Literally illiterate

I’ve mentioned something about this previously as a part of a bigger blog post, but I want to put it out there in a dedicated post all on its own.

Glance down this post for a second.  Just run your eyes down it then come back to here.

What happened?  Did your eyes flick to random words along the way, picking them out, making sense of the gist of this blog?  Did you have any problems when you did it?  Did you have to stop and puzzle out any words, or did they, with the least effort, flash before your eyes and register in your mind?

With no trouble at all.  Without a thought.  With no effort.

Now, imagine what it would be like to not be able to do that.  Imagine what it would be like to be faced with a mass of text like this one and it intimidated the hell out of you.  Imagine if you looked at this and didn’t see understandable words and phrases and sentences, but instead nonsensical squiggles in groups.  What if you saw words, but had to slowly, painstakingly work those words out, then fit them into the context of the sentence, then fit that sentence into the context of the piece…all while furiously trying to work out that next damn word.

What if you had to consciously carry all the possible sounds a letter or a pair or grouping of letters carried?  Imagine having to do all that, then being faced with something as horrible as He thought the water went through the trough.

Think about how horrible that would be, going through life, having to do that all the time.

While this is a great thing, I don't think any one image can make anyone feel what it's like to be illiterate. Because you can still likely puzzle this out fairly quickly.

Think about not being able to read your kids a story.  Or help them with their homework.

Think someone who’s illiterate has to likely be someone pushing a broom or living on the streets?  If you think that, you’re wrong.

Depending on where you check, you’ll find the stats for the illiteracy rate in Canada run somewhere between 40 – 50%.

Think of that in real numbers.  Half the people in Canada have some problems with literacy.  Don’t think so?

  • I went to college with two people in my class who were found to be completely, 100% illiterate.  Yet they graduated high school with marks high enough to get into a college program.
  • My daughter helps in a class with at least one Grade 10 student who is an unidentified illiterate.
  • When I took training to tutor adult literacy, my instructor told me about one person she helped.  His job?  CEO of a company.
  • I tutored a young person (about 25) who, by rights, should have had rudimentary literacy skills at worst.  When I met him, he could correctly identify about 18 letters of the alphabet, couldn’t read street signs and shopped for groceries by looking at the pictures on the labels and trusting the cashier to ask for the right amount and provide the right change. His parents were both high school teachers.

It hits all levels.  These people have developed absolutely stunning skills to hide their illiteracy, yet, they remain illiterate.  There’s help out there, but precious little for a population that has tens of millions of people needing help.

I make my living using words.  Whether it’s creating communications for everyone from frontline phone agents all the way up to executive-level vice-presidents, I do it.  I talk to people and create websites to assist with the skills and mechanics of better business writing.  I also edit manuscripts for others, I teach creative writing and, yes, I write fiction.  I read between 100 and 150 books a year.

I don’t know what my life would be like without the ability to read or write.  I know I wouldn’t be happy.

Anyone that reads this particular post…hell anyone that can even navigate to it, likely understands the joy and fulfillment that reading can bring.

The YMCA Muskoka Literacy Service helps about 200 people a year improve their literacy and numeracy skills.  To raise money for that, they hold the Muskoka Novel Marathon every July where about 30 writers come and do their best to write something coherent over the span of 72 hours where sleeping and eating are optional, the only goal is to write.

Well, there’s one other goal, and it’s the reason I for this post.  They ask each person to go out and fundraise for the event.  To ask for sponsors.  As a whole, they’re looking to raise $10,000 this year.  Personally, I think with 32 writers, we should be able to raise more than that.

I’ve set a personal goal of $500 in donations as a minimum.  Why that figure?  Because I happen to work for an amazing company that will match donations dollar for dollar up to $500.  So if I raise $500, I actually raise $1000.

Now, I know that everyone has their own causes and charities that are important to them.  Everyone’s been touched by some adversity in their life and dedicate themselves to trying to help others in the same boat.  And if this isn’t the cause for you, no problem.  I get it.  I’ve had to say no many times myself.  I thank you for reading and learning a bit more about this issue.

But if you can…

One last time, I’ll ask you to scan this post, just for a second and marvel at how fast you can light on a word and understand not only what it sounds like, but what it means in and of itself as well as it’s context in the sentence.

Think about what that means to your life.

Then I’ll ask you to consider donating some money to this cause.  It doesn’t have to be much.  It can be as little or as much as you can afford.  Whatever the amount, remember, it will be doubled by my employer.

You can find out more about the MNM and what it’s all about here.  You can donate by going here.  If you don’t like to donate online, you can email me here and we can work something out.

Thank you. For reading.

I’m bringin’ purple back

Normally I’d apologize to the songwriter for stealing, then screwing with his song title, but Justin Timberlake is just too damn successful, so, y’know what JT?  No apology for you.

I’m such a rebel.

Anyway, I’m writing this blog–and yes, I’m aware it’s been far too long since my last one, even my mother-in-law brought it up–on my new laptop.

Not that it’s exactly new.  Its keys have definitely felt the touch of other fingers, its screen has been stared at by other eyes…it’s a refurb.  But it’s got a nice 17-inch monitor and it plays Blu-rays and it’s likely far more computer than I need.  But it’s quite nice.

And it’s purple.

Let’s step back a couple of months, shall we?  Back to February 24th, to be exact.  I remember the date because it was the day before the Wife’s birthday and I wrote a blog about her.

This is where our story begins.  Because I actually wrote two blogs about her.  I wrote a brilliant one, one where the words crackled and sizzled off the screen.  I wrote it.  I saved it.  I added some.  Saved it.  Finished the writing.  Saved it.  Added all the tags.  Saved it.  Added my first picture.

Watched in horror as the screen came back as blank white.  The whole thing was erased.  Couldn’t get it back no matter what I tried.  I did Google searches, I implored on Facebook.  Nothing.

In the end, I rewrote it, but it wasn’t as good.

Now, the computer had been acting a little funky up to that point, and, to be honest, I’m still blaming WordPress for that particular brain aneurism more than the computer.  But as I said, the computer had been acting…funky.  Nothing alarming, but just a little…off.

Over the next couple of days, it acted even more funky.

Then came the morning when it wouldn’t turn on.  Well, okay, I exaggerate.  It would turn on, but it linked me to some alien shit originating out of the Horsehead Nebula.  It wasn’t English and it wasn’t logical.

I called a good friend, a man schooled in the ways of the Microsoft.  A Jedi Master of Computer Technology.  Seriously, a lot of people “know a guy” who’s good with computers.  But this guy?  He’s the friggin’ Computer Whisperer.  A Black Belt in the Art of Bios (I don’t even know if that last one makes sense, but if it does, then he’s it).

He could sit on a mountain top and dole out secrets of Life, the Universe, and Everything Related to PCs.

He’s that good.

So, he comes over, opens up his little pouch of Arcane Computer Tools and proceeds to delicately and deliberately tease my laptop into revealing its innermost secrets.  Now, when he does this stuff, he’ll laugh at what he finds at times (“you really tried to install a Win 95 driver on Win 7?”), he’ll express shock or surprise (“you haven’t updated your virus protection since Bush was in Office?”), and sometimes, if the computer is being particularly annoying, he’ll express some frustration (which I won’t quote here, this being a family show and all, but if you want some swearing, go here).  He’ll express a lot of things, but there’s one thing you never ever want to hear him say.

“Uh oh.”

Those two little syllables are like the Marvel comic book character Black Bolt.  Black Bolt is the leader of the Inhumans and his voice is his weapon.  The merest breath can wipe out a city, a yell can take out a nation.

My computer guy’s utterance of the dreaded “uh oh” spells doom.

It wasn’t long before he informed me that my computer, much like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, was dead, stone dead, definitely deceased, passed on, was no more, ceased to be, had expired and gone to meet his maker, was stiff, was bereft of life, rests in peace, was pushing up daisies, its metabolic processes are now history, its off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible…this was an ex-computer.

Uh oh indeed.

We thought about getting another laptop, as I simply find it a lot less distracting in the mornings to write in an area other than my office (yeah, I’m weird and quirky like that, but it’s what makes me so damn lovable), but I didn’t want to spend the money.

Then I decided a little while ago that I was going to do the Muskoka Novel Marathon (which, by the way, if you’d like to donate, I’d really really really really really appreciate), and I probably shouldn’t take the work laptop to that.  Now, I could, technically handwrite my manuscript, or find some 400-pound typewriter to lug up (and, quite frankly, it might be awesome to watch the annoyance grow with every ding and swipe.  But no.

So, a few days ago, the Wife brought up purchasing a new laptop.  A refurb is fine for what I needed.  She pointed out one, a nice HP with a big screen and it looked pretty good.  “But it’s purple,” I said, and passed on it.  We looked at a few more that were essentially the same price but with less screen, less features, less stuff.

I kept coming back to the purple one.  Finally said, screw it, the colour doesn’t mean anything, let’s get it.  So that’s the one we ordered.

At this point, it should be noted that the Wife has a perfectly lovely HP laptop of her own as well.  It’s got a nice, burnished bronzey-grey colour to it.  Quite nice, and much more masculine than my purple one.

She offered to do a switch when the purple one came so I could have the more masculine one, but I really didn’t care that much.

Then it came.  Then it started.  “Are you sure you don’t want to switch?” says the Wife with an envious greenish gleam in her eye.  “It’s no trouble,” she says, casting covetous glances at the horrid purple finish of my new laptop.

Yeah, actually it would be some trouble.  Besides, I’ve now dug in with a perverse glee with the purple.  I mean seriously, purple’s been huge, right?

Prince had his Purple Rain.

Barney had a purple epidermis.

The Hulk, no matter how long he’s been around, always ends up with those damn ugly purple pants  (seriously, did anyone even manufacture purple stretch pants for anyone other than large bingo ladies or female toddlers?),

there was the great movie The Color Purple, and

Sheb Wooley sang about The Purple People Eater (still not sure if it was purple and ate people or only ate purple people) and

Jimi Hendrix sang about Purple Haze (you know, the song where it sounds like he sings s’cuse me while I kiss this guy!)…I mean, it’s everywhere, right?

Hell, there’s even a literary term…purple prose, which is a piece of highly elaborate writing.

So I’ve already started thinking of this thing as the Purple Prose Eater…hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

So no, the Wife never got the purple laptop.  Didn’t matter how many duckfaces she made and how much she pouted.  She can have the manly computer, I’ll take the lilac laptop.

Besides, one of my friends, the esteemed Colum McKnight, already refers to another odd pairing of human and machine in a rather interesting way.  I drive a Dodge Charger, a nice car.  I like cars.  The Wife drives a very large, very red, very hemi Dodge Ram.

Colum, in his inimitable style, refers to the truck as The Cock.  Though he has never directly stated it, I assume that makes the car I drive The Vagina.  Now, while that’s a little emasculating on the surface, there is something disturbingly weird, yet fun about thinking that I climb into The Vagina, turn it on and make it go places.

Anyone that can claim mastery at that can certainly live with a purple laptop.

Suddenly, a flood

For the longest time, things on the writing front seems to go quiet for me.

Oh sure, I still attended writing-related meetings with the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) and Simcoe County (WCSC), but even the WCDR meetings fell off in the last couple of months, as I just couldn’t get to them, and I’ve missed a ton of meetings at the York Region (WCYR) chapter as well.

And I still get requests and calls for Vanishing Hope, the little book that could.  It’s sold so much better than I ever thought it would.  And it also gave me a lot more confidence, but more on that as we go along.

I even got interviewed by Pat over at Nine Day Wonder that you can read here if you so desire.

I’m also registered for the Ontario Writers’ Conference May 5.

And of course, I’m still pounding away at my 500 words a day.

So what have I been up to and what does this have to do with the flood mentioned in the title?

First, we go back to October.  The aforementioned WCDR ran a short story contest called Whispered Words.  I’m not much of a contest guy, but I thought, what the heck?  Let’s give it a shot.  I had two ideas floating around that would both work within the confines of the contest rules (1 – no more than 1000 words; 2 – someone has to whisper).  I wrote both stories, one called Scooter’s Last Run and the other, Stealing Corey.

While I had high hopes for both of them, I found the 1000-word limit awfully restricting forScooter.

At the end of Jan this year, I found out Stealing Corey had made it to the semi-finals.  In the words of Yoda, excited I was.

But then I didn’t make it past there, still top 20-ish of more than 220 entries?  I’ll take that.  Didn’t hurt that the person that took the grand prize is my fellow board member in the WCSC, Deepam Wadds.  And good for her, it’s well-deserved.

Then, earlier this week, I found out Stealing Corey was selected to appear in the Whispered Words anthology to be released sometime in late May or early June.

So that’s Good News Number One.

Now let’s go back to January.  Just a little into 2012, I got an email out of the blue from the crazy, yet somehow lovable Ed Kurtz.  He was starting a new series of novellas featuring a character of his own making, Sam Truman, a PI working on the fringes of legality and reality in a New York-like setting circa 1960.  But Sam doesn’t get the normal cases.  A simple robbery puts him in the middle of reanimated corpses.  A missing persons case somehow involves aliens.

Anyway, Ed asked me if I’d like to create a Sam Truman Mystery for Abattoir Press.  Well duh.  That was a no-brainer.  Not telling Ed that I’d tried to write a mystery before and completely crashed and burned, not hinting that the thought of attacking another one terrified me, completely bamboozling him into thinking I was a competent writer (something made a lot more easy when he lives in Texas and I’m hiding in Ontario), I jumped in and came up with my own twisted spin on Sam.  And, incidentally, Ed’s also been the only one that asked me to tone it down a bit.  If you read his novel Bleed then imagine the guy telling me to tone it down, that’s saying something.

Okay, full disclosure, the tone down was due to the 1960s timeframe, not because I managed to gross him out.  I question whether that’s even possible with Ed.

So, what’s all this leading up to?  Well, the first novella in the series, Catch My Killer! written by Ed Kurtz himself, is available in ebook right friggin’ now!  Go here, order a copy and devour it in all it’s pulpy goodness.  Come on, can you really go wrong for a buck ninety-nine?

The second entry into the series, Brandon Zuern‘s The Last Invasion drops May 15 and it’s as goofy, pulpy and fun as Ed’s.

Then, aptly enough, on Canada Day (that’s July 1 for the rest of the world) my little entry is birthed into the world.  Called Soft Kiss, Hard Death, I’m not going to give much away about it except to say that my son, the oft-mention Boy of this blog, happened upon me as I was Google searching a particular plot point.  He looked at me, scrunched up his face, and said, “Dad, you’re friggin’ sick!”  Now, it think that was from the images he saw, but when I tried to dig myself out by explaining what I was writing and why I needed this info, his face moved from scrunch to outright horror.

It’s should also be stated that, in writing a particular scene in the story, I squirmed through the entire session.

Mission accomplished.  I think you’ll like it. Or you may never talk to me again.  One of the two.

Other entries into the Sam Truman series will proceed along every six weeks and, sometime in early 2013, I understand Ed will compile a few of the stories into hard copy books.  So, you know, I can have all that sickness sitting right on my bookshelf for all to see.

By the way, you can read a great interview with Ed Kurtz on all things Sam Truman, Abattoir and his other cool books and ventures here.

So that’s Good News Number Two.

And yes, I’m well aware of what “number two” can also be taken to mean.

Also in July–and to be honest, I’m still a little freaked out about this–I’ll be, for the first time, participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon.

Now this sucker’s interesting.  Basically, 32 writers get tossed into a room to write.


For 72 solid hours.

It runs from 8pm Friday, July 13 (yes, Friday the 13th) to 8pm Monday, July 16.  The challenge is to produce a novel, novella, whatever, in that time.

If I’m lucky I may get a blog post out of it.

The bigger thing however, and the one I don’t want to make light of, is that this is a fundraising event to support adult literacy and employment programs at YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka, a worthy cause.

Now, take just a second, right now, and consider…what would your life be like if you could not read?  If you faced something like this blog post and couldn’t make sense of it?  Just think on that for a second.

The YMCA is looking to raise $10000 and trust me, it goes to a phenomenally good cause.  Now, no one despises the act of asking for donations more than me.  I hate it.  Every time someone puts a hand out in my direction, my first reaction is, I have my causes, I have my charities that I support.  Please don’t ask me to give any more.

I get that.  And that’s why I’ll say, if this doesn’t work for you, fine.  But if there’s any way you can spare some money, anything, even the cost of a coffee, would you consider throwing it in the pot to sponsor me?

If you want to, they’ve made it easy by creating an online donation site that you can reach here.  If you’re not comfortable with that, contact me through the comments below or at lefttowrite (at) sympatico (dot) com and we’ll work something out.

So yeah, mid-July?  Fingers worn down to nubs.

So that’s Good News Number Three…I think.

The next item occurred due to an innocuous little statement by Lydia Peever on Facebook.  She mentioned something about looking for an editor.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time reading the right post and I mentioned that I was looking for someone to edit.

One thing led to another and now I not only have the pleasure of editing Lydia’s works, I also get to read them.  Believe me, she kicks ass and deserves to see a lot of success from her writing.

And she even wrote a blog about me editing her.  You can read it here.

Good News Number Four!

Then I got more good news from WCDR.  They’ve approved one of my workshops, so in September, I’ll be talking about how to work emotion in your writing, whether it’s in dialogue, narrative, description…it’s gonna be a blast.

Of course, the WCDR have never really seen me in action…don’t be afraid, be very afraid.

So that’s Good News Number Five.

And then, of course, early in 2013, No Hope, the follow up to Vanishing Hope, and this time a full novel-length work, will be released through Burning Effigy Press.  I’m editing the heck out of it right now to make sure it stands up to, and preferably exceed, the standard set in that first story.

I’m excited as hell for this one, and also a little scared.

While you’re waiting, hit up the website and order up some of BE’s other works.  They’re all amazing.

Still, even though it’s the oldest item on this list, No Hope is still Good News Number Six.

It’s gonna be a crazy year, people.

Selling your soul make a buck

There’s a lot of things I should be doing right now.  I’ve got to prepare the notes for my last writing class.  I’ve got a book to finish editing for the wonderful Lydia Peever.  I’ve got a bunch of my own stuff I need to edit.

But I got completely sidelined by a tweet tonight, and I know it’s going to continue to burn and eat and gnaw at me until I get this out.  And normally I wouldn’t do this in such a public fashion.

But I saw the notice across my BlackBerry quickly, became quite shocked at the sheer insensitivity of it, then put the phone away.  I told myself if she direct messaged me, I’d deal with it in a similar fashion.

But I got back to my computer, pulled up Twitter, and there it was.  Out for all the world to see and my name flagged in the message.

What’s the tweet that’s got me so pissed off? From @FirminMary, I got the following:

@TobinElliott God Bless Aunt Hannah. I think she’d have loved my book Deadly Pleasures See reviews

Now, the Aunt Hannah that she’s asking God to bless is my aunt that passed away two days ago.  I wrote about it here.  And to be honest, I hesitate to write those blogs because it’s not my mother, though it’s someone I loved and I don’t ever want to misrepresent them or offend the immediate family, but I went for it.  I can only write what’s in me, what’s honest and that’s what I strive to do with posts like that one, or my Aunt Betty and Uncle Merle.

And this one hit me hard for some reason.  I mean, yes, she’s family.  I grew up knowing Aunt Hannah, so of course it’s going to hit me.  But this one hit me harder than expected.  There’s certain people that just somehow seem immortal.  They’re too nice, or too stubborn, or too loved to die.  And yet, we’re all mortal.

I’m not explaining myself well here.  Let’s just say Aunt Hannah’s passing hit me damn hard.

And that’s fine.  It’s part of life.  I can deal with that.

What I can’t deal with is some scum-sucking, anything to hock my book, asshole writer who suddenly thinks we’re best friends because she grew up within two hours of me  but now lives in goddamn California and thinks it’s totally fine to hijack what I hoped was a heartfelt piece about a great woman to sell her fucking book.

Not on my time, you soulless bitch.  I’ve seen some low shit in my time…really low shit.  But this ranks way up there for unbelievably unfeeling, insensitive, actions.  To not give a shit what the family’s going through who might read that tweet, never mind what I’m going through, to completely cast aside any concern for the family’s grief because, by God, she’s got books to sell, product to move.

And to presume–to fucking presume–that she might know what kind of book my aunt would have enjoyed…and then to play on my sympathy about it.  Oh, well, if Aunt Hannah might have enjoyed it, well, hell, she’s not around to read it anymore, but I better pick up a copy for myself and everyone else I know so I can hand them out at the fucking memorial service.  Maybe if I’m lucky, I can get Mary Fucking Firmin to autograph each copy and work in some droll witticism about Aunt Hannah for no extra cost.

To my regular readers, I’m sorry for all the invective here but I was furious when I started this and, as I get farther into it, the anger’s just growing.

So it’s likely better if I just stop here.

Just to let you know, I sent her back two responses.

The first was

@FirminMary Wow. Really? You read my tweet or blog about my aunt dying and you choose to use it to hock your book? Real fucking classy, lady

And the last one was

@FirminMary Congrats.  You’re my next blog.

Then I blocked her market-chasing ass.  Personally, I don’t give a shit whether she reads this or not, but Mary, if you do, I hope that tweet was worth it.  You’ve made the biggest enemy of your life, you piece of shit.

Hope you enjoy this little bit of press you drummed up.

And I hope–I fervently hope–that someday, when you lose someone close to you, someone comes along and tries to spin that into a way to market something to you too.