Monday, December 22, 2014

Talkin’ Tennessee-un

          A quick lesson in Tennessee dialect:
The spoken word                                    What it actually means
             far                                                              fire
             fat                                                              fight
             tar                                                              tire
             yawl                                                           you all
             brat                                                            bright
             wah?                                                          why?
             hail no                                                        hell no
             lay-us gnat                                                 last night
             wail owl rat                                               well all right
             yeeeeeeee-haw                                        this experience is quite enjoyable (useful for
                                                                              everything from eating fried pork skins to making love)
          And so on.  After a few days in Knoxville or Nashville, you can learn enough to  understand restaurant specials and converse with the locals a bit.  After that, hopefully, your drive home will be long enough to shed all the words you've recently learned and return to normal speech.  If there be such a thing.

          There are some two dozen distinct major English dialects recognized in the United States.  Some cover a broad area, like the Southern Appalachian voice that includes Tennessee-tawk.  Some are only used in restricted areas, like San Francisco Urban, New York Urban, Boston Urban, and the extra-hard-to-understand Gullah of the Charleston area.  One I like, especially when used in singing, is Louisiana Cajun.  Near where I live there’s a dialect peculiar to only modest-sized Harkers Island, preserving remnants of the old Elizabethan tongue (high tide to them is “hoi toide”).

          Using dialect and foreign-language accents in writing dialog can be a challenge.   If you try to portray a hillbilly speaking, for example, and you replace the g on all words ending in “ing” with an apostrophe, you could soon have a page swimming with tadpole-like apostrophes, only confusing and slowing readers.  The late Elmore Leonard solved this by not using any apostrophes at all, simply spelling out dialect words semi-phonetically (but still recognizably).

          The best advice I’ve heard is to use dialect words sparingly in the first place, then go back during the final self-editing and cull out even more of them.

          In conveying dialect and foreign accents, the merest hint is almost always quite enough.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The long, long walk

          Starting in June, 1970, Dave Kunst circuited the globe on foot, covering 14,450 miles in four years.  Steve Newman also did the earth-walk, trekking 15,000 miles in four years.  Rosie Swale-Pope, at age 57, set out to run around our planet, often over daunting terrain, going through 50 pairs of running shoes during that adventure and raising a small fortune for charity.  It takes an estimated 20 million steps to walk around the earth.  You can’t actually girdle the world in a straight line, of course, because there are a few rather large oceans in the way, but these exemplary journeys are nonetheless amazing.  How did they do it?  The facile cliché answer would be one step at a time.  Obviously it requires an almost superhuman degree of willpower and determination, and cannot be done without overcoming myriad hardships, doubts, and dangers.

          Trying to write an average-length novel can appear to be a near-impossible slog with a hazy finish line far, far away over the horizon.  It’s a major reason why so many people vow to write a book one day but never manage to do it.  Those relative few who do complete a 100,000-word story, sometimes over tortuous terrain spanning years, are to be commended for making that long solitary journey, even if their work never sees print.  By sheer endurance, if nothing else, they've earned the right to call themselves authors.  And I think, pretty much to a person, they’ll tell you the trip was worth taking.

          So, for the intrepid few who long to take such a journey, how does one go about it?

          There’s a lot of advice out there, but I think it all condenses to a simple formula: A place sacred to your writing + a rough time frame reserved for only writing + putting words down every possible day of the week + a stubborn refusal to ever give up = a book, eventually and certainly, barring a catastrophe.

          The prolific Stephen King writes nearly every morning, then gives himself the afternoon off to walk for exercise, to enjoy being alive, to be with his family, and to take care of life’s chores.  He does not do it for the money; he’s already made plenty of that.  He does it because he’s obsessed with the wonderful journey, as most top authors are.

          I like to write early, starting before the sun comes up across the river outside my office.  I try for 500 new words each day, but that’s a flexible goal.  Sometimes I can lay down 1,000; sometimes I’m ecstatic to get 250 if it’s a tough scene.  I begin each day by going over yesterday’s output, tweaking and polishing a bit, then forging ahead.  I work to only a rough plan, letting my characters do as they will, while I try to be aware of clarity and pacing and good sentence structure and correct grammar, of course.  My job is to get to the end of the book before tackling any serious rewriting or editing.  And on each book journey, I find a certain magic steals in fairly early in the word count.  The story seems to take on a life of its own.  The characters become real, and I begin to share their adventures, quail at their trials, summon courage with them, choke up at their tender moments and triumphs.  And most mornings I can’t wait to get back to the keyboard to find out what will happen next.

          The book I've recently completed, my fourth novel (fourth publishable novel, that is; I wrote two books years ago that were unsalable learning experiences), took fifteen months and has cost me 830 hours of editing time alone (can’t even estimate the total first-draft writing hours).  It will probably require another 100 hours of rewriting and editing and polishing before I’m ready to declare it fit to publish.

          And yet the faint glimmerings of another story, this one to be staged in Africa, are already gathering.

          I can’t wait to set out for that far horizon once again.


Monday, December 8, 2014

The obese Octopus

          I live in a small city in a rather lightly populated area, yet my phone book lists 234 local numbers for government offices.  These numbers break down to 41 federal, 24 state, 61 city, and 108 county.
          Each of these phone numbers represents from a few to several hundred officials and bureaucrats and workers who draw from tax revenues not only while on the job but also throughout retirement.  Not to mention the continuous costs of their many buildings and offices that must be furnished, heated, and lighted.  These numbers also represent a vast fuel-guzzling fleet of various official vehicles from fire trucks; to city, state, and federal law-enforcement cruisers; to buses; to sanitation and delivery trucks.  And this is only in my county.  There are 99 more counties in my state and 3,143 other counties or county equivalents in the United States.
          There are 11 million people working for federal government now, if you include bureaucrats, postal workers, the military, contractors, and grantees.  Another 19.5 million work for state and local governments.  That’s 30.5 million people working for some form of our government.  In addition to uncounted thousands of government buildings across the land, there are 845,000 buildings on 750 military installations worldwide.  All of these require furnishings, climate control, lighting, and repairs.  The cost of maintaining the behemoth military machine in payroll, ships, planes, weapons, and vehicles recently topped $640 billion a year and it’s growing.
          At a thriller writer’s conference a while back, I attended a presentation by an FBI special agent about an investigation into the explosion of an illegal fireworks factory in rural Tennessee.  He said there had been 30 different government agencies involved.  Thirty.  The flashing of the various badges as all those folks stumbled over one other in their detecting must have outshone the original explosion.  Anybody who thinks that investigation had a prayer of being efficient and economical please raise your hand.
          Florida bestselling author Carl Hiaasen is a popular novelist who can make you laugh aloud even as he chills you with his thrillers.  I’m reading the recent Hiaasen collection of his Miami Herald columns titled “Dance of the Reptiles,” wherein he attacks the establishment with his rapier wit and cutting sarcasm, exposing the bungling, waste, profiteering, special-interest lawmaking, and often outright fraud and blatant corruption that have sadly become commonplace throughout our nation and especially in Florida.  It’s a great read.  He calls the meeting of the state Legislature “the annual Tallahassee train wreck.”  He likens the bloated free-spending federal General Services Administration to “a giant stoned octopus that has no idea what all its legs are doing.”  I think that’s a fitting description for the whole vast structure that has grown to myopically oversee and ineptly and inefficiently regulate nearly every aspect of our lives.
          You’d think our government has swollen to become quite large enough.
          Unless you’re a politician, official, or bureaucrat, that is.  To them, bigger is always better.  And the response they all too often make to a problem or crisis is to add yet more layers of fat to government.  More agencies.  More offices.  More bureaucrats.  More waste.  More clumsy tentacles for the already obese octopus, appropriating ever more money out of thin air to gorge it.  This is the same government, bear in mind, that in its wisdom has placed the Coast Guard under obviously non-nautical Homeland Security, and complex health care under the brilliant IRS, whose taxing regulations alone already run to 60,000 pages.  The same government that has blithely ballooned the federal deficit to eighteen thousand billion dollars and rapidly counting.  Administration officials are celebrating the fact that the deficit has “only” grown by $500 billion in 2014. That’s “only” half a trillion dollars in yet more debt that we all owe.  Wow.  Nice going, people.

           I think we don’t need more and bigger government every year.

           I think what we desperately need are more investigative journalists willing to take a close critical look at the obscenely overweight octopus we already have.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Responsible reporting

                  If you don't read the newspaper
                  you are uninformed, if you do
                  read the newspaper you are
Mark Twain
                  (I’ll update that to include radio and TV news these days as well.)

          My mother was a newspaper reporter, and she told me something I've never forgotten.  She said, “Be careful about trusting the news.  It’s absurdly easy for incompetent or unethical reporters to color it.  Let’s say, for example, the Sheriff is in Boston speaking at a law enforcement conference.  There’s a terrible local crime while he’s away.  If I don’t happen to like the Sheriff or if I disagree with his policies, I could choose to report only that he was unavailable, or that he could not be reached for comment.  It would be true, but it wouldn't be honest, and readers might well take it to mean he’s not doing his job.  Do you understand?”

          Sadly, Mom’s advice has grown even more wise considering today‘s pseudo-news reporting.

          Whole networks have obvious one-sided political agendas.  Newscasters are as much ego-brandishing celebrities as reporters, and seem to become overnight experts on any number of topics from nutrition to child-rearing to environmental issues to foreign affairs to astrophysics.  They often essentially pre-judge the guilt or innocence of alleged transgressors and they don’t hesitate to slant the news, even to the extent of inciting violence over this or that incident that instead ought to be handled not in the media but within the established legal system, which is all we have in America for any semblance of true justice.

          Editorializing and commentary in journalism, when clearly labeled as such, are protected under our constitution and rightly so, but straight news reporting should be conducted with professional honesty, integrity, thoroughness, accuracy, and absolute objectivity.  Allowing us, the reading and viewing public, to make up our own minds on the issues.

          But good luck with that in today's world.


p.s.  An update to this entry:  Two talking heads on one of my local news channels reported recently that the Kepler space telescope has found an exoplanet, as though this is the first such planet ever discovered.  One of the beautiful heads had to tell the other handsome head that this planet is not within our solar system, but both reporters missed the point entirely.
          The first exoplanet orbiting another sun out in deep space was discovered 22 years ago, and some 1,800 other such planets have since been found rolling around stars in just our relatively tiny neighborhood of the Milky Way.  Kepler alone has discovered a thousand exoplanets.  But two of its four stabilizing reaction wheels failed, thus jeopardizing the whole mission.  The scope is located 40 million miles from earth, so it's not repairable.  The scientists, however, devised an ingenious way to use the weak solar wind to help steer and steady the scope and continue the mission.  So when Kepler was recently able to discover yet another exoplanet despite its severe handicap, it was a major accomplishment.  And that was the story the talking heads should have reported.  It would only have required a few minutes research on their part and some basic knowledge of the universe in which we live.
          The final sad irony here is that the station's news motto is "Getting the facts right."
          In fact, day after day, they somehow manage to get even the simplest facts wrong.
          But they sure are attractive and speak pleasantly.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not saying what we mean
           I dislike euphemisms. 
          They’re not only distasteful to me but I also believe they’re dangerous.  When we adopt too many of them–when we stop calling things what they really are, I think we’re headed for trouble. 
          If we engage in too much out-sourcing, for example, our gross national product suffers, our trade deficit grows, and we lose American jobs and expertise, not to mention making our economic competitors wealthy.
          If we go off on an armed intervention, we risk committing collateral damage to innocent humans while attempting to neutralize insurgents and some of our own young troops might even become casualties due to friendly fire.
          When our politicians no longer lie to us, but rather simply misspeak, when illegal aliens become merely undocumented, when hospitals and assisted living communities and rest homes have negative patient care outcomes, when life jackets become personal flotation devices, when old-fashioned gambling with the rent money becomes innocuous gaming, when a workforce is only downsized–well, I could go on until the full-figured lady sings–when embracing so many convenient diluted euphemisms becomes habitual in our society, I believe something is fundamentally wrong.
          To me, one of the most reprehensible euphemisms to crop up in recent years is transitioning.  There have always been many euphemisms for dying but most have been benign, intended simply to ease the grief of those left behind.  Pass away is a good innocent example. At the other end of that spectrum, brutally doling out death has been euphemized as ethnic cleansing, which can be accomplished with everything from old-fashioned machetes to ingenious anti-personnel devices.
          There is something particularly insidious about the word transitioning.  It sounds so peaceful and innocent.  But if we can say grandmother transitioned recently, is it so great a leap to claim Adolph Hitler only facilitated the transitioning of six million Jews?  He not only helped all those men, women, children, and elderly folk (whose quality of life had sadly deteriorated anyway) across to the other side, but he also quite efficiently transitioned the mentally challenged and the differently abled and the politically incorrect.  You might even say he was one of the first equal-opportunity transitioners long before he finally transitioned his new bride and himself in his underground bunker.
          I think I’ll write a short story about a character with much more modest aspirations than what drove the likes of Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot.  My new character only effectuates the transitioning of one soul at a time, sometimes for remuneration, but often just for personal fulfillment.  
         I’ll call him Transition Man.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Who gets what

Here’s how proceeds from a best-selling hardback novel ($27.95) usually get divvyed up:

          The retailer:  45% ($12.58)
          The author: 15% ($4.19, from which the agent takes up to 15%, or 62 cents)
          The publisher: 13% ($3.55)
          Printing: 10% ($2.80)
          The wholesaler: 10% ($2.80)
          Marketing: 7% ($2)
(Source: Mental Floss Magazine)

Of course there’s a whole school of remoras nibbling in the slipstreams of the above profit-takerseditors, publicists, reviewers, website builders, media people, truckers, author’s psychiatrists.

Multiply the above numbers by half a million or sometimes several million copies and you can see that everybody involved does nicely.

But this is typical only for a top best-selling author with a shark for an agent.  Many little-known authors don't fare nearly as well.  

My first traditional advance/royalty contract granted me just 6% of gross, only after the entire advance amount initially given to me on signing was paid back, that is.  (That’s why it’s called an advance against royalties.)  At $6.99 for the mass-market paperback, that royalty amounted to only 42 cents per copy, less something called Reserve For Returns, an arbitrary amount the publisher holds back out of profits for possible returns of unsold copies.  Subsequent contracts for two more novels in the thriller series were a bit better, but did not promise me enough to buy a decent pre-owned kayak, much less make a down payment on a yacht.  The publisher, the wholesaler, and the retailers did modestly well on the three books.  Me, not so much, being at the absolute bottom of the contractual food chain, but that was to be expected, I suppose, considering I WAS ONLY THE GUY WHO WROTE THE DANGED THINGS.

Any worthwhile endeavor has a period of dues-paying.  For a struggling writer in the traditional publishing business, it’s quite literally the generous paying-out of dues to everybody involved.

Then, of course, I had to wait almost two years for that first book to see print, which is not uncommon.

It’s an interesting business.


p.s. No post last Monday because another captain and I were delivering a 53-foot Hatteras from Maryland to North Carolina.  While I don't make enough to buy a yacht, at least I can occasionally pretend what it would be like to own one.

Monday, November 3, 2014


           It happens sooner or later to most writers.  The words are flowing out of your fingers nicely (in my case, only my two index fingers; I never learned to type) until suddenly you stub your knuckles on an invisible wall.  It’s been widely called writer’s block.  I've mentioned it here before.

          Attempted cures vary.  Some are quite effective, like looking at the calendar and realizing a deadline is disconcertingly close.  Some have damaging side effects, like wolfing bacon cheeseburgers.  Some are unarguably unwise, like booze.  A long brisk walk has worked for me in the past, simply by oxygenating my high-mileage brain, I believe.

          But my most effective blockbuster has been an early-morning hour or so spent with ballpoint and pocket pad in a local coffee shop called Kitchen on Trent.  Time after time it has jarred loose fresh ideas and gotten my  fingers moving on the keyboard again.  I thought it must be the quality caffeine or some magical secret ingredient in the low-fat peach muffins.  Not so, apparently.  Turns out my particular cure may be auditory rather than culinary.

          According to a University of Chicago study, background noise levels can have a remarkable effect on creativity, promoting mind-wandering, idea-generating thinking.  We automatically filter out ambient noise below 70 decibels (db), which suggests libraries may tend to make us more somnolent than studious.  Above 85 db, noise becomes dominant, irritating, and stressful.  However, between 70 db and 85 db there evidently lies a blockbusting sweet spot.  And that’s precisely the levels you’ll find in most coffee shops.

          Randy Wayne White has written large chunks of novels in Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille on Sanibel Island, Florida.  Now I know why his stuff is so good.  And it’s not the rum or the cheeseburgers.


Monday, October 27, 2014


          It’s an unglamorous and vague word.  Yet it stands for profound and vital processes.   Physicians work their life-saving skills based on observations.  Sherlock (and a crowd of similar characters since) could only arrive at clever deductions after making astute observations.   We call our telescope sites observatories, where deep thinkers are opening our minds to the whole universe.

          Naomi and I spent a few days roaming the Great Smokies, joining the annual throng the hill folk call leaf peepers.  We caught the fall foliage at peak, made even more luminous under squint-bright skies.  We took pictures of course.

          We also gathered observations.  Each turning of the twisty roads brought new views of vivid yellows and reds amid the mountain evergreens.  Early one morning from the nearly 6,000-foot Waterrock Knob overlook, we saw mists rising out of the valleys in towering, shifting shapes to form fair-weather cumulus clouds that went sailing away eastward into the sunshine.  Near Clingman’s Dome on a vertiginous stretch of narrow road where you tend to sit up a little straighter and grip the wheel a little tighter, a cold wind from the west was herding ragged clouds to leap over the high peaks and plunge down the other sides in curling turbulent waves.  The stunted trees at that elevation had been stripped of their leaves, and the night fog had frozen onto every naked twig on the windward side of the mountaintops, creating a dazzling lacy fantasy.

          We made people observations, too.  Weathered hikers with staffs and backpacks and far-horizon gazes.  A few fit bicyclists in skin-tights laboring sinuously against the steep grades.  Leather-clad motorcyclists enjoying this high country where the road signs look like snakes.  Young couples sharing new love, holding hands at the overlooks.  Older couples savoring the color and the clean wind and the scenery and each other’s companionship, maybe realizing all this was never granted to them forever.

          And then there were a few people who made us question why they were even there.  Along the Blue Ridge Parkway there are no wires, no billboards, none of the glitz and hustle and litter and gaudy clamor of the cities and towns far below.  Speed limits are sedate, relaxing.  Views are spectacular.  Yet there were those who tailgated and zipped through the blind curves as though in a hurry to get somewhere better.  We wondered where that might bedrive-time frenzy on some Interstate overloaded with NASCAR wannabes?  We stopped for a fine lunch  in a Little Switzerland hotel.  The dining room was walled with glass, looking out on a vista of ranked hills undulating away into a far blue haze, scattered cloud shadows rippling over the slopes, muting the colors only momentarily.  A cheerful waitress seated a couple close by one of the large windows, and they smiled at the view for a few seconds.  Then they dug out their smartphones and began tapping and swiping, soon totally engrossed.  I was soaking in as much as possible of the ever-changing panorama without inadvertently chewing on my napkin or spilling my tea, but I stole glances at the couple.  Neither of them looked outside again.  Whatever was on the other ends of their phones was apparently far more interesting than one of the grandest displays nature can providefar more interesting even than each other.

          One evening we went to a scruffy little makeshift theater, the Maggie Valley Opry, owned by 75-year-old Cherokee Indian Raymond Fairchild, five-time world champion banjo picker and holder of two million-seller gold records.  He and three of his country cohorts on upright bass, acoustic guitar, and harmonica put on a lively two-hour show for the 20 people who showed up.  Pony-tailed, mustachioed, Stetsoned Fairchild told stories (his first banjo as a boy was a fretless instrument with a squirrel-hide head) and a few hillbilly jokes.  He pushed his CDs and clear homemade moonshine jelly and corn fresh-popped by his smiling wife Shirley.  We clapped and toe-tapped and sang along and loved it.

          Naomi and I came down out of the mountains tired but with satisfied souls.  And with a wealth of observations that will color our lives and my fiction.




Sunday, October 19, 2014

Good bad people    
             Elmore Leonard said there was always something about his villains he liked.

             Some of the most memorable bad characters in fiction have admirable qualities.  Arthur Conan Doyle concocted Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty as a brilliant, albeit twisted, mind.  In Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson created the peg-legged Long John Silver to be a brave leader and a likeable rogue despite possessing a piratical heart, and we’re happy to see him get away in the end.  Stevenson’s ultimate good/bad guy, of course, is Dr. Jekyll, who is powerless to prevent his occasional forays into the shadows as Mr. Hyde.  Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (great title, that) is a scholar and a fine organist.  Thomas Harris endowed Hannibal Lecter with sophistication and an appreciation for opera, his only unfortunate bad habit being his penchant for dining on people.  And even Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count Dracula was a non-smoker, at least. 

          Which one is the greater transgressor in Moby-Dick, though?  The apparent villain, a monstrous mysterious white whale, is really only trying to save his own hide from the vengeful Ahab, who allows himself to be driven mad by his own dark obsession. 

          Conversely, many a fascinating fictional protagonist (one of the few genderless designators we writers can safely use in this era of political correctness) is flawed to some degree.  James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic.  Superman better read all the Supermarket labels carefully to avoid kryptonite in his diet.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a bit of a klutz and has an aversion to firearms, even for self defense, despite having to deal with a variety of tough guys.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple prevails despite all the indignities of advanced age, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has limited mobility because of obesity.  Lawrence Block’s lonely philatelist Keller is a hit man by profession, yet he’s still an engaging character.

          I think the reason such bad/good and good/bad characters come alive on our pages and screens is because nobody can really be a perfectly pure protagonist or an utterly evil villain, and we know it.  Like it or not, beneath our civilized veneers we are all complex characters ourselves, so we recognize and empathize with both the noble and ignoble in fictional folks.  We all have much in common.  We’re vulnerable to a host of things that can kill us, from raging weather to the laws of physics to microscopic viruses to fellow creatures.  We’re nurturers of our progeny, friends to the like-minded, stewards and consumers of earth’s flora and fauna and resources.  We’re relentless seekers.  Clever builders.  Astute observers.  Intelligent reasoners.  We’re also by far the most skilled and dangerous predators currently borrowing the planet.  (There’s a reason we name our sports teams for other successful killers like eagles and gators and wolves.)

          And, good or bad, who we are arises from what we are.


Monday, October 13, 2014

The Oxford comma

Also called the Harvard comma or the serial comma, using it has been mandated by the Oxford University Press for over a century.  Not without good reason.  That second comma can make a critical difference.

Here’s an example I made up:
I owe all I’ve become to my wife, my drill instructor and the president of my fan club.
Of course it ought to be:
I owe all I’ve become to my wife, my drill instructor, and the president of my fan club.

The classic example for pro-serial-comma folk is:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Which of course ought to be  . . . my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Another one I made up without any commas: I have experience with cooking dogs and lawyers.
(At times in my life I’ve thought about doing just that to certain members of both species.)

Proponents of the venerable serial comma are adamant about always using it.  But there’s a small army of anti-serial-comma folk out there who argue with equal heat that over-using that second tiny paisley-like punctuator can also cause confusion and slow down the reader.

Book and magazine publishers generally prefer using it.  Newspaper people generally don’t.

Nobody argues about some traditional uses, such as enclosing parenthetic expressions in commas.  But there are many other instances of comma use that can be doubtful.

Over the years I’ve evolved my own solution to comma conundrums.

If a comma will help crystalize clarity I use one.
If it doesn’t I don’t.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Signing psychology

          From quite a few book signings, I’ve distilled some observations.

          I learned early that if I just sat there behind the table with a frozen smile pasted onto a hopeful expression, I wouldn’t be able to sell ten dollar bills for five dollars each.  So I stood up and engaged every passerby I could, gradually evolving a brief friendly spiel.  (I’ve watched other authors delivering an exhaustive plot synopsis to each hapless squirming victim.) 
          I now ask each person who shows the slightest interest, “Do you like to read suspense?”
          It’s either yes or no.  If it’s yes, I launch into my short spiel, starting with, “Well, I may have one here you’ll like.”  Then I say a quick few facts about the book while offering them a copy to look at, which is a trick similar to a car salesman inviting you to take it for a spin, knowing you’ll begin to imagine yourself as the owner, at least subconsciously.  When my prospect begins reading the back blurb or leafing through pages I shut up.  About a quarter of the time the person will decide to buy.
          If that initial answer is no on suspense, I ask them what they do like.  If they say nonfiction, I don’t push it, because people either seem to read mostly fiction or mostly non, and I’m not about to win over a non, so I just chat amiably for a bit and tell them thanks for stopping by.  If they name another genre, I may attempt to make a convert.  Sometimes I do.
          I had one gentleman tell me he can’t stand reading violence.   He said, “I only read the Bible.”  (I didn’t tell him that’s the most gruesomely violent book I’ve ever read, because it describes the past and impending torturing and horrible deaths of thousands and millions of innocents, including women, the elderly, infants, and animals.)
          If two or three people stop at the table and one picks up a book, peruses it, and puts it back, the other two will invariably pass as well, but if that first one buys, the other two often will too.
          If somebody says they don’t read suspense but their spouse does, I suggest a book as a gift.
          At one high-toned store, the manager lined up four of us side-by-side.  I had gotten there early and did a brisk business until the other three showed up.  Thereafter, although there were plenty of passing customers, almost none of them bought, I think because four of us were intimidating, and nobody wanted to buy from just one of us and risk hurting the other three’s feelings.  One of the authors, though, a fine artist and a boyhood escapee from the Hungarian revolution, remains a friend.
          I once drove two hundred miles only to discover the store was tiny and buried in a large strip mall.  It was severely cramped inside.  They only had room for me and a table not much larger than a dinner plate.  But the staff of three had actually read the book and liked it.  They touted it all afternoon.  We sold 78 copies, which stands as my record.  It felt like a party.  We could have sold more but ran out of stock, both theirs and my emergency supply, which I always carry in case the store hasn’t ordered enough.  I went back there several months later with similar results.
          Most store staffers don’t expect a non-famous author to push more than a dozen books at a typical Saturday afternoon signing, which is usually the best high-traffic time.  So selling more than two dozen impresses them, and I get invited back.
          I make my own displays.  For GUNS, which has on the cover a handgun pointed at the viewer, I had an enlargement mounted on an enclosed black stand-up foam-core wedge, with a strobe light inside firing flashes through the cut-out muzzle.  For Diamondback I had a museum-quality realistic snake coiled in a bed of leaves, with book copies inserted in the coils.  That one was a stopper.  I admit some people cringed away in fright, but I’ll bet they didn’t forget me soon, at least.
          Because Lee Child kindly endorsed GUNS, I always had a copy of his latest hardback on my signing table, in part so I could tout his work to those who had not read him as a way to pay him back in small measure.  One day in a large busy mall, as I stood on sore feet near the store entrance behind my table wearing my black western hat and blazer, two rapidly chatting women were bustling past when one of them spotted Lee’s book and skidded to a halt, saying, “Omigod, is he here?”  Then she looked at me, said to her friend, “Uh.  Never mind.”  And they disappeared into the throng.  It was humbling.
          There’s always at least one talker who has no intention of buying.  I politely indulge them for a while.  I think they’re mostly just lonely.
          A few sensitive souls are uncomfortable about walking away without buying, so will say, “Are you going to be here all afternoon?”  Or, “Are your books available online?”  Or, “Do you have a card?”  With a smile, I gently remove them from the hook and slip them back into the people stream.
          Oddly, several times when I’ve been winding up for the day, putting away my display and books and folding my tablecloth, folks have stopped and I’ve had a flurry of sales.  I don’t quite understand what the psychology is behind that.
          The best part about signings is the wonderful variety of fine and fascinating people I meet.  From just watching the news, you might begin to think this is a sad and sorry world, but almost all the many, many  people I’ve met are absolutely great, with their own intriguing stories of courage and love and adventure to tell. 
          And their stories are real.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Brain tricks (part two)
          Last week in part one we thought about how our magnificent brains can be influencedeven sometimes utterly confoundedby stimuli such as optical illusion, visual context, distraction, and suggestion.  Noted architects, great composers, fine artists, magicians, and used-car salespersons are adept at myriad forms of brain trickery.  There are also many useful secret tricks in a skilled storyteller’s toolkit.

          First, of course, we must be telling a story that’s intrinsically intriguing and plausible and based on some conflict of import.  John D. MacDonald once said he would read the works of other writers either with envy or weary contempt, and what was always paramount was story, dammit, story.  Put another way, no amount of lyrical cleverness or trickery will rescue a bad story.  Conversely, a good story will nearly always survive a certain degree of clumsiness in the telling.  There are long-time best-selling novelists with vast followings who are not particularly adept at, say, realistic dialog, but who nevertheless always seem to have an engaging story to tell us.
          So, assuming we have that good story to begin with, what are some secret brain tricks we can use to make it even better?
          The next time you watch an emotional movie scene, pay close attention to the background music.  Someone once said, “It’s the violins that make you cry.”  Added to fine acting in a good story, they certainly can.  Every time.
          We writers don’t have the benefit of background music, but we do have access to the whole wonderful scope of exquisitely expressive language.  In the showing of a tender love scene or whenever we want to lead our readers to experience a reflective moment or to relax for a time or to dip into the innermost contemplation of a person in the story, we can choose smoother, longer, more soothing words with softer syllables strung out in somewhat longer sentences and paragraphs, gentling the reader along to stimulate empathy or vicarious pleasure or swelling pride.  All of this is a sort of background music, really, because it’s apart from what the words are actually saying, yet it enhances the story.   And it can work to great effect.
          Now recall that bloody shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  The background violins shrieking hysterically, razoring our nerves.  Flashes of the shadowed killer and that wicked knife.  The beautiful bewildered victim.  The clutched curtain ripping loose, snapping its rings one by one.  Threads of blood twisting down the drain.  Those stark images scared a whole generation.
          For such a written scene, we can chose harsher words, phonetically jolting and cutting words.  Shorter paragraphs.  Sentence fragments.  Italics for the victim’s thoughts.  Again, all of this is apart from what the words are actually saying.  And again, if applied adroitly, these tricks can have stunning effect.
          We can insert a soothing scene just before we crash the reader head-on into a violent scene, which will then seem even more shocking for the sudden sharp contrast.  And isn't this often how it happens in reality, when a hellish night-cloaked tornado roars down on a serene sleeping village, or a drunk speeder runs a stop sign and T-bones a family SUV, or some deranged person pulls a gun in a holiday crowd on a fine cerulean day and begins shooting anyone in sight?  
          Using cutaways can be effective, alternating from a scene in our protagonist’s life to a scene with a scheming villain on the other side of town.  As the story action ramps up and the inevitable confrontation looms, we can shorten the cutaways, making them more choppy, more harsh-sounding and vivid.  Think of an intense movie chase with ever more rapid cutaways, with scenes reduced to breathless action flashes.  We can simply do the same with words.
          Adding a time element always enhances suspense.  This could be the cliché ticking bomb, of course, but more cleverly it could also be some time constraint such as a protagonist being caught out at night in brutally frigid gale weather but not dressed for it, facing imminent disabling hypothermia yet forced to search for a friend in danger.

          Studying any of the top writers will reveal other subtle brain tricks, and the more of them we can add to our repertoires and teach ourselves to use with skill, the more engaging and powerful our stories will be.