Friday, January 17, 2014

On Being A Writer

I attended a three day-book signing event in Newark, New Jersey in 2009, when my short story collection, Randoms, was published. I was seated at a booth with two other authors, one of whom was Kathryn Lee Scott. Kathryn was an actress who had become a self-published author, forming her own publishing company and eventually publishing other authors, as well. Ironically, I’d met Kathryn in 1991, several years after she had started her company. I had what I thought was a great idea for a book (which, by the way, I am still writing), and she told me to mail her a proposal, which I did. A few weeks later, I opened my mailbox to find the loveliest, nicest rejection letter I have ever seen waiting for me. I mean, this was not merely the most heartfelt rejection letter I’d gotten from a publisher; it was the most heartfelt rejection letter I’d ever received in my entire life – and that includes the one from a beautiful blonde Polish girl named Maria G’nichkevitch on Valentine’s Day in first grade with the letters “NO” scrawled in red crayon. Kathryn’s rejection letter was two pages long, and unlike Maria’s, penned in cursive and not written in crayon.

Kathryn explained she did not envision her new company publishing the sort of book I had proposed. I am forever grateful to Kathryn for her decision that day. I was impressed she had started her own publishing company, a rare feat back then, but I wondered why I couldn’t do the same. Unlike Kathryn (to the best of my knowledge), I had trained to become a writer, earning a degree in journalism, as well as an MBA from a Top 20 business school. Surely, I thought, that background would make me more qualified than an actress to be an author and publisher. A few years later, when the opportunity arose, I formed my own publishing company, inspired by Kathryn’s endeavor. Ironically, had Kathryn published my book, most likely I would have published all of my subsequent books through her company and never started my own, missing out on the best eight years of my life. I expressed my gratitude by crediting her as the inspiration for the birth of my company on the acknowledgments page of Randoms.

A long line of autograph seekers wrapped around our booth, mainly because one of us was a TV star, but unfortunately it wasn’t me. So, the other gentlemen and I sold a few books and spoke to the fans waiting in line for Kathryn’s autograph. I told this anecdote to a young man in the line and even showed him Kathryn’s name on the acknowledgments page. I was quite pleased when he purchased a copy of Randoms, at least until a few minutes later, when he placed my book before Kathryn, opened to the acknowledgments page, and asked her to autograph it above her name. The moral of the story is, for those of you driven by egotism to become authors, you may expect to have your ego sliced and diced with an astonishing degree of regularity throughout your career.

For example, a copy of my fantasy novel, Paved with Good Intentions, which I had autographed at a book signing, later appeared on eBay with this description: “Up for grabs. From Keith B. Darrell… Trade edition softcover in good, gently-read condition… signed to “Beth Anne” by author on title page, but otherwise clean text.” I don’t know which is more ego deflating: finding someone seeking a quick buck has turned around and listed on eBay a copy of a book they had asked you to sign to them, or that the autograph mars an “otherwise clean text”.

Fortunately, I was not driven by egotism to become an author and any illusions I might have had to inflate my ego had been crushed long ago by a blonde little girl with a red crayon. Instead, I became a writer, in part, because writing exposes you to whole new worlds limited only by your imagination and allows you to take part in a wide range of experiences, often without even leaving your desk.

Which is not to say I haven’t had my own share of unusual experiences in real life, as many of my friends, like Mark, know. Whether one writes fiction or nonfiction, an author must plan on doing a lot of research for a book. One night, I was working on a chapter in The 25th Hour, my Young Adult science fiction novel. I had done a fair amount of research on semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 and Bushmaster rifles, but I’d never actually fired one. Mark, on the other hand, is extremely knowledgeable about guns. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I’d written my protagonist into a situation in which he was facing down the barrel of an AR-15 and I needed to know if there were any way he could render the gun inoperable, short of disarming the antagonist. Despite my online research, I couldn’t find an answer to the question, so I did what any rational writer would do: I turned to an expert.

So, I phoned Mark… at 2 a.m. Fortunately Mark, like me, is one of those people usually awake at odd hours. I said, “Mark, I need to ask you a question. If someone is pointing an AR-15 at you, and there’s no way for you to get the gun away from him, is there any way to prevent it from firing?”

There was a long, silent pause on the other end of the phone line.

Then, Mark asked, “Keith, where the hell are you?”

And that’s why I enjoy being a writer. I can face down an AR-15, travel to the past or the future, explore other countries or other planets, and hold up a mirror to society reflecting the human condition… all without leaving the comfort of my chair.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It’s French for “#$@#%&!”

You may have noticed I haven’t been blogging much the past few months. In August, I suffered a terrible pain in my right arm. One night, the pain became so intense that I went to the emergency room. I was diagnosed with tendonitis in my forearm and bursitis in my elbow. On my way out, the ER doctor told the nurse to give me a sling. What she handed me was little more than a nylon strap, which I naïvely assumed to be a “Made in Taiwan” freebie. It was so useless, I stopped at the drugstore on the way home and bought an $8 elastic bandage and tossed the nylon sling in the trash.

Skip ahead past three months of thrice weekly physical therapy treatments to today, when I opened my mail and found a bill from BioMet, a company I had never heard of. The bill, the first I had received from them, stated it was a “Final Notice” and “failure to respond may result in your account being forwarded to our outside agency for collection”. So, to recap, someone I’d never heard of or conducted business with was threatening to tank my credit rating. The service date was in August and the description read “ambulite velpeau immobilizer – $51.14”. It sounded as if I had done a “dine and dash” at a French restaurant and now they had caught up with me.

Apparently, my insurance covered $40.09, so the strangers from BioMet were threatening my credit rating over the remaining balance of $11.05. I called the phone number on the statement and learned, as you’ve probably deduced by now, an “ambulite velpeau immobilizer” is not French but rather med-speak for tacky nylon sling. When I told the BioMet representative the final notice I had received was actually also the first notice I had received from them, she explained “that’s been happening a lot of people; we had a computer error”. Perhaps (but probably not), in an effort to make me feel better, she said her computer showed I only owed a balance of $10.23, not $11.05. This presented a major quandary: do I mail them the amount she says is due, or what the bill says is due? If I send $10.23 in response to their “final notice”, then they might claim I still owe them 82 cents. If they’re threatening to turn my account over to collection for $11, why wouldn’t they do the same for 82 cents?

And here, in a nutshell, is the problem with the American healthcare system. Why am I being billed by a third-party private company for a product supplied to me by the hospital? Why are they charging $51 for a $1 strip of nylon? Why is my insurance paying $40 for a $1 strip of nylon? Considering my ER trip cost close to $1000, shouldn’t the so-called sling be included? Even McDonald’s gives free toys with its $5 Happy Meals. Why does the invoice obfuscate what I’m being billed for by calling a simple sling an “ambulite velpeau immobilizer”? If we examine other medical invoices, I’m willing to bet we’d find almost every line item charge was an expensive obfuscation, because when stated in plain English patients might question the outrageously overpriced charges. We not only pay for this out-of-pocket, as I’m doing now, but also through higher insurance premiums because the insurance companies and Medicare have to pay these ridiculous prices. The healthcare crisis in this country is not about Obamacare; it’s about how we’re being ripped off and extorted by healthcare providers and insurers. Obamacare is merely an example of how lobbyists for these industries have bought off the people we’ve elected to government. We need a healthcare system that cuts out insurers as middlemen (a single-payer system) and holds providers accountable for their charges for products and services.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Revisionist History is Certainly Entertaining When One is Not Encumbered by Facts

In addition to writing books and blog columns, I occasionally post comments on my Facebook page, but I try not to write on other people’s pages. After all, we writers are like prostitutes: when you do it for a living, you shouldn’t give it away for free. But sometimes, someone will say something so aggravating or so outrageous that I can’t help but reply. Case in point: a young woman I’ve never met made a series of comments that professed profound misunderstanding (some would say ignorance) of several common issues affecting many of our fellow citizens. Unfortunately, as she is not alone in her ignorance of the facts, it occurred to me that my rebuttal to her comments might benefit others, so I’m reprinting it here in an edited version.

The young woman – from her photo I would judge her to be in her early 30s – posted on my 67-year-old friend’s page. She reiterated the all too common refrain these days that older people are robbing the young by sponging off Social Security benefits and receiving Medicare which she believes will not be there when she retires for her to benefit from. She was upset Florida Gov. Rick Scott had allowed a state film industry tax incentive to expire, costing her friends their jobs, claiming this would cause the film industry to flee the state. She went on to argue government was unnecessary and Ronald Reagan was “the greatest economic president we’ve ever had.” She closed by blaming President Obama for failing to create jobs.

You knew I wasn’t going to keep quiet, didn’t you?   ;)

 My response: