Thursday, December 28, 2017

Time for Change

Zestful Blog Post #244

All of my New Year’s resolutions have to do with writing, publishing, and teaching, and all of them are basically “achieve more.” Oh, and plus “somehow make a million dollars.”

We are all the main character of our own lives. But let’s first talk about writing fiction. Part of what makes a character compelling is how they respond/react to change. Here are some ways to spark a character to change:

-        Give the outside world some agency. A layoff, an award, a subpoena, a snowstorm, a tantrum in the cafeteria, a market correction, a fortune cookie.
-        Give the body itself some agency. An infected tooth or toe, a false positive, a false negative, baldness, wrinkles, an inexplicable rush of lust or passion at first sight, new muscles from exercise, flab from too much beer, a forgotten wallet.
-        Create internal motivators. Realizations and resolutions occur when a character pauses to consider and decide—and possibly challenge beliefs and assumptions. Any of these things could involve years or seconds.
o   I just found a syringe with blood in it under my daughter’s bed.
o   I’ve let laziness creep into my life.
o   Hey, that guy just grabbed that woman’s purse!
o   I wonder what an injection of heroin feels like.
o   As soon as I paid for his silence, I was a different person.
Top 100 Writing Blogs

By the way, the writing/reading website Booksie sent this along recently.
Zestful Writing says thanks, Booksie users of 2017!

Characters react, respond, grow, shrink, deceive others and themselves. When you remember that every character has the power of choice, rational or not, you have everything you need to create magic on the page.

So hey, it’s a new year. We all have the power of choice as well, with its potential to create magic in the real world. How about this as a simple resolution:

I will recognize and apply my power of choice to best benefit.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Edge, the Fail, the Fun?

Zestful Blog Post #243

Earlier this year a friend called to see if I’d be interested in writing some marketing copy for a product line she was working with. The money was attractive, the work wouldn’t take a lot of time, and I felt I could produce quality copy, so I said sure. (Not gonna mention product or company, cuz confidentiality.)

“We want to be edgier than we’ve been up to now,” she said. With that in mind I wrote up a few ideas. After she reviewed them, my friend seemed concerned that the material was too edgy.

I said, “Well, you don’t really know where the edge is until you go over it and have a fail.” The concept wasn’t new, but I felt it worth mentioning. “Therefore,” I went on, “you have to be ready to accept and tolerate a failure. Then you know.”

Push through to failure, learn from the fail, let the fail suggest and help shape the next thing—early humans were doing this before they could paint horses on cave walls. But I got to thinking about writing, and being in the writing biz. For us as for almost everybody, it’s easier to avoid risk than court it. If a story succeeds, why not just write that same one—essentially—over and over? Imitate what others are doing. If you see something that looks like an edge, pull back. Why not watch and wait, and let somebody else go over it first?

Because if they find an air current and start to soar, you’ll be standing there wishing you’d had the guts. If they plunge down onto the rocks, you might feel relieved, but sooner or later you know they’re gonna crawl back up to the top. They’ll be wiser, plus they’ll have a tale of survival to tell…and perhaps monetize.

[Where are the edges here? Hm, maybe they depend on one's point of view… [photo by ES]]

The edge isn’t in the same place for everybody. And there are different classes and categories of edges, if you think about it. And hey, a scary edge could turn out to be false when you really get close, and you see there’s just a little gap that you can leap easily, or build a little bridge with yonder log. We all know these things deep down.

What’s the definition of edge, for the likes of us? It’s the place beyond which your end users will not go. The place where you start to lose more readers than you gain. That might be OK, depending on what you want. Edges are there to tempt us and teach us.

Have you ever known anyone to live a fail-free life?

Can you have fun testing an edge?

Is this all metaphor, or is it real?

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

What My Students Taught Me

Zestful Blog Post #242

As you may know, I’ve been teaching short story writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. Fall term is over; I’m calculating final grades for my class of second- and fourth-year students.

It often happens, and I feel it should happen, that a teacher learns from her students. I certainly have learned a bunch from the private writing clients I’ve worked with, so I expected to come away with lessons from these 16 young people. Here are some:

·       The students at Ringling seem to be more mature and self-directed than the ones at other schools who get bad press with their public tantrums about political and social issues. I believe this is because the Ringling application process is pretty grueling, meaning they really have to know what they want. They want to develop their talent concretely and specifically, and they want to explore other possibilities, with the intention of making their independent way in the world. While they care about political and social issues, their focus is on the business of getting an education.
·       Students whose first language was not English were, at first, worrisome to me, as they were unfamiliar with the Western literary canon, idiomatic American English, and indeed large swaths of American and Western culture. I was concerned that their relatively limited experience with English would hamper their expressiveness. I was happily wrong. Their storytelling skills were no worse, in general, than the native English speakers. Their grammar and vocabulary weren’t very advanced, but they made up for it by tapping into their own culture and language structures, with the results being, often, beautiful, poetic, and unique. At times their work was even more inventive than native English speakers, because they figured out word, phrase, and sentence constructions on their own:
o   A dog leash is a ‘pet rope.’
o   The moon isn’t at its apex, it’s ‘right at the top of the sky.’
o   A frightened man isn’t pale, he ‘looks like a peeled onion.’
o   ‘Her eyes swallowed ashes and spitted death.’
·       When you’re standing before a class of art students, talking and writing things on the board and answering questions, you realize that sometimes they’re taking notes, and other times they’re sketching you.
·       And sometimes they’re making other art, as in the photo below. “My parting gift to you,” a student said.

[The Florida art school version of ‘an apple for the teacher.’ Thank you, FC. Photo by ES]

·       In writing their stories, some students wanted to go big, and they wrote outlandish ideas that didn’t connect. I realized that going deep with your characters first is the only thing that can lay proper groundwork for big splashy drama. Because if readers don’t know the characters deeply, all the gunpowder in the world—or all the supernatural outer-space mind control in the galaxy—can’t make them engage and care.
·       In spite of their talent, there was a lot about story my students didn’t know, and a lot about how to read stories that they didn’t know. If I teach this class again, I’ll spend more time helping them interpret what they read.
·       Making art and commerce work together, i.e. doing what you love, developing it, and coaxing it to pay well—that’s a fine outcome for these students to strive after.
·       And for us writers too, no?

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stronger than Reality

Zestful Blog Post #241 

Today is known in America as Pearl Harbor Day, or the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. I’m thinking about the entirety of World War II, from the Holocaust and battles in Europe to the Pacific theater and the atomic bombs. 

[A Japanese ivory netsuke, or toggle button, brought home by my uncle, who served in the war. Penny for scale. I have no idea what the writing on the man’s tablet means. My mother seemed to think it had something to do with money or accounting. If you can translate, please let me know! Photo by ES.]

And I’m remembering something a friend told me about violence, specifically how generations are affected by violence. She had worked with Holocaust survivors and their progeny, and she said, “The direct survivors are not as angry as their descendants. I think the imagined terror is worse than the reality.”

That kernel is worth solidifying: Imagination is stronger than reality. What’s the lesson for us authors? Believe in what we’re doing. We can affect hearts and minds with story. We can explore our world, we can explore the depths of ourselves, and we can give, we can give, we can give.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's a Mosh Pit Out There

Zestful Blog Post #240

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which arrogance and principle collide and tango, can be viewed as an exhilarating love story, or as a biting expose of the class system in Georgian England.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which follows a group of shipwrecked boys and their attempts to govern themselves, can be interpreted as a slam against testosterone or a celebration of feral freedom.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, with its sensitive, bungling, iconic teen protagonist, can be viewed as an urban coming-of-age story, or an account of a psychotic breakdown.

Holden's beloved Central Park. Is it a jungle out there?
[photo by ES]

David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, with its band of cutthroat real estate salesmen, can be read as a scathing indictment of capitalism—or as an unsentimental endorsement of social Darwinism. (Lord of the Flies for grownups?)

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, featuring a charismatic schoolteacher, can be pronounced a story of a foolish drama queen, or a celebration of a visionary ahead of her time.

You understand. Portrait of an idiot—or portrait of a hero? A shallow story—or a deep one? Indictment or endorsement?

The takeaway for a writer who seeks a following is simply this: You’re throwing your work into the mosh pit of public opinion, so best be prepared to accept whatever points of view your readers bring to your work. You might be caught by surprise at what honest, perceptive readers throw at you. And then of course there are the dim, mean readers and their interpretations too. This is our world. If you believe in your work, you’ll be all right. Carry on.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Random Acts of Thankfulness 2017

Zestful Blog Post #239

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day. Beyond health, family, friends, and Marcia, I'm thankful for:

·       Trident gum
·       Terry Laughlin
·       Piazzoni murals at the DeYoung
·       Agnes Martin
·       Bill Gates
·       Patricia Highsmith
·       Cigar boxes
·       The idea of Switzerland
·       Cass Technical High School

[The music room at Cass. Photo by ES.]

·       Orange marmalade
·       Myofascial release
·       The score to North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann)
·       Blue plastic buddha
·       Best in Show
·       Joseph Cornell
·       Lexus LS400
·       Mad Men
·       Pentel Kerry .07 black
·       Vic Firth timpani mallets
·       Joan of Arc
·       Rear Window (soundscape)
·       Victoria Sweet
·       Ringling College of Art and Design
·       Work pants
·       The Bradenton YMCA pool
·       Bob’s Red Mill
·       Joan Morris and William Bolcom
·       Tahquamenon Falls
·       Rebus
·       Marcia’s apple cake

Do you have any Random Acts of Thankfulness to share? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Politics and Religion? Seriously?

Zestful Blog Post #238

Writer’s Digest magazine has just published a feature I wrote called “Should You Go There?” It concerns writing about politics and religion in your fiction—how to decide if you should do it, and how to handle it if you want to give it a go. As we in the U.S. are about to celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday when families meet, eat, and sometimes squabble, I thought it would be appropriate to excerpt some of the article for today’s Zestful Writing post:

Most of us learn fairly early in life that starting a discussion about politics or religion with a stranger will lead to one of three things: cheerful agreement; silence ranging from uncomfortable to icy; disagreement ranging from mild contradiction to fisticuffs. The odds vary.

But what if you’re a writer of fiction? If your work gets out into the world, it/you will be ‘talking’ to strangers all the time.

Why do so many authors shy away from dealing with politics and religion? Several good reasons:

► Those subjects are loaded with strong emotion. Many of us picked up religious and political tenets at a young age—or rejected them. In maturity, you figure things out for yourself, and it can be a complex road.
► It’s hard to be well informed, and impossible to be perfectly informed. Nobody has witnessed every conflict, read every history book, examined every religious text, and prayed to every god.
► Religious and political references—especially political—can date a work of fiction. Which can be fine if you’re writing a Civil War romance and somebody swears “by the President’s beard!” But if you’re writing a contemporary novel and a character condemns “that guy in the White House”—well, in a year or few, nobody’s going to be sure who that character is talking about. And using the names of real political or religious leaders timestamps your work from the start.
► Readers can become alienated if they feel pressured or manipulated. They might also write a nasty review or ask for their money back.
► Doctrine can be tedious. Hammering on the rightness of your beliefs in your fiction—by putting your pet dogma into the mouths of your characters—gets predictable, and therefore boring, fast.

That’s the downside. What’s to be gained by embracing themes of religion/politics?

► Let’s say ten people read your book today. If five of them are either left cold or ticked off by your biases, you’ve risked losing them. However, if the five that remain are precisely the demographic you want, well, then, that’s different. When readers find an author whose work resonates with their ideology, they can become loyal, die-hard fans.
► If you lead an active, engaged life, you feel the impact of political ideas, of government, of the movements within your particular faith or of the movements within other faiths. Therefore, if you want to write about your world, you may feel moved to explore such themes in your art. After all, we artists are supposed to be pursuers of all things true and real. We must find things out for ourselves—and art is our vehicle.
► These themes, if done with sensitivity and restraint, can bring great depth and immediacy to fiction.

Let’s look at some fiction that successfully navigated these dual minefields—what they did, how they did it, and how you can do it too.

Realize that the issue is not by itself the story.

Upton Sinclair’s progressive-era novel The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry around the turn of the 20th century. He hit lots of targets in this one, and became famous. But the reason the book sold so well was because he wrote a good story. The plot follows one man, a dirt-poor Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus, as he makes his way into the dangerous ‘jungle’ of inhuman working conditions and slum life of his new country. Sinclair took pains to make Rudkus sympathetic—a good man caught in a nightmare of false promises and treachery. However, Rudkus does make mistakes. He permits wishful thinking to overcome his judgment, he takes to drink and self-pity—and thus is not entirely angelic, and not entirely blameless for his pain. Everyone can relate to this!
The takeaway: Trace the story of one person against the odds, and don’t make your hero unrealistically perfect for fear that readers will reject the story, saying, “Huh, look, he wasn’t as smart as he should have been.” Perceptive readers will not throw the baby of your story out with the bathwater of realism; they will appreciate reading about a flawed hero thrown against a series of challenges.
Also read: The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, The Yellow Wallpaper (short story) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

[Good old research can always help when tackling these subjects. Here be the reading room at the NY Public Library. How can such a grand place feel cozy at the same time?]

Challenge the status quo by seeming to support it.

Flannery O’Connor was, personally, as religious as they come, and religion infuses much of her work. But she never set out to tell readers what to believe. In the enduringly disturbing novel Wise Blood, she explores mysticism, madness, courage, and cowardice. Although the thirst for redemption is a major theme, O’Connor also rams home the ugly turns faith can take: hypocrisy, violent fanaticism, and self-justification/self-deception. The journeys of the disillusioned preacher Hazel Motes and the terrifyingly clueless and increasingly unhinged Enoch Emery are compelling for their unpredictability and backwoods brutality. Faith is questioned throughout, and answered in varying degrees of certitude. When one turns against one’s own tribe, humans know on a very elemental level that trouble is just around the corner.
The takeaway: Let your characters plunge down their spiritual paths, even if zealotry is the end game. Allow them crises of faith. In real life, believers question themselves; nonbelievers question themselves. A life-changing event can shake a foundation, or create one. Also, be aware that faith and religion are not one and the same. Characters can have lots of spiritual adventure figuring that out.
Also read: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

For the rest of the article, hike out to your local newsstand...

What do you think of exploring politics and religion in fiction—as a reader or a writer? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guilt-Free Procrastination

Zestful Blog Post #237

No day in history has provided humans easier or more plentiful ways to waste time than the one we’re living now. I don’t have to begin to enumerate. Writers, I believe, are more vulnerable to time-wasting opportunities than other tribes, because OMG, blank pages. Therefore, anything we can do to save time and make life more efficient, we should do. And an easy way for a fiction writer to save time, have fun, and even procrastinate guilt-free (!), is investing an early chunk of time on character naming.

When you’ve got a fairly solid idea for a story or novel going, and you’re starting to flesh things out—either with an outline or just a bunch of pages of stormwriting—that’s the time to create a list of ready character names. Because it’s no good to keep writing ‘Cop A’ or ‘Politician B’ or even ‘Ingenue’ or ‘Hero.’ For one thing, it’s boring, and for another, there’s no personality to it. It’s like eating a handful of flour along with a raw egg and a little sugar, instead of cooking up a nice little pancake. Sure, you might create a name for a character only to later think of a better one. But at least start with some semblance of a usable name.

[This is what I think a Norwegian Elkhound probably looks like, or should.]

A name with a little possibility to it helps you visualize the character as you write. That’s valuable, because it helps you bring that character to life with more verve and efficiency. And for the same reasons it’s so easy to waste time these days, it’s never been easier to quickly come up with appropriate character names. You can search on popular Latino boys’ names, traditional Irish surnames, popular Norwegian Elkhound names (yes), American female names of the 1920s. Of course, if you want a character who is 25 years old in the 1920s, search names given to babies in the 1900s. You can get a surprising lot from just fifteen minutes’ worth of research. Which will stretch easily to half an hour. Come up with twice as many names as you think you’ll need, because minor characters. It’s a good investment.

The benefit is, when you start to write about a fictional person, you’ve got a list to glance at, choose something from, and keep going. No more discomfort with a generic non-name, and no more interrupting your flow to hurriedly think of a name to plug in, over and over. Then when your story is more firmed up, you can dig deeper and toy around with character names. And needless to say, any names you don’t use this time around might prove worthwhile the next.

Do you have any favorite strategies on character naming? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Good Practice for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #236

If you’re a writer, you’ve got a beautiful field of resources that will take you far beyond books on technique and motivation: the work of literary innovators. Reading literature that you find fabulous / moving / amusing / iconoclastic represents your continuing education. Here’s a good practice for a professional author:

-        Assemble a soft pencil, a sharpener, and a few index cards.
-        Get hold of a book you’re interested in.
-        Read it.
-        Underline passages of special interest and make notes as you go. (You’ll find that soft graphite is easier to erase if you ever want to, doesn’t dig into the pages, and is more pleasurable to use in general.) Write in the margins and on your cards. Make little stars and ticks next to passages you find inspiring, impressive, instructive.
-        If the book is wonderful, reread it, carefully.
-        Make further notes, or expand on the ones you have already.
-        If your book is not made of paper, use whatever digital tools you have at your disposal.

Am definitely a Blackwing fan. Sharpener hinge failed; repaired with duct tape. (Yeah, pink duct tape! Home Depot, I think.) 

Your notes will be different from anybody else’s notes. Your marginalia may express enthusiasm, surprise, skepticism, or humility. You won’t remember everything about the book, or everything about your notes. But here's the thing. The very act of attending to the book this closely will feed and build your inner well of creativity, facility with words, and understanding. This is one of those things that are good to do for the sake of the thing itself. Sure, you can read a book just for kicks. But it doesn’t take much more effort to really learn from it. This is also known as scholarship. And that's all there is to it.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Contradictions in the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #235

Honest authors know the human heart can harbor contradiction. Everybody more or less wants it both ways—a pint of mint chocolate chip every night and a trim figure. Ninety-five miles an hour and the cop gives you only a warning. Cheat on the spouse and maintain that spotless reputation. Essentially, yeah: ironclad principles and a free pass when we stray.

That’s one of the keys to understanding and developing your characters, if you’re a writer. Humans are always trying to figure things out, trying to live as painlessly as possible—but pain there will be, whether one sticks to principles or not.

Needless to say, that’s also one of the keys to understanding ourselves, our loved ones, and those we’d love to whack over the head with a two-by-four.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thing Presence

Zestful Blog Post #234

The typewriter in the accompanying photograph is a 1926 Underwood 4, so called because the keys are arranged in four rows instead of three, which had been more common for typewriters manufactured in earlier decades. My friend Jay Williams, about whom I’ve written in this blog before, sent it to me as a gift last spring. He’s a typewriter buff, and spends some of his time restoring old machines. He restored this one before sending it to me. In spite of that, it certainly does still show its age and experience. He and I have talked about old things being time machines. Environments can be time machines too. When Jay talks about climbing a stone bell tower at his church to participate in change-ringing, he describes the worn, smooth stone steps and the cool roughness of the stone walls and the sound that one’s footsteps make and he feels that that’s the closest he can get to real time travel.

When he sent me this machine, I called to thank him, and we speculated on the machine’s history, and what it might’ve been like to be with this machine in its early days. This Underwood is a heavy-duty business machine, and they were costly, so this one most likely was used in an office, perhaps a newspaper office. Because Jay is blind, we talked about the sounds and smells and feels of when this machine was new: The newspaper office almost certainly would have had more than one machine, and more than one machine going at a time. These typewriters are wonderfully loud and authoritative, entirely mechanical marvels. This one’s frame is cast iron. In that newspaper office there might have been perfume to smell, cigars and cigarettes, their smoke and their butts and their ashes, there would have been the smell of ink and paper, the squeak of chairs moving back and forth, perhaps rolling on casters, the sound of the boss’s voice, the copyboys’ voices, the reporters’ voices, telephones ringing, telephones being answered, the scratch of pencil on paper as a phone number and address and perhaps a name and other things were written down.

It might have been summer, the windows open, the blinds catching a little on the windowframes in the breeze, the sound of engines and rubber tires outside, perhaps the aroma of manure as well, if horses were still pulling wagons. Footsteps, voices. The sidewalks would be possibly concrete, the streets might still be cobbled, the floor in the newsroom would perhaps be of heavy linoleum that was swept every night by the janitor and polished once a week.

Steampunk? You bet.

Having something in the house that is this big and heavy (about 30 pounds) and old, and so well worn—it has its own presence. It’s a much stronger presence than most things we have in our house, frankly. Why is that? Maybe because every part of this machine is authentic. It was designed to do exactly what it was supposed to do, without extraneous styling. The only decoration on it is the manufacturer’s name. In the photograph you can see the sideways-mounted bell. You can also see the new drawband Jay installed on the mainspring. All the pieces still work, all the parts still do their job. There is a tabulation function. There is a lever to select which half of the ribbon you want to use, the upper half or the lower half. (Many typewriter ribbons were made with the top half being black and the bottom half being red or vice versa.) There is a lever to select the stencil function, which disengages the ribbon, while the carriage moves normally. There is a shift key for uppercase letters, and there is a shift lock key. There are margin controls and numbers and special characters besides the alphabet.

There is a gravitas to this machine, is what I’m trying to say, and the other thing I’m trying to say is that many things have a greater presence then we might give them credit for. So much of our world is digital, and so very fast, that spending time with objects on a personal level can be enriching. You know? Something that was designed and made for function and efficiency is to be honored, isn’t it?

I say, surround yourself first with empty space, then add things to it that are well-designed, sincere, and useful or beautiful or both.

I’ll be performing Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” on this machine on October 29, 2017 with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra in Sun City Center, Florida. With luck the performance will go well and I’ll want to share the video. After that's safely over, I'll install the new ribbon Jay sent with the machine and do some writing on it.

What do you have that is somehow more than the sum of its parts? Something that offers genuine experience when you interact with it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

5 Shocking Things I Learned at This Conference

Zestful Blog Post #233

If you’re a faithful reader, you know me, and you already get that this title is to prove a point. But I will share information I found interesting. Shocking? Maybe.

So OK, I’m a member of an organization called Novelists Inc., which is predominantly made up of independently published authors. The annual conference was last weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida. I saved money by commuting in every day, but it would have been fun to hang out in the bars with presenters and other writers every night. I attended a bunch of sessions and met up with some serious authors, as well as big shots in the publishing business, notably executives from Amazon and other high-profile companies.

Here are five highlights:
1)     Annual book sales are second only to television—which I guess means subscription television—and higher than games, music, and movies put together. I regret not having copied down the actual figures, but I was too busy absorbing the impact, being legitimately and seriously shocked by how much money there is in book sales, especially as compared with other media.
2)     Marketing isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well, that’s the impression I got from some of the sessions, but the message really is that authors must do marketing and promo, no matter who they are, or risk oblivion. If your marketing initiatives fail, it’s because your product blows. So learn to write well before learning to market well.
3)     Almost no one these days understands geometry. I run into this all the time, especially with writers, who brag about being mathematically illiterate. In God’s name, it’s not that hard. More than one presenter kept talking about one-dimensional characters or one-dimensional this or that. Does no one remember Descartes? Does no one cherish his memory? He gifted us with the concept of dimensionality. A point in space has zero dimension, a line has one dimension, a plane has two dimensions, and a solid has three dimensions. A solid moving through space represents what we sometimes call the fourth dimension, or time. To call a character, for instance, one-dimensional is to call it linear. This is not what you mean. You are trying to say the character is flat. A flat character is a two-dimensional character. A picture is two-dimensional; it is flat. Something three-dimensional would leap off the page, wouldn’t it? When we wish to say a character or scene or anything else is dull or flat or undeveloped, let us please say it is two-dimensional. Thank you very much for sticking with me through this pet peeve.

[This commanding swan was once a gray, uncoordinated cygnet. But it was always a swan. See #6.]
4)     Romance, chick lit, and traditional mystery writers do well keeping profanity and explicit sex out of their material. One of them said she hears from moms who tell her, “I don’t have to turn off the audio of your book in the car when I pick up the kids.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to hear a couple of authors of young adult material tell me they put in plenty of profanity and vulgarisms, and even (well protected) sex, and of course the kids love this. It’s just their parents and teachers who sometimes have a problem with it. Yet the kids are the final audience, and they’re supported by adults who perceive the value of good writing, and writing that speaks to young people with good messages.
5)     Top-earning professional writers get that way by being efficient, tracking their time, meeting deadlines, and spending money when appropriate—that is, gathering collaborators such as cover artists, editors, and publicists, and buying advertising and spending money on promotion while keeping a close eye on return on investment.
6)     Oh, and one last thing. So OK, that’s 6 things; sue me. A catchy blog post title can earn you a click, but if you don’t deliver what the clicker expects, you might be sorry. Bottom line, you have to be yourself, not a cheap huckster. Is this obvious? Of course, but there are so many voices out there yelling “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” that sometimes a quiet, sincere person begins to doubt themselves. Don’t doubt yourself. You have friends right here.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Make the Blunder You Love, Love the Blunder You Make

Zestful Blog Post #232

I’m always fascinated by the idea of deliberate imperfection. Most recently, I was touring Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. This was a few months ago. The tour guide directed our attention to the mosaic tile floor of the rotunda in one of the main buildings. The college was built by Henry Flagler, and industrialist who endowed the school and fostered many building projects, both charitable and otherwise, in St. Augustine. The guide told us that Flagler, a religious man in the Christian tradition, ascribed to the same belief that Islamic artists do: only God is perfect, and it is folly for humans to try to imitate God. Thus, if you build in a mistake or two into your project, you won’t displease God; you’ll be OK.

Thus the photograph below, showing a seeming mistake in the tile work of this elaborate and beautiful rotunda. As an artist, this idea should be comforting, and I find it so. Us writers tend to seek perfection, and worse, expect perfection in our work, and that often holds us back from being productive, and it holds our work back from seeing the light of day. It can even hold our work back from being the best it can be: free-flowing, honest, spirited.

[It's in the checkers.] 

I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but mostly I’ve written about the fact that we should accept imperfection in ourselves and in our work. I hadn’t thought about inserting deliberate imperfection, just to be on the safe side. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea, and the more, as a creative person, I find it freeing.

I do remember receiving some criticism on one of my early books, where the reader or reviewer said it would be better if I didn’t tie up every loose end. Readers are OK with a little ambiguity. It just occurs to me now that ambiguity is part of the human condition. Perfection is not.

This is all a little metaphysical, but I guess I’m in that kind of mood today. It’s so easy for writers and artists to lose touch with that inner core that feels and knows so much. It’s too easy for us to close off that core in order to get business done—in order to handle all the things we have to handle in life. Now here’s something funny and imperfect: I’m dictating this post using a headset microphone and my Dragon software, and I’m sitting next to my office window. The wind is blowing very hard outside; it’s whistling across the window frame and I suppose a little air is whistling right on in. When I pause my voice, Dragon hears the wind and types the word will. Will will will. I’ll leave those mistaken words in. I like the word will, and I like the word yes, and God knows what I’ll write next, but you can bet it will be imperfect.

Thank you for being my friend.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Crying is Beside the Point

Zestful Blog Post #231

Not long ago I watched a video of a young boy in a martial arts class trying to break a board. The instructor was on one knee, holding the piece of wood in his hands, and he was coaching the boy. The rest of the class, all boys around age eight or nine, I guess, were sitting cross-legged in a row, watching. Another instructor stood by.

The boy, as he’d been taught, lunged forward, yelled, and struck the board with his fist. It might be accurate to say he struck at the board. It didn’t break.

You pulled that one, the teachers said. Do it again. The boy did. The board didn’t break. The class was riveted in silence.

You pulled that one too, said the teacher. The boy tried again, and the board didn’t break.

Why are you crying? asked the teacher. The boy could not articulate why. He was, of course, embarrassed, afraid, and frustrated. Why are you crying? the teacher asked again.

At last the boy said, it’s hard.

Yes. The teachers were compassionate in that wonderful simple way some men have, and told the transfixed class that it’s all right to cry. You could see in all the other kids’ faces that they knew they could be the guy up there, the one failing to break the board, the one crying. The teachers didn’t comfort the boy. They didn’t explain anything to the class. It’s all right to cry. If they had told the boy to stop crying, then crying would have become the focus. Crying is beside the point.

To pull a punch is to take away the effort at the last instant. In crooked boxing matches, a fighter throws a punch only to take the force off of it just before it lands, so it looks like he punched this opponent, only he didn’t really hurt him. To metaphorically pull a punch is to hold back from saying something or doing something completely, honestly. It’s related to chickening out.

The instructors encouraged the boy to do it again. Notice they didn’t say try it again. Do it again. This was the most important element of this little video clip, to me.

It dawned on the boy that he was not going to be permitted to sit down until he broke the board. There was no way out except to succeed. He set himself, lunged forward, yelled, and broke the board.

He had committed. He made a literal breakthrough, and I don’t imagine he’ll ever forget the first time he broke a board. He had wanted it to be easier. It was as easy and as difficult as it was.

Commitment, as we see, as we know deep down, takes courage. Wise achievers learn this for themselves, over and over. The moment the boy mustered his courage to commit to breaking the board, he committed, he executed, and he succeeded. There’s belief in there, too, isn’t there? If you doubt the board will break, it won’t.

As it is with our work, every day. Courage. Don’t think you don’t need it. Call upon your supply of it. How do you replenish your supply of courage? What an idea. Let’s think about that, let’s talk about that. It’s all right to cry.

To post your thoughts—and I wish you would—click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precision from the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #230

One of my dearest friends had trouble with language. She couldn’t pronounce ‘hierarchy’ properly; the best she could do was ‘hyarchy.’ The word ‘weaponry’ became ‘weapondry.’ There was something about the mid-word ‘r’ sound. She would occasionally use words she’d picked up without being entirely clear on their meanings. She wanted to be thought of as a literate person. And therein lay danger.

One night she invited all of her top friends to a party at her house. I got there in the middle of the evening, grabbed a glass of wine, and went to find my hostess. She was standing with a circle of half a dozen friends, talking. When she saw me come up, she smiled and opened her arms and said—loudly, clearly: “Everybody, this is Elizabeth!” And then, in a very serious, approving tone, “Elizabeth is a pseudo-intellectual!

I stood there silently, as did the crowd. Then I realized that, very possibly, my friend did not understand the term. I murmured, “You just called me a phony.”

“Oh! That’s not what I meant at all!”

“The prefix pseudo means fake.”

“Oh! Everybody, that’s not what I meant! Elizabeth is very smart! She writes for the paper! I’m sorry, hon.”

“That’s all right.” And it was, because I loved my friend, and everybody understood.

However, it does bug me when somebody uses a word in an attempt to be linguistically impressive, especially in print. Not long ago, I read an essay in a magazine about a distinguished, prizewinning novelist. The writer of the piece referred to the author as “prosaic.” Instantly, I knew the writer meant “prolific.” But the writer probably thought about “prose,” and figured, vaguely, yeah, a lot of prose. Prosaic. Yeah, put that in.

This kind of mistake, passed over, I must painfully emphasize, not only by the writer but by the editor of the magazine, and possibly a copy editor and proofreader, in a literary magazine, makes me sigh deeply. It does not make me want to set my hair on fire or throw a hatchet through a window, but it does make me sigh deeply.

Prosaic means commonplace; literally like prose, with the implication that there is no poetry or artistry there. “My wardrobe is pretty prosaic: just jeans and polo shirts.” To be prolific is to be abundantly productive. “He’s prolific, having written ten books in five years.”

Another error I’ve noticed from time to time is the use of ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic.’ They are different words. Ascetic, pronounced ass-HEH-tic, means to practice severe (usually religious) self-denial. Aesthetic, pronounced ass-THET-ic, means having to do with beauty, or the appreciation of it. “The aesthetics of the building will be important, as it will be situated on a promontory for all to see.”

Now you understand. One more for today: the increasing practice of using ‘discomforting’ to mean ‘disconcerting.’ The word that’s mixing them up is ‘discomfiting,’ which they’ve heard somewhere, and they want to use it, but at the last second they bail out to ‘discomforting,’ because they’re not really sure about ‘discomfiting,’ and ‘disconcerting’ is entirely beyond them.

To be discomfited is to feel uneasy or embarrassed.

To be disconcerted is to feel more deeply uneasy; disturbed.

To be discomforted is when somebody steals your pillow.

I am, as always, yours in the love of precision.

What do you think? Any linguistic lapses bugging you today? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [amazing sketch by ES]

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Thanklist

Zestful Blog Post #229

Today I’m thankful for:
The National Hurricane Center.
Mike’s Weather Page /
Neighbors John and Fred.
Local pals Marj and Mark and Rick and many others.
My 22-year-old Lexus 400LS.
My mechanic.
My sister, whose diamond/platinum/uranium status in a hotel chain’s system secured me a room in a safe place at the eleventh hour. Actually, it was the fourteenth hour.
My brother.
All other family units.
The Manatee County Emergency Alert System.
Two angry rednecks in a patched-together maroon Chevrolet Lumina who were trying to force me off the road but chose not to at the last second perhaps because I smiled incredulously.
Other rednecks who were even nicer.
Hilton Garden Inn, Pensacola.
Publix liquor store, Pensacola.
Dunkin Donuts, Pensacola.
A waiter named Chuck.
24 linemen and their trucks from Oklahoma, en route to the staging area in Lakeland, ma’am.

This particular line-repair convoy, snapped while driving back home, was from Alabama.

New paperback edition of The Sun Also Rises, supplemented with early drafts and deleted chapters.
The Microsoft electronics company.
Florida Power and Light.
The Frito-Lay snack company.
The Samsung electronics company.
Weather satellites and all the shit they do up there.
Socks in general.
Portable soft-sided cooler technology.
The Florida state highway system.
The U.S. Interstate highway system.
Workers who clean and maintain interstate rest stops.
Katy & Steve.
Ann & Margaret.
Other good friendships too many to count accurately. But my gratitude may be measured by the metric ton.
Spiral-bound notebook technology.
Graphite and those who mine it.
Double-walled paper cup technology.
Costco gas, Tallahassee.
The Florida State Building Code of 1980.
Anonymous Four.
The Shaggs.

Do you have a Hurricane Irma Thanklist? What’s on it? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. Photo by ES.

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