Tip For a Curmudgeon

 I don’t hate tipping, I hate the institution of tipping. It seems too reminiscent of a class structure that treated workers and alms beggars in similar manner. I think workers, minimum wage workers, should be paid enough to live above the poverty level. But, we all know that isn’t the case. Many of us also know that service workers are sometimes paid below minimum wage on the expectation that they will make up for the deficiency in tips. That means a tip, or gratuity if you prefer, does not amount to rewarding good work; it means the business isn’t even paying its employees the minimum wage normally required by law. Doesn’t seem fair.

I had lunch in town, not our village, recently at a popular sandwich and salad place. The food is good, and there isn’t generally a long wait. Of course, you pick up your food order yourself, and bus you table when you finish your meal.  So, while the staff is usually friendly and processes your order quickly, no one waits on you at your table. That’s fine. What bothers me, is this particular place has become pretty aggressive in trying to get customers to tip as well. Tip for what? You serve yourself. Tip because the staff is underpaid? There are tip jars at each cash register where you stand to place your order. In addition, if you use a credit card there is a screen on the card reader that requires you say “yes” you want to leave a tip, or “no” you do not want to leave a tip before your transaction is complete. At that point, you haven’t even picked up your order. It just seems pretty pushy to me. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. I’ve nothing against the staff. I just hate the idea of tipping, let alone tipping under coercion.

When I tip, I think I’m fairly generous. I had a friend once who didn’t like to leave much of a tip. In fact, you had to kind of watch him because he would wait for everyone else at the table to contribute their share and then cover the bill with his credit card, pocketing the cash. What you had to watch out for, was whether he left an adequate tip for the wait staff or lessened the total due as a result of the generosity of others. I’ve also been in too many situations where a group of coworkers ate together and someone didn’t even leave their fair share, let alone a tip. These are cases of people simply being cheap. Dishonest might be a better word.

I think my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, always leaves a decent tip when tipping is expected. He’s a down-to-earth, generous guy. He would never stiff a waitress, or a coworker. That just would not be in keeping with his character. I like that about Bobby. I just hate the business of tipping though. How about you? Have you ever read of a private detective or amateur sleuth who didn’t tip well? What’s your take on the whole thing?

By the way, in case you were wondering, I just think it’s good to gripe about something other than politics once in a while. Not that minimum wage isn’t a political issue. Maybe I should be more like Bobby Navarro, just tip well and never mind the rest. But then, like I said, he’s a generous guy, and not at all a curmudgeon.

Paint Like a Writer–Write Like a Painter

I used to enjoy painting landscapes with watercolors. I find the creative process of painting is very similar to that of writing. A good painting does not come from a recipe, formula, or set of instructions. A good painting does not spring from prescribed colors laid down on a pre-constructed, numbered pattern. It comes from the successful transference of thought to canvas.

A painting likely starts with a few light pencil strokes to make a rough outline of the major objects intended. However, in a form of Japanese ink painting called Sumi-e, the artist is encouraged to sit before the intended subject and meditate before making any brush strokes in order that each one then fully captures the essence of the subject. No pencil outline is needed.

Writers vary as to whether they use an outline, or write from the seat of their pants. In either case, I think most writers have at least a mental outline of where the story is headed, and I think major story ideas have been tried out in the writer’s mind. I like to think story outlines are tentative suggestions to help the writer get started. The creative work comes later.

 If the painter is satisfied with the rough outline on canvas, the painting begins. Heavier, bolder strokes begin to express the intended subject. Suddenly, there is a spark of life to the work. There is form, shape, even the suggestion of movement, if needed. Each stroke is critical for they express the concept the artist is attempting to communicate. They cannot be blotched, too heavy, too tentative, or shaky rather than confident and knowing. They must be just right.

Once the subject has been determined by these initial strokes, the background, shading, and form can be layered-in. Shapes are completed, objects are given greater depth, details are added to give the work authenticity. This is like the middle work of a story, the details that support the plot events and character-defining statements of the story are layered in to support the main plot and character points. The desired object is fleshed out and the work approaches closer to completion.

With details in place and the desired form and shading accomplished, there is still more work to be done. This is a particularly delicate stage because a single stroke too many can ruin the intended effect. An accent stroke left out can leave the final work lacking. A bit of hesitance, a sloppy addition and the work is ruined. But, amazingly, these few, final brush strokes bring the work to the point of perfection. It is finished, and nothing more can be done to improve it. Similarly, in a written story, a small wording change can bring a desired thought or action into bolder view. A single line of dialogue can better capture the intent of the conversation from the writer’s point of view. A stubborn sentence can be reworked to get rid of an awkward expression or fix a tempo-robbing pace. Beyond that, nothing can be improved. Of course for many of us writers, the written work is never completed to perfection. We are always tempted to try another minor word change. And that says nothing of the myriad changes an editor is likely to suggest, but the ideal remains.

So, the story must spring to life with the major plot elements. Our hero’s character must be developed and nuanced with meaningful dialogue and thought description. The plot must unfold as a live experience. It cannot be accomplished by forced and clumsy assertions and explanations. When you view a finished painting, every element is simply there, awaiting the viewer’s emotional reaction. A good story is simply felt. It is not necessary for the reader to first dissect the work to understand and experience the writer’s intent.

I think one can paint like a writer, and write like a painter, but how about living like a work of art. Is that even possible? I think some people do it. I ask myself whether my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro’s life would be like that. What are your thoughts? Now, I’d better get back to work in the garden while the sunshine lasts.

The Soul of the Writer

Last weekend I visited an area I had lived in for many years. As always, the roads and highways were the same but somehow looked unfamiliar as I passed through towns and villages along the way. New houses and businesses, new shopping strips and renovated or expanded commercial areas, gave the waysides a very new look. Fortunately, the beautiful character of the area was retained. This was Connecticut, and I remember the state as being very attractive. It still is. And, I enjoyed driving while also listening to some great blues music on the car radio. Of course, this produced a sweet-sad emotional reaction to seeing former stomping grounds.

As I thought about my experience, I first chalked up the emotional bit as simply being nostalgia. However, the guest on the program I was listening to, Guy Davis, happened to be talking about playing music associated with another artist. He said that you don’t want to simply play the same notes, or even attempt to capture the style of another artist. Instead, you need to capture how that artist affects you. And when you do this, it lets the audience see into your own soul a little bit as well, and this should be a goal of the musician. I found his comment very thought-provoking. And, it occurred to me that Guy’s take on music might relate both to my nostalgic experience and to writing as well.

As to the nostalgia bit, revisiting places that brought back memories was like viewing a moving tableau of my own past. The roads were essentially the same, and some of the scenes familiar and even pretty mundane, but they offered me a connection both to past experiences and my emotional reactions to them at the time. It gave me a little glimpse into my own emotional life, or putting it another way, a glimpse into my own soul.

As to how Guy’s comments relate to writing, a compelling story is not simply a bunch of scenes cobbled together with technical skill, it is a glimpse into the characters being written about. It is also a bit of a glimpse into the soul of the writer. Just as a piece of music may be interpreted in many ways, the scenes of a story are created and told with words and a rhythm that is uniquely expressive of the writer herself, or himself. I find this difficult to explain when asked how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. The ideas are relatively easy. However, creating the glimpse into Bobby Navarro, the hero of my mystery series, is more difficult, and more important than coming up with a story idea or coming up with a clever plot twist. But ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When Bobby is caught-up in solving a mystery or points his Harley down an open highway, I’m telling another, and hopefully more poignant, story than “who dun it”. I’m sharing a bit of Bobby’s soul with my readers along the way, and maybe even a little of mine.

Driving through New York

 

Springtime in Upstate New York

We’ve been hearing Canada geese flying overhead, mostly in the mornings and evenings. They come in low, in two’s and three’s, circling toward the pond nearby. I don’t know if they are early arrivals, but they don’t seem to be part of the larger flocks we saw in the fall heading south. In any case, their sounds are welcome. I’ve missed their music over the winter. One large goose was in the creek, taking a bath the other day, apparently enjoying a clean-up after a long flight. Robins are back in healthy numbers hunting worms in the yard and crows are out and about. I assume the crows have been here all year. A couple of days ago I saw about a dozen large birds circling over the village. I think it was a kettle of migrating hawks, vultures, or both, circling to gain altitude and then moving on.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and it’s a joy to see the birds coming back, as well as all the plants coming to life. I’ve already mowed the yard twice, and it needs it again. That will have to wait, though. It’s promising to rain for the next several days, and threatening snow sometime during the next two. Springtime in upstate New York. Time for boots, sweaters and waterproof jackets, putting away the shorts and summer clothes we started off with when we left Florida. I’ve been busy setting things straight, like cleaning the back room where we store a lot of things we need to move inside when we leave in the fall. Then, there was the light switch I had to replace on the stairs, aka puttering about. There’s always work to be done after a move, even a seasonal one. I need to get back to my writing.

Speaking of writing, from time to time I’ve asked myself why I had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, living in New York even though his debut book was set in the Southwest. So far, no one has asked that at a program or signing. Hopefully I can make it understandable when I get to the next story, set in the Adirondacks. There are times when the forests of Upstate impart a feeling that Bobby could readily capture in the open, lonely stretches of highway in the Southwest.

If you can put up with or avoid the blackflies, Upstate is an area rich in woods, rural farm scenery, ponds, lakes and streams. Lesley thinks my enjoyment of the cold and rainy weather can be attributed to having too much of the North Sea in my DNA. I even like the bleak scenes from Wallander  or Shetland. I think they offer a mood rich in possibilities for murder mysteries. But, that’s another story. Anybody else like spring rains and gloomy days? Assuming, of course, there aren’t too many of them in a row.

The Mockingbirds’ Nest

This is our last weekend in Okeechobee for the season. This coming week we will join the many others trekking north in the semiannual shift of location. That means we are in the throes of packing things away, loading the pickup, checking out the trailer for the bike, and attending to the many little things that must be done before departure. One of the jobs I took on this week was to prune one of the bushes next to our house. If I don’t, it goes wild and starts to overtake the house. Unfortunately, I discovered a mockingbird’s nest in one of the larger branches I cut off. When I looked, it had three eggs in it. With the damage done and not being sure what to do next, I propped the branch against the house and finished the pruning job. As I did, I became aware of a pair of upset mockingbirds sounding an alarm over what was happening to their happy home. Now what?

The best I could think of under the circumstances was to tie the branch with the nest still in it to the standing bush and secure it enough to hold the nest in place in its modified location. To our amazement the mother came to the nest as soon as I walked away, and started tending her eggs. Mockingbirds are feisty creatures, and the ones around here are used to having people all around. While she flies off if someone comes too close, she isn’t overly frightened and quickly comes back.

Of course, the newly relocated nest was considerably more exposed than in its old spot, both to the sun and to predators. I had to do more. The solution was to cut a couple of palm-like fronds from a nearby tree and tie them in position over the nest to provide a little shade and some protection against predators. Again, she came right back to tend her renovated nest once I was finished. What a role model for hope and endurance.

I don’t know if the attempt to set things right will work well enough to result in the hatching of a healthy brood , but now it’s down to waiting. In the meantime, we peer out the window frequently to see whether she is still tending the nest. So far, so good. Now we can finish packing and loading things up for our own relocation. Looking forward to spending more time on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Hope the work awaiting me up north is not so extensive as to slow my writing down too much. It’s easy to lose the feel for a story if you are away from it too long. That worries me. Anyone else have this problem?

The Mockingbird’s Nest

A Visit From the Snooze Muse

Some talk about having a muse to inspire their writing. Sounds great. Kind of wish I had one.  I don’t.  At least I think I don’t. My inspiration, if you want to call it that, comes in the wee hours, usually only after several sleep-deprived nights of trying to get my overactive mind to shut down for a few hours. Then suddenly I’ll be thinking about writing. I’ll see a scene I’ve been working on in a new light, or have a sudden thought about how I can move the plot better, etc. This time was different. I was aware I should relax, pay attention and let it happen. No getting up and taking notes—that would ruin the spell. No self-admonishment to ignore the thoughts until morning. This wouldn’t wait, and I knew it. It was a visit from what? Something I might call the Snooze Muse? Maybe. Never thought of it that way before.

This middle-of-the-night visitation doesn’t happen often, but it did last weekend.  The Snooze Muse brought important messages concerning major thoughts and commitments I have about how I want to write.  The Snooze Muse reminded me of what I need to keep in mind as I grind through the editing of my latest Bobby Navarro work in progress, Murder in Key Largo. These messages did not concern plot twists, clever cliffhanger chapter endings or the need to cut out overused words, but rather character development and what I want my stories to be about.

My stories are character driven, so a character must represent something I want to say, not simply provide a source of dialogue or an actor to play out some scene element. When I write, I see and hear my characters, but they sometimes take on a life and purpose of their own. They take over and I just try to get everything written down. That doesn’t always result in the story I want told. Things may go astray, especially when I am grinding away at fixing plot holes, time lines, poor dialogue and critical events. Once in a while I will take a break from a problem I’ve been working on, and find the solution pops up later. This was different. Instead of giving me insight to fix a troublesome scene, the Snooze Muse brought me clarity and purpose concerning some characters I am working with. It gave me a means to examine them in terms of their intended purpose.

It was a neat experience. Worth the lost sleep. If anything, the visit allowed me to sleep better once the messages had been received. What I found interesting, was that this didn’t concern anything I have been consciously struggling with. It was just there, and I realized I should pay attention. Anybody else have experiences like this? I’m not all that familiar with muses, and how they operate. If this was a bit of help from a muse, it was definitely worth the snooze. Not that I’ve ever been reluctant to take a nap. How about you?

Enjoying Rural Florida

When Wee Monsters Lurk

 

I’m in the process of revising my recently edited manuscript, and I’m running into old, familiar writing patterns (problems). I’m also finding some new issues. I have commas where they don’t belong and words I can’t explain. I think the latter result from new wee monsters in my fingers. I’m a touch typist, and rely on my fingers knowing where the keys are. It’s annoying when they get it wrong, and frustrating when my too-smart computer comes up with a word it thinks I must have had in mind, but didn’t.

The older problems are just as troublesome, but intriguing as well. My editor made several comments about sections of the manuscript I had sensed as problematic all along. It’s as though I was waiting for someone to point the issues out and not let me get away with sloppy writing. Now, my question is, why didn’t I take care of the problems earlier? Procrastination? Not this time. Laziness? No way. The worse one’s writing is, the more work it is to rewrite and push toward a finish. No, this is the work of some wee monster. It like when our male cat misbehaves (not unusual) and continues misbehaving even when we tell him to stop. He usually ends up running off to the bedroom for a little time out, and then expresses anguish over his punishment. He knew, and we knew, how the scenario would play out, but it’s as though it must be played to the end regardless.

In a related manner, I’ve often found a word or written passage bothers me. I read it, try to change the culprit, only to later return and find it still doesn’t work. When my editor says it’s a problem, it’s like having someone point out the obvious. Oh. Yeah, I knew that was a problem. It didn’t seem right all along. The strange thing is, once it’s pointed out to me, I can easily take care of it. Wee monsters. Definitely.

With editorial help, the wee monsters become exhausted and the writing improves. I should mention, I have never been able to read one of my published manuscripts in its entirety. If I were to do so, I know some wee monster would tell me I should change the wording here or the plot flow there.

I’m republishing Murder on Route 66, the first book in the Bobby Navarro series, and just received the updated cover. (I ran out of the old books at a recent writers’ signing event.) Working with the people doing the cover design, etc. has made me eager to start the publication process for Murder in Key Largo, my-work-in-progress. First, I have to get through the edits. Hope I can keep those wee monsters at bay—sometimes they can be murder.

At a Recent Book Signing

A Taxing Time

They say nothing is certain except death and taxes. Of course, progress is being made on the mortality thing. This year I am using a tax accountant to do my taxes. That means I had to send in my materials, which I did yesterday, which is much earlier than usual. I believe in procrastination, after all. The good thing is, it’s done and in the mail. The bad thing is, I just discovered a number of additional deductions  I could have claimed, but missed. You see, if I had just waited…

Last night I tried to picture various fiction heroes facing tax time. I came up with Mickey Spillane pulling a forty-five and emptying a magazine into his scribbled-up tax forms. And, how about Jessy Stone? Trying to keep control over one’s drinking and tax time are two incompatible forces. From my own experience this past week, I know which force wins for me. And my own hero, Bobby Navarro? What better reason to take off on one’s Harley than a bunch of tax form instructions telling you to add this and subtract that from the who-knows-what-that-means reported figure from the previous year? Fortunately, I’m an ex-sailor, and have the appropriate vocabulary needed to curse my way through tax season.

Now, if I were just wealthy enough, I could have all my assets off-shore and not have to pay any taxes. Not that I would be figuring them myself if I did. I’d have my accountant handle all that.

“It’s tax time, sir.”
“Don’t bother me with that nonsense. Take care of it.”
Would that approach work for death as well taxes? I could designate an off-shore undertaker to handle everything.
“I have some bad news for you, sir, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that, take it up with my off-shore undertaker.”
No, I don’t think that would work.
As a sociology professor, I taught a wide range of students, including prison guards, prisoners, some former prisoners, police officers, probation officers, an internal affairs police officer, a private investigator, and an IRS auditor. Guess which one I thought was the most terrifying? I was so relieved when the IRS auditor earned a high grade. I never saw him smile. Not once. But, at least he didn’t leave my course with any threats of future contact to be expected in the mail.
I think I should write a new series. I’m not sure whether to call it a horror series, suspense, or mystery. My protagonist would be a tall, dark tax person, dressed in an impeccable black suit. He could be known as 00-1040.
Or, maybe she could be a female protagonist wearing leathers and carrying a whip. “Hello, I’m-Audrey-the-Auditor. Want to feel some pain?”
Well, fortunately, I’ve survived quite a few years of tax preparation, and hopefully will continue to do so. But, I do have to consider whether I should inflict the tax thing on my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. After all, I make him confront death and violence in other forms, why not taxes? He does have his own business as a blaster. Hmm, would he use dynamite to get through those troublesome tax forms? I wonder.

When a Writer Needs Help

 

I’m a writer, and I need some support. No, this isn’t a plea for help, but rather an attempt to express appreciation for the supportive members of some of the writers’ organizations I’ve enjoyed being a part of. I can’t think of any other organizations I could contact 24-7 as a writer in desperation and expect them to offer help—not anything nice anyway. And those I can think of who would even try to sound polite would require me to first give them my insurance information and fill out a health history form. Guppies and Sisters in Crime have been different. When writers have needed help, they were there, and no forms to fill out. That’s not something we should take lightly. We writers all need support from time to time.

I’ve also been impressed at the positive and supportive attitudes of many of the well-known writers I’ve enjoyed meeting and listening to at conferences I’ve attended, such as SleuthFest. I’ve appreciated the supportive camaraderie of other writers I’ve encountered at conferences, who like myself, are not big names in the industry.

Where is this coming from? I suppose there are many reasons. For one, I’ve worked in situations that were competitive, petty, and nasty, at times making the whole world seem that way. I suspect many of us have. I like competition, the other stuff—not at all. Lately, I’ve been reading some of the experiences other writers have had regarding critiques and reviews that sometimes turned out to be unpleasant, contradictory, and confusing. I’ve had those experiences too. Not everyone who picks up a book is considerate, let alone kind, or necessarily helpful. I had to stick a manuscript on the back shelf due to an overload of well-meant commentary that nearly did me in. It’s still there. But, in addition to sharing the sad stories of real-life writing experiences, the writing groups on the positive side of my experience deserve appreciation for simply being there, and available and supportive. Those seem worthwhile values, in a very tumultuous time.

As writers, I suppose the most rewarding thing we can hear is when someone loves our writing. The thing most helpful when we stray from perfection, is good criticism enabling us to see where to go with our writing. But there is another thing of vital importance, and that is knowing we are not in isolation. There are others out there who share our love, our passion, and our dedication to an undertaking that is all too often kind of brutal when it comes to social recognition and reward—especially monetary reward. There are so few who reach the top of the ladder that it seems audacious to call oneself a writer, but I was told that was exactly what I needed to do when I attended my first writing conference. I found it’s much easier to do that when joined by others.

This weekend, Lesley and I are taking some time-off in one of our favorite southern locations, Key Largo. I’m anxious to go there, partly because my current Bobby Navarro novel is set there. I’ve been fighting to kick a flu bug this week, and look forward to a change of scene. I also want to double check some of the places Bobby goes to, even if the names have been changed in the story. The weather looks good, and I’m sure the food and music will be as well. The photos this week are not from Key Largo, but they are definitely Florida.

 

Time for a Little Criticism

I am now at a sought-after point in the writing process. I have both completed a rough draft of my latest manuscript in the Bobby Navarro mystery series, and I have edited it as well. Now, I would probably want to change something any time I read a story I’ve written, so I can never tell if it is the best it can be, or not. At some point, I need outside feedback—criticism. My reviewer may end up thinking the whole thing was a colossal failure, or fell apart completely at some point. It’s wait-and-see time. Believe me—not easy.

In everyday life, we talk about being willing to listen to criticism. In writing, we talk about having our work critiqued. In either case, no one is eager to hear their creative efforts are crummy, their brilliance banal, or their talent tenuous. I’m no exception, but I do feel that constructive criticism can be a highly valuable commodity. However, getting the most from a critique of our work requires more than just letting others have their say. Here are five components of making criticism constructive when you are on the receiving end.

 1.        The first requirement for making criticism constructive on the receiving end, is to listen to it, and resist temptation to defend what we did. It’s not an argument. The goal is not to decide who wins. Learning from the criticism is the sought-after goal here, and that is only accomplished when the emphasis is placed on hearing, and understanding, what the criticism is. Similarly, it’s important not to succumb to another temptation, explaining why the behavior, writing, whatever, was the way it was in the first place. Just listen, get it straight, and take it under advisement—with sincere appreciation.

2.       That last part—with sincere appreciation—is very important. It’s not easy to accept criticism, but it should be appreciated. That doesn’t mean surround yourself with nags and nasty enemies. It does mean that criticism can help you improve yourself or your work, and is a valuable means toward that end. There are a lot of things written on how to be a good this-or-that. There are usually no books written about what we, as individuals, are doing wrong. Good criticism is worth a lot, treat it accordingly.

3.       Do something with the criticism once it’s received. A wonderful thing about computers, is that it is so easy to save numerous versions of our work. We don’t have to throw out the original, to try something different. Too wordy? Try cutting down, and examining the results. Someone suggests getting rid of a passage of particularly beautiful prose? Cut it. One click can save the treasured bit of writing. Chances are, you will never use it, but it hurts less to cut something, when we know it is saved should we ever find a better place to use it. The important thing, is to try seeing how the effected portion of writing works when revised.

4.       Have more than one source of feedback. If you receive a difficult-to-take bit of criticism, it can be more convincing and easier to take if you hear it from more than one source. I once had a whole writing group tell me a piece I had written was terrible. I had thought it was great. Hearing it from the whole group was convincing, even though disappointing. On another occasion, one reader thought a story was the best I had written, another thought it was the worst. Who can say? Receiving criticism is a learning opportunity. Multiple sources offer a greater opportunity for you to learn, and that’s what it’s all about.

5.       You own the final product. Accepting criticism does not remove one’s own responsibility for the final product. Simply making suggested changes, without working to understand them and the reason for their suggestion is disrespectful to oneself and one’s own work. Sometimes the criticism is best rejected, although the rejection should be saved until after the criticism has been received, understood, analyzed, and tried-out. But, in the end, you own the results, and must accept that ownership in an informed and responsible manner. By the way, when you keep in mind that you have the final say, it makes it easier to pay attention to whatever criticism you are dealing with.

 So, with all this in mind, now I’ll have to wait and see what happens, and then get back to work on producing the finished manuscript so I can put Bobby Navarro back on the road. And, speaking of being on the road, I recently saw this beauty.  Any thoughts?