Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kicking it Sideways

Zestful Blog Post #198

Here’s a meat patty from my article “Stepping up Your Sidekicks” in Writer’s Digest magazine.

The most memorable sidekicks possess some or all of these attributes:

- They are fiercely loyal to the hero.

- They are different in at least one key respect from the hero: in temperament, class, gender, race, age, etc.

- They possess a strong moral compass (rogues, like the HAL 9000, being the notable exception).

- They have unique, useful skills.

- They’re somehow dependent on the hero, if only emotionally.

- They don’t try to overshadow or be more valuable than the hero.

- They have unique backstories and character arcs.

- They’re too essential to the hero and the story to be killed off.

[Old kicks. Cut and split a lot of wood in these, in days of yore...]

How to do it:

Choose a likely candidate. You can’t go wrong by selecting the person closest to your protagonist: the spouse, sibling, or best friend.

Give that character a reason to drop everything (or almost everything) and follow the hero. You might need to plant an event earlier in that character’s life, like a nasty boss who needs to be told off: “And what’s more, I QUIT!”  You could ship your sidekick’s husband out on military duty for six months, or send the kids to summer camp—anything that will plausibly free up that secondary character to step in.

Consider giving the sidekick a meaty backstory. This will help you create a rich character arc for that person. The generic elementary school teacher might be given a major life regret: “I wish I’d stuck with it and gotten my Ph.D.—then I wouldn’t be dealing with mouthy ten-year-olds every day…” Or the dude in the next cubicle might be starting a business, or preparing to take his black belt exam in judo, or recovering from PTSD.

In order to cement loyalty or friendship, plant an event in which the hero does something to save the future sidekick’s bacon. The hero could bail his sidekick out of jail, throw himself under the bus literally or figuratively, or stand up to a bully. Or reverse the situation: Perhaps the sidekick, currently a stranger, saves the hero somehow, which leads to their relationship. The hero can then work to show gratitude to the sidekick, who continues to help the hero.

Keep your sidekick separate from your mentor (if you have one). If you force your mentor to do double duty as a sidekick, you risk disrupting the balance of power in your story—and confusing the reader. This is because the mentor always has higher status than the hero, while the sidekick, by definition, should have lower status.

Leverage conflict and suspense. Sidekicks are great for this. They can make terrible mistakes, thus complicating things for your hero (and themselves). They can bumble into a situation that turns out fabulous. Or they can simply sit and worry while the hero is off heroing.

Throw some rocks along the relationship path. I find as a reader and writer that giving a sidekick and hero some ups and downs enriches the story. Think of it this way: If a stranger walked up to you and punched you in the nose unprovoked, it would be a shocking surprise, but if the person you’ve counted on the most—fought alongside, gotten drunk with—punched you in the nose, that’s a whole different—and bigger—story. If your hero and sidekick experience serious relationship problems, the reader gets to enjoy a row or two, while having the basic confidence that the band will always get back together.

Consider giving your villain a sidekick. A villain’s sidekick usually gets stuck with the label henchman, is typically a brainless thug, and eventually gets blown away by the good guy. However, I believe villainous sidekicks are grossly underutilized by contemporary authors.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mindful Practice

Zestful Blog Post #197

Last week I discussed how keeping a commitment to something can yield good—even great—results, as one incrementally improves. A comment by BJ made me reflect, though, that there’s more to it than showing up and wanting to get better—you have to put in effort. You have to do work, real work, and not just make a show of it.

Now, I mean, showing up is massive, especially for us writers, who get serenaded by a hundred distractions every day. But after reading BJ’s comment, I thought about my writing in relation to my swimming, golf, drums, and other pursuits. I remembered something a sports coach said to me once: “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect; practice makes permanent.” His point was that if you practice with poor technique, or if you feel indifferent toward what you’re doing, your performance will stagnate.

It’s true. When I was a lifeguard I’d study the regular swimmers, and noted that few ever worked toward improvement. Pretty much everybody would show up, put in their lengths using whatever half-assed stroke they’d learned years ago, at exactly the same pace, then leave. Same with golf. Most recreational players don’t take lessons, don’t study the game, don’t practice, and have shitty swings.

I’ve found only one kindred spirit in the pool who, like me, strives for an ever more efficient stroke. Like me, he does drills and intervals, he mixes up his workout, and even does fun random stuff like swim a length of backstroke balancing his water bottle on his forehead. (Yeah, my God.) He’s the faster of the two of us, I’m the smoother. It’s enjoyable to work out in adjacent lanes. So, yeah, if you seek to improve by searching out good advice and then practice with mindfulness and intentionality, then you’ll get somewhere. You’ll improve, be fruitful, flourish.

In sports, being mindful pretty much boils down to awareness: Am I letting the water support my head? Is my spine staying in line with my head when I roll to breathe? Are my hands relaxed? The trick is not to TRY. Don’t try to relax your hands. Just notice whether they feel relaxed or not. This frees you up to be OK with whatever is. No judging necessary, no calling something good or bad. This lets awareness work its subtle magic for you. Ditto for meditative practices like yoga, where you’re supposed to let body tension go before attempting even simple poses. Yoga teachers talk about awareness all the time.

What about writing? Reading great books with fine attention helps a writer get better. Is there more we can do to effect ongoing improvement, apart from showing up and slamming down words? Unlike performance in sport, which can be measured by a clock or points on a board, the worthiness of any piece of writing is subjective to some extent.

But let’s just say it isn’t. Let’s say we can tell if our writing is getting better or staying the same. Let’s give ourselves that much credit.

I think awareness holds tremendous potential for us. And the body is the gateway to the mind and spirit. Unnecessary tension in any of the three—body, mind, spirit—will block us from doing our best. The absence of needless mental, emotional, and physical tension will facilitate our best.

So: As you settle down to write, ask yourself: Am I feeling any unnecessary physical tension? Feel it, and see whether it changes. Then ask: tension emotionally? Mentally? Feel it, and see what happens.
Right now, try dropping your jaw. Was it tense? How does it feel now? (In my blog post of August 1, 2013, I discussed this relaxing-your-jaw thing while writing. I thought it was cool, but didn’t take it any further.)

As you begin to write, touch base on the question of tension from time to time, and add a second one: Am I feeling pleasure as I write? Don’t ask: Is what’s coming onto the page good? Ask: Am I enjoying this? Don’t even attempt to figure out why or why not.

Let’s try it and see what happens!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Slowly Faster

Zestful Blog Post #196

Last year on my 59th birthday (and let us speak no more of such numbers), I began a journal with the intention of writing in it every day. So far, I’ve missed only about five days. Those missed days are a great lesson about happiness. You committed to do this thing; you have done it imperfectly; you can’t, today, write yesterday’s entry. You can write about yesterday, OK, good, but the past is past, and imperfection must be all right. Missed opportunities must be OK. Otherwise—what? Cut your throat? Yeah, no. Smile and go on.

In my journal last night I wrote about my midday swim. I’ve been surprised, lately, to find myself overtaking swimmers in neighboring lanes who’ve either been faster than, or about the same as me. I wrote, “Slowly, slowly, I’m getting faster.” I almost laughed aloud. Of course, ‘gradually’ would have been a better word than ‘slowly,’ but the point is this: Improvement is often so subtly incremental that you don’t notice it, especially after you reach some level of basic competence. You see where I’m going with this.

There’s a big difference between wanting to write, and banging out a complete short story. A big difference between a handful of short stories and a novel.

There’s a much smaller difference between a short story and a better short story. Or is there? What of the difference between a novel you’re grateful to have completed, and a novel the writing of which changed your life?

If you stay true to your commitment—even if imperfectly, and you will be imperfect—you may get better, but you will certainly and continually give yourself chances to get better. Yay for incremental improvement; don’t let it slip by unnoticed. Because those spaces between the small increments? That’s where the magic is.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Crimes Now

Zestful Blog Post #195

Winter 2017 Newschat

Dearest Blog Friend,

I’ve duplicated here my Winter 2017 Newschat for those who aren’t on my Newschat mailing list. My apologies for the double post if you’re on both lists.

I hope your 2017 is off to a:
1)     thrilling
2)     fun
3)     halfway decent
4)     not terrible
start. Mine sure is!

The best news I offer today is Crimes in a Second Language, now available on Amazon. Crimes is a departure from series work for me—this is a standalone novel about the relationship between two very different women in contemporary Los Angeles. The story was inspired by my late, great aunt and her relationship with a Mexican-American housecleaner. From the back cover:

Is smart and dead better than dumb and safe?

Elnice Coker and her husband Arthur, retired schoolteachers, move from Indiana to the Hollywood Hills in a last-ditch attempt at novelty and happiness. California alone can’t do the trick, but when Elnice befriends her housecleaner, Solita, her life opens up to friendship and intrigue. Elnice teaches Solita English although Solita’s common-law husband, Luis, is against it. The women build a secret, tentative friendship.

Meanwhile, wannabe novelist Jason M is busy writing faulty information into tech manuals for airplane-making machines at a factory in the Valley. One of a swarm of corporate saboteurs scattered around Los Angeles, he’s bossed by a nameless, exacting mentor. But when he begins to have ethical doubts, he discovers it’s harder to get out than it was to get in.

The lure of easy money casts its spell over everybody, and as Elnice and Solita grow closer, they encounter treachery and danger where they least expect it. The saboteurs intertwine, innocent lives hang in the balance, and as Elnice risks everything to dig deeper, she learns the value of rejecting safety—and living life to the max. [End of cover material; scroll down to start Chapter 1.]

Speaking of covers, is this not a fabulous one?:

[Cover by Tree House Studio.]

Before I get you started on Chapter 1, other news:

My blog, Zestful Writing, continues to cook along. We cover the writer’s life, writing techniques, language use and abuse, and whatever else seems worthy to talk about of a Thursday afternoon.
I keep writing articles for Writer’s Digest magazine and their various special editions; currently you’ll find my pieces in the January, February, and March/April issues. (After that, a bit of a break…but I’ve sent along some new ideas to the mag, so we’ll see what’s next.) I contributed to the new edition of the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, from Writer’s Digest Books.

I’m developing ideas for online teaching, so stay tuned for that. Am also working on Best Boy, the fourth in the Rita Farmer mystery series.

Here’s the beginning of Crimes in a Second Language:

1: The Dog Does Not Answer

A white woman with her hair in a bun and perspiration spangling her upper lip disembarks a bus in a Los Angeles neighborhood she’s never been to before. Her stomach jiggles but not in an uncomfortable way. She is old enough to know the rewards of daily fiber supplements, sensible enough to be undaunted riding a bus into this place—in the daytime anyway—and desperate enough to do what she is about to do. The bus driver glances sideways with a molecule of curiosity as she hops down.

Desperation breeds nerve.

Nerve breeds action.

And this woman must act. Today. Lethally.

She walks one block in a random direction, her dusty white Keds rolling over the craggy sidewalk, her head swiveling as she frankly scrutinizes the storefronts. This is the right neighborhood, or really it is a right neighborhood.

Pawn Town.
Ned’s Bar-B-Q and Sons.
Suellen Beauty.

Dangerous-looking characters drive past, their arms flexed sternly over their steering wheels. A baby wails in a loopy rhythm.

Not long ago, for sure, this woman would have been frightened to be here. But she’s got a grip on this city now—all of it. She belongs here.

A stray dog emerges from between two parked cars and humbly approaches. The woman perceives that the dog, half pit bull at least, is a female who must be nursing puppies somewhere; her teats are pronounced and low. It follows her, licks her hand from behind, circles around and looks up at her.

“What do you want to tell me, little dog?” Her voice is slender and clear, in contrast to her fat belly. Her words originate at the root of her tongue, not quite throatily; hers is an earnest voice that would be appropriate for a simultaneous interpreter or a documentary narrator.

Her name is Elnice M. Coker and she was married to Arthur T. “Bullet” Coker until yesterday, when he died before her eyes. His death was inappropriate and ghastly, but chosen. “Elnice” had been his last word.

She wishes people wouldn’t mispronounce it. Elnice rhymes with Elvis; in fact the names share a Teutonic root.

Elnice is feeling desperate, nervy, and lethal because she has learned that slow death is not the worst thing that can happen. Her shadow swings along beneath her, keen in the caustic light of the city today.

A cluster of needle-eyed little boys in pyramidal pants give her and the dog a once-over. They can’t finger it but she looks different. Not because she’s white and wearing dirty clothes—other soiled white people live in the neighborhood. Perhaps it is her purposeful manner. Not acute enough yet to perceive or care, the boys go back to their boasting.

“I’m serious.”

“My butthole.”

“Did too. I am serious.”

“My sweet butthole.”

The dog does not answer Elnice’s question. She cocks her head at the animal—just in case—but it remains silent. Everything is all right; Elnice has made her deal with God, and everything is all right.

Another liquor store presents itself. She examines the exterior and, evidently finding something favorable, walks in. She pretends to shop for pretzels until her eyes adjust to the stale light. She turns to the man behind the smeared plexi barrier. He is a Korean with a pencil-line mustache, close to her in age, whose years of running this liquor store in South Los Angeles have given his face the look of a tombstone made of old wood.

“I want to buy a handgun,” she tells him, “off the street. Do you know someone who can help me?”

Thank you for being my friend!

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Plot Pivots

Zestful Blog Post #194

I want to share with you some good stuff from my article, “21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot,” in the January 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. (Special thanks to top-dog editor Jessica Strawser for her work on this piece and so many others I’ve written.)

A pivot point is an essential fulcrum upon which a story or a large swath of story turns. Archimedes, standing there next to the Earth with his lever, would understand! More significant than an ordinary plot point (which might merely serve to impart information or develop character), a pivot point effectively changes the direction of a character or action sequence. Huge when used as a foundation for a story, a pivot point can also be a small powerhouse for plot movement.

If your outline or story hangs together but lacks zing or seems to be missing something, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity to create a pivot point, or three. Some may be more or less dropped in via a new character or subplot; others would require more planning to effectively incorporate. Let these ideas get you going. (Warning: plot spoilers ahead, in the name of learning by example. This is the life we’ve chosen …)

[Here's a pivot point we can all relate to.]

1. Drop a house.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum features any number of important turning points, the most central (and literal) of which is the tornado, which causes Dorothy’s transit to Munchkin Country. While the tornado is definitely the inciting incident, the most significant pivot point in the early going is the fact that Dorothy’s house crushes to death the Wicked Witch of the East. Which earns Dorothy the malignant enmity of the Wicked Witch of the West. Which instantly creates life-and-death urgency during every minute of Dorothy’s journey.

You too can create an accident that brings an innocent character into the crosshairs of an unforgiving antagonist, be it a car wreck or a spilled drink or a bump in an elevator.

2. Create a ghost.

Some plot points can pivot more than one way; an example might be the introduction of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The children’s obsession with him leads them to approach his creepy house; Boo’s secret gifts to the kids serve to reveal his true nature; and of course without Boo, Scout would not have lived to tell her tale. In this case the pivot point is the ultimate force for good.

Of course, Boo was a man, not a ghost. But you can take that idea and make it your own. The point is, a force that quietly crops up here and there can suffuse your plot with real tension and mystery.

3. Give somebody charge over something.

The classic fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk pivots beautifully on this. Jack’s mother, instead of taking their cow to market herself, entrusts young Jack to do the job. Before he even reaches town, he gets suckered into giving the cow to an old man who offers him a few supposedly magic beans for it. He catches hell, but all ends well.

The injunction, “Don’t screw it up!” is an automatic pivot point, because it applies relentless pressure to whoever’s entrusted with the task.

4. Suppress a conscience.

In Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a key pivot point comes fairly late in the story, but it’s correctly placed for maximum impact. It’s not when the ambitious Clyde Griffiths gets the homely Roberta Alden pregnant, and not even when he begins to think of how much easier life would be without her. It’s when he swims away from her in the cold lake after their boat capsizes. He has made a crux decision that both solves his immediate problem and damns him forever.

In your work, think how you could give a more or less moral character a dire, fast decision to make—and have that character pick the dark path. Hugely compelling.

Check out the magazine for rest of the 21 pivots, and stay tuned to Zestful Writing for more fun!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Q & A with Mark Gottlieb

Zestful Blog Post #193

A few months ago the literary agent Mark Gottlieb, of the Trident Media Group, offered to do an interview here at Zestful Writing. I’d just published a post about this blog being strictly my idiosyncratic take on things, and explaining why I never seek out content written by anybody else. I told Mark hey, get in touch after the first of the year and maybe we can do an interview. I figured he’d just be like, screw it and not bother, and then I wouldn’t have to actually say no to this guy who works for one of the most prestigious agencies in the world.

[Just had to throw in a snapshot of NYC.]

But he did get in touch, and I thought, OK, I have to respect somebody who follows up like a professional. So I shot him a few questions. Below are his answers in their entirety. Needless to say, the reason people do these things is to promote their business or ideas. But Mark also offers some finger-on-the-pulse insights I found worthwhile, and I hope you do too. And hey, you might consider getting in touch with him when you have a manuscript ready to go!

What do literary agents talk about when they get together for drinks after a long day at a writer’s conference?

In order to make the best of my time, I tend to avoid other literary agents at conferences, focusing instead on attaining new clients and helping new writers grow into published authors. I’m not usually one to try and make idle chat or niceties with the competition, but I have in the past had the opportunity to hear from other literary agents, after they’ve had the liquid truth serum. Mostly it’s kvetching about the state of book publishing and how much they despise Amazon but can’t live without it. I’ve also heard other literary agents talk about how they struggled in first trying to sell fiction and/or commercial fiction and have instead taken to churning small nonfiction deals, since nonfiction is generally easier to sell. Conversely, fiction and commercial fiction is our bread and butter at Trident Media Group, though we do rank just as highly in nonfiction deals.

How would you describe your business model? Have you made any changes in response to the digital- / self-publishing revolution? If so, what?

It is all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing or small indie publishing. However, many successful self-published authors eventually go into traditional publishing in order to take advantage of having a team of professionals who help them take their work to the next level.

A literary agency with industry knowledge and expertise can bring a huge value add to the table for an author, evidenced by many of the success stories we’ve created for our clients, the bulk of which are award-winning and bestselling authors. We’ve actually built a lot of self-published success stories into mega-bestsellers, giving authors a Godzilla-like footprint in the industry.

Trident Media Group is a full-service literary agency for authors, handling accounting, legal review, management, foreign rights (books in translation), book-to-film/TV, audio books, etc. We’re also a literary agency with tremendous clout in the industry, so we can get many things for authors from publishers and film / TV buyers that an author otherwise would not be able to get on their own.

I’d like to think that a literary agency would save an author a lot of headaches in order to help the author focus in on their own writing, thereby allowing the author to become more prolific. Meanwhile, the literary agent would work in concert with their subsidiary rights people and departments within the literary agency. In looking at a literary agent and considering paying them a commission on a deal, an author should be asking what they stand to gain in having a literary agent.

The digital landscape has seen our literary agency evolve. Thanks to the tremendous resources available to our company and our Digital Media and Publishing department, Trident Media Group often helps our clients in their marketing/publicity efforts. We also try to put the publisher on the hot seat in encouraging them to perform marketing/publicity tasks for the author, by sharing ideas and having in-depth meetings with publishers.

Trident will also make recommendations to our clients on how they can think about improving their social media presence and look to online efforts to market / promote their books. Otherwise, book publishers normally devote their marketing dollars and other resources toward authors that are huge successes or are making a major debut.

We at Trident might even recommend a private book publicity firm to a client, but that doesn’t come cheap. An author should still know that their role in marketing and promoting the book is integral to the process since, at the end of the day, readers / fans will want to hear from the author.

What’s one thing agents don’t tell authors?

Literary agents may be reluctant to tell authors how they and their literary agency ranks on Publishers Marketplace’s site. Many authors, who are just plain happy to have found a literary agent, don’t always choose the right sort of agency for not asking that question of a literary agent. We at Trident Media Group are book publishing’s leading literary agency as we rank #1 for overall and six-figure+ deals (highest monetary category an agency can rank for) on, both for fiction, nonfiction, and agencies. We have ranked that way for over a decade, which is how long Publishers Marketplace has been around. That means we have numerous #1 NYT bestselling authors and many award-winning authors. When a new author looks at a big agency like ours, which is close to fifty employees and takes up the entire 36th floor of a Madison Ave building, they often think they will get lost in the shuffle, when in reality it is really quite the opposite. This being a big agency means that we have devoted legal, accounting, audio, digital, office management and foreign rights departments, which means I can spend more time with my clients, focusing on their careers. This is not to speak ill of other agencies, but the same cannot be said of a very small agency tight on resources where agents there, by-and-large, must work in a vacuum, and therefore have little time to properly handle audio and foreign rights, unlike an agency of our stature.

Who’s your favorite author of all time?

My favorite book is Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN as it helped me through a difficult time in my life and made me feel as though I had a friend in that book.

Thank you, Mark!

[This is sexist, right, but isn't he the cutest thing?]

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on in Overall Deals and other categories.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Not-Caring Trick

Zestful Blog Post #192

Not caring. That’s the paradox of quality achievement: Let your arrow fly with as much preparation and sincerity as possible—but don’t care where it goes! For then and only then will the shot, or the work, be worthwhile. Then and only then will it—can it—fly true and find its target.

Not everybody gets this, not everybody is open to this, no matter what. I remember talking golf with a friend a few years ago. My friend and I were mediocre golfers. I’d been experimenting with the ‘don’t care where it goes’ mindset after hearing the great champion Annika Sorenstam explain that the only way she can swing freely and produce beautiful shots is to not care where the ball goes. Also, I’d been reading similar ideas in books like Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. I got the gist immediately; the paradox appealed to my seeker’s heart. I saw how it can work. Take a hall-of-fame athlete like Annika: Well, her ball went exactly where she aimed it thousands of times, not in spite of her not-caring, but because of it.

I started to share this idea with my friend over a beer after a round. But she stiffened and interrupted, “I can’t do that. I DO care where my ball goes.”

I tried to explain, but in her view, not caring where your ball goes must absolutely, necessarily result in poor shots and awful scores. To her, not caring about the flight of her ball meant not trying hard during the swing; it meant slapping indiscriminately at the ball. Not caring, to my friend, meant being lazy. It meant not caring about the process. And that’s where she got it wrong.

‘Trying’ has ruined many an effort, whether golf shot, pirouette, or writing session. Trying usually means tightening, or attempting to force something. Furthermore, there is an element of fear in caring about results. Gosh, I hope I don’t hit it into the water. Gosh, I hope this piece of writing doesn’t turn out stupid.

But my friend would not or could not separate process from result. I finally gave up, telling her bluntly, “Then you’re doomed.” She shrugged off my nonsense. She doesn’t golf much anymore.

If you take pleasure in the swing, in the process, if you abandon yourself to the process, if you simply practice being aware without trying to change or even get better, if you go deeply into the process alone, be as present as possible, feel all the pleasure and joy of it—that’s when beautiful, satisfying results will come.

Go forth and attend to your process. Swing it. May the Force be with you.

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