Thursday, December 31, 2015


Zestful Blog Post #139

Big-ass storms sweep over Washington’s Olympic Peninsula a lot. They like to knock down trees. Back when Marcia and I were living in the deep woods there, we had to make shift without electricity many times, once for a whole winter week. (A woodstove and well-stocked shed solve many problems.) During one such outage, I hiked into our neighbors’ woods to watch a work crew, whose truck I’d heard rumble up the rough road we shared.

The guys’ problem was a large dead hemlock that had fallen across the power line, which stretched from the lower road straight up through a steep, thickly forested hillside. The tree hadn’t ripped the line down; it was hanging on it, fifty yards from the road. No way could the guys get their cherry-picker truck down there to lift the tree off; they’d have to wallow down the slope with their chainsaws. Having felled trees myself, I knew the perils of hanging timber, and wondered how the hell they were going to cut up that tree safely. It seemed impossible.

[A different large hemlock, but you get the idea. This one didn't pause, but just ripped down the electric and phone lines on its way to block our garage, along with a fragrant cedar.]

They solved the dangerous problem in less than a minute. They eased the truck next to the pole that supported the line as it crossed the road. One guy went up in the basket, reached up with a jaws-of-life-looking tool, and simply cut the line. It whanged, and the tree crashed to the ground. The other guy scampered down the slope and retrieved the line. They had the son of a bitch spliced and back on the pole in five more minutes. They rumbled down the road, flipped the circuit at the main pole, and left. I just stood there absorbing the brilliant work-around that for them was routine.

My New Year’s resolution is to figure out as many work-arounds as possible, in my own life and work, so as to save time and be brilliant. Gotta look beyond obvious solutions; I think the key will be to first BELIEVE that more than one solution might exist.

p.s. Thanks to my buddy Steve for prompting my thoughts on this. Here’s hoping for better weather up there soon.
And here’s hoping for a happy New Year for everyone.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Giving & Telling?

Zestful Blog Post #138

Social media, including blogs, especially blogs, can be a challenge for those of us who were brought up not to boast. Is that a humblebrag right there? It is, it is! I’m sorry. Hopeless situation. Here’s my issue today: Charities and those who give or serve have the dilemma of telling about the giving vs. not telling. If you tell, it seems boastful, yet perhaps by telling one can prompt others to give. If you don’t tell, you’re safe from any boast accusations, yet by keeping it secret you relinquish the possibility of suggesting the idea to others.

What the hell. After I post this, I’m off to donate blood. I do this regularly; I got the email a few days ago notifying me that I’m eligible again; I decided to schedule my donation on Christmas Eve day. My reasons, actually, are selfish: The donation center is unlikely to be crowded, and I can eat large portions of Christmas fest food for a couple of days with the perfect excuse of having to build my life juices up again. Plus, OK, yes, it feels more special to do it today.

Donating blood, if your health permits, is such an easy way to give a gift no one can buy. That’s message #1 of 2 from me today.

[This is the most elaborate Christmas display on a private residence I’ve ever seen. It’s our neighbors’ house a few doors down, and it's only a partial view. I mean, that's a life-sized Angel Gabriel on top of the garage. The people are new, and I’ve got to catch them and tell them of the awesomeness of their work. Wish I'd had a tripod for crisp focus, but you get the idea.]

Message #2 is this. Thank you, my friends, for giving ME gifts throughout the year, gifts that can’t be bought: your attention and your esteem. Your sharing of your ideas. Thank you for being with me.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Direct Experience

Zestful Blog Post #137

Here’s a blog post by new friend Alan Spector, who got inspired by one of my recent Writer’s Digest articles (on making a new commitment to your writing). He believes getting out of your comfort zone and going for something special is important for retirees too. Yeah! Here’s also a link to a historical novel he’s written and published.

What’s stepping out of your comfort zone really about? Two things: One, it’s about keeping your comfort zone comfortable. Think about easing into your nice soft sleeping bag after a hard day of mountain hiking. Ah, bliss. Now think about lying in your sleeping bag for days on end. Comfort evaporates. Muscles atrophy. Only by periodically leaving that comfort can you maintain that comfort. Paradox, yeah. Zen, yeah.

The other thing: leaving your comfort zone is the only way you can gain new direct experience. Who has a stake in this? I remember arguing with one of my grad school professors about sleeping out under the stars. The question was, do you need to experience something in order to fully appreciate it? She, who had never spent a night in the open, contended that you can read a book about being outdoors in the woods and have as much feeling for the natural world as if you’d actually experienced it firsthand. I, who had slept on mountainsides without shelter, contended the opposite. And you can only know the difference if you’ve gone out and done the experience, whatever it is, dammit. It’s great to love books, and books can bring the outer world alive, but only to a point.

It’s essential for the writers of books to go out and gain direct experience, so they can write about it convincingly—so the experience can inform their work. This is true even for writers of sci-fi and fantasy. I think I’d like to explain and dig deeper into that soon.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Three Buds

Zestful Blog Post #136

The most recent two issues of Writer’s Digest magazine include articles by me. November/December contains “Make a New Commitment to Your Writing,” which has moved more readers to get in touch with me, either via email or social media, than any other piece I’ve written for the magazine in the ten years I’ve been doing it. The article is a bouquet of encouragement, drawn from my insights, woes, and successes. From the response, I realize that while writers can always use help with technique, they thirst as much or more for help with heart and guts. Here’s one of my favorite passages from the article:

Rekindle the spark by simply moving full-on into the unknown. Whatever you doubt you can do on the page, choose that thing. In our increasingly cautious world, “For the hell of it,” has too often been replaced by “Better not.” It’s up to artists—that is, you—to throw away caution and leap. You might attain remarkable new heights.

I want to keep helping writers this way.

[For the hell of it: trying to fit into a mockup of the Mercury capsule at NASA. Real dimensions. The Mercury 7 astronauts all were shorter than me. The thing is terrifyingly tiny. This is the best I could do for an illustration for this post.]

The January issue features a more workmanlike piece: “Power Tools,” which shows how to use arc and pace to fix just about any problem in fiction writing. And here’s an excerpt:

Often dialogue doesn’t work because the author was afraid to move too fast. But fiction, almost as much as stage drama, relies on dialogue for vigor and movement.

Arc and pace together, when injected into dialogue, can transform it from weak to strong. In fact, a small dialogue exchange can have a microarc all its own:

“No, because I don’t think you can keep a secret.”
“Oh, yes I can! Try me.”

I just turned in a chapter for a new Writer’s Digest book on dialogue, set to come out in 2016. My assignment was to write something on internal dialogue, or the inner voices of characters. It’s funny, I’ve always represented my characters’ thoughts intuitively, but researching and writing the chapter made me realize how complex the whole thing can get, when you try to nail down absolutes. For instance, is this passage in present tense or past?:

I should hold up that liquor store tonight, he thought.

Truly, you can argue that one both ways. And truly, it doesn’t matter! If you have a basic grasp of how it works, you can’t go far wrong. All you really need to attend to is consistency. For instance, if you use the above construction in a story, you should not later use something like this:

I’ve got it made now, he thinks.

Once you see it explained, you’ve got it.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Shutting Up Most of the Time

Zestful Blog Post #135

My blog is about zestful writing and the things I learn about and love. When one is a blogger and something big just happened and is all over the news and social media, one sometimes wonders whether to comment. I think many bloggers, no matter what their specialty, figure if they don’t comment on whatever the big news is, readers will think they’re out of touch or don’t care. I’m in touch, I care, and I have opinions, but I choose not to comment.

The very best one can do is choose peace for one’s own heart at whatever the cost. And there is a cost to choosing peace. The price is relinquishing the grievance narrative, dropping the need to grasp and struggle, and embracing humility. Which also means not trying to fix other people. And it means shutting up most of the time.

Out of all that, simply that, comes real power.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Retail Heck, Free Book, and Coloring Opportunity

Zestful Blog Post #134

My first retail job was in a produce market that was only open during the summer. Great for kids needing summer jobs, which we all were, except for the head cashier, who was a hardbitten, chain-smoking redhead who had a crush on the owner, who, she regularly and mournfully informed us, didn’t even know she existed.

Which was bullshit, because without her the place would have collapsed. But we knew what she meant.

I have many fascinating stories about unloading watermelons (human chain; if you drop one you have to cram the pieces down the sewer as fast as possible before Ronnie sees); grading peaches (a job to be foisted off to a rookie employee after the peaches are four days old, because yuck); and more.

Later I spent ten years selling books, a year-round job where I learned all about Black Friday and the Christmas rush (as it used to be called). A butt-busting time of year, but fun too, because everybody on staff got into the spirit of the season while being able to justifiably whine about how hard it all was. Boy, did we sell books.

Every year around this time I think of retail, and give thanks that I don’t work it anymore. I give thanks to you, my friends, my readers, and to and all three of my family groups (birth, law, and chosen).

In the spirit of giving, thought I should give away some e-books in honor of Black Friday, just for the hell of it, you know. Somehow Holy Hell presented itself in my mind, dunno why. So yeah, the first in the Lillian Byrd series is free on Amazon through the weekend. Tell your friends, because the more downloads, the happier I am. As I write this, twelve hours after zeroing out the price, it's already #2 in Amazon's GLBT Mystery & Detective category. Happy.

Also, here is a fun page you can print out and color to make look like a turkey, just as we all did once in the past, at least those of us who attended kindergarten in the United States in the 1960s. Do children still do this?

You can enjoy coloring it and maybe even upload and share your work here. (You can email it to me and I'll post it next time, because I don't think you can attach anything to a comment.) Remember, there is no such thing as a poorly colored Thanksgiving turkey hand.

With warm wishes and love,

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Breaking the Rules of POV

Zestful Blog Post #133

Recently I got three inquiries in a row from aspiring writers wanting advice on point of view in fiction, specifically shifting POV from one character to another, and even more specifically, mixing first-person POV with other styles—third person limited and omniscient: can we do it? should we do it? how do we do it? (Thank you to D, J, and E for giving me the idea for this post.)

The novels of my first series (Lillian Byrd crime) are all in first person, which has its joys. The reader gets to know the main character intimately—if you’ve done your job well—and the limitations of the form can help shape your plot. One character can’t know everything, which automatically introduces an element of suspense. I chose first person for my first books because I was told by some magazine article (probably & ironically in Writer’s Digest magazine) that all first novelists should use it, because at least then you can’t screw up POV.


Alternatively, writing gurus often tell new authors to stick with one style of POV: pick either first, third-limited, or omniscient, and stay there. Yet messing around with POV is interesting, and it can be just the thing for your story. Yet it’s fraught.

In many novels old and new, an omniscient narrator tells the story, shifting frequently from one character’s viewpoint to the next. If done well, we get not only a literal unfolding of the story, but also the characters’ inner worldview—their thoughts and judgments as to what’s going on. But the narrator becomes a bit of a character as well, which can be helpful or annoying, depending on the skill of the author.

For The Actress (Rita Farmer mysteries) I wanted more flexibility than simple first person, because my story was more ambitious, wider ranging, with more characters. Yet I liked the intimacy of first person. So I looked around to see if any novels mixed first with third limited and/or omniscient and found a few that worked (don’t ask me; I forget), so I figured I could do it too.

Yet I hated reading novels where the POV sticks with one character for almost the whole book, but shifts quickly and inexplicably to another character’s POV as a way out of plot jams, which is cheap. Suddenly—gosh!—we learn what the bad guy’s thinking, just at the exact moment we need an explanation of what the hell his motivation is. Then we’re back to the hero for the duration. In such cases, shifting POV is a way to avoid telling the story with discipline and fluidity. And it’s pure plain jangling to readers. It’s especially bad when readers constantly have to re-orient themselves to rapidly shifting limited POVs. Note I say limited: This is worse than just choosing omniscient, which imposes its own demands of reason and plausibility.

So I structured The Actress to begin from the perspective of Rita, my protagonist, and to shift POV only at major breaks. Sometimes it’s a chapter break, other times it’s a mid-chapter shift from one scene and set of characters to another. I carried the same pattern into the other two Rita books. By On Location I was pretty comfortable with it.

Currently I’m writing a final draft of a novel told in a mix of third limited and omniscient; no first person. It happens in Los Angeles, it involves a retired schoolteacher, her illiterate (and undocumented) cleaning woman, and a gang of corporate saboteurs. It digs into why people help one another, why they betray one another, and how far into the abyss they will go for money—and sometimes love. The title is Crimes in a Second Language.

Bottom line answer to the questions on mixing POVs: Yes, we can do it. We should do it IF the story demands, or at least prompts it. Keep your artistic integrity handy and never shift POV to get yourself out of a tight place you’ve gotten yourself into. When mixing first with third limited / omniscient, do it sparingly.

Moreover, don’t be cowed by the process. Relax, jump in, and give it a try.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to Turn Darkness Into Light

Zestful Blog Post #132

This post is to honor two friends recently lost to cancer, Jeanne Bates Smith and Sandra Moran Pletcher. It’s also in honor of you, my reader, and yes, my friend.

Here’s the whole of it. When a marvelous human being too soon leaves the building for good, we grieve hard. Then we have to figure out what to do next. If we lose our joy, that’s letting cancer—or whatever disease or disaster—win. If we focus on disbelief, if we keep insisting things ought to be the way they were before, that’s making that person as gone as can be. It’s giving death everything.

To change darkness into light:

When you do your best work, smile, because she’s right there with you, because she did her best work.

When you speak and behave honestly and kindly, feel happy, because she did so.

When you make an effort to understand—to really extend yourself—be joyful, because she did so.

When you do anything your beloved person did, with integrity and a true heart, laugh, because she or he is there with you.

When you
act like a goof;
taste/smell/touch/hear/see something that person liked;
get out for a walk or a jog or a swim;
create something for the hell of it;
make a mistake (yes, of course);
try to fix something;
be joyful, because.

I said to Marcia the other night as we grieved our friends, “I guess the pie of life is like this: half work, half love, and half chocolate.” Don’t start with me about math.

Time gets us all. But it can’t steal our joy. So do the work now. Give more love now. And don’t forget the chocolate.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Just Devote

Zestful Blog Post #131

I’m not telling you to let your kids go hungry. But it’s a fact that lots of us spend lots of time on fake responsibilities. Do you really need to answer every email as thoroughly as you do—or at all? Must you vacuum that often? Do you have to go out for drinks with the gang every time? Must you be as well informed about the news of the day as the guy who wins all the arguments around the water cooler? (What’s gonna be on his tombstone—HE BLOVIATED?)

All we gotta do is our best work.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

When to Ship It

Zestful Blog Post #130

Recently I talked to a group of university students about writing. One of the students asked the best question I’ve heard in a long time: “How do you know when it’s finished?” She was expressing the classic artist’s dilemma, which stretches all the way back to the auroch-painting paleos.

If you’re a craftsman, you have a pretty clear idea of when your project is done: The chair is plumb and square, the finish is smooth, a person will buy it and sit in it. Yes, you could decide to add some decoration, and you could argue that furniture making is art as well as craft. OK, fine, but my point still stands up pretty well when you consider that a piece of craftsmanship must, by any definition, have a function.

A painter, sculptor, or writer dwells in a different world. You create something which, unlike furniture, has no measurable function. You trade in emotional currency. Your standards of quality and effectiveness are entirely your own. Therefore there’s no empirical way to measure when a piece of art is finished. But there is a way to know when it’s finished.

Here’s the progression: You get to a point where you have some semblance of a whole. You see flaws, and you fix them. You revise and buff. You breathe on it and rub it with your sleeve and see your reflection. OK, good. But still you wonder, and you start to feel anxious. Could it be better? If so, how? Maybe I should try this. Or that. But what if I ruin it? Every novice art student has ruined a drawing by overworking it. Writers have done the same, though we rarely realize it.

So, the secret: When you’re unsure of whether or how it could be better, when you feel that nasty sense of anxiety building—that’s when it’s done.

And you ship it. You send it to your professional editor, or you begin querying agents and publishers, or you put it into the world yourself with confidence that your product is solid. You might get expert feedback that makes sense to you, especially once you’ve been away from the project for a while. Then you can revise with purpose and steady nerve.

Either way, you’re good. At some more or less comfortable point (yeah, nothing’s ever perfect), 
you’ll declare victory and move on.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

An Artist's Job

Zestful Blog Post #129

Having just mourned a friend whose life was claimed by cancer, and this week receiving the news that another friend has been plunged into a sudden, dire fight with the disease…

You send messages of cheer, you show up to help if you can, you grieve.

As a young person I was strongly impressed by a “Peanuts” strip in which someone asks Charlie Brown why we’re here. “To make other people happy,” he answers.

“Who needs church?” I thought, after digesting that.

Recently I struck up a conversation with a stranger who was downhearted about life. I asked what she thought it was all for. Sadly, she said, “Well, to have as much fun as possible, I guess.”

But that’s only part of it, isn’t it? To me, it seems the most important thing is to contribute something—while having fun along the way. One can make others happy by being a clean, clear spirit who doesn’t haul around dissatisfaction and tension. That’s a contribution, a huge contribution. One can bring up wonderful children. One can create, and get those creations into the world.

Can one be a jerk—even a monster—and still create marvelous things? Sure. But being creative doesn’t excuse living dirty.

Clearing away the trash, dropping heavy baggage, refusing to get pulled down by the mundane, putting good work out there, being kind, persisting in the face of pain and death—those things are an artist’s job. And we’re all artists. Completion is available in every moment.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Getting Paid to Play

Zestful Blog Post #128

Symphony season has started up again, with all its challenges and profound joys. I play the timpani in the South Shore Symphony Orchestra, a young, semiprofessional ensemble that will give concerts this season in Sun City Center and Carrollwood, Florida. (Local friends: first concert is a 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday, Oct. 18 at the UCC in Sun City Center.)

The musicians receive a percentage of ticket sales, and that's unusual. So far, the pay amounts to hamburger-and-gas-money. But having played in orchestras where every key person—conductor, executive director, owners of concert venues, program printers—gets paid except the musicians, this makes me happy.

See, somehow the deal is that musicians are supposed to play for the love of it, and we should even feel a little dirty accepting money for a job well done. Creative types work for nothing all over the place, and it seems a given that everybody’s supposed to be OK with it. But I say to hell with that. If the marketplace will yield up money for your efforts, you ought to get a fair share.

Because the money is a symbol of respect.

In the case of the performing arts, many organizations rely on donations besides ticket sales, and boards of directors and volunteers serve for no pay, which the performers should rightly appreciate. It all depends on popularity: “The Lion King” rakes in big bucks, “Turandot” doesn’t cover costs. That’s a fact of the marketplace as well.

As for authors, we’re actually in a pretty good position these days. You can get a publishing contract with a royalty schedule, or you can self-publish and keep control and the profits. Yet writers have many opportunities to give it away: to news and gossip aggregators, literary journals, and so forth. Even social media amounts to unpaid contribution of content.

 [Part of the large percussion array required for the upcoming SSSO concert…]

The trick is to figure whether the free exposure will do you enough good to justify the effort. The prestigious literary journals, most of which pay nothing, are routinely read by major players in the publishing business. A piece on a high profile pop culture web site might get valuable notice as well. Sometimes, of course, you don’t know, and it’s a crapshoot.

But with the growing number of ways authors and other creators can reach and build an audience, I feel we should husband our talents and output and make sterner choices about how and where to release our material.

It’s better to get paid to play.


- My friend Jessica Strawser, editor in chief of Writer’s Digest magazine, is going to be a debut hardcover novelist! She got a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press the other day, and wrote about it here. Congratulations on getting paid to play, good buddy!

- I heard from Nimrod Journal (speaking of prestigious literary journals) that they’re looking for submissions for an upcoming issue themed: Mirrors and Prisms: Writers of Marginalized Orientations and Gender Identities. Everything’s at this link: Nimrod

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Suspense, Interior Dialogue, and Vulture Warning

Zestful Blog Post #127

I keep a file of ‘Blog Notes’, and therein I just noticed that I’m supposed to mention that there’s a piece by me in Writer’s Digest’s latest ‘Workbook’, which are these few-times-a-year compilations of material for writers who are browsing the newsstand and want a nice juicy compendium of craft advice and inspiration for a reasonable price. This one contains a reprint of my “21 Suspense Hacks” article from the magazine. Coincidentally, this morning somebody at WD tweeted about the article, and my inbox got filled with notices of nice people retweeting it. Thank you!

I love this article, because I was able to do what I love most: remember great stories, reread some, analyze them, and then write what I think. I used examples from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Portis (a severely underread and underrated author, in spite of the 47-year-old success of True Grit, a novel I consider one of the greatest gifts any author ever gave to the world) (the movie/s don’t do justice to the incredibly witty and nimble prose of the book; the movie/s are fermented vulture dung compared with the book), Mary Renault, Aesop, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and even God.

What kind of suspense did God write? Well, in the Bible it tells us that he kicked the angel Lucifer out of heaven (for cause). Right there, you have this banished, injured party. What do we think—that Lucifer’s gonna just slink away and never be heard from again? Hell, no! And therein lies the suspense. If you have a banished angel in chapter one, you know you’re going to put a vengeful son of a bitch later in the book. You just have to.

I can’t tell you how much I love to write articles for that magazine. Each one is a combination of essay and research paper, which, hey, I actually went to school for. Usually, I pitch ideas for articles to the editor, and she says yea or nay.

But last week an editor for WD Books got in touch asking for an original chapter for a book on dialogue they’re putting together for next year. They’re reprinting some other stuff of mine, and this new piece needs to be about internal, or interior, dialogue. I said yes—yes being the right answer for pretty much every question in the universe—and now I’m thinking about it.

How cool is that? 2,500 words on how characters think, essentially. How great authors have represented that, how to do it, mistakes to avoid.

[BTW, vultures seem to have an entire repertoire of nefarious deeds.]

Two days ago I went on an airplane journey. There’s always a point during the flight, after my nerves settle down from all the airport zaniness, after I’ve done the crossword in the puke-pocket magazine, where there’s like this mellow window of creativity, and I write. I wrote general ideas about this article, and I realized what a meta subject internal dialogue is. Rightly, of course, it’s internal monologue, not dialogue. But you have the character reflecting, thinking, making judgments, and those judgments are not always what the character puts out to the world. That’s part of a great writer’s art.

Isn’t it cool, just to be able to think and write about this stuff? What would you like me to address in this article? Welcoming any suggestions/requests.

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Value of OPO

Zestful Blog Post #126

When I was coming up as a writer I was wary of critique groups, and still am, even though I’m occasionally paid to lead them. (This post is on the heels of doing a day-long one at a conference last week, which makes all this fresh in my mind.)

For the uninitiated, a writing critique group is where everybody submits an agreed-upon amount of writing in advance, and everybody comments on everybody else’s work. Some groups don’t read in advance, but read silently or aloud on the spot.

Such groups, a.k.a. other people’s opinions (OPO), are fraught with peril. Some of your fellow writers may:

- be kind of dumb and thus don’t get your stuff;

- have different tastes from you, and thus don’t get your stuff;

- be needy, argumentative, not nice, ‘and exetera,’ as the kids in my neighborhood used to say.

All that may be. But there is gold for the mining in such groups:

- Any reading-aloud that is done (especially by someone not the author) instantly and pretty much empirically reveals awkward wording;

- Patterns of opinion generally emerge, which if you’re open, can help you make decisions about anything from content to theme to style;

- If one or more accomplished, or particularly astute, writers are present, you can improve how you think about literature: how to evaluate it, perceive strengths and weaknesses, and figure out solutions to problems;

- You’re forced to separate yourself from your work emotionally if not intellectually. Writers who can’t do this are doomed. Some writers find critique groups too upsetting, so they self-select out of them. I’m not saying if you don’t like crit groups you’re doomed; just that well-adjusted writers learn to deal with criticism calmly and rationally.

[This writer showed up way overdressed for critique group day.]

Crit groups are not for everyone, and not everyone comes away with the exact same gains or lack of. But that’s life: it ain’t always fair, but if you stay open come hell or high water, trust the process, extend yourself to others, and persist, you’ll be all right.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Unquenchable Thirst

Zestful Blog Post #125

Everybody says, ‘Now’s the hardest time to break in.’ They always say that. Because it’s true; it’s always hard. But here’s the thing, also true: There is unquenchable thirst for great story out there. Humans will never stop wanting, needing, craving, story. That’s the beauty of being a storyteller—whether a camp counselor who wants to send them to bed trembling after the bonfire, or a  novelist dreaming of greatness.

I write these words on the eve of meeting with nine aspiring authors in St. Augustine at the Florida Heritage Writers Conference. We’ll meet in the cool kids’ room at the exquisite Markham House on the Flagler College campus. Everybody’s read everybody else’s first ten pages and written critiques. We’ll all discuss the work one at a time, together. I’ll give it everything I’ve got. And we will all learn.

When I was a young girl, I sat next to my mother watching Olympics gymnastics on TV. Stirred, I said, “I’d like to do that!” She said, without even thinking much, “Oh, the chances of making it are so low.”

I meant I’d like to tumble and fly like those girls did. She thought I meant I wanted to be on the Olympics team, stand on the platform and get a medal. She wanted to quash that ambition right away, because so few who try, make it onto the world stage. Why set the kid up for heartbreak? She thought she was doing me a favor. But that’s a terrible way to react to a child’s impulse, or dream. (All loving respect to her memory.)

It’s a fine, but clear, distinction. I never did pursue gymnastics. Just as well, because my body was wrong for it—too spindly, too tall.

But she couldn’t dissuade me from writing, and later from quitting a lucrative corporate job to try to earn a much more meager living from writing. No matter what negativity I got from her, I kept on in some fashion or other, too compelled to give up. Which is really all there is to it. If you’re destined to do it, you’ll keep at it, whatever the externals, whatever the outcome. You have

no choice.

And that’s beautiful. Let it flower. Open. Audiences await.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

5 Things the Queen Did That We Like

Zestful Blog Post #124

I’ve always been grateful for my first name. I’m told my mother considered naming me Marybeth, but my father said, “None of those two-part hillbilly names.” So I got to be Elizabeth Mary. I’ve always felt a little special, because of the Queen, you know. I’ve kept track of her over the years and felt proud that she never betrayed our name by doing anything scandalous or tacky. (Not a word from you about the handbags, not a word.)

When I was a student in London many years ago, the local folks in the pubs loved to debate the issues of the day (and I’m sure still do). A frequent topic was whether the monarchy was a good idea or a bad one, and I witnessed some pretty heated arguments. But when a new round arrived at the table, everybody, and I mean everybody would lift their pints and say in strong voices, “Here’s to the Queen, God bless her.” Then the argument would resume.

I was thrilled, along with millions of Brits, when the Queen last week won the longest-serving-monarch derby, snatching the title from Victoria. Say what you will about the monarchy, Elizabeth was born into it and had no real choice as far as that went. She did have the choice of being a terrific head of state or a crummy one.

Zestful Writing

[photo by Cecil Beaton ripped off from official Buckingham Palace web site]

So yeah, she:

1)      played the hand she was dealt with courage and grace;
2)      stuck to her role as counsel and support for her various PMs;
3)      weathered, with dignity, horrible personal and family storms;
4)      kept on course through scathing criticism;
5)      yet embraced change when it seemed the right thing to do.

Not a bad way to live a life, whether you’re a writer or any other sort of bloke or blokette.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

3 Tips for Choosing Deadlines

Zestful Blog Post #123

For professional writers, deadlines are a fact of life. Fortunately, they’ve never daunted me. But I’ve learned a few tricks along the way.

Deadlines fall into two categories: Those imposed on you, and those you have occasion to impose on others. The first kind are set by employers, clients, agents, editors, publishers, etc. Sometimes a deadline is not negotiable. Daily newspapers pretty much have non-negotiable deadlines. If you’re writing freelance, your editor has probably told you a deadline that’s a few hours earlier than the real one, but if you want to keep a good relationship with that editor, you get your piece and pictures in on time.

[You want all of your business relationships to be happy rainbows, not crushed raccoons like the one by the side of the road I Photoshopped out.]

But sometimes, as for a magazine article or a short story for an anthology, you can have a say in your deadline. The conversation might go:

You: So, when do you need this by?
Editor: Well, ideally I’d like it by [X date], but [Z date later] would be OK.
You: Let’s split the difference. How bout [Y date]? Would that really be all right with you?

Because something always comes up, and you’re going to be glad for those extra days. So:

Tip #1: Pad it if you can, but not by a lot. You want breathing room, but you don’t want the job to drag on forever. Plus, bosses like it when you make their lives easier.

Tip #2: Never, if you can help it, choose a deadline that falls on a Monday. Once you’ve made that mistake and paid for it by sacrificing weekend plans, you’ll never make it again. I like Thursday deadlines.

Both of those tips work when you have to impose deadlines as well, like if you’re editing something or arranging for production work to be done, like design and printing.

One more thing, for longer-term deadlines months away, like your next book for your publisher. This also works if you’re the requester of work, like if you’re editing a collection or suchlike:

Tip #3: Never choose a date at the beginning of a month. If you do that, everybody’s like, oh, yeah, we have until February 1st to get that done. And they think February all the way through January, until suddenly it’s like, “Ruh-roh, tomorrow’s February, and it’s not just February, its February 1st, and we’ve screwed ourselves.” But if you pick January 31st, everybody at least starts to bear down in January. “Oh, yeah, January deadline on this one.”

All of this works for self-imposed deadlines as well. It’s all psychological, but real.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

This Should Make You Feel Better

Zestful Blog Post #122

The other day I was listening to a published author complain about various aspects of our business, like we’re supposed to do social media, blog, write a book every two months, not mind that some jackass who writes cruddy books is really famous and rich, etc. And yeah, one is entitled to complain about anything and everything. But it got me to thinking about my contacts in show business, and how they have it worse than any author who ever lived.

I’m talking about actors and actresses who are not household names, who haven’t played romantic leads, who haven’t won Oscars, but who go out on auditions every day and pretty much take any role they’re offered, be it a character modeling job for an ad photo shoot or a part in a commercial, TV show, or feature film. The journeymen and -women out there who put together a living, sometimes a good living, but sometimes they’re on unemployment.

A favorite story is when I asked an actress friend of mine about the proverbial ‘casting couch’.

[It’s a couch, but it’s the wrong color.]

I’d noticed, when spooking around casting studios doing research for The Actress, that each and every separate studio had a black leather couch on chrome legs, upon which would sit the producer, director, casting director, assistant, and whoever else, in various combinations, to watch the auditions. It was so remarkably consistent: almost identical black leather couches, in casting studios all across Los Angeles.

Which prompted me to ask about the you know, casting couch. My (gorgeous) friend said, “Here’s how it works today. You go to an audition, and the director and everybody are there. You do the audition and they tell you, very nice, thank you very much. Afterward, your agent doesn’t get a call; you do. You get a call on your personal cell phone, and it’s the director, and he says, ‘You did a wonderful job yesterday in the audition! By the way, I’m going up to San Francisco this weekend. Would you like to come?’”

I asked if she ever said yes.

“No. If you do, there’s no end to it.”

Disrespect seems to be the order of business. “They f*ck with you because they can,” said one friend, who had gotten jerked around doing a seven-second shot in a commercial shoot, asked to do it one way, then another, then another, then another. Seven seconds.

Incompetence comes up as well. An actor acquaintance related how he was the principal actor in a TV commercial that was shot over two days. He had been asked to bring his own wardrobe of khaki pants and polo shirt, which he did. After the first day’s shoot, he asked if he needed to bring the same pants tomorrow. The director told him no, just bring the shirt, because the next shots would all be from the waist up.

But when he arrived at the next day’s shoot wearing black pants, they were like, no, man, you’ve got to have the same pants as yesterday! The director had been wrong; they needed to retake some full-length shots. Go home and get em! The film studio was in Santa Monica. This poor bastard lived in Pasadena, 25 miles away. If you have even a passing knowledge of Los Angeles, its traffic patterns and population, you know he was in for probably at least two hours of driving, sitting in traffic, dealing with alternate routes around whichever crashes du jour, etc. He was like, can’t wardrobe come up with something here? And they were like no, you miserable nitwit. Go!

Another time I arrived to have lunch with an actor friend at his house, to find him on the phone, feverishly trying to come up with a jester costume he could borrow from somebody. Because yeah, you’re supposed to costume yourself for auditions (and sometimes even roles, as above), and he wanted this jester role in a commercial, auditions tomorrow. Nobody had an outfit he could borrow. Did he want to rent one for $200? No, man. I believe in the end he bought a jester hat, nailed the audition, and got the part.

It’s a jungle out there.

I’ve never heard of an author being offered a publishing contract in exchange for, well, going along on that weekend to San Francisco, though I suppose it’s not beyond imagination. But really, when we think we have it tough, let’s just remember our friends in Hollywood. May they get residuals for life. And always bring the khaki pants, just in case.

Now for some publishing news from pals around:

Tate Volino, a new local friend, just sent me a copy of his book The Front Nine, a collection of short stories on the golf world. From a first look, I can see the authenticity—behind the scenes at a private club, for instance.

Peter Frickel, another local buddy (with a fabulous South African voice), has been busy publishing on Amazon, most recently Lilies of the Vlei and River, both set in his native continent of Africa.

From Christina Gross, one of my friends from Port Angeles, here’s Rescue the Innocent, a geopolitical thriller with an intriguing plot.

Lastly, buddy BJ Phillips landed a publishing contract with Desert Palm Press for her novel Hurricane Season. Will let you know when that’s available.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Master Class

Zestful Blog Post #121

When you work at home it’s important to get out of the house now and then. Yesterday Marcia and I went to the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg to see the special M.C. Escher exhibit. As I posted on Facebook and Twitter (yeah, cripe, I actually sent out a couple of real-time tweets), Escher was one of my artistic heroes in college. Indeed, I’m sure his precise methods and mind-blowing illusions are still popular with lots of college kids. Anybody else remember that black-light poster version of ‘Three Spheres’?

The exhibit, on loan through Jan. 3 from the Herakleidon in Greece (yeah, I wonder too) shed more light on Escher for me. I hadn’t known or remembered that he’d been born (1898) into a rich Dutch family, who helped support him as he worked to develop his skills and market his work. He married, had kids, and kept working.

Yesterday I learned that it took him THIRTY YEARS to get his income high enough to support his family adequately. During this time he was frequently depressed due to his lack of financial success. One might expect that he shouldn’t have gotten downhearted, because hey, his parents were behind him, and his kids were assured of food, school shoes, and summer camp.

But I can relate. Anyone who has tried to earn an independent living from art can relate. (Anybody else thinking of Van Gogh right now?) You want to succeed, and income is a sign that your art is making the full circle it’s supposed to make: from you to the consumer, then back to you to make more. Serious artists the world over feel this urgency.

So don’t ever feel greedy or shabby if you yearn for your art to pay off. It means you care.

[I always attempt to copy something whenever I go to a museum. My efforts pale in comparison, but I learn something every time. Here I tried to represent the subtle difference of light: It’s falling on the upper edges of the leaf, making them slightly brighter, and leaving the lower edges darker.]

Another thing. Escher loved Italy; he met his wife there, had a child, and found great inspiration in the country’s landscapes. But things got bad under Mussolini. In 1935 Escher moved his family to Switzerland, where his kids wouldn’t be forced to march around in quasi-military uniforms carrying dummy guns. The wintry Swiss landscape felt desolate to him, and his art withered. Until, that is, he decided he’d better stop mourning Italy and look within for inspiration. This triggered his work with plane division, tessellation, and dimensional illusion. And that is what made him a rock star in his own lifetime.

A profound lesson.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Stuff That Bugs Me, Vol. II

Zestful Blog Post #120

Point 1:

When I was little and just developing my powers of reason, I’d try to argue with my mother over some abominable requirement, like bedtime at seven-thirty. As all children do, I pointed out that she didn’t have to follow the rule.

“An exception proves the rule,” she’d say smugly, and that was the end of it.

I’d stand there uneasy and baffled, not yet able to express that what she said didn’t make sense. I figured it was some adult, mystical wisdom I’d eventually get the combo to someday.

But here I am, knowing better, yet I keep hearing people use that phrase to excuse or justify whatever contradiction they prefer. God damn it.

[This is me, busily tilting at sloppy usage.]

The real roots of the phrase are ancient. In Roman law, the phrase meant that an exception demonstrates that a rule exists. It did not mean that an exception confirms the rule. But also, one of the several meanings of the word ‘prove’ means to test, or more crudely, find fault with. When you read for proof, you are looking for mistakes.

So, logically, an exception invalidates the rule. Therefore, children should be permitted to stay up until “Lost in Space” is over.

Point 2:

If I hear or read one more news item like, “The report said the cause of the fire was arson, which begs the question: Who would benefit from the loss?,” I’ll run screaming into the desert. Then I’ll shoot myself in the head while throwing myself off a cliff. That should bring me peace, at last.

‘Begs the question’ is the term for a type of fallacy that can also be called circular reasoning. It takes for granted that which is being argued for. Example: I know this document is true because the document says it’s true.

It is nonsensical to use the term ‘begs the question’ when one means ‘prompts the question.’ In fairness, I have in recent months noticed some journalists getting it right. It’s such a great day when I don’t have to drop what I’m doing and sprint into the desert, carrying my .357 magnum and looking for a cliff.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Practice the Hard Parts First

Zestful Blog Post #119

When I was a young musician my teacher told me, "Practice the hard parts first." Because it's so tempting, especially for a youngster, to practice the easy stuff and sort of forget about the tough stuff—trusting that somehow it’ll come—until we get caught out in an audition or performance and we stumble exactly where every other loser stumbles.

I’ve ignored that advice to my regret, followed it to my satisfaction, and dispensed it many times over the years. It’s excellent advice for anyone, at any age, who’s dedicated to doing something well.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Drafty Vault

Zestful Blog Post #118

The current issue of Writer’s Digest magazine (August/September 2015) features an article by yours truly called “What Real Revision Looks Like.” My idea was to Show Not Tell aspiring authors different ways to revise, by printing before-and-after excerpts from my own published novels. At 4,000 words, it’s the longest piece I’ve ever done for the magazine, and it was a lot of fun, in spite of the heavy lifting required.

[The dining-room table looked like this for a while.]

Yes, I literally had to do some lifting, in order to retrieve and go through the early rough drafts of my novels, hunting for passages that would illustrate, when compared with the finished, published product, how to recognize manuscript problems and fix them, using elements of good fiction.

I do possess the original handwritten drafts of all my books except for the first, Holy Hell. The very earliest pages of that one I threw out at some point during the 1990s, when I had typed a version onto a diskette (yeah, techno, baby), had minimal storage space in my apartment, and the belief that it would be vain and insane and bad karma to think the manuscript would someday have any historical/scholarly value. But I did some heavy rewriting of it later, and discovered those handwritten pages in the vault. The vault is the place where our house trolls live, beneath the stairs. The manuscripts are in cardboard manuscript boxes stacked in plastic storage totes. None of this is archival, but oh well. Authors, even minor ones, are supposed to keep their original documents and bequeath them to an appropriate archive. I’ve not made this bequest yet, believing it would be vain and insane and bad karma to think my manuscripts will someday have historical/scholarly value. About 10 years ago I read a magazine article that told about some archive that was (at least then) paying ordinary published authors thousands of dollars, like 10 or 15K, for each of their first drafts they wanted to sell. I don’t know if that’s still real.

Like many living authors, the thought that somebody may write their PhD thesis on my work someday is both flattering and disturbing. The dead ones could care less. But hey, how many analyses of Shakespearean slang can the Library of Congress keep track of?

At any rate, it was fun revisiting those old pages—seeing the reams’-worth of yellow pads I used, the different inks—Pelikan Brown looks good against goldenrod paper—from my varied fountain pens and nibs. I mourn the fact that Waterman changed the name of its beautiful Florida Blue to Serenity Blue. Thanks, dudes. Now that I live in Florida I can’t even buy ink with my state name on it.

OK, this is getting too self-referential. About the article for a sec. The most key point is that revision does not necessarily mean cutting material. Yeah, you’ll probably cut some, maybe a ton. But revision is a lot about writing new stuff, to clarify, to make more compelling, to make more magic. I say, during revising: Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow.

Before I sign off, here’s some wonderful news from Diane Dettmann, an early adopter of You’ve Got a Book in You: Her new book, Courageous Footsteps: A WWII Novel, is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores, as well as in bookstores local to her town of Afton, Minnesota.

She’s launching the book locally at an historic ice cream parlor in Afton on August 8 from 2-4. Hustle on over and meet a great gal, check out her intriguing book, and consume mass quantities. Congratulations, Diane!

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why we Compete

Zestful Blog Post #117

As it happens, Left Field won a Goldie award (Mystery/Thriller category) at the GCLS conference last weekend in New Orleans. Notice I say ‘a Goldie,’ not ‘the Goldie.’

Everybody knows awards processes are inexact and nervewracking. While waiting for the ceremony to get going, I consumed two martinis (Tanqueray, dry, up, olives), a charcuterie plate, then a plate of lettuce-sashimi wraps, then two pieces of s’mores pie, which I would never do in real life. (The pie.) (It was free.)

As the show started up, I thought about the Olympics, which I avidly watch every time. I always find myself envying, in a way, athletes whose medals depend on empirical measurement (fastest, highest, most goals), and pitying, in a way, athletes who rely on being ‘best’ according to judges. At least in the Olympics the judges have lists of exacting criteria to apply, which help quantify the aesthetics. Not that that eliminates controversy.

But in literature? Articles have been written, letters sent, feuds fought over prizes. Do you remember the shitstorm back in 1987 over Toni Morrison’s Beloved? If you weren’t born yet, that’s OK. The book was shortlisted for the National Book Award but lost to Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann. Forty-eight black authors wrote an emotional open letter that was published in the New York Times book review, saying that Toni should have won a National Book Award or Pulitzer by then. Lo and behold, a few months later, the Pulitzer went to Beloved. Did that letter have any effect? Who can say?

So last Saturday night my name was announced and I jogged up to the podium and said in part that such things are always a crapshoot, because judging is by definition subjective. And I thanked the judges, which one should always do.

Having been both a winner and loser of literary competitions, and a judge in several of them, I know just how idiosyncratic the process is. You have preferences in style and theme. You might have heard some scuttlebutt about an author that makes you frown—or smile. And how can you decide which piece of art is ‘best’ among a bunch of good ones? But you strive to be impartial, because you have a horror of someone judging your work in a cavalier way. You bear karma in mind. It is what it is.

The GCLS organizers address the inherent-unfairness issue by awarding more than one prize per category, depending on the number of entries/finalists. This dilutes the distinction of the prize and makes the losers feel even worse, but it does exponentially increase winner happiness by letting two or three people go home with

a piece of crystal and bragging rights. The other winners in my category were Anne Laughlin for The Acquittal and Nene Adams for The Consequence of Murder. Congratulations, women!

I might add that this practice also increases the number of times the GCLS is mentioned and discussed. The organization and conference have grown from just a handful of women to many hundreds. This year’s conference attendance was about 350. That’s significant.

Why prizes at all? Because prizes, along with bestseller lists and reviews, are our report cards. They influence customer choice. And that’s why we put ourselves through this imperfect, disquieting process. Yay for me—this time around.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Anthology and a Freebie

Zestful Blog Post #116

Given that not all my blog followers are also signed up for my newschats, I’m putting up today’s newschat here. Apologies if this is a repetition in your inbox, but at least I’m enclosing a shot of the cover of the new antho, which I forgot to do in the newschat.

A few pieces of news from World Headquarters:

I am Calico Jones is a new short e-book from my imprint Spruce Park Press. A collection of four of my short stories, it leads off with my all-time fave, “I am Calico Jones.” If you’re a fan of that fictitious detective whom Lillian Byrd follows so avidly, you’re going to enjoy this. The story originally was anthologized years ago and has been out of print for a long time. Now it’s back!

It’s partnered with a couple more stories that were also out of print forever: “For Faye,” a tale of love, grief, and joyful healing; and “Untold Riches,” the story of a romantic loser who becomes a bank teller and befriends—a thief? Also there’s a new story original to this collection, “Kerchief and Pearl,” which evolved from a short ghost story I made up for a friend and became something completely different. And if you read the collection and like it, I’d be obliged if you’d consider posting a review. If you hate it, just email me privately. That’s the best way, don’t you agree?

The book is available on Amazon, and I might add that you don’t need to own a Kindle to read it; their free app is easy and fabulous.

I might also note that the story “Untold Riches” is available in another new anthology, along with many other quality stories: Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lamfrom my good friends at Launchpoint Press.

In honor of Left Field, Lillian Byrd #5, being a finalist for a ‘Goldie’ at this weekend’s Golden Crown Literary Society conference (New Orleans), it’s free on Amazon Kindle now through Sunday. If you haven’t gotten it yet, now’s the time. Rave reviews much appreciated, needless to say. As I write this message, it’s #1 on Amazon’s free list in the Women Sleuths category.

Yes, I’m at the conference. Come up and say hi! Gonna do several panels, a reading, signing, and more. One of the panels I’ll be on will be open to the public: It’s called “Liar, Liar,” and I’ll be trading  autobiographical tall tales with Dorothy Allison, Georgia Beers, Melissa Brayden, and Andi Marquette. Carsen Taite is the moderator, and I guarantee a good time. That’s on Friday afternoon. So local friends, come on down! Dorothy will be giving the keynote on Saturday.

(And in answer to your next question, our housesitter and his twin pitbulls are holding down the fort back in Fla.)

Speaking of Fla., I’ll again be on the faculty of the Florida Heritage Book Festival and Writers Conference September 24-26. I’ll lead a special critique session on Thursday, then on Friday will deliver my electrifying presentation, “Fearless Writing.” The web site has all the info on signing up. It’s a very nicely run conference in the totally cool town of St. Augustine. If you get into my critique group you’ll get a written consult from me on your first 10 pages, plus the opportunity to learn and ask questions all day long.

And I’m sorry about missing the Florida Writers Association’s conference this year, but hope to make it next year.

I love you I love you. XXOO

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Everyday Scholarship

Zestful Blog Post #115

Recently while killing time in a strip mall, I went into a used bookshop, which started a chain of events that led to this post. I call these events everyday scholarship, and here is the story.

In that shop I came across a 1941 Modern Library anthology of American plays (full cloth binding—God, those were the days) and bought it for a few dollars. Opened it the other day and commenced reading Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which I’d never read or seen on stage. Not to be confused with The Children’s Hour.

Almost immediately, I felt like I was reading the play in a vacuum. What was the author intending to communicate in this piece, which is set in 1900 and had its premiere in 1939? Even knowing something about the political and social landscapes of those two eras, I couldn’t immediately grasp it.

Briefly, The Little Foxes centers on a well-to-do Southern family not far postbellum, who fight, argue, and scheme against one another. The object of the game is a vaguely described cotton mill and the wealth and power it would bring to whoever owns the largest share.

I already knew Lillian Hellman was decidedly leftist in her politics and thus one might expect that point of view to be advanced in the play. But I wanted some more gloss, so I could be a more acute reader. I searched on line and discovered just the thing: a lengthy review of the play by Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Review of Books. This review was written in 1967, of a Broadway revival in that same year. Yet another era, with its own social and political context!

Hardwick was pretty scathing, stopping just short of calling the play commie propaganda. But she also compared it against her own standards of good drama. Her main complaints were over-simplified characters (divided into good and bad), and implausible motivation for the key character of Horace. He’s a retired banker, whose money could put the family over the top in their quest to complete the sizable downpayment on the mill.

Horace is against putting money into the mill, and Hardwick questions why a banker wouldn’t recognize the terrific investment opportunity and release the money? I also read the fierce letters to the editor on the review, and Hardwick’s answering of them. Literary feuding at its best! It was almost as good as drinking a martini at the Algonquin.

I finished reading the play expecting to agree with Hardwick’s opinions, and I did agree with some of them, especially her criticism of Hellman’s relentless lefty preachiness. But I felt the Horace character behaved reasonably, given the framework of the play: He recognized that the mill would be run in an avaricious fashion by his crummy brothers-in-law, and while profitable, would not be a force for good.

In this post, I’ve attempted to answer the question: Why should I read literary criticism? Answer: because it makes your brain better, and because it’s a deep kind of fun. When your own curiosity drives you to learn and think, well, it's fabulous. The Web makes it so easy to find viewpoints and counter-viewpoints on practically everything. What an era we live in.

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