Thursday, March 29, 2018

When False is Sort of True

Zestful Blog Post #257

I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about unusual crimes, from the JFK assassination to the Manson murders to the two Teds (Bundy and Kaczynski) to OJ, on and on. This fits into my obsession with “Why do people do what they do?” Which fits into my obsession with writing with as much truth and authenticity as possible. One crime that’s gotten revived lately is the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair from 1994, due to the award-winning biopic “I, Tonya.” The picture came out last fall, in time to be discussed in the run-up to this year’s winter Olympics. Having been fascinated by the crime as it unfolded in real life, I made a point to see the movie, which I found fascinating as well.

I mean, what a story! Redneck skating champion wearing too many sequins and acting too athletic, dissed by the girls-gotta-be-pretty skating establishment, prompts an attack on her rival, the dazzling dream girl in the white lace dress. We have the sleazy boyfriend, the thug with the police baton, the semiliterate bodyguard, and the giant stage of the top athletic competition in the world. We have the bar owner who checks her dumpster for unauthorized trash and finds incriminating notes in redneck skater’s handwriting. I mean, my God. I was riveted to every report, having long been a fan of Olympic figure skating (ref. Zestful posts 158 and 252). It was especially thrilling to me that the attack occurred in my home zone of Detroit, in Cobo Arena. I still remember that Shane Stant was reported to have stayed in the Super 8 motel on Middlebelt Road next to Detroit Metro Airport, mere yards away from the impact point of Northwest Airlines flight 255, which crashed in 1987, killing all aboard but one little girl. Another compelling story, albeit not a criminal one.

The other day I read an amazingly sensitive profile on Tonya written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the January 10, 2018 New York Times.

[Bronze sculpture by Abestenia Saint Leger Eberle (American, Webster City, Iowa 1878–1942 New York), 1906. It’s a public-domain image; what can I say?]

The writer sat down with Tonya and took her seriously, and got a whole lot of the inner Tonya that no one had gotten before. So many lessons here:

A caricature is not a person.
All you have to do is listen with some measure of respect and yes, compassion.
People want to tell their story, but only if they feel they’re not being judged.
My truth may not mesh with your truth.

Here is a quote from near the end of the article:
“A lot of what she said wasn’t true. She contradicted herself endlessly. But she reminded me of other people I’ve known who have survived trauma and abuse, and who tell their stories again and again to explain what happened to them but also to process it themselves. The things she said that were false—they were spiritually true, meaning they made her point, and she seemed to believe them.”

Isn’t spiritual truth a great term? This is something we as writers need to keep handy. We create characters, and they need to seem real. Nobody acts logically all the time; nobody thinks every single thing through before they do it. Nobody can see the big picture all the time. The big picture for Tonya was, she was surrounded by goons, and goons can’t do anything right, and they can’t keep their mouths shut. All this is apart from right vs. wrong. Everybody has their spiritual truth. And pretty much everybody, from the three-year-old who steals a cookie to the investment banker who builds a Ponzi scheme to the serial killer who stalks and slaughters as often as possible, feels their behavior is justified, at least at first. Self-justification is a big deal to us humans. We do things, and we want those things to be right. We want to be seen by others as being, always, somehow, in the right. Sometimes we are.

It’s easy and fun to paint somebody with one simple stupid color. But it’s not the best we can do. I’m not saying perps ought to get a free pass if they’ve had a shitty life. But letting them talk helps us understand them. So, keep letting your characters talk to you. Make them sit down over a beer or coffee and talk to you. Remember the idea of spiritual truth. Good guys, bad guys. Make them tell you their stories, from the beginning. Don’t judge them. That’s the job of your readers. When we understand, we can create something authentic, nuanced, compelling—and zestful.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Excerpt from The Business of Being a Writer

Zestful Blog Post #256

My friend Jane Friedman, publishing expert and digital-industry thought leader, has just come out with a new book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). It’s packed with useful stuff for aspiring authors as well as experienced ones. Reading through the galley she sent me, I was struck by this short passage in the first chapter:

[excerpt begins] …I’ve witnessed many writers hit their heads against the wall trying to publish or gain acclaim for a particular type of work, even as they succeed wildly with something else— that they don’t think is prestigious or important enough. Getting caught up in prestige is perhaps one of the most destructive inclinations of all. Paul Graham has written elegantly on this, comparing prestige to a “powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Avoiding this trap is easier said than done. Most of us live under the weight of expectations put upon us by parents, teachers, peers, and the larger community. Breaking free of their opinions can be liberating, but what others think of us also contributes to how we form our identities. It’s not a problem you can solve as much as acknowledge and manage. Still, if you can at least let go of the many myths about writing, and pursue what you truly enjoy with as much as excellence as possible, you can shape a writing life that is not only uniquely your own, but one that has a better chance of becoming a lifelong career. [excerpt ends]

Wise words. They instantly made me think of one of my literary heroes, Arthur Conan Doyle, enduringly famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories. Besides those stories, perhaps you are familiar with his novel The Tragedy of the Korosko. No? Well then, maybe you’ve read Uncle Bernac. Hm, no? That’s because nobody has. They were heavy-duty historical tomes which, although published, just didn’t get popular. Not much then, not at all now. But the Holmes stories struck a deep chord with readers. That didn’t please Doyle! He resented that readers liked his gripping mystery tales over the important stuff about Uncle Bernac, whoever the hell he was. So he killed off Holmes at the end of “The Final Problem.” The public outcry was such that he had to bring him back (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”).

Many of us can relate to this. My own fiction is mostly mystery- and crime-type stuff. When I look at big famous literary authors, sometimes I think, well, I should be doing more so-called literary work. Literary work is defined as having literary merit, and a lot of that consists of social commentary. Hypocrisy is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. War is bad—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Mean people suck—see, I’ve written a novel that shows it. Gimme my Pulitzer. Funny how literary fiction so often likes to show us the correct moral path. Which is preaching. Which, unless the author has real humility and skill, gets pukey fast.

If you can reach readers with a good story that’s well told, while being fully yourself as you write, and having fun along the way—well, isn’t that ideal? If you’re fully yourself, your writing will feature the things you cherish, which just might include issues like right vs. wrong. The only difference is, you won’t be in your readers’ faces, telling them how to think. Far less risk of pukiness. Far more chance of success.

Get hold of Jane’s book for more wisdom and solid advice on building a writing career. If you like it, be sure to put up a review, OK? I’ll be putting one up soon myself.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Awards Versus Happiness

Zestful Blog Post #255

Awards Versus Happiness

If you read this blog, you’re my friend. At some point before we’re all dead, I’m gonna send out a newschat, but today you guys will learn a little bit of news in advance, along with my Facebook friends, who saw this yesterday. Gonna talk about awards here. If you are an author, especially, please read to the end of this post to get my most heartfelt and useful advice. Last week I learned that Crimes in a Second Language is receiving the silver medal in the Florida Book Awards, general fiction category. Which is nice. But upon hearing the news, I was like, shit! Because I had wanted and expected gold! That’s how I am: totally confident in my superiority as an author. Which, though arguably delusional, has not proved to be any serious handicap.

During the most recent cycle of the Olympics, I read somewhere that psychologists have determined that the least happy medalists are the ones who get silver. Because of course the gold people are happy that they won the top prize, and the bronze people generally are ecstatic that they got a medal at all. The silver people go Aw hell, should have gotten the gold! And that was exactly my first reaction to this silver medal. But I’m over it. I’m gratified that the other two medalists in my category were published by major houses in hardcover, while I released Crimes independently, under Spruce Park Press, my personal imprint. The gold went to Laura Lee Smith for The Ice House (Grove Atlantic) and the bronze went to Randy Wayne White for Mangrove Lightning (Putnam). I hope to meet them both, along with the winners in the other ten categories, at a dinner in Tallahassee next month. Will someone actually put the medals around our necks, like at the Olympics? The thought makes me nervous. I’ll report back.

I give major credit to the judges for taking my book seriously and not discounting it because it’s a humble indie. Their identities are public information on the FBA web site, so I’m going to thank them here: Chris Coward, Jennifer Pratt, and Dianna Narciso. All judges are past winners of FBAs. I highly approve of having judges be identified, because it makes the process transparent. Yeah, I guess an author could try to coddle up to a judge or send a case of Scotch to their house, but the risk of something like that swaying a judge doesn’t cancel out the benefits of transparency.

[From the Florida Book Awards website: The competition is run by the Florida State University Libraries and co-sponsored by the Florida Center for the Book, the State Library and Archives of Florida, the Florida Historical Society, the Florida Humanities Council, the Florida Literary Arts Coalition, the Florida Library Association, “Just Read, Florida!,” the Florida Association for Media in Education, The Center for Literature and Theatre @ Miami Dade College, Friends of the Florida State University Libraries, the Florida Writers Association, and the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.]

When you think about it, most of us have competed for lots of things. Grades in school, the affection of a parent, athletic contests and games, and so much more. Competition is a part of life. Some competitions are completely objective. You skate the fastest or you don’t. You jump the highest or you don’t. You earn the most money or you don’t. Then there are the subjective contests, which play so much havoc with artists. Your pirouette spin wasn’t as pretty as hers. Your book wasn’t as good as his.

I’ve cursed judging panels when books of mine have been snubbed and books of inferior quality (in my opinion) given prizes. “Pearls before swine!” is my go-to rant, meaning the judges’ tastes were so coarse they couldn’t recognize quality when they saw it. I’ve been a judge in literary contests, and I know how subjective the process can be. (Certain things you can be objective about: the mechanics of writing, for instance. Then there is literary merit. Let the brawl begin!)

The sad reality is that awards do drive readers’ choices. Just the other day I participated in a group reading with other authors; all of us had some books for sale. As I was signing a copy of Left Field for a reader, she said, “I bought the one that won the award!” That copy happened to have a GCLS Goldie sticker on it, one of a bunch they give you for such use.

Some authors get depressed when they don’t win an award, and that’s just so wrong. Understandable, but wrong. You gotta either get mad for a while (pearls before swine), or shrug and say, “Who cares?” You cannot let the non-win affect your self-esteem. It’s the same when a negative review smacks you in the face. The hell with it.

So, publish your work, enter competitions, go for the gold, but remember this tremendously important fact: Your work is not you. Your work is your work. It is separate from you. And remember the corollary: A win doesn’t mean you’re special. It means a particular piece of your work was judged to be worthy. That’s all.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dishing on Pita Authors

Zestful Blog Post #254

We like pita bread with hummus, but we don’t like pita people, which stands for Pain In The You Know What.

I’ve been thinking about nice vs. pita authors, having been complimented lately for being one of the nice ones. It’s easy to figure out that nice works so much better than pita, especially if you’ve had to deal with pita authors in professional situations. And as a bookseller for ten years, and as an author for many more, I’ve had experience.

The first pita author encounter I really remember was when I was managing a bookstore in suburban Detroit. The author called up to request that my store sell her book after a talk she was scheduled to give in a few weeks at some nearby venue. I didn’t know her name, but she was local and she had written a book, and it had gotten published, and she was promoting it as best she could. She’d gotten a speaking gig with a service group, as I remember, and she had been told that as many as 200 people would attend.

I congratulated her on her book, but said we couldn’t sell her book off-site. “We’re not really set up to do that, I’m afraid.”

She was shocked. She had called to offer us this opportunity to make money. “Why not? You’d sell 200 books!”

“Well,” I said, “to begin with, the expense wouldn’t really justify—”

“Wait a minute. It’d be like two employees at minimum wage.”

“We pay our employees above minimum wage. But there are liability issues with having employees off-site, using private vehicles, but I’m really getting ahead of things, because—”

She kept interrupting, never giving me a chance to say: Look, lady. First of all, you’re not going to sell a book to every person who comes to your event, because you’re not Stephen King or Madonna or Mickey Mantle. We would have to guess how many books of yours to order, pay the publisher or distributor for them, pay for shipping, and of course receive and account for the order. We would need to prepare a cash drawer for cash customers. We would need to acquire a credit card terminal or disconnect one of ours currently in use in the store, take it to the venue in advance, and install a dedicated phone line to handle credit card data processing. We would need to arrange for a table or counter upon which to display the book and do business, and a chair or two for our staff. On the day of the event, hours ahead of the start of your talk, we would need to pull one or two employees from their scheduled work at the store to load the books and supplies into whatever vehicle we’d figured out to use, give them instructions, and hope for the best. At the venue, the staff would have to unload the books, cash drawer, and credit card machine, make sure the electronics are running right, and call for help if they’re not. After your talk, the staff would sell books. After that, the staff would pack up unsold books and everything else, return to the store, and unload everything. We would have to box up, arrange for, and pay for shipping to return unsold stock to the publisher or distributor. Our gross profit margin on a hardcover book is about fifty-five percent. After normal expenses—staff, rent, supplies—we’re talking about ten percent profit, or a dollar sixty-two cents, if your book is selling for eighteen dollars and we give our standard ten percent discount on hardcovers. So if we sold a hundred books for you, our profit would be a hundred sixty-two dollars. If, as would be much more likely, we sold twenty-five books for you, our profit would be forty dollars and fifty cents. We might mention the cost of installing the phone line at the venue, the wages of the extra staff to cover the work of the regular staff sent to your event, and if we took a look at all that, as well as mileage, vehicle expense, and a special insurance rider, lady, we would be paying for the privilege of selling your book at your event. Have a nice day.

[Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pitas. Screen grab from a Microsoft computer TV ad, since I couldn’t use a photo of one of the people I’m talking about in this post. I'm writing this on a Microsoft device, so yay, Microsoft; be cool with my using this image, OK?]
[The things we have to think about.]

In general, famous people are pretty cool, don’t act like pitas, and say thank you nicely. In general. A super famous artist with a new book out about her work wanted to do an event at another store I was managing, this one in suburban Chicago. Great, we’d love to have her. Our publicist got her on the phone to set things up and see what we could do—host a reading and signing, or maybe she’d like to give a lecture, whatever she’d like? The event did get set up, although the artist found it necessary to comment on the publicist’s ethnicity and guess at her religion as they chatted. In not a friendly way. 

The day before the event, the artist phoned the publicist and asked her to buy theater tickets for her, because a very socially important Hollywood movie had just come out, and she needed to see it, and tickets in this first week of the release were hard to get. Incredibly to me, the publicist was willing to go over to the theater and buy the tickets the artist wanted. But she objected that if the artist went to the movie, she would be terribly late for her event, which had already been in all the papers, posters in the store, etc. The artist didn’t care. The publicist went out and bought the tickets, the artist went to the movie, fans of hers showed up on a bitter winter night at the store and waited for an hour and a half to see her swoop in, stomp the snow off her boots, say a few words (most of which concerned the socially important Hollywood picture she had just seen and thought wonderful), sign a few books, and leave. Have a nice day.

Then there was the hot young author whose debut literary novel was rocketing around all the lists and magazines. He did an event at a bookstore in California managed by a subordinate of mine. This was one of the big chains, and I was the regional director. The store manager and her staff put on a beautiful event for this author and his book, drawing in a crowd of about fifty people, which is saying something for a debut literary work. There was a little reception with snacks and coffee. They had a microphone and lectern for the author. He gave an entertaining talk, signed dozens of books, and chatted with customers. Perfect! As he was leaving, the store manager went over and thanked him for coming and said she’d enjoyed the evening very much herself. She extended her hand. He took it, looked her in the eye, and said in a tone that was, as she recalled, a perfect blend of nastiness and sarcasm, “Kill the independents.” Have a nice day.

I could go on. Well, you know, it feels good to dish about this stuff once in a while. I hope you found this pita post educational! As a friend of mine once said, “It’s not gossip; it’s cleansing.”

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mixing Up Persons

Zestful Blog Post #253

In my decades of experience with writers and their associations, I’ve noticed that critique groups are big on finding fault with mixing first and second person in narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, because writing guides say you’re not supposed to. Here’s the thing: Writing guides are often like the tax code: Without rigid rules, the whole thing will fall apart! We cannot permit any discretionary freedom! Because people won’t understand, and they’ll do something awful. Then we’ll have to send soldiers to your house.

To define our terms in a nutshell: First person is [I], second person is [you].

Yeah, it’s possible to write terrible material, rule book or no rule book. But if you avoid mixing persons, you can’t go wrong from a technical standpoint. However! Mixing first and second persons in narrative or dialogue is a matter of common sense. How does it read, how does it sound? If you experiment and let your imagination go free, you can come up with lively, natural-sounding stuff.

My poster boy for this is Ernest Hemingway. In his first—and in my opinion, best—novel, The Sun Also Rises, we find this passage:

[We went down the stairs to the cafĂ© on the ground floor. I had discovered that was the best way to get rid of friends. Once you had a drink all you had to say was: “Well, I’ve got to get back and get off some cables,” and it was done.]

(‘getting off some cables’ meaning, in olden times, sending news reportage via telegraph.)

The novel is written in first person, but the narrator, Jake, moves easily to second person when it sounds right, as again in this description of the Spanish countryside viewed from a bus:

[There were signs on the walls of the churches saying it was forbidden to play pelota against them, and the houses in the villages had red tiled roofs, and then the road turned off and commenced to climb and we were going way up close along a hillside, with a valley below and hills stretched off back toward the sea. You couldn’t see the sea. It was too far away.]

Let’s unpack this a little bit. The first indication of person is the first-person plural ‘we’ [we were going way up]. If Jake had stuck with first person and told us [I couldn’t see the sea.], we might, upon reading the sentence and before getting to the next, assume that someone’s head was in his way. Then, upon reading the next sentence, we might guess that Jake is nearsighted. That would be possible. Or maybe nobody could see the sea from the bus, because it was not in view. The reader must guess. And a perceptive, close reader would feel slightly unsettled.

Jake could have maintained first person by saying something like: ‘The sea was not in view, being too far away.’ Or: ‘No one on the bus could see the sea, because it was too far away.’

But both of those are needlessly stiff. Using ‘you’ in constructions as Hemingway did is a perfectly good way to craft narrative that sounds natural, even conversational.

If Beatrix Potter were to get reincarnated as a 25-year-old dude with a Reddit account, she might write:
[I slipped under the fence to Mr. McGregor’s garden. He was in there, pulling back and forth on that long stick with the short spikes on it? Yeah, I have no idea. But I got a couple of carrots. You just have to work fast, while his back is turned. They were awesome carrots.]

But if she or anyone were writing a doctoral dissertation on jet propulsion, the thing would be rigidly in super neutral third person, and it would be correct, if not natural.

[The mixed gases expanded at a greater rate than expected, in this instance producing a catastrophic failure of the interior aluminum housing. The next test replicated that result.]

Fine. Right. Next time the team will adjust the mixture to include some polyethylene wadding in a hexagonal configuration, which should slow down the burn rate and produce a cleaner level of bullshit.

I mix persons all the time in this blog, and I mix them in my fiction as well. Readers don’t notice; all they care about is whether they’re enjoying what they’re reading.

Yes, it’s possible to do a bad job of mixing persons and having it be obtrusive or fake-sounding. But it just this second dawned on me that in all the material I’ve evaluated, edited, and judged for aspiring authors, I don’t think I’ve ever once said, “You know, you should review a usage guide on first and second person, because you seem to have no clue.” Maybe, maybe once or twice I’ve had to stop somebody from constantly and wildly switching, but it’s just not a common problem. Except in critique groups.

Test your material simply by asking, “Does this sound natural?” Now go get ya some of them carrots!

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