Thursday, April 20, 2017

Errata Be Mine

Zestful Blog Post #208

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Precision Because If Not Us?

Zestful Blog Post #207

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

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

Elizabeth Sims, ranch hand

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

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

Incidents
Incidence
Incidences
Instance
Instances

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

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

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

It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

One more:

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

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

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

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis

Zestful Blog Post #206

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

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

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


Don’t write your synopsis. Talk it.

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

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

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

[photo and photo manipulation by ES]

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Shifting Winds of Success

Zestful Blog Post #205

Jessica Strawser, Editor in Chief at Writer’s Digest magazine, is now a published author. Almost Missed You is available everywhere, reviews are glowing, and Jessica is officially a success! Congratulations, my friend.

In her recent essay in Publisher’s Weekly (which coincided exactly with the launch of her book, which I might note is some awesome promo/coordination), Jessica tells a little bit about the challenges and setbacks she dealt with before her publishing contract came. Given that I know a little more about her behind-the-scenes struggles, I particularly appreciate the Nancy Kerrigan-style “Why?” moment.


I could not but be struck by the difference between Jessica’s debut with St. Martin’s Press and mine (St. Martin’s Minotaur) back in 2008. My book, The Actress, was in the first group of releases to be issued as e-books (along with print) by SMP. Printed galleys were sent to the usual print sources, and they generated a handful of reviews. Authors were informed, just prior to their pub dates, that SMP was now going exclusively to Twitter for promo. No other information or instructions came forth, other than “Let’s all tweet!” I didn’t have a Twitter account. I got one, and stumblingly started to use it, in spite of being appalled at the quick shallowness of the medium. I still use it stumblingly. I’m still appalled by it.

I was invited to blog for a week on Minotaur’s “Moments in Crime” blog, which I dutifully and as entertainingly as possible did. The blog went defunct a short time later and was taken down. I repurposed some of those posts here in Zestful Writing.

Digital profiles and social media were just getting rolling back then, and I was slightly with it, having a web site, but that wasn’t saying a lot. Downloadable digital audio books—as opposed to books on cassette tape or CD—were starting to gain traction, thanks to the iPod. (Remember iPods?) But it didn’t occur to Minotaur to put The Actress on audio.

By contrast, Almost Missed You came out perfectly: simultaneous print, digital, and audio editions, with appropriate advance copies to critics AND consumers. Just three days after launch, the book has hundreds of positive reviews on Goodreads and dozens on Amazon, thanks in part to NetGalley. (Goodreads and NetGalley were barely getting going back in 2008, and New York publishers were oblivious.) Needless to say, the fact that so many of the reviews are positive has nothing to do with the medium, and everything to do with Jessica’s talent and command of her craft as a writer.

Jessica’s position at Writer’s Digest has been a great platform. She’s made good use of it; she’s worked. She’s written the next book, and she’s built a terrific presence on social media, and she’s done plain old networking as well.

As you can see, my purpose with this post is not only to give some exposure and props to Jessica and her book, but to illustrate the speed of change in the business. I’m happy and excited for my friend, and I’m envious too! But I’ve learned how fickle the world of publishing is, and how much one must rely on oneself as a source of strength, creativity, and resilience. The target is always moving. And we’re always learning. Opportunity awaits.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Other Cool People

Zestful Blog Post #204

When On Location, my third Rita Farmer novel, came out, I was invited to participate in a local book festival. As it happened, an author buddy of mine was there too, and we agreed to have dinner together after the main booksigning event. A Fairly Famous Author was on hand as well, and we all mingled and visited during autograph evening.

Come time to get organized for dinner, my friend and I approached the FFA and invited him to join us. Scanning the room beyond us and looking uncomfortable, he said, “Uh, I think I’m gonna eat with some—other cool people.”

We got the translation: “I don’t have firm plans yet. I just barely caught myself and inserted the word ‘other’ in front of ‘cool people’ in order to mask what I really mean, which is, I’m going to eat with some cool people as yet to be determined by me. You are not those people. I’ll give you the half-assed courtesy of implying you are cool. But, clearly, you, Elizabeth and X, are not cool.”


[The coolest photo I could find in my files: cool people photographing a large cool object. It was indeed a cool day.]

So, fine. We invited another couple of people to join us, one an author, the other a writing coach. The four of us had a riot getting to know one another, talking and eating (and yeah, drinking) late into the night. We discussed writing, books, and our careers with frankness and warmth. By the end of the night, we were all friends. As it turned out, we were Cool People. We were even Nice People: We didn’t even bother to give the ceremonial finger to the FFA.

Three takeaways here:

One: Writing can be lonely, and we can dwell in our heads to the detriment of our hearts and sanity, therefore it’s important to get out of the house and hang with your fellow sufferers. Suddenly a stunning thing happens: Nobody’s suffering!

Two: When declining an invitation—especially when you can’t honestly say you already have plans—simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t. Thanks, though.” How hard is that?

Three: You are a Cool Person. I said so.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Close Reading 4

Zestful Blog Post # 203

Welcome to the fourth installment of Close Reading, where I analyze a passage of published writing as to why and how it works or doesn’t.

[Passage begins:]
So much of the war is sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for somebody else. With no guarantee of the amount of time you have left it doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought. Doing what they had done so often before, the sentries moved out. Anything that stirred ahead of us now was enemy. The lieutenant marked his map and reported our position over the radio. A noonday hush fell: even the mortars were quiet and the air was empty of planes. One man doodled with a twig in the dirt of the farmyard. After a while it was as if we had been forgotten by war. I hoped that Phuong had sent my suits to the cleaners. A cold wind ruffled the straw of the yard, and a man went modestly behind a barn to relieve himself. I tried to remember whether I had paid the British Consul in Hanoi for the bottle of whisky he had allowed me.
[Passage ends]
--Graham Greene, from Chapter 2, part 1 of The Quiet American

I chose this paragraph of description because of its mastery. If you’re not familiar with Greene’s novel, it’s about a love triangle and international intrigue during the early stages of what became known to Americans as the Vietnam War. The novel was published in 1955. 


[Ah, those reliable orange-spined Penguin editions... Photo by ES]

The narrator, Fowler, talks here of doing nothing, but actually we learn that much—very much—is going on, and we learn what it’s like to be in the middle of it. What is going on is a mission within a war, a war over territory. Fowler, a journalist, is embedded within a fighting unit. Greene demonstrates enviable style and economy in this passage. “Doing what they had done so often before—” He could have explained that this unit had been on countless missions all over the place, how busy they’d been. Not necessary, the way he does it.

“...it doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought.” And indeed Fowler does not: he describes what he sees; he wonders if his girlfriend has sent his suits out; half a minute later he tries to remember about the bottle of whisky.

This passages sets mood, and it builds subtly our understanding of Fowler. This last, from what he chooses not to tell us. He does not tell us he’s scared stiff—he’s not. Neither is he excited to be part of this operation. He doesn’t speak of any feelings of admiration for the soldiers of either side—he hasn’t any. Fowler, we are shown, is a dispassionate, probably jaded, observer of the complex multinational conflict the roots of which ran back at least to the 1850s, when France began its colonization of Indochina.

What else do we learn here? We learn the ambient conditions: it’s cold and windy. (How to tell us it’s windy? Show the wind doing something: ruffling the straw in the yard.) We learn what time it is: around noon. We learn that a lieutenant is in charge, thus—if we have any knowledge of military ranking—we can deduce that this fighting unit is fairly small, on the level of a platoon. They’re hiding out on a farm. No one is excited or agitated; these are professional soldiers, and though they’d doubtless rather be smoking cigars and fishing, or banging tail in Saigon, they’re here and they don’t have much choice than to be resigned to it. We learn that Fowler expects to return from this engagement (the suits to the cleaners).

This is the kind of passage I call generous. (See Zestful Blog post March 27, 2014.) The passage is not absolutely necessary, but because Greene was a serious writer—he strove for beauty of style, depth of expression, and economy—he felt it important to give us this paragraph, to help us inhabit the scene and the character. And we are richer for it. As a writer you do these things so that later you can do more things, and the reader is with you beautifully, deeply, and economically.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Give It Every Time

Zestful Blog Post #202

Be not afraid. Count the words you have, not the words yet to be written. Be thankful.

Be true. Seek truth and bear witness to it.

Feel what you feel.

Spiritual leaders figured out the hard path for us. When Christ said give away everything and follow me, he meant it literally. Very few have the guts to do that; I’m sitting here in my house, surrounded by possessions. But we all give everything away sooner or later, the latest opportunity being the moment of death. When we die, we leave all our possessions. Why not start much earlier? Here’s the connection. For an artist, the act of giving it away must happen at each work session if authenticity is to be achieved. You write the sentences, you stroke the paint on the canvas, you cut the cloth and sew the seam. You put it out there; you give it, with complete abandon. Giving often, giving without reservation: that’s the path to quality.


Creating a quality product is one thing. Getting that product into the hands of paying consumers is another, and worth doing. But an artist’s first duty is to give it, give it, give it.

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[Photo by ES. This pencil pot resides in the textile studio of a friend of mine.]

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Facepalming for Precision

Zestful Blog Post #201

One reason I love modern times is how fast a new word or usage can get around—provided it’s a word or usage I like. Mostly I love invention. One of my favorite terms, born, it appears, around the turn of this century, is ‘facepalm.’ I get so much satisfaction and amusement when I see it; it’s just so blunt, economical, and natural. But sadly, I find myself needing to facepalm too often. I facepalm mainly when confronted by sloppy spelling and usage. It’s everywhere. In the past week alone, I’ve facepalmed at least twice.

The first was while reading a bestselling memoir, in which the author describes a favorite dress when she was a little girl. It had pretty ‘shearing’ on the front. WTF? This got past the author, her editor, and the copy editor? Three professional word people, at least two of whom probably had MFAs? Nobody knew WTF ‘shirring’ is? And nobody thought to go, “Huh, I’ve never heard of shearing being on a dress. How can shearing, which is a verb, be a feature on an item of clothing? Maybe I should look it up. And if I can’t find some kind of reference, maybe I should simply pick up the phone and call a tailor, or my Uncle Spiff, who loves to sew.” It isn’t even pronounced like shearing, it’s pronounced ‘shurring.’ (Shirring is a gathering of fabric to make tiny humpy rows. You’ve seen it on little girls’ dresses and Uncle Spiff's aprons.)

Another facepalm occurred while reading the magazine Popular Mechanics. An article about a new ‘smart’ bazooka referred to the weapon’s ‘breach.’ WTF, nobody caught that either? Breach means a gap, basically. ‘Breech’ is the word for the rear end of the bore of a gun. (BC, thanks again for the gift of that mag.)


[In the case of a revolver, as here, the breech is exposed when the cylinder is released. Photo by ES.]

What is the core issue here? A lack of general knowledge, I think. Am I wrong? Spell-check will not catch misuses like these. I would not be upset reading these errors in a middle school student’s paper. But professionals are supposed to know better. What is the solution? That people should read more and pay attention more? Help me. How can this situation be improved? Philanthropists like to donate money and assistance to the arts, and they like to donate money and assistance to the eradication of human scourges like disease and hunger. Can all the money in the world fix shearing instead of shirring? I know that even the repeated abuse of shearing instead of shirring will not result in a child going hungry, or malaria claiming another million victims. So it cannot be very important. Yet I facepalm. And I facepalm.

OK, but! I just had a pretend conversation with the copy editor of the shearing book, and do you know what he said? He said, “Oh, my God, it was horrible. You have no idea how many mistakes I caught and corrected! That one slipped through. Sorry.” I feel better now. A little bit.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap: Oscar Weekend Freebie

Zestful Blog Post #200

Just a quickie here; I forgot to mention this in yesterday's blog. In honor of the Academy Awards, one of America’s most important national holidays, The Actress is free on Amazon Kindle through Sunday night. (You can get it and read it on any device with the free Kindle app.)

Publishers Weekly: “Her wry commentary on life in Hollywood is dead-on.”

Have a great weekend, my friend.


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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Seriously: HT Write with a Wood-Cased Pencil

Zestful Blog Post #199

This will just take a minute, but you've stayed with me this far, you will thank me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately with wood-cased pencils, premium ones that write nice and smooth. They tend to be expensive, so I’ve been conscious of making best use of them. ‘Best use’ of a pencil means wasting as little as possible, which means minimizing the number of times it goes into the sharpener.


Also, as a handwriter of first drafts, I’m always looking for ways to minimize hand/arm fatigue.

When you use a writing instrument such as a ballpoint pen, it makes sense to apply the point more or less vertically to the paper, to let more of the ball contact the page. But if you apply a pencil that way,


you dull the point fairly quickly, and the cramped position of your hand promotes discomfort. But if you hold the pencil like this,
  

on a much shallower angle, and—this is key—if you rotate it every so often, slightly, in your fingers, you’ll retain the point longer and need to sharpen it less often. And see how the hand is in a more lengthened, relaxed position? I don't know why it took me so long to learn this.

Here is a closeup, the one on the left showing the planes or facets of a point used on a proper slant with occasional rotation, versus a point dulled by clueless vertical positioning.


[Photos by ES]

I rest my (wood) case.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kicking it Sideways

Zestful Blog Post #198

Here’s a meat patty from my article “Stepping up Your Sidekicks” in Writer’s Digest magazine.

The most memorable sidekicks possess some or all of these attributes:

- They are fiercely loyal to the hero.

- They are different in at least one key respect from the hero: in temperament, class, gender, race, age, etc.

- They possess a strong moral compass (rogues, like the HAL 9000, being the notable exception).

- They have unique, useful skills.

- They’re somehow dependent on the hero, if only emotionally.

- They don’t try to overshadow or be more valuable than the hero.

- They have unique backstories and character arcs.

- They’re too essential to the hero and the story to be killed off.


[Old kicks. Cut and split a lot of wood in these, in days of yore...]

How to do it:

Choose a likely candidate. You can’t go wrong by selecting the person closest to your protagonist: the spouse, sibling, or best friend.

Give that character a reason to drop everything (or almost everything) and follow the hero. You might need to plant an event earlier in that character’s life, like a nasty boss who needs to be told off: “And what’s more, I QUIT!”  You could ship your sidekick’s husband out on military duty for six months, or send the kids to summer camp—anything that will plausibly free up that secondary character to step in.

Consider giving the sidekick a meaty backstory. This will help you create a rich character arc for that person. The generic elementary school teacher might be given a major life regret: “I wish I’d stuck with it and gotten my Ph.D.—then I wouldn’t be dealing with mouthy ten-year-olds every day…” Or the dude in the next cubicle might be starting a business, or preparing to take his black belt exam in judo, or recovering from PTSD.

In order to cement loyalty or friendship, plant an event in which the hero does something to save the future sidekick’s bacon. The hero could bail his sidekick out of jail, throw himself under the bus literally or figuratively, or stand up to a bully. Or reverse the situation: Perhaps the sidekick, currently a stranger, saves the hero somehow, which leads to their relationship. The hero can then work to show gratitude to the sidekick, who continues to help the hero.

Keep your sidekick separate from your mentor (if you have one). If you force your mentor to do double duty as a sidekick, you risk disrupting the balance of power in your story—and confusing the reader. This is because the mentor always has higher status than the hero, while the sidekick, by definition, should have lower status.

Leverage conflict and suspense. Sidekicks are great for this. They can make terrible mistakes, thus complicating things for your hero (and themselves). They can bumble into a situation that turns out fabulous. Or they can simply sit and worry while the hero is off heroing.

Throw some rocks along the relationship path. I find as a reader and writer that giving a sidekick and hero some ups and downs enriches the story. Think of it this way: If a stranger walked up to you and punched you in the nose unprovoked, it would be a shocking surprise, but if the person you’ve counted on the most—fought alongside, gotten drunk with—punched you in the nose, that’s a whole different—and bigger—story. If your hero and sidekick experience serious relationship problems, the reader gets to enjoy a row or two, while having the basic confidence that the band will always get back together.

Consider giving your villain a sidekick. A villain’s sidekick usually gets stuck with the label henchman, is typically a brainless thug, and eventually gets blown away by the good guy. However, I believe villainous sidekicks are grossly underutilized by contemporary authors.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mindful Practice

Zestful Blog Post #197

Last week I discussed how keeping a commitment to something can yield good—even great—results, as one incrementally improves. A comment by BJ made me reflect, though, that there’s more to it than showing up and wanting to get better—you have to put in effort. You have to do work, real work, and not just make a show of it.

Now, I mean, showing up is massive, especially for us writers, who get serenaded by a hundred distractions every day. But after reading BJ’s comment, I thought about my writing in relation to my swimming, golf, drums, and other pursuits. I remembered something a sports coach said to me once: “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect; practice makes permanent.” His point was that if you practice with poor technique, or if you feel indifferent toward what you’re doing, your performance will stagnate.

It’s true. When I was a lifeguard I’d study the regular swimmers, and noted that few ever worked toward improvement. Pretty much everybody would show up, put in their lengths using whatever half-assed stroke they’d learned years ago, at exactly the same pace, then leave. Same with golf. Most recreational players don’t take lessons, don’t study the game, don’t practice, and have shitty swings.

I’ve found only one kindred spirit in the pool who, like me, strives for an ever more efficient stroke. Like me, he does drills and intervals, he mixes up his workout, and even does fun random stuff like swim a length of backstroke balancing his water bottle on his forehead. (Yeah, my God.) He’s the faster of the two of us, I’m the smoother. It’s enjoyable to work out in adjacent lanes. So, yeah, if you seek to improve by searching out good advice and then practice with mindfulness and intentionality, then you’ll get somewhere. You’ll improve, be fruitful, flourish.

In sports, being mindful pretty much boils down to awareness: Am I letting the water support my head? Is my spine staying in line with my head when I roll to breathe? Are my hands relaxed? The trick is not to TRY. Don’t try to relax your hands. Just notice whether they feel relaxed or not. This frees you up to be OK with whatever is. No judging necessary, no calling something good or bad. This lets awareness work its subtle magic for you. Ditto for meditative practices like yoga, where you’re supposed to let body tension go before attempting even simple poses. Yoga teachers talk about awareness all the time.



What about writing? Reading great books with fine attention helps a writer get better. Is there more we can do to effect ongoing improvement, apart from showing up and slamming down words? Unlike performance in sport, which can be measured by a clock or points on a board, the worthiness of any piece of writing is subjective to some extent.

But let’s just say it isn’t. Let’s say we can tell if our writing is getting better or staying the same. Let’s give ourselves that much credit.

I think awareness holds tremendous potential for us. And the body is the gateway to the mind and spirit. Unnecessary tension in any of the three—body, mind, spirit—will block us from doing our best. The absence of needless mental, emotional, and physical tension will facilitate our best.

So: As you settle down to write, ask yourself: Am I feeling any unnecessary physical tension? Feel it, and see whether it changes. Then ask: tension emotionally? Mentally? Feel it, and see what happens.
Right now, try dropping your jaw. Was it tense? How does it feel now? (In my blog post of August 1, 2013, I discussed this relaxing-your-jaw thing while writing. I thought it was cool, but didn’t take it any further.)

As you begin to write, touch base on the question of tension from time to time, and add a second one: Am I feeling pleasure as I write? Don’t ask: Is what’s coming onto the page good? Ask: Am I enjoying this? Don’t even attempt to figure out why or why not.

Let’s try it and see what happens!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Slowly Faster

Zestful Blog Post #196

Last year on my 59th birthday (and let us speak no more of such numbers), I began a journal with the intention of writing in it every day. So far, I’ve missed only about five days. Those missed days are a great lesson about happiness. You committed to do this thing; you have done it imperfectly; you can’t, today, write yesterday’s entry. You can write about yesterday, OK, good, but the past is past, and imperfection must be all right. Missed opportunities must be OK. Otherwise—what? Cut your throat? Yeah, no. Smile and go on.

In my journal last night I wrote about my midday swim. I’ve been surprised, lately, to find myself overtaking swimmers in neighboring lanes who’ve either been faster than, or about the same as me. I wrote, “Slowly, slowly, I’m getting faster.” I almost laughed aloud. Of course, ‘gradually’ would have been a better word than ‘slowly,’ but the point is this: Improvement is often so subtly incremental that you don’t notice it, especially after you reach some level of basic competence. You see where I’m going with this.



There’s a big difference between wanting to write, and banging out a complete short story. A big difference between a handful of short stories and a novel.

There’s a much smaller difference between a short story and a better short story. Or is there? What of the difference between a novel you’re grateful to have completed, and a novel the writing of which changed your life?

If you stay true to your commitment—even if imperfectly, and you will be imperfect—you may get better, but you will certainly and continually give yourself chances to get better. Yay for incremental improvement; don’t let it slip by unnoticed. Because those spaces between the small increments? That’s where the magic is.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Crimes Now

Zestful Blog Post #195

Winter 2017 Newschat

Dearest Blog Friend,

I’ve duplicated here my Winter 2017 Newschat for those who aren’t on my Newschat mailing list. My apologies for the double post if you’re on both lists.

I hope your 2017 is off to a:
1)     thrilling
2)     fun
3)     halfway decent
4)     not terrible
start. Mine sure is!

The best news I offer today is Crimes in a Second Language, now available on Amazon. Crimes is a departure from series work for me—this is a standalone novel about the relationship between two very different women in contemporary Los Angeles. The story was inspired by my late, great aunt and her relationship with a Mexican-American housecleaner. From the back cover:

Is smart and dead better than dumb and safe?

Elnice Coker and her husband Arthur, retired schoolteachers, move from Indiana to the Hollywood Hills in a last-ditch attempt at novelty and happiness. California alone can’t do the trick, but when Elnice befriends her housecleaner, Solita, her life opens up to friendship and intrigue. Elnice teaches Solita English although Solita’s common-law husband, Luis, is against it. The women build a secret, tentative friendship.

Meanwhile, wannabe novelist Jason M is busy writing faulty information into tech manuals for airplane-making machines at a factory in the Valley. One of a swarm of corporate saboteurs scattered around Los Angeles, he’s bossed by a nameless, exacting mentor. But when he begins to have ethical doubts, he discovers it’s harder to get out than it was to get in.

The lure of easy money casts its spell over everybody, and as Elnice and Solita grow closer, they encounter treachery and danger where they least expect it. The saboteurs intertwine, innocent lives hang in the balance, and as Elnice risks everything to dig deeper, she learns the value of rejecting safety—and living life to the max. [End of cover material; scroll down to start Chapter 1.]

Speaking of covers, is this not a fabulous one?:


[Cover by Tree House Studio.]

Before I get you started on Chapter 1, other news:

My blog, Zestful Writing, continues to cook along. We cover the writer’s life, writing techniques, language use and abuse, and whatever else seems worthy to talk about of a Thursday afternoon.
I keep writing articles for Writer’s Digest magazine and their various special editions; currently you’ll find my pieces in the January, February, and March/April issues. (After that, a bit of a break…but I’ve sent along some new ideas to the mag, so we’ll see what’s next.) I contributed to the new edition of the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, from Writer’s Digest Books.

I’m developing ideas for online teaching, so stay tuned for that. Am also working on Best Boy, the fourth in the Rita Farmer mystery series.

Here’s the beginning of Crimes in a Second Language:

1: The Dog Does Not Answer

A white woman with her hair in a bun and perspiration spangling her upper lip disembarks a bus in a Los Angeles neighborhood she’s never been to before. Her stomach jiggles but not in an uncomfortable way. She is old enough to know the rewards of daily fiber supplements, sensible enough to be undaunted riding a bus into this place—in the daytime anyway—and desperate enough to do what she is about to do. The bus driver glances sideways with a molecule of curiosity as she hops down.

Desperation breeds nerve.

Nerve breeds action.

And this woman must act. Today. Lethally.

She walks one block in a random direction, her dusty white Keds rolling over the craggy sidewalk, her head swiveling as she frankly scrutinizes the storefronts. This is the right neighborhood, or really it is a right neighborhood.

Liquor-Lotto-Meat.
Pawn Town.
Ned’s Bar-B-Q and Sons.
Suellen Beauty.

Dangerous-looking characters drive past, their arms flexed sternly over their steering wheels. A baby wails in a loopy rhythm.

Not long ago, for sure, this woman would have been frightened to be here. But she’s got a grip on this city now—all of it. She belongs here.

A stray dog emerges from between two parked cars and humbly approaches. The woman perceives that the dog, half pit bull at least, is a female who must be nursing puppies somewhere; her teats are pronounced and low. It follows her, licks her hand from behind, circles around and looks up at her.

“What do you want to tell me, little dog?” Her voice is slender and clear, in contrast to her fat belly. Her words originate at the root of her tongue, not quite throatily; hers is an earnest voice that would be appropriate for a simultaneous interpreter or a documentary narrator.

Her name is Elnice M. Coker and she was married to Arthur T. “Bullet” Coker until yesterday, when he died before her eyes. His death was inappropriate and ghastly, but chosen. “Elnice” had been his last word.

She wishes people wouldn’t mispronounce it. Elnice rhymes with Elvis; in fact the names share a Teutonic root.

Elnice is feeling desperate, nervy, and lethal because she has learned that slow death is not the worst thing that can happen. Her shadow swings along beneath her, keen in the caustic light of the city today.

A cluster of needle-eyed little boys in pyramidal pants give her and the dog a once-over. They can’t finger it but she looks different. Not because she’s white and wearing dirty clothes—other soiled white people live in the neighborhood. Perhaps it is her purposeful manner. Not acute enough yet to perceive or care, the boys go back to their boasting.

“I’m serious.”

“My butthole.”

“Did too. I am serious.”

“My sweet butthole.”

The dog does not answer Elnice’s question. She cocks her head at the animal—just in case—but it remains silent. Everything is all right; Elnice has made her deal with God, and everything is all right.

Another liquor store presents itself. She examines the exterior and, evidently finding something favorable, walks in. She pretends to shop for pretzels until her eyes adjust to the stale light. She turns to the man behind the smeared plexi barrier. He is a Korean with a pencil-line mustache, close to her in age, whose years of running this liquor store in South Los Angeles have given his face the look of a tombstone made of old wood.

“I want to buy a handgun,” she tells him, “off the street. Do you know someone who can help me?”


Thank you for being my friend!
Elizabeth

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Plot Pivots

Zestful Blog Post #194

I want to share with you some good stuff from my article, “21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot,” in the January 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. (Special thanks to top-dog editor Jessica Strawser for her work on this piece and so many others I’ve written.)

A pivot point is an essential fulcrum upon which a story or a large swath of story turns. Archimedes, standing there next to the Earth with his lever, would understand! More significant than an ordinary plot point (which might merely serve to impart information or develop character), a pivot point effectively changes the direction of a character or action sequence. Huge when used as a foundation for a story, a pivot point can also be a small powerhouse for plot movement.

If your outline or story hangs together but lacks zing or seems to be missing something, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity to create a pivot point, or three. Some may be more or less dropped in via a new character or subplot; others would require more planning to effectively incorporate. Let these ideas get you going. (Warning: plot spoilers ahead, in the name of learning by example. This is the life we’ve chosen …)


[Here's a pivot point we can all relate to.]

1. Drop a house.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum features any number of important turning points, the most central (and literal) of which is the tornado, which causes Dorothy’s transit to Munchkin Country. While the tornado is definitely the inciting incident, the most significant pivot point in the early going is the fact that Dorothy’s house crushes to death the Wicked Witch of the East. Which earns Dorothy the malignant enmity of the Wicked Witch of the West. Which instantly creates life-and-death urgency during every minute of Dorothy’s journey.

You too can create an accident that brings an innocent character into the crosshairs of an unforgiving antagonist, be it a car wreck or a spilled drink or a bump in an elevator.

2. Create a ghost.

Some plot points can pivot more than one way; an example might be the introduction of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The children’s obsession with him leads them to approach his creepy house; Boo’s secret gifts to the kids serve to reveal his true nature; and of course without Boo, Scout would not have lived to tell her tale. In this case the pivot point is the ultimate force for good.

Of course, Boo was a man, not a ghost. But you can take that idea and make it your own. The point is, a force that quietly crops up here and there can suffuse your plot with real tension and mystery.

3. Give somebody charge over something.

The classic fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk pivots beautifully on this. Jack’s mother, instead of taking their cow to market herself, entrusts young Jack to do the job. Before he even reaches town, he gets suckered into giving the cow to an old man who offers him a few supposedly magic beans for it. He catches hell, but all ends well.

The injunction, “Don’t screw it up!” is an automatic pivot point, because it applies relentless pressure to whoever’s entrusted with the task.

4. Suppress a conscience.

In Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a key pivot point comes fairly late in the story, but it’s correctly placed for maximum impact. It’s not when the ambitious Clyde Griffiths gets the homely Roberta Alden pregnant, and not even when he begins to think of how much easier life would be without her. It’s when he swims away from her in the cold lake after their boat capsizes. He has made a crux decision that both solves his immediate problem and damns him forever.

In your work, think how you could give a more or less moral character a dire, fast decision to make—and have that character pick the dark path. Hugely compelling.

Check out the magazine for rest of the 21 pivots, and stay tuned to Zestful Writing for more fun!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Q & A with Mark Gottlieb

Zestful Blog Post #193

A few months ago the literary agent Mark Gottlieb, of the Trident Media Group, offered to do an interview here at Zestful Writing. I’d just published a post about this blog being strictly my idiosyncratic take on things, and explaining why I never seek out content written by anybody else. I told Mark hey, get in touch after the first of the year and maybe we can do an interview. I figured he’d just be like, screw it and not bother, and then I wouldn’t have to actually say no to this guy who works for one of the most prestigious agencies in the world.


[Just had to throw in a snapshot of NYC.]

But he did get in touch, and I thought, OK, I have to respect somebody who follows up like a professional. So I shot him a few questions. Below are his answers in their entirety. Needless to say, the reason people do these things is to promote their business or ideas. But Mark also offers some finger-on-the-pulse insights I found worthwhile, and I hope you do too. And hey, you might consider getting in touch with him when you have a manuscript ready to go!

What do literary agents talk about when they get together for drinks after a long day at a writer’s conference?

In order to make the best of my time, I tend to avoid other literary agents at conferences, focusing instead on attaining new clients and helping new writers grow into published authors. I’m not usually one to try and make idle chat or niceties with the competition, but I have in the past had the opportunity to hear from other literary agents, after they’ve had the liquid truth serum. Mostly it’s kvetching about the state of book publishing and how much they despise Amazon but can’t live without it. I’ve also heard other literary agents talk about how they struggled in first trying to sell fiction and/or commercial fiction and have instead taken to churning small nonfiction deals, since nonfiction is generally easier to sell. Conversely, fiction and commercial fiction is our bread and butter at Trident Media Group, though we do rank just as highly in nonfiction deals.

How would you describe your business model? Have you made any changes in response to the digital- / self-publishing revolution? If so, what?

It is all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing or small indie publishing. However, many successful self-published authors eventually go into traditional publishing in order to take advantage of having a team of professionals who help them take their work to the next level.

A literary agency with industry knowledge and expertise can bring a huge value add to the table for an author, evidenced by many of the success stories we’ve created for our clients, the bulk of which are award-winning and bestselling authors. We’ve actually built a lot of self-published success stories into mega-bestsellers, giving authors a Godzilla-like footprint in the industry.

Trident Media Group is a full-service literary agency for authors, handling accounting, legal review, management, foreign rights (books in translation), book-to-film/TV, audio books, etc. We’re also a literary agency with tremendous clout in the industry, so we can get many things for authors from publishers and film / TV buyers that an author otherwise would not be able to get on their own.

I’d like to think that a literary agency would save an author a lot of headaches in order to help the author focus in on their own writing, thereby allowing the author to become more prolific. Meanwhile, the literary agent would work in concert with their subsidiary rights people and departments within the literary agency. In looking at a literary agent and considering paying them a commission on a deal, an author should be asking what they stand to gain in having a literary agent.

The digital landscape has seen our literary agency evolve. Thanks to the tremendous resources available to our company and our Digital Media and Publishing department, Trident Media Group often helps our clients in their marketing/publicity efforts. We also try to put the publisher on the hot seat in encouraging them to perform marketing/publicity tasks for the author, by sharing ideas and having in-depth meetings with publishers.

Trident will also make recommendations to our clients on how they can think about improving their social media presence and look to online efforts to market / promote their books. Otherwise, book publishers normally devote their marketing dollars and other resources toward authors that are huge successes or are making a major debut.

We at Trident might even recommend a private book publicity firm to a client, but that doesn’t come cheap. An author should still know that their role in marketing and promoting the book is integral to the process since, at the end of the day, readers / fans will want to hear from the author.

What’s one thing agents don’t tell authors?

Literary agents may be reluctant to tell authors how they and their literary agency ranks on Publishers Marketplace’s site. Many authors, who are just plain happy to have found a literary agent, don’t always choose the right sort of agency for not asking that question of a literary agent. We at Trident Media Group are book publishing’s leading literary agency as we rank #1 for overall and six-figure+ deals (highest monetary category an agency can rank for) on publishersmarketplace.com, both for fiction, nonfiction, and agencies. We have ranked that way for over a decade, which is how long Publishers Marketplace has been around. That means we have numerous #1 NYT bestselling authors and many award-winning authors. When a new author looks at a big agency like ours, which is close to fifty employees and takes up the entire 36th floor of a Madison Ave building, they often think they will get lost in the shuffle, when in reality it is really quite the opposite. This being a big agency means that we have devoted legal, accounting, audio, digital, office management and foreign rights departments, which means I can spend more time with my clients, focusing on their careers. This is not to speak ill of other agencies, but the same cannot be said of a very small agency tight on resources where agents there, by-and-large, must work in a vacuum, and therefore have little time to properly handle audio and foreign rights, unlike an agency of our stature.

Who’s your favorite author of all time?

My favorite book is Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN as it helped me through a difficult time in my life and made me feel as though I had a friend in that book.

Thank you, Mark!


[This is sexist, right, but isn't he the cutest thing?]

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Not-Caring Trick

Zestful Blog Post #192

Not caring. That’s the paradox of quality achievement: Let your arrow fly with as much preparation and sincerity as possible—but don’t care where it goes! For then and only then will the shot, or the work, be worthwhile. Then and only then will it—can it—fly true and find its target.

Not everybody gets this, not everybody is open to this, no matter what. I remember talking golf with a friend a few years ago. My friend and I were mediocre golfers. I’d been experimenting with the ‘don’t care where it goes’ mindset after hearing the great champion Annika Sorenstam explain that the only way she can swing freely and produce beautiful shots is to not care where the ball goes. Also, I’d been reading similar ideas in books like Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. I got the gist immediately; the paradox appealed to my seeker’s heart. I saw how it can work. Take a hall-of-fame athlete like Annika: Well, her ball went exactly where she aimed it thousands of times, not in spite of her not-caring, but because of it.

I started to share this idea with my friend over a beer after a round. But she stiffened and interrupted, “I can’t do that. I DO care where my ball goes.”

I tried to explain, but in her view, not caring where your ball goes must absolutely, necessarily result in poor shots and awful scores. To her, not caring about the flight of her ball meant not trying hard during the swing; it meant slapping indiscriminately at the ball. Not caring, to my friend, meant being lazy. It meant not caring about the process. And that’s where she got it wrong.


‘Trying’ has ruined many an effort, whether golf shot, pirouette, or writing session. Trying usually means tightening, or attempting to force something. Furthermore, there is an element of fear in caring about results. Gosh, I hope I don’t hit it into the water. Gosh, I hope this piece of writing doesn’t turn out stupid.

But my friend would not or could not separate process from result. I finally gave up, telling her bluntly, “Then you’re doomed.” She shrugged off my nonsense. She doesn’t golf much anymore.

If you take pleasure in the swing, in the process, if you abandon yourself to the process, if you simply practice being aware without trying to change or even get better, if you go deeply into the process alone, be as present as possible, feel all the pleasure and joy of it—that’s when beautiful, satisfying results will come.

Go forth and attend to your process. Swing it. May the Force be with you.

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