Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Humble Path to Triumph

The other day I was listening to a radio program that likened sensible investing to the Roald Amundsen expedition to the South Pole, while stupid investing is like Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the same place at the same time.

It was, frankly, a race. Both parties got there, but Amundsen (Norway) got there first, and he and his men got back alive. Unlike Scott (England) and his. The radio hosts (unknown, just caught a few minutes) said that the main difference was that Amundsen required his men and dogs to travel 15 nautical miles per day, no matter the conditions, while Scott's party traveled more when conditions were good, less when they weren't.

The key emphasis: While Amundsen led his men out in bad conditions to make their 15 miles, he also PREVENTED his party from traveling more than 15 miles a day. By this method his men and dogs were fresher at all times. "Fifteen miles? Dudes, we're done! Let's pitch them tents and gnaw on some butter sticks!" No periods of extreme exhaustion, no anxiety to make up for time lost hunkering in bad weather.

I read up on this and found that there were more differences between the expeditions, like the plain fact that Amundsen's party was better prepared and used simpler equipment, and the fact that Scott's expedition included lots of stopping to gather scientific data, which took not just time but energy.

What all this has to do with investing I don't know exactly because I didn't hear the whole program, but I'd guess we're talking prudence and patience.

But I do know what Amundsen and Scott have to do with us writers.

In recent years due to challenging life conditions I put off writing new fiction, waiting, as it were, for the weather to clear. It took some pressure off, but put other pressure on.

Because I knew I SHOULD be writing fiction in spite of the other demands on my time and energy, in spite of the other obligations—writing and otherwise—I'd taken on, and I was always a little uneasy.

One day I woke up and realized that 1) the weather might never fully clear, and 2) it was futile to expect, or wish, for it to clear.

Under those conditions, I needed to be happy with small but steady fiction output. Once I accepted that, things flowed better, and guess what? I'm on my way to the pole. Gonna plant that flag.

Join me.

How's it going with your writing? Does this story make sense to you?

I value your comments! To post one, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

[Photo info: I took this picture of a Magnificent Frigatebird at the Panama Canal.]

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Thursday, July 18, 2013


Aspiring authors sometimes ask me whether they should go to a writing conference.

The short answer is yes, if it's one I'm going to be speaking at.

Your remaining options in 2013 are:

·         Writer's Digest West, in Los Angeles September 27-29. All information here:  I'll be doing two presentations, one on Saturday afternoon ('How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells'), the other Sunday morning ('Quit Your Day Job—Seriously!).

·         Florida Writer's Association, in Lake Mary, Florida (Orlando) October 18-20. All information here: For this one I'll be doing 'How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells.'

At both of these conferences you'll meet and learn from other experienced professionals, be able to buy books and get them signed, and not least, you'll meet other aspiring writers.

The longer answer to "Should I go to a conference?" is this: Conferences cost time and money, and you need to be reasonably sure the conference you pick will be worth it.
The best way to pick a conference is read the schedule and see who the faculty is. If your writerly heart beats faster while reading a session description, pay attention. If this happens three or more times, seriously consider going to that conference.

Star appeal is a funny question. Most conferences feature one or two brand-name authors, and if a particular author is an idol of yours, it would be cool to meet that person. You'd naturally want to thank them for writing the books they do, and hey, maybe it would be possible to pick their brain on the art and business of writing, if only for a few minutes.

Trouble is, the bigger the name, the more they'll be overrun by fans (or cornered by overt opportunists), and the less chance you'll have of making contact. I remember being at a huge conference that featured a marquee author I really wanted to meet. I went to his session, and that was neat, but afterward he was so totally swarmed that I never got a chance to talk with him one on one.

So if you do meet up with that big-name author, great! But the more rewarding approach is to focus on learning new things and making friends. There is absolutely no way Facebook or Twitter can give you the sort of connection that just hanging out with somebody can. I should probably stand in the hotel bar holding a sign that says, "WILL TALK WRITING FOR MARTINIS." (I will absolutely talk writing for martinis.)
Moreover, most presenters try to be as available as possible during conferences, not just at the official meet-n-greets. I like to hang out after my presentation and answer questions I couldn't get to in the time allotted. If I have to vacate the room for the next speaker, I pull over somewhere nearby (ideally a corridor with a comfy chair or two!) and listen to aspiring writers and try to help them.

Apart from the presenters, there are your fellow participants. If, when you look in the mirror, you see a nice, interesting, caring person there (and I know you do), you will be amazed at how many nice, interesting, caring people you will find at a writing conference!

It's true. Writers tend to be terrific people. Smile, schmooze, and make friends. Some friendships will last a lifetime. It's happened to me.

Have you attended a writing conference? How did you approach the experience? Tell us! To post a comment, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

How to Write Scared

In my undergraduate days I hung out with other students who questioned the value of book-learning over direct experience. There's a lot to be said for direct experience, and one of the direct experiences I had was getting stoned.

This happened several times.

One night I was visiting a friend at her apartment off campus, where we enjoyed some of the latest imports, and it was time for me to get back to my dorm, some ten miles away. We went out to her car. I headed toward the passenger door but she stopped me, pushed her keys into my hand, and said, "You drive."

"Oh, I'm too stoned."

"Elizabeth. You've got to learn to drive stoned."

Although these days I'm known for prudent judgment and a strong sense of social responsibility, in those days I was not.

"Well, how do I learn to drive stoned?" I inquired.

"By driving stoned."


"You just have to believe you can do it."

At the moment, the logic was pure and powerful. So I got behind the wheel, believing I could drive perfectly well stoned, including the part of the route that went past the state police post. In fact I drove back to campus perfectly well.

I took from that experience an important lesson, and it was this: An impairment need not be an impediment.

Needless to say, I don't advocate driving under the influence of anything but caffeine. But this lesson relates to much in life, especially writing.

You've Got a Book in You

Fear comes to all writers sometimes: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of mediocrity. Fear makes you tighten up. Tightness is no good. Therefore, it's a fact that the state of fear is an impairment. But it need not be an impediment.

The cool, fantastic reality is that we don't have to vanquish fear in order to write with zest and freedom. If you're too scared to write, just write a little bit and see how you feel.

Understand that the way to consistent output in writing is to be able to write under any emotional load. And there is no trick or technique to doing it.

Every day, simply act on your writing goals, no matter how good you've gotten at inventing obstacles for yourself, like anxiety. Welcome cold fear, let it rush to you, fangs foaming.

Then go about your writing.

Surprisingly, your fear will snuggle up close to you while you write. It will get warm.

What's fear but another friend, anyway?

Breaking news p.s.:
I'll be presenting two sessions at Writer's Digest Conference West,
Sept 27 - 29 in Los Angeles.  Early registration before July 19 is $50
off the full price.
Sessions by me:
"How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller That SELLS"
and "Quit Your Day Job - Seriously!"
More on this soon. 

I welcome your comments! To post one, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

[Photo info: This is a picture of my left hand.] [Taken by my right.]

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Quill on the Fourth

Given that I'm writing this on Independence Day for the United States, wouldn't you think my theme should be independence? Wrong! I'm a writing nerd, and there's an opportunity here, but it's not idealism.

Here's the Declaration of Independence, this image stolen directly from the National Archives web site. Have you ever seen such a beautiful job of penmanship? (The reproduction doesn't do it justice.)

There's tons of history about the draft and the revisions and then the finished Declaration, which was famously engraved on broadsheets and distributed to the American people as soon as it was ratified by the Congress.

When I was a small child, I was given a modern reproduction, nicely printed on aged-looking heavy paper. I looked at it a lot, wondering how anybody could write that beautifully, and I decided it was because they used a beautiful pen, the feather quill.

Being a little word nerd, I developed a fascination with writing instruments, papers, and so forth, but my handwriting never looked good, and I never tried writing with a quill pen until today.

For a long time I thought that John Hancock actually wrote out the document, given that his signature was so big and bold and centered, as if he had the right to sign it so. But today I learned that a guy named Timothy Matlack, who assisted the secretary of the Congress (Charles Thomson) is probably the one wrote it out all nice and neat. Hancock simply jumped right in there, front and center, with that signature. There's a lesson somewhere in there.

I've since lost my copy of the document, but I did see that signature many times afterward: I dated a boy in school who happened to be named John Hancock. Early in life he learned to write his name exactly like the famous one—quite a feat using the ballpoint pens we all used then. I remember us checking books out of the library together once—this in the days when you had to write your name on the card that resided in a pocket inside every book's cover—and the librarian getting angry about John's signature, thinking he was fooling around. This was also in the days before student I.D.s, so John had no way of proving that was his real name. Together we convinced her, as I remember.

Upon getting up this morning, I got out a vulture feather I'd found on the golf course last year, figuring I'd make a quill pen out of it someday. I had washed it when I found it, so it was theoretically disease-free.

I looked up how to cut a quill on line, and realized if I were to do it right, I couldn't do it today, because you're supposed to let the feather soak in water overnight, then let it dry, then heat the quill end in sand that you've warmed in your oven or on your stovetop, and this will temper the quill (which I guess means make it harder), then you must get the right sort of blade to cut it with, then do your very fine cutting which cannot be achieved just right by any idiot on the first try, and gosh it all seemed totally hopeless.

So I just took my feather and my miniature Swiss Army knife and hacked a point, split it, and dipped it in some brown Pelikan ink. During coffee delivery by my loving muse, I opened a sketchbook and gave it a shot. I didn't make it through the first sentence of the Declaration, and my result looks like hell, but here it is:

Happy Fourth, happy writing, and God bless America.

I welcome your comments! Specifically, have you ever written with a quill? Ever wanted to? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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