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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