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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