Thursday, December 27, 2018

Working Without a Net


Zestful Blog Post #296

One day when I was a little kid, I was feeding my budding morbid fascination by looking at pictures in LIFE magazine of a terrible accident involving the Flying Wallendas. They were a circus high-wire act, their breathtaking finale being a seven-person pyramid on the wire, with no safety net. During a performance in Detroit, my hometown, one of the performers lost his balance and the pyramid collapsed, killing two and paralyzing another. My mother, passing by, remarked, “You know, you’re related to them.”

I was dumbfounded, but no more information was forthcoming. Eventually I learned a little more about the alleged connection, on my father’s side of the family. Which helps explain how easily he would jump up and grab the clothes pole in the backyard and flip himself over it, then sling himself down with complete gracefulness: had to be genetic, right? Many times I’ve thought about the Wallendas, especially in recent years when seventh-generation Nik Wallenda made huge, net-free crossings of places like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.

And I think about doing things that are risky, and about writing, and about working without a net. When you don’t have a net, you have to pay better attention. If you fall, you can take others down with you. This could promote fear and over-caution if we let it.


[The disaster unfolds. Photo by Don Sudnik]

Because to be honest, comfort zones have value. Without some level of comfort, you won’t consider taking a risk at all. It’s just that if we build up too much safety, too much comfort, the comfort zone can become a cocoon that becomes a coffin. Much of the nets we build are illusions anyway. As you can see, I haven’t fully figured this stuff out.

Specific ways to work without a net:

- Writing outside your genre / trying something totally new.
- Writing about family members or close friends.
- Writing outside your sex / race / socio-economic level.
- Making your writing public: There’s no net, nowhere to hide when anybody can post a review of your work.

What are the rewards? Working without a net can be salubrious to one’s heart and guts. Nets take away the danger, and the point is, danger is part of the art. This is a huge thing that many artists spend their lives trying to deny. Then there’s the fact that a net can hurt you too: The Wallendas worked without one because if you fall, you can bounce off the net and fatally hit your head on the nearby concrete. (As one Wallenda did, before the Detroit disaster.)

Self-publishing is a lot like walking the wire without a net. If you quit your publisher, or your publisher quits you, do you run back to the platform, or do you keep walking the wire on your own? Will anybody respond to this writing?

When Nik Wallenda was on the wire above the Grand Canyon, the wind shifted, and he was buffeted. The wind is like the zeitgeist. It can shift, and it probably will shift, and we will be buffeted. We shrug and go on.

Is the bottom line really that there are no nets? There is no such thing as complete security, much as we might wish for it. The key to writing well (and of course the key to life) is to embrace the risk, let it all hang out, and accept the outcome wholeheartedly. Only by accepting risk (while not being reckless), can truly extraordinary art come out.

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

Your Pair of Swans


Zestful Blog Post #295

One day a few months ago, a pair of swans (pictured below) appeared in the pond across from our upstairs window. We were like, WTF? That is so cool! We began watching the huge gorgeous birds avidly as we got ready for our day. Marcia, particularly, was enchanted, and set out to know how the swans got there.

After some sleuthing, she learned that our neighbors across the way (strangers to us) decided they wanted swans. Their house backs up to the pond, which is the property of a golf course. Our houses border the course. The neighbors checked with the golf course management and the local vigilante—er, homeowner—associations, who all said, hey sure, swans would be cool! So they ordered their swans from whatever swan ranch, set up a care plan for them, and are looking after them.

The swans glide around and nibble the vegetation and small critters like worms and mollusks in the pond, which has a couple of islets in the middle. The neighbors set up a little swan shelter, which looks like an upside-down playpen, on shore for when they want shade. Early every morning, one of the neighbors brings out a red bucket and puts out some swan chow (presumably to ensure adequate nutrition in addition to what might be available from the pond). The swans come up and have breakfast, then they go back to the pond and its various social activities. Ducks, herons, grebes, ospreys, and other species enjoy the habitat too. Side note: reportedly, swans will chase off troublesome geese that like to hog all the food in a small pond.


[Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it, and/or happy holidays to you from Marcia and me—
and the swans.]

We enjoy the show in the mornings. And we have learned that if you have the proper space and about $2,500 and you want a pair of White Mute Swans, well by God, you can have them. The deeper truth is hey, what would make you happy? Admittedly, not everyone is equipped to afford and care for a pair of swans. But is there something that would bring you joy, for the hell of it? Have you gotten into the habit of thinking it’s just not within reach, or even practical? Perhaps now is the time to challenge that thought. Perhaps it’s time to order your swans.

What is your pair of swans? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Exploitation Works


Zestful Blog Post #294

Exploitation Works

Exploitation is a thing, and it can be used. I wrote about this a few years ago, but want to give you some more specifics here. There are successful authors who appeal to the deepest-held beliefs / prejudices / yearnings of their audiences, once they’ve found them. Exploitation feeds on and encourages the time-honored us-versus-them dynamic. That’s not a comfortable dynamic for everyone all the time, but it resonates somewhere in every human heart.

A simple example might be a young adult book wherein a brave, outrageous cadre of students overthrows the mean old teachers, showing them they’re not so smart. The teachers learn from the students! Something that doesn’t often follow is the answer to the question: Now will the new rulers be kindly overlords? George Orwell’s Animal Farm explored this question, and as we might remember, things don’t look so great at the end of the story, which is a new beginning for the animals on the farm.

Exploitative stories often rely on stereotypes, which themselves represent a fascinating subtopic. To whom does the stereotypical mean Republican appeal? A hardcore Democrat might say, “That’s no stereotype! That’s simply reality!” To whom does the strong-but-dumb boyfriend stereotype appeal? How about the lazy immigrant? The suffering artist? The kind-hearted criminal? The trigger-happy cop? The angry-yet-somehow-perfect-in-every-way revolutionary?

It’s not by accident that more male readers enjoy (and buy) thrillers with strong, brave protagonists who win in the end. Not by accident that more women like romances where the plucky protagonist gets the handsome swashbuckler in the end. With a big, perfect wedding.

Novelists, filmmakers, religious leaders, and politicians have learned exploitation works. It’s button-pushing, and for what it is, it can be effective. There is, of course, the danger of exploitation backfiring on you, making you seem like a vindictive, unimaginative boob.



[Ivan was definitely Terrible]

But seriously, look closely at the novels you read and see if you can figure out where the exploitation is. Not all of it is heavy-handed; you can find subtle examples all over the place, and you can learn from them. Key into your emotions as you read: Why does some character or plot twist appeal to you? Why does another make you uncomfortable?

Our challenge as authors is to reject cheap, obvious exploitation, but embrace the good kind! Don’t be afraid to be conscious of what you’re doing; don’t be afraid to calculate. We want to dive deep to engage—and, really, control—our readers’ emotions. The best way to do this is get to know your characters really well. Respect them, and look for their complexity and depth. Then think deeply about your ideal reader.

Is your ideal reader a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot? Well, you can certainly create a main character who happens to be a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot. Wouldn’t just about any guy or gal like that want to be a hero in the air? Yes! It’s easy. You don’t have to make your pilot bring down the plane safely while killing all the bad guys with a ballpoint pen, but you might make your pilot do something hard and satisfying, like navigate around a mountain in the fog without instruments. (Can pilots do that? I don’t know, but you’ll research it.) And hey, your ideal reader might have a secret desire to do something really bad—like enter the underworld of drug smuggling. Well, your character can do that, and you will make sure they’re supremely successful at it! You can dream up all kinds of good ideas from this perspective.

Play matchmaker between your readers and your characters! Be shrewd! Make exploitation work for you. Your readers will love you for it.

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Your Whole Self


Zestful Blog Post #293

A few weeks ago Marcia and I went to the local medieval fair and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We stopped to watch one of the games, where you slam a steel pad with a sledgehammer to make a heavy slug ride up a vertical rail. The harder you hit it, the higher the slug flies, the chief goal being to make the slug strike the bell at the top, producing a ringing sound that attracts the attention of all nearby, who gaze admiringly at absolute strength personified. You buy five tries for a dollar or a shilling or a peck of meal or whatever. A young teenager was trying. He really wanted to hit that bell, but kept falling short. The bearded, leather-jerkin-wearing man running the game advised him, “Squat as you bring the hammer down.” He did so. Magic. Ding!

It was just like splitting firewood when we lived in the forest. After experimenting with various methods, I found that iron wedges and a small sledge worked best and safest for me. (Just a hatchet for splitting kindling.) You set the round you want to split on end, on your splitting stump, and you find a crack near the edge and tap in your wedge. And if you do it enough, you learn that setting your legs apart, then swinging the sledge over your head and straight behind your back, then bringing it down on the wedge with a fluid squatting move, results in the most force. Crack!


We moved along and watched the axe-throwing game. Some axes bounced off the plank targets downrange, and some stuck with a satisfying thunk. I asked a young woman who had just stuck two axes in a row what the trick was. “Step into the throw,” she said, then turned away, rared back, and stepped into another throw. Thunk.

For the games and wood-splitting, the secret of success was to fully commit. Put your whole self into it. Leave the familiar world behind.

We remember learning to ride a two-wheeler, where you had to relinquish a certain amount of control in order to get the thing going. It was hard to make the commitment to take both feet off the ground and pump those pedals, but the concrete sidewalk was a good motivator, wasn’t it? Being tentative was lethal. Once you were under way, you gained a different kind of control, and you were zooming along in a completely new environment, separated from ordinary gravity by the unfamiliar miracle of gyroscopic force. And every time you got on your bike from then on, you learned to minimize the length of time you were liable to fall over. You learned to get those pedals going smartly, just as soon as you push off. You learned to commit, and put your whole self into it.

Aren’t so many more things like that: Ziplining. Striking a match. Getting on the school bus. Releasing an arrow. Saying, “I do.” Writing a story.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Stolen Gold?


Zestful Blog Post #292

I’m always suspicious of anyone who claims to “like people.” Because, my gosh, what a motley assortment we are.

As writers have been told a thousand times, the best fiction is character-driven. We know that, and we prove it to ourselves over and over. Which do you remember better, the sequence of events surrounding the stolen gold in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the feeling Huck and Jim had for each other? (If you’re sitting there thinking, “What stolen gold?”, then I rest my case and can knock off early for a beverage and a snack.)

Katherine Anne Porter said, “The only thing I know about people is exactly what I have learned from the people right next to me.” She knew that to write about people, we have to pay attention to them.


...and there they all are...

But dammit, we don’t have to like people. Liking has nothing to do with it. All we need to be is fascinated by people. Awed by people. Horrified by people. Inspired by people. And not just so we can portray them convincingly. Because through people, other people, and through creating and writing about characters, we find out things about ourselves. We explore and nourish ourselves. And we have the best chance of producing good writing. Now go out and steal some gold.

Do you agree? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Random Acts of Thankfulness 2018


Zestful Blog Post #291

Warmest wishes to you and yours for a very happy Thanksgiving. Beyond health, family, friends, this imperfect gorgeous country, and Marcia, I’m thankful for:

·       My readers and their parents for having given birth to them, and this means you, dear blog friend
·       Russet apples
·       My mechanic
·       My students at Ringling College of Art and Design who take my class seriously
·       Godiva Pearls
·       Starbucks wifi (for I am a coffee whore and too cheap to buy my own phone hotspot)
·       JB Weld
·       Professional hockey
·       People who take on tough tasks and do them as best they damn can
·       Scout Finch
·       Peanut butter toast
·       Hospice workers
·       People who donate to hospice houses
·       The 1972 film Cabaret
·       The Ludwig drum company
·       Bowls of cherries


  
·       Boats
·       Sister Wendy Beckett
·       Falcon Heavy 2018 and Starman
·       Dame Judith Anderson
·       Videos of cute dogs on Reddit, which have made me feel more warmly toward dogs
·       Colin Fletcher
·       Gas station pastries
·       Graphite, always
·       Hunter Thompson
·       Readers who send me emails saying how much they like my work, which can turn a bad day right around
·       Leonard Bernstein
·       Four Roses Yellow Label
·       Saying yes
·       Saying no
·       You know what I mean
·       I love you

What are you thankful for today? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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, November 15, 2018

Wisdom Gleaned Lately


Zestful Blog Post #290

I didn’t ask permission to share this stuff here, and I don’t have exact quotations, and I can’t in every case remember who quite said what. But most of these items are from writers I’ve encountered at events at Ringling College of Art and Design, as well as conferences and meetings in the last six months or so. Some are from me, and some you’ve no doubt heard from others before, especially this first one:

·       Don’t overthink it. (Don’t we all love that?)
·       Longer passages of quick dialogue can do two things:
o   Make for plentiful white space on the page, which is easy to read; and
o   Take up pages in a printed book, making it look meatier than it might be. (Heh-heh.)
·       Time spent getting to know your characters on a deep level is time well spent.
·       It’s hard to make money as an author.
·       Some authors make great money. The foolproof how-to formula is unclear.
·       It’s easy to get published.
·       It’s hard to get published.


[Gotta climb ev'ry mountain...]

·       Social media sucks and does nothing for your career.
·       Social media is great and can help your career a lot.
·       One gets lonely.
·       Collaborating with other authors (writing books with them) can be:
o   Fraught with icky drama, making you not want to do it anymore, like when somebody else claims credit for your idea, just the same as in other group projects we’ve all dealt with.
o   Really great, especially if it’s just one other person you like and trust.
·       Most of us are too uptight.
·       You should stick with one genre and make a name there.
·       Experiment widely in different genres if you feel like it; you never know when you’ll hit it big with some new thing.
·       A pseudonym can jump-start your career in a new direction.
·       To write a good action scene, such as a fight:
o   Give a quick overview, then
o   Get into some deep detail, then
o   Pull back again to the ‘long shot,’ so to speak.
o   Rinse and repeat.
·       Every one of us is walking—or running, or plunging, or staggering—along a different path. No two careers are exactly alike.
·       Therefore I say: Let’s trust our own paths, rocks and wrong turns and all. Because we’re getting somewhere. And sometimes the view is great.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Climbing Rope


Zestful Blog Post #289

Back in elementary school I was neither the first nor last kid picked for teams; I was unathletic enough to not be chosen first, but popular enough not to be chosen last. Gosh, remember when we did that? I understand these days they don't let kids choose up sides, because of self-esteem. Gym was OK except for one dreadful piece of equipment: the climbing rope.

The rope, a hairy hemp freighter hawser thicker than an eight-year-old's thigh, started in a knot at waist level, then ascended nearly out of view, affixed to the ceiling two storeys up.

Every gym session, the teacher would tell us to line up and take turns climbing the rope. Success, of course, was measured by how far you climbed. Kids who made it all the way to the top, daringly slapping the iron swivel, then sliding dramatically down like firefighters or sailors, were like gods to me. (Oh, it was safe! The teacher dragged a small gym mat under the rope!)

I couldn't climb the thing at all. Not one inch. When my turn came, I'd sigh and take hold of the rope and try to pull myself up. I just couldn't do it. I had the desire to do it, but when I pulled with my hands, nothing happened. I hung there like a grape until the teacher, a loose-jowled guy who wore loafers and dress pants, would say 'next' in a bored voice.

As an adult, I'd wonder about that rope now and then. The breakthrough came when I was being weekend-lazy, watching an old Tarzan movie on TV. By God, there it was: Tarzan grabbed that vine and climbed it, and he used not just his arms but his legs too. He didn't clasp that vine in his hands, he hugged it. And he wrapped his legs around it and bent them like a frog's, then, pinching the vine with his legs, sort of stood up. He regripped the vine with his arms, frogged his legs up again, and kept going. (To the admiring gazes of Jane and Boy.)

And I remembered that the kids who made it to the top looked just like Tarzan. Why didn't I see it at the time? Why didn't I copy the other kids? I’m sure my kinetic sense wasn't very good then, and my brain wasn’t fully developed either. If the teacher—or even another kid—had broken down the moves for me, showed me and explained it to me verbally, step-by-step, I probably could have done it. I wasn't much punier than the other kids.

The next opportunity I had to climb a rope like that—not that such opportunities come by every day—I grabbed the thing, hugged it, wrapped my leg around it, and—went up!

This is how I feel about aspiring authors and story development. Thousands upon thousands of stories start with a cool nugget of an idea. And then they hang there.


But the truth is, story development—getting from cool idea to fully formed story or narrative—isn't a mysterious endowment. It isn't a you-have-it-or-you-don't thing, like leprosy or royal lineage. Just like rope climbing, story development is a skill that can be learned and improved. And it’s simple: All you need to do is look closely at how successful authors do it, and realize that they’re showing you, right there on the page. Study up. Read without haste. Make notes. Ask and answer questions like:

·       How does the author move from the opening into the first conflict?
·       Who are the major characters?
·       How does each character—major or minor—serve the plot?
·       Is anything there for no reason? Or maybe I need to look closer?
·       What is the author trying to tell me here, and here, and here?
·       How can I copy this?

Work with what you see, and with what you seek.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Good Feeling to You Today


Zestful Blog Post #288

Who is a hero to you? Someone alive or not, doesn't matter. What about that person is inspiring? Did they accomplish something remarkable? Did they behave admirably under extraordinary strain? What resources do you suppose they drew on to perform as they did? Physical strength? Inner courage? Endurance? Faith? Perhaps it was even humility. Because to be kind and loving when others are not requires the courage of humility: the willingness to be seen as wrong or bad. Conjure the spirit of your hero. Pretend to be that person, just for a minute. Lift your eyes and say, "I am _________." Does a feeling of calm strength come over you? It's yours now.



Seneca, one of my heroes, said, “It is quality rather than quantity that matters.”

And that’s what I wanted to give today. Who’s one of your bestest heroes, and why? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Few Fast How-Tos and a Book by a Pal


Zestful Blog Post #287

How to deal with not having read the authors you meet.

First of all, nobody reads everybody. Upon meeting another author whom you haven't read, say, "So wonderful to meet you! I've heard great things about your work!" That's it. Don't overdo it.

If you need to make convo with someone for an extended period, such as being seated together at a lunch or dinner, you can say, "You know, I'm afraid I really don't know your work, but I've love to hear how you got started."

If it’s a trad-published author, you can ask, “Do you like your agent?” Every author who has representation is curious about every other author's agent. 


How to be a happy tyrant.

Demand the utmost from your characters. You are both composer and conductor! Sometimes, during a demanding passage under an exacting baton, musicians strain so hard to deliver the effects asked for that they snap a string or blow their lips out of shape.

Only by going to the limit, and risking going past it, and suffering whatever damage might be the penalty, will we find out if what we thought was our limit is really that.

We can only discover new strengths by exhausting the old ones.

How to avoid a headbanging mistake.

If you have an opportunity to do a live event like a booksigning and they want to know good dates for you, look ahead on line and find when the next Olympics and major sporting events are going to be. Try not to schedule anything during the Olympics, the Super Bowl, Presidential election night, or, come to think of it, the soccer World Cup final sequence. The World Series is hit-and-miss (ha, I just made a pun), and not as much of a ratings draw as the other things. Kentucky Derby, I guess if you live in Kentucky.

I'll always hold grudges against Sarah Hughes, Irina Slutskaya, and Michelle Kwan for making nobody come to my booksigning event in San Francisco on the night of the women's Olympic figure skating finals in 2002.

And now for a word about a book by a buddy. Congratulations to Jim Misko on his multi-prizewinning novel.


From the cover:
Miles Foster is a newly minted teacher who dreams of getting a teaching job in the highly respected and financially stable Portland, Oregon school system where everything is available, and where he and his wife call home. But the only opening for his talents is in a remote lumber mill town in central Oregon, two hundred miles away. It is a poor school with forty students, and is controlled by a jealous superintendent and school board who tolerate no thinking outside the box and who conspire to destroy his teaching career.
Miles must find a way to educate students who have been passed along regardless of what they learned, and defeat the damaging control of the school board and superintendent without losing his marriage or his job, or both.
Buy it HERE.

What do you think of today’s how-tos? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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 of Cass Tech High School music room by ES]

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Thieves


Zestful Blog Post #286

I bet some of you remember Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, a counterculture guide that came out in 1971. I bought a copy, which tells you something about my ethics then. However, I did read it avidly and, being an impressionable youth, wished I had the guts to try some of Hoffman’s ideas for ‘sticking it to the man,’ like demanding my free buffalo from the federal government, or pretending I was hungry and broke to get food from trusting churches. Some of the stuff in it seemed just stupid to me, though, like pasting a postpaid piece of junk mail to a brick and dropping it in a mailbox so whatever corporation had to pay the postage due. Another uncomfortable one was going into a busy restaurant and eating leftover food before the tables get cleared. Ew. Not that I've led a shame-free life.

I worked in bookselling for ten years in the 1980s and 90s, first as a floor clerk (in a bookstore owned by two brothers named Tom and Louis Borders), then as a manager and regional executive. Lots of people would come in and steal books. We had a pretty good idea of how many books we lost to shrink (the retail euphemism) because once a year, we'd do a physical inventory count. You compare the stuff you have on hand with the list of stuff that's supposed to be in the store, and the difference is shrink, or shrinkage. We lost a lot of inventory.

It was rare to catch a thief in the act. We had no security staff or hidden cameras. Furthermore, it was assumed that staff would not steal, especially since everybody got $25 worth of store credit every month, plus a 25% discount on everything. What can I say? Borders, in those days, was a small company in the Midwest. And I think very few employees stole; giving stuff away to employees is a good way to create good will. When the company got big, financial experts came in and convinced top management to take away store credit, and the employee discount went down to 10%, if I remember right. (Members of the corporate board of directors got 25%, which as you might imagine went over great with the rank and file.) Stores also got primitive security systems, which at first were a joke, then got somewhat better.


 [A look at my home sports-and-leisure, nature, and reference sections.]

Scammers would try many tricks, from trying to return stolen books for cash, to paying with bad checks, to claiming to have lost a gift certificate to fire, pet digestion, or other imaginative mishap.

The vast majority of thieves got away. But once in a while, staff would spot somebody and realize they weren't a legitimate customer. There was one guy who focused on the computer book section. Pound for pound, computer books tended to be higher-priced, and they were easy to sell to used-bookstores. This fellow would appear to be browsing the low bookcases, taking a few books off the shelf, then he'd dip down into a squat where he was hidden from view. Then he'd rise up, empty-handed but bulkier around the middle, and hustle out the door to his car.

I didn't have the nerve to confront the guy (and by the time I could get the police there he'd have been long gone), but I did follow him to his car after I clearly saw him steal. I made sure he saw me, made sure he knew I knew, and watched him go, writing down his license plate number. Never saw him again.

More shocking to me were the employees who did steal. We caught one guy, who had worked out a system of hiding books behind empty boxes in the back receiving hall. Come time to clock out, he'd leave the store via the back way, collect his booty, and walk around to the parking lot from the alley. It was too cute, and another staffer figured out what he was doing and turned him in.

Come to think of it, I have a bunch of other stories about book thieves, and maybe I’ll write them down for a future post.

Although it's never right to steal, you can understand why a hungry person would steal or cheat for food. But books, you can take them home for free from the library, or you can sit and read them right in the store.

Then we come up to ‘today,’ meaning post-digital-publishing-revolution, and we have book pirates. That term makes them seem somehow romantic, like modern-day Robin Hoods. In fact, they are scum. I subscribe to an anti-pirate service called Blasty, which searches for and somehow removes from search engines websites claiming to have my books downloadable for free. It doesn’t take down the sites or send cease-and-desist letters, but I think what they do is just about as good.

I’ve found that most of these pirate sites are merely phishing holes. For instance, if you want a free copy of The Actress, click here and enter a bunch of your personal information: your contact info, and hey, if you keep clicking through they’ll ask for your credit card number, just as a precaution to secure your account, and hey, they won’t actually charge anything on it. I guess some people fall for all that. And of course they don’t have a digital copy of the book to give you anyway. Come back tomorrow. If Abbie Hoffman were alive today, I’ve no doubt he would learn code and try to be a hacker. But he committed suicide in 1989, partly because he was no longer under 30. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

I don’t worry too much about these pirate sites, because if somebody wants to download my book for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have bought it otherwise. Lots of enraged authors miss this point. So somebody gets to read your book for free, and maybe they’d like more, and maybe they’ll eventually buy something. You can’t get too worked up about this stuff.

But in conclusion, book pirates are scum.

What do you think? Do you have a book theft/piracy story? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

You're All Right


Zestful Blog Post #285

I knew a woman who made it her life’s work to become unblocked. To realize her potential. When I met her she was middle-aged, divorced, with two grown kids and a rucksack full of dreams waiting to come true.

But somewhere along the line she’d decided—or agreed with some shrink or shaman or dead parent—that the way she was wasn’t right enough. She ought not to act on those dreams until she’d gotten herself right.

She occupied herself with all sorts of things to self-actualize, to ‘awaken her inner artist’ or something, to figure out what she really should be doing, to free up, to become worthy. To become who she was. Perhaps she should sign on as an animal research assistant and observe beautiful creatures in far-flung habitats. Perhaps she should take flying lessons and try to get a job as a cargo pilot. Or perhaps she should write a novel. Fine. 



She died at age 52 of ovarian cancer before the process was complete. I sadly suspect she could have lived until 102 and still never completed her process of ‘becoming.’

I say, screw becoming. Screw preparing. Be and do. The being and the doing will make all processing moot. Screaming at an effigy of your mother in the woods, taking ice baths or firewalks? You could. But only living freely—with openness to mistakes and crappy results—will make us live well. And only writing freely—with openness to mistakes and crappy results—will make us write well.

It is so very simple.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Old-School Tech Tests


Zestful Blog Post #284

This beefy post is the first part of a feature I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine's November/December 2018 issue, themed ‘the throwback issue.’ I believe it’s hitting subscriber mailboxes now; should be on newsstands now or soon. I had a great time writing this, and have already heard happy comments from enthusiastic readers who write.

[Excerpt begins]
I’m an analogue girl in a digital world. I like old things and old style. I used a rotary-dial phone until the march of progress threatened to crush us both. My car just celebrated its twenty-fourth birthday. I like canvas sneakers, gin martinis, and homemade afghans.

But I’m a writer in contemporary times, and I’ve adapted to new technologies. Frankly, most of it has been a blur. I do remember, though, sitting alone at night in an office building sometime in the 1980s, watching my boss’s printer slowly excrete 200 pages of random ASCII characters. For all I knew, the computer was trying to tell us something. I sent the pages to the tech guys at headquarters for analysis. They still haven’t gotten back to me.

Fast-forward to now, when miniature microphones and voice-to-text software literally enable us to write as fast as we can talk. I understand the next phase is nearly upon us, where a machine will write my novels for me. And no doubt publish them, collect royalties, and spend the money on nice things for itself.

But I feel it’s time to ask: Is more tech necessarily better? Is faster better than slower? Is more output worthier than less? Is the destination more important than the journey?

With those questions in mind, I took it upon myself to investigate. To re-immerse myself in the materials and sensations I used to enjoy so often—and also to experiment with even older methods—I spent a weekend working on my current novel using an assortment of technology that originated between the building of the Sphinx and opening night of “My Fair Lady.”

On Saturday morning, I settled down at my writing table, a mug of coffee at my side and a wood-cased pencil in my hand. I chose a Blackwing 602, known for its smooth core and fragrant cedar casing. (I’d decided to skip inscribing words on stone or wet clay tablets and start with the next writing technology most closely related to those, graphite.)

Pencil sharpening is an act of beginning. You sit down, you gather yourself, you sharpen. You feel and hear the sharpener working—whether a cranker or handheld—and you smell that fresh wood. You behold your newly exposed graphite. If the point is sharp, you feel brief anxiety over whether the microscopic conical top section will break off as you touch it to paper.

I enjoy the deliberateness of the pencil experience. As you write, the point degrades to whatever degree of dullness you feel like tolerating. You rotate the point to take advantage of the wear pattern—every rotation offers a sharper edge.

When you write with a pencil, you are in a very real sense, drawing. You’re laying down the two-dimensional images of words. You can write little or big; with light pressure or hard; you can print carefully or race along in whatever version of cursive is yours.

You can erase mistakes! But if you’re on a tear, you can just strike through with vigor and keep going. Or you can flurry down a satisfying storm of obliterating zigzags. The re-sharpening pause is a balm. While sharpening, you have a chance to look up, change the focal length of your gaze, quit thinking for a moment, and use your hands differently.

I wrote about a thousand words with the Blackwing 602, savoring its straightforward sturdiness. You don’t have to baby a pencil; you can leave it lying around; you can even lose it without too much grief. You can write with it in a canoe or on a mountain ledge, or upside-down while lying in bed. No worries about ink, mechanisms, batteries.


The assortment. 

Mid-morning, I skipped ahead in time and unholstered my trusty plastic Pentel automatic, with a .7mm lead, in the relatively soft and bold 2B grade I like. The obvious advantage of the automatic pencil is no sharpening, no bother. You click a button or twist the barrel to advance your lead, and you can write fast and precise. The writing experience is less varied, though. That’s the price you pay.

With any pencil, one must bring some pressure to bear, which puts wear and tear on you. My writing elbow got sore after a few hours of pencil work.

After lunch I turned to a group of instruments you have to dip in ink, that marvelous liquid humans first concocted in Neolithic times. Hollow reeds served as writing tools in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East. They’re still used for drawing and special calligraphy.

I’d found a reed pen in my art box, so I started with that. It was a seven-inch-long wand about half an inch in diameter and cut to a quill-like point. I opened a bottle of black Noodler’s ink, dipped the reed in, and started writing. I blobbed too much ink down at first, then got the hang of making bold strokes.

I had to reload with ink every few words, however. Because of that, and apart from the novelty, the experience was wearying and just not practical. I perceived how a fine reed with an expertly-done point—and a halfway experienced scribe—could work some beauty.

Writing with a quill didn’t go much better. I’d found a large feather during a walk a few years ago and saved it. Now, following an online tutorial, I made a writing point from its shaft. Like the reed, the quill emitted an ugly blot before scratchily producing a contiguous line. After about ten words, it ran dry. I reloaded and kept going, but the work went slowly and vexingly. Thinking about the fact that Shakespeare wrote all of his plays with such an instrument made me nearly sick with pity. But life was slower then, and I think everybody had more patience.
[This is the end of the excerpt. For the rest of the article, hustle out to your favorite newsstand and pick up the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.]

What do you think of old-school writing tech? Do you have favorite tools and practices? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments. [Photo by ES]
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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Zuh Cow


Zestful Blog Post #283

Some of my favorite imperishable quotations are from people’s grandparents. My friend Linda was musing on wisdom from her German grandmother:

“Linda. Linda. If you dun’t learn to milk zuh cow, you dun’t haff to milk zuh cow.”
Think about it. Not learning something excuses you from dealing with it, and that can be liberating. I mean, I’ve watched cows being milked by hand. Sometimes they smack you in the face with their damp, urine-scented tail. Good morning!


Cunningly avoiding learning how to do something can indeed be liberating. Most grandmas are not stupid. But being helpless, we know, can also backfire: Beyond not being able to get milk when you want it, think of all the young executives in the ’70s and ’80s who resolutely refused to learn how to type. Ambitious women especially were warned away from learning how to type, because typing was for assistants. If you typed, you were pigeonholed into a subservient role. That was the thinking. But then—“Wuh-oh. What’s this new computer thingy on my desk? It gots a keyboard! Wuh-oh!” We had a generation of executives who were clumsy on the keyboard and therefore inefficient because they didn’t learn to touch-type with all ten fingers. I mentioned a couple of years ago here that one of the best things I ever did was take a typing class in high school with a scary bastard perfectionist teacher. I use typing here just as an example. It could be plunging a clogged sink, sewing on a button, starting a campfire, reading a paper map for God’s sake, even pumping gas.

Do we want to be dependent on others? Sometimes, hell yeah. But it’s a game of subtlety and judgment. Grownups deal with whatever shit they really have to. I think Linda’s grandma really meant: Figure out what you really want in life, and screw everything else, because life’s too short to get slapped in the face by a cow.

What do you think? Are there things where you just go “To hell with that!” and why? Or, have you an imperishable quotation from a grandparent to share? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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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?

I love comments. To post one, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Some readers have recently reported problems with posting. If you experience a problem, please let me know at esims@elizabethsims.com.
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