Beach at Cancun, October 2014
Beach at Cancun, October 2014

I’m writing this two weeks and one day ago. In one week from this writing I plan to leave for Germany. Also, a bit of France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxemburg, so I probably won’t be in a good position to write up any new posts for the second half of October. But, as you are reading this, things work out, don’t they?

I have travelled quite a bit, but less than I would have liked. Way back in 1976 I got a month’s leave of absence from a factory job (yep) to travel in Europe. I saw some of England, a bit of Switzerland, the Black Forest of Germany, and mostly France. Lots of France. That trip was where I learned how important it is to be polite. I learned that when a polite French woman in a change booth told me how to do it. (Not too tough. Always say Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank-You. Best in the local language, but not necessary.) And there is my theme.

If you never leave home, you’ll know a whole lot less!

If you aspire to write stories, then it’s difficult to know too much, so not travelling is limiting your ability to write good stories, and making your career more difficult. Not that bad stories can’t sell, of course, but good ones sell a lot more reliably. So, what is it about travel that helps you write good stories?

It is the things you learn about other people. If you pay attention, and don’t expect everywhere else to be like home (a few people seem to expect that,) and if you are polite, you will learn about what motivates and stimulates the people of whatever foreign place you find yourself in. I’ve done that, for the most part, and have found, to repeat last week’s theme, that people want food, shelter, companionship, and a chance to make things better. If I wanted to set a story in Germany, for example, I’d have to do a lot more research. What would be my grasp of European geography, for instance? What sort of obstacles would pop up to keep me from meeting those basic wants? How do you say “I wrecked my car!” in German? (I could actually do that last one.) (Okay, Mein Auto ist kaputt!) And many other things besides. Same for any other country.

And the best thing that I have learned from travel is that, no matter where I’ve gone, people have tried to be helpful, they have been friendly, they have good food (it can be bad even in France, but good is more normal,) and they all want the same things out of life. So, the title of this post refers to gathering the information one needs to write good stories about all sorts of people. That’s reason enough to go abroad.

Besides, if I didn’t travel, I’d never have had the fish empanadas at Los De Pescado!

POV and Diversity

Scene along California Route 2, North of Los Angeles.
Scene along California Route 2, North of Los Angeles.

I was talking with my friend John Hill yesterday, complaining about how it’s tough for a guy like me to write, say, a black character’s viewpoint. John, who has actually published a lot of stuff, told me things that got me thinking that perhaps the ability to write from somebody else’s point of view, even somebody completely different from me, is a great gift. And, heck, maybe I should try writing a story with a black protagonist. What the heck, eh? So, here’s my thinking on that topic as of just now (which, for the record, is more than a week ago as of the date this posts.)

I’ve already written from the POV of a teenage latina. And it seems to work. (I love it, but then I love all of my children. Time will tell.) I imagine that if I can put myself into the mind of a 15 year-old daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I should be able to put myself into the mind of a middle-aged black man getting stopped by a traffic cop. In fact, I’m sure of it, and here’s why.

Many people, when they think of other people, emphasize the “other.” Because they are “them” they must be different. But, in fact, that is not the case. As an extreme example, consider the facts reported in the book Freakonomics. In case you’ve never read it, the author got to know a drug selling entrepreneur in Chicago, and also the people who sold his product on the street. Those street sellers were making so little money that they repeatedly asked the author if he could get them a job as a janitor at his University. They prized a chance to get a job flipping burgers at Burger King. They were not inherently different from anyone, but there was no place in their neighborhood for them to get a job, so they scraped by on roughly $3 per hour (in the 1990s.) They wanted to “take care of (their) families.”

Take care of their families! If you write, you know what people want, and it’s simple. Food, a place to sleep, companionship, and the chance to make things a bit better for yourself, and more importantly for your children. That’s what people want.

My Latina falls madly in love with an Anglo boy, which causes great complications in her life. Falling madly in love is aiming at a family, one way or another, right? It all boils down to the basics. That black man getting pulled over is maybe on his way to intervene in some earth-shattering crisis, and damnation if some cop doesn’t decide that his tail light has been flickering! In fact, I have been pulled over for such things, not all that often, but still, all it takes is a modicum of empathy and imagination to flesh out how this guy is going to react. Because, what does my middle-aged black guy want? Hmmm?

Food, a place to sleep, companionship, and the chance to make things a bit better for himself, and more importantly, for his children.

That, folks, is all anybody wants. It can get twisted and perverted, but underneath it all is that basic set of desires. And that is the beauty of writing fiction: that simple set of wants is all it takes to create whole worlds!

Dammit, John, are you always right?

Literachur, Part Two

I believe this image to be in the public domain.
I believe this image to be in the public domain.

When I wrote last Wednesday’s post about literary fiction, I had no idea that I would be hearing that one of my very favorite poets, Bob Dylan, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Because this fits that theme so well!

I know that there are literary purists out there seething because the top prize in literature (The top prize, folks!) went to a lousy folksinger who is a damned musician, and not a writer at all. Sheesh! Get a grip, folks!

A few years ago the Writer’s Guild had a campaign pointing out that everything you read was, in fact written. You think Shakespeare’s stuff just magically appeared on the page, like maybe Oberon took pity or something? Do you think that those ads for toilet paper write themselves? Have you ever read a Dylan lyric?

Here’s one for you, the last verse of Mr. Tambourine Man:

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time,
Out past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees,
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea,
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Yes, that song was recorded by a rock band (The Byrds) and it made a lot of money, but dammit, that is some fine imagery. As good as any I’ve ever read, in fact.

Which takes me back to my days in college, when I knew a lot of poets. I never got what they were saying with their poetry. I came to believe that I didn’t understand poetry, in fact. Years later, it occurred to me that, really, I knew good poetry very well indeed. Because, at that same time, I was both listening to and performing Bob Dylan songs. And today, of course, there are entire college courses devoted to his work.

Can’t remember a single name of those literary poets back in college.


Ivanpah Lake, California, During a 2011 Wet Spell (normally it's dry)
Ivanpah Lake, California, During a 2011 Wet Spell (normally it’s dry)

It’s been a long time since I mentioned why I’m not writing literary fiction. If you dig back through this blog, and my earlier stuff as well, I’m sure you can find more or less what I’m about to write from some years back. Not a flip-flopper, I, at least not on this point, at least not yet. <grin>

Writing is a lot of work. There are a lot of damn rules to the craft (like any craft, I imagine) and it isn’t easy to learn them all. Especially the final rule, which is that there are no rules, except . . .  So, while some people write to find enlightenment, or to enlighten the world, or to plumb the depths of the human soul, I write because I hope to sell the stories at a profit. It’s as simple as that. And, yes, that does sound commercial and crass, because it is. But you know what? I am not alone.

Will Shakespeare was not trying to write great literature. He was trying to fill the Globe Theatre while providing juicy parts for himself and his friends to play. And, of course, it worked. And, co-incidentally, he wrote some great literature. Like, and I dare say it because I’m not an actor, Macbeth. (I wonder if that damned dog ever left Lady Macbeth?)

And Mark Twain, my favorite American author, was trying to tell a story of basic humanity and friendship. He hoped to change some minds about former black slaves, true. But mostly he needed money, so he worked his fingers down to their inky bones to finish Huckleberry Finn, which, lucky for him, remains a hit today. Twain did include some definite POV in that story, which is, for the record, about the most anti-racist novel I’ve ever read, but mostly he included all of the structure that is so necessary for a story to sell well.

And I could go on more or less forever. There may be some “great” books out there which appeal to “literary” tastes, but they don’t sell unless they also follow the rules of a good story, which I urge you to learn should you wish to write your own stories. Even Homer, gods love him, wrote, first and foremost, a truly great set of stories. If you’ve never read The Odyssey, in particular, you should. It has everything a great story needs! And, it is held up by “literary” types as one of the greatest books of all time. Why, yes, yes it is, because Homer Knew the Rules for Good Storytelling!

So, that’s why I write “escape” fiction. Sure, whatever I am, whatever I believe, will find its way into my stories. How could it not? But, first and foremost, I try to write good stories. Feel free to buy one at any time! 🙂

Thus endeth the lecture.

This Writer’s Life

Macy's Window on 34th Street, December 2010 Photo by Steve Fey
Macy’s Window on 34th Street, December 2010
Photo by Steve Fey

So, I write lies to sell, which makes me like a lot of people. Of course, my wife has a real job, where she writes more stuff than I do. The difference is that she gets paid a lot of money to write what she writes (legal things for court — you’d be bored.) So I was able to stop not making any money in real estate and start to, so far,  not make any money in authorship.

So I do things like put a door in the wall under the stairs so that we have some storage space for some of our Christmas decorations. (It’s all Christmas; we may not be Christians, but we come from that tradition.) For the record we have three trees (one aluminum) about a mile of lights, oodles of decorations, well, we needed that closet. I’m about to paint the trim on that door.

I also cook quite a bit. I make a mean Crawfish Etouffé, mon ami, amongst other things. And I clean the place a bit each day. It needs it, because we have a menagerie tracking dirt and dropping fur at an alarming rate.

And I have discovered that I can write whenever I have the time. I thought I was one of those people who needed a special routine to crank out a manuscript, but I was wrong. I do a chapter per weekday, maybe one on Saturday or Sunday if there’s nothing else going on, but usually only weekdays. I just sit down at my desk, in what I now call my studio (used to be a home office — the difference is, uh, slight) and key in a new chapter. Or, if it’s revision time, edit for an hour at least, then until I can’t stand it any more that day. For me it works.

Which brings up The Rules. Which points out that there, really, aren’t any. I hope my stories are good. I’m entering a contest for RWA members with a YA novel. If it wins, then I’ll bet it will sell. If it sells, I’ll be rich! No, comfortably well off! No, but I’ll make a few bucks.

That’s good, huh?

Politics and Stuff

The ceiling of the Pantheon of Rome Photo by Steve Fey
The ceiling of the Pantheon of Rome
Photo by Steve Fey 2015

And stuff. The stuff is what I’m writing about. You want the politics, turn on your, well, almost any device that receives information. You got it. But stuff? Well . . .

I have started using Twitter as my primary social media account. (Go on, read the advice for writers on using social media. You need a primary one, and one or more supporting ones.) I’ve been using Facebook for years, starting when I was a Realtor ™. (I’m not any more but I’m still using that ™. You’re welcome, NAR.) It works pretty well, but it got so I couldn’t log onto Facebook without seeing something upsetting. And I don’t mean just political positions that I disagree with, ’cause, Hell’s Bells, I tend to disagree with most everyone. But I mean dirty, personal, trolling in advance, obviously untrue, horrible things said about candidates. I don’t like Trump, okay? But I don’t badmouth the man. I just say flatly that most of what he says is made up, so I’m voting for Hilary, ’cause she only massages the truth like a politician tends to do. I don’t call him evil, I don’t talk about his, um, equipment, and I don’t think that those naked effigies are all that funny. Gadzooks, there’s enough ugly in the world, isn’t there?

So I moved over to Twitter. Of course, my Facebook account automatically tweets for me, and my Twitter account automatically posts to Facebook for me, so the net amount of stuff I’m putting up stays about the same. And, outside of the usual incredibly awful ads about every candidate, I don’t see a lot of politics beyond a couple of commentators whom I follow. It’s much easier.

I did try adjusting Facebook. It seems that it is possible, most of the time, to click on the little caret in the upper right-hand corner of a post and choose to block the original poster but not your friend. Not that I think much of my friends for posting shit, but they are my friends, and people are more important than politics, even dumb politics. But, alas, that doesn’t always work, and sludge keeps getting through anyway. On Twitter, though, not so much. I dunno, maybe I’ll get trolled once the assholes figure out that I’m there, but I don’t think so. Most of the trollery I see on Facebook is of the first-strike variety, which is pretty execrable in its own right, innit?

So, if you use social media to promote your writing, maybe you can try a trick like this to make your day less stressful. I know who I’m voting for, I try methods that have a chance to work to tell others why, and I don’t give a rats ass what anyone’s grandma thinks about Hilary or Donald.

I do, however, still like kittens. Gotta love them kittens . . .

I’m Leaning, uh, is it Left?

Looking into Death Valley from Zabriskie Point Photo by Steve Fey
Looking into Death Valley from Zabriskie Point
Photo by Steve Fey

I really don’t know, it could be right? Down? Up? Well, I confess, this isn’t a political post. Sorry if you thought it was. Check the tags next time.

I’m starting to lean more toward going Indie. Half of the best selling books right now are Indie. But, consider the overall costs:

Not just money, but time and effort. But, first, money. I’m a lousy graphic designer. I could show you some stuff, but, no, I’m not going to. It sucks worse than the stuff I wrote when I was 20, and that was so bad that it no longer exists. So first off, somebody else is going to have to come up with a winning cover design. So I have to pay them, right? Indeed, that is right.

Then the editing. Everybody needs an editor. Hell, JK Rowling needed an editor on a couple of those Harry Potter books, and no mistake. (Of course, who is going to tell her that? Me? Right.) Guess I have to pay an editor too, huh?

And marketing? I know some things about marketing, but not how to mount a campaign to sell books! I see that even Barnes & Noble is carrying indie stuff now, but how do I get them to carry mine? Elifino! (Say it out loud.) So I’m paying out more money right there.

And all of that has to be paid before the thing can even be formatted for publication!

Speaking of which,

Have you ever formatted a book? I have. I was once a typesetter/keyliner, so I actually do know something about making the book look like it should. (But, is there going to be any artwork in it? — More money.) There are programs that make it easier to format books, but the process isn’t instantaneous. There is quite a bit of time and attention required, in fact.

And there is time and effort at every other phase of the process as well.

But . . .

A traditional publisher might give you a total of about 10% of the sales revenue for the book, if they are extremely generous. Indie, you could clear at least five times that much, probably more. That could be a lot of money!

But . . .

There is no guarantee whatsoever that anyone will ever want to read the damned thing once it’s published, in spite of all the money and effort expended before it even comes out!

So, I’m thinking. I’m thinking. (Do I sound like Jack Benny there?)

Where Do You Go For Support?

Zion National Park 2015 Photo by Steve Fey
Zion National Park 2015
Photo by Steve Fey

Writing is a lonesome job. Even if you’re writing with a partner, you’re not both sitting there writing at the same time, in most cases. That might actually be a good idea, but I’ll save that for another day. My point is that you might, from time to time, like to talk with someone about what you’re doing, or learn something about how to write, or edit, or publish, or . . . you get the idea, I think. So I’m going to put up a short list of ideas for in-person and online collaboration, support, and skill building. Remember, though, that I’ve done everything with fiction except make money at it. You’ve been warned.

In person, there are two obvious ways to go, and many say that you should do both. They are not mutually exclusive, either, far from it.

Actually In Person Help

First, you might find a critique group. I know people who swear that they owe their success as an author to a supportive group that they joined when they were still figuring it all out. I’ve been in critique groups, but I’m not right now, and I do think that regular critique can be a wonderful thing. But, how to find/start one? Well, see point the second.

Second, join a writers’ group. I’m a tad biased because I am the organizer of one, but you can learn some excellent and specific craft secrets as well as business procedures that will help immensely in your work. Often these groups have subgroups that meet to critique each others’ work, and/or a coordinator of critique groups who can help you to join, or even to start your own, critique group.

Online Help

  • Writer’s Blogs! If you’ll scroll down the sidebar (to the left on a mainstream computer browser) you’ll see a list of writer’s blogs to which I subscribe. They can be inspirational, instructive, or at the least, entertaining. (And you’ll want to start one of your own, too.)
  • Online Instruction. And I don’t mean a virtual MFA program or anything like that. But, you can check out Fiction University, which is the name of a blog by Janice Hardy. (The link is to one post, but from there you can navigate the entire site, of course.) You can get writing related news at The Passive Voice, which digests stories that will interest writers.
  • Use Google (or Bing if that’s your thing) to search out “writers’ blogs,” or “blogs by writers,” or “how to write good,” even. You’ll find a bunch of stuff on your own. (Or, start by clicking some of the links on my sidebar if you wish.)

I could ramble on, but you’re not me, and you don’t need to know everything that I like. Go out and find your own sites! Seriously! And, also, join a writers’ group. You’ll be glad you did!

The Las Vegas Writers Group meets every 3rd Thursday of the month at the Tap House on West Charleston. Cost is $5. This month our speaker is Mercedes M Yardley, a successful alumna of the group, who will be letting us know the right way to query and submit manuscripts.

Another Year Older

Towster, England, December 26th, 2007. I was there!
Towster, England, December 26th, 2007. I was there!

A word about steeple chasing, first. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see that the horses are just landing after a jump. There is a second rail about a meter behind the one you see here. The ground shakes as if there were a major earthquake coming. Damn, but that was fun!

When I took that photograph I was 58 years old, which means that the photo is almost 9 years old. That was our Boxing Day adventure in the UK. Frankly, I’d do that again. (Especially in England, where almost nothing is open on Boxing Day.) Last Saturday I had another birthday. No big deal, really, it was the 67th anniversary of my birth. After 66 prior birthdays, the whole idea is wearing thin, anyway. I gave up active real estate work at the beginning of this year. That means that, for practical purposes, I am retired. When I was a callow youth, I said, blithely, that writing would be my “retirement career.” Damn, one should be careful what one says in one’s youth! Because of course, that’s what I am, a writer. Heck, I’m writing as I write! (See what I did there? Heh heh!)

I wanted to be a writer in my youth. But it didn’t seem possible. Family wasn’t behind the idea, and, frankly, such writing as I did was awful. It sucked. It was bad. Even then, I couldn’t stand to read it. (And, fortunately, it’s all been lost. Go for it, literary historians of 2243!) But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, one thing that I’d tell my young self if I met him, it is that you always must be true to yourself! (Didn’t somebody write that once?) And, writing rule #1: Only write stuff you want to read! And one more rule, which I have heard repeated by virtually every successful writer I’ve ever heard speak (and I kid you not): Be Persistent! Why? Well, for one thing, if you persist, you’ll get better (at least most of us will.) And for another, the world will never discover you; you must present yourself to the world. So, the more stuff you have to present, the more likely somebody will really like at least some of it, and you’re off!

So, there’s the advice from this older man: follow your own heart, write what you like to read, and persist!

I doubt that there’s a single other rule for a creative writer that makes any significant difference.