Thursday, March 23, 2017

Other Cool People

Zestful Blog Post #204

When On Location, my third Rita Farmer novel, came out, I was invited to participate in a local book festival. As it happened, an author buddy of mine was there too, and we agreed to have dinner together after the main booksigning event. A Fairly Famous Author was on hand as well, and we all mingled and visited during autograph evening.

Come time to get organized for dinner, my friend and I approached the FFA and invited him to join us. Scanning the room beyond us and looking uncomfortable, he said, “Uh, I think I’m gonna eat with some—other cool people.”

We got the translation: “I don’t have firm plans yet. I just barely caught myself and inserted the word ‘other’ in front of ‘cool people’ in order to mask what I really mean, which is, I’m going to eat with some cool people as yet to be determined by me. You are not those people. I’ll give you the half-assed courtesy of implying you are cool. But, clearly, you, Elizabeth and X, are not cool.”

[The coolest photo I could find in my files: cool people photographing a large cool object. It was indeed a cool day.]

So, fine. We invited another couple of people to join us, one an author, the other a writing coach. The four of us had a riot getting to know one another, talking and eating (and yeah, drinking) late into the night. We discussed writing, books, and our careers with frankness and warmth. By the end of the night, we were all friends. As it turned out, we were Cool People. We were even Nice People: We didn’t even bother to give the ceremonial finger to the FFA.

Three takeaways here:

One: Writing can be lonely, and we can dwell in our heads to the detriment of our hearts and sanity, therefore it’s important to get out of the house and hang with your fellow sufferers. Suddenly a stunning thing happens: Nobody’s suffering!

Two: When declining an invitation—especially when you can’t honestly say you already have plans—simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t. Thanks, though.” How hard is that?

Three: You are a Cool Person. I said so.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Close Reading 4

Zestful Blog Post # 203

Welcome to the fourth installment of Close Reading, where I analyze a passage of published writing as to why and how it works or doesn’t.

[Passage begins:]
So much of the war is sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for somebody else. With no guarantee of the amount of time you have left it doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought. Doing what they had done so often before, the sentries moved out. Anything that stirred ahead of us now was enemy. The lieutenant marked his map and reported our position over the radio. A noonday hush fell: even the mortars were quiet and the air was empty of planes. One man doodled with a twig in the dirt of the farmyard. After a while it was as if we had been forgotten by war. I hoped that Phuong had sent my suits to the cleaners. A cold wind ruffled the straw of the yard, and a man went modestly behind a barn to relieve himself. I tried to remember whether I had paid the British Consul in Hanoi for the bottle of whisky he had allowed me.
[Passage ends]
--Graham Greene, from Chapter 2, part 1 of The Quiet American

I chose this paragraph of description because of its mastery. If you’re not familiar with Greene’s novel, it’s about a love triangle and international intrigue during the early stages of what became known to Americans as the Vietnam War. The novel was published in 1955. 

[Ah, those reliable orange-spined Penguin editions... Photo by ES]

The narrator, Fowler, talks here of doing nothing, but actually we learn that much—very much—is going on, and we learn what it’s like to be in the middle of it. What is going on is a mission within a war, a war over territory. Fowler, a journalist, is embedded within a fighting unit. Greene demonstrates enviable style and economy in this passage. “Doing what they had done so often before—” He could have explained that this unit had been on countless missions all over the place, how busy they’d been. Not necessary, the way he does it.

“ doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought.” And indeed Fowler does not: he describes what he sees; he wonders if his girlfriend has sent his suits out; half a minute later he tries to remember about the bottle of whisky.

This passages sets mood, and it builds subtly our understanding of Fowler. This last, from what he chooses not to tell us. He does not tell us he’s scared stiff—he’s not. Neither is he excited to be part of this operation. He doesn’t speak of any feelings of admiration for the soldiers of either side—he hasn’t any. Fowler, we are shown, is a dispassionate, probably jaded, observer of the complex multinational conflict the roots of which ran back at least to the 1850s, when France began its colonization of Indochina.

What else do we learn here? We learn the ambient conditions: it’s cold and windy. (How to tell us it’s windy? Show the wind doing something: ruffling the straw in the yard.) We learn what time it is: around noon. We learn that a lieutenant is in charge, thus—if we have any knowledge of military ranking—we can deduce that this fighting unit is fairly small, on the level of a platoon. They’re hiding out on a farm. No one is excited or agitated; these are professional soldiers, and though they’d doubtless rather be smoking cigars and fishing, or banging tail in Saigon, they’re here and they don’t have much choice than to be resigned to it. We learn that Fowler expects to return from this engagement (the suits to the cleaners).

This is the kind of passage I call generous. (See Zestful Blog post March 27, 2014.) The passage is not absolutely necessary, but because Greene was a serious writer—he strove for beauty of style, depth of expression, and economy—he felt it important to give us this paragraph, to help us inhabit the scene and the character. And we are richer for it. As a writer you do these things so that later you can do more things, and the reader is with you beautifully, deeply, and economically.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Give It Every Time

Zestful Blog Post #202

Be not afraid. Count the words you have, not the words yet to be written. Be thankful.

Be true. Seek truth and bear witness to it.

Feel what you feel.

Spiritual leaders figured out the hard path for us. When Christ said give away everything and follow me, he meant it literally. Very few have the guts to do that; I’m sitting here in my house, surrounded by possessions. But we all give everything away sooner or later, the latest opportunity being the moment of death. When we die, we leave all our possessions. Why not start much earlier? Here’s the connection. For an artist, the act of giving it away must happen at each work session if authenticity is to be achieved. You write the sentences, you stroke the paint on the canvas, you cut the cloth and sew the seam. You put it out there; you give it, with complete abandon. Giving often, giving without reservation: that’s the path to quality.

Creating a quality product is one thing. Getting that product into the hands of paying consumers is another, and worth doing. But an artist’s first duty is to give it, give it, give it.

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[Photo by ES. This pencil pot resides in the textile studio of a friend of mine.]

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Facepalming for Precision

Zestful Blog Post #201

One reason I love modern times is how fast a new word or usage can get around—provided it’s a word or usage I like. Mostly I love invention. One of my favorite terms, born, it appears, around the turn of this century, is ‘facepalm.’ I get so much satisfaction and amusement when I see it; it’s just so blunt, economical, and natural. But sadly, I find myself needing to facepalm too often. I facepalm mainly when confronted by sloppy spelling and usage. It’s everywhere. In the past week alone, I’ve facepalmed at least twice.

The first was while reading a bestselling memoir, in which the author describes a favorite dress when she was a little girl. It had pretty ‘shearing’ on the front. WTF? This got past the author, her editor, and the copy editor? Three professional word people, at least two of whom probably had MFAs? Nobody knew WTF ‘shirring’ is? And nobody thought to go, “Huh, I’ve never heard of shearing being on a dress. How can shearing, which is a verb, be a feature on an item of clothing? Maybe I should look it up. And if I can’t find some kind of reference, maybe I should simply pick up the phone and call a tailor, or my Uncle Spiff, who loves to sew.” It isn’t even pronounced like shearing, it’s pronounced ‘shurring.’ (Shirring is a gathering of fabric to make tiny humpy rows. You’ve seen it on little girls’ dresses and Uncle Spiff's aprons.)

Another facepalm occurred while reading the magazine Popular Mechanics. An article about a new ‘smart’ bazooka referred to the weapon’s ‘breach.’ WTF, nobody caught that either? Breach means a gap, basically. ‘Breech’ is the word for the rear end of the bore of a gun. (BC, thanks again for the gift of that mag.)

[In the case of a revolver, as here, the breech is exposed when the cylinder is released. Photo by ES.]

What is the core issue here? A lack of general knowledge, I think. Am I wrong? Spell-check will not catch misuses like these. I would not be upset reading these errors in a middle school student’s paper. But professionals are supposed to know better. What is the solution? That people should read more and pay attention more? Help me. How can this situation be improved? Philanthropists like to donate money and assistance to the arts, and they like to donate money and assistance to the eradication of human scourges like disease and hunger. Can all the money in the world fix shearing instead of shirring? I know that even the repeated abuse of shearing instead of shirring will not result in a child going hungry, or malaria claiming another million victims. So it cannot be very important. Yet I facepalm. And I facepalm.

OK, but! I just had a pretend conversation with the copy editor of the shearing book, and do you know what he said? He said, “Oh, my God, it was horrible. You have no idea how many mistakes I caught and corrected! That one slipped through. Sorry.” I feel better now. A little bit.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap: Oscar Weekend Freebie

Zestful Blog Post #200

Just a quickie here; I forgot to mention this in yesterday's blog. In honor of the Academy Awards, one of America’s most important national holidays, The Actress is free on Amazon Kindle through Sunday night. (You can get it and read it on any device with the free Kindle app.)

Publishers Weekly: “Her wry commentary on life in Hollywood is dead-on.”

Have a great weekend, my friend.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Seriously: HT Write with a Wood-Cased Pencil

Zestful Blog Post #199

This will just take a minute, but you've stayed with me this far, you will thank me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately with wood-cased pencils, premium ones that write nice and smooth. They tend to be expensive, so I’ve been conscious of making best use of them. ‘Best use’ of a pencil means wasting as little as possible, which means minimizing the number of times it goes into the sharpener.

Also, as a handwriter of first drafts, I’m always looking for ways to minimize hand/arm fatigue.

When you use a writing instrument such as a ballpoint pen, it makes sense to apply the point more or less vertically to the paper, to let more of the ball contact the page. But if you apply a pencil that way,

you dull the point fairly quickly, and the cramped position of your hand promotes discomfort. But if you hold the pencil like this,

on a much shallower angle, and—this is key—if you rotate it every so often, slightly, in your fingers, you’ll retain the point longer and need to sharpen it less often. And see how the hand is in a more lengthened, relaxed position? I don't know why it took me so long to learn this.

Here is a closeup, the one on the left showing the planes or facets of a point used on a proper slant with occasional rotation, versus a point dulled by clueless vertical positioning.

[Photos by ES]

I rest my (wood) case.

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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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