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.]

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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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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Getting the Words More Better

Zestful Blog Post #258

I bet you already know some of these, but here’s a nosegay of words that commonly get misunderstood and therefore misused, along with the info you need to do it right. Between the internet and various magazines I get, I’ve seen all of these used wrong within the last month. And all of the wrong usages are creeping into popularity. This is upsetting to me, and I know it’s a losing battle, but this is my damn blog, and I’m going to stand my ground. I invite you to stand with me.

My friend Arjun was bitten by a poisonous snake, and we rushed him to the doctor.
My friend Arjun was bitten by a venomous snake, and we rushed him to the doctor.

Tide pods are venomous if you eat them.
Tide pods are poisonous if you eat them.

A poisonous substance is something that makes you sick or kills you if you ingest it. Venom is a substance injected into you by an animal, like some snakes or spiders. Yet so many people are using ‘poisonous’ to describe venomous creatures that the usage is showing up as a secondary definition in dictionaries.

Suellen was cold, so I loaned her my sweater.
Suellen was cold, so I lent her my sweater.

Ramon went to the bank and got a lend for a new car.
Ramon went to the bank and got a loan for a new car.

Again, loan and lend are commonly considered synonyms. But loan is a noun: “It was a loan of five thousand dollars.” Lend is the verb form: “She wanted to lend him the money, but he wouldn’t take it.” Lend is the simple form, while lent is past tense.

Brenda tore her left bicep.
Brenda tore her left biceps.

The muscle at the front of the human upper arm is the biceps, not bicep. The muscle is anchored at the elbow by a single tendon, then the muscle splits in two (hence the prefix ‘bi’) and is anchored at the shoulder by two tendons. Biceps. It is a plural form. If you’re thinking it must be the same with triceps and quadriceps, you would be right.

[A Case knife with clip and pen blades. Photo by ES.]

In olden times when writers used quill pens, they fashioned the points with a small knife blade, maybe an inch or so long. This blade was usually fixed in a handle and was part of most deskscapes. It was a penknife: a knife used to make pens. Sometimes penknives were made as tiny folding knives, often seen at the end of pocket-watch chains. A jackknife is a knife with a folding blade, also known as a pocketknife. Some jackknives feature a small blade, called by knifemakers a pen blade, along with a larger blade.

Yet many writers are now calling any folding knife a penknife. I believe that’s because they think it is a more precise or educated-sounding term. It is not.

Thank you for joining me in the pursuit of linguistic precision.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

When False is Sort of True

Zestful Blog Post #257

I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about unusual crimes, from the JFK assassination to the Manson murders to the two Teds (Bundy and Kaczynski) to OJ, on and on. This fits into my obsession with “Why do people do what they do?” Which fits into my obsession with writing with as much truth and authenticity as possible. One crime that’s gotten revived lately is the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair from 1994, due to the award-winning biopic “I, Tonya.” The picture came out last fall, in time to be discussed in the run-up to this year’s winter Olympics. Having been fascinated by the crime as it unfolded in real life, I made a point to see the movie, which I found fascinating as well.

I mean, what a story! Redneck skating champion wearing too many sequins and acting too athletic, dissed by the girls-gotta-be-pretty skating establishment, prompts an attack on her rival, the dazzling dream girl in the white lace dress. We have the sleazy boyfriend, the thug with the police baton, the semiliterate bodyguard, and the giant stage of the top athletic competition in the world. We have the bar owner who checks her dumpster for unauthorized trash and finds incriminating notes in redneck skater’s handwriting. I mean, my God. I was riveted to every report, having long been a fan of Olympic figure skating (ref. Zestful posts 158 and 252). It was especially thrilling to me that the attack occurred in my home zone of Detroit, in Cobo Arena. I still remember that Shane Stant was reported to have stayed in the Super 8 motel on Middlebelt Road next to Detroit Metro Airport, mere yards away from the impact point of Northwest Airlines flight 255, which crashed in 1987, killing all aboard but one little girl. Another compelling story, albeit not a criminal one.

The other day I read an amazingly sensitive profile on Tonya written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the January 10, 2018 New York Times.

[Bronze sculpture by Abestenia Saint Leger Eberle (American, Webster City, Iowa 1878–1942 New York), 1906. It’s a public-domain image; what can I say?]

The writer sat down with Tonya and took her seriously, and got a whole lot of the inner Tonya that no one had gotten before. So many lessons here:

A caricature is not a person.
All you have to do is listen with some measure of respect and yes, compassion.
People want to tell their story, but only if they feel they’re not being judged.
My truth may not mesh with your truth.

Here is a quote from near the end of the article:
“A lot of what she said wasn’t true. She contradicted herself endlessly. But she reminded me of other people I’ve known who have survived trauma and abuse, and who tell their stories again and again to explain what happened to them but also to process it themselves. The things she said that were false—they were spiritually true, meaning they made her point, and she seemed to believe them.”

Isn’t spiritual truth a great term? This is something we as writers need to keep handy. We create characters, and they need to seem real. Nobody acts logically all the time; nobody thinks every single thing through before they do it. Nobody can see the big picture all the time. The big picture for Tonya was, she was surrounded by goons, and goons can’t do anything right, and they can’t keep their mouths shut. All this is apart from right vs. wrong. Everybody has their spiritual truth. And pretty much everybody, from the three-year-old who steals a cookie to the investment banker who builds a Ponzi scheme to the serial killer who stalks and slaughters as often as possible, feels their behavior is justified, at least at first. Self-justification is a big deal to us humans. We do things, and we want those things to be right. We want to be seen by others as being, always, somehow, in the right. Sometimes we are.

It’s easy and fun to paint somebody with one simple stupid color. But it’s not the best we can do. I’m not saying perps ought to get a free pass if they’ve had a shitty life. But letting them talk helps us understand them. So, keep letting your characters talk to you. Make them sit down over a beer or coffee and talk to you. Remember the idea of spiritual truth. Good guys, bad guys. Make them tell you their stories, from the beginning. Don’t judge them. That’s the job of your readers. When we understand, we can create something authentic, nuanced, compelling—and zestful.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Excerpt from The Business of Being a Writer

Zestful Blog Post #256

My friend Jane Friedman, publishing expert and digital-industry thought leader, has just come out with a new book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). It’s packed with useful stuff for aspiring authors as well as experienced ones. Reading through the galley she sent me, I was struck by this short passage in the first chapter:

[excerpt begins] …I’ve witnessed many writers hit their heads against the wall trying to publish or gain acclaim for a particular type of work, even as they succeed wildly with something else— that they don’t think is prestigious or important enough. Getting caught up in prestige is perhaps one of the most destructive inclinations of all. Paul Graham has written elegantly on this, comparing prestige to a “powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Avoiding this trap is easier said than done. Most of us live under the weight of expectations put upon us by parents, teachers, peers, and the larger community. Breaking free of their opinions can be liberating, but what others think of us also contributes to how we form our identities. It’s not a problem you can solve as much as acknowledge and manage. Still, if you can at least let go of the many myths about writing, and pursue what you truly enjoy with as much as excellence as possible, you can shape a writing life that is not only uniquely your own, but one that has a better chance of becoming a lifelong career. [excerpt ends]

Wise words. They instantly made me think of one of my literary heroes, Arthur Conan Doyle, enduringly famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories. Besides those stories, perhaps you are familiar with his novel The Tragedy of the Korosko. No? Well then, maybe you’ve read Uncle Bernac. Hm, no? That’s because nobody has. They were heavy-duty historical tomes which, although published, just didn’t get popular. Not much then, not at all now. But the Holmes stories struck a deep chord with readers. That didn’t please Doyle! He resented that readers liked his gripping mystery tales over the important stuff about Uncle Bernac, whoever the hell he was. So he killed off Holmes at the end of “The Final Problem.” The public outcry was such that he had to bring him back (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”).

Many of us can relate to this. My own fiction is mostly mystery- and crime-type stuff. When I look at big famous literary authors, sometimes I think, well, I should be doing more so-called literary work. Literary work is defined as having literary merit, and a lot of that consists of social commentary. Hypocrisy is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. War is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Mean people suck—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Gimme my Pulitzer. Funny how literary fiction so often likes to show us the correct moral path. Which is preaching. Which, unless the author has real humility and skill, gets pukey fast.

If you can reach readers with a good story that’s well told, while being fully yourself as you write, and having fun along the way—well, isn’t that ideal? If you’re fully yourself, your writing will feature the things you cherish, which just might include issues like right vs. wrong. The only difference is, you won’t be in your readers’ faces, telling them how to think. Far less risk of pukiness. Far more chance of success.

Get hold of Jane’s book for more wisdom and solid advice on building a writing career. If you like it, be sure to put up a review, OK? I’ll be putting one up soon myself.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Awards Versus Happiness

Zestful Blog Post #255

Awards Versus Happiness

If you read this blog, you’re my friend. At some point before we’re all dead, I’m gonna send out a newschat, but today you guys will learn a little bit of news in advance, along with my Facebook friends, who saw this yesterday. Gonna talk about awards here. If you are an author, especially, please read to the end of this post to get my most heartfelt and useful advice. Last week I learned that Crimes in a Second Language is receiving the silver medal in the Florida Book Awards, general fiction category. Which is nice. But upon hearing the news, I was like, shit! Because I had wanted and expected gold! That’s how I am: totally confident in my superiority as an author. Which, though arguably delusional, has not proved to be any serious handicap.

During the most recent cycle of the Olympics, I read somewhere that psychologists have determined that the least happy medalists are the ones who get silver. Because of course the gold people are happy that they won the top prize, and the bronze people generally are ecstatic that they got a medal at all. The silver people go Aw hell, should have gotten the gold! And that was exactly my first reaction to this silver medal. But I’m over it. I’m gratified that the other two medalists in my category were published by major houses in hardcover, while I released Crimes independently, under Spruce Park Press, my personal imprint. The gold went to Laura Lee Smith for The Ice House (Grove Atlantic) and the bronze went to Randy Wayne White for Mangrove Lightning (Putnam). I hope to meet them both, along with the winners in the other ten categories, at a dinner in Tallahassee next month. Will someone actually put the medals around our necks, like at the Olympics? The thought makes me nervous. I’ll report back.

I give major credit to the judges for taking my book seriously and not discounting it because it’s a humble indie. Their identities are public information on the FBA web site, so I’m going to thank them here: Chris Coward, Jennifer Pratt, and Dianna Narciso. All judges are past winners of FBAs. I highly approve of having judges be identified, because it makes the process transparent. Yeah, I guess an author could try to coddle up to a judge or send a case of Scotch to their house, but the risk of something like that swaying a judge doesn’t cancel out the benefits of transparency.

[From the Florida Book Awards website: The competition is run by the Florida State University Libraries and co-sponsored by the Florida Center for the Book, the State Library and Archives of Florida, the Florida Historical Society, the Florida Humanities Council, the Florida Literary Arts Coalition, the Florida Library Association, “Just Read, Florida!,” the Florida Association for Media in Education, The Center for Literature and Theatre @ Miami Dade College, Friends of the Florida State University Libraries, the Florida Writers Association, and the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.]

When you think about it, most of us have competed for lots of things. Grades in school, the affection of a parent, athletic contests and games, and so much more. Competition is a part of life. Some competitions are completely objective. You skate the fastest or you don’t. You jump the highest or you don’t. You earn the most money or you don’t. Then there are the subjective contests, which play so much havoc with artists. Your pirouette spin wasn’t as pretty as hers. Your book wasn’t as good as his.

I’ve cursed judging panels when books of mine have been snubbed and books of inferior quality (in my opinion) given prizes. “Pearls before swine!” is my go-to rant, meaning the judges’ tastes were so coarse they couldn’t recognize quality when they saw it. I’ve been a judge in literary contests, and I know how subjective the process can be. (Certain things you can be objective about: the mechanics of writing, for instance. Then there is literary merit. Let the brawl begin!)

The sad reality is that awards do drive readers’ choices. Just the other day I participated in a group reading with other authors; all of us had some books for sale. As I was signing a copy of Left Field for a reader, she said, “I bought the one that won the award!” That copy happened to have a GCLS Goldie sticker on it, one of a bunch they give you for such use.

Some authors get depressed when they don’t win an award, and that’s just so wrong. Understandable, but wrong. You gotta either get mad for a while (pearls before swine), or shrug and say, “Who cares?” You cannot let the non-win affect your self-esteem. It’s the same when a negative review smacks you in the face. The hell with it.

So, publish your work, enter competitions, go for the gold, but remember this tremendously important fact: Your work is not you. Your work is your work. It is separate from you. And remember the corollary: A win doesn’t mean you’re special. It means a particular piece of your work was judged to be worthy. That’s all.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dishing on Pita Authors

Zestful Blog Post #254

We like pita bread with hummus, but we don’t like pita people, which stands for Pain In The You Know What.

I’ve been thinking about nice vs. pita authors, having been complimented lately for being one of the nice ones. It’s easy to figure out that nice works so much better than pita, especially if you’ve had to deal with pita authors in professional situations. And as a bookseller for ten years, and as an author for many more, I’ve had experience.

The first pita author encounter I really remember was when I was managing a bookstore in suburban Detroit. The author called up to request that my store sell her book after a talk she was scheduled to give in a few weeks at some nearby venue. I didn’t know her name, but she was local and she had written a book, and it had gotten published, and she was promoting it as best she could. She’d gotten a speaking gig with a service group, as I remember, and she had been told that as many as 200 people would attend.

I congratulated her on her book, but said we couldn’t sell her book off-site. “We’re not really set up to do that, I’m afraid.”

She was shocked. She had called to offer us this opportunity to make money. “Why not? You’d sell 200 books!”

“Well,” I said, “to begin with, the expense wouldn’t really justify—”

“Wait a minute. It’d be like two employees at minimum wage.”

“We pay our employees above minimum wage. But there are liability issues with having employees off-site, using private vehicles, but I’m really getting ahead of things, because—”

She kept interrupting, never giving me a chance to say: Look, lady. First of all, you’re not going to sell a book to every person who comes to your event, because you’re not Stephen King or Madonna or Mickey Mantle. We would have to guess how many books of yours to order, pay the publisher or distributor for them, pay for shipping, and of course receive and account for the order. We would need to prepare a cash drawer for cash customers. We would need to acquire a credit card terminal or disconnect one of ours currently in use in the store, take it to the venue in advance, and install a dedicated phone line to handle credit card data processing. We would need to arrange for a table or counter upon which to display the book and do business, and a chair or two for our staff. On the day of the event, hours ahead of the start of your talk, we would need to pull one or two employees from their scheduled work at the store to load the books and supplies into whatever vehicle we’d figured out to use, give them instructions, and hope for the best. At the venue, the staff would have to unload the books, cash drawer, and credit card machine, make sure the electronics are running right, and call for help if they’re not. After your talk, the staff would sell books. After that, the staff would pack up unsold books and everything else, return to the store, and unload everything. We would have to box up, arrange for, and pay for shipping to return unsold stock to the publisher or distributor. Our gross profit margin on a hardcover book is about fifty-five percent. After normal expenses—staff, rent, supplies—we’re talking about ten percent profit, or a dollar sixty-two cents, if your book is selling for eighteen dollars and we give our standard ten percent discount on hardcovers. So if we sold a hundred books for you, our profit would be a hundred sixty-two dollars. If, as would be much more likely, we sold twenty-five books for you, our profit would be forty dollars and fifty cents. We might mention the cost of installing the phone line at the venue, the wages of the extra staff to cover the work of the regular staff sent to your event, and if we took a look at all that, as well as mileage, vehicle expense, and a special insurance rider, lady, we would be paying for the privilege of selling your book at your event. Have a nice day.

[Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pitas. Screen grab from a Microsoft computer TV ad, since I couldn’t use a photo of one of the people I’m talking about in this post. I'm writing this on a Microsoft device, so yay, Microsoft; be cool with my using this image, OK?]
[The things we have to think about.]

In general, famous people are pretty cool, don’t act like pitas, and say thank you nicely. In general. A super famous artist with a new book out about her work wanted to do an event at another store I was managing, this one in suburban Chicago. Great, we’d love to have her. Our publicist got her on the phone to set things up and see what we could do—host a reading and signing, or maybe she’d like to give a lecture, whatever she’d like? The event did get set up, although the artist found it necessary to comment on the publicist’s ethnicity and guess at her religion as they chatted. In not a friendly way. 

The day before the event, the artist phoned the publicist and asked her to buy theater tickets for her, because a very socially important Hollywood movie had just come out, and she needed to see it, and tickets in this first week of the release were hard to get. Incredibly to me, the publicist was willing to go over to the theater and buy the tickets the artist wanted. But she objected that if the artist went to the movie, she would be terribly late for her event, which had already been in all the papers, posters in the store, etc. The artist didn’t care. The publicist went out and bought the tickets, the artist went to the movie, fans of hers showed up on a bitter winter night at the store and waited for an hour and a half to see her swoop in, stomp the snow off her boots, say a few words (most of which concerned the socially important Hollywood picture she had just seen and thought wonderful), sign a few books, and leave. Have a nice day.

Then there was the hot young author whose debut literary novel was rocketing around all the lists and magazines. He did an event at a bookstore in California managed by a subordinate of mine. This was one of the big chains, and I was the regional director. The store manager and her staff put on a beautiful event for this author and his book, drawing in a crowd of about fifty people, which is saying something for a debut literary work. There was a little reception with snacks and coffee. They had a microphone and lectern for the author. He gave an entertaining talk, signed dozens of books, and chatted with customers. Perfect! As he was leaving, the store manager went over and thanked him for coming and said she’d enjoyed the evening very much herself. She extended her hand. He took it, looked her in the eye, and said in a tone that was, as she recalled, a perfect blend of nastiness and sarcasm, “Kill the independents.” Have a nice day.

I could go on. Well, you know, it feels good to dish about this stuff once in a while. I hope you found this pita post educational! As a friend of mine once said, “It’s not gossip; it’s cleansing.”

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mixing Up Persons

Zestful Blog Post #253

In my decades of experience with writers and their associations, I’ve noticed that critique groups are big on finding fault with mixing first and second person in narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, because writing guides say you’re not supposed to. Here’s the thing: Writing guides are often like the tax code: Without rigid rules, the whole thing will fall apart! We cannot permit any discretionary freedom! Because people won’t understand, and they’ll do something awful. Then we’ll have to send soldiers to your house.

To define our terms in a nutshell: First person is [I], second person is [you].

Yeah, it’s possible to write terrible material, rule book or no rule book. But if you avoid mixing persons, you can’t go wrong from a technical standpoint. However! Mixing first and second persons in narrative or dialogue is a matter of common sense. How does it read, how does it sound? If you experiment and let your imagination go free, you can come up with lively, natural-sounding stuff.

My poster boy for this is Ernest Hemingway. In his first—and in my opinion, best—novel, The Sun Also Rises, we find this passage:

[We went down the stairs to the café on the ground floor. I had discovered that was the best way to get rid of friends. Once you had a drink all you had to say was: “Well, I’ve got to get back and get off some cables,” and it was done.]

(‘getting off some cables’ meaning, in olden times, sending news reportage via telegraph.)

The novel is written in first person, but the narrator, Jake, moves easily to second person when it sounds right, as again in this description of the Spanish countryside viewed from a bus:

[There were signs on the walls of the churches saying it was forbidden to play pelota against them, and the houses in the villages had red tiled roofs, and then the road turned off and commenced to climb and we were going way up close along a hillside, with a valley below and hills stretched off back toward the sea. You couldn’t see the sea. It was too far away.]

Let’s unpack this a little bit. The first indication of person is the first-person plural ‘we’ [we were going way up]. If Jake had stuck with first person and told us [I couldn’t see the sea.], we might, upon reading the sentence and before getting to the next, assume that someone’s head was in his way. Then, upon reading the next sentence, we might guess that Jake is nearsighted. That would be possible. Or maybe nobody could see the sea from the bus, because it was not in view. The reader must guess. And a perceptive, close reader would feel slightly unsettled.

Jake could have maintained first person by saying something like: ‘The sea was not in view, being too far away.’ Or: ‘No one on the bus could see the sea, because it was too far away.’

But both of those are needlessly stiff. Using ‘you’ in constructions as Hemingway did is a perfectly good way to craft narrative that sounds natural, even conversational.

If Beatrix Potter were to get reincarnated as a 25-year-old dude with a Reddit account, she might write:
[I slipped under the fence to Mr. McGregor’s garden. He was in there, pulling back and forth on that long stick with the short spikes on it? Yeah, I have no idea. But I got a couple of carrots. You just have to work fast, while his back is turned. They were awesome carrots.]

But if she or anyone were writing a doctoral dissertation on jet propulsion, the thing would be rigidly in super neutral third person, and it would be correct, if not natural.

[The mixed gases expanded at a greater rate than expected, in this instance producing a catastrophic failure of the interior aluminum housing. The next test replicated that result.]

Fine. Right. Next time the team will adjust the mixture to include some polyethylene wadding in a hexagonal configuration, which should slow down the burn rate and produce a cleaner level of bullshit.

I mix persons all the time in this blog, and I mix them in my fiction as well. Readers don’t notice; all they care about is whether they’re enjoying what they’re reading.

Yes, it’s possible to do a bad job of mixing persons and having it be obtrusive or fake-sounding. But it just this second dawned on me that in all the material I’ve evaluated, edited, and judged for aspiring authors, I don’t think I’ve ever once said, “You know, you should review a usage guide on first and second person, because you seem to have no clue.” Maybe, maybe once or twice I’ve had to stop somebody from constantly and wildly switching, but it’s just not a common problem. Except in critique groups.

Test your material simply by asking, “Does this sound natural?” Now go get ya some of them carrots!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Sketch by ES]
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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Using Fickle Memory

Zestful Blog Post #252

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post here called "To the Ballpoint," about using ballpoint pens for writing longhand. I reminisced about a TV advertisement for Bic pens, starring the Olympic ice skater Peggy Fleming, and lamented that I couldn’t find the spot on YouTube or anywhere. I recalled in rigorous detail Peggy’s thrilling performance at the 1968 Olympic games in France, her gold medal, and then the television ad where the Bic pen was strapped to her skate and given Olympic-style punishment, with Peggy spinning around as the pen point dug into the ice. Then after the ice, she takes the pen and holds the tip in a pan of fire, then writes the amazing word BIC on a large pad of paper. OK, right. I so wanted to find that commercial on line. But it wasn’t there. I googled “Peggy Fleming Bic pen TV” but—nothing. Why, God, why?
Just a few days ago, I got a notice that a reader of this blog had put up a comment on that post: “It wasn’t Peggy Fleming. It was Aja Zanova. There is a YouTube video with that commercial.”
I was stunned. Surely this could not be right. Of course it was Peggy Fleming in that advertisement. I would have bet every dime I had that the skater in that ad was Peggy Fleming. Not only had I remembered that commercial, some of my other correspondents here remembered it as well. But! I looked it up using Aja Zanova’s name, and son of a bitch if it isn’t true! Here’s the the YouTube link! The commercial starts 18 seconds in.

 And it is exactly the commercial. The beautiful skater, wearing one of those dresses, the Bic pen strapped to her ankle, the announcer’s cheesily overexcited commentary, the ice chips flying as the pen fairly screams from the punishment. The unstrapping and holding of the pen point in the pan of fire. Everything.
Except it isn’t Peggy Freaking Fleming! Who the hell is Aja Zanova??!! Well, she was a super famous, two two-time world champion from Czechoslovakia, who skated during the 1940s and 50s. Here’s her wiki storyThank you, dear reader MH! Thank you a thousand times for finding and sharing the truth! The mystery of the missing Peggy Fleming YouTube had been preying on my mind, just softly, in a far corner, all this time. I haven’t been able to ascertain what year the Bic pen commercial debuted. Hey, if anyone can find out that one, I’d be grateful. But isn’t it wild that right now, during the winter Olympics 2018, we get definitive word on this?
So for the past few days I’ve been thinking intensely about memory and its fickleness, and applications of same in fiction. Of course, faulty memory has long been a feature of police/crime stories, where a witness gets something crucial wrong. (Ripped from the headlines, for sure, as there are any number of real-life situations like this. Thank you, the Innocence Project.) Too often, though, I’ve seen the technique abused, where the author just bails out of a tight spot by employing faulty memory as a cheap twist.
If you’re considering using faulty memory in a story, all you really have to do is make it plausible. But what does that mean?
One, give it enough background to make the mistake believable. You could actually weave a bit of theme in there, by showing incidents of faulty memory occurring early in the story—laying some groundwork.
Two, give the person with the faulty memory a lot of depth and detail. Show us the inner thoughts of that character, show how things get twisted around. These things take time in real life, usually; let that work to your advantage here.
Three, do a bit of ‘method writing,’ drawing on the feelings you’ve had when you realized your memory about some specific event or thing was wrong.
Four, create significant fallout. A character confronted with the truth has choices. They may stubbornly believe they’re right, in spite of direct, incontrovertible evidence that they’re wrong. This can lead to an endless spin cycle of self-justification for that character, where that moment of wrongness takes over their life, making them incapable of moving forward in any honest way.
Or the realization of being wrong can lead that character to try to make amends. Or to try to create a different reality by altering evidence, or committing some related crime. Or deciding to get revenge on whoever showed them up as wrong. Lots and lots of possibilities.
I might note that a situation involving faulty memory can be significant in a plot without having to do with violent crime. It can start with something like:
You borrowed that black turtleneck from me.
No, I didn’t.
Yes, you did.
Remember when I had that idea for…?
Yeah, no. That was my idea.
Ah, dig it! What a wonderful world of fiction--and figure skating--lies ahead!

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

I Love You

Zestful Blog Post #251

I’ve told you before that I love you. Here and there in this blog, as a little tagline, mostly, I’ve done so. Time to say it again: I love you.

On the first day of class at Ringling College last fall, I told my students I loved them. This was perhaps ill-advised, as I had just sat through hours and hours of lectures and presentations for new faculty on how to behave around students. Things to avoid doing and saying, things that could be taken the wrong way. The experts didn’t specifically forbid telling your students you love them; they probably figured nobody would be that clueless. But I thought, Just be yourself. Might as well start now.
Context, of course, is a thing. The class laughed when I made some wry comment, and I was so happy they got it. “I love you,” I said. “I love you so much.” Startled, they laughed at that, too, which was fine. They understood what I meant. Warm human feeling. When something similar happens when I’m talking to a group at a conference or what have you, I do the same thing. And they get it. Just a little dose of warm human feeling.

It’s not all business. So much, so much is sheltered beneath all of our surfaces.
There it is for today: I love you. You are my friend, and I’m your friend. Let’s never forget that.
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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Wringing Direct Experience

Zestful Blog Post #250

I so much don’t want this to be a brag post. Because I hate reading brag posts, and so do you. I just want to make a point and give some reminder-style advice about getting everything you can from a direct experience.

The other day Marcia and I journeyed from our home on Florida’s Gulf coast to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to witness a bit of history: the inaugural test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program to improve rocket science and eventually get humans to Mars. Super big rocket, super complicated, with a fun payload of Musk’s Tesla car with a ‘guy’ in a space suit at the wheel. The launch represented a host of firsts, so although it’s a gamble to drive all the way across the state to see a space shot that could get scrubbed at the last minute, we decided to buy tickets and take the risk. (We’d observed a Space Shuttle launch for free from a grassy knoll in Titusville, but this time we wanted—apart from a closer experience—nice washrooms and the opportunity to buy and consume hot loaded nachos.)

And yeah! The launch was fabulous, but I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow. [Delete: Yeah, first we got gas at that Chevron over by the café, then, you know, the weather was pretty nice, and like the traffic was really heavy the closer we got to the center, you know, and we tried to see the rocket from the causeway but we weren’t sure which thing sticking up in the distance was it, plus there was some haze at that hour of the morning…] Delete delete

So what’s the point of this post?
1)     To be alive to the vastness of experience.
2)     To go after it.
3)     To improve your abilities to extrapolate and synthesize. This is the piece of greatest importance for writers.

To illustrate, no blow-by-blow, but here’s a partial list of my experiences and impressions from launch day:

Cursing endlessly at the drivers who disobeyed the signs and roared ahead of us rule-followers queuing up for miles in the right lane as told. Entertaining Marcia with inventive curses. Hatred surging in my heart for people who cut ahead, but not debilitating hatred.
Is that a great blue heron? Or a crane? You’d think there’d be gators in that big ditch.
Gigantic guy in a gigantic back brace.
Smells of cooking hot dogs. Yeah, nachos. More sunscreen.
Woodstockian sea of people looking in one direction, over the roofline of the IMAX building, knowing it isn’t time yet.
Little girl in astronaut jumpsuit walking through the crowd with head high, hoping to be taken for a real astronaut.
Anxiety. T-minus keeps getting longer.
Murmurs. Shouts. Adrenaline. Tachycardia.
The brightest fire in the world! A rend in the fabric of reality!
Sonic booms, plural!! Sternum vibrations. Dude!
My God. My God. Look at that.
Face wet with tears. Friendship 7. The things imagined, the things made real.
A French fry plopping at my feet from the sky, having presumably been dropped by an overstimulated gull.

The point is, there’s so much waiting for you that you don’t expect. Space shots are extraordinary, and not everybody gets a chance to see one. But lots of other stuff happens that you can get out for and find way more than what’s front and center. City council meetings. Climb that hill, just for kicks. Ballgames. Prune that cherry tree. The movies. The lumpy blanket in the back seat. The sound of the cork popping, the cookie crumbling, the cows coming home. The look on that woman’s face when her boyfriend whispers to her. The guy on the ladder throwing a hammer to the guy on the roof. The grace of the catch! The feel of the breeze: What side of your face feels it? The young student copying the Vermeer in the museum, her easel and paints, tiny green splash on her white sneaker. The fear in that foreman’s voice. Scrape the ice off your windshield. Close your eyes. The dogs say goodnight.

1)     Say yes.
2)     Write bits of it down.
3)     Draw it. Try.
4)     Say yes again.
5)     And again.
6)     Take everything with you as you set to work.

When you practice feeling the whole of an experience, you can better bring detail to what you write, and you can better invent details with which to deepen your writing.

On this rocket day, I made notes in my journal, drew crummy pictures to help myself remember. Pencil shavings in the grass. Took some pictures with my phone camera. But it’s the stuff in graphite on paper that’s gonna endure. That’s the stuff you’re going to want to go back and look at. It’s so simple.

We have so much on our minds. Don’t forget to be here as fully as you can. I’m not saying anything new. But I’m saying it my way, dammit. Writers, feel it all. Say yes to it all. And capture a highlight or two. Or a lowlight. Whatever is distinct. Do it in a word, a line. Don’t stress over it. If it’s not fun, decide that it’s fun.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Giving Characters Credit

Zestful Blog Post #249

Our characters can open their own American Express accounts, but they need us to give them the credit they deserve for complexity and incomplete intelligence.

It’s impossible to know everything, so it follows that it’s impossible to acquire and apply all knowledge and all skills in all ways. We agree: There are ravines in everybody’s knowledge and skill set. But it follows that there are also odd peaks. Sometimes those peaks are unexpected. Fictional characters are the same. We learn from life.

I told my Ringling College students the following little story last term and realized I should share it here too. I was walking through a parking lot next to a marina and noticed a couple of guys struggling with a boat on a trailer. Seems they were trying to secure it properly. The guys were the dirt-baggiest, crummiest-looking, gap-toothed pair I’d seen in a while. Ragged clothes, grimy hands, greasy hair, dangling cigarettes. The pickup and trailer were a filthy, rusty mess, and the boat looked like it might have been seaworthy when Admiral Farragut was firing on New Orleans.

Something slipped with a clunk, and one guy said, “Hey! You ass, it goes the other way.”

The other guy said, “Don’t call me an ass.”

The first guy said, “I was speaking metaphorically.”

As God is my witness.

[The steely gaze, the brass buttons… what can you shout but “Farragut!”]
Too many of us, when writing characters and dialogue, oversimplify. A dirtbag kind of guy wouldn’t know the word ‘metaphorical’, let alone use it properly in a sentence, right? Yeah no, wrong. He certainly might. He might not know who Admiral Farragut was; then again he might. He might be able to calculate pinochle scores in his head, but he might waste all his money on lottery tickets. But if he does, he might not be able to bear his kids not having shoes that fit, so he starts dealing a little meth on the side, so they can wear decent sneakers. Who knows? Maybe he’s going to night school for electronics.

By the same token, a character who is smart and accomplished might not be able to chop onions properly. Might borrow money at rates only a fool would agree to. Might get a pilot’s license, then decide to keep going in the fog at low altitude because it’s only a little ways to the airstrip. Might insist on getting a prescription for antibiotics when sick with the flu.

A while back, I encountered disagreement from some writing friends as to whether a six-year-old boy would know and use the word ‘masculine’. There’s no hard rule, because it depends! If he’s heard it at home or somewhere, yeah, he certainly could know and use the word. If not, not.

Grab the freedom to let your characters be as complex and contradictory as the people you meet in life. Therein lies authenticity.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Talkin Proper

Zestful Blog Post #248

Quickie note on last week’s blog post, “The Jesus Trigger.” Two unsubscribes, which actually creates a nice set of bookends for the subject, given that I discussed both ends of the “I take offense” spectrum: the allergic-to-neutral-or-positive-references-to-Jesus readers and the allergic-to-cursing ones. The post garnered the most comments, I believe, of any of my posts so far. So, yeah. Bein’ real, livin’ on the edge here at Zestful Writing. And to you latest five, yes FIVE new subscribers, welcome to our wonderful corner of the literary galaxy!

Onward. I never cease to be bothered by common misspellings, but I also grieve over common mispronunciations, which are, I realize, occasionally related to misspellings, or perhaps more accurately, misperceptions of a given word. International cuisine offers plentiful opportunities.

For instance, I’ve had waiter after waiter tell me that the tiramisu (so far, so good) is made with “marscapone” cheese. It is not. It is made with mascarpone cheese. Therefore it is not pronounced mar-ska-pone. It is mass-kar-pone.

[You can practically taste all those luscious ingredients, can’t you?
Even the cocoa sprinkled on top. [Sketch by ES]]

I feel better already. Going on:

Haven’t nearly all of us considered ordering a tasty Salade Niçoise when out lunching with friends? Certainly we have. And if you had to pass your language requirement in graduate school and selected French, you know that an E on the end of a word ending in S nearly always calls for that S to be pronounced. Therefore I tell the server, “I’ll have the Salade Nee-swahzz.” I’ve found that unless the waiter is an actual French person, they will repeat my order smugly, “Salade Nee-swah.” No, bitch. It’s Nee-swahzz. I cannot well represent the tiny little miniature [euh] that I sometimes add on the very end, for emphasis, but you can’t go wrong with Nee-swahzz.

Is sherbert for sherbet a dead horse by now? I hope so. Just one R in there. It was Marcia’s aunt Nancy who, when corrected that way, said, tentatively, “Sheebert?” Side note: Sherbet, which contains some milk, is not the same as sorbet, which does not.

We know that someone who runs an eatery is not a restauranteur but a restaurateur, oui? No N in there.

Leaving the food world, as is my prerogative, we—oh! Wait! Yes indeed. It’s not perogative. So, not peh-rog-a-tive. We rightly say pre-rog-a-tive. Or you could go with pruh-rog-a-tive for an extra level of tweediness.

Has this post been succinct or what? Yes, it has been suck-sinkt! It has not been suss-inkt. Never that. The double C is pretty much always pronounced with a K-moving-to-S sound in there. Accent. Eccentric. And yes, even flaccid, ref. Zestful blog post 141, “Defending Precise Language.” Now gimme somma that tiramisu.

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