Thursday, December 29, 2016

How About Today?

Zestful Blog Post #191

Don’t look back much on yesterday; especially don’t look back with regret. Because regret is toxic.

And you know what else is toxic? Tomorrow. There’s a certain treacherous comfort in tomorrow.

Give today everything you’ve got.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016


Zestful Blog Post #190

The photo for this post is the same as on Marcia’s and my Holiday/Christmas card this year. She thought of the concept, and I executed it. All the writing implements are mine, from my various stashes. After crafting the display on our dining-room table (the tablecloth, linen—Ikea—and I never iron), I realized just how rich I am in stuff that makes words. And that’s not even all! More pens, pencils, inks, and sharpeners lay neatly in my Bisleys and office cupboard. (Art supply buffs will know Bisleys.) I even have a Caran d’Ache rotary sharpener, though not the eye-popping Matterhorn edition. Perhaps next year you could all chip in and get me one.

[Can you find the humblest of these items: the Detroit Public Schools pencil I picked up from the floor of the orchestra room at Cass Technical High School on a visit this year?]

But seriously, I’ve been thinking about how rich I am in so many things, the best of them not for sale: health, family, friends, faithful readers. Often, when I get down about something or other I’ll give thanks for stuff I don’t have, like a prison sentence for killing somebody in a car accident that’s my fault.

Also, because it’s the Christmas season—going ahead with “Christmas” here, because I do celebrate it, more or less—I’ve been thinking, “What would Jesus Write?” And I realize the real question is: “How Would Jesus Write?” The answer is clear and simple, when you think how tuned in that guy was: With faith. Meaning without anxiety! Meaning with trusting generosity! Meaning with belief in what one little person can accomplish!

Thank you for being my friend. I love you and wish you a wonderful, happy weekend.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

More Precision

Zestful Blog Post #189

In my ongoing campaign for precise language and spelling, today I offer:

The suspect’s account did not jive with the victim’s.
The suspect’s account did not jibe with the victim’s.
Don’t give me that jibe; I know you went bowling last night.
Don’t give me that jive; I know you went bowling last night.
I don’t like the cut of his jib.

To jibe is to agree with or be consistent with. To jive is to talk nonsense, fib, or play jazz; to improvise. But jive is being used so commonly to mean jibe that it’s appearing in dictionaries that way. Please join me in resisting that jive. A jib is a triangular sail on a boat, or a part of a crane. The idiomatic usage, “I don’t like the cut of his jib” means to dislike how someone looks or be suspicious of someone.

While watching an episode of “Mad Men” I was gratified when Bert Cooper corrected one of his underlings. One of the guys said, “I’m hip to that.” Cooper cut in, “It’s hep.”

Just like jive and jibe, hip and hep have become confused. To be hip is to be fashionable and up to the minute; to be hep is to be knowledgeable.

Moving along to:

If these voices in my head keep up, I’ll soon be in a straightjacket.
If these voices in my head keep up, I’ll soon be in a straitjacket.

Strait means narrow, restricted, which is what one of those garments does to a person. Straight means extending in one direction with no deviation. But again, the misuse is so common, both spellings are becoming acceptable. Just not by me.

Also, let’s consider:

That point is so obtuse, nobody here can understand it.
That point is so abstruse, nobody here can understand it.
He’s the most obtuse student I’ve ever tried to teach.

Abstruse means obscure or difficult to grasp; obtuse means dumb or dull. (An obtuse angle in geometry is one with a blunt—or dull—point: greater than 90 degrees and less than 180.) (Thanks, RM!)

Lastly, a few fine points involving vowels:

Each of these drums is a timpano. Together, they are timpani. When I play them, I call them timps.

When cheering a mezzo-soprano, yell “Brava!” When cheering a tenor, yell “Bravo!” When cheering the ensemble, yell “Bravi!” If you’re really excited, yell “Bravissimo!”

A man travels incognito. A woman travels incognita. When a guy conducts an orchestra, he is a maestro. When a gal does it, she is a maestra. (Hilarious that my auto-speller tried to reject maestra. Also timpano.)

All right, I feel better.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Of Precision I Sing

Zestful Blog Post #188

If you’re a stickler for precise language and spelling, these are dark times. The rise of voice-to-text software, declining literacy rates (at least in the U.S.—I read about it), and the hurried way we often produce and consume words—all of this is adding up. Also, OK, I’m all for STEM. STEM for president. STEM for lucrative, clean-hands jobs. But more emphasis on STEM means less emphasis on literature. I’m sorry, but it does. And it shows. And I grieve.

OK, here are some commonly misused words, with corrections. I am driven to write this today. I know word meanings change over time, often because of sloppy usage. But let us not be part of that hideous process.

Reticent / Reluctant
He was reticent to open the door.
He was reluctant to open the door.
She was reticent to speak about what she’d gone through.
She was reluctant to speak about what she’d gone through.
She was reticent about what she’d gone through.

Reticent means being unwilling to speak; the origin is Latin, for ‘be silent.’
Reluctant means being unwilling to do something.

An announcer said this on the radio yesterday: “But the school principal was accused of flaunting the rules.” No. You flout the rules, you flaunt your six-pack abs at the beach.

Keeping to the ‘f’ theme, let’s look at another pair:

The ship floundered on the reef and was lost.
The ship foundered on the reef.
He floundered for months, then at last grasped the essence of the theorem.
They took control of the foundering company and made it profitable again.

To flounder is to struggle; to founder is to sink.

Again, yesterday. I picked up a package of page tabs in a store—you know, those things like paperclips for marking pages in a book? Was going to buy it until I read on the back that the tabs are ‘discrete’. Put it back. No, the tabs are discreet; they don’t hang out like sticky notes or the like.

So, no:
Roger and Joan were discrete about their affair.
Roger and Joan were discreet about their affair.
Each file folder holds a discreet project. (Although, come to think of it, if these were personnel records at a bordello, that could be true.)
Each file folder holds a discrete project.

Although the words are related, discreet means to be cautious or even guarded, while discrete simply means separate, individual.

While we’re on homonyms:

The demotion didn’t phase him.
The demotion didn’t faze him.
That model was phased out in 2011.
My dog’s mood seems to depend on the phases of the moon.

To faze is to disrupt or disturb. Phase can be a noun or a verb; a phase is a stage or an episode, while to phase is to execute a sequence.

The governor took a lot of flack for his statement on low-fat butter.
The governor took a lot of flak for his statement on low-fat butter.

Flak is anti-aircraft fire from ground positions; the metaphorical meaning is severe criticism. A flack is a publicist or promoter.

Thank you so much for your attention to these matters.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thine Own Self

Zestful Blog Post #187

Before today’s post, I want to give a shout-out to one of our own, Stanley Walek. Big Stan is a friend, client, Zestful Blog reader and comment poster, and as of recently, he’s an author. If time travel, archaeology, ancient British history, ventriloquism, science, and off-kilter humor hold any interest for you, check out Paxton's Worlds. Congratulations, Stan!

The latest Writer’s Digest magazine (January 2017) is out, featuring a piece by yours truly, “21 Ways to Pivot Your Plot.” Here’s Editor-in-Chief Jessica Strawser’s blog about the issue. The theme is “Write That Novel!”, most appropriate for the New Year, I say. Lots of good stuff in there.

Was honored to have some of my work mentioned in a roundup of ‘best’ story writing advice by Jane Friedman recently. She’s put together quite a bouquet of sound material in that list, if I say so myself, so consider looking in on it.

OK. Today’s post is a pushback against Shakespeare abuse. The other day I heard somebody say ‘To thine own self be true,’ to justify some little selfishness or other, and it made me mad, because that’s the opposite of what Shakespeare really said. The quotation is incomplete.

I remember my mother discussing this once, when I was about nine. She was attending college to become an English teacher, so naturally she was studying Shakespeare. One day she was sitting with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, musing, maybe more to herself than anything, about people screwing up this quotation. Then she must have noticed me standing there, and recited the full passage:

[from the cover of my old Kittredge edition]

“This above all—to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night to day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The play is Hamlet, the speaker is the ill-fated Polonius, and he’s finishing up giving a bunch of life wisdom to his son Laertes.

Buddha would approve. Good advice for children of all ages! I remembered that moment with Mom all these years.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Random Acts of Thankfulness

Zestful Blog Post #186

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day. I’m thankful for all the usual suspects: health, family, Marcia. Beyond those treasures, here are 30:

·       Etch A Sketch
·       Photosynthesis
·       The Artist’s Bedroom in Arles
·       Psycho
·       Sutro Heights Park
·       The Bob-Lo Boat
·       William Walton
·       Georgia O’Keeffe
·       Pie
·       Laura Ingalls Wilder
·       Rose Wilder Lane
·       Trilobites
·       Nancy Kulp
·       Speedo Endurance Lite Fabric
·       Burt’s Bees
·       Randomness

[actual photograph of randomness: this wooden duck outside the music store.]

·       Every Damn Bronte
·       Tanqueray
·       Cows
·       John King Books
·       Samuel Taylor Coleridge
·       Marie Curie
·       Tracey Ullman
·       Palomino Blackwings
·       Matt Groening
·       Trey Parker
·       Matt Stone
·       Garry Winogrand
·       The Pelikan Pen Co.
·       The Cardiff Giant

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Skill Built to Last

Zestful Blog Post #185

Not long ago a new acquaintance—a fellow author—turned to me and said, “I hate you.” The context was neither a political argument nor a discussion of whether Star Wars IV-VI could ever be surpassed.

No, we were sitting side by side in a conference session, and I was taking notes on my computer, typing on the keyboard. Usually I take notes longhand on paper, if at all, but I wanted to catch everything in this particular presentation.

When the speaker paused, this new acquaintance, who had been watching me out of the corner of her eye, said, “You can type as fast as he can talk.”

I shrugged modestly. (I’ve gotten so good at those modest shrugs!)

“And you don’t make mistakes.”

(Self-deprecating murmur.)

“I hate you.”

Jesus, lady. Of course I knew she meant, “I envy you.” Why do people say I hate you instead? Whatever. Yeah, I can touch-type pretty accurately, and I’m always surprised when other authors can’t. Probably one of the most pragmatic decisions I ever made in high school was to take a one-semester typing class. I was already writing lots of papers and stories, and college was in the offing. At that time, however, part of the female zeitgeist was like, “Don’t learn to type, because then you’ll just be a secretary forever!”

[My keyboard. Oh, and there’s Cheetoh, the baby dinosaur I rescued at the beach last year. He likes to hang out on my desk.]

I was all for the women’s movement, and I certainly perceived the need for it, but I thought, isn’t it like cutting off your nose to spite your face, to NOT learn something because of some principle? (I mean, you could always lie and say you can’t type, right?)

Then after college I got a job as a reporter/photographer, and I sure had to type fast for that. Ahh, that good old IBM Selectric… If absolute certainty had an aural profile, it would be the sound of an IBM Selectric ripping along on 20-lb bond.

Needless to say, I cherish my typing skills now more than ever. Do they teach touch typing (meaning without looking at the keys) in schools these days? Ah, a quick search reveals it’s now called ‘keyboarding skills.’ OK. If you Google ‘how to type’ you’ll find free tutorials on line. Because it’s never too late to learn. Honestly, it’s great not to have to think about the physical act when you’re putting ideas down; it’s great not to have a skill barrier between you and your output.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Real Writer's Duty

Zestful Blog Post #184

These days when extraordinary, historic events occur, everybody becomes a writer. Social media enables all of us to spew impassioned opinions—joy, outrage, elation, despair—if we want to. And so many do. And free speech is great.

But a real writer of either fiction or nonfiction takes a much longer and deeper view of human affairs and human nature than most people.

A real writer is more curious than defensive. A real writer explores. A real writer is ready to be surprised. A real writer never panics. A real writer knows the world is in the work.

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Word Quota Magic

Zestful Blog Post #183

When you’re writing original material—fiction or nonfiction—setting a word-count goal for your writing session is rewarding on a surface level, but also on a deeper, magical level you don’t understand until you do it.

Surface level is obvious: If you get words down, you’re writing; you’re making measurable progress. Whether your product is good or bad is, at this point, irrelevant.

Now for the deeper reward of chasing your word quota.

As you write, somewhere in the back of your mind is ‘Gotta make word count.’ That alone makes you really not want to cross stuff out, hesitate, choose one way to say something over another, cut off that rabbit trail you’ve been following because, enough.

You’re more likely to write deep into something, to not ‘keep moving forward’ but to linger on something you thought might be minor. Since I’m here and I really have to make word count before I can stop writing, I might as well keep going on this, drill down, because I’m already ON this vein of ore.

You’re more likely to experience flow.

Only when you’re sure you’ve exhausted that vein must you come up and figure out what might be next, or what could be next. And shift to that and write.

When you go back over that material, you might decide to keep or throw, but material written under word-quota pressure will have the greatest chance of containing something wonderful, surprising, totally cool: something you had no idea was going to appear, something you wouldn’t have wanted to miss for the world.

When you choose quantity over quality in the early going, you’re giving yourself WAY more chances to come up with something brilliant. It’s one of the great paradoxes of creativity! It’s Zen, it’s magic, it’s art!

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ten-Minute Enigma

Zestful Blog Post #182

This happened on October 21 at approximately 9:25 a.m. at the Florida Writers Association conference. ‘Crystal Ballroom C’ in the Hilton hotel, Altamonte Springs. Some of you were there.

[But oh, first I gotta give a shout-out to the Royal Palm Literary Award Winners. Special congratulations to frequent Zestful blog commenter Tricia Pimental, and to my St. Augustine crit-group member Melody Dean Dimick, who won two awards! Have I overlooked any blog follower? Lemme know.]

OK, the enigma. I arrived at about 9:00 to set up for my presentation scheduled for 9:20, “How to Write Dialogue Like a Pro” and found the room already filling up. There were about 10 of those big round tables seating 8. Or maybe it was 8 tables seating 10. Anyway, over the course of the next fifteen minutes the place got packed, so much so that people were resigning themselves to standing room. Gratifying for me, but problematic for the conference, because attendees were still trying to crowd in.

At 9:20 I received a nice introduction from Nancy, one of the many unsung conference volunteers (so unsung that I can’t remember her last name), and began. After maybe five minutes, two or three hotel staff guys came in and began the process of transforming the wall between Crystal Ballroom C and the currently unused Crystal Ballroom D from a solid thing to a huge accordion-fold of heavy panels. Writers intent on improving their dialogue skills happily moved to occupy the near tables in Crystal Ballroom D. This was a bit disruptive, but one of those necessary things, and everybody was now more comfortable. As the hotel guys shoved the panels into a compartment in the wall behind me and left, I resumed talking, using slides and pictures to illustrate my brilliant points.

Five minutes later a woman stood up and called out, “Excuse me, but my purse has been stolen!” 

“Maybe folks nearby could look around?” I said, checking my watch and starting to worry about time lost. During the next few minutes people peered beneath tables and chairs, despite the upset woman saying, “It isn’t here. It isn’t here. It’s been stolen.”

No one could find it; the purse was gone.

“It would be a good idea to get hotel security involved right away,” I suggested from the dais, and the woman hurried out. I sympathized; it’s terrible to lose your purse, and although the victim was distraught, I thought she was doing a pretty good job of holding it together. I resumed talking, then in another few minutes a hotel security guy came in with the victim and started looking around, etc. I was reluctant to speculate that maybe one of the wall-moving guys had somehow grabbed the purse. One doesn’t want to automatically blame the help, and moreover, the guys had on just shirts and pants, no jackets or anything, and they hadn’t been carrying any kind of equipment bag that could have easily hidden the purse.

I kept talking in spite of the minor hubbub still going on with the security fellow. My audience nicely stuck with me and overlooked it when I lost my place a couple of times.

After another minute, someone sitting close to the dais spoke up and pointed: “I wonder if it could be in that wall!” Meaning the compartment where the partition panels had been folded away.

I thought that was a brilliant possibility, because the victim had been sitting near the partition. A couple of attendees took the initiative to open the compartment and root around in it, and lo and behold came the shout, “Here it is!” The purse had gotten somehow swept up in the partition as the guys accordioned it away. (Thank you for speaking up, RPLA winner Melody! Later I learned others had had the same thought, but hadn’t called it out yet.)

Happy ending, though I had to hotfoot it over the last parts of my presentation to try to make up for the lost time.

Afterward, the woman stopped me in the concourse and apologized, saying, “I’m the drama queen who disrupted your presentation.” Of course I told her never mind, these things happen.

In the aftermath, a few conversations got going around the assumption that the purse had been stolen, which—hey, it seemed like a reasonable conclusion. After all, I was standing there at the lectern thinking of the likeliest suspects: the hotel employees, who had come in and out so quickly. Who were they? Where were they now? And yet—and yet! A freakish, unintended event had come between the woman and her purse; no one’s fault, a perfectly reasonable explanation. Such a fantastic lesson in remaining calm and considering all possibilities in the face of calamity! Any of the great detectives—fictional and real—would have been proud!

I’m still shaking my head over it.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Imperfect? Perfect!

Zestful Blog Post #181

Pre-blog note: I’ll be doing the Florida Writers Association conference this weekend. Subtropical friends, I look forward to seeing you there! Please make a point of coming to my presentations and panel discussion, as they will be the best.

Today’s blog:

Recently I read and posted reviews for a book that’s not perfect. It’s a first book. I gave it four stars, a very good rating, not because I thought the book had tons of literary merit, but because I thought it was written from the heart. (And it does have literary merit.) I thought other readers might enjoy it and benefit from what the author had to say.

The book is Forever Built of Days by Jessie Witt Pannell. It’s a memoir in the form of a pastiche of prose and poetry. Jessie is a good writer. The object lesson here, though, is this: She felt inspired to write a book about her life; she didn’t get hung up on following some form or other; she wrote the book; she put it out there. There are little things here and there I might wish she’d done differently, but overall the book succeeds. It isn’t perfect, but it’s out there.

[Is this window box perfect? It isn't! It is! Look at that lobelia!]

This is something I saw over and over as a judge for Writer’s Digest self-published-book competitions. Those contestants got their books out into the world. Most betrayed a lack of writing experience but by God those books had gotten written, finished, and offered.

I’m not advocating careless work. I’m advocating giving it your best shot, then moving forward with a peaceful heart. This is something I must remind myself of all the time. So I figured I’d get in your face about it today too! Thanks for being my friend.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Key to Book Retail

Zestful Blog Post #180

Quick pre-blog note: The current Writer’s Digest Yearbook on the newsstands features a couple of articles by me: “Take Two,” on using arc and pace to fix and improve your storytelling, and an excerpt on how to write good dialogue from You’ve Got a Book in You.

On to today’s post. Ever since ending my 10-year career with Borders in 1997 I’ve kept an eye on the bookselling business. I learned a lot working for Tom and Louis Borders, and some of it was about retail in general. And the great truth of retail is that there is no such thing as a loyal customer. The instant a customer decides their needs will be served better elsewhere, sayonara. That’s life; that’s common sense.

Therefore, the key to retail success is to be a loyal merchant. You can and should be loyal to your customers by serving them well, truly, and consistently. But there’s more.

A relic!

Today, bricks-and-mortar retail is way more about experience than the merchandise. Doesn’t that sound odd? But it’s so. The retail discount experience isn’t a pleasant experience; it’s usually an ordeal. We endure the harsh lighting, cheap fixtures, and overwhelming layouts in order to save serious dollars on food and other stuff. Then of course we can buy all kinds of things for low prices on line, from the comfort of our cracker-strewn bed. We can buy books that way too. Therefore, why bother getting up, taking a shower, putting on clothes, and scrounging enough gas money to go to a bookstore to browse and buy?

For the experience. For a unique experience, which in the case of a bookstore means a curated collection. Smart booksellers know that the deep-and-wide inventory of B&N or the late Borders will cost them big to try to duplicate, and make for lower profit margins. But if a bookseller can start small—that is, 4,000 to 8,000 titles—and curate that collection deep and narrow, they can succeed. Because the store’s personality is what attracts customers, if they’re to be attracted. Lots of smart booksellers are doing the small-batch, microbrew experience. (Speaking of microbrews, it is indeed a fact that food and beverage make any shopping or entertainment experience more enjoyable.)
Still, what’s to stop a customer from finding a cool book at your store, then buying it via their phone right while they’re standing there, for cheaper, on line? Nothing. Some will always do that.

But booksellers who keep an eye on expenses, make reasonable choices when it comes to staffing and overhead, and work hard to make it easy for a customer to buy something right now—yeah, that can work. Because humans crave experience; we WANT to get out of our cracker-strewn bed and feel we’ve done something fun and worthwhile. We want to brag that we went to X store, where the cognoscenti go. But moreover, it’s the serendipity of browsing that makes it worthwhile to physically be in a place with lots of books. You’re gonna see something new; you’re gonna bump into something or even someone. You’re gonna have a different feeling than staring into that glowing screen with its tiny images and hyperdrive scrolling. Even Amazon knows that, and is capitalizing on it: their new brick-and-mortar stores must be doing well, as they’re rolling out more of them.

Then there’s innovation! Went to the movies on a trip to suburban Detroit not long ago, and it was the first time I saw the ticket line and the concession line be one and the same. Lots of staff behind the counter; the line went fast; they sold a sh*t-ton of popcorn and everything, way more than if the lines were separate. This is really, really a leap, and how could it have taken so long for the first theater operator to a) get the idea, and b) have the balls to implement it?

What’ll be the next innovative thing in book retail? Lots of smart people are working on that.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Solving the Writer's Conundrum

Zestful Blog Post #179

I was supposed to teach ‘How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS’ at the Mystery Writers of America event this Saturday in Venice, Fla., ‘Sleuthfest on Saturday.’ But that confab has been cancelled because of the incoming Hurricane Matthew. According to the organizer, my buddy Randy Rawls, many presenters and attendees were coming from the Atlantic coast of the state, and they need to take care of the home front. Here on the Gulf coast we’re looking to miss the worst of it; keeping fingers crossed for all of our friends in harm’s way. Marcia, ever practical, objected, “Heck, they already had hotel reservations here where it’s safe!” I’m hoping we can put this event together again; will keep you posted.

OK. I promised to write more about the stuff I learned at the recent Novelists, Inc. conference. Here’s something that’s preyed on my mind, to a head-banging extent: Should authors write the story they want to write, or write the story they think—maybe even know—readers want?

[...Doesn’t look too bad at the moment...]

Liz Pelletier, CEO and president of Entangled Publishing, gave a compelling talk on how to test-market book ideas before writing a book, to better ensure commercial success. (This whole thing really has to do with commercial success, an important point to remember.) Until recently—until social media came along, that is—you couldn’t test-market an idea for a novel. Well, you could, but it would have been complicated and probably expensive. Besides, didn’t agents and editors in New York know what’s best?

But now you can put out a single idea, or a paragraph of hypothetical back-cover material, to your friends and followers, and ask for reactions. You can tweak it and see what they think now. If you’re comfortable writing detailed outlines, you can go farther still, and test it again. Liz and her company have done these things, and in a few years they’ve put more than 50 books on the NYT bestsellers list. This is beyond impressive.

In an opposite sort of talk, equally compelling, Julian Pavia, an executive editor at Random House/Crown, told the tale of two debut novels, both of which had been projects of passion: The Martian by Andy Weir and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Both guys basically were like, “Screw it—I’m gonna write the thing that’s been burning a hole in my heartbrain.” Both books became blockbuster bestsellers, movie deals, dollars spurting like arterial blood, because readers responded to them and spread the word. Neither guy had written a novel before; Weir was in tech and Cline was a screenwriter. Of course their experience and skills served them well when they did set out to write a novel.

Commercial success means you have a readership. Every author wants their books to find an audience. But the desire to write—that first spark of simply wanting to do it, having to do it—comes from deep down. That’s the key: It all starts with passion. So it follows that a professional author must—must—write the projects of the heart as well as be a journeyman. This requires planning and intentionality. It’s way easier to give in to faster-hotter-more than to insist on slow-cooked quality. I say, if you’re compelled to write fiction, look to your heartbrain first. Mine what’s there first. And then you’ll be better equipped to write for the market. Your insides will be cleaner and clearer. You’ll be happier. It might take longer. That’s what I think.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Five Things I Learned at Novelists, Inc.

Zestful Blog Post #178

So I joined Novelists, Inc. this year, which is a professional organization for authors. The vast majority of members are female; I learned that the organization started as a splinter group from Romance Writers of America. Last week I attended the annual conference, in St. Pete Beach (which is the real name of the town, separate from St. Petersburg.) (Unpaid plug for the Tradewinds resort hotel: If you’re looking for a place to have a midsized conference (200-300 people), you can’t go wrong there. Great layout & staff, many conveniences, & a terrific beach on the Gulf.)

Met some nice and very accomplished folks. There were some heavy hitters in the presenters ranks—like bosses from Amazon, BookBub, Nook, Ingram, and top publishers. I felt the long weekend was worthwhile; attended sessions and took notes like mad. Learned a ton of stuff, & will probably blog in greater depth on some of it. Key takeaways:

  • Lots of people in the writing/publishing business believe quality is the way to go; without great story, all the marketing in the world—whether you’re a trad- or self-published author—won’t help you achieve material success.

  • Way more people in the business are convinced that marketing is the path to material success, as long as you keep pumping out titles.

  • There are lots of dumpy-looking, middle-aged women in this world who make six figures writing genre fiction, mostly romance, mystery, and paranormal mutations of same. (Me, I have the dumpy-looking, middle-aged parts covered; the only missing part is the six figures.) Every man I met at the conference who was not a presenter was a husband-assistant. Really.

[But we’re all swans deep down, aren’t we?]

  • Authors whose books are not in the Kindle Select program (meaning exclusively with Amazon) are angry with Amazon that they don’t get the same deals and advantages that Kindle Select authors get. The two guys who were there from Amazon did a great job escaping with their skins after their presentation.

  • I spent lots of time going to marketing and promo sessions, but made time to go to some craft sessions as well, cuz craft is my thing. One major takeaway for me was that readers like deep, deep point of view. Sometimes I’ve wondered how detailed to make my characters’ thoughts; I like writing deep, but sometimes have pulled back, fearing the reader might be skipping this stuff. But after listening to a few editors who have worked with blockbuster bestsellers, I’m like, yeah! Deep POV is fun to write, and moreover, it develops your characters as nothing else does.

Example of deep POV? Which is better?:

    • The next day, I felt uneasy.

    • A rancid haze settled over me the next day, which was Thursday. It was as if the whole city had turned poisonous—as if micro-bubbles of toxin were raining down on the city, green in color, the exact chartreuse of the mittens of the tiny bully in my first-grade class who had used them to mash snow into my dumb pretty little face that winter, over and over. When the snow melted, she used mud. [from The Actress]

  • And OK, here is one more takeaway, which makes six instead of five, but whatever: It's great to be an attendee. You can wear sneakers and pants and t-shirts and sit in the back and not have to worry about how white your teeth are or whether your lip gloss is still good. I realized that until this one, I've been a presenter at every conference I've ever been to as a published author. It costs more to be an attendee, but God is it great to wear sneakers and t-shirts every day.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Close Reading 3

Zestful Blog Post #177

Welcome to the third installment of Close Reading, where I analyze examples of published writing and discuss how and why they work or don’t.

I’m a come-lately reader to Jim Harrison, author of the novella Legends of the Fall (made into a big movie with Brad Pitt in 1994), the highly praised novels Sundog and Dalva, and numerous other fiction and collections of poetry. He also wrote journalism and occasional pieces for various magazines. Jim died this year, and I’ve been thinking about him, having met him a few times, twenty-plus years ago. (I ran a bookstore where he did a couple of signings, and a friend of mine became his assistant in Montana.) I never read his work because I didn’t like him personally, which was probably unfair, and because he wrote stuff about how horrible Hollywood was AFTER he’d made his two million dollars there, but whatever. Not long ago I came across a collection of his nonfiction called Just Before Dark in a used-bookstore and decided to give him a try.

I have an acute sense of when an author’s being pretentious, and I saw a few instances of that in this collection, such as here, from an article about fly fishing (“Guiding Light in the Keys”), originally published in Sports Illustrated. The passage describes a professional fishing guide:

[excerpt begins]
At home in the evenings, Sexton exercises his casting arm—which looks like an oak club—by going through all the motions with a twelve-pound sledgehammer with a foreshortened handle.
[excerpt ends]

While the arm looking like an oak club is great, the pretentious part is ‘foreshortened.’ The hammer’s handle was shortened. Foreshortened is an art term, and perhaps because of that it sounds more intellectual than simply shortened. So I mark Harrison—and whoever his editor at Sports Illustrated was—down for that. Do not do shit like that in your writing.

However, one should not throw a one-eyed, two-hundred-fifty-pound baby out with the bathwater, so here is a passage from another piece. This one, I think, is wonderful. It’s a complete paragraph from an article called “Don’t Fence Me In,” originally published by Conde Nast Traveler. The article is about taking automobile trips for the hell of it.

[excerpt begins]
This sort of driving can be a fabulous restorative. Unlike in an airplane, you can stop, turn right or left, on a whim. Driving into emptiness keeps you at least a few miles ahead of your neuroses, and by the time they catch up to you when you bed down in the evening, you are too tired to pay any attention to them. This past year I had a great deal of leisure time, so I drove 42,000 miles around the United States, avoiding the interstates whenever possible. Driving offers peace solitude, inaccessibility, and the freedom and adventure that allow me to think up new novels and rest from the last one. Your whimsicality returns; you’ve already driven to Arizona—why not continue on down to San Carlos, Mexico and hike out the Seri Indian territory on the coast of the Sea of Cortes? And there, camped out on a mountain ridge under a glorious full moon, you throw the wrong kind of porous log on the fire and then dance a new tune as a dozen angry scorpions shoot out, a fresh brand of reality pudding. The trip was a mere seven thousand miles but without a single moment of boredom, the brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river.
[excerpt ends]

The first cool thing about this paragraph is the “few miles ahead of your neuroses,” which is frank and blunt, and because of that, bleakly funny. A dull mind would not think of putting it that way, so as a reader, you can relax and know you’re likely to get some more good stuff.

[Cover of Just Before Dark; artwork by Russell Chatham, who was a friend of Harrison’s. A Chatham lithograph hangs in the background on my office wall. (Another story.)]

Apart from the mildly interesting fact that Harrison can think better while moving along in a car, we also get the exotic mention of Mexico and an impromptu hike. Then the passionate bit about the mountain ridge and the moon, and you think that’s nice but is he about to turn purple on me?, but no, he gives you the mistake, the log, the scorpions, the dance, and you can laugh because he certainly expects you to. And again, the moment is funnier because it comes after this serious stuff about the awesome beauty of the world. Juxtaposition can be your friend.

Technical note on first and second person here. You’ll notice that the writer skips around from second person “…you can stop, turn…” to first “I had a great deal of leisure time…” and back to second again “Your whimsicality returns…” and it works. Why? Because this is an informal piece, not a term paper, and shifting from first to second person is conversational. Most people do it all the time while talking, not really aware of making any grammatical shifts at all. And it sounds fine; it sounds real. I encourage you to experiment with this in your own writing.

The closing image of the “brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river” is just topping, isn’t it? Power, ease, movement—all of that is suggested. And because of the “once again,” we understand that something lost has been regained. The attentive reader goes home happy.

Final note: This is just one paragraph in the middle of a long essay of thousands of words. Yet the graph has a structure of its own. Study it over again: There’s a beginning that serves as an introduction, a little story in the middle, and a very satisfying ending. Not every graph Harrison wrote was structured this way, and that’s OK, of course; not every graph he ever wrote is that perfect, and that’s OK too.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Solid Tips: Grabbing a Live Audience

Zestful Blog Post #176

Hi! Yes, vacation was great; gorgeous vistas and happy times with old friends; more or less relevant snapshot to follow.

I’ve never been an audio-books person, preferring to listen to music in the car, or while exercising or doing chores. Just habit. But when my Lillian Byrd novels got produced by Audible this year, of course I had to start listening.

The narrator, Dina Pearlman, and I had a phone meeting before she got to work, which went well. I felt good about her voice and personality. Next I recorded for her a series of names, place names, and any idiosyncratic words and pronunciations that I thought would help her sound authentic.

Then she got to work, and a few months later the recordings were done. As I started listening to the first in the series, Holy Hell, I was struck forcefully by Dina’s competence as a vocal actress. I know most professional narrators can make just about any prose sound way better than an untrained person can, but I’d never paid all that much attention before. Having done a tiny bit of acting in community theater and as a host for corporate audios and videos, I knew basics like don’t talk too fast, and keep your gestures smooth.

But I’d never noticed so much about the technique of good reading until listening closely to Dina reading fiction I’d written. I kept thinking wow, yeah, I wouldn’t have thought to do that like this, or this like that. All this in spite of the fact that I’d read my own work aloud to audiences countless times.

[The most awesome thing about this glacier (the Dawes in Alaska) was its sound. As the thing moves, it gives off sudden huge booms and cracks, like artillery and rifle shots. Never knew about that before. Never had an opportunity to listen to that before.]

Knowing that I had a reading coming up at the Ringling College, I decided to try to fix a few things in my mind, practice them, and execute them at my reading. For your benefit, here they are:

- Go way slower, overall, than you think you should.

- Don’t rush the first couple of words in sentences, which most nonprofessionals tend to do. This alone will transform your reading-aloud performance.

- When an abrupt change happens, such as an interruption, stop cold at the em dash before going on, unhurriedly, to the next words. Like here:
            “So I think we should have a meal before we—”
            A shot rang out. [Do a real pause after that em dash.]

- Vary your cadence. Here’s the great benefit of keeping your ordinary cadence, or pace, fairly slow and deliberate: You can shift gears! When you shift up to a faster cadence, as Dina subtly but hilariously did when Lillian describes her stove-cleaning routine, you catch hold of the listener’s attention and bring their heart rate up a little bit. Then when you downshift, they keep paying attention.

- Take care to enunciate. If the word is important enough to be there, well by gosh give it its due. Pay attention especially to the ends of words, which tend to get swallowed in everyday speech. For instance, that last word, speech, should almost sound like a syllable and a half: spee-ch. See what I mean?

- Vary your tone, of course. This is especially helpful in passages of dialogue, to help make clear who’s talking. Dina was able to produce a wide variety of tones and vocal styles for different characters. For the rest of us, simply raising or lowering your pitch a little bit between characters will work.

When I gave my reading at the college, I put most of those things into practice. Tried to read as if I were making a recording, which I actually was; the film students were making a video of my gig. It was like magic, I swear to you. I read chapter one of The Extra, which concerns Rita Farmer in police costume during a movie shoot. (She wanders off set and gets drawn into a real crime scene.) The audience was a nice group to begin with—a mix of students, faculty, and members of the public—but man, they really enjoyed that reading. I tell you this not to boast of the material, but of my new and improved delivery. I’ve had audiences like my readings before, but never to this extent. They chuckled, gasped, murmured in alarm—everything you could want. I couldn’t believe how well those techniques worked.

So: TL;DR: Listen to a professional, then do like they do.

Have you an interesting experience reading aloud? Tell us about it!
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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Value of Looking Like an Idiot

Zestful Blog Post #175

Quick note: I’ll be skipping the next two Thursdays, doing some vacay. Our 250-pound housesitter and his two pit bulls will be keeping things nice and safe while we’re away.

OK, today’s post.

A writer turned to me for counsel recently, saying that he was kind of frightened to plunge into the book he wanted to write, because, well, maybe it won’t be any good and he’ll look like an idiot.

You can imagine my reaction.

The whole point of life, let alone writing, is to be OK with looking like an idiot. For three reasons:

One, nobody gets it perfect the first time;
Two, only if you risk idiocy will you have a shot at success; and
Three, so many people don’t even try, that you’ll stand out if you do.

As it happens, I’ve been making myself look like an idiot a lot at the YMCA pool where I swim. After learning a decent freestyle stroke, I’d been wanting to learn the flip turn. You know, where you swim up to the wall, curl-tuck-flip, and push off from the wall underwater. It’s smooth, it’s hard to do right, and it looks totally badass.

Every fitness swimmer wishes they could do a flip turn. But because it takes all this flailing and failing and sinuses full of stinging chlorine water while you learn (while everybody else keeps swimming calmly along in the adjoining lanes, checking out your progress with furtive glances), few make the effort. Every public pool is full of fitness swimmers who swim regularly for decades, stopping at every wall, turning around, and pushing off again.

But of course I’m like, what’s life for but challenges? For months I tried to achieve the basic, crux move, the underwater somersault, but just couldn’t get all the way around. As soon as my head pointed at the bottom I freaked out and had to go back the way I came. Finally I approached one of the swim instructors and offered her any amount of money to teach me the flip turn. Susan smiled and was like, You really want to do this? No charge, baby.

In fifteen minutes she had me doing the somersault with the assistance of a foam noodle, then a couple of foam blocks in my hands. Over the course of weeks, I practiced and practiced, and with Susan’s occasional guidance gradually started to put together the rest of the turn, which looks so smooth and fast but is actually a series of precision moves and micro-decisions all along the way.

You have to be OK with scraping your shoulder on the bottom, with ramming your butt into the wall by mistake, with running out of air, with flailing to the surface and gasping like a trout. I’ve heard that little kids can learn this much faster than adults, which is no surprise, because they haven’t had enough life experience to obsess about looking like an idiot.

Once I succeeded in the somersault, there was no way I was going to give up. And son of a bitch if I haven’t more or less gotten the hang of it. I don’t look like Katie Ledecky—my arms still aren’t well streamlined as I’m pushing off, and sometimes my air doesn’t last through the whole pushoff and I get a little water in my nose—but hell, I feel great. I know I’ll keep getting better at it. I swagger back to the showers like I just won gold.

And that’s the point of looking like an idiot.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Memorable Minor Characters

Zestful Blog Post #174

Hi! Two newsies first:

Newsie 1:

Last week I mentioned that I’ll be appearing at the Ringling College of Art and Design soon but didn’t have complete info. My gig will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 23 in the Academic Center, Rm. 209. Local friends, I hope to see you there! Here’s more about the series, including the lineup and ridiculously easy parking instructions:
To support the new degree in Creative Writing, Ringling College of Art + Design has launched the Visiting Writers Forum. Each event will feature authors sharing their work, followed by a robust Q&A session with audience members. 
Every Visiting Writers Forum event is free and open to the public. All events will take place on the Ringling College of Art + Design campus. While the Robert Olen Butler reading will also be free, it will be a ticketed event.

Where do I park? All of the events take place at the Academic Center. [Download a campus map from this link.] Parking is a breeze--anywhere you find an open spot is a valid option. Handicapped parking right in front of the building is also available if you have appropriate signage.

Tuesday, August 23--Elizabeth Sims
Tuesday, September 6--Patricia Corbus
Tuesday, September 27--Heather Butler
Tuesday, October 11--E.A.A. Wilson
Tuesday, October 25--Monica McFawn
Tuesday, November 1--Rod Sanders
Thursday, November 17--Robert Olen Butler

Newsie 2:

My friend Deni Starr, a former trial attorney and now author, has a new book out! Below the Belt goes like this:

Sean O'Connor, retired boxer, is asked by Maybelle Preacher to check out the boxing gym her grandson joined. Doing a quick check, Sean agrees that the place feels wrong. To find out exactly what, he contacts the professional private investigator Cindy Matasar, who helped him out in the past. While they begin their investigation together (quickly developing a romantic interest), they soon learn that their efforts are not appreciated by well-placed political figures. When boxers end up murdered, Sean and Cindy find themselves targets of a well-organized criminal enterprise with political clout. Just when they think they know who is behind it all, they find their prime suspect has been dead for years. Now it’s a race against time to uncover the killer before he strikes any closer to home.

Now for today’s post:

The September issue of Writer’s Digest magazine published a feature by yours truly on how important the little things are in fiction writing.

[Wow, lookit alla them little switches and gauges inside this space capsule! One gets the feeling each one serves a purpose.]

Here’s one of my favorite parts of the article, on how to make even minor characters memorable:

[excerpt begins:]

It’s easy to hotfoot it over a minor character, or person, whether in fiction or narrative nonfiction. But if the character is important enough to exist in the world of your story, let your readers picture that existence.

Pick a detail, any detail.
How would you describe the last guy who bagged your groceries? Did you see him? What about the friend of a friend you met the other night? Or the baby held by the distant cousin who showed up at that family funeral?

Being observant in your own life helps when the time comes to characterize someone. For a minor character, select just about anything, as long as you use something.

The knock-kneed cheerleader pointed and screamed.

Better still, pick two details.

The boss’s wife smelled like Jack Daniel’s and drove a red Ferrari.
Timmy’s chin quivered, but he gripped his bear tightly and kept quiet.

Spare no one.
Even a character who appears only in passing should exist in the reader’s eye. For a literally glancing description, make it visual.

The tram operator’s filthy hands worked the levers, and we were off.
The buxom croupier sticked the dice over.

Pan the crowd, then zoom in.
Describing groups of people can be challenging, but you cannot get away with such say-nothing generalities as:

The people at the party had on a multitude of different outfits.

Instead, give one or two overall details, then zoom in on one person as a representative.

Guests in classic Hyannisport gear—sweaters thrown over shoulders, loafers without socks—crowded into the refreshment tent. “Where’s the champers?” demanded a sunburned young woman in a tight white tennis dress.

[end of excerpt]

There you go. It's easy when you realize you can use specific techniques to create art!

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