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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Thursday, December 29, 2016

How About Today?

Zestful Blog Post #191

Don’t look back much on yesterday; especially don’t look back with regret. Because regret is toxic.

And you know what else is toxic? Tomorrow. There’s a certain treacherous comfort in tomorrow.

Give today everything you’ve got.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016


Zestful Blog Post #190

The photo for this post is the same as on Marcia’s and my Holiday/Christmas card this year. She thought of the concept, and I executed it. All the writing implements are mine, from my various stashes. After crafting the display on our dining-room table (the tablecloth, linen—Ikea—and I never iron), I realized just how rich I am in stuff that makes words. And that’s not even all! More pens, pencils, inks, and sharpeners lay neatly in my Bisleys and office cupboard. (Art supply buffs will know Bisleys.) I even have a Caran d’Ache rotary sharpener, though not the eye-popping Matterhorn edition. Perhaps next year you could all chip in and get me one.

[Can you find the humblest of these items: the Detroit Public Schools pencil I picked up from the floor of the orchestra room at Cass Technical High School on a visit this year?]

But seriously, I’ve been thinking about how rich I am in so many things, the best of them not for sale: health, family, friends, faithful readers. Often, when I get down about something or other I’ll give thanks for stuff I don’t have, like a prison sentence for killing somebody in a car accident that’s my fault.

Also, because it’s the Christmas season—going ahead with “Christmas” here, because I do celebrate it, more or less—I’ve been thinking, “What would Jesus Write?” And I realize the real question is: “How Would Jesus Write?” The answer is clear and simple, when you think how tuned in that guy was: With faith. Meaning without anxiety! Meaning with trusting generosity! Meaning with belief in what one little person can accomplish!

Thank you for being my friend. I love you and wish you a wonderful, happy weekend.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

More Precision

Zestful Blog Post #189

In my ongoing campaign for precise language and spelling, today I offer:

The suspect’s account did not jive with the victim’s.
The suspect’s account did not jibe with the victim’s.
Don’t give me that jibe; I know you went bowling last night.
Don’t give me that jive; I know you went bowling last night.
I don’t like the cut of his jib.

To jibe is to agree with or be consistent with. To jive is to talk nonsense, fib, or play jazz; to improvise. But jive is being used so commonly to mean jibe that it’s appearing in dictionaries that way. Please join me in resisting that jive. A jib is a triangular sail on a boat, or a part of a crane. The idiomatic usage, “I don’t like the cut of his jib” means to dislike how someone looks or be suspicious of someone.

While watching an episode of “Mad Men” I was gratified when Bert Cooper corrected one of his underlings. One of the guys said, “I’m hip to that.” Cooper cut in, “It’s hep.”

Just like jive and jibe, hip and hep have become confused. To be hip is to be fashionable and up to the minute; to be hep is to be knowledgeable.

Moving along to:

If these voices in my head keep up, I’ll soon be in a straightjacket.
If these voices in my head keep up, I’ll soon be in a straitjacket.

Strait means narrow, restricted, which is what one of those garments does to a person. Straight means extending in one direction with no deviation. But again, the misuse is so common, both spellings are becoming acceptable. Just not by me.

Also, let’s consider:

That point is so obtuse, nobody here can understand it.
That point is so abstruse, nobody here can understand it.
He’s the most obtuse student I’ve ever tried to teach.

Abstruse means obscure or difficult to grasp; obtuse means dumb or dull. (An obtuse angle in geometry is one with a blunt—or dull—point: greater than 90 degrees and less than 180.) (Thanks, RM!)

Lastly, a few fine points involving vowels:

Each of these drums is a timpano. Together, they are timpani. When I play them, I call them timps.

When cheering a mezzo-soprano, yell “Brava!” When cheering a tenor, yell “Bravo!” When cheering the ensemble, yell “Bravi!” If you’re really excited, yell “Bravissimo!”

A man travels incognito. A woman travels incognita. When a guy conducts an orchestra, he is a maestro. When a gal does it, she is a maestra. (Hilarious that my auto-speller tried to reject maestra. Also timpano.)

All right, I feel better.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Of Precision I Sing

Zestful Blog Post #188

If you’re a stickler for precise language and spelling, these are dark times. The rise of voice-to-text software, declining literacy rates (at least in the U.S.—I read about it), and the hurried way we often produce and consume words—all of this is adding up. Also, OK, I’m all for STEM. STEM for president. STEM for lucrative, clean-hands jobs. But more emphasis on STEM means less emphasis on literature. I’m sorry, but it does. And it shows. And I grieve.

OK, here are some commonly misused words, with corrections. I am driven to write this today. I know word meanings change over time, often because of sloppy usage. But let us not be part of that hideous process.

Reticent / Reluctant
He was reticent to open the door.
He was reluctant to open the door.
She was reticent to speak about what she’d gone through.
She was reluctant to speak about what she’d gone through.
She was reticent about what she’d gone through.

Reticent means being unwilling to speak; the origin is Latin, for ‘be silent.’
Reluctant means being unwilling to do something.

An announcer said this on the radio yesterday: “But the school principal was accused of flaunting the rules.” No. You flout the rules, you flaunt your six-pack abs at the beach.

Keeping to the ‘f’ theme, let’s look at another pair:

The ship floundered on the reef and was lost.
The ship foundered on the reef.
He floundered for months, then at last grasped the essence of the theorem.
They took control of the foundering company and made it profitable again.

To flounder is to struggle; to founder is to sink.

Again, yesterday. I picked up a package of page tabs in a store—you know, those things like paperclips for marking pages in a book? Was going to buy it until I read on the back that the tabs are ‘discrete’. Put it back. No, the tabs are discreet; they don’t hang out like sticky notes or the like.

So, no:
Roger and Joan were discrete about their affair.
Roger and Joan were discreet about their affair.
Each file folder holds a discreet project. (Although, come to think of it, if these were personnel records at a bordello, that could be true.)
Each file folder holds a discrete project.

Although the words are related, discreet means to be cautious or even guarded, while discrete simply means separate, individual.

While we’re on homonyms:

The demotion didn’t phase him.
The demotion didn’t faze him.
That model was phased out in 2011.
My dog’s mood seems to depend on the phases of the moon.

To faze is to disrupt or disturb. Phase can be a noun or a verb; a phase is a stage or an episode, while to phase is to execute a sequence.

The governor took a lot of flack for his statement on low-fat butter.
The governor took a lot of flak for his statement on low-fat butter.

Flak is anti-aircraft fire from ground positions; the metaphorical meaning is severe criticism. A flack is a publicist or promoter.

Thank you so much for your attention to these matters.

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