Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Everything I need to know I learned in pathology: A tribute to Bob Rohner, MD

My entire life has been a quest to get educated, beginning in kindergarten (where my skills at napping were unparalleled) and right on through the CME (continuing medical education) course I took last week on mosquito-borne illnesses (sounds fascinating, right?). Along the way, I have had the pleasure of having many excellent teachers, and I dedicate this post to Bob Rohner, who taught human pathology at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY for 40+ years (and he did it with panache!)

Now that I have taken up the pen, I spend a lot of time thinking about the great communicators with whom I have crossed paths, and I ask myself what it is/was about her/him that made he/she such an effective communicator. Why? Because if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. And also because writing and teaching are really about communication. If I want to write/communicate better, then study the people who could communicate/teach.

Bob Rohner was such a teacher, and after some thought, I have deduced the four methods he used to ply his craft. In no order:

1) Variation. You have all had a teacher that lectured start to finish in the same droning montone, without so much as a sneeze to spice things up. That was not Dr. Rohner. He changed up everything: pace, tone, mannerisms, and CONTENT. He always started fast, with urgency in his voice and lots of gesticulating. But just as your adrenaline (or caffeine level) was dropping, he slowed it way down, stood stock still, and, almost whispering, told a quick story that was somehow pertinent to becoming a good doctor. It was almost impossible to loose focus in his class, no matter how late you stayed up.

Lesson for Peter Hogenkamp, the writer? Change things up, like pacing and sentence structure. Start fast, like Rohner, and then slow it down, throw in bits and pieces of unexpected levity, vary the content from narrative to dialogue, etc.

2) You cannot fake sincerity and passion. One of the reasons I loved Dr. Rohner so much is that he loved what he was doing, and cared deeply about the medical profession and doctoring. At some points he seemed actually desperate to fill us with the same passion for medicine that he carried each and every day. His passion was infectious because it was sincere, not contrived. Bob performed for us every day, but it was a performance that radiated from his soul, pouring out of him like lava from a erupting volcano.

This is a trickier lesson, but no less important. The writer has to be passionate about his or her writing, at all times: THERE IS NO FAKING IT. Just like the student can tell if the teacher is just going through the motions, the reader can likewise sense when the writer is just mailing it in. (Think about how many bad endings you have read--from good authors even. Ever get the sense they just wanted to hit the send button and be done with it?) Dr.Rohner never did that and neither should you.

3) Humor! Humor! Humor! I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there is almost no venue where humor does not win the day. And Dr. Bob was funny! Please keep in mind the subject material; human pathology is not the stand-up comic's stuff of dreams. But he made it funny, with brilliant asides, perfectly timed one-liners, and funny anecdotes when you needed it the most.

I write thrillers, and I have read hundreds of them as well. My favorite thriller authors (Daniel Silva, Alistair MacClean) are the ones that toss in small pieces of levity when you aren't expecting them--just like one of Rohner's quips right in the middle of a lecture about heart attacks.

4) Keep it short! Bob never went over, and he often ended early, storming out of the lecture hall, muttering that "you have all heard enough from me," or "I've taken too much of your time already."

The lesson to the writer here is obvious, but important. Less is more. Never use three words when one will suffice. Delete anything (word, sentence, paragraph, chapter etc.) that isn't essential to moving the story forward.

Ok, I've taken up too much of your valuable time already. Thanks again for your attention and loyalty, and please share the link to this blog on your favorite social media outlet. Don't forget about MY WEBSITE, and leave a comment, I always enjoy reading those.

ps And thanks Dr. Rohner, for teaching me about a lot more than pathology.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Making things happen vs. letting things happen: Another example of life imitating golf.


Everyone has a bias, and I think it is always best to state one's bias right from the word Go--so here it is: I am a golfer, and this flavors how I think about life. What am I talking about? It's straightforward, really. A golfer can NOT make things happen. (Don't believe me? Ask Tiger Woods, who has NEVER come from behind to win a major championship. Every time Tiger tees off not in the lead, NEEDING to make something happen, the only thing that happens is a collection of poor shots, missed putts, and blown chances.)

Why am I telling you this? Because I am also a writer, one on the cusp of getting his first novel published. But as I stand on the cusp, teetering back and forth like Humpty Dumpty, I feel like I need to make something happen, to do or write something that will move me into the current. And that's where the aforementioned problem comes in--it goes against my (golfing) nature to force something. If you set out to birdie a hole, you'll more likely make a bogie. You have to let things like birdies (and publishing contracts?) happen. Right?

Maybe not. As much as I think that life is just a poor imitator of golf, it isn't always the case. Especially not in the publishing industry, where upheaval is a weekly occurrence. So, let's assume for the sake of argument that this is the case, that I do NEED to make something happen. In the extended golfing metaphor I am constructing, let's say it's the last day at the Masters and I need to birdie the 18th hole (long dogleg 4 par, second shot to an elevated, severely sloping green--like you didn't know that!). The smart play is to take out the three wood and make sure I hit the fairway, but that would leave me over two-hundred yards out, and I NEED to make a birdie. No, I have to take out the driver, risking the woods and that huge bunker on the corner of the dogleg, and get it further up the fairway where I can attack the pin. (You're still with me, right?)

The question is, what is the same play in my current predicament. What's metaphorically equivalent to pulling out the big stick? My son is sitting next me as I write this, going back and forth between writing college essays and watching re-runs of The Office on his computer (you'll never guess what is winning out?) So I can't help but be inspired by Michael Scott (and yes, I do realize this is a bad idea.) WWMSD? Michael Scott would climb onto the roof to pretend he's considering jumping as a ploy to draw attention to himself, and then almost kill himself trying to pretend he's killing himself, and ultimately succeed in fulfilling his goal. But The Office is not like real life--at least I really really hope not. So I need a Plan B.

Keeping with my current theme of employing tactics I learned on TV (I can see the book now, Everything I Need to Know I Learned on Television) we turn to everybody's favorite, Scooby Doo. In this analogy, Velma, Daphne and Fred research and write The Next Great American Novel but are unable to find a literary agent to represent it, while Scooby and Shaggy jot down a few jokes on a napkin as they eat hamburgers in a diner, and then literally run into the CEO of a publishing company as they walk out onto the sidewalk, who picks up the napkin, laughs hysterically, and publishes their best-selling humor book. Ok, Plan C.

Let's go Old School, Seinfeld-style for C.  Jerry and George and write a book (about nothing of course) and Elaine edits it to a state of near-perfection, but she is accosted by a gang of street midgets on the way to the publisher, and the one and only copy of the manuscript is stolen and ultimately used as raw material for a paper airplane contest. Meanwhile, Kramer trips on a popsicle stick, lands on a large stack of 1950's pin-ups someone is recycling, and makes them into a best-selling coffee-table book.

I am about out of ideas for now, so I will end here, plus I need to pick my fall raspberries



 before the birds eat them all. Please visit MY WEBSITE and leave me a Plan D (you can tell I sorely need one.) If I don't hear from you, I'll be forced to pull out the three-wood--and there's no guarantee that's finding the short grass! Thanks again for your patience and loyalty--I appreciate it.



Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous), and LinkedIn (Tweets, Novels and Blogs); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.


 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Upcoming Writers Digest Webinar August 26-29 on submitting your manuscript

Just a quick post for those of you out there who have completed a manuscript and want to submit it to an agent. My literary agent and her entire agency are doing a Webinar August 26-29, on how to make your submission stand out among the hundreds agents get every month. Check out the specifics on the agency website HERE. If you haven't had a chance to get to a conference yet, this is an excellent chance to get the same insider information without travel and hotel costs. Ciao.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nothing that goes right will ever make a good story! #misadventuresarememorable

It occurred to me last night as my brothers and sisters and cousins were sitting around after dinner, retelling all the old stories we have retold for years and years: There is a commonality to every good story, and that commonality is "Nothing that goes right will ever make a good story." Allow me to give an example.

Ten years ago my family and I went hiking at High Point Park in Northern Jersey, with my brother Eric and his wife. It was a sunny Good Saturday in April, and we were enjoying the warm air after a cold winter. The group spread out as groups do on a hike, and the kids went charging ahead as kids do. But I wasn't worried, because we were experienced hikers from VT, and there wasn't anything in NJ that was going to phase us Vermonters (even my boys, who were 7 and 9.) Well, we made it to the top and tried to gather everyone for a photo--with the Manhattan skyline as the backdrop--when we realized my seven-year-old wasn't there. Apparently he had lagged behind his big brother enough to not realize he had made a wrong turn, and we didn't realize it until a good 30 minutes had elapsed. I can still remember the lump in my throat, and the jackhammer pounding of my heart when I came to the conclusion he wasn't just hiding behind a rock as a prank. So, we split up, Eric going in one direction, me in another, and my wife, sister-in-law and mother leading the other kids back to the trailhead. I ran around that mountain side for the next two hours, growing more frantic as the sun sank lower in the western sky, calling out his name every few minutes and waiting in vain for a reply. At one point, I thought I heard him calling for me, but in retrospect it proved to be just another group of hikers.

When I finally made it back to the car, I was rewarded with the sight of a NJ State Trooper cruiser (they can give me a ticket anytime, I will always love them) pulling into the parking lot with my seven-year-old in the back seat, fired up to be riding in a patrol car. He wasn't even upset until he saw me running towards him like a wild man, and even then he regained his composure quickly. It turned out he finally realized he had become separated from the group when the trail ended at the edge of the park and a dirt road appeared. He walked down the road a few miles until he found a cluster of homes, and knocked on doors until one of them opened. A kindly woman let him in, gave him a sandwich, a glass of orange juice and a piece of pie (let's say it was apple, although I really don't recall) and called the troopers.

Unfortunately, our happy reunion didn't last long because it dawned on Eric and I soon after that the rest of our group should have been back at the trailhead, and yet there was no sign of them. The hike back--by the most direct route on the map I had given them--was 30 minutes at best and yet two hours later they were not there. Well, as luck would have it, one of the other groups of hikers I had queried about my lost son had called the local fire department (can you say debacle?) and all of a sudden several volunteer fireman started showing up (picture a trio of Rambo like characters) for an old-fashioned search-and-rescue operation. Just the object of the search had changed, from a seven-year-old boy to a three adults and two children, including my five-year-old daughter who had been walking for over three hours--without complaining, my wife later told me.

Dusk had fallen thick and heavy by the time one of the firemen located them, hiking in circles in the middle of the park. When they got back to the car, they were exhausted, hungry and cold, but relieved that Tom had been recovered safely. We thanked the rescuers, packed back into the van and drove back to Paramus: no one in the van made a peep for the whole ride. But everyone's spirits lifted when we got back to the condo, and Eric cooked up a big pan of Chicken Picatta, filling the air with the scent of lemons and capers. We had almost all fully recovered when Tom came down from the shower and announced. "Heh Dad, come check my head. I think there's something on it." And sure enough there was, a deer tick, burrowed deep into his scalp, prompting the lot of us to start shedding our clothes for an impromtu tic check. It would make the story even better to say that we were all covered with tics--I know my friend KG advises never to let the truth get in the way of a good story--but there weren't any more, and my recollection of these unfortunate events ends here.

And I suspect you know why I can't remember anything beyond that. It's because things started going smoothly after that (although Eric did use a half-dozen too many lemons in the chicken), and no one bothers to waste brain space on things that went smoothly. Sometimes I find myself hoping that my adventures will become misadventures because I am always looking for a good story, and the short term suffering seems to be a small price for a good story that lasts decades. It's the same with fiction, which is, after all, at its heart, a story. So I wonder, being the guy I am, what it is about the stories we keep telling year after year that makes them memorable? I think about this because I am sure that the same elements will help me write better novels.

And here's what I learned: There has to be conflict, the more visceral the better. Losing your seven-year-old on the top of a mountain as darkness approaches scores a passing grade on the conflict test. How do I know? Because I can still remember it ten years later like it happened yesterday. The other lesson here is the never-out-of-the-woods (pun intended) lesson: as soon as we thought we were in the clear, we learned the other half of the party had become lost, and then we find out Tom had become tic infested, and then we learn that Eric had used too many lemons. Ok, so those last two could use work--in a fictionalized account, which I will tell next year, the tic will become a man-eating spider and the Chicken Picatta will be contaminated with Ebola virus.

I will end here, because I have gone on long enough and lunch approaches. Thank you for your attention and support. I appreciate it. Make sure to check out my website, and leave a comment if you want. Also please feel free to share the blog, preferably with someone who has wronged you in the past

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thirty-two years after.

My seventeen-year-old son and I were sitting in the admissions office of Holy Cross College last week when it hit me: it was thirty-two years to the day when my father had escorted me there for my own interview. It was the summer of 1981 and we were on our way to Cape Cod for a week's vacation and a visit with my sister who had been working in Hyannis for the season. My father had asked me several months previously if I had wanted to visit Holy Cross College on the way, but I had dismissed the idea without consideration. I was seventeen-years-old, and the prospect of following in my father's footsteps at Holy Cross hadn't appealed to me. Since he hadn't brought the subject up again, I had thought the matter had been dropped until I woke up from a nap and found us parked on the side of a steep street lined with tall trees. "Where are we?" I yawned. "Holy Cross College," my father replied. "I thought you might want to stretch your legs for a bit." I wanted to complain about the unannounced stop, but the back seat had been loaded up with boxes of cereal and other supplies for my sister (apparently there had been no grocery stores on Cape Cod at the time) and my legs were aching for a walk. I brushed the doughnut crumbs off of my faded T-shirt and crawled out of the car.

And what a place for a walk. The campus looked like a scene from a movie set on the grounds of an old New England college. There were brick buildings everywhere, all of them covered with Ivy. Stone benches and gardens dotted the hill upon which the college had been placed, and the city of Worcester opened up beneath us. We strolled around for a while as I slowly fell in love with the tranquility of the setting and the scent of the roses hanging in the air. After twenty minutes I turned to my father and said: "I really like this place, Dad, I wish I had let you talk me into scheduling an interview." My father consulted his watch: "You do have an interview, Peter," he said. "In ten minutes time. We best get going over to Fenwick."

I can remember being unsure how to react: upset that he had pulled a fast one, or happy that I was getting my wish. The latter emotion won out, and I smiled as I followed him towards the admissions building, busted flip-flops scraping along the well-manicured brick path. We signed in and sat down in the waiting room--which looked identical to the 2013 version--and watched the other candidates straighten their ties and wipe off their loafers. Some time later the admissions officer came to get me and I had my interview, although I can't remember anything we discussed. But I do remember one thing: On the way out I grabbed an application, (You actually had to pick them up in those days) and I had it filled out, essays and all, before we got to Hyannis. I handed it to my father on the way in to my sister's apartment, and I never saw it again. My father must have slipped it into the mail because my acceptance letter arrived three months later, marking the end of my college search, a process that took approximately three hours.

Now I have told this story before, because a good story reveals, and this one reveals a lot: about me and what a complete mess I was; and about my father and what a perceptive and patient man he was.
Fast-forward thirty-two years. I would have loved to pull the same stunt my father did but the world is a different, more-scheduled, place now, so I scheduled the interview during our annual vacation in Rhode Island. It would make a great story to say that this was to be my seventeen-year-old's first trip to the hill, but in truth I have dragged them there at least a dozen times. But he's a great kid and he goes along with things, even laughing about the same stories he's heard over and over. (The one about the time I ripped my friend's blue blazer on the way home from a blind-date ball is my favorite.)

I'll be honest; I would love to see my son go to Holy Cross. For a lot of reasons, some of the right ones, and some of the wrong ones. I would delineate them but 1) you are tiring of me 2) you can figure out what they are and 3) I need to go pick blueberries, so I will end here with one last thought. Thanks again for your patience and attention, and don't forget to visit my website. Ok, here's that last thought. Holy Cross is a special place, and I quite obviously love it, but my son doesn't have to go there. The important thing is that he falls in love with whatever school he goes to, and makes that school as special to him as Holy Cross was special to me. That's all a parent can ask for.