Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Magic of Reverse Outlining

Zestful Blog Post #217

Before the magic happens, a couple of bits of business. I promised last week to reveal the name of the restaurant in the photo if nobody guessed. Not like it’s some super amazing thing, but it’s the 13 Coins next to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s Marcia’s and my favorite place to eat when we stay near that airport, in spite of the slight hokiness of the coins being embedded in the polymer coating on the tabletops. We love the midcentury-modern ambience, and the food is good, although I watched the bartender water our Manhattans once. I complained, but the server argued that that was impossible. I let it go, but later saw the server whispering to the bartender, who avoided looking at us for the rest of the time. Don’t let that stop you from going there, though; just order wine or beer. Or coffee, if it’s breakfast time. We’re not degenerates here.

If you are reading this blog between the dates of June 22 and June 26, 2017, I wish you would pop over to Amazon and snag a free Kindle copy of I am Calico Jones. It’s a collection of four short stories by yours truly, led off by the title story, which is a personal account of an adventure by the very Calico Jones about whom Lillian Byrd loves to read in the cheesy novels she gobbles up at every opportunity. And wow, when I just tested that link, I see that it's at #4 in LGBT short reads, edging out the tons of erotica that make up most of that list. Go, literature.

Not long ago during a conversation with one of the few private clients I work with on writing fiction, I gave an impromptu piece of advice she found very helpful. She mentioned it in a comment a few weeks ago, and now I’m motivated to share it in this post today. (Thanks, Bev.)

It has to do with the revision process. Now, this can be during chapter-by-chapter revisions as you go, or while you’re revising a manuscript that is more or less complete.

[It wasn’t easy to come up with a photo for this post. Can you find reverse in this image? It’s my car; the plastic of the gearshift cover is delaminating, but it is 22 years old, so gimme a break.]

The technique very simply is this: Write down a little summary of each chapter. OK, that’s it. Now, most of us like to do at least a little bit of outlining in advance of writing fiction, and that is a good thing. But as we write, things don’t always go as planned, and that may be all very fine too. But then what?

Writing a little summary of each chapter does several things:

·       It helps you keep track of your threads of plot and theme as you go, and it helps you distinguish the two.
·       It helps you spot problems that need fixing, like plausibility gaps or plot gaps, or simply unfinished thoughts that require further development. It also will help you spot redundancies or nonessential material that should be cut.
·       If you listen to your gut as you review this summary, you’ll also notice where and how your emotions are triggered, and then you can work to emphasize or deemphasize appropriately.
·       It builds an accurate working outline. This alone makes this tip worth his weight in gold, if you ask me. (How much does it weigh? That’s the key question. I believe at least a pound. My mailing address? Just ask.)
·       This working outline will eventually become your completed outline, which you will use when pitching your manuscript to agents and/or publishers.
·       If you self publish, your outline or summary will be helpful to you when writing promo and cover copy for your book.

When I practice this, I write my summaries on a yellow pad off to the side as I’m working on the digital manuscript on my computer. Just a few sentences are all you need.

Have you ever done this? If so, tell us how it works for you. If not, and you decide to try it, ditto!

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Extrapolation for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #216

If you’re still with me after reading the title of this post, congratulations and thank you. I appreciate that there are so many serious writers who follow these posts. What you get here, and here alone, is my perspective on how to write well, how to avoid crappy mistakes, and how to arrange one’s life as a writer.

Back in the 1980s I worked in the human resources department of a large financial institution. One of our tasks was training bankers on how to sell bank products—checking accounts, credit cards—to retail customers. My boss bought an up-to-the-minute sales training program on video and we decided to try it out on our bankers.

The videos followed a salesman with a product called a transporter, which (oddly) looked like an ordinary microwave oven, but was supposed to transport whatever you put in it from one place to another, as if by magic. Obviously this was a dummy product; the product itself was unimportant; the point of the video was to demonstrate effective, customer-oriented sales techniques.

The salesman in the video demonstrated all the right stuff: questioned his customers as to their needs, discussed characteristics of the transporter, elicited objections, overcame objections with further discussion and questioning. In the end, the customer agrees to buy a transporter. I thought the videos were fun and effective. To those of us in HR, it was an easy jump to think of ways to use those sales techniques to sell all the different sorts of bank products the company offered.

But the first time we showed the video to a group of front-office employees, they sat there impassively through the whole thing. When it was over there was silence, until one guy finally said, “But we’re not selling transporters.” These front-office bank folks were utterly baffled as to why we would show them a video on how to sell transporters. They were incapable of extrapolating from the video to their own frame of reference. (And that was the end of the transporter videos.)

Understand that there are millions of people just like those bankers. And they read books. Most writers have an intuitive feel for extrapolation, but I think it’s worthwhile to talk about explicitly. The word extrapolation is not the precise right one here, because it means to extend an application of something. If there was a word that combined extrapolation with adaptation, then I think we would have it, but it seems that even the vast, agile language of English has its limitations.

For writers, extrapolation means looking past the literal. It means making leaps of imagination. You cannot trust your reader to do it. The reader craves the experience of you doing it. And I believe the most important element in this is to give yourself permission to do it.

Here’s what I’m talking about. You come across a suggested writing prompt somewhere, like, “A disgraced celebrity flees high society.” You could come up with something rather literal, like a Park Avenue heiress gets busted for heroin and goes to the Betty Ford Center. Perhaps there she meets a humble laborer who will introduce her to a life of honesty and simplicity. Or perhaps to a life of exciting dirt bike racing. Or not. You could venture further and make that character a track star who gets caught filing his spikes or something, and he’s suspended from the sport. What might happen next? Maybe he coaches a junior team for a while, and learns from the kids the true meaning of integrity. You could invent a charismatic faith healer who is exposed as a phony, and who decides to exile herself for a while, and goes on a quest to test herself and to make atonement. Those are skeletons of whole stories right there.

[Extra credit if you can name this restaurant, located near the shade of many large evergreen trees.]

You might observe someone across the room in a cafĂ© who piques your interest. Don’t stop there. Maybe that person is watching another person. You then observe the third person. What’s going on? You decide. Who are those people? Pay attention. What are they wearing, do they seem happy or sad or something else? Maybe you can’t say why a person piques your interest. (Beyond, OK, pheromones.) That right there is reason to study that person more, and delve into your own feelings and reactions. When uncertain emotions come up, pay lots and lots of attention, and give yourself lots and lots of permission to extrapolate, generalize, adapt, and individualize.

Speaking of individualization, I once read in a manuscript, He went ballistic. Nothing more. Well, hell, don’t tell us he went ballistic. The bankers won’t know what’s going on. Tell us:

He grabbed Mike by the head and threw him to the floor, then slammed a chair into the model of the new building, smashing it to pieces. The second chair went through the window, followed by the poly-acrylic achievement award and everything else on Mike’s desk.

I hope I’ve given you another angle of insight into how to mine and refine your raw material. Go further, go deeper, go detailed.

I love comments. Has there ever been a stranger who has somehow strongly attracted your attention? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remember the Writer who

Zestful Blog Post #215

Remember the writer who quit?

Nobody does.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dynamic Plot & Theme Demo

Zestful Blog Post #214

Authors often get confused by the subjects of plot versus theme, and I don’t just mean aspiring authors. I’ve seen established authors get things mixed up, and their fiction turns out much less powerful than it could be.

Here’s how to make magic: Consider a plot thread and a theme together. Here is an example, or actually, I guess it’s a demonstration.

Recently I set out to write a short story starring my alter ego, Lillian Byrd. I wanted to give Lillian a problem to solve. And I wanted the problem to involve a friend of hers, and I selected her animal loving friend, Billie. Billie calls Lillian and tells her that her car has been towed and impounded by the city, and she doesn’t have enough money to get it out of jail. So, problem.

Lillian offers to lend her money, but Billie doesn’t want to borrow. She asks instead for Lillian to come over and help her sort through her collection of vinyl records so that some can be sold to raise the money for the fines. Because Billie’s record collection is the stuff of legend, Lillian can’t abide the thought of it being dismantled. OK, so this situation is getting more complex, and it becomes a plot arc. One way or another, we know that Billie’s problem will be solved by the end of the story, because that’s how stories work.

And there we have a theme, and we can call that theme any of a number of things: friends helping friends, the quality of friendship, the plight of low-wage workers, the hazards of not saving money for emergency situations.

Very soon after creating this problem for Lillian, I realized I needed more plot, and it stood to reason that another plot line would be just the thing. Lillian must take it upon herself to solve this problem of Billie’s, but she’s not sure what to do. The second plot thread appears when Lillian’s phone rings, and it’s her rich friend Flora Pomeroy, who wants her to drop everything and come out for a boat ride with her and some other rich friends. Billie urges her to go (they can deal with the record collection later), and we know that the boat ride will furnish some delectable action.

As soon as Lillian gets aboard, Flora tells her that she wants her to investigate a member of the boating party — while they’re out on the water! — in order to settle a bet Flora made with another friend, who also happens to be aboard. As soon as we hear about a bet, we know cash is lurking around.

What develops is another theme, along with the plot line, along with a significant plot arc. We could call it the theme of friends helping friends, just the same as above, or we could call this theme human ingenuity, or we could individualize the theme and call it Lillian’s willingness to take drastic risks for the hell of it. (That theme seems to crop up repeatedly in my Lillian fiction.)

You can see that both plot lines and both themes will come together and make for a satisfying outcome. At least, that is what I’m hoping readers will think after they’ve read the story! It is as yet unpublished, because I have to create an e-cover for it and run it by my beta readers. [Would you like to become one of my beta readers? Send me an email—addy is on my web site under contact—telling me so. You’ll also become a member of my Newschat list, if you’re not on it already.]

So, what’s the point of considering plot in light of theme? Simply that when you consider your plot lines along with the themes that relate to them, you create an awareness in yourself, an energy that makes your story add up to more than the sum of its parts. You might be moved to create dialogue where your characters discuss their feelings about specific things—or avoid talking about specific things. You might notice ways to build on themes by ramping up risk or reward or trouble. You might see weaknesses you can easily fix. These are subtle elements and distinctions—perhaps even ineffable—but these are things I love to think about and want to help you love to think about too.

Comment, question? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Three Kinds of Writers

Zestful Blog Post #213

There are three kinds of writers. The first kind of writer is one who does not know the difference between hay and straw, and doesn’t care. The second kind of writer is one who does not know the difference between hay and straw, but when corrected, is glad, and will use the words properly from now on. The third kind of writer knows the difference between hay and straw. The same goes for concrete versus cement, and iron versus steel. I am the third kind of writer, and five minutes from now you will be the third kind of writer too. This post is about our material world.

Hay versus straw.

Hay is fodder for animals, and is made of dried plants bundled into bales. You may have heard the terms timothy hay, clover hay, and so on. Dried alfalfa is hay. Certain kinds of legumes are grown for hay. Farmers grow hay crops such as these to be cut, then left to dry, then baled.  So yeah, if the field is cut and dried, it’s finished, settled. (In olden times before farm mechanization, farmers would simply scythe down meadow grass, or any kind of undifferentiated growth, let it dry, then stack it for animal fodder.) Modern hay bales are either square or rectangular, and they separate into segments called flakes. A flake can be an easy way to measure how much hay you’re giving to your animals. Also, you’ve seen hay in round bales, you know, those huge picturesque rolls that dot the fields. Some city dads tell their kids those are cow cocoons: The mama cow lays her egg, then builds that large roll of hay around the egg, so that when the calf hatches, it has something good to eat right away. It then can eat its way out and be all nice and healthy when it comes into the world.

Straw is what is left over from the harvesting of grains: the dried stalks of crops like wheat and oats. Straw is used as bedding material for animals, and decorative bales of straw are sold in hardware stores around Halloween time. That hayride you went on when you were a kid at some farm? It was most likely straw you were sitting on, there in the wagon.

If you have ever lifted a bale of hay, and then lifted a bale of straw, you will immediately understand the difference in food value. A bale that weighs 60 pounds if made of hay would weigh, if it was made of straw, maybe only 10 pounds.

So: a horse in a stable eats hay while standing on straw.

Cement versus concrete.

Cement is a substance that sticks things together. Concrete is made of cement, aggregate, and water. Cement for use in concrete is made mostly of finely ground limestone. It's a powder. If you wet it, it’s slick to the touch, and sticky. Aggregate, in this sense, is a mix of stones and pebbles and perhaps sand. You mix cement with aggregate and water, and you stir it around, and you pour it someplace, and when it hardens you have concrete.

The sidewalks you walk upon are not cement, they are concrete. Pilings and abutments that hold up modern bridges are made of reinforced concrete. Even though people call them cement mixers, they are concrete mixers. Nothing is made entirely of cement.

Bonus: the concrete you walk on can also be called pavement.

And it can even be pretty.

Iron versus steel.

Iron is an element, chemical symbol Fe. You have heard of ferrous metals; a ferrous metal is a metal that contains iron. Steel is an alloy that is made from iron and other elements, such as carbon and manganese. It is a ferrous metal.

This morning you may have fried your eggs in a cast iron skillet. That skillet came out of a mold: it was cast in iron. The railing you lean on when you watch the Mardi Gras parade from your French quarter apartment is made of wrought iron, which is ductile and malleable, perfect for a blacksmith to make curlicues and slender railings from.

You are now officially the third kind of writer. Stick with me and you’ll be all right.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Murderer at the Next Pump

Zestful Blog Post #212

The other day while shopping at the drugstore another customer passed by me, and he gave me the deep creeps. Instead of avoiding eye contact or turning away as I usually do, I took a better look. He seemed not to have taken particular notice of me; it was just the vibe. This guy’s aura was dark and flat.

He was an older guy, stubble, carelessly turned out for the day. Often when I see guys like that I figure them for alcoholics or maybe porn addicts—you know, more pathetic than dangerous. But this one had a dense stare and just this opaque malevolence about him, a hatefulness.

And I was reminded of the fact that many crimes, many murders, go unsolved, and murderers walk among us. Murderers buy groceries and gas up their cars and go to work and the movies. (I keep baby wipes in my car’s console, for cleaning my hands after gassing up, specifically because I don’t want murderer molecules to stay on me. You laugh. But you’ll be lookin’ at your hand different now, when you put that nozzle back, won’t you, my pet? Yes, you will.) No doubt most of us have come into contact with murderers without knowing it. Sometimes we get closer than that.

Marcia’s cousin was murdered, the crime and subsequent cover-up arranged by the cousin’s estranged husband. (Everybody got nailed, but it took a lot of time.) One of my brother’s buddies played pickup basketball in the late 1960s with John Norman Collins, who was soon apprehended for the torture killing of at least six young women and girls. A co-worker of mine had a college roommate who went missing on her way to class and was never found. They both routinely hitched rides to campus… 1970s…

A guy who played the trumpet in my marching band at college turned out to have murdered his mother and girlfriend by running them over (separately) with his car. I remember that guy as being weedy and odd, turning out for practice in dress pants and black leather street shoes, while the rest of us ran around in jeans and sneakers. I could easily have suspected him of obsessively collecting bottle caps, but not killing anybody. Cannot remember his name, or would have Googled him for any recent info.

You may have similar stories. David Buss wrote a fascinating book on the subject,  'The Murderer Next Door'. The point is, human life is so profoundly layered. My purpose today is to remind us writers, especially us little liberal arts majors who have never been arrested, let alone shared a cell with convicted felons (for instance), to be open to the vibes that swirl around us. We tend to forget, and maybe even deny, human evil. It’s not just in TV shows and true-crime books. Our observations inform our work. Good, evil, see it all and feel it all. Occupy your place in the world deeply.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Five Quickies

Zestful Blog Post #211

Writing in the Basin
I’d never heard of the Permian Basin Writers Workshop before they asked me to come and be on their faculty this year, but having minored in geology, I actually knew what the Permian Basin is, so I was like, sure. The event will be in Midland, Texas from September 15 through the 17th. I’ll be doing my workshop called “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller That SELLS” on Saturday the 16th. Coincidentally, fellow Writer’s Digest personality Chuck Sambuchino will be doing a boot camp there on the 15th. Anyway, if you live in the general area of West Texas, or even if you live in someplace like Stuttgart, consider joining us for a non-grueling, lively series of presentations. I’ll be doing my longer version of that workshop, over two sessions instead of one, and participants will be able to do a bit of real live writing to test out my ideas — and theirs. Productivity! Yes. Gonna wear my custom cowboy boots, made many years ago in the nearby town of San Angelo. (’nother coincidence.)

[I designed them, too, with my initials done the same way as I sign them. Boots by Rusty Franklin Boot Co. These are peewees, but he made a standard pair for me too, black and cream in color. This is not my first rodeo. Photo by ES.]

Update re: ZB 210
Remember the Cuban restaurant I wrote about last week? Marcia and I decided to go there for dinner that night, only to find it closed. A staff member at the other location said the closure was permanent.

A Nasty Problem
But speaking of restaurants and visibility, I’m reminded of how dueling signage nearly ruined the business of a Chinese restaurant in a small town Marcia and I used to live in. When we were new there, we drove around to familiarize ourselves. We stopped at a light and noticed a restaurant and its large sign that said, nasty chinese restaurant. Why on earth would someone call their restaurant that?, we wondered. Let’s not eat there. Some days later, I was walking along that same street. I looked at the restaurant from a different angle, and saw that its name was really dynasty chinese restaurant. A traffic sign obscured the first part of their sign when viewed from directly across the street. Now, the sign didn’t really almost ruin their business, but it did have an odd impact. You gotta love language.

p.s. re: Jay
I was gratified that so many folks enjoyed the recent post about my friend Jay, his typewriter business, and his budding interest in photography (Zestful Blog post 209, “A Blind Man Sees It”). I just wanted to add one more thing about Jay: always smiling, always enjoying the moment — and being fully present.

Say it Loud
I’m dictating this post using Dragon Naturally Speaking software, premium version 13. After a friend alerted me to a post by Scott Baker about Dragon on Mark Dawson’s blog, I decided to give it another try. I had purchased and used the software a few years ago in advance of shoulder surgery, when I feared I’d be unable to write or type for a while. I didn’t take to it very well, so I did not continue with it after that. However, I’ve been having a lot of trouble handling all my projects and responsibilities and obligations. So I got hold of a newer version of Dragon and gave it a go, with more commitment this time, and I’m happy to report that it’s working pretty well. I use an inexpensive usb headset as recommended. I did have to correct Dragon on Chuck Sambuchino’s name, which came out “checks and Chino.” But barely a week after starting back using Dragon again, its accuracy is pretty good; Chuck’s name was one of only a few corrections I’ve had to make so far, and the only serious one. The first time I tried to dictate 1,000 words of original story, it took me three hours, what with having to make corrections as well as relearn the commands for dictation and navigation. But after just two more sessions, I dictated 1,000 words in an hour. I would imagine I can increase that to 2,000 without a whole lot of trouble. (And possibly much higher, given that a normal speaking pace is about 130 words per minute. 130 x 60 = 7,800.) The key is having what you want to say in mind, and then letting it flow without worrying very much. And don't be daunted by how much you don't know about it. If you just get the thing and follow the directions, you'll be fine. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes for me. Plus I can slouch in my comfy chair and work at the same time. Sip champagne and have my nails done.

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Pounding Power of Publicity

Zestful Blog Post #210

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Blind Man Sees It

Zestful Blog Post #209

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo by Jay Williams]

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

[Photo by Jay Williams]

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

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

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

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

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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:


We counted five traffic incidences at that crossing last month.
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:

My report shows a lower instance of sexual dysfunction in alpacas than in llamas.
My report shows a lower incidence of sexual dysfunction in alpacas than in llamas.
There were several instances in which male llamas attempted to mate with a fence post, despite the presence of receptive females.
In one instance, the veterinarian had to be summoned.

It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

One more:

Her exercise regiment consisted of an hour’s walk every day.
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.

“ 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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