Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ten-Minute Enigma

Zestful Blog Post #182

This happened on October 21 at approximately 9:25 a.m. at the Florida Writers Association conference. ‘Crystal Ballroom C’ in the Hilton hotel, Altamonte Springs. Some of you were there.

[But oh, first I gotta give a shout-out to the Royal Palm Literary Award Winners. Special congratulations to frequent Zestful blog commenter Tricia Pimental, and to my St. Augustine crit-group member Melody Dean Dimick, who won two awards! Have I overlooked any blog follower? Lemme know.]

OK, the enigma. I arrived at about 9:00 to set up for my presentation scheduled for 9:20, “How to Write Dialogue Like a Pro” and found the room already filling up. There were about 10 of those big round tables seating 8. Or maybe it was 8 tables seating 10. Anyway, over the course of the next fifteen minutes the place got packed, so much so that people were resigning themselves to standing room. Gratifying for me, but problematic for the conference, because attendees were still trying to crowd in.

At 9:20 I received a nice introduction from Nancy, one of the many unsung conference volunteers (so unsung that I can’t remember her last name), and began. After maybe five minutes, two or three hotel staff guys came in and began the process of transforming the wall between Crystal Ballroom C and the currently unused Crystal Ballroom D from a solid thing to a huge accordion-fold of heavy panels. Writers intent on improving their dialogue skills happily moved to occupy the near tables in Crystal Ballroom D. This was a bit disruptive, but one of those necessary things, and everybody was now more comfortable. As the hotel guys shoved the panels into a compartment in the wall behind me and left, I resumed talking, using slides and pictures to illustrate my brilliant points.

Five minutes later a woman stood up and called out, “Excuse me, but my purse has been stolen!” 

“Maybe folks nearby could look around?” I said, checking my watch and starting to worry about time lost. During the next few minutes people peered beneath tables and chairs, despite the upset woman saying, “It isn’t here. It isn’t here. It’s been stolen.”

No one could find it; the purse was gone.

“It would be a good idea to get hotel security involved right away,” I suggested from the dais, and the woman hurried out. I sympathized; it’s terrible to lose your purse, and although the victim was distraught, I thought she was doing a pretty good job of holding it together. I resumed talking, then in another few minutes a hotel security guy came in with the victim and started looking around, etc. I was reluctant to speculate that maybe one of the wall-moving guys had somehow grabbed the purse. One doesn’t want to automatically blame the help, and moreover, the guys had on just shirts and pants, no jackets or anything, and they hadn’t been carrying any kind of equipment bag that could have easily hidden the purse.

I kept talking in spite of the minor hubbub still going on with the security fellow. My audience nicely stuck with me and overlooked it when I lost my place a couple of times.

After another minute, someone sitting close to the dais spoke up and pointed: “I wonder if it could be in that wall!” Meaning the compartment where the partition panels had been folded away.

I thought that was a brilliant possibility, because the victim had been sitting near the partition. A couple of attendees took the initiative to open the compartment and root around in it, and lo and behold came the shout, “Here it is!” The purse had gotten somehow swept up in the partition as the guys accordioned it away. (Thank you for speaking up, RPLA winner Melody! Later I learned others had had the same thought, but hadn’t called it out yet.)

Happy ending, though I had to hotfoot it over the last parts of my presentation to try to make up for the lost time.

Afterward, the woman stopped me in the concourse and apologized, saying, “I’m the drama queen who disrupted your presentation.” Of course I told her never mind, these things happen.

In the aftermath, a few conversations got going around the assumption that the purse had been stolen, which—hey, it seemed like a reasonable conclusion. After all, I was standing there at the lectern thinking of the likeliest suspects: the hotel employees, who had come in and out so quickly. Who were they? Where were they now? And yet—and yet! A freakish, unintended event had come between the woman and her purse; no one’s fault, a perfectly reasonable explanation. Such a fantastic lesson in remaining calm and considering all possibilities in the face of calamity! Any of the great detectives—fictional and real—would have been proud!

I’m still shaking my head over it.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Imperfect? Perfect!

Zestful Blog Post #181

Pre-blog note: I’ll be doing the Florida Writers Association conference this weekend. Subtropical friends, I look forward to seeing you there! Please make a point of coming to my presentations and panel discussion, as they will be the best.

Today’s blog:

Recently I read and posted reviews for a book that’s not perfect. It’s a first book. I gave it four stars, a very good rating, not because I thought the book had tons of literary merit, but because I thought it was written from the heart. (And it does have literary merit.) I thought other readers might enjoy it and benefit from what the author had to say.

The book is Forever Built of Days by Jessie Witt Pannell. It’s a memoir in the form of a pastiche of prose and poetry. Jessie is a good writer. The object lesson here, though, is this: She felt inspired to write a book about her life; she didn’t get hung up on following some form or other; she wrote the book; she put it out there. There are little things here and there I might wish she’d done differently, but overall the book succeeds. It isn’t perfect, but it’s out there.

[Is this window box perfect? It isn't! It is! Look at that lobelia!]

This is something I saw over and over as a judge for Writer’s Digest self-published-book competitions. Those contestants got their books out into the world. Most betrayed a lack of writing experience but by God those books had gotten written, finished, and offered.

I’m not advocating careless work. I’m advocating giving it your best shot, then moving forward with a peaceful heart. This is something I must remind myself of all the time. So I figured I’d get in your face about it today too! Thanks for being my friend.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Key to Book Retail

Zestful Blog Post #180

Quick pre-blog note: The current Writer’s Digest Yearbook on the newsstands features a couple of articles by me: “Take Two,” on using arc and pace to fix and improve your storytelling, and an excerpt on how to write good dialogue from You’ve Got a Book in You.

On to today’s post. Ever since ending my 10-year career with Borders in 1997 I’ve kept an eye on the bookselling business. I learned a lot working for Tom and Louis Borders, and some of it was about retail in general. And the great truth of retail is that there is no such thing as a loyal customer. The instant a customer decides their needs will be served better elsewhere, sayonara. That’s life; that’s common sense.

Therefore, the key to retail success is to be a loyal merchant. You can and should be loyal to your customers by serving them well, truly, and consistently. But there’s more.

A relic!

Today, bricks-and-mortar retail is way more about experience than the merchandise. Doesn’t that sound odd? But it’s so. The retail discount experience isn’t a pleasant experience; it’s usually an ordeal. We endure the harsh lighting, cheap fixtures, and overwhelming layouts in order to save serious dollars on food and other stuff. Then of course we can buy all kinds of things for low prices on line, from the comfort of our cracker-strewn bed. We can buy books that way too. Therefore, why bother getting up, taking a shower, putting on clothes, and scrounging enough gas money to go to a bookstore to browse and buy?

For the experience. For a unique experience, which in the case of a bookstore means a curated collection. Smart booksellers know that the deep-and-wide inventory of B&N or the late Borders will cost them big to try to duplicate, and make for lower profit margins. But if a bookseller can start small—that is, 4,000 to 8,000 titles—and curate that collection deep and narrow, they can succeed. Because the store’s personality is what attracts customers, if they’re to be attracted. Lots of smart booksellers are doing the small-batch, microbrew experience. (Speaking of microbrews, it is indeed a fact that food and beverage make any shopping or entertainment experience more enjoyable.)
Still, what’s to stop a customer from finding a cool book at your store, then buying it via their phone right while they’re standing there, for cheaper, on line? Nothing. Some will always do that.

But booksellers who keep an eye on expenses, make reasonable choices when it comes to staffing and overhead, and work hard to make it easy for a customer to buy something right now—yeah, that can work. Because humans crave experience; we WANT to get out of our cracker-strewn bed and feel we’ve done something fun and worthwhile. We want to brag that we went to X store, where the cognoscenti go. But moreover, it’s the serendipity of browsing that makes it worthwhile to physically be in a place with lots of books. You’re gonna see something new; you’re gonna bump into something or even someone. You’re gonna have a different feeling than staring into that glowing screen with its tiny images and hyperdrive scrolling. Even Amazon knows that, and is capitalizing on it: their new brick-and-mortar stores must be doing well, as they’re rolling out more of them.

Then there’s innovation! Went to the movies on a trip to suburban Detroit not long ago, and it was the first time I saw the ticket line and the concession line be one and the same. Lots of staff behind the counter; the line went fast; they sold a sh*t-ton of popcorn and everything, way more than if the lines were separate. This is really, really a leap, and how could it have taken so long for the first theater operator to a) get the idea, and b) have the balls to implement it?

What’ll be the next innovative thing in book retail? Lots of smart people are working on that.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Solving the Writer's Conundrum

Zestful Blog Post #179

I was supposed to teach ‘How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS’ at the Mystery Writers of America event this Saturday in Venice, Fla., ‘Sleuthfest on Saturday.’ But that confab has been cancelled because of the incoming Hurricane Matthew. According to the organizer, my buddy Randy Rawls, many presenters and attendees were coming from the Atlantic coast of the state, and they need to take care of the home front. Here on the Gulf coast we’re looking to miss the worst of it; keeping fingers crossed for all of our friends in harm’s way. Marcia, ever practical, objected, “Heck, they already had hotel reservations here where it’s safe!” I’m hoping we can put this event together again; will keep you posted.

OK. I promised to write more about the stuff I learned at the recent Novelists, Inc. conference. Here’s something that’s preyed on my mind, to a head-banging extent: Should authors write the story they want to write, or write the story they think—maybe even know—readers want?

[...Doesn’t look too bad at the moment...]

Liz Pelletier, CEO and president of Entangled Publishing, gave a compelling talk on how to test-market book ideas before writing a book, to better ensure commercial success. (This whole thing really has to do with commercial success, an important point to remember.) Until recently—until social media came along, that is—you couldn’t test-market an idea for a novel. Well, you could, but it would have been complicated and probably expensive. Besides, didn’t agents and editors in New York know what’s best?

But now you can put out a single idea, or a paragraph of hypothetical back-cover material, to your friends and followers, and ask for reactions. You can tweak it and see what they think now. If you’re comfortable writing detailed outlines, you can go farther still, and test it again. Liz and her company have done these things, and in a few years they’ve put more than 50 books on the NYT bestsellers list. This is beyond impressive.

In an opposite sort of talk, equally compelling, Julian Pavia, an executive editor at Random House/Crown, told the tale of two debut novels, both of which had been projects of passion: The Martian by Andy Weir and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Both guys basically were like, “Screw it—I’m gonna write the thing that’s been burning a hole in my heartbrain.” Both books became blockbuster bestsellers, movie deals, dollars spurting like arterial blood, because readers responded to them and spread the word. Neither guy had written a novel before; Weir was in tech and Cline was a screenwriter. Of course their experience and skills served them well when they did set out to write a novel.

Commercial success means you have a readership. Every author wants their books to find an audience. But the desire to write—that first spark of simply wanting to do it, having to do it—comes from deep down. That’s the key: It all starts with passion. So it follows that a professional author must—must—write the projects of the heart as well as be a journeyman. This requires planning and intentionality. It’s way easier to give in to faster-hotter-more than to insist on slow-cooked quality. I say, if you’re compelled to write fiction, look to your heartbrain first. Mine what’s there first. And then you’ll be better equipped to write for the market. Your insides will be cleaner and clearer. You’ll be happier. It might take longer. That’s what I think.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Five Things I Learned at Novelists, Inc.

Zestful Blog Post #178

So I joined Novelists, Inc. this year, which is a professional organization for authors. The vast majority of members are female; I learned that the organization started as a splinter group from Romance Writers of America. Last week I attended the annual conference, in St. Pete Beach (which is the real name of the town, separate from St. Petersburg.) (Unpaid plug for the Tradewinds resort hotel: If you’re looking for a place to have a midsized conference (200-300 people), you can’t go wrong there. Great layout & staff, many conveniences, & a terrific beach on the Gulf.)

Met some nice and very accomplished folks. There were some heavy hitters in the presenters ranks—like bosses from Amazon, BookBub, Nook, Ingram, and top publishers. I felt the long weekend was worthwhile; attended sessions and took notes like mad. Learned a ton of stuff, & will probably blog in greater depth on some of it. Key takeaways:

  • Lots of people in the writing/publishing business believe quality is the way to go; without great story, all the marketing in the world—whether you’re a trad- or self-published author—won’t help you achieve material success.

  • Way more people in the business are convinced that marketing is the path to material success, as long as you keep pumping out titles.

  • There are lots of dumpy-looking, middle-aged women in this world who make six figures writing genre fiction, mostly romance, mystery, and paranormal mutations of same. (Me, I have the dumpy-looking, middle-aged parts covered; the only missing part is the six figures.) Every man I met at the conference who was not a presenter was a husband-assistant. Really.

[But we’re all swans deep down, aren’t we?]

  • Authors whose books are not in the Kindle Select program (meaning exclusively with Amazon) are angry with Amazon that they don’t get the same deals and advantages that Kindle Select authors get. The two guys who were there from Amazon did a great job escaping with their skins after their presentation.

  • I spent lots of time going to marketing and promo sessions, but made time to go to some craft sessions as well, cuz craft is my thing. One major takeaway for me was that readers like deep, deep point of view. Sometimes I’ve wondered how detailed to make my characters’ thoughts; I like writing deep, but sometimes have pulled back, fearing the reader might be skipping this stuff. But after listening to a few editors who have worked with blockbuster bestsellers, I’m like, yeah! Deep POV is fun to write, and moreover, it develops your characters as nothing else does.

Example of deep POV? Which is better?:

    • The next day, I felt uneasy.

    • A rancid haze settled over me the next day, which was Thursday. It was as if the whole city had turned poisonous—as if micro-bubbles of toxin were raining down on the city, green in color, the exact chartreuse of the mittens of the tiny bully in my first-grade class who had used them to mash snow into my dumb pretty little face that winter, over and over. When the snow melted, she used mud. [from The Actress]

  • And OK, here is one more takeaway, which makes six instead of five, but whatever: It's great to be an attendee. You can wear sneakers and pants and t-shirts and sit in the back and not have to worry about how white your teeth are or whether your lip gloss is still good. I realized that until this one, I've been a presenter at every conference I've ever been to as a published author. It costs more to be an attendee, but God is it great to wear sneakers and t-shirts every day.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Close Reading 3

Zestful Blog Post #177

Welcome to the third installment of Close Reading, where I analyze examples of published writing and discuss how and why they work or don’t.

I’m a come-lately reader to Jim Harrison, author of the novella Legends of the Fall (made into a big movie with Brad Pitt in 1994), the highly praised novels Sundog and Dalva, and numerous other fiction and collections of poetry. He also wrote journalism and occasional pieces for various magazines. Jim died this year, and I’ve been thinking about him, having met him a few times, twenty-plus years ago. (I ran a bookstore where he did a couple of signings, and a friend of mine became his assistant in Montana.) I never read his work because I didn’t like him personally, which was probably unfair, and because he wrote stuff about how horrible Hollywood was AFTER he’d made his two million dollars there, but whatever. Not long ago I came across a collection of his nonfiction called Just Before Dark in a used-bookstore and decided to give him a try.

I have an acute sense of when an author’s being pretentious, and I saw a few instances of that in this collection, such as here, from an article about fly fishing (“Guiding Light in the Keys”), originally published in Sports Illustrated. The passage describes a professional fishing guide:

[excerpt begins]
At home in the evenings, Sexton exercises his casting arm—which looks like an oak club—by going through all the motions with a twelve-pound sledgehammer with a foreshortened handle.
[excerpt ends]

While the arm looking like an oak club is great, the pretentious part is ‘foreshortened.’ The hammer’s handle was shortened. Foreshortened is an art term, and perhaps because of that it sounds more intellectual than simply shortened. So I mark Harrison—and whoever his editor at Sports Illustrated was—down for that. Do not do shit like that in your writing.

However, one should not throw a one-eyed, two-hundred-fifty-pound baby out with the bathwater, so here is a passage from another piece. This one, I think, is wonderful. It’s a complete paragraph from an article called “Don’t Fence Me In,” originally published by Conde Nast Traveler. The article is about taking automobile trips for the hell of it.

[excerpt begins]
This sort of driving can be a fabulous restorative. Unlike in an airplane, you can stop, turn right or left, on a whim. Driving into emptiness keeps you at least a few miles ahead of your neuroses, and by the time they catch up to you when you bed down in the evening, you are too tired to pay any attention to them. This past year I had a great deal of leisure time, so I drove 42,000 miles around the United States, avoiding the interstates whenever possible. Driving offers peace solitude, inaccessibility, and the freedom and adventure that allow me to think up new novels and rest from the last one. Your whimsicality returns; you’ve already driven to Arizona—why not continue on down to San Carlos, Mexico and hike out the Seri Indian territory on the coast of the Sea of Cortes? And there, camped out on a mountain ridge under a glorious full moon, you throw the wrong kind of porous log on the fire and then dance a new tune as a dozen angry scorpions shoot out, a fresh brand of reality pudding. The trip was a mere seven thousand miles but without a single moment of boredom, the brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river.
[excerpt ends]

The first cool thing about this paragraph is the “few miles ahead of your neuroses,” which is frank and blunt, and because of that, bleakly funny. A dull mind would not think of putting it that way, so as a reader, you can relax and know you’re likely to get some more good stuff.

[Cover of Just Before Dark; artwork by Russell Chatham, who was a friend of Harrison’s. A Chatham lithograph hangs in the background on my office wall. (Another story.)]

Apart from the mildly interesting fact that Harrison can think better while moving along in a car, we also get the exotic mention of Mexico and an impromptu hike. Then the passionate bit about the mountain ridge and the moon, and you think that’s nice but is he about to turn purple on me?, but no, he gives you the mistake, the log, the scorpions, the dance, and you can laugh because he certainly expects you to. And again, the moment is funnier because it comes after this serious stuff about the awesome beauty of the world. Juxtaposition can be your friend.

Technical note on first and second person here. You’ll notice that the writer skips around from second person “…you can stop, turn…” to first “I had a great deal of leisure time…” and back to second again “Your whimsicality returns…” and it works. Why? Because this is an informal piece, not a term paper, and shifting from first to second person is conversational. Most people do it all the time while talking, not really aware of making any grammatical shifts at all. And it sounds fine; it sounds real. I encourage you to experiment with this in your own writing.

The closing image of the “brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river” is just topping, isn’t it? Power, ease, movement—all of that is suggested. And because of the “once again,” we understand that something lost has been regained. The attentive reader goes home happy.

Final note: This is just one paragraph in the middle of a long essay of thousands of words. Yet the graph has a structure of its own. Study it over again: There’s a beginning that serves as an introduction, a little story in the middle, and a very satisfying ending. Not every graph Harrison wrote was structured this way, and that’s OK, of course; not every graph he ever wrote is that perfect, and that’s OK too.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Solid Tips: Grabbing a Live Audience

Zestful Blog Post #176

Hi! Yes, vacation was great; gorgeous vistas and happy times with old friends; more or less relevant snapshot to follow.

I’ve never been an audio-books person, preferring to listen to music in the car, or while exercising or doing chores. Just habit. But when my Lillian Byrd novels got produced by Audible this year, of course I had to start listening.

The narrator, Dina Pearlman, and I had a phone meeting before she got to work, which went well. I felt good about her voice and personality. Next I recorded for her a series of names, place names, and any idiosyncratic words and pronunciations that I thought would help her sound authentic.

Then she got to work, and a few months later the recordings were done. As I started listening to the first in the series, Holy Hell, I was struck forcefully by Dina’s competence as a vocal actress. I know most professional narrators can make just about any prose sound way better than an untrained person can, but I’d never paid all that much attention before. Having done a tiny bit of acting in community theater and as a host for corporate audios and videos, I knew basics like don’t talk too fast, and keep your gestures smooth.

But I’d never noticed so much about the technique of good reading until listening closely to Dina reading fiction I’d written. I kept thinking wow, yeah, I wouldn’t have thought to do that like this, or this like that. All this in spite of the fact that I’d read my own work aloud to audiences countless times.

[The most awesome thing about this glacier (the Dawes in Alaska) was its sound. As the thing moves, it gives off sudden huge booms and cracks, like artillery and rifle shots. Never knew about that before. Never had an opportunity to listen to that before.]

Knowing that I had a reading coming up at the Ringling College, I decided to try to fix a few things in my mind, practice them, and execute them at my reading. For your benefit, here they are:

- Go way slower, overall, than you think you should.

- Don’t rush the first couple of words in sentences, which most nonprofessionals tend to do. This alone will transform your reading-aloud performance.

- When an abrupt change happens, such as an interruption, stop cold at the em dash before going on, unhurriedly, to the next words. Like here:
            “So I think we should have a meal before we—”
            A shot rang out. [Do a real pause after that em dash.]

- Vary your cadence. Here’s the great benefit of keeping your ordinary cadence, or pace, fairly slow and deliberate: You can shift gears! When you shift up to a faster cadence, as Dina subtly but hilariously did when Lillian describes her stove-cleaning routine, you catch hold of the listener’s attention and bring their heart rate up a little bit. Then when you downshift, they keep paying attention.

- Take care to enunciate. If the word is important enough to be there, well by gosh give it its due. Pay attention especially to the ends of words, which tend to get swallowed in everyday speech. For instance, that last word, speech, should almost sound like a syllable and a half: spee-ch. See what I mean?

- Vary your tone, of course. This is especially helpful in passages of dialogue, to help make clear who’s talking. Dina was able to produce a wide variety of tones and vocal styles for different characters. For the rest of us, simply raising or lowering your pitch a little bit between characters will work.

When I gave my reading at the college, I put most of those things into practice. Tried to read as if I were making a recording, which I actually was; the film students were making a video of my gig. It was like magic, I swear to you. I read chapter one of The Extra, which concerns Rita Farmer in police costume during a movie shoot. (She wanders off set and gets drawn into a real crime scene.) The audience was a nice group to begin with—a mix of students, faculty, and members of the public—but man, they really enjoyed that reading. I tell you this not to boast of the material, but of my new and improved delivery. I’ve had audiences like my readings before, but never to this extent. They chuckled, gasped, murmured in alarm—everything you could want. I couldn’t believe how well those techniques worked.

So: TL;DR: Listen to a professional, then do like they do.

Have you an interesting experience reading aloud? Tell us about it!
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