Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thing Presence

Zestful Blog Post #234

The typewriter in the accompanying photograph is a 1926 Underwood 4, so called because the keys are arranged in four rows instead of three, which had been more common for typewriters manufactured in earlier decades. My friend Jay Williams, about whom I’ve written in this blog before, sent it to me as a gift last spring. He’s a typewriter buff, and spends some of his time restoring old machines. He restored this one before sending it to me. In spite of that, it certainly does still show its age and experience. He and I have talked about old things being time machines. Environments can be time machines too. When Jay talks about climbing a stone bell tower at his church to participate in change-ringing, he describes the worn, smooth stone steps and the cool roughness of the stone walls and the sound that one’s footsteps make and he feels that that’s the closest he can get to real time travel.

When he sent me this machine, I called to thank him, and we speculated on the machine’s history, and what it might’ve been like to be with this machine in its early days. This Underwood is a heavy-duty business machine, and they were costly, so this one most likely was used in an office, perhaps a newspaper office. Because Jay is blind, we talked about the sounds and smells and feels of when this machine was new: The newspaper office almost certainly would have had more than one machine, and more than one machine going at a time. These typewriters are wonderfully loud and authoritative, entirely mechanical marvels. This one’s frame is cast iron. In that newspaper office there might have been perfume to smell, cigars and cigarettes, their smoke and their butts and their ashes, there would have been the smell of ink and paper, the squeak of chairs moving back and forth, perhaps rolling on casters, the sound of the boss’s voice, the copyboys’ voices, the reporters’ voices, telephones ringing, telephones being answered, the scratch of pencil on paper as a phone number and address and perhaps a name and other things were written down.

It might have been summer, the windows open, the blinds catching a little on the windowframes in the breeze, the sound of engines and rubber tires outside, perhaps the aroma of manure as well, if horses were still pulling wagons. Footsteps, voices. The sidewalks would be possibly concrete, the streets might still be cobbled, the floor in the newsroom would perhaps be of heavy linoleum that was swept every night by the janitor and polished once a week.

Steampunk? You bet.

Having something in the house that is this big and heavy (about 30 pounds) and old, and so well worn—it has its own presence. It’s a much stronger presence than most things we have in our house, frankly. Why is that? Maybe because every part of this machine is authentic. It was designed to do exactly what it was supposed to do, without extraneous styling. The only decoration on it is the manufacturer’s name. In the photograph you can see the sideways-mounted bell. You can also see the new drawband Jay installed on the mainspring. All the pieces still work, all the parts still do their job. There is a tabulation function. There is a lever to select which half of the ribbon you want to use, the upper half or the lower half. (Many typewriter ribbons were made with the top half being black and the bottom half being red or vice versa.) There is a lever to select the stencil function, which disengages the ribbon, while the carriage moves normally. There is a shift key for uppercase letters, and there is a shift lock key. There are margin controls and numbers and special characters besides the alphabet.

There is a gravitas to this machine, is what I’m trying to say, and the other thing I’m trying to say is that many things have a greater presence then we might give them credit for. So much of our world is digital, and so very fast, that spending time with objects on a personal level can be enriching. You know? Something that was designed and made for function and efficiency is to be honored, isn’t it?

I say, surround yourself first with empty space, then add things to it that are well-designed, sincere, and useful or beautiful or both.

I’ll be performing Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” on this machine on October 29, 2017 with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra in Sun City Center, Florida. With luck the performance will go well and I’ll want to share the video. After that's safely over, I'll install the new ribbon Jay sent with the machine and do some writing on it.

What do you have that is somehow more than the sum of its parts? Something that offers genuine experience when you interact with it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

5 Shocking Things I Learned at This Conference

Zestful Blog Post #233

If you’re a faithful reader, you know me, and you already get that this title is to prove a point. But I will share information I found interesting. Shocking? Maybe.

So OK, I’m a member of an organization called Novelists Inc., which is predominantly made up of independently published authors. The annual conference was last weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida. I saved money by commuting in every day, but it would have been fun to hang out in the bars with presenters and other writers every night. I attended a bunch of sessions and met up with some serious authors, as well as big shots in the publishing business, notably executives from Amazon and other high-profile companies.

Here are five highlights:
1)     Annual book sales are second only to television—which I guess means subscription television—and higher than games, music, and movies put together. I regret not having copied down the actual figures, but I was too busy absorbing the impact, being legitimately and seriously shocked by how much money there is in book sales, especially as compared with other media.
2)     Marketing isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well, that’s the impression I got from some of the sessions, but the message really is that authors must do marketing and promo, no matter who they are, or risk oblivion. If your marketing initiatives fail, it’s because your product blows. So learn to write well before learning to market well.
3)     Almost no one these days understands geometry. I run into this all the time, especially with writers, who brag about being mathematically illiterate. In God’s name, it’s not that hard. More than one presenter kept talking about one-dimensional characters or one-dimensional this or that. Does no one remember Descartes? Does no one cherish his memory? He gifted us with the concept of dimensionality. A point in space has zero dimension, a line has one dimension, a plane has two dimensions, and a solid has three dimensions. A solid moving through space represents what we sometimes call the fourth dimension, or time. To call a character, for instance, one-dimensional is to call it linear. This is not what you mean. You are trying to say the character is flat. A flat character is a two-dimensional character. A picture is two-dimensional; it is flat. Something three-dimensional would leap off the page, wouldn’t it? When we wish to say a character or scene or anything else is dull or flat or undeveloped, let us please say it is two-dimensional. Thank you very much for sticking with me through this pet peeve.

[This commanding swan was once a gray, uncoordinated cygnet. But it was always a swan. See #6.]
4)     Romance, chick lit, and traditional mystery writers do well keeping profanity and explicit sex out of their material. One of them said she hears from moms who tell her, “I don’t have to turn off the audio of your book in the car when I pick up the kids.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to hear a couple of authors of young adult material tell me they put in plenty of profanity and vulgarisms, and even (well protected) sex, and of course the kids love this. It’s just their parents and teachers who sometimes have a problem with it. Yet the kids are the final audience, and they’re supported by adults who perceive the value of good writing, and writing that speaks to young people with good messages.
5)     Top-earning professional writers get that way by being efficient, tracking their time, meeting deadlines, and spending money when appropriate—that is, gathering collaborators such as cover artists, editors, and publicists, and buying advertising and spending money on promotion while keeping a close eye on return on investment.
6)     Oh, and one last thing. So OK, that’s 6 things; sue me. A catchy blog post title can earn you a click, but if you don’t deliver what the clicker expects, you might be sorry. Bottom line, you have to be yourself, not a cheap huckster. Is this obvious? Of course, but there are so many voices out there yelling “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” that sometimes a quiet, sincere person begins to doubt themselves. Don’t doubt yourself. You have friends right here.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Make the Blunder You Love, Love the Blunder You Make

Zestful Blog Post #232

I’m always fascinated by the idea of deliberate imperfection. Most recently, I was touring Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. This was a few months ago. The tour guide directed our attention to the mosaic tile floor of the rotunda in one of the main buildings. The college was built by Henry Flagler, and industrialist who endowed the school and fostered many building projects, both charitable and otherwise, in St. Augustine. The guide told us that Flagler, a religious man in the Christian tradition, ascribed to the same belief that Islamic artists do: only God is perfect, and it is folly for humans to try to imitate God. Thus, if you build in a mistake or two into your project, you won’t displease God; you’ll be OK.

Thus the photograph below, showing a seeming mistake in the tile work of this elaborate and beautiful rotunda. As an artist, this idea should be comforting, and I find it so. Us writers tend to seek perfection, and worse, expect perfection in our work, and that often holds us back from being productive, and it holds our work back from seeing the light of day. It can even hold our work back from being the best it can be: free-flowing, honest, spirited.

[It's in the checkers.] 

I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but mostly I’ve written about the fact that we should accept imperfection in ourselves and in our work. I hadn’t thought about inserting deliberate imperfection, just to be on the safe side. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea, and the more, as a creative person, I find it freeing.

I do remember receiving some criticism on one of my early books, where the reader or reviewer said it would be better if I didn’t tie up every loose end. Readers are OK with a little ambiguity. It just occurs to me now that ambiguity is part of the human condition. Perfection is not.

This is all a little metaphysical, but I guess I’m in that kind of mood today. It’s so easy for writers and artists to lose touch with that inner core that feels and knows so much. It’s too easy for us to close off that core in order to get business done—in order to handle all the things we have to handle in life. Now here’s something funny and imperfect: I’m dictating this post using a headset microphone and my Dragon software, and I’m sitting next to my office window. The wind is blowing very hard outside; it’s whistling across the window frame and I suppose a little air is whistling right on in. When I pause my voice, Dragon hears the wind and types the word will. Will will will. I’ll leave those mistaken words in. I like the word will, and I like the word yes, and God knows what I’ll write next, but you can bet it will be imperfect.

Thank you for being my friend.

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

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Crying is Beside the Point

Zestful Blog Post #231

Not long ago I watched a video of a young boy in a martial arts class trying to break a board. The instructor was on one knee, holding the piece of wood in his hands, and he was coaching the boy. The rest of the class, all boys around age eight or nine, I guess, were sitting cross-legged in a row, watching. Another instructor stood by.

The boy, as he’d been taught, lunged forward, yelled, and struck the board with his fist. It might be accurate to say he struck at the board. It didn’t break.

You pulled that one, the teachers said. Do it again. The boy did. The board didn’t break. The class was riveted in silence.

You pulled that one too, said the teacher. The boy tried again, and the board didn’t break.

Why are you crying? asked the teacher. The boy could not articulate why. He was, of course, embarrassed, afraid, and frustrated. Why are you crying? the teacher asked again.

At last the boy said, it’s hard.

Yes. The teachers were compassionate in that wonderful simple way some men have, and told the transfixed class that it’s all right to cry. You could see in all the other kids’ faces that they knew they could be the guy up there, the one failing to break the board, the one crying. The teachers didn’t comfort the boy. They didn’t explain anything to the class. It’s all right to cry. If they had told the boy to stop crying, then crying would have become the focus. Crying is beside the point.

To pull a punch is to take away the effort at the last instant. In crooked boxing matches, a fighter throws a punch only to take the force off of it just before it lands, so it looks like he punched this opponent, only he didn’t really hurt him. To metaphorically pull a punch is to hold back from saying something or doing something completely, honestly. It’s related to chickening out.

The instructors encouraged the boy to do it again. Notice they didn’t say try it again. Do it again. This was the most important element of this little video clip, to me.

It dawned on the boy that he was not going to be permitted to sit down until he broke the board. There was no way out except to succeed. He set himself, lunged forward, yelled, and broke the board.

He had committed. He made a literal breakthrough, and I don’t imagine he’ll ever forget the first time he broke a board. He had wanted it to be easier. It was as easy and as difficult as it was.

Commitment, as we see, as we know deep down, takes courage. Wise achievers learn this for themselves, over and over. The moment the boy mustered his courage to commit to breaking the board, he committed, he executed, and he succeeded. There’s belief in there, too, isn’t there? If you doubt the board will break, it won’t.

As it is with our work, every day. Courage. Don’t think you don’t need it. Call upon your supply of it. How do you replenish your supply of courage? What an idea. Let’s think about that, let’s talk about that. It’s all right to cry.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precision from the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #230

One of my dearest friends had trouble with language. She couldn’t pronounce ‘hierarchy’ properly; the best she could do was ‘hyarchy.’ The word ‘weaponry’ became ‘weapondry.’ There was something about the mid-word ‘r’ sound. She would occasionally use words she’d picked up without being entirely clear on their meanings. She wanted to be thought of as a literate person. And therein lay danger.

One night she invited all of her top friends to a party at her house. I got there in the middle of the evening, grabbed a glass of wine, and went to find my hostess. She was standing with a circle of half a dozen friends, talking. When she saw me come up, she smiled and opened her arms and said—loudly, clearly: “Everybody, this is Elizabeth!” And then, in a very serious, approving tone, “Elizabeth is a pseudo-intellectual!

I stood there silently, as did the crowd. Then I realized that, very possibly, my friend did not understand the term. I murmured, “You just called me a phony.”

“Oh! That’s not what I meant at all!”

“The prefix pseudo means fake.”

“Oh! Everybody, that’s not what I meant! Elizabeth is very smart! She writes for the paper! I’m sorry, hon.”

“That’s all right.” And it was, because I loved my friend, and everybody understood.

However, it does bug me when somebody uses a word in an attempt to be linguistically impressive, especially in print. Not long ago, I read an essay in a magazine about a distinguished, prizewinning novelist. The writer of the piece referred to the author as “prosaic.” Instantly, I knew the writer meant “prolific.” But the writer probably thought about “prose,” and figured, vaguely, yeah, a lot of prose. Prosaic. Yeah, put that in.

This kind of mistake, passed over, I must painfully emphasize, not only by the writer but by the editor of the magazine, and possibly a copy editor and proofreader, in a literary magazine, makes me sigh deeply. It does not make me want to set my hair on fire or throw a hatchet through a window, but it does make me sigh deeply.

Prosaic means commonplace; literally like prose, with the implication that there is no poetry or artistry there. “My wardrobe is pretty prosaic: just jeans and polo shirts.” To be prolific is to be abundantly productive. “He’s prolific, having written ten books in five years.”

Another error I’ve noticed from time to time is the use of ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic.’ They are different words. Ascetic, pronounced ass-HEH-tic, means to practice severe (usually religious) self-denial. Aesthetic, pronounced ass-THET-ic, means having to do with beauty, or the appreciation of it. “The aesthetics of the building will be important, as it will be situated on a promontory for all to see.”

Now you understand. One more for today: the increasing practice of using ‘discomforting’ to mean ‘disconcerting.’ The word that’s mixing them up is ‘discomfiting,’ which they’ve heard somewhere, and they want to use it, but at the last second they bail out to ‘discomforting,’ because they’re not really sure about ‘discomfiting,’ and ‘disconcerting’ is entirely beyond them.

To be discomfited is to feel uneasy or embarrassed.

To be disconcerted is to feel more deeply uneasy; disturbed.

To be discomforted is when somebody steals your pillow.

I am, as always, yours in the love of precision.

What do you think? Any linguistic lapses bugging you today? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [amazing sketch by ES]

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Thanklist

Zestful Blog Post #229

Today I’m thankful for:
The National Hurricane Center.
Mike’s Weather Page /
Neighbors John and Fred.
Local pals Marj and Mark and Rick and many others.
My 22-year-old Lexus 400LS.
My mechanic.
My sister, whose diamond/platinum/uranium status in a hotel chain’s system secured me a room in a safe place at the eleventh hour. Actually, it was the fourteenth hour.
My brother.
All other family units.
The Manatee County Emergency Alert System.
Two angry rednecks in a patched-together maroon Chevrolet Lumina who were trying to force me off the road but chose not to at the last second perhaps because I smiled incredulously.
Other rednecks who were even nicer.
Hilton Garden Inn, Pensacola.
Publix liquor store, Pensacola.
Dunkin Donuts, Pensacola.
A waiter named Chuck.
24 linemen and their trucks from Oklahoma, en route to the staging area in Lakeland, ma’am.

This particular line-repair convoy, snapped while driving back home, was from Alabama.

New paperback edition of The Sun Also Rises, supplemented with early drafts and deleted chapters.
The Microsoft electronics company.
Florida Power and Light.
The Frito-Lay snack company.
The Samsung electronics company.
Weather satellites and all the shit they do up there.
Socks in general.
Portable soft-sided cooler technology.
The Florida state highway system.
The U.S. Interstate highway system.
Workers who clean and maintain interstate rest stops.
Katy & Steve.
Ann & Margaret.
Other good friendships too many to count accurately. But my gratitude may be measured by the metric ton.
Spiral-bound notebook technology.
Graphite and those who mine it.
Double-walled paper cup technology.
Costco gas, Tallahassee.
The Florida State Building Code of 1980.
Anonymous Four.
The Shaggs.

Do you have a Hurricane Irma Thanklist? What’s on it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Beautiful Challenge of Detachment

Zestful Blog Post #228

Living in Florida gives you lots of opportunities to learn to live with ambiguity. The storm may come and kill you. If it doesn’t kill you because your shelter was adequate or you got the hell out of the way, it may destroy your dwelling, all of your stuff, your neighbors’ dwellings and stuff, and maybe even the whole town.

Or it may not.

It could veer away in a little gust and leave you with a few palm fronds in your yard to clean up. Such it is with so many things. It could go wrong. It could go right. One must watch, wait, make decisions, and act.

[Graffiti in the bathroom stall at John King Books, Detroit, 2016. I think I used this photo once before. Wouldn't it make a good tattoo?]

Detachment is a powerful ally. We can’t take any of those cool possessions along in the end, anyway. Well, then! What if we detach now? We find ourselves with everything else, which is to say, everything: love, honesty, and freedom. It's a beautiful world.

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

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Envy is Your Friend

Zestful Blog Post #227

Well, I bet that’s a blog post title nobody’s ever used before. Before I get to that, though, here’s a link to an interview of me done by Lynne Bernfield, a Sarasota-area psychotherapist who runs an internet radio show about creative people. She was particularly interested in the fact that while I always wrote, I didn’t have the drive to be a novelist from a young age. Actually, I tried to avoid the path of being a fiction writer, but eventually it sort of chased me down. I found Lynne to be a perceptive and thoughtful interviewer, and am grateful to have the chance to tell my story.

On to today’s theme. Not long ago, my colleague Ryan G. Van Cleave asked if I’d give him some quotes for an article he was writing for The Writer, a magazine for, yep, writers. The article (in the August 2017 issue) was about writer’s envy, and Ryan interviewed several other authors about the subject as well.

Here’s what I said:
“For years, I couldn’t even read novels by living authors who were more successful than me, which was almost everybody. In those days if I read a novel by a dead guy or gal, I could appreciate it without stress, because at least I could mutter, upon closing the cover, ‘Haha, you’re dead and I’m not!’
“Although I’ve envied other writers (and still do), I know I’m envied sometimes. Whenever I realize someone is envious of me, I’m like, ‘You poor dumb shmuck, you have no idea that my life is a boiling cauldron of failure and anxiety.’ But I always act super-cool and confident.
“How to conquer envy? A confident front is half the answer. The other half is to commit to being the best you can possibly be; to do at least most of the things you want to do; to meet and even exceed the goals you set for your life. Throw regret to the dogs and meet every day without excuse or self-doubt.
“Also this: If we say it’s OK to be envious, envy loses its power. Because everybody is envious at times.”  [end of quote]

Seriously, the reason envy feels so bad is that we try to suppress it. After all, it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins (per Western Christian canon, though it’s often listed as greed, which really isn’t the same). And then, because suppression is usually a lousy strategy, we feel guilty when we feel envious, which just makes it worse. We feel we shouldn’t be envious, so if we are envious, that makes us just extra crummy people. So we get down on ourselves at the same time we’re trying to fight the envy, which is just a loser road.

[Portrait of Envy by ES]

The correct way to approach the issue is to be OK with envy. Hey, welcome it! Make friends with it. As you can see from the photograph of Envy I managed to take when we met up recently, Envy might seem fearsome and ugly, but look—it’s holding a bouquet! The bouquet is a gift! And it’s for you! Now, how can that be bad? It can’t. It’s good! Envy really has no power at all—it’s just a big guy who wears lipstick and a little gold skirt and wants to be liked.

So my message today is welcome envy if it ever comes around—and all the while, keep working like hell on your own show.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Power of Unexpected Story

Zestful Blog Post #226

As you may know, I’ve gotten a gig teaching a class in story writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. Last week, about 15 other new faculty members and I were obliged to attend an all-day orientation session. The agenda looked tedious: presentation after presentation from department heads and support teams, speech after speech. But first, all of us had to introduce ourselves and say a few words about our background and what we’re going to teach.

I was a little more than halfway back in the room. I listened to the intro stories, which all went as expected: “I’m [Firstname Lastname], and I taught [subject matter] at [this college, that university] for [X] years. I got my Ph.D. in [subject] from [alma mater], and I’m just so excited to be here.” A few of my colleagues mumbled or spoke softly, as if afraid someone might hear them.

So you know me, right? I was like, this is gonna be a long day, and already we can use a little relief. About five people before me, I started to think about what I’d say. My turn came. I spoke clearly and deliberately, in a cheerful tone.

“I’m Elizabeth Sims. I used to run the liberal arts departments at Harvard and the Sorbonne—in Paris.” Heads instantly turned in my direction and postures straightened. I went on, at the same pace, “I was the boss of both of those programs, at the same time.” Dead, attentive silence. “But I got kicked out of both places because of a series of really juicy sex scandals.” Every last pair of eyes was riveted to me, and people started to laugh incredulously. “So here I am at this fine institution. And guess what I’ll be teaching! Story writing! Making up stories. You see how it works.” Full-on, relaxed laughter. “The truth is, I’m an author and writing authority, and I’m a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine. My degrees are from Michigan State University and Wayne State University—in Detroit. And now on to [name of person sitting next to me].” That person waited a moment for the room to settle down before resuming the ordinary story format. I hoped strongly to be one-upped, but nobody tried it.

During breaks, some of my colleagues came up to talk. One said, “I want to be in your class!” Another wanted my card so she could have me come and talk about storytelling to one of her classes. Another asked, anxiously, “Did you plan that? I mean, did you plan that?” Another simply said, in a low, awed tone, “That was great.” Such a tiny little thing; such fun, positive impact! I guess one reason my performance was so impressive was that the top administrators of the college were in the room. The people you’re supposed to really behave in front of.

I had already engineered a similar success a few years ago when, after arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I was sitting in the physical-therapy waiting room with a few other patients. Everyone started discussing why they were there: knee replacement, knee replacement, wrist tendon. I nodded sympathetically until they all turned, politely, to me. I gestured to my sling and explained that my arm had been torn off in a terrible car wreck, but doctors had reattached it during a grueling 17-hour operation. Judging by their slowly widening eyes and dropping jaws, I could have gone on about how I stanched the bleeding myself and used the severed arm as a club to ward off an aggressive grizzly bear, but Marcia, who had driven me to the appointment, broke in with the truth. (I believe I posted this on Facebook at the time, so forgive me if you already heard it.)

Other than to have fun telling you about my little shining moments, my point here is to remind us that story, when unexpected, can hit people strongly. You can have a lot of fun with story, on the page and off! It’s a gift! Find your balls and give it! Look for opportunities, and then report back to us, OK?
(For more on this subject, see post 145, Lying is Good for You.)

Do you have a story about a time when you fun-lied? Tell us! To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

If you have a work in progress—fiction, that is—most likely you have a theme in there somewhere. Take a little time to think about it and look for ways to develop it. Does love conquer all? If so, throw in more hate and see if you can shake love’s foundations. Or, perhaps, is love meaningless—and noble action the only valuable thing for a human to dedicate himself to? Ramp up the romance and see if the dispassionate seeker can be swayed.

A good technique is to explore more than one theme; then they can carom off each other and build complexity. A tough guy with a drinking problem is a bit of a cliché; what if you have your addicted detective fighting for the right to adopt a five-year-old orphaned beauty queen? Whoa, dude, that is off the wall. It can become a main plot, or a strong subplot. You’ve got a man’s struggle with inner demons, and you’ve got a needy child in limbo. This opens up all kinds of possibilities: family, the circle of life, exploitation, vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

You can jolt some juice into your work in small ways, too. Instead of simply having two characters disagree, have one throw a chair. Or if you already have a fistfight going, make sure somebody ends up with life-changing injuries, instead of just a black eye. Let your characters abandon themselves to their fates—and hey, fate is another theme right there. How do your characters think about it, what do they do to try to beat it, cheat it, or meet it?

[Rocket and capsule, U.S. Project Gemini. Two guys were in there, all the way up and all the way down. Photo by ES.]
When you feel stuck, sit back and throw out some possibilities involving twos, or even threes.

Oh, my God, they’re twins! That’s how the alibi got past the D.A.!

Get out now! It’s not just a twister, it’s twisters plural, coming from opposite directions!

Success in love and achievement both! Wow, what could go wrong now?

I betrayed not only you; I betrayed myself as well.

We’ll use not one decoy, but two. It’s foolproof, I tell you!

You see how it works. The rule of two is an easy technique to visit any time your fiction needs a boost. 

Have you used the rule of two in writing fiction? Tell us about it. Or, if you simply have a good recipe for soft, warm cookies, let us know. We’re getting hungry. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

This post is a meaty excerpt from my article, "Fiction Lab," in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

For my 10th birthday, I requested and received a chemistry set. It came with all the cool stuff, but the experiments in the instruction book were feeble. You knew what was supposed to happen; nothing exploded, nothing grew over the top of the test tube. I started to think outside the kit. I took apart Christmas lights to create dollhouse lamps, but achieved only a blown fuse and some smoke. When my mother got hold of a fetal pig for me to dissect, I hooked it up to a dry cell in an attempt to trigger reflex motion. I succeeded in giving myself a shock.

Then a school chum told me he’d learned the recipe for gunpowder. It’s hard to fathom now, but children in the 1960s could and did obtain the raw materials for making explosives. The local pharmacist sold me as much potassium nitrate as I wanted, no questions asked, 15 cents an ounce. From there, life got a lot more interesting. (Surprisingly, I emerged from childhood with my eyesight, hearing, and all fingers and toes intact.)

My young mad-scientist days taught me some basic lessons in creativity. Now, as a writer of fiction, I create different sorts of things—equally incendiary and no less fun.

A mad scientist is passionate about a vision of something new. Perhaps because of that, she might seem somewhat unbalanced (hence mad). She’s eager to try anything to bring about success, and willing to endure sacrifice. A mad scientist’s spirit is indomitable and fearless. Most important of all, she’s ready to pick up after a failure and try a different formula. All qualities, as you’ve probably deduced, that would serve a writer just as well.

When your daily pages are looking stale, or your ideas aren’t flowing as fast, free and fun as you’d like—step into your fiction lab and try these approaches to tap into the mad-scientist spirit. 

Throw out the instructions.

We’re talking about a mad scientist, not an ignorant one. Textbooks serve a purpose—one must learn at least the rudiments of one’s craft before breaking new ground—but they can also become a crutch if we cling to them too tightly.

The poet Ezra Pound encouraged Ernest Hemingway to push beyond his journalism training to write short vignettes for The Little Review. Hemingway hadn’t written much fiction yet, but he penned a few vignettes of just a paragraph or so each, then he wrote more of them. It was bold to produce such short things and call them finished pieces; nobody else at the time was really doing that. But Hemingway wanted to write tight and true, and brought war and bullfighting to life with bluntness and cruel beauty in those brief but powerful portrayals.  Later he interspersed them with short stories to form his first collection, In Our Time, which brought him fame. Those vignettes that blew readers away in 1925 are no less effective today.

In 1980, Jean M. Auel broke new ground with the launch of her Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), which endowed her preliterate primitive characters with emotion and powers of thought equivalent to those we associate with modern humans. I don’t know where she got the idea, but it sure wasn’t from any classroom I’ve ever heard of. Readers are still buying those rule-smashing stories today.

The point here is to not be constrained by convention. If you’re moved to try something different but a little voice says, “Wait, that’s not what we learned in the workshop!”—then stop and consider. Sometimes the “No!” and its attendant discomfort are really cues that you need to say, “Yes!”

What lies beyond the textbook is your own vision. To bring it into focus, find some stillness. Unplug from all the online crap and let your mind settle down. Contemplate your writing project, at whatever stage it’s in. Pay attention to any thoughts that come up about it, and write them down, whether they’re ideas about plot, or hunks of story, whatever. Even apparent junk tends to morph into original material if you stay open and give it enough time to move beyond stock advice and become wholly your own.

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

Of course, to remain perpetually in creation and experimentation mode, you do have to look beyond your own brain.

Dashiell Hammett read widely, seemingly without rhyme or reason: a Shakespeare play after a book on horology after a history of the Balkans after a memoir of a cowboy. This kind of reading was a sort of fertilizer for his brain. The Maltese Falcon didn’t have a clockmaking cowboy from Albania in it, but it did have tight time frames, wild action and international quarreling.

Consider anything and everything fodder for your fiction. Breakthroughs can happen when you draw information and inspiration from unlikely sources. Court transcripts, for instance, can yield amazing material. If your romance novel is lagging, why not look up the transcripts from some juicy, high-profile divorce cases? You won’t necessarily pluck from them word-for-word, but you could come across details that spark novelty.

Comb through belongings left over from your childhood. Remember what it was like to sneak around the neighborhood pretending to be a secret agent. Call up your most humiliating memory from the baseball diamond or Sunday school.

Learn to see possibilities in films, fiction, cereal boxes, weapons catalogs—anything! Throw things together in ways nobody else has dared to try; juxtapose wildly. Drop poison into a sculptor’s clay. Make a planet grow arms and legs. Impose no restrictions! Tinker to your heart’s content.

. . .

Make another one.

If you quit after one attempt, of course, you wouldn’t be much of a scientist—more like a curious visitor. There is tremendous power in setting to work anew, and seeing the next project through to the end. Make yourself at home in your lab. Construct it to suit your purposes not just for a wayward afternoon, but for countless days of discovery and wonder.

The world looks to artists to leave the general comfort zone, then report back. If you do that with intention and verve, again and again, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll look down at a creation and notice something different, something fabulous.

Your heart will race and your blood will pound and you will raise your fists and shout, “It’s alive!”

[For now, the whole article is available only in the current magazine.]

Did you ever blow anything up? Do you have any suggestions to share on this topic, or what the hell, any other? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES]
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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Fun Of It

Zestful Blog Post #223

Some years back, in conversation with a flute player, I asked why she played in the local symphony. We didn’t get paid, yet everybody faithfully showed up at rehearsals and concerts. Some players put more effort into it, others less. This flute player was a committed player with excellent skills. I played percussion.

“I just love to play the flute,” she said, smiling, then repeated, “I just love to play the flute!” Fair enough. Then she asked, “Why do you come to symphony?”

No one had ever asked me that before. I said, without any conscious thought, “I come to serve the music.” I think about that from time to time, as I’ve segued into (amazingly) getting paid to play in semiprofessional ensembles. The music must be served; it needs good players to do it.

It used to bug the hell out of me when a particular section mate would shrug off my attempts to help him play his part right or even come in at the right place. “Hey, I do this to have fun,” he would whine. I'd turn away in disgust and think, People buy tickets to come and hear us play, and they expect to hear and see everybody doing their best. (You lazy asshole.) The worst was, this guy had a degree in music and tutored young percussionists.

Fun isn’t whacking the drum carelessly and coming in whenever you guess is right. That is self-indulgence. Fun is keeping track of every measure, then playing the notes exactly as written on the page, with sensitivity, so that your playing melds with everyone else’s playing, as well as with the conductor’s baton, so that the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. That’s satisfaction. That’s fun. You’ll feel like smiling while you’re doing it, even silently laughing with pleasure.

The analogy with writing is real. A committed writer shows up on the page and puts it out there. You serve the words, you serve the writing. A quality result is far, far more than the sum of all those sentences and punctuation marks. And there’s everything right with fun! Having fun is the best way to do it: when it works, it’s fun, when it sings, it’s fun, when you’re in the zone, in the flow, it’s fun. A commitment to that kind of fun is sublime.

I might note that anthropologists and linguists believe human song almost certainly preceded language, which squares with the fact that paleolithic flutes predate—by far—the earliest known writing on clay tablets. As music developed, so did speech, writing, and literature. Literary forms got longer and more complex, and the novel emerged, arguably between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The corresponding musical form, the symphony, also emerged around the end of that period. The Greek word 'symphonia' means agreement or concord of sound.

Part of the gorgeous game of life is being present and making the most of every situation. The percussion section of an orchestra doesn’t always have parts to play, as for instance in most violin concertos. (Cymbals and drums tend to overpower a small solo instrument such as a violin.) So you sit out those pieces. The tradition among professionals is to sit or stand quietly and pay attention to what’s going on, first because it’s respectful, second because it’s pleasant to listen and evaluate what everybody’s doing, and third because you often learn things. And sometimes, fourth, if you’ve moved to a seat in the rehearsal hall well beyond the edge of the stage, you’re asked by the conductor how the balance is, and you can helpfully report that the French horns are slightly obliterating the soloist during the coda.

I remember being appalled seeing a young percussion player listening to pop music on his headphones during a rehearsal featuring a good regional soloist. He ignored what was happening, live, in front of him, as well as the example the rest of us were setting.

You’re supposed to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and you’re supposed to understand that something that might not seem like an opportunity just might be one. And that is fun.

What do you think? You are heartily invited to post a comment. Just click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wear Doomed

Zestful Blog Post #222

I’ve become a lurker on Reddit, where I keep my finger on the pulse of the language of the Internet, the current usage and word spellings. If you’re unfurmiliar, Reddit is where you can post stuff on line.

They’re a lot of great stories on Reddit. I guess I could write one. For instants, I remember in junior high when I dawned a Start Trek uniform and lead my pals on a quest. Autumn had came, and we wanted to build a bond fire. We dragged over some old wood palettes from the back of the school. But when it came down to brass tax, we didn’t have any matches. My boyfriend, who had the face of a brauler—he had been in many brauls—decided to steal some from a party store. I was against stealing, exetera, but I chocked it up to his wanting to blead the system. Plus, I didn’t want to act like a Pre-Madonna.

Without further adieu, I hopped on my bike and rode to the pawn shop. I rode so fast I almost ran into a car, which had to slam on its breaks. At the shop, I hawked my class ring, which for all intensive purposes I didn’t need anymore. Not like I was at my boyfriend’s beckon call, but I did want to tow the line where the law was concerned, so I rode fast with my bran new ten dollars to the party store before he could choplift the matches.

However! Low and behold, this girl from marching band was their, hanging all over my guy. I saw the whole thing as soon as I stepped foot in the store. He saw me, and his face went beat red. The whole bond fire was a mute point now.

“Well, this is totally out of the blew,” I said. “Where did this retch come from?” I waited with baited breath to see what he would say.

He mumbled something I couldn’t here. I gave him a peace of my mind, then stormed off. Then I remembered I still had on my Start Trek shirt. I felt like an imbacel.

But you know what? The next day he comes over to my house with a big bokay of flowers. I was like????? He goes, “You’re a shoe-in to be my date for the prom.” So, he wanted to barry the hatchet.

You could knit-pick this story to death, and you probably will, but I feel like I got it out of my system and am back on an even keal. That’s my story—Reddit style.

[And yes, I’ve seen every one of those on Reddit. I keep a log. This is where literacy is headed, friends…]

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer 2017 Newschat

Zestful Blog Post #221

If you also follow my Newschats, this will be a duplication, unavoidable. I’m posting it here first, so if you see the Newschat come in later to your inbox, you can disregard.

Oh, so much to tell! Got a giveaway going, an invitation to be a beta, and more. Gonna be quick on each of these:

In honor of the dead of summer, get the third in the Rita Farmer mystery series, On Location, free through this weekend here. The rain and cold of the Pacific Northwest in storm season—apart from Rita’s mad adventures—should take you away from whatever swelter-zone you might be inhabiting. Like south Florida. So sweltering…

A new Lillian Byrd is waiting in the wings, and I need beta readers! No don’t get horribly worked up; it’s not the sixth in the series, it’s a shortie. But it’s Lillian! Here’s the brief:

When Lillian Byrd’s friend Billie calls for help liquidating her beloved vinyl record collection to get her car out of the police pound, Lillian hustles right over. Trouble is, getting rid of great music’s hard to do! This short novelette (about 30 pages) gets Lillian out of her upper flat and, once again, into the lower regions of subterfuge.

A solution beckons when another of Lillian’s pals, auto-biz heiress Flora Pomeroy, calls with an offer: If Lillian can help her win a thousand-dollar bet with another Detroit blueblood, she’ll be richly rewarded. With the money, she can help Billie get her car and preserve her record collection!

However, the bet involves climbing aboard a sailboat with a hard-drinking, vulgar businessman and an assortment of other, perhaps more refined, passengers. Deep water leads to deep trouble—and a lot of grief for Lillian if she can’t pull this one out.

[Sneak peek.]

If you’re interested in joining my Special Team of Advance Readers (S.T.A.R.), just shoot me an email (esims at elizabethsims dot com) and say, “Add me!” You’ll get a link to your choice of e-reader file and my sincere thanks. You’ll also get a link for a free copy once the novelette is released, with my request for a fair and honest rating or review. Please join! The world needs more good fiction, and you can be part of the glorious process of creation by being a STAR.

I’ll be giving the luxury version of my workshop “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells” deep in the heart of Texas, and you can be there. It’s the Permian Basin Writers’ Workshop, September 15-17, 2017. I’ll be doing my two-parter on Saturday the 16th. We’re talking Midland, Texas; we’re talking cowboy boots; we’re talking beef for dinner, I hope. Am thinking of a guy I overheard at a restaurant in Amarillo who, when asked how he wanted his steak, said, “Jes drahve it in and awl bite it off.”

And here’s the main link. To see registration options, click the ‘Seminar Selections’ rotating thing in the right-side bar of stuff.

On the same subject, I’ll be joining the adjunct faculty at Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota to teach the fall term Short Story Workshop. Have not been around that many young people at once since I was experimenting with herbal and pharmaceutical remedies for ennui in my own college days. To answer a question that’s already come up, nonstudents may not audit the class, sorry. But I hope to have some new experiences to add to my inner compost pile of material…

If you’re a Novelists, Inc. author too, we can eddy out for coffee at the conference in St. Petersburg, Florida the first weekend in October. (Yeah, Neil, I’m going!)

I contributed an essay about being a Midwestern writer to Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, Spring 2017 issue. My piece is called “The Lake Effect,” and it’s about—what else?—the Great Lakes and their mysterious power. I know I don’t live in the Mitten these days…but sure am thinking fondly of it as the heat index here climbs daily into the hundreds. This magazine’s not free, so if you buy one, consider it support for the arts.

Here’s a (free) link to a nice interview you might have missed from ManyBooks, during a springtime promo for The Actress.

Fellow Mensans, my latest novel, Crimes in a Second Language is rumored to be reviewed in next month’s Mensa Bulletin. Just a heads-up.

And last but way not least, here’s a link to a super nice interview in Sarasota’s SCENE magazine, by my special bud Ryan Van Cleave, a talented writer in his own right—and, as head of the creative writing program at Ringling, my new boss there!

And now we’re caught up. I’ve got lots more stuff in the pipeline, so best keep your finger on this pulse.


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Close Listening for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #220
If you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you’ve seen my posts on ‘close reading’ for improving as a writer. (Posts 163, 171, 177, and 203.)  Thanks to my friend Jay, whom some of you met in post 209 a couple of months ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘close listening,’ and how it can enrich a writer’s life and work.

Jay was born with empty sockets instead of eyes, so naturally much of his interaction with the world is through sound. He’s a talented musician, piano tuner, change ringer (church steeple bells), typewriter restorer, and composer.

 [Here’s Jay with his dog Willow, who leads him on daily walks that include impromptu cross-country segments. Unlike a trained guide dog who waits for voice commands, Willow takes charge when they go out. As backup, Jay carries his collapsible white cane and phone, but has never had to resort to them. Willow always gets everybody home safely—though sometimes muddily. Note super secure leash hold.]

We correspond via email and the occasional phone call. (We live in different states.) Lately we’ve been sharing audio files back and forth, and talking about them.

I realize that blind people not only develop more acute hearing than the rest of us; they develop a greater ability to distinguish multiple sounds, or multiple auditory events, at once. A soundscape really does unfold in layers, or more like a 3-D texture, and they can perceive it so well:

A slamming car door isn’t just a slamming car door. It’s either nearby or farther away. It’s a big car—or maybe, come to think of it, it’s not a door slam after all, but the deeper and more final sound of a trunk slam, like maybe that Cadillac we rode in once. The clarity of the slam indicates the car’s position near the curb, because if it’s clear, it’s directly out front here. But if it’s muffled slightly, it’s parked a little bit over that way, because there’s that thicket of chokecherry in between, which, because it’s October, has lost many of its leaves, but maybe only about fifty percent, as of today. But if it rains, as it smells like it’s going to, well then a lot more leaves will drop and blow around and we’ll feel them on the sidewalk tomorrow when we go out. We can pick up a few and explore their structure and texture. Meanwhile, the FedEx truck has driven by, the three young girls who always walk home from school together have gone past, and some kind of hawk is making a kill nearby because, tiny little squirky death sounds.

With just this example, do we begin to understand the richness?

Jay talks about “reading” voices to detect their basic temperaments. He talks about timbre, modulation, complexity. He can characterize any voice, which can be a little unnerving when you realize he’s reading you.

I got this from him the other day:
“The guy that recently got my attention is Elliot Rodger, who went on that killing spree in California. He left a potload of videos on youtube and, if I had no idea of who he was, I would say that he sounds like an unimaginative actor trying to do his best with a very poor script. He will start by describing a scene such as a park that he’s near and he sounds rather cheerful and that’s the best part of the “script.” Then he starts his usual whine about how, no matter how he spruces himself up, the girls still flock to average dudes. A wee trickle of emotion creeps in when, just once, he puts some diaphragm into ‘It’s not fair!’ Otherwise, he has a gentle, tenor voice and even when he says that this is the ‘day of retribution’ he sounds hollow.”

Isn’t all this so goddam magical? I happen to think Jay is an extraordinary person, eyes or no eyes. I’m lucky to know him, and just wanted to share a little bit of our friendship with you. He’s cool with it.

Here’s something to try. Think about a scene you’re writing. Momentarily visualize it, then close your eyes and chillax. Consider sounds. Consider little bits of the scene one at a time, as they overlap and appear and disappear, not the scene as a whole. There will be sounds from things visible and not immediately visible. A jet overhead. Some guy banging with a hammer, trying to tear out the rusted muffler on his car. Softer sounds mixed with louder ones. Someone setting up a tent, someone sorting cards, drawing with a steel pen, gossiping quietly, sighing, laughing nastily, striking a match, making change, loading ammo, turning on the air conditioner.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Showing vs Overshowing

Zestful Blog Post #219

A comment on my post ‘Extrapolation for Writers’ asked about sharing enough versus oversharing—a question of detail. What’s the perfect amount of detail to give your reader? You want enough so that he feels fully anchored in the scene, yet not too much that he gets bored or restless. (Thanks for prompting this post, Liz B.)

Of course, readers’ tastes and preferences vary, so Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with its surpassing level of detail, is one reader’s heaven, another’s hell. Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books, with their paucity of description (yet fast action and plentiful dialogue), might represent the reverse. So, we are left with subjectivity.

I’ve thought and thought about this issue, and have come to realize that to get it right, an author needs experience writing and reading, especially close reading. And while there’s no master formula, I’ve come up with a couple of guidelines. Stick with me.

First, experience. A professional author must read not only for pleasure, but for self-education. That might seem obvious, but I’m always a little surprised when I’m discussing books with an aspiring author who says, “Oh, I didn’t like that book. Couldn’t get into it. Why? I don’t know why.” Or, “I just love all her novels!! Always have. Why? I guess—well, I can’t really say.”

Bear down when you read. Intuition is good, but don’t stop there. Drill into what makes a passage work or not work. Very often, you respond to the details of a scene, whether in description or dialogue. (Examples to follow.) There’s no right or wrong here—just what seems right or wrong to you. In this way, close reading helps you get to know your own style. I keep recommending the practice of copying passages of good books, longhand or on the keyboard. I call it ‘Writing with the Masters,’ though I’m not the first to ever think of it. And keep writing, and keep showing your work to readers you respect. Listen to what they say.

Going, now, beyond those general admonitions, which really apply to any aspect of writing, and into the showing of details. I’m a believer in learning from examples, so here are some:

Which of the following three do you prefer?:

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She said OK.

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She blew a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes and poured some brandy into my coffee cup. “All right, then.”

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She got up and went to the cabinet above the sink on the left-hand side. She opened the cupboard door with her right hand, took out a bottle of brandy with her left, and returned to the table. She took the cap off the bottle and tipped it so that some brandy ran into my coffee cup. After that, she set the bottle down on the table and sat down. The chairs had blue vinyl coverings. Blowing a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes, she said, “All right, then.”

We agree. Number two, right?

The key I’ve used for so long that it’s become almost unconscious, is to give at least one, and rarely more than two details, per chunk of story. The first example above gives zero details. The second gives two: the dyed-red hair and the pouring of the brandy, which bring that portion of the scene to life. The third gives like a thousand, and the preponderance makes the passage heavy and boring. (The second passage is from a long short story I’m finishing up, involving Lillian Byrd and some deep trouble…)

Furthermore, I’ve found that pace is an important regulator for making decisions about detail. If you need to pick up the pace, just show us the punch to the jaw and get on with it. But if things are moving along nicely, you might have the punchee see the fist coming as if in slow motion, before knuckles contact lower mandible. If the punch is going to be an important one, and the action has already been fast, you might wish to decelerate further by having the punchee also realize his back is already against the wall, and it’s going to be impossible to roll with this one—just gonna have to brace for it and keep looking for a way out. And then the impact, and you might want to describe the feeling of that.

So, in sum:

Give at least one or two details per chunk of story (and of course you are the one to decide what makes a chunk);
When in doubt, limit yourself to one or two details per chunk; and
Permit pace to help with decisions of detail.

And that’s enough for today. Is there anything you’d like to share about this topic? We’re all keen to learn!

Lastly, a note from one of us. Faithful reader and commenter BJ Phillips has a new novel out called
SNOWBIRD SEASON. We think it could appeal to the romantic side of women-lovin' women!

If you’d like me to mention your new book, just shoot me an email with a link. And if I’ve overlooked posting your link, please nudge me again. It was inadvertent.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introvert's Guide to Speaking at Conferences

Zestful Blog Post #218

I’ve been meaning to share an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine of March/April (2017), as well as a revealing experience I had after speaking at a conference last year.

The article is my blueprint for being a successful conference presenter. The first part covers how to pitch your idea to the organizers, and then if selected, write a talk illustrated with PowerPoint slides. But I’m leaving that off here, because there's advice about that everywhere you look. What I want to share is the second part of the article: the other stuff you don't see anywhere, about what to do, how to act, and essential logistics to help you enjoy a successful, no-stress-added conference. Not that I love conferences; I tend toward introversion, which is why I’ve worked out these protocols to help smooth the way.

When you arrive at the conference, touch base with registration, check for messages, and try to say hi to the organizers, whom you’ve likely corresponded with but not yet met in person. Drop off your books (if you have a published title you plan to sell or sign onsite) at the bookselling venue, if there is one. It’s typical for authors to bring or ship ahead their own stock, which simplifies things for the bookseller. But even if the bookseller has promised to obtain and sell presenters’ books on their own, I try to bring extra stock just in case.

Allow lots of extra time to find your assigned session room, set up and get comfortable. Make sure the room is equipped with anything you need for your presentation (a laptop, projector, handouts you sent ahead to be printed, etc.). If there’s only a short break between the prior presenter and you, be ready to set up fast. Your room may have a staff member on hand to facilitate the end of one session and the beginning of another. If it doesn’t and the speaker before you runs over time, approach the podium and say with a smile, “I have to start in X minutes.”

Be prepared to introduce yourself. Few conferences have enough volunteers to provide intros for every session. I include a slide of my relevant credentials at the beginning.

[This is one of the least flattering photos of me talking I could find. Good for my vanity, which according to some, as you'll see, is extreme.]

Keep cool if something goes wrong. Power failure, medical emergency, missing property, disputes over seating—I’ve dealt with them all. Attendees will look to you as an authority figure, so if you stay calm, they will too. If a tech issue arises, send for an AV tech immediately; don’t spend more than a minute trying to troubleshoot it yourself. If all fails, be prepared to deliver your talk with just your script.

Unless the room is very small, use the microphone and speak into it consistently. Tell your audience, “If at any time you can’t hear me, call out.” It’s easy to drift away from the mic.

If you’ve brought a signup sheet for your email list, circulate it right away. I hand around a small paper shopping bag and ask people to throw in their card or a scrap of paper with their email address; I tell them they’re signing up for my newschats, and a chance to win this! (One of my books, personalized to them.) At the end of my talk I find the bag, draw a name and ask that person to meet me as soon as I’ve gathered my stuff.

Abide by your time limit. If you have a room monitor, ask that person to signal you when you have 10 minutes to go. Otherwise, keep an eye on your watch. Be prepared to skip material at the end if need be. Don’t talk faster to cram in your last bits of material. If you’ve built in time for a Q&A, you have some wiggle room.

Be sure to thank the organizers and volunteers at the beginning and/or end of your talk.

Clear out quickly when you’re done. Sometimes attendees will come up and want to talk; tell them you can chat in the concourse once you collect your things.

When “off duty” at the conference, remember that you might be recognized and approached for conversation. Smile and try to be generous with your time. It may sound obvious, but avoid gossip and vulgarity—which includes getting too drunk in the bar after dinner.

There is a lot of work involved with being a successful conference presenter. But if you do it well, you’ll achieve the dual goals of giving valuable information to your audience and piquing their interest in you and your work—beyond the podium.

That’s the end of the article. But some conferences extend your experience by sending you audience feedback weeks later, which can be helpful, delightful, affirming, depressing, and soul-crushing. I can never really come to terms with the diametrically opposed feedback I’ve gotten.

Here are exact quotes from feedback from one session I gave last fall. These people were in the same room as I, all together. Same time-space continuum.

“Excellent presentation, very informative and fun.”
“It was as if someone else had prepared the slide deck for her and she didn’t know what was coming next.”
“She dealt very well with the interruption of PurseGate 2016.”
“Perhaps interruptions rattled her but she never got over it.”
“Delivers a lot of information in a manner that is super personal and therefore we feel like intimates of hers, fun and comfortable.”
“Big commercial ego trip.”
“Great, could listen to her for longer, very good.”
My very favorite: “She knows her stuff but seemed to be on drugs or something.”

If only.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by Rachel Spangler.]

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