Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Turn Your Most Boring Day into Writing Gold

One writing exercise I give my students is to write about something interesting which happened to them in the last 24 hours.  Some complain that they lead boring lives!  But writers aren't people who have interesting things happen to them.  Writers are people who find something interesting in anything that happens.

 To demonstrate, here's my 24-hour essay: 

Support Your Local Latté

     A new coffee shop recently opened a few blocks south of the coffee shop I usually frequent in North Kansas City.  On Tuesday afternoon, I almost went to this new place.  I drove through its lot so I could discern in a totally risk-free manner what lay inside: by reading the drive-thru menu.  However, all they had to eat was pastries and, since I had just come from the Y, I wanted lunch.  So I drove to a Mexican restaurant, ordered food, and then went to my usual hang-out, where I knew I’d be welcome to bring in outside food so long as I ordered a drink.

            While eating my chicken rice bowl and drinking a caramel macchiato, I overheard a conversation between John, the owner of the coffee shop, and another customer.  She asked him what he thought of the new competition down the street, the place to which I had almost gone.  John’s answer surprised me.  He didn’t diss the competition or go into a sales pitch about how his coffee was better.  Instead, he said he didn’t think of the new coffee shop as competition.  He’d met the owner, thought he was a nice guy, and wished him well.  John was more worried about the new Starbucks going into the supermarket down the lot.  “Chains are taking over,” he said, “and I always root for local business.”

            I’ve long heard of the war between local businesses and chains.  One midtown Kansas City coffee shop I used to frequent (no longer in business) cheekily posted a sign behind its counter: “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”  But as tempting as it is to dump on chains, I’ve always dismissed such concerns as the usual fluff between competitors. It’s the equivalent of wrestlers looking into the camera and challenging the manhood of their opponents.

            And, although I nominally support local businesses, I go to chains, too.  I like variety, and Starbucks, I admit, suits my fancy sometimes. 

            But John’s support for the new guy down the block gave me pause for thought.  The competition between local businesses and chains is quite real.  Chains risk little and have nothing to lose if you go elsewhere for your latté.  Small businesses like John, on the other hand, might have everything to lose.  They often go out of their way to keep customers coming back.  Shortly before this customer walked in, I overheard John serve a woman through his own drive-thru window.  (You gotta have a drive-thru these days.)   She told him it was her birthday.  Guess what.  She got a free drink. 

            It’s been several years since I asked Sam, one of John’s baristas, if I could bring in food from elsewhere.  Neither John nor anyone else has ever blinked when I’ve done so.  Could I get away with doing that at Starbucks?  I don’t know.  I’ve never tried.

            However, I will soon be taking a risk of a different sort.  I’ll go to the new coffee shop down the street.  I know John won’t mind.

Some tips on finding stories in your life:

  • Connect your story to something larger than itself.  (In the above example, I connected my coffee shop visit to the tensions between local businesses and chains.)
  • Look for the conflict.  Without conflict, it should go without saying, you don't have a story. (In this case, the conflict is not mine but between local businesses and chains.)
  • Listen. Observe. Pay Attention.  (This is hard for me to do on an ordinary day, but, if you watch life happening around you, some stories write themselves.)
  • Look for some way in which you've changed or want to change as a result of the incident.
  • Include a few relevant details.  A quote or two always helps.

So, that's it!  Your writing exercise for the day, should you choose to accept it, is to write a short essay or story about something that happened to you in the last 24 hours.  Post your results in the comments section below.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Times They are a-Changin’—in Downton Abbey: How a British Historical Drama Speaks to Us Today

This post profiles a television series every writer of fiction should follow. Downton Abbey airs on PBS on Sunday evenings. Check your local listings.

In the 1960s, American folk legend Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They are a-Changin’.” He could easily have been talking about a current British television drama set more than 40 years earlier—Downton Abbey.

I recently tried to describe this outstanding series to two friends who were looking for something to watch on TV. These friends, both older women, prefer to spend their leisure time watching football games. Unfortunately, I barely got to describe one of Downton’s more vivid characters—the upper-crusty Violet, dowager countess of Grantham—before they decided the show wasn’t for them.

The British are Coming . . . Again

On the surface, the show isn’t for everyone. Why should most working and middle-class Americans, for example, care about an imaginary family of British nobility and the servants who wait on them? After all, didn’t we fight a revolution to get away from these people and their rigid social system? Why invite them back into our homes, even if only on our TV screens?

Well, because we can learn a lot from Downton Abbey in terms of how the characters react to the changing world around them. As the central character, Robert, earl of Grantham, said in last week’s episode, such changes can leave one feeling like an animal forced to flee its habitat or face extinction.

Robert should know. He presides over one of England’s great houses (a castle, to us Americans), the fictitious Downton Abbey. Robert is descended from England’s old-line aristocracy. His household includes an American-born wife, three grown daughters, and a small army of servants who look after their every need.

And therein lies Robert’s initial problem: lack of an heir.

British law at the time forbade estates and titles from being passed down through female lines. Thus, none of Robert’s daughters could inherit Downton Abbey. What’s a poor earl to do? Find a distant male relative to one day succeed him.

Enter Matthew Crawley, whose great-great grandfather happened to be the younger brother of one of Robert's forbears. Matthew, a handsome young lawyer, was raised by his widowed mother, Isobel—an outspoken woman devoted to social causes such as helping the poor.

Suddenly these two very middle class people find themselves elevated to life among the aristocracy. (In American terms, this would be the equivalent of winning the lottery.)  But it’s hardly a smooth transition. The inevitable culture clash ensues.

Getting to Know You . . . and Not Like You Very Much

If all of this sounds like a U.K. version of Dallas, the iconic American series about the schemings and dealings of a wealthy Texas oil family, it’s not. While Robert and his kin are used to being on top of the world, they are basically decent folk. 

The series does not need a maliciously evil J.R. Ewing to spice things up (though a couple of servants do fit this bill). Conflict evolves more naturally from characters coming into contact with people who are not like them.

For example, when youngest daughter Sybil elopes with the chauffeur, Tom Branson, scandal ensues.

Then there’s Matthew and eldest daughter Mary. Typical of most TV dramas, these two very pretty people are “made for each other” yet their very different upbringings and worldviews (not to mention World War I) have, until recently, kept them apart. Even their marriage, which kicked off the third series, did not alleviate tensions over inheritance.

Tradition . . . Good and Bad

The story lines give equal time to the “upstairs” Crawley family and the “downstairs” servants.  However a trait shared by most characters and which might unsettle some Americans is that almost no one wishes to upset the social order. For example, Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, have spent their entire lives looking after the Crawley family. They resist change most of all.

Yet change must come. Servants employed at the great house may be better off than some, but not everyone is so fortunate. One maid, Ethel, loses her job and winds up a single mother eking out a living as a prostitute. The genteel British social order made no room for women like her who fell through the cracks.

Downton Abbey is a complex and entertaining series that teaches us a lot about history and also about where we are going. The world of Downton Abbey has experienced enormous changes from the sinking of the Titanic to women's suffrage. So, too, is our world changing. Issues such as gay rights frighten a lot of people. They represent a break with the way things "have always been."  

But while the show does not offer easy solutions, it suggests that embracing change leaves one better off than avoiding it. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is “the District” in THE POWER CLUB Evil?

A review of my novel, THE POWER CLUB, appeared recently on The reviewer, Duane Porter, gave a glowing review (thanks, Duane) and recommended the book for “the impressionable age” for which the book is targeted.

(One correction: Although Damon, the principle character, is 11 in the first chapter, he’s 13 for the rest of the book—hence the “young adult” tag.)

It’s always interesting to read what others have to say about your book. For one thing, it lets you know what works and what doesn’t in the novel. Second, readers add their own insights and interpretations to the work, extending it beyond the author's imagination and into a shared experience.

For example, one of Duane's comments struck me:

The story holds true to Damon's innocence at his tender age; he knows "the district" where kids with special powers like him are quarantined isn't fair; but he hasn't picked up yet on the fact that the government may lean more toward evil. Think Hunger Games. Damon faces bullies (can anyone identify with that problem?) and unfair treatment by teachers and other government workers.

The comparison to The Hunger Games is both flattering and interesting. I wrote most of THE POWER CLUB before I saw The Hunger Games film last year, and I have not read any of the HG books. Of course, Suzanne Collins is not the first author to explore the theme of child heroes opposing a totalitarian government. And while that idea is somewhat present in THE POWER CLUB, it exists on a very different scale than in The Hunger Games.

What is evil?

From Damon’s perspective, the district is certainly a repressive society where kids with powers (like him) have very little freedom. They cannot even use their powers in public unless they follow certain rules, such as joining special clubs. The district, in other words, adds another layer of rules on top of those he must already follow: rules imposed by school, parents, and culture.

To kids, rules often appear evil—particularly when they make no sense.

  • For example, why does the district require kids to be 12½ before they can join special clubs?  Why not 12 or 13?
  • Why does the district allow special clubs to get away with behavior, such as the destruction of personal property, that would be considered criminal if others engaged in them?
  • Why doesn't the district intervene when ords (ordinary people) break into the district and cause chaos?

To Damon, none of this makes sense—and the district isn’t about to explain itself to him (or to anyone else, for that matter).

To do good, you must do . . . evil? 

But is the district evil?

Let's look at a couple of real-world analogues.

Two of the most hotly debated issues of the past several months have been Obamacare and gun control. Both those in favor of and against such legislation make arguments to support their views, but it all comes down to lawmakers making decisions that affect everyone while being unable to please everyone.

Obamacare, for example, has been lauded for extending healthcare to many who did not previously have access to it, including those with pre-existing conditions; yet it also requires all U.S. citizens to have health insurance, even those who cannot afford it, or face a tax penalty. 

The gun control debate baffles me. In general, I have no problem with people owning rifles or even handguns. But the discussion over assault weapons gets clouded by people wanting to protect the Second Amendment at, apparently, any cost. Some oppose any sort of regulation on guns under the misguided notion that guns protect everyone. (They don’t. As with any tool, guns rely on intelligence, common sense, responsibility and sometimes dumb luck to be used properly. )

At the heart of both Obamacare and gun control are some very real and shared desires: We all want to be healthy and we all want to protect ourselves. 

But achieving those desires . . . that's where things get complicated.
What Damon doesn't know . . .
Similar machinations are going on behind the scenes in Damon's world. These are things he is not aware of and won’t be for some time, but they boil down to this:

Politicians and administrators make decisions that affect the kids in the district. Some decisions are made for political expediency or compromise. Other decisions are made to test the bigger picture: What happens if powered kids do this? What are the upper limits of their powers? A few decisions are made with the kids' welfare in mind, and several are made with the intent of exploiting them.

 Just like in the real world.

 Tell me what you think:  Is the district evil?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

To Copyright or Not to Copyright?

© is the copyright symbol in a copyright notice
© is the copyright symbol in a copyright notice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

File this under: Just when you thought it was safe to use social media . . .

Two days ago, The Kansas City Star published an article entitled “Digital Era Puts Your Photos in Odd Places” by Judy L. Thomas, which describes the thorny issues of copyright protection in the modern era of photo sharing, file sharing, and social networking.

The thrust of the article: Items you may not think of as needing copyright registration probably do.

The article begins with the story of a bride who was shocked to discover one of her wedding photos had been used by the diocese in which she was married for an ad in a bridal magazine. The photo had been stored on the church’s computer, where the bride’s mother worked at the time of the wedding.

The diocese justified its use of the photos because the bride had never filed for copyright protection of the photos.

Copyrighting wedding photos? Who would think to do such a thing?

And yet Thomas drives home the point that anything you publish (e.g., put on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter) may be used in ways you don’t want them to be used unless you file for federal copyright protection.

Facebook Can Use My What?!?

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets offer writers an enormous avenue to reach prospective readers, network with other writers, and promote their work. But even these sites may stake claims to using whatever you post for their own purposes.

Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” (which you can access at the bottom of your FB homepage by clicking on “Terms”) specifies that, by using Facebook, you give the site license to use any intellectual property content you post, such as videos and photos—a license that ends only when you terminate your account (though backup copies of posted material may continue to exist, the site says).

If you think it’s unlikely that Facebook would use your photos, artwork, or posts for its own ends, you’re probably right. However, the material we post online can wind up in the unlikeliest places. What if your child’s high school graduation photo shows up on a billboard? That really happened to a woman, according to her Ohio attorney quoted in the Star article.

Copyrights and Copywrongs

Copyright is widely misunderstood. Basically, it is a form of legal protection for “original works of authorship” created in “a tangible medium of expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office’s website. Furthermore, a work has copyright protection the moment you created it.

But don’t rejoice just yet. In one of those legal-loophole type things, you need to actually register your work in order to sue for infringement, according to the site. The benefits for registering your work include having a public record of your registration and possible eligibility for statutory damages and attorney fees.

Registering a copyright can be done online at the site above. Fees are $35 for a basic registration and $65 for a group of photographs.

So, should you copyright everything you post on Facebook and Twitter?  Probably not—unless you’re insanely wealthy and paranoid. But knowing your rights and making informed decisions can help you avoid the risk of that brilliant piece of art being used to promote tobacco-flavored cheesecake without your permission or compensation.

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...