Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throw out the instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

Make another one.

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

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

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

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

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

The Fun Of It

Zestful Blog Post #223

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wear Doomed

Zestful Blog Post #222

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer 2017 Newschat

Zestful Blog Post #221

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sneak peek.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Close Listening for Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Showing vs Overshowing

Zestful Blog Post #219

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which of the following three do you prefer?:

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

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

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

We agree. Number two, right?

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

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

So, in sum:

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

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

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

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

To post a comment or question, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introvert's Guide to Speaking at Conferences

Zestful Blog Post #218

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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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.

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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.

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