Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bits of Divinity

Zestful Blog Post #154

This post is about one of those chance encounters that can count for nothing or everything.

On Tuesday afternoon my new friend Nan took me to the Des Moines (Iowa) Art Center, where we enjoyed a little lunch in the café and a walk through the collection and special exhibits. The center is really pretty impressive, having been designed in various stages by I.M. Pei, Eliel Saarinen, and Richard Meier. The collection is equally impressive for a smaller city. One of the security guards answered a question about the architecture of the place, then struck up a deeper conversation with us.

Milton L. Bunce, Jr. has been working there for years, and he’s come to know the place intimately—at a level beyond knowing the works that live there. He asked us to note the shadows in the atria and other rooms with windows, and invited us to notice how the light changes, throughout the day, throughout the year. The architects knew what they were doing, he felt. We were receptive. Mr. Bunce opened an upper fire escape door and showed us the view of the lawn and sculptures from there. He asked us to imagine what it all looks like in the different seasons, the fiery trees in the fall, the dry white wash of winter. Then he asked if we’d like to see something special. We would.

He unlocked a storage cabinet and took out a couple of tattered sketchbooks, which were filled with his own pencil drawings. He only took up drawing a few years ago, he said, but he’d gotten pretty good.

He showed us his drawings, including one of him in his Navy uniform with his wife when they were first married. He copied it from a photo. During quiet times, Mr. Bunce is allowed to work on his drawings right in the museum. His sole tools are a number-4 pencil and an eraser.

He said he tries to interest the schoolchildren who come to the museum in drawing, too. Not an easy thing. But I bet a few have looked and listened.

When we parted from Mr. Bunce, I remarked to Nan that it was like bumping into Christ. Which is exactly what it is when you meet up with someone who is open, who gives it everything he’s got, and who just naturally expects you to be open, too. Call it Christ or any other name you might give to that pure human beauty that everyone carries inside. Not all of us let it shine through all the time, though. But that’s what it’s all about, I think.

(Had a blast doing dinner with students and faculty, then reading and talking about the writing life that evening at Simpson College. It’s wonderful to meet new people enthusiastic about writing, reading, and teaching. Thanks, Nan.)

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing Clueless vs. Oblivious

Zestful Blog Post #153

Looking forward to doing a reading, then chatting and doing Q&A with students at Simpson College near Des Moines, Iowa next Tuesday evening. If you’re local, drop in! Thanks to Professor Nan St. Clair for setting it up.

One of my early jobs was in the HR department of a large bank in Detroit. It was so long ago that I wrote and starred in a video to educate our customers on how to use them there brand-fangled ATM machines. Customers were issued ATM cards and everybody created their PIN. It was quite a thing, having this important four-digit passcode to remember! Don't ask me about my curly perm.

The bank’s president brought his nephew over from England one summer to work in various departments of the bank; he hung around HR for a week or so. The young man thought ATMs were the coolest. He showed us his ATM card, upon which he’d written his PIN.

“You’re not supposed to do that!” we told him, aghast. “That defeats the whole purpose!”

“My uncle told me to,” he said. “That’s what he does.”

When Lady Diana was getting to know Prince Charles, she was stunned to learn that he had no idea how to make a cup of tea.

U.S. troops working with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) taught them how to shoot down Vietcong helicopters. You have to lead them, they explained, meaning train your rifle sights just ahead of the copters’ noses, then shoot. ARVN troops shot down numerous Cong choppers. But when they had a chance to ambush and shoot Cong choppers on the ground, they also carefully aimed ahead of the copter’s noses, then pulled their triggers.

[Note of correction here, dateline 3.25.16: My military expert advises that this scenario is unlikely to have happened, due to the very few North Vietnamese aircraft used in the war. More likely, he suggests, I remembered reading about the reverse situation, where NVA soldiers were trained to take down American aircraft by the same method, and making the same mistake on stationary aircraft. Thank you, SD!]

The common thread here is cluelessness. And the reason for cluelessness is lack of information, and sometimes a lack of skill in objective analysis. You can have a lot of fun with clueless characters. I mean, who for God’s sake would believe the president of the bank would write his PIN on his ATM card? Yet it was so. Therefore in your writing, you need to sprinkle cluelessness sparingly. One way to do it is bracket something a character is clueless about with things they’re savvy about. The bank president, for instance, sure as heck knew what to make of balance sheets, and how to delegate. Vietnamese troops knew a lot about jungle survival, and could fight like tigers hand to hand.

Obliviousness is a little different. My brother remembers being dropped off for his weekend job in a grocery store by our dad after a rainstorm. As he brought the car to a stop, Daddy splashed through a huge mud puddle, drenching a guy who was walking by. “And I had to get out,” said my brother grimly. “Daddy was oblivious.”

People in the throes of infatuation are often oblivious to any flaws in their beloved. This has fueled countless dramas and rom-coms, both in print and on the screen. But obliviousness has to be believable, and never used to hotfoot it over a plot hole. The crime-scene techs simply missed the bloody fingerprints on the refrigerator door? They just, like, forgot to look at them? No. But each guy could have thought the other guy was going to process those marks. By the time they realized their mistake weeks later, the crime scene had been released and cleaned. A self-centered person could be oblivious to the pain of a loved one. Show us the self-centeredness, then show us the obliviousness.

Even if you don’t know what you need until you need it, you can go back and create traits and circumstances that will bring everything to convincing life. Readers want to stick with you.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Snapshot Trick

Zestful Blog Post #152

Today’s post follows these two announcements:

After a two-year hiatus, I’ll be back at the Florida Writer’s Association annual conference (October 20-23, 2016 in Altamonte Springs). Gonna teach “Fearless Writing” and “How to Write Dialogue Like a Pro,” and will be available for individual consults as well. They’re still putting together the lineup, but here’s the link. Will talk writing for martinis come bar time. Tank regular, dry, up, olives. Think of it as an investment.

My Marcia has designed, built, and launched an extraordinary math game for kids and adults. Number Round-Up uses the world’s smartest tiny horses to help players master sorting, set theory, commonalities, and more. Get links to the free demo and paid versions at Logical Game Studio. This really is a cool game, currently in the Chrome store. No ads, no upselling, just a well built, charming, thoroughly kid-and-adult-tested game that helps foster a love of math and logic. If you take a look, I’d love to hear what you think of it!

On to today’s post.

Dearest writer, do you sometimes struggle to describe your characters in a way that works smoothly with your action and plot? Do you have too much self respect to make them stand in front of a mirror and remark upon their baggy eyes / shining auburn hair / six-pack physique, etc? Is it especially challenging to describe a character’s changes over time, whether months or decades?

Help is here. In the last few months I’ve suggested this to a few clients, and today thought I’d share it with everybody. Very simple: Let somebody come upon an old snapshot, whether on coated paper from a Pleistocene-era camera, a Kodachrome slide that has to be held up to the light, or something digital.

[Musical and bossy even back then: Leading the neighborhood band.
Photo thanks to old pal BB.]

You are with me on this instantly, right? The picture can be of the character himself or herself (just can’t do ‘themself,’ never will), or of a beloved, or the enemy, or whoEVER.


While clearing out Jesse’s room, she came upon a snapshot of him with his 1978 prom date. She didn’t remember the girl at all. But there was Jesse standing tall, his gaze level and composed, in spite of the crazy maroon velvet tuxedo he was wearing. 

Nother Example:

No return address. I tore open the envelope. A black-and-white snapshot with crinkle-cut edges fell out, and I immediately recognized my stepfather standing beneath the wing of his plane with his flight crew. Full head of wind-tossed hair, wolfen grin, and that cold look in his eyes I remembered so well, too well.

Nother Example:

He surfed over to CNN and couldn’t believe it: There she was, smiling on the courthouse steps, looking pale but triumphant. Acquitted! Wearing her hair still in those stupid pigtails. Pink lipstick. Pink dress. Hell!

Last Example:

I went back to my first post on Facebook. Talk about depressing. The only picture I could think to post was of me in my judo outfit getting slammed onto the mat by a bigger kid. I was spindly and bucktoothed then, spindly and bucktoothed now.

You get the idea. Rock on.

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Arguing with a Publisher

Zestful Blog Post #151

Sometimes aspiring writers ask if I’ve ever been told by a publisher to change a manuscript in a way I thought was wrong. Yes, is the answer, and of course the next question is, well, what did you do? I was planning to write about this sometime soon, when coincidentally this exact subject came up in a message conversation with a friend on FB this week, as well as tangentially with a client. Thanks for the nudge, R and B.

In my series of posts (November 20, 2014 to March 12, 2015) on my publishing history, I recounted how I made significant changes in some of my manuscripts to satisfy my agent’s or an editor’s request. These happened because I felt their suggestions would improve the story. Good agents and editors are worth listening to.

But there’ve been a few times when I’ve said no. One particular instance was during the editing of On Location, the third in my Rita Farmer series. In that story, Rita searches the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest for her missing sister and the sister’s fiancĂ©. After slogging all over the woods and getting closer and closer, Rita makes a breakthrough when she impersonates a Native American to find out some information.

A professional actress, Rita uses pigment to darken her complexion and hair, and puts on makeshift medicine-woman regalia to look convincing to the non-Indians she’ll be confronting. She carries a hatchet in her belt. The scene, both scary and funny, is about confidence, disguise, acting under life-and-death pressure, and the credulousness of an audience unprepared for a ruse. It is the crux move of the novel, and I crafted the story to lead smoothly up to that point.

One of my editors at Minotaur told me to cut the stuff about Rita putting on the disguise. I believe he felt it was grossly politically incorrect to put brownface on a white character. For sure, it was a risk. I deliberately take risks in my fiction. For instance, in The Extra, some of my characters are black, and they live in South L.A., and not all of them use proper English. That—a white writer portraying black characters talking ghetto or even slightly ungrammatical English—is considered offensive by some, and I heard from a couple of them after the book came out. But if you’ve ever hung out in South Los Angeles, you've heard a lot of nonstandard English. Is it honest to write all such characters as if they come from somewhere else? It’s safe, but it’s not honest and moreover, it doesn’t sound real.

In Rita’s situation in On Location, I took care to make Rita look somewhat silly, and to make the white people she deceives dull-witted. I did write a real Native American character into the book, who wouldn’t have been fooled by Rita’s getup. Prior to writing Rita’s transformation, I researched the customs, clothing, and regalia used by the real Indians in the area, where I was living at the time. I went to the reservation and looked around, and I went to the woods and figured out how to make the scene work.

If I were to cut that scene, I’d have to rewrite the majority of the book. I went to some lengths to defend the scene and those leading up to it. The editor backed off. I suspect he thought I’d made it all up on the fly, without thinking much about it. And he hadn't fully thought through the scene's relationship to the structure of the novel. My explanations convinced him we could stand behind the accuracy and spirit of the story.

When the book came out, I heard from many readers—and reviewers—who thought the Rita-as-Indian scenes were a hoot. One reader, however, wrote me a stern email telling me what a horrible racist I was. “I hope no Indian reads this book,” she wrote. She particularly objected to Rita’s narrative sentence, “I worked to project intelligent savagery.” The word ‘savage’ is considered an insensitive label by Indians, this correspondent told me. She happened to be local, she said, and she worked at the library near the reservation. I gathered she was white.

Usually I write back to such readers with a simple, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you.” No defense, no trying to convince somebody of something they don’t want to hear.

But I wrote back to this woman asking who was offended by the book—she, a politically correct white person? Has she met or heard of any Indian who has read the book and found it offensive? Well, no, she wrote back, and had to admit that her principles were the ones involved, and she was speaking for herself. We had a fairly cordial exchange, and that was that.

During the editing of one of my earlier books, I called up my editor to complain about numerous discretionary changes the copy editor had made. That is, not things like corrected grammar, spelling, punctuation, or usage, but things like extra commas, deleted words, and changes that dumbed the work down. She defended the copy editor, and I said, “Well, then, take my name off the front and put yours and his. You can be co-authors. Publish it that way.” She backed off.

My point is this: Your name, in the end, is the one that’s gonna be on the book jacket. You have to be pretty sure of what you write. If you’ve done your homework and been honest with yourself and your material, you’re justified in standing up for your work when the occasion arises.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Actress Promo Report

Zestful Blog Post #150

Thought you might be interested in some facts and figures today. Over last weekend and into this week I put The Actress up for free on Amazon Kindle, for the full 5-day period allowed, from Friday through Tuesday. Initially I thought I’d just make it free through Sunday (Oscar) night, but decided to leave it up the whole time, because it was doing so well.

First, context. My fiction is all in the Amazon ‘Select’ program, meaning the books are only available in e-book form on Amazon Kindle. The benefits, so far, are worth it to me. The vast majority of e-books are sold on Amazon, and if your books are in the Select program, you get more exposure and more money. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a ringing endorsement of the program, it’s just to explain why I, an author who values simplicity, am sticking with it for now. Your ‘Select’ books can be read for ‘free’ by readers who have signed up for Kindle Unlimited or KU (they pay $9.95 per month for unlimited access), and for actual free by readers who own a Kindle device (via the Kindle Owners Lending Library, or KOLL).

Free is good. You reach readers this way who wouldn’t necessarily find and buy your books on their own. The immediate benefit is that you, the author, get paid per page of free material read. It’s a fraction of a cent per page, but it adds up (example below). The extended benefit, of course, is that some readers who like your work will read and buy more and become fans.

Last week’s promo was the first time The Actress was free to anyone who wanted it. On Friday when my newschat and blog about it went out, readers downloaded it 2,629 times. Saturday: 1,408. Sunday: 731. Kind of a geometric progression. To my surprise, the book quickly reached #1 in the Amazon free store in the legal thriller category, and it ranged between 8th and 11th in the female sleuth category. It also broke into the top 100 free books overall, reaching #63 at its best.

Meanwhile, not much happened with my other titles, which, I’ve found, is typical when a free promo is running. My sales and free pages read were suffering from the winter blues, and I hoped this promo would help. The bump, if you’re going to get one, generally comes after the free promo is over.

As of Sunday night the book was still the #1 free legal thriller, so I decided to let the promo go the maximum time, through Tuesday, just to see if the ranking would hold, even though free downloads were slowing way down.

On Monday 400 more readers downloaded the book, and on Tuesday 427 did. A few spilled into Wednesday given international time zones: 17. So total: 5,612. That’s a lot of potential readers. Now, authors have learned that not everybody who downloads your freebie reads it, but a bunch will get to it, sooner or later. The book’s rank dropped to #2 and then #4 in free legal thrillers as of Tuesday afternoon, then I stopped keeping track.

Sales of my other books have bumped up a little in the last couple of days, but it’s too early to tell how well that will go or how long it will last. Mainly it’s the KU and KOLL pages read that have soared. As soon as the promo started, they jumped from dismally below 1,000 per day to way over that. Yesterday KU and KOLL readers made it through 3,776 of my pages. As I’m writing this midday today, about a thousand pages have been read.

[There was a bit of a bump for the quickie free promo of Easy Street I ran earlier in February, but the big spike is the result of The Actress promo.]

Let’s say you average 3,000 free pages a day. At .0058 cents per page, which is the last I figured it, that equals $522 in a 30-day month. Not a king’s ransom, but nothing to sneeze at.

I’m ramping up my promo work for my books, primarily by writing and planning more releases. I’ve been talking a little bit about Crimes in a Second Language; stay tuned for more on that this month.

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