Chocolate in Kilchberg

images 5043344_f520 liquid_chocI love chocolate. I prefer the Swiss kind, very dark. (It helps me write.)

I once went to a chocolate town in Switzerland named Kilchberg. That city is the home of the Lindt & Sprungli factory.

Kilchberg is not a typical jumping-off spot for the tourist with a Swiss Rail pass, but it lured Thomas Mann at the end of his life. His son Golo Mann, an essayist and historian, also settled into Kilchberg at the end of a distinguished literary career, living in his parents’ house with his mother.

So Kilchberg has this literary and chocolate past, you see. If ever writers needed a pilgrimage spot, Kilchberg could work.

The town smells insanely good. The Lindt & Sprungli factory furnaces burn off the “bad” chocolate (as if that adjective could be stuck next to the noun and make sense). So the closer you get, the dizzier you become. Tours can be arranged at this factory, and visitors are given bags of sample chocolate.

I guess there used to be bad chocolate. As most prolific readers (that would be writers) know, chocolate was heavily in use in the New World, but not like we eat it today. Sugar wasn’t part of the mix. Ground cocoa was roasted and mixed with red pepper, vanilla and water. The Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni said chocolate seemed “more suited for pigs than men.” About 70 years later, the Spanish began to experiment with chocolate.Zürichsee_-_Kilchberg_Lindt_&_Sprüngli_IMG_0227

The trend of eating chocolate in sold form spread from Spain throughout Europe. In 1674, chocolate in the shape of rolls and cakes “in the Spanish fashion” were being sold in Lodon. Rodolphe Lindt (1855-1909), following in the footsteps of chocolatiers Henri Nestle (who invented condensed milk) and Daniel Peter (who mixed the condensed milk with chocolate) brought chocolate into new states of lusciousness.

Lusciousness is of course what writers need in order to think, write and console themselves.

The reason Lindt is called Lindt & Springli is due to Rodolphe Sprungli-Schifferli buying the Lindt trademark and recipe secrets in 1899 for 1 1/2 million Swiss francs.

This sum (even then!) should give writers pause. We are all trying to write the breakout novel. People eat chocolate more than they read. Who said the limits of chocolate have been explored? Or for that matter, why invent or write anything? Employees at Lindt & Sprungli can eat as much chocolate as they want.

What are we doing at our computers when we could be in a chocolate factory?





A self-help book for people with bad neighbors?

I have read more self-help books than I would like to remember (as has Connie) through the sublime position of judging for contests. There are all kinds of self-help books in the world. You would never think that so many self-help books are published each year, not if you walked through a bookstore. While those places (with cash registers) are becoming rarer, I would still not have guessed from browsing Amazon or Barnes and Nobles online, where quality fiction is presented in a changing carousel.

Well, now I know. Self help books are printed in yearly profusion and some of them have made a bundle of bucks–notably The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and Think and Grow Rich by Nap0leon Hill, which are both about making money come zinging out of the stratosphere and adhering to your skin.

Then there are the apocalyptic Christian self-help, the easy-going Christian self-help, the spirit-guide (occult) self-help, the daily diary or journal self-help, the how-to-face-death self help, the love nature self-help, the how-to-overcome divorce , the dog is your best friend self-help and the low self-esteem self-help. And more.

But I have yet to see one  about how to deal with bad neighbors. If a book like that had any good tricks in it, I might even buy it.

We have an alley bordering the back of our house. Some new renters have come to a house that is very close. They use the garage, which opens onto the alleyway, as a pool hall, rapper disco, gambling and possibly cock-fighting party zone. M***F**** is the main compound word in the lyrics of the songs they play. These are not the kind of people one should talk to. I daresay they are not aware anyone else exists in the universe, and if they are aware, they do not care.  garage rappers

So where are the books to help me cope? I am so sorry that all those self-help writers in their ivory towers or Hawaiin grottos do not know that just possibly, a few hundred thousand readers might actually profit not from journaling about our disappointments or lack of self-esteem but from reading a really well written self help book for people with bad neighbors.



The Lakers lost season: a prospective on losing

ImageAs a Lakers fan, this has been the worst season I can remember in a very long time. The back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010 seem as if they were decades ago. It’s a year that, much like last season, has been defined by major injuries to key players. I could go into detail about all the trials and tribulations, but those have been, and continue to be, hammered on by beat writers covering the Lakers. The bottom line is, this year’s team is little more than a D-League group. For those non-NBA fans reading this post, the D-League stands for Developmental League and it’s comprised of players who either didn’t make it in the NBA or have been sent there by their respective teams to get playing time because they aren’t good enough to see minutes in an actual NBA game.

As such, the players on this year’s Lakers simply don’t have the talent to compete with the league’s top level talents like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Truth be told, they don’t have the talent to compete with most non-All Stars of the league either. These Lakers are role players who, in a normal season, would play 15 – 20 minutes a game tops. Instead, they are forced to play 35 to 40-plus minutes because all the players who were expected to be starters are sidelined with lengthy injuries. The results, of course, speak for themselves: 18 wins, 34 losses. Sadly, there are still 30 games left to play. Records are falling every game, and not in a good way.

I expect many fans have stopped watching the team this year, but I’m not among them. I’ll keep watching for the rest of the season because A) they are my team and I’m not a fair weather fan, and B) losing is a part of life. No team can win it all every year. Many teams have never won an NBA title, or even come close. That doesn’t mean the players on those teams aren’t trying their best (with the possible exception of Andrew Bynum, good luck Pacers, lol). It can’t be easy to go out each season and lose more games than you win, but that’s often the reality of professional sports.

It’s also the reality of life. Just because we aren’t at the top of our chosen fields doesn’t mean we aren’t contributing to said fields. As a writer, I’ve accomplished only a fraction of what I’d hoped to at this point in my life: two non-fiction books sold via the conventional route. I had expected my resume to include at least three novels by now, but it hasn’t happened. Does that mean I’m a failure? Some will answer yes, but I’m not among them. There are tons of good writers out there who haven’t sold any books. That doesn’t make them failures. Like professional sports, writing is a tough business. It takes talent and a good amount of luck to hit it big. Maybe it turns out I’m more of a D-League player. So what? Those guys are full of passion and love for the game, even though they aren’t getting paid millions of dollars to suit up. I don’t need a six figure advance to write a good book; I just have to write stories that people enjoy reading.

Four Potent Sources of Encouragement for the Writer/Artist

ImageHave you subscribed to dozens of writer-support emails/newsletters and engaged in multiple artist/writer forums over the years? How much have they helped your life as a writer/artist? What I am looking for is probably the same thing you are looking for– encouragement. Encouragement comes from ideas that help me morph back into the creative spirit I most love being.

Such encouragement gives me courage and energy.

Does it feel as if it is in short supply?

Here are four hotspot articles of true encouragement recently found, and I am not talking about the clever, rambling email letters that attempt to sell you a book at the end of a long page.

1. Jon Morrow has written a thoughtful piece entitled “How to be Smart in a World of Dumb Bloggers” (Sept 17, 2013) Normally I would comment on his blog, but this is superior material and needs to be shared. It will make the reader think about his or her approach to life. Morrow’s suggestions are not that hard, and if followed, will make writers/artists feel better about life.

(Simply mentioning Morrow’s piece here will ensure  I go back to re-read it and be re-inspired!)

2. Morrow’s article came to my attention from an article entitled “49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art” written by Leanne Regalla (Jan 23, 2014), and Morrow wasn’t even listed as one of the 49-ers, but his was the link that plucked me up the most.

3. My window onto the world above was opened by subscription to The Writer’s Weekly written by Kimberley Grabas. the most recent one being The Definition of Marketing (Issue #28) This was a fantastic post leading to multiple colored, glowing doors, almost all of which feel useful and helpful to writers and artists. Tell me if I am wrong.

4. Not all the best encouragement is found on the web, especially when you think of all the internet dross to be avoided. Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, edited by Laurie Lamson (2014) and published by Penguin is a valuable recent book I have added to my shelves. There is advice in it from speculative writers of every kind, from Dr. Seuss to screenwriters whose names you might not recognize but whose movies you will.

For instance, Jeremy Wagner (who wrote The Armegedon Chord) has a short piece encouraging writers (and artists) to be prolific. So many writers stop writing due to lack of encouragement–they become the opposite of prolific. Wagner uses a clear and simple argument: writing  more makes you a better writer.

Being better at anything opens doors.

Wagner’s idea took three minutes to read and has stayed with me for weeks.

May today be a day you find encouragement.

Formatting Text and Images for your Amazon Kindle Book

ImageThe more books you put up on Amazon Kindle, the more you are going to learn about the process.

I have just put up my first illustrated children’s book. While my first collection of stories had pictures inserted, the formatting of which drove me crazy, what I learned from the process did not stick long enough in my head for me not to make the same mistakes while formatting this recent book.

A rule of thumb is patience. You can do everything right, formatting your text so that the first line of each paragraph is indented five points (and making sure you never “tab” anything), but it can still come out wrong in the previewer. If the error does not slap you in the face in the previewer, it will certainly do so while you are lying in bed, perusing your side-loaded (or purchased?) version on your ebook reader. You may sigh, as I have more times than I can count, and get back to editing (once more) in the morning.

Why don’t I get it right the first time? Maybe because I am human and fallible. If you get it right every time, first time, please turn off all electrical appliances, scream at the gardeners to turn off their dust blowers, in effect, cut all power and if necessary, take a drive out to a deserted part of the country for utter peace. Then listen. Very carefully. The sound of enthusiastic if sarcastic clapping you hear coming from God knows where will be the echo of my two hands slamming against each other just now.

(Now we can get on to business. That person has clicked off.)

The point is that the previewer is not going to show you things in the same way your word doc file does. Even when you click on the paragraph symbol to show you whether you have tabbed or formatted, everything may look right on the surface. The previewer will demonstrate a rebellious paragraph or two, and you will have to struggle with those with the same persevering patience as a fisherman does to hook his prey. Try blocking and checking how it is formatted. Try making two paragraphs into one. Eventually you will see how the damn sentences are misbehaving.

You are clever. You will fix them. Eventually.

Next we have the illustrations. They look fine in the word doc file, perfectly centered, but for reasons unknown to non computer software programmers, they will show up too much to the right in the Amazon Kindle previewer. Sometimes the inserted picture that looks fine in the word doc file will be partly cut off in the previewer page. You can either narrow the picture while you edit, or make sure it is not indented five points into the paragraph, which your format set up will do automatically.

An inserted picture that looks to be placed too far to the left in the word doc file may come out perfect in Amazon Kindle. Then count on the need for more patience while you upload your edited version, which takes a short eternity, and then to turn pages in your previewer (demanding the same time necessary to turning pages on a clothing store’s online site). Such are the luxuries of our electronic age and the short fuses we have developed to go along with the whole shebang.

On one thing you can be certain: there will always be some edit you know you hit “save” on that does not show up when you are turning pages on the previewer.Image

Does stupid sell?

As dylanmcpreviously noted, both Julia and I have newly completed manuscripts we are attempting to market the old fashioned way, that being the agent and conventional publisher route. We have saleable books in every respect of the word. Well written, with interesting characters and plots that tie in with popular culture. Julia’s in a form of ghost hunting story with light humor. Mine is a kid shooter book that explores what these horrendous deeds do to the people who are often forgotten after the fact: the friends and family members of the victims. It honestly amazes me that neither of us has received more than a mere blink of interest from agents, which once again begs the age old question: what do today’s agents want?

Since I am sort of a TV addict, I’m going to use a current television series to tie into the title of this post. The show is Hostages, currently airing on CBS. The show has an interesting premise at first glance: a doctor who was scheduled to operate on the president is forced to pledge she will kill said president in order to save herself and her family, all of whom are being held hostage by a rouge FBI agent. The problem is, this show is being stretched over a series of 15 episodes when it should have been, at best, a 90 minute made-for-TV film. Each week something more ridiculous happens to keep said hostages from escaping the clutches of the evil FBI guy. Last week’s gem gave viewers (the few who are left) the reason why this seemingly competent, decorated FBI agent has gone ballistic. For those unfamiliar with the show, which probably includes most of you reading this, the explanation was that his wife is dying of cancer but her cancer is curable if she gets a bone marrow transplant. Alas, there is only one match in the entire world: her estranged father, who—Are you ready?—just happens to be the president. To quote the infamous Forest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. So, after that “shocking” revelation, the doctor becomes sympathetic to her hostage holder and begs him to give her some time to find another suitable bone marrow donor.

So now for the question on all of your minds: why in the world am I still watching this loony show? Pure curiosity. I want to see how many more stupid plot twists (a generous description, I realize) this group of writers (again, a generous description) were capable of coming up with. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before FBI man and Killer Doc wind up in bed together. That, in turn, could lead to a plot to kill Doc’s husband, who, for the most part, is the only sane character in the entire show. Even the actors, including the handsome and talented Dylan McDermott, seem anxious for this thing to just end.

And finally, to answer my own question, yes, I guess stupid does sell, as long as you know how to wrap it in a fancy package and top it off with a pretty red bow.

NaNoMo and too many writers out there?

images (1)I believe in the power of writing: its benefits are enormous. For instance, students who write about personal matters tend to have fewer illnesses than students who write on hackneyed subjects. That has been scientifically proven. Writing teachers know that serious writing stimulates critical analysis: student writers often do not know precisely what they think until they have to write something down. In general, to write even to oneself in a journal (presuming one does so on paper) is to leave a mark of having existed.  ( Journal or diary-keeping was widespread in the 19th century.) On the other hand, some blogs outlive their creators, as is the case of

To cultivate writing is to cultivate good grammar, strategy (formulas of argument and story) and eloquence. Additionally, people who write become fascinated by and adept in language usage. Words are the richness of culture; with their origins and meanings they weave the breath of other lands into one society.

As a writing teacher, I think everyone should learn to write effectively. To do so is empowering.

Having experienced the role of a writing judge for a well-known magazine, I realize that a great many people think their skills honed enough to merit a book. They are often wrong.

NaNoMo (National Novel Writing Month) statistics give a startling indication of the competition out there for anyone who does write a good book:

NaNoWriMo 2012 at a Glance

341,375 participants started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.–From the NaNoMo site.

Publisher’s Weekly/Lunch usually reports approximately 50 book sales a day, although that probably doesn’t include weekends. Usually people on the free email list read that there are even more sales to hear of if we would but subscribe to the magazine.  So at least 250 books gets sold a week and about a thousand a month, coming to 12,000 a year. We could double that number to include all the book sales not reported by Publisher’s Lunch.: 24,000.

I am noticing that 24,000 and 341,000 (writers in NaNoMo) as numbers are really far from each other. Like miles. Or light years.  What about all the writers who aren’t counted in NaNoMo? Maybe another 340,000? How many of those writers are querying agents?

The numbers are sobering.

Something to think about.AbdulAhad_RubyStar


As writers, we need to get a life

There was a time in my life, say from the late 1980s to mid-90s, when I spent every free second I had working on my writing. It never came before my family, but there were some close calls mixed in. I felt I had to write at least 7-8 hours a day, including weekends, if I were to have a chance to reach my ultimate goal of being a published author. In retrospect, that slightly obsessed attitude probably contributed to the publication of Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in late 1999. The book wasn’t a national bestseller, but it was published by a respectable house and sold out its print run. By the time Hoop Lore hit the market in 2007, I had come to the realization that being published wasn’t nearly as rewarding of an experience as I had expected. Now, if my books had sold tens of thousands of copies, it’s likely I wouldn’t be writing this post today—but the fact is, most authors who sell a book don’t become rich or famous. In fact, their lives go on pretty much the same as before.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind for writers of all ages, published or not. Writing isn’t glamorous, and most of the time it isn’t even fun. We are writers, so we have to write. Speaking of which, I am about to begin sending out queries for a new fiction manuscript. My expectations are realistic: it’s unlikely I will find an agent who wants to take on my book. The publishing world is changing so rapidly, agents are even less likely than they were five years ago to take on new clients. They only accept books they are absolutely certain will sell and sell very well. And really, who can blame them? They make a living from commission. No commission, no income. So I am stating upfront that I will have no hard feelings toward any agent who rejects my work. The last part of that sentence is key, by the way: when an agent says no thanks, he or she is declining to represent our work, not us. It isn’t personal. I know it’s hard to look at it that way, but we must.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Writers must have a life away from writing. We must have outside interests, friends, and hobbies. My circle of friends is small but supportive and caring. (Yours should be the same, or they aren’t worthy of your friendship; don’t waste time with negative people, it will drain your creativity.)  I spend the majority of my mornings outside taking care of my gardens, which in itself feels like a full time job in Fresno. Last but certainly not least, I have an abundance of animal companions who never fail to brighten my day. We recently lost our beloved boxer, Kook, who finally succumbed to heart disease at the age of 12. We adopted him when he was two, and he quickly became our “Director of Enthusiasm” with his upbeat, funny personality and his obvious love for life.  (I will be writing a full post about him soon, so if you are a fellow animal lover, stayed tuned and have plenty of Kleenex handy.)

Your outside interests might be completely different than mine. What matters is that you have interests other than writing, and that you engage in them every single day. Chances are doing so will enhance rather than distract from your ability to become published.

Everyone’s a writer

The last thing I want to do is discourage people from following their passion, especially if that passion is to become a published writer. The emergence of e-Books, especially Kindle, has no doubt helped many writers reach their dream of seeing their stories in print. There is a major downside to this anyone-can-do-it formula, however: suddenly, every single person on earth thinks they can become an “author” by simply writing down words on a page, formatting them into book form, and posting them on Kindle (and/or any number of other e-Book publishers).  

So what’s the harm, you say? It’s not as if anyone is forced to buy a book they don’t want. Well, that’s true of course, but think about this: The more titles available on sites like Kindle, the harder it becomes to make your book get noticed. I had no idea how many titles were actually available until my daughter gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It would take literally days to browse every title in the catalog if you clicked on each entry to get a synopsis. (And if you don’t do that, how will you determine whether it’s a book you want to read?)

It used to be, if you chose the self-publishing format to have your work printed, it would cost a literal fortune—$50,000 and up. I know because several of those places approached me when I first began soliciting agents back in the late 1980s. They sent out form letters claiming they heard about my book from such-and-such literary agency, and would be honored to “publish” me. They were great at hiding the fact they were vanity presses in disguise. I was never desperate enough to bite on those offers, but other writers must have been as vanity (later known as subsidy) houses flourished for decades.

Thankfully most of these “presses” have vanished into the wind, and we have to assume that’s because of the emergence of e-Book publishing. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the ease of getting a book up and running brings with it an onslaught of authors who have no idea writing is a craft that requires a skill set like any other occupation. I wish I could say I expect the problem to fix itself with time; alas, it’s much more likely the exact opposite will come to pass.

Patience, Virtue, Morality, and other lost arts

timeWe live in the instant age, which we can tie directly to the mesmerizing advancement of technology. On the surface, this makes our lives easier. When I first began writing, I worked on a manual typewriter that belonged to my grandmother. In my twenties, I was thrilled to have an electric typewriter! So much easier on my fingers, and a lot better looking result on the page. When I got my first computer in the late 1980s, a used Atari 800, which came with a dot matrix printer, I thought I was in heaven. No more carbon copies, no more typing over mistakes with white tape or using white paint to cover them up! Talk about the wave of the future.

By 1994, home computers were becoming commonplace. Our first was a Pac Bell 486. I barely knew how to turn it on, let alone use it. So I read the manuals for DOS and Windows 3.1 cover to cover until I understood how it worked. It soon became an everyday tool in my writing and a homework helper for my girls. Shortly thereafter, the dial up internet was born. Bills in excess of $50 a month, just to connect and stay online for a few hours a week. Hours to download any type of program or update. Disconnects along the way so you had to start all over.

Today, I have the majority of my music collection, which is extensive, on a digital “cloud” located somewhere in Apple’s Universe. Music that is accessible instantly on my iPhone with the swipe of a finger, or, if I want to get really fancy, via voice command to Siri. Speak into the microphone, and she finds the song and plays it. If I miss a TV show, most are available via aps from the networks. I can swipe my finger again, and watch a full hour long show. Or a movie. I can watch video clips of everything to basketball instant replays to the latest news conference in Washington. Amazing. No other way to describe it.

And as a writing instrument, the modern computer is far more elaborate than I ever could have imagined. When I was working on Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in the late 1990s, there was next to nothing insofar as research available on the internet. I had to check out books from the library, look at magazines and newspapers on microfilm, and then either photocopy or write down in longhand the information I was researching. Hoop Lore was done about 50/50, as more and more info became available on the net. If I were writing a non-fiction book today, I would expect that 98% of my research would be done from my office chair.

All of that is well and good. But as technology evolves ever faster, we are beginning to see the downside. It reminds me of the series finale of the TV show, Battlestar Galactica. (The Sci-fi network’s remake, not the original.) In that final episode, we learn that several characters have lived through numerous lives, with the society in which they live always ending the same way: technology evolves to the point where it destroys humanity.

Now, I’m not saying we’re going to be taken over by a mean generation of robotic Siris or anything like that. But, it is impossible not to see the effect this instant age is having on the younger generation. Think about that silly AT&T Universe ad campaign currently airing. A 6 or 7 year old boy rocking in chairs with his grandfather talking about how “back in the day” they had to watch TV in the room where it was hooked up. Or, the one that really irks me, the 12 year old boy talking to his brothers about how back in his time, it sometimes took a minute to download a song. I’m not sure who the brains at AT&T are gearing this nonsense toward, but for me, it’s so nauseating I would never consider switching to their service.

As for our day-to-day lives, I have noticed people becoming more and more rude, more and more demanding. They want what they want, and they want it now. (Most don’t want to pay for it either, but that’s a rant for another day.) My husband sees this every day in his contractor’s business. Clients who take months to make up their minds about what they want. Then, when they finally decide, they call him and ask if he can put their kitchens in that afternoon. When he explains others are now waiting ahead of them, many get irate and do whatever they can to spread nasty rumors about his business. I am now seeing the same thing on Ebay. I used to do a lot of selling on there 10-12 years ago. The service was fairly new, and the people using it, buyers and sellers alike, were mostly civil. Others outright friendly. I would estimate that I had trouble with perhaps one out of a hundred customers. Today it’s more like one out of ten. People pay instantly with Paypal, and then expect their package to be sitting on their doorstep the next morning. I wish I could say I’m exaggerating.

Recently, both Julia and I upgraded our computers to systems running Windows 8. Neither of us particularly likes it. It’s very different, geared toward (should have seen this coming) people 20 and under who live their lives walking around checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes on their phones. When Julia voiced her distaste for this “upgrade” at a writing get-together last week and said she hopes Microsoft dumps it soon, our resident sage, Lesley, said “I don’t think we’re going to go backwards.”

Lesley is right, of course. There’s no going back. Technology changes on a daily basis, and we either strive to change with it or get left behind. I’m sorry to say that there are more and more days where I think I might just opt for the latter.