Thursday, December 25, 2014

Very Christmas

Zestful Blog Post # 85

I expected to rise up bright and early this morning and write another lengthy post in my ‘publishing history’ series, but to heck with that. Apart from slight dehydration from last night’s Christmas cheer (great euphemism), I’m filled with loving thoughts of you, my readers and friends, and just want to say thank you for being there. Thank you for your enthusiasm for writing well, for living life to its fullest, and for always being open to something new and good. I hope you're having a perfect day.

Just for fun, here’s a photo I snapped the other night in my neighborhood, which some of you might have seen yesterday on my personal Facebook page. (If you’re not my friend yet on FB, please shoot me a request.)



The quintessential Florida roof decoration.

Love and cheer to you today and always, whatever your religion or belief.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Moving Into the Mainstream

Zestful Blog Post # 84

The series about my publishing history continues today.

5) Moving Into the Mainstream

When an artist belongs to some sort of minority, that artist must decide what kind of art to make. Shall I make art that I think/guess/hope will be understood/appreciated/purchased by a mainstream audience, or shall I produce something that speaks more specifically to my own smaller group, whatever that is, and take the risk of obscurity? Shall I be myself, or pretend to be someone else?

Leaving aside the question of figuring out one’s identity (which can take a lifetime right there), this can be a challenge. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, knew that in the male-dominated public sphere of her time, female authors were “liable to be looked upon with prejudice” and thus wrote Jane Eyre under the male name Currer Bell. She was just one of many female, or black, or Jewish (etc.) authors who concealed their personas in order to come across as one of the mainstream.



A main stream, with tug. [photo by ES]

Some authors who were gay / lesbian / bisexual or otherwise not part of the bicameral sexual culture have written books strictly about straight people and their lives. And some have been criticized for it by the politically-correct contingent. A subject for another post, perhaps. Incidentally, I believe a lot of gay writers who didn’t want to come out turned to mystery writing, because you can write gripping stories that have little to do with characters’ inner lives.

Finding some success with my Lillian Byrd series, I hungered for a larger audience. That could be achieved if I got published by a major house. And the major houses wanted, almost exclusively, mainstream stuff.

While trying to get Holy Hell published, I wrote a mainstream novel about the bookselling scene, which sparked some interest among the agents I queried, but again no offers for representation. So when strategizing again about getting picked up by a major publisher, I left aside that book and decided to write another novel, a mainstream mystery. This was a business decision.

The story, called Crimes in a Second Language, involves a retired schoolteacher who befriends her Latina cleaning woman by offering to teach her English. Their developing friendship leads to trouble with the cleaner’s husband, who appears to be involved in some dark business. And so on.

I sent excerpts to agents, and finally heard from Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass agency. “I can tell you’re a great writer,” she said, “but I don’t think I can sell this book. Do you have other ideas?”

Yes, I did. I sent her a batch of three or four ideas for crime / mystery novels, including a series of linked stand-alones, and she got back to me with some enthusiasm. She loved the concept of The Actress, in which a struggling actress is approached by a high-end defense attorney to coach his client, an unsympathetic society mom who’s up for the murder of her own daughter. The actress is a divorced mother of a little boy, with a gay best friend and a nasty ex-husband lurking in the background. “If you can write this one,” Cameron said, “I think I can sell it.”

So I spent a year on the project, and sure enough she did sell it to a major publisher. There’s a story to that, which I’ll detail next time.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Breaking Through

Zestful Blog Post #83

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’m writing a series of posts about my publishing history. Herewith today’s installment:

4) Breaking Through

Weary of querying agents who failed to recognize my brilliance, I set about querying publishers directly. This ruled out the biggest ones in New York, who only took agented submissions. I queried some of the smaller mainstream publishers, but none were interested. How to get through that brick wall between me and publishing success?

The leading LGBT publisher at the time was Alyson Books, named after its founder, Sasha Alyson. The editors there were discriminating, they paid advances, and they published most of the top authors. Unsurprisingly, their authors’ books sold well and won awards, most notably the Lambda Literary Awards, aka the Lammys.

A rung down from Alyson, for my purposes, was Naiad Press, a women-only concern that published broadly (OK, pun intended), did not pay advances, but published some significant books and fostered many a career. A number of authors started out with Naiad, then switched to Alyson once they became better known. The co-founder and publisher, Barbara Grier, was committed to the feminist/lesbian literary cause. She was outspoken, loved and feared, she was a good businesswoman, and many authors and readers are grateful to this day, years after her death.

I felt that Holy Hell and the sequels I intended to write, would be a good fit for Alyson, so logically I should have approached them first.

But was I logical? No, I was insecure. I had felt the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection. I believed that Naiad, which in my opinion published lots of crap along with their good stuff, would surely go mad for the quality of writing in Holy Hell. I wanted the sure thing. So I sent in a query, and as I expected, received a letter of interest asking for an exclusive look at the whole manuscript. I sent it.


[Gotta break it…]

A few weeks later the phone rang. My partner, Marcia, answered it. “I'm calling for Elizabeth Sims,” said a gruff voice on the line. “This is Barbara Grier. Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, I do,” answered Marcia. She ran to tell me.

Barbara Grier herself!

Surprised, flattered, and thrilled, I closed the door to my office and took the call.

“Hello, Ms Grier.” I picked up a pen and made notes of the conversation, having gotten into the habit of doing that for important business calls.

“Well, you have some talent,” she began without preliminaries. Her tone was not, however, one of encouragement. She sounded like a woman suffering from a grave disappointment.

Barbara explained that she gave the manuscript to three of her “readers”, as was her protocol. Their report: one felt “lukewarm” about the book, the other two were frankly thumbs-down.

“It's just not a good book,” she said bluntly.

I felt dismayed but not crushed. I listened carefully, determined to glean whatever wisdom I could from this highly experienced publisher, who cared enough to phone me and talk. Maybe she'd suggest I make some changes and submit it again. “You obviously don't understand how to write a good lesbian novel,” she went on. “You don't understand what women should be reading. This main character of yours—”

“Lillian Byrd,” I interjected.

“She gets herself into all these dangerous situations—I mean really life-threatening situations—and that's not the kind of message women should be hearing.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I see.”

The whole point of Holy Hell was to let Lillian learn things the hard way, thus entertaining my hoped-for readers. But the book's black humor was completely lost on Barbara and her staff. I realized that she and I were unlikely to find much common ground.

Barbara paused, and I got the impression she was referring to some notes. “She goes into these dark alleys, I guess. Right?”

“Right. It's a crime novel.”

“She gets shot!

“Right.”

“That's stupid! That's just stupid to have her do that!”

At this point I had to bite my finger to keep from laughing. Barbara paused, as if waiting for a response. But I couldn't think of anything to say. I certainly wasn't going to try to defend my work to someone who was so profoundly missing the point.

“Well, let me give you some advice,” Barbara said at last.

“Yes, please do.”

“You should find a writing group. Like I said, you've got some talent, but you have a long way to go.”

“Mm.”

“We publish a lot of lesbian books.”

“Yes, I know.”

“We don't give advances, and frankly, I've never seen a book that deserved one. But our books sell. Our hottest-shit writer, Claire McNab, makes a good living! You could too, if you learned a few things.”

After hanging up, I let my laughter out. The conversation had been so ludicrous, and Barbara's belief—that women shouldn't read fiction about a woman who blunders into dangerous situations—was so stunningly idiotic, so patronizing, that laughter was the only possible response.

I opened the door to my office and went to find Marcia.

“She hated it!” I announced.

Marcia, seeing me smiling, thought I was joking.

“No, she really hated it.” I related the conversation.

“She called to tell you that?” Marcia couldn't believe it. We dissolved into laughter together. How bizarre! How insane!

After that, I decided to go to the top of the quality heap, Alyson Books. They read my query and asked to see the manuscript. I sent it, they loved it, offered me a contract (with an advance!), and published it.

Before the book went to press, I inserted a scene near the end in which Lillian Byrd's ex-girlfriend scolds her for getting herself into such awful trouble. She uses the same words Barbara Grier said to me in that phone conversation. Just my private little f*ck-you to Barbara, though I doubt she ever saw it.

Holy Hell saw three printings between 2002 and 2006, and has continued to sell steadily in e-book form. (I’ll soon release a new edition of the paperback.) Holy Hell's sequel, Damn Straight, won the 2003 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian mystery. I wrote two more books in that series, Lucky Stiff and Easy Street, before deciding I wanted to break into the big time.

That story next time.

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[Brick wall photo by ES.]

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Flower Watered With Tears

Zestful Blog Post #82

Last week I said that Holy Hell took a long time to write, and a longer time getting published. Here’s more on that. I’ll call this installment:

3) A Flower Watered With Tears

So I was working for Borders as a floor clerk, shelving books, ringing up books at the registers, gift-wrapping books (yeah, really, olden days) and thinking, as I pushed package after package across the counter, This could be me. This could be me.

I saw how well the pulpy novels in the gay-lesbian section sold and thought I could toss off a novel along those lines. Frankly, I thought I could bring better quality to the genre, which was notorious for low standards. I figured if I could get one published and start building a backlist of potboilers, I could perhaps have a career as an author. Then I could branch out into other kinds of fiction—literary stuff, which might not sell very well. Incidentally, I find a lot of authors don’t know what the term potboiler means. It’s pretty literal: work that sells reasonably well because it’s pleasing to popular tastes, thus it keeps the soup pot boiling on the back of the stove so you can be a well fed artist instead of a starving one.


[I like to draw too.]

I worked on Holy Hell on and off for the last eight of the ten years I was with Borders. During that time I got promoted from floor clerk to assistant manager to general manager. Then I got a major promotion to regional director in charge of West Coast expansion, which required a move to San Francisco. A busy, exciting time! I flew around the West, hiring and counseling managers and opening stores. At that level, you have precious little time for creative projects; you’re writing emails in your hotel room at eleven-thirty at night, and when you’re home you’re doing your laundry and paying bills. In the space of six months I earned super-premier status on two airlines (United for north-south, Northwest for west-east). I used to wake up in hotel rooms not remembering which city I was in, and having to get up, open the drapes, and look out the window to get it straight. Portland was the easiest, because our travel coordinator always booked me in a room in the downtown Marriott with a view of Mt. Hood. Seattle: Space Needle. Anchorage: Lake Spenard. And so on. My novel languished.

One day my boss called and said he wanted to talk to me about another opportunity within the company, but it would involve a move back to Ann Arbor (the homeland). I knew that was code for ‘vice president of something or other’, which would have been nice. But the internal pressure to be an author was building. So I said, “Don’t tell me about it. I want to stay in California.” And I knew it was time to commit to my writing.

Meanwhile, the company was changing in ways I didn’t like, and I left Borders soon after that conversation. I had stock options, only some of which were vested. The value of the options I left behind was a little over $300,000. This caused me some lost sleep until the stock price dropped drastically months later due to overexpansion and the Amazon effect, and my former colleagues saw their retirements go up in smoke. This was around 1997-98.

I worked on Holy Hell and got it into what I felt was publishable shape. I started querying literary agents without immediate success. While I kept at that, I wrote a new novel, this one based on my experiences in the bookselling business. This took a couple of years.

A few agents nibbled seriously at Holy Hell. One highly successful one asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript, then got back to me and said the story got going well, but ended poorly. I was a ‘such a great writer,' this agent said, and it was a pity they had to decline this book. Several other agents seemed interested, then ultimately said no.

The most instructive experience was with a New York agent who took a look at the manuscript and phoned me to talk about it. If I could make the plot more complex and increase the length (from I think about 55,000 words to more than 65,000), she thought she could sell it to one of the bigger publishers. I said I could do that, and we chatted amiably about life and books, finding we had many things in common. I felt this woman could become not only my agent, but my friend. Moreover, I was excited to learn she might be able to place the book NOT with one of the niche publishers known for LGBT pulp, but with a publisher with higher standards and a broader reach.

So I set to work, and three months later got in touch. There was a slightly different tone in this agent’s voice, which aroused my anxiety, but she told me to send her the manuscript. (This was still in the days when everything was done via U.S. post. Things were starting to change, though, with higher-speed connectivity that soon allowed for a book-length file to be sent and received without tying up your system for half a day.)

Shortly after she received the manuscript, the agent phoned me. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew something was wrong. The book was wonderful, she said. I listened guardedly. She said I’d done exactly what she’d requested, and gosh, the manuscript turned out great.

Right. OK. Listening.

But except. Except. “Except I signed another author two weeks ago, with a book that’s somewhat like yours. So we really can’t take you on. I’m sorry.”

Sorry didn’t begin to describe how I felt, given the height of the stack of rejection letters I’d accumulated by then. But I thanked her politely for her time and, after letting myself feel absolutely horrible for a few hours (including pleading with God for a sign), then positively crappy for a few days, then fairly down for a few weeks, decided I needed to take a different course.

Publication is near.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Training as a Writer

Zestful Blog Post #81

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Isn’t Thanksgiving a great weekend? Just heat ’n’ serve.

As promised, here’s more of my publishing history, all of which has informed my decision to launch an imprint and self-pub my next novel. I’ll call this installment:

2) Training as a Writer

After getting my degree in English from Michigan State University, I went to work at a small weekly newspaper in the Detroit area. I’m leaving the name out, because I’ve spoken in public about my boss’s (unwelcome) sexual advances, and in any event the paper is long defunct. I don’t know where that boss is today, but I did learn a lot from him, regardless of his clueless personal behavior.

Being a community journalist was a terrific education, way beyond anything college could have provided. You learn how a newspaper works, how a city works, and how a city really works. In many small papers, the reporters are young and green, and I was that. I remember being shocked to see decisions made by public officials (elected and appointed) that went against the public good because of some City Hall dick fight or other. I remember being incredulous at how people—citizens, officials—would form firm opinions on acutely important issues based on information they knew to be incomplete. I learned that integrity in the public sphere does exist, however, and it’s rare.

I did reporting, photography, and editing. The most valuable stuff I learned was how to write concisely and how to edit for brevity and accuracy. Also, of course, how to write under pressure of an inviolate deadline. Being young and anxiety-free, I never sweated if I didn’t have a front-page story as deadline morning approached; something always turned up.

After leaving the paper to take a finding-myself trip around the country, then knocking around in different jobs, all of which required writing (training-materials writer, tech writer, etc.) I wound up selling books for a couple of guys named Tom and Louis Borders. I wrote short stories and sent them around. Wrote a short novel which I set aside, knowing it wasn’t really publishable. Had a few stories published in another Detroit-based literary journal, Moving Out, which was a by-and-for-women venture. I served on their editorial board for a couple of years, then eventually the thing dissolved. This was in the late 1980s.


[John King’s used bookstore in Detroit, where I bought many a cheap read, and still do, whenever I get to town. Photo by ES.]

Simultaneous with starting to work for Borders (at the second store they built, in Birmingham, Michigan), I enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit for my master’s in English, specializing in composition theory. I thought maybe I should become a professor, but I eschewed the MFA program for two reasons:

1) I was wary of anybody telling me how to write; and

2) I thought the composition theory program, once I got my Ph.D, would foster more job opportunities.

But I discovered a much different school environment than I had expected. For instance, when I challenged a professor’s ideas in a paper, he wrote me a letter suggesting I drop his class. But I did have profs with normal-sized egos too. The main problem for me was academic writing: I just couldn’t get over how stilted and opaque most of it was. I was like, I’m supposed to be learning how to help students write well, and my class texts are this, and I’m supposed to write the same way?

One day the book editor for the Detroit Free Press asked my boss at Borders if he could recommend anybody on staff to write book reviews, and he suggested me. So I wrote reviews for them for a couple of years, which was really cool, because I got paid $100 or $150 per review, plus I got lots of free first editions. RIP book page of the Freep.

Wayne State holds an annual writing contest, the Tompkins Awards (with cash prizes), for its students, and for the hell of it I entered my not-ready-for-publication novel, Things to Come, in the graduate division. It won, to the chagrin (I learned) of the MFA students. I felt validated as a fiction writer, but I didn’t do anything more with that manuscript. Mainly the reason was that at Borders I was busy discovering that I had a talent for managing people, and I was enjoying learning about the world of retail and business. Plus I wasn’t sure whether I had what it took to be a real novelist. Plus I had to pay the rent.

Regardless, I did begin another novel, the beginning of which was based on my experiences at the newspaper. I called it Holy Hell, and I was a long time getting it done, and a longer time finding a publisher. But those things happened, and I’ll write about that and more next week.

Is your house starting to smell great yet? Please enjoy your day and your weekend.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Spruce Park Press?

Zestful Blog Post #80

Last week I mentioned that I’m doing revisions on and preparing to self-publish my next novel, Left Field. The ‘long-awaited’ fifth in the Lillian Byrd series, Left Field opens with Lillian doing odd detective jobs for a pair of odder recluses in one of Detroit’s last remaining prestige neighborhoods. After spotting a corpse on the next-door lawn, she… well, more on the story soon. Today I’ll be talking publishing.

I’ve heard from readers who wonder why I’m publishing under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press. Funny, I sat down and tried to answer that in a blog-postable 400-600 words, but found I had to compress and omit way too much, including how I got my first publishing contracts and representation. The micro version is simply this:

There are a number of established publishers who have expressed interest in Left Field or anything in the LGBT line I might write. I run into them at conferences, or they email me or put out a feeler via a common friend. But none of them offers terms I want.

That’s the short, literal answer, and it’s rooted, of course, in the digital revolution. How did I arrive at this point?
[The logo for my imprint, designed by TreeHouse Studios. I love it so much I’m thinking I might want to do more with it, like publish others someday.]

For a long time I thought my publishing history wouldn’t engross anybody, thus I omitted it from this blog. But when I get to talking informally with aspiring writers, especially novelists, I find that they are acutely interested in the twists and turns of my career, and they find my perspective helpful—to the point of grabbing the front of my shirt and demanding to know more. Think you’re the only one with publishing heartache? Look no further! Stick with me.

I’ll give you some detail and flavor of the whole enterprise, while keeping things chronological and more or less concise. The point is that my actions and decisions today all are based on my experiences. So here’s the story of my experience. The first installment today, more to come.

1) First Publications

Like many young people with literary ambitions, I got started writing poetry and short fiction, and had my first publications with those. In undergrad school at Michigan State I submitted all over the place, including the New Yorker, which was laughable, but they actually sent me a handwritten no-thank-you. (Aiming high never hurt anybody, I firmly believe. Aiming low, however, is a different story.)

Eventually I had some poems published in the Detroit-based literary journal The Smudge, edited by Douglas Mumm and Kurt Nimmo. (Where are they today? Thank you, guys.) I remember standing in my dorm room opening that first acceptance letter and howling with excitement. The girl in the next room came running in, fearing I was killing an animal. Hey, I told her, I’ve just skipped over the school literary journal and gone right to the hardscrabble level of an independent magazine. They want three of the six poems I sent! They want a photo of me!

So I enlisted a guy I was dating to shoot some black-and-white pictures of me looking dramatic in a dark alley, beneath a cone of grainy light. I sent those in, but the editors wrote back saying they wanted something more legible. Perhaps some shots of me indoors under better lighting? So we tried again, and the result was a picture of me smiling enthusiastically, as if someone had just told me I was really smart. This was in the late 1970s. In spite of my best efforts to suppress it, my birth date is now public information, so I might as well be honest about my vintage. The Smudge was, like many an underfunded journal, short-lived, but it gave me affirmation and confidence.

More next week, which will span quite a few years and bring us up to the publication of my first novel, Holy Hell.

Speaking of poetry, here’s something from one of our fellow zestful writers, Lidy Wilks. Her new book of poetry, Can You Catch My Flow?, is available here.

I’ll be glad to share your link too. Let me know when you have something new out, OK?

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Experience with a Recent Edit

Zestful Blog Post #79

Fans of my four-book Lillian Byrd series of crime novels will be pleased to learn that the fifth, Left Field, is almost ready for release. (People who hate the series will not be pleased, and will perhaps spend several minutes staring at their shoes before getting on with their lives.)

Given that I'm publishing the book under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press (more on that next week), I considered releasing it after making it as good as I possibly could. Who would know better than I? After all, I'm an editor myself—I've been a newspaper editor and corporate writer, and my title at Writer's Digest is Contributing Editor. I've done developmental editing for select clients and have judged literary competitions.

To be sure, when it comes to one's own work, one sometimes does know best. I've submitted short stories to magazines and anthologies that got published with negligible editing, not to mention newspaper and magazine articles. I know some self-published novelists who don't get their stuff professionally edited, yet sell lots of copies in spite of it.

Yeah, I say 'in spite of it.' Because novels are different.


They're long and they're complicated, and by the time you've typed 'The End' you're like Jackson Pollock looking at one of his own paintings from a distance of two inches.

I suspected I was too close to my material to view it objectively, and I'd also come down with CRD, or Creeping Rot Disease, which is a disorder characterized by the conviction that your book is irredeemably horrible. It strikes all authors at least once per book, even experienced ones. Actually I knew my novel couldn't be irredeemably horrible, but I was fatigued with the project. What if I'd missed something critical? My manuscripts are very clean, but sometimes even I make a grammatical goof or misuse a word. Left Field is complex, with several subplots and lots of action. Moreover, what if a trusted editor came up with some ideas—small or big—that could make the book better?

The thing is, a good editor—emphasis on good; many are mediocre and I wouldn't trust them with my grocery list—doesn’t merely help you improve your book. A good editor helps you learn to be a better writer. You read over the edited manuscript and see from another person's perspective. You go, "Oh, yeah!" when you come across a valuable comment, correction, or suggestion. Your perspective broadens and your understanding of good writing deepens.

I'm experienced enough to be able to read an edited version of my book and pick and choose what I want to change. (No writer agrees 100% with any editor, because editing is in part subjective.) So I called up my friend Angela Brown, who in her capacity as Editor-in-Chief for Alyson Books when it was the leader in LGBT publishing, edited all four of the first Lillians. She happily agreed to be my editor again (for a fee, of course).

What I got out of it:

1) Affirmation that Left Field is a brilliant book and I'm a true professional.

2) I had made no mission-critical mistakes.

3) I had, however, made several errors in continuity and usage.

4) Suggestions for improvements and clarifications, like word choice (I used 'muttered' too many times) and grammatical constructions ('We were friends,' changed to 'We had been friends,' for clearer meaning in a particular passage, for instance.) Also requests for more detail in some places.

5) Plot-level suggestions on making things stronger, such as: 'As a reader I wanted some kind of happier ending for [X character].'

Authors who want to pinch pennies and rush their material to market shouldn’t consider hiring a professional editor. But if you really care about your readers' experience and if you care about your legacy as an author, do everybody a favor and hire some help. After all, you will be dead sooner or later. Let readers 200 years from now read your book and tell their friends, "I just discovered this! It's FABULOUS!"

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lost & Found

Zestful Blog Post #78

Today let us speak of the things around the edges of life. Lost things, detritus, discards. Everything tells a story—or could, in your hands.

We can't give everything in the world around us our deep attention every minute; we're constantly making thousands of conscious and unconscious choices as to what to pay attention to. But a way to develop as an author—or artist, craftsperson, inventor, human being—is to be open. That is, to give some consciousness to the stuff around the edges.

Something catches


your eye. You can categorize it and move on, like especially if you're running late for a therapy appointment. Or you can pause and let that edge thing register a bit more deeply.

My friend Sandra Moran, a prizewinning author, routinely stops and photographs interesting litter. At first I thought, "That's cool," then I decided it wasn't, because maybe it makes you keep your head down too much. Plus litter tends to be dirty, and who likes looking at dirty stuff all the time?

Then, recently, I was walking through a parking lot and noticed a lost baby sock on the ground. I stopped, looked, and took a picture. Actually



I took two. Because somehow I saw potential, even apart from the purely visual aspect of the composition of the soft baby sock lying on the rough macadam. My heartbrain was stimulated, I saw story, I saw possibility.

There's the story of the sock itself—spun and woven in a mill somewhere, according to a pattern devised by some baby-sock designer, then mated with an identical twin, packaged, shipped, shelved, and purchased.

There's the story of the baby, the mother and father, the family. Is the family poor, and will this lost trifle cause hardship? Did the baby kick it off or did a small sibling pull it off for the hell of it and throw it? Was the baby wanted? Was the sock wanted? What else might be missing in that baby's life?

Do you see how there is story everywhere?

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Your Starting Line

Zestful Blog Post #77

Since lots of bloggers are posting today about writing, what with National Novel Writing Month (check it out at www.nanowrimo.org) starting on Saturday, I want to help you in a different way by giving you some info on writing materials, specifically paper. If you write first drafts by hand, as I do, your paper is your starting line.

I think many writers are closet gearheads. We're into gear but we're not supposed to be, because unlike painters and their materials, our materials don't figure in our finished products; a writer's materials become pointless when the story or article is published, because a new medium takes it over, so to speak.

But they're NOT pointless. They have power. 



If you use rollerballs, ballpoints, gel tips, or pencils, your choice of paper can be based on aesthetics and price. Writing with fountain pens is another matter, as their sensitive nibs will snag on papers that are even a little bit rough. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the paper (that is, the higher the pulp-to-rag content), the rougher the writing surface.

For years I wrote my first drafts—novels, stories, articles, everything—exclusively on yellow pads, preferably Gold Fibre brand, as the paper is thicker, smoother, and more pleasing than the cheap pads, plus I liked the thicker cardboard backing. They took fountain pen ink pretty well. Then I started writing more with rollerballs and gels, and was able to save a few bucks by buying the cheapest spiral notebooks, as the paper quality just didn't matter as much. Then I got sick of throwing away empty pens or hunting for refills that cost almost as much as the pen itself. Now I write a lot with my pretty little neon-yellow Lamy with a 1.1mm italic nib, which is pretty sensitive.

I went on line and ordered a few different kinds of spiral notebooks, to see how different ones worked with a temperamental fountain pen, and to see how pleasing they were to look at and handle. (I have no business relationship with any of the following companies and their products. If only.)

Here's the review:

National Brand Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper 1 Subject Notebook, 80 sheets, 10" x 8": I like the pale-green color and the narrow rules. Most important, the paper is quite smooth. The Lamy doesn't snag. The paper, though, is pretty thin, and some inks will feather (meaning flow out a little from the line written, causing a fuzzy look), and some will bleed through, making it hard to use both sides. No micro-perforation, which makes tearing out pages messier than one might like. Somewhat flimsy spiral wire, but doesn't seem to be a big issue. Extra points for the matte tan cover, which may easily be customized with a doodle or pasted-on label. $2.99 (all prices on Amazon).

Campus Wide Notebook, 70 sheets, 10" x 7", the cover of which sports the legend, embossed in silver, "Campus notebooks contain the best ruled foolscap suitable for writing". I first bought one of these in San Francisco's Japantown, years ago, and liked it a lot. Got some new ones, which are as good as the old ones. Excellent smooth paper, narrow ruled. Resistant to bleed-out and bleed-through, which means you can write on both sides of the paper, a practice that doubles the usable acreage. No micro-perforation. Excellent quality thick cover boards and double spiral binding. Costly, but this is a top quality item. $10.99 each.

Gold Fibre Retro Pad, wide rule, 70 sheets, 8-1/2" x 11-3/4", Antique Ivory. Love the features of this one: the brown mottled covers, the copper-look spiral binding, the buff-colored paper with brown ruler lines, the fact that the reverse sides are quarter-inch graph ruled, the micro-perforations. Apparently the quality of the paper these days is less than before, which is unfortunate. I get a fair amount of feathering and bleed-through with fountain pen ink, and the surface isn't as smooth as I'd like. Yet I love the appearance of this thing, and I often tote one around if I'm going to mainly use anything other than a fountain pen with it. $5.08 each.

Clairefontaine classic wirebound, 90 sheets, 8-1/2" x 11". The emperor of notebooks, as far as I'm concerned. Excellent quality paper, smooth and thick. Takes any ink and nib, no feathering, no bleed-through, so you can use both sides. High quality double-spiral binding, micro-perforations, and full page size make this one a joy to use. You pay for it, all right, but I think I'll probably always have a few of these on hand. So pleasurable to use. I've customized the one in the picture by taping a postcard of Van Gogh's 'Madame Roulin' on it. $15.42 each.

Do tools matter? Yes. Can good paper make you a better writer? No. Can it make you a happier, more productive writer? Damn straight it can.

Tell us about the papers you use, hey?

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Story Power

Zestful Blog Post #76

When I was a teenager my mother and I went to see "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the local movie theater. (Given how seriously she took her Catholicism and how totally immune she was to rock & roll, I was impressed at Mom's adventurousness.) We chatted over our popcorn while the theater filled up. A pair of nuns in full habit came in and took seats in the row behind us.

Apart from having to explain to Mom, during the movie, that if you didn't catch every word of "Hosanna, hey-sanna, sanna, sanna-ho", that was OK, the key moment for me was when Judas's hand reaches out for the bag of silver. In a soft, distressed tone, one of the nuns behind us called, "No, Judas!"



Mom and I laughed quietly. That nun urging Judas to reject the blood money has stuck in my mind all these years, because it was such a perfect manifestation of the power of story. If anybody knew how this one was gonna end, it was that nun. Yet she was so drawn in—she felt the story so deeply—that she was moved to try to intervene.

Years later I received a gag gift of a paint-by-number set of Leonardo daVinci's "The Last Supper". I took the gift seriously, however, completed the painting, and had it framed. It hangs in my office. (Didn't I do a nice job?) I note that Leonardo made clear to the local illiterate peasants which one is Judas, because he's the only one with his elbow on the table (rude sonabitch), he's holding a bag (wonder what's in it?), he's spilled the salt cellar (bad luck), and his head is lower than anyone else's (status mattered, then as now).

OK, so that's four clues in one painting. If that painting were a contemporary novel, we'd consider it heavy-handed to put all those clues in. It's our job as authors to avoid doing such, because our audience is ever more sophisticated. And it's a fun dance, calculating how much to let our readers figure out in advance.

How to gauge it?

Stress-free guideline #1:

This will help you instantly: Always assume that your every reader possesses a voracious, sharp intellect and loves your genre.

Nobody hits it perfect, and every author makes mistakes, but do what the best ones do, and never err in the direction of dumbing down or broadening your hints. Why? Because keeping it smart and narrow pleases sharp readers, and the dull ones will realize it was their fault they didn't pick up on the clues. If they love reading, they'll figure they'll have to keep a sharper lookout next time. Thus is a discerning reader born. You have a hand in it.

Stress-free guideline #2:

If, for instance, you're going to surprise us by revealing at the end that a good guy was really the bad guy all along, give us only one or two hints along the way. We don't need more.

Let's say you've got a hearty, beloved kindergarten teacher who turns out to be the one who is abducting kids to be melted down for their growth hormones on the international black market. Besides her talents at communicating lessons and soothing tears, you might let drop that years ago she worked as a Border Patrol agent but got too stressed out and had to quit. (Thus she would naturally have knowledge of at least one way to smuggle people.)

That's just a little example. Now open your heartbrain and come up with more!

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tear Off and Enlarge

Zestful Blog Post #75

Whenever I prepare to do a writing workshop, I feel I should start by having everybody meditate or relax quietly for a few minutes, to clear and make ready our minds and hearts. But I've never done it, because I know some people are turned off by such novelties. And I don't want to turn anybody off. Actually, I just now realized that I want to avoid the mild emotional hassle of perceiving someone's rejection of the practice—the heavy sigh, the muttered comment.

Wrong, I've decided. This is my show and I should run it as I see fit, and if you're with me, you're with me. Writing is art, art is mysterious, and to achieve exceptional results,



you MUST tap into something beyond technique. [photo of Roy Gussow / Jose de Rivera sculpture by ES]

This decision was reinforced the other day when I read a profile of the painter Chris Ofili in the New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins. One of Ofili's art teachers, Bill Clark, had his students lie down and be with their thoughts for a while at the start of class. That's cool, but what's even cooler is Clark's Zen-master approach of bewildering his students by assigning seemingly outrageous work, like tearing off three-quarters of a piece of work, throwing that out, then enlarging the piece that remains.

Why not try this with writing—say, a short story? Slice it up, even crudely, by throwing out the first seven and a half pages of the ten you've got—and create a whole story from what remains. Or pick the middle hunk to keep, and go from there.

The point of the practice is to shake up and thus free your heartbrain, so you can make artistic leaps and bounds that may lead you to something amazing.

Anybody game?

Now for some writing-related news.

An outstanding writing coach who also happens to be my friend, Jamie Morris, has supercharged and expanded her business. Check it out via her new web site: http://www.voiceheartvision.com/ The blurb from me is heartfelt.

Another of my friends, Lori L. Lake, has recently founded a publishing company, Launch Point Press. http://launchpointpress.com/ I've contributed a story for an upcoming anthology. Lori is a terrific person and businesswoman.

More next week.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You Gotta Play

Zestful Blog Post #74

Recently I was talking with a few other authors about inspiration. Everybody slung some bullshit about being inspired by heroic others, and I came away dissatisfied. Thinking about it, I realized that inspiration really means stimulation. I tried to go back in time, or basically to find some origin or place it can all be reduced to, and TOYS kept coming up.

Toys are the original stimulators, aren't they? The original inspirers.

The first toy I remember really loving was a fist-sized red rubber ball that came free in a Tide detergent box. (The original Tide graphic featured a red ball in the center.) My mom fished out the ball and tossed it to me, age probably three or four. I loved that ball. Other than its being bouncy, the main thing about it was its aroma. It smelled like Tide, and it stayed smelling like clean laundry for years, until I lost it on somebody's roof. The associations we make.

My point is this:


The sight or sound of a toy inspires us to act on it. A button on a string, a tricycle, an Etch-A-Sketch, a stick and an empty can, blocks, a cardboard boat. Point #2: As adults we don't stop needing toys, and we don’t stop needing play, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

Lots of times we call the stuff we play with 'equipment,' but it amounts to the same thing. (A golf club by any other name, you know?)

I keep trying to decide if my writing instruments, my pens and pencils and papers, are tools or toys. Well, they're both, of course.

Don't spend every minute of today doing something productive, or feeling you OUGHT to be doing something productive. Play, dammit. Grab that banjo and tune it up. Run outside and pretend to be a secret agent. Sneak around. Go to the woods and find a cool stick. Leave the tree book at home.
You know you'll be better for it.

Next week I'll share some good news from writing friends.

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[photo of boat and physio instructor by ES] 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

When to Push the Button

Zestful Blog Post #73

How do you know when a book is done? When is it ready to wing its electronic way to agents and editors? When do you hit 'PUBLISH'?

Recently I was listening to an artist discuss her current project, which consists of many moving parts and interfaces. Very complex. I perceived that over time, she'd been agonizing over increasingly fine details, and was starting to have difficulty making aesthetic decisions. She didn't know how long it would take to make it good enough for the marketplace.

Right then it dawned on me. "You're there," I said.

And I saw the exact parallel with writing projects—novels, nonfiction, stories, essays. Anything you create, really. When your project is rough, it's easy to see ways to make it better, and you busy yourself in the execution. Then the finishing process starts to get ever more delicate; you use a finer and finer grade of grit to shape your product. When you're not sure whether that speck is a bump or a hollow, stop. Ship it.

But it's not perfect! I know it! I can feel it!

Good. Nothing's perfect. Moreover, nothing should be perfect. Have you heard about


the rug makers of Persia who deliberately weave in an error out of fear of creating a mistake-free product? The same is attributed to Amish quilt makers, Navajo blanket weavers, Turkish shipbuilders, etc. The idea is that only the deity can be perfect. Presumably, then, to create something perfect would be an affront to that deity.

What a great, freeing idea for all artists! Leave perfection to the godhead! Do your best, ship it, declare victory, and move on.

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[Photo of cool rug by ES]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Farm Sex?

Zestful Blog Post #72

Farm Sex?

Anyone who says it's easy to be an objective reporter is certainly not one.

A story on farm subsidies, though they directly affect everybody's tax bill, is far less preferable than a story on a sex scandal, which usually only affects the principals. Why? Sales. Ratings. In two years as a reporter for a small-city paper, the only issue that sold out at the newsstands had the headline "Drug Bust Nails 23", with story and photos (by yours truly) of kids being led to the lockup, jackets over their heads. Stories about the city budget? Federal flood insurance mandates? Hah.

It's a well established aspect of human nature that people like to ridicule others: figures of authority, the rich, the kids next door who get caught with pot seeds in their notebook.


What's that about? Simply envy? A love of trash? An author wonders, late on a Wednesday night, just ahead of a day of helping writers at the Florida Heritage critique sessions, St. Augustine.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gaining Effortless Mastery

Zestful Blog Post #71 

Not long ago I watched a Saturday Night Live skit from 2008 where Kristen Wiig plays the recurring character of Sue, a woman who can't control her excitement when knowing a secret. (This particular skit was the one in the Japanese steakhouse where guest star Josh Brolin tells his friends that he's about to propose to his girlfriend, who then shows up.)

Kristen just took over, doing huge, over-the-top physical and vocal acting, and she completely carried the skit from zero to a hundred. And I realized that the success of that skit wasn't due to the material; it was due to Wiig's total commitment. Nothing held back, everything tried, every stop pulled out. Body, mind, and heart. It reminded me of the great Gilda Radner's SNL performance in "The Judy Miller Show."



[Sculpture by Barry Flanagan, who subverted the sober form of figurative bronze by committing to whimsy. In New York City, photo by ES.]

Something else I saw recently comes to mind: an early music video from the 1960s of the Animals doing "House of the Rising Sun." They were a Brit band led by singer Eric Burdon. The intensity of his performance, his aspect as he sang, was jaw-dropping, way more impressive than if you simply listened to the song. Intense, masterful. He was so young, but came across as so much older and experienced. And he sold that song like nobody's business. (The Animals' unusual, pulsing arrangement also helped.) Total commitment made that song a hit for years, and I'd say it still haunts many of our memories.

Full-on commitment, and full-on confidence. Do you need the confidence to know you can do it before you commit to doing it? Well, you can sure feel confident in your skills. But how do you exercise them? How do you find out how far you can go, how good you are, how good you can be? How do you let your skills run to the next level and the next, how do you find the magic of effortless mastery?

Simply by committing. Full-heartedly. Not stopping to evaluate and wonder, "Is this working?" Because if you're committed, you're confident. It's automatic. That's it. And that's magic.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

How To Motivate Against All Odds

Zestful Blog Post #70

Just about every child, when faced with a daunting task, has heard the encouraging bromide, "Once begun is half done." For something like cleaning a toilet or putting up a tent, that's pretty true.

However, authors know that's horsecrap. Yeah, tell me that when I'm on Chapter 3 with 29 more to go.

Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote the Tao Te Ching, the keystone text of Taoism, said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Literally correct, but the much deeper meaning is that the only step that matters is the one you're taking right now.


[Lao Tzu could no doubt translate for us, if he were here.]

A much better adage for writers! It is true that the only word that matters is the one you're writing right now. How can it be otherwise? If you infuse every word, every sentence with your full attention—not thinking ahead, not worrying how it'll all come out—you'll create a worthwhile piece of writing. And you'll probably have fun along the way.

Embrace that paradox: Just this word, just right now. And see what happens.

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[photo of unknown Chinese signage by ES]

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Key Musts and Must-Nots for Readings

Zestful Blog Post #69

Last Thursday I wrote about how to do a successful reading, with a note on how to be a good audience member. That evening I gave a reading using those principles, and from what I heard (attentive silence punctuated by laughter), it went well. A flurry of folks bought You've Got a Book in You, which I briefly plugged before reading from my Lillian Byrd novel-in-progress, Left Field. I might add that Lynn Waddell did a marvelous job reading a provocative chapter from her book, Fringe Florida, which also sold some copies, one of which is on Marcia's and my on-deck circle. (www.fringeflorida.com.)

I was mistaken in thinking the evening was going to be recorded, so my apologies for not having a link to share. But when it was over, I realized I have a few more bits of key advice for writers facing a reading, the first quite essential.



[photo by Tiffany Razzano of Wordier Than Thou]

1) Apart from doing your 'my book in a nutshell' spiel, tell your audience why your book will change their life. That's what somebody really wants to know before they shell out their twenty bucks or whatever. Samples, which feel free to adopt verbatim:

"This book will give you a new perspective on why families break down."
"This book will show you how to do X better / cheaper / faster."
"If you've ever had a burning desire to learn the meaning of life, look no further than [my title]."

2) If there's a time clock, obey it. This particular evening had an open-mic part, which writers / storytellers signed up for on a clipboard. The MC kept time (ten minutes apiece), and it was uncomfortable for her and everybody else when she had to interrupt a writer for time.

One fellow simply stood in place and said firmly, "I'd like to finish." Well, yeah, buddy, everybody does. What was the MC to do, go up and throw him off the stage? He did in fact finish.

A woman, who when informed that her ten minutes were up, simply stopped midstream. That was considerate, but it was also awkward, as the audience wondered how her piece ended, and she had deprived herself of giving a complete show. (As to the contrast between the two writers and how they handled the time issue, I will refrain from making the first sexist generalization that springs to mind.)

Keeping to one's time limit simply requires an out-loud rehearsal at home, with according adjustments. Such practice promotes good karma.

3) What about a situation where nobody has thought about timekeeping? Keep it brief anyway, and when you come to the end of your selected passage, never under any circumstances ask your audience, "Shall I go on?"

4) I wrote about this in an article WD some time ago, but it bears mention here too. I've noticed that some writers, when they come to a funny passage, will do this thing of barely suppressing laughter at the wittiness of their own material. It is shameless, manipulative, and disrespectful. Eschew it.

5) For best visibility, which matters, wear a light-colored top. I opt for cream (first choice, as in the photo), white, pale blue, or pale pink. White can tend to be too vibrant under lights, but it's better than a dark color.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

How to Do a Good Reading, How to Survive the Audience Experience

Zestful Blog Post #68

One of the most uncomfortable hours of my life was in 1994 during a meeting of Borders store managers. At that time I was regional director for the West Coast, and was looking forward to seeing all my managers there, as well as my friends in the regional ranks.

The very first night after everybody got in there was a cocktail reception, during which an author reading was scheduled. The author was Gita Mehta, noted media producer and bestselling author (also the wife of Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf), and she was to read from her new book of stories, A River Sutra. It was thought that an intellectual author would appeal to the managers, most of whom had come up through the ranks of booksellers and were hence serious readers.

Horrendous idea. In spite of their interest in Gita and her book, the managers immediately started meeting and greeting and drinking and hanging out, being in no mood to stand quietly and listen to anybody. However, Gita took the podium and, with admirable poise, plowed through the excerpt she had prepared. I gravitated toward one of my buddies from home offices and stood listening in silent solidarity, trying to form at least a pocket of politeness amidst the din. An author more animated than Gita might have been able to hold their own, but for her it was hopeless.

Takeaway 1: Readings are not cabaret performances.

Takeaway 2: Maybe they should be.



Simply standing and reading for tens of minutes on end is, almost without exception, deadly. What you want to do is:

1) Welcome your audience with a warm anecdote or two, something about what drove you to write your book.

2) Give them a taste of your book, like 10-15 minutes of reading some lively passage, or passages.

3) Tell another anecdote or two and then take questions. Funny is good. Good anecdote material might come from how you researched your book, or how you got it published, etc.

4) If nobody asks a question, provide your own, and / or start asking questions of them. Like, "Apart from me, who's your favorite author and why?" You might learn a lot.

If you're in the audience, of course you'll be polite and pay attention. But everybody will love you if you come up with an interesting question or two. Off-the-wall is fine. Ask about the author's childhood, or if they've ever been arrested, or what their favorite fast food is and why. Anything. If you're a budding author, ask the questions you'd really like to know, like, "How did you hone your craft? How did you get an agent? What do you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career?", stuff like that.

See a demonstration of this at the Wordier Than Thou open mic tonight in Sarasota. I'll read chapter 1 of Left Field, my next Lillian Byrd novel-in-progress. The other headliner will be Lynn Waddell, author of Fringe Florida: Travels Among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles. I've not met Lynn, but with a title like that, she's got to be fun.

Details here:

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tip for Unleashing Your Voice

Zestful Blog Post #67

For a long time I thought that an original voice is as important to an artist as skill, but now I know it's more important. Tons of painters can render a lifelike head, but there was only one Picasso, who tore heads apart and rebuilt them. Scores of symphonic trumpeters can play the solo at the opening of Mahler's 5th Symphony perfectly (or damn near), but there's only one Wynton Marsalis, who interprets Tin Pan Alley tunes with the soul of a gentle genie. (Plus he can kick booty as a symphonic soloist too.)

In writing it's the same, only moreso. Any English major can put together a sentence, and some write books that get terrific reviews, but there's only one Virginia Woolf / William Shakespeare / Alice Walker / David Sedaris / Flannery O'Connor / Gabriel Garcia Marquez / Laura Ingalls Wilder / Frank McCourt. And so on.


Recently I opened my Model-T Kindle and read aloud a passage from a book to a group of writers eager to learn the combination to great prose. The passage was a harrowing account by an African-American man, recounting boyhood beatings and other humiliations at the hands of adults who should have loved him. A mini excerpt:

I struggled under you and couldn't breathe. The blood running down the valleys and grooves carved into my skin smelled like one hundred wet pennies.

The students were riveted by the passionately, savagely told story. I asked the students to guess who the author was; some guessed award-winning famous names, but nobody got it right. It was a trick question to make a point. The author, Leonard Scovins, is an uneducated convicted double-murderer who's serving a life term in a Florida penitentiary.

A former drug addict, Leonard found his voice in prison, thanks in part to the mother and grandmother of his victims, a woman named Agnes Furey. After the trial of the man who murdered her daughter and grandson, she decided the only way she could live a worthwhile life would be to forgive Leonard. Meanwhile in prison he got clean from drugs and found Jesus. She reached out to him, and they began to build a friendship. In time they wrote a book together and self-published it. It's called Wildflowers in the Median. Not exactly a grabbing title, but then how would one represent that story in a few words?

Agnes entered the book in a Writer's Digest magazine contest, and it won the 'inspiration' category. She also entered it in the 'life stories' category, which is where I came across it as a first-round judge. In spite of the fact that Agnes's voice is a bit stilted compared with Leonard's, I was tremendously impressed, and chose it as the winner in my flight of books. It didn't win the final round, but that's all right.

Currently I'm reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, and enjoying every word. A one-sentence excerpt:

These armies of feral, body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through our first UK tour, in the fall of 1963.

Hilarious and informative. My point is that you don't need great technique to wow an audience. You need basic technique and an original, unfettered voice.

The problem for many authors is how to find and let out that voice. My best tip for today is to read autobiographies, good ones, the best ones. See how the writers break the rules. See how they express something originally. Absorb their kaleidoscopic language. See how they cut to the chase.

And take that spirit with you when you sit down to write.

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[flowers in the median photo by ES]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Queer World

Zestful Blog Post #66

Last week I taught, along with the fabulous Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Randall Kenan, and Eduardo C. Corral, at the Lambda Literary Foundation Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. Each of us faculty had our own small group of students, or Fellows, for the whole week. My nine were writers of genre fiction. They were a brilliant bunch, full of sharp insight, talent, honesty, and generosity, and it was a pleasure to work with them. Our home was the campus of the American Jewish University, an oddly isolated place among the dry hills on Mulholland Drive.



[The view from my seminar room.]

So many things arose for me that week, both externally and internally, that I want to explore a little bit here.

I tend to be an assimilationist when it comes to being queer, so am usually not all that comfortable in a situation where identity politics is the coalescing factor. Because I'm like, hey, what's the big deal about being different?

OK, I know it's a big deal, and the level of big varies for all of us, at different times in our lives, but I've long felt, "Well, deal with it and get over it, and figure out the combination to the dominant culture."

Only last week did I realize that that attitude almost certainly comes from being the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who, as soon as they dragged their bundles off the boat, set about learning English, getting jobs, and figuring out how to become American.

One of my uncles as a teenager in the Depression scraped together money to take elocution lessons, to lessen his Polish accent, believing that talking less 'European' would help him get ahead. It did. My parents Anglicized our last name so their children wouldn't get called 'Polack' in school. We didn't. (I was grateful for this many times, as when my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lockman, told Polack jokes in class. I sat there trying to understand what was funny.) I only recently learned that my father's first name got adapted at Ellis Island, to Frank from Franz.

So it would be natural for me to feel out of it in a group that exists because of differentness. I felt some of that awkward, what's-the-point-ness at the start of the Lambda retreat, but far less than I usually do, and after a couple of days it was gone altogether. I think it might have been because the students had to compete to get in there, which takes courage. Too, when you're serious enough about your art to send your work into a screening process, you tend to be mature, which I guess is to say not stuck within yourself and your pain.

I found a terrific, healthy team spirit at this retreat. Yes, there was some militancy, but even that was tempered by love.

It would be easy to end this post by saying, "Hey, in a way we're all immigrants, right?" But that's not so. And it's OK.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Climbing With Quality

Zestful Blog Post #65

I once knew a wise old 25-year-old, from whom I learned wilderness skills when I was 24.
One day he posed the question, "Is it more important to reach the top of the mountain, or to climb with quality, even if it be only 10 feet?"
  

So much of our current culture is about reaching the top at all costs: costs to integrity, costs to others. But mostly it's at a cost of integrity. Why? Because integrity can't be bought and sold, so it's easy to forget how priceless it is.

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[mountains photo by ES]

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Mid-List Author's Inbox

Zestful Blog Post # 64

I've been so occupied preparing for my stint as the Genre Fiction Whisperer (my self-bestowed title) for the Lambda Emerging Voices retreat next week that I almost forgot about this blog today. Am realizing that even a whole week with my Fellows won't be enough to impart everything I want them to absorb. But we'll try!

Beyond discussing writing technique and the particular requirements of genre fiction, studying some great fiction, and doing writing assignments, I want to give them an idea of what it's like to be a professional author running your own factory, including the obligations and responsibilities that come with it.


I'm what you'd call a mid-list author, which is publisher-speak for 'not one of the big shots who make us most of our money'. Between signing my first publishing contract and the time the book came out, I joked to friends that I was 'cherishing the last of my precious anonymity'.

It's funny, though, how that anonymity gradually evaporates even if you don't skyrocket to household-namehood. I do have a somewhat unusual situation in that I have a dual career—novelist and writing authority—which seems to have magnified things.

A common occurrence for an author is to get a message from a reader, which is almost always a fabulous thing. (Think I'll deal with the 'almost' part of that in a future post.) Reader messages are fun and easy to respond to, until they hit the unmanageable threshold, which they do for the rock stars. Then there's everything else. A sample daily email in-box for the likes of me:

·         Request to speak for free at a conference.
·         Proofs of my latest article for Writer's Digest, requiring 48-hour turnaround.
·         Note from a grateful reader of You've Got a Book in You.
·         Note from an (understandably) impatient reader of my novels: "When? When?"
·         Request for a jacket blurb from another author.
·         Request for a summary of the conference session I blithely agreed to do for free six months ago.
·         An agreement to be filled out, signed, and returned to the conference regarding on-site book sales.
·         Request for a bio and head shot for the conference program.
·         Request for a one-page handout for attendees to my conference session.
·         Request from an aspiring writer to read their work and give feedback for free.
·         Request from an aspiring writer who is willing to pay for my help.
·         3 junk mails from Writer's Digest, which list I have to stay on so I don't miss mentions of myself that I ought to boost.
·         Amazon remittance notices. (yay)
·         Correspondence with the graphic artist I've hired to make my self-pubbed covers look better.
·         Request for news for the newsletter of one of the literary societies I maintain membership in.
·         Notice that someone new has signed up for my blog.
·         Notice that someone has tweeted something about a book of mine.
·         Notice of the automatic charge for maintaining my domain name.
·         Exploratory email from someone interested in somehow getting my books translated to TV.
·         Email from publisher asking when I can write another book…

Besides, of course, the photos and messages from friendsnfamily, blogs I've signed up for, and other personal and professional business.

What does all this take, even if 'no' is often the answer? You got it: time. I envy the headliners not for their writing skills, but for their ability to hire assistants.

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.
[power plant photo by ES]