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Business, Eclectic Musings

What Is Professionalism?

October 2, 2013

What exactly is professionalism? Well, here’s what professionalism means to me:

  • You know your stuff. You have mastered your craft or, if you are a journeyman (still learning), you are serious about learning.
  • You listen carefully. You are focused on my business need (product or service). You are alert, smart, and resourceful in the way you supply that product or provide that service.
  • You are on time. My time is valuable to me. Your time should be valuable to you. Assets of value deserve to be treated with respect.
  • You present yourself professionally. You are dressed appropriately for the product or service you provide. You don’t need to be a fashion plate but it should be clear you made an effort to look presentable – i.e., you are neat and clean.
  • You are honest. I want to trust the people I do business with.
  • You are reliable. Integrity is important. If you say you’ll do something, I want to count on you doing it. I know glitches and snafus happen. That’s okay – just keep me updated.
  • You instill confidence. If I hire you to perform a service, I want to feel I’m in good hands.
  • You are courteous. I may sound a bit British here, but courtesy also means you are polite without being familiar.
  • You are pleasant. Brash, irresponsible, sarcastic people are compelling and amusing characters – in books and movies. But they are also the kinds of people you’d avoid in business situations. I like doing business with nice people. I think most other people do too.
Eclectic Musings, On Writing

Eight Things Breadmaking Can Teach Writers

June 6, 2013
Rustic Dark Bread - My Fave!

Rustic Dark Bread – My Fave!

Recently I took up making my own bread from scratch. No mixes. No breadmakers. Just flour, yeast, salt and whatever else a particular recipe calls for.

Why did I take up baking bread? Because I love good crispy fragrant dark bread, the kind made from whole wheat and especially rye flours. While I can find excellent bakery products a short drive from my home, with the right aroma, crunchiness, and look, I felt that–baking my own bread–I would, 1) know exactly what is going into each loaf, and, 2) eliminate the occasional trips to the store that ended up with me finding my fave bread out of stock.

I’ve been baking for about a month now. I’ve experimented with different recipes. I haven’t yet achieved my vision of the perfect loaf–but I’m getting there. And even my “misses” are quite good, if I do say so myself. (Actually my hubby says so too. He even happily ate my first failed rye loaf, the one which turned out more like a giant rye cracker.) I continue to experiment with recipes, ingredients, and the mixing, kneading, and baking processes. I read books on baking bread and watch videos. The bread is getting progressively better.

As I worked with the process of transmuting base ingredients – flour, water, yeast, and salt – into leavened bread (bread that rises versus flat bread), it occurred to me that there is an analogy between this kind of breadmaking and writing. As writers, our base ingredients are imagination, feeling, and the desire to communicate and connect with our audiences. Once we sit down to write, it becomes clear that we can’t just throw those raw ingredients hodge-podge into the hearth fires and bake them. Breadmaking is a process.

So what are the lessons breadmaking can teach a writer?

  1. All writers start with raw ingredients. It’s how you combine and work the ingredients that ensures success.
  2. Expect struggle. Bread dough is an amazing substance. It truly is alive and almost seems to enjoy “fighting back” against the baker. Watch baking videos and note how bakers seem to relish beating the dough into submission, literally, with their fists and rolling pins. As writers shape their novels, the ideas that seemed so brilliant at the outset often lose their luster. A writer needs to beat that material into submission. See the next point.
  3. The baker who prevails produces great loaves. There are times in the baking process that a newbie baker is sure she is doing everything wrong, when the dough looks like a gloppy mess, sticks to everything except the kneading board, and simply refuses to behave. The baker who keeps going witnesses a magical transformation. The dough literally shapes up, guided by patient fingers. For a writer, thinking time that employs her resourcefulness and creativity are the yeast and the kneading that gets the “dough” of a story to behave.
  4. At critical points, the yeast takes over. We are not in it alone. Call it the Muse. Call it what you will, but writers who stick with their stories experience breakthroughs in plot and characterization and pacing. The universe loves the writer who is a patient and cheerful plugger.
  5. Bread is very forgiving. Despite its feistiness, it becomes apparent that the bread you’re shaping wants to work with you – if only you persist. Good bread, as a matter of fact, is more a result of persistence than of perfection. In the same way, those books you have envisioned want to be written. You don’t need to be perfect as an author, but you do need to stick with your writing.
  6. The loaf is done when it’s done. You want to make sure that your bread has been thoroughly baked. You can’t tell just by looking at the crust. The recommended test is to thump it – rap at the bottom center of the crust. You want to hear a nice hollow sound which means that the dough in the center has cooked as well as the dough on the outer edges. Writing is re-writing. Don’t stop working on your project until it’s properly “baked.” (At the same time, don’t over-work it. Bread can be spoiled by letting it rise one time too many.)
  7. There is no one right way. You only need to take a look at the huge variety of breads that are out there to realize there are a zillion and one ways to create great bread. Ditto for writing a novel.
  8. Finally, with each loaf she shapes and produces, a newbie baker gets better and better. It’s the same with writers. The more you write (and read), the better (and faster) you get as a writer.

Happy Writing!

Image: courtesy of Moyan Brenn via Flickr

Business, Eclectic Musings, On Writing

Writing as a Business

March 6, 2013

Being an English major, the thought of writing as a business always went against the grain for me. At the liberal arts college where I pursued my B.A., and then my M.A. in English, writers were demigods. Shakespeare, of course, led the Pantheon, and all the other bright lights of literature, since the Elizabethan Age, trailed glory in his path.

I now believe this kind of thinking belongs to the horse and buggy era. Writers of today need to discard outdated and romantic notions about writing – and to pay serious attention to the very important need for a writer to make a living.

Personally, I am saddened by stories of great artists and writers who lived in garrets. Even as an undergrad, I always knew I wasn’t up for a garret-style writer-ly life.* In fact, I was peculiarly heartened when I heard Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum – “”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

* I actually never knew what a garret was until recently. I just knew it sounded sad and not like a place where Macy’s made deliveries. When I finally looked it up, I found that it meant a floor at the top of a building, just below the roof, usually used for storage – i.e., an attic or some other unappealing living place.

Writing is work, and everyone who works expects to get paid a fair wage. As Samuel Johnson succinctly put it, writers should write for money.

Now, even with this as a given, the glorious and confounding thing about writing is that it also is entrepreneurial.

In fact, if entrepreneurship was a sport, writing would be an extreme sport. Why? Because the results of any given writer’s output are so darn unpredictable.  You can work for two weeks and complete a book, as Robert James Waller did ( The Bridges of Madison County ) and make a few million-plus and get a movie deal. (“Once Waller had his core idea in place, he went on a non-stop writing binge, completing the book’s manuscript in about two weeks.”) Or you can slave for years to produce what becomes a world classic, Moby-Dick, as Herman Melville did, and earn less than $700 from it and see it go out of print in your lifetime, and die without earning a Pulitzer or a Nobel, or making your mother-in-law realize you really are awesome!

That is why I encourage all aspiring writers new to the game, whether the writing bug has bitten them early on or later in their day, to be practical in pursuit of their dreams. Keep a good day job, with a decent wage and benefits. Find the time to write on the evenings and weekends. Educate yourself about the business aspects of marketing – why editors buy and promote certain manuscripts and ignore others, and let them languish.

In Early Career mode, a writer needs to be his or her own best friend. If you find a significant other who believes in you and cheers you on – great! But, friended or not, think in ten-, and twenty-, and thirty-year chunks of time. Hedge your bets to ensure that – if you have written another Moby Dick (that won’t be discovered until decades hence) – you can live comfortably, and work on the sequel even when there’s snow on the roof – literally and metaphorically. Writing is its own reward, yes – but I believe all rewarding activities should be pursued in what Hemigway would have called clean, well-lighted places, not in garrets.

Eclectic Musings, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

On Luck and Writing

March 4, 2013

4-leaf-clover-jh1I do believe there is such a thing as luck in writing. It happens when . . .

  1. A writer’s manuscript hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has had a fantastic lunch, or just won a freebie trip to Paris, or just scored a date with a dreamboat, or is otherwise in a really good mood.
  2. A writer’s manuscript about XYZ hits an agent’s or an editor’s desk just after the agent/editor has learned, observed, or been informed that books on subject XYZ are so hot they’re melting holes on bookstore shelves.
  3. An author’s book about XYZ is published just when subject XYZ tops a trend, or achieves peak news interest, or scores the #1 position in Google searches.
  4. A celebrity reads an author’s book and sheds tears (sorrow or laughter – your pick) talking it up on a top-rated talk show.
  5. A journalist finds an aspect of the author’s life/book (that will help sell the author’s book if broadcast) fascinating, writes an article about it – and the article is picked up for syndication by Reuters. Or, alternatively, the journalist writes the article for a top tier newspaper (LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) – and second and third tier newspapers take note and cascade their versions of the article.


Lucky instances 1 & 2 can help an author place a book with one of the Big Six Publishers. Lucky instances 3, 4 & 5 can make sure the book has “legs” – i.e., that it jumps off bookshelves and into readers’ arms – hopefully nestling close to their hearts.

But here’s the rub – in all of the above instances, one constant needs to be in play: the manuscript/book in question needs to be a top quality work.

Luck has a way of manisfesting itself on preparation.

Nonfiction books need to be well-written, researched, presented. Fiction books need to – well, look at some of the blog posts on this site about how to write reader-pleasing fiction.

When quality isn’t in place, an agent or editor will look for other options (or extensive revisions) – even if your subject matter is trending wildly. If your book does happen to get published, and it falls short of certain criteria for quality, it will languish on the bookstore shelves or readers may buy it but not be keen to buy your next offering. And for writers serious about making authorship a career, the goal is not one book sale, it’s loyal readers.

The takeaway for writers? Don’t worry too much about lucky breaks. They happen sooner or later to writers who focus on creating a body of excellent work – one book at a time. It may not be your first book, or your fifth, that brings your work to the attention of that larger audience hungry for just the kind of books you write. But it will happen sooner or later.

A small group of enthusiastic fans equals word of mouth endorsements – the best kind of marketing.

And if your larger audience discovers you when you produce Book Six, guess what happens? That’s right. They go back and buy the other five books you wrote as you built your ouevre.

In short, writers who stick to the basics – writing the best books they can – make their own luck.

Eclectic Musings, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Workarounds (in Fiction & in Life)

October 6, 2012

I  love the word “workaround.” It is a word of fairly recent vintage. When software program users discover that a program has “bugs” – errors in coding that stop the program from functioning as it is meant to do – they create “workarounds.” Workarounds are fixes that don’t eliminate the coding errors, but that allow the program to work as it is meant to do despite the program’s hitting a wall. They are exercises in creativity and resourcefulness.

As a novelist works to shape a pageturner story – one that present readers with a resourceful hero facing a series of truly disastrous situations, the novelist actually needs to arrange for the hero to hit one or more walls. In a pageturner, a hero needs to face an impossible situation – a situation so dangerous or deadly situation he appears doomed.

In fact, readers love to see a hero in this situation. That is, of course, because they want to see how the hero will get himself out of it. It is exactly these “hit a wall” situations that glue readers to a book, and keep them turning pages.

But once a writer has placed his hero into a perilous apparent dead end, how does a writer get his hero out of his fix?

All the obvious saves are closed to the hero. (Or else the reader would have thought of the solution – and stopped reading.)

Enter the workaround – i.e., the resourcefulness of the hero.  A hero’s workaround might appear to bend logic and defy gravity – but it makes the story’s “program” work!

A hero’s workarounds are limited only by the author’s imagination.

The only caveats to the pageturner author are as follows:

  • Don’t limit yourself. Think big!


  • At the same time, don’t “jump the shark.” Keep your hero’s workarounds within the scope of possibility – although amped up, hyper possibilities are fine.


Examples of workarounds:

Note: Spoiler warning – do not read the examples below if you haven’t read/viewed Goldfinger, The Hunger Games, Back to the Future, or Hitchcock’s classic 39 Steps.

  • In Goldfinger, James Bond  has been drugged by his nemesis, Goldfinger, and wakes to find himself on a hijacked jet guarded by Goldfinger’s goon, Oddjob. Bond extricates himself by breaking a window on the plane. This depressurizes the plane, sucking Oddjob out. Bond then fights and defeats Goldfinger and forces the crew to land in friendly waters.


  • In The Hunger Games, a murderous gang pursues the heroine Katniss. They finally corner her up a tree. Confident she will have no option but to descend shortly, the gang rests beneath the tree, waiting for Katniss to come down so they can kill her. It appears to be curtains for the heroine, but (alerted by a friend), Katniss notices a tracker jacker (amped up wasps) nest hanging within her reach. She saws the nest from the limb it hangs on, it falls on her pursuers, and they flee in terror.


  • In the Hitchcock classic, 39 Steps, the hero – a Canadian visiting Britain – has been framed for murder by a gang of spies. He believes he has reached a safe haven, the home of a professor who will help him notify the authorities both of his innocence and of an impending threat to Britain. But the professor turns out to be the leader of the gang of spies. The professor shoots the hero point blank and the hero collapses. In the next scene, we find that the bullet has been stopped by a prayerbook in the breast pocket of an overcoat a friend provided to the hero. (In this instance, it is the writer – not the hero – who is resourceful.)

 Note: if Bond’s depressurization “save,” and the “book in the pocket” save now appear familiar, that is because they have been re-used by authors since Fleming and filmmakers since Hitchcock. In their day, these were spectacularly fresh. (In recent decades, the “book in the pocket” has been replaced by the bulletproof vest – as in Back to the Future.)

Somebody once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Workarounds (resourceful and surprising solutions) often save the day in real life. In pageturner fiction, they are a must.

Happy writing!


Eclectic Musings, On Writing, Thoughts on Writing

In the Clouds (of Data Storage)

January 31, 2012

Writers storing working drafts of a novel electronically need to have the assurance that their work will be there from one day to the next. As computers have been known to crash and fail, taking hours and days of hard work with them, “cloud” storage makes a lot of sense for writers.

What is “cloud” storage? Okay, I’m not a tecchie, so the best I can come up with is that the “cloud” here is some sort of magical place in the Internet ether. Anyway, it’s outside your personal PC.  This means if your PC crashes, your data is not lost. Also, you can access your data from any computer anywhere. You just need to enter your login and password.

Unexpected trip to Paris? Forgot the thumb drive with the latest draft of your novel? No problemo. You can lean back on your cafe chair on the Champs-Élysées, fire up your PC, sip your espresso, and retrieve your document from the “cloud” – because, really, in the heart of Paris, you do want to put in those eight to ten dutiful daily writing hours, don’t you?

Well, we’ll talk about work-life balance in another post. Back to the “cloud.”

Two “cloud” data storage softwares I find useful are: Evernote and Dropbox. Both are free. Dropbox can be downloaded at

I really like Dropbox; it allows you to create folders and store documents within those folders – all outside your potentially unreliable personal PC.

You can access your files online, or download Dropbox to your PC so that it becomes an extra folder which contains all the subfolders and documents you choose to store there.

Evernote which you can download from is nice because you can access the data you store there from your smart phone as well as from any PC, as with Dropbox. For me, however, the way Evernote is structured, it is handier for jotting down ideas or notes versus storing data/documents.   Note: There is a hint of a “storm cloud” over data storage in the “cloud” due to some people using cloud storage systems to exchange pirated files. Google “Megaupload” to find out more about this.

The only real concern for users like me would be if Dropbox or Evernote might one day be handed down a ruling that they can no longer store information. Then I might need to find an alternate storage system. But in situations like this, host sites almost always give users ample warning. Even Megaupload users were given several days’ warning before the site closed down. I believe it is unlikely that Dropbox and Evernote will ever shut down, but I am mentioning the concern as it’s a topic of discussion currently.

Another “cloud” storage option is’s I back up some of my data on JungleDisk. This is not a free program but it’s not pricey either. I pay only about $2/month. Jungledisk allows you access to your files from any of your PC’s if you have more than one; but it’s not designed for sharing files, so it probably doesn’t face any threat of ever being shut down. Once you download it, Jungledisk becomes an extra drive on your computer from which you can access your files. Or, you can just login to the jungledisk site and access your files from there.

In my opinion, Dropbox’s design makes it the easiest to work with for storing and accessing notes and manuscripts.

I also have some data stored on a Western Digital external drive with a 1,000 Gigabyte (huge!) capacity for storage. But I don’t trust hardware storage entirely. Have heard too many stories of data lost. I purchased my WD drive at BestBuy. (Read the reviews previous purchasers have kindly supplied, and look for a model that has met expectations among reviewers.)

Image courtesy of Akakumo via Flickr


Eclectic Musings

More Uncommonly Good Autobiographies

December 29, 2011
Part 2 of my 12/11/2011 post: Following, in no particular order, are some of my favorite biographies, autobiographies, diaries, collected letters, etc.

Elizabeth von Arnim, who was born in 1866, wrote three books which are autobiographical in nature – Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer, and All the Dogs of My Life. My favorite is the last, All the Dogs of My Life, written in her senior years. She tells her life story vis a vis the dogs she has owned in various phases of her life – starting with her happy childhood, going on through her problematic marriages – the first to a domineering Prussian minor aristocrat she dubbed the “Man of Wrath,” the second to the older brother of Bertrand Russell, a marriage which has been described as “disastrous” and which ended in acrimony and separation. When her first husband went broke, Elizabeth availed herself of one of the very few options women had in the 19th century to make a good living for themselves: she took up her pen and wrote a bestseller, and then another, and then another. Perhaps her best known work today is The Enchanted April as it was made into an Academy-award nominated movie in 1992. The Enchanted April also happens to be one of my favorite books. It is a celebration of female friendship with four women joining forces to escape a bleak gray rainy London by finding a resourceful way to rent an Italian castle that will immerse them in a Spring of “wisteria and sunshine.” The two who are married even manage to include their husbands in ways that heal frayed marital bonds. In All the Dogs of My Life, von Arnim’s resolutely cheerful but never cloying (and always reality-bound) personality shines through in full force. Note: Elizabeth von Arnim’s work is now in the public domain and much of it is available free online.

C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and A Grief Observed aren’t usually classed as autobiographies. But few books are more intimate or personal. From all that I’ve read about C.S. Lewis, once he’d espoused Christianity, he lived his belief. And he left a wondrous legacy in the clarity with which he explicated the case for Christianity, as well as the 24/7 challenges of living a Christian life. “Jack,” as his friends called him, didn’t sugarcoat Christianity. He didn’t “leave out the hard parts.” But neither did he take a hard denominational line to Christian belief and Christian living. “It is at her centre,” Lewis wrote, “where her truest children dwell, that each communion [of Christians] is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone … who speaks with the same voice.” Mere Christianity is one man’s examination of the human condition and his honest attempt to find a meaningful and hopeful answer.

P.D. James, whose first mystery novel, Cover Her Face,  was published when she was 42, has known phenomenal success. Her novels are regarded as not only mysteries – but also as literary novels. James’s dark novels startle and intrigue, as all good mysteries should do, and leave you feeling enlightened as she peels back layer after layer disclosing her characters’ true motivations. In her book, Time to Be in Earnest, subtitled “a fragment of autobiography,” she shares her thoughts on a variety of subjects – ranging from details of her earliest years, her observations on the development of the mystery genre, and the sorrows of her marriage to Connor White, a doctor who returned from service in World War II so damaged he had to be institutionalized intermittently until his death in 1964, two years after Cover Her Face was published. The parts of herself James shares in Time to Be in Earnest remind us of the great rewards an earnest dedication to craft can bring, but also remind us that those we deem great successes have often borne burdens we might never guess at.

Eclectic Musings

Three Uncommonly Good Autobiographies

December 11, 2011

Following, in no particular order, are some of the biographies, autobiographies, diaries, collected letters, etc., I keep stored on my Kindle. Reason: these men and women offer thoughts and observations that make for interesting companionable reading. On days when lively conversation is nowhere to be found, and I am in the mood for brilliant or thought-provoking chit chat, I have these ready-made friends to turn to – and I don’t even have to prepare coffee or cake!

An Autobiography, Agatha Christie – Agatha Christie could never be a bore. She is too skilled at presenting written information that hooks the reader into her world. Her Autobiography is filled with the sorts of anecdotes and details you’d expect from a woman who lived a pretty interesting life – surviving two world wars, forging a career for herself as the top-selling mystery writer and one of the most successful playwrights of all time, surviving a traumatic divorce, reinventing herself as the wife of an archeologist (husband number two), traveling with him on archeological digs to Ninevah and Petra, and then coming home to England, cream cakes and tea. A great rainy day – or anytime – read.


Martha Gellhorn with Ernest Hemingway, 1941

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moore – Martha Gellhorn took pains to place herself where the action was in the 1930’s and ’40’s. She is best known for having been one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives. But she was accomplished in her own right as a journalist and, especially, as a war reporter. She corresponded, among others, with Eleanor Roosevelt and H. G. Wells, as well as with Hemingway, and her letters, written from 1930 to 1996, are those of a free spirit finding her way, often admirable, often flawed, making mistakes, landing on her feet and growing wiser but never less passionate with the advancing years.

Big Russ and Me, Tim Russert – I still miss Tim Russert. He was an outstanding moderator on Meet the Press. As an interviewer, he didn’t pull any punches but he was always courteous and fair, and you just knew he’d done his homework each and every time. He was the consummate journalistic professional. Big Russ & Me is a valentine to his father, the “Big Russ” of the title. It also provides much of Tim Russert’s story, sharing with us the influences – church, community and family – that shaped him into the outstanding professional he became. The dictionary defines “wholesome” as “conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being; conducive to or promoting moral well-being.” Tim Russert was the epitome of “wholesome” and his book continues to be a good influence on this ol’ world, just as the man himself was when he was with us.


Image of Martha Gellhorn: Wikimedia Commons

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