They long to take flight

Summer’s back lay broken, snapped asunder by the abrupt coolness of autumnal change.  The dreaded heat crumbled.  I stood before dawn this morning and realized I could see my breath wisp through morning’s shadow.

Close-up of a female common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dead leaf (2009_10_03_030415)

An early walk along the drip line of riparian woods revealed dragons too cold to fly, giant predators yearning for the day’s heat to warm them.  Common green darners (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging on every thicket, every bramble, every dead and dying leaf.  How quickly things change.

A male common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dying leaf (2009_10_03_030302)

‘Twas merely a few days ago when morning lows equaled today’s high, when these stunning creatures filled the still dark air before sunrise.  But no more.

Close-up of a male common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dying leaf (2009_10_03_030311)

They watch carefully, sluggishly, and fall easily when trying to escape the prying eyes of morning onlookers.

Close-up of a male common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dead leaf (2009_10_03_030434)

Though now is there season, they must kneel at the sun’s altar before their day begins.  Recharging as it were, drawing energy until their bodies can sustain activity.

Close-up of a female common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dead leaf (2009_10_03_030440)

They watch me, these dragons, and they long to take flight as I approach.

A male common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) hanging from a dead leaf (2009_10_03_030305)

I feel the warmth of the sun against my bare neck.  It feels good contrasted with the coolness of the morning.  As I turn and walk away, I know dragons will soon take to the sky.

Considerations on writing

I said almost a month ago that I had completed the manuscript for my first fiction novel and that I had begun the search for a literary agent.

Finding a literary agent kicks off the first rewrite of a manuscript.  That’s because the agent will know the intended target market, both in terms of publisher/editor and in terms of reader.  While I haven’t obtained an agent yet, I have received suggestions about ways to rework the manuscript.

Some potential agents have requested the full text of the novel.  I only sent the first chapter with my query letters, so this is a logical next step for anyone giving me more consideration than the trash can.

In an act of generosity, some agents have offered advice even if they aren’t taking new clients or aren’t interested in adding me to their clientele.  And this is where things just got interesting.

There are fans and there are critics of my writing.  I always say it depends on how I’m writing.  As an avid linguist and writer, I choose from a basketful of voices depending on what I’m writing, how I feel, what I’m trying to communicate, who my target audience is, and so on.  I can channel the pendantic, conversational, Melville-esqe, encyclopedic, Gibran-ish, poetic, or a vast number of other writing spirits.  (You can read through this blog to see how I fly all over the field with regards to writing styles.)

When I began writing “Darkness Comes to Kingswell,” the blog-based short story that gave rise to Dreamdarkers, the novel, one thing I wanted to do, as my friend Wayne put it, was “dumb down” my writing.  Obviously this makes sense if I want to reach a large audience, but it also makes sense when one considers the results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

According to the most recent testing, the average U.S. citizen reads at the 8th-grade level.  College graduates tend to read at the 10th-grade level.  And in terms of “highly successful novels” from the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, reading falls to the 7th-grade level.

All that leads to what one prospective literary agent sent back to me while requesting the entire manuscript.  Having taken what was sent and run it through readability tests, I scored as follows.  On the ubiquitous Flesch tests:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 8.91
Flesch Reading Ease: 63.21

These scales are inversely proportional: a higher grade level equals a lower reading ease score.  For widest consumption, I estimate I need to score a grade level between seven and eight, and a reading ease somewhere between 65 and 75.  (I don’t yet clearly understand the relationship between the two scores and might not have that last range exactly right.)

And the other test results:

SMOG: 11.53
Coleman Liau Index: 9.24
Gunning Fog Index: 11.05
Automated Readability Index: 8.37

Yes, those scores are relatively too high.

The agent included two considerations on these scores.  First, they are based on the first chapter only, so they will change when the entire novel is tested.  Second, the first chapter sets the tone and could alienate some readers if it scores too high.

I think my initial reaction was to say I couldn’t “dumb it down” more because that level is beyond me.  But then I tested the original short story, which I wrote ad hoc each evening before posting, and realized it scored in the right range.  Then again, it’s much shorter than the novel and about as long as the first chapter of the book (which might be overly long to begin with).

So where does this leave me?  Well, part of me is waiting to see what the agent says about the entire manuscript as opposed to the first chapter.  Again, the readability scores represent only one part of the consideration.  But also a part of me is proud that it scored higher than intended, and that even after I intentionally sought to write at a lower level.

It doesn’t take much work for me to shift between writing voices.  It’s as simple as finding my stride.  Nevertheless, this experience provides some insight into what I face as I work on the second novel, one I chose to script in more complex language that now requires additional thought, as well as what I need to keep in mind for future works.  That assuming I break into this market to some degree that makes me want to continue writing in the venue.

— — — — — — — — — —

For reference, I ran the above post through the tests to give you some comparison.  Here are the scores.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 8.49
Flesch Reading Ease: 63.54
SMOG: 9.98
Coleman Liau Index: 8.92
Gunning Fog Index: 9.56
Automated Readability Index: 8.03

The sting

For someone with a deadly allergy to wasp stings, I spend far too much time mingling with the local population of eastern cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus).  Truth be told, there’s no other insect on the planet that fascinates me so much, perhaps because of my allergy or perhaps in spite of it.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my hand (20080622_07469_c)

Honestly I feel like a pyromaniac with burn scars who can’t help but light that next fire.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingertips (20080622_07455_c)


A huge colony of them lives around my home.  A cloud of them buzzes around my front door in summertime.  But they’re docile giants.

Close quarters and agreeable personalities mean I get plenty of opportunities to photograph them.  We hang out, you know, and they’re amiable to photo sessions.  Yet two scenes have eluded me these many years: (1) a female returning to her nest with a cicada in tow and (2) a female capturing a cicada.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_026003)

You’d think the first of those would be easy.  I could just stand outside my front door until an opportunity presents itself.  Still, I got nothing.

As for the second, that’s a difficult proposition indeed.  How do you know where a female is hunting?  How do you know which cicada she’s going after?  Do you just stand and watch a cicada with the hope of scoring?

It boils down to being in the right place at the right time.

Imagine my pleasant yet frustrated surprise while I was standing in the dense riparian woods along Dixon Branch.  Above me—directly above me—I heard a sudden commotion and a quick cicada buzz.  High in the canopy overhead a female cicada killer wasp was busy subduing a meal for her children.

Female astern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) sting a silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028888)

Even using a 400mm lens didn’t get me close to the action.  They were too high in the tree.  What made matters worse was having one window through the foliage.  Each time I stepped in any direction, they vanished behind leaves and branches.

Female eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) stinging a silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028886)

The silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) struggled a bit after the first sting, but the second sting stopped that right away.  Then she tried maneuvering her catch into a different position and almost lost it.

A female eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) holding a paralyzed silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028885)

She quickly turned it around and slipped headlong into a dive toward the ground.  I lost her after that as she buzzed through the trees and vanished.

[it’s interesting to note the size of the male in the first two photos compared to the size of the female with the cicada; her prey is a typically large cicada and she’s about the same size: more than two inches/50 mm in length; for the average person with an average hand, the females are about the size of your thumb]

On the march

It begins with one, then two, then ten, then a hundred, and before you know it you come to appreciate that many thousands of caterpillars fill an area of grass half the size of a football field.  They’re everywhere!

Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) on a dead leaf (2009_10_03_030370)

So off to the Texas crop reports and the news and the local nature blogs.  Yup, just what I thought.  Fall armyworms, the larvae of the fall armyworm moth (Spodoptera frugiperda), have invaded Texas.  OK, your mileage may vary since the state has four common armyworm species, but it seems a safe bet that the fall armyworm is the culprit given the time of year and the amount of damage.

Fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda) on the ground (2009_10_03_030377)

And “invaded Texas” is perhaps deceptive.  We have at least one regional outbreak of armyworms every year.  This year they seemed to prefer most of the state, munching a wide swath of territory with only the far south and the far north left without occupying armyworm forces.

Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) on a leaf (2009_10_03_030462)

The entertainment comes from the horror of DFW residents who don’t know how to respond to hordes of insects marching through their lawns and eating all the grass in sight.  Even news reports have shown once lush yards where St. Augustine now looks more massacred than manicured.  Oh the horror!  No, really, that’s what it sounds like.  Who knew scalped grass could be so traumatic?  Personally, I rather like the brown earthy tones that come out after the armyworms move on.

Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) on the sidewalk (2009_10_03_030618)

Armyworms get their name from the same behavior that gives army ants their name: foraging in huge numbers and moving en masse.  Battalions of armyworms show up in your pretty yard, eat the grass down to dirt level, then they pack up and move in one large group—heading to your neighbor’s yard.

I will not memorialize…

I will not memorialize that we let cowards win on 9/11, that we readily gave up liberty and freedom in the name of security.  Where once we had due process and rights, we now have suspension of habeas corpus and imprisonment without charge, counsel, and hope of our day in court.  We have assassination orders against American citizens, “freedom of speech zones”, and warrantless wiretaps.

I will not memorialize that the bravery of those who died on 9/11 is sullied by those, both foreign and domestic, who would exploit those sacrifices for personal gain.

I will not memorialize that what was attacked on 9/11 is precisely what we readily gave up: freedom and liberty; tolerance and inclusiveness; understanding; integrity and honor; and a belief that what we were was better than, and worth defending against, what we have become.

I will not memorialize that 9/11 was used to justify an unjust war, that it was the catalyst to stir an aching populace into a rabid mob bent on blind revenge instead of justice.

I will not memorialize that what was lost on 9/11 was our sense of fairness, decency and respect.

I will not memorialize that the most horrific terrorist attack on U.S. soil now serves as fodder in the cannons—and canons—of hate, that we use it to inflame and incite rather than to teach and to mold, that we look upon it as proof that we must despise and distrust “all of those people” rather than evidence proving that extremist minorities are the enemy, and that we use it as a foundation for our own vengeance rather than as proof that we were on the right road to begin with.

I will not memorialize that the horror of that day now justifies intolerance and bigotry, that we readily cast aside our American ideals in the name of blaming all of Islam for the act of a radical few even while we do not blame all Christians for the atrocities in Uganda or the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, that we do not blame all Germans for the Holocaust, and that we do not blame Americans for the continued support of homophobic sentiments and violence around the globe.

No, I will not memorialize cowards, them or us.  I will not celebrate in a morbid dance of memories the loss of life and liberty.  I will not proclaim my devout patriotism by waving a flag in the face of history as though this is the same country it once was.  I will not pretend as though we didn’t let them win that day.

I will instead remember the dear friends I lost in Washington D.C. and New York.  I will remember the sacrifice of those innocently caught in the tragedy and those who died trying to save them.  I will remember the loss of military personnel and civilians in Iraq who should never have been put in harm’s way by our sightless lust to get back at someone, anyone.  I will remember that “everything changed that day” only because we let it, not because it had to.  And most importantly, I will remember the country I lived in on 9/10/2001, a country worth defending, a country worth returning to, a country to be proud of.