Thursday, September 20, 2018

New Books from Pals

Zestful Blog Post #282

Now and then a pal publishes a book! Here are two recent ones I’m happy to share out. Congratulations to Bev Prescott and Neil Plakcy.

 2 Degrees by Bev Prescott

In the year 2092, climate change has transformed the face of Earth. Storms, disease, famine, thirst and war show no mercy on the living. Sharon Clausen, a self-reliant farmer, has a secret apple tree—a tree that keeps Sharon and her wife, Eve, fed. 

The only other people who know of her secret, or so she thinks, is Dr. Ryan, a long-time confidant, and his wife, Areva. Once a month, Sharon and Eve travel from Maine to Boston to trade apples with Dr. Ryan for Eve’s leukemia treatment. Everything suddenly changes when Eve is kidnapped and the Ryans are murdered. Sharon learns that her best kept secrets are known and coveted by a man known as the Strelitzia—a coldly practical villain.

Sharon sets out on a harrowing journey across North America to rescue Eve. Along the way, she teams up with an Inuit refugee boy, a stray dog named Erik the Red, an eccentric former school teacher, a jujitsu master, an Argentinian opera star, and a brilliant scientist who leads an alliance of eclectic people known as the Qaunik. Together, this ragtag group battle horrific storms, an unrelenting desert, terrifying criminal gangs, feral humans, and the Strelitzia.

In the end, Sharon must face her greatest challenge—risk all that she loves for something much greater than herself.

Buy it HERE.

 Neil Plakcy Survival Dying Art

Special Agent Angus Green is still in his twenties, and his red hair and good looks often make people underestimate him, but he’s a smart, fearless cop who believes in the FBI motto: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.

Fort Lauderdale retiree Frank Sena is working with pawn shop owner Jesse Venable to retrieve a painting stolen from Frank’s uncle, a gay Venetian killed during the Holocaust. Angus volunteers to help Frank, and discovers Venable is the subject of a task force looking into smuggling immigrants out of war-torn countries in the Middle East.

Angus, who knows nothing about art and speaks no Italian, may be in over his head as he is assigned to befriend, and ultimately betray, Venable. But with the help of his Italian-speaking brother and his art-loving boyfriend, he may be able not only to retrieve the painting, but solve a smuggling case and potentially save thousands of lives.

The investigation will take him from the sun-drenched rooftops of Venice to a private yacht speeding down Fort Lauderdale’s New River. Along the way, he’ll learn the true meaning of survival.

Buy it HERE.

If you’re a subscriber to this blog or to my newschat, do let me know when you’ve published a book, and I’ll shout it out one way or another, OK?

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Half an Hour to Dramatic Improvement

Zestful Blog Post #281

Here's something to try for the hell of it. (Have you done something for the hell of it this week yet?) I swear if you do this you will write about your world with greater confidence and pleasure. Even reading this will help you.

Go to your favorite coffeehouse and sit with your notebook. Relax your jaw. Which should prompt your neck to relax. Which should prompt your shoulders to relax, and so on down. You’re welcome. Without moving from that spot, write down everything you can sense. Open all those chakras or whatever they are and write down what you're seeing and sensing, head to toe. Don’t judge anything, just describe it.

What do you see? Start with the place and write it. Floor, walls, ceiling. What do you see through the windows? Is it day or night? What is the quality of the light—is it bright, muted, pearly, golden? Maybe it's blue, or maroon! Look into the shadows. Notice how different the light is there. Describe it. What do you hear? What's playing on the sound system, if anything? Is it loud or quiet? Do you know the tune?

Next, the people. Who's there and what are they like? What do they look like, what clothing? Who's talking and what are they saying? What are their voices like? What else do you hear? Doors banging open and shut as people come and go? Beeps from the machines behind the counter? Cell phones? The paddle fan squeaking slightly as it rotates overhead? What's that squeak like? Focus on one sound and write it thoroughly.

What do you smell? Probably a great many smells are coming together. What is the bouquet of the place? Are you smelling coffee, maybe sweets, maybe something like the mop-water disinfectant that sort of lingers very slightly beneath everything? A whiff of strong perfume or aftershave trailing behind someone like a wake from a vessel?

 What are you eating and drinking? Maybe a roll and some coffee. Describe the flavors. How does each one taste separately? Consistency, texture, temperature. How do they mingle together in your mouth? What else can you describe about how they taste? Do the comestibles (love that word) bring up memories, like Proust's madeleines? What are they?

[could be beignets...]

Does anything else you're experiencing bring up other thoughts, memories, feelings?
What are you sensing bodily? What is your chair like? Is it interacting with your thighs and butt in a satisfactory fashion?

How's your posture? How does the back of your neck feel? Has your jaw re-tightened? Can you sense air currents on your face? On your hands? On your legs if you're wearing shorts or a skirt? Describe the air currents. Where are they coming from, where are they going? Is your body sore or tight anywhere? Don't judge anything, just describe it. Are you wearing a watch or jewelry? A ring? Can you feel the jewelry on your skin? The weight of a necklace on your collarbones?

Finally: What are you sensing beneath it all? I believe in the sixth sense, or intuition. Is there a general mood in the place? If so, where's it coming from? Are the baristas a happy crew? Why, do you suppose, or why not? Is there a little corner of negativity over there surrounding that frowning customer studying his phone? Is there something creative happening over there between those three people talking excitedly? Is there something in the spirit of the place that brings you in? Something you can sense but not label? Write it as best you can and see what happens.

How do you feel beneath your exterior? What is your deepest state right now?

What do you think? Have you ever done something like this? How did it go? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [Photo by ES]

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Full Emptiness

Zestful Blog Post #280

I once overheard a professional golfer say, of good putting technique, “You’ve almost gotta go brain-dead to get it perfect.” Which is so totally Zen, so totally about quieting your mind to allow terrific performance to happen. Can you be a great putter without practice? No. But you can be a crummy putter even if you practice a lot, but habitually psych yourself out when on the course. “Is that the right line, for sure? Let’s set up that way. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. Oh, heck, I’ll stroke it anyway. Can’t think about it all day. Aaannd…dang.”

It wants to go in so bad.

There’s a line from a song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! that goes, “Never have I asked the August sky, ‘Where has last July gone?’” Is that somehow Zen too? You bet it is: complete acceptance of what has been, and total presence in the now. No regrets. (The song is “Many a New Day”.)

Lessons for writers? Yeah. Sometimes I really need to remind myself of that golfer and that song.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, August 30, 2018

That Can be a Drag

Zestful Blog Post #279

Too many writers use too many [that]s. It’s a reflex, I think, having to do with informal speech. Using [that] can become a habit in speech, almost as a placeholder, or filler.

I want you to know that these binoculars used to work perfectly, before you gave them to Timmy to play with.

You could cut the ‘that’ with no loss of meaning. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with the word [that]—it’s a useful word:

Stop worrying about that police car behind us.
I don’t remember a thing after that.
The whispered gossip that swept through the shire made me sick.

There’s nothing even inherently wrong with extraneous thats. But they do creep into our written prose way more often than necessary, especially when used to summarize conversation or comprehension. And when you’re tasked with keeping a reader’s interest, it’s a good idea to pay attention to pace and economy, even on the most granular level. A few examples:

He told her that he loved her.
He told her he loved her.

She knew that the reunion would be an ordeal.
She knew the reunion would be an ordeal.

[So that] can get tiring as well:

Ted smoothed the cloth so that it would stay flat on the table.
Ted smoothed the cloth so it would stay flat on the table.

While keeping an eye out for enemy forces, the orange dinosaur rolled boulders into the tunnel so that the treasure would be safe.
While keeping an eye out for enemy forces, the orange dinosaur rolled boulders into the tunnel so the treasure would be safe.
You could add a bit of punctuation to change the flavor and meaning slightly, and to be more grammatically correct:
While keeping an eye out for enemy forces, the orange dinosaur rolled boulders into the tunnel, so the treasure would be safe.
(In this case, we put a comma with a conjunction.)

Getting rid of extraneous thats is easy and rewarding, once you know to look for them!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [Photo by ES, with special thanks to Cheetoh.]

Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Simple Plan

Zestful Blog Post #278

Once in a while, an aspiring writer will feel at a total loss. “I can’t write anything.”

Sometimes the aspiring writer is me. Sometimes, maybe, it’s you. Here’s a Jedi mind trick that always jogs me out of my funk:

“Fine. You can’t write anything. That’s OK. But if you could write something, what would it be?”

Write about what you would write if you could. Just make notes on ideas; you don’t even need complete sentences.

I suggest keeping this in your back pocket, just in case.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES
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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Saving it for Good

Zestful Blog Post #277

Until I was about 11 years old, money was very tight at our house. When you got something new to wear, you wouldn’t dream of just putting it on any old time; you’d ‘save it for good.’ That is, you’d reserve it to wear when you had to go somewhere special. If the item fell under the new school clothes category you waited until school started, then only wore it to school, never out to play. I believe some children still go out to play these days. I can’t remember, however, the last time I drove down some residential street and saw, for instance, two young guys playing catch in the street with a baseball and their mitts. Digression, sorry.

The save-it-for-good habit has been hard to break. I still tend to do it even with new t-shirts, which is insane. Another digression, but I bet you can relate.

Moving along. When I was in my 20’s I hung out with a band that played basic pop and jazz/funk at festivals and weddings here and there in the Detroit area. We were just buddies in general, and it was fun to chill with them on rehearsal nights. Once they let me play the tenor saxophone solo in the Billy Joel version of “Just the Way You Are” with them at some local festival. For that occasion, I wore a skirt and a nice top. Man, am I digressing today. But via them I met a band promoter, a very young guy, who invited me to an after-hours club in Detroit for a special show. He had managed to get three record producers to agree to come see a lineup of half a dozen bands he repped. Each band would play a short set. As we sat with drinks while the first band was setting up and the producers were arriving, he explained to me his strategy: He would lead off with the weakest group, progressing until finishing with a bang with the very best one.

[We listened to vinyl before it was retro, didn’ we?]
“Their excitement’s just gonna keep building and building all night,” he told me confidently. He figured if he could sell even just the last and best group to one of the producers, the night would be a success.

Aaaaannnnd as I bet you’ve guessed, the plan backfired. By the time the third group took their bows, all the producers had left. I will draw a curtain over the desperate measures taken by my young, inexperienced friend to try to get the producers to stick around.

And you’ve already guessed the moral of my story today for writers: Though it’s tempting to save your best stuff for some future unleashing, it’s far better to lead off with a bang than hope to finish with one. I’m not saying we shouldn’t carefully husband our material. But sometimes saving becomes a reflexive habit. Spend it, enjoy the rush upfront, and feel secure that more good stuff will come!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [Photo by ES]

Thursday, August 9, 2018

They Will Find You

Zestful Blog Post #276

Not long ago I was taking a walk in a nearby state park, on an overcast afternoon. The forest canopy was so thick it seemed like twilight. I heard an owl hooting and recognized it as a Great Horned, which I’ve been fortunate to spot several times wherever I’ve lived. It occurred to me to hoot back, wondering what would happen. Turns out I have a bit of a talent for owl mimicry, because the bird called again. We talked to each other back and forth a few times, then I heard these big, soft, whooshing wingbeats coming through the trees. The owl had likely decided, “She sounds sexy. I have to meet her!” Or perhaps, “I have to check out this goddam interloper.” The forest was so thick I never did get a glimpse of the owl, who I’m sure was then like, “Oh, hell, it’s just this human down there screwing with me.” But it had found me, because it had to.

And this experience brought to mind a conversation I’d had many years ago at a cocktail party with a multiple award-winning, trailblazing, fairly famous author. She had actually read some of my first work and admired it. During our talk, she mentioned that fans occasionally would show up at her house, being drawn by the power of her writing, being moved by it, feeling compelled to meet her. (It was common knowledge what city and neighborhood she lived in.) I said that must be unnerving. She said it was, because of course you never know whether the stranger is entirely stable. This was before social media and all that.

I said, “Well, I hope to get as famous as you, but I’m going to protect my privacy as best I can.”

She gave me a flat look and said, “They will find you.”

[A screwy, ghost-Kilroy, but you get the idea.]

In the many years since, I haven’t become quite as famous as she, and no strangers have shown up at my door, but indeed they have found me. Marcia and I don’t use our street address publicly (we use a rent-a-box in a nearby UPS store), but I’ve received unexpected propositions via snail mail, e-mail, and social media. One of my e-mail correspondents jokingly calls herself my “friendly stalker,” and our back-and-forths are just that, friendly. Another correspondent was pretty frank about things, and had I not already been attached, I might have been open to the possibility. There was a man of a mature age who, for a few years, turned up at my talks at conferences. He was shy and didn’t say much, but he did once tell me he came to all my events. He seemed simply to be a genuine fan who wanted to learn whatever I had to teach. Now I regret not trying to get to know him better.

On a different level, there was the convict of some notoriety who sent me a letter via Writer’s Digest magazine. He said they got the magazine in the prison library and he liked my articles a lot. Furthermore, he had decided I would be the right person to collaborate with on writing his life story. I have to say no more here except that eventually I declined. If you’re interested and we’re somewhere in person, I’ll tell you more.

Certainly, like many people, I’ve had unwelcome romantic attention on Facebook, but it’s easy to block that. When I was doing consulting work with private clients, one expressed surprise that I’d give her my mobile phone number.

And now I come to my point: You can’t control everything, and one must take risks here and there, or just sit in a concrete bunker all day. I mean, I’m not some big public figure, but even I’ve had unusual experiences. I do feel that rent-a-box gives Marcia and me some peace of mind. So, if you’re aimed at fame, you might consider that. And then, hell, just relax and enjoy the ride!

What do you think? Have you had stalkeresque experiences? Have you been a friendly stalker? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever.
If you’d like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Crowbar Beats Hammer

Zestful Blog Post #275

Not long ago I was corresponding with friend and Zestful Writing subscriber Anne D., and the subject was current fiction. She said something that really struck me: “I don’t pleasure-read to change the world; I pleasure-read to escape it.”

There are implications here. I’m fond of quoting the distinguished author Cynthia Ozick, who, in conversation with Robert Birnbaum in 2004, said, of writing fiction: “And there is a conceptual underpinning and it’s invisible and so no one seems to know but the one who put it there. It’s got to be invisible, because as I said a moment ago, if the concept is going to be visible you have written an essay. You have written a tract of some kind.”

We are talking about pressing ideological points in fiction. I’ve preached against this before. I emphasize there’s nothing wrong with using, or messing around with, or preferably exploring, the current cultural, religious, and political zeitgeist in one’s fiction. But if you do it with a clear agenda, “the concept is going to be visible.” And some readers will be solidly with you, and others will be alienated. Readers prefer to come to their own conclusions. This is a delicate and subtle subject. We agree war is hell, we agree pollution is bad, we agree incest, prejudice, and abuse are wrong. All that is obvious. I love that Ozick used the word ‘tract’, which suggests religious proselytizing. Many of today’s ideologues pursue their points with condemnatory religious fervor.

Memoirists and essayists have it easy: They can and in fact must be transparent about their agendas, or nobody will know what they’re talking about. You can’t write a book that makes a case for something while beating around the bush.

[I rummaged in the garage and came up with a hammer and an anti-hammer.
Yeah. We like a tool that pries open instead of pounds shut.]

I think what my friend Anne meant was, “I don’t want to be hammered with ideology when I’m reading fiction.” Because in general, one reads fiction for pleasure, and one reads nonfiction to learn things—and possibly even to be preached to.

A fiction writer can go to all those interesting sociopolitical places successfully. All you need is an open mind and heart. That way, your characters’ paths will not be predictable, to you or your readers. Because there’s a difference between declaring something to be wrong—or right—and exploring the nuances and contradictions of the human mind and soul. There’s usually a lot more there than an ideologue would admit. Moreover, the best authors let their characters do the thinking.

Have you ever opened a wooden packing case with a crowbar? So satisfying, because you're not only releasing something you've never seen before, you're destroying, at least in part, the status quo of that packing case.

How fabulous is this journey!

Hey, before signing off, I want to give a shout-out to friend and ZW subscriber BJ Phillips, whose new book, Changing Seasons, is available from Desert Palm Press on Amazon. Check it out by clicking HERE. It’s her third book and it sounds intriguing. Congratulations, Beej!

What do you think of all this? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, July 26, 2018

2018 Summer Newschat

Zestful Blog Post 274

2018 Summer Newschat

If you're already on my newschat list, you should have received everything in here. If you're not a newschat subscriber, I encourage you to join, because I can't post the links to the free stuff here. (You can always unsubscribe after getting the free stuff--I won't be upset.) Here's THE LINK TO NEWSCHAT SIGNUP.

Dearest Correspondent,

I’m gonna start with a list of contents, because this message is so crammed with cool stuff:

·       Free starter pack of my writing exclusively for newschat members
·       New short story collection
·       Royal Caribbean mystery writing cruise with me!
·       Florida Book Awards silver medal
·       Murder on the Beach workshop
·       Palm Springs weekend
·       Mystery writing course at Ringling College
·       Latest Writer’s Digest features
·       Calling all STARs
·       What’s next

It’s been so long between newschats because I’ve been writing free stuff exclusively for you, publishing new work, and awaiting the OK to release some incredibly exciting news. Here we go!

Free Starter Pack

I’ve created three short, complete works as exclusive giveaways for newschat members, published under my personal imprint, Spruce Park Press. They represent a healthy taste of my work, both fiction and nonfiction. The newschat signup is now automated (learning curve for me there), so any new signups will get the free stuff automatically. But for you guys, here’s the goods, with my compliments:

Deep Trouble, a Lillian Byrd novelette, stars quirky freelance journalist Lillian Byrd, whose life is never easy. It’s the first Lillian novelette I’ve ever written, and I had a lot of fun with it. Special thanks to my STAR team for pre-reading and feedback! (More about STARs later in this missive.)

Download your copy of Deep Trouble by clicking below:

Next up is a brief for writers, 9 Fast Character Hacks for Creating Vibrant, Believable Fictional People. If you’re a fiction writer hungry to improve, you’ll immediately apprehend the ideas in this piece. I use examples from the work of James Dickey, Sinclair Lewis, Judith Guest, Mark Twain, Mary Higgins Clark, and others. It’s short and sweet, and available nowhere else. (I might add that even if you’re not a writer, you’ll almost surely find the piece helpful in building your insight as a reader.)

Download your copy of 9 Fast Character Hacks by clicking below:

On to something more personal. A while back, the editor of Mystery Readers Journal asked me to contribute an original essay on being a Midwestern writer. I did so, and the piece was published in 2017 (volume 33:1). Frankly, however, I didn’t feel I fully explored everything I wanted to in that essay. So I’ve done some editing and expanding of the piece, which is here exclusively for you. While developing it, I found myself focusing on the Great Lakes, and on my father, who lived and died on the water of that immense ecosystem.

You can download your copy of The Lake Effect by clicking below:

I’m happy to give these books away. My greatest hope is that you enjoy them! And I’d like to hear your opinion of them, good or bad. And again, if you're not signed up, here's the signup to get free books.

New Short Story Collection from Spruce Park Press

If a story by Flannery O’Connor and a story by Chuck Palahniuk got together and had kids, they would be the intense, bitingly sharp tales in Go-Go Day: Four Literary Tales with a Dash of Dark. Basically, I dug as deeply into the heart of humanity as I could, crafting characters who start out knowing what they want, and end up knowing what they need. Their paths are rutted and dangerous. In “Dixon Amiss,” a lithograph pressman gets a visit from a couple of guys with a life-changing message for him. Regina, a routinely shamed student in “The Cashmere Club” has a shitty life, but seizes a chance for a strange yet comforting makeover. The manchild at the center of “West Forkton Days” teaches himself a searing lesson about chance, love, and art. And the heroine of “Go-Go Day” yearns to be doted on, yet seeks ultimate liberation on her own terms. These are stories for readers who love to think—and who love life.

Buy Go-Go Day: Four Literary Tales with a Dash of Dark by clicking below:

Royal Caribbean Mystery Writing Cruise

If you’ve been wishing to study with me in person while drinking mojitos, this is it. Royal Caribbean is partnering with Florida-based Go Travel to introduce “Forensics at Sea: Mystery Writers Cruise,” a 7-day western Caribbean cruise on Oasis of the Seas, sailing March 31-April 7, 2019 from Port Canaveral, Florida.

I must brag that I beat out dozens of other mystery authors and teachers to get selected as the instructor and writing coach. I’ll be joined by Kelly Gillis, coroner and forensic anthropologist, and Jeffry Mouer, crime scene specialist and advisor to TV’s “Forensic Files.” Is this not the coolest thing in the world? I’ll be giving an expanded version of the mystery-thriller workshop some of you have attended, which will include tips and techniques on doing research, plenty of Q&A sessions, and more. Kelly and Jeff will present all kinds of juicy material on crime scenes and forensic technique. And get this: We’re going to put together mock crime scenes for you to examine as we sail through the tropics!

Promo materials are still being developed and edited, but the cruise is live and ready to book. Rates start at $1,063 per person. Learn everything about the whole shebang—and get the early registration discount—by clicking below:

I would be so thrilled if you’d come! If you do sign up, please drop me an email, OK?

Florida Book Awards Silver Medal

I’m honored to report that the novel I released last year, Crimes in a Second Language, won the Florida Book Awards silver medal in general fiction this past spring. My beloved Marcia and I traveled to Tallahassee for the ceremony and had a great time making new friends with writers and readers. My favorite thing is knowing my subversive, profanity-laced writing is sitting on a shelf somewhere in the governor’s mansion, as well as in a display case in the library at Florida State University.

Murder on the Beach Workshop

This one’s coming right up. I’ll be teaching my “Fearless Writing” workshop at Murder on the Beach bookstore in Delray Beach on August 18. This is part of their Authors Academy series, it costs $25, and you can learn more and sign up by clicking below:

Short Story Writing in Palm Springs

The wonderful folks at the Palm Springs Writers Guild (California) have invited me for the weekend of November 3-4 this year. I’ll give a talk at their Saturday luncheon, where guests are welcome, then on Sunday I’ll do a daylong workshop on short story writing. The workshop costs $85 for members and $100 for nonmembers, and you can find out all about it by clicking below:

Mystery Writing at Ringling

Once again I’ll be serving as an adjunct professor in the creative writing department at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. This fall term I’ll be teaching “Writing Mysteries and Thrillers,” and I’m sorry to say the class is already full. But I want to show you this cool poster produced by art students at the school. I’m sorry I can’t give credit by name at this moment.

Latest Writer’s Digest Feature Articles

I’ve been continuing writing articles for the leading writing magazine, Writer’s Digest, in my capacity as contributing editor.

A feature of mine on writing comedic characters, “Funny People,” appeared in the Comedy Issue, July/August 2018. Coming up in December will be a piece I had a great time writing, about old-school technology. Over the course of a weekend, I wrote with a quill pen, a pencil, fountain pen, ballpoint pen, and 1926 Underwood typewriter. And then I wrote about what it was like, with takeaways for writers. If you get hold of it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Calling all STARs

A select group of you are on my Special Team of Advance Readers. If you’d like to join, let me know. STARs get selected new work in advance, read it, and give me feedback. In return, they get my thanks and their own free finished copy of the work before anyone else. Their input on Deep Trouble was invaluable. In the (hopefully) near future, I’ll be calling all stars to read new nonfiction on writing, which will be published and for sale in series form, as well as future projects. I’m looking into more freebies and premiums for stars going forward, as well. Would you like to be a STAR? Just drop me an email.

And the Future?

I’m commencing work on
  • box sets of my fiction, and
  • a series of short books on writing, working title The Writer’s Garret series

And I’m planning new fiction (Lillian Byrd yes) and nonfiction. All for you, my dearest ones!

With thanks and love,


What do you think? To post, click below where it says '0 comments' or '2 comments' or whatever. To get these posts automatically via email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Fast Hack to Shakespeare Knack

Zestful Blog Post #273

I often find myself, when talking to groups about writing, giving a particular piece of advice, and I’d like to mention it here:

If you read and well digest nothing of Shakespeare but the three main tragedies—Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth—you will have all you really need of the Bard. This of course is arguable. There are Shakespeare scholars who would consider what I just said blasphemy. Isn’t blasphemy a good old word? Aye, ’tis.

[my college-days editions, with crayoned prices…bastards always overcharged...]

You can argue for Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and the popular comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. You can argue for any of his plays; I mean, the guy was a genius with words and stories. Personally, I find his comedies to be kind of tiresome, with all the mistaken identities and blind misunderstandings. They’re like lots of operas in that way, but without the great songs.

I’m talking about a hack that will educate you pretty damn well as to what Shakespeare was all about, and that will give you a solid grounding in what are considered by many to be his top three plays—as in most influential, most popular, most highly regarded by scholars and dramatists. So many cultural references come from those three tragedies I couldn’t even begin to do them justice. But off the top of my head:

“To be or not to be…” Hamlet
“Nothing will come of nothing…” Lear
“Out, damned spot! out, I say.” Macbeth

Ideally, you’ll read and study these plays via annotated versions, which will tell you things like what the hell a ‘chameleon’s dish’ is and what it’s supposed to mean. Right, that’s from Hamlet. Chameleons were thought to live on air, and thus there might be a pun on ‘heir’, involving a possible implication by Hamlet that he might not be entirely satisfied with the promise of succession to the throne. But others differ. You can start to see why Shakespeare is as heavily studied and interpreted and argued over as the Talmud, which makes it an endless source of interest. You can read and reread these plays and notice and learn new things every time. Then you can go to a Shakespeare festival and have the time of your life. Apart from that personal enrichment, whenever you’re in company talking about literature and the Bard comes up, you’ll have a good grounding and be able to contribute.

Part of my admiration for Shakespeare is his economy. He packs so much plot, character arc, and action into so few pages! My annotated copy of Hamlet is only 172 pages long! Lear is even shorter at 147! Macbeth shorter still at 100!

Now, I call this a fast hack, which is a relative term. Compared with skimming a couple of copies of People in the dentist’s waiting room, reading three Shakespeare plays is slow. But compared with reading all or most of his plays, reading these three is fast.

And there ya go. Are you a Shakespeare devotee? Tell us about your experiences with the work of the great Bard. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

Before I go, I want to give a shout-out to pal and Zestful Blog follower and commenter Ona Marae, whose debut novel, Gum for Gracie, is available! 

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Pencil Cup Census

Zestful Blog Post #272

OK, this isn’t writing advice, but perhaps somehow this post might help you make your writing life easier and therefore more zestful. It’s about analogue tools. I’ve been thinking about such because I recently turned in an article to Writer’s Digest on using old-school tools. I believe it’s going to run in November-December. I had a great time with it, and I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s available.

Pretty much everybody has a desk cup. Whenever I visit somebody’s house, especially another writer’s, I try to get a look at their desk cup, because I’m always interested in people’s tools and how they organize them. I keep refining the contents of my own desk cup, which is fairly small. Here is the story of my desk cup and what I keep in it.

The cup itself was a gift from the Peninsula Singers, a choral group based in Port Angeles, Washington. They had special mugs handmade as a souvenir for everyone who sang or played in a special performance of the Brahms Requiem back in 2005. If you’re not familiar with the piece, it is considered one of Brahms’s masterworks. It’s his longest and biggest as well, involving full chorus and orchestra, with soloists, in seven movements. It takes about an hour or more to perform. [Boast alert!:] I played the timpani, and was gratified to see this email to our conductor from an audience member who appreciated fortissimo:

Dated 12/15/2005  "Dear Dewey, Merry Christmas!  Thank you so much for your gifts to me & the community via music.  I always enjoy the P.T. Orchestra but this year I attended the Brahms 'Requiem'.  It was an epiphany of renewal of faith for me!  I was in tears (two handkerchiefs) through most of it, but especially the 2nd movement.
Please give my especial thanks to the lady timpanist for her verve and emotion in playing.  The ff timpani was the renaissance of my faith.

I will say I did a good job. [Boast alert all-clear.] Sadly, the concert was not recorded, and my sole reminder is the mug. It contains all my most-used implements, and here are photos, followed by the what-and-why.

[My tiny pal Cheetoh guards everything.] 

And now the catalogue:

-        No-brand plastic scissors with metal blades, a giveaway at a trade show when I worked for Borders. The blades have stayed sharp forever; wish I knew the manufacturer.
-        Six-inch steel ruler engraved in inches and millimeters that used to be in my dad’s tool box. This thing comes in so handy, so often, for measuring little things and sometimes scraping a label or carefully prying something.
-        Purple make-up brush, with which I dust off my computer and keyboard every morning. Purple was on sale. One of these also lives in my briefcase, along with a cleaning cloth.
-        Small screwdriver that can be reversed from slot to Phillips.
-        Another trade-show freebie, a snap-off razor cutter for opening packages and slashing pictures of my enemies. [Just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.]
-        Fine-point black Sharpie for addressing packages and drawing mustaches on portraits in museums. [Ditto.]
-        Two ultra-fine-point Sharpies, blue and black, for writing in shiny-coated greeting cards that reject ordinary ballpoint ink.
-        Orange highlighter. I use this most often when prepping my music for the various groups I play with. I prefer pink, because it splits the difference between visible-enough and obtrusive. But my pink one ran out.
-        Faber-Castell TK Fine Vario .7 mechanical pencil, because my sister uses one and I like to be like her.
-        Red Pilot G-2 07 pen, because sometimes you just want the emphasis of red.
-        The same pen in black, for general use.
-        Pilot Hi-Tec-C Maica 0.4 in blue-black, for finer work or just to change things up. The ink in these fine point Japanese pens lasts and lasts and lasts.
-        Ivory Parker Jotter with a strange pale-green-check graphic on it. This model is one of the older ones, with a metal cap and—important for durability—metal ring around the tip. I’ve customized this with a broad-point blue refill by Monteverde. Lovely to write with.
-        Soft-graphite wood-cased pencil such as the Blackwing original or the Faber-Castell 4B. Often it’s a Blackwing 602, which is the hardest Blackwing, but still on the soft side.
-        Fountain pens stay on standby in a drawer; I don’t like to store them vertically in a cup.

You’ll notice there are no multiples of anything. When you have like six pencil stubs, plus four cheap gimme pens from wherever, they crowd up the cup and stuff gets jammed. So, my point today is, you can save yourself a bunch of scrambling around if you just keep a few little things handy, buffered by a bit of empty space.

What indispensables are found in your desk cup? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Welcome the Bitch, Welcome the Bastard

Zestful Blog Post #271

The most-highlighted passage in the e-book versions of You’ve Got a Book in You is where I tell writers it’s essential to give themselves permission to write poorly. That passage resonates, because self-criticism dwells within all of us. But if you give yourself permission to produce crummy stuff, you will have the chance to improve. You may or may not improve, but you’ll have the chance.

But that’s just theory, right? The doubts and negativity that spew from the little bitch or bastard on your shoulder as you write—or sit there staring at your notebook or blank screen—are real. Yes! Those ugly, hissed words: Who the hell do you think you are? You suck. You can’t. You’ll never amount to anything as a writer because not only do you suck, your work sucks, and there’s so little of it! And everybody knows it. Anybody who says they find value in your work is just being phony with you because they feel sorry for you. What a crummy loser! Honestly. Hey, here’s an idea: Don’t you wanna check how many likes you got on your last post on whatever the hell social media? Right now? Hey, why don’t you just quit writing for now and go buy a tub of that gourmet ice cream? You’ll only eat a little bit of it. You’ll save the rest for tomorrow.


I mean, did you laugh? Because it’s so ridiculous when you see it all laid out.

Here’s the thing: You can never shut up the bitch or bastard on your shoulder by force. In fact, they love it when you try to force them to shut up. It just gives them more dramatic attention, more strength. So, what do you do? Welcome them. Listen coldly, then go, “Thanks for the shit, pal. I’ll listen to you again soon, but now I’m getting back to work. Chillax until we meet again.”

[When I tried to look at her objectively, in order to draw what she really looks like,
she disappeared. Baffling.]

The fact is, every master started out a klutzy, anxiety-stricken novice. The novices who prevailed to some level of competence learned a key mantra: “So what?”

And that’s all there really is to it. Your work is imperfect. So what? Mine is too. You didn’t get as much done as you wanted. So what? Neither did I. All that matters is that you do it. If the little bitch or bastard hammers at you, so what?

“So what?” is an incredibly freeing mantra.

Do you have any tips on how to work through a self-inflicted shitstorm? How do you pick yourself up if the bitch/bastard gets you down for a while? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Night of the Living Bandanna

Zestful Blog Post #270

Buckle up for a fast rant on spelling and usage. I know the dictionaries have given up any pretense of prescriptiveness. But here at Zestful Writing, we can still mount the barricades against the onslaught of phonetic spelling and sloppy usage.

·       The side rails of a boat are gunwales, pronounced ‘gunnels.’ They are not spelled as they are pronounced.
·       I wanted to make some wine, so I stomped some grapes and let them ferment for a while. My quilting group was getting too set in their ways, so I tried to foment revolution by making a quilt from Tyvek.
·       The cheerleaders waved their pompons. This is such a losing battle. Pompon is from the French, meaning ornamental tuft. The wide usage of pompom is a result of mishearing and not bothering to look anything the hell up.
·       The wagon wheel fell off because the linchpin failed. The linchpin of Bob Hope’s comedy was self-deprecation. The word does not relate to the verb ‘lynch.’

Let us unite.

·       The thing you put around your neck to keep the sun off is a bandanna. Many writers hesitate, then decide it must be spelled like ‘banana,’ because, well, it rhymes. No. Bandanna.
·       Although envision and envisage are similar words, few writers really know the difference. I envision that someday I might buy an RV and drive around North America. Oh, hey, I just bought an RV, and I envisage a series of trips to the national parks. Looking at it simply, to envision is to imagine something in the distant future, and to envisage is to contemplate something more immediately possible. Kind of a slippery distinction. Also, to envisage is to sort of have an opinion. I envisage Home Depot as a treacherous gauntlet that reminds me of unfinished projects.
·       Here’s a sneak peek at the finished product. It is not a covert mountain, which would be a sneak peak. The whole process piqued my interest. It did not peak my interest. When someone writes that their interest was peaked, I slam my desk in a spasm of pique.
·       One slips gaiters over one’s boots before hiking up a dusty, muddy, or covert mountain. One does not put on gators. While gators are generally docile, they don’t like to be treated so roughly. The way to remember this: you walk with a particular gait. You put on gaiters to help your walk go more comfortably.

I have more, but I feel better, so I’m gonna call it good. Do you have any peeves like these that make you seethe? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

You Burn What You Got

Zestful Blog Post #269

I picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine a couple of months ago, interested in the cover story on Pablo Picasso. A curator of his work was quoted as saying that Picasso’s greatest talent was “assemblage”—or synthesizing, if you like. From the article: “to sift through layered memories—a conversation with a poet, the haunting expressions in an El Greco painting, the medley of sensations from Malaga, a pot of paint in his studio.”

The curator mentioned the French expression, faire feu de tout bois: to make fire of all wood. In rural Washington state, where Marcia and I lived for seven years, most people heated primarily with wood harvested from their own property. I once commented to a neighbor that I wished we had more madrone on our property, because it was so dense and burned so well. He shrugged and said, “You burn what you got.”

I guess that’s just another way to say, quit wishing things were different and use the brains you have to make the most of the materials at hand.

 [OK, not a Picasso, not a Van Gogh, but the best I could do during an “I can paint!” phase…]

Like a homesteader, Picasso sure did make the most of what he had. Although reportedly he wasn’t such a nice guy to everybody, he was one of the most productive artists who ever lived. I admire that deeply. Lessons? You keep going, you don’t resist change. You throw things together; you stay open to the relationships between people and things. If one well runs dry, you dig another. If you get bored of one crop, you plant another. You’re open. You trust the process blindly.

Go, us.

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