The Lil’ Engine That Could Write

lil e

We all have people in our lives who support us no matter what we try. If we weren’t Creative Writers, they would tell us how good we are at music or painting. Likewise, each of us has friends and family who are really good at telling us what we can’t do. In fact, we all have folk who love us and want the best for us who will tell us in detail why Creative Writing is not a worthy pursuit. Either we are not talented enough or it’s a waste of time or something like that.

As well intentioned as they are, and as dear to us as they may be, their opinion is toxic. And to drink full from their words will hemlock your dreams until they are as dead as Socrates. If you want to be a writer, then be a writer. Tell these people, that although you love them and they love you, they need to Shut Up!

Creatively Minded

Creative Writing begins in the mind before it ever reaches our fingertips. And by the mind, I mean more than thinking of a great story plot executed by interesting and individualistic characters. It is our attitude that serves as the starting point. You need to think of yourself in terms of Being a Creative Writer (and I mean Being in its fullest Existential sense).

Other people may encourage or discourage you, but in the end, each and every one of us as Creative Writers have the greatest potential to build ourselves up or tear ourselves down. The first positive voice you need to hear is your own. In order to Think Like A Writer, you must maintain the proper Focus and Confidence. These two mutually feed off each other. The greater your Focus, the greater your Confidence, and the more Confident you are, the more Focused you will become. It is the perfect compositional perpetual motion machine, creative and artistic, and it is beautiful.

Chug, Chug, Chug

We all grew up hearing the tale of The Lil’ Engine Who Could. It was designed to encourage young people to feel self-assured in their abilities. But just because it is a children’s story, that doesn’t mean that the meaning is childish. It affirms a truth that endures as long as you do. The Creative Writer who develops his Focus and his Confidence can then Think Like A Writer in the fullest sense of that phrase.

This may involve finally taking a Creative Writing class or getting around to writing that novel you’ve always wanted to compose. It could be any number of things, and will become a great number of things all at once when you’ve fully committed yourself. It all begins by being a lil’ engine who thinks he can, and then gets to tracking. And once you’ve topped that mountain and cruise into that literary valley of fulfillment, you can remind yourself that you got yourself there because all along you thought you could.


I was inspired to write this article after looking back on one of my older non-fiction books, Think Like A Writer. If you want a copy, you can click here and he taken to its page in Amazon.



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My Top Ten Favorite Plays Made Into Movies


A lot of great movies began as outstanding plays. The transition from stage to screen is not an easy one. There are things that can be done in movies that can’t in plays, and it works the other way around, too. Those who have made the great transition have made today’s list. I am not including musicals. They are great, but they are really a different animal.

10 The Madness of King George, Alan Bennett. This was made into a movie by Nicolas Hytner in 1994. The king’s lunacy is mere pretext for the political maneuverings of the king’s friends and foe, everyone from the supportive Pitt to the scheming prince regent.

9 Rope, Patrick Hamilton. One of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, turned this play into a fascinating film in 1948. You know all along who done it, but the question is will others learn what you know.

8 Amadeus, Peter Schaffer. In 1984, Milos Forman made this charming film. I can’t think of this movie without hearing that insufferable laugh by the maestro.

7 A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill. This has been put to screen twice, but the one I’m thinking of is Sydney Lumet’s 1962 adaptation. We are moved from scowling at the father to crying with him.

6 A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri. Robert DeNiro directs and stars in this 1993 film along with the original playwright. DeNiro plays a bus driver and leaves the gangster role to his co-star friend.

5 Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet. In 1993, James Foley directed the film version of this play. For those who never knew that coffee was for winners, this was your education.

4 The Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller. Lazlo Benedek directed this 1951 movie. This may be the saddest story I know.

3 A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams. Richard Brooks directed this in 1958. I could have selected one of several Tennessee Williams plays, but this may be my overall favorite. Originally it was supposed to be in black-and-white, but Brooks decided the eyes of Paul Newman and Liz Taylor need to be filmed in color.

2 Henry V, William Shakespeare. The old bard had to be somewhere on this list. While many may go with one of the many versions of Hamlet, I chose Henry V. As part of the Great Performance series, PBS produced the Hollow Crown Series. Thea Sharrock directed this in 2013.

1 12 Angry Men, Reginald Rose. This play has been rendered twice into a movie. The first was made in 1957 by Sydney Lumet, and the second was by William Friedkin in 1997. They are almost frame for frame identical. If I like the second one better it’s only because George C. Scott barely edges out Lee J. Cobb as the angry 3rd juror.

This is my list. It is very unofficial. Feel free to make your own list. What did you put on that I left out? And which of mine would you omit. Let me know in the Comment section below.

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“Truce,” a Christmas Short Story


Every day above earth is a good day.” (Earnest Hemingway)

The 17th Caledonian Regiment of His Royal Majesty’s Army dug their grave-like trenches through the cabbage patches of Southern Belgium at the start of the Great War. They kept the Germans from advancing further, but they also were unable to advance. They called the middle ground between the two lines of trenches No Man’s Land, but that’s a lie. It was everyone’s land. Anyone was welcome there, and the accustomed hospitality was a sudden conveyance to endless summers or burning sulfurs, whichever best suited the man.

When December drove the unbearable conditions beyond tolerable standards, the inward stress pressed down on the soul of each man with even greater cruelty. On a particular ferocious evening, the wind sounded louder than distant bombs. The stout men of the 17th Caledonian did their best to fortify themselves and each other. The delivery of rations had been delayed, so there was no meat and no bread. For two days they foraged near the back outside of the trench for nuts and leaves, and on these fed the athletes of England and Scotland.

The British High Command, in order to improve morale, ordered a massive push for the 19th of December. The thought was that a grand victory against the enemy Hun would lift the spirits. In the trenches before the fight, garbed in uniforms of penitence, the only thing in greater shortage than food was priests. The offensive was a tremendous failure and it had the opposite effect on troop morale than the High Command anticipated.

By the evening of the 19th, less than half of the 17th Caledonians were still alive. Few were wounded. Almost all touched by the fighting were killed, it seemed to many, mercifully. That evening the enlisted men sat about a small fire trying to warm their bodies and their spirits. None of these enlisted men survived into the next winter, so they will remain nameless here as a courtesy.

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Nor did I.”

“We were promised that this would all be over long before Christmas.”

“That’s not going to happen, mate.”

“I remember there was almost a carnival atmosphere at the beginning.”

“I’m afraid now the winter is a bigger enemy than our enemy.”

“We’ve lost as many to frostbite and gangrene as we have to the Germans.”

As so was the night, as many before and to follow. As Christmas approached, all 300,000 British soldiers received a gift from Princess Mary. Moreover, most received parcels from home that contained trinkets and food and cigarettes and most importantly letters from loved ones. Men would reread their letters and then swap them about and everyone read everyone else’s letters from home. This added another rasp to the sinking homesickness that rubbed a rash on the inside of the men already there from the realization that they would each be missing Christmas at home that year, and possibly for years to come.

On Christmas Eve, no one said a word. Each kept to himself in his own misery. A slight dusting of snow began about twenty-one-hundred hours. Soon after that, the men heard a noise coming from across the No Man’s Land. Every man strained to hear it.

“They’re singing!” said one man.

They words were indistinguishable, but they tune was plainly O, Holy Night. When it finished, a few of the British soldiers sang it back to them in English. The Germans sang O Tannenbaum and the English sang O Little Town Of Bethlehem. The highlight of the evening was when one German tenor who sang as if he could have performed Tristan or Siegfried at Bayreuth performed a solo.

Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!


Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!

Jesus in deiner Geburt!

He sang six stanzas altogether. No one sang for some time afterwards. Eventually the caroling resumed, both sides singing simultaneously in their own languages. The performances were more solemn than festive, but it did improve the moods of all men, if not for one evening.

The snow continued for the night and the men awoke to a White Christmas, but not at all like they were accustomed. They sky was a single canopy of a dirty silver and the snow on No Man’s Land looked like pewter-iron. They drank dirt coffee and finished off their rations of powdered eggs.

“I had a dream last night,” said one soldier, “I dreamed that this morning was bright and beautiful. And I looked out into No Man’s Land and a fella ran through waving a telegraph in his hand. And he gave it to me and I read it. It said, War’s off, go home, George Rex. But there’s no telegraph this morning.”

Soon after that, a man shouted that someone was climbing out of the trench on the other side. The commanding officer, Jack Drummond, ran out his billet and to where the man spotted the ascender. Drummond was flanked by his two German Sheppards, Burton and Speake.

“Fire, man, fire!” said Drummond.

“I’m not sure that I can.”

“Why not?”

“He’s got a Christmas tree with him, sir.”

Drummond looked through his field glasses and saw a young German enlistee holding nothing more than a twig with a few branches. But each small end had a lit candle and there was no mistake what he carried.

“I can’t shoot a man carrying a Christmas tree, sir.”

Heads usually kept under cover peeked out to see. When the German was a fair distance from his trench, he held up his Tannenbaum and even across the expanse everyone could see his smile.

Fröhliche Weihnachten!”

One British soldier climbed out of the trench. Drummond called him back, but he went on. It was not long before a few more on each side came out and stood in the middle of No Man’s Land just staring at one another. Eventually, the first two out shook hands and then the rest. There was a bit of reticence as would be expected, but soon a comfortableness and even a familiarity settled in, as if all were old friends. When Drummond saw the German officer climb out, he made his way to the middle as well. All enlisted men on both sides parted like the Red Sea for Moses as they approached. The German officer stuck out his hand.

“Kapitan Anton Kutchner.”

“Captain Jack Drummond.”

They shook hands and all the British soldiers shouted in unison Captain Jack! Drummond’s two dog leapt out and flanked him. Kutchner looked down at the pair.

“They’re here to translate,” said Drummond.

Kutchner was not sure if he should be offended or amused, so to cover both contingencies he laughed and smacked Drummond on the shoulder but with quite a bit of strength. Drummond also laughed and all men joined in the mirth.

It was somehow assumed that every German knew every person in Germany just as every Brit knew everyone who lived in England. One German asked a man from Brighton if he knew his cousin living in York. And to be fair, these British soldiers asked this Saxon regiment if they were aware of people living in Prussia, Bremen, and Hamburg.

“Any of you from London familiar with Belgravia?” said one German.

“I’m from there.”

“My uncle is a barber. He has a shop on the end of Buford Street.”

“My father and grandfather are tailors there. In fact, I think your uncle is right next door to them.”

“Yes! He bought many suits from them. Fine suits.”

“I spent as much time as I could while growing up in their little shop. And I know I’ve had not a few haircuts next door.”

One young British private whispered to his fellow Brit, “These are Germans? They look just like us.”

“Of course, they do.”

“They aren’t monsters.”

“What’s that?”

“I was told they were monsters. Pictures in King & Country showed them with fangs and claws and that. I heard Germans went around killing nuns and children. I’d wager not a one of them had ever killed a nun.”

“Fair cop.”

“Excuse me,” shouted the private, “any of you Jerrys ever murder a nun?”

After a stunned pause, they all laughed and the British soldiers joined them. To be sure, the Germans were definitely told just as villainous lies about the English people. Both sides exchanged some of their profit from Princess Mary and home. It was agreed that the Germans had better chocolates but the British had better tobacco, probably because it was American. It was further agreed that German chocolates were preferable to English tobacco.

It was not long before it was lunch and both sides shared rations. As pleasant as the day had been going, it was soon obvious although unsaid that there was a bit of unpleasant business that needed tended. No Man’s Land was littered with frozen corpses. They took the time to bury their dead and the dead of the other side. Echoes of the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm in both German and English swelled over the shovels and upturned dirt.

When the digging was done, both sides rested and talked some more. In time a worn leather football made its way onto the field. They played a proper game with both Captains as officials. Burton and Speake ran after the ball, but could never get it before someone passed it to a teammate. Three of the Germans played for their home eleven, and it showed in their play. The German scored three goals before the British scored their first. The 17th Caledonians had more Scots than Brits by two-to-one. The British wore proper trousers, but the old highlanders wore kilts, even in the winter. When a Scot scored the first British goal, all of the Scots turned around and hoisted their kilts and smacked their rear ends toward the German. These Saxons had never seen this particular Celtic taunt and each man laughed at the impropriety of gaining an impudent glace at a Scottish posterior. The Germans lead 6-2 when the ball struck some barbed wire from an errant kick, and the test ended just that quickly.

For the remainder of the day, they sat about and sang carols, but in the full company of each other. The German tenor sang a few solos. As the sun set, both Captains ordered their men back into the trenches. Everyone shook hands and returned. The last two balancing No Man’s Land were Drummond and Kirchner.

“We’re being replaced by Bavarians after the new year,” said Kutchner.

The Captains shook hands.

“Give them hell for us,” said Kirchner, “we hate the Bavarians.”

The men saluted and returned to their trenches. Burton and Speake leapt down before Drummonds could descend the old wooden ladder. Drummond removed his sidepiece. From across the way, the 17th Caledonian regiment heard three gunshots.

Bang, bang, bang!

Drummond raised his pistol and fired thrice.

Bang, bang, – bang!

Ha paused before his final shot because he knew it would officially end the Christmas Truce they enjoyed that day. There was no such Truce the next year, nor the next. This was a singular even in the time of the Great War. And even then, it was not all along the Western Front, but just in rare pockets where this terrible treason was agreed upon. Many part of the Front saw fighting just as any other day. And occasionally, one side sought some seasonal armistice only to be shot dead by the other side.

While most people think the 20th century began with 1901, some argue it began in 1914, and the Truce is the faultline between two different worlds. I can’t help but wonder if soldiers on both sides didn’t look back during Christmas of 1915 or 1916 and think Why can’t we stop fighting again? What did we have then that we don’t have now?

And now as we stand at the front of the 21st century, we can look back over the distance covered on that battle-pocked field. We can consider what could have been with the Truce. We can contemplate the Wasteland of the 20th century that followed it and everything that the Great War wrought. We all know now that the Western Front was just the beginning of it all. And now things are mended, and we can come together and shake hands, but No Man’s Land is still there.


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My Ninth Novel, BOSS, Is Available On Amazon


I am pleased to announce the release of my ninth novel, BOSS. It’s the story about the professional and personal conflicts between an esteemed businessman and a gangster. Merovech Stendhal, a Belgian veteran of World War Two, worked hard all of his post-war life to create shipping empire in New Orleans. As he nears the age to retire, he is propositioned by another man, Angelo Sentenza, to partner up with him in what will essentially lead to the pair of them controlling the properties at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Mero, as he’s known to friends and family, declines. One reason is because Sentenza is a local crime boss with the Mafia. But Mero has personal reasons that reveal themselves as one reads on in BOSS.With Mero’s refusal, the fight is on. Who’s going to win? Is it going to be the honorable older man who believes in fighting legitimately through the laws and courts? Or is it going to be criminal who doesn’t care if he has to cut corners to get what he wants? Who ends up on top will surprise you, but the reason why will shock you. (click here to purchase BOSS)


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First Things First: Part Three – Why Do You Write?


All writers, whether you write novels, short stories, Korean haiku, or ransom notes, have an understanding regarding method and message. We know what we are going to write and how we are going to write it. We cannot omit the most important question, which is why.

Why gets into purpose and intention, which has everything to do with accomplishment and end results. Your own motivation for writing will affect the form of your writing. Not only must you understand your why, but it must be clear to your readers.

For example, I blog because I want to help Creative Writers in ways that are informational and motivational. My novels deal with the internal struggle between doing what you want and what you ought. But I shouldn’t have to come out and say that for you to know that. If you follow this blog, you know it’s not going to have recipes and box scores. My Why for this blog should be clear to each and every reader.

Why You Read

Visit any bookstore and ask yourself why you would want to read any one of these thousands of books. And then ask yourself why anyone would want to come in here and buy your book. People have why questions for why they read, and when their why aligns with your why as a writer, you have the potential for more than a book sale, but possibly a repeat reader, or even a fan.

We cannot accomplish this by trying to be like everybody else. Now the market is flooded with vampire, zombie, and even zompire stories. People think a genre is hot, so that’s what they must write. But whatever got hot first that started the craze touched enough readers to stand out.

Readers are not a mass of homogenous participants in a market. They are all individuals, just as you and I are distinct from each other. If I tried to blog like you, or you tried to blog like me, the mimicker would fail. Same with novel writing. We need to be as individualistic as the readers out there.

Your Youness

We have unique thumbprints and retinal patterns, and we also have unique personalities, educations, backgrounds, vocabularies, world views, and preferences. This all means we have our own writing style more individual than our thumbs or eyes.

This gets into the author’s Voice, but so much more than that. Whatever I write, I need to make it the most Neal Abbottiest I can, which may include such things as contracting my surname into an adjective.

When you are the most you that you can be in your writing, you give the shopper in the bookstore every reason to pick your book and not someone elses. This is a wonderful thing, unless that other book they didn’t get is mine.

But maybe it is okay, because by each of us as writers being as true to our snowflakiness as possible, one writer may dig your book but may not necessarily go for mine. But that’s fine because eventually someone will come along and pass over your book and pick up mine. Remember that readers are just as individualistic as authors.

I wrote this because I needed a reminder to define myself as a writer, and stick to it. I hope this benefits you, too. You probably have a friend who is a writer who could use this. Share this article with them, and maybe it’ll help them as much as I hope it helped you.

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My Latest Book, From Malachi To Matthew, Is Now Available On Amazon


From Malachi To Matthew

When one reads the Bible, a few differences appear between the Old and New Testaments. When we close the Old Testament, the Persians are in charge, and suddenly the Romans are running things in the New Testament. We find things in the New not a part of the old, such as the Sanhedrin and synagogues, Pharisees and Sadducees. The period between the testament is a time when God is not communicating to man. But just because God is not speaking, it does not mean that He is not acting. The Intertestamental Period is a fascinating era where the providence of God works the world situation just so that when Jesus does come into the world, it is “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

From Malachi To Matthew focuses on the world in between the testaments. In particular, it explores the Greco-Roman empires and examines the changes these regimes brought to the New Testament times. It gives a greater appreciation of the life of Jesus and early Christians. Moreover, it underlines one immutable fact, that God is in charge and behind all things.

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First Things First: Part Two – The One Story You Should Be Writing Now


As Writers, there are areas where we are all the same, and many in which we are different. we get our stories from different places. mine come from my dreams, i kid you not. some write thier stories as soon as they get them, and some like me stockpile them.

Why Wait?

I use to put my best ideas at the end of the line so by the time I got them I would be a more experienced and better writer. In fact, I put what I thought was my worst idea first. Strangely, when I had four novels, three finished and the fourth as a work in progress, my first novel I felt has had the most heft plotwise. And the two ideas at the end of my list, my two best ideas, are no longer on the list at all.

Possibly something is considered a better story idea than another merely for the amount of mental energy already invested in that story. The story you’re thinking about now is not the one to file away, but start on now. If you are in the middle of a novel and you get a great idea, make good notes on the new idea quickly and get back to your novel.

There is no reason to exhaust yourself creatively for something that will lose a lot of its steam sitting on the shelf. Why wait? If it’s that good, get to it as soon as you can. Deep down you want to write it, so indulge yourself.

Before It’s Too Late

I don’t want to be downer, but we are all mortal beings and we will all die someday. Will that day for you come when you are in the middle of that one story you put off when you shouldn’t? It’s happened before.

The composer Puccini died before he finished his masterpiece, Turendot. It is said that at the premiere, the conductor Toscanini stopped the orchestra, turned toward the audience, and an announced that it was at this point in the music when the maestro died. After a moment of silence, he returned to the performance.

The Man In Black

In the movie Walk The Line, Johnny Cash and his band are playing Gospel songs to a record exec, who is not impressed. He told Johnny to sing the one song he would sing if he had only one more chance to sing a song before he died. He sang Folsom Prison Blues and got signed.

Don’t write what’s expected of you. Don’t write whatever is next on the list. Write that one story that’s in you that you want to write more than any other. Coming at it later will not help, in fact it might hurt. I still have the stockpile, but no more list. I let the Muse pick my stories for me. She’s tougher than me, so I don’t argue.

What is the one story you are writing now? Mine is about an Irishman looking for a wife. I’ll tell you more as I get more done. Whatever that one story for you is, Write it, right now!

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First Things First: Part One  – Your Focus As A Writer


How you define yourself can be seen in how you identify yourself. I am a father. I am a mother. I am a lawyer. I am a fireman. I am a …? Have you ever identified yourself as a writer, and I mean have you done it publicly toward other people?

When asked by other people, “What do you do?” I used to identify myself by my dayjob, and then add, “but I’d like to be a writer.” Then one day I said, “I am a writer.” That made all the difference in my attitude toward myself and my work ever sense.

Many cannot do that because they feel as if they have not yet merited that description. They are not yet published, or they are not yet famous. Regardless of how much you have written, for how long you have been writing, how many people have read your work, you need to get it into your head, YOU ARE A WRITER. That is your identity, both internally and externally, from this day forward.

Expectations, Not Just Goals

There’s no need to say it if you’re not going to do it. Saying you are a writer means you write. This means more than a little scribbling now and then. Writers begin and finish projects, and then they get them read by people who are not related to them.

Goals are nice, but easy to sidestep. Goals are what you want to get done. Expectations are better. Expectations insist that such will be accomplished, and within a certain timeframe. I expect to post articles for this blog every Monday and Thursday. I expect to post excerpts from a serial short story every other Wednesday here. I expect to publish a short story anthology by midyear and my first how to book by the end of the year.

Take your goals and make them into expectations.

Rev Up Your Urgency

You need to make yourself accountable for your writing expectations. Don’t just keep them in your head. Write them down. Also tell someone else. That is what I just did with that last paragraph. So now if someone asks me, “How is that anthology coming?” I had better have a good answer and not lie about it!

Take your big projects and make them into several small projects. Then give each one a deadline. This sounds terrifying, but a sense of urgency is what your writing needs. It’s good to be under the gun, even if you are the one who loaded it.

And don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on yourself. If you miss a deadline, punish yourself. I am not kidding. Tell yourself, “You will get no more coffee until you finish this chapter,” and stick to it. Make the punishment something you’ll miss, and you’ll break fewer and fewer deadlines. Little projects become one big project, and you will have accomplished a lot.

Write And Be Read Immediately

Writing will definitely make you feel like a writer, but one thing will accomplish that quicker and with more durability, and that is writing and being read. Let’s face it, we didn’t finish that novel just to sit on our desktops. We want to be read.

As Writers we must be read. Finishing a book is no guarantee I’ll ever be read. The best writers are the ones who share their work. That is one reason I am sharing my short story. Write something, make it quick and short, and share it with as many people as you can. Begin a habit of sharing your work. This is a habit you will carry through to your bigger writing projects.

So when you write you next novel, or your first, you will share what you write before, during, and after it is finished. This is ultimately what it means to be a writer. It’s not just finishing a book, or getting it published. The purpose of being a writer is so that you may be read, and thus affect the lives of others.

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The Case For The Oxford Comma


In English grammar, a comma is a punctuative that separates words, phrases, and clauses. Disagreement exists now that did not when I was young (that’s because there was only one rule and the introduction of change is somewhat recent). The discrepancy has to do with what is known as the Oxford Comma. It is called that because it is the older and standard rule as listed in the Oxford Style Manual. Sometimes it is called the serial comma. That’s because it is used when items in a series are listed in a sentence. For example: “I packed for the trip my journal, my walking shoes, and my snorkel.” The last comma before and is the Oxford Comma.

Why The Change?

The reason for the change is because some say the and implies the comma and it is not necessary. Sometimes it is, or confusion ensues. What is interesting is that the proposal for change is not truly based on any linguistic reasons. The change was put forth by the publishing industry. To leave out an unnecessary comma saves space, which saves money in the publishing industry. How cheap do you gotta be? These are the same geniuses who changed two spaces after a period to one, and for the same reason. Let that sink in – the argument the Oxford Comma is not coming form linguist or professors, but printers looking to shave a few pennies from the cost of printing. I declare shenanigans!


What someone wrote a book, and stated on the dedication page, “I dedicate this book to my parents, Barbara Bush and Jesus Christ.” This statement omits the Oxford Comma. Is the writer saying his book is dedicated to four people, or that his parents are Barbara Bush and Jesus Christ? The Oxford Comma would clear that up. Or what if I said, “I had over for dinner last night a couple of prostitutes, Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein.” Am I calling Bill and Harvey a couple of prostitutes, or were they there along with the prostitutes? The Oxford Comma would let you know for sure.

A Real-World Problem

This is not all hypothetical things for grammar nerds to argues about. He absence of a comma recently led to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy was sued by some of its drivers over backpay due from overtime. Maine state law at the time stated that workers are not entitled to overtime pay for: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The argument was that a lack of a comma after shipping that it is the packing “for shipment or distribution” that’s not eligible for overtime and not the distribution itself. Only with a comma would “distribution” have been included as one of the series of activities ineligible for overtime. The drivers won and the dairy had to pay. A proper Oxford Comma would have kept this from becoming such a problem.

The Oxford Comma is not only based upon common sense, but decades, even centuries of uninterrupted use. The proposal for change did not come from language people, but book and newspaper folk. It has no legitimate claim to change anything. Let’s keep the Oxford Comma. If anyone tries to make me change, they’ll have to pry the Oxford Comma from my cold, firm, determined, and stubborn hands.



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“Looking At ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ as a Writer”


Ernest Hemingway once said that a story is like an iceberg. The ice you see is the words on the page and rest of the ice that remains underwater is the rest of the story. As we know, most of the iceberg is under water. In other words, Hemingway is saying that most of the story is not written on the page.

The Title

Hemingway was a master of the writing principle of saying it without saying it. His short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a perfect example. Let’s begin with the title. A white elephant is rare. In southeast Asian culture, a king would give a white elephant as a gift to another king. But you couldn’t put an elephant like this to work. So it sat about, idle, and eating everything. The term “white elephant gift” has come to refer to a gift that the receiver doesn’t want. So from the title alone we know someone is going to offer to give something to someone and they don’t want it.

The Simple Operation

The setting is a man and a woman having a drink at a train station waiting for the train to arrive and take them to Madrid. They day is very hot, which tells us that the discussion is heated. They are not yelling or fighting, but they are feeling the heat, at least, the woman is. The man is trying to convince the woman to have an operation, one which he calls “a simple operation” and “not even an operation at all.”

The operation involves letting air in, but where he does not say. He insists that afterward they will be happy just like before, but one gets the sense they were not too happy before at all. They woman states that she knows some people who had this simple operation who were not so happy afterwards, despite what the man insists.

The man says he doesn’t want her to go through with it if she doesn’t want to, but the manner in which he continually tries to persuade her says otherwise. She is willing, but only because she does not care for herself, only him, and making him happy.

The man tells her that afterward they can have anything they want, but she disagrees. Clearly, whatever this simple operation does, it removes something she wants, but he doesn’t get it, because, like the woman, he only cares for himself and has no regard for her.

Use Of Imagery

So what is this operation. The text tells us that the side of the tracks that contain the white hills, the unwanted gift, is dry and barren. She looks to the other side of the tracks and sees the opposite. Hemingway writes, “Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.”

In contrast to the lifeless side of the tracks with the hills, the other side shows signs of life, prosperity, even fertility. Clouds and rivers, trees and grain, all this lie in contrast to the dreary countryside. The woman is drawn to this side, as if she prefers it. She is at a stretch of train tracks, which symbolize a choice, this side or the other side.

Her choice is between fertility and barrenness and whether or not to have a simple operation. It seems clearly that man wants her to have an abortion, but she doesn’t want it. Still, she is willing to make him happy. Sadly, she accepts his white elephant gift.

As an author, notice how Hemingway uses dialogue, setting, imagery, and even the title to help tell his story. Keep in mind there is still plenty of ice below the water. Try to develop the skills and work them into your overall creative writing craft. Great writers are always great readers first. They don’t knock off other writers, but they always learn from them.


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