Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I am linking to this article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (and I hope the link works), because Mr. Richard Martinez speaks for me, too.  Like Mr. Gopnik, I have a 20-year-old son who goes to college in Southern California. Do you know, I was driving when I heard the about YET ANOTHER gun massacre on the news. And I thought, oh, my, god, it could be my son. It wasn't. It was Mr. Martinez's son. Let's name him because he shouldn't be forgotten: Christopher Michael-Martinez.
No, it wasn't my son, but it could have been. And next it could be your daughter, your wife, your husband, your mother, your father. Enough. How absolutely horrifying that I have now to make a label that says "massacre." That this has become a staple in our lexicon.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cherchez La Verb

There are lots of books out there giving you pointers on how to write. My most salient bit of advice is basically "cherchez la verb." The BEST place to learn how verb choice can elevate your writing from the mundane to the magnificent is the sports page. I read the sports page every day. I'm not into sports, but I am into the writing of sports. It's punchy and fun writing that is all about conveying action. Underline all of the verbs in one piece. It's truly inspirational. Sports writers can't get away with inserting dull verbs in their copy and neither should you.

So after you've perused the sports page, first identify all verbs in a chapter and eliminate all the "to feel" and "to be" verbs you can, and replace them with fun verbs, demanding verbs, verbs that give the reader a bigger sense of the drama in front of them. Also eliminate all "to look" verb constructions you can. The "she looked ______" is a cop-out. It's one of those fatal tell-not-show constructions. The writer obviously knows her character is tired but the reader doesn't, and the writer telling you that isn't going to convince you that the character is tired.  I call these verbs the tired verbs. They are so overused that they actually detract from a piece. You can't get rid of all of them, because if you do, your writing will sound insanely mannered, but eliminate every single one you can.

Once you've eliminated all the tired verbs, look for other dull verbs and replace them with verbs that have not only pizazz but also have a sound to them. When you switch out dull verbs for sassy verbs, it compels you to alter the sentence so that it can live up to the sassy verb's promise. At least it does for me.

Example: She hit him across the face.

This is an okay sentence. Its got action, which is always a good thing. But that sentence conveys none of the angst that I think should be contained in that sentence. Its language is so pedestrian and, well, common, that it really doesn't convey the true sense of how powerful this interaction is or could be. Thinking for a second I came up with:

She smacked him across the face.

Ooooh, "to smack" is a great verb. That "k" on the end has so much more oomph than that piddly "t" on the end of hit. Plus the harder sounding "sm"  of smack is a lot better than the soft "h" of hit. And that little shift in emphasis now takes me out of the mundane and has prompted me to sneak a third look at that sentence. What else could I do to punch this up? While it conveys increased motion--that little "k" is working overtime--it doesn't convey that much more motion. Although personally I think a smack might hurt more than a hit, how can we up the "ante" even more?

This is what I came up with:

She hauled back her arm and smacked him across the face.

Better, but still no cigar.

She hauled back her arm and then let loose, smacking him across the face. Hard. With intent. With malice even.

I like the sentence above a lot. I might keep that one. I like the occasional one-word sentence. In this case the word "hard" mimics the action of that punch: short and not so sweet. But let's keep on playing here, because below we also get a deeper sense of the person hitting and the person being hit.

As she hauled back her arm, she curled her hand into a tight fist and then let that fist fly, catching the hard bone just at the top of his cheek. How satisfying, she thought, as she watched him reel back in reaction to her punch.

Okay, I added a few things. Sadly I lost my "to smack" verb in the reconstruction, but I added the valuable visual of someone curling their fist. Let's add a few more items.

As she hauled back her arm, she curled her hand into a tight fist and then let that fist fly forward, catching the hard bone just at the top of his cheek. How satisfying, she thought, as she watched him reel back in reaction to her punch. Even more satisfying? The wide-eyed shock on his face. He didn't see that coming. Of course that wide-eyed grimace it could be pain. That would be okay too.

Now we've added a shadow dynamic of the hitter and the hittee. Changing that one little verb has not only improved the visual of the sentence, but it's got me thinking about the characters at the heart of the action. It's not just a hit anymore.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Open Letter to Barnes and Noble

Yes, I have a vested interest in keeping Barnes and Noble open. From everything I've read lately, it's on the verge of bankruptcy. I hope I'm wrong and that this is just media looking for a dramatic story. But I don't think I'm wrong. I'm in B&N a lot and it doesn't look like business is brisk.

I am a writer. I'm writing a new book that I want to sell to a publisher. Who, hopefully, will place it in bookstores. The indies are making a come back, thank heavens to Murgatroyd, but the reality is that we writers need as many venues as possible to market out books because the marketplace should NOT be limited to amazon's mathematical algorithms. If B&N closes shop, then we will all be relegated to self-publishing.


There is nothing you can do about amazon's predatory pricing. But what you can do is making your stores a destination. Borders used to be good at this, and, yes, I know it didn't save them, but the marketplace is smaller now. You have less competition. Below are a host of ideas to get people into your stores.

1.  Partner with local businesses. Hook up with travel agents and have them do show and tells once a month on places to go. In fact, sign with Rick Steves and have him do events in your stores. Can't get Rick Steves? Have local travel agents come in to market travel destinations. And, naturally, you'll have books available on discount for said destination! I would actually do this twice a month. Once for locations in the U.S. and one event for locations outside of the U.S.

2.  Partner with local schools. Essentially create a book fair on site. I noticed that in your efforts to reduce all other merchandising of books, the kids' sections remain robust. Clearly you have a market there. Target grades. Have a storyteller there EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY dressed up as a princess, a clown, whatever, and have them read to young kids. And just by chance, you'll have a table stocked with books right there! with age-appropriate materials.

3.  The cookbook section also seems robust. There seems to be a new rash of cookbooks published every month. Get authors in there for cooking demos.

4.  Start a mystery reader's club. Host this twice a month. Mystery readers love reading books in series. You get someone hooked on one book in a series, you have them hooked for all of them.

5.  Ditto for sci-fi club.

6.  Ditto for young adult club.


I'm sure other people have other ideas about this. But the salient fact is that you are not optimizing your floor space. Stop filling it with thingamybobs. Fill it with people. Amazon cannot compete with you on this score. The ONE thing you can provide and you are not providing is the personal interaction with the public. Readers want that. Make your store a destination. Yes, probably people will attend your events and then rush home to buy books off of amazon. But over time you will create brand loyalty (if you survive).

Case in point. I attend my writers' critique group twice a month at a B&N in Dublin. I don't buy something every single time, but I do buy something once a month. Why? Because I'm there and I was browsing through your stacks and I saw something.

Get off your tushes and start thinking about ways to get people in your stores.