Gasping for Air

2015-07 PicI miss the days when every gas station had a machine where you could pump up your tires for free. Not only free but where 99 times out of 100 the station had an air pump that actually worked. It’s an odd thing to wax nostalgic about I know, but a recent series of issues with my tires put me in that frame of mind.

It started with an oil change at one of those quick drive-thru places. The attendant asked if I’d open my driver door so he could see how many pounds of air should be in my tires. “Thirty pounds” I distinctly heard him say as he read the label. A few minutes later the familiar hiss of the air compressor sounded from the back of my car. My attention shifted to the game of solitaire I played on my phone while the attendant serviced my car. Once all the fluids were checked and changed and the bill paid, I made my way straight home.

Imagine my surprise the next day when I took my car out to go to a hair appointment and the dashboard indicator warned me that one or more of my tires were low on air. Pressing a few buttons to get a quick check of the readings revealed each tire contained only about twenty pounds. I got lucky. The first gas station I came to had a working air pump, no one in line, and didn’t cost anything to use. Since I didn’t have to pull out the portable compressor I keep in my trunk, I managed to fill all of my tires and get to my appointment just a few minutes late.

Two weeks later, on my way in to work, I got another message on my dashboard saying my left front tire was low. I had an appointment after work so I left a few minutes early intending to use my portable compressor to fill up the tire before I took off. I got the compressor from the trunk and sat in the driver seat pulling the cord out to connect it to the power outlet. Somehow, in the process I lost the inside of the plug making my compressor useless.

After a brief search for… for… well for something I had absolutely no clue about, I decided to try the gas station just a few blocks from my building. Did they have a pump? Oh yes. Did it work? No. In fact, it had so much yellow tape tied around it I wondered what heinous crime took place within the confines of a two foot wide by four feet high canister.

I decided to go ahead to the appointment and if I had time, I’d try the gas station near my destination. Traffic proved light so I did have time. I pulled my car up to the air pump. This one had no yellow tape wrapped around it, which looked promising. Then I saw it cost 75 cents to use. I had no quarters and no time to deal with trying to get change from the attendant, so I went on to my appointment.

When finished I started looking again for the errant innards of the compressor plug. I found a silver cap and a round plastic thing that looked like it should hold the silver cap in place. However, that still left a big hollow in the plug. After a little more searching, I found a fuse. Ah! Now I figured out how it went together. I quickly assembled things and, with some hesitation that I might short circuit my whole car, I plugged it into the power outlet. No sparks. No short circuit presented itself. Taking the compressor to the tire, I quickly filled it up to the required amount.

Now paranoid about my tires, I routinely checked the pressure indicators via the dashboard buttons. It kept showing the left front tire as low. I took out the pressure gauge that I keep in my glove compartment and checked the tire manually. The gauge indicated the tire held the required thirty pounds of pressure. Concluding that the dashboard gauge had an issue, I continued driving unconcerned until a few days later when I got a more severe message showing my tire as critically low. Working a hunch, I checked all my tires manually and found my right rear tire to be the culprit and not the left front as my dashboard had been telling me. I filled the offending tire up and eventually had it serviced for a slow leak.

As you may guess from the fact that I keep a portable compressor in my car, this is not the first go around I’ve had with tire issues and faulty air pumps at gas stations. It likely won’t be the last time either. So, I’ll stay wary of what my electronic indicators tell me, check my tires after oil changes, keep my pressure gauge in the glove box, and like an asthmatic keeps an inhaler nearby, I’ll store the compressor in my trunk for the next time my tires are ‘short of breath.’

Typo!

Every novelist needs a copy editor. Why? Because a copy editor makes sure the author is wearing his pants before he steps on stage, makes sure the author doesn’t have a trail of toilet paper stuck to her high heel as the lights come up. Yes, typos are that glaring.

Novelists cannot correct their own typographical errors because they know too much. Knowing what was meant to be said, the author reads what’s in their head not what’s on the page. It’s not a fault, just a fact. A copy editor will not have those preconceived blind spots. They will catch where you wrote breathe instead of breath. Copy editors will see the wrong use of their, they’re and there where your eyes will not. They will find your misplaced commas and misused semi colons and correct grammar where necessary. They will pick up on common wrong-word errors that spellcheck cannot, like typing were when you want where. And at finding missing little words like, for, an, and, at, or and so. Your mind’s eye does not see these kinds of mistakes, either.

Your copy editor is the last person to edit your story before you send it off to your publisher, so you’ll want to entrust this person with as polished a manuscript as possible. The best way to do this is to re-read your entire novel one last time, only lip-syncing it from start to finish.

You don’t have to say the words out loud, but you do need to move your tongue, lips and jaw. What happens is your mouth slows down your mind and forces you to say and see what is on the page. You are also likely to discover syntax errors, run on sentences, passive voices and homonyms, all the stuff that trips up coordination between the tongue and the eye. You’ll discover errors in pacing and entire passages that, really, can be cut. Your only criteria at this point is to clean up and clarify; everything else should be done. Reading like this will catch most of these common errors.

A good copy editor is essential today, whether you are self-publishing or have an agent. What comes out of his or her hands is what will stand the test of time. You, the author, will make all the suggested changes (or not) and correct the typos before submitting it, so in that sense you always have the last word. But by lip-syncing your novel one last time, you will make the copy editor’s job much easier, and much faster.

Who should you hire for this? Yes, I said hire, not ask as a favor. If you are really serious about wanting others to recognize your work, don’t skimp here. Ask other writers who they’ve used and who they would recommend. When you find someone you hear is good, and available, take them to dinner. You don’t have to wine and dine them, but get to know them and what they like to read. Ask them about their funniest stories with editing. That will tell you how much they like their job. Offer a few quips of your own about your research or who your protagonist is based on. At the end of dinner, you’ll both know each other better. You’re looking for someone who wants a personal stake in your novel, who wants to be as proud as you are to see their name attached to it. What they charge, what you pay, should be secondary to that.

How much you should pay is entirely up to you and your copy editor. Somewhere between a dollar a page and three dollars a page seems to be the going rate. The two copy editors I have worked with both charged a flat rate. I paid $250 for my first novel and $350 for my second, but they both moonlighted and neither could be bound to a timeline. The first time I hired a librarian, the second time an accountant. Both were equally methodical. I discovered accountants are very good at finding words that don’t add up, if you hire one who has a good command of the English language.  English teachers are another good source. An editor who reads your genre can be helpful, but don’t make that your only criteria. Critical editing is not what a copy editor edits for. All of your plot development, character development and timelines should be nailed down long before a copy editor sees it.

One final word on typos. No one gets them all, and that’s a good thing if you are in the antiquarian, collectable book business. If you don’t believe me, just go ask Alice. Or Huck. Or that “fool Red Cross woman” in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. True first print runs of these classics, identified by their typos, are selling for several times what a second printing will fetch. But that still doesn’t bode well for the author.

If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck – Part 2

printerI know you’re wondering why I still believe, when it comes to electronics, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” I think you’ll understand after you read this.

I like HP products because they’re supposed to be simple, easy to set up and easy to use. To me that says, “This is something I can do on my own.”

When I was at Costco last week, they were having a sale on HP printers. I thought, “This is my lucky day: $60 off a $169 printer. This is for me.” It was an especially good deal because it was actually an “All-In-One”. Besides printing, it could fax, copy and scan. I was going to have state-of-the-art everything!

When I got home, I opened the box and looked at the first few pages in the Quick Start Manual. It was an “Ah Ha” moment. I realized I was in way over my head. But, not to worry, fortunately my husband loves challenges like this.

Michael didn’t even look at the Quick Start Manual. He told me he didn’t need to. Everything was quite simple and he’d have it, “All set up in about half an hour.” Well, half an hour came and went and then an hour and… You get the idea. It was all plugged in and sitting on the counter. It just wasn’t printing!

The next day he phoned Costco. He talked to several people. They were all very nice. He was on the phone with the last man there for over an hour, maybe two. Who’s counting in a situation like this? Nothing would print. Finally the man gave Michael a Case Number and connected him on a special Costco line to HP so we wouldn’t have to pay extra for the advice we were going to get.

There were a number of phone calls. Michael tried this and that. HP sent him to a different person several time. Bottom line, at the end of the next day the printer had yet to print.

Finally, and in defeat, the HP consultant said, “It’s a hardware problem. Take the printer back to Costco and get another one. It’s not working.”

So he returned the printer to Costco, and this time, before he left the store, he insisted on opening the box and trying it out there.

It worked. He brought it home. Plugged it in. Made a few adjustments and it’s just like the saying goes, “Plug and play.”

So, after going through all this, I still believe, when it comes to electronics, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

Pinterest for promotion: Tips and inspiration

Penn State PinterestSocial media: is it selling or sharing?

These days, it’s a bit of both.  As a writer, or anyone with a product to promote, social media presents powerful platforms. You can spend more time socializing than writing, so where do you focus your attention?

Pinterest is a social media cut-n-paste website to collect and save online items meaningful to you. Neater than a folder of newspaper clippings from back in the dinosaur days, when you find an image or idea that you want to remember, you “Pin” that image to a “Board” that you create.  Presto! Your collection begins.

The anatomy of a Pin is an image, the description and the website link.  The image is the specific, intriguing picture from the website. If the site isn’t set up to instantly open Pinterest when you hover over the image, you can manually add the image to your Board with the Pin It button you download from Pinterest and save to your computer’s internet taskbar.  The description is whatever you type in as a reminder to you–a cool title, the inspiration for saving it, your impressions–all in 500 words or less.

The website’s link automatically attaches as an electronic sticky note to the “Pinned from” line, and this takes you back to the original post.  If you Pin directly from your smartphone, the Pinned from line simply states, “uploaded by user,” thus creating a static image gallery.

Boards group specific topics or themes together, such as: recipes; parenting; DIY crafts; men’s fashions; travel destinations; and home décor. Quotes and infographics are popular, too.  If you want to connect with users—or Pinners—who share your interest, search the site by category, keyword or user names.  Here’s where the social aspect steps in.

When you discover an image someone else saved, you can Pin that Pinner’s pin to a Board you created, and vice versa.  To see a Pinner’s latest discoveries, you “Follow” that person, and then you choose to follow all or just some of their Boards.  The most popular Pins, popular by Likes or Pins, come up highest on any search.  It’s important to be social to be discovered.

Remember that, “Pinned from”, direct link I mentioned above?  This is where the promotion aspect steps in.  You want to send people to where the action is, so create Boards that link directly to your blogsite, etsy shop or Amazon page.  Create exciting titles and use the description box wisely.  Like other social media, use #hashtags to group your pins and to be instantly site-searchable.  Type in an additional website link in the description box, and it is an active link, giving you additional promotion tool option.

Who do I like?  Who uses Pinterest well?  Who inspires me?

Drive traffic back to your own website like blogger Laurel Regan (Alphabet Salad) by grouping her blog posts, most recently for her April 2015 A to Z Blog Challenge posts.  I found her through that blog hop, and she inspired me to create my own A to Z blog posts Board.

Intrigue your current and future readers like writer Wendi Knape (Wendijowrites) does by teasing them with images that inspire her writing.  One of her stories, Jacob and Charlotte – Meet Cute, features the characters Jacob and Charlotte. Wendi created a Pinterest Board to describe her characters’ “development, clothes, hair, living space [and] favorite foods.”  This inspired me to give readers insights into my own writing process through my “Author Inspiration” board.

My use of Pinterest has been a mixture of art and writing.  “Scrapbooking and artsy-fartsy stuff” collects mini-album and ephemera ideas to pitch to my editor of Michigan Scrapbooker Magazine for future articles.

My Zentangle boards promote my classes as a Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT) and artwork that inspires me.  Why not let others know what moves me, as well as inspires my works of art?

“Holiday Festivities” gathers spooky ideas and recipes I use to create great visual images for my blog’s annual Halloween post.  See how I used the ideas to create party atmosphere in my 2014 Halloween Party blogpost.

“THON-spiration” collects images related to the fight against childhood cancer and The Penn State Dance Marathon (THON); it is currently my most popular board.

As I was typing this post, I created “Books by D.W. Hirsch” Board.  In the first 24 hours, I had 24 followers.  How cool is that!

I can’t guarantee any success like that, but I can share tips I’ve discovered along this social journey.

Tips to get the most exposure to yourself and your Boards:

  • Creative titles.  Make your Boards sound so exciting that people can’t resist clicking on them.
  • Maximize the description box.  Don’t write wordy paragraphs; space out long sections of sentences.  Include hashtags, keywords, and related websites, but use tabs or double-spaces between these words.
  • Choose the most interesting, active image to Pin if you have multiple options from a website.
  • Credit the original artist every time you share personal content.  Let them know you’ve done that and they may follow you back.
  • For more ideas, search a general word.  Type the word “writing” and you get subcategories of novel; inspiration; prompts; quotes; and more

Some writing-related Board ideas include:

  • Writers you like and blogs you follow.  Be sure to describe why you include them.
  • Books you like or want to read.  This gives people a look into your personal likes, and they may discover a new book to read after seeing your interests.
  • Share and be social: promote other bloggers or writers by posting their content.
  • List blog or writing challenges for future exploration.
  • Promote personal blog posts.  Group these sites into related categories and boards.
  • Share other media images like screenshots of your Twitter posts.  Be mindful of others’ privacy.
  • Favorite quotes

Pinterest works best for people who actively wander around the Internet.  Creating a Board or Pinning an item can take as little as 3 minutes, but this may be an awkward medium for some.  It takes time to ensure the correct link, to write an appropriate description, and then roam around Pinterest looking for people to connect and share interests.

What site platform works best for you?  Are you still discovering?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Shark!

Every time I travel to a tropical destination, I wrestle with the way I’m drawn to the ocean while simultaneously being wary of it. A mysterious world lies hidden below its surface. Fish, coral, invertebrates, various species that live in the warm shallows and others found only in the deepest, darkest depths. Is exploring it worth risking a menacing confrontation with a barracuda, the sting of a jellyfish, or a bite by a shark? The payoff could be stealing a glimpse of an eel as it slithers along the crevices of a reef or, even better, spotting an elusive octopus that makes a rare morning appearance before quickly disappearing.

“Will I have to worry about anything dangerous or scary?” I can’t hold back from posing this question to nearly every snorkeling guide I hire, despite my knowing the answer.

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The Atlantic Ocean nestles the southwestern tip of tropical island, Eleuthera.   Photo: Kelly Bixby

In the twenty years I’ve been fascinated with the ocean, not one guide has cautioned me against getting in the water. Instead, they tell me of all the creatures they hope we’ll see. Because they know the habits and territories of the underwater residents, the guides sometimes graciously bring food and snacks for their hungry, finned friends—and we snorkelers get to take part in a neighborly little block party while we’re in town visiting. The guides say things like, “with any luck, we’ll find the seahorse” and “sometimes we see a nurse shark.” Whoa! I heard that! My ears perk up and my heart skips a beat in trepidation.

I’ve never faced any threat greater than having to dodge sea urchins, but I still can’t subdue the prevailing thought that makes me nervous to get in the salty sea: a potential encounter with a shark. You might think that the informational Discovery Channel series, Shark Week, would undo the damage to my psyche that the movie Jaws inflicted on me. But fear came before rationale, and now it’s very hard to get rid of.

During spring break in 2002, I was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, off the eastern coast of Florida. I was warned that a small shark had chomped on someone’s ankle a week earlier. The bite occurred in the same shallow water where my husband, Greg, and our four children bounced along breaking waves and bodysurfed. Their giggles and carefree smiles indicated that, unlike me, they were not the least bit concerned. They had no idea there was potential danger. I wasn’t about to spoil their fun, but I recall feeling extremely relieved when we left Cape Coral Beach with all body parts intact.

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Exhuma Sound (Caribbean Sea) and Lighthouse Beach, Eleuthera, Bahamas, 2011. Photo: Kelly Bixby

Nine years later, off the desolate coast of Eluthera in the Bahamas, Greg and I met two people—a doctor and his wife—on Lighthouse Beach. They looked to be serious, experienced snorkelers. Wearing full wetsuits, this couple was prepared to go into deeper, colder water than I could tolerate. Greg and I watched from the shore as they dared to go on the outer side of the reef. We relaxed on the beach for awhile and were just preparing to head into the Caribbean when the couple returned. They had been frightened by the sighting of a bull shark and decided they had had enough fun for one day. They left the beach, and Greg and I were completely alone.

At that point, I was a little intimidated to enter the sea. There was no cell phone coverage for miles; nobody to cry out to for help. The nearest paved road was a forty-five minute drive away on a rutted, dirt road squeezed down to one lane by dense brush and trees encroaching it on each side. Having a beach all to ourselves was both extraordinary and problematic.

I was apprehensive, but we had planned to snorkel, so that’s what we did. We stayed on the inside of the reef to avoid the deeper, colder, and predator-infested sea. And I prayed that God would keep the bull shark away from us.

While Greg never tired of the underwater wonders, my body’s defense mechanism eventually kicked in. I started shivering from being in the cold sea too long and had to return to the warmth and safety of the shore. Unscathed, I compared fish stories with Greg. Thankfully, neither of us came nose-to-nose with the ten-foot long behemoth.

By far, the most frightening moment of my life occurred a year earlier, off Siesta Key Beach, in the Gulf of Mexico. Once again, my children were happily playing in the ocean. They were standing in waist-high water, a couple hundred feet from shore and far beyond my protection as I entered the gulf. I froze in place when I witnessed a sinister dorsal fin rise above the smooth blue surface and travel directly toward them.

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A bull shark anticipates an easy dinner as it waits for chum at the Cape Eleuthera Marina (formerly Powell Pointe Marina). Photo: Kelly Bixby

I was immediately terrified and panicked. My voice was the only weapon I had in the battle to save my children. There was no other way for me to intervene. Behaving like a lunatic, I frantically waved my arms and screamed, “Get out of the water!”

Part of me realized I could be making a deadly demand of them. Better advice would have been to have them stand as still as possible. No splashing. No fleeing. Be courageous and don’t become its prey. If all that fails, fight. Punch it in the nose or poke it in an eye. But I wasn’t thinking calmly. My children were in peril, and I was out of my mind with worry. Seconds seemed eternally long before the wind carried hope my way. From behind me on shore, a man spoke words, full of knowledge and reason, to inform me that the imposing creature was only a dolphin.

What faith I put in his observation. I wanted to believe him. I needed to believe him. Surely he was better than me at recognizing the difference between the gentle, arching movement as a dolphin rolls through water and the more rigid, racing, cutting precision a shark displays when it’s locked on a target. I could be wrong, but he must not be.

I saw my children vying to get to shore and meekly waved them off. I relayed the good news, “It’s only a dolphin!” but they continued on their way. Dread developed into laughter by the time they reached me. We caught our breath and watched other children who jumped into a kayak and quickly paddled towards the dolphin in order to get a closer look. They might have missed it, had I not made a spectacle of myself.

Shark tales like these are why I find comfort in hiring snorkeling guides when I’m exploring new places. Guides know how best to navigate narrow openings like those in between fire coral formations. They know the lay of the land. They’ve repeated the same route hundreds of times. I expect them to keep me safe, yet I also know my confidence in them is overrated. They’re not captains who will go down with their ships. They’re not mother bears ferociously protecting their precious cubs. They’re not any more prepared than a crazy mama like me in being able to fend off Megalodon.