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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