Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing: What Is Voice?

First, the accountability thing: I promised to report back daily, or close to,  and failed, epically. I won't go into the reasons. They're mine, and this isn't a tell-all Oprahesque memoir. I just did (or didn't), okay?

Second, related to the first: I'm at 20,000-25,000 words, easily, and they're piling up.  The problem--actually, better characterized, the issue--is what to do with them. Scenes come to me at odd and discordant times, and not sequentially, in terms of the narrative. Which is to say, you write what comes, and figure out where it goes later. 

All of which brings me to voice. 

If you're a writer, finding your voice is is critical, and doing so, or failing to do so, is a deal killer as to whether or not you're really writing something. 

For a reader, voice is that je nais se qois of authenticity. When you read a passage, you know it's Hemingway, or Dickinson or whoever without looking at the tag. Or, you read Anne Padgett or Cormac McCarthy and are struck with the passion that goes into the fictive world so marvelously constructed with mere words.

And I don't mean to exclude non-fiction. Read someone's memoir, and you know right away if it's just some bullshit narcissistic navel-gazing screed or something more serious. Or read an essay, or a blog post on some topic, and you know immediately if it's smarm and charm or if it's serious conviction. 

Read ninety-nine percent of, say, real estate blogs, whose cut and paste or otherwise cribbed narrative waxes on about how now is a good time to buy a house, mortgage rates are low, prices down and so on, and you know--this is horseshit. Why? There's no voice. Just regurgitation. They have all the charm and engagement of the fine print on an insurance policy.

But back to writers. After you've come up with an idea and sorted out the characters, it's so seductive to fall into a "this happened, and then this, and then that, and then whatever," when you get to a point where you look at what you've done and think it's a bunch of boring crap.

Which it is. You can't fool yourself.

Plot is not a series of events so much as it is characters--or, in nonfiction, people--in action, and how they react (sorry to sound like a writing seminar). But voice is what informs the action, makes it real and leads to discovery, both for writer and reader. 

I once taught a writing class on Form in poetry. "Form" refers to what type of poem it is--blank verse, sonnet, haiku, and the like. A poem's meaning has as much to do with its form as anything else. Robert Frost famously said that writing a poem without rhyme and meter is like playing tennis without a net. What he missed, in my view, is that not using a net is a different game, and it's perfectly okay.

But his point is that form relates to voice. Shakespeare's sonnets would not have worked in any other form. Or, this great line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" from Ginsberg's "Howl." That line has enormous power because of its length as a poetic line with the compactness of the words and the power of the line's vision.

Likewise, "Whose woods these are, I think I know," has a powerful resonance of its own.

The point being, here, voice. Authenticity. One of the best passages I've ever read was one of my writing students at San Francisco State. He was the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a restaurant, and his passages of making the soup and serving it to the customers entwined pathos and hilarity at the same time, not because he intended to do so, but because the writing was his voice.

Writing isn't rocket science. In some ways, it's harder. 



Monday, February 18, 2013

How to Sell Your Home Without a Real Estate Broker

Not long ago, I'd have told anyone to think long and hard before trying to sell her or his own home without using a real estate broker. Nearly everyone shopping for a home looks online, and the local MLS's (Multiple Listing Service) have feeds and links to national and international websites that dwarf anything an individual owner has access to.

But I think the world has changed. Websites like ZillowTrulia, and others--especially my favorite, Redfin--have evened the odds. Why? 

Buyers look for homes by price and location, and these websites show every home for sale in a given location. Redfin is a licensed brokerage and thus has access to the Multiple Listing Services where Redfin has locations, allowing it to update in real time. Redfin and Zillow are also very good at posting For Sale By Owner homes, which MLS's do not.

The bottom line is that it's become pretty easy for you to make sure every buyer out there knows your home is for sale.

Moreover, these websites help you price your home. I've never thought much of "Zestimates," but they're a place to start. Redfin is even better better (more on that below).

Why should you DIY your home sale? Easy--the commission. While brokerage commissions are negotiable, a $300,000 house costs the seller 5% or 6%, on average. Can you recoup all, or part of the $15,000 to $18,000 fee by going it alone?

If you decide to try, what problems will you face? Here are several:
  1. Contract forms. Realtors have well-developed, lawsuit-tested forms to handle just about any part of the transaction and protect the parties. Lay people don't.
  2. Opening yourself up to total strangers coming into your home. Are you comfortable allowing someone into your home who called off a Craigslist ad?
  3. Real estate practices: How much earnest money should you ask for? How do you determine who gets it? How do you handle inspection contingencies? What if the potential buyer needs to sell an existing home?
  4. How to determine your price.
  5. How to advertise your property.
As to forms, some state real estate commissions or departments, such as my current state of Colorado, have approved forms online that anyone can use, licensed broker or not. Office supply stores usually have real estate forms, although they're pretty generic. Sites such as Legalzoom or Rocketlawyer may be of help. I also strongly recommend the use of an attorney. A few hours of an attorney's time is well worth it (and far less than a brokerage commission).

A comfort level with safety is a personal choice. Do not take this lightly, and be sure to use every precaution.

Real estate practices on earnest money, inspection and other contingencies vary by region. As for earnest money, be aware that many Realtor-approved forms, while often termed "sales agreements," primarily serve as contracts describing the distribution of earnest money, and outside that are pretty much agreements to agree. My attorney in California even called them "deposit receipts." What this should tell you is that real estate association attorneys consider earnest money to be extremely important. Many sales agreements fail, and disposition of the earnest money can get contentious.

Another item is very important. A contract must have a closing date--the date certain when the buyer funds the purchase and the seller transfers the deed--for the contract to be valid. The date can be extended by mutual agreement, if necessary.

How much earnest money (earnest money indicates how "earnest a buyer is) to ask for? Ask around in your area. I generally used 1% of the purchase price as a baseline when I was licensed in Oregon (and a similar amount was customary in California and Nevada), but other areas ask for more. The home's price point matters as well. For a seller, the more earnest money, the better.

Most sales agreements have contingencies, where performance is contingent on another event or action, such as the buyer being able to get financing, or the home passing a home inspection. As a general rule, a contingency should have a "trigger" and a consequence. For example, an inspection contingency should also have a deadline for completion, e.g., ten days from the date of signature. This date is the trigger. It triggers a response--say, the seller must repair the furnace by a date certain--and a consequence: The seller either repairs the furnace by that date, or the contract is void.

Side note, here: An inspection contingency should describe the nature of the inspection, i.e., pest and dry rot, whole house, roof, etc., and who pays for it--buyer, seller or both. Repairs must be negotiated.

The most common contingency is the buyer's financing contingency, which should also contain all necessary trigger-consequence language. Buyers need to describe what loan program they're applying for, how soon, and should assure the seller that if the buyer's loan is not approved, the buyer will notify seller right away, usually within two business days. Most state Realtor associations' forms handle the financing contingency very well. It's also an area where a lawyer's service is very important.

Don't consider an offer without a pre-approval letter from the buyer's lender. It's best if the letter is attached to the offer, but sometimes, they're provided within a day or so.

Real estate brokers are familiar with terms such as escrow, closing date, trust deed, title and title insurance, easement, and other terms in the real estate glossary that lay people aren't familiar with. If you DIY your home sale, you'll be hearing these a lot, so it's good to understand them.

Redfin has a tool for pricing your home, allowing you to not only see comparable sales, but add or subtract values for, say, age, condition, square footage, room count and other metrics. I used it in pricing an offer for a short sale home in Denver, and it was almost as good as the data I had when I was licensed.

Warning, though: Adjustments are tricky, and people often do not see the deficiencies in their own homes. A new kitchen or bath remodel, for example, will not give your house a commensurate dollar-for-dollar price increase. Remember, you are probably not an expert in the housing market any more than you are than in some arcane financial market, but with serious work, you can come up with a reasonable asking price.

You will need to take as many photos of your home as possible, keeping in mind that the photos you publish need to be of rooms and places buyers most care about. Hint: They don't care about closeups of a toilet in a second bathroom.

Take as many pictures as you can and upload them to Postlets.com, which is owned by Zillow, but syndicates to many other websites, including Craigslist, where buyers look for homes. And do a video, with you as the star, saying what you like best, and least, about the home. Buyers appreciate this kind of authenticity.

If you really want to go all out, build a website on your house. For about $100, you can have a gorgeous site on Wordpress.com (not Wordpress.org) with your street address as the URL. The site can have video, many more pictures, pictures of the neighborhood and a blog. Wordpress.com sites are very easy to do, and you can link them to Zillow, You Tube, Vimeo and other sites to increase your traffic.

Consider whether you will pay a broker representing a buyer. In my personal experience, DIY home sellers usually offer payment to buyer-brokers. How much? Brokers will ask for around half of what the total commission would have been, but the fee is negotiable. 

Most buyers use brokers, by the way, to help navigate the unfamiliar terrain of home buying. The broker will have done, and will continue to do, a good bit of work for the buyer, and it will be to your benefit. And I also think most buyers don't like dealing directly with owners, though I have no data to support this idea.

Want to go half way? Most locales have brokerages offering a flat fee listing service at $500 or less, and your home will appear not only in the local MLS, but in all the sites that feed off it. You'll have to agree to compensate a buyer's broker. Then, there are the venerable Help-U-Sell- and Assist-To-Sell-type firms who offer a menu of services.

Individual brokers often advertise that they will list your home for 1% or 1.5%. Check around. Redfin offers a full-service listing package at 1.5% for homes priced at $200,000 and up. And for sure, check out sides like Owners.com and ForSaleByOwner.com.

If your home is underwater and you need to do a short sale, I would urge you to use a broker trained in short sales, especially one who employs a short sale negotiator or service. These waters are quite complex and enormously frustrating, which is why U.S. Treasury short sale guidelines specify using a broker.

In 2013, it's easier than ever to sell your house without a traditional broker, as long as you're willing to educate yourself and do some serious work. Even a partial savings on the commission can be significant and worth your time.




The Sad Man Revisited

One of my favorite blogs on Istanbul's Stranger was entitled, "The Sad Man." Part of the reason is that you see so many of these guys the blog talks about in Istanbul. They're not limited by class or status, because Istanbullians seem to know that misery and hardship is around the corner.

Part of the reason has to be Istanbul's--and Turkey's--pretty remarkable history. We Westerners are pretty ignorant of history outside our own, but the Ottoman Empire loomed  huge on the world stage. With the Sad Men, you kind of see it all through a different lens: If Turkey, and being Turkish, is so great, then why is Turkey not quite in the first tier of nations, and why am I where I am? It's because we're doomed by chance. Inshallah.

Of course, the usual suspects are at play: Displacement because of migration from rural to urban; individual education not keeping up; established power structures and interest groups maintaining their hold; and so on, or, to quote Sherif Ali in "Lawrence of Arabia, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera," which includes everything in the world to make someone sad.

But these kinds of macro powers dislocate us all, to a degree, so the question is, why is the Sad Man sad? Sadly, Istanbul's Stranger doesn't opine.

Does he look at himself and wonder why he does not have the memories so many others seem to share? Is he sad because the life promise kept is so different than the life promise made? 

The Sad Man was a groundskeeper, but he could just as well have been a banker or a lawyer or a small business owner when he realized that where he is now is as good as it's going to get, and it's absolutely not the storyline he signed onto. Which, really, was okay, because that's how it all works, his friends affirm and he says he agrees with, an inner voice whispering something to the contrary notwithstanding.

He thinks about these things in isolation, unto himself. He doesn't want to appear weak by complaining aloud, often telling himself he is stronger for enduring. After all, when there are no more surprises, all that's left are new ways to endure. And the surprises, the infinite options he had once imagined, just seemed to evaporate one day and were gone, vanished, like.

If he were alone in a crowd of like-minded folk, no one, whether through ignorance or denial, would ratify him nor anyone else with an empathetic acknowledgement of something better that might have been. Nor would he have ratified one of them, because doing so would shine a spotlight on one's own failures.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about the Sad Man lately. "“We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist,” Ford Madox Ford wrote in The Good Soldier. I think about that a lot. 







Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Eagle Has Landed! Fly Like an Eagle!

This guy dropped by a couple of weeks ago to check things our in the pond in front of my house.
I have spent a good part of my life outdoors, and I think I've seen a Bald Eagle maybe twice in the wild. And one of those times is suspect. It was in the Fall River area in Northern California, where the Shasta and Lassen National Forests come together. We'd seen Ospreys and a Golden Eagle or two, when someone pointed to a raptor flying very high and said it was a Bald Eagle. 

Well, okay.

The second time was not long ago over the Columbia River Gorge a little south of the Dalles. The creature was flying fairly high, but the white helmet and powerful flight was pretty clear.

But I move to Colorado, and this guy shows up. He evidently saw the dead goose on (or in) the ice and decided to drop in for dinner. His presence excited everyone, and he didn't seem to mind the attention at all, actually seeming annoyed at times because no one trotted out with a boom box and played "The Star Spangled Banner." He left when the ice melted and the goose sank.

But today, he's back for no reason I can discern. What's cool this time is that he's doing flyovers, as though he were a member of the raptor league of the Blue Angels. He suddenly appears over the treetops and swoops down to, perhaps, five feet about the surface of the pond, terrorizing the geese and ducks, and pulls back on whatever his stick is and sharply gains altitude, disappearing over the trees on the other side of the lake.

He glides in a wide circle, banks starboard and disappears, only to return at full throttle. It's a remarkable performance.

A short while ago, he did his fly-in-and-swoop, but alighted on the remaining floe of ice, where he perched, defiantly. The geese and ducks, paddling nervously, kind of shuffle to the other side of the pond in the shelter of overhanging trees.

But the eagle is insistent on his royal prerogative and is soon joined by several crows, first one, then another, then a couple more, as though they're the earls and dukes of some minor fiefdom coming to pay homage.

I kind of think they're making a bargain over the next dead goose, with the eagle saying, "Look, I get the ribs, breast and thighs, and you take the viscera, brains and whatever's left." Except it's not a bargain. It's an offer that can't be refused.

The eagle just left, but I'm kind of wondering if he is't moving into the neighborhood. That sounds very cool, but then I'm not the neighbor's cat, either.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Writing Continues

So, where am I in this writing caper?  It's moving along, despite my (a) fatal proclivity for procrastination, (b) the fatal distractions, (c) the mortifying insecurity that it's all just crap anyway, and (d) stuff I can't quite verbalize just now. Actually, not "can't," but "don't want to."

Here's a random passage a little over ten pages into the thing. The character is a woman in her late thirties about to undergo an existential, at least to her, crisis:


"She’d wanted to leave the event early, TerraEco dot.org or EcoTerra dot.org, one of those anyway, some cause or other for environmental sustainability she would, by default, gravitate to and therefore had seduced her into attendance, but turning out to be the kind of group she immediately dismissed as a trust fund hippy cause, ban genetically-modified food without knowing what it was, keep the lake blue so you could drive your SUV around it, plant trees, save the children, support solar tax credits, hate Walmart, free Tibet, whatever, as long as they could write checks and have to not eat lunch with poor people or have to go someplace that stunk a little. She had also told herself she needed to network, schmooze, try and bring the totally uninteresting subject of buying and selling houses into the conversation and pretend she wasn’t being self-serving, except all she did was visit with a few scattered people in her pleasant and engaging but unrevealing way, those on the periphery seeming more lost than she did, talked about the rain, the traffic, the light rail, anything to avoid the mortifying question, “What do you do?” because then, she’d have to tell them.

"Tell them she was a real estate broker. Watch the split-second shift in their gazes as they thought, simultaneously, oh, no, you don’t look like one, how do I get away. Watch their furtive glance past her shoulder as they searched for someone else. Watch the quiver of their eyelids as their minds checked off subjects not to talk about (“You’re just imagining all that,” her friend, Julia once said; “No I’m not,” Rhiannon had replied). She liked her work well enough, except for other brokers and the clients. Brokers could not distinguish between truth and possibility, nor did they want to, and the clients pretty well subscribed to the whole delusion, being impressed, e.g., with Five Star Agent designations even though the badge had been bought online, pretending to be impressed with the incomprehensible strings of initials after the brokers’ names. Given the opportunity to make a choice, most people elect to stay with a familiar delusion over a reasonable-sounding alternative, especially if their friends hadn’t signed onto it first."

Where're we going with this? I sort of know because I'm planning the damned thing, but the characters are having a say. I know less than I think. Also, I really do know some of the scenes, but I have no clue as to how they go together. That fact makes it hard.

I also spent about twenty minutes on the telephone with an IRS appeals officer. Yeah, I'm being audited (my fault), but it's been going on for a year. We've gone from a $20,000 bill to something between a $35 refund and an additional tax of a few hundred dollars. 

So it goes.

I'm around 14,000 words, so I'm pretty well keeping up. I'd like to be closer to 20,000, so in my mind, I'm failing.

But it could be worse.

Comments totally welcomed!