Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap: Oscar Weekend Freebie

Zestful Blog Post #200

Just a quickie here; I forgot to mention this in yesterday's blog. In honor of the Academy Awards, one of America’s most important national holidays, The Actress is free on Amazon Kindle through Sunday night. (You can get it and read it on any device with the free Kindle app.)

Publishers Weekly: “Her wry commentary on life in Hollywood is dead-on.”

Have a great weekend, my friend.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Seriously: HT Write with a Wood-Cased Pencil

Zestful Blog Post #199

This will just take a minute, but you've stayed with me this far, you will thank me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately with wood-cased pencils, premium ones that write nice and smooth. They tend to be expensive, so I’ve been conscious of making best use of them. ‘Best use’ of a pencil means wasting as little as possible, which means minimizing the number of times it goes into the sharpener.

Also, as a handwriter of first drafts, I’m always looking for ways to minimize hand/arm fatigue.

When you use a writing instrument such as a ballpoint pen, it makes sense to apply the point more or less vertically to the paper, to let more of the ball contact the page. But if you apply a pencil that way,

you dull the point fairly quickly, and the cramped position of your hand promotes discomfort. But if you hold the pencil like this,

on a much shallower angle, and—this is key—if you rotate it every so often, slightly, in your fingers, you’ll retain the point longer and need to sharpen it less often. And see how the hand is in a more lengthened, relaxed position? I don't know why it took me so long to learn this.

Here is a closeup, the one on the left showing the planes or facets of a point used on a proper slant with occasional rotation, versus a point dulled by clueless vertical positioning.

[Photos by ES]

I rest my (wood) case.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kicking it Sideways

Zestful Blog Post #198

Here’s a meat patty from my article “Stepping up Your Sidekicks” in Writer’s Digest magazine.

The most memorable sidekicks possess some or all of these attributes:

- They are fiercely loyal to the hero.

- They are different in at least one key respect from the hero: in temperament, class, gender, race, age, etc.

- They possess a strong moral compass (rogues, like the HAL 9000, being the notable exception).

- They have unique, useful skills.

- They’re somehow dependent on the hero, if only emotionally.

- They don’t try to overshadow or be more valuable than the hero.

- They have unique backstories and character arcs.

- They’re too essential to the hero and the story to be killed off.

[Old kicks. Cut and split a lot of wood in these, in days of yore...]

How to do it:

Choose a likely candidate. You can’t go wrong by selecting the person closest to your protagonist: the spouse, sibling, or best friend.

Give that character a reason to drop everything (or almost everything) and follow the hero. You might need to plant an event earlier in that character’s life, like a nasty boss who needs to be told off: “And what’s more, I QUIT!”  You could ship your sidekick’s husband out on military duty for six months, or send the kids to summer camp—anything that will plausibly free up that secondary character to step in.

Consider giving the sidekick a meaty backstory. This will help you create a rich character arc for that person. The generic elementary school teacher might be given a major life regret: “I wish I’d stuck with it and gotten my Ph.D.—then I wouldn’t be dealing with mouthy ten-year-olds every day…” Or the dude in the next cubicle might be starting a business, or preparing to take his black belt exam in judo, or recovering from PTSD.

In order to cement loyalty or friendship, plant an event in which the hero does something to save the future sidekick’s bacon. The hero could bail his sidekick out of jail, throw himself under the bus literally or figuratively, or stand up to a bully. Or reverse the situation: Perhaps the sidekick, currently a stranger, saves the hero somehow, which leads to their relationship. The hero can then work to show gratitude to the sidekick, who continues to help the hero.

Keep your sidekick separate from your mentor (if you have one). If you force your mentor to do double duty as a sidekick, you risk disrupting the balance of power in your story—and confusing the reader. This is because the mentor always has higher status than the hero, while the sidekick, by definition, should have lower status.

Leverage conflict and suspense. Sidekicks are great for this. They can make terrible mistakes, thus complicating things for your hero (and themselves). They can bumble into a situation that turns out fabulous. Or they can simply sit and worry while the hero is off heroing.

Throw some rocks along the relationship path. I find as a reader and writer that giving a sidekick and hero some ups and downs enriches the story. Think of it this way: If a stranger walked up to you and punched you in the nose unprovoked, it would be a shocking surprise, but if the person you’ve counted on the most—fought alongside, gotten drunk with—punched you in the nose, that’s a whole different—and bigger—story. If your hero and sidekick experience serious relationship problems, the reader gets to enjoy a row or two, while having the basic confidence that the band will always get back together.

Consider giving your villain a sidekick. A villain’s sidekick usually gets stuck with the label henchman, is typically a brainless thug, and eventually gets blown away by the good guy. However, I believe villainous sidekicks are grossly underutilized by contemporary authors.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mindful Practice

Zestful Blog Post #197

Last week I discussed how keeping a commitment to something can yield good—even great—results, as one incrementally improves. A comment by BJ made me reflect, though, that there’s more to it than showing up and wanting to get better—you have to put in effort. You have to do work, real work, and not just make a show of it.

Now, I mean, showing up is massive, especially for us writers, who get serenaded by a hundred distractions every day. But after reading BJ’s comment, I thought about my writing in relation to my swimming, golf, drums, and other pursuits. I remembered something a sports coach said to me once: “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect; practice makes permanent.” His point was that if you practice with poor technique, or if you feel indifferent toward what you’re doing, your performance will stagnate.

It’s true. When I was a lifeguard I’d study the regular swimmers, and noted that few ever worked toward improvement. Pretty much everybody would show up, put in their lengths using whatever half-assed stroke they’d learned years ago, at exactly the same pace, then leave. Same with golf. Most recreational players don’t take lessons, don’t study the game, don’t practice, and have shitty swings.

I’ve found only one kindred spirit in the pool who, like me, strives for an ever more efficient stroke. Like me, he does drills and intervals, he mixes up his workout, and even does fun random stuff like swim a length of backstroke balancing his water bottle on his forehead. (Yeah, my God.) He’s the faster of the two of us, I’m the smoother. It’s enjoyable to work out in adjacent lanes. So, yeah, if you seek to improve by searching out good advice and then practice with mindfulness and intentionality, then you’ll get somewhere. You’ll improve, be fruitful, flourish.

In sports, being mindful pretty much boils down to awareness: Am I letting the water support my head? Is my spine staying in line with my head when I roll to breathe? Are my hands relaxed? The trick is not to TRY. Don’t try to relax your hands. Just notice whether they feel relaxed or not. This frees you up to be OK with whatever is. No judging necessary, no calling something good or bad. This lets awareness work its subtle magic for you. Ditto for meditative practices like yoga, where you’re supposed to let body tension go before attempting even simple poses. Yoga teachers talk about awareness all the time.

What about writing? Reading great books with fine attention helps a writer get better. Is there more we can do to effect ongoing improvement, apart from showing up and slamming down words? Unlike performance in sport, which can be measured by a clock or points on a board, the worthiness of any piece of writing is subjective to some extent.

But let’s just say it isn’t. Let’s say we can tell if our writing is getting better or staying the same. Let’s give ourselves that much credit.

I think awareness holds tremendous potential for us. And the body is the gateway to the mind and spirit. Unnecessary tension in any of the three—body, mind, spirit—will block us from doing our best. The absence of needless mental, emotional, and physical tension will facilitate our best.

So: As you settle down to write, ask yourself: Am I feeling any unnecessary physical tension? Feel it, and see whether it changes. Then ask: tension emotionally? Mentally? Feel it, and see what happens.
Right now, try dropping your jaw. Was it tense? How does it feel now? (In my blog post of August 1, 2013, I discussed this relaxing-your-jaw thing while writing. I thought it was cool, but didn’t take it any further.)

As you begin to write, touch base on the question of tension from time to time, and add a second one: Am I feeling pleasure as I write? Don’t ask: Is what’s coming onto the page good? Ask: Am I enjoying this? Don’t even attempt to figure out why or why not.

Let’s try it and see what happens!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Slowly Faster

Zestful Blog Post #196

Last year on my 59th birthday (and let us speak no more of such numbers), I began a journal with the intention of writing in it every day. So far, I’ve missed only about five days. Those missed days are a great lesson about happiness. You committed to do this thing; you have done it imperfectly; you can’t, today, write yesterday’s entry. You can write about yesterday, OK, good, but the past is past, and imperfection must be all right. Missed opportunities must be OK. Otherwise—what? Cut your throat? Yeah, no. Smile and go on.

In my journal last night I wrote about my midday swim. I’ve been surprised, lately, to find myself overtaking swimmers in neighboring lanes who’ve either been faster than, or about the same as me. I wrote, “Slowly, slowly, I’m getting faster.” I almost laughed aloud. Of course, ‘gradually’ would have been a better word than ‘slowly,’ but the point is this: Improvement is often so subtly incremental that you don’t notice it, especially after you reach some level of basic competence. You see where I’m going with this.

There’s a big difference between wanting to write, and banging out a complete short story. A big difference between a handful of short stories and a novel.

There’s a much smaller difference between a short story and a better short story. Or is there? What of the difference between a novel you’re grateful to have completed, and a novel the writing of which changed your life?

If you stay true to your commitment—even if imperfectly, and you will be imperfect—you may get better, but you will certainly and continually give yourself chances to get better. Yay for incremental improvement; don’t let it slip by unnoticed. Because those spaces between the small increments? That’s where the magic is.

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