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.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Off Topic

Zestful Blog Post #268

It’s rare for me to stray off the topics of writing and the writer’s life, but today I kind of have to. If you read no further than the period at the end of this sentence, I just want to say you never know how profoundly your friendship might affect someone.

Folks have been talking a lot about the recent celebrity suicides, and therefore suicide in general. I was taken aback to read a social media post by an old friend who mentioned my name among a few others as friends who helped her, during some very dark times, stay away from the brink. I’d known she was struggling on and off, and just tried to be a good friend. But I hadn’t known how much my simple friendship meant to her. What’s a good friend? Just someone, it seems, who gets in touch and wants to do stuff together. Someone who listens. Someone who can laugh. That seems to be it.

Sometimes, though, that’s not enough, and it’s not your fault. So far in my life I’ve had one friend who committed suicide; no one knew how bad things were for her until it was too late. The worst social gathering I ever attended was her funeral, where all the wonderful hundreds of people who loved her were there. Beautiful day. Everybody was there except her. She was still lying on a slab in the morgue with a purple face and a groove around her neck from the rope. The family was too shattered to decide what to do with her just yet.

I read another social media post where someone pointed out that when an airplane decompresses, they tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others. So yeah. Check on yourself. How are you doing? Breathe normally.

It’s one thing to be there if a friend reaches out when they’re staring into the abyss. Naturally, you go. You do everything you can. But somehow, I guess it’s important to listen to your gut too. Even if things don’t seem that bad, your friend needs you to suggest grabbing a cup of coffee. Or get out for a walk. Just a little something.

You might never know.

What do you think of all this? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [And hey, yeah, a bit of a new look for my blog; wanted to make it look a little more like my web site. Thanks, webmaster extraordinaire Marcia!]

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Everybody Skips the Begats

Zestful Blog Post #267

When I was about 12 years old, I got into a phase of wanting to explore religion. I decided a good first step would be to read the Bible from beginning to end, because it seemed that’s the way you’re supposed to read a book. Front to back. Being an experienced consumer of novels by then, I knew that skipping ahead was a sign of weak will.

Moreover, it seemed people knew the Bible stories, but nobody ever sat down and read the whole thing straight through. Nobody I knew, anyway. My family had a so-called Catholic Bible, or the Douay version, which I somehow understood to be ‘not the real thing.’

I reasoned that checking a Protestant-issue Bible out of the library would be counterproductive, because the library only granted two renewals, and I figured that such a long book with such thin pages and such small print would take me half the summer to get through. So, with some allowance money, I bought my very own pocket-sized King James version, opened it up, and started reading. As I went, I underlined passages that seemed especially relevant with a blue ballpoint pen.

As you may know, Genesis starts off with the creation story, which is halfway decent reading. But as soon as Cain slays Abel and gets banished, we learn about Cain’s wife and kids, which, who cares? This comes around the end of Chapter 4, and the chapters are pretty short in through here. We learn about Cain’s kids, and their kids, and more generations of kids. To be accurate, though, we don’t learn about them, we just learn they got born and named.

But don't even talk to me about Chapter 5.

[Other people's family trees are so boring. Photo by ES] 

Here’s where the begats really come thick and fast. And you’re like, why? I’m never going to remember these people, I’m probably never going to see them again, and yet I have to read that they existed. The narrative picks back up again in the next chapter, featuring Noah and all his cubits, then things get sloggy again. You realize, oh, hell, Noah’s got to re-populate the planet! I am in for so many more begats.

I put the book down for a few weeks and returned to Nancy Drew. When I picked it up again I stuck with it fairly well, but stalled out once more in Numbers. Yet more begats. When I got to college and took a course in the Bible as literature, I understood things a lot better. And when I asked the professor why he didn’t make us read the begats, he just shrugged and said, “Everybody skips the begats.”

So we see time-honored lessons for authors:
·       Get right going with some action on page one.
·       If you front-load your story with characters, you’ll risk losing your reader.
·       Give every character a purpose, for God’s sake.
·       Be nice to your brother and animals.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Magic Cure for Blurb Paralysis

Zestful Blog Post #266

I predict that someday soon we will be able to load the master file of our novel into a program, and the artificial intelligence therein will fashion and spit out a compelling back-cover blurb in .4 seconds, as well as a coupon for half off that rib roast you were looking at in the grocery store the other day. And I’m sure that six months after that, AI bots will write all of our novels for us, collect our royalties, and spend the money on themselves. Until then, we wrestle with all of this. (Zestful friend B, it’s been a long time since you made this request, but I didn’t forget it.)

Using my own ALI (admittedly limited intelligence), I spent some time analyzing back-cover blurbs for a bunch of bestselling novels, and have come up with three foolproof formulae, which you may use at will.

[Name of protagonist] is [doing something normal] when [extraordinary thing happens]. Now, [specific danger lies ahead] unless he gets involved in solving truth behind extraordinary thing. Meanwhile, an old [friend / associate / romantic connection] shows up, with [an entirely different problem / an unexpected gift / an astonishing proposal]. [Protagonist] is reluctant to get involved, but because of [a debt owed / a guilty conscience / an old grudge / a dying request], he can’t say no. His quest takes him from [dangerous location] to [dangerous situation]. As the tension ratchets higher, the two [seemingly separate plot strands] converge. Along the way, [protagonist] learns [a life truth, like things are more complicated than they seem] as well as the fact that [morals can be ambiguous / he never really knew what loyalty was before now / a person we love the most can be toxic].

[Spend less time on troublesome crap so you can get out and play once in a while. Photo by ES]

Cozy suspense:
Everything’s going great in [name of happy place]! Everyone we meet [the three or four main people and how they’re related] think they’ve got life figured out, as they go about their business of [running a resort / managing a farm / being the city council]. Until, that is, [a messenger arrives with a disturbing piece of news / a family secret springs out of hiding / someone dies under strange circumstances] and everything is turned upside-down. It’s up to [name of main character or pair of main characters] to dig into [the past / a scary neighboring ranch / the deepest computer databases of some government agency] to find the truth. Along the way, they discover [ancillary weird stuff], and they come face-to-face with their own [demons / prejudices / comforting yet creepy family myths]. Shocking revelation follows shocking revelation as they grapple with [their own thirst for revenge / the fact that things aren’t what they seem / the knowledge that love can be toxic] —and begin the healing process.

[Name of protagonist] is having a bad day. Everything’s wrong, from [crappy thing] to [disappointing event]. Now, to make matters worse, here comes [name of antagonist], who is the [new hire / lead detective on the case / biology class lab partner] and with whom she must cooperate or [some consequence will happen, like get a bad performance review / blow the case / get a bad grade]. [Protagonist] and [antagonist] are at each other’s throats day and night. Until, that is, [event happens, like a shared crisis / a new enemy appears against whom they can unite / one of them gets in a dire situation that can only be solved by the other]. Suddenly their petty grudges don’t seem so important anymore. Love molecules fly, and as the two discover true passion, [another serious event occurs]. Can they continue to build their love and trust even in the face of [dire happenings which require one to betray the other]?

The magic here simply is that you can easily analyze and appropriate for yourself what, in many cases, was put together by people who are specialists in blurb-writing, such as the editing staff at major publishers.
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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Escape from Synopsis Hell

Zestful Blog Post #265

Recently an aspiring novelist asked me for help in writing her synopsis. Then another one did, and I figure it’s time to say a few more things about doing synopses, beyond last year's Zestful Blog Post #206, "Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis." The Web abounds with good advice on how to write a synopsis for your book project, and you can google around. Here is my minimum advice for maximum success.

A synopsis is a short document that tells what happens in your book. Agents and editors want them so they have to do less work, like reading your manuscript. The format they expect is third person, present tense, so do that, no matter what you’ve used in your story. They also expect that when they see a character’s name for the first time, it will be in all caps and/or bold. That’s it. Don’t add pictures or curlicues.

Relax and decide you’re gonna have fun doing this, goddammit. Even though writing a synopsis feels like a matter of life and death, getting tense just becomes its own problem.

Forge your material with an iron will and a light heart. Photo by ES
 Here we go.
  • Accept the fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect synopsis. Just as you need to dump perfectionism while writing, you need to dump it here too. You might need to write a long synopsis (thousands of words) and a short one (hundreds), because agents and editors ask for different things. Start with the long one. Then just cut it down to make the short one. We’ll talk about back-cover blurbs some other time.
  • In your rough-out session, flip through the manuscript and write down the heart-clutching moments. You’ve just created your synopsis framework. In "Magic Cure," I advise talking it into a recording device instead of writing it. This works for some writers but not others, so you can do it whatever way suits you.
  • Flesh things out by writing how each heart-clutching moment is connected to the next. If you get stuck, just tell what happens next as simply as you can.
  • Prompt yourself with these two questions: What does your main character lose (or expend) during the story? What does he win (or gain) at the end? Because that’s basically your plot. Keep that character’s wins and losses in front of your reader.
  • Give yourself a short amount of time to do this. You can and will dick around with this forever, unless you decide something like, “I’ll get it roughed out between 2 and 3 this afternoon, and come what may, I’ll get it finished before meeting Joe and Rose Ellen for cocktails on Saturday.”
  • Break up your time on it. This might sound counter to what I just said, because won’t more work sessions add up to more time? Not necessarily. If you try to get the thing done in one long session, you’ll glaze over and stop being able to tell what sounds/reads good. But if you let it sit overnight and come back to it, maybe even three or four times, you’ll keep bringing a fresh perspective to it, and you’ll save time in the end. Spend no more than an hour at a stretch on it.
  • Cut anything that doesn’t sound peppy.
  • Declare victory and move on.

Before asking for comments, I want to congratulate my friend Alison Solomon on her new book:

Now, what do you think? Do you have any tips/tricks for writing synopses? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Surely We Jest

Zestful Blog Post #264

In the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine we find a feature by yours truly on writing comic characters. I focused on classic types of funny characters, looking at how master writers handled them, and how we can do it too. There are other great articles about writing humor, including an interview with one of my fave authors, cover boy George Saunders.

Here’s the intro and first section of my article, "Funny People":

[Magazine excerpt begins]
It was 1975, and I was a nervous freshman unpacking my Samsonites in my university dorm room when a strong voice behind me said, “Hey.” Standing in the open doorway was the darkly beautiful girl who was already establishing herself as the floor’s alpha. She looked at me with a stern expression and demanded, “Are you hip?”

Unsure what the hell she meant, I thought a moment, then responded, “I wouldn’t think that’s for me to say.”

She looked stunned, then burst into uproarious laughter. “Oh! You are a character!” she cried. “That was deadpan! You will be my jester!” I hadn’t meant my answer to be funny, but it must have triggered some humor receptor in her brain. I have a feeling she’d been interviewing other girls, who probably sought her approval by asserting that they were, yes, sure, hip. So my answer probably contrasted with theirs, and that’s what seemed funny. This young creature was trying to build a story for herself, in which she was the head of a sort of aristocratic court, right there in the midst of everybody’s textbooks and popcorn poppers and Cosmo issues.

The court situation didn’t exactly work out (for one thing, no one was into being a lady-in-waiting), but this incident got me thinking for the first time about the power of a type. I had long ago learned that being funny can be an asset. Side note: ‘Deadpan’ is a combination word, made up of ‘pan,’ slang for face, and ‘dead,’ meaning expressionless.

Not all authors employ humor; bookstore shelves real and digital are populated with fiction that takes itself deeply seriously. But many authors use humor to brighten their stories, give their readers an emotional escape valve, and add a layer of fun. Comedy can fit into suspense, romance, literary, fantasy, horror, you name it. Why? Because it’s like real life. We’ve all experienced countless humorous moments, even amidst sadness—like the one time I attended a burial where the backhoe fell into the grave.

If you’re considering using humor in your story, play, or novel, I’ll bet it’s because you have a keen sense of wit yourself: You can laugh at the absurdities of life, and you enjoy the humor in the stories you read and ingest via other media. It’s as simple as that.

There are lots of ways to write funny moments. You can put wisecracks into the mouth of your detective or write action sequences where a little kid puts a peanut on the train tracks and changes the course of history. But long-haul comedy—that is, comedy that can develop and sustain a story—starts with characters. The comic character is unique in that he or she can be counted on to deliver humor and truth together.

Just as comedy itself tends to fall into types—slapstick, dark humor, farce, satire, irony, and so on—so too do comic characters. Types are a handy way to understand comedic characters—and to consciously create them. I’m not talking about stereotypes, which most readers recognize as clichéd, unimaginative, or even offensive. The types discussed here are classics. They’re successful because they allow flexibility in a story, and because readers and writers alike recognize them as old friends.
Now let’s break down some of these entertaining breeds and see how to use them.

The Jester
It was no coincidence that my dorm-mate dubbed me jester, as it’s arguably the earliest form of the comic character.

In medieval and renaissance times, royal courts employed entertainers to tell jokes, sing, and dance. We have history that some of these jesters also became confidants of—and advisors to—the monarch, finding a way to speak truth to power under the safety shield of jest. “My lord, the one you banish will gain cunning in the punishment! Haha, just kidding!” And the king may reject that warning, or not.

Shakespeare made liberal use of jesters, also known as fools, in his plays both comic and tragic. Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprinkles his love potion on the wrong handsome sleeping dude, thus pivoting the plot in a way both humorous and disastrous. Audiences love the “Uh-oh” moment! The Fool in King Lear explains things with biting, rueful wit and provides a voice of reason from which Lear can still learn, even though he’s made a mess of things.

Randle P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a more modern jester. He swaggers into the asylum and flings around his brand of street-criminal wit and wisdom—effecting change, comedy, and tragedy all in one story.

How to do it:
·       Give your jester a low place in the socioeconomic pecking order. This sets the character apart, for when he subtly speaks truth, your audience will be surprised—and a little apprehensive. If your jester doesn’t have much in terms of status or resources, he doesn’t have much to lose. That’s an opportunity right there.
·       Make your jester a character of some complexity. Plain silliness falls flat here. Feigned ignorance, however, can work, as when a jester pretends not to understand something while making a sly point. Whether you show much of it or not, your jester does have an inner life. He goes home to his family, makes love to his wife, gets angry at the TV. Your jester might resent his role and strive to change it, or he might relish his role and strive to make the most of it.
·       Show other characters learning from the jester. The school custodian is often hilariously clumsy, but the kids trust her with their secrets because she never tells, and always gives the best advice.

You’ll notice a pattern emerging: A key to successful comic characters is contrast. That’s why pairs of characters can work so well.
[Excerpt ends; for the rest, visit your local newsstand or here.]

Do you write comic characters? Do you like reading them? Let us know your thoughts. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

For the Sake of It

Zestful Blog Post #263

The other day as I was taking a walk down the nearby parkway, a runner came along from the opposite direction. Each of us politely bent our paths to give the other extra room. I noted he was young and solidly built; not fat, but not in possession of the typical whip-thin runner’s body. I was struck by his expression, his general vibe, which I can best describe as calmly committed. I got the impression he was neither joyful nor anxious. His pace was faster than a jog, but not a lot. He seemed in a comfort zone, cardio-wise; he was running easily and showed no tension on his face or in his gait. It would seem going on this run was part of his workout schedule and this is what he was doing. Perhaps the running was to provide conditioning for a different sport, in which case the run could be considered a means to an end, or perhaps he simply very much liked to run. But whatever the case, it felt to me as if he was running for the running itself.

[Roam the Parkway and sometimes you get a rainbow. Photo by ES] 

The thing I’m trying to grasp or convey is he seemed not to expect or want anything. He didn’t seem to want to be doing anything but exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t seem to be awaiting—or craving—any particular result. He didn’t seem the slightest bit self-conscious. I guess this guy struck me because I see so many people out getting their exercise with the vibe of “I can’t wait for this to be over,” or “I hope you’re noticing how good I look in my shorts and abs, cuz I work hard to be fit and I’m pretty damn proud of it.” I sometimes find myself being impatient in the pool, counting my laps and wishing for my workout to be over. I have to keep catching myself and re-focusing my attention on what matters: the feel of the water, the feel of my body slipping through it, the inner attentiveness to this moment as a moment unto itself rather than a means to an end. Paradoxically, this allows me to make minute calculations as to how I might be more efficient in the water.

There is, of course, a lesson in here for writers. In order to get the best possible fulfillment out of our path, we should not want and expect, but simply be and do. This is the Zen way, I guess; Zen in motion.

Here’s another situation I’ve given a lot of thought to, which is the question of what is worthwhile? (This next part has a church in it, but religion is not the point.) On holidays and special Sundays, I play the timpani in a big church in a retirement community in Florida; the church is well supported, and they put together musical ensembles for these special days and pay us well. I love the music director and I love playing the timps, so this is good. But I don’t do religion much, personally, and all of us musicians must stay put through three services, which of course means listening to three deliveries of the pastor’s sermon. Because we’re seated up front we cannot get out our phones and watch cat videos or argue politics on Facebook or reread Agatha Christie.

Which gives us a choice: either be bored shitless or find something meaningful to focus on. It’s not easy. Sometimes the pastor’s sermons are corny to me. Some of the congregation have dull faces. Lots of the congregation wear outfits I find incredibly tacky. But they feel good in them. They come to church, they listen, they pray, they sing. I listen too, because I might learn something unexpected, because the pastor in fact sometimes says brilliant things. I might make eye contact with a congregant and learn something there, something very subtle, perhaps. The pastor is sincere, and, like my running guy, does this thing over and over, week in and week out, for the sake of doing it, for the sake of serving his God and his congregation. All of us, even the preacher, might get bored sometimes, but everybody’s there, exposing themselves to spiritual opportunity. When it comes time to play the drums, I give it everything I’ve got, because otherwise why bother? Sometimes people come up to us and tell us they enjoyed our playing. We made a little difference for somebody that day. There’s no point wishing we were touring the world with some marquee orchestra, playing concerts on the banks of the Rhine or the Thames or Sydney Harbor. We are where we are.

If I were to nutshell this whole thing, my message for us as writers would be: Don’t waste time wishing we were sitting in a café in Greenwich Village or Paris, having intellectual conversations, after which we return to our fascinating work as high-minded writers. Let us be, really be, where we are. Let’s not skim over hours, days, years just because much of the shit we have to do isn’t giving us something we want. Because it isn’t ideal.

I’m not saying don’t strive. Yes, strive! Strive like hell. But what we have now is as ideal as anything. It’s as ideal as we make it. Worthwhile, all of it, if we want it to be. Write for the sake of writing. Live for the sake of living. Give it everything you’ve got. Let’s be together.

What do you think of this metaphysical stuff? What’s your take on working, writing, striving, serving? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Powers of Three

Zestful Blog Post #262

The other day I spent some time with an old (91) but still sharp, friend. The subject of television programs came up, and we compared notes on famous shows we liked. She liked Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and a few other series with an ensemble cast of main characters and a multitude of minor characters. “And you know,” she said, leaning forward on her cane, “I notice that all these shows have three plot lines going in every episode!”

Now that’s a trenchant observation.

Any writer can make something of that. Simple. Three plotlines, with characters weaving in and out? Yeah! But how do we handle and plan? Here’s an easy way: Pick a focal, or center, point first. Then everything flows from there.

In Downton Abbey, for instance, it was the estate itself. They didn’t call the show “The Granthams,” which was the family’s name; they called it by the focal point, the place where everybody comes and goes, where characters have roots and history and where new stuff still happens all the time. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Lord Grantham’s faulty investments, Lady Mary’s unfortunate tryst with the handsome European minister, the housekeeper O’Brien’s nasty, relentless scheming.

Sometimes a show’s focal point is one main character, like Seinfeld or I Love Lucy. The action follows that character’s trials and tribulations, and the other characters’ stories interweave with that character.

Take a look at classic plays, and you’ll see the same three-plot dynamic. Looking at Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we see a very neat three-plot system:

Brick and his self-destruction (with wife Maggie at the side);
Big Daddy’s dreams (with wife Big Mama supporting);
Brother/son Gooper and his expectations (with wife Mae supporting).
Three guys, three wives, three lives. And such thunderous, satisfying drama!

And the novel form (you knew I’d get to it) is perfect for the three-strand plot. Lots and lots of novels feature three or more plot strands, also known as the main plot and subplots. For writers who find the commonly recommended three-act structure confounding or too limiting, thinking about a three-strand plot this way can be a terrific portal to excellence.

Of course, all three plots must intersect. Let’s look at a well-known novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s the plot strand of the children’s lives as they play and grow, the plot strand of the Tom Robinson case, and there’s the plot strand of Boo Radley. Bam, done. Beautiful. Reread the book from the perspective of three plots, and you’ll learn a ton. Which of those strands would you consider the main plot? Is there a main plot?

What if you’re telling a story from a single viewpoint, such as in a first-person situation, or third-person limited? Well, in my Lillian Byrd books, which are narrated by the main character, there’s always a crime Lillian is trying to solve, and there’s always a love interest—Lillian meets someone; will this work out or not?—and there’s pretty much always something going on with another significant character and their struggles in the world. Lillian is the focal point, and three or more plotlines swirl around her.

Now that you’re more conscious of it, you can bring three-strand awareness to the stories you consume via books or video, and you’re going to be able to see it, and you’re going to keep on observing, analyzing, learning. The next step is to execute a three-strand plot for yourself, and discover the joys it has in store for you. Keep it simple!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]
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Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Deeper Shade of Flavor

Zestful Blog Post #261

I love learning something more profoundly than I originally learned it. A reader helped me recently, and I want to share the learning with you.

If you keep track of Writer’s Digest magazine, you noticed a piece on dialogue by me in the May-June 2018 edition. It’s actually an excerpt from You’ve Got a Book in You, where I discuss how to sharpen your dialogue skills by tuning in to the natural speech around us. I mention reading plays, and included this little story:
[excerpt begins] Not long ago when I read a play by the extremely talented Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I kept noticing the word so at the end of characters’ lines, and I was like, I guess that’s an Irish-ism. And it sort of is, but sometime later I heard myself say so at the end of sentences sometimes, like, “I already ate, so.” Which is a trailing off with a precise meaning: “So I won’t go along to lunch with you guys.”
I heard myself say that and a bell rang in my head, and I remembered those plays where sentences ended in so, and I realized, “I do that, it’s a modernism, it isn’t totally just an Irish-ism.” And I understood another little thing about realistic dialogue there. [excerpt ends]
And then I got this email from a writer and reader in a far-off land!:
[email begins] My name is Bronwen, I’m a Toronto-based writer. I read your article on dialogue in this month’s Writer’s Digest and really enjoyed it.
I’m writing to you with a little tidbit which you may or may not find interesting. I grew up in Ireland but moved away, first to the UK and then Canada, about 12 years ago and as a writer and word nerd have often thought about how the Irish speak English, including the use of the word “so”.
Irish people don’t use it at the end of a sentence as an American / Canadian might, letting the sentence trail off (as in, “I already ate, so... [I won’t join you for dinner]”) but rather as another way of saying “in that case”. For example:
“We’re going to be late if we walk.”
“Let’s get the bus so.”
“We should eat that chicken tonight.”
“I’ll take it out of the freezer so.”
Anyway, I just thought I would share -- you seem like a fellow word nerd who would find such an idiomatic way of speaking interesting.
[email ends] [Bronwen, thank you for giving me permission to share that!] 
And I went back and looked through that play to try to prove it, and Bronwen is right! Here are a few lines:
[excerpt from The Beauty Queen of Leenane begins]
Maureen: You don’t give it a good enough stir is what you don’t do.
Mag: I gave it a good enough stir and there was still lumps.
Maureen: You probably pour the water in too fast so. What it says on the box, you’re supposed to ease it in. [excerpt ends]

 [Photo of the book cover by ES. Original photo by Amelia Stein.
The actress is Anna Manahan as Mag. I wouldn't want to cross her, either.] 

If you replace Maureen’s “so” with “in that case” you have the exact meaning Bronwen was talking about. I hadn’t understood it fully before.

And there, ya see? This is why it’s so great to connect with writers and readers all over the place, who take language seriously and continually strive to grasp and master it! Happy times. Word nerds, unite! Talk to me about this stuff.

Before signing off, here are a couple more items from friends:

Rick Bettencourt’s latest novel:

Summerwind Magick: Making Witches of Salem by [Bettencourt, Rick]

And: Here is information, forwarded by novelist Cheryl Head, about a new GCLS Bridge Builder scholarship for women of color.

What do you think? Do you have a story to share about the finer points of vernacular word meanings? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever.
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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Awards Night Survival Guide

Zestful Blog Post #260

OK, so I promised to follow up on Zestful blog post #255, “Awards Versus Happiness.” Marcia and I went to Tallahassee last Thur-Sat to attend the Florida Book Awards dinner and participate in other very nice events: a morning-after breakfast at the Midtown Reader and a panel talk and signing at Word of South, an annual music/books festival at the pretty fabulous Cascades Park.

My most burning question before the awards dinner was whether we would just be handed our medals, or whether the bling would be given Olympics-style. Thankfully, we got handed a little box with our medal in it along with our name tags and drink tickets at check-in. No stress. 

[For my standalone novel, Crimes in a Second Language. Sorry if you saw this already on FB.]
I was glad we went; it seems the awards are a bigger deal than I thought, and the evening was swankier than I expected. Lots of very smart and accomplished people in the room, all interested in, and many devoted to, quality writing, research, and expression. And given that Florida State University is in charge, meaning actual paid staff handle things, you could count on things going smoothly, and somebody there to fix problems right away. Nothing against events run exclusively by volunteers. God bless them. I have volunteered at events. But you know what I mean.

OK, based on having attended many awards dinners, and received prizes at a few, here’s my survival guide. Do these things and you are 75 percent less likely to lie awake later, silently insulting yourself:

·       Arrive sober. If you’re a social drinker, consume one drink immediately, which will loosen you up during mix and mingle. Then nurse the next one for the rest of the evening, so you don’t look like a lush. Everybody at your table counts everybody’s drinks.
·       For non-drinkers, you have far less to worry about. You probably don’t know this, but you are envied by social drinkers in these situations. For instance, if a drinker says something they later think sounded stupid, they’re like, “Oh, hell, I shouldn’t have had that wine.” But in their heart of hearts they know it was just them. Non-drinkers don’t have to do any mental/emotional gymnastics.
·       Realize that everybody is a little or a lot nervous. If you act cool, that helps others relax and makes you look good. Act cool by being friendly. My opening line was, “Hi. Who are you and what did you win?” which always drew a grateful smile and started a convo. Nobody expects you to know who everybody is and what they did. Another good one is, “Hi. What’s your role here tonight?” Or, “What are you up for?”
·       Try to be attentive to your spouse/partner, introduce them around, and mention their accomplishments at dinner. Often the spouses have the most interesting stories!
·       Write out your remarks in advance. I consider this a no-brainer, but have witnessed unprepared speakers get flustered. And you’re there because of your work, so make your comments mostly about that, rather than yourself. (FWIW, my remarks for FBA are reproduced below.)
·       Tell your table-mates they did a good job when the come back from the dais. Everybody appreciates this.
·       If it’s the kind of uncivilized event where you don’t know who won what until it’s announced, steel yourself for disappointment. I hate events like this. Needless to say, if you lose, try to congratulate the winners. The key is to remember this too shall pass; there’s always next time. If you won this time, you might lose next time, and the other way around.
·       Thank everybody as the evening unfolds, and don’t forget the wait staff. Put a buck or two into the bartender’s cup.
·       These days everybody’s pretty cool with posting selfies, etc. on social media during events. So post away, but avoid looking like a twelve-year-old by fiddling on your phone only a little bit.
·       Be neither the first nor the last to leave.
·       Send follow-up emails of thanks to the organizers, etc. Handwritten notes are great too!

Special shout-outs to:
Jenni McKnight and Chase Miller, Florida State University
Wayne and Shirley Wiegand and the Abitz family
Kaitlin Silcox, Museum of Florida History
Sally Bradshaw and her staff and bookstore, the Midtown Reader
Mark Mustian, Word of South
Laura Lee Smith, gold medalist and co-panelist par excellence

For the heck of it, here’s what I said when called up to the dais that evening:

[Remarks for winning FBA silver medal, Tallahassee, April 12, 2018

It’s great to be in the winner’s circle, with so many talented authors. Thank you to the Florida Book Awards and all the organizers, Florida State University, and all the affiliates.

Thank you to the judges in my category—Chris, Jennifer, Dianna. Having been a judge for literary contests, I know it’s a difficult task, and largely a thankless one.

Moreover, I’m extremely gratified that the judges took CRIMES IN A SECOND LANGUAGE seriously: a book I released under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press. I have been published by a Big Five house, Macmillan, and by smaller publishers. But there have been massive changes in how books come to market, and I appreciate this organization’s recognition of that.

CRIMES IN A SECOND LANGUAGE is a standalone novel, apart from my two series. It was prompted by a true situation. By the way, it is not a book about Florida. It’s set in Los Angeles. I wanted to bring in the flavor of all that Hollywood hustle, and because I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles with family, and with friends in show business. My uncle and aunt lived near LA, and they were retired, and they employed a young housecleaner who had been recommended to them by a neighbor. The cleaner, Maria, was from Mexico, and she didn’t speak English. And my aunt and uncle didn’t speak Spanish, and so every time Aunt Tracy needed to tell Maria something in particular, she had to go get the neighbor who spoke Spanish.

One day Aunt Tracy, who had been a kindergarten teacher, asked Maria if she’d like to learn English. Si! So Maria started coming one day a week to clean, and another day to learn. As soon as Aunt Tracy started teaching her English, she discovered that not only did Maria not know English, she knew very little about anything else, because she had only gone to school in Mexico through the fifth grade. So then Aunt Tracy started teaching regular school to Maria. Elementary subjects. Because of this bonding over learning, those two women became lifelong friends.

HOWEVER. This teaching and learning did not sit at all well with Maria’s husband, Jose. He barely spoke English, and he didn’t want Maria to get ahead of him. Aunt Tracy offered to teach him too, but he said no. And he tried to get Maria to stop learning.

And when I heard about this, and I met Maria, I started thinking, well, what if there was a more nefarious reason that Jose didn’t want his wife getting more educated? What if he was up to something seriously criminal, yes, and what if Maria knowing how to read and write English could be dangerous for him? And that set me onto a plot where (spoiler!) the Jose character is much more sophisticated and educated than he let on. I brought in Hollywood in the form of a film-producer neighbor, and an aspiring author who writes technical manuals about machines that make airplane parts, and I introduced themes of corporate sabotage, money, greed, idealism, and true friendship. Another spoiler: the two women in the story become lifelong friends.

And I had a lot of fun with it. Oh, and one last thank-you, to my supportive and wonderful wife Marcia.

Thank you very much.]

Do you have an awards-dinner anecdote to share? Was this post interesting/potentially helpful? To comment, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Power of Thank You

Zestful Blog Post #259

Last week I got an email from a high school student in Los Angeles who asked if I would serve as his writing mentor for his senior essay project. As you might guess, I get asked to help writers a lot, from young people to elderscribes (yeah, I just made that word up!), and I have to say no to almost everybody. Because I hate saying no, I sometimes try to give the person a bit of help anyway. In this case, I did a little research and came up with two suggestions for the young man: a possible local mentor, and an article I found that I thought might be helpful to his project.

It’s funny, but when the student wrote back saying thank you, and that he understood, I felt this surge of warmth toward him. Many times, I don’t get a thank-you, and I predicted this young stranger would not bother. But I was happily wrong. I’ve given back-cover or inside-pages book blurbs to authors who never said thanks. Isn’t that amazing? It takes time to do those things. (When they ask the next time, guess what I’m gonna say?) One does not help people solely to be thanked, but it certainly does your heart good when it happens, and you remember it. I’ll always have warm feelings toward certain people I’ve helped who’ve gone out of their way to say thank you, or even send a little gift. (I have my eye on a 2018 Corvette, blue, hardtop, in case you’d really like to get on my good side. Seriously. Awesome car.)

[I kind of think this is a picture of gratitude. It's a prayer rug from the 19th century. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

The times I’ve neglected to say thank you (and realized it) still bother me, even though they were when I was young and didn’t really know better. Not long ago I thanked a newsletter editor for highlighting one of my books, and she wrote back thanking me for the thank-you, saying it was “rare to get a thank-you from an author.”

So I guess my humble bit of professional wisdom today is: A thank-you is not only polite, but it actually goes some distance in networking and plain old building of human capital. So, you know, win-win. Such a simple but powerful thing! We’re all much more eager to help someone who expressed gratitude for a prior favor.

I might add, thank you for reading, and thank you for being my friend!

Do you have a thank-you, or a didn’t-thank-you story to share? Tell us in a comment!

And hey, before signing off today, I want to give a call-out to three pals with new (or newer) fiction. They are all good people and good writers!

Neil Plakcy:  In His Kiss

In His Kiss by [Plakcy, Neil ]

Jessica Strawser:  Not That I Could Tell

Not That I Could Tell: A Novel by [Strawser, Jessica]

Lucy Jane Bledsoe: (preorder for release date next month)  The Evolution of Love

If I’ve missed noting a new or newer book by you here, lemme know, OK? You have my email addy.
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