Thursday, December 6, 2018

Your Whole Self


Zestful Blog Post #293

A few weeks ago Marcia and I went to the local medieval fair and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We stopped to watch one of the games, where you slam a steel pad with a sledgehammer to make a heavy slug ride up a vertical rail. The harder you hit it, the higher the slug flies, the chief goal being to make the slug strike the bell at the top, producing a ringing sound that attracts the attention of all nearby, who gaze admiringly at absolute strength personified. You buy five tries for a dollar or a shilling or a peck of meal or whatever. A young teenager was trying. He really wanted to hit that bell, but kept falling short. The bearded, leather-jerkin-wearing man running the game advised him, “Squat as you bring the hammer down.” He did so. Magic. Ding!

It was just like splitting firewood when we lived in the forest. After experimenting with various methods, I found that iron wedges and a small sledge worked best and safest for me. (Just a hatchet for splitting kindling.) You set the round you want to split on end, on your splitting stump, and you find a crack near the edge and tap in your wedge. And if you do it enough, you learn that setting your legs apart, then swinging the sledge over your head and straight behind your back, then bringing it down on the wedge with a fluid squatting move, results in the most force. Crack!


We moved along and watched the axe-throwing game. Some axes bounced off the plank targets downrange, and some stuck with a satisfying thunk. I asked a young woman who had just stuck two axes in a row what the trick was. “Step into the throw,” she said, then turned away, rared back, and stepped into another throw. Thunk.

For the games and wood-splitting, the secret of success was to fully commit. Put your whole self into it. Leave the familiar world behind.

We remember learning to ride a two-wheeler, where you had to relinquish a certain amount of control in order to get the thing going. It was hard to make the commitment to take both feet off the ground and pump those pedals, but the concrete sidewalk was a good motivator, wasn’t it? Being tentative was lethal. Once you were under way, you gained a different kind of control, and you were zooming along in a completely new environment, separated from ordinary gravity by the unfamiliar miracle of gyroscopic force. And every time you got on your bike from then on, you learned to minimize the length of time you were liable to fall over. You learned to get those pedals going smartly, just as soon as you push off. You learned to commit, and put your whole self into it.

Aren’t so many more things like that: Ziplining. Striking a match. Getting on the school bus. Releasing an arrow. Saying, “I do.” Writing a story.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Stolen Gold?


Zestful Blog Post #292

I’m always suspicious of anyone who claims to “like people.” Because, my gosh, what a motley assortment we are.

As writers have been told a thousand times, the best fiction is character-driven. We know that, and we prove it to ourselves over and over. Which do you remember better, the sequence of events surrounding the stolen gold in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the feeling Huck and Jim had for each other? (If you’re sitting there thinking, “What stolen gold?”, then I rest my case and can knock off early for a beverage and a snack.)

Katherine Anne Porter said, “The only thing I know about people is exactly what I have learned from the people right next to me.” She knew that to write about people, we have to pay attention to them.


...and there they all are...

But dammit, we don’t have to like people. Liking has nothing to do with it. All we need to be is fascinated by people. Awed by people. Horrified by people. Inspired by people. And not just so we can portray them convincingly. Because through people, other people, and through creating and writing about characters, we find out things about ourselves. We explore and nourish ourselves. And we have the best chance of producing good writing. Now go out and steal some gold.

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Random Acts of Thankfulness 2018


Zestful Blog Post #291

Warmest wishes to you and yours for a very happy Thanksgiving. Beyond health, family, friends, this imperfect gorgeous country, and Marcia, I’m thankful for:

·       My readers and their parents for having given birth to them, and this means you, dear blog friend
·       Russet apples
·       My mechanic
·       My students at Ringling College of Art and Design who take my class seriously
·       Godiva Pearls
·       Starbucks wifi (for I am a coffee whore and too cheap to buy my own phone hotspot)
·       JB Weld
·       Professional hockey
·       People who take on tough tasks and do them as best they damn can
·       Scout Finch
·       Peanut butter toast
·       Hospice workers
·       People who donate to hospice houses
·       The 1972 film Cabaret
·       The Ludwig drum company
·       Bowls of cherries


  
·       Boats
·       Sister Wendy Beckett
·       Falcon Heavy 2018 and Starman
·       Dame Judith Anderson
·       Videos of cute dogs on Reddit, which have made me feel more warmly toward dogs
·       Colin Fletcher
·       Gas station pastries
·       Graphite, always
·       Hunter Thompson
·       Readers who send me emails saying how much they like my work, which can turn a bad day right around
·       Leonard Bernstein
·       Four Roses Yellow Label
·       Saying yes
·       Saying no
·       You know what I mean
·       I love you

What are you thankful for today? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Wisdom Gleaned Lately


Zestful Blog Post #290

I didn’t ask permission to share this stuff here, and I don’t have exact quotations, and I can’t in every case remember who quite said what. But most of these items are from writers I’ve encountered at events at Ringling College of Art and Design, as well as conferences and meetings in the last six months or so. Some are from me, and some you’ve no doubt heard from others before, especially this first one:

·       Don’t overthink it. (Don’t we all love that?)
·       Longer passages of quick dialogue can do two things:
o   Make for plentiful white space on the page, which is easy to read; and
o   Take up pages in a printed book, making it look meatier than it might be. (Heh-heh.)
·       Time spent getting to know your characters on a deep level is time well spent.
·       It’s hard to make money as an author.
·       Some authors make great money. The foolproof how-to formula is unclear.
·       It’s easy to get published.
·       It’s hard to get published.


[Gotta climb ev'ry mountain...]

·       Social media sucks and does nothing for your career.
·       Social media is great and can help your career a lot.
·       One gets lonely.
·       Collaborating with other authors (writing books with them) can be:
o   Fraught with icky drama, making you not want to do it anymore, like when somebody else claims credit for your idea, just the same as in other group projects we’ve all dealt with.
o   Really great, especially if it’s just one other person you like and trust.
·       Most of us are too uptight.
·       You should stick with one genre and make a name there.
·       Experiment widely in different genres if you feel like it; you never know when you’ll hit it big with some new thing.
·       A pseudonym can jump-start your career in a new direction.
·       To write a good action scene, such as a fight:
o   Give a quick overview, then
o   Get into some deep detail, then
o   Pull back again to the ‘long shot,’ so to speak.
o   Rinse and repeat.
·       Every one of us is walking—or running, or plunging, or staggering—along a different path. No two careers are exactly alike.
·       Therefore I say: Let’s trust our own paths, rocks and wrong turns and all. Because we’re getting somewhere. And sometimes the view is great.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Climbing Rope


Zestful Blog Post #289

Back in elementary school I was neither the first nor last kid picked for teams; I was unathletic enough to not be chosen first, but popular enough not to be chosen last. Gosh, remember when we did that? I understand these days they don't let kids choose up sides, because of self-esteem. Gym was OK except for one dreadful piece of equipment: the climbing rope.

The rope, a hairy hemp freighter hawser thicker than an eight-year-old's thigh, started in a knot at waist level, then ascended nearly out of view, affixed to the ceiling two storeys up.

Every gym session, the teacher would tell us to line up and take turns climbing the rope. Success, of course, was measured by how far you climbed. Kids who made it all the way to the top, daringly slapping the iron swivel, then sliding dramatically down like firefighters or sailors, were like gods to me. (Oh, it was safe! The teacher dragged a small gym mat under the rope!)

I couldn't climb the thing at all. Not one inch. When my turn came, I'd sigh and take hold of the rope and try to pull myself up. I just couldn't do it. I had the desire to do it, but when I pulled with my hands, nothing happened. I hung there like a grape until the teacher, a loose-jowled guy who wore loafers and dress pants, would say 'next' in a bored voice.

As an adult, I'd wonder about that rope now and then. The breakthrough came when I was being weekend-lazy, watching an old Tarzan movie on TV. By God, there it was: Tarzan grabbed that vine and climbed it, and he used not just his arms but his legs too. He didn't clasp that vine in his hands, he hugged it. And he wrapped his legs around it and bent them like a frog's, then, pinching the vine with his legs, sort of stood up. He regripped the vine with his arms, frogged his legs up again, and kept going. (To the admiring gazes of Jane and Boy.)

And I remembered that the kids who made it to the top looked just like Tarzan. Why didn't I see it at the time? Why didn't I copy the other kids? I’m sure my kinetic sense wasn't very good then, and my brain wasn’t fully developed either. If the teacher—or even another kid—had broken down the moves for me, showed me and explained it to me verbally, step-by-step, I probably could have done it. I wasn't much punier than the other kids.

The next opportunity I had to climb a rope like that—not that such opportunities come by every day—I grabbed the thing, hugged it, wrapped my leg around it, and—went up!

This is how I feel about aspiring authors and story development. Thousands upon thousands of stories start with a cool nugget of an idea. And then they hang there.


But the truth is, story development—getting from cool idea to fully formed story or narrative—isn't a mysterious endowment. It isn't a you-have-it-or-you-don't thing, like leprosy or royal lineage. Just like rope climbing, story development is a skill that can be learned and improved. And it’s simple: All you need to do is look closely at how successful authors do it, and realize that they’re showing you, right there on the page. Study up. Read without haste. Make notes. Ask and answer questions like:

·       How does the author move from the opening into the first conflict?
·       Who are the major characters?
·       How does each character—major or minor—serve the plot?
·       Is anything there for no reason? Or maybe I need to look closer?
·       What is the author trying to tell me here, and here, and here?
·       How can I copy this?

Work with what you see, and with what you seek.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Good Feeling to You Today


Zestful Blog Post #288

Who is a hero to you? Someone alive or not, doesn't matter. What about that person is inspiring? Did they accomplish something remarkable? Did they behave admirably under extraordinary strain? What resources do you suppose they drew on to perform as they did? Physical strength? Inner courage? Endurance? Faith? Perhaps it was even humility. Because to be kind and loving when others are not requires the courage of humility: the willingness to be seen as wrong or bad. Conjure the spirit of your hero. Pretend to be that person, just for a minute. Lift your eyes and say, "I am _________." Does a feeling of calm strength come over you? It's yours now.



Seneca, one of my heroes, said, “It is quality rather than quantity that matters.”

And that’s what I wanted to give today. Who’s one of your bestest heroes, and why? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Few Fast How-Tos and a Book by a Pal


Zestful Blog Post #287

How to deal with not having read the authors you meet.

First of all, nobody reads everybody. Upon meeting another author whom you haven't read, say, "So wonderful to meet you! I've heard great things about your work!" That's it. Don't overdo it.

If you need to make convo with someone for an extended period, such as being seated together at a lunch or dinner, you can say, "You know, I'm afraid I really don't know your work, but I've love to hear how you got started."

If it’s a trad-published author, you can ask, “Do you like your agent?” Every author who has representation is curious about every other author's agent. 


How to be a happy tyrant.

Demand the utmost from your characters. You are both composer and conductor! Sometimes, during a demanding passage under an exacting baton, musicians strain so hard to deliver the effects asked for that they snap a string or blow their lips out of shape.

Only by going to the limit, and risking going past it, and suffering whatever damage might be the penalty, will we find out if what we thought was our limit is really that.

We can only discover new strengths by exhausting the old ones.

How to avoid a headbanging mistake.

If you have an opportunity to do a live event like a booksigning and they want to know good dates for you, look ahead on line and find when the next Olympics and major sporting events are going to be. Try not to schedule anything during the Olympics, the Super Bowl, Presidential election night, or, come to think of it, the soccer World Cup final sequence. The World Series is hit-and-miss (ha, I just made a pun), and not as much of a ratings draw as the other things. Kentucky Derby, I guess if you live in Kentucky.

I'll always hold grudges against Sarah Hughes, Irina Slutskaya, and Michelle Kwan for making nobody come to my booksigning event in San Francisco on the night of the women's Olympic figure skating finals in 2002.

And now for a word about a book by a buddy. Congratulations to Jim Misko on his multi-prizewinning novel.


From the cover:
Miles Foster is a newly minted teacher who dreams of getting a teaching job in the highly respected and financially stable Portland, Oregon school system where everything is available, and where he and his wife call home. But the only opening for his talents is in a remote lumber mill town in central Oregon, two hundred miles away. It is a poor school with forty students, and is controlled by a jealous superintendent and school board who tolerate no thinking outside the box and who conspire to destroy his teaching career.
Miles must find a way to educate students who have been passed along regardless of what they learned, and defeat the damaging control of the school board and superintendent without losing his marriage or his job, or both.
Buy it HERE.

What do you think of today’s how-tos? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
If you’d like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [photo of Cass Tech High School music room by ES]