Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Fix Your Writing Mistakes

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve worked as an editor for over 25 years and have hosted Write On! Radio for the past dozen. I’ve spoken with authors young and old, good and bad, serious and frivolous. So there isn’t much that surprises me anymore about writing and writers. But there is a lot that continues to disappoint me.

Writers make mistakes, just like everyone else. No big deal. But it would be nice if writers would fix the obvious mistakes in their writing before turning it over to their editors or publishers.

Here are some of the most common mistakes I find:

—Failing to include end quotes in dialogue. This is an easy one to miss, and the occasional slip is not a huge deal, but when it happens multiple times, it’s frustrating because it pulls you out of the story. You now have to figure out where the conversation ended. Sometimes that’s easy, but at times it can be difficult.

For example: “I went to the theater, but didn’t see Pete there. I also went to the bowling alley and bowled a few frames, but I’m not going to tell you that.

This second sentence, we learn, is a thought, but we don’t understand that until we get to the end of it. Now we have to go back in order to place in our minds where the end quote should have been, slowing us down.

—Failing to include commas when addressing people. This is more carelessness than anything else.

For example: “You know Jim, we never should have stopped at the bar.” Are you addressing Jim or are you talking about Jim and saying that because we know Jim we shouldn’t have stopped at the bar?

Again, we can probably figure out from context that you’re actually speaking to Jim, especially if Jim responds. But why tax the reader? Why pull the reader from the story? All it does is annoy the discerning reader, who is likely, after seven or eight of these kinds of mistakes, to put the book down and find something else to read.

It’s okay for authors to be vague about what they wish to convey. But it’s generally not okay for writers to be vague about how they present what they want to say. Of course there are exceptions, like James Kelman, who can get away with it. But he does it deliberately, to make a point about the way people speak.

—Changing the tense of verbs in the same sentence or paragraph.

For example: I went to the cemetery. As I kneel beside the grave, I spoke to my father. Yes, we can figure out what the writer is saying. But it leads us not to trust his message. If you’re in past tense, stay in past tense. Simple, right?

—Apostrophes in the wrong spot. Either putting them where they don’t belong or failing to put them where they’re needed. For example: I stopped off at Joes Bar and had a few drinks with the Johnson’s. You need apostrophes for possessives, not plurals.

—Misspelling common words. The one I see most frequently is probably lead – as in, “Abraham delivered them. He lead them to the promised land.” The past tense of read is read, but the past tense of lead is led.

Why is this stuff a big deal? For several reasons. First, in today’s publishing industry, there are way fewer editors than there were in the past. Fewer eyes looking at the text, fewer chances to catch mistakes. So if you don’t find these mistakes, there’s a good chance no one else is going to either.

Second, if you want to be taken seriously by readers, editors, agents, publishers, journalists, etc., you need to demonstrate mastery of the basics. If you can’t do that, how are you going to convince them that you can master the more difficult aspects of storytelling?

Third, reviews are vital to sales. All it takes are a few nasty reviews from readers who talk about how poorly a book is written to doom it to oblivion. Yes, there are exceptions – books that are poorly edited and written that still reach tremendous sales goals (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). But those are rare.

In short, clean up your writing. Edit it and proofread it, then do it again and again until you’re sick of looking at it. When you’re no longer finding any mistakes, then there are probably not that many left.


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What Is Our Duty to the Planet?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve been thinking about people quite a lot lately – how we influence the planet and its denizens – and I find myself questioning things I used to believe. Like how much we should try to mitigate the damage we have done to our various habitats.

Animals and even plants in the northern hemisphere are moving north. Trees that used to thrive in the southern US are faring better farther north, dying off in their southern ranges, drifting into colder climes as the warming planet has made those new territories more palatable.

There will be winners and losers in this new reality, even among humans. Those living in coastal areas and deserts seem destined to lose out, while folks in the northern plains probably will do better.

A mass extinction seems a real possibility – the sixth extinction. The question becomes: is that necessarily a bad thing? We’ve already had five mass extinctions in our history, which made it possible for humans to become the dominant species on the planet. Life cycles on and off, up and down. Humans currently reside in an upward cycle.

There’s a chance we could make things better for those more fragile life forms by altering our lifestyles. But should we care about animals and plants that are so specialized, so unable to adapt, that we have to go to extreme lengths to save them?

The murrelet, for example, lays an egg on a platform of moss or lichen on an old-growth conifer branch. A heavy wind can knock the egg off. The more we cut down old growth forests, the greater the impact of wind on the remaining timber. Similarly, the giant panda prefers eating mostly bamboo. Changes to the environment that don’t necessarily harm the panda can nevertheless harm bamboo and hence the panda.

I could cite many examples of endangered plants and animals: the Bornean orangutan; the Amur leopard; the pika; the Sumatran rhino. The point is, it will be almost impossible to save them all, and very difficult even to save most. Incredibly expensive. That money might be better spent on endeavors that make life better for us at the expense of these exotic animals and plants.

I don’t advocate that, but I understand the arguments. With change, some species will win and some will lose. And some of these changes are inevitable; others are just extremely likely.

What responsibility do we bear for our fellow creatures? What is our obligation to save a frog in the Amazon basin or a plant on the side of a Mongolian mountain? If the vaquita goes extinct, how will we be diminished?

Perhaps it matters only to our pride, our sense of self-worth. Perhaps our focus needs to be on only the plants and animals that give us the most joy rather than trying to preserve them all. For it seems certain we cannot save them all.

The best argument for trying to save them all seems to be that there may be medical marvels hidden away in obscure flora or fauna that once lost will never be regained. Yet if we pour our energies into the myriad creations that need saving, we risk spreading ourselves too thin. And we may end up saving fewer species as a result.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I have to try to save at least a few of these endangered creatures, if only to depart this world with a smaller stain upon my soul.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Most of us love the holidays. We see them as a chance to relax and spend time with loved ones, setting aside the pressures and negativity that can threaten our health. And regardless of whether you like Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year’s, or whether you abhor everything about the upcoming holidays, there is undoubtedly some holiday sometime during the year that you like.

Perhaps you only like Labor Day or Arbor Day or Festivus. Maybe you only care about the days you take off from work for mental health reasons. Regardless of how you define them, we all have holidays we enjoy.

We need them, in fact. They provide solace in a world that seems increasingly hostile. Whether the world is actually more hostile than it used to be is an open question, but it sure feels that way, probably because of our increased connectivity and social media platforms.

We cling to those who are similar to us, spreading around the real and fake news we get everywhere, particularly online, maintaining our opinions in the face of all evidence to the contrary (at least for a long time) until we finally come to accept the truth, grudgingly.

Many of us feel like we’re being bombarded by folks telling us lies or at least half-truths, certainly things we don’t want to hear. Undereducated and jobless whites feel like they’re under attack by foreigners who are willing to work for less; immigrants feel like they’re under attack by people who are afraid of change.

The LGBTQ community feels like it’s under attack by mainstream America, while Christians feel like they’re under attack for wanting to celebrate Christmas. Everybody feels surrounded by enemies. And our friends assure us that we are, because they feel like they’re under attack too.

The truth, of course, is that we ARE all under assault by a few loudmouths who are convinced we ought to live their way. There are Bible thumpers and gun nuts and liberal commies and aggressive feminists and people who advocate that women need to be protected from the world by men who know best.

Most people aren’t this way. But it’s those few with extreme positions, who spew their narrow-mindedness across the internet, where it gets picked up by like-minded trolls and dispersed to the universe at large, where it settles onto someone who rightfully takes offense at it. Those are the ones who make us feel vulnerable.

So we cling to our holidays, connected to our tribes, as a way of holding onto the comforts of our past –anchors that keep us grounded in the face of increasing onslaughts on our notions of what the world ought to be.

We gather with the people who make us feel better about ourselves. We gird our sense of self-worth before heading back into battle. The holidays serve as bandages to our egos and our mettle. Afterwards, we can once again join the fray, fight back against those who tell us we’re living our lives wrong, who insist they know best and we need to fall in line behind them.

Too bad every day can’t be a holiday.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Everyone’s a Poet

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Or at least everyone should be. Playing with words produces joy and helps expand our vocabulary. Trying to find creative ways to say the same old things benefits our brains. So I try to write at least a few poems a year to keep the old gray matter in fine fettle. They needn’t be great; they needn’t even be good, but they must be effortful. They require tending. You can’t just slap them together like a ham sandwich. Here is my latest:

Cup Plants

Yellow petals explode

A summer supernova

Compelling 6, wait, 8

No, 14 goldfinches to appear

Most of them male

All alighting gently

Hopping from flower to flower

Stems swaying

Bobbing precariously to their combined weight

While the plants surrender their nectar

Without complaint

As if the sole reason for their existence

Is to sustain the birds

And not the soul

Of the man who planted them.


November stems and desiccated leaves remain

Cluttered against the graying skies

The impending winter

Promising snows

To crimp and topple them

Until they lay flat upon the ground

Trampled on

Crushed beneath the boots

Of the man who passes.


April emerges

Broken stems finally discarded

By the man who tends the patch

While roots

Having patiently endured

The indifferent bitter chill

Now sense the need to soar again

Regenerating, pushing upward

Into Sol’s freedom

Where new buds

Open their eyes for the first time



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Comedy Is Hard

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

They say comedy is hard, and they’re right, but why? I think it’s because there is no universal understanding of what is funny. Everyone agrees that the death of a child – particularly if it is horrific – is tragic. The loss of a beloved pet or an ill-fated romance (Romeo and Juliet), the undeserved bad outcome for a good woman or the success of a monster: all these are tragic in some way and understood by the vast majority of the population as such.

However, there are fewer examples of universal comedy. Slipping on a banana peel is one of the most obvious; cream pie in the face is another. But even these don’t draw laughs from everybody. A few find the scenes unpleasant or too close to what happened to them in similar situations. Those past experiences make comedy more difficult to appeal to all.

That said, there are three standard methodologies one can employ to derive laughs. First is cruelty: slipping on the banana peel, a football to the groin, a cream pie to the face. Think Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges. Their humor is mostly physical, mostly cruel. What makes it funny for most is that no one is seriously hurt by the torture inflicted, so we can watch it without feeling sadistic.

Second is exaggeration: think of Maxwell Smart eyeing a magnet the size of a house and saying, “That’s the second biggest magnet I ever saw.” Or think of the piano in the Laurel and Hardy film that magically stays on the stairs as it descends back to the street, bouncing and jouncing and ending up where it started.

Third is the unexpected: I recently saw an episode of Will & Grace, where Karen’s maid Rosario dies. Karen is standing next to the casket speaking in a heartfelt way when she notices a spot on the exterior. She rubs at it for a moment, then reaches into the coffin and pulls out a spray bottle. She sprays the spot, replaces the bottle, then reaches into the coffin again and pulls out part of Rosario’s dress to wipe down the area.

Not everyone will find these examples funny, but you get my point. By doing the unexpected, or doing the expected in an exaggerated way, you can impart humor. However, there’s one final element required for comedy, and that’s the ability to see the world in a twisted sort of way.

It derives, often, from twisting anger into humor. You see something stupid and instead of getting mad, you exaggerate or twist it into something funny. This is a gift shared by the best stand-up comedians.

Rodney Dangerfield saying: “I stuck my head out the window and got arrested for indecent exposure.”

This is a gift not all possess. I certainly don’t have it. I occasionally try to write something with a little humor, but for me it’s a struggle. I just don’t see the world that way. When I get angry, I don’t immediately deflect that anger in a way that others find humorous.

It takes work to get there. And sometimes it takes more effort than I’m willing to put into it. So, hats off to those writers, like Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams, who can pull it off. But if you’re not one of those types, like me, then if you want to write something funny, you at least have to know the structure you need to follow.

Now get out of here, I’ve got serious work to do.

Where’s my manuscript? Who stole my manuscript? If somebody destroyed my manuscript, I’m gonna go absolutely … oh, there it is.


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The Fall of Democracy

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Democracy is having problems around the world, under attack by both the left and right fringes as being inefficient and weak at a time when decisive strength is necessary. But that’s the nature of democracy. When the many (instead of the few) lead, when mass consensus is required for change, nothing comes easy.

Totalitarian regimes come with certain advantages – like being able to adjust to a situation instantly. Leaders don’t have to check with their constituents before engaging in some sort of action. Kim Jong Un doesn’t need to feel the pulse of his nation before deciding to test fire a nuclear weapon. Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t need to check with local legislators before deciding to deploy chemical weapons to defeat an insurgency.

These things may be bad for the citizens of the countries at issue, but they’re good (at least in the short term) for their leaders. And in times of crisis, they allow for decisive action without dithering – which our democratic leaders often do in situations that don’t demand rapid solutions.

This is our fault.

We let it happen because we are so divided about what kind of nation we should be. We listen to the voices of extremism that promise we can have it all if we just exert more strength, more insistence on doing things our way. Rigidity of thought becomes the norm.

And with that inflexibility comes the refusal to compromise, which some call appeasement (never mind that the term is incorrect – the people who spout off at the mouth don’t care about that kind of accuracy).

So with the slow decline of prosperity and increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, we allow ourselves to be seduced by magical thinking, to believe that we can have a stronger defense, no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and at the same time, massive tax cuts.

We buy into the lies because we want to believe there are easy answers, when we know in our hearts there aren’t. We reject the voices of moderation because they ask us to give something up, while the extremists say, that’s stupid, we can have it all. We can eat our cake and in the morning it will still be there for us to eat again.

We elect politicians and tell them they’d better not surrender even one inch or we’ll find someone even more fanatical to replace them. We win on a few issues and think, if we just dig in harder, we can win on all of them, so we push and push the envelope, growing ever more unwilling to accept that we might not know best.

And our “leaders” follow our example, becoming more and more totalitarian. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s just about done. We need to step back and find moderates from both parties to run our country. If we don’t, we may not have a country to run.


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The Comfortable Road to Ruin

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We strive for comfort. It might be built into our DNA – something like an instinct for survival. We do what we can to increase our comfort levels, looking for the latest modern conveniences, the newest app to make our homes or appliances work better for us.

We devote a lot of effort into improving our habitats, our little cages, creating better hamster wheels on which to run. With the passage of every year, we find some cool new element that provides us with pleasure, more free time.

As our lives become more stressful, as the demands upon us grow more intense, we seek to ease our burdens where we can. That’s natural. But we need to acknowledge that there’s a price to be paid for doing so.

We fall into habits of consumerism and rigidity of thought. We think the things that make us happy and we buy the products that soothe our restless natures as we resist the ideas that challenge us and the delayed gratification that discomforts us.

Meanwhile serious issues loom.

But we don’t want to be bothered by them. We like doing things the way we’ve always done them. We like to go boating or for an afternoon drive. We like to upgrade our wardrobe or purchase the newest iPhone. What’s so bad about that?

On an individual scale, almost nothing. It makes nearly no difference. One person, more or less, thinking some entrenched thought or buying some product, matters not at all. One man thinking life used to be so much better in the 1960s in an America ruled by white Protestants (where minorities of all sorts were kept in the shadows) isn’t going to harm our society enough to cause concern. One million men wanting to revert to those days – that makes a difference.

Likewise, one new iPhone in the sea of technology is a drop in the proverbial bucket whereas a million new iPhones affect our environment much more drastically. So each of us individually pursuing comfort adds only a minute amount to the long-term instability of our Anthropocene era. Death by a thousand cuts.

It’s our collective pursuit of comfort that propels us toward the tar pits of history. We cannot all live the lifestyle the developed world enjoys today. Not even the developed world can continue to do so, not if we want to preserve the planet for future generations.

Nor can we continue to cling to ideas from the past, to notions that we should be able to do whatever we like because we’re not really harming anyone by our actions. Because we are. Only a tiny fraction, to be sure. But we’re definitely making things more difficult for the generations to come.

We’ll take and take until there’s nothing left. Then we’ll fight over the remnants. That will be a long time hence, probably well past my lifetime. But it will happen. All because we sought comfort in the present, because we couldn’t be bothered to sacrifice a little for the sake of our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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The Real Second Amendment

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The Second Amendment isn’t exclusively about guns, though most people don’t realize that. Yes, guns are mentioned in the text, and through tortured readings over the decades, courts and advocates have reached the conclusion that the Second Amendment provides everyone a right to own weapons.

But the Second Amendment is actually more about maintaining a militia at a time when the country did not have a standing army. It’s about the understanding that defense of the nation was important to all citizens and that those citizens might be needed if an external or internal enemy decided to attack.

Here’s the full text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first words of the amendment are about a militia, not about weapons. That’s the gist of the justification for allowing people to own guns. And arguably, that right disappeared once a standing army was created. Of course, courts (and even original constructionists) haven’t seen it that way. But that’s what was in the minds of the framers when they drafted the Constitution.

Even if we concede that the right still exists, it is not an absolute right. Just as folks can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, just as pornographers can’t peddle filth involving children, there are restrictions inherent in all constitutional rights granted.

What would be so horrible about banning semi-automatic weapons or devices that turn them into fully automatic weapons? What harm would befall society if background checks were required for every gun purchase?

The NRA and its more vocal members, of course, see things differently. They believe we have the right to defend ourselves and there are times, they say, when a plain old shotgun just isn’t enough protection. Well, we may be getting closer to those times now, but that’s because more and more people are buying these military style weapons.

Even in the old West – places like Dodge City and Tombstone – weapons were not allowed. They had to be checked at the edge of town or with the sheriff’s office. Gun laws today are far more lenient. Yet they’re not lenient enough for some. A few prefer that everybody be allowed to carry concealed weapons all the time everywhere.

Fear consumes these people. They see potential danger in every situation and they think that having a gun will protect them. I’m sure they’re right – nearly one percent of the time. But mostly, having guns just leads to an increased risk of gun violence: suicides, accidental shootings, sudden impulses of tragic rage.

I’m not advocating for eliminating guns – just common sense restrictions. But the NRA thinks any restrictions are too many. And that’s a tragedy that will lead to further tragedies.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Our Necessary Government

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We criticize our government often. That’s inevitable. Every action taken or not taken by our elected officials is going to yield a negative reaction from someone.

For example, if a citizen has a property full of broken-down washing machines or cars, his neighbors want that property cleaned up. They see it as a blight. The citizen, however, sees those items as salvageable, just waiting to be fixed and sold perhaps. He feels he can do whatever he likes with his property because he’s not hurting anyone.

If the city forces him to clean up the property, it pleases his neighbors while angering him – as well as some libertarians who consider the city’s actions to be overreach. If the city does nothing, the neighbors get mad at it for not doing its job. No matter which action is taken, someone gets mad.

This dynamic holds true for every action at every level of government. At the federal level, most of us don’t want to pay higher taxes. In fact, we want taxes to be cut. But we also want a strong military and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. As our population ages, those who contribute financially to the government decline in number, while those who demand assistance increase.

We’re currently recovering from three hurricanes, requiring a vast amount of federal aid. What’s interesting about it from an academic standpoint, particularly with respect to Texas, is that its two senators voted against relief for Superstorm Sandy. Now they insist that people bail out their state.

Hypocrisy? Absolutely! But not much different than the hypocrisy of us voters, who say we’re taxed enough. We say the government should do away with some program or other so that we can get tax breaks or at least not pay any more. However, Carol wants to cut military spending while Ted wants to cut Medicaid, and Julia wants to means test for Social Security, while Bob wants to eliminate welfare and unemployment benefits.

Whenever there’s a surplus in my state (MN), Democrats generally want to spend it on education and infrastructure while Republicans generally want to spend it on tax cuts. Neither side cares a whit about the long-term fiscal health of the government. Both sides assume growth will continue at the same rate that produced the surplus despite the many recessions we’ve experienced over the past 150 years.

We are walking, talking paradoxes. So yes, government is bad because it’s wasteful. And yes, government is good because it helps us in times of need. And as long as people are running it, it’s going to continue to be both bad and good.

Does that mean we should just accept it as it is? Certainly not. But until we agree on what kind of country we want to be, what kind of government we want to have, we won’t be able to install a government that does what it’s supposed to do. And because we’re human, I don’t expect us to figure that out anytime soon.

Sorry to be a buzzkill.


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Color Me Human

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We are fascinated with ourselves. For ages, we’ve traveled to remote areas to examine relics of our past, to dig up our collective history in order to ascertain how we became the dominant species on the planet.

We study the ancients in our quest to determine who we are. Egyptians built their pyramids as tombs for their Pharaohs; Stonehenge was used for religious purposes; cave paintings around the world were done to tell stories and differentiate ourselves from the lower orders.

We conduct experiments on our brains and bodies, pursuing more and more information about every aspect of our lives. From concussions to cancer, from free will to determinism, from the limits of endurance to the possibilities of increased strength. Our focus remains largely on human endeavors.

And perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, we’re human. It makes sense for us to study ourselves, to learn our limitations and potentialities. It’s not like that’s all we study. We sent Cassini to Saturn and Deepsea Challenger to the bottom of the ocean. We found 91 volcanoes under Antarctica and a 110-million-year-old nodosaur in Canada.

So we are capable of study outside ourselves. But even when we do that kind of exploration, we generally bring it back to how it impacts us humans, which makes me wonder sometimes if our study of self makes us too introspective collectively, if we attach too much importance to human actions and events.

Everything we witness, we witness through the lens of humanity. Global warming, for example, becomes charged with the emotions of people on one side or the other rather than a purely unemotional assessment of the facts.

Some of us want global warming to be a hoax, so we find fault with the “facts” presented to us. Some of us want vaccinations to be eliminated, so we ascribe diseases and conditions to them that bear no resemblance to reality.

All our understandings become colored with the desires we unleash upon the world. Nothing is just itself. Rather, it is itself plus our perception of it. The combination of “thing” and its perception affects us in ways we cannot completely understand. Total accuracy seems like an impossibility because every observation, every notation bears the imprint of humanity.

I concede that total objectivity may not be possible. It may not even be desirable. But I wonder if our fixation on ourselves and our place in the universe limits our ability to grasp that which is outside of us, making at least some of the unknown unknowable.


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