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Zestful Blog Post #294

Exploitation Works

Exploitation is a thing, and it can be used. I wrote about this a few years ago, but want to give you some more specifics here. There are successful authors who appeal to the deepest-held beliefs / prejudices / yearnings of their audiences, once they’ve found them. Exploitation feeds on and encourages the time-honored us-versus-them dynamic. That’s not a comfortable dynamic for everyone all the time, but it resonates somewhere in every human heart.

A simple example might be a young adult book wherein a brave, outrageous cadre of students overthrows the mean old teachers, showing them they’re not so smart. The teachers learn from the students! Something that doesn’t often follow is the answer to the question: Now will the new rulers be kindly overlords? George Orwell’s Animal Farm explored this question, and as we might remember, things don’t look so great at the end of the story, which is a new beginning for the animals on the farm.

Exploitative stories often rely on stereotypes, which themselves represent a fascinating subtopic. To whom does the stereotypical mean Republican appeal? A hardcore Democrat might say, “That’s no stereotype! That’s simply reality!” To whom does the strong-but-dumb boyfriend stereotype appeal? How about the lazy immigrant? The suffering artist? The kind-hearted criminal? The trigger-happy cop? The angry-yet-somehow-perfect-in-every-way revolutionary?

It’s not by accident that more male readers enjoy (and buy) thrillers with strong, brave protagonists who win in the end. Not by accident that more women like romances where the plucky protagonist gets the handsome swashbuckler in the end. With a big, perfect wedding.

Novelists, filmmakers, religious leaders, and politicians have learned exploitation works. It’s button-pushing, and for what it is, it can be effective. There is, of course, the danger of exploitation backfiring on you, making you seem like a vindictive, unimaginative boob.



[Ivan was definitely Terrible]

But seriously, look closely at the novels you read and see if you can figure out where the exploitation is. Not all of it is heavy-handed; you can find subtle examples all over the place, and you can learn from them. Key into your emotions as you read: Why does some character or plot twist appeal to you? Why does another make you uncomfortable?

Our challenge as authors is to reject cheap, obvious exploitation, but embrace the good kind! Don’t be afraid to be conscious of what you’re doing; don’t be afraid to calculate. We want to dive deep to engage—and, really, control—our readers’ emotions. The best way to do this is get to know your characters really well. Respect them, and look for their complexity and depth. Then think deeply about your ideal reader.

Is your ideal reader a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot? Well, you can certainly create a main character who happens to be a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot. Wouldn’t just about any guy or gal like that want to be a hero in the air? Yes! It’s easy. You don’t have to make your pilot bring down the plane safely while killing all the bad guys with a ballpoint pen, but you might make your pilot do something hard and satisfying, like navigate around a mountain in the fog without instruments. (Can pilots do that? I don’t know, but you’ll research it.) And hey, your ideal reader might have a secret desire to do something really bad—like enter the underworld of drug smuggling. Well, your character can do that, and you will make sure they’re supremely successful at it! You can dream up all kinds of good ideas from this perspective.

Play matchmaker between your readers and your characters! Be shrewd! Make exploitation work for you. Your readers will love you for it.

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Zestful Blog Post #293

A few weeks ago Marcia and I went to the local medieval fair and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We stopped to watch one of the games, where you slam a steel pad with a sledgehammer to make a heavy slug ride up a vertical rail. The harder you hit it, the higher the slug flies, the chief goal being to make the slug strike the bell at the top, producing a ringing sound that attracts the attention of all nearby, who gaze admiringly at absolute strength personified. You buy five tries for a dollar or a shilling or a peck of meal or whatever. A young teenager was trying. He really wanted to hit that bell, but kept falling short. The bearded, leather-jerkin-wearing man running the game advised him, “Squat as you bring the hammer down.” He did so. Magic. Ding!

It was just like splitting firewood when we lived in the forest. After experimenting with various methods, I found that iron wedges and a small sledge worked best and safest for me. (Just a hatchet for splitting kindling.) You set the round you want to split on end, on your splitting stump, and you find a crack near the edge and tap in your wedge. And if you do it enough, you learn that setting your legs apart, then swinging the sledge over your head and straight behind your back, then bringing it down on the wedge with a fluid squatting move, results in the most force. Crack!


We moved along and watched the axe-throwing game. Some axes bounced off the plank targets downrange, and some stuck with a satisfying thunk. I asked a young woman who had just stuck two axes in a row what the trick was. “Step into the throw,” she said, then turned away, rared back, and stepped into another throw. Thunk.

For the games and wood-splitting, the secret of success was to fully commit. Put your whole self into it. Leave the familiar world behind.

We remember learning to ride a two-wheeler, where you had to relinquish a certain amount of control in order to get the thing going. It was hard to make the commitment to take both feet off the ground and pump those pedals, but the concrete sidewalk was a good motivator, wasn’t it? Being tentative was lethal. Once you were under way, you gained a different kind of control, and you were zooming along in a completely new environment, separated from ordinary gravity by the unfamiliar miracle of gyroscopic force. And every time you got on your bike from then on, you learned to minimize the length of time you were liable to fall over. You learned to get those pedals going smartly, just as soon as you push off. You learned to commit, and put your whole self into it.

Aren’t so many more things like that: Ziplining. Striking a match. Getting on the school bus. Releasing an arrow. Saying, “I do.” Writing a story.

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Zestful Writing by Elizabeth Sims by Elizabeth Sims - 2w ago

Zestful Blog Post #292

I’m always suspicious of anyone who claims to “like people.” Because, my gosh, what a motley assortment we are.

As writers have been told a thousand times, the best fiction is character-driven. We know that, and we prove it to ourselves over and over. Which do you remember better, the sequence of events surrounding the stolen gold in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the feeling Huck and Jim had for each other? (If you’re sitting there thinking, “What stolen gold?”, then I rest my case and can knock off early for a beverage and a snack.)

Katherine Anne Porter said, “The only thing I know about people is exactly what I have learned from the people right next to me.” She knew that to write about people, we have to pay attention to them.


...and there they all are...

But dammit, we don’t have to like people. Liking has nothing to do with it. All we need to be is fascinated by people. Awed by people. Horrified by people. Inspiredby people. And not just so we can portray them convincingly. Because through people, other people, and through creating and writing about characters, we find out things about ourselves. We explore and nourish ourselves. And we have the best chance of producing good writing. Now go out and steal some gold.

Do you agree? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Zestful Blog Post #291

Warmest wishes to you and yours for a very happy Thanksgiving. Beyond health, family, friends, this imperfect gorgeous country, and Marcia, I’m thankful for:

·       My readers and their parents for having given birth to them, and this means you, dear blog friend
·       Russet apples
·       My mechanic
·       My students at Ringling College of Art and Design who take my class seriously
·       Godiva Pearls
·       Starbucks wifi (for I am a coffee whore and too cheap to buy my own phone hotspot)
·       JB Weld
·       Professional hockey
·       People who take on tough tasks and do them as best they damn can
·       Scout Finch
·       Peanut butter toast
·       Hospice workers
·       People who donate to hospice houses
·       The 1972 film Cabaret
·       The Ludwig drum company
·       Bowls of cherries


  
·       Boats
·       Sister Wendy Beckett
·       Falcon Heavy 2018 and Starman
·       Dame Judith Anderson
·       Videos of cute dogs on Reddit, which have made me feel more warmly toward dogs
·       Colin Fletcher
·       Gas station pastries
·       Graphite, always
·       Hunter Thompson
·       Readers who send me emails saying how much they like my work, which can turn a bad day right around
·       Leonard Bernstein
·       Four Roses Yellow Label
·       Saying yes
·       Saying no
·       You know what I mean
·       I love you

What are you thankful for today? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
If you’d like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. Photo by ES
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Zestful Blog Post #290

I didn’t ask permission to share this stuff here, and I don’t have exact quotations, and I can’t in every case remember who quite said what. But most of these items are from writers I’ve encountered at events at Ringling College of Art and Design, as well as conferences and meetings in the last six months or so. Some are from me, and some you’ve no doubt heard from others before, especially this first one:

·       Don’t overthink it. (Don’t we all love that?)
·       Longer passages of quick dialogue can do two things:
o   Make for plentiful white space on the page, which is easy to read; and
o   Take up pages in a printed book, making it look meatier than it might be. (Heh-heh.)
·       Time spent getting to know your characters on a deep level is time well spent.
·       It’s hard to make money as an author.
·       Some authors make great money. The foolproof how-to formula is unclear.
·       It’s easy to get published.
·       It’s hard to get published.


[Gotta climb ev'ry mountain...]

·       Social media sucks and does nothing for your career.
·       Social media is great and can help your career a lot.
·       One gets lonely.
·       Collaborating with other authors (writing books with them) can be:
o   Fraught with icky drama, making you not want to do it anymore, like when somebody else claims credit for your idea, just the same as in other group projects we’ve all dealt with.
o   Really great, especially if it’s just one other person you like and trust.
·       Most of us are too uptight.
·       You should stick with one genre and make a name there.
·       Experiment widely in different genres if you feel like it; you never know when you’ll hit it big with some new thing.
·       A pseudonym can jump-start your career in a new direction.
·       To write a good action scene, such as a fight:
o   Give a quick overview, then
o   Get into some deep detail, then
o   Pull back again to the ‘long shot,’ so to speak.
o   Rinse and repeat.
·       Every one of us is walking—or running, or plunging, or staggering—along a different path. No two careers are exactly alike.
·       Therefore I say: Let’s trust our own paths, rocks and wrong turns and all. Because we’re getting somewhere. And sometimes the view is great.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments. [Photo by ES]
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Zestful Blog Post #289

Back in elementary school I was neither the first nor last kid picked for teams; I was unathletic enough to not be chosen first, but popular enough not to be chosen last. Gosh, remember when we did that? I understand these days they don't let kids choose up sides, because of self-esteem. Gym was OK except for one dreadful piece of equipment: the climbing rope.

The rope, a hairy hemp freighter hawser thicker than an eight-year-old's thigh, started in a knot at waist level, then ascended nearly out of view, affixed to the ceiling two storeys up.

Every gym session, the teacher would tell us to line up and take turns climbing the rope. Success, of course, was measured by how far you climbed. Kids who made it all the way to the top, daringly slapping the iron swivel, then sliding dramatically down like firefighters or sailors, were like gods to me. (Oh, it was safe! The teacher dragged a small gym mat under the rope!)

I couldn't climb the thing at all. Not one inch. When my turn came, I'd sigh and take hold of the rope and try to pull myself up. I just couldn't do it. I had the desire to do it, but when I pulled with my hands, nothing happened. I hung there like a grape until the teacher, a loose-jowled guy who wore loafers and dress pants, would say 'next' in a bored voice.

As an adult, I'd wonder about that rope now and then. The breakthrough came when I was being weekend-lazy, watching an old Tarzan movie on TV. By God, there it was: Tarzan grabbed that vine and climbed it, and he used not just his arms but his legs too. He didn't clasp that vine in his hands, he hugged it. And he wrapped his legs around it and bent them like a frog's, then, pinching the vine with his legs, sort of stood up. He regripped the vine with his arms, frogged his legs up again, and kept going. (To the admiring gazes of Jane and Boy.)

And I remembered that the kids who made it to the top looked just like Tarzan. Why didn't I see it at the time? Why didn't I copy the other kids? I’m sure my kinetic sense wasn't very good then, and my brain wasn’t fully developed either. If the teacher—or even another kid—had broken down the moves for me, showed me and explained it to me verbally, step-by-step, I probably could have done it. I wasn't much punier than the other kids.

The next opportunity I had to climb a rope like that—not that such opportunities come by every day—I grabbed the thing, hugged it, wrapped my leg around it, and—went up!

This is how I feel about aspiring authors and story development. Thousands upon thousands of stories start with a cool nugget of an idea. And then they hang there.


But the truth is, story development—getting from cool idea to fully formed story or narrative—isn't a mysterious endowment. It isn't a you-have-it-or-you-don't thing, like leprosy or royal lineage. Just like rope climbing, story development is a skill that can be learned and improved. And it’s simple: All you need to do is look closely at how successful authors do it, and realize that they’re showing you, right there on the page. Study up. Read without haste. Make notes. Ask and answer questions like:

·       How does the author move from the opening into the first conflict?
·       Who are the major characters?
·       How does each character—major or minor—serve the plot?
·       Is anything there for no reason? Or maybe I need to look closer?
·       What is the author trying to tell me here, and here, and here?
·       How can I copy this?

Work with what you see, and with what you seek.

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Zestful Blog Post #288

Who is a hero to you? Someone alive or not, doesn't matter. What about that person is inspiring? Did they accomplish something remarkable? Did they behave admirably under extraordinary strain? What resources do you suppose they drew on to perform as they did? Physical strength? Inner courage? Endurance? Faith? Perhaps it was even humility. Because to be kind and loving when others are not requires the courage of humility: the willingness to be seen as wrong or bad. Conjure the spirit of your hero. Pretend to be that person, just for a minute. Lift your eyes and say, "I am _________." Does a feeling of calm strength come over you? It's yours now.



Seneca, one of my heroes, said, “It is quality rather than quantity that matters.”

And that’s what I wanted to give today. Who’s one of your bestest heroes, and why? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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Zestful Writing by Elizabeth Sims by Elizabeth Sims - 2M ago

Zestful Blog Post #286

I bet some of you remember Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, a counterculture guide that came out in 1971. I bought a copy, which tells you something about my ethics then. However, I did read it avidly and, being an impressionable youth, wished I had the guts to try some of Hoffman’s ideas for ‘sticking it to the man,’ like demanding my free buffalo from the federal government, or pretending I was hungry and broke to get food from trusting churches. Some of the stuff in it seemed just stupid to me, though, like pasting a postpaid piece of junk mail to a brick and dropping it in a mailbox so whatever corporation had to pay the postage due. Another uncomfortable one was going into a busy restaurant and eating leftover food before the tables get cleared. Ew. Not that I've led a shame-free life.

I worked in bookselling for ten years in the 1980s and 90s, first as a floor clerk (in a bookstore owned by two brothers named Tom and Louis Borders), then as a manager and regional executive. Lots of people would come in and steal books. We had a pretty good idea of how many books we lost to shrink (the retail euphemism) because once a year, we'd do a physical inventory count. You compare the stuff you have on hand with the list of stuff that's supposed to be in the store, and the difference is shrink, or shrinkage. We lost a lot of inventory.

It was rare to catch a thief in the act. We had no security staff or hidden cameras. Furthermore, it was assumed that staff would not steal, especially since everybody got $25 worth of store credit every month, plus a 25% discount on everything. What can I say? Borders, in those days, was a small company in the Midwest. And I think very few employees stole; giving stuff away to employees is a good way to create good will. When the company got big, financial experts came in and convinced top management to take away store credit, and the employee discount went down to 10%, if I remember right. (Members of the corporate board of directors got 25%, which as you might imagine went over great with the rank and file.) Stores also got primitive security systems, which at first were a joke, then got somewhat better.


 [A look at my home sports-and-leisure, nature, and reference sections.]

Scammers would try many tricks, from trying to return stolen books for cash, to paying with bad checks, to claiming to have lost a gift certificate to fire, pet digestion, or other imaginative mishap.

The vast majority of thieves got away. But once in a while, staff would spot somebody and realize they weren't a legitimate customer. There was one guy who focused on the computer book section. Pound for pound, computer books tended to be higher-priced, and they were easy to sell to used-bookstores. This fellow would appear to be browsing the low bookcases, taking a few books off the shelf, then he'd dip down into a squat where he was hidden from view. Then he'd rise up, empty-handed but bulkier around the middle, and hustle out the door to his car.

I didn't have the nerve to confront the guy (and by the time I could get the police there he'd have been long gone), but I did follow him to his car after I clearly saw him steal. I made sure he saw me, made sure he knew I knew, and watched him go, writing down his license plate number. Never saw him again.

More shocking to me were the employees who did steal. We caught one guy, who had worked out a system of hiding books behind empty boxes in the back receiving hall. Come time to clock out, he'd leave the store via the back way, collect his booty, and walk around to the parking lot from the alley. It was too cute, and another staffer figured out what he was doing and turned him in.

Come to think of it, I have a bunch of other stories about book thieves, and maybe I’ll write them down for a future post.

Although it's never right to steal, you can understand why a hungry person would steal or cheat for food. But books, you can take them home for free from the library, or you can sit and read them right in the store.

Then we come up to ‘today,’ meaning post-digital-publishing-revolution, and we have book pirates. That term makes them seem somehow romantic, like modern-day Robin Hoods. In fact, they are scum. I subscribe to an anti-pirate service called Blasty, which searches for and somehow removes from search engines websites claiming to have my books downloadable for free. It doesn’t take down the sites or send cease-and-desist letters, but I think what they do is just about as good.

I’ve found that most of these pirate sites are merely phishing holes. For instance, if you want a free copy of The Actress, click here and enter a bunch of your personal information: your contact info, and hey, if you keep clicking through they’ll ask for your credit card number, just as a precaution to secure your account, and hey, they won’t actually charge anything on it. I guess some people fall for all that. And of course they don’t have a digital copy of the book to give you anyway. Come back tomorrow. If Abbie Hoffman were alive today, I’ve no doubt he would learn code and try to be a hacker. But he committed suicide in 1989, partly because he was no longer under 30. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

I don’t worry too much about these pirate sites, because if somebody wants to download my book for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have bought it otherwise. Lots of enraged authors miss this point. So somebody gets to read your book for free, and maybe they’d like more, and maybe they’ll eventually buy something. You can’t get too worked up about this stuff.

But in conclusion, book pirates are scum.

What do you think? Do you have a book theft/piracy story? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
If you’d like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.
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