Book Review: We Will Tell You Otherwise

This will be a somewhat unique review in that I know but don’t know the author. Beth Mayer and I attended Lincoln School, a no-longer-extant elementary school in Lombard, Illinois. She and her family lived in Illinois through our junior high years, then they disappeared to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. The magic of Facebook put me back in touch with Beth, and I learned she was an English teacher and writer. Deciding to take the risk (I’m normally a science fiction reader/writer), I bought her book of short stories, We Will Tell You Otherwise. My reactions follow.

First, a word or two about Beth. She was and as far as I can tell remains a sweet, kind person. A tad quiet and shy. And I don’t think I’ll be shocking or embarrassing her or myself to admit that I had a crush on her [X] years ago. I was socially awkward back in the day, and so kindness to people like me rated high as a virtue. Her mom was the school librarian, and I know I pestered her a lot. I appreciated her patience.

All this is to say that the shy and gentle girl of my memory has grown up and is now writing stories in a shy and gentle manner. What do I mean by that? Well, Beth’s characters are often restrained in their curiosity and their responses to people. They aren’t screaming or losing their temper. There are things that they might be interested in knowing, but seldom ask.

The stories themselves are more akin to dramatized anecdotes than movie- or novel-style plots and conflict resolutions. It feels as if we are drifting into these various characters’ private lives, listening in on their personal conversations. There are conflicts and sources of discomfort for the viewpoint characters (sometimes first-person narrated, sometimes first-person limited). The characters’ reactions or internal resolutions to the conflict in the narrative are often implied or left to the reader to guess. There are allusions to dark or violent actions, but those are mostly “offstage.” I found myself wondering where the characters might go from there.

I’d be curious to see Beth’s characters given longer stories and more space to move around–how do they plan to face their challenge(s)? What comes next? I suppose that’s what I mean by shy storytelling. Or maybe coy is a better word. There are conflicts there, often pretty serious ones. How do these literary creations respond to them? Is this understated storytelling the current literary style or is that a Beth thing? I guess I’d like to see Beth write a novel. ūüôā

The best story in the collection (my view) is the second to last, from which the book mostly derives its title, “I Will Tell You Otherwise.” There, the reader sees the more traditional tools of setup, confrontation, and resolution. Her characters are very much alive, and if any of the stories in this collection would benefit from a longer treatment, it would be this one. How can you go wrong with a character name like Cha Cha McGee?

So would I recommend the book? Yes. The writing is skillful, engaging, and easy to read. The stories touch on family, friends, relationships, and the conflicts, resentments, and hurts that can arise from them. The characters depicted feel real. I have no idea how much they are based on real people and how much is creative invention, but they are still skillfully rendered, which is not easy to do in these short episodes. The culture, behaviors, norms, and taboos of the characters are distinctly Midwestern in their flavor. I found this a charming reminder of home and a girl I knew long ago.

Book Review: Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects

space-architecture-coverThis is the¬†second review I’ve written of¬†a book by the author, Sandra H√§uplik-Meusburger (hereafter SHM), and the third review I’ve written on this topic because it interests me. Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects: Designing and Planning Beyond Earth¬†is similar to SHM’s¬†last book,¬†Architecture for Astronauts, in that it covers the still-in-its-infancy discipline of space architecture. And like her previous output, this book is a worthwhile addition to the aerospace’s collective knowledge. Continue reading “Book Review: Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects”

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

I thought I’d know what I was going to say when I sat down to write this review, but I suddenly found myself stuck. I knew I had to write something. I also knew this much going into Carrie Fisher’s memoir¬†The Princess Diarist: it would feature excerpts from her diary from the time she made the original¬†Star Wars and she would talk about her affair with costar Harrison Ford. Okay, maybe I knew a little more than that because I’d seen some of her other movies and read¬†Postcards from the Edge¬†and¬†Surrender the Pink.¬†I could expect¬†her distinctive, remarkable writing style, though¬†I haven’t read any of her¬†stuff recently. What was causing my initial hesitation? I’m one of¬†them–those fans who delight and vex the author.

I have to pause¬†for a moment: I had originally written¬†“I hadn’t read any of Carrie’s stuff recently” above, then politely changed it to her¬†because I do not know Ms. Fisher. I do not know Princess Leia, the role that catapulted her and her costars to superstardom, except as a fan and fannish writer. I’ve tried not to delude myself about my relationships with fictional characters or the people who portray them, despite having dreams where I’ve talked to Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill as actors, as though I knew them personally. These people get under your skin when you’re not looking. Or if you’ve been looking for nearly 40 years, as I have.

It’s just a movie, I remind myself (But it changed my life! my seven-year-old self replies indignantly).¬†She was a person playing a role in a movie, says my inner adult (but she gave the role with just the right spirit to make her iconic 40 years later!).¬†If this book talks about anything, it’s about the relationships that Hollywood actors have with their roles and then with the fans enamored of those¬†characters. And, as I noted above, it’s confusing. I shall attempt to refrain from any additional claims to relationship or ownership of Ms. Fisher’s mind; however, I’m still keeping my action figures.

In any case, as problematic as it is writing about Carrie Fisher as a fan, this book makes it clear how intensely bizarre and difficult it must be to be Carrie Fisher, the person who has lived with this role for 40 years. You might be curious, as I was, about what she thought about most at that time. If you read her diary, which is what she invites her fans to do, you discover that she was most intensely focused on her affair with the now-internationally-famous-many-times-over Harrison Ford.

What comes across most clearly in Fisher’s prose, both now and then, is how blessed smart and funny she is. Her writing sparkles with¬†a spontaneous wit and originality that I hope to achieve someday. She has her own voice. As soon as I read her description of her first¬†iconic hairdo as “the buns of Navarone,” I knew I was in for a treat. This was the writing I remember from¬†Postcards from the Edge–snarky and all-the-way fun. Some bits just jumped out at me and caused me to devour this book in a few hours…

¬† ¬†I need to write. It keeps me focused for long enough to complete thoughts. To let each train of thought run to its conclusion and let a new one begin. It keeps me thinking. I’m afraid that if I stop writing I’ll stop thinking and start feeling. I can’t concentrate when I’m feeling.


You see, my dear, you are not Carrie Fisher at all. They just told that to test you.


I would like to not be able to hear myself think. I constantly hear my mind chattering and jabbering away up there all by itself. I wish it would give me a f###ing break.


   The itsy bitsy spidered his way up my water spout
He little Jack Hornered his way into my corner
And now I can’t get him out
He at all my porridge, sat in my chair
Slept in my bed, washed himself into my hair

At the same time, it can be painful to read Fisher’s¬†writing. She lays out her vulnerabilities like 8 X 10″ glossies on a Comic Con autograph table. She is hyperconscious, self-studying, and self-deprecating to a fault. It hurts to see someone you admire¬†be this hard on themselves.

The Princess Diarist¬†is akin to an emotional strip tease (Fisher calls autograph signing a “lap dance”) with surprisingly little nudity. For example, she is intimate in her writing about Ford, not Salacious–sorry, had to throw that in there. I would be curious to know how Ford¬†reacted to this book, assuming he read it, but that’s between them. She lays bare her troubled relationship with her father; her one-sided passion for¬†a stoic, standoffish, and smart-assed¬†Harrison Ford; her awkward moments with long lines of fans at conventions.¬†If you want to know “What must it be like to be Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia?” this book answers that, in spades, hearts, and every other suit you can think of.

In any case, I wish her well as she continues with new chapters of her life as Princess (now General) Leia Organa and, hopefully, happily, as Carrie Fisher. If I’m ever crazy¬†enough to go to a con and stand in line for her autograph, I’ll keep it short and sweet and let her move on with her day. Judging by¬†The Princess Diarist, the self-doubting princess/actress/icon has had enough worshippers for one lifetime. Maybe several.

Book Review: Carrying Albert Home

The premise¬†for Homer Hickam Jr.’s latest novel is intriguing enough to make you want to read it and hilarious enough that you¬†expect to be entertained.¬†Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator¬†will do both.¬†Hickam, best known for Rocket Boys (a.k.a. October Sky), has pieced together a love story based on stories his parents told him while he was growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia.

Years before Homer Hickam Senior and his wife Elsie raised their boys in a small mining town, they had other dreams, loves, ambitions, and adventures. Homer’s mother Elsie spent some time after graduating high school in what would be my future home town, Orlando, Florida. She lived with a “rich” uncle (who would eventually lose most of his money in the Depression) and fell in love with an up-and-coming actor and dancer named Buddy Ebsen. Yep,¬†that Buddy Ebsen–he of later Jed Clampett/Beverly Hillbillies fame. Ebsen left Orlando for New York and later Hollywood to pursue his acting career. Elsie mooned over him, but eventually went back home to West Virginia to marry a boy she admired, Homer. As a wedding gift, Buddy sent an alligator from Florida, who became the Hickams’ pet, Albert.

If keeping a four-foot alligator in your bathroom and walking it around on a leash seems a tad odd, even dangerous, you probably wouldn’t be far wrong. That seems to be how Elsie Hickam lived her life. Eventually, Homer Sr. lays down the law and says, “It’s the alligator or me!” Elsie seems willing to accept Homer’s ultimatum, but only if he agrees to drive the gator back to Orlando to give him¬†a decent home. What follows is a road trip that feels like a mashup of¬†Forrest Gump,¬†It Happened One Night, and¬†Travels with Charley¬†by John Steinbeck (more on him in a bit). In the pre-Interstate Highway era, long-distance travel across the U.S. was still a bit of a challenge, even with road maps, and Homer and Elsie get themselves into a series of adventures and predicaments as they make their way gradually southward to give Elsie’s alligator a home.

While¬†the reader¬†knows¬†the eventual ending–the husband and wife will eventually settle in West Virginia and raise Homer Hickam, Jr.–you’re not certain how, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it will end up¬†that way. If this book is a love story, it is also an exploration by Hickam of answering the question of “Who were my parents?” As Hickam put it when I reached out to him on Twitter,¬†“It was a book¬†I needed¬†to write.”

Elsie does not like living in Coalwood and tries¬†to convince Homer to escape with her. Barring that, she hopes to escape the coal-miner’s life with Homer. She’s strong-minded and up for any adventure. Her favorite saying seems to be, when an opportunity is presented to her, “I always wanted to be an X (nurse, pilot, actress, etc.),” and hijinks thereafter ensue. The adventure of Carrying Albert Home, then, is a story of two people struggling in a marriage with vastly different expectations for¬†their lives. Homer, a¬†serious, literal-minded¬†coal miner, is happy to live, raise a family, and die in Coalwood. Elsie, who had spent time in secretarial school in sunny Florida, hopes for a more exciting, adventurous life with someone like the actor Buddy Ebsen.

Along the way from West Virginia to Florida, Homer’s future parents face dangers from bank robbers, moonshiners, labor disputes (with Homer taking one side and Elsie the other), minor-league baseball in the rural south, smugglers, and a few celebrities along the way, including Ernest Hemingway and the aforementioned John Steinbeck.¬†All of this happens, with various twists, turns, and side trips while keeping Albert the alligator¬†in tow and a¬†mysterious rooster who joins them along the way. Elsie’s adventuring spirit and Homer’s diligence and doubt about his wife’s love move the story forward in¬†the way common to¬†many love stories. Instead of two single people seeking love, we experience¬†instead two imperfect¬†people struggling in their marriage.

I did note that this book appears in the fiction section (the subtitle includes, after all, “the mostly true story”), not the nonfiction section. This is a novel based on true-or-not stories Homer’s parents told him over the years. Perhaps they’re tall tales, perhaps they’re the real McCoy, but the individual¬†adventures drive forward a love story that is worth reading because it involves real, married people. It’s a poignant reminder that struggles, challenges, and adventures are not just for courting but can and should continue after a couple becomes man and wife.

Mars in 2015–Books, Movies, and Reality

In the last month I’ve been indulging in a bit of Mars mania. I read Andy Weir’s book¬†The Martian,¬†followed by the movie starring Matt Damon, which was based upon the book. On the heels of this double helping of The Martian I read¬†Rescue Mode, a new science fiction novel by Ben Bova and a NASA friend of mine, Les Johnson.

Both books go to superb lengths to achieve engineering realism in depicting hardware for getting to and living on Mars. The Martian focuses on one man who is stranded on the red planet while Rescue Mode concentrates on the efforts of a crew of eight astronauts whose vehicle is severely damaged on the way to Mars. Different problems, but same stakes: survival beyond the Earth.

The Martian 

The Martian is written entirely in the first person and the protagonist–portrayed well¬†in the movie by Matt Damon–concentrates more on the lone astronaut’s Robinson Crusoe-type challenges with nature using the tools at hand. The movie gives more life to the characters “off screen” in the book. I found the book hilarious, probably because it was easy to identify with a sarcastic white guy who’s a Chicago Cubs fan and has an occasionally profane manner of expressing himself.

The movie version of astronaut Mark Watney is a bit more subdued, perhaps not quite as juvenile, but an admirable character¬†nonetheless. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Matt Damon’s acting is excellent while the movie overall is simply good. The movie has some long stretches of just watching a rover move across the lonely Martian landscape. Or, as someone pointed out about¬†The Lord of the Rings,¬†just a lot of walking. The novel of¬†The Martian needs to keep the reader engaged–in my case, I devoured the book in a couple of days–and so has a few more problems to solve. And there’s just more opportunity for smart remarks by the narrator.

Another thing Weir (and director Ridley Scott, to his credit) handles well is giving all the technology a real-world feel, complete with acronym-heavy jargon, rules and regulations, and a good feel not just for what things are designed to do but what they can be made to do in case of emergencies. Even duct tape makes a good showing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to being faithful to the book is that Weir’s (Watney’s) profanity does not make the movie exactly kid-friendly. S-bombs, F-bombs, cussing galore. Depending on how old your kids are and how much profanity they’re used to, they can probably start watching this film at around age 10-12¬†(the film is PG-13, though I’m surprised it didn’t make R). It’s not that I’m a huge prude when it comes to cussing, but that does mean limit the age range for kids to watch the story and get inspired by its can-do spirit. Regardless, the book and the movie are great fun and manage to capture an Apollo 13 level of what author David Brin calls “competence porn” set in space as Watney moves from bare survival to problem solving to transcending his situation. I might need to go back to the theaters for another shot at viewing it on the big screen. Worth it.

Rescue Mode

Rescue Mode, which to my knowledge isn’t being made into a movie yet, is a different project. It still features peril on a Mars mission and requires a lot of technological competence to put things right.¬†However, instead of concentrating on one character’s efforts or point of view, Bova and Johnson write about a crew of eight:¬†four men, four women, with a mix of nationalities and races, plus a variety of NASA people and politicians back on Earth. In this way,¬†Rescue Mode is a more mature (in the literary sense), complex, and ambitious work.

The crew includes some rivalries, sexual tension, and personality clashes that add a bit of humanity to the astronauts.¬†The Martian, by contrast, isn’t quite as diverse or nuanced–the primary motivation for most of the off-stage players is dedication to duty. On the whole, the character interactions are handled well, including some eye rolling by the other characters when one of them says something that might be taken as stereotypical in some fashion.

The book is a little slow to start as we’re introduced to the crew and the political players, but once the crew get into space, the pace picks up quickly. You might wonder what sort of political drama is included in a book ostensibly about space exploration. In this case, the authors chose to depict a battle in Washington, DC, over the continued funding of human space exploration, with the president for it and an ambitious senator trying to shut down the Mars program as “too dangerous” and “wasteful.”

One thing I found interesting in comparing¬†The Martian and¬†Rescue Mode is that both books seem to have used the same (or similar) NASA reports in designing their spacecraft and other hardware. Not surprising, I suppose–if NASA¬†manages to get to Mars in the near future, realism demands that you use the hardware they say they’re going to use. Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts about Mars exploration in the real world of 2015.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Both of these books assume something that right now is not foreseeable, or maybe even realistic: the political will to spend the money and time to build all that NASA wants to build to get humans to Mars.¬†The Martian just assumes that it happened without questioning the how or why.¬†Rescue Mode takes a shot at explaining how it might be done with solid support from a U.S. President. Bova and Johnson note that their mission takes place late in the supporting president’s term and that the program would be vulnerable to the next president to come along–even if that president came from the same party. I don’t fault Andy Weir for this–he’s telling an rollicking good adventure story. Bova and Johnson wrote an adventure story but had larger fish to fry, as they try to make a larger political case for human spaceflight. Realistically, any actual future that includes¬†a massive human mission to Mars or even back to the Moon will need to address the politics of it.

Another political point¬†Rescue Mode makes is that the people most likely to benefit from closing or cutting back on NASA-led human space exploration would be commercial entities like SpaceX. Indeed, Elon Musk has stated that he wants to send people to Mars. The book includes¬†a spaceport in New Mexico and makes reference to other commercial enterprises in Texas, Florida, and on the Moon. The real political battle over human spaceflight is not really between people who want it and those who want to close it down but between differing visions of how it should be carried out–and by whom: should¬†the future glory go to NASA or a dedicated billionaire?¬†The Martian doesn’t depict this battle per se, but it clearly stands behind¬†NASA getting the job;¬†Rescue Mode¬†shows NASA having the job but facing pressure from others who would prefer that they don’t.

If it seems strange¬†to be pro-space exploration but anti-NASA, it probably is–just as it’s strange that a Democrat administration is more supportive of commercial space while Republicans are favoring a large government program. However, if you spend some time observing the space business in the 21st century, you will see that we live in strange times. Welcome to the future.

Book Review: Aurora

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, is typically ambitious in its vision of realistic, well-thought-out space hardware, this time to the Tau Ceti system. However, despite his¬†grandeur of scale and the realism of his hardware, Robinson¬†seems to have made a conscious effort to undo the promise and hopefulness that many of his earlier space epics have inspired in space advocates like me. He seems to have succumbed to anger or despair in his reactions to human beings exploring and living beyond their home planet.


The first book I read by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Memory of Whiteness, was incomparably ambitious, depicting a far-future solar system populated by diverse peoples and micro-civilizations held together by an advanced physics that eventually came to combine music. The characters were diverse, witty, and likeable. Since that time, many of his science fiction stories have taken place in approximately that same future, though with thematic and event changes from novel to novel.

He is perhaps best known for his epic¬†Mars Trilogy,¬†which depicted the exploration, development, and eventual terraforming of the planet Mars, from 2026 to several hundred years in the future. The Mars trilogy is Robinson’s¬†vision of a liberal/environmentalist political utopia set on the red planet.

His last space epic,¬†2312,¬†also portrayed a technologically ambitious future, with cities on Mars, massive spacecraft plying the distances between the planets, and even a city of Mercury (which also appeared the the two previous works). However, 2312 lacked a lot of the well-rounded characterization he aspired to in the Mars trilogy. And, like his subsequent Earth-based environmental novels like Antarctica, Robinson’s¬†depiction of 2312 is overwhelmed by environmental catastrophes brought on by pure-evil or pure-ignorant conservatives/capitalists. He had, in essence, taken the gloves off, making much of his work more political polemic than entertainment.

The Memory of Whiteness link:


Mars Trilogy link:


2312 Link:


Aurora, then, combines the epic scale of interstellar exploration and all its related, believable complications with a still-damaged Earth back home in roughly the 28th century. The starship is a massive, double-ringed design with multiple simulated Earth-style environments, akin to Biosphere 2, complete with jungles and glaciers and everything else in between, and multiple cultures inhabiting each area.

Despite a crew of over 2,000 individuals on the generational starship, Robinson focuses primarily on two or three individuals within a single family, with everyone else serving as nearly faceless background characters. Warning: potential spoilers ahead. One of the most interesting characters turns out to be the computer running the starship itself, where a certain amount of depersonalization might be expected.

One of the early main characters, Devi, is more or less the ship’s chief engineer, and she spends much of her time¬†angry. I cannot emphasize that enough because the anger in this character and several of the characters inhabiting some of Robinson’s¬†other novels are also infused with this anger, which is directed at stupidity, shortsightedness, or general ignorance. Not that these are bad things to be angry about, but characters that stomp around a starship p.o.ed all the time get a little tiresome or unlikeable at times. Why are these people in the future so angry all the time?

Devi’s daughter Freya is less angry than her mother, though not as brilliant–in fact, she starts out the story as developmentally challenged, but eventually she functions well enough to be a leader in her own right. The only other character given a lot of attention is Freya’s father Badim, who is the phlegmatic peacemaker who tries to help his wife, daughter, and starship crewmates maintain some sort of peace. The primary story line of the book covers these three humans, their friends, and the ship’s computer as they approach Tau Ceti, explore its various worlds, and attempt to cope with technical challenges on the starship¬†and the worlds they find at Tau Ceti. I’ll try to restrain myself on further spoilers.

Often, when Robinson’s¬†characters aren’t voicing anger at the people who sent them on their journey to another star, they are in the grips of a despair that’s almost painful to read. Much of the despair articulates itself in the belief that human colonization of other worlds is, in fact, impossible. For example:

I bet they’re all like this one. I mean, they’re either going to be alive or dead, right? If they’ve got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they’ll be alive. Alive and poisonous.

Or there’s this, from much later in the book:

Human beings live in ideas. That they were condemning their descendants to death and extinction did not occur to them, or if it did they repressed the thought, ignored it, and forged on anyway. They did not care as much about their descendants as they did about their ideas, their enthusiasms.

Is this narcissism? Solipsism? Idiocy (from the Greek word idios, for self)?

Indeed, at the equivalent of a space advocacy conference like the ones I attend, one character physically attacks an advocate for further human interstellar travel. The wit and joy are all but gone in this book, and that saddens me as a reader and fan.

So as I’ve read his books and interviews over the years, it seems as if¬†Robinson¬†has been trying to disown or undo the remarkable work he did in¬†The Memory of Whiteness or¬†The Mars Trilogy, which did so much to inspire so many, myself included, about the possibilities of human space exploration. The flag of the Mars Society, for example, is red, green, and blue–the colors of the¬†Mars novels. And many of the members of that Society–along with other space-advocate Robinson¬†fans–are often libertarian and do not share his politics. Perhaps that grates him: people using the technologies he posits in support of political ideas he finds distasteful.

All that said, Robinson¬†raises some good questions about what the future human space exploration might look like if we discover only two types of worlds out there: lifeless balls of rock that require thousands of years to make human-livable or Earthlike worlds with water that are ultimately poisonous. It’s a problem that I’ve mulled over in my own writing: if that, what then? I suspect, however, that humanity will prefer to go out there and try to learn the hard way before daring to give up on exploring among the stars. Unfortunately, Robinson does not answer the question clearly enough to make this story a fully rounded think piece. He poses a number of legitimate problems, but leaves us hanging as to what should happen next.

Book Review and Literary Experiment II: The Emotional Thesaurus

English department creative writing majors have this dictum beaten into their skulls early and often: “Show, don’t tell.” Intellectually, I understood what the profs meant: describe situations rather than have the narrator explain what happens in a particular scene. However, it wasn’t until I read The Emotion Thesaurus that I understood how this dictum translated into actual writing practice.

[Click here if you want to buy the book: //]

Imagine you’ve got a very emotional story to tell. We all know how much emotion is internalized, in feelings or words. However, your publisher has dictated two important rules:

  1. Thou shalt not write interior monologues.
  2. Thou shalt not explain the meaning of an event in the narration.

I’ve been guilty of this for years, which is one of several reasons why I make my living as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. But here’s where those two rules force the writer to get better at his/her craft: if you can’t as Author explain how everything fits together, you have to depict the impact through characters’ dialogue, physical actions, or other descriptions of behavior. Again, the point of this approach to writing is that some of the burden of understanding the story is given over to the reader. Another advantage of this type of writing–should you be so inclined–is that it is much easier to translate “external” writing into TV or movie productions because everything is right there on the page.

On the flip side, stories that are very internalized or are overburdened with narrative explanation are notoriously difficult to translate into visual images. The only film I know that did a halfway decent job of this was Dune, which was a stinker on other levels, but captured the internal monologues of Frank Herbert’s cerebral series well.

What The Emotion Thesaurus does is provide the writer with a range of emotions, their definitions, physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of long-term emotional effects, and cues to repressed emotion. Through all of these, the writer can better “method act” their characters into life through words alone. I found this visceral approach to “show, don’t tell” so worthwhile that this lesson alone was worth the price.


Not sure what I mean by show vs. tell? I’ll try an example to see if I can depict it honestly.

Jerry saw the news: Chicago nuked by terrorists. He couldn’t believe it: half his family–or more!–wiped out in the mother of all fires. And for what? He swore revenge right there and then.

Jerry turned on the TV, saw a wide-eyed reporter with pursed lips and watery eyes explain with a shaky voice, “…terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the destruction. First incorporated in 1837, the city of Chicago has been utterly obliterated by a high-power hydrogen bomb. The casualties…” The news reader choked up, paused, and composed herself. “At a guess, over five million people died in the initial blast. How many might be injured or suffering from radiation burns will take weeks or months to determine as emergency crews from neighboring cities attempt a rescue effort. Because of the electromagnetic pulse and the extent of the damage, we’re only getting fragmentary images, mostly from people in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Rockford, where damage was bad, but survivable.”

The images on the screen were shaky, but featured screaming voices, anguished cries, faces contorted with pain or burns so horrific that blur spots were insufficient to cover the blood or discolored flesh on the screen. “I must warn viewers, that some of the images you are about to see, are extremely disturbing….”

A spasm crossed Jerry’s face. He poked at the mute on the remote, then dropped it as his hands began to shake. He began reciting names as his eyes touched on every cherished face, young and old, and every familiar South Side apartment building, restaurant, and church in the pictures on his wall: “Momma. Daddy. Regina. DaSean. Malcolm. Mokeena. Auntie Jessie. Auntie Carmela….you bastards. You stupid, f—ing bastards!”

The crawl under the news reader’s face shared casualty figures, statements by the President, by Congress, FEMA, the Red Cross… “Who did it?” He shouted at the TV.

Teeth clenched, Jerry picked the remote off the floor and jabbed repeatedly at the mute until the sound came back on. “…nce again, the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is unprecedented in the history of terrorism and this country…”

Jerry’s lip turned up in a snarl. He spat at the screen, not caring about the mess. “Okay, that’s fine, you bastards. You’ve made up my mind for me. I will m-make it my mission in life to destroy you.”

But before he took any action in that direction, Jerry collapsed into his recliner and cried long and hard for the next two hours.


Obviously the “Tell” version is a lot shorter, but the “Show” version gives the reader more time to experience and feel the moment along with Jerry. We’re able to “see” Jerry’s character better. “Telling” is brief and, pardon the expression, bloodless. We don’t have a sense of the event nor of Jerry’s reaction to it. Okay, now I get it.

The trick becomes–will I get better or different stories out of this lesson? Time will tell.

Book Review: The Education of Millionaires

I bought this book because freelance writing has been fun, but a business challenge. The subtitle caught my eye: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to be Successful. Well, that wouldn’t be too hard. Between my English literature and technical writing degrees, I didn’t find a lot of time for real-world business skills. And that deficit in my college learning is what the author is trying to correct. I found his advice well worth reading.

Education of Millionaires

Using interviews with multiple millionaires or billionaires–most of whom dropped out of high school or college–Michael Ellsberg illustrates what he defines as seven “success skills” necessary to make money. I don’t think I’m giving away too many trade secrets by listing them here (it’s akin to opening the front matter in the book store and checking the table of contents).

  1. How to Make Your Work Meaningful and Your Meaning Work (or, How to Make a Difference in the World Without Going Broke!)
  2. How to Find Great Mentors and Teacher, Connect with Powerful and Influential People and Build a World-Class Network
  3. What Every Successful Person Needs to Know About Marketing, and How to Teach Yourself
  4. What Every Successful Person Needs to Know About Sales, and How to Teach Yourself
  5. How to Invest for Success
  6. Build the Brand of You (or To Hell With Resumes!)
  7. The Entrepreneurial Mind-Set Versus the Employee Mind-Set

Those chapter titles might intrigue you or strike you as utter bilge. I was hooked because I’ve been in need of some concrete tips for months now. Unlike some of Ellsberg’s subjects, I did graduate, went back to school to get a higher degree, and that paid off in the form of better jobs and opportunities in the defense and space industries…at least up to the point where I got laid off. Left to myself, I could have looked for the next tech writing job in the want ads and remained in Huntsville. I decided it was time to take the leap, become self-employed, and do what I wanted to do. In that case, I handled chapter one.

Mentors I’ve got, though I keep looking around for advice from others when I think they can help.

Where I knew I needed help was in marketing and sales, which surprised me a bit since I’ve worked as a marketing guy for a good chunk of my career. However, Ellsberg inverts the usual model of enticing others to want a product you want to sell and focuses instead on identifying individual, personal needs and determining if and how your product/service can help. I wonder how that approach would work at NASA (“We don’t do marketing, we education and outreach”). Ellsberg recommends a couple other good books on how to do things like direct marketing and “high integrity” marketing, which focuses on an individual’s deepest emotional needs without manipulating them into something they don’t want to buy. On the sales side of things, Ellsberg’s book might be worth it just for his referral to the book SPIN Selling, which is the cheapest abridged version of a million-dollar sales study you’re likely to find.

Ellsberg’s definition of investing for success might lead one to think he’s about to provide investment tips for your portfolio. Instead, he focuses on investing in your own ad hoc education–learning what you need to learn to run your business and succeed.

On the subject of brand building, I was already there: he emphasizes building a positive online presence. Google my name, and you get either me or a minor league baseball player. Most of the rest of the top ten entries, however, are me. So that’s good, I suppose. But until last night, I didn’t have the “” domain. The things I do for business development. If the author has one key message here, it’s that most of the jobs that are filled are not posted online, and yet that’s how most people do their job hunt–silly, no?

Lastly, when it comes to the “entrepreneurial mindset” vs. the “employee mindset,” I’d have to say that this has been the biggest change I’ve had to make to progress as a professional. What’s the difference? An entrepreneur is not too proud to take a scut job on the way toward something better. They’re looking at the job as a learning opportunity while they’re working on getting somewhere else. An entrepreneur looks at any downturns or unpleasant circumstances as temporary, not as permanent, inevitable, or the result of some big conspiracy to “keep a hard worker down.” Someone with an employee mindset, according to Ellsberg, is essentially in the perpetual role of the supplicant and looking to others’ goodwill for income and advancement. To think entrepreneurially–even in an employee role–means to seek out ways to make changes and improvements within (or event beyond) your authority, to seek out greater responsibility, and to constantly seek opportunities to improve themselves or the workplace. I didn’t stop thinking like an employee until my smart mouth got me a writeup and I realized I had to shape up or I was going to be stuck in that job or something like it forever.

So when you add all this insight and the many rags-to-riches stories together, you find yourself with a lot of insights into how diverse individuals can work themselves out of a job and into a career. Along the way, you’re treated to some great resources for improving yourself. I commend Ellsberg for not writing a get-rich-quick book or, worse, a get-rich-through-positive-thinking book. Ellsberg makes it clear that the educational and entrepreneurial processes require work, time, patience, and commitment. He also makes it clear that entrepreneurship does not require a college education. Much of the epilogue and later-version follow-up notes respond to criticism from people in the academics-are-required-for-success community, and he hits you with a lot of horrifying statistics about the amount of money spent on higher education compared to return on investment. The results are depressing and a little scary. Ellsberg compares the academic system to the housing bubble, with “investments” turning into mere consumable commodities.

I accepted the credential game, going for an M.A. to prove that I could speak technology (my experience up to that point had been Disney and English lit), and the bet worked. I paid off my loans in a reasonable amount of time because I was attending a state school in Florida, not an Ivy League university, like Ellsberg and many of his interviewees. Still, as a freelancer now, I’m not waving the diploma around as a way to drum up business–I focus on the work I’ve done and can do. Obviously there are some other things I need to work on, but clearly I was a good target audience for this book. I loved it and plan on recommending it to a couple friends as well as my sister and brother-in-law as food for thought when raising their kids. Do they really need college to succeed in an uncertain future? Maybe. But they also need the “street smarts” to start a business, something that our current education system just does not do. If you want to identify the basics, this book is a good place to start.