Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Say I Want a Resolution

The best resolution for the New Year is, of course, to keep all the old ones. Herewith my top two:


1) Practice breath awareness as much as possible.

2) Write more fiction.

What are yours?

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Real Gift for a Writer


I hope there are lots of people out there who are thinking: Let's see, my son/daughter/sister/brother/friend is a writer. In light of that, what would a good Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Druid gift be?

Besides the obvious (a copy of You've Got a Book in You; a new pen), the best gift you can give a writer is time. Yeah, baby! Of course time cannot be given any more than health can, but opportunity for uninterrupted time devoted to a single task can be. How about an hour a day of quiet time with no resentment attached? Or a couple of days—better still, a week—at a motel in another town where intense work could get done? Or a course in time management.

I've always dreamed of getting passage on a transoceanic freighter where I could get the better part of a book done. In the middle of the Pacific, you can't hear your cell phone…. And there are no excuses.


If you give the gift of time to a writer, watch their reaction. Unbridled joy? Dread? If it's dread, so much the more reason for having given the gift.

Come to think of it, time is a gift that reveals more about the recipient than the giver, isn't it?

May your holiday season be filled with good cheer, love, and plenty of ink.

[Photo by ES]

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Your Ideas Are Your Capital

The other day I was listening to an aspiring writer tell me about the novel he's writing. He mentioned that he had ideas for further novels, but was unsure whether to spend the effort developing them before he saw whether agents / editors / readers would be interested in this first book. He asked what I thought.

I told him that in my own case, ideas have broken through for me before a finished work did. Although I sold my first four novels to a publisher myself, it wasn't a novel that got me representation. Hungry for a bigger audience, I set out to write a novel good enough to score me a hardcover contract with a big house. I wrote the novel and shopped it around to agents. One read it and called me up. "You're obviously a terrific writer," she said, "but I just don't think I can sell this book. What other ideas do you have?" I told her a few, and she asked me to develop them a little more on paper. I did so, and she got back to me saying, "I really like this one about the actress. If you can write that one, I think I can sell it." Which is what happened, and The Actress debuted in hardcover with Minotaur Books (MacMillan). I've been with Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency ever since.

The same thing happened the first time I approached Writer's Digest magazine. I wrote up a detailed inquiry about an article I'd like to write for them, and decided at the last minute to throw in a few other ideas at the bottom, just in case. The editor got back to me and said in a nice way that my main idea sucked, but they'd like me to write an article based on one of the little ones in the last paragraph. So I did, and have written more than 30 feature articles for them to date.

Which, I realized, exactly parallels something I learned in Hollywood. A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to meet with a television executive to discuss making my first mystery series, the Lillian Byrd books, into a cable TV series. Over a meal at a hip restaurant in West Hollywood (I felt existentially enviable) we talked about my books in detail, how the series might be structured, and even threw around casting ideas.

Then the executive asked if I'd be willing to be a writer for the show.


"Sure," I said, "but I thought you guys usually just bought the material and had other people write the scripts."

She said, "You don't understand. It's not so much that we want this material you've written. We want your talent; we want YOU."

"Oh," I said.

She explained, "You were thinking about how the movies work. The movies want a script. TV wants a writer."

As it turned out, the executive couldn't get the big shots on board with the project. But thinking about all that later, I realized that publishing is like television production: agents, editors, and readers don't want a book, they want an author. They want somebody who can write great, compelling book after great, compelling book. They want an idea machine.

So there you have it, aspiring authors. Write up all of your best ideas and have them in your back pocket. Get started on that next novel! Come the time to start putting your first baby out into the world, your newer stuff just might be instrumental in your breakthrough.

Special notes for this week:

Local friends, check out the Florida Writer's Association Bradenton Mini-Conference in January, just in time for that New Year's writing resolution: http://www.floridawriters.net/FWA_Upcoming_Events.html
I'll be there doing a workshop and a writing-prompts session. Check out the other faculty; some pretty accomplished people will be there, all with the goal of helping you. I guarantee you'll deepen your talent and have fun doing it.

And to follow up on last weeks' post: I've received my package of Dragon software and will set it up soon. The shoulder is improving with drugs and therapy.

[Photo note: Hollywood landscape with smog-induced soft focus by ES.]

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Arm to Stand On

When you're a writer you tend to take your physical ability to write for granted. It's shocking when that skill becomes compromised.

Earlier this year I caught a finger in a steel door. The wound was small yet impressively gory, and because of it my ability to write with a pen and type was impaired for a few days.

That got me to remembering an episode in Ernest Hemingway's life, when he broke his arm in a car accident in Montana in 1930. It was his dominant arm, and they had to operate (using kangaroo tendons to bind the pieces of bone together!), and it took many weeks to heal. With the arm immobilized, he couldn't write with any ease—longhand with his left was practically impossible, and typing one-handed was cumbersome, slow, and distracting—and he became depressed. At that time of his life, that was unlike him.

I've thought about all this quite a bit more lately, experiencing some disability in my dominant arm. Sparing you the fascinating, innumerable details, I have a complete tear in the shoulder cartilage that holds my arm on, plus a bunch of  inflammation.


My chiropractor, viewing the dramatic MRI, assured me I need surgery, and I spent weeks reading stuff on line and living in growing fear of the months-long process of post-surgical immobilization and rehabilitation. I made lists of things to do pre-surgery (buy pull-up pants, replace batteries in smoke detectors, go to the hair salon, finish all Christmas prep) and worried some more.

But when I got in to see the surgeon, he gave me a reprieve: with drugs and therapy, I might regain an acceptable level of function without having an operation that cannot be guaranteed to succeed anyway.

By a stroke of luck and faith, I hooked up with a wizard physical therapist who has worked behind the scenes with elite athletes and ordinary joes, rehabbing grievous injuries and restoring amazing function. We've just begun, and I'm encouraged. Am typing this with both hands!

But I did go ahead and order some voice-recognition software (Dragon). Because even though I'm able to write normally for the moment, I realized the great truth of being able-bodied: You never know. Moreover, I've wondered what it would be like to write with my vocal cords, so to speak. I'll give it a try.

Which feeds into the issue of productivity. These days, given the multitude of demands on authors' time, what with social media, self-promo, and all that bullshit, authors are increasingly concerned with productivity in the time they DO allocate for actual writing. And it's a given that the bigger your backlist is, the better your sales, the better your income. Obviously we can talk faster than we can write—so is that the future of composition?

Output alone won't cut it, of course. Yet on the other hand, it does, for many writers. Some put out hurried, half-done crap just for the sake of getting another title out there.

This will be an interesting trip.

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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[Kangaroo photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Solo Thanksgiving Essential


I have an important piece of advice for you if you should ever find yourself planning a Thanksgiving alone. It involves multiplication.

Years ago when I took a temporary management position in another state, I realized I would have the opportunity to be alone in my Residence Inn suite on Thanksgiving.

In the two times I've taken the Myers-Briggs personality sorter, I've tested once as introvert, and once as extrovert. Somehow I feel introvert is slightly more accurate, but it's not like I'm one of those people who don't know how to shoot the breeze with a bartender. But it was wonderful to contemplate a whole, low-key day alone in a quiet world, especially as I'd been working like a stevedore with scores of stressed-out retail employees.

I thought the classic thing would be to watch football on TV (my hometown team, the Detroit Lions, always play on Thanksgiving) and eat a turkey TV dinner.

So I made sure to stop at the store Wednesday after work, scored a Swanson's and a six-pack, and felt totally set. The next day I bowed my head in silent tribute to the Pilgrims and the Indians and remembered drawing hand turkeys in kindergarten. Come meal-time, I got out the Swanson's and popped it in the oven.


Here was the thing: It wasn't enough to eat. I'm no heavyweight, but when I took the thing out of the oven and settled in front of the tube, I was like, hey, what kind of Malibu Stacy meal is this? Belatedly I realized the portions were damn skimpy compared with a regular home Thanksgiving dinner. I fished the box out of the trash and looked at the nutrition information: only 330 calories. That, I figured, was about a fourth of what I would normally eat on Thanksgiving.

Tragically, the grocery store was closed, so I was forced to supplement my feast with a stale package of Lorna Doones from the cupboard.

Hence my Thanksgiving tip: If you're going solo, buy two or three Swanson's. And some fresh cookies. With enough beer, you'll be fine.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

How to Go Deep

Somewhere inside every writer dwells a mystic.

Yet we live in deconstructionist times. Seems like there's a precise formula for accomplishment in everything, guaranteed by some marketplace-dwelling 'guru'.

Good writing? Writing success? Is there a difference? Yes.

If you want to deepen your understanding of writing, if you want to explore your passion for writing, talk to people who are devoted to the practice of a demanding thing. I emphasize devoted. Think about what that means. Ask, Why do you do it? A true devotee will give you one answer: I do it for the sake of the thing itself. A yogi practices yoga for its own sake. A painter paints for its own sake. A nun practices her religion for its own sake. A race-car driver races for its own sake.



A true devotee asks nothing from that which he is devoted to. As a devotee you give yourself to the glory of something much bigger and more important than yourself, at whatever the cost to you. And you do it with gladness. And you are rewarded. You may not be rewarded in the way you expect or want. The point is, if you practice this thing with your whole heart, without greed and without vanity, you will transform your life.

[Image note: E's drawings]

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unconditional Love is a Harsh Mistress

Somehow, I'm the kind of person people like to pour out their troubles to. I don't think I look particularly sympathetic, but maybe they get the vibe that I can help. Whenever someone talks to me about relationship problems, I fall back on something I learned long ago:

Unconditional love is a harsh mistress. But it's the only one worth serving.

This is the only piece of advice I ever give, and it's not really advice. It's a credo.

Credos provide perspective and a steady compass needle. I think because we live in a time of easy gratification and moral relativism, self-indulgence is easy to rationalize. Without a solid credo or two, we fall prey to laziness.

Writers, real, true writers, those whose veins run with Quink Permanent Blue-Black or Namiki Wild Chestnut, consider writing to be their mistress. And sometimes she is harsh!



When you write seriously, with passion, whether you are a professional or aspiring to be one, you have gotten to the point where you must love your mistress unconditionally, or you will be tempted to compromise. You will be tempted to give weight to little setbacks and misunderstandings that don't matter. You will be tempted to quit, not knowing that in the very act of persistence lies salvation.

So: Join me in loving our beautiful, infuriating, sexy, impossible mistress unconditionally. Serve her without question, and see what happens.

[Photo by ES: Original drafts of You've Got a Book in You.]

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Long Table Requiem

One morning about six months ago I was writing in one of my garrets, a Starbucks in Bradenton, Florida, sitting at one end of the long table there.

I always thought of that table as the Mad Tea Party—big enough for six, therefore you often found yourself sharing it with strangers. Some of my favorite long table regulars were a frumpy-looking couple who would bring in a plastic shopping bag from which they'd dump a cloth chessboard and pieces, plus two timers. After getting their drinks they'd play one or two intense games, saying little to each other, then pack up and leave.

But on this day I shared the table with a fortyish woman who worked intently on her laptop doing some kind of video editing. Then we were silently joined by an older woman who sat with her cappuccino, doing nothing, looking at nothing. She seemed to be going through the motions of having coffee at a café, and her vibe was sad and unsettled.

So when she got up to go, I made a point of looking up and saying in a friendly way, "You have a good day now."

She looked at me and blurted, "My husband killed himself three weeks ago. I don't know how good today's going to be."

What could I do but get up and give her a hug? We stood talking for a few minutes. She told me her husband had run up debts for years, the extent of which she was still discovering. It appeared she would lose her house, which was also her place of business, she being an artist with her studio at home. I consoled her as best I could, even giving her my phone number if she wanted to talk.


When I saw her next at the café she thanked me for the hug and the concern. We've kept up as café buddies. One day recently she told me, smiling, "All this has forced me into the here and now. I have no idea what's going to happen next. And I'm perfectly at peace."

I have a few other café buddies, all of whom I met at the long table, and some day I'll have to tell you about them.

A month or so ago the Starbucks got redone, with new paint, different pictures on the walls, and new furniture. The long table is gone, swapped out for some nice leather chairs and smaller, low tables that students put their feet on.

I started this blog entry thinking my subject would be my café buddies, but I realized as I went that it's really about the long table.

I miss it.

[Photo by ES]

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Master List of Scary Things

[Special note: This posting is on October 31, 2013. Tomorrow, November 1, Amazon is scheduled to feature You've Got a Book in You in its Daily Deals. FYI in case you're interested in picking up an extra copy or two because you've worn yours out… or for gifts…]

Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and other greats) said, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand."

Why? Because it's a moment that's not just heart-clutching, it's scary.

Given the season, I've been thinking about scary things and their value in literature. I'm aware that authors sometimes have trouble coming up with scary things to write about. And that's a problem.

To put that problem in the rearview mirror forever, I present the Master List of Scary Things. When in doubt, have one of these come into your story. That's my advice. You are so welcome!

Clowns
A group of clowns
Spontaneous combustion
The IRS
The school cafeteria
Bats / snakes / spiders
Tarantulas (they're a spider, but they deserve their own line item)
Credit card agreement documents
Chinese drywall


Caves
Tsunamis
Rats
Black mold
Cemeteries
Preparation H
Mobs
Zombies
A mob of zombies
Hurricanes
That sealed Tupperware thing in the back of the fridge
Crocodiles
Flesh-eating bacteria
Brain-eating bacteria
Bone-eating bacteria
Old mansions
Crypts
Wasps
A sudden black screen on your computer
Gas station bathrooms
Christopher Walken
Durian fruit
Orphanages
Nail fungus
The homeowners' association board of directors
Flash floods
Nursing homes
Komodo dragons
Basements
Rip currents
Hoarders
Artificial sweeteners
Gigantic bald guys with earrings
Mummies
Tornadoes
Quicksand
The incontinence aisle
High school reunions
Unexplained night house sounds
Vultures
Nancy Grace
Fitness equipment
Great white sharks
Hornets
Earthquakes
Precipices
Elephantiasis
Loners in cabins
Belfries
Giant squid
Deserted parking garages
Tapeworms
Bad facelifts
Chainsaws
Really high platform sandals
Outhouses

Feel free to use any or all in your next writing session.

Did I forget anything? Let me know by posting a comment!

To post your ideas, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

You Become Your Story

All my life I've been a seeker. And for much of my life I was a struggler. I thought the two went together. You know, trials and tribulations! Once you conquer all those dreadful obstacles life puts in your way, you can finally approach your true potential, right?

At some point it dawned on my that I had identified myself as a struggler. That was my story: I'm a person who has to struggle along and hope for breakthroughs.

Even though all the greatest teachers—spiritual and otherwise—try like hell to make us understand that all obstacles are self-imposed, it took me some time to start to believe it.

And then I understood that we become the stories we tell about ourselves.

These days I choose struggle only when I'm out of synch. As soon as I come to my senses,


I quit struggling and remember the peace and zest that are always within.

In You've Got a Book in You, I wrote this sentence:
If it's not fun, make it fun.

But to take it a step further:
If you can't make it fun, decide that it's fun.

Now that's radical. If you've been telling yourself writing is hard and life is unfair, try another way. Take these sentences from my current story and make them your own:

I'm a confident, poised person. Nothing bothers me. I'm a highly talented writer, and I have fun producing beautiful, zestful work every day.

Writing your own story is a wonderful thing to do. If you don't like your current story, write a new one. The story of who you want to be! Write it now!

I was talking about these things with a doctor who's a real healer: a guy who healed himself first, then broke all the rules for running a practice so he could be more effective. We agreed that one's story will fulfill itself, and we talked about how each of us changed our stories to change ourselves.

He said, "And if you don't keep changing your story, you'll stop growing!"

How wise. How wonderful! How zestful!

[photo note: Seaside flower photographed by ES.]

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lounge Not Taken


I've barely shaken the road dust off from the Writer's Digest conference in Los Angeles (plus workshop in Hollywood sponsored by my buds at Kleis TV) and I'm zooming around packing for this weekend's Florida Writer's Association conference in Orlando.

There are few things more boring to read than somebody's postmortem of a conference, unless it's somebody's thinly-veiled promo about getting ready to speak at a conference. The thing is, all conferences want their speakers to shamelessly, tirelessly, and relentlessly flog the conference for months in advance, using every possible orifice of social media, and afterward try to make people regretful if they didn't go, because it was so much FUN, so that hopefully they won't miss it next time.

Oh, baby. As I used to say to the able-bodied panhandlers in San Francisco, "No can do." (Eventually I was driven to say, "Get off your ass.")

As a veteran author and conference presenter, one would think there is no rope I don't know. However, even I learn things, every time. And they're never what I expect to learn.

I think my best insight from Los Angeles happened in the hotel bar.

So this is the Century Plaza, which is the kind of hotel you always hope they'll put you up in. (Thank you, WD!) (In spite of numerous pleading telegrams from my agent, the hotel is paying me nothing to write nice things about it in this popular blog.) And there's this luxurious big cocktail lounge in the lobby, smack in the middle of everything. You have to pass by it to get from the main doors to the reception desk, then pass it again to get to the correct elevator.



And the night we get in, the bar is packed and noisy. I see well-known faces I'm supposed to walk up to and greet—"Oh, hi, so good to see you again, oh yeah, my thing's at 3 tomorrow, when's yours, oh yeah, how cool, you and I are just so cool and having so much fun!"—which is actually the last thing I want to do. I skillfully avoid them and explore, and find that there's a huge part of the bar outside, beyond some glass doors. A place that's quiet, dark, and dramatic, with stone decking and columns of warming flames shooting up in the chilly night air, and servers right handy to bring you a martini and some restorative bar food.

Why isn't anybody out here, instead of cramming up indoors?

That question hovered in the back of my mind for days before the answer burst upon me: The hotel bar is a place to be seen.

If you're someone who might possibly be recognized, perfect; otherwise you're hanging out nearby people who might be recognized, and a little of that sparkle somehow floats over on you. Moreover, this is Los Angeles, nexus of see-and-be-seen culture. You need the relatively brightly lit lobby bar for maximum exposure and ego-gratification.

If that appeals to you, that's the strategy.

No? Then join me wherever it's quiet and off the beaten path.

[Photo note: The many balconies of the Century Plaza, shot by ES.]

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

What to Leave Behind?


A wise old author once said, "Only by giving yourself permission to write poorly will you write anything at all."

Oh, wait a minute, that was me. Haha. It's on page 11 of You've Got a Book in You. I do hope to get old someday (better than the alternative), and I am an author. Wise? Some readers say so, but time—and more readers!—will have the most to say about that.

I just noticed that sentence is the most-highlighted one by readers of the Kindle version. This struck me, because it really is my most important message, and in a way it's the whole book in one nugget. If we let fly on the page without caring beforehand about the results, we free ourselves to discover things we didn't know were in us. Wonderful, good, magical stuff.

Readers have gotten in touch to say how much the book means to them, and a few of them have even attached pictures. This one is from Cordia Pearson, an accomplished writer and businesswoman:


As she said in her message, "Anointed, highlighted, starred, and most of all, used." I love it. Thank you, Cordia!

I hope You've Got a Book in You will be a significant part of my legacy as an author and person. That makes me happy. And it makes me want to do more.

I'm thinking about these things—what one leaves behind—because an elderly family member died recently. Here is a picture of Alice T. Doyle, who passed at age 91:


As the picture suggests, Alice was one of the first flight attendants in American aviation. Her legacy is more than that, however; in spite of being supremely crabby at times, she was a good friend to many people, and she dedicated much of her later life to taking care of my uncle and aunt (her sister) during their final years. She also did her part to support the bourbon industry, as well as keep alive the vocabulary used by Naval personnel during WWII.

She's not a blood relative, but to me she was an honorary member of the family.

The lesson? Since we can take nothing with us, might as well leave behind as much as possible. Whatever we can give, we give.

As for writers? More gifts lie within you. Do like I do, and give yourself permission to write poorly. But do write! And see what happens. Pour it out now, and devil take the hindmost!

Tell me what you think. To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Small Will Get You to Big

[I initially wrote this post for a Writer's Digest blog last spring, and I've heard so many nice things about it that I decided to publish it on my own darn blog.]

I'm coming to feel that aside from young children, there really is no such thing as a beginning writer. Practically everybody has some writing experience! Making the transition from 'beginner' to 'writer' is simply a matter of finishing a writing project, whether a short story, essay, article, or book.

What does it take to finish something worthwhile?

Two ingredients:

1) Zest.
2) A focus on the small.

Zest is what you have when you feel strongly about your subject, or when you feel excited about the act of writing. I'm working with a fellow who is writing his first novel, set in the world of international sport. Even though he's not very experienced, his writing is exceptional because he's so passionate about his subject. He is determined to get his novel finished and start sending it out. Zest is his fuel.

A writer without zest will not write much of anything good. You just can't. But that's all right! You can simply write, dammit, zest or no, and by writing—just by sticking with it, keeping your pen moving or your fingers going on the keyboard—you will eventually write a piece of a sentence or even a whole sentence that sounds OK. You will go, "Hey! That doesn't suck! Now I gotta keep going!"

Your zest is awakening.

Now, what's size got to do with it?

I used to think that 'the big picture' was the main thing. But over the course of my writing career I've come to realize two key things:

1) The big picture can be overwhelming, thus a hindrance to an artist, and


2) Small will get you to big.

[Note on photo: I took this picture of a prison wall with a seed sprouting from it in Cartagena, Colombia.]

Often, as writers, we don't even have the big picture, as in a fully-realized plot or a detailed outline, whether for fiction or nonfiction. If you feel you need the big picture but don't have it, that can lead to anxiety and tightness.

But a general idea of where you want to go with your writing project should suffice.

To focus on the small, simply pay close attention to each piece of a scene, character, description, conversation or memory that you want to present. If you feel stuck, don't flail around looking for what should come next. Instead, try going back to something you've touched on but haven't fully fleshed out. Write on it. Write deeper, write with more detail, write in the spirit of wanting to find things out rather than presenting them.

Say you've written a scene that ends in a dramatic moment: somebody gets killed. Maybe it feels hard to get your story going again, to ramp it up all over again. Try writing more deeply about the inner life of that victim before their life was snuffed out. Just pretend you're inside that person's head and heart and see what happens. What do you find there? How might it fuel the rest of your story? For one thing, you can do a lot more with the people who knew that victim in life.

If you write in the spirit of discovery, you'll be propelled forward by your subject. Go along for the ride! Don't try to steer, just hang on and keep going! All kinds of wonderful things will happen: you'll find new vectors to explore, you'll learn things about your subject you didn't know before, you'll realize that you ought to explore this territory next, tell that anecdote next, introduce a new character so as to fully bring to life one you've already got, and so on. And as we know, lots of little things can add up to a big thing.

If you simply keep doing that, every writing session, you will be awestruck by the number of projects you start, finish, and ship out into the world.

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ava, Frank, O.J., and me

For me, inspiration is the juice that you get from an experience that leads you from where you were a minute ago to someplace bigger, deeper, more intense. It doesn't necessarily have to be a good or positive experience.

Inspiration, for sure, can be a cliché: the beach at sunset, reading a poem about roses, listening to 'Light My Fire' on your headphones.

I find tremendous inspiration in the city of Los Angeles, and that's why I set one of my mystery series there, starting with THE ACTRESS. Oh, God, the pace, the energy, the history of it all---glamour, crime, innovation, disaster, sex, rags to riches to rags.

I lived on the West Coast for 17 years, and have spent lots of time in L.A. It's an infuriating place---all those people trying to drive on the same road you are, the asbestos-like smog, the on-the-makeness, the crime (which is just a particularly lousy way to be on the make), the poison oak in Griffith Park.

But! How sublime is the epicenter of American culture! Arguable? I simply say: the movies, custom cars, surfing, Watts Towers, and the weather.



[I took the above photo at the Griffith Observatory. Love that Greek key detailing.]

When I was in university, I got into reading Joan Didion, whose writing about L.A. I admired so much: so incisive, so caustic, so elegiac. Yes, somehow L.A. died for Joan, and she moved to New York, the next best thing.

Well, L.A. sure isn't dead for everybody.

One of the most intense experiences I've had in Los Angeles was in the summer of 1995, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial was saturating the city like creosote on a wharf piling. I flew into LAX and boarded the rental car shuttle bus, en route to a business meeting. The driver, a broad-shouldered black guy, greeted each of us with a cold stare. Once seated, I realized that the bus radio was tuned to the live broadcast of the Simpson trial. Every single passenger on that bus was white. We were all these little white businesspeople with our briefcases, and he was this stone-silent black guy with his hands gripping the wheel, and we all listened to the trial together, without anyone uttering a word, for the ten-minute ride to the car lot.

More recently, I was invited to dinner to a house in the Hollywood hills. My friend, an actor, and his wife were house- and dog-sitting for a director they knew, and they wanted some company, and I was in town. So my companion and I drove up those narrow twisting streets, and found our friends in an aerie above the city with purple evening coming on. The house had this tremendous aura of swank, with warm maple wood floors and ten-foot-high chiffon drapes screening the narrow deck. I remarked on a framed photograph of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra on a wall.

"Oh, yeah, Ava used to own this place," I was told. "The current owners keep that picture."

Immediately my glamour glands started to pump, and I smelled the lipstick and the spilled Scotch and the cigarette smoke, and the split-level house came almost alive. We drank wine in the billowing sensuous privacy of the deck. The wind picked up and night came down, and we talked and laughed about a thousand things.

I'm looking forward to being in Los Angeles this weekend (Writer's Digest conference) and the next (workshops sponsored by Kleis TV). Details at my web site. It would be great if you could join me.

Is there a particular place that gets your creative juices going?

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tapping Your Inner Villain

I find that writers are usually nice people. Nice people have a hard time understanding nasty people, let alone liking them. Let alone loving them!

You must overcome this.

Because even though you deplore evil in real life, you must be able to embrace the evil mindset to write a good novel, especially a mystery or thriller.

Not to get all English-majory on you, but I remember a pertinent lesson from studying the early novel Gargantua and Pantagruel (Francois Rabelais) in university. To hyper-simplify what Rabelais tried to convey in that vast satire: to be a man is to be a dog (with a dog's disgusting habits and appetites), and the only way to fully be a man is to enjoy being a dog.

There is our lesson for writing villains successfully: to be an author is to be a villain, and the only way to fully be an author is to relish being a villain.



Thus we must learn to enjoy playing in the dirt, oui?

Even if your story will not tell anything from their viewpoint, you really need to get to know your villains so 
they will act realistically and consistently. Brainstorming on your bad guys will definitely help your plot as well as your characters.

Reach into your own dark side for this one.

1) Spend some time remembering something awful you did that you were sorry for. The specifics are unimportant: remember how you felt when you were doing it. Jot a note or two.

2) Now remember something awful you did that you're not a bit sorry for. Feel that feeling! Jot a note or two.

Those two simple practices will instantly improve your empathy for your villains.

Now, must your villains be bent on destruction and murder 24/7? Well, no.

Real villains in the real world often act like the nicest people ever. Ted Bundy worked a suicide prevention line while he was killing women who looked like the girlfriend who threw him over. Jack the Ripper probably had friends. That BTK guy—remember him?—had a whole family, friends, a church…

Your villains are merely people acting in their own self-interest, feeding their own needs—only with total disregard for the rest of us. That is where they differ from normal people. The truly horrifying thing is, they don't have to differ all that much, to be effectively evil.

I might add that believable characters are always a mix of good and bad; it's really just a matter of degree, and of course, perspective. The axe-murderer's mother will believe to her grave that he acted in self-defense. He will believe he acted in self-defense.

Which leads us to more depth: Think about your characters, and love them, in light of human failings like self-delusion, unrealistic expectations, secret yearnings—yearnings that can't possibly come true.

Enjoy the dirt, and reap the rewards!

p.s. If you're an Angeleno, consider coming to my workshop next month, Writing is Easy and Fun: http://elizabethsims.com/LAWorkshop/

[image note: I took this photo somewhere near downtown Tampa. It just has an ulterior feel to it, doesn't it? I used another from the same shoot for the cover of the Kindle ed. of Holy Hell: A Lillian Byrd Crime Novel.]

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Unleash Your Inner Superpowers

This is the relevant stuff from the Autumn Newschat that just went out. (I send 2 or 3 per year, and your info is never shared, given, sold, or auctioned. To enlist: http://bit.ly/18VfbvN )

I was reading recently about Columbus and the egg. Sir Christopher, post-voyage, was hanging out with the Spanish nobles when one of them dissed him really bad. This dude goes, "That voyage? Discovering the Americas? Not such a big deal, man. If you hadn't done it, somebody else around here would have."

Well!

Columbus asks for an egg to be brought in. He challenges anyone to stand the egg on end. No one can. Dude, you'd need a wizard for that!

Sir Chris taps it on the table, denting the shell so it stands on end.

"What the hey?" go the nobles. "That is so baby."

"It's easy once you've seen it done," remarks Sir Christopher.

How do we know about this? Somebody wrote it down. I believe it was the servant boy who brought the egg.

Which brings us to writing! Storytelling!

Lots of people think, like the nobles gaping at the wobbly egg, that writing a book is hard, nay, impossible unless you've got superpowers.

Wrong! Join me at any of these upcoming live events and learn how to cut through the BS and write with zest, confidence, and quality. Which really means, unleash your own latent superpowers. Invest now.

Writer's Digest West, Los Angeles, September 27-29, 2013
This is a terrific conference for writers. In addition to getting to pitch your work to lots of agents, you can learn from wonderful authors and writing coaches. I'll be doing two presentations:
"How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells" (Saturday p.m.)
"Quit Your Day Job—Seriously!" (Sunday a.m.)
They gave speakers a special discount code for their friends (I believe it's 50 bucks off) (and you are my friend): WDCWSPKR

Writing is Easy and Fun, Los Angeles, October 5 and 6, 2013
Workshop in two Los Angeles locations, October 5 (West Hollywood) and October 6 (Santa Monica). Sponsored by my wonderful friends at Kleis TV. Brisk, fun, and enlightening—at a bargain price. I guarantee it.

Florida Writer's Association Conference, Lake Mary (Orlando), Fla., October 18-20, 2013
In addition to meeting wonderful writers, you'll have better access to faculty here than at mob-scene conferences. I'll be on hand for:
"How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells" as well as individual mentoring.

Also, hey, at last! On Location: Rita Farmer Mystery #3 is available in a clean, readable version on Amazon Kindle. Grab a sweater and get cozy while Rita, George, Daniel, and Petey plunge into the rain-lashed forests of Washington's Olympic Peninsula in search of missing loved ones, truth, and a sharp chainsaw.



And yes, thanks to you (!), You've Got a Book in You is doing well. http://amzn.to/18LUTYy



According to the staff at Writer's Digest Books, sales have been "very impressive". (Thank you again.) More important, I keep hearing from readers who are using the book as one uses a jackhammer to destroy hard, unwanted concrete, revealing the quality, fertile soil beneath. Joyful growth awaits you!

Writer's Digest magazine will be featuring these upcoming articles from me:
"Transform You Novel into a Symphony" (November / December 2013)
"Seven First-Novel Gaffes to Avoid" (January 2014)
Subscribe now: http://amzn.to/18EsIIe

Zestful Writing: The Blog, is gaining traction, exploring such questions as:
What does a relaxed jaw have to do with great writing?
Accomplishment or contribution? Who cares?
How can an accordion revive the human spirit? and more.

Also, did a guest blog gig for WD: "Tapping Your Inner Villain":

Keep your eggs dry and that autumn wind at your back.

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

At Least We Can Polka

This random encounter happened a few years ago, and has been quietly magical for me ever since.

I was chatting with the cashier at the grocery store. It was one of those congenial moments, and I lingered, putting away my change. The next customer was setting her stuff on the counter, and she got right into the friendly vibe.

"Oh, gotta get some extra chocolate," she said, piling on candy bars from the rack.

"Hey, I'm a woman," said the clerk, "you don't have to explain chocolate to me."

The customer put a large bag of oranges next to the chocolate.

"My house burned to the ground two nights ago," she said calmly.

The clerk and I turned to really look at her.

"Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that," I said, feeling that extra intensity that comes over you.

"Yeah," said the clerk.

The woman looked at us and smoothed her red coat.

"Well, I got out with my family---



and my accordion. We're in a motel, but at least we can polka!"

"That's a good thing," I said. "Will you all be OK, then?"

"Oh, yes. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise."

I thought for a moment, then said, "You'll never have to clean out that attic."

She looked at me with something close to delight dawning in her eyes. The attic hadn't occurred to her yet. "Yeah!" she said. "Yeah!"

Random intersections with strangers give extra depth to life. Right now, I can still see the woman in her red coat, and I can see her family in the motel, with their oranges and chocolate and their polka music. I'll probably never bump into that woman again, but I'll remember that conversation for a long time.

Readers often ask me where my inspiration comes from. Well, sometimes it comes from moments like this.

What inspires you?

Tell me! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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[photo of accordion courtesy of ArentInfrogmation via Wikimedia Commons]


Thursday, August 29, 2013

We Are All Impressionable Youth

Mother Goose was probably the first author who really moved me. Her themes of adventure, naughtiness, suffering, and redemption resonate through much of contemporary literature, and I believe her influence is all too unsung. Feels good to be able to give her a plug here.

My mother read me those. I also remember sitting on my father's knee listening to Kipling's 'The Elephant's Child' and my dad's own made-up stories of Sinbad the Sailor, which always seemed to involve a little girl who lost her dolly and cried in a bitter baby voice, then found her dolly in the end with the help of Sinbad. That doll showed up in the little girl's own back alley so often I can't tell you.

When I was in the first grade, my mother, age 40, decided to get a college degree and become a teacher. She enrolled in Eastern Michigan University and studied English literature and composition, and that was one of the signal events in my life. Suddenly, at the very time I was learning to read, new and amazing books rushed into the house. One was a gigantic anthology of children's literature that pinned my thighs to the couch like a sack of concrete as it took me to marvelous territories. I shuddered at the Norse myth of the brave Balder and the horrible Loki,



who fashioned his arrow from the Kryptonitic holly, the only plant that failed to take the oath of benignity at Balder's birth. My heart was stirred by the cheerful inventiveness of the Borrowers, and by the delicious vengefulness of Hansel and Gretel.

Man, I thought, if only I had the guts to shove Mrs. [neighbor's name redacted] into her own red-hot oven! I read of the selflessness of the kids who wanted the Wheel on the School so the lucky stork could nest there, and realized with an unpleasant feeling that if I were one of those kids, I probably wouldn't care all that much about the damn wheel, frankly.

The act of reading, much moreso than going to catechism or enduring a scolding, was the thing that first got me to consciously examine my own moral code. I looked within myself and what did I find? Quite a selfish little girl! In the hard years since, I've achieved spotty success at rationalizing and camouflaging—and at times even overcoming!—that self-interest. I keep reading in order to gain greater expertise.
My mother did in fact graduate from college, then taught high school English for ten years. Books flowed through our house. I remember the books I read way too early (Deliverance stands out), and the books I should have read at a youngish age but didn't bother to (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, one). From that, I guess I learned that a sensational story beats a sensitive one almost every time. Think back to Loki.

Life isn't fair, books teach us. But what a gift it is, they also teach us! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for having unprotected sex on New Year's Eve of 19-cough-cough!

Which stories inspired the little you? Which stories do you wish you had read at a younger age?

To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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[Image note: A rendering of Loki, harvested from Wikipedia Commons.]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How to Remember Better

I try to tell this story before every talk I give, but if there's a time crunch I leave it out. I should probably never leave it out, since it's one of the most important lessons on remembering I ever learned:

Years ago I had the opportunity to attend classes for a day at Harvard Law School. A friend of mine was a student there, and she invited me for a visit. So we're at the morning lecture in this huge amphitheater, we're sitting at these long, curved wooden desks set in tiers, exactly like you've seen in the movies. Nobody had a laptop or a tablet because laptops hadn't been invented yet, let alone digital tablets.

The professor is talking rapidly, giving information, legal theory, opinions, all this data. And sometimes she's calling on students, and they're answering, and all this good perspective is happening on the data, and I realize that the students are just sitting there.

I opened my notebook and wrote, "Why isn't anybody taking notes?" and slid it over to my friend. She wrote back, "You listen." Underlined.

And it was like, donngg. Epiphany.

I remembered back to my first job as a newspaper reporter. Sometimes a source would talk so fast you couldn't write it all down, even in the rudimentary shorthand most of us used. Since exact quotes were important, especially if the person was a public official, I'd shift from writing mode to



listening mode. (The picture is supposed to suggest 'listening' because of the headphones. Best I can do right now.) I remember feeling my attention sharpening, as my brain focused on absorption. Then I'd race off as soon as the interview was over and write down whatever relevant words might have escaped my pen.

Sitting in that Harvard classroom, I realized that when you're taking notes, it's almost like you're too busy writing words to really absorb what's being said. Since then, I take far fewer notes in any listening / learning situation, and guess what? Right! I retain more. Usually I make notes afterward, and that reinforces my recall.

So, for the next class, workshop, or conference session you attend, try doing the same. Relax, listen, and write half a page of notes later—just the main highlights. Let me know how it works for you, OK?

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

It's Like a Poem, Dude

There's this guy who gets up every morning and goes outside, his favorite place. He feels a strong compulsion to make patterns out of natural things: twigs, stones, flower petals, busted-up ice. His name is Andy Goldsworthy, and he's a famous artist, and he's made art all over the world. Some of it is totally ephemeral—it'll be resorbed by nature in a day or a week—and some of it would be considered 'permanent': carefully built dry-stone walls, for instance.

But of course, the whole point is that nothing's permanent, everything changes, everything that comes will someday go.

So why make anything? Why do anything?

Because eternity is to be found in any honest activity, be it lining up fern stems in a spiral pattern that almost makes you cry to behold it, or running a dry-cleaners in a strip plaza.

A few years ago, Goldsworthy was quoted in Time: "Right in front of your face is the stuff you choose to ignore."



A contrast to Andy Goldsworthy, yet totally heroically similar, is Mark Borchardt, working-class auteur best known as the subject of the 1999 documentary "American Movie: The Making of Northwestern." He's a guy who wanted to make a movie, not just any movie, but his firm vision of a movie.

The thing is, Mark appears to have zero artistic pretensions. He didn't go to film school, he didn't go to Hollywood and work his way up, he just did what he had to do right where he was, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with whatever the hell sparse money and resources he could scrape up. Instead of finishing "Northwestern," he wound up making a horror short called "Coven" (which he pronounced "Coe-ven").

"American Movie," won a big prize at Sundance and called lots of attention to Mark, and since then he's been a minor celebrity, dipping in and out of public view, slowly working on another picture.

"Coven" essentially sucks, but that's beside the point. Deep at Mark's core lies a bluntly heroic artist.

Mark on inspiration:

"I don't care about making a movie, but I care about making a movie that's spiritually satisfying."

On artistic integrity:

"It's like a poem, dude: 'My girlfriend punched me in my right eye, broke the glass coffee table.' That can't be altered. No one co-writes that with you."

On achievement:

"I've always been my own worst enemy, and that's a hell of a fight."

Andy and Mark are guys I've learned a lot from.

 
[photo info: Andy Goldsworthy's Arch at Goodwood, image harvested from Wikipedia Commons]

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

You've Done More Than You Think

What's the difference between these two groups of statements:

Group 1:

"I ran a marathon."

"I traveled to 6 countries on my vacation."

"I got tenure."

"I earned more this year than last."

Group 2:

"I built an app."

"I photographed the family reunion."

"I served soup at the mission."

"I wrote a book."



The things in Group 1 are accomplishments. The things in Group 2 are contributions.

Most accomplishments enrich the self.

But most contributions enrich others first, the self second.

This distinction is, to be sure, a bit of a blunt instrument; certainly some accomplishments can prepare you to make contributions. If you learn to fish, you can teach someone to fish. If you climb a mountain, the confidence you gain can be an inspiration to others.

But I say to you: The next time you get down on yourself, feeling you haven't accomplished enough in life, stop and consider your contributions. Then see how you feel.

And let that guide you going forward, whether you're prioritizing today's to-do list or setting goals for the rest of your life.

[Photo info: I took this picture in New York City in April, 2013.]

I'd love to hear your thoughts on accomplishments vs. contributions. To post something, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Become a Better Writer in One Second

This is real.

The next time you're writing, whether longhand or on the keyboard, focus for one second on your jaw. Relax it. Keep writing. Let your jaw stay loose.

Your writing, and your stream of thought, will flow better. You'll feel more grounded.

I came upon this while researching athletic performance. Evidently it's a well-kept secret among athletes that if, instead of trying to combat tension in your whole body, you focus simply on loosening your jaw, you achieve the same result more easily. Because as soon as you release tension from your jaw muscles—which seem to be the first to get tight when we're anxious about what we're doing—the head, neck, and the rest of the body naturally follow.


Professional-level singers and actors employ this technique all the time. That stands to reason, but I never thought it could apply to anything else until I learned that tuned-in athletes do it too.

I tried it while writing and it works. It's astonishing how well it works, and it's dismaying to find tension creeping back after mere seconds or minutes. A radical lesson in control and receptivity, as well as an opportunity for improving one's body awareness.

Now you try it. How goes it?

[Photo info: I took this picture at Sara Bay Country Club in Sarasota, Florida.]

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Humble Path to Triumph

The other day I was listening to a radio program that likened sensible investing to the Roald Amundsen expedition to the South Pole, while stupid investing is like Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the same place at the same time.

It was, frankly, a race. Both parties got there, but Amundsen (Norway) got there first, and he and his men got back alive. Unlike Scott (England) and his. The radio hosts (unknown, just caught a few minutes) said that the main difference was that Amundsen required his men and dogs to travel 15 nautical miles per day, no matter the conditions, while Scott's party traveled more when conditions were good, less when they weren't.

The key emphasis: While Amundsen led his men out in bad conditions to make their 15 miles, he also PREVENTED his party from traveling more than 15 miles a day. By this method his men and dogs were fresher at all times. "Fifteen miles? Dudes, we're done! Let's pitch them tents and gnaw on some butter sticks!" No periods of extreme exhaustion, no anxiety to make up for time lost hunkering in bad weather.

I read up on this and found that there were more differences between the expeditions, like the plain fact that Amundsen's party was better prepared and used simpler equipment, and the fact that Scott's expedition included lots of stopping to gather scientific data, which took not just time but energy.

What all this has to do with investing I don't know exactly because I didn't hear the whole program, but I'd guess we're talking prudence and patience.

But I do know what Amundsen and Scott have to do with us writers.



In recent years due to challenging life conditions I put off writing new fiction, waiting, as it were, for the weather to clear. It took some pressure off, but put other pressure on.

Because I knew I SHOULD be writing fiction in spite of the other demands on my time and energy, in spite of the other obligations—writing and otherwise—I'd taken on, and I was always a little uneasy.

One day I woke up and realized that 1) the weather might never fully clear, and 2) it was futile to expect, or wish, for it to clear.

Under those conditions, I needed to be happy with small but steady fiction output. Once I accepted that, things flowed better, and guess what? I'm on my way to the pole. Gonna plant that flag.

Join me.

How's it going with your writing? Does this story make sense to you?

I value your comments! To post one, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

[Photo info: I took this picture of a Magnificent Frigatebird at the Panama Canal.]

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

WILL TALK WRITING FOR MARTINIS

Aspiring authors sometimes ask me whether they should go to a writing conference.

The short answer is yes, if it's one I'm going to be speaking at.

Your remaining options in 2013 are:

·         Writer's Digest West, in Los Angeles September 27-29. All information here: http://tinyurl.com/c76lmtu.  I'll be doing two presentations, one on Saturday afternoon ('How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells'), the other Sunday morning ('Quit Your Day Job—Seriously!).

·         Florida Writer's Association, in Lake Mary, Florida (Orlando) October 18-20. All information here: http://floridawriters.net/2013_FWA_Conferences.html For this one I'll be doing 'How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells.'

At both of these conferences you'll meet and learn from other experienced professionals, be able to buy books and get them signed, and not least, you'll meet other aspiring writers.

The longer answer to "Should I go to a conference?" is this: Conferences cost time and money, and you need to be reasonably sure the conference you pick will be worth it.
 
The best way to pick a conference is read the schedule and see who the faculty is. If your writerly heart beats faster while reading a session description, pay attention. If this happens three or more times, seriously consider going to that conference.

Star appeal is a funny question. Most conferences feature one or two brand-name authors, and if a particular author is an idol of yours, it would be cool to meet that person. You'd naturally want to thank them for writing the books they do, and hey, maybe it would be possible to pick their brain on the art and business of writing, if only for a few minutes.

Trouble is, the bigger the name, the more they'll be overrun by fans (or cornered by overt opportunists), and the less chance you'll have of making contact. I remember being at a huge conference that featured a marquee author I really wanted to meet. I went to his session, and that was neat, but afterward he was so totally swarmed that I never got a chance to talk with him one on one.

So if you do meet up with that big-name author, great! But the more rewarding approach is to focus on learning new things and making friends. There is absolutely no way Facebook or Twitter can give you the sort of connection that just hanging out with somebody can. I should probably stand in the hotel bar holding a sign that says, "WILL TALK WRITING FOR MARTINIS." (I will absolutely talk writing for martinis.)
 
Moreover, most presenters try to be as available as possible during conferences, not just at the official meet-n-greets. I like to hang out after my presentation and answer questions I couldn't get to in the time allotted. If I have to vacate the room for the next speaker, I pull over somewhere nearby (ideally a corridor with a comfy chair or two!) and listen to aspiring writers and try to help them.

Apart from the presenters, there are your fellow participants. If, when you look in the mirror, you see a nice, interesting, caring person there (and I know you do), you will be amazed at how many nice, interesting, caring people you will find at a writing conference!

It's true. Writers tend to be terrific people. Smile, schmooze, and make friends. Some friendships will last a lifetime. It's happened to me.

Have you attended a writing conference? How did you approach the experience? Tell us! To post a comment, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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