty popular today.  I’d boycott Chipotle if they chose James Patterson for their paper bag essay, but I go to Chipotle only once a month, so they wouldn’t miss my money too much.  Whenever I talk about boycotting all-things James Patterson, people give me strange looks, so I’ve given up talking about it.

The paper bag  essay/cup is sometimes compared to a cereal box.  After all, almost everybody reads the cereal box.  If you don’t, you’re missing out.  But the cereal box lasts for several servings and can hold up over time.  The paper bag gets crumpled and tossed aside.  The paper cup is so small that it’s tough to read the essay.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’d rather have the tiny print essay than no essay at all, but it’s not as practical as a cereal box.

Essay bags don’t even have to use current authors.  There are a bunch of current writers I’ve never heard of who are on the essay bags.  It’s great publicity for these current authors, but jaded customers might think the essay bag is a scam to get people to buy these authors’ current books.

To avoid this cynicism, restaurants could use authors who are in the public domain.  Restaurants could promote poetry by putting Frost, Dickinson, and Whitman on napkins and cups.  Excerpts of essays or novels from Tolstoy or Twain or Dickens could be on the paper bags.  I’d read a classic essay bag simply because of the prestige of the author.  Women who are angry that Franzen had a Chipotle paper bag essay could be placated with poetry by Dorothy Parker or prose by Edith Wharton.

We probably won’t see unknown authors on Chipotle bags (unless there’s a contest), but that won’t stop me from writing a pretend paper bag essay.  If I had a chance to write a restaurant’s paper bag essay, here’s what I’d write:

If You’re Reading This, Close Your Mouth

It’s usually okay to mouth words when you read.  If you’re in public, most other people around you are wearing earbuds or are lost in their own thoughts to notice.  But if you’re reading this essay, you’re probably in a restaurant surrounded by folks who are eating.  And if you are reading aloud while you’re eating in public, then you’re probably being pretty gross and you’re not even aware of it.

Most people don’t want to be gross.  We groom ourselves, check our appearances when we get the chance, and try to make good impressions.  But a lot of people who care about how they look chew with their mouths open, and that’s gross.

I would write a vivid description to provide a mental image of how chewing with your mouth open is gross, but since you’re eating while you’re reading this, I won’t do that.  I try to think of my audience, which is more than people who chew with their mouths open do.

I guess people aren’t taught anymore how to chew with their mouths closed.  Maybe it’s like cursive not being taught in schools.  Maybe chewing with your mouth closed is thought of as obsolete, since people stare so much at their phones.  Still, not everybody stares at their phones when they eat.  I don’t stare at my phone when I eat, so I’m an expert.  If you’re chewing with your mouth open, you’re being gross.

The good news is that this is an easy fix.  If you’re not sure how to NOT gross people out while you eat, here’s what you do.

  1. After you place food in your mouth, shut your lips. If your cheeks puff out with food, put a smaller portion in next time.
  2. Once your lips are closed, move your teeth. Concentrate on keeping your lips shut tight while you chew.
  3. If this is difficult, practice chewing with an empty mouth while your mouth is closed.
  4. Once you can keep your mouth closed, concentrate on not talking while in the process of chewing.
  5. Wait until you are done swallowing before beginning a sentence.
  6. If somebody asks you a question while you’re chewing, put up a forefinger (NOT a middle finger), and wait until you’re done swallowing before you speak. Take your time.  Don’t choke on your food just because you’re in a hurry to speak.
  7. Once you’re done eating, excuse yourself to the restroom and check your teeth. Have floss ready just in case something gross is stuck in your teeth.  Anything stuck to your teeth is gross.

Eating and talking are both necessary functions in life.  You have to do both in order to survive.  I’m not saying you should give up reading or talking.  Just try not to do both at the same time.  And even when you’re not talking, chew your food with your mouth shut.

Maybe my pretend paper bag essay isn’t as deep as any of the Cultivating Thoughts paper bags, but that’s okay.  If you’re chewing with your mouth open, the deep cultivated thoughts won’t do you much good anyway.


What do you think?  How likely are you to read a restaurant’s paper bag essay?  If you could write a Cultivating Thoughts paper bag essay, what would you write about?  Can you have deep thoughts if you’re chewing with your mouth open?


If you need something to read while you’re in a restaurant, don’t bother with the paper bag essay.  Instead, try Nice Things from Dysfunctional Literacy.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Battle of the Classics: Moby Dick vs. Ragged Dick

Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so... here's Ragged! (image via wikimedia)

Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so… here’s Ragged! (image via wikimedia)

It’s probably not fair to classic literature that word meanings change over time. Nobody laughed when Moby Dick by Herman Melville or Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger, Jr. came out.  I mean, I wasn’t around back then, but I’m pretty sure people didn’t laugh.

It’s not that people were more sophisticated in the 1800s.  It’s just that Dick was only a name back then.  I’m also pretty sure if “dick” had meant back then what it means right now, people would have laughed.   Nowadays, if you want your book to be taken seriously, you don’t put “Dick” in the title.

I’m not the kind of guy who compares Dicks very often, but I’ll do it for the sake of literature.  Moby Dick was published in 1851 and was supposedly a commercial failure when it came out.  Ragged Dick was published in 1868 and was a bestseller.  Moby Dick is a whale, so he’s a lot bigger than Ragged, who was just a kid.  Moby is injured at the end of his book (It’s not a SPOILER if the book has been around for over 150 years).  Ragged Dick thrives at the end of his book and is a success story.  Because of his good deeds in the book, Ragged Dick attracts a lot of attention.  Because he’s so big in the book, Moby Dick attracts a lot of attention.

As far as literary reputation goes, Moby Dick wins.  Everybody knows who/what Moby Dick is.  Even people who don’t read know about Moby Dick.  Nowadays, hardly anybody knows about Ragged Dick, and that’s too bad because Ragged is an American success story, and the world can always use more American success stories.

Most people today have never even heard of Ragged Dick.  I have no real evidence of that except my own experiences.  Maybe I’m the only person in the United States who has friends and acquaintances who have never heard of Ragged Dick.  Whenever I mention Ragged Dick, my friends and acquaintances think I’m making it up.  For a few days, I even walked around with a copy of Ragged Dick just to prove to everybody that I wasn’t making it up.  I don’t know why people thought I was lying.  I’m not the kind of person who makes up fake book titles with the name Dick in them.

Maybe it’s immature to laugh at “dick,” but it’s that immaturity which still makes Moby Dick relevant.  The only reason everybody knows the title Moby Dick is because of the name Dick.  If Moby Dick had been titled Moby Bruce or Moby James or Moby Bob, the average person wouldn’t know about it.  Sure, the intellectuals and scholars would still read Moby Dick and talk about the deep themes and rich symbolism, but it would be the equivalent of Anna Karenina to the average non-book reader.

Anna who?

Moby what?

Ragged Dick’s advantage over Moby Dick is that Ragged Dick has six books in his series.  If you’re going to write a series about a guy named Dick, six is the right number.  Six is average.  Any more than six, and the author is probably exaggerating.  Moby Dick is only one book.  Maybe Moby Dick can brag that it’s so great that it needs only one book.

Ragged Dick was even turned into a musical, but most people don’t know about that either.  Unfortunately, the musical was called Shine, completely ignoring the most noteworthy part of the book.  If screenwriters truly wanted this project to succeed, they would have kept Dick in the title.  Even if nobody wanted to see Ragged Dick: the Musical, they would at least talk about the title.  Whenever Moby Dick is turned into a musical, it’s always called Moby Dick.

More Americans should know about Ragged Dick.  It’s a travesty that Ragged Dick has been forgotten by the masses.  After all, the character Ragged Dick WAS one of the masses and pulled himself up (with lots of help).  He should be an inspiration.  Everybody should aspire to be a Ragged Dick.  If not, we can at least laugh at the title.


What do you think?  Does Ragged Dick get the attention it deserves?  Is Moby Dick overrated?  What other old book titles get mocked today?


Maybe I should have called my latest story Nice Dick, but instead, it’s titled Nice Things.

Just in case you haven’t checked it out yet, here’s an excerpt from Nice Things, now available on the Amazon kindle:

I met my wife in a bookstore in 1995.  It was a Saturday night, I was in my late 20s, and I had no social life, so I was hanging out at the book store.  I noticed this cute dark-haired girl in the magazine section by the entrance.  We made brief eye contact, and I tried to smile because she had busted me checking her out, but she looked down, so I hightailed it out of the store.  I felt embarrassed.  I always hated getting caught checking out women.  It’s a natural thing for a guy to do, but I always felt creepy whenever I got caught.

Figuring the cute dark-haired girl would leave the book store soon, I hung out at a nearby music shop (this was back when people still bought CDs in stores).  I browsed through recent releases and found myself in the reggae/ska section, hoping that something new would be there.  Once when I looked up, I saw the dark-haired girl gazing straight at me, and then she turned and walked to the opposite side of the store to the R&B section before I could look away first.  If I had known ahead of time that she was looking at me, I would have been prepared to look away first.  That was the second time in a row she had looked away first.

Since I had already spotted her in the music shop, I decided it was safe to return to the book store.  Once there, I picked out the new Tom Clancy book and soon found myself standing in line next to the dark-haired girl, holding a Toni Morrison novel.  Since I knew what book she was buying, I glanced at how she looked in her jeans, and of course that’s when she noticed me.

I made sure to maintain eye contact.  “I promise I’m not stalking you,” I said.

“You don’t look like the type who listens to ska,” she said.

I was wearing a plain brown sweater and nondescript jeans.  “I used to dress like I listened to ska, back in college.”  Then I said, “You like ska?”

“No,” she said.  “I was just making an observation.”

“I would say that you looked like the type of person who reads Toni Morrison books,” I said.  “But I’m not sure what that would mean.”

The dark-haired girl hit me on the shoulder with the book.  I wasn’t sure what that meant either, but she smiled when she did it, and she didn’t lecture me, so I took it as a good sign.

“You know what goes good with a book?” she finally said, pointing in the direction of the parlor at the end of the plaza.  “Ice cream.”

“In this weather?” I said, then mentally kicked myself.  “I mean, I feel like ice cream too.  Maybe I’ll see you there.”

I wondered if she’d actually go to the ice cream parlor.  As I watched her pay for her book, I thought she’d just drive off while I was still at the register.  This was her chance to make her getaway.  I even took my time paying, just to give her a chance to leave without me having any chance of accidentally catching up with her.  I fumbled with my wallet, made lame small talk with the cashier, and counted out exact change slowly.  I’m sure I pissed off the people behind me.  The only thing I didn’t do was pull out a check book.

I was mildly surprised when the dark-haired girl was sitting in a booth at the ice cream place.  Meeting a stranger at a predetermined location was almost as bad as getting a stranger’s phone number.  Most phone numbers I got from strangers (usually women) were for pizza places.  If the pizza place was close to where I lived, I would order a supreme instead of hanging up.  After all, why should I punish a pizza place by hanging up just because a woman used it for her fake phone number?

“What a coincidence,” I said, standing in front of the dark-haired girl at the booth.


What happens next?  Find out by reading Nice Things.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

The Ultimate Writer’s Guide for the Novice Author

If you really want to be a writer, don't let anybody or anything discourage you. (image via wikimedia)

If you really want to be a writer, don’t let anything discourage you. (image via wikimedia)

An Ultimate Writer’s Guide is not about giving advice.  Writers can get advice all over the internet.  An Ultimate Writer’s Guide is about discussing what’s in store for novice authors without discouraging authors or scaring them off.

It’s true, being a novice author can be tough.  The money might be nonexistent.  Since most writers don’t make much money from writing, almost all of them have to work full-time jobs, and that means writers don’t have much time for writing.  Even with blogs and social media, there’s no guarantee that a writer will be able to build an audience.  Despite these challenges, being a writer can be worth the time and effort.

The money issue isn’t everything, but it can’t be ignored.  Even with easy self-publishing and ebooks that don’t cost anything to create, it’s still difficult to make a profit off of writing.


4 Reasons Why Most Writers Don’t Make Much Money

(image via Wikimedia)

Writing might not get you a lot of this. (image via Wikimedia)

Last year was a financial disaster if you look only at what I made from my writing.  I think my ebooks pulled in about $10.00 last year.  That’s okay because I hadn’t expected to make much, and evidently, I’m not alone.  An article in/at The Guardian shows that most writers (depending on how you define “most”) earned less than $1,000 from their writing last year, and you can’t really do much with that over the course of a year.  I don’t know what percentage earned $10.00 or less.  Maybe I don’t want to know.

Last year, famous rich author Elizabeth Gilbert said writing was “f*cking great.”  That was easy for her to say because she’s “f*cking rich” (I quoted myself there).  I make next to nothing from writing, and I still think writing is “f*cking great.”  I think I have more credibility on this issue than she does.  But even though writing is great, I know that I probably won’t make much money (I hope I’m wrong) for four basic reasons.

Read more here!


Even though most writers don’t make much money, writers write anyway, and why not?  When you think about it, there has never been a better time to be a writer!

5 Reasons Why It’s Great To Be a Writer Today

He’s grinning because he hasn’t noticed any of his mistakes yet. (image via wikimedia)

He’s grinning because he hasn’t noticed any of his mistakes yet. (image via wikimedia)

It’s easy for most writers to be negative.   It’s tough to make enough money to earn a living.   We’re never satisfied with what we’ve written.  No matter how many people read and respond to our work, it’s never enough.  But even with these challenges, it’s better to be a writer today than it’s ever been.

  1. Writing is physically easier than it’s ever been.

Authors used to have to physically hold a pencil or a pen and physically write out each word on a sheet of paper.  Even worse, back in the really old days, writers had to dip quills into ink and then got beaten by monks if they made a mistake.

I’m not sure that ever really happened because there’s no ancient video footage of monks beating writers who made mistakes.  If there’s no video footage of an event, I’m skeptical that it ever happened.  Then again, back in the 1970s I saw nuns rap student knuckles with rulers, so if  nuns in the 1970s were doing that, I’m pretty sure in the really old days monks did much worse to young writers who made errors on their parchments.  After all, nothing inspires perfection like the threat of violence.

Read more here!


It may be a great time to be an author, but writing can still be frustrating and emotionally draining.  Sometimes writers need some encouragement that doesn’t come from family and friends.  Writers want words of wisdom from those who have been successful.  But beware!  Sometimes writing advice from famous authors can backfire!


5 Famous Quotes About Writing That Might Be Evil

“The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”- Stephen King
Then why did I learn about them in the first place? (image via Wikimedia)

When a famous author writes a quote about writing, aspiring authors pay attention. After all, nobody knows more about writing than a famous author. Some quotes about writing have become so widely known that they’re almost accepted without second thought. But what if these famous quotes were meant to be misleading? What if the famous authors were just messing with us? What if famous authors were toying with our emotions and fragile egos? What if these famous authors were just… evil?

Below are five famous quotes about writing that MIGHT be evil:

QUOTE #1 “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”- Ernest Hemingway

Read more here!


It’s easy for famous writers to come up with quotes about writing because they’re famous and they’ve made lots of money.  But maybe writers who haven’t made money can contribute something to the discussion as well.


What Makes You a Writer?

You might be a writer if you use this, but you also might want to update your technology. (image via Wikimedia)

You might be a writer if you use this, but you also might want to update your technology. (image via Wikimedia)

I don’t talk about my writing much.  Nobody  I know asks me about my writing because I haven’t told anybody I know that I write. If I told people that I wrote a blog and ebooks, then they would want to talk about my writing (or feel like they were obligated to talk about my writing when they didn’t really want to, and I don’t want to put them in that position). I don’t mind writing about what I write, but I don’t like to talk about what I write. I’ve had bad experiences talking about my writing.

Twenty years ago, I (semi-pretentiously) said I was a writer or wanted to be a writer, and that led to a bunch of awkward conversations. I’d explain my projects/ideas, and they always sounded lame when I tried to describe them. For example, I once wrote a manuscript about a private detective who pretended to be a psychic. He used his notoriety to drum up business, but it also got him into trouble, like when his predictions turned out to be wrong. Even though I liked my idea, and parts of the book were pretty good, I hated talking about it at social gatherings where I barely knew the people I was talking to. Eyebrows would go up.

“Psychic detective?” they’d ask.

“Fake psychic,” I said.

“Then how does he solve crimes?”

Read more here!


Even if a novice author doesn’t get rich or famous, writing can be awesome!  Receiving feedback, exchanging ideas, and counting stats is a lot more productive than sitting around watching television or playing video games.  It MIGHT even be more productive than reading (but I know a lot of people disagree with me about that).

Yes, writing can be frustrating (even if you don’t bleed).   Yes, it can be time-consuming.  But no matter what the challenges of being an amateur writer might be, it beats not writing at all.


What do you think?  What makes writing so great?  Why is writing worth the time and effort (even if you don’t make money from it)? What writing quotes help you the most?


New from Dysfunctional Literacy!

My ex-girlfriend had the power to save my marriage… or to destroy it!!!

What did she do?  Find out in Nice Things.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

I Am No Award!

(image via wikimedia)

My name is No Award, and I have come to claim my prizes! (image via wikimedia)

It’s a great time to be No Award.

Last weekend the Hugo’s gave out its honors  for the best in science fiction, and No Award dominated the night, taking home the trophy in five categories.  No Award obliterated the competition in Best Novella, Best Short Story, and Best Related Work.  No Award also demonstrated great skill as an editor by winning Best Editor, Short Form and Best Editor, Long Form.

I’ve never heard of anybody named No Award, and I’ve never read anything by No Award, but No Award must be awesome.

No Award won so many honors because Hugo voters are in a big argument over stuff that non-Hugo voters don’t care about.  Science fiction fans have always liked to argue about stuff that other people don’t care about.  Before I was born, it was Jules Verne vs. H.G. Wells or Flash Gordon vs. Buck Rogers.  When I was a kid, it was Star Wars vs. Star Trek or Marvel vs. DC.  Today, science fiction fans are divided between social justice warriors and sad puppies.

According to the sad puppies (I really don’t want to explain the concept, even though it’s kind of funny), No Award was just being manipulated by social justice warriors, but social justice warriors complain that sad puppies are a bunch of whiners (and bigots and racists and sexists).  I don’t know.  I’ve tried to read up on it, but there is no unbiased account of the controversy.  (The closest is probably this. ).

It’s too bad because it’s typical politics where both sides seem to have a point, but then everything gets personal.  I can barely keep up with politics when it’s about politics. As a reader who sometimes likes science fiction, I just want to yell out: “Captain Kirk would kick Picard’s ass!  Argue about that!!”

No Award might be controversial, but every award should have the possibility of No Award.  As a writer, I empathize with being nominated and then finding out that No Award won.  If I didn’t win an award, I’d be more upset if there was no winner at all than if somebody else had won.  Maybe others would take consolation in that nobody won at all, but I’d be ticked.

As a spectator, however, the drama of No Award is great.  What if No Award could win the Oscars?  I can hear the gasps in the audience, and can see the stunned expressions on the faces of outraged actors and actresses.  If there was a possibility of No Award, I might watch the Oscars again.  But only if they used it.  If the Oscars had a No Award choice and didn’t use it, that would take the fun out of it.

The Pulitzer Prize has the possibility of No Award, and Pulitzer isn’t afraid to use it.  A few years ago, No Award won the Pulitzer in the fiction category.  It’s always controversial when No Award wins a Pulitzer category, but it makes the Pulitzer’s more interesting, and maybe it makes all potential nominees work a little harder.  I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been nominated.

The whole thing makes me wish my name was No Award.  A few years ago, I chose Jimmy Norman as my pen name, but I wish I’d changed it to No Award.  In hindsight, No Award would have been much better.  I would have ruled the Hugo’s if I had changed my name to No Award.

Sometimes average people proclaim themselves to be their idols.  In the past, people have shouted: “I am Spartacus!”  Others have proclaimed: “I am Malcolm X!”  A couple years ago, Robert Galbraith declared: “I am J.K. Rowling!”  But I have finally discovered an idol that I can aspire to be.  From now on, I can shout: “I am No Award!”


What do you think?  Are awards better off with the possibility of No Award?  What pen name do you wish you had chosen?  What other fun activities have been ruined by political bickering?


New from Dysfunctional Literacy!

It’s not science fiction.  It’s not political.  It’s just Nice Things.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Famous Writers Start Twitter Fight

This is what happens when a guy mocks feminism and Edith Wharton. (image via wikimedia)

This is what happens when a guy mocks feminism and Edith Wharton. (image via wikimedia)

First of all, nobody ever wins a Twitter fight.  There are only varying degrees of losing.  Most reasonable people understand this, but still, famous author Jennifer Weiner (The Next Best Thing) seems determined to get into a Twitter fight with award-winning author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections).

Famous authors getting into arguments on Twitter are like professional athletes who get hurt playing pick-up games with amateurs.  It makes the rest of us scream: “What were you thinking!!”  A famous author has to think of his/her reputation before getting into a Twitter argument, even if the argument is with another author.

I usually stay out of arguments that don’t directly affect me, so if you want more details about the substance of the Twitter fight, you can read them here or here.  Basically, Johnathan Franzen started the whole thing (but he didn’t really “start” it) with an interview about his upcoming book Purity.   Of course, things got a bit sidetracked, and Franzen said a few things (about Edith Wharton and feminism) that outraged a bunch of people, including author Weiner, who took their disagreements to Twitter.  From Franzen’s point-of-view, that probably meant he had a good interview.

Jennifer Weiner looks like the clear loser in this Twitter feud, and it has nothing to do with the substance.  First, she numbered her tweets.  As soon as you have to number your tweets, you should know that you’ve lost a Twitter fight.  If you need to number your tweets, then you’re taking your argument too seriously for Twitter.  Twitter can make famous writers sound as silly and illogical as the rest of us, and numbering tweets doesn’t help.

Instead of writing a bunch of numbered tweets, Weiner should have just tweeted “Franzen, you suck.”  It would have saved time, and people like me could have followed her logic more easily.

Even though I think he won the Twitter fight by default (refusing to participate), I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Franzen.  I don’t care for his books, but I admire his ability to stir things up and walk away.  A decade ago, he pissed off Oprah Winfrey and then never went on her show, not even to fake an apology.  For his new book Purity, he said a bunch of stuff that has made people mad, but he hasn’t responded much to the criticism.  I admire an abrasive guy who doesn’t flip out when he’s criticized for what he says.

One of Franzen’s controversial statements was about adopting children.  The reasons he gave for adopting and then NOT adopting seem shallow, but once you decide not to adopt, every reason seems shallow.  I’m not judging him.  My wife and I decided not to adopt, and if anybody asked why, our reasons would seem shallow too.

When Franzen mentioned that he was thinking about adopting a kid from Iraq because he didn’t understand young people, Franzen’s editor suggested that he talk to some college students, and after Franzen did that, he no longer wanted to adopt a kid.  I feel a little bad for that kid who still lives in war-torn Iraq.  I hope he (or she) is having a good life even though he didn’t get adopted by Johnathan Franzen.  If I were one of those college students, I’d feel a little guilty, knowing that some kid was suffering in Iraq just because I’d talked to Jonathan Franzen.  I don’t know how I’d live with myself after that.

Unlike Jonathan Franzen, whenever I want to understand young people (I don’t mean that in a weird way), I read their blogs.  Young people can write pretty good blogs (again, I don’t mean that in a weird way).  Most of their tweets are lame, but most of my tweets are lame too.  But the next time I want to understand young people (I’m not sure when it will happen next), I won’t read a Jonathan Franzen book.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know much about young people.

Professional writers should know better than to get into Twitter fights.  Twitter fights are for people who don’t usually write (or fight either).  Writers should use blogs or magazines to feud with each other.  I would never get into a Twitter fight with another writer, but if I HAD to start a Twitter fight with another writer, I’d pick James Patterson.  James Patterson hasn’t taken enough criticism for the massive number of books he’s claimed to have written.  By my own rules, I’d automatically lose a Twitter fight with James Patterson because he would either ignore me or have one of his co-authors argue for him.  Even though I know I’d lose, I might still do it.

A Twitter fight is like the opposite of a real fight.  If you ignore all the Twitter comments against you without getting fired from your job, then you automatically win.  In a real fight, if you ignore the guy throwing punches, you’ll get knocked out and you automatically lose.  That’s why people who wouldn’t start real fights will sometimes engage in Twitter fights.


What do you think?  Should famous writers get into Twitter fights?  What famous author would you like to get into a Twitter fight with?  Do you understand what Jennifer Weiner and other critics were arguing (with Franzen) about?  Should Franzen respond to Twitter criticism?


New from Dysfunctional Literacy!

Instead of getting involved in a Twitter fight, relax and read Nice Things.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

I Got Cussed At By A Library Book

From the cover, it looked like such a nice book.

From the cover, it looked like such a nice book.

A few weeks ago, I opened up a book I’d checked out from the library, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, and written on the blank sheet before the title page was a giant:

F#ck You, @##hole!

I’m used to finding tiny surprises in library books.  Old library books are like newly-discovered crime scenes; you never know what you’re going to find inside.  I’ve found dried blood, brown stains, and tiny sticky things lodged between pages.  I’ve read notes written between the lines, and I’ve even seen curse words on margins.   But I’d never seen profanity take up an entire page before.

I laughed when I saw the profanity.  After all, I was pretty sure it wasn’t directed at me.  If somebody screamed “F#ck you, @##hole!” in my face or wrote it in a book that I owned, I might get mad.  But it wasn’t in my own book, and it wasn’t aimed at me, so I laughed at it.  Profanity is funny when it isn’t directed at you.

As far as profanity goes, “F#ck you, @##hole!” is pretty standard.  It’s straightforward, and it’s very easy to think of.  It’s the perfect go-to insult when your mind is flustered and you can’t think of the perfect retort, and you don’t have time to string precise words together.  If you’re the type of person who thinks of a great zinger three-hours too late, “F#ck you, @##hole!” is a godsend.

But “F#ck you, @##hole!” shouldn’t be written in a library book.  Whoever wrote it had time to think it over.  If you’re going to write an insult, take the time to think of something original.  These library books can stay in circulation for decades.  If I were going to write profanity in a library book (and I’m not the kind of person to do that), I’d think about it until I came up with something original.  By the time I thought of something worthy, though, I probably would have lost all desire to write profanity in a library book.  Maybe that’s why it was written.  Maybe the author didn’t have time to find the inspiration to be original.

Still, the placement of “F#ck You @##hole!” right before the title page makes it look like it was the book’s title.  F#ck You, @##hole would be a great title.  I’m usually against profanity in book titles.  I think it should be used sparingly.  Sh#t My Dad Said could have been Stuff My Dad SaidGo the F#ck to Sleep could have been Get Yourself To SleepTough Sh#t by Kevin Smith could have just been Tough!  If your book is any good, you shouldn’t need profanity in the title.

Even though I don’t approve of profanity in book titles, I’d buy a book called F#ck You, @##hole.  I’d at least read the first couple pages.  I’d proudly tell others that I’d just read it.

“I’m reading a great book,” I could proclaim.

“What is it?” my friends/co-workers would ask.

F#ck You @##hole!” I would say, looking my friends/co-workers in the eye.

That would be a great way to maintain friendships and working relationships.

I’m not sure I’m going to like Gravity’s Rainbow.  After the “F#ck You @##hole!” graffiti,  it has nowhere to go but down.


What do you think?  What’s the best/worst graffiti that you’ve ever seen?  What’s the worst thing you’ve ever found in a library book?  Should books have profanity in the titles?  Should I keep reading Gravity’s Rainbow?


New from Dysfunctional Literacy!

It’s more than just another love triangle.  And it’s not necessarily nice.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

The Back-to-School Special!!

To some, there's nothing special about going back to school, not even a back-to-school special (image via wikimedia)

To some, there’s nothing special about going back to school, not even a Back-to-School Special. (image via wikimedia)

Nobody likes going back to school.  Students don’t like it.  Teachers don’t like going back to school either, and teachers are the ones who are paid to be there.  Parents might be glad that school is starting up again, but they don’t have to go every day, so their opinions don’t count.

Even though school can be unpleasant, there are ways to make it easier for everybody involved.

For students, school is a great place to learn diplomacy.  A clever student quickly learns what to say and what NOT to say in certain situations with authority figures.

“Can I Use The Bathroom?” and Other Public School Memories

ADVISE TO STUDENTS: When you ask for permission to use the restroom, don't carry a book with you.

ADVICE TO STUDENTS: When you ask for permission to use the restroom, don’t carry a book with you.

My daughter told me this week that she asked her teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Her teacher said, “I don’t know.  Can you?”

Some things never change.  40 years ago, we asked the same question, and our teachers gave the same response.  I’m sure 40 years before that, students and teachers did the same thing.  I’m sure nothing will change 40 years from now.

One side of me knows that precision in language is important, but another part knows that a teacher has to be kind of a jerk to use the “I don’t know, can you?” response.  This isn’t being judgmental.  If anybody deserves to be a jerk without being judged, it’s a teacher.  I’m sure teachers at some point became tired of explaining the difference between “may” and “can” every time a kid asked to use the can, so this was a short, snide, and sweet way to do it.

Read more here!!!

Teachers can feel just as negative about school as students do.  If teachers feel down or depressed about their teaching experiences, they need to remember that their emotions aren’t abnormal.  Even famous author J.R.R. Tolkien got depressed when he was teaching.  Tolkien’s exhaustion and depression can be an inspiration to teachers everywhere!


The Famous Author Who Said Teaching Was “Exhausting and Depressing”

If you're exhausted and depressed by teaching, write a famous book.

If you’re exhausted and depressed by teaching, write a famous book.

I don’t know much about the personal lives of authors whose books I’ve read. I think Stephen King was hit by a car once. I think Charles Bukowski drank a little bit. I believe James Patterson (whose books I don’t read) has a bunch of co-authors, so he might have a lot of spare time, but I don’t know what he does with it. The point is, I just read the books (and samples of the books). I don’t know anything about the authors.

Yesterday I found out the JRR Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) taught at several colleges while he wrote. I think I might have known that at some point in my life, but I found out again yesterday. An old colleague of his found an old letter that Tolkien had written to him, and in this letter Tolkien said that teaching was “exhausting and depressing.”

Read more here!!!


If you’re a parent, you’re not safe from being stressed out by school either.  You never really know what’s going on with your children at school when you’re not there to watch over them.  They might lie about what’s going on or not say anything at all about what they’re going through. You know things are bad when they even lie about what their assignments are at school.

My Daughter Lied In Her Memoir

(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

“I’m sorry for your loss,” my oldest daughter’s English teacher said to me after I introduced myself to her during Literacy Night at the local junior high.  The teacher seemed earnest, and her statement caught me off guard.

“Thank you,” I said hesitantly, out of politeness, as I thought: what loss?

I glanced at my daughter and noticed that her face was reddening, and she looked around the hallway at other parents and students wandering around the classroom.

I felt that asking about my loss would lead to an uncomfortable moment, and I do whatever is possible to avoid uncomfortable moments, so I moved on to another topic.  My daughter’s grades were good, the teacher said, she was a wonderful writer, and she talked a little too much in class.  That sounded about right, but I was curious about the loss I had suffered.

Read more here!!!


One more piece of advice to students is to not make fun of your teachers, no matter how tempting it is.  Yeah, teachers might look funny, dress funny, or talk funny from your point of view, but so do you (from their point-of-view) and most teachers are just too polite to say anything about it.  And if your teacher has a funny name, don’t make any jokes about it, or something really bad can happen to you.

Long Story: Teachers with Funny Last Names

If you're going to make fun of the teacher's name, don't put it into writing. (image via wikimedia)

You might want to make fun of your teacher, but don’t say it, and DON’T put it into writing. (image via wikimedia)

When I was growing up, I had some teachers with unfortunate last names.  In junior high I had a math teacher named Mrs. Butte.  She insisted her name was pronounced “Bee-Yute” like the word “beauty,” but she wasn’t attractive at all.  If she had been a hot chick with cleavage, we might have pronounced her name correctly.  But she wasn’t, so we didn’t.

There was also a social studies teacher named Mr. Dick (and his name was pronounced exactly like it was spelled).  Nobody made fun of Mr. Dick.  You would think a guy named Mr. Dick would stay out of teaching because of his last name, but nobody ever made fun of him.

Mr. Dick was an old man who had cool tattoos on his arm (none of which were phallic in nature).  He had been teaching for decades, and everybody in town had grown up knowing Mr. Dick (or knowing about him), so nobody thought anything about his name anymore.  He was just an old man named Mr. Dick.

There’s no way to prove this, but my junior high school was probably the only one that had a Mrs. Butte and a Mr. Dick.

Read more here!!!


Since nobody has yet figured out how to manipulate time, nothing can save students/teachers/parents from the upcoming school year.  Yes, we can use strategies to make it better, but it’s coming whether we’re ready or not.  It’s not all bad news, though.  If you’re truly dreading school, just remember: be patient and wait… because the school year will always come to an end.


What do you think?  What are your favorite school memories?  What were your least favorite experiences in school?  What can you do to make this new school year special?


New from Dysfunctional Literacy!

It’s more than just another love triangle. But it’s not necessarily nice.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!


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