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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