Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Great Wrtiers - Born Not Built

(Re-posted from earlier this year)
I’ve been writing my whole life.  Most of us have.  The first time we spelled our name in block letters on grainy, wide-lined paper, writing became a part of our daily communication. What middle schooler isn’t required to write an essay on what I did over my summer vacation?  Universities have added compositions to their application processes.  Most jobs require the ability to write.  It’s hard to succeed without the ability to communicate in writing. 

So, am I and other self-published authors qualified to be writers?  It’s a hot topic, and my answer may not be what you’d expect.  I believe anyone who has a desire to write should write, but to be a great writer, like other art forms, requires a talent that comes from within.  Great writers are born, not built.  
As an example, my father is a gifted carver, one of the best.  He can visualize shape, texture, and color and transform a block of wood into a thing of beauty.  It’s amazing to see what he can create.  I could take woodworking and carving classes for years and not come close to doing what he finds natural.  Dad has improved his craft over many years, studying other carvers and learning new techniques, but he started with skills that can’t be taught.
Just like my father, great writers need to envision what they write before they put it on paper.  They must feel the emotions, visualize scenes from the point of view of their characters, and then transpose what they see and feel into words so their readers experience the same.   Writing is truly an art, but it’s also complex and technical.   Being able to visualize characters, scenes and plots is only half the challenge; you also must be able to choose the precise composition of grammatically correct words to convey what is visualized.  I can visualize a duck, but no one would want to display what I carve on their mantel.
I’m not claiming I was born with the inner skills to be a top writer.  I wasn’t.  My definition of a great writer is someone capable of producing best sellers or whose works stand the test of time.  It’s a broad definition, and not everyone would agree every best seller was produced by a great author.  Today, good marketing plays as much of a role in achieving success as great writing.  Nevertheless, we can agree that Hemingway was a great writer, and there are few Hemingways.
Most of my friends and family are supportive of my writing.  Several have read all my books, and I’ve received sufficient recognition and sales to keep me motivated.  Still, there are doubters.  I sometimes see eyes glaze over when the subject of my writing surfaces.  I’m sure they wonder why I spend so much of my time on something seemingly frivolous.  Surely he doesn’t think he’ll make a go of this, they must think.
What they don’t know is that I have already made of go of it.  While I accept that great writers are born with unique talents and that I’m not in this class, I know I can become a better writer, maybe even a good one.  I expect most self-published authors feel the same.  To them I say, keep on writing.    

Saturday, November 19, 2016

If Voters Behaved As Dogs

I thought two weeks after the national election the attacking and counterattacking by the right and left would end.  The political ads are gone, but cable news, Facebook and Twitter remain filled with written and verbal assaults. I’ve quit listening, and you know who else has risen above it all?  My dog, Milo.
As I thought more about it, I came to the conclusion our election process would go more smoothly if voters thought and behaved more like Milo and her four-legged friends.  I came up with five good reasons to support my conclusion.
  1. Dogs don’t care about what you say.  They care about what you do.    They are focused on how you’ve treated them in the past and even more focused on how you’re treating them now.  Speeches and debates would be lost on dogs.  
  2. Dogs can see through false promises and insincerity.  If you don’t like them, they sense it.  They know how you really feel, no matter how much you smile and praise them.  Lying to a dog is a waste of time.
  3. Once you earn the friendship of a dog, they’re forever loyal.  On the other hand, if you’ve ever mistreated or teased them, they remember.  They are not undecided as to how they feel about you.  If voters behaved as dogs, all the talk and speculation about undecided voters would end. 
  4. Identity politics don’t work with dogs.  Dogs of all shapes, sizes, colors, sexes, training and pedigrees think and act pretty much the same.  They value the same things.  They like to eat, sleep, play with other dogs, pee where other dogs pee, and of course, greet each other by smelling butts. 
  5. Dogs don’t use social media.  Most don’t even watch TV.  The only way to communicate with a dog is face to face.  Candidates would need to forget about multi-million dollar attack ads and Tweeting meaningless 140-character messages in the middle of the night.
My advice to future candidates: treat voters like dogs.  Communicate with actions, not words.  Tell them the truth.  Earn their loyalty.  Don’t put them in buckets based on sex, race, and education level.  And talk to them directly, not through Tweets and PAC-funded attack ads.   
I’ve wondered which presidential candidate Milo would have chosen.  I imagine if she’d had the chance to meet Donald and Hillary prior to the election, she would have chosen Hillary.  I don’t base this on how well the candidates adhered to the five items above, but on Hillary owning two dogs (a toy poodle and Lab) and Donald being pet-less.  In fact, it’s been reported there’s no evidence that the president-elect has ever had a dog as a pet.  If this had been highlighted earlier, it might have swung the dog-lover vote and the election.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Time to Take a Deep Breath

I’m breaking a commitment to never write a political post, knowing I will receive criticism and likely lose readers.  Still, I can’t sit idly and watch the reactions to our recent election by rioters, failed politicians, and the left-leaning media without expressing my thoughts.
Let me start by saying that I voted for Donald Trump.  As with many voters, it wasn’t a stress-free choice. The options were limited to two, flawed candidates.  While Hillary Clinton presented the better image of a president, her past careless actions and double-speak were troubling to me.  I also didn’t appreciate Mrs. Clinton trying to make this an "-ist" election, painting her opposition as sexist and racist. Our economy has struggled for too long, and I felt it was time for a change.           
It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy of the media and demonstrators protesting the election of Donald Trump.   In the days leading up to the election, Trump was being chastised by the same groups over fears that he and his supporters may not be willing to accept the outcome. “How could he not agree to a peaceful transition of power?” they argued. “He’s mocking the very foundation of our election process.”
Those protesting President-elect Trump seem to be primarily college-age students and Millennials of all races.  They justify their protests by claiming Trump was elected by an under-educated, white male backlash through Trump’s deliberate appeal to racists, sexists, homophobes and xenophobes.  Running to the moral high ground and attempting to label opponents as evil and ill-informed has lost its effectiveness for the left.  In desperation, they are no longer protesting peacefully; they are rioting, destroying property and businesses.  If anything, their outrageous actions convince those watching that the voters who’ve elected Donald Trump did the right thing.    
The time to make your voice heard is prior to and during elections, not after.  If Hillary Clinton was the superior candidate, voters should have turned out to elect her as they did President Obama.  They didn’t.  Now a generation of young adults who grew up receiving “participation awards” and fleeing to campus “safe zones” to avoid differing opinions are experiencing what it’s like to lose.  They aren’t handling it well.  
Oddly, the states that elected Trump were the same states that elected President Obama: Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.   Voters in these states weren’t accused of being sexist or racist when they elected Obama, but somehow, they’re now being labeled by many in the media as the ugly underbelly of President-elect Trump’s white backlash.  It’s just not true.  What is true is voters in these states who elected Obama in prior elections stayed home, either because they were not impressed by their candidate and her past activities, or because they expected Mrs. Clinton to win easily without them, encouraged by the erroneous polls touted by the media. In the end, more than four million fewer voters cast votes for Clinton than did for Obama in 2012.
Calls to reject the Electoral College by Eric Holder and others in favor of the popular vote are futile and self-serving.  This isn’t the first time the presidential candidate with the larger popular vote failed to be elected by the Electoral College.  It’s happened four other times.  Those election results weren’t reversed.  This one won’t be either.  If popular vote decided national elections, California and New York would always choose our president, thereby leaving the vast majority of the states without representation.  (Mrs. Clinton may end up with 0.6M more popular votes, but she won California by nearly 2.8M and New York by 1.5M. That means she lost the other 48 states by 3.7M votes.) Fair representation is the primary reason the Electoral College has stood the test of time, originating in 1787 and existing in its current form since the 1880s. 
I have concerns as to how President-elect Trump will govern, but I’m willing to give him a chance.  I believe he was elected by a broad base of people, many with backgrounds and views similar to mine: 
  • I have a college education and have voted in every presidential election since 1976 for both Democrats and Republicans. 
  • I’m neither rich nor aloof to the plight of the middle class.
  • My family’s medical insurance premiums and deductibles have become a burden, rising to over 20% of my income.
  • I believe the ACA needs to change to better favor small business and make it more affordable for the middle class, but I expect elements of Obama’s healthcare bill will remain. 
  • I take Trump’s campaign promises as directional, not literal, as I do with all politicians. 
  • I don’t expect a 2,000-mile wall to be built, but agree with strongly securing our borders. 
  • I don’t agree with deporting 12 million illegal immigrants who work and reside here peacefully, but I do think those breaking our laws and endangering our citizens need to be identified and removed.  
  • I believe the Supreme Court should support our Constitution and not bend it.  
  • I believe our military needs to be strong, mainly to deter wars, but to win them after all other options have failed.
  • First and foremost, I believe our country needs jobs and our economy needs to experience sustained growth.   
More than 60 million voters joined me in electing Donald Trump. A vast majority of states and counties supported him as well as down ballot Republican candidates in their states.  Republicans maintained control of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as a lopsided plurality of governorships. Was this simply an under-educated, white male backlash?  I think not.     
Differing political views are to be expected.  Peaceful protesting is everyone’s right, but rioting and the destruction of property are not.  The media and left-wing politicians need to stop justifying riots through minimizing those who’ve elected Mr. Trump.  For Harry Reid to imply President-elect Trump represents the interests of the KKK only emboldens rioters and points out to any rational citizen that it’s time for Senator Reid to ride his donkey into the sunset. 
I encourage everyone to follow the example of Hillary Clinton and President Obama who have rightfully and gracefully accepted the election results and have begun the peaceful transition of power.  It was a very tough, ugly election.  Both sides painted the other with broad, defamatory brushes, but the election is over. We all need President-elect Trump and his new administration to succeed.  I’m going to take a deep breath and give him a chance.     

Update November 19, 2016
As reported by USA Today, Hillary Clinton's popular vote lead has grown from 0.6 million to about 1.7 million, largely due to an influx of absentee and provisional ballots still being counted in California. She has about 63.7 million votes to Trump's 62 million; her margin in California alone is about 3.5 million.   This doesn't change the electoral vote (Trump 290 to Clinton's 232, with Michigan outstanding), nor the point made about California alone deciding the election if popular vote was used.  At this point, Mrs. Clinton has lost the popular vote in 49 of the 50 states by 1.8 million votes. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Seeking Creativity? Try Walking.

Many famous writers turn to alcohol or drugs, either for motivation or escape: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.  I’m not sure the total number of renowned alcoholic authors is sufficient to claim a high correlation between destructive compulsive behavior and writing genius, but there’s enough to make you wonder.  
A mysterious romance is often associated with troubled writers toiling over their unfinished novels in smoky studies with their favorite libations nearby. One might question if their coarse lifestyle infused their creative genius, or if their genius came first and was a burden too heavy for them to carry.  I suspect it’s the latter.
Let me suggest there’s a better way to stoke your creative writing juices than drinking: walking. 
Walking briskly for at least 30 minutes a day has been shown to stimulate your brain. Walkers are 50% less likely to develop dementia than non-walkers.   Higher fitness levels are correlated with continued development of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, both vital to memory and complex thinking.  Those who remain physically active late in life are also more likely to demonstrate continued mental growth.    
It also has been proven that those who walk regularly are happier and exhibit higher levels of energy.  Regular physical exercise releases uplifting endorphins that improve your mood, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.  You may have heard of a “runner’s high.”  The release of endorphins is responsible for that buzz.  
I start each day by taking a 45-minute walk with my dog along mountain trails. I’m not so sure if the walking has made me a more polished writer, but I can attest to feeling refreshed and in a much better mood on the days I walk.  I am clearly more productive after my hike in the woods and able to focus at a higher level.  Walking alone also gives me time to think, time for my mind to wander.  I’ve come up with many new ideas for stories, plot twists, and character developments while sauntering through the woods.  
While walking may not be as mysteriously romantic as Hemingway passing out at his writing desk after a night at a Key West saloon, it will definitely improve a writer’s energy and longevity.  At age 64, I’d like to write many more years, so I’ll do anything to keep my body healthy and my mind sharp. 
Although, I must admit, if I thought going on a weeklong bender would elevate my next Miles Stevens novel to best seller status, I’d be downing double shots right now.              

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Reviews: They're Hard To Come By

Authors crave book reviews.  Most reviews of my books are well-thought and favorable, but I’ve also received not-so-positive critiques.   I appreciate them all.
As a self-published author, it’s difficult to accumulate reviews of my work, and it’s getting even harder.  I estimate fewer than 5% of my readers post a review on Amazon or Goodreads.  It’s difficult to calculate exactly.  I know how many books I’ve sold and how many I’ve given away in promotions, but I don’t know how many of my books have actually been read.      
Successful authors receive plenty of reviews, and getting reviews builds success.  It makes you wonder what comes first, success or reviews? Many factors contribute to becoming a recognized writer, but without favorable reviews, aspiring will forever precede author in your title.
I’ve tried most of the typical approaches used by self-published writers to obtain more reviews:  book signings, author interviews, promotional giveaways, advance reader copies (ARC), and review swap groups.  I promote my work on my blog and via Twitter @drshoultz .   I even ask for reviews at the end of each of my books (a practice frowned upon by established authors).  I, and most new authors, work very hard for each review.     
The pursuit of reviews has become controversial in recent years, the controversy escalating with the explosive growth of self-publishing. The ethical, and even legal, dilemma surrounding solicitation of reviews gives all authors cause for concern.  Personally, I see no harm in offering free copies of my books to readers in exchange for honest reviews, provided the reader acknowledges the gift in their review.  On the other hand, I would never pay anyone for a review.  
Amazon has recently published book reviewer guidelines.  It no longer considers reviews by friends of an author as valid and goes so far as to remove these reviews.  I’ve had a couple taken down.  I told Amazon I couldn’t control whether or not my mom posted reviews, but her review disappeared nevertheless.
One might ask where and how Amazon draws the line on its definition of “friend”.  I know authors with thousands of Facebook and Goodreads friends.  They’ve cultivated their list of internet friends for the primary purpose of expanding their readership.  My advice to these authors is be careful how "friendly" you become with your readers.   
One criteria of success for an author is reaching the point where you have so many reviews you (and Amazon) can’t read them all.  I’m clearly not there yet.  I read each one, some several times--especially the reviews from my mom.       

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writer's block, what is it?

All writers get it, but what is writer’s block?   
The term makes it sound like a cork stopper is jammed into the channel of the brain that allows free-following thought. Much has been written on the subject, some by writers, some by psychologists and psychiatrists.  Writers want to know how to overcome it.   PhDs and MDs are more interested in the neuroses that cause writer’s block to occur.   
As a writer, I find my encounters with writer’s block occur when I’m distracted by life.  Some of these distractions are good, such as vacations, visiting with friends and family, or getting a new pet.   Unexpected home maintenance, health issues, family drama, or the dog chewing a hole in your leather recliner fall into the not-so-good category. Whatever the distractions may be, they take time and focus away from freewheeling creativity and putting pen to paper.
Doctors have arrived at a medical explanation for this. It appears during periods of stress or distraction, the brain’s limbic system takes control from the cerebral cortex.    The limbic system controls instinctual “fight or flight” reactions, whereas the cerebral cortex is vital to the creative process.   The more stress, the less creativity.  Writers under a deadline may experience a negative feedback loop.  The more they stress over meeting the publisher’s or editor’s deadline, the less creative they become.
I also find some writing projects just lose steam.  It has nothing to do with personal distractions or my brain shifting from one side to the other, but more to do with my writing ability.  It might be my original idea for a book or story isn’t well thought, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to finish what I started.   Whatever it is, it’s led to many uncompleted writing projects. I have a Word file labeled “Elephant Graveyard” filled with the carcasses of dead novels and short stories.  I occasionally visit the file and kick the bones.  Every so often, one of the elephants comes back to life. 
So, what do you do about writer’s block?  Not being under deadlines, I have the freedom to wait it out, and that’s what I do.   I’m not big into mental manipulation or word games to free my thoughts.  These techniques may work for some, but I find putting my project(s) on the back burner for a few days and coming back fresh is the best approach. 
Starting a new writing project can also help.  If I hit a dead spot while working on a novel, putting it to the side and writing a blog entry or starting a new short story can jumpstart creative juices.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing now.  I’ve been working on the third book in the Miles Stevens time-travel action-adventure series and needed a break. 
I think I’ll grab a cup of coffee and get back to seeing what Miles is up to.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When I'm 64, will you still need me?

Will you still need me?  Will you still feed me when I’m 64? 

Paul McCartney, the Beatles icon, was only 16 when he wrote the song which was later released in 1967.  At the time, turning 64 was nearly five decades away for young Paul.  He couldn’t have had a clue what being 64 would be like. This was obvious by the questions he posed.  

Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out ‘til quarter to three, would you lock the door? 

This is what a 16-year-old wonders about someone who turns 64?  On the one hand, he sees a 64-year-old as unneeded and unable to feed himself.  On the other, the same person is drinking wine and staying out until 2:45 a.m.    

Well, I turned 64 this past week, and I am definitely still feeding myself.  I tip the scales at 190 on my skinny days.  I’m also still paying bills, so I guess I’m still needed.   I received several birthday cards, and I drink wine daily, so I can check off that question, too.  As far as the final question, if I was ever out ‘til quarter to three, I wouldn’t need to worry about being locked out.  My wife would have already contacted highway patrol and filed a missing person’s report.  I haven’t been out past midnight since before Reagan’s presidency.  

I wonder what McCartney thinks of his song now.  He’s looking at 64 in the rearview mirror. The knighted mega-millionaire turned 74 this past June.  Maybe he’s working on a sequel, When I’m 94.   If he is, I might suggest the following questions find their way into his tune: 

Will Medicare still heal me?
Will Social Security still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a get-well card, bedside flowers, graveside stone?
If I fall and make a mess, will you mop the floor?  

Check back.  I plan to update this blog post in 30 years.