George Washington abbreviated

Hello History Buffs! For my next trick I will attempt to summarize an 800 page biography in 600 words. Here are my takeaways from Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.

The oddity about George Washington’s rise to prominence was the peculiar way stepping stones fell in his path. The young Washington seemed always to be losing a relative to an untimely death. Each time, it left him with more money and a greater position in society. If it had been a less trustworthy person, I’d  have grown suspicious. In his case, I concluded Washington was the hub of a circle of people who were significantly wealthier and unhealthier than he was – until they all died and he got their stuff. Then, they were just that much more unhealthier.

Washington made hay with the power he inherited, but all the stuff didn’t do him much good. Southern planters, for all their apparent wealth, were chronically in debt. Washington, with all his land holdings, inheritances, and whatnot, was not immune to this condition. He could have been the poster boy for it.

Who doesn’t love getting lots of big packages in the mail?

Washington’s habits kept him in debt. He had a taste for nice things. He was forever ordering crockery emblazoned with the family crest. He needed a new uniform for every camping trip and dressed all his attendants alike, as if they were bridesmaids. He kept up the décor like the Mother of His Country.

Washington was often unavailable to manage his own finances. Sacrificing his time to go fight the French, the British, and almost the French again, he had little time to spend maximizing his personal profits. Between running an eight-year revolution and serving as a two-term president, Washington was forced to leave his personal estate to managers less interested in his bank balance than he was.

George Washington could tell a lie. Washington lied in the way normal folks lie. He fibbed to protect his reputation. When a man of sound judgment makes a poor choice, he may feel pressure to fudge on the circumstances, as Washington did in his early military career. Washington also told white lies to smooth over differences with colleagues and to avoid moral dilemmas, like being a slave owner who wished he could be an abolitionist, if he could do so without inconveniencing himself.

The best thing about Washington’s lies are the ones he wouldn’t tell. He wasn’t tempted by the big, political lie. He didn’t spread lies about political foes, although he was the victim of many smears. He left it to his successors to bring official dishonesty to the presidency, which they lost no time in doing. Washington seemed more interested in setting a high bar for the presidency than in getting what he wanted at any cost.

Washington was an ambitious self-promoter. In a country full of ambitious self-promoters it was fortunate the one who rose to the top at the crucial moment was a rare man who, having gained power and fame, was content not to corner the market on it.

George Washington didn’t have the most brilliant mind of his time. He had something more important; he had wisdom. He knew where to turn when he needed help from one sort of genius or another, and he carefully considered something geniuses often overlook: tomorrow.

George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for a particular time and place in history. It is hard to imagine many men who could have made a success out of the losing proposition that was the American Revolution. What other man, standing at the precipice of unlimited power, would have used it so benignly and handed it off so willingly?

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If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.

He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.

Moby Dick – Part II: I’m with the whale on this one

The following is Part II of my critique of Moby Dick from my old web site. At this point, I had finished the book, which was quite a relief to me. Last week I posted Part I, written when I was only half way through the novel. If you want to read Part I first, click here.

Part II: Finished with Moby Dick

Previously, I shared some thoughts formed while reading the first half of Moby Dick. Though I was not thrilled with the story, I was determined to finish it. I had seen a faint glimmer of potentially smooth storytelling and was really hoping this potential would blossom into an engaging second half.

Having finished the book, I am here to report that my hopes were dashed upon the rocks of long-winded meandering. The novel peaked somewhere between the 10 and 13 percent marks (as read on Kindle), and never came near reaching those heights again.

Moby Dick is bereft of likable characters. If I had to choose, I would say my favorite (i.e. the least annoying) character was Moby Dick himself. He is my favorite because he shows up for only the last 10% or so of the book, which is also good advice for any potential reader. Unlike Ahab, Starbuck, and all the other prominent, hard-bitten sea-farers, he doesn’t talk too much. I appreciate good dialog in a novel, but these sailors are forever spouting some drivel that means next to nothing. Even when they are not speaking, they are thinking pointless drivel. I wonder if Melville attended the same writing workshops as James Fenimore Cooper.

Moby Dick shows up for the climactic final scene, takes care of his business, wagging his jaw no more than necessary to crush a few boats, and then goes home. He wastes no time tripping over insipid attempts to make himself sound intellectual. If only the author could have been half as efficient.

The whale's not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

The whale’s not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

Instead, Melville wanders. At the beginning, it seemed like a major part of the plot would be the unlikely friendship between the Yankee narrator and a partially-civilized cannibal. Yet, by the time the ship shoves off from the dock, the cannibal has become no more noteworthy to the narrator than any other of the harpooners. This may be a blessing in disguise, for if nothing else, it prevented the cannibal from indulging in drawn-out soliloquies.

The author’s focus drifts in the wind throughout the book. Even at the very end, it is still drifting. Melville seems to forget, until it is nearly too late, that the narrator must actually live if we are to put any credence in the story he has just spent way too long relating to us. The narrator is almost certainly floating toward the light when Melville hastily yanks him back into the mortal world with an afterthought of a tale about his unlikely survival of the final battle.

It turns out that the great whale was efficient, but not completely thorough in his actions. He left one man alive to tell the tale. I wonder if he regrets this oversight as much as I do.