It’s Nice To Be Noticed

I’m re-posting this from a couple years ago, mainly ’cause I’m under the gun to finish some editing jobs. Plus, when I posted this the first time I only had two or three folks interested in following my blog. Now I’ve got… Hell, I dunno. Several, at least! Anyway, here ’tis:

The Recognition Fairy, caught between jobs.

It’s nice to be noticed. It’s even nicer when someone singles out your work with a compliment. There’s something about that wiggly puppy feeling you get when the Recognition Fairy pops up, wand in hand, and sends a cloud of sparkly stuff swirling through the atmosphere. Even though, over at the EPA, some joy-killing bureaucratic cretin is sure to issue yet another air quality warning: “Whoa! Too much sparkly stuff! Stay inside! And remember to report any tiny, winged, humanoid creatures to the authorities.” (That last little call to arms is just dumb, since everyone knows the Recognition Fairy doesn’t take a humanoid form. Silly bureaucrats!)

I used to believe there was no such thing as too much recognition. Really, I did. I can’t believe anyone ever developed blisters from being patted on the back. It’s just not possible. The body would automatically secrete some sort of anti-hubris hormone which would, in turn, spark a wave of self-doubt and suspicion — Are they really just saying nice things, while deep down inside they hate my guts? It’s true. That’s exactly how these things work. I know; I took a science class in school back in <mumble>.

And then, of course, there’s the ugly flip-side of recognition. When it’s institutionalized, sprayed out like weed killer, and soaked up by a legion of the undeserving dressed in schlep’s clothing.North Korean officers Who wants that? Praise should not be doled out like Tic-Tacs from a plastic dumpster. Recognition, if we can be honest about it, should at least be more subtle than an Elvis impersonator. It needs a bit of soft sell. It can be contained in very few words. I’m particularly fond of: “Wow! Great job!” But that’s just me. Others may require something way more effusive, like: “I just finished reading your latest novel, and I’m still behind on my sleep. It’s going to take days to recover. I’ve never laughed so hard or wept so inconsolably. My emotions pegged both ends of the joy/despair spectrum as I followed your brilliant characters through one stunning adventure after another. If only I could have paid for the book two or three times! In fact, I’d love to send you a humble gift of cash if it will help to keep you writing.”

This, of course, may cause the Recognition Fairy to hemorrhage, so caution should be the byword when it comes to gushiness. Crazy, right? Who knew?

So, if you’ve read something by me that you liked, feel free to spread the word. On Amazon, preferably, or Goodreads. FaceBook would be cool, too. Skywriting isn’t required, but it sure would be memorable.

Hm. Skywriting….

–Josh

Posted in editing, Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Success requires effort. Stunning, I know…

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to get feedback on my work from a number of incredibly talented writers, Rob Sawyer, Mike Resnick, Kris Rusch, and Steve Sterling to name a few. There have been others, to whom I’m equally grateful, but I don’t wish to be accused of name-dropping. Or, at least, not too many names! The deal we make when accepting help from those who have done well, is that we pay it forward. If, God willing, we’re able to achieve some measure of success, we agree to help those who follow in our footsteps.

meaning_of_life_1763245I had just such an opportunity recently. A young writer was directed to me for advice and counsel on the business of independent publishing. My response may be of interest, and I post it here for what it’s worth. I make no guarantees other than that I fully believe everything I’ve said in here is true.

To wit:

Dear <ID and initial niceties redacted>,

As for self-promotion, I’m probably the worst person on Earth to ask! The name of the game, these days, is “Platform building.” One’s platform is the crowd–hopefully vast–which one can influence. You build your platform by being active in social media, through contacts (professional, collegial, recreational, whatever), and by taking advantage of any and all opportunities to put your work in front of people who can act on it. That means they can buy, review, recommend, praise, and/or promote it.

But understand this: the promise you’re making when you embark on this promotional odyssey is that what you’re publishing is top flight, first-rate, numero uno material. It won’t have sloppy formatting or a wandering storyline. It won’t have lifeless characters or a pointless plot. It’s going to be worth every nickel the reading public pays for it, and more! You’re promising quality, but if you deliver crap–and all too many indie publishers do–you’ll condemn yourself to failure. Worse, you’ll very likely condemn all your future work to failure, too.

So, make sure you’ve got good stuff to sell, or don’t try to sell it. Make sure it’s thoroughly vetted. If your friends and fellow writers aren’t ecstatic about it, hold off on publishing it. Get another opinion. Figure out what’s wrong and fix it. You’ll never get it perfect–no one does. But get it as close as you can, because the market is brutally honest. If your stuff sucks, they’ll let you know in no uncertain terms.

If it’s truly excellent, you might get a few positive reviews. Revel in them! Nasty reviews are much, much easier to write, and disappointed readers are more apt to write them than the happy-talk feedback Mom and Dad give us.

That’s just the way it is.

Best of luck!

–Josh

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Edit your writing; don’t edit your life

 

Most of us have had moments in our lives when something bad happened. The scale of “bad” is incredibly broad. It stretches from forgettable to life-changing and covers a  staggering array of situations, actions, reactions, and consequences. For memoir writers, there’s a strong temptation to downplay if not ignore such episodes. Doing so, however, creates a false narrative, a snapshot of a moment the way it “should” have been, rather than one which depicts what actually happened.

When writing in the abstract, like this, it’s easy to toss off advice that doesn’t impact the advice-giver personally. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

Anne Lamott is often quoted when this topic comes up, as it often does in my memoir writing classes. One of my favorites from her is: “There is nothing as sweet as a comeback, when you are down and out, about to lose, and out of time.” Since I primarily write action/adventure fiction, this admonition feels as if it’s designed especially for me, or more accurately, for my characters. It’s doubly true for memoirists.

I suspect there are two kinds of memoir readers: those who seek a “There, but for the grace of God, go I” revelation, and those who prefer to become absorbed in real-life struggles against adversity. This latter group mirrors fiction readers quite closely. They’re less interested in the outcome of a fight than they are in the tenacity, ingenuity, and integrity of the fighter.

And that’s precisely why difficult topics should never be glossed over in either memoir or fiction. The difference is that a reader can always grab another story by the same fiction writer. For the memoirist, there’s only one tale to be told.

All too often my memoir students worry about the feelings of those who treated them badly, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Nor, evidently does the redoubtable Anne Lamott. Here’s my other favorite quote of hers: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Yes, people do ugly things to each other, and when someone does it to you, is it really that hard to write about? I imagine it would be significantly more difficult to write about the horrible things we’ve done to others. But even then, what’s the point of glossing over it? To make ourselves look better? Will that change who we are, or does it merely postpone the discovery for those who don’t know us well?

Tell the truth, even if it’s ugly. Tell it, even if it’s painful. Tell it, because if you don’t, you’ll never get past it, and you’ll never become the person you long to be.

–Josh

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Why bother with writing exercises?

If you’re inspired enough to take a writing class of some sort, you’re almost certain to be presented with a creative challenge of one kind or another. Usually, these are in the form of writing exercises. Some writer friends of mine absolutely hate them. These are folks who occupy a wide range of experience and ability within the craft. And yet, almost all of them dig in and do the exercises–every time.

Why? The question is especially relevant when applied to the most accomplished among that crowd.

The answer is shockingly simple: they’re very likely to generate material they can use later. For many of them, it’s like putting money aside for a rainy day, a day when their creative well runs a little dry. At that point, having a supply of story openings, experimental scenes, and/or character descriptions can turn a disappointing writing session into a productive one. In some cases, the resulting output can be a creative bonanza.

“But,” you say, “I’m working on a non-fiction book. Doing an exercise about a fictitious character or some bizarre situation won’t help me at all.”

That’s a reasonable argument, assuming your current project is the only one you’ll ever work on. It may also be reasonable if you’re unable to imagine how writing from an alternative point of view might give you a better understanding of what your readers want, or that you won’t discover a way to say something that’s valuable because of its innate good humor and/or poignancy.

Writing exercises often strive to force students out of their comfort zones and into situations they’re unused to, or in extreme cases, afraid of. One can generally trust a writing teacher to find appropriate topics. It’s highly unlikely for instance, given the makeup of my current classes, that I’d ask them to write a sex scene or an execution. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I’ll ask them to write their own obituary, provided they make it humorous. If I were working with a group composed only of published fiction writers, having them tackle an erotic encounter or some equally difficult scene is much more likely.

So who gets the credit when a student uses a writing exercise to produce something new and totally unexpected? The student, of course! The exercise, no matter how carefully planned, is merely a catalyst; the magic happens somewhere else, inside someone else.

And that’s the true beauty and power of those annoying exercises. Lift and stretch, y’all. Lift and stretch!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Time for a pat on the back…

In one of my classes recently, the writing assignment called for a scene written from the point of view of a non-human character. The idea was to push writers out of their comfort zones and force them to attempt something they might ordinarily never try.

What many of them accomplished caught me quite by surprise. Sure, I knew going into it there were some gifted writers in the room, and their output was every bit as good as I expected it to be. The serendipity phase came with the output of the writers just dipping their fingers and toes into the craft pool. Among their point of view characters were: a squirrel, a terra cotta pot, a camera, a set of golf clubs, a songbird, and a doorbell.

In truth, I enjoyed every single submission and found far better work than I expected. So, I’m considering the exercise a success, even though quite a number of students opted not to turn anything in. Who knows why? Life intervenes. I understand. But I’m still amped.

My students are all folks about my age. We’re a bit weathered; we’ve seen some things. We’ve forgotten a lot of things, too. But what I find most refreshing is what we remember, and remember with such clarity!

Writing has a way of bringing that out of people, provided they can find the time and make the effort. The joy I find in working with my students is amplified by their success.

Nice work, ladies and gentlemen! You’ve already proven 2018 is going to be an amazing year. I’m so eager to get started!

–Josh

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The Incredible HC Diet

As mentioned in my last post, I had planned to take some time off for the holidays. That came to pass via unintended means. Rather than celebrate and eat and drink myself into an ever-expanding waistline, I fell into a diet regimen with astonishing results. I call it the HC Diet; HC stands for head cold.

The amazing thing about this protocol is its ability to work despite any intentions the user has to drop out. So, instead of eating rich foods and consuming adult beverages, I’ve been subsisting on a diet of coffee and phlegm. This has been augmented by a strict policy of exercise avoidance.

Though I managed to drag myself to the keyboard for this brief post, the rest of my efforts have been confined to travel between bed and sofa.

Another interesting effect of this miracle diet is its impact on certain intellectual and emotional functions. My creativity, for instance, has all but disappeared along with my interest in virtually any program available on TV. I flipped through at least a thousand movie titles available free on cable, and couldn’t find a single one that touched my fancy much less tickled it.

Two visits to the local Doc in a Box generated four prescriptions and two injections (that required a different sort of cheek turning).

Am I feeling better? I dunno. I’m going back to bed now. Maybe I’ll have a better idea about that when I wake up. Tomorrow. Or the next day.

–Josh

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

The power of dialog

It’s unfair to highlight one aspect of writing, whether non-fiction or fiction (in any of its many flavors) when there are so many such factors to choose from. But one thing is certain, bad dialog can derail an otherwise good story. A great plot won’t save it, nor will superbly drawn characters. At least, not these days. Examples of crappy dialog by well-known authors abound, but most of them achieved their fame a long time ago. Today’s market isn’t as forgiving, especially for those whose books don’t occupy an all but hereditary spot on the bestseller lists.

So, what makes dialog good, and why is it a powerful tool? If done right, dialog can go a long way in helping a writer in the “show, don’t tell” game. What characters think, do and say shapes them in a reader’s mind. How they say things is just as important.

“Good” dialog is nothing like real-world dialog. For one thing, it tends to be smarter and sassier with few, if any, uhms and uhs. It rarely incorporates a listener’s name in a verbal statement, and it takes full advantage of action tags which will also help to portray a character’s outlook, proclivities, and mood. (Full disclosure: I had a proclivity once, but I had it removed.)

Rather than continue to preach, I’ll simply provide a modest exchange between two people who meet in a bar. The original version of this arrived in my email one day and consisted of about ten short paragraphs leading to a punch line. I’ve revised it to include all the issues mentioned above.

Male Logic

“So,” Wanda said over a glass of Burgundy, “you like beer?”

Jake nodded, yes.

“How many beers a day?” she asked.

“Usually about three,” he said. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how I feel. Sometimes I’m really thirsty, sometimes I’m not.”

“That’s reasonable,” she said. “And how much do you pay, per beer?”

“Here? In this bar?”

“Yeah.”

“Five bucks, but that includes a tip. I appreciate good service.” He winked at their waitress.

“That’s commendable,” Wanda said. “And how long would you say you’ve been doing all this beer drinking?”

Jake tilted his head, stretched, and let out a sigh. “About 20 years, I guess.”

Wanda whipped out a pen and did a quick calculation on a napkin. “If a beer costs $5 and you have three a day, that puts your spending each month at $450.” She scribbled through another short equation and smiled at the answer. “In one year you spend about $5400 on beer. Does that sound right?”

“I suppose,” Jake said. “I don’t see anything wrong with your math.”

Wanda worked through one last problem then sat back, feeling satisfied. “If you spend $5400 a year on beer — not accounting for inflation — you’ve spent something like $108,000 over the past two decades.”

Jake shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Do you realize that if you didn’t drink so much beer, you could have put that money in an interest-bearing savings account. And, taking into consideration compound interest for the past twenty years, you could have gone out today and bought an airplane?”

Jake thought about that for a moment and then drained his glass. “Do you drink beer?”

“Why, no. I don’t,” Wanda said.

Jake smiled. “So, where’s your airplane?”

~*~

Notice there’s a mix of long and short paragraphs, as well as long and short sentences. The first half is strictly dialog, then the action tags kick in. This helps to keep dialog from sounding sing-song and stilted. Characters react, both orally and visually, which keeps the scene moving.

Just for practice, the next time someone sends you a joke or some other cute bit of dialog, see if you can improve it to publication standards.

–Josh

PS: I’m taking a little time off for the holidays, but I’ll be back in January. See you then!

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment