Things That Make Me Head-Hopping Angry

AngerI get it. For every writing rule, there’s a writer breaking it and it WORKS, and that drives some people nuts. I’ve seen it; I’ve done it. My answer to “How many point of view characters can I have?” or “Can I write in second-person-plural-with-a-twist-of-lime?” or pretty much anything else except for the proper use of the semicolon [I love my semicolons; don’t make me come down there] is “It depends.”

Many writers have been taught that head hopping, or bouncing back and forth between multiple point-of-view characters, is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG and you should NEVER do it or we will all, as a body, smite you and take away your laptops.  Continue reading

So You Want to Be on a Competition Reality Show?

An actual Madagascar hissing cockroach. In case you've been wondering.

An actual Madagascar hissing cockroach. In case you’ve been wondering.

If you’ve ever watched a reality show contestant choke down a Madagascar hissing cockroach smoothie or bungee-jump off a bridge, and thought, “I can do that,” maybe you’ve considered applying. ‘Cause it looks so easy, right? Sure, from the safe, plushy tentacles of your sofa. But you’ll need more than good hair and an inspirational backstory to succeed at these modern versions of Lord of The Flies. Before you create your Survivor audition video, choose your partner for The Amazing Race, and make an appointment for full-body waxing, consider these other things you ought to do as well: Continue reading

Fear Factor Is Back. Will PETA Be Watching?

Well, pass the remote and deep-fry me a Madagascar hissing cockroach. To honor the return of the “new” Fear Factor to NBC (which looks just like the “old” Fear Factor), I’ve updated one of my favorite posts. Enjoy. And kids, don’t try this at home.

What makes an animal?

Consider the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Or…maybe not. Gromphadorhina portentosa is not exactly the Brad Pitt of the insect world. If I lived in Madagascar I’d be laying in a good supply of Raid.

But somehow PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has overlooked the fact that scores of obviously live and kicking Madagascar hissing cockroaches are allowed to be crunched to their doom by obviously insane Fear Factor contestants every year, who seem to be willing to eat or do anything for the prospect of being on TV and going home with $50,000 (and probably some form of exotic parasitic disease).

Yet during Fear Factor’s original run, PETA nailed a Virginia Beach nightclub that allowed contestants to swallow live goldfish.

I don’t know. Is it the “cute” factor? Must a creature pass some sort of beauty-pageant litmus test in order to be taken under PETA’s wing? Spotted owl? Cute. Baby harp seal? Awww. Madagascar hissing cockroach? Pass. Get some plastic surgery, dude, then send in that head shot again, okay?

Possibly the omission is because PETA has too much on their plates. What with getting all huffy demanding that a town near me change its name from “Fishkill” to something less violent toward our finny friends (Someone didn’t do their research: “kill” is Old Dutch for “brook,” folks. Every other town around here is named Something-kill) to killing dozens of trees with mailings warning me of the evils of animal product testing, they’ve got quite a lot to do.

But hissing cockroaches aside, they’ve missed something really, really huge.

Windows kill an estimated 1 billion birds each year.

That’s right. Windows. (That’s why I use a Mac)

But seriously, according to ornithologist Daniel Klem, who was interviewed by NPR’s John Nielsen on Morning Edition, “It’s a very common phenomenon. Birds are deceived. They just don’t see glass as a barrier and this is a problem for them.”

I’d say dying a horrible death by ramming your tiny little body head first into a solid pane of glass could be a bit of a problem.

But just to prove his hypothesis, Klem went into a forest and hung some windows off the branches of trees. Then he watched as an “appalling” number of collisions occurred. From an eight-foot perch, many of the birds smacked splat into the windows and died.

Cripes, he could have saved his research money (and many unnecessary avian deaths) and come over to my house to watch the dingbat birds doing the same thing here.

We had a feeder over our front stairs for four months. The same birds kept coming around. They’d become smart enough to get the seed out of the feeder, and to know where to find the spillage when it’s empty. Then, when it’s obvious we’re not going to refill for a few days (we’re afraid of them getting too plump to escape from the neighborhood cats) they stop coming. When we refill the feeder, somehow they figure out that it’s safe to come back. You’d think they’d have a good bead on the landscape by now, but no, there’s that THUNK again.

Window, dipstick.

Tiny pinfeathers are sticking to the panes.

And there’s your research.

PETA seems to be ignoring this. A quick search of their web site revealed that their only beef against birds and windows is the recommendation that when you cage a large bird (and remember, there are no such things as “caged” birds, all birds are wild animals and deserve to be free), don’t use a cage with glass sides or mirrors for the very same reason that birds can’t see it and will fly headfirst into it and knock themselves silly.

However, another site (birdsandbuildings.org) suggests putting a flexible screen outside your window (they claim decals don’t work) or using “fritted or patterned” glass. The problem is that humans have found these alternatives objectionable in their homes, as it interferes with the clarity of their views.

I mean, which would you rather have, a semi-obstructed view or billions of kamikaze birds going splat against your panes?

If a creature is that stupid, I’d rather spend my resources trying to save the Madagascar hissing cockroach. I could go on Fear Factor, eat a bunch of them, and put the $50,000 toward modifying their DNA to make them look like bunnies.

(Note: no animals were harmed in the making of this post.)

Stealth Book Promotion

A sobering fact of promoting your small press or independently published book is that it can seem like bookstore owners would rather endure a simultaneous tax audit, bikini wax, and colonoscopy than pepper their folding-chair-stuffed “conversation” areas with your latest work and, well, you. Nothing personal; as an unknown, they often consider you too great a financial risk. The bookstore doesn’t want to commit personnel or promotional funds on an author that might not draw a crowd or get stuck with a bunch of books they can’t return. It sucks, but that’s the way the world works at the moment.

Therefore writers have to get crafty about annoying everyone you know promoting your book sans retail establishments. Here are a few “outside the brick-and-mortar” ideas that just might work, or at least would be amusing to try.

Bookstore Ninja. This is fun and requires only a copy of your book, a camera, and an accomplice or two. Have an accomplice distract the salesperson by requesting an obscure book about the mating habits of the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach while you place your book on the shelf of your dreams and snap away. Post photos, like the one above I took at a certain large bookseller that shall remain nameless, on your social media. Feeling totally reckless? Leave it there.

Tricks With Tablets. This is another amusing attention-getting device which probably cheeses off the guys and gals at the Genius Bar and Geek Squad. If you’re in a store that sells tablet computers and e-readers and foolishly puts samples out for you to play with, casually pull up your book page and leave. Yeah, I know it reverts back, but if the traffic is heavy, some folks who might not normally see your book will get a glimpse.

Trainspotters. It’s so awesome to see people reading your book in public. When I do, I want to run up and hug them, if not for that nasty business with the restraining order. Know any regular commuters? Give them a copy of your book to read on public transportation. If you’re traveling with companions, sneak them a copy and take their picture as they read. Voila! Instant promo.

The Waiting Room Game. I’ll take “Two Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back” for $200, Alex. The doctor’s office. The dentist. The chiropractor. The DMV. A hospital library or waiting room. Slip a copy or two in with the magazines. Think of these copies as seed money. Even if someone walks off with your book, that’s still a reader, and a reader who might pass on your name to their friends. Bonus points if you tailor the drop-off location to your audience. Does Lassie save the day? Drop a copy off at a local pet groomer or vet’s office. Teenage mutant zombie/vampire apocalypse? Try the pediatrician’s waiting room. Comedy? Anywhere people are awaiting a stressful procedure. Try your local IRS or waxing salon.

Tips for Ghostwriting Success

When I tell people I’m a ghostwriter (among other things), I usually get the same two questions.

First: “What are you working on?” To which I respond, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Second: “Don’t you want credit for your work?”

My answer?  Not especially. I’m performing a service and getting paid. It keeps me in organic produce, which makes me happy. But don’t believe for a minute that equating ghostwriting to a bread-and-butter, background service makes me lackadaisical about what I write. I want to do the best possible job for my clients. It’s their money; they should get the byline or their name on the cover. Any credit on my part is appreciated, although not necessary. If I do a good job, I might be hired again, so I can buy more organic produce, which will make me happier.

In my previous career as a freelance graphic designer, I certainly did not expect a credit to appear on my designs. Again, as an independent contractor, I did a service and got paid. Even the book jacket designs I created did not carry my name. No big deal.

So what makes a good ghostwriter?

Discretion. Nobody wants a ghostwriter who will go around various virtual hot spots blabbing about the potential bestseller he or she is writing for Really Big Celebrity. Or that the President of the Acme Widgets Company does not write the sales letters that go out bearing his name. Keep it to yourself and don’t blow your credibility. I have been in “black ops” with clients so many times I could probably get a security clearance from the CIA.

The ability to mimic somebody else’s voice. I was called in to “ghost edit” a children’s story that a publisher was translating into English. The writer was very well known in his field. My edits had to keep in line with the author’s voice, or else his fans (and the author) would know something strange was going on. Or perhaps you are writing the CEO’s blog for the company website. You’ll need to write in his or her style, comfortably.

The ability to write about different topics with ease. One day you might be ghostwriting a real estate blog. Another day it could be an article for a busy entomologist about the mating habits of the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Although expertise helps, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about everything. That’s what Google is for. You need the patience and curiosity to do the required research, and the mental flexibility that allows you to go back and forth among topics comfortably. Yes, you could specialize, and many writers are very successful at this, but in a tight economy, and especially for a beginning ghostwriter, you may want to be more open-minded.

A collaborative spirit. Sometimes you’ll get a client who is happy to let you write the whole shebang on your own, but most of the time, your ghostwriting assignments will be a collaborative effort. This may mean you’ll review and contribute to a client’s outline, or write a rough draft and submit it for your client’s opinions and suggested revisions. It may take time to develop a collaborative relationship with a client, and this is vital if you hope to turn it into a long-term proposition. If you can’t take constructive criticism or do not play well with others, perhaps ghostwriting is not for you.

Professionalism. This includes all the stuff you’re supposed to do as a professional freelance writer. Work out an agreement. Stick to it. Communicate well. Meet your deadlines. Meet your deadlines. And most importantly, meet your deadlines.

Have you ever done any ghostwriting? Can you share some of your experiences? Without giving away too much, of course. Wouldn’t want you to blow your security clearance.

(Image courtesy of Alexandria Library Incorporated. Copyright 2006)