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]

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.

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.

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

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.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Pounding Power of Publicity

Zestful Blog Post #210

A few years ago, a neighborhood friend invited me to lunch at a tiny Cuban restaurant nearby. The food was fabulous, and reasonably priced too. The place could have done with a good scrubbing, but no matter: Every table was full and customers were waiting to get in. My friend introduced me to the owner, who talked about how incredibly busy he’d been, ever since a ‘guy’ with a popular TV show did a segment on his place.

I learned that before the ‘guy,’ business had been terrible. The owner opened a second location across town with hopes of improving his cash flow. But that failed, and he was facing having to close the original location too. His staff and friends got together and convinced the TV guy to check this place out. Guy came, he saw, he ate.

The morning after the show aired, the owner decided he’d better get to the restaurant extra early to do more prep work in case it got busy when he opened. When he arrived, a long line of customers had already formed, and the restaurant wasn’t going to open for two hours yet. And ever since then, the place had been super busy, and this was a couple of years down the line. Great Cuban dishes, great staff.



But then the owner got slapped with a health code violation. Roaches and dirt, yeah. It seems he didn’t take it very seriously. The next inspection, he got closed down. Customers mourned. According to my sources, the owner refused to do what the health department required, so they kept him closed. Then, sadly, the owner died unexpectedly.

The owner of another Cuban restaurant in town bought the place, cleaned it out (he told me it took his team two weeks to do a thorough job), renovated it, and opened under his own name. The food is just as marvelous. But guess what? Hardly anybody goes there. You can always get a (nice clean) table.

The pounding power of publicity. A very simple lesson for anybody who wants to sell anything. Followed by a very simple lesson in common sense: Mop up or else.

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

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.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Blind Man Sees It

Zestful Blog Post #209

A friend of mine blew my mind the other day, and I want to see if yours gets similarly blown.

Back when Marcia and I lived in California, we sold our condo in the East Bay en route to moving north to the woods of Washington. We were fretting over an imperfection in the kitchen floor when our real estate agent said dismissively, “It would take a blind man to see it!” We felt better, and that funny locution entered our lexicon.

After we got settled in our little house in the big woods, I happened to make friends with a guy who is a super talented trombonist (regional symphonic soloist level), a piano tuner, and a typewriter repair specialist. His name is Jay, and he was born without eyes. Here’s how Jay figures it: Evidently, the Depression hit God as well and he hadn’t the wherewithal to update his supply. So, he asked my soul if it would be okay if he gave me good hearing, curiosity, and a love of the ridiculous. My soul must have agreed, so here I am. Actually, SHE probably made that bargain. A HE would simply have said, “ah well, get over it.” Only Jay can make you laugh talking about being without eyeballs. He wears cool sunglasses.

From his youngest days, Jay figured out work-arounds to do what he wanted. For instance, after he learned to ride a two-wheeler(!), he mastered navigating his neighborhood by echolocation. He got an education, worked real jobs, fell in love, married, the whole deal. I knew his lovely wife, who, sadly, is no longer with us.

Some time in the aughts, Jay and I played Leroy Anderson’s symphonic novelty piece “The Typewriter” as a duet in the local symphony, using two typewriters from his extensive collection. That’s a story in itself, but I’m trying to stay on track here. Now he lives in Georgia and I live in Florida. He’s still playing the trombone, and he’s also gotten into change ringing (coordinated bell-tower team music). He’s still fixing and reconditioning typewriters, using his senses of touch, hearing, and—yes, I’ve witnessed it—even smell.

I got in touch with him recently to ask about a typewriter for another performance of the Anderson piece, coming up next concert season for the South Shore Symphony Orchestra (Tampa Bay area) with yours truly as soloist. He said he had a machine for me, a 1926 Underwood 4 that should sound great. He sent me this photo:


[Photo by Jay Williams]

As a side note, he told me he’s exploring the possibility of becoming a photographer. [Mind blown.] He snapped the picture with a digital camera, figured out how to transfer the file to his computer, and sent it to me as an email attachment. He said his stepson is a professional photographer who gifted him with the camera. He knows the photo is blurry, and realized he needs to hold the camera steadier. Having worked as a news photographer, I gave him a couple of tips on that. Next he sent this photo, of another, recently acquired, machine, a Yost #1 from 1887:



[Photo by Jay Williams]

Jay intends to make more photographs, and he and his son are thinking they could put together a gallery of the pictures. I thought about it, and I’m like, my God, yeah. A sightless person faces something he’s interacting with, using his other senses, and captures an image he’ll never experience. The image will be something other than ‘what it’s supposed to be.’ But it will be something. I can’t describe how profoundly that first photo struck me. Layer upon layer of implications. I learned on line that blind photography is a thing—at least there are a few people doing it. Some of them are partially sighted, and some of them have their images manipulated by sighted people.

Jay, I know you’ll read this (because, software). If you do go forward with photography, I hope you’ll also write about the images you make: the things you were sensing and feeling at the moment of the snap. Wouldn't that be cool?

What is in this story for writers, artists, creative people of all sorts? Simply that there are no limits. Never say, “Yeah, yeah, but,” again. No need to. Look beyond, and keep looking.

What do you think? To comment, click below where it says 'no comment' or '2 comments' or whatever. I’ve changed how comments are posted, and am hoping no problems crop up. Let me know if you have trouble.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for coming by.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Errata Be Mine

Zestful Blog Post #208

You’ve heard it before: “Don’t edit while you’re writing!” Fine. But for best results, you have to take it to the absolute extreme, which is, “Even if you know right now that you’re going to cut the sentence or section you’re writing, finish it.” Finish the thought, finish the little train, don’t stop now, keep going. [If you're in a hurry you can quit reading here, because now I’m just going to throw down a couple of somewhat relevant memories plus a photo.]

One has to be of an age to remember writing school assignments like book reports and essays longhand (using an “ink pen” (meaning a ballpoint)). Writing exams longhand is still done, I understand. Invariably, the teacher would say in advance, “If you make a mistake, don’t scribble it out, just cross through it with a single line.” Didn’t you hate that? The whole goddam point of crossing out was to hide something stupid you wrote. Because obviously the teacher would read the mistake through the cross-out before going on. Not only would that interrupt the flow, but the teacher would see that you started to write “government” as “goverm—” before noticing it. I never obeyed the single-strike-through rule; always scribbled the black hell out of a mistake so it couldn’t be read.


["Typewriter Eraser, Scale X" by Claes Odenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, in the sculpture park at the National Gallery of Art. Photo by ES.]

This carried over to typewriting as well. The teacher would see that you typed “gpvernment” at first. I spent extra on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond paper, which had a coating on it that allowed you to erase mistakes easier than scratching them out on ordinary paper.

These days it’s lovely how easy it is to digitally backspace, delete, cut and “paste” (how quaint that word!). Nobody need see your self-catchable errors, your changes of mind, your process.

But flow is king (or CEO, or top witch in the coven, whatever). Never lose sight of that. The best way to foster flow is keep going right on through anything weak. Let it out, let it lie for now, keep moving forward. This bears repeating now and then. Thank you for sticking with me.

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

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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Precision Because If Not Us?

Zestful Blog Post #207

So many things bug me. And the beauty of blogging is that I can air my grievances to you, my friend, who understands all. Mind you, I don’t air every damn grievance that comes up. This is neither a marital nor political blog. Today’s rundown:

I first heard the word “irregardless” from my band director in high school, who used it constantly. He also would, when conducting, occasionally remind us, “Alla grando!” mispronouncing “allargando.” (Allargando means the music should be played slower and with more oomph.) All one need note is that “regardless” is a word, meaning “nevertheless.” And “irrespective” is a word as well, meaning “notwithstanding.” They should not be combined.

Elizabeth Sims, ranch hand

[You can almost tell what those llamas are thinking. (See below.) And yes, that's me on ranch duty a few years back. Photo by MB.]

Now, here’s a Gordian knot that needs repeated untying. Many, many times I’ve heard people misuse and mix up the following:

Incidents
Incidence
Incidences
Instance
Instances

No:
We counted five traffic incidences at that crossing last month.
Yes:
We counted five traffic incidents at that crossing last month.

Frankly, “incidences” should be avoided altogether. Usually somebody uses it when they mean “incidents.” Incidents is a clearer and simpler word. Going on, now:

No:
My report shows a lower instance of sexual dysfunction in alpacas than in llamas.
Yes:
My report shows a lower incidence of sexual dysfunction in alpacas than in llamas.
Yes:
There were several instances in which male llamas attempted to mate with a fence post, despite the presence of receptive females.
Yes:
In one instance, the veterinarian had to be summoned.

It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

One more:

No:
Her exercise regiment consisted of an hour’s walk every day.
Yes:
Her exercise regimen consisted of an hour’s walk every day.

A regiment is a group of military personnel. A regimen is a set course of action, or a plan, usually involving health/fitness/medicine.

As usual, I feel better. Thank you and you're welcome.

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis

Zestful Blog Post #206

Everybody hates to write synopses. Your novel is finished, and now you want to shop it around, and you need a synopsis. Or you’ve written your seventh, but your editor requires a detailed synopsis every time, before they sign the contract. Or they require a synopsis before you even write the thing! You need a synopsis.

And synopses suck to write, they just do. I’ve critiqued synopses for clients, I’ve written my own, and the whole business of distilling your story to something that sounds fabulous is onerous and upsetting. You have to leave out so much, and whatever you put in is incomplete, so how do you decide, rrrrgh, rrrrgh, sucking, sucking. I’m not talking about a paragraph-long piece of cover copy, though those suck to write as well; I’m talking about the extended, multi-page synopsis you need to satisfy agents and especially editors. Gosh—this just occurred to me: A fabulous side benefit of self-publishing is that you don’t have to write synopses. But if you’re after a trad-pub deal, you gotta do ’em.

OK, I promised a magic cure, and here it is.


Don’t write your synopsis. Talk it.

That’s it, basically. Walk away from pen and paper, walk away from the keyboard. Get cozy with a voice recorder and start telling your story to it. Ideally, use a voice-to-text application and be in a private setting where you can’t feel inhibited about being overheard. Speak as if you’re telling a friend the story from the start. Don’t worry if you feel awkward/stupid, and have to start and stop. Keep at it, and things will go smoother. If you were talking to a (patient, interested) friend, you’d tell what happens, and you’d also talk about the story’s themes— “OK, and there’s this rebirth imagery that keeps cropping up, like when…” You might talk a little about the germ of the story, the seed that made you think, hey, I could write a novel about this! And you’d talk about the characters, both generally and specifically. You’d talk a bit about the settings, perhaps. You might repeat yourself, you might think of something out of order— “Oh! And yeah, the guy’s brother used to be on the bomb squad, so he’s got like this inside dope on how those robots work…” Natter on. If you do this, and do it naturally and in a relaxed way, you will not be gripping your head in frustration.

Then when you feel like you’ve pretty much got it covered, stop and transcribe it or print it out. NOW you’ve got something to work with! Let it sit for a day or two, then get it out and start editing. You’ll immediately see what sounds good and what doesn’t, which parts are more important, which ones less. You’ll cut redundancies, you’ll cut extraneous words, you’ll tighten things up with conjunctions that flow instead of stumble. Your text will already be in an informal, vocal cadence, and that’s good for a synopsis, which ought to sound fun, chatty, and quick. You’ll notice good turns of phrase, and poor ones. You’ll tighten things up more. You’ll have a synopsis.

This technique isn’t really magic (I confess), but it can help magic happen! I’ve tested it on my own material. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

[photo and photo manipulation by ES]

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

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.