Thursday, March 21, 2013


The essay test (either long or short answer):
(1) Work on your penmanship. Practice writing legibly.  You may be perfectly capable of reading your own handwriting, but that remarkable skill doesn’t mean that anyone else can read it. Poor handwriting is probably the source of more lost points on essay exams than any other factor. Profs just get sick and tired of trying to decipher scrawl. Often, however, if you’ve answered the first question well, they’ll skip through the later scrawl and give you the benefit of the doubt. But don’t count on this lucky event happening; the first question might be the one you know least about, and in that case, the scrawl-skipping will work to your distinct disadvantage.
As a rule of thumb, some perfect stranger should be able to read your handwriting as easily as he or she reads a printed page. Always (always!) use dark ink—black or dark blue—or if a pencil is required, a dark and sharpened lead. Your letters should be large enough to read at arm’s length. Never trust a college prof to have eagle-eye vision (or an owl’s hearing, either), especially if he or she is over the age of 50.
(2) Work on your grammar.  Whatever you do, do not make any of the truly common mistakes made by college students (see also the next chapter on papers).  The truly common mistakes are:
a. Using “it’s” when you actually mean “its” or vice versa.
b. Using “alot” when you actually mean “a lot”.
c. Using “there” when you actually mean “their” or vice versa.
d. Using the wrong verb form. If you were born in the United States, for example, there is no excuse for using “went” when you mean “gone” either in writing or in speech.
e. Using the incorrect possessive form of any word, for example “cars” when you actually mean “car’s.”
This list could be much longer, but I believe you get the drift. Poor grammar will hurt you not only on the next exam, but also on the next job interview, the next potential promotion, and the next time you have to accomplish some real business in the real world, whatever that business might be, including contracts, agreements involving money, pre-nuptial agreements, divorce proceedings, complaints to a school board about how your child is being taught, you name it. Use correct grammar. Alternatively, change your name to one that sounds exceedingly foreign so that the person reading your writing believes that English is your second language and you’ve just started learning it. Then you’ll be admired instead of ridiculed.
(3) Practice writing in complete sentences. Failure to write in complete sentences is probably the second most common source of lost points on essay exams mainly because such failure suggests to a grader that you are not well educated and thus don’t know much about anything, including the subject over which you’re being tested. You may also have been told to write in complete sentences, so read the directions and follow them before you start your essay. If you can easily generate sentences that are grammatically correct and at least 15 words long, then you have taken a major step toward getting better grades on all essay exams no matter what the subject.
(4) Practice writing short paragraphs in which there is both an idea and a fact to support the idea. This essay technique is usually difficult for students to learn, but it’s the technique that profs use all the time in their own work. So if you can master it, then you’ve made some major progress toward actually getting better grades, especially if you combine this technique with the above advice. Beyond these four behaviors, only true knowledge and understanding of the subject matter stands between you and better grades. Now for the most difficult of all exams:
The multiple choice test:

OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS, 4th Edition, is available from and on both kindle and This little book makes a terrific graduation present for any high school senior headed to college.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Short excerpt from STICKS AND STONES

“Just open up the files, Elizabeth,” I say; “detective Branch will not get the password to our accounts. If he wants any information, he’ll have to come over here and get it. And if he wants the password, he’ll have to go through legal channels.” Again, I act like I know what I’m doing. I stand up, and ask her one more question: “Why didn’t you say something to someone about Clyde Renner’s use of department funds?”
“We needed the money at home, Dr. Marshall. I needed the job. Not lots of places in this town to work. Farming goes up and down, and when you got kids, they need food and clothes.”
“You don’t earn enough to support a family.”
“I earn enough to make the difference between a good year and a bad year on the land.”
With that answer, she reminds me of what I’d learned a long, long, time ago, and had simply become so accustomed to that I’d accepted it as a fact: in central Iowa, everything is tied directly to the land, and I do mean everything—conversation, literature, the clothing you wear, your relationship to banks, the athletic teams you like, how you read the clouds, the combines and tractors that are such a familiar site that after a couple of weeks on campus, and around town, they don’t seen strange to students lying out on the grass studying volcanoes, earthquakes, fossils, and Shakespeare, even if those students are from Zurich or Singapore.

(The complete book--STICKS AND STONES--with its perfect murder and a hint at perfect weapons of mass destruction, is available as an e-book on both kindle and smashwords. The title comes from that old phrase your mother used to say: "Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you." Obviously nothing could be further from the truth!)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Next Big Thing writing chain letter

The Next Big Thing

I received an invitation from a writer, Denise Banker, whose English Department doctoral committee I was on (as an outside member). The invitation is to do a self-interview about a book project you’re working on now, then post that interview on your blog, and invite five other authors to do the same thing (they are also supposed to invite another five authors). This pyramid/chain letter/share-your-working ideas, called (like a bunch of other stuff!) “The Next Big Thing”, was started by Catherine Keefe, a creative writing instructor at Chapman College. So some of you are going to get a similar note from me. The world will not come to an end if the chain is broken or the pyramid is truncated, but I know that a couple of you have books in progress that you’re getting behind on because you (supposedly) have too much real work to do.

The self-interview, to be posted on your blog, is in response to the following questions:

What is your working title for the book (or story)? Botswana Notes

Where did the idea come from for the book? We took a wildlife safari to Botswana in February. I’d been thinking about a piece of travel writing for several months, during the preparation for this trip, mainly because I’m always on the lookout for book material regardless of where we travel, but didn’t know whether there would be enough information and material from just two weeks in Africa to support an entire book-length manuscript. However, I have done some travel writing before, now posted as free e-books on, so knew there was a possibility that this African trip would produce something, if only an essay similar to my previous ones (see Denver International Airport and Field Notes from a Cruise, both free downloads on

What genre does your book fall into? Botswana Notes is travel writing, but with a particular twist or approach.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? After I bought that beautiful leather hat at Duma Tau, my wife called me “Redford.” It was all in the hat.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A senior citizen guy takes his senior citizen wife on her dream trip to Africa, something she’s wanted to do since the fourth grade, and both come away simply stunned by the beauty of the animals, the plants, scenery, and people.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I’m less than 10% through it so far (9 pages, 3,173 words), but I’m also being careful to collect my acknowledgements, sources, and suggested readings in a separate file, knowing that it’s always a pain to recover these things post-hoc. But I’m working on it every day, and anticipate finishing the first draft around the first of June.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I’ll self-publish as an e-book on smashwords and kindle. Over the past 36 years of writing seriously, some of my efforts have been handled by my agent, published by major companies, and done well, others have been rejected time and time again. The changing nature of book publishing has not been particularly kind to old men authors in recent years, so my reaction to rejection is to say “screw ‘em” and put my material up on smashwords and kindle as e-books.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I have not even looked at similar works, or the possibility of their existence. Most of the books about Africa are biographies, or picture books, and although they are often excellent and beautiful, they are nothing like Botswana Notes is likely to become. My travel writer hero is Paul Theroux; if I could get into the same universe (not ballpark!) as him, I’d be very satisfied. The piece on my Baja Searcher trip (Field Notes from a Cruise) is probably the best example of my approach to travel writing, but at the time I wrote it, I did not anticipate publication.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? I was inspired mainly by the knowledge that there would be plenty of new and interesting experiences resulting from this trip, and that I would get to watch my wife fulfill her fourth grade dreams. I knew that there would be plenty to write about, but I didn’t know at the time that I would be able to produce a book-length manuscript (at least 50,000 words).

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? There will be some interesting photographs, and I’ll use them in a literary way.

I’ve also posted this set of questions on the Facebook sites of Ted Atoka, Karl Reinhard, Johnica Morrow, and Tyrone Jaeger, all active writers.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Ted Atoka’s Villa Paradiso is a delightful mixture of really big money, hubris, youth with nothing to lose, senior citizen widows relieved of conventional and expected behaviors, down-home Oklahoma characters and cooking, and dreams of a better life for all. Atoka has managed to mix all these ingredients, sort of like one of the heaping savory dishes delivered to obvious strangers in the booth of a small town cafĂ©, into a story that addresses the question: what would you do if you knew you were in the beginning stages of early onset Alzheimer’s, had massive amounts of money at your disposal, and were suddenly given the opportunity to buy a run-down rest home in Bowlegs, Oklahoma? Atoka’s main characters—a couple of aging Texas ladies who are multi-millionaires, or more likely multi-billionaires—answer that question easily: buy it, build a beautiful new Villa Paradiso on the site, pull in all the local talent you can find, move down there, and turn the day-to-day operations over to a bunch of kids just out of college then sit back and watch it all work. Or, maybe, blast the vehicles out from under a couple of equipment thieves. Or, perhaps, go to the shooting range with every antique weapon you can find. But most of all turn your personal dreams into new and better lives for a whole lot of rural Oklahoma folks, all deserving and appreciative. The author, who’s obviously been down a dirt road or two, actually shows us what happens when smart people with adequate resources invest wisely, and courageously, in American human capital. If you’re over 50, call ‘em up immediately and reserve your apartment at Villa Paradiso

Available from Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.

Monday, March 4, 2013

More on Read-an-eBook Week

I forgot that University of Nebraska spring football started this week, so added TUSKERS and TUSKERS: THE MOVIE to the list of free downloads from TUSKERS (the book) is R-rated (language); the movie script is much cleaner. TUSKERS is sci-fi, about the OU vs. Nebraska game in the year 2090.

International Read-an-eBook Week

March 3-9 is Read-an-eBook week, so five of mine are supposed to be available for that week (only) as free downloads from Here's the list:
DINKLE'S LIFE: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY (a ghost story for our times!)
THE GINKGO: AN INTELLECTUAL AND VISIONARY COMING OF AGE ("an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is getting increasingly impatient with" - my agent)
CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN GOD AND SATAN (for anyone who's ever been to the Crescent Moon Coffee House)
CHRISTIAN ZOMBIE: A TALE OF SIN AND REDEMPTION (paranormal and inspirational seem to be the best sellers on Smashwords, so I combined the two [okay, it's satire])
INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS (a contribution to the culture wars)

Go to, search on Janovy or the titles, and use the codes that show up to download free copies.  All but the last are probably an embarrassment to the family, but that's what happens when you get to be a certain age! - JJ