Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lost Contain in the Sun

The first full weekend of college football offered ample opportunity to reflect on the demise of English as a beautiful language, potentially full of mystery, elegance and a rich vocabulary.

Within minutes of turning on the set, I caught the first misuse of "contain," which is a verb everywhere but in the confused grammar that fills the networks on autumn weekends. To most ex-jocks, contain is a noun, usually applied to some defender's allowing a back to slip by him or a receiver to get behind him, as in: "He lost contain." That is one of the ugliest-sounding sentences in the language. And, since grammar is nothing more than a description of the way words are used, it will likely become standardized usage because of the reach of TV. English lovers will have lost another round.

The crime of contain as a noun lies in the fact that it's not needed _ it duplicates containment. I have to believe that the "ment" was dropped for no other reason than that it shortened each sportscaster's sentence by a syllable. Having once been forced to do color commentary for a high school game, I acknowledge that each syllable must be weighed in terms of air time. But, if that's truly the case on the national level, why not use "kept charge" or "lost sway?" Or how about "control" or "oversight," each with only two syllables? Why twist a perfectly good verb into a monstrous noun?

It's true that other verbs serve well as nouns _ "fire," "treat," "maintain" and "voice" have seen dual application for so long no one knows whether they started as action words (verbs) or substantives (nouns) But it's equally true that English is a phonetic language, which is why everyone uses the article "an" instead of "a" ahead of the word "ape." And, because our language has always been shaped by the way words sound together, English speakers chose containment when they referred to keeping someone or something in check. Until now.

I can't blame the other glaring sign of illiteracy on sportscasts, although it shows up in them with great frequency. It also occurs in telecasts of every stripe, and on the highest level. I caught part of a Fox Business show Saturday on which one of the commentators said, "The corporations, who ... " I didn't get the rest of the sentence, because I wanted to scream, "No, lady, corporations are not people. Even Michael Moore (a one-man property conglomerate, according to his divorce papers) could tell you that."

For centuries "who" referred to people, and "which" referred to groups or things. But "which" seems to have been dropped from most vocabularies. Any day now, I expect to hear a newscast about an automobile accident which begins, "The car rammed a tree, who stood beside the road."


Thursday, August 28, 2014


Misdirection, a mainstay of offensive game planning, works in matrimonial mischief as well. Gloria Steinbrecher seems to have learned something from watching the Canyon State staff prepare for the season opener: Suggest that the play is headed one way when it's actually going the other. But her husband isn't considered a defensive mastermind for nothing; he senses something is up from the start.

The cat-and-mouse game between the sexes provides a dark side to Chapter 26 of "The Leather Man." In a stronger marriage, the chapter would consist of a congenial chat between a defensive coordinator and his wife about the potential of the Wranglers' impressive linebacking corps. But, in the context of the Steinbrecher marriage, Gloria's half of the exchange unfolds as a layered cake, with her superficial comments nuanced to mask the undertones of her growing attraction to Brock Banning.

By mid-June Gloria has to acknowledge that she's been thinking about the middle linebacker, whom she met in late March while bar-hopping with Sandy Wilson, the wife of offensive-backfield coach Jerry Wilson ("The Pike"). In a soliloquy she wonders what Banning has been doing during the Southern California summer:
Soaking up beach culture and hanging around with a lot of women in bikinis. But how could I even be thinking about that? It's his life, and he's the right age to enjoy it. A moment later she was amazed at the depth of the envy the thought evoked in her.
When the players begin returning to Idaho's Magic Valley six weeks later to start training camp, Gloria makes a half-hearted effort to get Banning out of her mind. That dissolves into an even stronger craving to see more of him, and Sandy provides the method by reminding her many wives of coaches watch practice sessions before and during the season, most to show support for their husbands.

Gloria takes the misdirection game a dangerous step further the week before Canyon State's opener by initiating a conversation about the linebackers. Her opening gambit is to ask Ben about David Talty's hand ("Pain"), followed by another question about Danny Malahewa, the other outside linebacker, whom she refers to as "the Hawaiian kid." Then, having circled the issue, she inquires about Banning. Ben replies:
"He's an animal, and that makes him the right man to play in the middle. You remember him from last year?"
"He's caught the attention of everyone at bridge. He reminds them of Burt Reynolds, only scarier. The girls all want to see him in action."
"What kind of action is the bridge club into?"
"Well, I think the point of reference is football. You men forget some women would like to see Canyon State improve too."
By then Ben is uneasy about where Gloria is going with her new-found interest in his work. But, in the excitement of the fresh start each new season brings, he puts his concerns aside to concentrate on his work.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I can't remember why I decided to include a chapter on pain in my first novel, but I know when. What is now Chapter 24 of "The Leather Man" was one of the first chapters I typed during the winter of 1973-74, my first as The AP's new sports editor in Helena, Mont. I've dealt in other posts with the long delay in completing the book, so I'll move past that now.

I assume that the decision referred to above grew out of an understanding that it's difficult to examine the sport of football without encountering the subject of pain. Readers might recall from Chapter 16 that Canyon State trainer Wayne Shipwright draws a sharp distinction between pain and discomfort and scorns athletes who equate the two as one and the same. In Shipwright's view (imposed by the author, I have to confess), discomfort is something that can be worked through; pain is a signal to stop the activity which caused it. In other words, there's no gain from real pain, which creates nothing but more pain if the workout continues.

The latter point of view evolved during my distance-running career, which coincides roughly with the origin of the saying, "no pain, no gain" in the early 1980s. From the first the expression sounded catchy, but fishy. After some thought, I explained its incongruity per the reasoning above. I received visual confirmation of my theory during the 1983 Skylon Marathon, which separates itself from other events by having the self-proclaimed "World's Most Beautiful Finish Line" (Niagara Falls). I was never a world-class runner, and I stopped running for a drink about 17 miles into the event. Out of curiosity, I took a look inside an assistance tent before I left. There I saw a strapping young man, who obviously had been many minutes ahead of me but would never be able to equal my time on that particular day. I heard a medical professional say the words "dislocated ankle," closed the flap and continued on my way, seeing the vignette over and over in the final nine miles. I was struggling with discomfort; he with pain.

Years of covering the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL; the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes of the NHL; the Phoenix Suns of the NBA; baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, and a host of major college teams helped immerse me in sports medicine and opened my eyes to injuries I'd never imagined.

My personal acquaintance with pain in a sports setting began my senior year in high school, when I separated my right shoulder in wrestling practice. A few months later I spaced out in the middle of a double forward flip on the school's new trampoline, landed on my head and suffered the indignity of breaking my nose with my own descending knee. I wrestled in college without further injuries, but ended my football and rugby careers by pulling hamstrings. I also rolled an ankle playing basketball and broke the other skiing a few semesters later.

My thirties and forties were kinder, and that's when I managed to compete in a variety of distance events, including four marathons and two triathlons, with no interruptions for rehabilitation. But my luck caught up with me again in the so-called golden years. The toll: a torn shoulder tendon from injudicious weight lifting at the Phoenix YMCA, and a left shoulder separation and damaged sciatic nerve in my right hip. I managed both at one time when I was running to catch up with an golfer shooting nothing but birdies on the front nine of her round at an LPGA event in Tucson, Ariz., and stepped in a hole left by removal of a tree. (I know, I wasn't competing in a sport, but it was in a sports setting.) Finally (I hope), I cracked vertebrae in my lower spine doing another weightlifting no-no at my home in Idaho Falls.

Everything in the last 40 years flavored my understanding of pain and contributed to the ways I rewrote the chapter about David Talty's training-camp injury.

The reader learns that Talty, a linebacker, gets his right hand smashed between two hard objects, a ball carrier's shoulder pads and another player's helmet.
He was instantly occupied with the message, receiving thousands of stimuli from three fingers, which, at the moment of impact, had become four-inch blood blisters.
Talty remains on the ground, his body curled protectively around his hand, until Shipwright arrives. The trainer considers using an ointment containing Arnica montana to soothe the bruised fingers until he realizes it can't be applied to an open wound. He helps Talty to his feet and takes him to the training room, where he washes and disinfects the fingers, tests them and decides there are no broken bones. Shipwright then ices the bruised fingers, bandages them, helps Talty remove part of his uniform and tells him to shower.
While he doffed the rest of his gear left-handed, Talty noticed the pain had sharpened his senses: He was keenly aware of textures _ wet towels flung like rectangles of color in a Piet Mondrian painting, the purple lockers dented like moonscapes, the stainless steel whirlpool bath reflecting the metallic pall of asylum decor.
Shipwright notices that Talty, coming out of not only the initial pain but the tension caused by worrying about his place in the season to come, is getting upbeat, and the trainer feels the reward of being in a position to help:
It doesn't matter how big the kids get, they always feel better when they're hurt and somebody pays attention.
The chapter ends with the realization that the Wranglers have dodged a bullet and contributes to a rosy feeling about the season ahead.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cervantes Redux

The picaresque novel is to prose fiction what the buddy film is to cinema. An undercurrent of sometimes good, sometimes dark humor runs through them, which may explain the appeal of both: Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote," the definitive picaresco work of fiction and a pillar of modern Western literature, first appeared in 1605. But it still brings smiles to readers' faces, and nothing evokes Quixote's joust with windmills, which he ludicrously believes are giants, more than the sedan-become-assault-vehicle's crash into the parade grandstand in "Animal House," released in 1978. Recall, for example, Tim Matheson's line that seals the deal: "I think that this situation absolutely requires a really stupid and futile gesture on somebody's part."

But humor alone is not enough, and that's where the true picaresque narrative departs from the average buddy movie. The subgenre draws on themes that were present in Roman stories about gladiators and on Arabic literature so ascetic a slaphappy sidekick would have seemed out of place. The Arabian influence was very strong in everything Spanish: The Moors put most of the Iberian peninsula under the crescent flag in the Eighth Century and did not lose their last foothold until 1492, when the joint monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile defeated Emir Muhammad XII after the siege of Granada. Cervantes was born 55 years later.

I wasn't even thinking about roguish vagabonds when I began writing "The Leather Man." Its title character is a bigger-than-life football coach whom life seems determined to whittle down to size. But I did apply the word "picaresque" to Quintus LeClaire at one point in the writing process before editing it out. Rather than dominate the novel, his friendship with Preston "Taters" Jones is a subplot that enlivens it.

LeClaire is a war-damaged Marine who drops onto the the Leather Man's team through a series of circumstances and quickly becomes friends with Jones, a starter in the same Canyon State College backfield. Taters is important to Quintus, whose last close friend was killed in Vietnam, and vice versa. But, as much as they stabilize each other, each has a wild side that threatens to destabilize the other.

Taters, who plays blocking back to Quintus' featured tailback role in Canyon State's I Formation, is the son of a car dealer in Soda Springs. That's a blessing for Quintus, who wound up in Idaho after running afoul of the Canyon City police department while on a bus trip _ Taters provides the ride as well as being a pal, and it's quite a ride: a Dodge Coronet hardtop with a 425-horsepower, hemispherical-head engine that meets Taters' need for speed. In Chapter 22, the metallic green car with airbrushed flames on the hood is barely moving on a street near the campus _ and still attracts the attention of coaches Ben Steinbrecher and Jerry Wilson.
It was not yet midnight, the team's weekend curfew hour, but the coaches still found something unsettling in the passage of the car, its engine rumbling through chromed tailpipes with a voice choked on air and high-octane gasoline.
Wilson, who coaches the offensive backfield, and Steinbrecher, the defensive coordinator, have just come from a wild goose chase _ investigating a false drug-use allegation against quarterback Edison Green _ and Wilson remarks that they probably should have been after the two running backs, noting that, "LeClaire looks like he's breaking rules just lacing up his shoes." But they decide they've had enough curfew and rules enforcement and go home for the night.

The fun is just starting for Taters and Quintus, who pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth as they rumble through Canyon City neighborhoods in Chapter 23 until they arrive at a city park. There, they see a teammate, albeit from the defensive side of the ball and a known loner _ linebacker Brock Banning. Inebriated though they are, the two are mildly taken aback to see Banning urinating on a rest-room door. They ask why, and Banning gives a laconic reply: The door is locked.

Quintus and Taters could accept that as logical, but Banning's distracted behavior and uncoordinated movements draw Quintus' attention. No stranger to marijuana after nearly two years in Vietnam, he asks Banning if he has plenty of Zig-Zag paper, a favorite wrap for users. That irks Banning:
"You two are seriously impairing my enjoyment of the outdoors. Why don't you zigzag out of here while you're in condition to drive?"
Quintus ignores the threat, calls Banning "fat man" and tells him to wise up, because he's jeopardizing his career using pot in a 1960s small city with police seemingly everywhere. It becomes clear to Taters that his friend isn't so much worried about Banning's career as he is ready for his first fight since leaving the Marine Corps. He also sees a more sinister intent in Quintus' eyes:
It was then that Jones comprehended what it meant to be a combat veteran: He's playing a game. Banning thinks fighting means beating somebody up, and Quintus thinks it means only one man walks away. With that realization came the responsibility to keep it from happening.
Taters manages to separate the two, possibly saving a life and preserving Canyon State's season. He also comes out of the evening with a greater understanding of the adventures he's likely to run into hanging out with his new best friend.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Bird of Paradise

Treachery is most ugly when it strikes a vulnerable target. That describes Edison Green despite a strong first week of training camp, and the chicanery that leads a woman to accuse him of marijuana use comes close to undoing the promise shown by Canyon State's rebuilt offensive backfield.

Green, already carrying the weight of having to prove himself after transferring from a junior college, bears the extra burden of being a black quarterback in an era when almost all signal callers at the college and professional level are white. Chapter 21 of "The Leather Man" tells readers that Green has established himself as the Wranglers' starter and is just beginning to feel comfortable as the team leader when Jerry Wilson, his position coach, and Wranglers defensive coordinator Ben Steinbrecher show up at his room to ask if the accusation is true.
The first thing that came to Green was Gram's face, solemn and proud, as she recited her instructions for behavior the night he caught the bus for Canyon City. The second thing was the injustice of it. In an era when Timothy Leary was a household name and even non-dropouts were turning on and tuning in, a young man had stood by his grandmother's advice: Leave that to the honkies.
Wilson can see the season falling apart before it starts. He took the detail under protest in the first place, pointing out to head coach Buck McKinnon that the call smacked of a prank and was almost certainly bogus. But McKinnon, whose previous team had a 3-7 record, feels his own career is in jeopardy and wants to squelch any potential drug scandal even if it means losing the most promising quarterback he's ever had in camp. Luckily for Wilson, Steinbrecher volunteered to accompany him on the unwelcome assignment. Steinbrecher has no doubt that Green has been falsely accused, but he is more relaxed than they are. What no one but Steinbrecher knows is that he has an ace to play.

That feeling of security allows Steinbrecher to admire "the accoutrements of soul" in Green's room, starting with an elephant-hide shield imported from Africa, a Lava Lamp and photos of Green's two-sport heroics in high school. He joins the conversation when Green asks if the two plan to search his room for drug paraphernalia, saying:
"There was a phone call, and we had to take it seriously because a serious allegation was made. As the starting quarterback, you are the face of the program. Be content with that. We know you're not a quitter, because the lady who raised you said so."
The reference to Gram takes the steam out of Green's dudgeon.

He asks how Steinbrecher could have any idea who raised him, and the defensive coordinator explains that he went to visit Gram in Phoenix at McKinnon's request to assure her that her grandson would be treated well in Idaho. Still incredulous, Green asks for verification, and Steinbrecher tells him about the red bird of paradise tree in Gram's backyard. Since Green's boyhood, Gram has used it to teach him the need for parental- and self-discipline by citing the constant attention and training it takes to coax a bush into a tree with a single trunk. It is a detail no one who isn't on good terms with Gram could know, and it's just enough to guarantee that the Wranglers will keep their stylish backfield intact.


Sunday, August 17, 2014


I'm finding out that book signings, which I dreaded after publishing "The Leather Man," can be some of the most pleasant moments in an author's journey. Yesterday's, my second overall and first in a Barnes & Noble store, was a good example.

The first person at the table _ set up just inside the entrance off the Grand Teton Mall promenade _ was a lady who wanted to buy a copy for her husband. He had been a star athlete at American Falls (Idaho) High School decades earlier, when I was a newly minted prep-sports reporter for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. She said he'd kept a clipping of every story that mentioned him and wanted to read the book as soon as he heard about it, but they'd missed an earlier signing in Pocatello. Her visit put me in good mood that lasted the rest of the night. Friends kept stopping by, including a couple whose house is next to mine. I was so surprised I nearly apologized for having to sell them the book.

Everything about the process of becoming a novelist, from trying to write a prologue that invites readers to keep going; to keeping track of themes developed early that need to be repeated later; to choosing the right ending; to query letters and looking for an agent has been a learning experience for me. But, in the end, it all seemed to come naturally until I got to marketing. As I indicated in my first post, just starting a blog was an unfamiliar experience, but nothing to rival the feeling of sitting face-to-face across from people and having to ask them to spend mortgage, food, furniture or education money on a product of my imagination _ made tangible only because it now comes with pages and a beautiful cover.

After two signings, however, I'm looking forward to many more. The experiences have been nothing but positive: Will Peterson of the Walrus & Carpenter bookstore in Pocatello and the staff at the Idaho Falls Barnes & Noble made me feel at home from the start.

Still, I think a signing at the Twin Falls Barnes & Noble on Sept. 13 will top everything. After all, the city nestles on the south rim of the spectacular Snake River Canyon, with 212-foot high Shoshone Falls, the nation's most massive unshared waterfall (most of Niagara Falls' water drops on the Canadian side) lurking a few miles east. Shoshone Falls also graces the backdrop of this blog, along with the front and back covers of "The Leather Man." I'll find it inexplicable if the upcoming signing doesn't attract a lot of visitors.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

St. Agnes' Eve

An oblique reference to Woody Guthrie's haunting "Pastures of Plenty" ("The Leather Man," Chapter 9) aside, two works of poetry are cited in my novel. Both are used in character development.

In Chapter 19, the Canyon State sports information director refers to the poem "Ozymandias" for a reminder that the fickleness of sports reflects the vagaries of life itself. The second occurrence comes in the next chapter, where readers learn more about Sherry Sullivan, the elegantly beautiful special-education administrator and instructor who meets title character Ben Steinbrecher through his visits to see his son Teddy.

Sherry and Ben recognize the attraction between them as soon as they meet, and both independently dig in to fight it for the same reason _ Ben is married, and neither he nor Sherry wants to deal with the implications of their getting too friendly, let alone the consequences of breaking up a family. But the magnetism continues to grow with Ben's weekly visit to the institution which houses his son and employs Sherry.

Her recognition of the depth of her feelings about him takes place in the context of putting on makeup. In a series of soliloquies, Sherry admits that she's taking greater care than usual to get everything right because she knows that Ben is driving to western Idaho from Canyon City in the state's midsection. Exasperated over having to redo her mascara, she chides herself for letting thoughts about him intrude into her life:
I'm a better woman than that. After what I went through, the abuse and the divorce, I told myself I'd never look at another man again. I'm supposed to be beyond that, and he's not even my man. Maybe that's part of the attraction, another side of her said. There's no attraction, was the reply. Even if there was, I have enough character to reject it. But reject is such a harsh word, it doesn't even go with Ben; he's so gentle. Soft on him already, huh?
Sherry continues dressing, alternating between trying to empty her mind of everything but the familiar process of getting ready and recognizing what amounts to a fear that getting too close to Ben could mean not being able to be around him at all. She rehearses her life story, flavored with the pain of her parents' divorce, the recognition of her athletic talent, and the disappointment of her marriage to a libertine who laughs at her academic achievements and cheats on her even as she is delivering their child:
She spent the next few years back with her mother waiting tables to get enough money together to begin floating resumes, embittered by the incongruity of a trained professional doing menial labor.
That experience and the relief of finding employment at the state-run institution for the mentally handicapped set up the chapter for an ending that refers to "The Eve of St. Agnes," John Keats' 42-stanza poem. The exhaustive work is based on the medieval belief that a maiden who fasted and followed other rituals the night of Jan. 20, the eve of the Feast of St. Agnes, could have a vision of her future lover. Madeline, the virginal daughter of the lord of the castle, sees a glorified version of Porphyro, who loves her, and then awakes to see Porphyro in her bedroom, led there by Angela, an aged nurse. After a magical return to sleep and the dream of her lover, Madeline awakes and they leave for Porphyro's home "o'er the southern moors."

The masterpiece by Keats, written in 1819, has influenced generations of writers because, in part, it contrasts near-Arctic cold with the pageantry and warmth inside the castle, where, "The level chambers, ready with their pride, Were glowing to receive a thousand guests." It influenced me so much when I read it in college that I memorized the first stanza and made a mental note to use something about the contrast of cold and heat if I ever did a major work of creative writing.

The chapters in "The Leather Man" that deal with the Canyon State-Utah State game are based on that dissimilarity. But, by the time I wrote the book, I'd discovered that other writers had beaten me to the idea of naming something "Fire and Ice." Among them, the great Robert Frost gave that title to a poem. It has nine lines, the same as one of Keats' Spenserian stanzas.

During the writing of my novel, though, I found the right place for a St. Agnes' Eve reference. It's the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 20, part of Sherry's last soliloquy:
But you've got a good job now, she reminded herself. A position, actually. You have people who appreciate you, and children to love and care for, your own and the sweet, helpless kids at the school. And one of them has a father who looks a lot like the man you envisioned when you were little Sherry Seaberry, throwing rocks in the backyard creek and hoping for just one St. Agnes' Eve glimpse of her soul mate.
The chapter turned out to be one of my favorites in the book, because it represented a special challenge: I wasn't sure beforehand whether I could develop female characters in a way a woman could relate to. It was with great relief that I learned after completing it that one of my daughters asked another one, "How did dad get in touch with his feminine side?"


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Having Contractions

In a forest of commas, colons, hyphens, ampersands, pound signs, ellipses and parentheses, the apostrophe stands alone as the most misused and misunderstood of punctuation marks. It could hardly be otherwise _ apostrophes probably are used more often than any marks but periods, and their applicability dates back to Latin rules of grammar which even some English teachers may never have encountered.

Part of the confusion lies in an apostrophe's usefulness. Apostrophes are used to show possession, appearing on either side of the letter "s" according to whether the word is singular or plural. They also help form contractions. And, a while ago, purists insisted on putting an apostrophe anywhere in a word where a letter had been deleted.

The third usage probably was the earliest to vanish. It certainly was a goner by the time cartoonist Al Capp ended the 40-year run of the comic strip Li'l Abner in 1974. Under the old rule, the "Little" in Li'l Abner's name should have been written Li''l' (an apostrophe for each deleted letter). Capp followed that rule in the less successful strip Abbie an' Slats, created three years after Li'l Abner, but evidently he saw where punctuation was headed and decided one apostrophe was enough for a resident of Dogpatch. That may have been a good thing, but I doubt it. Having been freed from a rule of grammar, two generations since then have decided to ignore all logic when deleting letters in words. The effect is obvious in the world of cooking. On one on-line recipe page I found these concoctions: Pork n' Beans and Hamburger Casserole; Pork N Beans Cake; and Pork 'n' Bean Soup. That's three versions of and, shortened, plus the original "and" in all its glory.

The most frequent mistake in the use of apostrophes, though, occurs with the use of it's as a possessive pronoun. I see daily examples of this mistake _ and not just by high school sophomores. It shows up in corporate publications, advertisements, and news tickers local and national. What makes the misuse embarrassing is that "it's" is a contraction of "it is" _ the shortest complete sentence in the English language after "I am" _ and never should be used to indicate possession. "Its" (without an apostrophe) is the possessive form of the third-person, singular, neuter pronoun "it." To anyone troubled by indecision about which is which, remember: The apostrophe in it's combines two words; its without punctuation is a pronoun, used to indicate that "it" possesses something.


Now, about the uses of apostrophes where some rules still apply: Possession depends on number, meaning how many persons, places or things the noun represents.

If the noun is singular, the construction is usually simple _ the word, plus an 's at the end (the dog's collar, for instance). If plural, the apostrophe goes after the s (the dogs' collars). Of course, as usual with English, things can get complicated, especially with nouns like thesis, species or bus that end in s. The standard way to indicate possession with them was to put the apostrophe outside the last letter, but the trend in modern usage seems to be toward adding an 's, especially after common (non-capitalized) nouns. Many publications today do that while merely adding an apostrophe to the final s on a proper noun (Thomas' truck).

The one rule that seems to have remained inviolate is to never use an apostrophe when putting an s at the end of a singular noun to make it plural. In other words, never write about the Brewer's when you're talking about the Brewers, Arizona's first family.

As a former sports writer, I can't wrap this up without relating it to sports. I've always preferred team names that ended in s, but I could see the future coming when the WNBA added the Phoenix Mercury to the teams I had to cover in the Grand Canyon State. Even though it sounds singular, Mercury is a plural noun, and those who covered the team had to learn to write "Mercury's," "Mercury are" or "Mercury have," referring to their possessions, accomplishments, wins, losses or transactions. Maybe it's playing in basketball venues, but the trend went wild in the Arena Football League, where six of 14 teams have singular-sounding names. I like the Spokane Shock and Portland Thunder of the National Conference, and I'm fine with the Tampa Bay Storm, Pittsburgh Power and Philadelphia Soul of the American. I just don't know about the New Orleans VooDoo. I'd have trouble writing about the VooDoo's mojo with a straight face.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Picture Day

On any level of football, tension enters the picture with the arrival of training camp. It gives the coaches about a month to find out if the individuals they've picked to start can cohere into an effective team, with effectiveness measured in victories. Head coach Buck McKinnon knows that his every decision from August through the end of the season will be scrutinized, debated and second-guessed. For players, camp offers the opportunity to advance up the depth chart or drop into scholarship limbo. Even sports writers and sportscasters feel their pulse rates quicken with the knowledge that each player move, the slightest limp by anyone, or a heated discussion between coaches can turn into a story that suggests or demands coverage, and most approach late summer resolving to improve their own speed and delivery of the news.

At Canyon State, camp begins with Picture Day, when the players debut new uniforms, and members of the news media in and around Canyon City turn out to photograph and interview them. For sports information director Marc Carter, Picture Day signals the start of his favorite time of year:
It was a golden afternoon, weeks before the autumnal equinox, but the leaves were nearly ready to turn. That would set the arroyos ablaze with a carotene cascade that meandered like molten shrapnel toward the city. It was time for football, a few months when life was good and a team called the Wranglers could be as popular as rodeos and fishing.
The current season's Picture Day carries more interest than most: The Wranglers have landed what the coaches believe may be a blue-chip prospect _ an unusual catch at Canyon State's level _ and head coach McKinnon can't wait to see if tailback Quintus LeClaire can provide the offensive punch his Wranglers have been lacking. LeClaire, a star in his native Louisiana, took a circuitous route getting to college: He enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school, was nearly killed in Vietnam, and only wound up in Canyon City because he got arrested aboard a bus stopped there. Carter had to phone LeClaire's high-school coach to get the material for his eye-catching biography in the football media guide, which goes modestly viral by Canyon State standards.

Gifford Richards, the sports editor of the local newspaper, is a non-believer at first, making fun of Quintus' Cajun surname by calling him "Ee-claire." But Richards surprises Carter by waiting around until the end of the mile run which is McKinnon's traditional ending to Picture Day. The coach has assigned various groups target finishing times, based on the amount of running they're expected to do during a game. The offensive and defensive backs, the fastest players on any team, have to finish in 6 minutes, 45 seconds, to avoid McKinnon's wrath. All of the backs, including new quarterback Edison Green, beat the time easily, suggesting improved team speed, but LeClaire's 6:18 mark disappoints Carter.

He asks LeClaire in Chapter 18 if he got off-course, and the reply reminds Carter once again that LeClaire may be a different kind of athlete:
"It wasn't a track meet. All I wanted was to make it without pulling a hammy," says LeClaire, who came close to world-class sprint performances while in high school.
He didn't look angry, just serious. Carter scanned the answer in his mind and found it reasonable. Maybe that's a blue-chip approach to something like the Run. We've never had a blue-chipper here, so how would we know?
The SID notes that even the perpetually sarcastic Richards seems deferential around LeClaire, another sign that the Wranglers may need to be taken seriously for once.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Balancing the Book

Balance is nearly as important in a novel as it is on an athletic field, a fact I wrestled with most of the way through the process of writing and editing "The Leather Man." I think the book turned out well, although I'm still waiting for feedback from readers, the ultimate arbiters.

I had completed and copyrighted the original manuscript, described in an earlier post ("Words (2)") before I encountered "The Writer's Journey," Christopher Vogler's important and influential book on the art of producing screenplays. As Vogler himself points out, his tome works just as well planning the points that make a novel work for readers. I discovered that I had _ without reference to anything but my imagination _ peopled "The Leather Man" with most of the Archetypes Vogler considers essential. I had a Hero, an Antihero, a Mentor, a Shapeshifter, Allies and a Trickster.

Similarly, I'd written situations to cover most of the Stages of the Journey, outlined in what Vogler calls Book Two of his book.

In my novel, both title character Ben Steinbrecher and Antihero Quintus LeClaire hear a "Call to Adventure," refuse the call, meet a mentor, cross thresholds, encounter allies and enemies, face ordeals, find rewards and reach Vogler's version of "Resurrection" before both are able to "Return with the Elixir."

But _ as I wrote in the fourth post _ my book was out of balance and over-written. Editing out the fat reduced the size of the first part, which illustrates how the components of a college football team are assembled, along with introducing the characters. But I had to revise and rearrange most of the second part, which covers training camp through a road victory which marks the high point of the season. The final third of the book wraps up football completely and moves quickly into the part where both Steinbrecher and LeClaire face unanticipated challenges that test their sanity and their will to live.

After submitting the final manuscript to Archway Publishing, I did a page count and found a pleasing symmetry: "The Leather Man" now runs to 272 pages between the Prologue and Epilogue. Of those, the 90-page first section contains a Prologue and 15 chapters. There are 24 chapters and 96 pages in the second section and 16 chapters and the Epilogue in the final 86 pages.