Evaluating Expectations

We’re in the midst of graduation season, with scores of high school and college students embarking on various goals for their future. On this blog, I’ve often discussed how we set our goals and manage them as they come to fruition, change, or even thistle out over time.  As challenging as it can be to manage our expectations for ourselves, it’s even a more daunting task to control our expectations of others.

No matter how well you know somebody, you can’t map out their course for them. From an outsider’s perspective, you may be convinced someone would excel in this or that, but he/she may have reasons for not pursuing such a venture. A lot of aspirations were thrown at me by well-meaning friends when I graduated, one being that I should become a social worker. Granted, the friend offered sound logic behind it, remarking that my history gave me insight into helping people. In reality, however, my experiences shied me away from the field, as I selfishly didn’t want to relive those battles every day. I’d prefer to help others in a different way.

Life pursuits aren’t the only area where expectations can be tricky. Many times, others don’t meet our expectations in the way they act. From a young age, we learn about cause and effect, a so-called fact of life. You plant a seed, water it, and it grows into a plant, right? When it comes to free-willed humans, though, the effect of whatever cause we might initiate isn’t always what we predicted. We might offer somebody a smile and expect them to reciprocate, but they scowl, instead. How should we react to such disappointments?

For starters, we need to acknowledge our own flaws. A habit we all get into is holding others to a higher standard than we do ourselves. We fool ourselves into believing we handle things the right way at least most of the time, but do we? Under certain circumstances, don’t we dish out treatment contrary to what someone deserves? Beyond that, even what we deem the proper behavior may not match up with what others consider appropriate. We might be on our best behavior, but it rubs them the wrong way. Just because somebody acts differently than we do, we can’t judge it as wrong.

 We should also appreciate the fact that expectations can be surpassed, and we have to be open to that prospect. We might expect someone to fill one spot in our life, but they eventually ended up filling another. I encountered that with a dear friend, who initially didn’t meet my expectations and actually annoyed me at one point. Before long, however, we developed a very special bond. If you aren’t careful, you’ll miss out on such an opportunity by sticking to your rigid expectations and not allowing somebody the wiggle room to enrich your world in another way.

We can’t rid ourselves of all expectations because they contribute a lot to everyday life. Some have to be met for our benefit, and the ones we put on ourselves govern everything we do. With regard others, however, we have to strive for a balance. We have to put away our measuring stick, realizing it’s likely inaccurate. Instead, we ought to keep our minds open to people’s differences.  

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Behind the Podcast

Over the past few years, podcasts have been popping up like Starbucks restaurants! In truth, the idea has always appealed to me, given I used to make up stories while speaking into a cassette recorder, like my dad did before me. Because of my speech impediment, however, I didn’t think it would be a suitable avenue for me.

Then came my fellow author, TG Wolff. A couple of months after we participated in a virtual panel last year, she invited me to submit a short story to be considered for her podcast, Mysteries to Die For.

The whodunnit had to center around a vehicle of some sort, so I immediately began brainstorming. I wanted to choose something off the beaten path, in an effort to stand out. Being an avid golf cart driver, that was a tempting notion, but I steered a different direction.

I remembered a shuttle my family rode during a couple of vacations in Orlando Airport. Since my series of mysteries novels, The Unde(a)feated Detective Series, is set in the city, I used this as an ample opportunity to bridge the second book, Brother of Interest, and its follow-up, Accidental Allies, coming out later this year. Thus, “A Shuttle to Trouble” entered the station! To my delight, she accepted the proposal I sent her, telling me to have fun with it, and that’s exactly what I did.

But, you may wonder, what’s the inside scoop on the creation of the Mysteries to Die For series? TG Wolff herself is here to answer that!        

“Welcome to Mysteries to Die For”: That’s the way we start our show…but it’s not the way it started. What did a 50-year-old civil engineer / writer / mother and a 16-year-old student / musician / son know about podcasting? Nothing. But we did it anyway.

I am TG Wolff and I write mysteries. Shortly after my book, Widow’s Run, was released, I was hanging out in our piano / computer / everything else room where Jack was playing around with basslines on the piano. His fingers grooved up and down the keyboard and I thought…I can read to that!

Jack was game. He took his baseline, flattened the major key because apparently, “I have a minor voice,” and we found a rate that sounded pretty cool. So, what next?

Let’s do it live! And so we did. In 2019, at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore in Chicagoland. The audience was small, but they got into it. It was olde time radio-y. Jack and I had fun doing it so, after much over thinking, we decided to launch a podcast.

The first season is WIDOW’S RUN. Each episode was a chapter. Compared to now? Those episodes are pretty bad. We didn’t know what we were doing. I tried doing different voices for each character. Bad idea. Our microphones weren’t the best quality. We were getting by with free software. We were learning.

Seasons 2 and 3, I wrote adaptations of publicly available mysteries. From Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to the 1925 Earl Derr Bigge’s 1st Charlie Chan “The House Without a Key”, Jack and I brought the earliest mysteries to today’s audience in 8,000 words or less.

With Season 4, we went in our current direction, inviting authors to write new mysteries for our listeners and readers and, of course, Jack, to try to solve. “A Word Before Dying” was themed around on the last word spoken before death. Season 5 “Move It or Lose It”, which is dropping now, is themed around vehicles of all kinds. We are in the middle of planning for Season 6 “Things that Go Jack in the Night.” It’s the most unusual collection of mysteries you’ll ever hear…or read. Think jackalopes, jack-in-the-boxes, and lumberjacks. And we have more ideas brewing that will keep mystery lovers entertained.

Karina and I first met virtually during a COVID modified Ohioana Book Festival. Jack and I are very happy to count Karina among our authors for this season and to have her detective, Minka Avery, solve a mystery to die for.

About “A Shuttle to Trouble”

​Minka Avery and her family have just come off a relaxing Jamaican getaway…followed by an exhausting flight. The source of their exasperation? Lloyd Wells, a fellow passenger who drives everyone crazy with his incessant demands.

The grumpy man finds a friend in Minka’s husband, Wes, and accompanies him for the entire journey. Just when they expect to break free of him, he dies on the airport shuttle, poisoned by exposure to coconut, his dreaded allergen. 

With a tram full of suspects, can Minka use her sleuth’s instincts to crack the coconut wide open before the killer can fly away?    

“A Shuttle to Trouble” begins streaming TOMORROW at 1:30PM EDT on TGWolff.com!

Also available in the accompanying anthology, Move it or Lose it.

The Difference in Five Minutes

There are 1,440 minutes in a day. We often hear how carving out just a few to exercise or perform some type of self-care benefits us more than we’d expect. While we sometimes don’t bother with such, that idea of setting aside a mere five or ten minutes appeals to many of us, as it makes those tasks more doable.

When it comes to other people, however, we’re prone to say, “I don’t have the time for him/her.” Granted, some people don’t let you get away in a brief span…and with others, even a few moments can seem like an eternity! That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact we can have on others in just a short period.

I learned this first-hand over the course of several years. Like My Story shares, a group in my high school—particularly among the football team—gave me special support throughout my teen years. They took time out from their practices and comradery to cheer me on for my weekly hundred-meter “dashes,” which usually took me a sloth’s pace of around two minutes. Some visited with me for a few more minutes beforehand and afterward, amounting to five minutes or so. Still, those five minutes strengthened me as much as the physical exercise those walks offered.

The guys rallied around me even in the rain!

Beyond that, a select few spared a short spell every day before and after school to catch up with me and include me in their circle. We never discussed anything monumental, nor did they spend a great deal of time rooting me on about my endeavors. Rather, they chatted about common subjects in a way that dignified me and made me feel “normal”.  

I didn’t take those visits for granted and knew I wouldn’t always have them, even up to my graduation. I was younger than them, so the last of them graduated two years before me. When that time came, I didn’t look forward to returning to school without the prospect of starting my day on that note, but I figured I’d manage all right. I was sixteen, an upperclassman, and I had a good reputation among teachers and my fellow students. Besides, it was just five minutes, right?

Well, the lack of that five minutes rattled me a lot more than I anticipated. I was in the same building, among the same people I’d known for most of my life, but everything seemed different. I didn’t even think about my friend’s absence a great deal, but my self-confidence sank lower than it’s ever been. I became painfully aware of my disability and speech impediment, which even led me to drop a class for the only time in my academic career.

After I realized what lay behind my despair, my appreciation for those five minutes deepened still. Along with that, it impressed on me how I could impact others in the same way. Because of my limitations, I’ve doubted my ability to lend a hand, considering the only one I can use isn’t worth much! However, this experience taught me that a listening ear, compassionate words, and just a slice of time can mean more than anything to somebody.

While all of us benefit from this, I can’t overstate how much the youth need such attention. Recent studies have shown that young people are struggling with mental health now more than ever. The suicide rate is high, and as reported by “The Hill,” twenty percent of young girls and ten percent of boys suffer a clinical episode of major depression before they turn twenty-five. Though these disorders are often caused by biological factors, extending attentive care can certainly boost someone’s spirits and provide the strength to go on.

During those 1,440 minutes we have in a day, we can both accomplish much and waste much. I think we can all agree we do a little of both every day. We might tend to consider the moments we “waste” on ourselves to be more valuable than those we feel we waste on others, but we need to fight that mentality. What we deem just a short branch we’re extending to somebody may well be the life preserver that’s keeping him/her afloat.

My only worry during those years was how late my friends might arrive!

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The Trouble with Epiphanies 

As humans, it’s in our nature to ask for input from those we trust. We might ask for advice about something they’re experienced in or just for their insights into whether an uncharted path is right for us, given how well they know us. Like I discussed in Guide versus Lead: Are They One and the Same?, everyone reacts to direction differently, so we often elicit counsel from the ones who give us feedback the way we need.

While we all seek out advice, we also choose not to follow it from time to time. It can be administered from the best source in the best way and with the best intentions, but we usually have our own idea and probably wasted our breath—and theirs—by even asking. In such cases, our heart can get in the way and cloud our judgement. In some instances, following our instincts can prove to be the right call, but conversely, it can also lead us to learn our lesson the proverbial hard way.

I recently came across this quote by author Jodi Picoult: “Some lessons can’t be taught; they simply have to be learned.” We attest to this fact from the time we can start acting for ourselves. Our parents tell us not to do something because of the consequences we’ll suffer, but if you have your heart set on it, you’ll disobey their caution eventually and discover the logic in their warnings. On the bright side, you typically remember the lesson long afterward.

Once in a while, though, you’re struck with an epiphany out of nowhere, which spares you the aftereffects of hard-learned lessons. This happened to me as a young teenager. I always planned to get my driver’s license despite my limitations inflicted by Cerebral Palsy. In fact, my disability fed my hunger for independence. Truth be known, I never dared to ask for my parents’ thoughts on it, but they never discouraged it, either.

Over a year before I could pursue it, though, I just woke up one morning, and to my surprise, I resolved that I wasn’t going to attempt to get a license. To this day, I don’t know what triggered the conclusion, especially since we hadn’t been discussing it at all and because I had such a drive—pun intended—to have that freedom. Yet, my veil of desire suddenly lifted, allowing me to realize how my challenges could affect my skills, and I accepted it. I never looked back or tried to talk myself into it again, either.

Those kinds of epiphanies are so liberating. They give you more peace than a decision you make after hours of debate. You’re left with the conviction you made all on your own, sparing you the grappling you might do if you acquiesce to someone else’s logic. For my part, I have a stubborn streak and fight back when people tell me I can’t do something. I probably would’ve resisted if my family tried to steer me—again, pun intended—away from driving. This way, however, my choice gave me solace instead of scorn or even disappointment.

Unfortunately, these out-of-the-blue revelations are rare, at least for me. At times, we might try to force them, particularly when it comes to matters we’ve mulled over for an extended period. Our own experiences or those of others may prompt us to think with our heads that we should make a certain call, but our hearts don’t comply.

When that happens, we need to be patient with ourselves and those who want to help us. We’ll likely come to the right decision with time. It may not pop out of nowhere like we probably wish, but counsel or circumstances can slowly illuminate the best course that will bring us success and contentment.

Epiphanies are tricky, illusive things, but understanding them can benefit us and others. Regardless of how or when they hit us, they have to come from within, so we can’t expect somebody to give them to us. Likewise, we have to accept that we can’t make one for another person, even if we have a clear picture on what we feel they should do. Life is one big learning project that often has tough problems and few solutions, but working together to find them can enrich the process a great deal.

Oh, What a Pity…Or an Empathy?

Of all the words in the English language, I’d classify “pity” as a true frenemy. By definition, it’s a kind term, with Merriam-Webster describing it as “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy” and equating it with compassion. Still, it’s been weaponized by people—often facetiously—saying, “I pity you.”

Such use has led all of us to chide against ever being pitied. As a disabled person, I resented the word before I even grasped its meaning. I think it played into my debate about whether someone was nice to me because of my qualities or my handicap. From a young age, genuineness really mattered to me, and I could usually see through it when somebody showed me kindness in the view of others but never in a private setting. Thus, that represented pity to me, as it conveyed that they felt bad for me but didn’t seem to desire a true relationship beyond that. I’ll admit with regret that my sensitivity to the notion of being pitied spilled onto actual friends who didn’t deserve my scrutiny.

Even so, I had trouble pinpointing the reason I despised the word so much. A recent interview with Michael Kutcher, who, like me, lives with Cerebral Palsy, and his famous brother, Ashton, helped me get some clarity at last. During the sit-down, Ashton shared his candid thoughts about feeling guilty for having a privileged life when his brother faced significant health challenges. When Michael perceived his remorse, he told him, “Every time you feel sorry for me, you make me less,” adding, “this is the only life I’ve ever known, so stop feeling sorry for the only thing I have.”

The powerful statement resonated with me and explained my own conundrum with pity to me. Regardless of the type of limitations you have, a key to thriving despite them is not dwelling on how they confine you. You have to accept your normal instead of wishing you had everyone else’s normal. When others display a sorrowful manner about what you’ve accepted, however, it downgrades everything you’ve done to make the most of your circumstances.

Along with that, none of us can accurately guess what factors really bother them. I’ve experienced people giving me somber looks or making sympathetic comments about matters I don’t long to do, even in different circumstances. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, but frankly, I’ve never had a burning itch to participate in them. Plenty of able-bodied people might not be athletic but enjoy being a spectator, don’t they? Still, someone once asked me how I can enjoy them, given I can’t play. While I appreciated the concern, it was an unnecessary reminder of my disability.

Despite the bad reputation “pity” gets, I realize, for the most part, pity stems from good intentions. No matter how distasteful some of these pitiful remarks may seem, I’d rather somebody be considerate of my limitations rather than oblivious to them.

What’s more, though, is transforming your pity for someone into empathy, namely, “an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person.” (Merriam-Webster) Having such intuition comes more naturally to some than it does others, but whatever your inclination, getting to know somebody is the start of cultivating empathy.

To illustrate, we might feel sad for any animal that’s suffering, but when it’s our own pet, it just about kills us inside. Why? Because we’ve developed a kinship with them, learning their personality and observing how they act when they’re well. Thus, when they limp on the leg they once ran on, we feel their pain.

Likewise, instead of just watching someone’s struggles from afar with pity, take the initiative to get to know them. Don’t conclude you understand them just because you know the basics of their condition. Foster empathy, and more than likely, they’ll be able to empathize with you, too.   

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A Reality Check on Characters

As an author whose books are very character driven, I take it as a high compliment when readers tell me I made my characters live in their minds. In Forgetting My Way Back to You, one of the characters, Mabel, wrote a note to protagonist Charlee, which contained timeless wisdom about love and forgiveness. This version of Mabel—who’s also featured in Wrong Line, Right Connection—is ninety years old, about seventy years my senior when I wrote her letter to Charlee. You can imagine my delight, then, when people asked me if I based that on a real note, since it sounded so much like an older woman’s thoughts. I still haven’t decided if that means I was wise beyond my twenty-one years or if I just have geriatric tastes!   

While we strive to create vivid characters that leap off the page, we still need to strike a balance. As discussed in “Keeping the Fiction in Fiction“, most readers like to escape from reality through their books. A dose of real-world problems can enhance a story and make it more relatable, but if we carry it too far, we can drive a reader away. When it comes to our heroes/heroines, especially, we ought to draw a stranger-than-fiction line, stopping short of making a character do exactly what an actual person might do in real-life.

Most of us do this to some degree without even thinking about it. For instance, we might say the character visited the restroom, but we don’t often elaborate on the specifics of what happens in there. Why? Because everybody knows the gist of it, and it wouldn’t add much more than disgust to detail the dirty deed. Although toymakers have added those quirks to make their dolls realistic, we realize those habits will serve as a distraction from the plot.

This same rule applies to inner traits of a character. Granted, no one’s perfect, and making characters too goody-goody turns plenty a reader off, as well. Just about every story out there is fueled by mistakes and flaws protagonists encounter, and watching how they handle them draws us to them. At the same time, we crave that escape reading provides, so don’t we hold a fictitious character to higher standards than we do even of ourselves? In fact, we may at times look to a hero/heroin to be the role model we never had.

Two of my favorite authors have disappointed me in this regard with their latest works, which inspired this post. They both chose to center their plots around very complicated, albeit lifelike, characters. These protagonists represent realities in our society, and I suppose some could argue they give a voice to those who are misunderstood.

I’m all for shining a light on unique, maybe even suppressed, perspectives, but the qualities they instilled in these characters didn’t make me root for them like the authors probably wanted. Rather, they tainted the whole tale that surrounded them, and I didn’t finish one of them because of that. I realize each one presented insight into very real issues—with one being based on a true story—but as a fan of fiction, I didn’t reap much joy because I was too preoccupied with silently yelling at the characters.

Of course, you can always take more chances with antagonists, as everyone loves to hate a villain. Even so, you need a boundary there, too. Stories vary in grittiness, and some authors choose to make their villains do pretty despicable acts. When deciding how vile to make a bad guy, it’s important to consider your target audience, including publishers. Some companies won’t review submissions that feature the most heinous crimes that are committed. Besides that, you don’t want to overblow how evil they are, unless you’re doing it in a satirical way. If you turn a thief into a murderer into a drug lord into a double-crossing spy all in one book, readers will likely get confused and deem it unrealistic.   

Authors ought not underestimate the impact of their characters on readers. They may only exist on a few hundred pages or less, but they can stick with someone for a lifetime, perhaps becoming a friend of sorts. When forming them, we should establish realistic elements but also maintain that dose of fiction that can taste so sweet. Fictional characters may not be able to change the world, but they can bring hope and inspire their fans to do their part.

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Why Write?

Guide versus Lead: Are They One and the Same?

My post, Influencers: A Trend Long Before Social Media, acknowledged the fact that we’re all influenced by others, whether we admit it or not. From a young age, we’re taught leadership skills and trained not to follow the crowd, but nobody’s one-hundred percent a leader or a follower. Whether we tend to be a leader or prefer to let someone else take that role most times, we all likely guide somebody, maybe when we don’t even realize it.

We often use lead and guide as synonyms, which they are indeed. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary uses each word in the other’s definition; lead means, “to guide on a way especially by going in advance,” while guide is, “one that leads or directs another’s way.”  Although the terms are grammatically interchangeable, the way we manifest the verbs can be pretty different. How so?

To illustrate, take a compass or even a modern-day GPS. Both devices provide instructions on how to guide you to a destination or at least keep you acclimated, but can we aptly call them leaders? Sure, advancements have made GPS systems more reliable, with them able to tell us the current traffic and weather conditions as well as pit stops we might enjoy along the way. If given the choice, however, wouldn’t someone—yes, a human. They still exist!—familiar with the area offer better leadership? They’d be able to tell you the best route based on more than duration, how weather conditions affect specific roadways, and whether you’re headed for Hershey Amusement Park or a park in Hershey, Pennsylvania (I speak from experience).

Likewise, we can be guided by somebody who may not have the best insight or at times the best motivation for dishing out the appropriate guidance. Being handicapped, I’ve encountered well-intentioned people, even professionals, who have provided me with input about solutions to problems I don’t have. They might have the knowledge and good sentiments behind the advice, but without understanding of my individual circumstances, they can’t point me in the direction I need.

On the other hand, a true leader goes through the same challenges as the ones who follow him. Harkening back to the definition, leaders go in advance rather than just barking instructions from the sidelines or behind the crowd, perhaps saying, “I’ll catch up with you.” Thus, they speak with confidence in what they suggest, and they’re likely to win others’ trust in turn. A skilled leader is also wise to listen to his followers’ limitations so that he can better navigate them through potential pitfalls. After all, doesn’t every good pilot perform a pre-flight check on his/her plane to ensure the aircraft’s safety before leading his passengers into the skies?

All this said, leaders don’t always have the leg up on guides. As I mentioned in the outset, everybody becomes a guide on occasion, and in certain cases, a guide is what someone needs. Some people don’t take well to a bold, assured leader, but they react more positively to a gentle guide. If we want to benefit somebody like that, we may need to fight our leadership instincts and just offer those subtle nudges accordingly.    

No matter which side of direction we may be on, we should never take the preciousness of it for granted. Life presents many uncharted waters, so we naturally need each other to remain afloat. Whether we look for a guide or leader or aim to be one when the situation calls for it, we can do our best to foster trust and understanding. Even a simple word of guidance can lead somebody down the right path.

Creative Artists versus Created Artists

Right off the bat, I’d like to credit the talented Lionel Ritchie with inspiring this post. During his acceptance speech as he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last fall, he discussed the difference between being a creative artist and being a created artist. He shared how many of his colleagues discouraged him from releasing certain music because they were a departure from his genre. Then, when the songs exploded into mega-hits, those same associates pushed him to do a similar song. Naturally, that prompted him to do the exact opposite!

Even if we’re not an artist of his magnitude, we all face the predicament of others giving us input about our work. There’s nothing wrong in taking it, either, if it aligns with where we see our path headed. As I’ve mentioned before, my mystery series developed after my writing coach nudged me to compose a sequel to the first book. She also coaxed me into Wrong Line, Right Connection…though it took a decade to convince me. Both projects have brought me immense joy and fulfillment, and I don’t regret taking her advice for a second.

Still, even those who know us best may not always steer us in the right direction, and we have to politely pass on a suggestion from time to time. I typically just offer a noncommittal giggle unless the tip is presented in a way that merits a more serious response. Regardless, we don’t need to feel ashamed when we make such a call, as it’s a sign of being in tune with your individual style.

Well-intentioned friends and mentors often give you the first taste of maneuvering your creative decisions, but the pressure doesn’t end with them. Especially at the start of your career, open calls for submission tempt you to your core because you just want to get your foot in the door. I don’t recall many details, but somewhere along my quest for my first publisher, a company had a request out for westerns. For a fleeting moment, my desperate mind supposed, “I don’t write westerns, but maybe I could,” until common sense lassoed me. Perhaps some would argue that you need to take any chance extended to you like actors who make their debut in commercials for digestive supplements, and I respect that outlook. At the same time, though, I think you’re better off putting forth whatever helps you shine rather than submit inferior work that could leave a bad impression.

Pressure can also sneak up on you if you haven’t obtained the level of success you wanted to. You might observe the subjects or styles others employ and wonder, “If I began writing like that, would I make the best-sellers list?” While it can be good to learn and evolve, you really need to evaluate your definition of success. If it is to reach new heights of fame, you might consider trying the mainstream thing. If you want to leave your own imprint on the literary world—regardless of whatever size it may be—you’re best off sticking with your personal style and creative choices.

Artists come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and we’re all inspired by different things. Sometimes, we might need a nudge about our next project, and if we listen to advice, that’s okay. Just the same, we may choose to take the input and do the exact opposite because it’s not on point with where we want to go in our career. No matter what, the important thing is having passion for whatever you opt to create. Your passion will translate to your audience and showcase your authenticity.  

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Can You Read My Voice

Who Governs Your Genre?

Taking Scissors to Your Synopsis

While I was promoting my debut novel, a fellow newbie author attended one of my signings and told me she was publishing her first book in a few months. I asked her what it was about, and she replied, “It’s kind of hard to explain in a few words.” Granted, I didn’t have much experience, but alarms went off in my head. Why? Because that sort of statement won’t attract anybody to your story.

Sentiments like this are understandable when you’re a new writer, and admittedly, I struggled with similar feelings at one time. After all, you’re spending hours and hours crafting your tale, with twists, turns, and complexities. If you aim to compose a longer work, you’re used to embellishing on subjects to boost your word count. It’s a bit of a culture shock to shift gears and have to condense our subject. Sometimes, too, we feel pressure to prove the value of our story and efforts to write it, so we’re inclined to babble about it to help our case.

Whatever the reason, we have to overcome it. If we take one extreme and refrain from attempting to pitch our book like the woman I met, we’ll lose a reader’s interest right away. On the other hand, we can overshare and push someone away just because they’re sick of listening to us. Most of us don’t want somebody to buy our book simply to make us shut our mouths.

How can we strike the right balance?

Even before my exchange at the signing, I appreciated a tip from Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s The Frugal Book Promoter. While discussing how to attract attention to one’s story, she advises, “When a reader (anyone really) says, ‘What’s your book about?’ you need to tell her quickly (in the time it takes to get to her floor in an elevator) why she will benefit from reading your book or…make her want to read it.” (Second edition, page 106) The quote drives home the phrase elevator pitch, doesn’t it?

The length of your verbal synopsis is only half the battle, with content being the other half. It might not take long to say, “A guy meets a girl, and they fall in love,” but how intriguing is that description? The Frugal Book Promoter helps in this regard, too. “A good pitch or logline for fiction focuses on conflict…Nonfiction authors can find conflict in their books, too.” Hollywood takes the lead in this, as most of their trailers begin like, “In a world where tragedy triumphs over victory…” set to dramatic music. Though you don’t want to share every element of conflict the plot offers, mentioning the main one and how it affects the protagonist will pique a reader’s curiosity.

One more rule of thumb to abide by is to stick to the main storyline, even if the secondary ones connect to it. Secondary plots can enrich a book, but in a synopsis, especially a verbal one, they usually detract and confuse your audience. Thus, you’re better off to restrain yourself from talking about that funny next-door neighbor and let the book introduce him/her to the reader.

As authors, we’re naturally excited about our work and want others to be, too. Like with any matter, you’ll present it in the best way if it’s near and dear to your heart. Most of us don’t have trouble with that, which is why we’re liable to ramble on whenever someone shows the slightest interest in our story. To share just the right amount, reflect on what first drove you to start the book. It’s quite a commitment to set out to compose a whole story, and there’s always that core of motivation that both initiates your writing process and keeps you going. If you isolate that and come up with a way to vocalize that aspect of the plot, you’re more likely to capture someone’s intrigue, giving them the impetuous to read it.    

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Watch your Words…and Count Them While You’re at It?

Secondary Storylines-A Plot’s Friend or Foe?

When Imaginations Run Wild

Imagination is a powerful ability we all possess—just ask Spongebob Squarepants or Barney the Dinosaur. With it, we can accomplish many things, such as creative works for entertainment as well as the construction of buildings and landmarks of any sort. Let’s face it, our infrastructure and all the modern conveniences we rely on every day wouldn’t exist without somebody making extraordinary use of their imagination.

As I discussed in “Imagination for Self-Preservation,” it can also help us mentally…but only when we use it to our advantage. Yes, it can be all too easy to envision what might go wrong rather than what might go right. Like I shared then, I’d fallen into that trap and justified it as guarding myself from disappointment.

In an ironic twist, the pandemic took over the world just days after I published that post, a scenario I—along with most people—couldn’t have dreamed up. We all faced unprecedented challenges, which didn’t foster optimism and has left a mark on many even three years later. Because of that, it’s easier than ever to picture worst-case scenarios and to live your life in fear. How do we escape that pitfall and redirect our imagination to boost our spirits instead of dampen them?

One way is by acknowledging how clueless we are about the future. Again, very few expected these past few years to play out like they did. Thus, doesn’t it show how useless it is to get wound up about something we fabricate in our heads? While there’s always the chance things may turn out worse than we predicted, they may also turn out better, beyond our wildest imaginations.    

Our anticipations can be wrong even when we think we have a well-founded reason for them. To illustrate, my friends and family wanted to try out the ride based on the movie Twister at Universal Studios years ago. As we stood in line, we kept reading and hearing warnings about the winds and special effects being so intense that people with various disorders ought to think twice before riding. At eight years old, I grew scared of what awaited us, as did others in our party, and the continued alerts drove my dire imaginings, filling my eyes with apprehensive tears.

We almost backed out of line, but peer pressure beckoned us to forge ahead. Terrified, I entered the building, all the while wondering how many of us would make it out. Enhancing my agony, the attendant ushered me to the front row of the theater so I could watch ALL the action. Aside from the controlled fire that seemed way too close to the designated handicapped seating, though, the experience hardly put the thrill in thrill ride. Everyone just stood and viewed a fake gas station with tumble weeds and inflatable cows blowing by it! With all due respect, our imaginations provided more amusement than the designers, especially after we realized how ridiculous they were.

We can also make our imagination work for us instead of against us by letting it wander on positive aspects of life. Even if we don’t have a big event to look forward to, we can envision trying something new and how that might impact us or we could draw on a past memory, calling to mind the tastes and aromas that we enjoyed. On occasions when we know something won’t be immediately pleasant, like medical treatment and so forth, we should contemplate what benefits we’ll gain in the long run as opposed to ruminate on the difficulties during recovery.

Being a few days into 2023, we don’t know what the year holds, which provides ample opportunity to employ our imagination. Sure, there are bound to be some rough patches along the way, but utilize your imagination to make them easier. Most buildings feature multiple windows, with some offering picturesque views of the outside world and others revealing crummy ones. Likewise, our imagination can bombard us with bright and bleak prospects. When we catch ourselves peering out at the latter, we’d better close the curtain and turn to another window.

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