Saturday, March 28, 2015

Starbucks Writers Colony

There are 2 kinds of Starbucks people: those who order a drink and stay, and those who order a drink and leave (I won't even include the freeloaders who walk in and stay and never order anything).

It seems like the most interesting people order and leave. But of the people who stay, a lot of them write during their time in the café, and I have to consider them part of the Starbucks Writers Colony.

I know there are few like me writing novels and stories. Some people I can see across from me are writing emails. That's all they do in Starbucks, just compose emails. That's their form of writing. Maybe I should write a novel composed entirely of email messages going back and forth--something like John Barth's novel Letters, but I imagine someone has done it already.

Some guy seems to be working on a patent. I see him on the USPTO website looking at the diagrams. He must have an idea for a new product and is filing his own application, or maybe checking patents for ideas to help him finish his idea, and to see what is already out there. Something like a novelist checking Dickens for ideas on characterization.

I hardly ever see anyone writing in longhand anymore--except at Starbucks. I know if I sit there long enough, someone will walk in, whip out a pen and notepad, and start writing. Happens all the time.

For some, their writing consists entirely of typing in the URLs of websites. And then they sit and read and click. The writing has ended.

I've seen a few that seem to be messaging someone back and forth, but not very often. I imagine I would see a lot more of it at a Starbucks near a school.

I see a good number of businessmen in the DC area working on their Powerpoint slide presentations.

Sometimes I can see the monitor of someone sitting in front of me and she is working on a school paper using Microsoft Word. I don't like to see other people's computer screens. I feel like I have enough to think about without getting involved in the lives of strangers.

When seeing someone else's monitor, the ones who worry me are the computer geeks watching strange graphs flow along their screen. Are they monitoring the wifi activity of the others around them? And can they see what others are typing?

It gives me a fuzzy sense of camaraderie to see another novel writer at Starbucks. Strength in numbers, I suppose. It never occurs to me to wonder what kind of book they might be writing, just that they are writing a book--any book.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Real Writers Don't Fear Distractions

A real writer can't be distracted by the internet or loud noises because a real writer can't be distracted by anything!

A writer can't live in fear of the internet, loud noises, cars out on the street, and so on, and then somehow hope that he can get away from all of it for a few moments to write the next chapter of his book. Any writer who is easily distracted and keeps procrastinating by surfing pointlessly on the internet is purposely avoiding his narrative.

Fears & Excuses of Writers:
  • Internet distractions
  • Noise
  • People talking
  • Barking dogs
  • Traffic noises
  • Airplanes flying overhead
  • Loud music
  • Feeling hungry, need to get food
  • Sound of rain, wind
  • Want to go out somewhere
  • My story idea isn't really very good
  • I'm not cut out to be a writer
  • I have other things to do
  • I have writer's block (I wrote in another post that I never think about this because I'm always writing many different things at once, so how could I ever get it?) 
If you are a victim of distractions and procrastination, then something is wrong with the story you are trying to tell. You don't believe in it. Your mind detects something unsatisfactory about the plot.

I think the paramount reason anyone would hesitate to continue writing a story is because the writer doesn't believe in what she's writing anymore. The narrative just isn't going as well as she had hoped. The plot has taken some turns that don't add up, or the whole thing seems too hokey, or the dialog isn't believable.

It's the story itself that causes the writer to find excuses: surfing unrelated websites on the internet, loud noises, loud music, crickets chirping, elevator down the hall. The excuses snowball because it's not the distractions that are creating an inability to write--it's the story. It's isn't going how you envisioned.

At this point, the writer needs to think about why the story isn't cutting it and what can be done to change that. A new plot twist? A different ending? A new, dynamic character? Somebody gets killed? A new element needs to be introduced into the narrative to act as an alarm clock to the writer, wake her up, and get her excited about the story once again. Something happened between the thrill of beginning the narrative at page one and arriving at the point down the road where any little distraction is welcome because the story just ain't working anymore and the wheels are coming off.

If you feel good about your story, your plot, your characters, your ending, you'll want to keep writing. If you don't, you'll pick an excuse and go with that. My theory is if you are having trouble continuing with your story, then the problem is the story, not you or all those supposed distractions.

If you're locked into your narrative, a Steinway piano could come crashing through the ceiling and land right next to you and you wouldn't lose track of your thought. I've had people slam things down on tables right next to me but I don't react or forget what I'm doing because I dissociate myself from noises and don't allow anything to derail me when writing.

I've written a number of posts about how writers absurdly keep seeking--yet don’t really need--quiet. And the idea that needing "quiet" and an absence of distractions is a smokescreen for a different problem. I must sound like a broken record by now.

My short story collection:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why Would Writers Stay Off The Internet?

Why are they hiding?

One reason explains why anyone chooses to stay off the internet: Fear.

Old people fearful of computers. Young women avoiding stalkers. Writers burned by lousy reviews from clueless, jealous readers?

I'm enormously skeptical of those who fear the internet without some kind of solid reason for it. Did they once prowl the internet but suffered a bad experience, and that’s the reason for shunning it? Safety and security from all the criminals who live online? You can lose a lot of money to online scammers. Come to think of it, you can do the same offline, but your chances of being scammed are cut in half if you stay away from the internet.

To my surprise, some digital scribes are counseling writers and authors, of all people, to stay off the internet. I see someone by the name of Emily Gould has written an opinion piece for Salon with this advice. I didn't notice it until now because, seriously, who reads or writes for Salon or follows what they say except radicals whose opinions are worthless? I've never once thought: I really need to check Salon for some great opinions!

And sure enough, Gould's advice is downright silly. Writers should take long walks or do volunteer work instead of spending time on the internet. This is a great Exhibit A of why I don't read Salon.

A writer needs to be on the internet to build an audience and interact with a following, and to promote his writings, especially when there are thousands if not millions of writers online hyping their books. If you want to be a well-read author, is it rational to ignore the digital world? Sure, some can succeed while doing that--roughly something like 0.01 percent of all authors.

Any writer not on the internet and not already a success needs his or her head examined. Sure there are dangers and things to fear. Idiot reviewers who prove they don't understand a book they review (I can relate), revealing unsavory details about oneself that may repulse some readers and customers. So the answer is...hide yourself so nobody knows what you think?

When I think of people not online, what image pops into my mind? Rural, small town America. A farmer plowing his fields. Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction. Mayberry RFD. The Indians of the Amazon region in South America. I don't think of authors. Maybe because I see every day on my twitter feeds how many are out there already.

The power levers of the world make it harder to stay offline. The push is insistent from educators and the government to find more reasons to stay online. That sounds ominous, doesn’t it? “Educators” and the “government” are without question the two biggest worries we have right now for keeping a great country and not deteriorating into some banana republic. The White House, Congress, Washington DC and the “teachers” in schools at all levels. When I think of those things, I think of the Robot on Lost in Space: “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

A writer can't let fear dictate her strategy for building a reputation. A writer doesn't back down from that. A writer out-writes her critics and naysayers and emerges victorious in the end. A writer without that belief surely lacks self-confident in her abilities to set original ideas on digital paper and win the war of words.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Meeting Your Fictional Character In The Real World

There she is, sitting right there in the corner of the café. My fictional character come to life! What would you do? Would you walk up to her and tell her that? "Excuse me, but I invented someone exactly like you in one of my books!"

This happened to me in a café not long ago. I saw a girl walk in whose physical appearance resembled a character in a manuscript of mine. But as I surreptitiously watched her at her seat across the room, it gradually dawned on me why a fictional character of mine had come to life. The conclusion came into focus like a photograph slowly developing into view at the bottom of a tray of chemicals.

I learned from that real person that my fictional character was nothing but a stereotype, and a lot of women could walk in the door and resemble my fictional character. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that I hadn't really invented a three-dimensional person in the fictional sense, in the way an author like Charles Dickens created "real" characters.

Yes, I had met my fictional creation in the real world, but it was nothing extraordinary, because a lot of women fit the description of my character, and seeing someone with those attributes in close proximity to me was no cause for great excitement. Instead, I felt deflated since I knew I had merely sketched a rough stereotype in my manuscript that needed fleshing out so that she would become something much more unique and rare and lifelike, and reducing the chance that she would stroll in the door of my café.

And it caused me to realize I need to read some Dickens novels to see how he accomplished that, and what can I learn about creating realistic fictional people from him. And it all started because some woman walked into a café and reminded me of a fictional person I described in a manuscript.

But without question you could meet not just an adumbrated stereotype, but your thoroughly-described three-dimensional fictional character in the real world. In my mind, that's within the realm of possibility because if you describe a fictional person with enough detail, someone in this world of 6 billion people likely possesses all those attributes. We know all the variations of possibility. And the likelihood is great that someone somewhere possesses all those attributes that you gave to your character. What is implausible is you and that real person meeting at the same time and the same place.

A Brief "Whiff" of the Future

But it is much more likely—even a guaranteed certainty—that you would meet your fictional creation if you have, unknown to you, described someone you will meet in the future, and your mind subconsciously has already seen the details of that person in a phenomenon I'll call a "whiff of the future." It seems in accord with the idea among some physicists that time is circular and not simply linear. Einstein said the past, present and future overlap and exist simultaneously but in different distant locations. ("The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion.").  I think there are forces at work which we don’t understand that can cause you to describe a real person you don’t know and haven’t met—but will in the future.

You access a brief "whiff" of the future—a meeting with a woman in a café—and you write about her based on that future information. And when the time comes that you meet her in the here and now, you see she is exactly as you imagined her because you did see her in that brief "whiff" of the future. Well, I'll leave it for the physicists to decide if this scenario is possible.

I've felt this brief "whiff" of the future that subsequently became reality several times, and my theory is that if I've felt it, so have others. I suppose it's something like "reverse deja vu," in that you feel something that will happen rather than think you're experiencing something that already happened in the past.

Suppose you did see someone who resembled your fictional creation down to the last detail—even the clothes she wears, and the handbag she carries. What would you do? Introduce yourself and tell her about it? Schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist? Write a blog post about it?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Amazon Used Books And Condition Dishonesty

I no longer trust the descriptions of the conditions of used books sold by the Amazon marketplace dealers. They keep overstating the quality of their books and I'm often disappointed when I see them in my own hands. Some of the books I don't even want to keep and need to look for another copy. The process turns out to be a complete waste of my time. This is another good reason why I've switched to digital books wherever possible.

I suppose I'm being tough when I call it "dishonesty" rather than "optimism," or an honest disagreement of opinion on how to judge the condition of used books. Someone like me isn't going to buy a book listed as "good" unless I'm desperate, but I will always buy one claimed to be "very good." I'm sure those who sell books on Amazon for fun and profit know about people like me.

Recently I bought 2 used books from 2 different vendors on the Amazon marketplace. Both books were described as "very good." But when I received them and looked them over, the pages of both were yellow. And on one of them, blotches were on the top, side and bottom edges.

These books were not "very good" but simply "good," average copies at best. So I've lost the trust I had in marketplace vendors and their descriptions since they keep overstating the condition of their books. I've yet to receive a book whose condition was understated. With digital books, I have no such worries. No yellow, brittle pages, splotches, underlining, highlighting and other things that greatly diminish my enjoyment of a used book.

Buying a book sight unseen is always a gamble, especially if you are the kind of person like me who hates poor copies that have been handled roughly and with no concern about the resale value. I never highlighted any books of my own because to me it depreciated it in my own eyes, regardless of the resale value. A highlighted book is a maimed book, like an injured animal that's lost an arm or a leg. Whatever value or necessity I would have in highlighting passages is outweighed by the diminished physical attractiveness of the copy.

Some readers seem oblivious to all these considerations that destroy my enjoyment of a book. They blithely underline passages with no thought about the long-term value of the book, They mark it up apparently because they are students and need to remember those passages as important for their future exams or papers yet to be written.

A better idea seems to me those multicolored bookmarks that can be taped to each significant page. That page can be referred to easily while not permanently marring the book. And later, the bookmarks can be removed, leaving a pristine copy for yourself or others. many people are not seeing it my way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do You Trust Your Cafe Barista?

The good barista earns the trust of her customers by consistently crafting high-quality drinks made to specification.

Do you trust your cafe barista will make your drink the way you wanted? A few of them, I do. I know from experience that they are reliable and competent drinkmakers and whenever I'm in the mood for something special, or if I have a free reward burning a hole in my app, I'll go ahead and order one of the most expensive potions on the menu.

Some baristas I've learned I can’t trust to make me a dandy drink, I know there's a good chance they'll screw it up, so when I see them standing behind the syrup dispensers, I just order the regular coffee. I don’t want to waste a free drink if I suspect the barista won’t concoct a delicious brew. I wait until I see a familiar, trusted barista behind the counter, then I order the big fancy drink.

I don't think a barista would poison me or add a drop of something not on the standard ingredient list, although such actions are not unheard of. Some are just uncaring and incompetent. They aren't meticulous. It's a temporary job, not a career, and are seeking to leave for something more in harmony with their life's dreams--and with better pay.

Some cafes I won’t even enter anymore after a bad experience with a clueless barista. One time I order a frappuccino and it tasted like it had no sugar or sweetness in it. It was the most horrible drink I've ever had anywhere. So you can understand why I've never set foot in that café again, and that was years ago.

Sadly, some baristas just can't be trusted with anything beyond the basics. Tall coffee, and a standard breakfast sandwich. Anything more and I feel like I’m asking for trouble--and sometimes I get it even with an order of nothing but simple coffee. I've noticed some baristas have trouble distinguishing a request for Blonde coffee and hear it as Bold instead. I've written earlier that I've had trouble with a few minority baristas serving Bold coffee instead of the requested Blonde. Honest mistake or not?

Speaking of race, there isn't a single barista on earth I trust enough to discuss race relations, of all things. I can see conversations like that getting out of hand. Wouldn't surprise me if Starbucks' wrongheaded idea leads to fisticuffs--if not a bit more. We've reached a point where the world wants chaos, and will have it anywhere and everywhere, including cafes included.

A lousy barista can wreck an otherwise groovy café. Just like one annoying customer can wreck the entire seating area environment and make all the good folks go elsewhere.

Some baristas you can talk to, and they know how to converse with customers. They have stories to tell; they’re fun people. Others, I wouldn't even try. I want as little communication with them as necessary to complete my business transaction. And I'll spurn the race relations offer if asked.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Authors Who Tweet Nothing But 'Buy My Book!'

I follow a lot of writers and authors on twitter and I find myself losing respect for those who tweet nothing but "Buy my book!"

The necessity and value of retweeting the same thing many times so more people will see it isn't lost on me. That's the way it works on twitter. If you tweet something only once, very few people will probably see it and many who wish they had seen it will miss it.

If you follow a couple thousand people (at the least) as I do, tweets are constantly racing along your timeline. So many tweets speed down the screen that you can't possibly look at all of them, much less click on every link in every tweet. You would need to do that all day every day, including at night, and even then you wouldn't have enough time.

Having said that, I should think any self-respecting writer would use twitter for more than that, and seek to win over persons like me who are looking for something beyond a plug for your book. You're a writer and twitter is for writing, right? Or are you so limited as a writer that you can't think of anything else to tweet? Isn't a real writer compelled to tweet something beyond a sales pitch if he's spending time on twitter anyway?

Is there nothing else in your life besides your book you would care to tell us about?

  • Bake a nice pie?
  • Meet a weirdo at Walmart?
  • Yoga class?
  • New shoes?
  • Your favorite TV show?
  • Something stupid a politician said?
  • Current event in the news?
  • Your sports team?
  • The weather?

There is no end to the things you could tell us about in the space of a few seconds besides "Buy my book!" I can't be the only one contemptuous of such authors who have nothing to say but "Buy my book!" How can they be worthwhile authors?

I have much more respect for writers who announce new blog posts, or even just some "frivolous" tweets informing me what was purchased at Whole Foods. I mean, anything, just anything more than "Buy my book!" gets my respect and I think much more highly of those writers than others, and I'm much more inclined to read their posts, click their links, and even buy their books!