Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Magic of Reverse Outlining

Zestful Blog Post #217

Before the magic happens, a couple of bits of business. I promised last week to reveal the name of the restaurant in the photo if nobody guessed. Not like it’s some super amazing thing, but it’s the 13 Coins next to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s Marcia’s and my favorite place to eat when we stay near that airport, in spite of the slight hokiness of the coins being embedded in the polymer coating on the tabletops. We love the midcentury-modern ambience, and the food is good, although I watched the bartender water our Manhattans once. I complained, but the server argued that that was impossible. I let it go, but later saw the server whispering to the bartender, who avoided looking at us for the rest of the time. Don’t let that stop you from going there, though; just order wine or beer. Or coffee, if it’s breakfast time. We’re not degenerates here.

If you are reading this blog between the dates of June 22 and June 26, 2017, I wish you would pop over to Amazon and snag a free Kindle copy of I am Calico Jones. It’s a collection of four short stories by yours truly, led off by the title story, which is a personal account of an adventure by the very Calico Jones about whom Lillian Byrd loves to read in the cheesy novels she gobbles up at every opportunity. And wow, when I just tested that link, I see that it's at #4 in LGBT short reads, edging out the tons of erotica that make up most of that list. Go, literature.

Not long ago during a conversation with one of the few private clients I work with on writing fiction, I gave an impromptu piece of advice she found very helpful. She mentioned it in a comment a few weeks ago, and now I’m motivated to share it in this post today. (Thanks, Bev.)

It has to do with the revision process. Now, this can be during chapter-by-chapter revisions as you go, or while you’re revising a manuscript that is more or less complete.

[It wasn’t easy to come up with a photo for this post. Can you find reverse in this image? It’s my car; the plastic of the gearshift cover is delaminating, but it is 22 years old, so gimme a break.]

The technique very simply is this: Write down a little summary of each chapter. OK, that’s it. Now, most of us like to do at least a little bit of outlining in advance of writing fiction, and that is a good thing. But as we write, things don’t always go as planned, and that may be all very fine too. But then what?

Writing a little summary of each chapter does several things:

·       It helps you keep track of your threads of plot and theme as you go, and it helps you distinguish the two.
·       It helps you spot problems that need fixing, like plausibility gaps or plot gaps, or simply unfinished thoughts that require further development. It also will help you spot redundancies or nonessential material that should be cut.
·       If you listen to your gut as you review this summary, you’ll also notice where and how your emotions are triggered, and then you can work to emphasize or deemphasize appropriately.
·       It builds an accurate working outline. This alone makes this tip worth his weight in gold, if you ask me. (How much does it weigh? That’s the key question. I believe at least a pound. My mailing address? Just ask.)
·       This working outline will eventually become your completed outline, which you will use when pitching your manuscript to agents and/or publishers.
·       If you self publish, your outline or summary will be helpful to you when writing promo and cover copy for your book.

When I practice this, I write my summaries on a yellow pad off to the side as I’m working on the digital manuscript on my computer. Just a few sentences are all you need.

Have you ever done this? If so, tell us how it works for you. If not, and you decide to try it, ditto!

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Extrapolation for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #216

If you’re still with me after reading the title of this post, congratulations and thank you. I appreciate that there are so many serious writers who follow these posts. What you get here, and here alone, is my perspective on how to write well, how to avoid crappy mistakes, and how to arrange one’s life as a writer.

Back in the 1980s I worked in the human resources department of a large financial institution. One of our tasks was training bankers on how to sell bank products—checking accounts, credit cards—to retail customers. My boss bought an up-to-the-minute sales training program on video and we decided to try it out on our bankers.

The videos followed a salesman with a product called a transporter, which (oddly) looked like an ordinary microwave oven, but was supposed to transport whatever you put in it from one place to another, as if by magic. Obviously this was a dummy product; the product itself was unimportant; the point of the video was to demonstrate effective, customer-oriented sales techniques.

The salesman in the video demonstrated all the right stuff: questioned his customers as to their needs, discussed characteristics of the transporter, elicited objections, overcame objections with further discussion and questioning. In the end, the customer agrees to buy a transporter. I thought the videos were fun and effective. To those of us in HR, it was an easy jump to think of ways to use those sales techniques to sell all the different sorts of bank products the company offered.

But the first time we showed the video to a group of front-office employees, they sat there impassively through the whole thing. When it was over there was silence, until one guy finally said, “But we’re not selling transporters.” These front-office bank folks were utterly baffled as to why we would show them a video on how to sell transporters. They were incapable of extrapolating from the video to their own frame of reference. (And that was the end of the transporter videos.)

Understand that there are millions of people just like those bankers. And they read books. Most writers have an intuitive feel for extrapolation, but I think it’s worthwhile to talk about explicitly. The word extrapolation is not the precise right one here, because it means to extend an application of something. If there was a word that combined extrapolation with adaptation, then I think we would have it, but it seems that even the vast, agile language of English has its limitations.

For writers, extrapolation means looking past the literal. It means making leaps of imagination. You cannot trust your reader to do it. The reader craves the experience of you doing it. And I believe the most important element in this is to give yourself permission to do it.

Here’s what I’m talking about. You come across a suggested writing prompt somewhere, like, “A disgraced celebrity flees high society.” You could come up with something rather literal, like a Park Avenue heiress gets busted for heroin and goes to the Betty Ford Center. Perhaps there she meets a humble laborer who will introduce her to a life of honesty and simplicity. Or perhaps to a life of exciting dirt bike racing. Or not. You could venture further and make that character a track star who gets caught filing his spikes or something, and he’s suspended from the sport. What might happen next? Maybe he coaches a junior team for a while, and learns from the kids the true meaning of integrity. You could invent a charismatic faith healer who is exposed as a phony, and who decides to exile herself for a while, and goes on a quest to test herself and to make atonement. Those are skeletons of whole stories right there.

[Extra credit if you can name this restaurant, located near the shade of many large evergreen trees.]

You might observe someone across the room in a cafĂ© who piques your interest. Don’t stop there. Maybe that person is watching another person. You then observe the third person. What’s going on? You decide. Who are those people? Pay attention. What are they wearing, do they seem happy or sad or something else? Maybe you can’t say why a person piques your interest. (Beyond, OK, pheromones.) That right there is reason to study that person more, and delve into your own feelings and reactions. When uncertain emotions come up, pay lots and lots of attention, and give yourself lots and lots of permission to extrapolate, generalize, adapt, and individualize.

Speaking of individualization, I once read in a manuscript, He went ballistic. Nothing more. Well, hell, don’t tell us he went ballistic. The bankers won’t know what’s going on. Tell us:

He grabbed Mike by the head and threw him to the floor, then slammed a chair into the model of the new building, smashing it to pieces. The second chair went through the window, followed by the poly-acrylic achievement award and everything else on Mike’s desk.

I hope I’ve given you another angle of insight into how to mine and refine your raw material. Go further, go deeper, go detailed.

I love comments. Has there ever been a stranger who has somehow strongly attracted your attention? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remember the Writer who

Zestful Blog Post #215

Remember the writer who quit?

Nobody does.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dynamic Plot & Theme Demo

Zestful Blog Post #214

Authors often get confused by the subjects of plot versus theme, and I don’t just mean aspiring authors. I’ve seen established authors get things mixed up, and their fiction turns out much less powerful than it could be.

Here’s how to make magic: Consider a plot thread and a theme together. Here is an example, or actually, I guess it’s a demonstration.

Recently I set out to write a short story starring my alter ego, Lillian Byrd. I wanted to give Lillian a problem to solve. And I wanted the problem to involve a friend of hers, and I selected her animal loving friend, Billie. Billie calls Lillian and tells her that her car has been towed and impounded by the city, and she doesn’t have enough money to get it out of jail. So, problem.

Lillian offers to lend her money, but Billie doesn’t want to borrow. She asks instead for Lillian to come over and help her sort through her collection of vinyl records so that some can be sold to raise the money for the fines. Because Billie’s record collection is the stuff of legend, Lillian can’t abide the thought of it being dismantled. OK, so this situation is getting more complex, and it becomes a plot arc. One way or another, we know that Billie’s problem will be solved by the end of the story, because that’s how stories work.

And there we have a theme, and we can call that theme any of a number of things: friends helping friends, the quality of friendship, the plight of low-wage workers, the hazards of not saving money for emergency situations.

Very soon after creating this problem for Lillian, I realized I needed more plot, and it stood to reason that another plot line would be just the thing. Lillian must take it upon herself to solve this problem of Billie’s, but she’s not sure what to do. The second plot thread appears when Lillian’s phone rings, and it’s her rich friend Flora Pomeroy, who wants her to drop everything and come out for a boat ride with her and some other rich friends. Billie urges her to go (they can deal with the record collection later), and we know that the boat ride will furnish some delectable action.

As soon as Lillian gets aboard, Flora tells her that she wants her to investigate a member of the boating party — while they’re out on the water! — in order to settle a bet Flora made with another friend, who also happens to be aboard. As soon as we hear about a bet, we know cash is lurking around.

What develops is another theme, along with the plot line, along with a significant plot arc. We could call it the theme of friends helping friends, just the same as above, or we could call this theme human ingenuity, or we could individualize the theme and call it Lillian’s willingness to take drastic risks for the hell of it. (That theme seems to crop up repeatedly in my Lillian fiction.)

You can see that both plot lines and both themes will come together and make for a satisfying outcome. At least, that is what I’m hoping readers will think after they’ve read the story! It is as yet unpublished, because I have to create an e-cover for it and run it by my beta readers. [Would you like to become one of my beta readers? Send me an email—addy is on my web site under contact—telling me so. You’ll also become a member of my Newschat list, if you’re not on it already.]

So, what’s the point of considering plot in light of theme? Simply that when you consider your plot lines along with the themes that relate to them, you create an awareness in yourself, an energy that makes your story add up to more than the sum of its parts. You might be moved to create dialogue where your characters discuss their feelings about specific things—or avoid talking about specific things. You might notice ways to build on themes by ramping up risk or reward or trouble. You might see weaknesses you can easily fix. These are subtle elements and distinctions—perhaps even ineffable—but these are things I love to think about and want to help you love to think about too.

Comment, question? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Three Kinds of Writers

Zestful Blog Post #213

There are three kinds of writers. The first kind of writer is one who does not know the difference between hay and straw, and doesn’t care. The second kind of writer is one who does not know the difference between hay and straw, but when corrected, is glad, and will use the words properly from now on. The third kind of writer knows the difference between hay and straw. The same goes for concrete versus cement, and iron versus steel. I am the third kind of writer, and five minutes from now you will be the third kind of writer too. This post is about our material world.

Hay versus straw.

Hay is fodder for animals, and is made of dried plants bundled into bales. You may have heard the terms timothy hay, clover hay, and so on. Dried alfalfa is hay. Certain kinds of legumes are grown for hay. Farmers grow hay crops such as these to be cut, then left to dry, then baled.  So yeah, if the field is cut and dried, it’s finished, settled. (In olden times before farm mechanization, farmers would simply scythe down meadow grass, or any kind of undifferentiated growth, let it dry, then stack it for animal fodder.) Modern hay bales are either square or rectangular, and they separate into segments called flakes. A flake can be an easy way to measure how much hay you’re giving to your animals. Also, you’ve seen hay in round bales, you know, those huge picturesque rolls that dot the fields. Some city dads tell their kids those are cow cocoons: The mama cow lays her egg, then builds that large roll of hay around the egg, so that when the calf hatches, it has something good to eat right away. It then can eat its way out and be all nice and healthy when it comes into the world.

Straw is what is left over from the harvesting of grains: the dried stalks of crops like wheat and oats. Straw is used as bedding material for animals, and decorative bales of straw are sold in hardware stores around Halloween time. That hayride you went on when you were a kid at some farm? It was most likely straw you were sitting on, there in the wagon.

If you have ever lifted a bale of hay, and then lifted a bale of straw, you will immediately understand the difference in food value. A bale that weighs 60 pounds if made of hay would weigh, if it was made of straw, maybe only 10 pounds.

So: a horse in a stable eats hay while standing on straw.

Cement versus concrete.

Cement is a substance that sticks things together. Concrete is made of cement, aggregate, and water. Cement for use in concrete is made mostly of finely ground limestone. It's a powder. If you wet it, it’s slick to the touch, and sticky. Aggregate, in this sense, is a mix of stones and pebbles and perhaps sand. You mix cement with aggregate and water, and you stir it around, and you pour it someplace, and when it hardens you have concrete.

The sidewalks you walk upon are not cement, they are concrete. Pilings and abutments that hold up modern bridges are made of reinforced concrete. Even though people call them cement mixers, they are concrete mixers. Nothing is made entirely of cement.

Bonus: the concrete you walk on can also be called pavement.

And it can even be pretty.

Iron versus steel.

Iron is an element, chemical symbol Fe. You have heard of ferrous metals; a ferrous metal is a metal that contains iron. Steel is an alloy that is made from iron and other elements, such as carbon and manganese. It is a ferrous metal.

This morning you may have fried your eggs in a cast iron skillet. That skillet came out of a mold: it was cast in iron. The railing you lean on when you watch the Mardi Gras parade from your French quarter apartment is made of wrought iron, which is ductile and malleable, perfect for a blacksmith to make curlicues and slender railings from.

You are now officially the third kind of writer. Stick with me and you’ll be all right.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Murderer at the Next Pump

Zestful Blog Post #212

The other day while shopping at the drugstore another customer passed by me, and he gave me the deep creeps. Instead of avoiding eye contact or turning away as I usually do, I took a better look. He seemed not to have taken particular notice of me; it was just the vibe. This guy’s aura was dark and flat.

He was an older guy, stubble, carelessly turned out for the day. Often when I see guys like that I figure them for alcoholics or maybe porn addicts—you know, more pathetic than dangerous. But this one had a dense stare and just this opaque malevolence about him, a hatefulness.

And I was reminded of the fact that many crimes, many murders, go unsolved, and murderers walk among us. Murderers buy groceries and gas up their cars and go to work and the movies. (I keep baby wipes in my car’s console, for cleaning my hands after gassing up, specifically because I don’t want murderer molecules to stay on me. You laugh. But you’ll be lookin’ at your hand different now, when you put that nozzle back, won’t you, my pet? Yes, you will.) No doubt most of us have come into contact with murderers without knowing it. Sometimes we get closer than that.

Marcia’s cousin was murdered, the crime and subsequent cover-up arranged by the cousin’s estranged husband. (Everybody got nailed, but it took a lot of time.) One of my brother’s buddies played pickup basketball in the late 1960s with John Norman Collins, who was soon apprehended for the torture killing of at least six young women and girls. A co-worker of mine had a college roommate who went missing on her way to class and was never found. They both routinely hitched rides to campus… 1970s…

A guy who played the trumpet in my marching band at college turned out to have murdered his mother and girlfriend by running them over (separately) with his car. I remember that guy as being weedy and odd, turning out for practice in dress pants and black leather street shoes, while the rest of us ran around in jeans and sneakers. I could easily have suspected him of obsessively collecting bottle caps, but not killing anybody. Cannot remember his name, or would have Googled him for any recent info.

You may have similar stories. David Buss wrote a fascinating book on the subject,  'The Murderer Next Door'. The point is, human life is so profoundly layered. My purpose today is to remind us writers, especially us little liberal arts majors who have never been arrested, let alone shared a cell with convicted felons (for instance), to be open to the vibes that swirl around us. We tend to forget, and maybe even deny, human evil. It’s not just in TV shows and true-crime books. Our observations inform our work. Good, evil, see it all and feel it all. Occupy your place in the world deeply.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Five Quickies

Zestful Blog Post #211

Writing in the Basin
I’d never heard of the Permian Basin Writers Workshop before they asked me to come and be on their faculty this year, but having minored in geology, I actually knew what the Permian Basin is, so I was like, sure. The event will be in Midland, Texas from September 15 through the 17th. I’ll be doing my workshop called “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller That SELLS” on Saturday the 16th. Coincidentally, fellow Writer’s Digest personality Chuck Sambuchino will be doing a boot camp there on the 15th. Anyway, if you live in the general area of West Texas, or even if you live in someplace like Stuttgart, consider joining us for a non-grueling, lively series of presentations. I’ll be doing my longer version of that workshop, over two sessions instead of one, and participants will be able to do a bit of real live writing to test out my ideas — and theirs. Productivity! Yes. Gonna wear my custom cowboy boots, made many years ago in the nearby town of San Angelo. (’nother coincidence.)

[I designed them, too, with my initials done the same way as I sign them. Boots by Rusty Franklin Boot Co. These are peewees, but he made a standard pair for me too, black and cream in color. This is not my first rodeo. Photo by ES.]

Update re: ZB 210
Remember the Cuban restaurant I wrote about last week? Marcia and I decided to go there for dinner that night, only to find it closed. A staff member at the other location said the closure was permanent.

A Nasty Problem
But speaking of restaurants and visibility, I’m reminded of how dueling signage nearly ruined the business of a Chinese restaurant in a small town Marcia and I used to live in. When we were new there, we drove around to familiarize ourselves. We stopped at a light and noticed a restaurant and its large sign that said, nasty chinese restaurant. Why on earth would someone call their restaurant that?, we wondered. Let’s not eat there. Some days later, I was walking along that same street. I looked at the restaurant from a different angle, and saw that its name was really dynasty chinese restaurant. A traffic sign obscured the first part of their sign when viewed from directly across the street. Now, the sign didn’t really almost ruin their business, but it did have an odd impact. You gotta love language.

p.s. re: Jay
I was gratified that so many folks enjoyed the recent post about my friend Jay, his typewriter business, and his budding interest in photography (Zestful Blog post 209, “A Blind Man Sees It”). I just wanted to add one more thing about Jay: always smiling, always enjoying the moment — and being fully present.

Say it Loud
I’m dictating this post using Dragon Naturally Speaking software, premium version 13. After a friend alerted me to a post by Scott Baker about Dragon on Mark Dawson’s blog, I decided to give it another try. I had purchased and used the software a few years ago in advance of shoulder surgery, when I feared I’d be unable to write or type for a while. I didn’t take to it very well, so I did not continue with it after that. However, I’ve been having a lot of trouble handling all my projects and responsibilities and obligations. So I got hold of a newer version of Dragon and gave it a go, with more commitment this time, and I’m happy to report that it’s working pretty well. I use an inexpensive usb headset as recommended. I did have to correct Dragon on Chuck Sambuchino’s name, which came out “checks and Chino.” But barely a week after starting back using Dragon again, its accuracy is pretty good; Chuck’s name was one of only a few corrections I’ve had to make so far, and the only serious one. The first time I tried to dictate 1,000 words of original story, it took me three hours, what with having to make corrections as well as relearn the commands for dictation and navigation. But after just two more sessions, I dictated 1,000 words in an hour. I would imagine I can increase that to 2,000 without a whole lot of trouble. (And possibly much higher, given that a normal speaking pace is about 130 words per minute. 130 x 60 = 7,800.) The key is having what you want to say in mind, and then letting it flow without worrying very much. And don't be daunted by how much you don't know about it. If you just get the thing and follow the directions, you'll be fine. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes for me. Plus I can slouch in my comfy chair and work at the same time. Sip champagne and have my nails done.

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